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As of this morning, my back is starting to feel better.  Or really, they finally found an anti-inflammatory drug that worked so while the pain is technically still there, I can get by on just taking the anti-inflammatory drug during the day.  I don’t totally feel like I did yesterday when I wrote this and slept on it.  But I decided to post it anyway.  Tread lightly.

I am not a good nurse.  I mean, yes, I will bring someone tea exactly the way the person wants it.  I will watch a friend’s kids or run errands or make a meal.  I am good at performing the tasks that make up taking care of another person, but I am a terrible nurse.  It’s almost as if I have an empathy bank, with life-threatening illnesses accounting for the vast majority of my caring withdrawals.  When illnesses such as colds or headaches apply for a caring loan on top of their meal, my empathy bank usually stamps rejected across their application.  Come back to me if you can’t keep down food for three days, or if the pain becomes chronic.

It’s not as if I am any more empathetic towards myself.  Even on Day 8 of intense back pain, I was whispering to myself that my own caring loan application had been rejected and I may want to seek sympathy someplace other than my own mind.  I really hated my inability to get better, to suck it up, to ignore the shooting pain that was traveling from the upper right quadrant of my back, up my neck, down my arm, numbing my fingers.

Either the painkillers made me depressed or being in continuous pain for 8 days made me depressed.  But by Day 8, I was thoroughly depressed; not wanting to talk or see anyone.  I just wanted to sit by myself, with my pain, focusing all my energy on hating both it and myself.  I hated being out of my routine.  I hated not being able to play Candy Crush because even sweeping my numb finger across a screen made me gasp.  I hated sleeping so much and missing out on my life.  I hated everyone who could move easily.  Hated myself for hating everyone who could move easily.  And hated myself even more when I thought about all the times I didn’t give enough of an empathy loan for someone in continuous pain.  Sure, I made them a meal.  I watched their kids.  But I didn’t feel enough sympathy for what that person must have been going through, emotionally.

I’ve been lucky because it’s been nine years since I’ve been sidelined by pain.  It’s not to say that I haven’t felt pain in the last nine years, but my little Puritan heart has been good at berating myself to suck it up and keep going.  This is the first time in nine years where my pain has been more powerful than my rational, no-nonsense, practical ego.

It scares me to age; to think about how things like pain will be more common as I move deeper into middle age.  It scares me to think about how poorly I’ll cope with a lack of mobility, or even having my body ask to take a one day break from my normal routine.

Being in pain has made me think about myself as a nurse and myself as a patient.  That perhaps I need to restructure my empathy bank so it’s a little less stingy with granting loans.  Maybe it will lend out a little unnecessary sympathy and get screwed in the process, but more likely than not, those applicants asking for sympathy deserve whatever I can give.

That includes granting myself my own sympathy loan.  To asking for help, even though it kills my little Puritan heart to ever ask for help.  To allowing myself the right to sleep and heal without guilt.  To acknowledging that when you’re in intense pain, life is going to change.  It’s not going to look like your daily life.

This is an apology for all the times I haven’t been patient enough.  For all the times I asked the stupid question or gave you unhelpful advice or made a suggestion that made you want to punch me in the face.  For all the times when I haven’t given enough care; because nursing is about more than just making tea or taking someone’s kids for an afternoon.  It’s about the mindfulness behind that act, and I got a lot of that these last two weeks that I don’t think I necessarily deserved based on my own stinginess in the past.

This is also a thank you to all the people who checked in and helped out; even though I was a complete dick about it.  I’ll use the excuse that it was the pain itself that made me ungracious and short-tempered.

And a special note to my body: I’m sorry I berated you.  I’m sorry I don’t appreciate you enough when you’re working well.  I promise I won’t skip weeks of yoga in order to make a work deadline.  I won’t treat you as if you’re expendable.  You have a way of popping up and demanding attention to remind me how necessary you are.

It’s a funny word; calling someone in need of care a patient.  It is hard to define myself as a patient, harder still to accept a situation with patience.  I want this pain over with so I can get on with the rest of my life.  I miss the daily grind.  I miss helping with homework and washing the kitchen floor and changing the guinea pig’s cage.  All those things that used to get in the way of the other things I wanted to do; I miss them now that I’m in a place where I can’t do the mundane.

I’m sorry; this is a whiny post.  Prior to two weeks ago, if it came across my desk at the empathy bank, I would have stamped rejected across it.  But now, I’m more prone to spend a little time reviewing the file, wondering what it really costs to grant the loan.  Not much.

And in all of this, I’m scared as I get well that I’ll forget to be patient with others and myself.  It’s easy to remember these lessons when you’re still sidelined by pain.  It’s harder to remember them when you feel well enough to return to normal life.


