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Making Peace With Pain – Part III

Making Friends with Pain!

For anyone living with chronic pain, I strongly encourage you to stop making pain your enemy. It’s time to make friends with your pain. It’s not something separate from you; pain is a part of your experience, so you’re really just fighting yourself. When you make peace with your pain, you’ll be able to create a life worth living that’s filled with meaning and satisfaction. Again, working through feelings of grief and loss helps a lot in this area.

Today, I can honestly say that I’m grateful for my injury. Living with a pain condition for almost three decades has created some limitations for me, but the rewards far outweigh them. I have participated in the healing journey of others living with chronic pain, taught healthcare providers how to work more effectively with their chronic pain patients, and developed/maintained more fulfilling relationships.

But my journey did not happen overnight…and yours won’t either. It takes commitment, willingness, and hope.

What is My Pain Really Trying to Tell Me?

I’ve discovered that, whenever I’m experiencing pain, it’s always helpful to ask: “What is my pain trying to tell me?” Remember, the function of pain is to tell us that something is wrong – something we need to identify and find a way to fix.

To understand the language of pain, I needed to understand how pain works and, more importantly, how it impacted all parts of not only my body, but my entire life. Pain is truly a total human experience that affects all aspects of my life and impacts all the people in my life. I also needed to understand that it is an early warning sign that something in my body needs attention. I eventually came to realize that, if I did not appropriately respond to those signals, it could impact my thinking and feelings.

When it comes to managing pain, knowledge is power. Once we know what is really going on with our body and mind, we can take action to effectively manage the pain. In fact, I learned that I must embrace pain as my friend and stop believing it’s my enemy. This is easier said than done and many of my patients look at me like I’m crazy when I tell them to make peace with their pain. They often tell me it’s hard to accept, but it’s true nevertheless.

These are the four primary measures that are so important to stop the cycle of suffering:

  • Let Go of the Belief That Pain is My Enemy!
  • Make Peace With My Pain!
  • Embrace Pain as My Friend!
  • Ask for Support!

The next step to developing an effective chronic pain management plan is to become willing to consider that you could make pain an ally, instead of an enemy. This starts by learning all you can about your pain and how to intervene in an appropriate way that significantly improves your quality of life.

When we’re experiencing pain, an important question is: “What can I do, right now to manage my pain in a healthy way that supports me physically, emotionally and spiritually?”-Stephen GrinsteadOur pain system is a crucial component of the human body; it’s essential to our survival. Can you imagine what would happen if we didn’t have pain receptors and we kept putting ourselves in situations that seriously damage the body? Picture this: You’re in the kitchen talking on the phone and you inadvertently put your hand down on a hot stove burner. Without pain receptors your first indication that something was wrong would be the smell of burning flesh – yours!

As I mentioned earlier, it’s always helpful to ask: “What is my pain trying to tell me?” Sometimes though, it can be difficult – if not impossible – to pinpoint the pain generator, leaving us frustrated. As human beings, we want to know why something is happening and, more importantly, how to fix it if it’s broken.

When we’re experiencing pain, an important question is: “What can I do, right now to manage my pain in a healthy way that supports me physically, emotionally and spiritually?” The answer will be different for each person. But what if you don’t know the answer and your pain has become unmanageable, no matter what you try? That’s why it is so important to remember the difference between pain and suffering (covered in the previous section).
For me, it was also important to learn that I didn’t have to do it alone.

Reaching Out to Others

There is an old saying that I find applies to me: “You teach what you most need to learn.” I’ve also found that I learn more about myself – and how to be at peace with my own chronic pain – when I’m helping others through their pain management struggles. I learn more about my own pain every time I work with a patient, teach a class, and write an article or a book. Every time I hear another person’s story about living with their chronic pain and how they are managing their journey, I know I’m not alone.

Early in my own journey, I learned that I needed to reach out for appropriate help from many different sources. I will never forget my early days going through the rehabilitation process. I had to go through several orthopedic doctors before I found one who wasn’t pushing pills or surgery on me. Fortunately, I found Dr. Kenneth Goranson; he was my first pain management mentor and coach. He fought for me to get the treatment services that would best restore me to the highest level of functioning possible.

During the two and a half years I worked with him, I also needed help from other healthcare teammates on my journey to freedom. Dr. Goranson was able to obtain authorization for hydrotherapy, physical therapy, massage therapy, and psychotherapy. Each of these modalities supported me to eventually call a truce with my pain and make peace with it.

Once I started making peace, I was ready to move forward and get back into my life. I found I was drawn to the healthcare profession, so my experiences might be of service to others. I was fortunate to have a great attorney that fought for me to get reeducated in the healthcare field.

My early steps were training in counseling and addiction treatment. Once I completed that training, I was fortunate enough to be hired by a local addiction treatment hospital working with people who struggled with chronic pain and addiction to pain medications. I was teaching what I desperately needed to learn for myself.

