See the Gift in Pain (Op-ed Follow-Up)

Diana Ross

What a week it’s been! Since I got my article on chronic pain published in the Montreal Gazette last week, I’ve got so many encouraging responses and also a couple of requests to speak.

I’ve been hearing stories from people who came across my article as far away as New Zealand. It’s amazing how things circulate on the web—and even more so when you’ve written them yourself!

The op-ed piece I wrote in response to Sharon Kirkey’s series on chronic pain was very timely. I just sent her an email to thank her for it and to tell her about all the feedback I got. Her series created an opening for me. It was an invitation to “come out”. I always felt that I had been living some kind of secret. As I struggled to have a life, a career, and to heal myself, I kept my ordeal mostly hidden. It is hard for others to understand that struggle and, for the most part, people aren’t really that interested in hearing about someone else’s pain.

I was answering emails a couple of days ago and found myself humming Diana Ross’s gay anthem from 1980: “I’m coming out”.  I know. Don’t roll your eyes. Okay, even I rolled my eyes at myself. But let me explain. I know how it feels to be in the closet, to try to pass for something you’re not, and to hide because you are afraid to tell the truth about yourself.

When you are in chronic pain—and I’ve seen this with clients, too—you might have a sense that you’ve somehow failed. This is especially true when the causes of illness are oversimplified—when people blame you for feeling terrible. Why don’t you just do this or that to feel better? Or they extol the mind-body ethos as your fast-track to wellness and urge you to just “think positive”.

Because your ailment is invisible, you have no “proof” that you really couldn’t handle doing the dishes just then; or making it to the get-together; or reciprocating an invitation. Or that you really do have pain even though you managed to backpack, teach, and write your thesis. You learn to just shut-up and get on with it and do your best to live a full life, to get well and to succeed. And nobody ever knows what you are really going through.

But you also learn to appreciate what it means when another person really does “get” you. Everything becomes more dear and you become more discerning. You let go of what others think and become self-reliant. You do what Eleanor Roosevelt recommended: “what you feel in your heart to be right- for you’ll be criticized anyway. You’ll be damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.”

Hearing other people’s stories made me feel really grateful about what I have to share and that it is indeed the right time to “come out” with it. I am really convinced that there is a blessing in every “curse”, a gift in all hardship—however incomprehensible they may seem when they take over your life.

The biggest gift pain can offer is learning to be in the heart and to share from the heart; which is another way of saying that it teaches us how to be, love and accept self.

So, as I’ve said before, it doesn’t matter “why” we have to suffer. If we leave it to the mind to try to figure it all out then, I believe, we might never get anywhere. But if we turn to the heart to open, to love anyway, to have faith and acceptance of reality as it is, and ourselves as we are, then life becomes more livable. Joy and peace are by-products of an open, loving heart, not an inquiring mind.

My mind, nonetheless, has been pretty active in the last week. I have been grappling with other people’s painful stories. I sometimes wish I had some kind of magic pill to offer up. But I’ve learned that everybody somehow needs the journey they’re on. An easy solution would be denying them their opportunity for growth. Although there are many things you could do to improve your life, for me, healing comes down to one fundamental thing: An ongoing commitment to being of the heart.