People frequently ask me how I’m able to smile so much when I have such intense pain. The answer resides on my bookshelf.
She’s a glittery pink ampersand, (she looks like this &) the symbol of one of my most central values. We’ve had an intimate relationship for decades and, without her, it’s possible I might not even be here today. Amps is surrounded by books on meditation, writing, health, poetry, psychology, and religion. There’s some fiction in the mix too, but Amps is in true company with the stuff of real life. She’s a spiritual guide within her own right.
When I was a teenager going through one of those calamities of adolescence, my dad would sometimes remark on how cool it was that I could still laugh in the midst of struggle. That stuck with me; it taught me that even when things seemed unsurvivable, there was always an “and.” Later in life, within the context of my work as a psychotherapist, I noticed many people didn’t grow up learning (either directly or incidentally) that two seemingly divergent realities – such as pain and joy – can co-exist.
In the throes of intense physical pain, the ampersand can help us have a better quality of life. We can become so focused on wanting to come down a few notches on the pain scale (you all know…that obnoxious tool that boils the complicated ordeal of chronic pain down to a number) that we forget what exists outside of our bodily suffering. We yearn to move away from “9,” in hopes of landing somewhere in the middle of that extreme and an unrealistic “1.” In the process, we can forget there’s more to our story.
I can’t go hiking anymore, and I’m mesmerized by the birds on our deck.
My body hurts every day, and I have hope.
The pain sucks and reading the Pain Report makes me feel less alone.
My pain is getting worse, and my friend distracted me for a brief time today.
Mornings are getting harder, and I’ll make changes in my routine.
I’m sick of this pain, and I passionately love my spouse.
I insist on giving voice to truths other than my pain, and it’s not easy. My body speaks loudly, through the language of CRPS (Complex Regional Pain Syndrome) and an unruly, progressive spine disease. My central nervous system is like a journalist, reporting from the moment I awaken each morning:
Shards of jagged glass scrape Elisa’s entire spine. Burning hot razor blades slice into most of her body. Freezing metal vices crush her bones. Parts of her swell with shades of red, blue and purple. Ah, we have a clip: Watch as she attempts to get out of bed. She’s moving like a 90-year-old woman post-surgery after the lidocaine has worn off. It will take hours of self-care before she’s able to function. More later – when we check in with “Afternoon Elisa.” Watch this space.
My body’s personal journalist (yes, she has the voice of Rachel Maddow), is accurate, yet she only has access to part of the story. It is my responsibility to ensure that my spirit has it’s say as well: Grief – and gratitude. Disappointment – and hope. Frustration – and love. Immobility -and imagination. Fear -and movement. There is always more than one truth. Yes, I have excruciating pain – and I have joy. When the words “Yes, and…” unite, they become the power couple of the English language.
When CRPS flares up (or worse, creeps into another part of my body), I feel sad and frustrated; it renews my sense of loss related to my illness. Even then, everywhere I look the leaves are transforming into vibrant fall colors. I get to go through the normal and necessary process of grief, and I get to be awed by the change of seasons en route to my doctor appointment.
When we make space for experiences that don’t naturally gravitate toward each other, we do more than “listen to our bodies” (good advice, but only part of the conversation). We allow our spirits (that fire-in-the belly part of us) to speak, meanwhile quieting the demanding voices of our bodies.
Try this: When you’re struggling to see anything outside of your physical suffering, imagine your pain as a precious and breakable object. You’re naturally holding it with two hands, tending to its vulnerability with care and protection.
Then, imagine moving the object – your pain – into just one hand. You’re still holding it with awareness and support. Look at it and say, “I’ve got you.” Now, take a moment to see what you freed up space for in your empty hand. If it’s something essential to your spirit (creating, loving, being in nature, playing with your dog, etc.), the weight of pain on your life will feel a bit lighter.
So, go ahead, befriend the ampersand. I think you’ll find this sexy, curvy little symbol an alluring gateway to endless possibilities that make each of life’s moments better.
Thanks for reading. I need to bring this piece of writing to a close because this weather is causing a flare…and… the smell of the rain is intoxicating.
What, besides your pain, are you holding?