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How to support a loved one who suffers from chronic pain

Jul. 12, 2017
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Chronic pain is a motherfucker. There’s no other way to say it. I mean, I suppose there is, but no other phrase has quite the same impact or negative connotation as motherfucker. And when it comes to chronic pain, people need to understand how negatively it can impact a person’s life, so I say again: it’s a motherfucker. 

As someone who has a personal relationship with chronic pain, I can tell you firsthand that it changes you. It makes you question your sanity a little… or a lot, depending on how severe the pain is. It makes you consider punching people in the face if they so much as talk to you or look at you when you’re in pain. It makes you irrationally angry at potholes, for the torture they cause you when you’re in a car that drives over their evil bumpiness. It makes you believe that any pain medications other than Morphine or Oxycodone are just sugar pills. But most of all, it makes you question whether dying wouldn’t be such a bad thing if it meant escaping the pain for just a little bit. 

So on that light note, let’s talk about how you can support those of us in your lives who deal with chronic pain. It’s a shitty situation for everyone. Seeing a loved one in pain can be just as difficult as dealing with physical pain itself.

Which actually leads me to the first point for you supporters to always keep in mind: 

1. Compassion, not action.

The first thing to do is accept that there is nothing you can actually do. Unless you hold the key to the future of medicine in your hand, you can’t heal our pain or make us feel better. Odds are, we’ve probably tried everything and more to treat or alleviate our pain, so it’s just an extra burden for us when you push us to try something you think might help. We don’t need you to save us—we just want you to sit with us. Be with us, and offer your love and support; that’s all we need from you. 

2. No apologies necessary.

On behalf of all people with chronic pain: we appreciate and acknowledge that you are sorry, but please, for the love of all that is holy, stop telling us you’re sorry. For starters, it’s exhausting for us to say “It’s okay” over and over again when we don’t really mean it. Second, when you say you’re sorry, it puts us in a position in which we feel like we need to comfort you or make you feel better about our situation. That’s not our job! We totally understand that you have the best intentions, but instead of saying you’re sorry, maybe say something like “I’m here to support you” or just a simple “I’m here for you.” 

3. Please save your comparisons for never.

When you tell us that you know what we’re going through because you once broke your arm in third grade, or when you tell us about how we should be grateful we don’t have x, y, or z illness because those are so much worse, we don’t feel comforted. In fact, we mostly feel like we want to drop-kick you off a cliff. When you compare your (probably lesser) pain to ours, it puts the focus back on you when we are the ones currently suffering. And when you tell us we should be grateful because we don’t have some other illness, you are making us feel bad for being in pain. Neither of these things help us; in fact, they make our experiences worse, so please just keep your comparisons to yourself. 

4. Don’t be frugal with your Google.

My old art teacher used to say this phrase when he wanted us to look up images for inspiration, but I believe it can be applied to many situations. For example, don’t be frugal with your Google when you need to educate yourself on certain matters, like your loved one’s illness or symptoms. The best way to comprehend what we are going through and know how to support us accordingly is to do your research on what illness or disability is causing our chronic pain. 

Please don’t ask us to explain it to you: we’re in enough pain already without the added stress of having to describe what that pain feels like. Find out on your own first, and then if you have questions about something in particular or how you can help, that’s fine, but don’t expect us to be your teacher. Also, please keep in mind that you are doing this research to understand what we are going through to better support us—you are not doing research for the sake of telling us what you think we should do or offering suggestions on what might help. Trust us, we know the options; we don’t need you to explain our illness to us. 

5. Know your audience. 

If you have a loved one with chronic pain, you probably already know how they act or what they do when they are in pain. If you don’t, start to learn, because they will be indicative of how you can be of most help to them. Typically when my pain is severe I want to be left alone in my bed to ride it out. This is because I know I will snap at the people around me, even when all they want to do is help. If my pain is only moderate, however, I’m fine with having people near me—in fact, I prefer it because it helps keep my mind off the pain. It’s best for both you and us if you know when to leave us alone, when we want company, or when we legitimately need medical attention, because we can’t always tell you ourselves. 

Also, perhaps make it a point to know what exacerbates our pain or alleviates it. For example, jostling my body too much causes me pain, so when my roommate flops down on the couch or the bed I’m sitting on, it causes me pain. 

Be wary of your actions: we will be extremely appreciative!