When Someone You Love has Chronic Pain

A decade ago I suffered a bulging, herniated disc in my back. It took months to get in to see a specialist, get a diagnosis, and find a treatment plan that worked to heal my body. For a year I dealt with constant, moderate-to-severe pain in my lower back, hips, and right leg.

Within weeks of my injury, I hardly recognized my life. The pain upstaged everything with its constant nagging. Sitting was particularly excruciating so my world shrank to a ten-mile radius around my home. My otherwise sharp and creative brain was scrambled into an unrecognizable slop. Sometimes the pain was so bad that I had trouble finishing sentences. My joyful, focused, and friendly personality morphed into something more impatient and irritable, always distracted, and often discouraged. Engaging with cherished friendships and hobbies became work, and that made me feel ashamed and frustrated.

A new back injury sustained this summer has me thinking of that dastardly year. As I make another slow and difficult climb toward wellness, I find myself drawing on lessons learned a decade ago. Coincidentally, I have several friends struggling with chronic pain right now, so it’s time to resurrect the “When Someone You Love” series. Here are some thoughts and tips on caring for people with chronic pain.

Believe in Pain You Cannot See
Unfortunately, we humans often only pick up on, and respond to, obvious signs of suffering: scabs and angry bruises, someone grimacing or limping, a limb wrapped in a brace or cast. Physical signs of pain trigger our compassion and helpfulness. But consider this—there are hundreds of conditions that cause physical pain which are invisible to others.

It can be difficult to accept that someone is in pain if you can’t see changes or limitations. So here’s your first opportunity to care well—believe your loved one when they say they are in pain. Tell or show them that you believe them. Ask how you can make adjustments or accommodations to make daily life more manageable for them.

Affirmation over Easy Answers
For many, chronic pain leads to challenging side effects: isolation from beloved friends and activities, irritability, physical and emotional fatigue, and loss of mental sharpness. Simple, everyday tasks become arduous challenges. Getting dressed winds you like running a 5k. Writing a daily report has the gravity of a dissertation. When you roll this nasty jumble of side effects together, you’re left feeling discouraged and disconnected. Less alive. Less you.

If one of your beloveds is in pain, then YOU are one of the best caregivers they could find. You’re even better than their doctors because you know who they are underneath all this pain. You can see what has changed and what has not. So, in real moments, tell them how you see their spirit or their strength shining through the pain. Have they done or said anything lately that displays their unique personality? Simply letting them know how and when you see them will be life-giving.

And please, steer clear from clichés or easy answers like “it’ll get better soon” or “God won’t give you more than you can handle” or “focus on the positive.” Caregiving clichés are like wielding a velvet hammer. Despite good intentions, they make suffering people feel like they are failing or inadequate, and they often amplify feelings of weakness. With some careful thought you’ll be able to do something much better—speak words that are true about them. Words that are empathetic and truly soothing.

Connect with Coping Skills & Self-care
Back in my chaplaincy days, I often asked my patients to reflect on times of pain or difficulty in their past. With those in mind, I’d then ask what worked, and what didn’t. How did they face those challenges head on? What things helped them get through an hour, a day, or a week? What kinds of practical support did they need from others?

This reflective process acknowledges that they are an important voice (even an expert voice) in their own care, and it reminds them that they already have valuable internal resources from which to draw.

Chronic pain may be new for your loved one, but you’ll find that coping skills and coping support are amazingly flexible. They tend to adapt to new scenarios. Help your loved one remember what’s worked in the past and encourage them to try it out now.

Other than coping skills, chronic pain sufferers need to practice self-care. Over the past three months, I’ve spent hours resting, and icing and heating my hurting back—otherwise known as caring for myself—but I’m often emotionally drained. Self-care for me right now is not the things I do everyday to get through the pain. Self-care is doing the things that nurture my soul when I’m healthy.

Last week I had what I call “a good pain day” so I went out, bought a movie ticket and a lime Diet Coke, and settled into the local theater’s leather recliner. This is one of my favorite me-time things to do. Unfortunately, the chair was too soft for my back so I didn’t make it through the whole film before I went home, but I was sublimely happy that I got out of the house and enjoyed half of a good movie. That outing restored my positivity for several days.

