In my last post I talked about my experience of chronic pain, including two reasons I avoid telling people about it. I did this because it is an important piece of backstory in order to understand why I was so deeply impacted by a blog post I read this week talking about how chronic pain affects identity.
The post was called “Chronic pain and losing identity“. In it Dr Rachel Cason talks about Chronic Pain as a character, a voice. (She used capital letters to designate it as “a character in my story of self, [rather] than a mere experience“.) She argues that Chronic Pain is a legitimate voice in need of expression. This is challenging. How do I appropriately listen to the reality of my pain, without acting on the anxieties that crowd around it?
In the past month I’ve had multiple flare-ups of pain issues. Pent up emotional stress turns into migraines, followed by tension headaches that last for days. Hot/humid weather and computer time have triggered tendinitis. I’ve tried to fight it, hide it, push through it. That is proving increasingly difficult to do.
I have also been feeling a lack of identity during the past six months of transition, and particularly in the last month. Until this point there was always another event – something else to plan or do. I was so looking forward to being done with that, and being able to settle into my new life. Unfortunately, to my surprise, I have found myself feeling more lost, alone, and confused than before. Who am I, in this place, and in this life? I really don’t know the answer.
“When we are experiencing identity confusion, this is typically because some of our voices are louder than others, shift with our shifting environments or feel underdeveloped. When we are experiencing identity loss, this is often because one or more of our voices feels routinely under-expressed, de-valued or limited in its expression.“
All the pieces of my life are in flux right now. Many things that were key parts of my life and identity six months ago receive far less (if any) expression currently. New pieces are popping up, but I’m still working them out and don’t feel comfortable in them (yet). This is very emotionally taxing; I feel overwhelmed and emotional dealing with my transitions and the loss of identity that comes with them. Then the weight of pain, and the restrictions it brings, leaves me feeling even more overwhelmed and emotional. Pain isn’t just physical, especially chronic pain. Physical limitations make me feel so constrained in this midst of transition – how can I build a new life when I can’t DO anything??
Part of the physical pain I’m experiencing comes from trying to do too much in an effort to claim an identity through my actions. I don’t really know who I am right now so I feel an insatiable need to do. But here’s the catch: pushing myself results in pain, and pain stops me doing. And this brings me to the key piece of Rachel’s post, for me:
“Identity is often expressed in terms of DOING. I do, therefore I am. . . Chronic Pain interferes in our identity expression by limiting the capacity of an individual to do. And so, now what? When we can’t do our identity behaviours, we can feel our sense of Self slipping away. What am I when I can’t DO?”
Who am I, what am I, when days at a time are spent in a daze from headaches that prevent me thinking clearly?
Who am I, what am I, when tendinitis limits my ability to engage in work of all kinds – whether my TCK work, errands, or housework?
Who am I, what am I, when I struggle to keep up with others because every stair and every stride takes me to a higher level of pain and exhaustion?
How do I create forward momentum in my life when the things I need to do in order to create that movement will provoke physical pain?
How do I balance my emotional needs against my physical needs?
How do I choose which task to do when my arms can’t manage everything? Do I do laundry? Cook? Write? Work?
How do I work out who I am when I can’t do anything?
So I do things. And overdo it. And it all gets worse.
I don’t know who I am, so I want to do something, but doing makes me sore, and pain stops me doing, which I feel emotional about because who am I if I can’t do anything?? It’s such a vicious cycle.
(Ironically, after drafting this post I got anxious about something and did too much housework in an attempt to feel better which then made my arms worse. Point proven?!)
One bright spot in all this is my husband. As long as I’ve known him he’s believed me and my pain, and encouraged me to look after myself (often by gently presenting me with ways to do so). Yet recently I’ve felt I should hide my pain from him. Anxiety has been creeping in, saying the one person who has never made me feel lazy might change his mind if he sees just how often I can’t do things.
Reflecting on Rachel’s post helped me understand this. I’m still working out who I am in this new life (including this new season of our relationship) and my solution to a loss of identity is a deep-seated need to do. And who sees me constantly on the couch, unable to do things? Ah. Yes. No wonder anxiety is kicking in. But in understanding that the anxiety actually comes from being unsure of my role and identity, I see that I have nothing (real) to fear.
I’m sure that much of the answer lies in patience (not my strong suit). Eventually, over time, I’ll work out who I am and where I belong. That doesn’t feel particularly helpful in my present moments of crisis, when I feel overwhelmed and alone. But it’s still true.
In the mean time, I need to listen to my pain. It tells me something important – that I’m pushing myself too much. I need to respect those limits, and speak back to anxieties telling me people will be disappointed in me or think I’m lazy. I need to practice what I preach when I run seminars on transition: I need to be kind to myself, recognise that this is a difficult season and it’s okay that I’m not functioning at my best. I need to rest, physically and emotionally, and to express rather than suppress.
I need to breathe, be patient, and trust that this will all work out in the end.
(If only it was as easily done as said!)