Otherwise known as…your life. When you live with chronic pain, life truly is your stage. You smile; you make small talk; you get through as much of what must be done each day as you can. You show up to work, perhaps. Many of us can’t anymore. We’ve lost that theater.
It’s hard at first. Particularly in the early weeks and months when you haven’t yet stopped waiting. Waiting for the pain to stop, or lessen. It’s the moment when you realize – or perhaps accept, more accurately, that this could be – most likely is – permanent. The pain isn’t going away. The condition – it’s a part of you. It has been your primary focus. The focus of your doctors, your friends, family, coworkers, schoolmates – everyone you know or see. But in that moment of acceptance, something changes and you begin weaving it into the background in ways you never thought possible. Doing things you previously imagined you might never do again. You take off your sun glasses for the sake of respect in conversation. You drive, despite the piercing pain of the headlights. You attend a party you know will take a devastating toll. You go to the grocery store. You take your kids to the park. You do the things that most people take for granted each and every day. And you do it in pain with a smile on your face because it’s how we have learned to survive.
Years go by. You realize that there are more people in your life who have never known you without this pain than those who ever knew you pain free. Some still don’t know. It’s incredible. The reactions when people find out? Sometimes I’m not sure if I’m more astounded by how they could have missed it than by how I could have hidden it so well. I think back to all the times in conversation when I thought I would pass out from the pain – but apparently my performance never faltered. I have former clients from my consulting company who demanded me on all their projects. They never knew. Coworkers who were clueless until the day I left on disability. People in all manner of interaction who react in such amusing ways when they learn the truth that has literally be right in front of them. At least that’s how I’ve learned to look at it. Some with awe – both at my ability to hide the pain, and that to withstand it. Some with shock or sadness or my very least favorite (read: I HATE this….) – pity. “Oh you poor thing!” I get it. I can’t blame them. I think it’s meant more as an attempt at compassion, but pity is pity and I work too damn hard at this to be pitied. So do you.
Let me ask you something though…if any Hollywood actor was told he/she would be on set for the rest of their lives, never allowed to break character…what do you think the reaction would be? Disbelief? Outrage? Laughter? That is the role we often feel we are cast in. Keep up appearances. Hide the pain. Wear the mask. But let’s be real. None of us can do it. We can’t hide it all the way all the time. And we need a safe place to remove the mask. The let down our guard. To be vulnerable. To be in pain openly. Cry if we need to, even though it makes it hurt more. Somehow, every now and then it helps too. Sometimes just being able to say that it hurts. Or that we’re tired of it hurting. Without judgement or pity or guilt or frustration. That’s a lot to ask. Of anyone. It’s hard for those who care for us most NOT to feel those things. Not to show those things. And they will come out too from time to time, so to be fair – I guess we can’t expect to never get that side of it.
But do you have that safe place? Do you have those people in your life that you can be nakedly in pain in front of without judgement or pity? Do you have a way to step off the stage and just be – you – pain and all? If the answer is no – then something has got to change. Finding that safe place – that safe person or people – is worth a thousand “remedies.” The mental and emotional and physical fatigue that accompanies these daily performances is SO underestimated.
Give yourself the credit you are due. Take the breaks you need to take. Find the safe place. The comfort, support and tenderness you deserve. Take off the mask and cry. Curse your pain and all the effort it takes to hide it. You’ll be amazed at how renewed you will find yourself. How much more comfortable that mask is to put back on when you get out of bed, or take a shower or walk out the door or if you’re lucky enough – when you go to work. It sounds like such a small thing, to stop acting for a short time. But it has a power that those who don’t go through life wearing this mask will never comprehend. How lucky they are.
Here’s to the performances, the intermissions, and most of all – those who make taking off the mask possible!
This post goes out with a special thanks to my amazing family and friends – thank you and I love you all so much! I could not fight this battle without you!