I, like many people, deal with chronic pain. To wake up in pain every day is not the norm for most people I know and I am glad. But since the early nineties, I have learned how to deal with chronic pain.
I made a friend when I moved to Hayesville, NC in 1995. She was a member of our writing group and an excellent writer. Her name is Maren O. Mitchell. One day she shared a manuscript she had written and planned to publish.
Maren had a terrible physical condition that required a major surgery and provoked much suffering. A tumor gone wild in her spine. Doctors had little to offer but addictive pain medicines, so Maren made a tremendous effort to find non-medical methods to face the pain she endured every single day and night.
In her book Beat Chronic Pain, An Insider's Guide, we see how she taught herself to use what she could do herself to mask the pain and continue with her life.
She writes this: September, 1987: The back pain increased; the numbness and skin pain increased. MRIs (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) revealed an intramedullary tumor, a tumor within the spinal cord, five vertebrae in length with cysts top and bottom, most likely an ependymoma or astrocytoma, unclear whether benign or malignant. The neurologist advised me to wait for surgery until either my walking, bladder, or bowels failed. He thought that immediate spinal cord surgery would be more damaging than the loss of one of these functions.
Before the spinal surgery, Maren would undergo removal of her ovaries and Fallopian tube. That eased some of the abdominal pain.
On December 8, 1987, she endured a seven hour spinal cord operation involving a thoracic laminectomy from T4 to T9. The placement of the tumor was unusual. It was inside the spinal cord. The surgery affected both the spinal cord and the nerves that enter and exit the spine.
Much of my own pain is nerve pain and I know what that is like. Awful and very hard to contain.
Maren had to relearn to walk and spent six weeks in inpatient rehabilitation. She found that touch was painful, and everyday activities like talking on the phone, driving, swimming, laughing and sleeping can intensify the pain.
When I think of the pain of fibromyalgia, neuropathy, trigimenal neuralgia, pinched nerves in the back causing sharp and constant pain in the legs and feet, I know what it is like, but still can't imagine pain so bad that my clothes hurt me when they touch my body. Maren has pain when her bedclothes touch her, when she tries to sleep. She learned to cut the toes out of tights and to wear one leg of tights because she needs the close touch at night. Soft touch can be more painful than firm touch for her.
Maren's book is about what she discovered, on her own, she must do to live with chronic pain. We can't depend on pain medications all the time. They create havoc on our kidneys and liver and often patients become addicted to them. Over time, the patient wants more and more of them until nothing helps the pain anymore.
I have read this book more than once. I decided to write about it again because I think the everyone should know about it and read it. If you are lucky and don't have chronic pain, read it to understand those who do deal with this every day of their lives. Often chronic pain is an invisible illness and even family doesn't realize what the patient goes through.
You would not expect Maren to have a great sense of humor, but she does. She is a highly published, intelligent poet and writing is one of the methods that she uses to deal with pain. If you write seriously, you know how you can be transported from your normal life into a story or poem or some other kind of writing, and you forget yourself completely. I have done that.
Another way she coped was to remove her mind from her pain by helping to reduce the pain of others. She found that victims of stroke or accidents who had similar permanent changes in their lives joked and laughed, shared information with each other while beginning their new lives.
Maren and other patients at the hospital where she had surgery were warned by nurses at the hospital about laughing too much. They were told they should realize their situation was serious. But, laughing was also a way to deal with the fear of the unknown future. I know that laughter helps my pain and helps all kinds of healing.
Maren learned that when she was with others, it helped her chronic pain. I have found that to be important for me. I can be in pain and thinking I just can't leave home today, but when I force myself to socialize with friends, to attend classes or invite someone to meet me for lunch, I lose myself in the joy of talking, laughing and just being with another human being. I get lost in teaching writing to adults, and for a short time my pain is pushed way back.
"One must be distracted from pain instead of pain distracting you." Maren says thi, and I know it is true.
Pain drains us of energy so we must carefully plan our activities so we don't over do. I am a list maker. I make a list almost every day of what I hope to accomplish tomorrow. What Maren learned, and I have learned, is that it is Okay if I don't accomplish everything on that list. If I go to the grocery store and it takes me over an hour, I should go home and not run other errands. Trying to do too much on one trip is not the best thing for me. Even though I have five things on my to-do list, I have become accustomed to doing one or two and letting the others wait until later.
