Accepting Chronic Pain: Is it Necessary?


By Jennifer Martin, Columnist

A patient of mine told me the other day, “I don’t think I will ever be able to accept my chronic pain. It has completely changed my life.”

I think this is something that most people with chronic pain contend with at some point in time; wanting to hold onto hope that their diagnosis isn’t chronic or not wanting to come to the realization that they will have to live with the pain forever.

When most people hear the word “acceptance” they equate it with the notion that they should feel that it’s okay or it’s alright to have a chronic condition. Many people don’t ever feel okay about having to live with pain or an illness for the rest of their lives. It is not something that is easy to get used to and it’s not fair.

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Harvard Gazette: A Journey Into Illness

Poet and memoirist Meghan O’Rourke is devoting her time as a Radcliffe Fellow to a new book, “What’s Wrong with Me? The Mysteries of Chronic Illness” after a diagnosis last year of Lyme disease. “It’s not a medical book, but it is trying to bring together a literary and cultural story of disease and how we think about disease and the experience of disease with some portrait of the contemporary medical culture,” she said.

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Rediscovering (My Soul)

RediscoveringI’ve always been fascinated with learning–and living in–cultures other than my own. This has less to do with any lack of appreciation of my own culture, and has more to do with wanting to go out and explore; with wanting to go out to see–and experience–the world with my very own eyes.

When I was fifteen years old, back before the arrival of the Internet when even domestic long distance telephone calls were exorbitantly priced, I took off to live in Northern Italy as an exchange student for close to a year. Other than a few phone calls on special occasions, such as Christmas, New Year’s Day, or my birthday, all of my communication with family and friends was done the “old fashioned way”–through good ole’ postal mail. This level of immersion, something that I think would be difficult to achieve in this day and age of online connections, allowed me to see a completely different world not from the outside, but from the inside. Within a few months, I garnered such control of the language that I could (and did) easily pass as a native Italian.

The following ten years of my life took me to live not only in cities such as New York City, Boston, and San Francisco (quite a feat at the time for a kid from small town Texas), but they also allowed me to travel and visit many places around the world, some more foreign than others. A sampling of the highlights from this period include enjoying the midnight sun from right below the Arctic Circle in summer time Norway, being stopped at the border of the former country of Yugoslavia by officials who refused to accept my visa because their republic had just taken some of their initial steps towards independence, and getting more lost than I could ever imagine (and loving every second of it!) in Beijing.

Right around the time when the initial symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis started entering my life (although I had no clue they were as much, or even less of a clue what an autoimmune disease was), I found myself needing to take a break from my corporate job in Silicon Valley…so even though my mother shed a few tears when I announced that I was moving to South America for two years (I am now going on twelve years as of this past month!), no one–not even my mother–was really surprised to hear the news.

As many people who have visited this corner of the world know, the city of La Paz, Bolivia is breathtaking in more ways than one. Located at 3,600 meters above sea level, this is the highest major city in the world. Our local airport is even higher, at 4,000+ meters, and requires not only a runway that is twice as long as most, but also has a landing/take-off speed that is almost two times as fast as the norm. We are so high that pilots of flights originating from the U.S. are–by law–required to use oxygen masks! And as if that isn’t enough, the horizon from the canyon that is the city is dotted with tall Andean mountain peaks which are covered by snow year round.

And as many people who have been here before also know, the city–and its culture–defy any simple descriptions. Some of the people–and languages–that continue to exist date back to pre-Incan times. One of those is the Aymara culture, which is fascinating in so many ways. Not only have sociologists determined that they are the only culture that visualizes the past as being in front of them, and the future as being behind them, but their language, and its corresponding three-value non-Aristotelian logic, is not only of great interest to people who are working in the field of artificial intelligence, but was also deemed the “perfect language” by linguist Umberto Eco.

The Aymara people have a beautiful word for a person’s soul, and that word is ajayu (pronounced “aah-high-you”).

There is a belief among many that a person’s soul can easily be lost, particularly (especially) when a person is scared. It is very common, even in this day, to see elders “calling back” the soul of a young person who has been frightened. There is also the belief that should any person, young or old, lose his or her soul, the only way to get it back is to go to the very same physical location where that ajayu was lost.

A couple of months ago, my husband and I were in New York City for the Thanksgiving holidays. This visit was long overdue, especially due to the fact that our last visit there many, many years ago coincided with the biggest flareup of my still-at-the-time-undiagnosed rheumatoid arthritis, and with day after day of me being stuck in bed in the hotel room, thinking that I was battling the flu of a lifetime. Even though it happened much later than I might have originally hoped for, I was finally able to show him–firsthand–this city that meant (and still means) so much to me, back to the time when I was an architecture student at Columbia University.

One day during this recent visit, I found ourselves heading in the direction of the Upper East Side. (While I usually start a vacation with a list of things to do and places to visit, I still allow myself to discover and enjoy the beauty that can be found by meandering, by deciding which way to turn only upon reaching the next street corner.) As we continued in this general direction, I kept thinking to myself: why are we going here? And even though I sort of knew why we were heading to this part of town, I still didn’t want to fully accept that I was indeed going where I was.

And before I knew it, there is was, right in front of me: the (to remain unnamed) rheumatology care center that I traveled to a little under two years ago, when my disease was raging out of control, and when my emotions (and my entire person) continued to reach breaking point after breaking point after breaking point; the very same place where so many individuals from the inside let me down during my time of need and continued to–for some reason or another–deny the reality that was so visible to all of our eyes. I’ll never know why, but the louder I let it be known that I needed answers more quickly than ever, the more they let it be known that they weren’t really interested in helping me.

As I crossed the street, I reached the *exact* spot where my life was nearly lost but ultimately saved, when I received a phone call from my husband on that darkest of days when I decided that life was no longer worth living. I told him as much as he stood by my side, in the present day. “This is where I was when I decided I was going to end it, and this is where I was when you called me.”

I looked up at the healthcare center, and was surprised to notice that I had no feelings of anger, loss, sadness, or frustration. Everything that I was feeling at the moment was indeed a good thought, such as: I am alive, or, that I ended up being able to find the answers on my own, as difficult as the entire experience might have been.

I also thanked this place, and all of the individuals associated with it, for teaching me a lesson that I might not have been able to learn otherwise: I am, and always have been and always will be, stronger than I might imagine, and I am not going to let anything–or anyone–stop me from finding the answers that are right for me.

And in that very moment, I felt it, and I knew what this entire journey was all about.

My ajayu was back.

Stay tuned…for the next adventure of Rheumatoid Arthritis Guy!