Should Men Talk About Their Pain?

I had a couple of interesting conversations this past week regarding men’s reluctance to open about pain.  One of those conversations was with my brother, who is very understanding and supportive of what I am trying to do with the Broken and Mended ministry.  As a combat veteran and an army ranger, he deals with his fair share of pain, but the idea of opening about that pain is an extremely foreign concept.  He’s been trained to deal with his pain in another way and probably out of necessity for the training that men like him have been through.

In a conversation through Twitter, a woman named Esther, who writes about dealing with chronic pain from the perspective of an LPC, told me that it is rare to see Christian men writing about chronic pain.  For some reason, it is reasonably normal to find women doing so, but not men.

It has long been a stereotype that women are more open about their feelings (presumably both physical and emotional feelings) and that men bottle it up because they do not want to show any weakness.  In most of our experiences, we have all witnessed a lot more tears from women than men.  A boy doesn’t have to be very old before he is told some version of “suck it up and act like a man.”

There’s the comical line from Tom Hanks in “A League of Their Own,” when he tells his female baseball team that “there’s no crying in baseball!”  Even though he was coaching a team of women, the stereotypical mindset from a predominately male sport was still present.  He wanted his women to act like men!

theres-no-crying-in-baseball-gif

I’ve played plenty of sports and I can tell you if the circumstances are right, there can be a lot of tears shed in male locker rooms!  Men have tear ducts too, and certainly, God intended for us to them!  Jesus was not afraid to shed tears.  I’m not just talking actual tears, but the emotional vulnerability they represent.

All of this causes me to consider my role, as a Christian man, who writes about chronic pain and who endeavors to establish a network of support groups for both men and women, who have this incredibly difficult struggle.  I would imagine there are differences in the ways that women and men process the emotional aspects of their pain, but I absolutely reject the cultural ideals regarding masculinity that prevent men from being able to share in meaningful ways.  Those ideals did not come from Jesus or the Bible.  Read the Psalms, the Laments, Job, etc.  Almost everything in the Bible was written by men, who openly talked about their struggles, pains, threats, etc.

Does emotional vulnerability make someone weak?  The Bible has a very different view of weakness than the societies of the world.  The world sees the cross as weakness.  God sees the cross as the power to save.  Paul struggled with his “thorn in the flesh” (which may have been some kind of physical ailment).  He begged God to remove it but God had different ideas: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 10 That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong (2 Cor. 12:9-10).  

The world’s view of strength is a facade.  True strength does not come from pretending there is no weakness.  That leads to far greater consequences than exposing a little vulnerability.  True strength comes from admitting weakness so that God’s power may be made known in our lives.  That’s what this ministry is all about and I pray it will be no less valuable for men than it will be for women.  Maybe men need to learn more than women how to be strong in weakness.  “For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

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Chronic Pain, Suicide, and Opioids

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Photo from the linked article in the 1st paragraph.

A came across a study today that linked chronic pain and suicide in a significant way.  About one in ten suicides are linked to people with chronic pain.  In all likelihood, according to this report, those numbers are underreported.  More disturbingly, the recent uptick in suicides for those in chronic pain may be connected to decreased access to opioid-based painkillers.  Despite public perception, these suicides do not appear to be linked to increased usage of opioids.  In fact, there is growing concern that the new CDC guidelines concerning opioid prescriptions has restricted access to those in dire need of relief and thus increasing their suicide risk.

Personally, I have been hearing more stories from chronic pain sufferers who genuinely worry that their life will become unbearable if they are not allowed by practitioners to get powerful painkillers.  These people are not addicted and certainly not abusers.  They just can’t function without dulling their pain.  These people should not be stigmatized.  They deserve compassion and access to drugs to make their life bearable.

opioidsI am aware of the power of these drugs and I believe they should be used with caution.  Personally, other than post-operative care, I have been able to avoid using opioids.  I take nothing stronger than tramadol (and not regularly at that) and have learned to get by with anti-inflammatories along with disease-modifying drugs (biologics).  I would rate my pain on most days around a five on a scale of one to ten.  If you bumped that up closer to a seven, I would be desperately looking for a doctor to give me something that would help me cope.  I can’t imagine pain any higher than that and coping without serious painkillers, and yet many of these people are regarded with the same level of dignity as your neighborhood meth addict (who also needs serious help).