Maren says that having animals in her life and nature, gardening, even caring for one plant, helps her deal with the pain. She has a terrific chapter on sleep and what she has learned helps with getting good sleep, so important when dealing with pain. Another chapter is on music and how that aids living with pain. "Music is one of the best medicines from the Gods," she says. I agree with her. I enjoy music and often get up from my computer, tired and hurting. I put on music I love and I will dance. Dancing is good exercise and helps me emotionally and physically.
What I have learned about pain and living with pain the past twenty years or more is that no one can fix it for me. I have to make the decision to get out of the house no matter how bad I feel at the time. I have to stop the pity party before it creeps in. I accept my pain and I accept that I am the one who must deal with it. Maren's book has been helpful to me. I practice many of the methods she uses. I get regular massages to help the muscle spasms. I see my chiropractor on a twice a month basis to relieve the pinched nerves that inhibit my ability to walk, sit or stand to do normal activities. I reach out to others and try to help those I can. I make appointments with friends and family members so I can laugh and enjoy being with them. I make an effort to avoid stress, to eat correctly, to see my medical practitioners on a regular basis, and, most of all, I make a big effort to get plenty of sleep. My friends know I am not an early riser and sometimes when I awake early, I go back to sleep for an hour or two. I am not lazy, but I listen to my body and if it tells me I need a little more sleep, I go back to bed.
I don't make resolutions each year, but I promise myself to see my loved ones, family and friends, more often and spend quality time with them.Throughout Maren's book are her poems which, alone, would make this book worthy of your time, but they add the necessary spice to the recipe for dealing with chronic pain.
Visit Maren's website: http://www.lineofsightpress.com/blog/
Read the many reviews on Amazon.com
I know some of you, my readers, live with pain. How do you manage it and live a normal life?
Bio for Maren Mitchell
A North Carolina native, in her childhood Maren O. Mitchell lived in Bordeaux, France, and Kaiserslautern, Germany, attending local schools and learning French and German. After moving throughout the southeast U.S., she now lives with her husband on the edge of a national forest in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Georgia.
Mitchell has worked in a variety of jobs, from proof reader to miller. She taught poetry at Blue Ridge Community College, Flat Rock, NC, and catalogued at the Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site. For over thirty years, across five southeastern states, she has taught origami, the Japanese art of paper folding. Due to spinal cord surgery when forty, she spent many years learning how to live well in spite of chronic pain.
Mitchell’s poems appear in POEM, The Comstock Review, Slant, A Journal of Poetry, The Pedestal Magazine, Tar River Poetry, Poetry East, Hotel Amerika, Chiron Review, Iodine Poetry Journal, Appalachian Heritage, The South Carolina Review, Southern Humanities Review, The Lake (UK), Skive (AU), The Classical Outlook, Town Creek Poetry, The Journal of Kentucky Studies, Wild Goose Poetry Review, Pirene’s Fountain, Appalachian Journal, The Arts Journal and Red Clay Reader #4.
Her work is included in The Crafty Poet II: a Portable Workshop; The World Is Charged: Poetic Engagements with Gerard Manley Hopkins; The Southern Poetry Anthologies, V & VII; Stone, River, Sky: An Anthology of Georgia Poems; Sunrise from Blue Thunder; Nurturing Paws; and Echoes across the Blue Ridge.
Poems are forthcoming in Tar River Poetry, Slant: A Journal of Poetry, Poetry East, Chiron Review and Hotel Amerika. Two poems, “X Is a Kiss on Paper” and “T, Totally Balanced,” have been nominated for Pushcart Prizes by contributing editors of Pushcart. In 2012 she received 1st Place Award for Excellence in Poetry from the Georgia Poetry Society. Her nonfiction book, Beat Chronic Pain, An Insider’s Guide, (Line of Sight Press, 2012) www.lineofsightpress.com is on Amazon. Interconnecting with writers throughout mountain towns in northern Georgia, she participates in monthly critique groups and public reading venues.
So not only did you teach me about writing memoir, you also taught me about reading and thinking about how others write memoir. Thank you so much! Rebecca