Counting My Spoons: A Life Lived in Pain

It’s easy to be philosophical about blindness. I don’t have to stretch much to say it’s opened doors I never would have discovered if I were sighted. Blindness has compelled me to meet interesting people, acquire specialized skills, and develop a readily adaptable spirit. It’s not always fun—not even mostly—but it’s not without its upsides.

I am not philosophical about the chronic pain I’ve lived with for almost ten years. A decade of tension pain and migraines has weathered and exhausted me in ways I’m still attempting to put into words. If blindness is like the common cold, interfering with everyday life but easy enough to accommodate, chronic pain is like the flu. Just when you think you’re finally feeling strong enough to conquer your to-do list, or socialize with friends, or get some writing done, it sweeps over you, leaving you in a nauseated heap. At that point, there’s nothing for it but to slink off to bed, cancelling plans and sowing disappointment as you go.

Often enough, I can hack it. How else would I manage to hold down a job and maintain some semblance of a life? On most days, I grit my teeth, slather on the peppermint oil, and plaster on my smile. I carry tissues for when my eyes water with the pain, and can occasionally be found slumped over my desk with my head in my hands, but I can usually be depended upon to seem healthy and energetic.

Usually.

If you’ve ever spent any length of time with me in person, there’s an excellent chance I was fighting pain. If you’ve tried to arrange a phone call or coffee date with me, I’ve probably pulled out at the very last minute. If you’ve worked with me, you’ve seen me press my fingers into my forehead when I think you’re not looking. If you ask, I’ll say I’m fine. Most of you know I’m full of it, but it would be far too awkward to pursue the matter.

Loved ones have received text messages like “I’m not in pain today!” People who know me well have seen me cry, throw up, or lash out when my headaches are stronger than my resolve to seem normal. Managers have heard a dozen variations of “I need to leave early,” or “I need to sit quietly in this corner until this backs off.” On the very worst days, they get “I’m sorry. I tried, but I can’t come in today.” Housemates and partners have sent me back to bed after I’ve insisted I’ll be okay. Each time feels like a battle I’ve lost.

My fiancé deals with the brunt of it. No part of our relationship is untouched by the unpredictable whims of a body in pain. Dates are postponed, and postponed again, and eventually forgotten altogether. Dinners are skipped because my migraine has sapped me of my hunger. Harsh words escape because while my control is exceptional, it is not perfect, and pain makes me feel as defensive as a wounded animal. Domestic duties are shirked, and I watch guiltily from bed as he sorts laundry I am too sore to hang because I can’t reach above my own head. Many a time, he has cooked, cleaned, and run errands while I cuddle my heat wrap and take enough Excedrin to make an elephant tremble. I interrupt intimate moments, rolling away to hide angry tears; I am too tired, too sore, too weak to participate. Through it all, he is incredibly understanding, but the inequality is its own kind of pain.

And then there are the good days: days when I’m thrumming with energy, ready for anything. During these rare days, sandwiched between “okay” and “terrible,” I sing, clean, write, and tackle all the tasks I’ve left undone. I squeeze every moment of life I can into these precious pain-free days, balancing my enjoyment of the freedom with the knowledge that it never, ever lasts. My good days fool everyone into believing I’m all right. Unlike me, they still have faith that it’ll stay that way.

The crash, after a string of good days, is the worst.

I count my spoons with care, trying to account for the unpredictable. Do I spend this “good day” doing housework or writing? If I only have the energy for one social gathering, but I’ve booked two, which should I cancel? Which friend would I rather upset? Whose disappointment is easier to bear? Which task can I afford to push back? Since work is normally my top priority, and getting through it each day is costly, what should I do with the few hours before bed?

Know this, dear reader: my heart is so much bigger than my energy. My desire to connect with you, return your email, meet you for lunch, text you when you’re lonely, help with your creative project, is infinite. My ability to fulfill that desire is decidedly finite. If I’ve missed your call, cancelled our plans, failed to meet your deadline, ruined your good time with my exhaustion—I am truly sorry. I want to do better. If I had enough spoons to make everyone happy, I’d use them, because all my friends and all my family members and all others who depend on me are worthy.

So I ask everyone I’ve hurt, everyone I’ve disappointed, everyone I’ve let down: forgive me. I am getting better at this pain thing, but I am still learning. I don’t always distribute my spoons wisely. I overestimate my strength and overbook myself. I make promises I fully intend to keep, and need more time than I thought because work and basic housekeeping and mere survival take precedence. On good days, I sometimes forget to be careful, and pay for it on bad days. And, readers, I know you’ve paid for it, too.

No, I’m not philosophical about pain. I can never pretend it opens doors, or enhances empathy, or makes my world a richer place. Mostly, it just makes every little thing I do harder and more complicated. It turns an organized, driven person into an unwilling canceller of plans. I’m nothing if not adaptable, though—thanks blindness—and I’m slowly learning to count those spoons. I’m learning strategies to keep the pain from taking over my life. I’m becoming more accurate in measuring my energy levels and prioritizing what really matters.