What does your loved one normally do to nurture their body/soul/spirit when they are healthy? Can they continue that self-care routine despite their pain? If so, encourage them stay engaged in these things.

Beware Treatment Suggestion Fatigue
Treatment Suggestion Fatigue is my evil pet name for a very real thing for chronic pain sufferers. When we share about our struggles with family and friends, these well-meaning people barrage us with advice.

“Have you heard of Dr. Adams and his revolutionary treatment?”

“Have you ever tried cryotherapy?”

“You should ask for vicodin. That’s the good stuff.”

“I just read about the wonders of fish oils!”

“My grandmother’s chicken soup cures all.”

“Physical therapy helped me after I broke my leg.”

Please hear this, friends. You all have different opinions of what is best, and what worked for you or your grandma. But what worked for you might not work for me. The pain of a broken leg is very different from nerve pain. You might rush toward prescription narcotics, but I may have five very important reasons why I won’t or can’t use them. So be cautious of how and when and what you suggest.

As a rule of thumb, ask a question before you make a suggestion. The questions “what have you tried?” and “are you looking for suggestions?” are far more caring than any sentence that starts with “you should try” or “for me the answer was…” Pain sufferers will hear the difference in your words. Asking questions first shows that you respect them as the intelligent, intuitive keeper of their body.

Special Note: When Chronic Pain is Here to Stay
Sadly, there are many painful conditions and diseases that last for years, even lifetimes. While most of us will celebrate an end to our chronic pain, for some pain will be part of their new normal. This type of chronic pain is a different beast altogether and deserves its own post, but I want take a moment to address this reality.

Overall, I encourage you to be compassionate — both to your loved one and to yourself — to be flexible, and to be keen listeners.

I’ve noted that dealing with pain effects mood and personality. It’s also true that long-endured struggles tend to change us. When chronic pain becomes lifetime pain, it will likely alter your beloved’s personality permanently. (Pause and read that last sentence again.) You’ll need to wrestle with and accept that they may never return to the same person you knew before the pain came. They may be more irritable, less positive, or have a new edge to their humor. But don’t give way to discouragement! The changes won’t be all bad.

My bouts with chronic pain have made me more sensitive and compassionate to others in pain. They’ve helped me let go of my need to be in control. I’ve learned to acknowledge and accept limitations, to be kinder to myself, to ask for help, and to really believe that needing help doesn’t mean I’m weak or pathetic. It means I’m human.

All of this ultimately encourages and challenges me to entrust more of my life to the all-powerful, loving God I worship. And in doing that, I become more whole.

May God bless you, caregiver, with abundant grace and peace. May you use the overflow to nurture your beloved’s health — body and soul. I pray for swift healing and for many moments of joy in the waiting.

Much love,
Corrie

What To Do with all of your Feelings about the Stanford Rape Case

Like many of you, I’ve been reading the daily articles about the Brock Turner rape case. And like many of you, I have strong feelings about Emily Doe’s rape and the fallout. Here’s what is churning in my gut… Compassion for Emily Doe’s pain. Disgust over Turner’s senseless act of sexual violence. Deep angst toward his apparent ignorance of the real issue—his reprehensible rape of a woman—and his lack of repentance for his crimes. Anger at Turner’s attorney for victim blaming during the trail. Outrage at Judge Persky’s sentencing and rationale. Helplessness that we live in a world so selfish and broken that any person would rape another.

All of these emotions leave me feeling very raw and weary. A small part of me wishes that Emily’s story didn’t affect me. I wish I could ignore this whole atrocity, turn away from the news, and protect myself from these terrible feelings; but I can’t. Thankfully, the larger part of my heart doesn’t want to turn away because Emily’s story is important and personal to me.

I live and work three miles from Stanford University. I may have passed Emily in Trader Joe’s. I may have steered my car around Brock Turner as he cycled to class on campus. These young people are my neighbors. Palo Alto is the community where I minister.

