Chronic Pain and the Spiritual Life, Part 1

I have pondered writing about chronic pain for more than a year.  My biggest hesitation was that I didn’t want to appear to be indulging in self pity or looking for sympathy, because I’m not.  I suppose that honesty compels me to say that there was a certain amount of social conditioning around the expectation that males should just “grin and bear it” that contributed to my hesitation as well.  About six months ago I read Toni Bernhard’s important book How to be Sick.  If you aren’t aware of Toni’s story, she was a successful lawyer and professor at a law school when she contracted chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) and other complications which have disabled her. I highly recommend her book to everyone, whether or not they have a disability, because the book is an important contribution to awareness around CFS and all “invisible” illnesses.

What is missing in the public discussion, at least as far as I have been able to ascertain, is a male perspective – this despite the fact that chronic illnesses of all kinds are not the exclusive burden of women.  It is that absence of the male perspective that led me to decide not only to write this blog but also to begin writing a book about my experience.  It is my hope that my small contribution will stimulate increased discussion around the issue of chronic pain, chronic illness, and the role that they have in not only life in general but also in spirituality.  It is my belief that spirituality is a critically important component of coping with chronic illness – in fact, in coping with all of life, including acute illness.

I first hurt my back on Monday, September 24, 1985.  I remember the day because it was five days before my twenty-fifth birthday and I was looking forward to my insurance rates going down! At the time I worked as a Field Service Engineer for a company called Johnson & Johnson Ultrasound.  I was working on a machine at a hospital in Bangor, Maine.  While the details of what I was doing are unimportant, it had become necessary to replace the wheels on the machine.  To do so I needed a jack to lift up one side of the five hundred pound machine.  I called the hospital maintenance department to see if they had a hydraulic jack that I could use.  Someone from the department came to where I was working and said he was on his way to lunch,  but that after lunch he would bring some co-workers and we would turn the machine upside down – an idea that would have done untold damage to the equipment.  Rather than become engaged in a power struggle, I thanked him for his idea and let him go to lunch.  I moved the machine close to the bed on which patients laid down to have their exams, locked the wheels, squatted down and lifted the machine so it was leaning against the bed.  I felt something pop in my back, but didn’t think too much about it.

By my twenty-fifth birthday the following Friday I couldn’t feel my right foot, which was especially problematic for someone who drove more than sixty thousand miles a year to do his job.  I went to the emergency room in the town where I lived and was diagnosed with a sprained back.  I was sent to physical therapy and an orthopedic surgeon, sent home to ice my back and assumed – in those days before CT and MRI technology there was no definitive way to assess how much damage I had done.  For the next twenty-three years or so, the only lasting consequence of my foolishness was that, two to three times a year, my back would “lock” and go into painful spasm.  A weekend laying on blue ice bags and I would be good as new – or, at least, good enough to carry on.

That all changed on the day after Christmas, 2007.  My wife and I were in Minneapolis visiting her family for the holidays – a trip we try to make every Christmas.  My back had been giving me quite a bit of trouble, but I was still shocked when I arrive at the Mall of America for our annual day after Christmas pilgrimage and found myself in excruciating pain and unable to walk more than thirty feet without stopping to squat until the pain subsided.  There were no wheelchairs available because the Mall was very busy, and I am way too stubborn to admit defeat, so I spent the next four hours struggling from one bench to the next in the Mall while my family shopped.  I assumed that, whatever I had done, everything would be resolved after a few days of ice treatment.  I had no idea how wrong I was.

To be continued…

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