A friend asked me how I cope with a pain episode – she asked for steps. Am not setting myself up as having answers, but recently I did sit down on a low-pain day and work out a protocol for myself.
You see, when the pain is bad, it is hard to remember the good days. Research shows that it is easier to access memories that are most similar to the emotional state one is in. That's why it is so hard to cheer someone up who's depressed.
What's more, with bad pain, it is hard even to think clearly, let alone summon up the psychic energy to jolly oneself along. Mental cheer-leading is as easy as wading through mud – and while doing so trying to imagine dancing! My eyes feel swollen, I can't make choices, my thoughts are leaden.
So I thought that if I had a game plan, a set of steps that I could automatically access, things might be easier. And, do you know, it works.
Today was a good test day, ironically, as it was a bad pain day. It started off OK but I went to the pharmacy and the bank, which involved a long wait at the pharmacy counter as I not only had a question about how to take tramadol best to avoid a roller coaster, but also had to show ID to pick it up. By the time they had finished running back and forth and losing my prescription I was in great pain from standing.
“This is why I need it,” I said between gritted teeth. By then my eyes felt swollen with pain – odd when it s my sacrum that hurts! I limped home and lay down. The bank phoned and it was hard to think clearly to answer their questions. Why is one befuddled as well?
This is when I used to spiral downhill as it is so difficult to rally resources when so confused and hurting. But today I remembered the emergency protocol I had worked out:
First, bracket the pain. That is, treat it as a one off, although of course it isn't and will be a recurring pattern in my life. But don't link it back to past pain or drearily forward for years to come. Don't argue with it or Pollyanna it. Just accept it is today – not every day.
Having contained it, do what I can to ease it? Hot pad, ice block, meds?
Prioritze the day. What must I do? What can be postponed? How can I rearrange the day? Note: I mustn't get frustrated with myself, berate myself, tell myself a pity story about how I am failing or missing out. Today is bracketed – it is just today.
Then ask, what I CAN do – at this very moment or later today. On Tuesday, when it was bad, what I could do was peel vegetables, not work on the computer as I had planned. But I could make that enjoyable by listening to the radio, where I heard a fascinating program on the Titanic's band.
It really helps also to do something, however small or some one else. That has helped me more than almost anything. It weakens the victim role; it strengthens my feeling of use, something that is easily eroded when handicapped. It gives me a place in the world and a feeling of worth. Life becomes reciprocal again, not an endless song of gratitude.
Today, my mind was more puddled, and my book too heavy, my concentration zilch, but I could play patience on my iTouch – and play it with a willing heart. It is very stabilizing – I can always play patience, however bad the pain. And, would you know it – every game came out, including the ones that almost never do. (I use a great app called CardShark.). Reinforced my morale by telling myself what I AM managing to do and what is pleasant about it. Usually, even if in great pain, as long as I am not having self-talk about it and am not thinking the pain is permanent and am not telling myself what I am missing, I am actually not unhappy. Not jumping with joy, but not bottomed out in misery.
What is good is that I can automatically switch to the protocol. Instead of being side-swiped by pain and drawn into a vortex, whirling ever downwards to its drumming, I can say, “I know what to do” and do it – because it works.
Quick Step through Pain (not a waltz, but better than a dead march.)
- Bracket the pain. Say,”It is just today.”
- Take steps to ease the pain: meds, heat, cold, rest.
- Reassess the day. What can I change or do another day?
- Ask: what CAN I do? And do it, trying to appreciate what is pleasant about doing it.
- If possible find something I can do for someone else – this makes me feel a contributing member of society and builds confidence.