Monday, February 7, 2011

Why Pain is Relative

I cut my shin in the shower this morning while shaving.  As I cursed and staunched the blood flow with a tissue, I laughed a little bit as I contemplated how much my pain was relative.

I have always had a kind of pain scale of my own.  I snickered at people who would say their pain was a 10+ in a perfectly normal, conversational tone of voice.  Even though I’ve always been a big baby about my own personal physical pain, I’ve never deluded myself into thinking that I was anywhere near a 10 on the 1-10 pain scale.  Well, maybe after major surgery, but it was probably in the recovery room and there was probably a good deal of morphine readily available at the time.  I have always said, in a joking manner, that if you are at a 10 on the pain scale, you have probably lost a limb.  Otherwise, you should shut the hell up and be realistic.

In the last month, my whole world has turned upside down and my own, personal, physical pain has become an even more relative thing than it was prior to the beginning of the New Year.  These are the dates that will stand out in my mind for the rest of my life:  January 8, 2011 – the day my mother told me she had cancer.  January 19, 2011 – the date my mom found out that her cancer was a very rare form of sarcoma and if it had spread to her lungs, there was really nothing she could do but enjoy the little time she had left.  January 26, 2011 – the day we found out the cancer had not yet spread to her lungs.  February 1, 2011 – the day the doctors amputated her foot and a portion of her leg to remove the cancer from her body.

These are horrific dates, fixed forever in my mind.  We are Just. So. Grateful that my mom is going to survive and we count ourselves unbelievably lucky that the cancer had not spread to her lungs.  I spent the night before we would hear the results of her CT scan holding the prayer cross my mother-in-law had sent me, repeating “please, God” over and over while I cried myself to sleep.  The thought of losing my mother is something I never want to have to ever contemplate again.  Is this realistic?  No.  But for now, she is cancer free and I am so grateful that she is still here. 

Going through this experience beside my mother (I won’t say with her, because obviously she is the only person who knows what this actually feels like), I have gained an even greater respect for the person she is, her bravery, her courage, her determination, her incredible will to live, her practicality in the face of losing a part of her body to cancer, and, most importantly, her ability to deal with pain.  Pain is, in fact, completely relative, and the ability to handle pain is totally individual.

I have always been a huge baby when it comes to pain.  Having fibromyalgia, I have spent a good deal of the last twenty years whining about how much pain I am in on a constant, daily basis.  My perception of the pain varies, based on what I am doing, how bad my pain level is on a given day, whether I am doing something I am interested in that takes my mind off my pain, and what my emotional state is at any given time.  But I have never wavered in my complaint that “it hurts, it hurts, it hurts, damn it!” 

Then I watched my mother go through losing part of her leg and the grace with which she dealt with what must have been an unbelievable amount of pain last week.  I saw her mentally evaluate every time the nurse would ask her what her pain level was and say “oh, it’s bearable” or “oh, probably a 4.”  Seriously?  I mean, yes, I knew my mother had a very high pain tolerance, but this was cutting off part of her leg.  If it was me, I know I would have been screaming to increase the pain meds and begging them not to take out the morphine drip.  My mom was looking to increase her time between doses and, as soon as she got home, immediately went from two pills every four hours to one every six, with the idea of getting off of them as soon as humanly possible.  Did I mention what an incredibly strong woman she is?

After deciding that amputation was the best way for her to become immediately cancer free, with almost no chance of the cancer returning, my mom made the decision without any regrets and no whining.  No what if, no what might have been, no why me, no but WAIT A MINUTE!  To her, I think, her leg was now the enemy and she was going to fight it with everything she had.  If the cancer in her leg was going to kill her, the leg was history.

Wow, I admire my mother.  And watching this practical, no nonsense approach to what for me would have been a gut wrenching, tear provoking, whine and cry fest has totally changed both the way I look at my mother and my own relationship with chronic pain.  If my mother could tell the nurse, less than 48 hours after her surgery, that the pain was “about a 4,” what the hell was I complaining about all these years?

Everything is relative.  Am I in chronic pain?  Yes, every day.  I’ve found ways of dealing with it over the years and have my coping mechanisms.  But there was never a better coping mechanism presented to me than the one I found this month.  The gift my mother gave me in the last four weeks is the ability to say, “Okay, yes, I’m in pain.  But it’s a minor annoyance.”  I can deal with it now in a way I was never able to before and it only took a week to completely turn my way of thinking around.

While we were sitting in the hospital room, I was having some discomfort and rubbing my abdomen and my mother said to me, “Are you in pain?”  I immediately looked at her and said, “I’m fine.”  Because I was fine.  We’re all going to have pain from time to time.  I’m probably going to have pain for the rest of my life because I know that having fibromyalgia is a lifelong, chronic, painful disorder.  But the pain is now relative.  And while cancer is something I would not have wished on my worst enemy, I have once again learned a very valuable lesson from my mother.  My mom is still teaching me how to deal with life through example.  I can only hope to be that good an example to my own children.

1 comment:

  1. I have Fibromyalgia and use bi-weekly massage therapy to help keep my pain in check. My therapist uses Tiger Balm and I ended up buying my own for use at home in between appointments. Some days, the pain in my thighs, neck and upper back is so bad, I can’t sit or lay down in any position for more than 5 mins, let alone sleep well, even with narcotic pain meds. Out of desperation, I started to apply Tiger Balm before going to work (I am on my feet for hours) and every night before bed and the RELIEF is REMARKABLE! My muscles get really, really warm and then the pain disappears, almost completely. I HIGHLY RECOMMEND USING TIGER BALM! (


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