These events also feel personal because I worked with college students for six years. The things I witnessed among developing adults motivated me to understand abuse and to later become an abuse educator and victim’s advocate. When I was a hospital chaplain, I met with a few rape victims just hours after they were assaulted. As a pastor, I’ve supported many women who have been raped, molested, and abused in other ways. Reading Emily Doe’s story makes me recall a hundred other stories that I hold in the shadowy recesses of my heart.

Even though I haven’t experienced the pain of rape myself, the people and stories I’ve encountered in my career have ravaged my emotions. Supervisors advised me to keep an emotional distance in these situations. I really tried in the early years, but then I began to wonder—is there a way to remain impervious when a woman sits next to you and shakes as she recalls the most terrifying hours of her life? Now, I don’t think it’s possible to be fully human in those moments and remain emotionally detached. Not when you’ve heard a victim’s story, held her hand, seen her wounds, and shared her pain-filled silences.

I’m human. And when other humans are suffering, I hurt. Emily Doe’s story, and all of the stories that have rippled out from Brock Turner’s act of violence, hurt me. And from the outrage I see across social media, many of you are hurting too.

So what do I do when another horrifying story of injustice rips me open? What do we do with all these wildly raging emotions when we hear a story of such violence being done against a human being—especially when we aren’t directly involved in the situation?

Use them. Use the emotions.

The best advice I can give you is to gather up all of the emotions you feel churning inside you and turn them into fuel. Let the ferocity of your anger and the raised hackles of injustice motivate you to live a transformational life.

Don’t just be a person who seeks to do no harm to others. Be a person who actively looks for ways to protect the vulnerable, someone who steps forward to advocate for victims of all kinds in your sphere of influence—be it big or small. Our impassioned emotions might lead us to protests and rallies, to sign petitions to hold civic leaders accountable, or to volunteer with organizations that are doing their best to spread justice in our communities.

Not all of us will have the opportunity to directly intervene in an act of sexual violence like the Swedish graduate students, but all of us will have opportunities to care for someone who has been abused. In the United States, someone is sexually assaulted every two minutes. If you know four girls under the age of 18, at least one of them has experienced abuse. The same is true if you know six boys under 18.

Statistics indicate that all of us know or will know someone who has been abused in some way—sexually, emotionally, verbally, or spiritually. This fact may outrage and sadden us, but we don’t have to stop at feeling. We can allow those feelings to shape the way we interact with others. You may not know whom in your life shares Emily Doe’s story, but someone does. So it’s best to always speak and act with kindness because you never know the wounds people are hiding.

Choose to be a person who approaches people who are hurting. Listen attentively to their stories and do your best to understand their circumstances. Allow their painful experiences to expand and fill your stores of compassion. And if you are healthy and able, you might even sacrifice some of your time and ask how you might help carry their burdens or stand in solidarity with them.

For those of you who are shocked by Emily Doe’s story and don’t know much about sexual assault, allow your shock and horror to motivate you to learn about abuse—what it is, its prevalence, causes, and consequences.

If you are a parent or someone with direct influence over children, think critically about what language, attitudes, actions, and proverbs you pass on. Abuse is a learned behavior. You can be an adult who raises up compassionate, respectful, peacemaking children, the kind of children who grow into adults who jump off their bicycles and intervene when they see someone being raped.

And speaking of those two Swedes, I’m reminded that it’s not just the dark emotions of injustice that can change us and make us transformational, compassionate people. Along with all my anger and outrage over the Stanford rape case, there have also been healthy doses of inspiration. Every moment and movement of bravery and resilience and justice in this case has brought healing tears.

…we both have a choice. We can let this destroy us, I can remain angry and hurt and you can be in denial, or we can face it head on, I accept the pain, you accept the punishment, and we move on…Your life is not over, you have decades of years ahead to rewrite your story. The world is huge, it is so much bigger than Palo Alto and Stanford, and you will make a space for yourself in it where you can be useful and happy…

Emily Doe wrote that in her victim’s statement to the court. She wrote that to her rapist. That she is even able to think about Brock Turner’s future makes me stand in awe. Emily’s statement shows me that rape and violence and pain have not won. They are not the end of her story. Emily has not been extinguished by what Brock Turner did to her. Instead, she is rising up out of her horrifying ordeal, it seems, with her own expanded stores of compassion and understanding.

