Chronic Pain is not Frustrating


Lately, more coworkers have been asking me about my chronic pain. Because I missed part of a work event, more people are now aware of what is going on with me, and in a nice and kind way, several people have expressed interest in how I am doing.

Yesterday, a pleasant and caring coworker said, “I didn’t realize your back pain was so severe.” She started asking me how everything started, about my diagnosis etc… I went into some details about this, explaining my limitations and why I only work 5-10 hours a week, giving her a short but honest rundown of what I deal with on a daily basis. It was matter of fact and no complaining, but I also didn’t hide the seriousness of the situation or sugar coat any of the details. She nodded, and as she was leaving she said, “that must be so frustrating.”

No. No, this is not frustrating. That is most definitely not the word I would use. You clearly did not get what I am experiencing despite my efforts to honestly describe the truth. Frustrating is most definitely not the word I would use for the event that has changed my whole life, knocked my world upside-down, and brought me to my knees in agony, devastation, and prayer.

Frustrating is when you get stuck in traffic for a few hours.
Frustrating is when you want to make an omelet but realize you are out of eggs.
Frustrating is when you stub your toe.
Frustrating is when you plan a vacation and the flight is cancelled.

Frustrating is an appropriate term for time-limited inconveniences, not life-altering diagnoses.

Devastating is when you lose your ability to run, walk, and properly move.
Shattering is when you realize you can only invest 5 hours a week in the work that you love.
Overwhelming is when all your plans and dreams for the future become impossibilities.
Life-altering is when you used to be bright and active and now you can barely get off the couch.

In her defense, I do use the word frustrating at times. I think how frustrated I am that I can’t go on a walk today, or how frustrating it is that I need to lay down instead of making dinner. Frustrating seems appropriate when I am thinking of individual things I have lost. But when I think of the losses I have experienced as a whole, I am devastated, shattered, and overwhelmed by how life-altering this experience of pain has been.

I hold no hard feelings towards this individual. She is caring and thoughtful, an insightful counselor, and this will change nothing about our professional relationship or how I feel towards her. Her comment simply reminded me of the power of words and how difficult it is to understand an experience you have not walked through.


  1. I’ve never much liked that word either when people attempt to sympathize. Somehow it sounds inadequate. But, like you, I know that I shouldn’t harbor negative feelings towards people who attempt to understand. When probably what they really are thinking is, “Wow, that would really suck! I’m glad that’s not me!” So I try to accept whatever words come my way that are uttered with good intentions, no matter how lame they might sound.

    1. That is a really good perspective to have. And that is an interesting point, that likely she was thinking something different than she actually said. Now that you say that, I do really wonder what was going through her mind.

      More than the words other people say, it caused me to consider my own words when I respond to peoples’ suffering. I wondered if my words sound trite when I respond to others, and it reminded me that the words we choose matter. I won’t get it perfectly, but I can remember how I felt and think hard before labeling what someone else is feeling.

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