Invisible pain can hurt a lot more than external injuries

Photo credit: pixabay

You could say I’m accident prone. I broke my finger waiting too long to swing the bat in baseball. I broke my thumb getting it caught in the belt loop of my pants in the Colosseum on a class trip to Rome. My brother accidentally closed a door on my foot while I was absentmindedly standing in a doorway, and it broke my toe. I sprained an ankle doing ballet. Two months ago, I bruised two bones in my foot doing Zumba. I am no stranger to that kind of pain.

But I am even more familiar with internal pain. Two years ago, I was in a car accident that caused serious damage to my brain and digestive tract. Since then, I can’t help but notice vast differences between the way we respond to external versus internal pain.

In my most recent external injury, I wasn’t able to bear pressure on my left foot and needed to wear a boot for a month and a half. I was utterly amazed at the response this elicited from everyone I encountered. People expressed deep concern and saw every facet of my life that had been altered by the boot: taking the elevator rather than the stairs, the harsh sound the boot made when it hit the floor, the way it affected my posture. Being late was graciously excused. TSA officers even snuck me into the senior citizens’ lanes at airport security checkpoints. I was surprised and touched by the sympathy.

My concussion evoked virtually the opposite response. The people I told about it would forget about my injury a day later. Students would give me dirty looks when I had difficulty on the stairs because I was slowing traffic. A few teachers were inflexible when I asked for extended deadlines. One teacher even reprimanded me for talking to a friend in the hallway because I had yet to do her homework. If I could talk, why couldn’t I write?

And here’s the kicker: My injured foot barely even hurt. I only felt its impact when I bore weight on it, and the boot remedied this completely. Yet the otherwise invisible pain of the concussion was indescribable.

Pain, both external and internal, is incredibly abstract. But seeing some sort of physical manifestation of someone’s pain affords us the illusion that we understand what it would feel like, despite the fact that we couldn’t understand, even if we suffered from the very same ailment. Every body is different. But the boot or cast or crutches give people something to latch onto, a schema for their brains to pull from in an attempt to relate. You think, “Oh I have a foot, too, the same structure, the same bones and joints and tissue. I can understand this injury.”

But the abstraction of physical injury is a child’s finger painting compared to the Jackson Pollock-level incomprehensibility of internal pain. Internal pain impacts body systems we barely understand as it is, let alone when they are afflicted with an illness. It took me about 10 seconds to understand what it meant to have bruises on the bones in my feet. It took the daily struggle of having a concussion and digestive issues to understand what was happening.

And I still feel like I only ever scratched the surface.

All I can offer is this: In every iteration of pain I’ve experienced, the best thing I could be told was, “I’m sorry. I can’t imagine how you feel.” The sheer concession that you can’t understand – but express deep sympathy nonetheless – is profoundly meaningful.

You never really know what someone is enduring. It’s part of the incredible mystique of the human experience. But keep that in mind as you encounter people in your life. There is always something you don’t know. If all else fails, just comfort them with one of my favorite sentiments from Winnie the Pooh.

“I don’t feel very much like Pooh today,” Pooh said.

“There there,” Piglet said. “I’ll bring you tea and honey until you do.”

Dana Munro is a sophomore majoring in musical theater. Glass Half Full runs every Tuesday.

Featured photo courtesy pixabay user rawpixel.