If we are going to be living in a society that has become hostile toward those who need pain medicine, then people are going to need spiritual and emotional support more than ever.  I don’t know how isolated the suicidal person becomes before they commit that irreversible act, but it is a major goal of this ministry to help people realize they are not alone.  To be in intractable pain and be completely alone is to behold a horrific and hopeless horizon.

I am firmly committed to the belief that God is “close to the brokenhearted” (Ps. 34:18).  Maybe you are having a hard time believing this today.  Maybe you aren’t sure if God is there at all.  Then, at least, know that there are many who are hurting with you.  You are not alone.  We are in this together.  No matter how much you are hurting, your life is valuable still.  Be a part of the “broken and mended” community.  You are welcome here.

P.S.:  We are also a Facebook group.  Find us here:  Broken and Mended

 

 

 

 

 

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Worn — Finding Your Lament

How Are You

When you are dealing with chronic pain there is constant societal pressure to pretend it isn’t really all that bad.  Some of that pressure may be imagined or perhaps simply unconscious projected expectations of the society around us.  I know in church settings that you discover that everyone is “good,” “fine,” or, at least, “okay.”  It is jarring when someone honestly says something like, “Not very good,” or “I’ve been better.”  If someone responds that way too much, we begin to downplay their presumably painful situation in our minds.

When I began to experience chronic pain, I found answering the question “How are you?” much more difficult than it used to be.  I was still adjusting to this new reality and I was feeling discomfort that I had never felt before.  It seemed less than honest to simply say, “Fine.”  On the other hand, I had been conditioned by the culture I described above to be wary of becoming perceived as an attention-seeker or whiny individual.  I just kind of split the middle by saying something like, “I’m doing okay” but in a less than convincing tone.

I eventually learned to recognize the difference in those who wanted to really know how I was doing and those who were just using the question as a passing greeting (which we all do sometimes).  For those who really wanted to know, I gave a more forthcoming answer.  Over time, my standards for a fine day changed.  My “fine” days just meant that I had less pain at the moment than my “I’m not doing too well” days.

But sometimes we are simply broken.  Sometimes the pain seems more than we can bear.  Some days the endless maze of medical procedures and new diagnoses feel like a bottomless pit.  When these days or seasons come upon you, you can’t just keep pretending.  If you bottle in those emotions, they might explode or else fester in a way that brings you down a path you don’t want to go down.  During those days, you need to learn how to lament and find someone who will not only let you but lament with you.

lament_homeslider

I’ve had two different seasons in my struggle with chronic illness that have led me to this point.  The second of those times ultimately led me to start the “Broken and Mended” ministry.  The first time was an overwhelmingly confusing cascade of bad medical diagnoses that led to me being referred to the Mayo Clinic in 2013.  In a short two and a half years, I had injured my hips, had surgery (recovered slowly), been diagnosed with Ankylosing Spondylitis, eosinophilic colitis and esophagitis, and was told my liver and heart might be at serious risk from eosinophilia.  Oh, and on top of all that, we were racking up tens of thousands of dollars in medical debt and I was struggling with guilt for “putting” my family in such a position.

