Pain by definition is an unpleasant sensation in the body but can also be defined by mental distress. It’s uncomfortable and it interrupts the activities of daily life. Physical pain can range from just an annoyance to something horrible that lands you in the hospital for days, and mental pain is certainly an epidemic. According to a quick Google search, 10% of Americans take antidepressant medication, and 40mil adults in the US are currently diagnosed with anxiety disorders.
Appropriate measures should always be taken for acute pain, and I’m so grateful for medical intervention and solutions when they are necessary. I’ve experienced my fair share of that kind of discomfort, and it can be debilitating and miserable. Obviously, I have experienced some periods of extreme pain in relation to shunt surgeries, infection, and malfunctions. But I’ve also had daily headaches for as long as I can remember. I can honestly say I don’t remember when my head didn’t hurt – to some degree. And although I’m not generally an anxious person, after repeated trauma to my brain and nervous system, I’ve gone through the physical symptoms of anxiety that include elevated heart rate and shortness of breath.
You might wonder what power we have to control any of this? In the world of chronic illness, this is a huge question, and one that is constantly sought after by those of us who suffer from daily pain. As I’ve studied the brain and nervous system over the years, I have learned to understand pain is a message being sent to the nervous system – to let the brain know that something might not be right. In most cases, there is a reason for pain, and those reasons can’t be ignored. But once the issue is uncovered and addressed, I do my absolute best to look at my options from a place without the emotion that so often comes with being in physical distress.
Peace seems so slippery in times when our body’s operating system is being told that there is danger or unrest. It’s pretty hard to hang onto all the things I know to be reality when my nervous system flies into a sympathetic response and I feel like I’m in complete overdrive…. Sometimes for days at a time. But peace is absolutely possible, and I’m living proof of that. I’ve been through all these things again and again and still I am grateful for the calm I know is always available and present within my soul.
In the past, I have described my life with hydrocephalus like a roller coaster. The ride speeds out of control through twists and turns – relentlessly whipping me around like a rag doll at times. I’m not the only one on this roller coaster either. There are all the people in my closest circle, my friends and family, my co-workers, and all the people who watch and follow my story. It’s exhausting and painful. But here’s the deal. This roller coaster is both the physical and the emotional part of the journey, and I have a choice whether I ride the roller coaster emotionally. When I make a choice to get off and just watch with my feet planted firmly on the ground, it’s a lot easier to manage the physical part – and make clear decisions. Even when there is no way to avoid the actual sensation of pain, I’ve learned to use mental training and spiritual practice to keep myself moving through the experience – and it’s been a game changer.
Austrian psychologist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl famously stated:
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
Maybe the key in that space is to decide not to allow challenge and hurt to define me.
So, what are the things I can control?
I can control how I treat the people around me when I am suffering.
I can define what victory looks like.
I can control how much grace I give myself.
I can remain grateful for excellent medical care and people who care about me.
I can breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe in. Breathe out.
I can show up every single day in these ways – whether I am hurting or not.
Pain. It’s part of the human experience.
We spend our lives trying to avoid it, endure it, and heal from it.
And it’s so real. It can literally shape a person – it can become their story, dominate their thoughts and conversations, and wreck their personal relationships.
In my own life over the past couple of years, I’ve been on a mission to examine the role of pain in my story. I don’t want the role of difficult circumstances to dictate the overall experience of my days. Yes, I’ve gone through some really painful times. But I do believe that I have a say in how I react to those times, and I’m always seeking ways to navigate my life with more grace and peace. So, it’s somewhat of a reconciliation in that space between stimulus and response. I will keep separating myself from the emotion and chaos that pain causes and decide what I can take control of. Then it’s just about being willing to do the work it takes to walk through the valleys and stay focused on what I know to be true and good. It’s really hard – not only for me, but for the precious few who are willing to stay in this arena alongside me and gut it out. But in the end, it’s worth it. Life is so beautiful, and well worth the battle.
for Don, who sees this battle from the trenches.
Thank you for supporting my fight and handling the tactical approach.
My name is Amy but friends and family call me Am. I am a lover of dogs, good whiskey, and strength training. I'm a brain surgery survivor (x31), a fiddle player, a construction designer, and a boxing enthusiast. I have six real siblings, and five fake brothers. I love deeply, and consider my close friends to be family.