Dealing with pain - the art of happiness

I've been reading a book called "The Art of Happiness" by the Dalai Lama on and off for years. I bought this book while I was living in London and life was really hectic. It's just one of those books you can pick up and open at any point, with no need to remember the story line. I've learnt a lot from this book. I'm a huge fan of the Dalai Lama and love so much of what he says.

When I was reading it the other night I was struck by a chapter titled "DEALING WITH PHYSICAL PAIN". I wanted to share it because it really resonated with me and what I've been through, and it flipped my perspective of pain and suffering on its head.

In this section of the book it talks about a man called Dr Brand whose a world renowned hand surgeon and leprosy specialist. Dr Brand spent his early years living in India where he was surrounded by people living in extreme hardship and suffering. During these years he became interested in the pain system of the human body, noticing that physical pain seemed to be expected and tolerated much more in the West. He eventually started working with Leprosy victims and made a remarkable discovery.

Leprosy is "a contagious disease that affects the skin, mucous membranes, and nerves, causing discoloration and lumps on the skin and, in severe cases, disfigurement and deformities. Leprosy is now mainly confined to tropical Africa and Asia." - Google

"He discovered that the ravages of Leprosy and the horrible disfigurements were not due to the disease organism directly causing the rotting of the flesh, but rather it was because the disease caused loss of pain sensation in the limbs. Without the protection of pain, the leprosy patients lacked the system to warn them of tissue damage. Thus, Dr Brand observed patients walking and running on limbs with broken skin or even exposed bones, this caused continuous deterioration. Without pain sometimes they would even stick their hands in a fire to retrieve something. He noticed an utter non-chalance toward self destruction. In his book Dr Brand recounted story after story of the devastating effects of living without pain sensation - of the repetitive injuries, of cases of rats gnawing off fingers and toes while the patient slept peacefully."

After a lifetime of working with patients suffering pain and patients suffering a lack of pain Dr Brand came to view pain not as the universal enemy but as a remarkable, elegant and sophisticated biological system that warns us of damage to our body and thus protects us

He then goes on to conclude in response to the question - So why must pain be so unpleasant?

The very unpleasantness of pain, the part that we hate, is what makes it so effective in protecting us and warning us of danger and injury. The unpleasant quality of pain forces the entire human organism to attend to the problem. Although the body has automatic reflexive movements that form an outer layer of protection and move us quickly away from the pain, it is the feeling of unpleasantness that galvanises and compels the entire organism to attend and act. It also sears the experience into the memory and serves to protect us in the future

This rang so true for me. When I was in hospital during my last and most severe relapse, everyday I would wake up and just hope I was all better, that I could walk to the toilet, that I could shower myself and regain some form of dignity, that I wouldn't be so overwhelmingly tired or nauseated, that my eyes would just stop flickering. But it took me a good several days to realise that given the state I was in, it was going to be a very slow process. This immense emotional pain only compelled me to work harder, fight everyday to get my body back and make some really big changes.

I doubt, after my first relapse, that I would have gone home and decided to go on OMS, to completely overhaul my diet and lifestyle. I wouldn't have lost my job and had the time to do so much research and learn so much about the links between nutrition, stress and illness. Or the disease itself and the immense amount of research that is and has taken place. I wouldn't be so thankful for doctors, scientists, St Vincents hospital, the incredible job nurses do or my specialist. I wouldn't have a new found respect for the human body, the brain and just how incredible and complex it is. I wouldn't have started this blog or connected myself to hundreds of people with MS on instagram. A resource that has been invaluable to me. I wouldn't have seen all the sick people in the health care system day in day out, the other MS patients, or the amputees in rehab. I wouldn't have had the conviction or the shear determination, I wouldn't have known how scary this illness could be. It was only the immense pain me and my family suffered during that time, an experience so seared into my memory that it's led me to make the changes I have done. Now I can look back on that time in my life and know that it was the catalyst that would positively change my life forever and for the better. It taught me to take this illness seriously, so that I hopefully never have to live through that experience again.

I think this concept is really important to share because it's so easy to see your pain and adversity as depressing and be asking yourself - why me!??  But in order to move forward we shouldn't let our pain be our enemy, we should let it wisen and soften us, and we should instead let it be our teacher.