One of the earliest lessons I learned was "not to judge a book by its cover." This lesson was taught to me by my mother after I had complained about a "crabby neighbor." Mom sat me down and asked me why I thought the neighbor was crabby. I explained that when ever I saw the older woman, she always had a scowl on her face and simply looked mean.
"Did you say, "Hi!" to her?" Momma asked.
"No...she looked mean, Momma," I explained.
"Well perhaps, she isn't mean. People wear masks that hide what is happening inside them. Perhaps, she is sad because her husband died a few months ago. Perhaps, she is in pain. Perhaps, she doesn't think anyone cares about her. There are many reasons why people look mean, but many times it is not because they are mean. Why don't you smile and say, "Hi!" to her next time."
As always, my Momma's wisdom ran deep. The next day when I saw our neighbor, I greeted her. She smiled the most lovely smile and greeted me back. One thing led to another; I was soon a regular visitor to her tiny apartment.
I thought I knew all about masks from this one incident, but I had a great deal to learn. Over the past 50 odd years, I have learned that people wear masks for many reasons. I have also learned that the mask that is the most difficult to see through is the smiling one worn by those in chronic pain.
Too often, those of us who have chronic pain make a choice. We decide to smile and move forward the best we can in spite of the torment that is going on within us. We are told we have high tolerance. We are told that we must be faking. We are told how great we look, while only a few really see what lies behind the mask.
Chronic pain is one of those silent conditions that doesn't jump up at you like a broken leg or horrendous scar. Like its sister chronic illness, it can go unnoticed by even those closest to the inflicted. But, don't be fooled.
When someone smiles and says, "I'm fine, thanks," or even "I'm great. How are you?" look deeply into their eyes. Think about what you see - remember pain can be both physical as well as emotional (Sometimes it is both!). Is there an underlining sadness or a look of woe? Does the person move a bit too slow, or seem to have difficulty transitioning from sitting to standing, standing to sitting? When they don't think you are looking at them, do you see them clenching their jaw or wringing their hands?
Usually, those of us with chronic pain have spent years ignoring it because others have told us what we feel isn't there. These others include doctors, nurses, teachers, ministers as well as family and friends. Unfortunately, many of us listen to these others and in doing so, learn to hide our pain. We become adept as "rising above" the pain so that we can go to work, take care of our families and enjoy life with our friends.
However, the masquerade doesn't last forever. Sooner or later, things become too much. Those in chronic pain who push themselves to this point either end up with other issues because their bodies cannot function well any more, or they simply cannot stand the pain any longer. They are forced to say no, to rest, to go for medical care, to take medications and to say no some more.
Saying no causes a great deal of conflict. People who don't see the pain, can't understand why this person who looks perfectly fine to them, is now saying they can't do that extra project, can't have tea, can't drive over for a visit, can't do whatever it is that the other wants/needs them to do. Relationships deteriorate, employers get angry and people turn their backs.
Don't judge a book by its cover. Don't let a smile lure you into thinking everything is great. Take the time to peek behind the masks to see what is happening behind it.