WHEN IN PAIN

I worked with one of my favorite occupational therapists this week. He is gifted, gentle and practical. He could easily be a drug and alcohol counselor, or a life coach, because so much of what he talks about is gaining strength by moving through pain. The way he expresses ideas to our patients is both memorable and moving. He balances encouragement with hard truths, and offers of help with demands to keep trying. To not give up. To not let pain stop them from reaching maximum healing. At one point, he was rocking the patient back and forth in what looked very much like a loving embrace. He was rocking the patient into learning how to safely transfer from bed to wheelchair after a debilitating illness, and the thin and bearded patient was laying his weary head upon the strong young shoulder as the two of them perched on the edge of the hospital bed.

It took a lot of words and gestures to get the patient to stop resisting the forward movement to get off the bed. Each time the therapist would rock him forward, the patient would stiffen his arms with his hands on the bed and pull back in fear of falling. He just wanted to stay where he was. Eventually, the patient was convinced to cross his arms and rock back and forth with the therapist without resisting. Once we practiced that movement four or five times, the patient was finally able to put his hands back down for added support and put his weight into the movement and get out of the bed, over a transfer board, and safely into a sitting position in the wheelchair. A short distance, but still a leap of faith and an immense effort.

Early in the appointment, the patient told the therapist that he was simply too tired to move. That he had already sat in the chair today using the mechanical lift to transfer. That his legs hurt and even trying to put on his socks was too painful and hard. He didn’t feel up to it. He knew he had grown weak from lying there, but he still paradoxically wanted to lie there, because his comfort zone had shrunk down to that one position, that one activity, that flopping, passive bed rest. He kept shutting his eyes and then opening them to reveal his disappointment that we were both still there – me on the video screen, the therapist in person and masked. The main feeling the patient seemed to have was a combination of irritation: Why can’t everyone just leave me alone in my suffering and quit pushing me? And exhausted discomfort: Everything hurts, I feel raw and exposed, so leave me alone.

But the therapist did not leave him alone. Instead, he tried to explain:

Here’s the thing about pain. When you’re in pain, you have two options. Just like everybody else in pain, no matter what kind. All circumstances.

One option is you don’t move. You stay where you are. The problem with that option is, it’s a downward spiral. You’re gonna get weaker. It’s gonna hurt worse. People think if they don’t move, its not gonna hurt, but that’s not true. I get it. You’re thinking, like, hey, if I don’t move, nothing will happen to me. So you avoid doing what you need to do. You do nothing. You avoid. You repeat. But you know what? You can’t just stay in the same place. Life is not like that. You don’t change, nothing changes. You change, everything changes. Believe me. If you try to just stay still, you go downhill. Things get worse. You crash. And it gets harder and harder to get back up. You feel like you’ve lost a lot, and you’re grieving, and I get that. But do you want to lose more? What has happened, has happened.

Here’s the alternative to giving up, staying still, and getting worse. You move with the pain. You move in spite of the pain. You moving while you’re in pain. And you move through the pain. Yeah, it’s scary and hard. Sure it is. And it’s relentless, because you can’t give up. You can’t afford to. But here’s what happens. You gain strength. You get more flexible. You find new ways to do things. You learn. And over time, as you keep moving through your pain, you reach your goals. And guess what? Are you gonna have a perfect life? Hell, no. None of us do. But if you can push yourself just a little, right here and now, and then just a little, every day, you will overcome this pain. Then you will find that everything hurts so much less, and you can do what you need to do. You can do what you want to do. And that’s when I say you have conquered the pain, and you get your life back.

No false promises here! It’s not gonna mean you don’t have any pain. It just means you can handle it. You can work through it. It doesn’t own you. You make yourself big and you make the pain small. You make yourself strong and you take away the pain’s power to paralyze you – to hold you where you are, to keep you suffering. You move. You try. You keep trying. You move again. And you get your life back, in ways big and small. And it all starts with a leap of faith, and movement. And then you just keep going. You keep going. You keep going.

Yes, a leap of faith. And a movement. One of many to come. My heart goes out to this patient. And I wish him deep and abiding comfort, along with the strength to keep moving and to conquer his pain. May there be many people in his life like this therapist, who can encourage, support, and walk with him. Because in our times of intense suffering, every single one of us needs this kind of help, this kind of guidance, this kind of love.