For the last several blogs, we have discussed a lot about addiction. This week, I’m mixing it up by talking about an accidental addiction that has popped up in my life. Addictions can have many different causes, and sometimes we can cause addictions within ourselves.
During the years I was in constant pain, a lot of well meaning people gave me information and ‘helpful’ advice. My wellness coach was the only person who genuinely gave me some good advice about chronic pain.
The genuine advice from my coach was this: pain can become an integrated part of our identity.
The advice was so good that I never forgot about it. I just wanted to prove her wrong.
My first thought was: Holy crap.
It WORKED! Something actually really worked! Cue the mental celebration and confetti.
My second thought was: Now what?
The next series of questions filled my brain as the panic mounted:
I was shocked to find a massive, mounting panic attack bubbling up. My mind kept returning to the former desperation I had felt around my struggles to relieve the pain and now the pain was finally gone. So, why was I panicking? After all, every conscious part of me did want to get my life back again. I was a world traveler, a skydiver, and enjoyed my former rigorous workouts tremendously. I wanted that life back. My coach had been right when she said without mindfulness it’s easy to fall into the dangerous pattern of keeping yourself in pain. Unknowingly, I had picked up another addiction: pain. I had become addicted to my pain. As I reflected on my fear and panic, the answer came. Slowly. Painfully. Almost like a whisper.
Who am I without pain?
In this blog, I am going to vary the definition of addiction just slightly. Addiction in this blog expands the definition to explain how I had laced my identity with chronic pain. I had adopted a mindset of pain and therefore, it was difficult for me to let go of the fact that I was in pain.
It’s important that you know I didn’t enjoy hurting or being in pain, and yet I was so used to it that I was scared when the pain was finally released.
When anything becomes part of our identity, it's hard for us to let go.
We can infuse many things into our identities: victimhood, pain, glamorizing stress from the shit job we habitually bitch about, even a romantic partner who claims to love us even though they treat us like shit.
When it's around long enough, we get used to it. We become… addicted.
Like a dark shadow on a sunny day, pain was my constant companion.
Everywhere I went, it was there.
Sometimes, the pain screamed.
Sometimes, the pain made me scream.
Sometimes, the pain lowered enough that I could enjoy small bouts of my life.
Sometimes, the pain bellowed so loudly that other parts of me ached.
Sometimes I was left desperate, bawling my eyes out, feeling a never ending sense of hopelessness.
Dear readers, I hope that none of you have experienced pain like I have. If you have, then I understand you and I hope you’re able to empathize with me while reading this blog. Hopefully, it doesn’t make you turn your head away and make you want to stop reading. Long term pain is terrifying to read about, nevermind live with.
For those of you who have experienced chronic pain:
Chronic physical pain is defeating, terrifying, overwhelming, and exhausting.
Pain and fear love to play together; they’re the quintessential mean girl bff’s. They hold hands while stabbing us in the back.
Pain and fear can build on one another without reason. Those of us who suffer from chronic pain become acclimated to pain and fear, and because of this we often struggle to let go. The mindset that the constant pain and fear manifest becomes incredibly limiting.
Through my years of pain and disability, many people tried to tell me I could heal with my mind.
I wanted to.
I was ready to.
… but I just couldn’t seem to figure it out!
If anyone sent me a ‘helpful’ video of someone sharing their experience healing themselves with their mind, I would get insanely frustrated.
Then, I would get angry.
Not at the person sending it - okay, well maybe a little bit - instead, I was just so sick of all the ‘helpful’ advice that hadn’t worked for me.
Last fall, there was a week when no fewer than three people sent me videos of the same person: Dr. Joe Dispenza.
Dr. Dispenza has an incredible story of healing after an accident that paralyzed him, where he walked out of the hospital 9 weeks later, without surgery.
Super inspiring, right?
Well, the second time he was suggested I genuinely said out loud: OMG! I GET IT! We have the power to heal ourselves.
How about this: tell me HOW.
What am I not doing now that I can do differently?
I have tried like every-freaking-thing I can think of to improve my quality of life and ITS. NOT. WORKING.
By the time the third person referenced him I replied:
“Thank you. I can’t explain why but that dude is just pissing me the hell off right now.”
This MVP friend laughed and asked:
“Thank you. I can’t explain why but that dude is just pissing me the hell off right now.”
Ppppffffttttt. That’s the sound of the air coming out of my indigent balloon of anger and irritation.