1 a { 01.14.14 at 8:37 am }

It may not be your empathy bank, you know. I am particularly impatient with my husband’s migraines, because his solution for dealing with them is to take an aspirin/Excedrin and lie down for a little bit and then go and mess around on his computer. I’m all “go in a dark room and go to sleep until that thing goes away” because that’s how I (and much of the world, I think) deal with migraines. So, when he wants to walk around the house and complain about the noise and then go stare at a screen, I want to punch him in the head. And then I remember that not everyone feels things the same way, and try to keep out of his way…although he makes it very difficult. My response to pain = solitude. His response to pain = company + attention + a scapegoat (usually me). So, it may not be empathy that’s lacking – just an understanding of how other people deal with things.

I’ve noticed, as things deteriorate with age, that I think more and more about the times when I won’t be able to do something I currently take for granted. Like putting on my pants or socks or shoes while standing. I’m slowly losing my ability to balance on one foot easily. Eventually, I will have to sit down to do these things. It is disturbing. This morning, it was jumping over leftover snow piles while walking outside. Eventually, I won’t go out unless I have to when there’s snow on the ground. 🙁

2 a { 01.14.14 at 8:38 am }

Glad to hear your back is a little better…

3 Nina { 01.14.14 at 8:57 am }

I hope you start feeling a whole lot better! After reading this, I can see how I sometimes do the same. I don’t rush out to pamper little colds and coughs with surprise chicken soup. I might have to be better about taking care of others (and myself!) as those little things usually brighten their moods.

4 Melanie { 01.14.14 at 9:08 am }

I understand this completely. I am so annoyed by people that are sick. I really try to listen and nod along and help out where I can. But on the inside I’m thinking, I really hope you’re better soon because you are so annoying right now. Then I feel bad for thinking that. I’ve made a meal, sent care packages, etc to people recovering from surgeries and the like. But that’s about it. Then I was in a major accident. 2 months in the hospital, excruciating pain, life on hold, depression, loneliness, a residual limp and pain that I’ll have for the rest of my life. I don’t think I ever really empathized with people going through that until then. People taking about knee surgeries and pain when they walk or back pain. Now I get it. But honestly, when my husband gets sick, he still just annoys me. I must have been born with low capacity for empathy I guess.

5 Heather { 01.14.14 at 9:21 am }

Oh, I am AWFUL with empathy. I joke that I don’t have that trait. I have it for my children, and, well, that’s it!
I had to have surgery to fix a disc in my back. A whole MONTH of hurting and then not being able to walk upright didn’t get me to the doctor (it will work itself out). It wasn’t until I was in mind numbing excruciating pain that I finally got to the doctor. I had no empathy for myself either (buck up! Jeez, it’s just a little back pain…).
You would think after that experience I would have more empathy to, well, everyone. I have a little more empathy with myself, a tiny bit more for my husband.
I guess, what it comes down to is, that when I’m sick the world and my duties continue. I continue to do them. So it pisses me off when my husband stops and takes care of himself when he’s sick and I end up doing my chores AND his. This is especially hateful when he has the same cold as I did, man cold.
Anyway, that is on ME. I could not do the chores/work/etc. But I do, because I feel like nobody else will.
I’m rambling, I’ll stop. In summation: I hear ya on the empathy stuff. Glad you are getting some relief from the back pain.

6 manymanymoons { 01.14.14 at 9:49 am }

I can so relate to this post. I am pretty much a bitch when it comes to other people’s pain. I mean I outwardly do and say all the right things almost to a fault, but secretly I think I judge them for it. I judge how they feel and for sure how they are handling it. Then I always remember my Grandma’s words. She said, “You may think you can relate, but you have no idea how that pain feels to that person.” She was so right. No person experiences pain in the same way and when I compare it to my own I’m really not being fair. This is one case where you really never can walk in someone else’s shoes. It’s a hard thing to remember, but eventually I get there (unless my husband is truly being a wimp in which case I try as hard as I can to FORGET said advice from my wise Grandmother). I’m glad you are on your way back…I hope you continue moving in the right direction!

7 Justine { 01.14.14 at 10:14 am }

Sending thoughts that look like a warm compress. For wherever it hurts.

I think I’m a little like this, too. It has to do with something I heard on the radio the other day. Do you ever listen to Dr. Dan Gottlieb? He was talking about how people sometimes communicate ONLY about their pain, and that makes it difficult for us to listen, because we don’t hear them trying to communicate; we can’t understand them because they’re not giving us enough information. When people complain about their pain in the context of a more holistic and long-term relationship with us, we’re more likely to have empathy. I can’t stand it when all people do is complain about pain/sickness/etc. But those are the people who most need me to understand them. It’s a communication gap.

