The One Coping Skill You Need to Manage Chronic Pain + Illness...Is One You Already Have
Ville Valo, the longtime Finnish frontman and singer/songwriter of the band HIM is one of my favorite music artists of all time. The group disbanded in 2017, but Ville Valo recently went on to establish a solo career. And so, I have found myself listening to the music that I grew up with… while admittedly wondering if he's still as handsome as ever. Yep – just in case you were wondering – he is. Though we're close in age, I've always been taken by his ability during interviews to express poignant, thought-provoking sentiments while seamlessly lacing in his personal brand of sarcastic humor and wisdom. In one interview I recently watched, he was asked about why he started in music, and his response was the following:
"It's not something you're trying to do; it's something you have to do – in order to exist, I guess. That's the reason I do music – that's how I started. I didn't know how to cope with the world. And then I found an instrument, and through that, I realized that I'm able to cope with the world and it's evils a bit better through writing songs –and that keeps me safe- that's the comforting part."
It got me thinking about how we, as chronic pain and illness sufferers cope with the world – an interesting line of thought, especially when I'm supposed to be an authority on how to cope with chronic pain and illness.
Before you start wondering if I know what in the hell I'm doing – hear me out for a moment.
Coping strategies aren't necessarily something we think about – until we need them. But what are coping skills? Believe it or not, Wikipedia explains it best: Coping means to invest one's own conscious effort, to solve personal and interpersonal problems, in order to try to master, minimize or tolerate stress and conflict. In other words, coping strategies are the things we do to manage ourselves when Life gets a little too unbearable.
We inherently have basic coping strategies – those "defense mechanisms" we're just born with, like that nervous laugh or telling inappropriate (but funny) jokes when uncomfortable. Other strategies we use unbeknownst to us are things like self-medication (which is a form of escape), denial, anxiety avoidance, and/or disassociation.
Chronic pain and/or illness requires a plethora of emotional, mental, and physical strategies to effectively get through each day. We have to come to terms with the fact that our bodies have failed us and that every decision we make from the moment we're diagnosed forward must take chronic pain and/or illness into account…above all else. How can anyone not struggle with that?
Often, it's a "rite of passage" in the chronic pain and illness community to become bitter, angry, depressed, and anxious but some of us stay "stuck" and can't seem to move past what "happened" to us. So, what's the trick? Yep, you guessed it. Learning to cope.
There are two basic coping strategies: Reactive coping (meaning that the coping response follows the stressor) and proactive coping (whereby the coping response precedes the stressor in an attempt to neutralize future stressors). The idea is to develop proactive coping strategies so that when Life decides to smack you around, you're ready for it. There is a real science to this vast topic, and though I had a choice to conventionally write about it, I wanted to write about one coping skill that isn't discussed in formal literature - the gift(s) we're born with.
Whether we've discovered these gifts or haven't yet, we all have something we're "naturally" passionate about in life. For someone like Ville Valo, it's music – for me – it's writing. You may have an inclination for mathematics or science - or art – but whatever it is, it's our superpower. In the words of Ville Valo, it's our unique way of "coping with the world, and it's evils a bit better."
You may be wondering how having a talent or gift can help you cope with chronic pain and illness. Here's how:
As chronic pain and illness sufferers, pain and illness begins to define us – we're no longer the version of ourselves we knew before our illness – we're this new variant…of sickness. I remember the day I finally conceded and went on short-term disability. I had spent seven years building a successful career in sales – I was #1 in the company the year prior – it's how I defined myself. So, when the first morning came that I didn't have to go to work…I was lost. Who the hell was I? I could no longer define myself as an "educational curriculum territory sales manager," so now what? It was in that scary and dark moment I realized I couldn't let titles define me anymore – little did I know that the title of "daughter" and "wife" would soon be stripped of me as well, with the tragic passing of my father and best friend…and a looming divorce -further reinforcing my decision to redefine what defined me.
I decided to search for any semblance of my old self – I took up hobbies like attempting to learn piano (attempting is the operative word) or baking – I studied theology (which I thoroughly enjoyed), but something was still missing. There was such turmoil within me, and I couldn't figure out how to quell it…or dislodge it. I tried my hand at painting, decorating…even knitting for f*ck's sakes. Until one day, desperate, I grabbed a pen and a piece of paper and began to write. By the end of the first paragraph, I could feel the pressure release valve slowly ease. I kept writing – thoughts and emotions finally seemed to have a place to go – to rest. I continued to write – until I realized, writing was always right in front of me.
When I was in high school, I kept a journal. I really just wanted to document all that went with being in love with my high school sweetheart. I didn't realize it at the time, but within that act, I had the luxury of processing every emotion, fear, joy, and doubt. It was cathartic. And when I went to college, I began developing a fictional character loosely based on the absurdities that accompanied my drunken 20's. I read and studied literature. I was fascinated by language – by the notion that the right combination of words can be a catalyst for connection. You see, writing has always been my release. It's the way in which I process the world around me. It's the inherent way I know how…to cope.
All of us have a story to tell. A tragic, beautiful, painful, joyful story interwoven with sharp twists and turns – but we're all given a gift that provides a universal language, an outlet…a way in which to discern and digest all that goes on around us.
The gifts we're given are meant to be shared with one another. Not only will developing and sharing your gift help others, which in turn will help you…but it will change your perspective on the world. You will begin to see things through different eyes –it will serve as an alternate world for you to escape to when pain and illness become too painful – after all, it will keep you safe…and that's the comforting part.
Christina H Chororos, a decade-long deep infiltrating endometriosis (DIE) sufferer, founded Kairos Chronic Pain Coaching in the fall of 2018 and is a chronic pain and illness educator, speaker, and writer.
Christina graduated with honors from Lynchburg University with a Bachelor of Science in Human Development and Education in 2002. Additionally, she obtained an Integrative Wellness Life Coaching Certification from the Integrative Wellness Academy in the fall of 2017, and a Graduate Certificate in Pain Management from the University of Connecticut (UCONN) in the spring of 2020.
Christina is a regular contributor to iPain Living Magazine, a quarterly magazine published by the International Pain Foundation.