On getting worse

Although many of the pains I’ve had have gotten better, the two most debilitating pains, in my low back and my right knee, have gotten progressively worse. The amount of time I can stand, walk, and sit without pain have all gotten shorter, and noticing this can scare me, because it’s my inability to do these activities that is the most crippling. It can be quite difficult to live life lying down.

Noticing that the pain has gotten worse has happened many times. So I’ve had lots of time to ponder this depressing, horrifying thing: this “getting worse.” And in between the storms of fear, I’ve noticed some helpful things:

First: “Getting worse” is at most a partial truth. When I think or say, “It’s getting worse,” I leave out a lot. Like my ability as a swimmer, which has vastly improved. Or the pains in my shoulder, ribs, throat, jaw, and foot, all of which have improved or even disappeared completely. Or how I am kinder to myself than I used to be. Everything is never getting worse all at once. There are always some things that have gotten better and stayed that way.

Second: “It’s getting worse” implies that the more pain I have, the more unhappy I’ll be, and that when I had less pain, I was happier. Sometimes these are both true—pain can make me stressed, and I was happy at times before I had pain—but I’ve also felt deep love and calm while I was in pain, and I was also plenty depressed, stressed, and angry before I had chronic pain, in some ways more so. Remembering that can remind me that more pain is not always worse, and no pain might not necessarily be better. Pain has brought a lot of clarity, presence, and love into my life, and often when I feel better I just check out and distract myself.

Third: To believe that “it’s getting worse,” my mind has to recall only the times when I felt better than I do now, so that, in comparison, the present seems worse. To do this, my mind blinds me to any memories or experiences that don’t confirm that my pain is getting worse. It remembers my wedding when I felt amazing and hiked up a mountain, and says, you’re worse than that! But it doesn’t remember that in January I could only walk up two stairs and that lately I’ve been walking up 45 stairs, because remembering that would confirm just the opposite.

And yet, I can know all of this and still be totally convinced that the pain is getting worse. It’s a very sticky thought. But if I can find a quiet moment to settle down, and enough kindness not to judge myself, then a curiosity can arise about whether it’s really true. Is it really getting worse? And even if it is, does that mean what I think it does? Really seeing through these can be profoundly freeing and healing.


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