As the snow began falling on that peaceful, gray morning, all seemed right with the world. I was sitting in my car at a red light, singing along with the radio when suddenly a strange noise caused me to glance in my rear-view mirror. All I could see was the metal grille of a large truck, which in a split second ploughed into my car.
“Jesus!” I yelled out in prayer. In that moment, the red light turned green and the tractor-trailer in front of me began to pull away, miraculously saving me from being pinned between the two trucks. After the crash, I saw no blood and felt no broken bones, so I said a prayer of thanks and got out of the car. Other cars passed by slowly. As the worried truck driver and I exchanged information, I assured him I was fine. I could not have been more wrong.
That moment in 2000 dramatically changed my life. My 39-year-old body that regularly danced aerobics, lifted weights and bicycled, suddenly seemed to age decades. By the following morning, I was debilitated by pain. My right arm could move only a few inches, so I had to lift it using my left hand. Tests confirmed that significant nerve damage impaired the function of muscles in my back, neck and shoulder. Whiplash left me unable to hold my head up for more than a few minutes. My active lifestyle instantly ended, and my professional career as a sign language interpreter for the deaf was devastated.
Although the outside of my body looked as it always had, inside it was screaming at me constantly. Unable to rest due to pain’s interruption, I quickly became sleep-deprived. Physical therapy dominated my life for a year and a half. Doctors offered little encouragement, asking me to accept my new normal. Inside I cried in protest, but I waited until I was home alone to sob in despair. Prayers for relief went unanswered, yet I desperately depended on the Lord to get me through another day.
After unsuccessful neurosurgery, years of physical therapy, several pain-management doctors and stubborn determination, the nightmare gradually faded. However, chronic pain and physical therapy continue to be part of my daily life.
Pain entered my world at full speed, just like the truck that rear-ended me, and that’s how it starts for some people. For others it comes on slowly, with or without an explanation. However chronic pain begins, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that more than 75 million Americans suffer from it. That means chronic pain affects more Americans than do diabetes, heart disease and cancer combined. Although usually not constant, pain can affect every level of life, leaving the sufferer physically worn out, emotionally isolated and spiritually depleted.
Chronic pain is any significant discomfort continuing a month or more beyond the usual recovery period. It can be due to injury or illness, lasting months or years. Fibromyalgia, arthritis, diabetes, cancer and many other conditions can cause chronic pain. The deceptive aspect of pain is that it cannot be found on an X-ray or in a medical test, even as it isolates the sufferer.
For me, adjusting to life with chronic pain was extremely difficult. The extent of my physical and emotional needs also left my friends and family with their own feelings of helplessness and frustration.
If someone you care about lives with chronic pain, the following tips can help you effectively share his or her burden and strengthen your relationship.
- Listen with empathy. The ability to listen quietly is an underrated yet crucial part of friendship. People sharing about their pain need you to listen respectfully, without judgment. Be open. Accept what they say, realizing that strong emotions often accompany physical pain.
- Speak with compassion. Chronic pain can bring on a wrenching sense of loss followed by the same emotions experienced when a loved one dies. Your friend may be in a cycle of denial, anger, depression and guilt. Acceptance comes last.
Avoid saying things like “Cheer up, it’ll get better,” or “I know how you feel.” Such phrases minimize your loved one’s experience. Instead say, “I’m sorry it’s so difficult,” or “It must be rough.” Affirming that the pain is real comforts the sufferer.
- Pray together. The National Pain Foundation says the body and soul stressed by chronic pain require ongoing attention. A worn-out person sometimes neglects prayer. Lovingly pray with your friend for relief from pain, his relationship with the Lord, protection from depression and for patience with himself.
- Do something. Offer to do something specific: grocery shopping, bringing a meal or driving the carpool. Even offering a pillow or a comfortable chair is an act of compassion. And please remember to hug gently. These actions can be a tremendous boost for someone feeling temporarily helpless or withdrawn.
- Accept limitations. People with chronic pain frequently hesitate to admit their limits because it sets them apart. Don’t try convincing them to push their boundaries. Do include them in activities, however much they can handle. If you golf, invite them along, understanding they will bow out halfway through the course. Offer social opportunities and accept pain-imposed limits. Remember, even if they look OK, they may still be hurting.
- Laugh and celebrate. Research shows pain is a sensation and an emotion. Find things to laugh at; share humorous stories. Watch a funny video; go to an entertaining play. Laughter helps boost serotonin levels, which act as a natural pain reliever. Learn a new hobby together for a refreshing change of pace. Remember to celebrate your friend – the complete person – and all her admirable qualities.
Sooner or later all of us will have a few aches and pains, but people who experience chronic pain need you to remind them you love and value them. They are so much more than what their body can or can’t do. Use these tips to help diminish discomfort and embolden hope in their life.
Leslie J. Basil was single at the time of her accident. She sees God’s sense of humour in her married name: Leslie J. Payne.