In the meantime, I ask for patience, not only for myself, but for everyone you know who lives a life in pain. No, we’re not always fine, and no, we can’t always tackle what needs tackling.

But we love you. We’re trying. We’re playing the worst of all juggling games, and we are so, so tired.

But by God, we’re trying.

 

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Singing up the Mountain

There’s a piece of wisdom I’ve often heard, though I’ve never traced its origin:

In life, we’re all just hiking up the mountain. You can complain about how your feet are sore, or you can sing all the way up. Your choice.

I’m no champion of relentless positivity. I maintain that, for people whose brains are wired like mine, mantras and affirmations bring on more depression than inspiration. I don’t wear rose-coloured glasses well, and even my most indulgent friends remind me to watch my pessimistic streak.

Yet, the idea of life as a long, mandatory hike appeals to me. Some will have an easier time than others. Some will find the path to be wide and accommodating, designed for their every need and wish. Others, especially those who represent at least one minority, will find the hike more arduous. Perhaps the path is narrow and winding. Perhaps your equipment is in rough shape, and you don’t have the means to upgrade. Perhaps your way is obstructed by treacherous pebbles that will send you tumbling if you’re not careful. Perhaps it’s littered with concerned strangers telling you to turn back, choose a less ambitious path, or adjust your pace to a speed they consider more appropriate.

Whatever your mountain looks like, whichever obstacles you might encounter, only you can decide how best to climb it. You can take advantage of the wide, welcoming paths, never sparing a thought for those on more dangerous journeys. You might decide to stray from your comfortable stroll to shift a boulder or clear a trail for someone else. If, like me, your hike is rocky and unpredictable, you may want to contribute to a large-scale effort to make the hike safer and more equitable for everyone who is stuck on this mountain with you. (This mountain is yours. There is no right way–only your way.)

There is another choice to make, and as I experience one of the most trying periods of my life, I’m thinking more often than usual about this mountain of mine. There have been times—and I’m sure there will be more—when climbing felt natural and simple. Boulders were moved from my path by forces much stronger than me. Fellow hikers let me lean on their broad shoulders. The map was clear. I knew where I was going and how I’d get there.

At this moment, my landscape is much more uncertain, and I am tired. My feet are sore. My canteen is nearly empty, and my fellow hikers carry burdens even heavier than my own. I can’t hear myself think for the struggles around me, and my desire to broaden the path for others is tinged with despair at my own sad smallness.

But as I write this, as I contemplate a path that has never seemed less welcoming, I know that it’s time I started singing again.

My song might falter while I cling to jagged places. Tears and frustration might dampen its beauty. Sometimes, I’ll be making up the lyrics, or humming nonsensically, because damn it if I haven’t forgotten all the words.

But I don’t know of any other way to keep climbing.

So I’m gonna sing my way up this mountain. It won’t be pretty, but it will sustain me. It will have to do, because turning back? Giving up? Slowing my step to suit someone else’s comfort? These aren’t options—not for me.

Yes, we can still complain that our feet are sore, that we are tired, that we can’t read our maps. These admissions are valid and necessary. We will need to pause, rest, drink some water, lean on the nearest shoulder.

But whenever we can, wherever we can, let’s not forget to sing.

It’s All Relative

As I’ve covered over and over, people treat blindness like a life sentence, complete with misery and woe. It’s not an easy life, there’s no doubt, but it’s not a sea of bitter suffering, either. The misconception that my life really is that burdensome, though, tends to dissuade people from sharing their own suffering with me, as though my disability renders their own struggles meaningless by comparison. Even those who are close to me, and know full well that my life is mostly happy, need occasional reminders that they are free to share their problems with me, no matter how minor they might seem next to mine. Just the other day, my sister was about to tell me about something that was troubling her, when she stopped mid-sentence: “I feel so guilty! My life’s so easy. You have it so much harder. What am I doing complaining?” I took that opportunity to reiterate that everyone’s situation is different, and that pain is relative.

We all have unique issues to deal with, and what might be an insufferable load to carry for one person is but a light affliction for others. A problematic work situation might bother me less than someone else because I’m so grateful just to have a job in the first place. Chronic pain, however, is a thorn in my side, while others handle it with grace and pluck.

I, like so many others, had to learn the hard way that those with the hardest lives are the most willing to listen to my own difficulties. They give the best advice, and often provide welcoming ears and broad shoulders. Since I am so well acquainted with trials and tribulations, the last thing I’d do is devalue someone else’s. I’d look with shame and scorn on someone who tried to use blindness—or any disability, really—as a way to dismiss and silence another’s feelings. No amount of personal pain should make light of another’s. It’s worth knowing our limits, and being candid when we cannot be there for someone else right at that moment, but we must keep life in perspective. We are here to support one another, after all, and insisting that my blindness, mental illness, and chronic pain somehow invalidate the complaints of others is not only ludicrous—it’s dangerous and supremely selfish.

So, if you ever find yourself shying away from unburdening yourself on my shoulder, remember that it’s all relative, and that my pain has nothing whatever to do with yours. All it ought to do is create deeper understanding between us, and it demands that I show the same compassion as others have shown to me. Unburden away!