Days before I would catch a plane to Rochester, MN, Katie (my wife) and I were driving around in the car when we heard the song from Tenth Avenue North called “Worn.”  We were overcome with emotion as the song expressed so deeply how we felt.  We had found our lament:

I’m tired
I’m worn
My heart is heavy
From the work it takes to keep on breathing
I’ve made mistakes
I’ve let my hope fail
My soul feels crushed
By the weight of this world
And I know that you can give me rest
So I cry out with all that I have left
Let me see redemption win
Let me know the struggle ends
That you can mend a heart that’s frail and torn
I want to know a song can rise
From the ashes of a broken life
And all that’s dead inside can be reborn
‘Cause I’m worn
I know I need
To lift my eyes up
But I’m too weak
Life just won’t let up
And I know that You can give me rest
So I cry out with all that I have left
Let me see redemption win
Let me know the struggle ends
That you can mend a heart that’s frail and torn
I want to know a song can rise
From the ashes of a broken life
And all that’s dead inside can be reborn
Cause I’m worn
And my prayers are wearing thin
I’m worn even before the day begins
I’m worn I’ve lost my will to fight
I’m worn so heaven so come and flood my eyes
Let me see redemption win
Let me know the struggle ends
That you can mend a heart that’s frail and torn
I want to know a song can rise
From the ashes of a broken life
And all that’s dead inside can be reborn
Yes all that’s dead inside will be reborn
Though I’m worn
Yeah I’m worn
The video is even better.  “Let me know the struggle ends; That you can mend a heart that’s frail and torn.  I want to know a song can rise; From the ashes of a broken life.”  Broken and mendedthat’s my lament.  Find yours and find someone who will lament with you.  It may save your life and a lot more.
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A Future Without Pain?

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I recently finished with one of those Bible reading programs you can find on a popular Bible app.  They usually come with a relatively short Bible passage and a quick devotional.  I was drawn to this one because it claimed to have been written for those in chronic pain.  The Bible is certainly not silent on suffering generally or pain specifically. So, I was curious what approach the author of this reading program would take.

It was only a twelve-day reading plan and there were some good scriptures to consider and a few helpful things were said in the daily devotionals.  Honestly, most of what was said struck me as glib and fairly shallow.  It came across more as encouraging hurting people to just have a positive attitude rather than going deep into the suffering of others. He did not come across to me as someone who actually deals with chronic pain.

But the last day caught my attention.  The passage chosen was Job 42:12-16:

12 The Lord blessed the latter days of Job more than his beginning; and he had fourteen thousand sheep, six thousand camels, a thousand yoke of oxen, and a thousand donkeys. 13 He also had seven sons and three daughters…15 In all the land there were no women so beautiful as Job’s daughters… 16 After this Job lived one hundred and forty years, and saw his children, and his children’s children, four generations. 17 And Job died, old and full of days.

The basic message was Job had it really rough but God blessed him even more than what he had lost originally.  So, we should see our pain as leading to a greater blessing one day. Certainly, the text does say that God blessed Job more later than he did before his trouble began but I am not sure how applicable that is for those in chronic pain.  I have made the case that we are better off through our suffering in terms of character but what happened to Job–where he gets back more than he ever lost–is surely atypical.  Or is it?  

First of all, it is good to remember that just because Job received more children later they did not replace the loss of his first children.  That’s just now how it works.  Grief and the loss of children is a different focus than this post or even this blog but Job was dealing with far more than just pain.  Most people in Job’s day assumed that when things were going well you were blessed by God but that when things went south then you were being punished by God.  But the story of Job disproved that assumption.  Job’s blessings were not about merit (how good he was) and his suffering was not about judgment (how bad he was).  

That God restored Job’s fortunes points to something greater than Job could have ever experienced in this life.  You may be in chronic pain for the rest of your life.  It may get worse than it is right now.  It may get better.  Maybe you will get your miracle.  Maybe they will come up with a cure for your disease.  But even if they do, life in this fallen world will still hand out more pain and suffering eventually.  The only way we can ever experience the uninterrupted blessings of God without the hindrance of suffering is a new world.  

The Bible calls this future reality, secured by the victory of Jesus Christ, “the new heaven and the new earth.”  Don’t misunderstand me; we don’t have to wait until then to live under God’s blessing.  Jesus ushers in the reign of God where those marginalized by the cruelty of this world live especially under the blessing of God.  But we all long for a day when we will not hurt anymore, where even the worst moments that cannot simply be replaced by better fortunes in the future will somehow finally be healed.

