On Chronic Pain, Geekery, and Growing The F up!
In the world of chronic pain, I am an armchair physician. I may not have gone to medical school, but heck if I don’t know every intervention in the book! I can name all migraine meds currently or previously on the market, and I can tell you one or two things about their side-effects! Since the age of nine, I have been living with chronic migraines 3-7x/week. Like many people living with chronic pain, I have tried every medication, homeopathic remedy, and meditation practice to help get these under control. I have even undergone invasive surgery in hopes of a cure. This is a beast of an issue, and I’m finally learning that there is no single silver bullet or magic trick to making chronic pain disappear. The answer is much more complex, and it takes an entire lifestyle shift.
I was told by many pain specialists that my chronic pain would go away if I managed my stress better. For a very long time, I was certain my doctors just didn’t understand the severity of my pain because they weren’t giving me the magic cure I was certain they were hiding under lock and key. It turns out that the silver bullet is managing my stress! (It only took me 31 years to figure it out. I make my mother very proud.) Here I come, Darwin Award!
How did I manage to master that monster we call Stress? Well, it certainly wasn’t simple. For years I would tell myself, “If only I (read, write, meditate, exercise, get out of the house) more, I wouldn’t be so stressed!” I would berate myself for all the ways I wasn’t being my best. And guess what? Shame didn’t work! Instead, I would spend days, weeks, sometimes months paralyzed with stress, flagellating myself with “If only”s. Meanwhile, I was getting out of shape, isolated, and miserable.
What is finally working is the most uncomfortable shit imaginable: being accountable, responsible, and honest. I realized the things that make me happy—family, nature, and community—have been making me happy since early childhood. On family hikes, when my folks were gazing in awe at the amazing views of the Valley and LA, I was crouched on the ground watching a funny bug or looking at a particularly green leaf. My idea of a perfect Saturday is sitting on the floor with a cup of tea, having a deep conversation with one of my quirky, kind friends. You might say I saw the trees, but I missed the forest. For most of my teens and twenties, I did not fit in with my peers. I tried so hard to turn off my inner John Muir and focus on being “cool.” After all, I definitely wasn’t going to find love or friendship geeking out on plants and plankton, right….? Nope.
It was when I finally able to let my inner geek free that I started to feel better. I stopped trying to be “cool,” and focused instead on being Elizabeth, the ecology geek, teacher, and big-hearted dork. It wasn’t for everyone. It still puts some people off. Those loses taught me a lot. At first it taught me what to avoid in others, but when I finally check my ego, I learn there is hope, power, and resiliency in the discomfort. I am responsible for being accountable to myself and my loved ones, more so than caring what the amorphous “they” think of me. As I spend the majority of my day doing what I love—having real conversations, teaching kids, marveling at plants and bugs, and building deeper relationships within my family community (chosen and biological). When I’m not doing the things I love, I actually have energy for those “shoulds” that I used to obsess over. I go to sleep most (not all) nights feeling satisfied that I spend yet another day aligned with my values– nature, family, community, and contribution to the future. I will make mistakes every day, but continuing to be accountable and dependable allows each of those mistakes to hold less power over my identity. Eventually, I might actually have a shot at being my favorite self, the big-hearted sweet nerdy part-time jerk I have so feared. Maybe we can all be our real, geeky selves and know that is the best way to live a good life.