Blame it on My Body: Chronic Pain and Feelings of Failure

"After the Misdeed."  Jean Beraud. Image courtesy of The National Gallery.Everyday acceptance of chronic pain necessitates that we reflect our attention away from pain to the non-pain facets of life. We go to work, go to school, take care of children, and have social lives. But what happens when we miss our deadlines or maybe an exam? Maybe we have to rely more on our partner to pick up the children from daycare or we have to call out from work. Perhaps, we have to learn how to take on fewer responsibilities in a world that constantly throws obligations at us. Do you ever feel like a failure? I do. I can admit it. I often have to say: “my body made me do it.” I have carried the weight of my career to the brink. At that border, I am sometimes halted by the pain my body is experiencing. It is there where I am left explaining to the non-sufferers why I couldn’t accomplish all that I desired. It is there I feel like a failure. We live and experience everything through our bodies. At the same time, in the moments that I feel like a failure, the blame falls on that fateful accident that left my body transformed.  As a chronic pain sufferer, I am fluent in two languages: a world that is very different from the everyday world and the world in which I must conduct my life. In order to survive in two worlds, I must translate the first language of pain constantly to those who have never suffered. It feels like an excuse and who among us wishes to always feel like we are making excuses.  In this sense, perhaps we have the unspoken desire to wish that for one minute, or hour, or day others could enter our body and truly understand the affliction of living with pain.

I have pain and I live in a cycle of wanting to do my best in all areas of my life and then my life is stopped by this disease for days, weeks, and sometimes months. It is in this cycle, that something eternal like chronic illness and pain gets misunderstood. After all, the cousin to failure is the “it’s all in our heads” or “if we can’t do it, it means we didn’t try hard enough” philosophy. Through this blog, personal involvement in pain support groups, and through interactions and interviews with chronic pain patients in my work, the one thing that is evident when it comes to the “it’s all in my head” attitude towards invisible disease is that patients would love if it was simply all in their head. At least, in that sense, it is merely a character flaw and something that we can overcome. Chronic pain and illness would then cease to exist if it was all in our heads.  Instead, as a chronic pain sufferer, I am a reluctant tenant in this country. I hold a passport that allows me to travel to a world I created and want but I don’t entirely dwell there.

When I feel like a failure, what am I saying about my body?   I accept chronic pain and I have directed my attention away from pain. However, despite all the attempts to forage on, I do not have complete control over pain.  Is that a flaw or a failure? Perhaps, acceptance and coping with pain means understanding that controlling pain is impossible. This is an extremely difficult part of acceptance because to acknowledge that pain is out of our control; and, therefore can halt our lives at any moment, is frightening. It is much easier to believe that we have somehow failed rather than admitting that we live with something that is totally out of our control. After all, responsibility, a fulfilling career, and a family is our currency in life, that is where we are viewed as productive members of society, and that is where we should feel the most in control. I guess this is a fact of life that we all face. However, to be chronically ill means we face the unknown and the inability to control our circumstances to a greater degree. It is conceivable that the loss of control and the inability to command our body to do what we desire or need it to do is masked in feelings of failure. As I negotiate the complexities of living in chronic pain and attempting to exert control over my body, I am slowly beginning to recognize that the feeling of being completely responsible for my body is counterproductive. It isn’t my fault. I didn’t ask for this and I am doing my best.