On the other hand, I will say that the ALI community has taught me to have more empathy, and understand that my empathy reserves aren’t like a bank … they’re more like a spring. The more you take, the more comes up. I don’t run out. So I *can* be a little more generous with it.

I hope that you continue to feel better; I’m also terribly impatient with myself when I’m not 100% fine. And I give my body short shrift (e.g., my reaction to news about my upcoming biopsy was to hate my body, though it actually serves me pretty well most days).

8 Tigger { 01.14.14 at 11:19 am }

Pain is a real bitch. It makes you look at things a little differently. It makes you realize that there ARE boundaries and that you would do well not to cross them, because if you do you’re just going to be set back and have to take even LONGER. It’s a hard, hard lesson to learn. It took me MONTHS, maybe even a year, to learn that when my body says I can’t do a thing, I would do well to listen. The danger in THAT is “learned helplessness” but it’s easier when you pay attention.

Chronic pain is…well…awful. It’s no good to berate your body, much like it does us no good (and often makes it worse) when we berate our uterus’s or ovaries because they refuse to function. When you think of it like that, it becomes easier to understand. Just like we talk about the failures of those things to others, so those with chronic pain will talk about how things are going…which often involves pain. It becomes a focal point. Family and friends learning to understand this is critical. Learning to understand it ourselves is likewise critical.

It is hard to go easy on ourselves when we butt up against pain and limits when we aren’t used to it. I have my fingers crossed that these anti-inflammatories work for you and that your back gets its’ act together and behaves itself.

9 Mali { 01.14.14 at 5:35 pm }

This is really interesting, because I don’t sense that you are this way with people in emotional pain?

I grew up with a mother who dealt with pain essentially by the “suck it up” method. (Though she would have never expressed it that way.) And it’s worrying seeing her age, still with that attitude. (She had a bad back recently and crawled around the house, not even thinking of asking for help or ringing one of her children.)

My father-in-law won’t ask for help, or admit he can’t cope with things. He’s fighting every step of the way, and whilst independence is great, he’s fighting it so hard that he’s making himself miserable. Rather than focusing on what he can do, he focuses on what he can’t. Because he feels he should “suck it up” and do it anyway. And so he creates problems for himself, his wife, and us.

I grew up with that attitude too. The best gift I gave myself through my ectopics and infertility was to feel compassion for myself, and know it was okay to ask for help. And if we learn to do that (and I’m still a work in progress), then I think old age is going to be easier and happier too.

10 Mali { 01.14.14 at 5:36 pm }

PS. Glad your back is feeling better. Are you going to have any physiotherapy? I’ve found that enormously helpful with back problems.

11 jjiraffe { 01.14.14 at 9:52 pm }

Glad you’re feeling better and I’m sorry you have been dealing with pain like this. It’s easy to forget what it’s like to be in agony when you aren’t feeling that way – which is mostly a good thing (evolution at its best). I would say you are very empathetic to people’s pain of any kind. But maybe less sympathetic to yourself (the Puritan workhorse mentality – I have it too). Be kind to yourself – you deserve it!

12 Battynurse { 01.15.14 at 1:35 am }

Beautiful post. Hope your back continues to get better and the being kind to yourself practice goes well. Hugs to you.

13 Aerotropolitan Comitissa { 01.15.14 at 9:22 am }

Glad to hear your back is better.

I hear you about the frustration (and worse) of a week of pain and the stingy empathy bank.

14 Lori Lavender Luz { 01.15.14 at 5:50 pm }

I think I’m not a great nurse, either. I have a lot of suck-it-up energy (just ask the people who live with me).

I’m glad you’re feeling better (I hope even better-better by now, since I’m late to this post). I have been feeling bad because I had nothing very good to offer you, and I felt like during my own troubles you’ve been there for me in the most perfect of ways. Abiding.

15 md { 01.16.14 at 4:20 am }

hope you and your back feel much better soooon!!

16 deathstar { 01.16.14 at 12:21 pm }

8 days of being in pain and not being able to move easily WILL make you depressed. Which is why I am in wonder of people who actually LIVE with chronic pain on a regular basis. I would have to say that dealing with back issues for 4 years now has changed me in a way. It has certainly changed my perspective on cranky old people who are probably in pain and I don’t want be a cranky old person. Being in pain actually deepens my empathy for people who are suffering, but only to a certain point because I’ve always taken for granted the strength and general good health that I’ve always possessed.

17 Tiara { 01.20.14 at 12:26 pm }

I’m sorry I didn’t read this until now…I hope you’re still on the mend.

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