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Chronic Pain and the Duality of Being Human

If you grew up with typical western ideas, your view of suffering is one that tells you it’s to be avoided -- moved through as quickly as possible. Suffering = pain = bad. We’re taught that anything other than happiness is undesirable and must mean something needs to be fixed.

We find ourselves trapped in this perpetual cycle of needing to get back to happiness, to “feeling good,” and when we can’t, or can’t maintain it, we think we’re somehow failing.

Eastern cultures see things differently. They tend to be more tolerant of suffering, but more than that, of the duality of being human. Pain and suffering are neither good nor bad, they just are. There is a season for everything.

My life of chronic pain started early. I was 12 when my endometriosis flared for the first time. The pain it causes is excruciating and relentless. I had to learn how to manage extreme pain while I was still just a child. At the risk of sounding defeatist, I reached a point early in life where I had to relent - this pain, this condition, was my reality.

I was alone in my pain. No one could come in and experience it with me. No one could possibly know how bad it was. I felt the doubt of the adults around me, the “she might just be a hypochondriac,” whispers and the, “come on, you can power through,” pats on the back. Driving me further into the isolation only chronic pain can bring. More than that, driving me further into my own self-doubt about what I was feeling.

Was it as bad as I thought it was? Was I just being dramatic? Was this actually a normal amount of pain?

Dealing with so much physical pain from such a young age trained me to embrace the duality of being human. Of course I didn’t know that’s what was happening, but alas, it was.

I knew early on that I wasn’t going to be able to control the ebb and flow of my pain. Of course I could take measures to try, but at the end of the day, it was going to come and go as it pleased. The only thing I could control was my response.

I learned over time that the more I pushed against the pain, the harder it made everything. The more I wished it away, the worse I felt.

Does this mean I relished in my flare-ups? Welcomed them with open arms like an old friend? No. Of course not. Being in pain sucks. But I could accept the inevitability of it. I knew it would come, but it would also, eventually, go.

Over time I learned how to manage it. I learned to listen to my body and pay attention to the warning signs that a flare was coming and how to get ahead of the pain. I learned that sometimes getting ahead of the pain was a losing battle and no matter what I did, I was going under.

This training I was getting from managing my physical pain would eventually pour over into the rest of my life. It offered me a chance to look at how I managed my emotions and behaviors in every facet of my life.

Somehow, learning to manage my emotions and reactions surrounding physical pain was much easier than the rest. I operated under the same guise of needing to be happy as everyone else. If I wasn’t happy, I was doing something wrong.

Then one day it occurred to me, what if happiness isn’t the point? What if it’s not actually the ultimate goal? What if all this chasing of happiness and contentment is actually driving me further away from where I’m supposed to be?

Based on our cultural ideals, this sounds ridiculous. Of course the point is to be happy and content - those are the good things. But, what might happen if we stop assigning good and bad to our feelings?

What if our feelings simply, are?

What if, instead of feeling the sadness/anger/discontentment and pushing against it, we got intellectually curious instead? Much the same as when I got curious about my pain and started paying closer attention to how it operates, so I could manage it.

The more curious I got about my feelings, the more I understood.

My feelings, much like my pain, don’t have to dictate my mood or how I interact with others or myself.

Not every feeling that comes up needs to be fixed or powered through. Sometimes they simply need to be witnessed and felt so you can move on to the next feeling.

Being human is about being able to flow. It’s about knowing everything is temporary. Happiness, sadness, joy, suffering, pain, anger, discontentment, contentment, the list goes on - it’s all temporary. It’s all for us to experience.

Not everything needs to be fixed. Not everything can be fixed.

The best thing I ever did for myself was to get curious about the way I feel. It’s a rather exhausting journey that, for a long time, had me spending inordinate amounts of time dissecting everything and talking about it all incessantly with my inner circle. But eventually it became less of a foreign concept and I found myself embodying the duality without even trying.

How do you continue laughing while you’re in so much pain?

How can you possibly be so tolerant of someone who did this to you?

How can you hold space for them when you’re dealing with so much?

How do you manage all of this?

Radical acceptance.

In learning how to radically accept myself, my feelings, the hand I was dealt, I became a bottomless well of patience and understanding (don’t confuse this with being walked over or not sending out a big “fuck you” here and there when necessary). But, the thing is, all this training has taught me not only to flow with my own feelings, but how to stop carrying the burden of other people’s.

I can bear witness and hold space while also knowing what’s theirs is not mine. I can help them learn to hold their own pain, get curious about it and work through it, without ever taking it on as my own - something I wasn’t always good at. Hi, I’m Ronni and I’m a recovered codependent.

I won’t say I’m grateful for over 2 decades worth of chronic pain. I’m not. It’s not ideal, 10/10 would not recommend it. But I can’t say I’d go back and change it if I could, solely based on the person it has helped shape me into.

As I continue down this diagnostic journey and the erratic behavior of my headaches, these same principles are at play. Some days I can do more than others. Some weeks I am completely out of commission, other’s I’m not. When I can function, I lean in and relish in the productivity. When I can’t, I take a deep breath and remind myself that this too shall pass. I can still find reasons to laugh. I can still find reasons to be grateful. Sometimes, I can find neither and that’s okay too.

Everything is temporary and that’s one of the most beautiful things about being human.

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