Larry B. Gelman, Psy.D.
On November 8, 2010 I had an L2-S1 spinal fusion with multiple discectomies and multiple laminectomies to address degenerative disc disease, spinal stenosis and spinal scoliosis. Orthopedic experts were uncertain as to causality, however, I suspect that my sitting for 10-to 14 hours a day as a clinical psychologist for almost four decades coupled with rigorous martial arts training for almost twenty years may have played a contributory role in my affliction along with inherited and constitutional factors.
The surgery reportedly required more than 10 hours to successfully complete and surgical staff were quick to apprise me that “there were a few scary touch and go moments on the operating table with unforeseen complications.” Return to work was supposed to take 6-12 weeks of significant rest plus incremental exposure to physical therapy and to markedly limit what I carried or lifted to not more than two pounds. I was very, very heavily medicated following a six-day hospital stay. “Full recovery,” whereby titanium screws would eventually meld with vertebral bone, was projected to require eighteen months, according to my doctor. Furthermore, pain was understood to be a natural consequence of surgery.
Of course, I expected post-surgical difficulty but I can honestly confess to not having had a clue about the severity, intensity and duration of the pain symptoms I would experience, all day, every day! Various prescription “pain meds” have helped a bit, along with a TENS unit, exercise, diet, lots of rest and the always faithful assistance of my loving and devoted wife, but chronic and intense pain symptoms seem to permeate every moment of my waking life and, ignominiously, disrupt my nightly attempts at desparately needed restorative sleep. It never ends; it never goes away!
An old philosophical argument about an individual’s allegation of pain is that since one can neither fully prove nor fully disprove the claimant’s assertion, it may be more humane, if not altogether logical, to err on the side of caution and view the stated pain symptoms as real because if the person is truly in pain they will do well to receive comfort and relief but if they are feigning pain or, otherwise, malingering they risk laying claim to a poor reputation and all that which accompanies the shame of any lie.
Needless to say, pain is now my constant companion! Try as hard as I might, I am completely incapable of escaping its unbreakable chains. Sure, I can “fight it,” as I am, remarkably, well-suited by temperament, occupation and disposition of spirit to do so, yet, there is, I fear, a certain futility in this particular stance. Wouldn’t it just be simpler to simply be pain-free?
Well, wishing for something and making it happen are two distinctly different “instrumental behaviors.” So I am left with an interesting choice: “fight it” like a good soldier and never accept defeat or “surrender to a higher principle” and learn to “make peace” with the reality of my “new normal.”
The solution I choose is to make my pain my “nearest and dearest” friend, on a moment-by-moment basis, because the alternatives, as I experience them, are all unacceptable. For me, pain must also not become reified as an “it” because once I allow “it” to take hold, I risk “surrender to a lower principle” of “it” having power and control over me and I risk becoming an “it” as “it” then defines my pain...and me.
But if pain is truly an “organic life-form,” then I choose to “surrender to a higher principle,” whereby, because my pain is “alive,” so too, am I! Pain informs me that I am in better need of “giving up the fight” and so I choose to collaborate with my pain in order to negotiate a “truce” which, hopefully, may lead to a longer-term “cease-fire.”
During martial arts studies, I frequently practiced “pain control” and refused to “tapout” during painful joint-lock and even choke-hold submission moves. So when my several physicians ask “what is your pain level on a scale of 0-to-10?” I am at an utter loss for words since a rating of “1” for me might be a “10” for most others who are similarly queried.
I recall that on one occasion during my post surgical rehabilitation, I experienced a pain level so high as 10 titanium screws pulled against newly-drilled vertebrae. On yet another occasion, I couldn’t exhale at all as pain exceeded any imaginary number I could have consciously conjured. Interestingly, when the pain and accompanying spasm which mercilessly wracked my entire being had finally subsided, I remember thinking, oh-so very briefly, that spending an eternity in hell would have been a much-more tolerable fate than having to live through another episode of any episode of pain!
"Pain is pain." If you hurt, then you hurt. What matters is to hurt less, not more and feel pain less, not more. No one in their right mind wants to hurt or be in chronic, unremitting pain. But if pain is “the hand that life deals you” (or even “the hand that you deal you”) then, to be blunt, you either need to choose your pain-path or accept that your pain-path will choose you.
With pain, I choose to “use it” so as not to “lose it” and also to choose it as not being an “it” but rather as an integral part of me. In so doing, I choose to empower myself with the entire reservoir of pain energy from whence pain becomes my “nearest and dearest” friend, necessarily, obliging me to reciprocate that I must also befriend my “nearest and dearest” friend and, in so doing, find a proper way to put it in its proper place!
If I say “yes” to my pain and suffering, to the very intimate relationship between my strengths and vulnerabilities, to the “outer-most limits” of my humanity and to the “inner-most limits of my mortality, then I engender faith, hope and trust in the truth of my reality and the reality of my truth.
If I say “no” to my pain and suffering and “fight the good fight” and attempt to ’beat the odds,” whether I “win, lose or draw," then my lack of acceptance of ”the hand that life has dealt” can only lead to a fate akin to trying to “punch my way out of a paper bag” when all that was necessary would have been to remove “it” because I had it within me to do it but not unless and until I accepted the “deal” that my pain was here to stay and only then made “the best play” possible, all things considered.
Not fearing death any longer, after a life-altering, death-defying surgery, I no longer fear life! Pain has been a “good friend” to me and has taught me that “life goes on.” If the life is mine, and the pain is mine, and pain is hard-wired into the fabric of my life, then “that’s life,” that life is my life, that pain is my pain, my pain is with me all the time and, therefore, I am fully alive. Alternatively, I hurt, therefore, I am!
What follows with my being fully alive depends on how I really am who I really am and what I actually do with being fully alive. This includes the full life of my pain and the full pain of my life.
To my way of thinking, only in this way can my subjective experiential reality of pain be viewed as something other than an indefinite lifetime sentence without possibility of parole, especially, if I can participate in a meaningful, useful and relevant mental “diversion” to help distract me by reinterpreting the “it-ness” of my pain as the organic lifeform that is now me.
“Pain is pain” and what I choose to do with my pain defines what role my pain will serve for me, as opposed to, me serving it. Ironically, while I am not particularly fond of my pain, my pain seems to be particularly fond of me. Talk about an “odd couple!” Still, it’s a life and likely better than the alternative!
Author Note: Dr. Larry B. Gelman is a Clinical Psychologist and a Personal Mentor
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