I woke up with one of my raging headaches. It starts at the place where my skull meets the top of my neck in the back. The lymph nodes back there are always sore, but this goes beyond that. This is a deep, throbbing pain that is almost unbearable.
This particular pain episode caused me think about all different kinds of pain and what people do to try to stop their own pain.
I resist taking pain relievers.
I have pain in every joint in my body. This is, according to the experts who practice and specialize in infectious disease medicine, caused by a new-fangled condition called “Post-Treatment Lyme Disease Syndrome.” How’s that for a mouthful?
This is not a treatise or debate on the validity of such medical conjuring (yes, they magically created another syndrome to explain away patient suffering). This is about pain.
I know that I should take pain relievers every day, several times a day.
I have physical pain in my body all the time.
But I also have emotional pain, psychic pain, relational pain, and social pain. I think I just made up a couple of new pain types, but they help explain what I think about different kinds of pain.
Emotional pain is when we feel hurt by the words, attitudes, and behaviors of others, and sometimes even ourselves (negative self-talk anyone?). In my situation, I struggle with the pain of knowing that someone wants to hurt me. I think this is the root of most emotional pain. How do we come to terms with how others treat us when we know that treatment is wrong or hurtful?
Psychic pain — not sure this exists. As an introvert, I think about why I become so exhausted when in the company of others. I have wondered whether introverts are empaths, like Deanna Troi on Star Trek: The Next Generation. She doesn’t read minds, but instead feels what others are feeling. She has a highly-developed empathetic ability. I tune in to the people around me and sense their emotions. It is difficult enough to feel my own pain, but I often feel the pain of others deeply.
Relational pain is really emotional pain, but I feel that it deserves its own category. I can feel upset or hurt by being unable to pay my bills and not being able to buy my son new school clothes. This is different than what I feel when I know my sister is talking about me behind my back. Relational pain comes from uncomfortable, dysfunctional and broken relationships. Children of divorce struggle with this for the rest of their lives unless their parents are extremely mature and put the kids before their own pain (which is nearly impossible to do — they are trying to grieve and process their own pain).
Social pain is not felt by all people. I honestly believe that there is a large percentage of the population that does not experience this kind of pain. Those concerned about social justice feel social pain. This is, again, brought about by a highly-developed sense of empathy. When I see a homeless person I can actually spend hours thinking about why that person might be homeless, what is wrong with society that we cannot provide basic housing and food for all. Or, as is my case, why a woman who stayed home with the kids for 20 years can be left with no money to hire a lawyer to get support for herself and her children when her husband abandons her. Domestic abuse is a social issue that should cause everyone pain.
So much pain…
How do we deal with so much pain?
I know not everyone experiences high levels of pain in each of the areas above. I know that not everyone sees the suffering of others and feels something. I know that many people can just shrug off pain and suffering, even the kind that they cause.
I honestly wish I could do this sometimes.
With the internet age, the pain of others all around the world is in our faces all the time. Rape, murder, religious persecution and the destruction of entire towns of villages is presented to us every day (ISIS). I read about it on Twitter, Facebook, Google Plus, online news sites, YouTube, and in the television shows and movies available 24/7 through Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime (cable TV is so yesterday).
Responses to Pain
Like a moth drawn to the flame, I am drawn to the pain of others. I can’t seem to shut out the world and just knit sweaters for my grandchildren. I want to know what is going on and then I want to help fix it.
That is my response to pain. I want to do something. The key word here is “want.” Being unable to do anything about all of the pain and suffering I witness causes its own kind of suffering where I end up feeling a sense of despair. Will things ever get better? I have a cycle.
But other people respond differently. Some merely withdraw and block out the source of the pain.
Some people use substances to numb the pain: drugs, alcohol, food, and so on.
Some people build beautiful and enviable facades. Their sense of superiority and entitlement helps them feel better for a time.
Some people lash out and hurt others.
Some people try to control those around them: they create rules by which all must live.
Most people create a little bubble world where they feel safe: political bubble, ideological bubble, social bubble, relational bubble, economic bubble. They figure out what world view makes them feel better and stick with it to their dying breath.
Some people self harm: cutting, risk-taking, and ultimately…
Some people just give up completely. Suicide rates are high.
I would posit that most people practice a variety of pain-relieving techniques. I know that I shut down and shut out the world when it all gets to be too much. I enjoy a glass of wine and some coma-inducing desserts. I have my home where most of my personal world exists. I have political beliefs that make me feel comfortable. I have a world view that suits me. Over time, I do feel better and the throbbing pain begins to subside. It doesn’t last for long.
Something that most of us don’t get to do is find the root cause of the pain in our lives and fix it. Just as I believe most of my physical pain is caused by an ongoing infection and my body’s wacky immune responses, and I know that when I stay on antibiotics I regain a lot of ground and experience a lot less physical pain, I also believe that other types of pain can be cured, or at least managed effectively.
As a society, however, we seem to be content with merely relieving pain using temporary measures. This doesn’t cure the problem, and it doesn’t help long-term, but it is enough for now.
Just like my raging headache caused me to take a strong pain reliever — and, to be honest, I would have taken something even stronger if I had it in the house — profound emotional, psychic, relational and social pain drives most of us to seek some kind of relief, the faster the better. Instant relief! We cry out for it.
I didn’t really address pain avoidance which can halt the healing process if it is the only response to pain or is used long-term. (And my tendency to shut down and withdraw probably fits more appropriately within this category.)
There is an argument for withdrawing for a time in order to heal. We rest our bodies after surgery in order to allow the body to heal. But if the patient remains in this sedentary resting condition long-term, it is more detrimental than beneficial.
Let’s Have a Conversation:
What kind of pain are you in, and what do you do to relieve it?
Please feel free to share in the comments.