I’ve not only worked as a therapist and trainer in the field of chronic pain and coexisting problems for over three decades, I’ve done it while living with my own chronic pain – and I’ve done it without suffering. I still have periodic episodes of pain flare ups – sometimes really intense – where I need to put all that I’ve learned into practice. Like everyone living with a chronic pain condition, some days are better than others, but even on the bad days, one thing is certain – pain does not control my life.

Making peace with my pain was a crucial step in my ongoing growth and wellbeing. I feel very fortunate that I was able to resolve this dilemma for myself early in my own pain management journey. I always ask the patients I work with and the clinicians I train to consider this one question: Are you willing to make peace with your pain – or do you want to continue suffering?

In essence, what I’m asking is: “Are you willing to do what is necessary to make pain your friend and move on with your life?” As you can imagine, it’s a hard concept to accept at first and many people have told me so in no uncertain terms! Nevertheless, the willingness to surrender and stop fighting opens the door for a deeper level of healing to begin.

Something that really helped one of my patients in making peace with her chronic pain was to visualize her pain, not only as a friend, but as a personal cheerleader. Being willing to consider pain as an ally instead of an enemy is a crucial step in developing an effective chronic pain management plan. It starts with learning all we can about our pain and appropriately intervening in an way that continually improves quality of life.

When we’re experiencing pain, the more important question is: “What can I do, right now to manage my pain in a healthy way that supports me physically, emotionally and spiritually?” Again, the answer will be different for each person, but what if you don’t know the answer because your pain has become unmanageable, no matter what you try? Sometimes this means we have to reach out for additional support.

The Role of Family and Friends

Those of us living with chronic pain face obstacles most people will never be confronted with. Some conditions severely limit our level of physical functioning; living with constant pain can also negatively impact our thinking and emotional management ability.
recvoery-shutter394528003-couple-holding-flowersI feel very fortunate that Ellen my wife – my friend and partner in business and life – has supported me in my pain journey. I’m not the easiest person to be around when I have a flare up and sometimes I know it must be very frustrating for her when I have to stop what I’m doing and take a time out.

There is a lot of focus and attention given to the person living with chronic pain. What is often not discussed is the impact on family members and significant others – they’re the ones who must bear witness to a friend or loved one living with chronic pain. I’ve seen families disrupted and marriages end due to mismanaged (or poorly managed) chronic pain conditions. Sometimes family members and significant others develop their own healthcare problems while trying to help a loved one cope with chronic pain.

Family and significant others often get burned out or become frustrated and resentful towards the person living with chronic pain. A spouse can become just as hopeless and helpless as their family member suffering with pain; they may even develop a severe depression or sleep problem.

When an individual with chronic pain also develops an addiction problem, family and friends are even more negatively impacted – more so than any other alcohol or drug addiction occurring in a family system. I often refer significant others to Al-Anon or Nar-Anon (12-Step support groups for family and friends of alcoholics or addicts); they need just as much, if not more, support than the person with the addiction.

For those of you who don’t have a personal experience of living with chronic pain, I ask that you follow the steps below to develop a better understanding of what it’s like:

  • Step One: Think back to a time when you hurt yourself or had a painful condition such as a surgery, toothache or headache.
  • Step Two: Try to remember what that felt like and what you wanted to do to stop the pain.
  • Step Three: Now imagine that you have endured that level of pain for the past six months…without any relief. Every day you wake up, it’s there. Every night, you wonder if you’ll be able to sleep because the pain is so disturbing.
  • Step Four: Now imagine trying to explain this to your family and friends or your healthcare provider. What would you say? What would you want from them?

What can friends and family realistically do if a loved one is getting treatment for a chronic pain condition, having significant quality of life problems and a decreased level of functioning? The most important thing is to understand what it must be like; if you answered the four questions above you already have a much better idea.

Here are six additional starting points:

  • Practice good self-care; take time to relax, sleep, play, eat healthy, etc.
  • Develop compassion and even empathy for your significant other, but never sympathy – it causes more problems than it solves. An old saying often heard at Al-Anon meetings is “Sympathy kills.”
  • Do NOT do things for them that they can and should be doing for themselves.
  • Don’t keep secrets. This is especially true concerning medication use or abuse issues.
  • Al-Anon can be super helpful for you to learn about loving detachment: Here are the “Three Cs” that offer family members some comfort: You didn’t CAUSE it, you can’t CONTROL it, and you can’t CURE it.
  • Seek out a professional with experience in pain and addiction for you and your family.

Moving Forward on Our Journey!

I have been fortunate to be a guide and coach for many people on their journey to making peace with their pain and achieving freedom from suffering. I have seen most of them thrive, even with their chronic pain condition. Unfortunately, others got stuck on the journey or just quit trying. Some who quit came back to me or other helpers and eventually completed the journey; unfortunately, some died along the way.

