For a long time, I looked at my pain as the enemy. Pain had stolen from me. It had robbed me of immeasurable amounts of time, money, and energy. My pain had only resulted in losses: lost hobbies, lost friends, and lost hope. To me, pain was something I needed to fight in order to get my life back. Acceptance was synonymous with surrender.
When I started writing my Master’s thesis on chronic pain and quality of life, I began thinking a lot about the role of acceptance. I found a description by Lance McCracken that resonated with me. In his work, he describes acceptance as giving up unproductive attempts to control pain, and instead committing efforts toward living a satisfying life despite pain. Nowhere does he talk about ignoring the pain. Nowhere does he recommend stopping effective treatments. Acceptance is described simply as making the choice to focus less on the pain and more on valued life activities.
After experiencing a significant increase in pain in my early 20s, acceptance was something I struggled with a lot. Attempting to accept my pain required me to reframe everything I thought I knew. Our society doesn’t prepare people to live with chronic pain. We learn that pain signifies the need for a doctor, and the doctor will subsequently “fix” the problem. I looked for that fix – unsuccessfully – for years. I looked for that fix at the expense of many other things that mattered to me. Looking for a way to relieve my pain dominated my time, and my quality of life suffered as a result.
I decided the first thing I needed to do was reevaluate my priorities. I thought about how much power I had given my pain, and I decided to try to better balance my efforts. I began to refocus some of my energy on important things I’d been neglecting. I invested less time into trying any and every treatment available, and by only focusing on what worked, I had more energy available for the things and people that matter to me.
I don’t look at acceptance as something you achieve. It’s not an end goal. I look at acceptance as a practice. It’s something I have to work at, and some days are easier than others. I do know that acceptance has allowed me to live a fuller life. It’s helped me start pushing myself again, and it’s helped me understand how to set achievable goals. And while I’m always hopeful for the day we have more available options for pain relief, the process of acceptance helped me realize that I don’t have to wait until that day to live a worthwhile life.
Editor’s Note: Lindsay has lived with chronic pain since she was twelve years old. She organizes a local chronic pain peer support group in Washington, DC and she works as the policy analyst at the National Council on Independent Living, a grassroots, cross-disability advocacy organization (www.ncil.org)