Dealing with pain

I have had chronic back pain for eight years. I am now 29, which means that all through my twenties I have fraternized daily with physical pain. This isn’t a whine. The pain, though unpleasant, is not agony. Also, as far as I know, I am not ill. There is much to be thankful for as regards my overall health.

Nevertheless, it does drain the soul when everyday tasks like walking or standing become uncomfortable. Next weekend I will be hiking in western Maryland. The clean air, the trees, and the companionship will bring a much-anticipated dose of freude. I just wish that I could enjoy this without pain, for once. We want perfect lives and this affliction, this ache, is a reminder that mine is the life of ha’adam, which is many.

Still, what should I expect? We all have pain, sorrow where the eye can’t see. Pain of the body, of the spirit, of the heart, and, God-forbid, of the mind. I’m 29: I want to play soccer without drugging myself up with painkillers. I’m 29: I want to go to the Monet exhibit at the Baltimore Museum of Art without wanting to pretend I’m disabled so someone can push me around in a wheelchair. Silly things. I’m 29. Isn’t life supposed to be perfect? If it’s tough now, am I doomed?

Again, no tears for Ronan. He’s not got cancer, he’s alive. And at least I can walk. Life is good. I’m on the capstone of the pyramid of the world. Far below me are Beslan and Bosnia, Indonesia and Iraq.

I have seen all manner of -ists in my search for wellness. No-one knows what’s wrong with my back. If I was really rich then I might find an -ist who could work some mojo on me, but alas. What comforts me is hope. One day they’ll figure out it’s my feet or something, and I will get fitted with $20 inserts and, hey presto, I’ll hike the Appalachian Trail.

I’m not one for “the Lord gives us trials to make us better” and all that stuff. The Lord is welcome to curse me with a bad back any day of the week. It’s no terrible thing. But that kind of reasoning can end up on the crest of a tsunami or in Auschwitz. My God does not afflict, he blesses. In delaying his blessings, affliction may result, but that’s another thing entirely.

There is much pain out there. You probably have pain too. I am so sorry for that. Let’s help each other. At the very least we can hope. Hope for the doctor with the miracle cure. Hope for the faith to bring power from heaven through the hands of the priesthood. Hope for the love and healing of the Master. Hope for the love and friendship of another.

Hope makes me happy, and dulls the pain. Hope means I can’t wait to go hiking on Saturday. I’ll post pictures. And take some Ibuprofen. The pills may give me ulcers, but not yet. I’m only 29 after all.


  1. Sultan of Squirrels says:

    Ronan. as far as I can tell, your post is about hope. I’m sorry about your back troubles. I know how you feel. when I was fifteen and a half I was diagnosed with cancer on Christmas eve. I had Chemo and Radiation and was deemed cured after six months. It came back the next december when I was sixteen and a half. I had a stem cell transplant Radiation and all that and was deemed cured. Now I’m seventeen and a half. I just found out that its back. again. (I swear when I catch up with santa he is gonna get whats coming to him) =P. one thing that I don’t agree with you is the fact that you don’t buy into god using trials to make us better (though I can definetely see where you are coming from). But through my trials I have learned more about the nature of god, my fellow man, and myself than I could ever have hoped to have learned in my life had I not been what you call “cursed” with this unfortunate disease. I now have A testimony that I am pretty sure will be able to stand up to everything. (but I’m only pretty sure. because I have no idea what could be thrown at my testimony =P.) anyway. I also understand what you are talking about when you mention hope. I look forward so much to a time when I won’t have to be cut open every year, when I won’t have to be poisoned to make me better. The resurrection gives me the hope and assurance that all that will be possible. also the fact that I believe god does inspire doctors and scientists to find cures to problems so we can be more comfortable in this life. I also know that friends and people that you don’t even know can bouy you up in ways you never thought possible of this “imperfect” human race. I am thankful and frustrated at the same time for trials. but at this time of the year maybe we can remember christs message. help our fellow brothers and sisters. and be assured that through him better days are sure to come. even though they may seem a long way off.

  2. Ronan,

    Sorry to sound flippant about the weighty issues posed by your post, but have you tried inversion? I busted my back a while ago and the chiropractor was expensive and not very helpful. I bought a Hangups inversion table and did that once a day for about 30 minutes, and after a couple of weeks, my back was completely healed. Since then, whenever I’ve re-injured my back, I’ve pulled out the inversion table and it fixes it every time.
    If you haven’t tried it, I highly recommend the investment in an inversion table. It has been amazing for me.

