Silencing Pain

As I wrote yesterday’s post, about the fact that health is not a virtue, I realized that I am pretty fired up about the stigma and shaming that many of my clients (and so many of the folks that I have met in various health communities) are facing.  It is a real, daily, painful struggle. And this shaming of our experiences means that we are not honest with ourselves.

I have lost count of the number of times that I have had someone  tell me that they truly believe their illness–or their pain, or their anxiety–is a result of their own personal weakness.  Worse than that, we have received this message–that our pain is weakness–from people who we should be able to trust for support.  We’ve heard it from health care providers.  We’ve heard it from family members.  We’ve heard it from friends or supervisors.  And maybe most painfully, we have heard it from ourselves.

I’m guessing you have been in this struggle too.  Maybe you aren’t facing depression, or heart disease.  Maybe you aren’t dealing with diabetes or anxiety.  Maybe you are one of the lucky ones whose physical and mental health are pretty solid.  Even if you are, I think you can relate.  Think about the last time you were sick–the flu, a nasty cold, a seasonal bug.  Did you really let yourself get the full amount of rest and recovery that you needed?  Did you head to bed and stay there until your body was on the way to health again?  Or did you push yourself–back to work, to household chores, to family responsibilities?  If you did push yourself (which is the most common answer), take a moment to ask yourself why that is.  For some of us, the answer is that we have limited sick time, or limited support–and we feel that other responsibilities beat our own recovery.  For others, it is that we want to “tough it out.”  We want to prove that we can be tougher than the germs.

And I think that we want to be tougher than the germs because we believe that we will be judged for taking the time to recover properly.  We have drunk the Kool-Aid, and we believe on some level that health is a virtue–even though it is not.  But if we follow that logic, and health is a virtue, than our illness, whether it’s a summer cold or cancer, must be blameworthy.

So imagine the relentless silencing that folks with chronic illness face.  The pressure to “show healthy” is intense.  Maybe we need to think about the possibility that the shaming and blame stories about our pain are contributing to our pain.  Maybe it is time to break the silence.  Maybe, if pain or depression or fatigue prevent us from participating in our daily life, we can practice saying that–to ourselves at first, and then to others.

I invite you to start by sharing your pain story with me here in the comments.  Please let me know if you need additional support.

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Health is NOT a Virtue

I think it is safe to say that my most popular posts since I began writing were the series I put together about what health stigma and healthy privilege are–and how seriously they affect us.  I still stand by the ideas I shared in that series.  Recently, as I have talked to clients, and I have participated in conversations online, I have realized that there is an issue that is directly linked to healthy privilege and health stigma that I didn’t explicitly address in my earlier posts.  And it is this:

Having the privilege of health is not reflective of your virtue as a person or the value of your choices.

Let me be clear about this.  I certainly believe that we have the ability to make healthy choices.  We can strive for good food, rest, and movement.  We can choose relationships that support us instead of relationships that tear us down.  We can seek appropriate physical and mental health care to be sure that we stay as healthy as possible.  We can make healthy choices.  But those healthy choices do not guarantee our health.

We live in a culture that is very focused on individual control.  We want to believe that good choices lead to good outcomes.  And that means that if you struggle with health challenges–emotional or physical–you must not have made good health choices.  Right?

WRONG.

This unspoken idea that good health is a reward for healthy choices is one of the pillars that supports the ongoing stigma of health challenges.  The belief that good health is the result of good choices is a reason that so many people feel blamed or shamed for the illnesses they live through.

The truth is, that no one is guaranteed good health.  Athletes in peak condition die of undetected heart conditions. People who have eaten perfectly their whole lives get cancer.  People with great mental attitudes struggle with depression or anxiety. People with strong work ethics get multiple sclerosis or rheumatoid arthritis.  Making healthy choices certainly improves our odds of experiencing health in life.  But we don’t get a guarantee.

We would like a guarantee.  We want to feel that good is rewarded.  We want to believe that our choices ultimately control our experiences.  But we live in a world where our genes, our environment, and sometimes, just our spin of the luck wheel determine our experience.  And I think that our society sometimes takes that wish for a guarantee and uses it to shame and blame people who are facing health challenges.  Because if other people can make healthy choices and still face illness, then we might be at risk for illness too.  Because we want to deny the fact that sometimes good health is good luck.

Since this lightbulb went on, I have seen this attitude in so many places.  And I think that we need to call it out.  Health is a goal.  It is a gift.  But health is not a virtue.  

Let’s have that conversation.

Oh–and just to have some outside perspective, check out this long list of “Virtues of Moral Personhood (note that health isn’t on there anywhere):”

How Does Joy Move You?

