Today is one of those days I don’t want the stigma of having chronic pain. I can’t go a week without reading in the paper or on the internet some of the stereotypes about people with chronic pain. Some of these stereotypes includes: it is all in their head, we have adequate treatment for chronic pain, they caused their pain, pain medication doesn’t help, etc.
It can be easier at times to create labels for people and situations we don’t understand. If we can put a label on something that is not desirable, then we can remove ourselves from the unpleasant box. Sometimes labels are necessary and helpful, giving us a pathway to treatment and understanding. Other times, it creates an illusion of control, where we attempt to compartmentalize and ignore those who don’t fit perfectly into a box.
Having the stigma of a mental problem can compound the sense of shame around chronic pain. Mental illness is complex, and may or may not be related to chronic pain. It can be hard to know cause and effect. Did the mental issues come first or the chronic pain? It is important to realize that as far as labels go, it doesn’t really matter. Both mental illness and chronic pain are medical issues where recovery is the desired result. However, not everyone who has chronic pain struggles with mental issues, just as not everyone with mental issues has chronic pain. For those who have the burden of both, it can greatly intensify the shame.
When disclosing about chronic pain, it is helpful for me to understand my own biases and beliefs about my chronic pain. This gives me a greater ability to counteract negative comments from myself or others. If I believe I am not competent, or overwhelm others with my illness, then it is easy to internalize the ignorant comment, or lack of response I receive when I disclose information about my pain. I also will be able to receive compassion and care more easily, when I look for supportive comments. Someone’s silence may actually be then processing the information, or be related to something else entirely. Affirming my strengths is helpful for me to see myself in a holistic light. I have strengths because of who I am, but also because of how my pain has transformed me. As I choose to disclose, I will find that through this process, I will connect with some incredible people, where our unique experiences will unite us because of my disclosure about my pain.