Not so long ago I had a conversation with a friend who has been suffering from something called post concussion syndrome. I’d not heard of it before, but it has involved months of horrendous headaches, and, the friend thought, had affected their personality.
“Well, obviously,” said I. “Pain does that.”
To those for whom physical pain is an occasional thing, the experience of it comes as a shock. If the pain doesn’t go away, it has an impact, and one you probably aren’t prepared for unless you’ve paid attention to other people dealing with ongoing pain.
Pain is limiting – whatever hurts, you just don’t want to use any more than you have to, and you rapidly learn to avoid adding to the pain in any way you can. Sometimes these tricks put extra strain on some other bit of your body and you end up damaging that too. Pain is exhausting, it undermines concentration. In large doses it can become hard to think in an organised or sustained way. It’s emotionally wearing. It erodes you, sandpapering at your sense of self. The loss of things you used to do easily doesn’t help with that.
Most people are good at being helpful around short term setback. But when the answer to ‘how are you?’ is ‘pretty shit and suffering a lot, just like I was the last dozen times you asked me’ it becomes tempting to lie. You get bored with talking about it, bored with explaining, too tired to explain, bored with pity, bored with a sympathy that is devoid of empathy and bored with other people not understanding what you can and can’t do and why concentrating is so hard. You lie and say ‘I’m ok, I’m coping’. It may seem better and happier to talk about anything that isn’t the pain.
And then, because you haven’t felt up to explaining everything about what the problem is and where it came from, the well-meant helpful advice will flow in, and most of it will be useless because it’ll be based on not knowing what the problem really is, and reading/hearing it will be exhausting and probably also annoying, but you can’t say that because they’re only trying to help…
Pain affects mood. Sometimes very simply – it hurts so badly that you end up crying. Sometimes, the idea of ever having an ok day again, ever feeling passable, ever being able to function properly seems so impossible that it’s hard to know how to keep going. Rage against the people who are lucky enough not to be suffering and do not know how lucky they are. Frustration over what can’t be done, and the lack of understanding from others. Despair. Pain certainly does affect personality, because you can’t experience any part of that and not change how you think and act. Then you realise that your sense of self isn’t as robust as it was, because this thing, this pain in your body is able to turn you into someone else – a depressed person, a grumpy person, a person who won’t go out any more, or whatever it is.
I’m just surfacing after a couple of weeks of overwhelming pain. I’ve watched it punch holes in my mental wellbeing. I’ve watched it undermine my creativity and productivity. I’ve mostly not talked about it because I couldn’t see any point – and while I was in there, I doubt there was much point. There wasn’t anything much anyone else could do to help me. I’m still very sore, but it’s down to a level that allows me to function. Pain has taught me patience and stoicism, although it’s also caused me intermittent despair. It has changed who I am over the years I’ve been living with it. There is no avoiding that.