For years, I winced at friends who shared their episodes of chronic pain with me.
I would be trying to talk about important things like how much custard should be put in a Long John, only to have someone interrupt about their aching feet or, worse yet, their irritable bowel syndrome. Last summer, my frustration boiled over when a neighbor asked me to turn up the volume for a pain prescription TV commercial that featured butterflies and ocean waves. Then – ouch – my interest in chronic pain was suddenly tweaked, mainly in my neck and upper back. Now, I expect the whole world to be sensitive to my medical issue. Based on a genetic predisposition and colorful history of hiding out behind the transformative effects of chemicals that can be drunk, smoked or swallowed, I could have jumped on the prescription pathway toward painless zombification. However, these advertisements, with their beautiful monarchs, bucolic pastures and smooth-talking, white-coated actors also stated that “other serious side effects, including death, may occur.” That rapidly spoken message got me thinking of alternative routes. My first inclination was to tough it out, be made of the right stuff, like the heroes I’d seen in the movies and learned about in war documentaries. It didn’t take long to realize I was made of different stuff. How about a medical procedure? I could have turned myself over to a gifted surgeon for an answer. But a brief investigation on the outcome statistics of an operation, and a discouraging conversation with my insurance representative, left me searching for another solution. Then, I remembered a conversation I had several years ago with Steve Hayes, a gifted researcher and friend. Steve had hosted a university conference on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, or ACT, a model of psychotherapy that was gaining international attention. From what I recalled of Steve’s approach, ACT was all about noticing a situation, accepting it and embracing it as part of oneself. Without any more research, I decided to have a conversation with my chronic pain, invite it into my daily routine and give it some space of its own in my life. It’s working. Now, when I go out for a walk, my self-talk says things like, “Okay pain, you can come along, but don’t think you’re going to lead the way.” Or, as I go to bed, I say, “So, you want to hang out with me before I go to sleep? Fine, you’re just giving me more time to think about the great day I’ll have tomorrow.” My friends don’t hear much about my spinal stenosis, but they do wonder who the hell I’m talking to