If you are willing to do the footwork, you can be one of the people who thrive with a significantly higher quality of life than when they started their journey.-Stephen Grinstead Another key ingredient for making peace with my pain was being willing to do whatever it took to improve my quality of life and my pain management. Many of the people I worked with burned out trying to find the quick fix – or any fix – for their chronic pain condition.

Like me, many of them were so depressed, tired of trying and never experiencing effective pain management, that they wanted to give up. Sometimes they would tell me “I don’t want to keep going.” My response was: “It’s okay to not want to keep going, but are you willing to do it anyway?” You don’t have to like it – or even want it – you just need to be willing to do it anyway. Don’t be a victim. Don’t give your power away.

I often felt like quitting and learned that was a normal part of the healing process. There may be times on your journey when you make mistakes or fail at something. That’s also normal. Most successful people agree that their greatest successes came after their biggest failures – this has been true for me.

In the movie Batman Begins, there is a line where Bruce Wayne’s father tells him that when you fall down you pick yourself up and keep going. Many of my “mistakes” were my biggest learning opportunities and this can be true for you…if you are willing.

Willingness leads to improved motivation.


Unfortunately, just being willing is not enough. Taking action is necessary and requires that you motivate yourself to keep going, even when times get tough. In sports, I always heard coaches say the classic motivational quote “when the going gets tough, the tough get going.” That actually became my mantra during the early rehabilitation process.

When I was in sports, I had coaches to help motivate me. When I went into the Marine Corps, I had drill instructors to motivate me. In Karate, I had my Sensei (teacher) to really motivate me. When it came to pain management and physical rehabilitation, I needed to find new coaches and guides to help keep me motivated. But most importantly, I needed to learn how to motivate myself and be in gratitude – and so do you if you want to be successful in living life to the fullest.

Developing an Attitude of Gratitude!

In order for me to live life to the fullest and make peace with my own pain, I continuously strive to maintain an attitude of gratitude. As I age, I am grateful for all the experiences I have had and all the knowledge I have acquired. I’m grateful for all the people who give meaning to my life: my wife Ellen, my mother, my friends, colleagues and especially my recovering brothers and sisters. Instead of feeling depressed about all the things I can’t do, I choose to be grateful for all that I can do and everything that is still possible for me.

Aging also impacts our attitude and how we live life. As we age, we may not physically be able to do the things we used to, even if we are not living with chronic pain. But those of us with a chronic pain condition have more challenges to overcome.

My Karate Sensei, Master Richard Kim, often told us a story about living with adversity that I would like to share with you:

If you are training and break your toe, be grateful it wasn’t your foot. If you break your foot, be grateful it wasn’t your leg. And if you break your leg, be grateful it didn’t kill you. And if you die, be grateful you don’t have to finish this class.

For me, the lesson was: Whenever you hit an obstacle or a difficult time, say “Thank you, adversity, for yet another test.”

As I think of Sensei Kim’s suggestion to “thank adversity for yet another test,” I realize I have an opportunity to accept my chronic pain condition as one more circumstance to be grateful for. I also have the opportunity to develop a good plan for managing it successfully.

A major objective of any effective chronic pain management plan, but especially as we age, is an appropriate activity pacing. It’s important to remember that there is a continuum with activity pacing and our stage of life can become a factor. On one end is the person who always does too much; on the other end is the sedentary person who does almost nothing.

When developing an appropriate activity pacing plan, we must not only pay attention to where we are at in the aging process, but also to the limitations our chronic pain condition places in our way.-Stephen GrinsteadWhen developing an appropriate activity pacing plan, we must not only pay attention to where we are at in the aging process, but also to the limitations our chronic pain condition places in our way. Some of us deny our condition and do too much. We hurt ourselves and then become depressed when we can’t do what we want to do. I have been there, and sometimes still go there, so I needed an activity pacing plan that slowed me down.

I am the type that was doing way too much. When I was training in Karate, I would get up each morning and swim at least a mile before going to work for eight hours. When I got home from work, I would practice my Katas (Karate patterns) and stretch for about an hour. Next, I would eat and take an hour of down time before going to Karate classes four to five times per week.

I remember many times in my early chronic pain rehabilitation process that I would manifest this compulsive habit to push well beyond what my physical therapist wanted me to do. I was still living by the old Karate and military model of “No Pain – No Gain.” Unfortunately, this was a bad model for someone with my type of injury. I had to learn how to slow down and use the slogan “Easy does it; but do it.”

On the other end, some people with chronic pain use their disability or aging as an excuse to stop participating in life. They mistakenly believe they can’t have a good life due to their condition or age. These people need more of a jump start, or kick in the butt, to develop an activity pacing plan that encourages them to push more than they normally would.

But again, the physical by itself is not enough; I needed to get spiritual.

Images Courtesy of Shutterstock/iStock

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