I run into a dilemma with many of my clients. Maybe it’s a dilemma you have faced too. Here’s how this goes. I know, from current research (piles of it, by the way), that one of the most effective things my clients can do to cope with and reduce anxiety, stress, or depression is to participate in some form of regular exercise.

And when I ask about exercise, I get a range of responses.  Some of my clients have a regular exercise that they do and enjoy.  Some had an exercise that they enjoyed before they got sick, or lost their job, or went through whatever struggle has brought them to me.  Some were traumatized by grade school gym class, and view exercise as a thinly-veiled form of torture.  Some just see it as another chore to try to cram into their already-overflowing schedules.

So the idea of exercising is one that is often connected to a series of complicated emotions.  Three of the big emotions that get linked to exercise for many folks are guilt, fear, and grief.    Let’s unpack those a little bit more.  Guilt is one of the most common responses to the idea of exercising–nearly everyone has a “should” about their own exercise experience.  Many of us have also had moments of feeling physically inadequate or shamed, and so exercise has taken on a “monster under the bed” quality.  We know we are supposed to do it, but we are pretty sure it will hurt, or we won’t do it “right.”  And, some of us have had wonderful relationships with exercise.  Then an injury, illness, or simply life getting crazy got in the way of that relationship, and now we think of exercise with an emphasis on what used to be–and that reminds us of a painful loss.

In the last year or so, I have encountered an idea supported by several physical therapists I respect.  And that is the idea of moving away from trying to exercise, and moving towards a goal of joyful movement.  This means that we start to think about the fact that our bodies are designed to be in motion.  That motion doesn’t need to fit our traditional model of “exercising.”  That motion doesn’t have to happen at a gym.  That motion doesn’t require that you “feel the burn” or break a sweat.  Instead, you might dance in your kitchen (this is a favorite of mine), or play with your dog, or take a turn on a swing set.  That motion might in fact help you feel more comfortable in your body instead of as though your body is failing.

So, I’d like to challenge you to break out your creative thinking and find some ways to move joyfully through your life today.  Feel like sharing?  I would love that.  Need some help finding your joyful movement?  We can talk about that.

Time to Play!

This weekend is one of my favorite weekends of the year at our local zoo. This weekend is the Great Pumpkin Smash–when all of the animals at the zoo have the opportunity to play with pumpkins. The lorikeets will eat them, the otters will throw them about in the water, the gorillas will punch holes in the side to get at the meat, and the elephants will scoop them up whole and smash them with their trunks. A great time will be had by all–including me. I think that one of the reasons that I love the Pumpkin Smash so much is that it is the pure embodiment of playing. None of these animals need the pumpkins. They all get fed regularly. But the pumpkins are a special treat, and special treats bring out playful responses–whether you’re a grown-up human or a busy otter.

The Pumpkin Smash reminds me that we all need play in our lives.  In fact, research has suggested (and the popularity of adult coloring books seems to support) that adults need play at least as much as kids do.  Taking time to play is how we increase our ability to cope with the tough moments that life inevitably throws at us.  Play is a natural resilience-booster (plus it’s FUN!!)

Here are some of my favorite ways to play:

  • A fierce game of cards
  • A satisfying board game
  • A turn on a flying swing
  • A walk through crunchy leaves
  • A full-tilt game of Capture the Flag–preferably staged around a giant playground
  • Re-watching the Princess Bride
  • Hiking a new trail
  • Bike races
  • Roller skating
  • Trampoline bouncing
  • Great concerts

Have you played recently?  If not, what is holding you back? Are you worried about your dignity? Have you lost touch with your sense of play?  If any of that is true, I’d love to invite you to find a way to play this weekend.  If you’re here in Kansas City, come out and watch some pumpkin smashing.  If you’re not–try a turn on a local swing set.

Care to share how you play?  I’d love to hear in the comments.

Embrace Joy

I promise that not every post in November will have a Royals reference or inspiration. But I was fascinated by how people from different places looked at a similar event and interpreted it differently. During the final World Series game this year, the Royals were behind until the 9th inning. They tied it in the 9th, and then held out until a spectacular 5-run 12th inning. From the 9th to the 12th, the Royals dugout was filled with people who were unabashedly excited. They made it to the seventh game of the World Series last year, after a 29 year playoff drought. They could taste the win. And they looked like this:

I saw that, and I saw the pure joy of getting close to the dream of a lifetime. (Fair enough, I’m not a New York Mets fan.) It made me so happy to watch that happiness. But I heard someone else describe the joy and excitement that I watched over those last four innings as “childish.”

