I live with chronic pain, and often it seems like no one really understands what this means. This is evidenced by the amount of well-intentioned but unsolicited advice and commentary I receive about my condition. I ask God to grant me patience with the next person who asks, “But have you ever tried hot yoga?” after I mention that nothing works for the pain.
For the most part, well-meaning people try to reassure me that my situation is all part of God’s plan, that some important lesson will be learned from this in time, or that at the very least, I will come out of my struggle a stronger person. I nod along and quietly wonder if it is possible that I am really so uniquely stupid that God’s teaching for me had to come in the form of such a particularly painful and extreme pedagogy.
I nod along and quietly wonder if it is possible that I am really so uniquely stupid that God’s teaching for me had to come in the form of such a particularly painful and extreme pedagogy.
I know they don’t mean it that way, I really do. But sometimes that is how I feel. And if there ever really was a lesson, I’ve learned it: I took the blessing of good health for granted before. Now what?
Chronic pain is defined as pain that is ongoing, often lasting for longer than six months. By the time I had a diagnosis for my chronic pain, a name for the monster that had robbed me of my dreams of continuing marching band in college, I had been experiencing it for four years. I got the news in a chilly and fluorescent-lit hospital room in Boston. I remember sitting atop the exam table, sniffling anxiously under two layers of masks and feeling small despite my 5’9” frame, as my feet dangled above the white tile.
I took the blessing of good health for granted before. Now what?
I wished more than anything that my mom could have been there to sit with me, to hold my hand like when I was young, but instead I was alone. No extra visitors were allowed to enter the hospital because of Covid-19. When the doctor confirmed my diagnosis—thoracic outlet syndrome—I was too numb to fully absorb the gravity of the moment, which was at this point years in the making.
Having chronic pain, especially as a young person, can often feel lonely and isolating. At doctors’ appointments I pass through waiting rooms filled with patients old enough to be my grandparents, a reminder that people my age are not meant to be in a place like this. Receptionists look confused to see me until I give my name and they find me on their schedule. I’ve learned to try to see the humor in it. I once quipped to a nurse who commented on my youth that “I’ve always been told I’m mature for my age.”
When it all started four years ago, I was at my first-year orientation at Boston College. It was July, and it was hot. The day started off well enough. I felt like I was standing on the precipice of my future. Caught up in the new friends I was making and the promise of exciting college traditions I would get to partake in, I tried to ignore the fact that my shoulder was beginning to hurt as the day went on. My backpack was just heavy, I thought.
That was the last day I woke up pain-free. In a few weeks, when pins and needles surged through the fingers in my left hand, I knew that this was more than soreness from a heavy backpack. I was frustrated, assuming that I had injured myself right before college. By the end of freshman year I had to finally accept that this was not just an injury.
Having chronic pain, especially as a young person, can often feel lonely and isolating.
I started buying lidocaine patches from the CVS in Cleveland Circle just to get through the day. As I shuttled from appointment to appointment—in three different states and over several years as I transitioned from college in Boston to summers at home in Texas and then moved to Chicago—the documents delineating my medical history piled up but left me no closer to resolution or relief. Last fall in Boston, I got my answer. I’m still searching for relief.
I prefer not to assign meaning to my suffering or attempt to glean wisdom from my pain, but I have decided to look for a silver lining. It is hard to find one when at the end of a long day my back aches and I feel much older than 22. It is easier to feel angry and alone, and to ask, “Why me?” But when the fog of self pity clears, there is this realization: I am not actually alone. Quite the opposite.
Suffering is endemic to the human condition. It strikes me as profound that as a baby is born and takes their first breath, it is not a laugh or a smile but a cry that means we know they are alive. It is as if to say, “Congratulations, kid. Life is tough. And this is only the beginning.”
Pain is both relative and relatable. We feel it in different ways and to varying degrees, but everyone knows suffering. And if I must suffer, then at least I am in good company. In fact, I could not be less alone.
Pain is both relative and relatable. We feel it in different ways and to varying degrees, but everyone knows suffering. And if I must suffer, then at least I am in good company.
Even those who do not experience chronic illnesses are familiar with the suffering of humanity. In the last 17 months alone, the world has grieved the losses of Covid-19, the destruction of an earthquake in Haiti and a humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan. And of course, amid each of these shared crises, there are the more acute and personal sufferings of “normal” life, the loneliness, hurt and heartbreak with which everyone is acquainted to some degree. Everyone has burdens they are carrying.
For a long time I didn’t tell anyone what I was going through. But as others chose to be vulnerable with me about their own experiences of pain, loss and suffering, I too began to open up. What at first was scary and strangely personal became a tremendous relief. Suffering is a double burden when it is a secret, when you are paranoid someone will notice the thing you hate about yourself or your circumstances. But it can offer us a bridge when we are willing to reach out to others, because it is one of the few things that permeates every human experience. We may not be able to take away someone’s pain, and sometimes it is not our place to try, but we might alleviate their loneliness by admitting we have suffered too.
We may not be able to take away someone’s pain, and sometimes it is not our place to try, but we might alleviate their loneliness by admitting we have suffered too.
Suffering bonds us in brokenness with our brothers and sisters in humanity. Furthermore, it brings us into communion with Christ in the Eucharist through his ultimate sacrifice of suffering death on the cross. Jesus could never have been fully human without this intimate knowledge of earthly suffering. Even in our tiny and sometimes seemingly inconsequential lives, we have this in common with Jesus. And perhaps, more than anyone, he truly understands.