Those of us that deal with chronic pain deal with a constant reminder of our limitations. The realities of life with pain are far more complicated than most people realize. Sometimes those realities bring about actions that are not fair to others. A short temper, frustration with self or others, or depression are all ways that pain strains relationships. The only thing worse than dealing with chronic pain is doing so alone because you have pushed away your support system.
Lately, myself and others have noticed that I can be short tempered and jerky when I start hurting. I usually don’t notice that I am doing it until my wife gets mad and yells at me or storms out of the room. However, after it was brought to my attention by my wife and my family, I began to take notice of when I do it, what I say, and how it is perceived. Unfortunately, it had gotten so bad that I began to feel like a “jerk-hole” all of the time, and I am constantly reminded the pain strains relationships. The reality is that I take on too much responsibility and do not allow others to help me. The result is pain, and pain leads to treating my loved ones like crap. This is still something that I struggle with daily, but I have gotten much better at working on it. The root of the problem is my own guilt and ego. I tend to become attached to an idealized view of situations in my head. For example, if I work from home, then I SHOULD cook for my wife who had to go to the office that day. If I know how to perform a task more efficiently that another person, then I SHOULD be the one to do it. I SHOULD be able to keep the house clean. I SHOULD be able to do the grocery shopping. The problem is the SHOULD. Should represents an idealized view of the world that may not be based in reality. One thing that has helped me to give myself a break is addressing each idea with a dose of reality. “If I were not in so much pain, then I should be able to (fill in the blank), but since I am in pain, I should allow someone to help me.” I need to be ok with asking for help because my relationships are more important that my pride, ego, or predetermined ideas of what I SHOULD be able to do.
This idea leads me to the next issue: I hold myself to a higher standard than I am capable of. Attention to detail, drive, and self motivation are revered in our culture. . These are considered desirable qualities, and they can be. However, when I place a higher level of ability on myself than I am capable of, then I am setting myself up for failure. It is “SHOULD” coming back to mess with me. Because I hold myself to this high standard, it is easy for me to become frustrated when I cannot perform at the level that I think I SHOULD be able to. This leads to me getting angry at myself and snapping at my loved ones, and I again see how pain strains relationships. Even though my frustration is rooted in my own inadequacy, my family is not able to differentiate the underlying motivations or frustrations that drive my actions. They simply see themselves as the target of my impatience. The answer to this is to make a realistic assessment of my capabilities, and to give myself some grace. It is ok not to be superman or super woman. It is ok to be realistic and honest with yourself. It is ok if you are not able to perform at the level that I used to before pain. Once I establish the parameters of my ability, then I need to limit myself and take care of myself. My family would rather have a dirty kitchen or help make dinner than be snapped at. If you have gotten into the habit of pushing yourself too hard so that your family can live a more comfortable life, then perhaps it is time for you to talk to them about the realities of your existence with chronic pain. Again, the answer is to give yourself a break. You will not help anyone by pushing yourself to the point of frustration. Giving yourself grace will help to maintain a healthy environment in your home, and avoid seeing first-hand how pain strains relationships.
Another way that chronic pain strains relationships is depression. It is easy to become discouraged and hopeless in the fight against chronic pain. Did you see what I said there? I said, “the fight against chronic pain” because that is what it is, and what it has to be. Depression is giving up and giving in to the pain. I know it is easy to get upset and think that it is easier said than done. Trust me, I have been there. It is like being at the bottom of a deep-dark hole. Looking up is discouraging. Having someone tell you to suck it up and fight is infuriating because they do not understand your reality. In some sense you would be correct. No one fully knows the reality of your pain, since pain is a subjective experience to each individual. However, as someone who has been there, I can tell you that it is possible to climb out of that hole. It is possible to change your mindset and build a stronger one. The hashtag that I have used on social media is #FightOrDie. That is the mindset that it takes to get out of that hole. Having said that, I will restate what I said above. You have to know your limitations and give yourself a break. The reality of depression is that it is just as unfair to those around you as biting their head off when they have done nothing wrong. But, more importantly, it is not fair to you to live that hollow existence. It is not fair to yourself to waste away and miss your life. If you want to take your life back, then you have to fight.
The end result of all of this is that you have to know yourself. You have to be real and clear about your limitations. You have to give yourself grace. You have to be ok with adjusting your view of yourself to make it match reality. As G.I. Joe cartoons told us in the 80s, knowing is half the battle, but knowing your limitations is not enough. You have to act on them buy asking for help, resting, and taking care of yourself. Give yourself a break and stop buying into the “SHOULD” garbage. Be true to your reality, and you will find yourself in fewer situations where you witness how pain strains relationships.