“On a scale of 1 to 10 how bad is your pain?”
“I mean for neck pain it is probably like a 7, but for normal pain pain it is like a 4.”
“Describe your pain for me.”
“Umm its like here and like uhh a dull tight ache.”
“Is it worse on one side.”
“Umm . . . *tilts head side to side* I’m not sure.”
“Are there any activities that make it worse?”
“Uhh . . . sitting?”
“How often do you feel pain?”
Oh for crying out loud “I don’t know.”
I recently have started seeing a chiropractor because my neck would always be sore which would cause me to have horrible headaches on a pretty regular basis. I am not sure what caused it. Maybe it was sitting at a desk for eight hours every day, maybe it was clinch sparring in Muay Thai, maybe it is because I stubbornly refuse to sleep on my back, or maybe it is just because when I get stressed I put all of that tension in my neck. The answer is probably d) all of the above. I didn’t know and honestly I didn’t really care. All I knew is that I hurt all the time and I wanted it to stop.
Every time before I saw my chiropractor I would have to sit through this long list of ridiculous questions, think about my pain, and try to describe it to a stranger. But I knew that the more detail I could give them, the better they would be able to help me. So I endured it, and I thought about my pain. And when you think about pain for long enough you realize that the only purpose that pain serves is to let us know something is wrong. Pain is our body’s way of letting us know, “Hey, you should probably pay attention to this.”
I am kind of a nerd who is always curious about how things work and always asking questions. So of course I always asked my chiropractor lots of questions about how spines work and how they don’t work when they are out of place. I learned that there are lots of nerves that run through our spines and these nerves get pinched when the spine is out of place. It’s called a subluxation.
But the thing is that only a small percentage of those nerves are pain nerves. Which means that when we feel the pain of our spine being out of place, there is a whole host of other things in our body that are wacky too. Only we have no idea.
Which brings me back to my original point. Pain exists as a way for us to know there is something wrong with us, something that needs our attention. Can we just decide we agree on this so that I can stop talking about subluxations and sciencey stuff? It is really not my forte. Good, so we agree, let’s move on.
The problem is that we are very good at recognizing and dealing with physical pain, but often we are terrible at recognizing and dealing with emotional pain. Our arm breaks so we go to a doctor to set it. Our heart breaks so we ignore it. Then we wonder why we randomly combust into tears at the smallest provocation. Well if you never had your broken arm set, I am guessing that the smallest poke would probably make you cry too.
I know what you are thinking, emotional pain is different. Don’t bother trying to argue with me, we already agreed that the purpose of pain is to alert us that something is wrong and needs our attention (Working in a law office has made me pretty sneaky at winning arguments). Because emotional pain really isn’t all that different. It still serves the purpose of letting us know something is wrong. We just have gotten good at ignoring it. We think that since it is not related to our physical health it is therefore not worthy of our attention. So we bury it, or we rationalize it. Then someone pokes our broken heart that never healed and we disintegrate into tears. But we still don’t deal with it, we just make up excuses like I had a bad day or I spilt hot coffee on myself, or I don’t know any of that crap we tell ourself to rationalize the pain away back to the closet we stuff it in.
However I have learned that just like subluxations, the emotional pain is normally only a small percentage of what is wrong. When you think about how much of subconscious we are unaware of, it makes sense that we would only be aware of a small amount of what is really going on. Often it comes out in the way we treat other people, the way we manipulate them, or the way we see ourself. Do you believe in the person you see in the mirror? You should. If not, you might want to start digging up all the emotional pain you have tried to bury. But if you want the pain to get better, sometimes you have to sit and answer a bunch of annoying questions that make you think about what is really wrong.
Practically every year I cry the day before my birthday. I use to just ignore it as emotional stress, blah, blah, it’s been a long week, I haven’t gotten enough sleep, blah, blah, blah. The truth is that I cried every year because my grandmother’s birthday was the day before mine. And with 50+ grandchildren trying to get her attention, this use to be our special thing. We almost shared a birthday. As a child I would tell everyone. I thought it was so cool. She normally didn’t get us grandchildren birthday presents because there were so many of us. But I remember one birthday, my Grandma snuck me into her bedroom and surprised me with a stuffed Snoopy. She whispered with mischief in her eyes, “don’t tell the other grandchildren, its our secret.” I didn’t even like Snoopy, but I didn’t care because it was our secret.
And you know what breaks my heart? That is one of my most vivid and favorite memories I have with her. Because that is all I got. So that is why every year I cry the day before my birthday. Just like I cried the day I realized I didn’t know what happened to that stuffed Snoopy. I wasn’t crying because I loved that Snoopy that much and I was sad I lost it. I was crying because I lost her, and because I missed her, but mostly because I missed getting to have her in my life. I cried because I am angry at the universe for taking her from me at much too young an age.
Almost always the things that poke our unhealed broken hearts and cause us pain are not the reason for the pain. I remember summer at camp I was counseling one of the younger grades. It was almost bedtime and for some of these kids, it was their first time spending a night away from home. It was lights out and one girl was frantic because she couldn’t find the other sock she wanted to wear the next day. She was on the verge of tears. I, in all of my counseling wisdom, knew she wasn’t crying about the sock, she was homesick.
But we do that All The Time. We cry about the sock because we don’t know how to let ourselves cry about how we miss home. We cry about the dog taking forever to come back from its late night potty outing, when we are really crying because we don’t know how to let ourselves cry about how he hasn’t come home yet. We cry when we are late for work because we had to clean up child’s spilled milk, because we don’t know how to let ourselves cry about how to cry about the way our mother use to yell at us when we spilled our milk. I could make up more examples, but I think you get the point. The pain isn’t the problem, it is only a reaction to the problem. A problem that needs our attention. So stop ignoring it and stop crying over spilled milk and lost socks.