Maybe I’ll meet Emily Doe one day as I live and work near her. Maybe I won’t. But I’m so thankful that she had the courage to write and share her statement, her story. Emily, you’ve reminded me again of the beauty of the human spirit. You shine with it. Your story reignites my desire to be an advocate and a peacemaker, someone who is as kind to the grumpy woman in line at the grocery story as I am to someone who comes to my office for counseling.

Thank you to Emily Doe, and to all of the Emilys who have shared your stories with me over the years. Your pain has changed me. Your ability to overcome, and seeing you reemerge to life, has taught me how to endure and learn from my own hardships. Because of you, I choose to live in a way that helps others heal and thrive.

 

Most importantly, thank you to the two men who saved me, who I have yet to meet. I sleep with two bicycles that I drew taped above my bed to remind myself there are heroes in this story. That we are looking out for one another. To have known all of these people, to have felt their protection and love, is something I will never forget.

Today is The Day

In 2008 I lived in Pennsylvania and worked long hours in college student development. In the few spaces of quiet and solitude in my busy life, I noticed an unexpected theme.

Whenever I listened to the radio I heard bulletins about the huge need for foster homes in my area. Recruitment billboards blanketed our country roadways. These ads pinched my soul, but I ignored that pinch for several reasons: I was single, young, lived on a college campus, had a low income, and worked irregular hours. I thought I was far from an ideal foster parent candidate. So when I heard and saw those ads, I just prayed. I prayed for the children in need, for their social workers, for foster parents to step forward, and kept living.

But then something strange happened. I started having dreams where children were calling to me. Sometimes it was one voice; other times a few. And here’s the kicker — the kids called me mommy.

In my life up to that point, I remembered the content of four dreams. Four. (I’m sure I dream often, but I can’t recall them when I wake.) So when you remember a handful of dreams in 28 years and then you regularly dream about children calling you mommy, you start paying attention.

My mentors urged me not to ignore this, as odd and unsettling as it was. So I talked to God about it. I waited and listened. After a few months of billboards, radio pleas, the dreams, and the inner pinch, I began to see it all as an invitation. An invitation to what, I didn’t know, but I decided to honor it as something, and took action.

I attended a foster care information session to hear more about the need in my county. There were some brutal statistics and compelling stories that left me rattled. After that I prayed more and looped in my family and closest friends. I continued processing with mentors. A few weeks later I signed up for training classes. I was still unsure of what I was being invited to do, but I hoped the process would help me figure that out.

20160429_230447_001On February 5, 2009 — after months of classes, interviews, paperwork, and home inspections — the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania licensed me as therapeutic foster parent. I started the process feeling curious and a bit afraid of where this might lead. By the time I was licensed, my curiosity had morphed into a profound sense of calling.

For me, becoming a foster parent is about doing Kingdom justice. God grieves that children are abused, neglected, and traumatized. For as long as there has been brokenness in the world, God has called his people to care for the vulnerable, especially children.

America — one of the richest countries on earth per capita, and the country with the most Christians — has over 400,000 children in the foster system. A quarter of those children could be adopted today. TODAY. And yet so many of our vulnerable children are stuck in the system and have little hope for a permanent home. In the county where I live, there are currently 1,300 foster children and only 150 active foster families. Foster youth are at much greater risk of becoming victims of human trafficking. Up to 33% of foster children who age out of the system will become homeless.

Not only does this grieve God, as an adopted child of God, it hurts me.

I cannot do nothing.

 …learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow. Isaiah 1:17

A lot has happened in my life since 2009. I’ve been waiting for the right time and place to go through the licensing process again. Now is that time. During this long wait, I’ve observed and supported friends who’ve both fostered and adopted children through the system. I’ve read a stack of books on childhood trauma, abuse and neglect, and the developing brain. I’ve watched every documentary I can get my hands on. I have my eyes wide open.

