Very few people enjoy pain, and those that do are likely not reading a blog about social and emotional well-being. From an early age we try to teach our kids how to avoid pain and how to be cautious so that they do not end up in a place where pain is the outcome. Billions of dollars are spent every year on everything from pills to therapy to acupuncture to massages to self-healing books all in an attempt to remove as much pain as possible from our daily lives. And yet pain is still here.
I live a very blessed life. I am married to a wonderful woman and I have 3 of the best kids a father could ever wish for. I have a job that lets me help people and feel good about what I do. I have friends who genuinely care about me and my well-being. In fact, there are very few flaws with my life and very few things I can look at and feel bad about with the exception of one big one – pain.
About 9 years ago I was playing golf with a friend. I was not a great golfer, but there were usually very few on the course who could hit it as far as I could. In fact, I could reach the green from 300 with a fairway wood pretty much every time. I could reach the green from 225 with a 6 iron pretty much every time. What I couldn’t do was reach the green from 50 because I would either knock the ball 50 yards over or dig a hole in the ground where my ball used to be. I had no finesse, and I putted as if I were trying to knock the back out of the cup. But I could really smash the ball.
One beautiful Saturday I am playing golf with a close friend and we are at a 500 yard par 5. I blasted my drive close to 300 yards and was sitting just inside 200 to the green. My friend was a solid 60 yards behind me and of course I let him know about it. I offered to carry his bag since he was too weak to hit the ball any farther than he had. I asked him if he needed me to break out the binoculars so that he could see the green from so far back. I laughed when he pulled out a 3-wood (one of the big woods for non-golfers) and swung with all of his might and still ended up about 40 yards short. We walked up to my ball and he was fuming; I was laughing and I got a little too cocky.
“I bet I can hit the green from 200 out with my pitching wedge.”
Now, for those of you who don’t play golf, most people – at least most smart people – use a pitching wedge when they are inside of 100 or so yards. Some heavy hitters will use it up to about 120 yards but it was never meant to hit anything over 130 yards. I was 200 yards out and I was relishing the sweet anger of my friend, because I was putting it to him and my confidence had turned into cockiness. And, as does so often times happen, my mouth just wrote a big check that my body now had to cash.
“No way you can hit a pitching wedge 200 yards”, he said. “You hit it 200 yards then I will buy the cokes back at the clubhouse. You don’t hit it that far, you have to play the rest of the match with your mouth shut!”
The gauntlet had been laid down. Yes, I wanted a coke at the turn, but more importantly, I wasn’t sure if I could play golf without my tongue wagging. I wasn’t sure if that was even humanly possible. So, I pulled out my pitching wedge and took a couple of swings that sounded like a plane passing by as they making a “whoosh” sound. I lined up the shot and I pulled the club back and held it at the top of my swing for a moment and then I swung harder than I have ever swung before. I nailed that ball. I hit it as pure as a golf ball can be hit and when I made contact I knew it was going to get to the green, if not farther. And it did. That ball sailed as straight as an arrow and covered the 200 yards in a high fader and when it landed it was a solid 20 yards on the other side of the green. I had just hit a pitching wedge 220 yards. But my victory was short lived, because as I had swung at the ball I followed through so hard that I twisted and ruptured a disk in my back. I immediately went to my knees as it felt like someone had just stabbed me and was cutting down the back of my left leg. My friend had not noticed me on the ground, because he was so engrossed with the fact that I had just knocked a pitching wedge 220 yards. When he turned to give me a high-five he literally found me on my side in a fetal position trying to scream but not having the breath to do so because of the pain.
I ended up having back surgery to remove the torn portion of the disk. When I woke up from the surgery, I felt pain-free for the first time since that swing. It felt great. In fact, it felt so good that I blew off physical therapy and within 2 weeks I was in Miami to speak at a conference. I never slowed down and I never made any adjustments to my life even though I had back surgery. I wasn’t hurting, there was no need for a change.
Nearly 2 years after my surgery, I had been blowing and going and I found myself in Orlando, again for a speaking engagement. I got up early to go set my room up for my presentation and when I was walking across the street I stepped off the curb and felt that familiar pain shoot through my back and into my legs. I had just popped another disk stepping off of the curb. When I made it back to Austin and dragged myself to the doctor, sure enough, surgery number 2.
Again, I woke from this surgery feeling great and jumped back into life full force. I felt good so there was no need for a change. (I know what you are thinking, but I have never said I was a fast learner). You know what happened next, I turned wrong and out went the first disk that had been repaired. Surgery number 3.
This surgery was different. It had become obvious that my lower back was unstable, so the decision was made to fuse my back. This involved a big incision, a graph from my hip, and 2 titanium rods held into place by 4 bolts that looked like they were forged in hell itself. I didn’t wake up from this surgery feeling good. In fact, it hurt. I remember waking up in the recovery room and feeling like I was being stabbed over and over in my hip and in my lower back. I couldn’t even muster a word but apparently I woke up screaming because they knocked me out. I was in the hospital for 4 days, and when I went home I was told to stay in bed and not move much for at least a week or two... and then therapy would begin.
I had been home for about a week when I told my wife I wan ted to go sit on the back porch and breathe fresh air. We have a really nice porch overlooking our pool and it is a great place to just sit and relax. She helps me to my chair and yes, I needed help. As I sink into the chair, we hear the doorbell ring and Sylvia goes back into the house to answer the door. As soon as she closes the door to the porch my youngest daughter, who was a toddler at the time, takes off running straight towards the pool and falls right in.
Seeing my little girl go over the edge and into the pool apparently triggered the full fight or flight response, because I was out of that chair and running before pain could be registered in my brain. I ran in a flat out sprint and jumped feet first into the shallow end of the pool to grab my daughter. When my feet hit the bottom of the pool I was partially bent over reaching for my daughter and the impact of landing in this position caused the bolts in my back to press against the titanium rods to the point that the rods actually bent and the combined force caused the bolts to break into the anchoring vertebra, effectively breaking my back.
To make a long story short, I ended up having 4 more surgeries fixing my back. My last major surgery was a cage fusion where they cut a foot-long incision down my stomach and removed my insides to fix the spine from the front and then flipped me over and cut 2 equally long incisions down both sides of my back and completed the full cage. I woke from that surgery experiencing a level of pain I did not know was possible. I remember waking and feeling like I had literally been ripped apart in front and back. The pain was more than I could bear; I am told that when I woke up I immediately passed out from the pain. This happened several times as they tried to re-sedate me. I spent the better part of 2 years in a hospital bed, and my last surgery was to implant a spinal cord stimulator that lets me dull the pain by basically shocking the nerve sleeves in the spine into dormancy.
There have been no normal days since that fateful day by the pool. Pain has become a fact of everyday life for me. I can lay down about 3 hours before I wake up with my hips on fire, and I have to move to a chair to try and sleep. I take pain medication on a regimen to try and keep the pain from building. I walk with a limp, and I cannot bend my lower back because it is completely fused. Pain is an everyday fact of life.
Why am I telling you this story? Why am I telling you something personal when, if you knew me, you would know that I do not like to open up personally to other people? I am sharing this because I want you to know that I understand pain. I know what it is like to hurt. I know what it is like when the pain is so great and, more importantly, so consistent that it dims your hopes for life. I know what it is like to wish for simple moments when it doesn’t feel like your body is fragile and again to feel like a strong man. I know what it is like to be humbled through pain and have your confidence taken from you. I know what it is like to be made frail, physically and emotionally.
But I also know what it is like to learn to live with pain and to learn to live by the necessity of endurance and forbearance. I have learned through that necessity how to begin living with pain rather than being controlled by it. I have learned that out of frailty comes a strength that cannot be explained to someone who has not had pain as a waypoint of life. I have learned that the moments when pain is severe will too pass and that a moment of relative calm will come. I have learned because pain has taught me.
Pain is not something we should wish for or should actively seek. This life is hard, and pain will eventually find most of us. However, I think we are doing ourselves a disservice when we think of pain as something that should be avoided to the point that we do not let ourselves, or our children, live life. We are so fearful that our kids are going to get hurt that we are sterilizing their world and taking the adventure of life and putting rubber guards around it. We are missing the grand adventure out of fear of the great fall.
Life is uncertain, and no matter how hard you try to avoid pain it will come.
And because life is uncertain, and because a modicum of pain can be a great teacher, we need to remember that little boys need to run and climb trees and tackle each other and jump in mud puddles and romp and stomp and act like boys. Girls may not be as physically rambunctious, but they can rip each other’s emotions apart and inflict far more pain that the tackle of a boy. This doesn’t mean we should create such a politically correct bubble around our kids to where they are in a constant state of readiness to be offended.
Political correctness and this constant drive to eliminate all possibilities of physical and emotional pain is a mistake. Life is fragile but it is also short. Yes, you should be careful but no, you shouldn’t miss life because of fear of pain or fear of rejection or fear of being embarrassed.
Do I wish I could go back to that beautiful spring day and not swing that golf club so hard? Absolutely. But every day that I did get to play golf was a blessing and a memory that I carry with me now. Do I wish I could run and keep up with my son? Absolutely. But my kids have learned a lot of life lessons watching their Daddy get up and get on with life even though pain is his constant companion.
Would I avoid all pain if I could? Probably not, because when you spend your life avoiding pain, when you spend your life guarding yourself against others, and when you make sure that you have no emotional vulnerabilities then you are not really living. You are just surviving. Sign me up for those who want to live life. I spent a couple of years in a hospital bed trying to survive. Getting up and accepting pain and learning to live is a far better option.