Pain Management

We avoid pain, but its presence tells us something is wrong.  I knew I needed a root canal and two trigger thumb surgeries this month.  After each procedure, the affected areas remained numb for hours, and I was told to avoid use until that wore off; absent pain, I could cause further damage.  Is the same true for emotional pain, and if so, do our human efforts to numb and avoid it actually damage us more?

I’ve gotten pretty good at living with physical discomfort.  I waited far too long to have my carpal tunnel and trigger thumbs corrected, and my lack of dexterity interfered with daily tasks like unlocking doors and writing.  Within a week of my last procedure, I could unlock doors and, tonight, write pain-free.  My doctor said that that for these two procedures, more than any other, his patients regret not getting surgery sooner.  Naturally, that would have made the pain end sooner, too.

In essence, I’ve spent so much of the past two years as a writer whose hands ached while writing that I feel like a new person. These procedures, collectively, gave me a better life.  We can live with physical pain, but it’s still there to tell us that something is wrong.  And when we are finally free of the discomfort, there’s peace of mind in having fixed the problem. 

This most recent issue was relatively easy to fix. When your thumb gets stuck and moves like a trigger on a gun, that’s called trigger thumb. It happens when the tendons in your thumb get swollen and can’t move smoothly, like a traffic jam in your thumb.  I waited a throbbing year to get the surgery on my right hand.  My doctor fixed it in a half hour. 

When I consider the soreness that kept me up at night and the thousand doors I fumbled to unlock, it’s unfathomable that simply snipping a little excess off a tendon could right me again.  Popping anti-inflammatories may have dampened the aches, but it didn’t resolve the issue. Steroid injections that provided relief a couple months at a time eventually stopped working completely. Our bodies, so intricately designed, beg us through discomfort: “Fix the problem!”

Do our brains do the same thing? 

I’m not a mom.  Given my natural way with kids, that fact always surprises my students.  It’s the emotional ache that I can’t ever shake, and I was grateful Pastor Dusty opted against a Mother’s Day sermon this week, as he’s sensitive to those for whom the day causes suffering.  I was hyperaware of people in that category, particularly my friend Marci who recently lost her son, also my friend. 

It was Marci who gave me the idea for my blog tonight when she was checking in on me after my last procedure.  I had an idea for an article, but I didn’t dare try using my hand until the numbness wore off.  “Pain tells us something is wrong,” Marci said.  “There’s a story there.”  I saw her analogy.

There’s no surgery to fix Marci’s pain, no diagram a doctor can follow, no excess to snip, but there’s still something wrong.  Emotional discomfort is distressing for this reason: We see no escape from it.  This kind of pain isn’t repaired, it’s processed. 

There are those in Marci’s position that resort to alcohol or drug abuse as numbing agents, preventing them from processing emotions and dealing with the root cause.  I know first-hand, pardon the pun, that when you’re numb, you can cause further damage.  If I opt to escape the pain of losing someone I love by turning to a bottle, I invite addiction, health problems, and impaired judgement into my life. 

Others in Marci’s situation might withdraw in isolation with Netflix series to binge watch, forty-two-minute vacations strung together until sleep comes and the pain is quiet… until your eyes open.  During quarantine when I was so starkly aware of my singleness and consumed by longing for motherhood, that’s what I did. 

Grey’s Anatomy, Ozark, The Good Fight, Big Little Lies.  I could suspend my consciousness and live somewhere else for forty-two minutes at a time, in a completely temporary-and-not-actually-effective way.  They were no more than anti-inflammatory pills, incapable of ever stopping the ache. Rather, watching season after season of fiction was extending my season of very real pain.

Maybe you can relate to that, and maybe you’ve seen, first-hand, the cause-and-effect relationship between suppressing emotions and developing anxiety, depression, and other mental health disorders in you or those you love.  Maybe you’ve seen the way numbing pain affects relationships, making it hard to connect with the people you care for the most.   The escape keeps our brains from asking us, through discomfort, to fix the problem.

We can numb all we like, but we’re just putting off the inevitable and extending the torture.  Emotional pain is processed, not snipped off.  Like the steroid injections that stopped taking the pain away, when I was so depressed that even TV didn’t entertain, I finally saw a therapist.  I joined a church. I started processing my frustration over living a life I thought looked nothing like my imagined future.  I don’t see a therapist now, but I have several women who I’ve collected as mothers that process life with me.  And when I find myself wallowing in self-pity, God rights my perspective in prayer. 

I tried to manage with my trigger thumbs for a year, avoiding activities and taking over-the-counter medication… and it’s not unlike how I silenced my thoughts with Netflix.  It would take longer to process my singleness struggle than fix my thumbs, but there was no hope for healing until I faced the discomfort head-on.  It’s telling you something is wrong so you’ll fix it and have a better life.

Processing pain and getting over loss or heartache is a difficult and personal journey, but there are ways to cope that promote healing instead of causing further damage. Nothing is more personal than friendship. Marci and I find comfort in a unique friendship that’s grounding after the loss of her son; we have a place to voice our thoughts and feelings instead of running from them.

Last night, I stumbled on a poem that reminded me of Marci, its content so uncanny it made me cry.  I texted it to her, and it made her cry, too.  Immediately, I wondered if I shouldn’t have shared it.

“No,” Marci typed back.  “There are sad places that I need to visit.”

Visiting the sad places is part of how we heal.  While I wish our emotional problems had surgical doctors that could remedy us in thirty minutes, we’ll never heal until we face our inner feelings.  Connecting with a friend every day might be the pain management you need while you’re doing the work of recovering. 

And there’s no shame in paying a therapist to cut through your emotional issues like my doctor cut through my inflamed tendon.  Pain tells us that something is wrong… so that we can fix it and live a better life.

If you need help visiting the sad places and don’t have anyone to talk to, call Samaritan’s Hope, a 24-7 helpline.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s