Becoming the Butterfly

Death and Rebirth – this is what happens with chronic pain.

When most people think of death, it is not uncommon to think of the famous stages of grief: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance. In truth, the five stages of grief have actually been largely debunked, showing there is no order to grief (though you do usually hit all five stages somewhere). But the reality is that the first four stages happen without any effort, just naturally. The last part, the acceptance, that takes effort, that is necessary before rebirth.

Keep this in mind as you look at the image just below.

What you should notice is that there is an old self (before pain – Part A), and a new self (with pain – Part B). But, the important part of the diagram is the overlap (the grey area); this is the you before pain that continues to be, even after pain set in. You don’t lose (all) of who you are with pain…you retain much of who you are and then can (and must) integrate the old with the new. For instance, the old you might have been able to run fast and play piano – the new you might still be able to play piano (the overlap), you can no longer run fast (the lost, old self), but you might have discovered a skill at crossword puzzles (the entirely new self).

I can easily digress into the “when the universe closes a door, it opens a window” and other such phrases, but those do not clearly make the point. The point is not that this chapter of your life is over and a new one has begun – it is that you (YOU) continue moving forward, developing the new but still retaining parts of the old. We’re not “throwing the baby out with the bathwater” here…the idiom or saying that really fits here is this – the caterpillar, with change, develops into the butterfly.

Now, before you can fully embrace this concept, I believe that you must properly grieve and let go of the old self (the parts that are lost). So, back to the stages of grief (but in terms of your pain) – first you can’t believe this is your life; then you are angry at how unfair the situation is; then you start talking to doctors, witchdoctors, anyone who might help; then you see little hope for beating the pain and depression sets in; and finally (hopefully), you can reach a place of acceptance – but getting to this last piece is the hardest part. And until you achieve a level of acceptance, you won’t be able to truly grow in a positive direction. The rest of the process will happen naturally, but this last piece, acceptance, is both the most necessary and the one needing the most effort.

Not the same as chronic pain, but here’s my example. When I moved from Buffalo, NY to New York City I learned to walk everywhere or use the buses/subways – but, if you had told me that I had to abandon my car while I was still living in Buffalo, I would have said “heck no” and kept on driving. I wasn’t going to try to learn a new way of doing things until life forced me to completely let go of the old way. Until you accept that the old way is completely gone (sad as that may be), you will have trouble embracing the new approach. (The butterfly cannot become the butterfly until it relinquishes the identity of the caterpillar…and moves forward).

Let me reiteriate – you MUST grieve the loss of the old. How you do this is up to you (tears, shouts, getting rid of objects/mementos, talking through it, and so on). Nevertheless, it is my belief that without some form of emotional release, you can’t properly make the transition and start anew. So, go into your cocoon in whatever way you need to, allow yourself the time (and ask for patience from loved ones) and let the change take its course in the timeframe needed.

The acceptance process (ideally) should look something like this:
1) Accept that pain is a chronic and lasting part of your life
2) Accept that pain limits what you can do and how you can be “the old me” – this is letting go of the left half of the diagram, the A circle
3) Grieve the loss of those skills, activities, habits – by raging, crying, talking, and so on
4) Take stock of what skills/strengths you retain (in part or in total) – this is the overlap of the circles, the grey area
5) Consider what you can continue to do (even if in modified form) or what new jobs, hobbies, activities you might engage in with your current strengths and assets – this is still the grey/overlap
6) Develop the entirely new self, integrating new and old – the right half of the diagram, the B circle

Death and rebirth. Grief and loss. Begin by accepting that the whole whirlwind of emotions is reasonable and expected with chronic pain. Then you can start with exploring your emotions about the parts of you that are gone. From there you will hopefully find a place where you can see that, despite the losses, there is a “you” that continues to exist, live, even thrive and enjoy life. With restrictions. With a new outlook. With hope. As the butterfly – because the caterpillar, the old you, is gone.

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