Recently, my husband suffered a pulled muscle after doing some heavy yard work. He already has back issues from a work-related injury in 1993. In lieu of surgery, he dedicated six years to physical therapy to restore some of his previous functioning.
We actually met in the physical therapy office after I sustained a neck injury in a motor vehicle accident. At the time, he had just resumed work on a part-time basis while continuing tri-weekly therapy for a couple more years. This is not to say he doesn’t still experience pain or problems, it just doesn’t require seeing a specialist, for he knows the steps to take if a flare occurs (ice, electrical stimulation, rest).
On this particular day, he pulled a different muscle. Initially, after some rest, ice, and NSAID (a painkiller), he felt better. However, the following morning he was met with uncontrollable spasms when he tried to get up. He realized that, after many years, he would need to see a professional once again. Naturally, I was concerned and wanted him to feel better, but since I was familiar with this issue, I was not distressed. He, on the other hand, was upset.
He became frustrated that he couldn’t bend down and pick up a dropped item, or couldn’t reach around to get the seat belt. Thinking back, I can imagine that my having to put on his socks and shoes was even more disconcerting. Still, I was surprised at the level of impatience and frustration he felt. After all, this would only require a handful of visits, and he was still ambulatory. Just two years ago, he had sustained a hairline fracture to his ankle that was much more debilitating.
I was also reminded that, while we share a basic understanding of our chronic pain conditions, there are still many differences.
Not long ago, a dear friend, for whom I was a school aide while I was a senior, had to undergo knee replacement surgery. While she knew this was inevitable, the surgeon made the decision earlier than originally anticipated. She is in her early 70s, and before this happened was very independent and quite active. Now, she has been wheelchair-bound for close to two months. Her beloved dog is living with her daughter since her basic needs are still a cumbersome task alone, impossible to add a bouncy pup. She expressed anger and frustration that masked the underlying covert feelings of helplessness and fear at having to rely on others.
As with her, too, I was surprised with the level of angst expressed. While my limitations were gradual, only to be exacerbated by a major flare in 2009, I have now lived for over two decades with some degree of physical constraint. While the onslaught of major limitations was met head-on with much resistance, I do not know if I reacted in quite the same way. In terms of my reaction to their feelings, I know my initial reaction differs than what it would have been at the earlier stages of my own illness. Years ago, while I would have still empathized, my initial thought would have been, “Welcome to my world.” Today, my reactions have a deeper level of empathy without a thought to how this relates to my own health.
Each person’s experience differs, even those with the same illness or condition. Compassion is the key, for even though we may not fully understand, our ability to listen and offer care is universal. We have all experienced some level of negative response and lack of support due to another’s ignorance or lack of compassion. We want that from others, and may forget that others experiencing a sudden limitation may need it just as much.
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