Wrestling with the beast

For the past few years, I’ve had doctors telling me “listen to your body”.  I have been trying to heed their advice as best I can. I have tried to pace myself. I have slept more than I ever have. I’m often in bed before the kids, much to their amusement. I’ve learnt many lessons. And one thing I can say for sure, chronic pain is a beast of a thing! 

Chronic pain not only impacts your physical body, but the beast bites daily at your emotions. But on the flip side, as you wrestle with the beast, you keep learning new things about yourself, others, resilience and faith. Some days the beast seems to be winning and other days you dig deep, and resilience grows. 

Yesterday, with some strong medication on board, I didn’t get out of bed until 3pm. I have never been a person who likes sleeping in, let alone all day. And this week I am missing being with colleagues from across the nation in meetings I was looking forward to attending. I’ve had to learn that chronic pain doesn’t see co-operation with my diary something to be highly valued. And I love an organised diary!

I am heading in for surgery at the end of this month and my neurosurgeon is confident he can ease some of the pain I am experiencing. He can’t promise to rid me of pain. Time will tell. There’s the chance that I will need to keep wrestling the beast, but my wrestle is nothing compared to others who suffer much more that I do. And I remind myself every time I see a specialist or have an MRI or x-ray, how fortunate I am to live in a country where we take such services for granted. Perspective changes things. The beast changes things.

I don’t get grumpy now when a medical appointment is late. It’s a chance to catch my breath and be thankful. [This new-found gratitude has not yet extended to delayed plane flights … I have had so many of them this year. Patience here, is a work in progress!]

My journey over the past few years has taught me much and deepened my faith in a God who came into the world to fully engage with human pain. Despite the pain, I know I am richer for the lessons learnt. That’s one of the paradoxes of wrestling with the beast.

Now to start with, there are a few simple tips I can offer.

First to men who may be reading this post – listen to your partner or friends when they encourage you to see your GP. I have much respect for my GP and feel in good hands with my care. But I was slow to get to see her as headache and body pain episodes increased. Busyness isn’t a good excuse, and I can be thankful that my condition wasn’t life-threatening. 

And from an MRI punter to imaging technologists, please delete “When I’m Gone” and “My Heart Will Go On”  and any other death related songs from the MRI playlist. Listening to “When I’m Gone” while your head is inside a capsule for a brain scan does little to lighten the mood.

What other lessons have I learned? What I am thankful for? Where I have been challenged? Here’s a random list of things that have been on my mind as I think about wrestling with the beast.