I’ve seen how difficult, uncertain, and painful fostering can be. But my fears have crumbled under the strength of my resolve.

20160430_135554 (1)Today I began the licensing process again. I hope that by September I’ll be sharing my life and home with a child in need. And if the circumstances are right, if the state permits and God wills, I’ll adopt that child so she or he can have a safe and stable home forever.

Foster caring is not a fairytale. It’s not a story where I will be a savior. It’s not an “easy way to build a family.” It’s not a simple solution for infertility, and it may not be a healthy choice for an unmarried person who just wants kids.

Caring for vulnerable and wounded children requires sacrifice. It disrupts comfortable lives with waves that can ripple for months, years, and even decades. It amplifies stress and causes pain and heartache. It makes uncertainty part of your daily life. It requires all the patience, attentiveness, compassion, and strategic thinking we adults can muster. But I believe all this sacrifice and effort are worth any risk.

Vulnerable children are worth everything we have to give.

I’m not doing this to be noble; I expect this will be the most difficult thing that I will ever do. I’m doing this to obey God’s call on my life. I’m doing it because it’s a branch of God’s justice that I am well equipped to join.

To be honest, I have concerns. How will I handle the first or fiftieth public tantrum? How will I adjust to more eating-in, less sleep, and following a strict budget? How will I respond to the criticism of others who don’t understand what it takes to raise a traumatized child? Will my work suffer? What will I do if my child becomes violent?

I’m concerned, but I am not afraid. I feel courageous. And that can only be the work of the Holy Spirit.

I’m also wise enough to know that I cannot do this alone. Thankfully, God has placed me in a church that has over 15 foster and adoptive families. I also have incredibly supportive parents. My closest friends are on standby for middle-of-the-night phone calls. But I also need you.

I need you to pray for me. For everything.

I’ll need your favorite kid-friendly recipes; your hand-me-down clothes, bikes, and books; and whatever parenting hacks you can pass on that might simplify my life.

I’ll need your encouragement and your hugs. I’ll need you to listen to me vent and doubt and process. I’ll need your calm logic when I’ve reached the end of mine.

I’ll need you to keep me laughing. To help me not sweat the small stuff. And I may even need you to cry with me.

Please keep me close.

Only God knows what the next months and years hold for me. But today is the long-awaited day that something new begins. However my life and my soul are challenged and changed, I hope that I will be able to help at least one vulnerable child.

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A Good Friday Lament for Child Loss and Childlessness

Good Friday is a day for difficult reflection. It’s a day we remember a tragic death. We remember that Jesus hung on a cross to die for the sins of the world.

This year I was asked by a neighboring pastor to lead a Good Friday service for his church. It was a unique request–could I lead a service of lament and remembrance for those who have suffered miscarriage or infertility? As we talked, prayed and planned, we decided to expand the service to minister to anyone who has experienced any kind of child loss or childlessness: infertility, miscarriage, stillbirth, SIDS, failed surrogacy or adoption, abortion, or any other circumstance.

As a former hospital chaplain assigned to the high-risk pregnancy and neonatal intensive care units, I had an idea where to begin. As an aunt to two miscarried babies, I knew something of the sensitivity needed.

So we began with lament. We set our pain and grief before God through corporate readings and song. We prayed and poured out our hearts before the Lord.

From there we moved into acts of remembrance and healing. We lit 41 candles for children lost or hoped for. I anointed sisters and brothers with oil for healing of body and spirit. We went to the communion table and received Christ’s body and blood so that God would sustain us as we heal, and wait, and hope.

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Then we let Jesus’ words minister to us through Lectio Divina:

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is kind and my burden is light.      Matthew 11:28-30

I wrote a prayer of response to this whole movement of souls:

Jesus Christ, Son of God who hung upon the cross in agony—
Remember our suffering, sorrow, and loss.
Help us come to you when we want to run and hide.
Replace this heavy yoke of grief with one that is kind and easier to carry;
We need your holy rest.

