Desperation for Pain Relief, A Lesson in Compassion

What pain teaches me, and how it helps you

man screaming in pain in black and whiteDesperation for pain relief is primal. I experienced some of the most acute physical pain I’ve experienced in years recently. A sinus infection that felt like someone stabbing me in the left eyeball evolved into the worst (and maybe only) earache I’ve had as an adult. My right eardrum ruptured. I’m talking 9/10 pain. The kind of pain that had me praying, and I thought I only prayed on bumpy flights. “Please God, let me learn whatever this is teaching me in another way, with less pain. I’m listening, I swear I’m listening, please let this stop.”

I’ve experienced some horrific physical and emotional pain in my life like ruptured ovarian cysts that were bleeding inside my abdominal cavity and had me writhing in the ER, crushing a vertebra in my lower back, and finding out my lover and soulmate had accidentally drowned. I have large tattoos on both ribs, and I’ve held my dog while he died. I’m no wuss. There are not pain killers strong enough for these things (okay, the tats may be an exception). And yet, 98% of the time, I’m not in any acute pain and I blissfully forget what it’s like.

Until I am reminded. Here’s how I coped: made garlic olive oil and poured it in my ear, used a heating pad, took all the herbs, gave myself acupuncture, and downed some hydrocodone. I was still at 8/10 pain, which is when I started praying. I asked myself if this was my pain (hoping maybe it was some psychosomatic processing of pain in the collective energy field right now), allowed a few moments of “why me, why this, what in the actual FCK!”, and did a lot of deep breathing while reminding myself that this too would pass. Me to me on repeat: “pain is temporary, you are strong, you’ll be okay. Your brain isn’t actually bleeding out of your ear.” Although, my eardrum was bleeding.

On a very serious note, I understand completely why people get addicted to narcotics. I understand why people say yes, give me the prescription, whatever it is, no questions asked. Pain makes us desperate. I get why acupuncture is nowhere in the top 5 or even 10 thoughts for relief in these moments. Even as a trained acupuncturist, when this happened I wanted morphine, not needles. Ironically, that exact thought prompted me to stick some needles in my face because research shows acupuncture manages pain more effectively than morphine, and I remembered that. All this to say, I haven’t experienced your pain, but I know something like it. Your brain is screaming “help” on repeat when you’re in acute pain.

In this pain-flooded-brain, there is no space for focusing on work, thinking up healthy dinner ideas, or calling back your friend who had a tough day. Pain is all-consuming. I have no personality when I’m in this kind of pain; I’m in survival mode. I care about very little other than finding pain relief.

Take a moment to let that sink in if you know someone living with acute or chronic pain. They’re going to struggle to function; they’re going to be irritable. These are the people who lose their temper for seemingly no reason at the grocery store and can’t fake a smile passing you on the street. It gives entirely new meaning to “nothing is personal”, right?

During this experience, I felt tremendous empathy for people who commit suicide due to pain. And while my physical pain is what triggered that empathy, I’m aware that psychological pain is equally excruciating. In fact, psychological and physical pain activate the same areas of the brain. And any kind of excruciating pain will make escaping, even by ending life, sound like a welcome relief.

I choose to believe this is why life offers me up these experiences. The altered state of consciousness that is intense pain teaches me compassion. Deep, abiding compassion.

So, if you’re in pain, and it’s really hard, I see you. I feel you. There is no shame in how you choose to cope. And if you need help, I’m here. No judgment. Even though acupuncture and non-pharmaceutical options aren’t going to be your first choice, when you’re ready, they do work.

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