Telling someone you have chronic pain is a bit like saying you see dead people. He or she will look at you in disbelief because while the statement may or may not be true (the only one who knows for sure is me), there is simply no way to prove it. I have had chronic neck pain and unrelenting headaches for twelve years. Yes, you read that correctly. More than a decade of my life has been spent tethered to my heating pad while I search for the elusive cure. A cure that, so far, has not arrived. Early on, when I was going through numerous diagnostic tests as well as an entire CVS worth of medications, everyone who knew me was aware of my pain and inquiring frequently, mostly because I simply looked sick. After several months, when even I got sick of hearing myself talk about it, I decided that everyone else was probably fed up as well but just too polite to tell me to shut up. I decided then that unless someone specifically asked, I would not talk about my neck or head pain. I had one coworker, though, who would ask on a regular basis how my neck was and when I would honestly answer about how much pain I was in, her response was always something along the lines of, “I would never think you’re in any pain. You never act like it at all.” I could never tell if she was complimenting my ability to cover it up or if she simply didn’t believe me.
I guess in a way having this pain for all these years is exactly like walking around accompanied by a ghost. No one knows it’s there but me, and some folks don’t believe it’s there at all. It’s with me wherever I go, haunting my dreams, waking me up in the morning reminding me of its presence. And like a ghost, even science cannot prove its existence. MRI? All clear. X-ray? No evidence. Blood work? Perfect. Take these drugs and you’ll be fine. No, I won’t be fine, thank you very much. I fill my body with pharmaceuticals and I’m still in pain. I have been on 28 different oral medications just for my neck and head pain. I have been injected with three others. I went through four rounds of useless physical therapy. I have collected diagnoses like my husband used to collect stamps. My first was a migraine stamp from the early ‘80s. Then there was the highly collectible “it’s all in your head” stamp. That one, I’m sad to say, is a forever stamp. Here’s my favorite, though. I have a fibromyalgia stamp that was issued around 1999, then purchased by another doctor several years later. He wanted that particular stamp out of my collection, so the diagnosis went away. I bought it back in 2008. Did the fibromyalgia go away and then reappear? No. Just the word on a medical chart. Facet joint restriction and cervical radiculopathy were also added to the mix. Then I received a newly minted diagnosis for my ever-growing collection: cervical myofascial pain syndrome. Then chronic pain syndrome. I would go on here, but the HIPPA police have just knocked my door down.
And so I taught myself how to act. No drama school for me, however; I learned out of sheer necessity. I get up. In pain. I go to work. In pain. But when I walk through the door of my school, the performance begins. I go through my day in a ridiculous amount of pain but I smile. I work. I am a semi-functional human. My coworkers sometimes see me popping Exedrin and at times ask if I am okay; most of the time, though, I can mask the misery with smiles and jokes. I’m like the Hawkeye Pierce of the M*A*S*H unit that is my job; if I don’t make constant jokes about it, I feel that I will completely lose my mind. This is truly Oscar-worthy stuff.
It’s when I return home that the illusion falls to the floor. As my beloved husband watches, the mask of the day melts onto the carpet and I land on the couch, depleted and done with pretending. No need to pretend with him, poor man, he has seen and heard it all. He watches me take my daily naps and only when pressed does he tell me how worried he is about me.
No matter where I am, who I am with, what I am experiencing, or how hard I am trying to just frigging relax, the ghost is still with me. More than one amazing vacation has reached a point during which I broke into frustrated tears, telling Bill how sorry I was that I couldn’t enjoy myself because I was in such pain. Then I feel horrible for having said something because now he is aware that we’ve paid good money for a nice vacation enjoyed by no one. Worse yet, stress makes the pain worse, so the more I tell myself to relax and enjoy something, the more intense the pain is.
I have grown tired of keeping these spirits with me. I would like to be rid of them, but they don’t seem to realize that it is time to go. They hover around me like morning fog that never lifts, an insidious veil of misery that no amount of sunshine can burn through. So I sit and begin yet another drug protocol, painfully yet hopefully awaiting a brighter day. Hope, for me anyway, always arrives in capsule form.