I’m a big believer in the impact words, labels, and language have upon on how we think of ourselves. (This should be obvious from my prior post). So let’s start this discussion with a thought experiment: What do you call yourself (in light of your chronic pain condition)? Disabled person? Pain patient? Person living with pain? Trauma survivor? Still just Joe or Jane? How do you explain to people (in a brief version) why you wear a brace, take pain pills, don’t work, etc?
Starting from this label or identifier can impact your outlook – the simple application of a label can speak to your level of acceptance of your condition. (And this varies person to person – for some people, saying “I’m disabled” is a sign of growth, but for others this descriptor leads to depressive and negative behavior.) Labels can indicate adjustment or “stuckness,” they may be self-appointed or assigned by those around you, and they can transition over time.
Labels can also be something you remove, not something you add – are you still an athlete, a plumber, a nurse? Can you still be the father, aunt, brother you were…and still are…? (I would argue, as a professional, that you don’t have to lose parts of yourself because you have chronic pain, but you certainly must learn how to serve these roles in a new and different way).
Of course, sometimes labels that might be seen as objectionable (e.g., “disabled) may serve a benefit. Have you had the experience of people asking “How are you? You don’t look sick/hurt/in pain?” This can be a complicated explanation (for others and for yourself), often hearing the comment “if you can have fun with friends, you can go back to work, right?” I’ve had many patients say they would almost rather be missing a limb or be confined to a wheelchair, so that it would be clearer to others (and themselves) where the line was drawn. It is much more complicated to think (and sometimes, to act) in a way that reflects some but not all limitations. (And, the reverse is also true – so often my patients point out that while their bodies may be in wheelchairs and have limitations, mentally they may feel, as one patient so poignantly put it, “like survivors on a sinking ship.”) The labels you apply can be ways of describing your strengths/weaknesses, or they may end up defining and shaping your behavior – holding you back, so to speak.
So, can a pain patient return to work? If you are a trauma survivor, does that mean you are supposed to feel down and depressed all the time? Do you even need or want a label, or are you still the same old Joe/Jane?
Do you need or want others to acknowledge your limitations or health conditions, or would you rather they treat you like you were “normal”?
Regardless of any label or title you take on, I ask you to consider two things after reading this post:
First – Whether you want/need a label, others will likely assign one to you, so consider doing your own P.R. and choosing for yourself how you want to be seen (and why you are labeling yourself that way).
Second – It is vital to acknowledge that, regardless of the words you use when talking about yourself, you are no longer the Joe/Jane that you were – there is necessarily a change that takes place once pain sets in. This doesn’t have to be a disabling mental or physical adjustment, but just as you can’t overcome racism by pretending you don’t see people’s skin tone, you can’t overcome pain by pretending it doesn’t change you.
Who are you (now)?