Living with Pain: Time and Aging

Living with Pain: Time and Aging

I have been in pain for a half century.  Yes, for 50 years.

In my early 20s I was finally diagnosed with a spinal problem, 6 years after the pain first hit me when I tried getting out of bed when I was 15. The day before, during basketball practice in my ancient high school gym, I drove for the basket on a breakaway. As I launched a layup, one of my larger teammates hammered me across the chest, sending me backwards into a wall abutting the baseline.

Bad court design, bad injury.

It took a while to regain my wobbly senses and survey my body, but I decided I was okay. Trying to get out of bed the following morning proved otherwise. My comic struggle to get upright introduced me to marauding, multiplying pain. It took 35 years to get the correct diagnosis of a broken spine and 8 hours of nasty surgery to correct some of the damage.

398px-Hourglass_During those years I gathered up one miserable diagnosis upon the next. It took 20 years of useless or no treatment before a sharp eyed rheumatologist put all the symptoms together to pronounce the possibility of an autoimmune malady, Behcet’s Disease. That lovely entity was confirmed two years later by the sudden loss of half the vision in my left eye.

Through the last 25 years I’ve been bedevilled by reduced vision, but now in my mid 60s I see things more clearly. I still bump into furniture, small children, and my dog Dylan, but truly I see much better.

When I was in my 40s, I thought and sometimes wished that my life was going to be short. Just after graduating college my favorite uncle died at the age of 45. Then my 48-year old brother, Mike, was knocked down by a stroke. Five months later he fell to a heart attack.

When Mike died I was sure I was next in the queue and wouldn’t make it to 50, just 5 short years ahead. But I did make it to 50 — and started down the path of 15 surgeries correcting various damaged parts of my body.

The late psychoanalyst Erik Erikson wrote years ago that at 65, we should be entering the stage of Wisdom, or, if psychologically derailed, Ego Disintegration and Despair. I don’t think this original thinker had much contact with people living in pain. I’m not so acquainted with Wisdom as I am with Ego Disintegration and…well, we all get the picture.

I suppose that there is some wisdom to be gained from living a half century in pain, but truthfully, I’m not so sure. What I have learned over the years is that the notion of psychological or emotional disintegration happens repeatedly to people living with pain (PLWP) and isn’t confined to any one period of maturation. So by age 65 we should have practiced and mastered that disintegration bit.

Psychoanalytic theorists describe disintegration as an experience akin to shaking apart a completed 500 piece puzzle. What was once an identifiable whole disintegrates into its constituent parts of scattered, barely recognizable pieces. It gives meaning to the idea of “falling apart.”

This describes what happens to PLWP. It’s as if pain takes us by the neck and shakes us violently, the way a panther breaks the necks of her prey. For the most part, save for the truly desperate among us who commit suicide, the shaking unhinges us from ourselves through anxiety, obsessions, substance abuse, hopelessness, despair and depression, just to name a few of our disintegrators.

Those of us who’ve passed the age of 40 often talk about how time flies. But in the next quarter of a century after age 40, time flies by at the speed of light. This is both a blessing and a curse. The curse is that we experience ourselves aging far faster than we bargained for when we were 25.

The blessing forms around our pain. When we are in the midst of stunning pain, time seems to crawl as each minute is a nightmare and the disintegrators take up residence. What I’ve found with age is something of a gift; when pain strikes I have confidence that I’ll slide through pain without time sagging in on me.

I’ve also found that disintegration, while serial, isn’t permanent. Like the pain on whose back it arrives, it comes and goes.

I know that I can manage the worst pain, something I didn’t believe 25 years ago. The variable is that I know that what is happening to me in the moment is truly in that moment, and I no longer see catastrophe goose-stepping on my horizon.

I know however miserable the pain is, I will survive. Pain is not eternal, but brief. I wish I could have told my 45-year old self, partially blind and disabled by pain, just that: Hang on, kid, the extremity is brief.

I know that this isn’t always true, that sometimes the pain is extensive and pernicious as a home invader who steals your residence with no thought of vacating. But I’ve found over the decades that my pain rarely stays at 9 or 10; that it always, sooner and sometimes later, backs off. Like the sun breaking through on a stormy day, it just happens.

I’m not discounting the horrid pain you may suffer, I’m just postulating that intermittent, soft interludes return — allowing us to catch our breath and even feel contentment, joy and the life we think has passed us by. Those moments are fleeting, but they’re real and can sustain us.

Of course, these moments are an archipelago in a sea of pain. But reach for whatever life preserver you have and hang on kid, because this too will pass.

On the horizon there’s always another island, however small, however distant, to which deep currents will deliver you.

Mark Maginn

Mark Maginn

Mark Maginn lives in Chicago where he is a poet, writer and social justice activist. Mark suffers from chronic pain and was a longtime volunteer with the American Pain Foundation. His blog “Left Eye Blind” can be found here.

The information in this column is not intended to be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Only your doctor can do that!  It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s personal experiences and opinions alone. It does not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of National Pain Report or Microcast Media.