And it made me wonder–how often do we avoid expressing our joy because we don’t want to appear childish or immature? How often do we shut ourselves down, because we are afraid that openly expressing our sense of wonder or excitement will lead to others censoring or judging us? How often are we unwilling to grin and bounce up and down because we are afraid that openly showing our joy will cause it to be taken from us?

It also made me wonder–how often do we see the joy of others as a threat to ourselves? How often are we the ones judging or censoring?

There is so much pain in the world.  There are so many moments of true suffering that each of us will face.  I think that makes it even more important to notice the moments where we can be joyful and grab on to them with both hands.  When joy comes along, pull it close to you and soak it in.  We got to do that in Kansas City this week, and it felt incredible.

Let me know if you have a moment of joy that you want to share in the comments.  And, if you are struggling to find or embrace your own joy, please feel free to reach out for support.

Image Credit: Top–CBS Sports, Bottom–PBS

In the Moment

So, if you follow me on Facebook or Twitter, it might have been hard to miss the fact that I am from Kansas City, and that our baseball team, the Kansas City Royals, just won their first World Series in 30 years.  If you are a baseball person (or you watched my tweets through nail-biter games that stretched to 14 and 12 innings), you know that the Kansas City Royals have built a reputation for being a team that doesn’t quit, doesn’t get discouraged, and that will keep on working to create opportunities even if they are down late in the game.  Now, it might be hard to believe from my social media presence lately (or from the fact that I have now referenced the Royals in two separate blog posts), but I am not a huge baseball fan, normally.  I’m not a huge sports person, normally.

However, like so many others, I have found myself absolutely pulled in to the experience of this particular Royals team.  And, last week, I was able to recognize one of the factors that I appreciate the most about how they play.  I was listening to an interview about the Royals, particularly about their success in come-from-behind victories.  And the interviewee said something like this, “These guys aren’t focused on making up for a mistake, or on their image.  They focus on what needs to happen right now–the pitch, the swing, the catch, the throw.  They are fully in the moment, and that keeps them in the game.”

In that moment, a bell rang for me.  The Royals players are practicing baseball mindfulness.  Instead of listening to the relentless peanut gallery–in the stands or in their heads–they are completely engaged in the task at hand.  They are in the moment.  And being in that moment allows them to succeed, even when the odds are fully against them.  Because the odds don’t have any pull when you are creating your own experience from moment to moment.

So, my invitation to you today is to be in the moment.  Set aside your distractions.  Hit the mute button on your inner peanut gallery.  Allow yourself to focus on what needs to happen right now.  Then do that.

Feel free to let me know an “in the moment” experience in the comments!

Image Credit: Kansas City Star

So You Missed the Starting Gun–Start Anyway!

Since 2006, blog writers have been answering the NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) challenge–in which novelists try to complete a book in a month–with NaBloPoMo (National Blog Posting Month. The NaBloPoMo challenge is to write a blog post every day of the month of November. Now, if you are a date savvy reader, you might notice that today is November 4th instead of November 1st. Which means that I missed the start of the NaBloPoMo challenge by three full days.

To be fair, I am from Kansas City, and in the last three days, we have been a tiny bit preoccupied with all things related to the Kansas City Royals and their scrappy World Series win.   But the truth is, that the challenge started on November 1st,  and there is no possible way that, by starting today, I can actually write a blog post for every day in November.  Despite my diligent efforts to the contrary, sometimes, when it comes to my writing and other work, I am a bit of a perfectionist.  That was on full display in my brain today, as I wrestled with whether or not to try the challenge anyway.  I knew that my NaBloPoMo would be three days short.  Some part of me hates that fact.

As I kept thinking about it though, I realized that this is a fantastic opportunity to walk my talk.  I made the choices that prevented me from starting on time.  And I am okay with those choices–I wouldn’t give up the family time, or the record-setting game time, or the amazing city-wide celebration time.  Those memories and experiences mean more to me than a perfect 30 post streak.

I made choices. I am happy with those choices.  And I want to participate in NaBloPoMo.  I think that a lot of the pain in our lives comes from moments when we create an either/or experience when we have the chance for an and experience.  By starting on November 4th, I will still have the chance to write 27 NaBloPoMo posts.  I will still challenge myself to meet a goal and stretch myself.  And I will have the wonderful, irreplaceable memories of the last three days.

There are tons of times in life when we face a missed start.  All too often, we talk ourselves out of creating an and moment.  We accept the false dichotomy that our past choices have to dictate our choices today.  We forget that we retain the power to continue to choose.  We retain the power to start anyway.  We have the ability to create our own start.

So, I’m starting late, but I’m starting anyway.

Is there a late start you want to try?  Feel free to share in the comments, or to reach out for support.

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