Chronic Pain and Illness: Part 2

Part 2: Emotional Rollercoaster

There is a great resource for understanding living with chronic pain call the “Spoon Theory.” This is probably the most accurate way to describe life with chronic issues. You are probably thinking this fits better in my previous post about the daily life of the chronically ill. I agree, it would have been a great example there as well, however, I think it’s a wonderful way to explain the emotional toll that pain takes.
Now, like the picture, you have 12 “emotional” spoons each day. You wake up and the pain in your body is still there. It didn’t miraculously go away last night, bummer. Well the frustration of knowing what the day of pain is going to bring costs you at least one spoon. You are not even out of bed yet and emotional spoons are gone.

So let’s take the remaining 1O - 11 spoons. Automatically assume that half of them are spent throughout the day as you push through the pain or simply pretend it’s not there. That’s 50% of your emotional capacity for the day already gone. You will smile when you want to cry, laugh when you want to scream, and force yourself to be social when all you want to do is curl up in the fetal position and disappear. You make it through the day because you have no other choice. Some days this will take all your remaining spoons, and some days it will take a weeks’ worth of spoons.

The other half of your spoons, assuming you still have them, are for the emotions that every human being deals with in a day. These are for the co-workers who frustrate you, the problem you just can seem to solve, family drama, the person who insults you or gossips about you. Feelings of anger, resentment, feeling belittled, disrespected, overwhelmed, scared, hurt, forgotten, and so much more.  Many people assume that when I am mad, frustrated, or experiencing any other emotion it’s directly related to my pain. No. I still get mad at people, feel hurt by people, and react to these emotions. Not everything I feel relates to my pain. I still feel just the same as you do, it's just not all I feel.

Now, the way you spend these spoons may vary from day to day. Some days you can go the whole day only losing one or two, which falls in the realm of “normal” for everyone. However, those days are very rare. These are the days that you will see us do more than normal, smile a lot, and probably not know how express fully how good of a day we are having. We celebrate these days.

The problem comes when all your spoons get used on the pain and still have all those other emotions hit you. Where does all that overflow go? Depending on the person and the events leading up to the overflow, a couple different things can happen. Now, I feel the need to point out these are my reactions and each person can react differently. 

More often than not, I choose to simply stuff my feeling and push through the pain. This is often the only way that I can function for that day. I usually get quiet and focus on what I am doing so that my thoughts stay away from the danger zone and on the work at hand. This is the “I’m fine” mask that we are forced to wear simply to survive the day. People will ask me if I want to talk about it and my answer is usually “no.” I need to keep it on the back burner until I have enough time to process what I am feeling, and when I have the freedom to cry, scream, or anything else that may happen.  This is not a long-term solution, but is effective to get me through a workday or a long weekend of interacting with people or increased stress.

People can also become very snippy and short with those around them because they don’t know where else to channel those feelings. This is where understanding friends is a paramount. In my experience, everyone goes through this step early in their journey through chronic illness. I know I did. For those of you reading this who are in this part of your journey, hang tough. Don’t be afraid to say you’re sorry for being short. You will learn who your friends really are during these months. The people who really love you will understand that life has changed for you and understand the adjustment you are going through. Honesty is key here. Just be honest about the fact that you are overwhelmed and can’t deal. If you are willing, you can learn to cope.

I have had many people ask me how I keep a smile on my face with all I have been through in the past few years. The only answer that I can give you is Jesus. Each morning I read all the things on my “I am BECAUSE He is” wall. For example, I am more than a conqueror (Romans 8:37) BECAUSE He has given me the strength to do all things (Philippians 4:13). I am full of peace beyond understanding (Philippians 4:7) BECAUSE He is Jehovah-Shalom [The Lord My Peace]. All the things I am going through will work for my good (Romans 8:28) BECAUSE His thought and ways are higher than mine (Isaiah 55:9). I am going to have struggles (John 16:33) but that will end BECAUSE He is coming again to wipe the tears and pain away (Revelation 21:4). These truths give me the courage, strength, and drive to get up each day and live the best life I can despite any struggle that come.

Each day I remind myself of these things. I choose to put a smile on my face because I know that something good will come. I may never know fully what that good is, but I trust that something good will result from my pain. I have seen glimpses of it. I have talked with people who were at their last straw and was simply able to show them they are not alone in the fight. I have talked to a woman who thought ending her life was better than dealing with her pain even another minute. You never know how God is going to use your pain to help others in pain.  I want my life defined this way:

“[She] triumphed over [Satan] by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of [her] testimony; [she] did not love [her life] so much as to shrink from [pain and] death.” – Revelations 12:11