Sunday, March 17, 2013

#105: Be Mindful "Working With Pain"

This is the fifth post in a series tracking my progress in a mindfulness-based-cognitive-therapy class.

Pain was the surest sign I had cancer. For close to two months before my diagnosis, I would wake up in the middle of the night on sporadic occasions with a staggering and blinding pain shooting through my right side. It would range anywhere from my shoulder to my fingertips, up to my neck and into my ear. Only in retrospect can I tell you that I had no legitimate explanation for that hellish pain. I would sob on my couch for the twenty minutes it endured, often shrilling in pain as the tears streamed down my face.

But once it was over, I'd go back to bed and sleep like a little baby, with only faint memories to casually reflect on the next day. I lived alone so no one could observe in shock and horror and tell me honestly: "This is a problem and you're going to a doctor now."

Have you ever seen Star Wars? It helped me develop a technique for enduring this pain. Every time the stabbing pain started, I'd focus so hard on it and imagine that I had a fleet of Starship Troopers in my insides that could attack the pain with their laser guns, laser swords and lasers from their spaceships (forgive the non-fan-girl terminology). When the pain flared up, the fleet shot it down with lasers. It totally, and shockingly, worked. Somehow focusing on the experience made the pain feel more like rolling waves instead of jabbing knives. The twenty minutes passed quickly and I fell back asleep after quickly and peacefully.

This week at my mindfulness class, I learned what my technique had accomplished:


Now that was an eye-opener. Not only is pain different than suffering, but suffering is worsened by resistance. Screaming and crying and wishing for the pain to stop, unlike the actual pain, was within my control. Although normal and completely understandable, it worsened my suffering because I, as the facilitators put it, "wished I was somewhere else besides here." My coping technique worked because it allowed me to accept where I was, acknowledge how it felt, re-purpose my energy on breathing and visualization, and work with the pain rather than against it.

The lesson in this week's class was to accept the present moment's experience, no matter how painful, because like all moments, it too would pass.

And it did. My oncologist eventually taught me how to take Tylenol 3s - every four hours regardless of pain - until I got into chemotherapy treatment when the pain suddenly and happily stopped. No massive tumour in your right chest cavity = no pain!

'Working with pain' is not easy, and can often reveal some intimate experiences that we're well-practiced at avoiding. (Which is why writing this post felt so awkward and uncomfortable.) Had I continued turning away from the pain, however, I would have missed, or at least further delayed, my cancer diagnosis. Which then begs the question, what vital piece of information might we overlook by continually choosing to turn away from pain?

No comments:

Post a Comment