Louie came into my life 14-years ago as a 2-pound pipsqueak with an attitude 10x his size. He "had me at hello" and, because of that fact - a fact he seemed oddly aware of... for a puppy - he quickly trained me. Yep, you read that right. Nevertheless, Louie stole my heart and I happily allowed him to. In fact, my ex used to say, "If Louie and I were hanging off a cliff and you could only save one of us...you'd save Louie!" Well, I didn't say it.
Unbeknownst to me, Pekingese pups are prone to all sorts of musculoskeletal problems - hip dysplasia, luxating patellas, slipped discs, and arthritis. Louie won the lottery of health, much like his Momma and, by the time he turned 10-years old, he was plagued with them all. Great - I'm in chronic pain...and now my dog is too?!
I quickly learned all that I could about each disease and began doing whatever I could to help manage his CP. We've tried a gamut of medications, laser therapy, physical therapy, acupuncture, Chinese herbs, supplements, homemade food, prescription food, ice packs, massage...CBD oil (no joke) - if you've read the "Meet Christina" section on our KCPC website, this sounds strangely familiar, eh? I figured I'd approach Louie's CP the way in which I approached mine. And, that's just what I did...as crazy as it may sound to some of you.
However, I wound up learning more from Louie and his CP than I taught him - more than I ever thought possible...and just maybe, you can too!
1. There's no time for a pity-party.
There's a famous quote from D.H. Lawrence that reads, "I never saw a wild thing sorry for itself. A small bird will drop frozen dead from a bough without ever having felt sorry for itself."
I used to volunteer at our local animal shelter and the tragic stories that were written into their life stories was stuff that nightmares are made out of. Some of them would need their legs amputated, or had gone blind because of the abuse they endured. Animals have this amazing ability to "keep calm and carry on" - they simply adapt.
As Louie has continued to age in years, so has his body. He's no longer able to go chasing a ballie and slide across the wood floors until the wall stops him, he can't jump on and off the couch or formal living room chairs (something my fabric is grateful for), and he can't "dance" for a treat but, he has adjusted. He has found new favorite things to do and occupy his time with. I realized this one day when I watched him trying to jump up on his little doggie couch...that's right...I said, his little doggie couch. The day before he had no problems trying to clear it...but just one short day later...it was a massive undertaking. I began to cry...and he looked at me as if to say, "what the hell is your problem? Just help me up there!" He didn't care what his new limitations were...I did!
As chronic pain sufferer's we all fall into "pity-party mode." Mine - was epic - you should have been there.
How do you know you're throwing yourself a pity-party? You'll hear yourself say things like, "Why did this happen to me? What did I do to deserve this? I'm obviously being punished for (insert whatever you feel guilty/shameful about). No one understands how difficult this is. I can't do this for much longer - I just want to give up - my life is over anyway."
Perspective and attitude are the very first steps in changing your relationship with chronic pain. They are not easy steps, but they are fundamental steps in moving past your perceived limitations.
2. If you get knocked down, you get right back up again...and again...and again.
A few months ago, Louie lost most of the strength he had in his right hind leg. One morning we woke up and I watched as it seemed to lag behind. Petrified, I rushed him to the vet to where she explained that his slipped discs were likely compressing his spine which was seemingly causing the weakness. We discussed options - one of which was allowing him to remain a "mermaid dog" - meaning that he'd to continue to drag his bottom half as the disease progressed, which she stated, doesn't seem to bother them.
I opted for acupuncture, which he loves and within a few months, he seemed to regain a lot of his strength. Nevertheless, he has good days and bad days. On the bad days, I watch him try to stand up and not quite make it. However, no matter how many times he tries and falls down like a toddler learning to walk, he gets right back up and tries again. Every time, every bad day.
At KCPC, we talk a lot about a willing attitude vs. an unwilling attitude - let me explain. I'd be hard-pressed to find someone who willingly signed up to take on a life with chronic pain - it "just happened to us." Regardless of why we ended up in chronic pain, be it, an accident, an illness, a birth defect - ultimately, we are not responsible for it, we didn't ask for it and we certainly didn't have a choice in the matter.
ALL chronic pain sufferers have the opportunity to move away from an unwilling attitude and walk down another street, however, not all of us choose to do so. Yes, choose. Yes. Choose.
Walter Anderson was once quoted as saying, "I am responsible. Although I may not be able to prevent the worst from happening, I am responsible for my attitude toward the inevitable misfortunes that darken life." A victim mentality is a learned behavior just as much as a victor mentality is - once you understand and accept this, life as you know it, will change. Eventually, getting back up after being knocked down in life will come as naturally as it does to Louie.
3. Get outside, every day.
I once heard Cesar Millan say that he stretches every morning once getting out of bed because that's what his animals do upon rising.
