I’ve always prided myself on my ridiculously high pain threshold. I broke my ankle in sixth grade gym class and walked home afterwards. A couple of years ago I broke my little toe just before I left the house to do an entire Bikram yoga class, balancing poses and all. In Army basic training I marched with a 50-pound rucksack on my back until my brain shut off all feeling in my feet. I thought I understood pain.
I’ve had my fair share of medical conditions in my life. In every circumstance the intake nurse always asks the question- “What’s your pain level?” There is usually a poster nearby with an array of illustrated faces on it to show the different levels of pain. From a happy smiley face at 0 to an angry crying monstrous face with lightning shooting out of its head at 10.
No matter what, I had never claimed to be anywhere above a 6.
A few weeks ago I looked a nurse square in the eye and told her I was at a 9. I had never experienced pain at that level before. Eventually I found out I have shingles and a problem in my lower back that affects a nerve in my leg. Nobody could tell me which issue was causing the pain. Really, it didn’t matter where it came from; my primary focus in life became how to make it stop. My priorities quickly shifted from my frustration with not being able to do spin classes for a few weeks to wondering how I could possibly climb up the stairs to my house without falling over and crying. The pain moved beyond just distracting to pervasive and all encompassing.
I’ve had a number of medical issues in my life and rather than just get through this I decided to learn as much as I could from this pain. I vowed to be brave enough to look at what this pain had to teach me.
The lessons I learned from this weren’t at all what I would have expected. Being in that kind of pain broke me open in a way that nothing else ever has. I was stripped of everything I usually rely on to protect me in this world. My intelligence, my wit, my charm- none of these things served me in this situation. I had no control over my emotions. I cried in front of absolute strangers- nurses, doctors, Uber drivers. I didn’t care. I put myself in situations with doctors I didn’t know and I simply trusted that they would help me.
Here’s the thing- these doctors and nurses and receptionists did help me. But it wasn’t because I stood up for myself and DEMANDED that they help me. It wasn’t because I cocked my head to the side and batted my eyes at them to CHARM them into helping me. It wasn’t because I had done my research and interviewed 4 different surgeons and CONVINCED them why and how they should help me. It wasn’t even because I was crying in front of them because for the most part I wasn’t. They didn’t help me out of pity.
They helped me out of compassion. They helped me because I was wide open and bare in front of them. The mask I usually wear to protect myself from the world was completely gone. I was just raw, primal, thoroughly and absolutely my true self. They saw ME, the real ME. The Laura within Laura. And they moved heaven and earth to help that part of me. Not because of anything I did, but because they saw the honesty and the humanity of my true self. They saw and were moved to help the part of me I’ve fought my whole life to hide, to protect from the world.
I went from an MRI to 8 steroid injections in my spine in less than 3 days. That process usually takes weeks. Thankfully the shots initially released most of the pain. I’ve had more pain creep back in and I’m doing my best to manage it. Carefully. Respectfully. Knowing that pain is a difficult teacher but there are great lessons to be learned.
I AM grateful for the lessons I am learning from this pain.
I AM grateful for the compassion and generosity I was and continue to be shown by all the medical professionals involved in my care.
I AM grateful to the support I’ve received from the friends and family I reached out to for help.
More than anything, I AM grateful for seeing the gifts that can come from sharing my true self with the world.