Witnessing (Our Own) Pain

I shift uncomfortably in my chair, worried that people will notice my fidgeting and take it for disrespect. I’m in Nashville for a national crisis center directors’ conference, among some of the dearest people in the world, hearing lots of important stories. And I can’t sit still.

At the front of the room, Samantha Nadler is talking about her experience as a survivor of suicide attempts, and I want to hear. She’s talking about reclaiming her history, about transmuting her past pain into something that helps others. I wince uncontrollably as she talks about some of the things that happened to her.

I feel ashamed of wincing.

I’m not wincing because of her story, though. After a decade of working the lines at a suicide hotline, I feel pretty comfortable witnessing other people’s pain—bringing compassion, kindness, empathy, and warmth to whatever their story holds. That’s old hat, and like any old hand, it takes a lot to shock me.

No, it’s not that. Today, I am wincing because of the pain in my lower back.

I’ve had Lyme disease for the last three years, a torn meniscus in my right knee for the last four, and a badly sprained back for five years. I’ve had migraines for close to half of the days I’ve been alive. Sometimes Lyme disease gives me neurological pain that feels like someone’s stabbing me, and sometimes the inflammation from all my allergies makes everything else feel like my body might just fall apart.

None of this is new. I’m an old hand at this part, too, familiar and practiced at the ways of my body’s pain. I know it pretty well, know when to be scared and when to just get on with it. I don’t honestly remember what it’s like not to be in pain, and I’m used to that.

But today is different.

Two weeks ago, I hurt my lumbar spine putting my bike rack onto my car. A week ago, it took a turn for the worse. Since coming to Nashville for the conference, it’s often been so bad that I can’t sit still. It’s not that moving helps, really, but it feels somehow like doing something must be helpful, somehow.

I wince, ashamed of my inability to control my body.

I want to wear a mask, to present a calm and unflappable exterior, and my body is not playing along. I’m losing control, afraid that I’m going to start crying and make a scene, afraid that I’ll cry out and take the focus off the people sharing their stories at the front of the room. I’m fighting a battle on two fronts: trying to fight the pain, and trying to deny how scared I am.

As I wince again, I remember what I taught my hotline volunteers this week:

You can’t always fix people’s problems. Sometimes witnessing is all you can do.

We teach them to connect with suffering whenever they see it, to gaze with kindness and candor on the tough stuff that callers bring us, to be unafraid as they stand shoulder to shoulder with callers in intense pain. We say “steer toward the pain”.

We ask them to witness other people’s pain, and to do their best not to look away.

It occurs to me that I could try the same approach on myself.

I am afraid. But I start doing my best to pay attention to what’s actually going on with my body, to accept the fact that—right now—the pain is huge and terrifying and overwhelming all my defenses, even though my armor is usually pretty good. I can’t bring myself to accept the pain, really, but I start trying to accept the fact that it is happening.

And, almost miraculously, the process starts to work.

As I write this article upstairs in my hotel room, my back is still killing me. It’s excruciating even through painkillers, but we’ve moved the fight onto my turf. By choosing to witness what’s happening, by looking clearly at it, I’m no longer trying to deny that this is happening right now. I’m not fighting a war on two fronts right now; there’s just the pain and the fear. But I don’t have to spend energy pretending it’s not happening.

I want to go back downstairs, to sit with my friends in the karaoke bar and maybe sing a song or two. I want to dance. I want to stop hurting. I want to know why this keeps happening. I want to stop having Lyme disease.

I’m not sure I can do any of those things tonight. But by witnessing the pain honestly, by looking into the abyss and gazing unflinchingly into it, I gain a measure of power.

I may not be able to change the pain, but I can change how I meet it.

We teach this to callers, and sometimes I think we need the lesson too.  Sometimes witnessing is all we can do, and often it’s enough. I am in pain. I can’t fix that right now. But I’m going to meet it on my terms.

And so, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to head back down to the karaoke bar.

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