  3. Ronan, I feel your pain. Similar circumstances managed to cut my mission short. A daily drain on the soul is a better way than I could ever put it. But, we live on…Best of luck on your hike!

  4. John Mansfield says:

    Ronan, you should have all of this and passionate kisses.

  5. Sultan,
    I have righteous envy for your faith.

    Funnily enough I had thought about trying that.

    John K.,
    Thanks, man.

    John M,
    ??????? Who’s handing out these kisses?

  6. John Mansfield says:

    It’s a Mary Chapin Carpenter song from a dozen years ago. See Mrs. Head for the kisses.

    Is it too much to ask?
    I want a comfortable bed that won’t hurt my back.
    Food to fill me up,
    And warm clothes and all that stuff.

    Shouldn’t I have this?
    Shouldn’t I have this?
    Shouldn’t I have all of this, and
    Passionate kisses?
    Passionate kisses, whoa oh?
    Passionate kisses from you.

  7. I strongly agree that God didn’t give you this affliction to teach you anything. Your affliction is the consequence of the random imperfections inherent in the biological mechanisms of this fallen world.

    My wife used to believe that God makes life good for good people. But when she became very ill this past summer her perspective changed. She doesn’t think she’s perfect, but she rightly believes that she makes good decisions and lives her life as God would have her live. So when the mental illness that she has dealt with since adolescence worsened to the point where she couldn’t function, she wondered what she was doing wrong. She gradually was able to understand that her affliction was not a sign from God that she needed to be more righteous, but was a defect in her brain chemistry. She still sometimes loses perspective (don’t we all?) and wonders what conditions she has to meet before God will heal her. This kind of thinking leads to a lot of frustration and despair. I try to remind her that God is a loving Father and not a taskmaster dangling carrots from sticks to keep us in line.

    My greatest desire is that my wife will be relieved from her affliction. I don’t know if that will ever happen. She’s back to functioning, but she still struggles. Sometimes we hope, sometimes we despair. But if she is never fully healed, my next greatest desire is that she can have peace of mind despite her physical state. I don’t know yet if it’s possible to have mental illness and peace of mind at the same time, but the promise of the Gospel is peace in this life. So we try to seek the Spirit and its fruits and we try to hope for the best.

  8. I had three cases of acute mono in about as many years. I’ve never been the same since. There’s a saying I’ve heard from chronic fatigue sufferers: “The good news is you’re not gonna die, and the bad news is you’re not gonna die.”

    Ronan, I totally relate. There are a few things that have helped me, one is a dietary supplement called Reliv. It’s like Avon, you can get it anywhere. Back pain is a whole different ball game, though, from what little I know. I recommend Darvocet. It works for my husband. I don’t think it’s as hard on your stomach as ibuprofen. That’s one of my worries, too, that I will get an ulcer.

    SOS, I have so much admiration for the courage it takes to fight cancer. I don’t think I would have it in me.

  9. Sultan, thanks for sharing your story. Wow. We’ll be praying for you, and hoping right along with you.

    Ronan, I go back and forth on the “God sends us trials to make us better” line of thought. In my more philosophic moments, I am a firm believer in the conditions of mortality that randomly beset us all. But then, when I’ve passed through a particularly hard time and have been particularly blessed in some way because of it, I get more sentimental, and think that God must have wanted that for me because of the way it turned out. Either way, I suppose there is something to be said for trying to learn from trials, no matter where they are from. But we would all prefer the shorter, non-chronic, kind of trials, wouldn’t we. I hope you do find your $20 insets (and soon!), and regardless, enjoy your hike!

  10. Thanks Karen and Anne for your words of encouragement.


    May God bless you and your wife. Mental illness is such an awful monster because it seems to cut people off from the very thing that is proferred by many as their hope: the love of God and the ministry of the Holy Ghost. (Which, by the way, raises profound questions regarding the relationship of the brain with the soul.)

  11. Sultan of Squirrels says:

    Thanks Karen and all for your support. your prayers ARE greatly appreciated.

    Tom. While I don’t believe God gives us problems to punish us (i’m a firm believer in the “crap happens to good and bad people” philosophy). I do think he has given us a great ability to grow from our trials. and good luck with all of that. I have a cousin with what I think might be the same problem. its no picnic. my prayers are with you.

