Loolwa Khazzoom: What launched the onset of your chronic pain?
Brad Lemley: A bad car accident at age 17 – broke my left femur and put me in traction, took me about three years to stop limping. Within about a year, I began to have awful pain on the left side of my head, probably due to chronically tightening the muscles on that side of my body.
LK: How did struggling with chronic pain impact your life?
BL: The major impact was that it simply sapped a good deal of my energy. I often felt that I could go at most things at roughly 50%, the other 50% of my mental and physical capacity being required to simply keep myself from curling up in a ball.
I also, frankly, think I wasted a fair amount of time looking for a spiritual meaning for it all. I now think that pain has no ultimate meaning. That sounds depressing, but it’s actually liberating.
LK: Please say more about trying to function when half your energy is sapped by fighting pain.
BL: I sort of had a “normal Joe” job throughout that period. I would go to work 9-to-5 someplace and hold it together for that time, trying as much as I could to just sort of be unconscious of the pain. I wasn’t interested in letting anybody know that I was dealing with it.
Talking about it just wouldn’t have done any good. It makes you look unproductive, and if you’re trying to climb up the ladder, it’s not anything you really care to share.
By nature, I’m extremely averse to taking drugs of any kind. I’m 52 years old, and in the last 30 years, I have taken prescription drugs for about a week and a half total.
I did, however, used to take extra strength-Excedrin at work now and then. It would give me not only some pain relief but also a shot of energy – it contains caffeine – to overcome that tendency to not have energy because you’re fighting pain.
Then I would get home, and that’s when the pain would really strike me. I’d get my ice pack out of the freezer and put it on the back of my neck, on the left side of my head, and that would sort of help.
LK: Can you elaborate on the issue of how discussing your pain might make you look unproductive?
BL: Well I think the first thing you need to do is make a gender distinction. I think that generally speaking, men talk about what’s bugging them a lot less than women do.
There’s almost no advantage for a man to ever share any story of any weakness whatsoever. It doesn’t get you anywhere, so you become accustomed to not doing it. So I just didn’t.
Other than not, I would cut the world some slack on not being understanding, because frankly, if the situation’s reversed, I’m not terribly interested in hearing somebody tell me about the awful pain they’re in. Particularly if I’m in a managerial role, I want them just to get their work done.
I don’t expect people to have more compassion than I show on a daily basis. Everybody in the world is trying to strike a balance between taking care of themselves and caring for other people. And everybody falls in a different place on that continuum.
Some people are more self-absorbed than others. Some people are more compassionate than others. There are people who are quite compassionate. My wife was amazingly patient about this whole thing, it always used to amaze me – more patient than I would have been if the situation was reversed. I always appreciated that.
But I understand that everybody is in a different place on that spectrum, and you can’t just sort of share willy-nilly your problems and expect everybody to be sympathetic. Some people are, some people aren’t.
Also, I’m a real guy about this kind of stuff. Even if somebody was going to be compassionate, I wasn’t interested in it. That’s just not how I cope. It’s not how I get through things. I would rather just deal, and that’s what I always have done, and that’s what I did in this case.
LK: Where do you see that ideology fitting in with issues of disability and accessibility?
BL: I think it would be really nice if people were more compassionate about the disability that comes with chronic pain, but it’s a very complicated thing. I really have a trouble getting my mind around it because I also believe very strongly in what Larry Dossey wrote about denial being a surprisingly effective mechanism:
People who brushed off their cardiac problems as indigestion actually had better survival profiles than people who thought that they were really having a heart attack.
I used to just, to the greatest ability that I could muster, get past it and never really ask anybody else to be compassionate about it. And I think this is something weird about me. I think other people need more support than I need.
All I really needed was my wife. I didn’t want the world at large to be sympathetic to my case.
What I wanted, more than anything, rather than sympathy, was just to get rid of the chronic pain. That’s what I really, really wanted and that’s what my focus was always on: solving the problem however I could.
Stay tuned for Part II of this interview!
Brad Lemley is the editorial director of DrWeil.com, Andrew Weil’s website. Previously, Brad worked as a television reporter and anchor, a radio reporter, and a freelance writer for The Washington Post, Life, Discover, and other leading periodicals, and he co-authored two books, including It’s Not What Happens to You, It’s What You Do about It. In his spare time, Brad is a woodworker, house renovator, and dedicated fitness enthusiast. While he may sound like a hard-head and tough guy in this interview, he is really a big marshmallow who adores his family and two cats.