You know the phrase “It’s all relative”? Well, that is how I explain my ever changing tolerance to higher pain levels and how my definition of relief continues to change.
Acclimating to pain. I have lived in many different climates. With each move my body took time to adjust to the different types of weather. For example, for the first few years after moving from Ohio to Arizona I went swimming on Christmas day. For those first few years, Arizona winters felt like Ohio summers just without the humidity. It was common for me to be seen wearing shorts and flip flops all winter long, that is until I acclimated. After a few years, those warm winters began to feel cool, then a few years later I found myself feeling cold and actually dressing for winter weather. The temperatures hadn’t changed, they were the same as when I moved there. What changed was my definition of hot and cold. For most of the time that I lived in Arizona, my body defined temperatures over 115 as too hot, 100-114 as hot, 85-100 as just right, under 85 as chilly, under 70 as freezing. I never thought that I would feel warm again after moving to California with a climate that was cooler than Arizona yet not as humid as Ohio. But within a few years, I found myself defining temperatures differently. Now I consider any temp over 85 as too hot! Again the only thing that has changed is how long I have lived in a particular climate.
When you look at the relativity of the climate, how I defined each one makes sense. Think about it. Because I was living with daytime highs between 90-120 and lows between 80-90 for six months of the year, feeling chilly when the high was 80 makes sense. Now that I live with daytime highs between 65-85 for 90% of the year, it makes sense that I no longer tolerate highs above that range. The same goes for my pain. Going from no pain to the pain from one condition was devastating. Now that I have lived over 10 years with multiple conditions, the pain I experience from just one or even two of my conditions is something I consider to be a very good day!
I feel it is safe to assume that if our bodies and minds are able to adjust to the physical climates we live in, they are also able to acclimate to the physical pain caused by our chronic conditions. The pains that had me running to the ER early on in my life of pain, are now pains that I have learned to live with. It is not to say that the pain I experienced early on was less severe than what I experience now, or is it? Yes and No. The pain is different as at that time I was only dealing with one condition instead of multiple pain inducing illnesses. However, I would still rate that early pain as intense as my current pain because at the time that was the worst pain that my body had ever experienced. As far as my body and mind were concerned, that pain was the most awful pain that one could experience. My threshold rises as my daily pains continue to increase.
The problem with ever changing and escalating pain is that it never ends. On a sub-conscience I feel like my body had to accept that experiencing some level of physical pain everyday was inevitable and learned to adapt. On a conscience level, I knew that unless I wanted to spend every day of my life in the ER, I had to learn how to cope with various levels of pain.
What relief means to me: My threshold of pain isn’t the only thing that has changed. My definition of relief is no longer what it used to be. Early on, relief meant having no pain. Unfortunately this understanding only led to disappointment as I never experienced full relief from pain. Fast forward 16 years and add a few more chronic conditions and the term relief has taken on a new meaning. When I say that I am experiencing or have experienced relief, it mostly means that my pain level has dropped one or a few notches. This would have disappointed me early on, but now I find myself feeling giddy whenever I experience some sort of relief. By accepting that I will always be in some kind of pain, I am able to enjoy and relish the moments whenever my pain level is reduced, even if just a tiny bit.
Why this is hard for people who don’t live with daily physical pain to understand this? I know that prior to my life of living with constant pain, I had no concept of what it would be like to live knowing that a pain was here to stay. I had had surgeries and injuries that were painful, but the difference was that I healed and the pain went away. While the memory of feeling pain-free has escaped me, I do remember that healing feeling. I can recall how during my recoveries my body felt stronger and my pain level decreased as each day passed. That feeling is similar to how I feel when I am experiencing a chronic flare. The only difference is that I never fully heal.
My wish is for doctors and others to understand that when a person with chronic pain says that they are experiencing relief, they are still in pain. The pain is less, but never gone. We are never truly pain free. Sometimes one pain overrides another or causes another to spiral out of control. Any reduction of the most severe pain can make other pains tolerable. By tolerable, I don’t mean being able to live or keep a pace like I did before becoming chronically ill. Instead tolerable means not spending my day in tears.
So far 2016 has not been kind to me in regards to physical pain. And while the pain I have been experiencing this year feels more intense than anything I have felt before, the past 16 years have given me reason to believe that as time goes by I will no longer think of it as the worst I’ve experienced. As time goes by my body will continue to adjust, I will adapt, and my threshold will continue to rise.
Wishing you a day filled with gentle hugs and many reasons to smile,
The Disabled Diva