Yep, I was jealous alright. I got angry because I was jealous of him. Which told me I really and truly wanted to heal, I just didn’t yet know how to let go of my pain. More on that later.
Once again, the time came for me to face some hard truths about myself. As with my other addictions, painful truths were a necessary part in resolving the pain and starting my journey of healing. I finally knew how to resolve the pain and I didn’t want it coming back!
Questions to ponder
Before answering the question of Who is pain-free Katie?, I needed to step back and answer some other questions. Now, I pass those questions on to you:
The answers I found are not things I do not take pride in. However, I am going to share them with you because I know I am not alone.
Hopefully, these resonate with you too and you can take steps to let go of your own pain. This includes letting go of emotional and/or physical pain.
Literally everyone I know has experienced emotional pain. It's a part of life. In my experience, emotional pain can be more addictive than physical pain.
Ready for my revelations?
First, I found that people didn’t hold me as accountable because I was in pain.
As an overachiever and someone who chronically overworked, it was incredibly difficult to accept that I had lost accountability due to my physical limitations.
Whenever I did something physical, like walking one mile, I was celebrated rather than scoffed at. If I managed to move for 20 minutes, even slowly, my friends and physical therapist applauded. “You moved, that’s fantastic!”
When someone reaches a level of pain where I was, those light activities should be commended.
For those who suffer or suffered from chronic pain, a big part of doing anything is the mere act of talking yourself into moving when every step makes you wince, or convincing yourself that doing your physical therapy will help, even when the act of doing so can be painful.
Another shock related to this was that I didn’t expect to enjoy not being held to the same accountability standard I once was.
Second, people gave me more empathy, and *gasp* even sympathy.
Again, this was surprising to me. I didn’t realize that any part of me wanted sympathy, or people’s pity. Yet, that’s what I found when I really dug deep, got incredibly honest with myself about the patterns that were keeping me in pain. I wanted people to acknowledge my physical state. I wanted special treatment. Basically I was saying “I hurt. Feel sorry for me.”
Third, being in pain made me feel more capable in the working world. Once I was functional enough to work again, I often thought: “Psh, I do double what they do and I’m in pain… they will never be able to deliver what I can.”
My addiction was fueled by the illusion of an easier way of life and feeling like more of a badass for what I could accomplish!
A double-edged sword if ever there was one. However, that’s often how fear works to hold us back. We get so caught up in judging ourselves rather than understanding the happenings within our mind and body.
Recognition and Awareness
Bringing awareness to an addiction is not enough to let go of the pattern. There are many similarities between letting go of an addiction like pain or victimhood and letting go of a vice like alcohol or recreational drugs.
Whenever we adopt a habit or a mindset, we typically keep it because we get a reward or incentive out of remaining in that state. If there was no reward, we wouldn’t stay in that state or continue the behavior. That’s Human Nature 101.
To help us identify what binds us to our addiction, we need support, and a safe space to untangle ourselves and what keeps us coming back for more.
Fear keeps you here
At the bottom of those questions, I found the fear that so often causes strife within us. That fear boiled over with more questions:
After I broke through my pain, those questions fueled my fear and exacerbated my panic.
Logically, I knew resolving my own pain would make me a better coach, no matter how I resolved it. Hopefully no one will find me as frustrating as I found Dr. Joe Dispenza.
Who knows, maybe they will and they’ll find their own path.
After all, we all love stories and I’m here sharing my story to show you what is possible.
Maybe your current truth is that you believe you need a team of doctors to make you feel better. Or maybe that’s just the story you’re telling yourself because no one has given you permission to look at it another way.
Consider this your permission slip.
Once I understood the cookie I was eating with my former pain state, I could then look at who pain-free Katie is.
Who is pain-free Katie?
What else would be possible in this pain-free state?
The sky's the limit my friends, and it can be the limit for you too.
Requirements to let go of addiction
The first key though: you have to want to heal. I know that may sound strange to you, but if it's become a part of your identity, which chronic pain usually has, then you could experience something similar to what I experienced, panicking when the pain first goes away. Again, I am not stating that I enjoyed being in pain, nor do I think you enjoy it either. These are unconscious and subconscious ideas most of us aren’t even aware of, and they have a way of preventing us from moving forward.
Being ready to heal doesn't mean you won’t find blocks along the way as you start your own journey away from chronic pain.
The second key to letting go of chronic pain addiction is to be ready to face those blocks, no matter what you find. Having a coach or counselor you can speak to without concern about judgement can be incredibly helpful to resolving those blocks. If I hadn’t had people holding space for me without judgement, only nodding along in complete understanding of where I was at any given time, I don’t think I could have resolved my pain to the degree I have.
