Thursday, March 20, 2008

A Chronic Pain Game

When I was a child, my girl-friends and I would play a game we called "Senses." We each had to pick one of the five senses we thought we could live without.

Most often, smell was the sense that we decided could be disappeared with little consequence. It was unthinkable to lose sight. Without hearing we wouldn't be able to listen to the Beatles. Without taste, we wouldn't be able to enjoy ice cream. Losing touch was incomprehensible. So we usually opted for smell.

Not a particularly compelling game, I admit. No prizes or victories involved. Just a familiar conversation that rolled over the same terrain and landed at the same finish line each time.

I think we used it as a way of lightly touching something truly alarming without risking serious consequences. Like passing your finger quickly though the flame of a burning candle. We converted something horrible into a game we could control, and thereby magically turned what might be fate into a free choice.

Fast forward four decades.

When I finally realized that my chronic pain was not casual and would not go away despite my doctors' best efforts and my many prayers and tears, I panicked. Richard (my sweetie) and I began hunting down medical specialists and alternative practitioners. Sometimes I had 4 or 5 appointments a week.

It was during this period of frenzied activity that I began to resurrect the Senses game, but with a twist. This time instead of asking, "What sense could I live without?" I asked myself, "Which would I rather have -- this physical pain or severe depression?" "Pain or lung cancer?" "Pain or dementia?" "Pain or macular degeneration?"

More often than not, especially if I was in the thick of a hammering pain episode, I preferred to be stricken with the other disease. But the important thing this game offered me was a way to insert a mental space between me and the pain. This game, like Senses, positioned pain as a choice, not a fate.

Not that I could just choose to not be in pain. I tried that..... a lot. It never worked. But, if I could place pain in a context of choice , I was moving pain outside of my body, for just a moment. I was contemplating pain rather than being pain.

I know this is getting kind of existential - the difference between being pain and having pain. But pain had taken over not just my body, but my every thought and breath. When I wasn't in pain, I anticipated being in pain. This game placed pain and me in a different kind of relationship. I was apart from pain, making judgments about it.

To drive this tiny, imaginary, even foolish wedge between me and pain was a start. From there, over time, I began to imagine even greater distances between us. I began to meditate and focused on condensing pain into a smaller and smaller ball. I concentrated on my feet or hands, places pain never reached. I imagined healing waves of blue water flowing though my body, carry bits of pain away with each new surge.

The more distance I could put between me and pain, the more I felt that my life was returning to me.

No comments: