The Gift of the Dark Angel: Coping with Pain

My barn having burned to the ground,
I can now see the moon.
– Mizuta Masahide, 1688

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Several years ago, I suffered through a painful 9 month course of chemotherapy.  The pain was so severe, and so relentless, that I didn’t know how I would get through it, and I seriously thought about quitting the treatment.

There were three things that helped me cope with the pain and I’d like to share them with you, because I know that some of you are going through very very hard times.

The first support was that my doctor gave me the choice of whether to continue the treatment or not.  He didn’t power struggle with me at all.  He was absolutely kind but there was no push.   So there was nothing for me to resist.  It was my choice.  His only advice in making my decision was to consider this:  “You never want to look back with regret.”

The second was a book that was given to me by a friend.  The book was The Gift of the Dark Angel by Ann Keiffer.  It’s an intimate portrait of one woman’s recovery from depression – and how she ultimately found blessings in her struggle.  The book made me look for meaning in my experience. It inspired me to try to look beyond the pain, to try to find my own dark angel’s gift.

The third support was given to me by a doctor-friend that had severe and chronic back pain.  He told me that anyone who lives with pain has to find their own way to cope, a strategy or tool that works for them.  No one can find that for you – No one can give it to you.  They can only tell you, and remind you, that it can be found.  They can wait compassionately beside you while you look for it.

He gave me a reprint of an article – I still have it – called What Good is Feeling Bad: The Evolutionary Benefits of Psychic Pain by Randolph M. Nesse.  The article talks about how pain is protective, like a messenger.  It gave me a kind of  respect and appreciation for pain, similar to the gift of the dark angel.  But where the Gift of the Dark Angel was warm and emotional, Nesse’s article was cognitive and analytical.  I needed them both.  Nesse inspired me to mentally distance myself from the physical pain, to learn to watch it from some other part of myself.

Ultimately, it was these three things: the freedom of choice, the decision to find the gift, and the cultivation of the “witness,” that helped me to cope with pain.

I’ll tell you another story from that time.  Perhaps someone close to you will read this post too, and understand something very special in it.

I was holding it together pretty well.  I’d gone through surgery.  And hemorrhaged more than a week after surgery – necessitating more surgery.  And I was still pretty calm overall, I think.  Until… “The Meltdown.”

My father had come down from New York to be a support and one night I heard only a portion of his side of a phone call, and I totally misinterpreted what was being said.  I started yelling and crying and ranting like a lunatic.  I saw real panic in my father’s eyes, but I couldn’t stop.  The dam had burst and the flood was loose.  I don’t think I was even making sense.  And Charles came towards me, and without speaking, he lifted me up like a child in his arms and carried me into the bathroom.  He set me down, while he ran a bath.  I was still yelling and crying.  He gently took off my clothes and set me down in the warm tub, and when the warmth seeped in and soothed me and calmed me, I was quiet.  All the while, he never said a word.  He didn’t have to.

Photo by Simon Carrasco on Flickr Creative Commons Attribution 2.0

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