Every now and then a doctor (other than my rheumatologist) will ask me if something hurts. When I say no, they look often look surprised and ask my if I’m sure, because I should be able to feel pain associated with whatever it is that is being discussed. It’s at this point when I usually realize that I need to provide a more explanatory answers, and if often sounds something like this:
All of my body hurts all of the time, due to my rheumatoid arthritis. Chances are that what you are referring to is actually causing pain, but it’s just not registering.
It’s sort of interesting/fascinating/odd/whatever when you realize that the pain of RA often prevents you from feeling–or even noticing–other pains in your body. Once during physical therapy, I wasn’t able to tell that the skin around my wrists was being burnt by overly-hot heat packs. It wasn’t until we unwrapped the bandages and saw the red burns that both my physical therapist and I thought “uh-oh.”
There have also been multiple times when I don’t feel a thing from the currents coming from a professional TENS machine. One physical therapist (different from the one mentioned above) assumed the machine was not working or that the electrodes were not plugged in correctly, as it was turned up to its maximum setting and I couldn’t feel a thing. (Not only that, but all of the surrounding muscles were completely still.) Upon touching both contact points, she immediately got “shocked” and reeled backwards.
And I sat there, somewhat in disbelief. My physical therapist could not even touch the electrodes that were applied to my knees because of the strong electrical current, while I could not even feel a thing.
My relationship with pain has changed quite a bit over the past decade, and I have no doubt that it will continue to change in the future. The more I get to know it, though, the more I continue to learn seemingly contradictory things, such as the fact that my pain does have a protective element.
I’m not referring to the actual pain signals that are being sent to the brain, which is one of the classic explanations for pain.
I’m talking about the numbing aspect of pain; of the idea that the pain can get so bad that I can simultaneously feel and not feel the pain (as odd as this may sound). As much as chronic pain hurts, at a certain point is has become my new normal. It is my new baseline.
And while what I have written up to now is based upon my physical pain, I am no way trying to deny the corresponding emotional pain that is always present. From this perspective, the pain if just as–if not more–numbing…and this is the true challenge: constantly working not only against the physical aspects of pain, but the emotional aspects too.
For too long, I often felt like I was being dragged along by my rheumatoid arthritis. If only I could get one day or one hour off, I thought, then I could rest and recuperate, and be better prepared to deal with this continual challenge. But these rest breaks never came, and my entire self became more exasperated.
“I can’t deal with this pain,” I have often thought to myself. Indeed, I (as well as millions of other who live with chronic pain) have reached levels of pain that are beyond what the human body or mind are supposed to deal with…and if you haven’t been there yourself, no words or explanations will ever be able to truly describe exactly what it feels like.
But if ever there were a “can’t” that should *immediately* be eliminated, it has to be this one…because no matter how bad the pain can get at times, I really have no other choice than to deal with it, as best I can.
I’ll admit, there are still times when “I can’t deal with this pain” starts to slip back into my thoughts. As soon as I recognize it, though, I immediately replace it with:
I can deal with this pain.
Whenever I affirm this to myself, I sometimes find myself chuckling lightly, laughing at (but not taunting) the idea that I could possibly not be in control of how I decide to react to the pain. Once I assert that I can indeed deal with the pain no matter how severe it is, I realize that, I–and not my pain–am in control. I am reminded that it is I who controls my thoughts and my actions.
My chronic pain will never stop trying to control my life. (This is its nature, after all.) I let it take control in the past, and suffered miserably. I can now honestly say that I will never let it take control again, no matter how challenging it gets.
Never underestimate the power of eliminating one “not.”
Stay tuned…for the next adventure of Rheumatoid Arthritis Guy!