One of pain's great gifts has been to teach me not to waste energy on rumination, looking over my shoulder or comparing myself with those luckier. Just processing pain takes up brain space and energy; no space left for chewing cud.
Learning to manage my mood has been a great bonus. It is a daily determination, like charting a course when sailing. So pain, oddly, means I live in a kind space, what I call “the beloved.” As my daughter said to me last summer, when my back was pushed to its limits with grandchildren, “You are in a good place, Mum.”
So it is discouraging when yet another expert declares chronic pain is the result our “thoughts, feelings, and resulting behaviors.” Which feels like blame the patient: if I could crack jokes and be life and soul of the party, then my pain would go away. This is an absurd oversimplification, but so, I think are the studies' conclusions.
Her second remark “You were dealt lousy cards” takes us to another pain expert's statement that risk factors are “childhood physical and sexual abuse, painful losses, and job dissatisfaction.” Apply cognitive behavioural therapy! Am sure it helps: forgiving and letting go helps anyone. It's one of the lessons back pain taught me, though my thinking was not that trauma caused the pain, but that I hadn't the room in my head for both.
No, there's a simple, humane explanation why so many of us had trauma and now have back pain. Stress travels the same pathways up the spine as pain, so does digestive distress. When my digestion, crippled by 25 years of non-diagnosis of celiac disease, plays up, my back is always worse.
Any situation where you live in constant stress and fear sensitizes the stress pathways. By age 18, I felt mine were trigger happy and hypervigilant.
So can we be kinder to those of us with chronic back pain. The implication is that we are weak non-copers. That if we just dumped the detritus of our lives we would emerge, phoenix-like – and climb Everest.
Take the same observations, but draw different conclusions: trauma equals stress. What fires together wires together. Our stress coping pathways are strengthened by constant use – providing swift transit for later pain.The extra “gift” that accompanies trauma is a lifelong physical sensitivity to pain – a system that can't switch off.
But also a bonus: as Carl Jung said, “There's is no birth of consciousness without pain.”