Navigating through the World with Chronic Pain

By: Loolwa Khazzoom, Founder, Dancing with Pain

June 30th, 2008 • Living with Chronic PainPrint Print

We live in a fast-paced world, where the majority of people seem more concerned about saving five seconds of their time than being considerate about and generous with the space of those around them. As an upshot, navigating through the world with chronic pain means always having to stay on top of things — being precise in our own movements, as well as anticipating and responding in advance to other people’s movements.

As someone who looks totally able-bodied on the outside, I have to be especially careful about how people are moving around or towards me. On numerous occasions, I have ended up having to torque my body in a certain way, given the space constraints left me — which has exacerbated my pain levels and/or caused me to limp.

I have been learning to be assertive with my voice — barking out commands of how people around me should move in the heat of the moment, regardless of whether someone thinks I’m a bitch. I have suffered too much pain from people’s carelessness to worry about someone’s opinion.

But sometimes I can still get taken off guard. Take the case a few weeks ago, when I was pre-boarding on a Southwest flight to Los Angeles. A woman in a Southwest uniform was walking in front of me, yelling to the people in front of the line — telling them where to go, where to stand. It was very confusing. I had pre-boarded a million times but had never encountered a staff person being all bossy like that, not to mention super loud.

I put a lot of space between her and me, being that among other things, I’d like to keep my hearing intact. About a third of the way down the walkway, however, she turned and ordered me to walk in front of her. I did as she said.

In retrospect, I questioned why I went along with it. By now, I’m pretty damn good at stating my boundaries and protecting my body. Something about the combination of her uniform and my confusion about what was going on, however, made me fall in tow.

Bad move. The woman was then screaming right in my ear. For psychological reasons I won’t get into here, my childhood’s “nice girl” brainwashing took over me in that moment, and I felt that — in order to protect her feelings — I couldn’t even plug my ears.

I did, however, try to step back behind her. In an authoritative tone, she demanded that I walk in front of her again. Somehow I felt there was no other option, and once more, I did as she said. That time, though, I also plugged my ears.

Wouldn’t most people get the hint and stop yelling? Well she didn’t, and because I was still under some strange spell, I just suffered and cringed. Strangely enough, once we had already gotten onto the plane, and she had shut up, she asked if I was okay.

A few years earlier, when I had confronted a flight attendant (also on Southwest) about inappropriate behavior, all three of the flight attendants harassed me for the duration of the flight. It was unbelievable, and when I told the manager, I got nothing but a lame apology from her.

With that in mind, I decided to avoid a showdown and just said I was fine. Although I do think my facial expression must have communicated that I wanted to throttle the woman.

At any rate, I spent the whole flight mad at myself and trying to figure out what the hell had happened. When I talked to my mom about it later that day, she advised that I have compassion with myself, pointing out that occasionally it takes time to figure out what’s going on and what we need to do about it. “You’re doing great,” she said. “Give yourself some slack.”

I decided to use the situation as impetus for taking even better care of myself in the future. And as life would have it, I had the opportunity just days later. But more about that in another post.

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