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  • Evie Clayton

An analogy for chronic pain

Updated: Aug 12, 2020

So my last (intentionally scheduled) post, about my pain palette project, is an exploration for people with chronic pain to find ways to conceptualise their own experiences. This is something I wrote during a pain flare that was a way of trying to communicate to people who don’t experience chronic pain some of the ways that chronic pain is not like “regular pain but longer”.

Trying to explain chronic pain to people who’ve only experienced short term/temporary pain — a metaphor about heat:

I was thinking about something today. About how hard it is to communicate the experience of chronic pain. Because, really, in a lot of ways, it is nothing like the experience of temporary pain, and I came up with a sort of analogy, but I’m still testing out what I think of it.

See, today I told people that I wasn’t doing much because I had “bad pain” and that wasn’t a lie but it was such an oversimplification it might as well have been. Today’s experience was a lot of executive dysfunction because of the pain; feeling sluggish, nauseous.... but also.... not really nauseous, and when I tried to interrogate the pain.... it was more just like my abdomen had a general sense of malaise, rather than any specific, discernible pain; but in a way that I really couldn’t manage to push through.

Comparatively, sometimes I’ll have really, genuinely, painful pain, like sharp, deep, radiating, gut-wrenching, horrifying pain, and yet somehow be able to get on with my day. And I’m not talking about spoon/fork theory stuff here; I’m not talking about the difference that is made by other pressures, stressors and burdens being present or not. It’s just like..... sometimes the pain isn’t that painful, but it is very overwhelming.

So, here’s the analogy I came up with:


Imagine someone has never experienced humidity.


You’re trying to tell them how hot, stuffy and lethargic you’re feeling from the weather, but they can only understand that as meaning “it’s really hot”, so you’re telling people “I’m really struggling today because of the weather” and people are like “oh, you poor thing, is it 40 degrees where you are?” and you want to try to explain to them that it’s only 30 degrees, which lots of people find very tolerable, but then they’ll think you’re making it up that it’s too hot for you to function normally, but you know the person you’re speaking to really doesn’t have any concept of humidity, and you’re trying to explain to them what it’s like living in a constant sauna, but they don’t even have a concept that the sauna is anything other than “warm”.


And now, in order to end this post on an entertaining and lighthearted note, I'm going to leave you with a link/screenshots to an absolutely excellent piece of writing about just how much of an impact humidity has on the experience of heat. Not only is it just fantastic writing, it's also very relatable both in the context of humid hot weather, and imagining you're speaking to someone who is trying to tell you that your experience of pain isn't valid.


Click to enlarge the images, or see the original post (which is screenreader accessible) right here.

[image description: four screenshots of text from a tumblr post; which can be accessed here]


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