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mark maginn, Thank you for pointing out my errors, I should have clarified my comments. How someone reacts to chronic pain is individual. You have altered your lifestyle, which everyone who suffers from chronic pain must do. You also use non medication methods to manage your pain.

I was referring to those who suffer from severe chronic pain and it is either undertreated or not treated. When I say undertreated, I am referring to cases where someone may be given 1 Norco a day to manage their chronic severe pain that prevents them from doing the basic activities of daily living. That one tablet a day may enable them to take a shower or be able to walk to their mailbox. Even though Norco is suppose to last 4 hrs, it only decreases their pain level enough for them do these and other things for maybe 2 hrs. Them being able to shower and properly dress and go to the store is not an option for them because what relief they do get, is not much and does not last long. The non medications pain management they use allows them to reduce their pain level to somethng they can tolerate for the rest of the day while they have to be in bed, which would be app 22 hrs a day. This would be every day, month after month, ect. Being able to go out and do other things isn’t an option for them. Unless they want to take more than 1 Norco a day and then they must decide how many days they can handle without being able to do the basic things others take for granted. They must also consider that their pain will be at increased levels for several days after going out and doing more than their body is use to doing.

mark maginn

BL as I wrote there was a time when I had to give up everything-my teaching position, my practice, sports, in general, living in the world. But after a correct diagnosis, pt, psychotherapy, an exercise program and 15 surgeries I am in fact doing better. But I still battle miserable pain up and down my spine. I spend most of my time at home writing and reading. But I still have found ways to be involved, mostly through the internet. I’m scheduled to go to a political meeting this weekend, but it all depends on what level my pain is and whether the misery of colitis gets hold of me. I have such long experience with pain I’ve learned how, for me, to handle my pain. Not everybody with pain is able to do what I can and there are others who can do more than me. I worry about your reaction because it implies that to “really” be in severe pain, you have to act in a certain way to be believed. That is an attitude that has been a problem for pwp for a long time. I hope you can drop that in your view of your own disability.


mark maginn, what is confusing me is if someone is suffering from severe chronic pain and it is either untreated or undertreated, how are they physically able to go and do all of these things. If the pain isn’t severe, isn’t chronic and/or is being treated properly then the person is able to leave their home and go and do things. There is a difference.

robin birdfeather

Mark, You are amazing. One way I know this is that for 30 years I’ve been a Pain Mgt. practitioner, using TrPt Myotherapy training as my solid core, adding adjunctive therapies that round out treatments. I have of course seen people in something like your ongoing pain situation; attitude makes such a difference! My own pain is what got me started looking. It began in my mid-20s but was not steady until my late 30s, and by now I know that big complications were/are 5 closed head injuries, nearly lifetime PTSD, going through a rough cancer treatment, and a bad case of Lyme D. All of these add up to neurological damage of many sorts. The great advances in Brain Science help me lots just by explaining symptoms. So many people suffer as you did by simply not knowing what kinds of battles are going on in your body home - a great internal struggle where you are the whole battlefield. Studying Nutrition was most helpful, right up there with how and how much therapeutic movement (exercise) is appropriate. Yes, the disintegration is very real and very confusing, so I’ve been in counseling therapy for 11 1/2 years; it is helping a great deal. We do really often need to talk with a person we know can listen and respond. I’m 79 now, getting as much rest (Very Important) as I need and want, and choosing my activities moderately. Thanks for writing about yourself.

mark maginn

BL you are so, so right. I remember 25 years ago when I lost my psychotherapy and my professorship, I was to all concerned, except by my wife and son, useless and barely deserving of care. It isn’t just the health care world that seemed so distant and uncaring, BL, I had the same pernicious attitude toward myself. I think this mind set among those of us in persistent, harrowing pain is a killer, a road to suicide. Pain is a deadly disease that needs to be taken seriously and empathically. It is a lonely battle at times. We need to reach out and connect and not expect others to reach into our pained world and pull us to the surface. Years ago while living in the east bay of San Francisco I joined a Unitarian-Universalist Church and forced myself, when my crummy body allowed, to become involved in the life of the congregation. It worked and I found not only a life support group of friends but also when healthy, people I could help: those without heath care, and the most marginalize, immigrants. I’m not suggesting that you become an atheist like me and join a liberal church, but there are all kinds of groups who will take us on at whatever level we can participate. But all that aside, I know exactly, I hope, what you mean. Living a life in pain is a lonely, often isolating experience. I know I’ve cultivated a love of the solitary, it fuels my crazy voracious reading and writing. Lucky me, I know. But on the whole, I’d rather be more physically involved with friends and family. I welcome your comments. Please keep up with me.


It seems that as long as you’re productive, you’re seen as deserving of pain management. But, if you’re not working, not being productive, not contributing, then you are of no value. There is nothing you do that is viewed as important enough for pain management. The things you could do with pain management may be important to you and your family and friends, but not to anyone else.