Does Chronic Pain Define Us?

The strangest part about having mental health issues is that it makes you wonder who you really are as a person — in your core.

Like if you’re feeling insanely anxious because of morphine withdrawal, does that make you an anxious person? Does that become part of who you are? Is that suddenly one of the many personality traits people will associate with your character?

Or, when you’re on morphine, and it changes you from a Type A person into a Type B person, is that who you are now?  Is that your personality?

Or what about when you’re in so much pain that your patience is gone, and you realize that you are being a total bitch to everyone within striking distance. Does that make you a bitch? Is that who I am now?

I honestly don’t know who I am now.

I’ve been feeling especially unsteady lately as I try to navigate a new-found glimpse of health where I have actual pain-free days, and as I also simultaneously try to go off morphine completely. It turns out long-term morphine withdrawal is so much more emotional than anyone ever tells you.

And it turns out that I actually have no idea who I am as a person anymore.

I’m working with a psychologist and a psychiatrist, and I’m trying to figure everything out. But it’s almost like I spent the last three years of my life so completely consumed with my health issues, that I lost my identity. 

Back when my parents got divorced, I remember being in a “kids from divorced families” support group about two years after everything first went down, and the woman leading the group asked me to tell everyone a little bit about myself. And I suddenly realized I didn’t know myself well enough to answer that question.

I remember lying and saying I was involved in things I used to be involved in, like theater. I realized in that moment that I had been walking through life with my head down, with my eyes on the ground for years, and I was trying to look up and see the world around me again. I’d been so consumed by my family’s issues that it literally hurt my eyes to look up. 

These days, the setting is different but the realization has been the same. I’m on a date, or writing a Twitter bio, or talking to my therapist, and I suddenly find myself unable to answer basic questions, like “What are you interested in?” “What do you like to do for fun?” or “How would you describe yourself?”

And it hits me, that for the second time in my life, I have no idea who I am.

I know what I’m not. I’m not a youth leader anymore. I’m not Type A anymore. I’m not independent anymore. I’m not even drug free, or a practicing Christian, or living in my own place.

But if I’m not any of those things, who am I?

They say that going through hard times makes you realize who you really are as a person. If that’s true, it turns out that this whole time I was an atheist, Type B, bitch.

But I’d like to believe something else. I’d like to think that hard times are like a fire, a hurricane and maybe a bomb — all at once — and they just destroy everything in their path. Picking up the pieces means finding lots of damaged things. It means that for a while, everything is burned, and blown up and underwater. And that’s okay. It’s okay to be damaged.

The important thing is figuring out how rebuild, and creating something new from the wreckage. It’s about figuring out what I want my soul to look like now that it’s endured an explosion. I’m not sure yet who I will be when everything gets redone — I’m not sure who I want to be.

When 2016 started, I posted a quote on my Instagram, “What is coming is better than what has gone.” 

And I have to believe that whatever I choose to rebuild, it will be better than what the pain destroyed.

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Comments (2)

  1. Donna Olson

    I know exactly how you feel. I not only have chronic pain, but I also suffer from bipolar disorder and many other health problems. I’m not in therapy anymore, but most likely should be. I used to enjoy crafts so much that I keep buying things to make. I have so many started projects, it’s crazy. I’ve burned a few bridges in the last 14 months, but the one that hurts the most was a private female support group on Facebook that I was voted out of. It’s tough.

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  2. James Sutherland

    A lot of that rang a bell with me: the notion of “walking through life with my head down”, just waiting as if there will be something better ahead. With a temporary ailment – if you’d broken your leg, say, and found yourself hobbling around on crutches for a month or two – that might be the best strategy, but no use for long term problems, as we’ve both found.

    I like the idea of rebuilding something better out of the ashes of the past, too. Apparently, after the Great Fire of London, there were some grand plans to build a much newer, better capital on the ruins of the old one, with wider and straighter roads, avoiding the narrow little lanes which had allowed the fire to jump from one street to the next – mostly thwarted by the old property owners insisting on their new homes and businesses being precisely where the old one stood.

    I’m still on a whole load of painkillers myself – I haven’t renewed the OraMorph (oral morphine) prescription, but still take the full dose of Tramadol (synthetic opioid) plus some neuropathy-specific stuff. The surgeon warned me it could take a year for the damaged bit of spinal cord to recover fully, so hopefully I’ll be coming off that later this year!

    It’s nice to think of this as a fresh start, though, a chance to do things better this time. Fingers crossed for 2016 turning out well for us all.

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