Louie, like most dogs, loves to go outside. What I didn't expect was as happy as it makes him, it also makes me. There are moments my pain is beyond unbearable and a walk just seems impossible but I will force myself to, at the very least, sit outside with him.
Tear yourself away from work or your nearest couch for a few short minutes, change your surroundings and get out into nature. After a few short minutes of the sun shining down on my shoulders, and looking up at the big, beautiful blue sky I can feel my entire mood change...and yours will too!
4. Communicate how you feel + what you need/want.
Louie talks. I know, you're now like, yep, its confirmed...she IS a lunatic. To plead my case, reference the following video. Louie has always been a vocal dog so it's always been fairly easy for me to know what he wants or needs.
Communication is a hard concept for chronic pain sufferers to learn. Complaining isn't communicating. Being short or snippy isn't communicating. Shutting down and isolating yourself isn't communicating. These are ALL mistakes I have made, BIG time. I assumed my loved ones understood my pain and frustrations. I assumed they understood the difficulties and gamut of emotions. They don't. My late father (who managed to beat acute promyelocytic leukemia 10 years prior to losing his brave battle with glioblastoma brain cancer) used to say, "It's not that people don't want to understand pain...it's just that people truly can't understand pain unless they've been in pain." I never understood what he meant until I was in pain.
Sometimes it just comes down to ensuring that you relay to your partner, "Hey, I know this is an important conversation, and I really want to give you my undivided attention, but right now, I'm in a ton of pain. Can we shelf this until I begin feeling a little bit better?" or "I'm so cranky right now because of how I'm feeling - I don't mean to seem short or snippy if I'm coming across that way - I just want you to know it doesn't have anything to do with you." Learning to communicate your "new normal" will prevent the breakdown of your most important relationships.
5. Rest when you need to.
Louie is a strong-willed little spirit - one of the toughest I've ever met, and that's saying a lot. He pushes himself every day, to walk, to play, and to go outside. He wakes up happy and ready to take on the day - even if his body isn't. However, Louie has balance. Sounds funny, right? In all seriousness, there are days I envy how easy it seems for him. For every time he pushes himself, he then rests. Peacefully.
Rest. Perhaps the thing chronic pain sufferer's feel guilty about most. Why? We feel guilty that we're resting, we feel guilty that we're not doing the 27 items on our "to do lists," we feel guilty that we're not exercising, working, playing with our kids, seeing our family or cleaning the house...at the same time. However, rest is imperative. Imperative.
I'll say it once, and I'll say as many times as it takes for everyone to believe me- it takes grit to be a chronic pain sufferer. We're badasses. You may not be the marathon runner badass, or the 14-hour workday badass, or superhuman badass anymore, but like all superheros, you've evolved - into a chronic pain warrior - and that, is badass alight.
6. Enjoy playtime like it's your job.
There are few things Louie loves more than playing. Have you ever watched a dog play? They focus on playing and only playing - it's a dogs way of practicing mindfulness.
Jon Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.”
Mindfulness is an invaluable skill for a person grappling with chronic pain. In fact, this was one of the largest components of education at the chronic pain recovery center I attended in 2013. I'll admit, I was a major skeptic. As chronic pain sufferers being alone with our thoughts and focused on the sensations our bodies are feeling sounds like a fate worse than death. I wanted to escape my pain, not focus on it! Bets are, you agree.
Let me ask you this. How well do you know your pain? Is it all day, without any breaks? Is it "an 11" on a scale of 1-10? Is it everywhere? I promise you, it's not. How can I be so sure? I'm glad you asked! Did you know that on a comparative pain scale a "10" can be considered, "pain so intense you will lose consciousness shortly." Most of us have never experienced pain this intense - think, your legs being crushed in a car accident.
Mindfulness allows us to realistically understand our pain by observing our bodies while also teaching us how to control run away thoughts, emotions and reactions to our bodies.
In 1979, Kabat-Zinn founded mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR). MBSR is used today to help people with problems ranging from insomnia to anxiety to reducing blood pressure, however, he intended MBSR to help chronic pain sufferers!
“In MBSR, we emphasize that awareness and thinking are very different capacities. Both, of course, are extremely potent and valuable, but from the perspective of mindfulness, it is awareness that is healing, rather than mere thinking…Also, it is only awareness itself that can balance out all of our various inflammations of thought and the emotional agitations and distortions that accompany the frequent storms that blow through the mind, especially in the face of a chronic pain condition,” Kabat-Zinn writes in his book, The Mindfulness Solution to Pain.
At KCPC, mindfulness is a cornerstone. To find out more about other effective methods we use to help chronic pain sufferers learn to cope with their pain, click here.
