Hearing Elmo welcomes back Deborah Marcus, frequent guest writer at Hearing Elmo with “Part 2” of Chronic Pain. If you missed the first part of this topic, please click the link provided below.
It has been about 6 weeks since I posted the first piece on my experience with chronic pain. Chronic Pain – Part 1 A lot has happened in that short period of time, a direct result of this sharing. I’d like to spend a little time today looking at one critical component, that of my report of having gone into a really dark place, wondering if I am truly “done”, and needing to reach out for support to deal with thoughts of planning my suicide. Soon after the piece was posted at Hearing Elmo, I spoke by telephone with a long-time friend. I’ll call her KS. She, too, lives with chronic pain, and through much trial and error, figured out the plans of action that allow her to live as full a life as her physical limitations allow. She is one of the few who I have been comfortable talking about my pain over time, at least in part because I know that she will understand on a level deeper than many who don’t live with chronic pain are able to do. I was also there for her for a number of years as she was working through her own “how do I live my best life” process. So, it should not have shocked me the fury with which she expressed finding out that I had reached such a deeply dark place and did not reach out to her. “I’m not angry with you!” she screamed into the phone. I’m not exaggerating, she was really upset with me. I understood why, and I hate hurting anyone, least of all a dear friend, but I found myself feeling forced to defend my decision not to reach out to her at a critical time. In fact, I reached a point at which I had to tell her to step back, because I was feeling shaky and scared by her reaction to how bad things had gotten for me. I’ve no doubt that it was precisely this that made me choose not to reach out to her at a critical juncture. She was able to honor my need to bring down the intensity, and had some extremely useful things to say regarding my inability to look after myself, to honor the fact that I deserve just as much care and support as the many that I have provided the same for over the years in my human services work. In fact, she and I met through our shared work, and we served many of the same clients in the community. It was a time that I was much more at my peak performance, and it’s true, I went to the ends of the earth to advocate for and support these individuals. Suddenly she shouted at me again, but this time she said: you’re still behaving like you have to hide your illness from your mother! Stunned, it took me a moment to realize what she was saying: she remembered a long ago conversation, of how I spoke of the fear in which I once lived, of having to ever tell my mother, my abuser, that I was ill and unable to act as her proxy, the public “family face”. On the occasions that this happened, I would end up with my head knocked against the porcelain bathtub, or screamed at until I wore her spittle. The episode of being pushed backwards down a flight of stairs may have triggered the facial nerve pain that has been an increasingly problematic issue in my life, but I carry with me the struggle to act in accordance with the words which I speak, that I believe I have the same rights as anyone else to good self-care. No doubt this has contributed in part to my struggles with depression throughout my life, the depression which I called everything else but that until a couple of years ago.
Our culture still has a long way to go to acknowledge mental health as just as integral to a strong, stable society as physical health. There is some movement, but there are deeply ingrained stigmatizing messages against those who struggle with depression, anxiety, and other behavioral health conditions. Almost daily, I see posts on social media that casually “joke” at the expense of those with mental illness. Jokes about how doctors decide who is crazy and needs institutionalization, memes reflecting how someone’s Facebook posts let others know that the person has stopped taking their medication. All we have to do is substitute mental health issues with physical and we can readily see how stigmatizing these messages are, and how easy we find it to make fun of those with mental illness. There are many resources dedicated to addressing stigma. The National Alliance on Mental Illness is a great one. This is a link to some suggestions on how those of us with mental illness can work towards dismantling stigma: NAMI-Stigma
What to do with this complex blend of body memory, the physiological damage alongside the profound shift in my psyche due to messages deeply internalized? It’s interesting, because I have had several rounds of counseling over the decades. I have not been oblivious to what was done and in many ways, how I have been affected by my experiences. I’ve done hard work, processing what happened, growing stronger and more confident with every therapeutic intervention. Truly, I have, and yet I still carry significant markers that create unnecessary roadblocks towards health and healing.
After KS and I finished our talk, I promised myself not to shut down, but to really think about what she had said. Here is one of a number of elements critical to managing life with chronic, severe pain: having someone who will call you on your shit, but because they love you, not because they want to cut you down. If you can’t be that person for yourself, my experience tells me that it has to come from others. I couldn’t deny the truth of what she said, that without being conscious of it, I have been terrified of admitting—to myself, to others who count on me to be the strong one—that I am in trouble. There had to be this intersection of things getting this bad with a friend stepping forward to call me out, in order to recognize what was happening. In the lingo of 12 step recovery programs, I have a very low bottom. I hit it, and thank the heavens I bounced and didn’t not shatter and scatter to the wind. Having reached a point where something has to give, I committed to certain actions. I had to make a plan, which has been hard to do lately. I found resources that offered tips to guide my thinking and action. Here is one: http://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/taking-good-care-yourself. I have found a counselor to meet with for a few sessions, and if this is not the right one, I will continue to explore. I will pursue disability benefits. This is an arduous, challenging process with a most uncertain outcome. I’ve known in my heart that I have barely performed at work anymore, and my world has shrunk by such measures, the walls touching my sides, that I can barely breathe. If I can obtain that support, I may have the residual energy to figure out where to go from here, what other options may be available to try to better manage my conditions, to have a better quality of life. Deep inside, I still have a lot to give, but I know I can’t be of any use to anyone, least of all myself, in my current state.
If any of this resonates with you, or if you have found strategies that have worked, I welcome hearing from you.
Deb Marcus – Guest Writer at Hearing Elmo