Living and eternal Savior,
Heal and restore us.
Gently teach us how to live with joy.
Resurrect our hope that you are good at all times and in every way.
Supply the resilience we need to live in broken bodies and a broken world, until you
Come and make all things new.


Too often the church remains silent about the pain and grief we experience because it make us (pastors) uncomfortable. Or, we tell ourselves, that the plans we have for our services and sermons can’t be interrupted. But child loss and childlessness burdens too many people for the church to ignore this pain.

1 out of every 10 couples experience infertility.

At least 1 in 4 women will experience a miscarriage in her lifetime.

God lost his one and only son to death.

The church should be a safe place to cry out our every pain and suffering. A place to weep. A place where we give ourselves over to the mysterious, healing work of the Holy Spirit. A place where we stretch our empty arms toward the God who knows our loss.

So tonight a small branch of the church gathered. Tonight we cried out like God’s people have done for centuries. We sat in the quiet–waiting, listening–and expecting that God was at work in us.

At the end of this Good Friday, we left candles burning before the cross and went home knowing that God heard our prayers.

May resurrection and new life come soon.

Missing is Good

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Photo by Greg Rakozy

I miss singing with a choir. The heat of bodies standing close. That gently gathered breath before the first note. The intensity of listening to others. Voices jabbing notes, caressing others. The intricacies of rhythm, of adjusting tone, shape, and volume to let the music tell its story. The dance of the conductor. The hush after the last note.

I miss acting. Bringing story to life through speech and silence, movement and stillness, light and fabric and color. This grown-up version of pretend is a dazzling work of imagination, play, experimentation, planning, and instinct. Oh, the nerves that made me pace and cough before a performance! The buzz in my ears and fingertips and toes when I stepped onto stage. The pride of captivating an audience and using their energy to fuel a palpable art. The satisfaction of hanging up your costume and turning off the lights for the night. The eagerness to do the same thing tomorrow.

I miss playing euchre with Midwesterners. The long, cold winters that forced us into one another’s homes for an evening of cards and laughter. The elaborate table talk my mother and her best friend developed over years of teaming up against their husbands. The house rules that were debated and haggled over at each new table. Even when you lost a match you made a friend, because that’s how Midwesterners roll.

I miss holding baby nieces and nephews. The trembling newness of being an aunt. Of being part of a tribe to welcome little ones into the world. Making my littles laugh. Joining their babble. Kissing fat cheeks and singing them to sleep. The joy of handing them to their parents when a diaper needed changing. Chubby hands curled around my fingers as they toddled. Reading and writing them stories to grow on.

I miss living in Hawaii. The sweet smell of my morning walk to work. The chill of afternoon rain falling from cloudless indigo skies. And then the majestically puffy cloud ranges. The brilliantly green geckos. Church potlucks, a revolutionary fusion of pan-Asian Polynesian dishes and SPAM. Chickens crossing the road. Waves crossing the road. Courteous, unhurried driving. Living the aloha way.

I miss summer nights in Ohio. The cricket symphony. Chasing the glow of fireflies with neighbor kids. Driving down country roads with my brother, the windows down, our arms sticking out and slicing through the wind like plane wings.

I miss living two buildings away from my best friend.

I miss a lot of things. So much has come and gone in my life, but I’m not sad. I’m not wallowing or wishing for something else.

Missing things is fine. It’s healthy. It reminds me that I’ve experienced so much of life’s utter beauty. I’ve witnessed. I’ve noticed. I’ve grasped. I’ve risked. I’ve joined. I’ve welcomed.

Missing is goodness that moves you.

Missing is not the same as regret. It notices change and acknowledges loss. Sometimes missing aches, but it isn’t always painful. Missing does not judge the things that fill my life now. It doesn’t look at the differences between now and then and say — if only. It says instead — how rich!

Sometimes, like tonight, missing things is an invitation. A whispered gift.

Maybe missing things matures our thanksgiving. It’s easy to be thankful for what we have and hold dear now. It’s more to be thankful for the things we used to have, experiences we can’t relive, people we’ve said goodbye to, and moments that will never shine the same way twice.

When we miss, but live happily, curiously, and hopefully — then missing is an act of worship.