  • I am so thankful and fortunate that I have had a loving, caring partner, supporting family, great friends and understanding work colleagues in my corner. I have never felt alone. I have seen my wife carry such a huge load, not only with my work schedule and travel, but also with my health. She has certainly been there in “sickness and in health”. I am so thankful for this and for the little things that special people have done to remind me that I have others by my side. 
  • On the flip side of this appreciation, can I offer this challenge. I am mindful of others around me who deal with chronic pain as a single person. More power to these amazing people! And to those of us around such people, let’s be intentional and proactive in our care. A phone call, a meal, an email, a lift, a special treat or a simple of act of kindness all remind these courageous people they are not alone on their journey. And as I’ve learnt, the assurance that others are with you, is an important weapon when taking on the beast. 
  • My kids have also paid a price on this journey. There have been many times that I haven’t been able to do all the normal things that they would expect their Dad to do with them. I have felt guilty at times. But that doesn’t help. What I have been learning is to cherish the intentional times I get with kids one on one. And it’s been humbling to remind myself that in the past, I have missed getting the most from these times because my mind has been elsewhere. Our kids see distraction a mile away and I am thankful that they have continued to teach me about the importance of genuine presence, be it a sunset movie and dinner date in the back of the car or am NBA trivia quiz in the bath. I think many of us, particularly busy males, need rot keep learning lessons about presence. 
  • I mentioned guilt above, it’s just one of the emotional games that the pain beast likes to play with your mind. Guilt at what you can’t do or guilt at letting your colleagues down. I’ve learnt over the past few years that physical pain brings with it so much emotional weight that needs to be dealt with. Beyond guilt I have to deal with feelings that I am being a fraud because others can’t see chronic pain. Recently I sat with a pain specialist. The doctor looked at films of my spine and said: “It’s no wonder you’re in pain.” I cried. I cried. I wasn’t a fraud. And the beast has rocked my confidence. Things that I took for granted have become challenging. I have questioned my capacity many times. I have needed to keep check of my emotions each day. To own how I feel. To seek help when I need it. To pray authentic and robust prayers. To let my guard down and let others in.
  • And again, there is a flip side. Wrestling with the beast grows resilience. About eight years ago I was in a team session with colleagues, and we were choosing cards to describe a strength that we saw in others. The session’s presenter was known to me and so he chose my card. There were many “success” type cards on the table, but immediately he chose “resilience”. I have never forgot that exercise. My friend knew my story and he affirmed something within in me. There have been many times over the past few years that I have had to dig deep and as I have done that, I have seen my resilience grow. There are good books to read on cultivating resilience and speaking the support of a mental health professional is something that I have needed on my journey. Sophie Kinsella writes: “There’s no such thing as ruining your life. Life’s a pretty resilient thing it turns out.”
  • As you grapple with the beast of pain you are quickly reminded that there are many things in life you cannot control. Yes, I have seen excellent doctors, I have taken medication, I have valued my time with my osteo, I have had lots of support – but I can’t control what is happening in my body. What’s true with my spinal produced pain is true for much of life. I have been reminded that I can focus on the beast, I can focus on what I can’t control, I can invite myself to a self-pity party or I can take hold of this rich reminder to take hold of what I can control and make the most of the many wonderful opportunities before me each day – the mundane, the ordinary and the extraordinary. I celebrate that this year I have visited seven countries and sat with inspiring people passionately committed to serving others. Yes, these trips took a toll on my body, but they time and time again put life into perspective. Sitting in the back blocks of Mozambique as an old man, with tears in his eyes, thanks you for the hope your organisation brings to his village sticks with you. The beast can’t beat moments like that.
  • As I have played in an MRI machine several times in recent years, one Psalm has immediately come to mind. “The Lord is my Shepherd; I have all that I need.” I have echoed those words many times over the past few years. I have been mindful of a comment from a colleague who says “the psalmist doesn’t say he was my shepherd, or will be my shepherd. He says he is my Shepherd, today, now, in every moment.” I have learnt quietly repeating this powerful and hopeful prayer calms my body and mind and even can outplay “When I’m Gone” through the MRI headphones. Yes, the beast of pain has brought me closer to my Good Shepherd. I have been reminded of a God who breaks into human history. Who in his love for all of us, chooses to embrace human pain. Who understands what it is to cry when a loved one dies. Who knows what it is to be overwhelmed by human brokenness. Who experiences the sheer agony and pain of nails being hammered into his body. Yes, my Good Shepherd knows my pain. And he constantly reminds me that he is by my side. The pain remains, but my Good Shepherd reminds me daily that he will never leave me bereft of hope and a capacity beyond my human weakness.
  • And that leads to my last reflection for this post. My chronic pain has opened my eyes more and more to the hurts and pain of others, who deal daily with far more than I do. Like a local Iranian family we know, who may never recover from the abhorrent trauma of almost a decade on Nauru. Or a young mum, with three kids, living with cancer and the prognosis of little time left to hug her kids and husband. Or a family in a northern First Nations community where 15 people are squeezed into their house, because of a lack of suitable, safe and secure housing. Or a young gay man, who has seen his lifelong faith community abandon him, and yet he tries to cling to faith and not hear the vile that others speak over his life. Or a young woman on her trans journey, grappling with so many questions and insecurities and trying to move forward amid transphobia all around her. Or the old woman, whose husband has died many years ago, who sits alone in her home, a victim of perhaps one of our nation’s greatest social ills, loneliness. 

Yes, there is brokenness all around us. And too many in our country live with pain and injustice that I will never face as a privileged white male, who happens to have some severe spinal challenges. And so, as I have wrestled with the beast of pain my commitment to stand with those on the margins has been fuelled. Too often we choose comfort, too often we don’t want to rock the boat, too often we don’t want to put our head above the parapet. 

The last two years have taught me much about physical frailty – about my own physical and emotional woundedness. And I have been drawn back to Henri Nouwen’s beautiful image of the “wounded healer”. 

It’s a wonderful, challenging image. That in our brokenness and woundedness, we are invited to step into a world of pain as the hands and feet of Jesus. 

Yes, the best thing I have discovered. When in pain, keep turning your eyes to others.

Your pain doesn’t go away, but it can find its place amid human brokenness. The beast invites me to a table for one self-pity party, which at first can look attractive. The Good Shepherd esteems me in my ordinariness and invites me to the pursuit of shalom in a world where there is far more pain than I will ever live with. And that doesn’t ignore the reality of my pain – it’s there every day. And I have been learning day by day what it is to embrace this, recognise I am not in control, be thankful for all those in my corner, and the reality of the Good Shepherd’s presence, who knows first-hand the agony of human pain. And more, who embeds the power of hope in our lives. Hope that the pain beast cannot steal away.

PS: And one last word, to anyone reading this, living with chronic pain, and the beast is winning, please feel free to reach out and chat. You’re not alone. 

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