The silver lining of pain
One of the other techniques I employed during my days of chronic pain was a gratitude practice. I set a daily alarm to remind me to list 3 things I am grateful for every day.
Gratitude has been shown to reprogram our brains to see the positive. If you are like me and you are being introduced to this concept for the first time, your eyebrow shot up dubiously as you read that. Just know that it’s true.
Early in my gratitude practice, sometimes I was grateful only that I had survived the day. However, I kept at it, and now it's so easy to see what pain gave me. By looking at the gifts I saw within the pain, I was able to more readily let go of my addiction to it. There was no more strife, my body had taught me a lot.
Gratitude expands to include pain
Gratitude really helped me see the silver lining when my brain would otherwise want to throw another hurdle my direction. I would get frustrated by where I saw limits, but even just a few months prior, the depths of hopelessness had seemed bottomless. That was progress, and I was good with progress.
Before I knew it, I was living an active life again. The time I could spend being active went from minutes to hours. The amount I could walk without a rest went from under a mile to multiple miles. The amount I could do in a day or a weekend increased exponentially.
Pain taught me
Pain taught me a whole new understanding of what it's like to navigate chronic pain or illness.
Pain gave me so much more compassion and empathy for everyone. That compassion has enabled me to forgive people and events I didn’t think I would ever be able to heal. Due to my former pain state, I found forgiveness for others too.
Pain taught me how to be still.
In the last years leading into my disabled state, I recall often thinking “I wish I could just stand still for a moment.” but I didn’t know how. When your body hurts so much that you are leading a sedentary life, the novelty of being a couch potato wears off quickly. It's one thing to enjoy a day here or there where we are very restful and not productive. However, it gets old really fast when that’s your only option.
Pain taught me how to open my mind to the world.
When I was staring down a life of high pain when I was barely past 40 years old, I was terrified. My path out of pain has taught me so much, and I have explored ideas and other teachings I would have never even considered prior to that experience.
Pain taught me how to let go of wanting to return to my old life.
I lived a fun, wild life. It was also a life laced with self-doubt, codependency, emotional pain, and reckless behavior complete with an assortment platter of vices to keep me from feeling and being myself. Now my life is completely different, and vastly improved.
Change your perspective
Another way to look at chronic pain is with curiosity. Pain is telling you something about what your body needs. What is your pain asking you for? What do you need that you aren’t currently doing?
Is it an emotional need? A physical need? What else was happening in your life when the pain first began?
Accepting the temporary limits that pain has enforced upon you is part of the healing process. There are days where I still overexert myself. I’ve learned to ride out those days without beating myself up or feeling defeated. What once took days or weeks to recover, I can now resolve in a few hours or after a wonderful night’s sleep.
Resolving my chronic pain and understanding the thought patterns that kept me there was the single-most confidence building activity I have ever done for myself.
I was told 3 times that I would need surgery to resolve my knee, neck, and back pain. The fact I have attained these results without another surgery has proven that I am unstoppable.
You are too.
Dear reader, all my reflections have a familiar sentence that appears again and again. Now, I pose that sentence to you as a declarative, rather than a reminder: The key to freedom is to be an observer, not the judge who sentences you to a life sentence.
Each time you reflect, I want you to remember to be the observer and not the judge. The purpose of this is not to sentence yourself for life. The purpose is to notice your actions and change your relationship to those actions without judgment.
So, again, I ask you:
Don’t keep reading: I mean it. Reflect on and answer the questions above. If you find yourself reluctant to answer, ask yourself why.
Let’s mix things up a little. This week, I have a challenge for you:
I’m betting that all of us have suffered from a chronic behavior such as pain, stress, anxiety, perfectionism or overworking that has wormed itself into your identity.
Think about that behavior. As I shared with you today, one of mine was an addiction to pain. A friend of mine is addicted to praise, another is addicted to being a martyr in the office.
Brainstorm about where that came from.
Dear reader, the addiction series is not quite over. Next week, we will be getting down into the weeds on victimhood. All of you squirming in your chair, I hope you can get comfortable. Victimhood is something we all struggle with at one point or another in our lives. Everyone who has survived a trauma has felt the pangs of victimhood. Who else has had a bad relationship?
The goal next week is to identify our Victimhood stories, tear down our statues of mourning, and build ourselves up stronger, wiser, and more capable of carrying the burden of hero rather than victim.