7. Surround yourself with the things you love.
Louie has always been a total snob - to the point of embarrassment. He won't take just any old treat from someone who is offering, he won't allow just anyone to pet him, he won't just play with any old "baby" or "ballie" someone buys him - in other words, he is picky + choosy with how he spends his time, only surrounding himself with things he loves.
As humans we don't always have the opportunity for this luxury - we have to go to work (even if we don't love our coworkers or bosses), pay bills, put up with our spouses/partners, care for our aging parents, and the list of "adulting" goes on and on. By no means am I suggesting you avoid the responsibilities and commitments you have however, by incorporating people, places and things that motivate you, bring you joy or provide encouragement into your daily life, you will reduce stress which, not only helps with contentment in life, but naturally reduces the CP experience.
We know that environment can influence mood. Don't believe me? Try this. Seriously, try it. Go into one of your favorite rooms in your house. Sit there for a while and think about what you love about it. Think about how it makes you feel. The memories you have attached to it. Practice a little mindfulness here. Observe how you feel. Observe. Try not to react. Or judge. Or become anxious. Just notice how you feel. Do you have any pain? Is it tolerable? Is your heart rate low? Now, get up and go into your basement, garage or perhaps your home office - some place in the house that isn't as neat and organized - maybe even cluttered. Sit quietly - and think about how you begin to feel. Are you stressed? Tense? Anxious? Overwhelmed? Notice the connection between your thoughts and emotions. What is your self-dialogue saying? After a few minutes...notice how your pain is. If I were a betting woman, I'd bet that you're beginning to notice your pain more. Which brings me back to Louie's point...surround yourself with things you love. If your surroundings don't foster a healthy energy, change them. I can promise you, it will help your chronic pain.
8. Reward yourself with a treat.
Let's face it, chronic pain sucks - for humans and for canines. However, one thing that Louie is great at, is rewarding himself with treats. Everything in our house is a celebration. I went to the door to go potty? Treat! I woke up this morning? Treat! I ate my dinner? Treat! Louie is convinced that he should get a treat for just being Louie.
Humans are not so good at this concept. We're hard on ourselves. And, most of us seem to forget to follow through on the second part of the old adage that says, "work hard...play hard."
As chronic pain sufferers, we may no longer be able to celebrate the "big wins" we once used to, but who says you can't celebrate the "new wins." Gaining, maintaining and harnessing energy is a chronic pain sufferers super power. Treat yourself to the victory of doing so. The more you do, the more you'll be inclined to consistently output the energy needed to accomplish your new wins.
9. Sometimes, looking good makes you feel good.
After an upsetting grooming accident, I learned how to groom Louie myself. He suffered through a few years of some tragic-looking haircuts, but nothing a few doggie t-shirts couldn't mask for a few days...or weeks. Nevertheless, Louie loves getting his haircut. He falls asleep in my lap (which, upon reflection, could be the catalyst for the tragic doggie do's) and when I'm done and wake him up, I say, "Wow Lou! You look so handsommmmme!" It's his cue to go absolutely bananas. He runs around the house barking and playing until he exhausts himself.
As chronic pain sufferers, sometimes getting up, getting dressed, putting on some make-up, doing your hair or putting on your favorite "skinny outfit" seems like an impossibility...and some days it is. However, on the days you seem to have it in you, try it - I promise it will make you feel like a new version of your old self.
10. Do what you have to do to get better...even if it means wearing "doggles."
Look, let's be honest, Louie doesn't have much say in the matter when it comes to going to vet appointments or taking his medications. However, as a chronic pain sufferer, it can be difficult to follow through...especially when you begin feeling like a human pin cushion...or a lab rat.
In addition to contending with deep infiltrating endometriosis for a decade, I was recently diagnosed with an autonomic disease that causes my resting heart rate to spike into the high 180's (a typical resting heart rate ranges anywhere from 60-90 bpm) After wearing a "recorder" (a heart monitor that records your heart's activity for 30 days, I had had enough. My doctors had not. They referred me out to two new specialists. Awesome.
I was overwhelmed and exhausted so I decided to give myself "a few days off" - from scheduling doctors appointments, arguing with insurance companies and retelling my medical history. Mental and emotional health is just as important as physical health - especially when you're grappling with chronic concurrent illnesses. In no way am I suggesting you delay your health care - what I am suggesting is you do what you need to do to balance your physical, mental and emotional health.
Christina H Chororos is the founder of Kairos Chronic Pain Coaching. Additionally, she is a certified Integrative Wellness Life Coach and has been a chronic pain sufferer since 2008. Christina established KCPC to help other chronic pain sufferers help let go of the life they exist in to create a new life worth living. To find out more, please visit https://www.kairoschronicpain.com