John had a vision of such a place in the unfiltered presence of God.  

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,

“See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.” (Rev. 21:1-4, emphasis mine).

I know that on very difficult days it may be hard to hold onto a reality for an unspecified date in the future.  But for me, it matters that I believe there will be a day when pain will be no more.  It matters that one day God will wipe away my tears.  It may not make the pain go away right now but it does remind me that pain does not go on forever. God has secured a future for his people, one that was better than even Job got to enjoy in the days following his suffering.

 

 

 

 

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Should You Keep Praying For Healing?

prayer

I can think of few things that are more personal than how a person prays about their struggles.  While I would not want to tell anyone how to pray, I do want to share from my own personal experience with prayer, in the midst of chronic illness and pain.

One of the early struggles I faced after my diagnosis is how fervently to pray for healing, and then as the months and years rolled by, how long to keep praying for healing.  If I gave up that prayer, then what?  What do I pray now for concerning my illness?  I’m interested in your own approach to these questions because, truthfully, I’ve never really talked about this in detail with anyone.

When the pain starts and the medical journey for answers begins, you usually pray and ask for prayers that the solution will be identified and the problem only temporary.  The first time I heard a doctor mention ankylosing spondylitis I prayed that he was wrong.  When the diagnosis was confirmed by a rheumatologist, I was shocked.  How could I get my mind around dealing with a lifetime illness?

My prayers focused on how to deal with that new reality but soon turned to asking God to heal me completely.  Already my problems had resulted in my first hip surgery and having to give up Taekwondo and running.  I didn’t want to give up even more.  The uncertainty of my future was bewildering and a reality check in human frailty.

I also understood there was no cure for ankylosing spondylitis and that asking God to take it away was literally asking for a miracle.  True miracles, I believe, are rare by definition.  I admit I struggled with asking God for something that I knew that others needed more.  I asked him but I’m not sure my heart was always in it.

As time went by, I settled on praying for less pain and being able to deal with my illness.  I entertained the idea of remission instead of full healing, but instead, my pain increased and completely new symptoms emerged.  I began to ask God to help get me through whatever task I had that day and to just help me cope.  Not only was the physical pain worsening but I became concerned about my mental health.

I want you to know that I do believe that God hears and responds to our prayers.  I believe he does miracles when it suits him.  However, my prayer life has changed a lot from those early days.  I still ask God to lessen my symptoms and to help me cope but I now also pray for God to use my pain.  I accepted, along the way, that full healing, at this point in my life, was not in God’s plans.  I might one day return to a season of fervent prayer for healing, but for now, I hear God’s answer to Paul echoed in my own life, “My grace is sufficient for you.”  

I don’t want my chronic illness to go to waste just because I didn’t get I what I most instinctively wanted.  I can’t tell you how to pray about this very personal journey with God and your suffering.  Your prayers have and will probably change over the course of your journey.  Perhaps, the most important thing is that you just don’t stop praying.  

 

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Can There Be Purpose In Pain?

Purpose in Pain

If you had never experienced longterm illness before you can’t relate to the concept of getting sick but not getting better or being injured but never healing.  As the weeks, months, and years roll by and you are still in pain, that new reality becomes entrenched.

But early on, before you have even learned to cope with it all, some well-meaning person, who knows nothing of what you are going through has probably quipped, “This is all in God’s plan.”  Or maybe they tried to point out that God has a purpose for you in your suffering.

It would be better if people kept those kinds of glib remarks to themselves.  The first thing that people need to know about God when they are in pain is not that God has a plan or that it is his will for them to suffer.  First, they just need to know that God cares, that God is with them in their suffering.  The best way a hurting person can experience the comfort of God is for a friend who loves them to walk alongside them and resist the urge to fix their new lifelong problem with spiritual platitudes.