  12. Regarding whether or not God purposefully afflicts us to teach us, I sounded more certain in my comment (#7) than I am. I can’t say for sure that He never does this. I am certain that He wants us to learn and grow from our experience in this life, which for many of us includes serious affliction (my wife is amazingly compassionate because of what she has experienced). But I find it hard to believe that a perfectly loving Father would willfully afflict His children. Life makes much more sense to me if I attribute the vast majority of pain either to the random and imperfect nature of Nature or to people’s exercise of their free agency against the will of God.

    Thanks, Ronan, for your well-wish. All the best to you as well. I know chronic physical pain can be difficult to deal with. My little sister was diagnosed with bad (that’s the technical term) arthritis at age 17 and beyond the inherent physical pain, her condition is a source of depression.

    As for brain/soul integration, I want them to be completely independent so that peace can be attained in the soul even while the brain is afflicted. But, of course, you can’t always get what you want. I don’t know how integrated the two are.

  13. Ronan, this is nice post. More poetic than your usual fair. I like it.

    Pain management is a difficult thing. One of the challenges is addiciton to pain meds, which in and of itself is not that bad of a thing, but can result in depression when you want to get off of them. They have done some really great things of late with oxycontin and the like.

  14. >More poetic than your usual fair.

    There’s always been an inner poet waiting to get out! Normal, blunt prose will resume…

    What’s your take on oxycontin?

    My last course of action may be to have epidural injections. Anyone know anything about these?

  15. Sultan of Squirrels says:

    Regarding whether or not God purposefully afflicts us to teach us, I sounded more certain in my comment (#7) than I am. I can’t say for sure that He never does this. I am certain that He wants us to learn and grow from our experience in this life, which for many of us includes serious affliction.

    I agree 100% with your statement Tom. (the first part of this statement should be in quotes. I don’t know if I did it right).

  16. What’s your take on oxycontin?

    It is a great drug that helps many, many people live fullfilling lives.

  17. Ronan – this is a wonderful post, thanks. It reminded me that we rarely know the extent of another person’s suffering. The woman sitting next to us on the train in the mornings may have just lost her mother to cancer, or she may be dealing with a sick child, a troubled marriage, or her own failing health.

    We all carry around pain – physical, mental, emotional – and I think it’s important to remind ourselves every now and then that we need to treat each other with care. Because no matter how a person looks or acts – she or he may be broken and hurting inside (or outside) – and a smile or an encouraging remark may make all the difference in the world.

  18. Try reading “Healing Back Pain” By John Sarnos, MD.

  19. Tom-
    You weren’t specific on the type of mental illness that your wife is suffering from so I’m just going to throw out my personal experience with battling depression in case it might be of some help. Depression is hereditary in my family, mostly among the women. My mother, a couple sisters, my daughters, and myself have all struggle with it. I have been prescribed drugs but have never taken them because of the effect they seemed to have on my mother and one sister. My mother became a zombie – she didn’t feel the pain any more, but she didn’t feel joy either. My sister seemed to lose all sense of right and wrong. She left her husband and the church. So I have attempted to deal with my depression using exercise, and “self-talk”. I’m sure my case is not as severe as some but it can be very debilitating – leading to paranoia, hostility, fatigue, lack of focus and self-destructive behavior. How it works for me is like this – Exercise everyday, twice a day if I feel the symptoms coming on. The exercise should be strenuous to get the endorphins to kick in. This can be hard to do because the depression often makes you want to stay in bed or just sit on the couch and do nothing. That is where the self-talk comes in. I will talk to myself and remind myself that the if I don’t go run or workout the depression has won the battle for the day. I don’t like to lose so I get my butt off the bed and run. The self-talk also works when I am feeling paranoid. Example – I see someone I know in the grocery store and the depression tells me that they don’t like me and I want to avoid them. I talk to myself again – tell the depression thoughts to shut-up and make myself go talk to the person. I win again! I may be sounding like a real nut case about now, but so far this has worked for me. Not 100% of the time, but good enough. My husband is very understanding and supportive. We have a deal that if I ever become really miserable to live with he can just tell me and I will try medication.

    I am not completely anit-drug. I have seen it work miracles for some. In fact, one daughter went on Efexor for a short time and it really helped her. Another daughter uses the Exercise/Self-talk method and it has worked for her, too. I hope this helps.

  20. Ronan, we should chat later about orthopedists. If I forget, remind me.

  21. D. Fletcher says:

    There was a famous series of articles by Tony Hendra, in New York Magazine in the early 80s, about his chronic back pain. He basically concluded that he would have pain for his entire life.

