The last few months have been blissful for me in one important regard: the doctor I’ve been seeing for about a year now has found a way to manage the chronic pain that a damaged nerve in my jaw has been causing me pretty constantly since 1999, the year my mother died.
I wasn’t close to my mother as a child, but we grew closer during the last few years of her life. When my parents finally moved back to St. Louis in 1998, she and I were looking forward to spending a lot more time together.
“Fate” had a different plan, though. By the time they made the move, Mom was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, and the disease progressed rapidly after that. Our time together consisted largely of sitting together in the nursing home: Mom, voiceless and angry, scowling and weeping tearlessly in her wheel chair, and me just sitting with her, hoping that she knew, at some level, that I was there.
The dental accident that eventually brought about my pain occurred a few months after my folks moved back to town, and didn’t seem to have any lasting effect until shortly after Mom’s death, when it began to flare up more and more often. By the time a couple of years had passed, I was in pain most of the time—it felt like someone was grabbing my jaw and the back of my tongue with a hot pair of pliers. NOT fun.
Chronic nerve pain, as some of you know all too well, can be pretty much untreatable. Drugs don’t touch it; psychotherapy or biofeedback sometimes offer relief, but only sometimes.
Unrelenting, untreatable pain like this leaves a person with basically three options. First, you can rebuild your life by focusing on the pain, letting it rule you, rob you of opportunities for enjoyment, and make your life miserable. For many folks, this is the only way possible. I can certainly understand this choice—there were lots of times that I did exactly that.
The second option, if things get too bad, is suicide. Certain kinds of pain—notably trigeminal neuralgia—not infrequently drive sufferers to this choice.
The third option, if you’re lucky, is to refuse to give pain the power to rule your life. I was fortunate to discover this option a couple of years into the experience, when I attended a conference at which Dr. Lionel Corbett was the guest speaker. He spoke about the Buddhist concept of “radical acceptance,” which in the depth psychological tradition involves the willing surrender to the demands of the unconscious, some of which manifest as pain (or illness, grief, loss, or other powerful experiences).
With time, effort, and lots of prayer, I was able to reach a state of acceptance of the pain, and treat it as a gift. Although the significance of the pain eluded me, I was able to trust that there is meaning in the experience. Most of the time, at least.
I mention the pain because it will become important as this story evolves here in the blog (and in my life!).
One of the early clues I had regarding its meaning was my mother’s experience. Mom, particularly in the last decade of her life, suffered from a variety of what we used to call “designer diseases”: a series of ailments that, once “fixed” by medication or therapy, seemed to morph into something else, in a different location in her body.
One of the many unpleasant phases of this process was that she developed trigeminal neuralgia, which is chronic, severe pain resulting from damage to or malfunctioning of the trigeminal nerve. This ailment results in more or less random flashes of agonizing pain in the side of the face. Sufferers describe it as “like an ice pick to the face,” and it’s one of those instances of chronic nerve pain that not infrequently results in suicide. The agony is just too much to bear.
In Mom’s case, she was lucky. Through the miracles of modern diagnostic processes, her doctors were able to identify the problem. A blood vessel, over the years, had moved into too-close proximity to the nerve at the back of her skull. That meant that her pulse, the very beat of her heart, would cause jolts of pain. The “fix” was to open the back of her skull, tease apart the nerve and the blood vessel, and suture a bit of fatty tissue into the space between them. This cushioned the nerve and relieved the pain.
So…being a depth psychologist, I could not help but associate my own pain—different nerve, but nearly the same effect—with my mother’s, and wonder about the connection. But I couldn’t do anything but wonder about it. The “signal” was so strong and full of “static” that no information was discernible. All I knew was that from time to time I really just wanted to lay down and die, if that would relieve the pain.
So that’s why it seemed like such a miracle when my doctor, 11 or 12 years into this experience, was able to prescribe a drug (one that’s been available for decades, but that is only rarely used for neurologic pain) that all but knocked out the agony I’d endured for all those years.
I remembered what it was like to be able to sleep soundly; I could forget all about pain for days at a time. No more radical acceptance needed! Blissful….
All this will make more sense in the next post, here.