A friend mentioned that it’s frightening to wake up in pain. I paused, not sure what she meant for a moment. Then I remembered back to when waking up in pain was scary. That feels so long ago.
Don’t get me wrong, sometimes it’s still scary. It’s just that that feeling has become rare. After all, when I’m in pain all day every day, why would it surprise me to be in pain at night?
My friend was referring to a different kind of pain. She is pregnant, and sometimes wakes up with horrendous leg cramps. Before the pregnancy, she only had pain the way most people do: if she injured herself. So this is unusual. And we humans often respond to the unusual with fear. It makes sense from a survival perspective. And pain is a bad thing – it’s telling us that something is wrong. So again, it’s natural to have a negative reaction to it.
The thing is, when you’re in pain all the time, your survival instinct learns that this isn’t a threat. You can’t be always worried that something is wrong because it will wear you out.
Occasionally I have a burst of scary pain in the middle of the night. Usually, it’s a new or uncommon pain, and that’s what makes it scary. More often, it’s my same old pains. At their usual levels, I sleep through the pain; I learned to do that when I was 17 years old and thoroughly exhausted from the sleepless nights.
When the pain gets worse, I often wake up, think “that sucks,” move to a less painful position (if possible,) and go right back to sleep. I’m aware of it, but I don’t think much of it. It’s not scary at all. Even when the pain is bad enough that I can’t get back to sleep for a while, I don’t feel fear. Annoyance, frustration, and sometimes anger for sure, but not fear.
It has been so long since pain itself has been scary, that I forget what it’s like. Now when pain scares me, it’s not the pain that I find frightening, but the unknown cause and the fear that it could last the rest of my life, as so many new pains have. Will this ever go away? Will it get worse? Will it stop me from doing things I love? Those are the fears. But when I know the cause and that it will end, there’s no fear. My body’s instinct has shut down when it comes to pain, and I wasn’t even aware of it happening.
It’s easy to see the many ways that non-chronically ill people don’t understand what we go through, but it’s also true that we don’t understand what they go through. I don’t want to diminish my friend’s experience simply because I am in pain more often and have learned to deal with it, because my pain comes with a bunch of other (arguably worse) symptoms, and because mine pain will never go away. Yes, I would rather be in her position, but that doesn’t make it easy for her. Her natural instincts are still intact, and possibly heightened because she is pregnant. She is dealing with changing hormones and a changing body. That doesn’t sound easy to me.
My point is simply that it’s easy to shrug off what others go through as being no big deal, but I still try hard to have sympathy and empathy for them, as much as possible. Just like I want others to have for me.
This conversation happened weeks ago, but it has stuck with me: the confusion I felt (people wake up feeling scared of pain?), the realization of how much my perspective has changed, my instinct to shrug off her situation, and the awareness that that would be a crappy thing to do. Writing this is my way of reminding myself to keep that awareness. Because everyone’s pain is a problem for them, and that’s something we can all relate to.