I once had a foot massage in Shanghai Airport when I had a few hours to kill and had been doing a lot of walking. My calves were sore and I figured it was just the thing, having heard about the wonders of Chinese foot massage. Unfortunately, the Chinese masseur knew only 3 words of English: “Pain is good”. He persisted in saying this every time I squeaked in pain or asked if he could go a bit more gently. I now know why the Chinese are renowned for their torture skills. To be fair, once I could walk again, it probably did work.
So I’m always a bit mistrustful of those who say pain is good. Sometimes it’s good because it’s pushing your endurance levels, such as when struggling up a steep hill on a mountain bike when your lungs are bursting and your legs are on fire. And sometimes it’s doing good in the same way that a painful massage or an ice bath does. And then there’s chronic pain. Which no one could possibly argue is good.
Chronic pain destroys every fibre in your soul. (Do souls have fibres? I’m pretty sure I’ve felt mine ripping one by one). It makes you feel sick. It stops you concentrating, it stops you sleeping, it stops you smiling, and it can even destroy your will to live. You live on a cocktail of painkillers and count down the minutes until your next dose, perhaps topping them up with whisky or wine or whatever your tipple. I confess that on several occasions, I’ve counted down the minutes until 6pm when I can legitimately pour myself a glass of wine to help wash the painkillers down, especially since I’m allergic to all the good painkilling drugs. In case you’re wondering, it’s a self-imposed rule since as long as I can remember that I almost never drink before 6pm (very rarely broken, even in such times of chronic pain).
I’m not sure whether chronic pain is worse for an active person or not. On the one hand, it’s intensely frustrating not to be able to exercise or play your favourite sports, and to be forced to sit or lie down and do nothing more than idly watch some rubbish on TV or listen to the radio. On the other hand, if you can manage some exercise (of any sort) it does at least take your mind off it, even if it doesn’t help ease the pain. And active people are generally used to pain!
I’ve had shoulder and neck problems for years, caused by overtight muscles, lots of sport, not enough stretching, lots of travel, and sitting at a computer all day. I’m pretty sure it’s made worse by the fact that my lack of sight means I tend to hunch over books and computer screens in an attempt to be able to see them. But it wasn’t a real problem until the last few months, when the pain grew excruciating at times and would keep me awake at nights as it affected the nerves all down my left leg and down both my arms, causing me to feel as if I have constant flu-induced muscle aches. If I’m really lucky, it kicks off the trapped nerve in my neck, and I also feel sick, dizzy and with an excruciating headache. I can no longer get dressed or undressed without difficulty, I can’t put my arms behind my back or reach up to high shelves. Any sudden movement to either of my shoulders causes intense pain for minutes. I hope I don’t find myself in a hold-up in the bank, as I wouldn’t be able to put my hands behind my head, or get arrested by the police, as I can’t put my arms behind my back. Even worse, I hope I don’t go mad, as the thought of a straitjacket causes me to actually feel sick at how painful that would be. Oh look, I’ve found a benefit of pain already! It causes me to be a good citizen and not get arrested or become mad. I’m not sure how I can avoid being in a hostage situation or in a hold-up in the bank, but maybe I should avoid banks just in case. And maybe countries where terrorists are likely (which probably isn’t a bad idea in general).
So the point of this post? I’ve been told I’m a very positive person, and indeed, I try to look for the positive in every situation. So, apart from avoiding policemen and terrorists, what good is there to chronic pain?
1. While lying awake unable to sleep, I’ve been trying to come up with some ideas. And in itself, that’s one: having more time to think. It’s a bit of a rubbish one, to be honest, as I’d prefer sleep any day. But it’s good to stop and think occasionally.
2. I’m forcing myself to learn relaxation techniques to deal with the pain.
3. I’m being forced to reassess my posture, not just when sitting at my computer, but in everything I do. I know I have terrible posture, especially since I acquired sight problems, since I hunch forward so much to see everything better. But now I have to force myself to correct it, and to take breaks if I’m forced to sit in an awkward position.
4. I’m forced to stretch more. Probably 95% of British people don’t stretch enough. Asian cultures are much better at it than we are. Many companies have daily tai-chi sessions for their whole workplace, for example.
5. I’m more sympathetic to others with chronic pain. I used to feel a bit superior that I didn’t have back problems and the like, and a tiny part of me felt they were just weedy whingers. Now I know what it feels like to be a weedy whinger myself, incapable of reaching the luggage rack on the train without assistance.
6. I’ve had to change my usual routine and look for new things to do. I’ve had to give up playing korfball this winter, and am restricted in other sports and exercise I can do in the gym, so i’m having to be creative and find new things to do instead. Having more weekends free without korfball has given me more time to go mountain biking and walking. And more free evenings mean I can actually do things like go to the cinema occasionally.
7. It’s a brilliant excuse to get a massage, since that’s the one thing that really helps. I love massages, but they’re an expensive habit. Out of medical necessity, I can justify them much more easily though.
8. Being actively positive about something negative has an effect on your personality as a whole. The more you do it, the easier it gets. So the more I can be positive about horrible things like pain, the more I can be positive about other dull or annoying things in my life.
So there we go. Until I started writing this post, I had no idea I could actually come up with 8 positive things about pain. And with any luck, there’s an end in sight, so that’s something to look forward. Even better, if it’s before I go on an active holiday to Namibia in 6 weeks’ time. Camping and mountain biking are not exactly the friends of shoulder pain! Then again, it’ll be a good excuse to ask random men to give me a massage. Out of medical necessity only, of course.