The Underpainting of Pain

The dictionary defines underpainting as ‘paint subsequently overlaid with another layer or with a finishing coat.’ For me, this has become a very apt metaphor for chronic pain. For the last five weeks or so, I’ve been on a bit of a journey, all because of an ad I saw on Facebook. The ad was for an app called Curable, and as it was a slow, grey Saturday when I stumbled across it, I didn’t scroll past with my usual rapid FB perusal. I clicked on the link to go find out more about what it was. It might be one of the smartest (albeit unknowing) clicks I’ve ever made.

At first I wasn’t certain what I thought about the app, it seemed a little too airy-fairy to me to be something that would actually be useful. You see, I’ve had chronic pain for a little over three years now. Even before that, going back many years, I had it on and off. On the rare day when I wasn’t experiencing some level of pain, I would feel ‘off’ and it would take a bit to realize it was because I had no pain. It’s amazing what we get used to, and what becomes our ‘normal’. Recently though, it had gotten to a place where I couldn’t manage more than ten minutes in my chair in front of the computer before I had to get up and try to find a way to bring the level of pain down. I was beginning to fear I’d never be able to finish my work-in-progress- book five of the Exit Unicorns series. Fear is a small word actually for how I was feeling- I was terrified. Because I love writing, I cannot fathom my life without it. Just the thought that I might not be able to write loomed like a big dark pit in front of me.

Over the years I had tried everything, and I should probably pause here and clarify- my pain was in my back but had migrated around the front of my ribs to the extent that my doctor was doing all sorts of tests on my liver, wondering if there was something dreadfully wrong with it. As I said, I’d tried everything- yoga, stretching, wheels, therapeutic massage, chiropractic treatments, acupuncture, pain patches etc. It had gotten to the place where anything I did, including massage, was only providing temporary relief- as in a few days, and then the pain was back (no pun intended) with a vengeance.

Anyone who experiences chronic pain can tell you that it grinds you down, and it starts to really limit your life. I was starting to weigh activities based on how much I was going to pay for it in pain dollars a few hours down the line. I’m fifty, and the thought of what my body might be like at eighty was scaring the tar out of me. Pain grinds you down mentally as well, so that depression- when it’s not setting up house in your head, is at the very least, hovering at your elbow making tea and planning on a lengthy visit. So, when I read the testimonials about Curable, I figured I had very little to lose, other than the money for the app.

Curable is really based around changing your ways of thinking around pain, and building neural pathways in your brain around dealing with that pain. One of the ‘education’ sessions (the lessons are divided into ‘Education, Meditation, Expressive Writing and Brain Training) led me to a book called ‘Mind Over Back Pain’. As I read it I began to think I now understood what was behind my back pain, and it wasn’t the car accident I’d had years ago (a four car pile up in four lanes of Vancouver traffic, and my seat belt didn’t catch until my face was about a half inch from the dash) nor was it the bad fall I took on ice years ago. It was something called TMS- Tension Myositis Syndrome. As much as this seemed a little crazy to me, I saw a lot of my symptoms in the stories the doctor who wrote the book related. This is all about the mind body connection and how emotions that we don’t deal with (even from years ago) can cause us very real physical pain. It’s how the mind protects us from all those messy emotions, it gives us physical pain as a distraction- and wow, is that an effective system. Really rather miserable, but effective.

There were two things the first lesson on the Curable app taught me, which have become a bit of a mantra for me. The first was ‘recovery is not a straight line’, which I remind myself of when I’m having a bad day- because when your body’s default setting is a high level of pain, it wants to go there every chance it gets. The second thing is, ‘the pain is not your fault’. There is always a level of blame that comes with back pain that doesn’t have an actual structural abnormality as one of its components- that somehow you’re doing something wrong- wrong chair, too many hours in front of the computer, bad posture, wrong shoes, bad attitude, you name it, because the list is endless, and I’ve had pretty much every item on it directed at me over the years of seeking help. If you start from that place, it turns out there’s no good destination, other than a lot of money spent on a fruitless search for a better chair- I even sat on one of those dang exercise balls for several weeks, only to learn that bouncing like a manic Tigger is not conducive to getting a lot of writing done.

I’m a fairly emotional being, so the idea that I wasn’t dealing with my emotions was rather startling to me. But, I think I was dealing with them on a very superficial level, and then rushing on without really accomplishing anything. As it turns out meditation (not something I’ve ever been good at, the staying still in one spot or the trying to create a blank canvas in my mind) is super effective for making you deal with your emotional detritus. It’s a little like opening a closet filled with years of junk, most of which you thought you’d lost somewhere along the way, and others that you’d forgotten you ever had at all. And it falls on your head, basically, sometimes one item at a time, and sometimes a bunch at once.

I will be honest, this has been the toughest route on the pain path that I’ve ever trod. But it’s (like all the hard things) the most effective. I’ve had two full weeks with minimal pain, and my Advil consumption has gone way down. Not every day is great, and there are days I do NOT want to deal with yet another level of anger/shame/guilt/sadness but I’m always glad that I took the time later- it might be two days later, but I’m glad I did it. I’ve even taken up talking to my brain in a stern fashion, and checking in to see which emotion is topmost when the pain starts  up- and it attempts to start up every blessed day. Sometimes just internally lecturing my brain does the trick, I just have to catch the pain before it gets over that first hurdle.

Now, I think of pain as the topmost painting, the one the world sees (though to be honest, if you met up with me, you wouldn’t know because I don’t talk about it a lot, because really I felt there was no point, it’s not like talking about it ever relieved it) and this painting is in some pretty dark colours- slashes of red, showers of black, glints of iron, corroded edges of copper. The underpainting though is the emotion, all the years of it shunted to the side, not dealt with as I kept moving through life- because of course you can’t do that work everyday- there are children who need attention, houses that need cleaning and an artist’s work to be done. But I’d finally hit that wall where the pain was bad enough that it forced me to look deeper. I’m pretty damn glad that I did, even though I know this path is going to be rocky and that it will sometimes turn back on itself, and I’ll lose sight of the destination.

For now each day, I’ll remind myself that recovery is not a straight line, and that the pain is not my fault.

The one exercise I haven’t done yet- expressive writing- go figure. 🙂

The image below is a rather beautiful example of underpainting, and that’s my aim- to have that emotional tapestry below the surface become a beautiful thing, even if I’m the only witness to it.



3 thoughts on “The Underpainting of Pain

  1. Very interesting, thanks for sharing. I have only recently, in the last 3-4 years suffered with chronic back pain, but you are right, it wears you down mentally and physically.

  2. Thank you for your insight. I feel like a pathway has been illuminated. I have been in pain so I was 23. I’m 56 now. I had been in car crash with a drink driver and went through a windshield and shattered a leg. I forgave the driver and healed miraculously. Oh the pain still persists. I am going to look more into this and I thank you for providing a glimmer of hope and light. Blessings. P.S. I’m reading Unicorns for the second time and love it even more for the education and insight into the Emerald Island.

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