Is this National Chronic Pain Month? I’ve been battling deep pain in my right hip — 14 years after it was replaced — and several of my friends are recovering from surgery or dealing with other painful health issues. With that in mind, I’m posting an earlier essay I wrote after my last hip replacement surgery. . . .
THE GIFT OF RECEIVING
August 29, 2002
A few years ago, when I was diagnosed with osteoarthritis in both hips, I read everything I could find about coping with chronic pain and illness. I was amazed at how often I’d stumble on a paragraph that advised patients to “look for the gift in your pain.”
Pain is a gift? Thanks, but no thanks, I’d mutter to myself. I had just turned 44 and hadn’t planned on slowing down so soon. I still had miles to travel with my journalism career — and a family that included a very active teenager. If pain was my gift, well, where was the return policy?
Within a year of my diagnosis, the disease progressed so quickly that total hip replacement surgery was my only option. By that time, I was unable to walk without assistive devices. Even on a good day, it hurt so much to crawl out of bed that I refused to unplug my heating pad and leave the house. Suddenly I was disabled – and even qualified for a “handicapped” parking permit.
Having been fit and active most of my adult life, I was way too proud to let others watch me struggle on a walker. I hated to appear needy. I started canceling lunch dates and appointments, and tried to hide behind a steely mask of self-sufficiency.
But my closest friends and family didn’t buy any of it. And it was through their patience and love that I finally discovered the “gift” in chronic pain: It slowly unravels your pride and opens you to the boundless generosity of other people.
“Surrender is no small feat in a culture that applauds the strong, the independent, and the self-sufficient,” writes Victorian Moran in Creating A Charmed Life: Sensible Spiritual Secrets Every Busy Woman Should Know (HarperSanFrancisco). “That heroic stuff is fine when the problem is something we can handle through our own self-sufficiency. But nobody climbs a mountain alone.”
Of course, stubborn self-reliance isn’t the sole province of the disabled.
Most women I know pride themselves on being nurturers, fixers, problem-solvers, givers. We’ll supply all the brownies for the bake sale at school after we’ve organized the rummage sale at church. We’ll rearrange our schedules to baby-sit other people’s kids. Just ask, and we’ll triple our workload at the office and still make it to the evening PTA meeting. Yet some of us would rather have a wisdom tooth pulled than ask somebody else for a favor when we need it. As a girlfriend told me recently, “It’s my job to be the glue that holds everyone and everything together. I can’t ask for help.”
The truth is, people who care about us really do want to help — if only we’d drop the mask of total self-sufficiency and admit that we’re not all-powerful all the time.
Discussing the aftermath of September 11 and the clean-up at Ground Zero, a talk show host suggested that if anything positive rose from the ashes of the tragedy, it was that America quickly evolved from a “Me” nation into a “We” nation. As she explained it, even the most self-absorbed among us realized that we cannot function as loners or islands. We need each other.
It was a good lesson for me to review immediately after my first hip replacement surgery. Strapped to a hospital bed and hooked up to several intravenous tubes, I was hit with the sobering reality that I wasn’t going anywhere by myself.
And during the early weeks of my recovery, I had no choice but to graciously accept support from my family and friends. When my husband processed mountains of laundry at home, I tried not to feel guilty. When our neighbors sent casseroles or offered to drive my carpool shift to school, I swallowed my pride and allowed their care to work like a healing balm. And it did.
As hard as it was to surrender, I discovered there’s real strength in vulnerability.
Deep down, I still believe it’s more blessed to give than to receive. And I still believe that putting the needs of others first isn’t such a bad precept to live by — unless it renders you incapable of accepting a favor or asking for help when you really need it.
Nobody climbs her mountain alone.
— This essay is excerpted from my book of published columns and essays, Writing Home (Hearth Stone Books; 2005). It was published in Chicken Soup for the Soul (Healthy Living Series) and reprinted in Catholic Digest, April 2007. It was also featured on Sirius Catholic Radio.