    One year later, another article by him said that the pain had been cured, by a psychologist. The pain was real, but somatic — his original muscle spasm had been perpetuated by the tension caused by the pain itself! Once Tony recognized this problem, the back pain went away forever.

    Not to diminish your real problem, just adding another possible solution for you.

  22. Tom,

    Your post #7 sounds like I wrote it. I feel for you. Keep up the faith

  23. Thanks, everyone, for the good advice.

    BTW, a BCC post/forum on mental illness sounds like it might help a few people. Watch this space….

  24. Ronan — Last year, after jumping off a boathouse roof, I hurt my back very badly and struggled for a month or so with severe back pain. I had no idea how important my back was before that, so I’m sorry to hear that this is an ongoing thing that you live with. I like your idea about a God who delays blessings instead of cursing. Sometimes when we carry pain (of all sorts) for extended periods of time, this is a difficult thing to remember.

    And put me in the Stapley camp, I like a glimpse on the poetic Ronan, too.

  25. The poetic side is one rarely shown – but it is nice Ronan! The great thing about Ronan too is that he never moans about his back pain, and it doesn’t stop him doing most of the things he wants to. He walked a 10 mile hill hike in the summer with me to support me in the goal I had set.

    And I think you’re right about the blessings. I like to think of my God as caring and fatherly.

  26. Kathi, thanks. Knowing that there are people like you that have found ways to cope gives me more hope. You definitely do not sound like a nut case to anyone who has any kind of experience with mental illness. My wife says that exercise was helpful when she was doing it regularly. I’ll encourage her to get back in the habit. She was much more motivated when she had pregnancy weight to lose. She’s had some bad experiences with medicine, too. A few years back she took Celexa and it helped. She was off it for a couple years while she was pregnant twice (for some reason pregnancy seemed to alleviate the depression). Earlier this year she started struggling again and decided to try Celexa again. About two hours after her first dose she went into a panic attack that lasted for about five days straight and off and on for several weeks. She had to take the kids and go stay with her parents for most of the summer. All of this from just one dose. I think we figured out that it was a bad interaction with the thyroid medicine that she was needlessly taking. Now she’s taking Zoloft and the panic attacks are pretty much gone but it doesn’t seem to be doing much for the OCD or depression.

    I’m sure it helps that you have an understanding husband. I wasn’t so understanding early on. It was hard not to see her problems as character flaws. I just wanted her to change her attitude and get over it. How dumb I was.

    I want to say that I find it inspirational to know that there are people like Sultan of Squirrels, Kathi, Ronan, my little sister and many others that struggle with pain and disease and still maintain hope and faith. This knowledge is a source of strength for me.

  27. Kris,
    What an earth were you doing jumping off a boat house?

    Thanks, Mrs.

    Tom (and others),
    Please consider adding to our new series on mental health. Thanks for your contributions so far.

  28. Ronan — I was trying to prove to my kids that I was still cool and could jump into the water from (what seemed to them) great heights. Needless to say, this summer, I chose to be a nerd and only jumped off the dock.

  29. I tried to show my kids how cool I was and that I could skateboard. I was in treatment for six months.

    Well, I used to be a great skateboarder. What a difference thirty years makes.

  30. Ronan,

    I’m jealous you’ll be backpacking out there. After driving through there twice in two months, I pulled over a couple times to eyespot some trailheads. Beautiful area of the country. If you decide to take some photos, email them to me. I’d love to see them.

    I too have back pain, but mine is upper back (luckily) due to bad posture (in case you couldn’t tell). It’s been a struggle ever since middle school. Ibuprofen (sp?) is my hiking friend.

    I’m taking my troop down to the Tennessee border this weekend for an overnighter, nothing serious. I also need to get out and vent — even if it’s freezing cold, I don’t care.

  31. Annegb, I love you.

    In my own personal experience, God can turn adversity and hardships into blessings, if we exercise enough faith. I’ve learned to recognize when random bad things happen that it’s an opportunity to exercise faith and be blessed. Not to say it’s easy or something to seek after. Just that it’s often worked out that way for me.

  32. Healing Back Pain : The Mind-Body Connection (Paperback)
    by John E. Sarno

    Not to ignore the larger issues raised by your brief essay, Brother Ronan, but this guy will fix you – or I’ll pay for the book. Our Modern Age, baby: we fix one problem and create another. Good luck!

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