Monday, November 06, 2006

Offering up and dealing with pain

Mema commented a few days ago:

When I was little, the sisters used to say "offer it up". Now that I am grown, that doesn't work anymore. How do you handle chronic, unceasing pain.

It's a fair question. So, now that the pain is down to a low roar and the percocet is down to only 3-4 a day, I'll make a poor attempt at an answer.

I do truly hate pain. Even though I realize that pain has a purpose and is necessary to human survival and we'd be in really bad shape without it. Pain signals us that something's wrong, so we can take care of it; people with problems that cause lack of pain (like paraplegia and some forms of diabetes) have to inspect themselves carefully every day to be sure they haven't stubbed their toe or scraped their shin or got a blister, because otherwise they wouldn't know until they were infected and systemically sick.

But, when you've done everything you can do to take care of the problem, and the pain's still there, or the problem's something chronic and not particularly amenable to treatment, or some nerve's been damaged and is putting off untrustworthy sensations, making pain where there's no injury...... then you just have to deal with it. Doing what needs doing because it needs to be done, and there isn't much choice in the matter.

In my experience, there are four ways of dealing, and all four of them are useful together, and don't work very well just one at a time. Different kinds of pain and different situations call for different combinations. The four ways are:
1) behaviour modifications
2) distraction
3) medication
4) offering up

By behavour modifications, I mean any way one changes one's life to decrease pain, improve the underlying problems, or enhance coping. Elevating swollen legs, not walking more than absolutely necessary on the sprained ankle, doing one's physical therapy exercises to stay strong, using paper plates and plasticware instead of washing lots of dishes, hiring someone else to shovel the snow........

Distraction is having other things to do, to think about, instead of thinking about how much one hurts. reading, writing, hanging out with friends, crafts, puzzles, even television can be useful to take one's attention elsewhere. The hardest time for me with pain is at bedtime, bacause there's no distractions there once I'm tucked in with the lights out; if the pain's keeping me from falling asleep, there's little to be done about it.

Medication is a gift from God, and there's nothing wrong with it, used properly. It isn't always totally effective all by itself, not every kind of pain med works on every kind of problem or with every individual, and they do have side effects and can cause their own problems. But, when you need pain medications, you need them. The right medication can bring intractable pain to a managable level, even when it can't get rid of the pain completely. With the help of a good physician, one can find the kind and dosage of pain meds that alleviate some of the pain while avoiding the worst of the side effects. One has to decide how much drowsiness, alteration of consciousness, constipation, etc., one is willing to put up with to get rid of how much pain. I generally do not use pain medications with my chronic problems, but in the latest acute problems related to the torn ligament, the judicious use of a prescription pain medication has made it possible for me to get from bed to chair to bathroom without scaring the neighborhood with blood-curdling screams, which has been very good indeed.

And then, there's offering up. It's good to know that our trials, pain, and sufferings are not solely meaningless torture. We are invited --- nay, commanded --- to die with Christ. What else can "take up one's cross" mean, since crosses are for dying on? And St. Paul teaches us that we can make up in our own sufferings what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ. By offering our pain to Jesus as a gift, he can use it with his own offering in the redemption of the world.

That's not to say that offering up is easy. It's like a puppy that has been taught to walk on the back legs only --- it's not a wonder that it is done badly, it is a wonder that it is done at all. Offering up doesn't come naturally; it's bitching and moaning and making other people as miserable as one's self that comes naturally. I'm supposed to offer God my pain as a gift, not throw it in His face. As the years go by, I get a little better at it, since I get more practice. Sometimes I have the grace to do it, other times I flop.

There's no need to always be strong and perfect. Don't be afraid to tell God exactly what you think. I've screamed and yelled at God enough times. He can take it, and it isn't as though He's going to be fooled by one's attempts to be polite --- He already knows, in any case; hiding from Him is futile. Honesty with God, and with one's self, is a conduit of grace and the strength to carry on.



owenswain said...

Thank you for this enriching post. As I pray the hours tomorrow morning I will pray for you.


Dave said...

You're in our prayers.

Please remember my cousin, Fr. Oscar "Ben" Benzinger, SJ, who died suddenly last Friday. You may remember him from our wedding (he concelebrated).

Anonymous said...

Your reflections are wonderful -- I'm in emotional pain (depression) rather than physical pain, and I agree totally with your thoughts. Please know that you're in my prayers and thoughts. God bless.