Empowerment is a concept that is often discussed during Pain Awareness Month. One definition of empowerment is “the process of becoming stronger and more confident, especially in controlling one’s life and claiming one’s rights.” This sounds like a wonderful goal, but how do we accomplish this as individuals and as a community? I for one felt quite powerless over my chronic pain and illness, and it is was stripping away my sense of well-being and confidence.
What changed for me was realizing that although I am powerless over the fact that I do live with chronic pain, and more than one chronic illness and that they will impact my life in ways I can not control etc., I am not powerless over many, many aspects of my life. There are certainly things I can control. This was an empowering realization!
I still felt a lack of confidence due to the limitations of my chronic illness and the judgements of people who were less than understanding. I realized there were several obstacles to regaining confidence, which I continue to work on. First, I had to re-evaluate how I was personally defining my self-worth, where was I finding my confidence? I seemed to only be defining my value and purpose by what I could do, my accomplishments and achievements etc. I did not like that! I did not value other people based on these things, why myself? In others I valued their compassion, truthfulness, loyalty, integrity, humor, faith and strength. Why was my self-worth based upon achievement and accomplishment? Of course contributing to a society, a community, a family or relationship is important, but that is about giving of one’s self, not achievement and success, it is a humble act and hopefully not ego driven.
My second step was realizing that everyone can give something, I still have a lot to give too, in spite of chronic pain and illness! I was reminded of this in 2013 through an organization called U.S. Pain Foundation. U.S. Pain Foundation gave me the opportunity to give to the pain community, during a particularly disabling time during my pain journey, in a way that I was able to, which helped my confidence tremendously. Prior to that, they supported my personal well-being with empathy.
I bet there are readers that don’t believe everyone could possibly have something to give. Well, my grandmother at 98 years old, even as her health and cognition were failing, had chronic pain herself at that point and mobility issues, was still finding ways to giving. She gave laughs (humor), love, and hugs, she still made charitable donations, she prayed daily for loved ones (faith), she imparted wisdom, she gave company and made visits, calls and cards, to nursing homes (compassion), to family and friends (loyalty) etc. She did the things she could do. Before chronic pain, my worth was defined heavily on educational success and my career goals as a licensed social worker, working 10 hour days, toward my clinical license, and a goal of starting a private practice. I likely will never have my own practice, but that does not define me. At least for now I will never have a pain free day, but that does not take the power away from me to re-define where I find my self-worth and purpose.
My next step to empowerment was taking the power away from external forces to define my level of worth. This was also difficult, as I have done this my whole life. I looked to others to reflect my worth, instead of myself and my higher power, which for me is God. There were people in my life who judged me only on, popularity, monetary success, fashion, education and job success, how often I could go out, was I smiling enough etc. Then there were those who seemed to judge chronic pain and illness as some type of character defect. Sadly, after being so hurt, I even shut out those who never gave me a reason to mistrust them. Now I stay away from these types of people, who do not see to the depth of a person. I have also begun to water new relationships and tend to old ones, making sure I don’t allow any relationship, accept the one I have with God, to be the measure of my self-worth.
I don’t want anyone to feel as powerless as I did, I don’t want anyone else to base their worth on the vision of others. I want to help others find the one thing that makes them feel they still have power to define aspects of their life despite chronic pain and illness, to redefine their worth, to realize they don’t have control over having chronic pain, but chronic pain can not have control over them. It can not have control over their sense of humor, their compassion, their, integrity, their honesty, their kindness, their creativity, their faith and doing things you can do etc. unless they give it away. If we each take back what power we have, and do what we can together, we can put a stop to the vision of chronic pain being seen as some kind of personal failing or character defect. United we are strong. There are things you can do without even leaving your home or places in your neighborhood you may go regularly. You can write a letter to the editor telling about Pain Awareness Month and the impact of chronic pain. You can share resources and educational materials from organizations like U.S. Pain Foundation at your own doctors offices, church, library, community center, school, support group. You can track and support bills in your state and write letters to your representatives. Hang a chronic pain infographic on the community board. Make a donation to U.S. Pain Foundation, or send out donation requests. Get creative with your own gifts and talents that chronic pain has not taken, that can help you help others.