Of course, our friends being less like Job’s friends (we will talk about them another day) does not answer an important question.  Is their purpose in my suffering?  And for the believer, “Does God have a purpose in my suffering?”  At some point, you probably become ready to ask that question.  A good friend who has been on this journey with you could even help you consider that question when you are ready.

My problems started in 2011.  I was having surgery and receiving life-altering diagnoses in 2012.  By 2013, the situation was looking pretty serious and I found myself at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN.  Over that two and half year stretch, I would not have been able to give you an answer for God’s purpose in my pain, even if I had been ready to ask it.  I’m sure I did ask it because it is my nature to ask such questions, but any answers would have been grasping at straws in an emotionally confusing time.

By 2014, things had stabilized and I began to see God use my suffering to better empathize with others in my ministry.  Maybe more importantly, I became more transparent with my congregation and allowed them to come alongside me on this journey.  Many people who loved me had been hurting with me all along the way, but my own self-pity had prevented me from seeing it.

We experience pain and suffering of all kinds in this life, whether we see a purpose in it or not.  We can choose to see our pain as pointless or we can choose to see our pain as accomplishing something for us.  A passage that became very meaningful to me is Romans 5:1-5.  Paul, who knew a lot about suffering, wrote that we glory in our sufferings, but not just for the sake of suffering.  We glory in our sufferings because of what our sufferings produce.  Sufferings produce perseverance; perseverance produces character and character produces hope! 

I can say that without a doubt that Paul’s admonition has been proven true in my life.  Suffering is not primarily about accomplishing some greater plan that you wouldn’t have accomplished without it.  We can’t even really give a satisfactory answer for the reason for our sufferings, but we can point to what it produces in us.  

Experiencing pain for the last seven years has made me a better person.  It has caused me to develop more patience, humility, and as Paul says, perseverance.  Pain has made me a deeper and more empathetic person.  And yes, it has motivated me to start this ministry, but this ministry is the byproduct of the character that is being formed in me.

You don’t have to come up with some greater plan to justify the reason behind your pain.  But there is an opportunity to appreciate the better person you are becoming because of your pain.  That process is not automatic.  It happens in partnership with the Holy Spirit and a loving community around you.  Today, you may not be ready to hear this, but maybe one day you will.  Eventually, I was ready.

 

 

 

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Broken And Mended

I want to take a moment to introduce a new ministry that I’m calling “broken and mended” (hence the new domain name for this blog).  You can read about the decision to change the focus of this blog and a little about my personal story here or a condensed version on my “about” page here.

One of the challenges I have had with getting started should be one of the simplest tasks of all…choosing a name for my ministry supporting those in chronic pain.  I couldn’t come up with anything besides the uninteresting, if informative, “chronic pain support ministry.”

A little flash of inspiration finally came my way from the book Kiss the Wave by David Furman.  Kiss the wave Furman, who struggles with severe chronic pain and disability, described the Japanese art of Kintsugi as a metaphor for finding meaning in chronic pain.  Kintsugi is the art of mending broken pottery by filling the seams of brokenness with gold, silver, or platinum.  The result is that the brokenness becomes the most unique and beautiful part of the piece.

That really resonated with me.  Maybe it is because I have been to Japan six different times, but I never really noticed Kintsugi before, not particularly anyway.  Maybe it was something deeper.  I know that I am a better person and better ministerkintsugigrigia1

because of my struggle with chronic pain.  It is in that brokenness that I have experienced God’s mending.  In that mending, God’s beauty shines through.

I wouldn’t choose this disease.  You probably wouldn’t choose yours either.  But I also couldn’t imagine trading what I’ve gained in my relationship with God or the ability he has given me to empathize with the suffering of others.  My pain humbles me and forces me to depend on God much more.  And when anyone talks about hurting every day, I experience deep emotions for the sake of that person that I could have never experienced before.

No one chooses to be broken when it comes to chronic pain, but God mends that brokenness into something even more beautiful. How has God’s mending shown up in your brokenness?

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