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3 Comments Add yours

  1. Bill says:

    Thank you for writing this. The only jobs I ever had have been manual labor and semi skilled positions. My chosen career was lumber jack for a logging company. I really loved cutting trees down….it was extremely physical and financially rewarding. When you do a job like that though it is not a matter of whether or not you’re going to get hurt, it is a matter of when and how bad. Mine when and how bad came the first week of March 1999, I was 32 years old. As dangerous as cutting timber is my accident was more of a freak nature than definitively in the line of my duties. It was a cool spring morning in Southern Middle Tennessee and shortly after 9 a.m. I was standing by the skid road that the heavy equipment operators traveled as they moved logs from the woods to the trunk landings, and as I stood there taking a breather the wind blew and shook a dead limb out of the tree I was standing under. Thank God I had not taken my hard hat off because if I had done so it would have definitely have killed, and it’s really a miracle that it didn’t even with the hard hat on, but anyway the limb struck on the left side of my head….if you were to look from above and section a head into quarters I would say it was sort of center front of the left front quadrant. It drove me to the ground in the dry creek bed I was standing in, but remarkably I never lost consciousness, and luckily a lifelong friend of mine was one of the equipment operators and he had just seen me standing there then when he looked back he saw only my hands waving from a lying position and rushed to my side. Amazingly, after a week in ICU And on steroids to reduce the swelling, they were able to operate and piece my broken to piece skull back together….it crushed my left eye socket so severely they could only glue the piece to a mesh then reinsert it into the socket and secure it with plates, and besides that there were so many other plates used that the plastic surgeon, when I asked him how many, could only say, “son I lost count….I would have to look at the materials list from the surgery to answer”. I have had chronic neck pain since then.

    Like I said I loved that job….it was all I could ever remember wanting to be when I grew up…and I went back to work limited to light duty for a while after only 2 months; yes, i know….a lick in the head like that would, if it didn’t knock you senseless, would knock some sense into you. But I loved it and within 3 months of the accident I was back to cutting trees down. I did it for 2 more years and I herniated some disc which forced me to quit and seek something else to do. Everything I tried would be fine for a while then my chronic pain would take over and I would end up quitting before being fired for missing get so much work. I went through a cycle for 15 years where I would work until the pain would become so severe that I would start missing lots of work, and I would quit and take a hiatus for sometimes a year then I would find another job. This came to an end in April 2016 when I injured my knee on the job I had at that time, and I looked back through my schedule and saw how much work I had missed because of my pain just from that January to the day of my knee injury, April 28th, and I had missed 20 something days in only 16 weeks, so my wife and I decided I should seek Social Security Disability. Another condition I have are seizures from epilepsy, which are completely unrelated to the head injury, but on my disability claim I listed the seizures, but my attorney says that even though I have been seeing neurologists for 30 years for them and I have witnesses to some of my seizures that a judge will reject and epilepsy claim unless I were to actually have one in front of the judge (WHAT?) He said my claim approval lies in my chronic pain.

    I’ve been off work for almost a year again and attorney says a hearing is still at least 6 months away. Anyway I completely understand the feeling of failure and the feeling that i have let down my family. I sometimes think that they would have been better off if I had died the day of my accident then they wouldn’t be overwhelmed by the lack of income from me not being able to hold down a job anymore because they would have gotten a small windfall from my on the job death. Anyway good luck to all.

  2. Hi Christina. Thank you so much for your comment. I started this blog for the very reasons and feelings you expressed. When I had back surgery, I never felt so alone. I wanted to see the experiences that I was going through to know somehow that I wasn’t the only one. Seven years later, as my body continued to deteriorate, I decided to vocalize my experiences to no longer be a silent sufferer. And so I write because maybe others feel the same way and maybe together just knowing that someone is out there understanding our experience we will feel better. Thank you again for your comment. Wishing you all the best and keep in touch.

  3. Christina says:

    I came across your blog from a Google Alert I have set up for “chronic pain.” Thank you for sharing what you are going through on a platform such as the this so that others can benefit from it. In my head, I’m a go-getter who will fight to the end to make whatever it is happen and then I’ll STILL keep working on it two hours after everyone else went home. And I was that person until I was 17 before my chronic illness kicked in. Over the years, the pain increased and my body “failed me” more and more. Feeling like a failure is my biggest issue. I “should” be able to do more. I should be able to push through the pain and get it done. But I can’t. Not every time. And I feel guilty for it. Even when I know I “shouldn’t.” Despite medical evidence there is a problem, I feel like I “should” be able to still do it all. Thank you again for sharing your story. It helps to know I’m not alone.

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