Pain. It shows up in many forms. From the constant ache of an aging body and well used limbs, to the acute stab of a fresh injury or illness. From the lingering lethargy of emotional fatigue, to the soul crushing weight of depression. From the heart-racing fear of constant anxiety, to the incapacitating collapse of a panic attack. From small daily disappointments and failures, to life altering losses and disasters. Our pain can originate physically, emotionally, psychologically, in every way imaginable. But it almost always is interpreted by our brains as a physical manifestation in some form. We feel it in our core. It’s a constant reminder we are human and we are alive.
In the modern world we tend to avoid pain. We consider it a four letter word (yes that kind). Something to be removed from our life, handled, fixed, or at least covered up and shoved aside. And so we turn to numerous devices in our quest to remove our pain. We spend thousands of dollars on prescription drugs and treatments. We rest and rehab, avoid movement or activity. At times we turn to illegal drugs to numb our pain, both physical and emotional. We drink, sometimes a lot. We work, often more than we should. We workout, again at times more than advised. We literally run away from our pain. We log on. We binge watch shows. We control food, we let food control us. We gamble. We party. Everyone chooses their own vice. Pretty much everything that can hold us in an addiction is in some way related to the existence of either physical, emotional, or psychological pain and our desire, our need, to manage it.
In a fully authentic voice, I must admit that I am constantly in pain. I have been an anxious child who grew into a highly anxious adult. I have faced bouts of depression, especially surrounding our miscarriages and just after my son was born. I have felt the loss of our babies so acutely that I physically puked, and mentally caved into myself. I have struggled with the pain of sleep deprivation when my mind literally will not let me sleep. And throughout my entire adult life, I have constantly had something physically hurting, from a rib, to an elbow, to an ankle, to a foot, to a knee. It doesn’t matter if I run or stretch, strengthen or massage, or just rest. Something will always hurt and I am having to learn to accept that. Rarely does it hurt enough to limit my movement or change my gait, rarely does it keep me from heading to the road or trail. Whether this constant pain is a manifestation of my anxiety, or a marker of my body’s high reactivity to discomfort, I am still searching for answers. But the constant aches and pains help me in many ways to push through other pains, one pain replaces the other I guess.
My personal coping method with pain involves running more miles than many consider humanly possible, spending hours, and at times full days on the trail. A body exhausted from hard work is free, it is relaxed, it doesn’t have the energy to worry or stress, it is home in itself and at peace. At least that is my truth. Yes, running ultras creates its own kind of pain. Pain from fatigue, pain from constant motion, pain from niggling injuries or overuse. But those physical pains are something I can understand, I can wrap my mind around them. They make sense. I have pushed my body and therefore I will hurt. They put other pains in perspective, or at least drown them out for a time. They keep my mind more focused on the present.
Everyone has their own prescription against pain. You could argue that some are better, “healthier,” than others. Certainly, I would not advise hard drugs or excessive alcohol as a healthy coping mechanism. But is constantly seeking praise from others, or being so plugged into social media that you don’t see those in front of you healthy? Is allowing food to control us in whatever form, whether excess or restriction, healthy? Is working, or gambling, or sitting in front of the TV, day in and day out healthy? Or more personally, is running for over a day healthy?
Everything in moderation, they say. Balance is key, they say. But the world is a painful place, and the human experience is defined by pain. Pain is not in moderation, it is not in balance, and so we often self-medicate in ways that are equally weighted. Maybe, when we recognize how we smother our own pain, we can give more grace to those who struggle to cope in ways we would not choose and do not understand. And maybe in that grace, we can find a connection with others that helps us all live a more fulfilling life, less controlled by our pain. We cannot escape it, we cannot remove it. We can only learn to continue on with our pain, not let it cripple us, but move forward. Learn to find joy, not in spite of pain, but maybe because of it. Because of what it teaches us, because of what we learn about ourselves, and because of how it changes us, hopefully into a better version of us.