Writing Through Pain

Advice for balancing writing with a chronic pain condition.

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Before you start reading, I should tell you that none of this advice is provided by a medical professional—it is based on my own experience as both as a writer and chronic pain sufferer.

With that in mind, let me set the scene.

Spring is nearly here, daffodils are in bloom, and for once the sun is not feeling quite as shy as it warms the morning sky. It is the perfect day to sit down and continue to work on my manuscript. Feeling this positive, I am confident that I will hit two-thousand words at least. I grab my notebook, make some coffee, and ensure that I have a large supply of snacks before I sit down, to prevent procrastinating later as I go looking for things. The phone is switched off, the internet is silenced, and I am eager to start. Settling in I fire up the laptop, I take a deep breath and…nothing. My brain has gone to mush. I am well aware that this is commonplace amongst most writers—the much-debated curse of writers’ block—but in this instance it is not a block that is spoiling my plans for the day, but rather brain-fog.

Those of you who suffer from a chronic pain condition are probably nodding in recognition at this point, but for those of you that don’t, let me give you a very brief synopsis of what I am talking about, as everyone who has chronic pain experiences this differently. I have a condition where my joints dislocate easily, giving me a constant pain that feels very similar to flu conditions except without the cough and cold. My joints ache and normally, not wanting to feel left out, my skin becomes sensitive, making it uncomfortable to move. On top of this I have osteoarthritis in my hands, causing varying degrees of pain depending on the weather or activity. These are just the good days. On bad ones I can be experiencing five or six dislocations in twenty-four hours and feeling very sorry for myself. These symptoms of chronic pain are specific to me, however there are other things that I experience which most sufferers will know, as often we have them in common: brain-fog, depression, and chronic fatigue.

So how do we work through this and continue with our writing?

Brain-Fog

This expression does not do the symptom justice really, does it? Brain-fog sounds like a fluffy nuisance, when in fact it is a condition that steals away the very essence of a writer. You cannot remember simple words, your directional plans for your manuscript are forgotten, and half the time you can’t even remember how to switch on the darn computer in the first place—or maybe that is just me. It causes confusion, affects concentration, and disorganises your thought processes, so trying to write with it is very difficult.

When I have bad brain-fog there is no point in me attempting to write—I know that it is not going to work and that I will just get frustrated and angry if I try and fail. If it is mild fog, however, I carry on as normal but have a thesaurus open next to me for all of those words that get stuck on the tip of my tongue; that way at least I will be progressing. I will re-read my work the next day and, if necessary, can always re-write or delete anything that sounds as though I was high when I wrote it. Both of these courses of action are acceptable, yet it has taken me a while to allow myself the luxury of knowing that there will be days when I cannot write and days that I can.

One tip is to write things down as you think of them. If you are out shopping and think of the perfect word or phrase for your work, then take a moment to stop and jot it down, or dictate it to your phone. Don’t leave it until you get home because it will likely have faded into the dark recesses of your brain only ever to resurface in the early hours of the morning ten days after you have submitted your finished piece. I have a notepad in every bag, one next to my bed, and I keep them in most coat pockets, so that I am always prepared when inspiration hits, or when I need to write a shopping list.

Fatigue and Pain

I have paired these two together because they have such an impact on each other. Other than the fact that sleep is a distant memory, we are in a constant battle with our own bodies to keep on functioning, which is exhausting. When we get tired our pain gets worse and so it spirals until we wonder if it is worth trying at all and it becomes easier to just give up.

I used to work as a personal trainer, specialising in motivating and exercising chronic pain patients. I used to tell them to think about what they thought that they could do without causing a flare up in their condition, and then halve it. When they had done that, I had them halve it again so that we had a starting point. I do the same with my writing. If I feel that I could do four hours, I half it and half it again, as I know that one hour is going to be about my limit before the pain and fatigue set in. Don’t get frustrated or annoyed with yourself if this is all you can manage. It is better to write for an hour and still be able to function as a human being afterwards than write for four hours and spend the next day in bed.

Just sitting behind a desk for any length of time can be excruciating, so make sure that you take regular breaks even if it is just to walk about and make a drink. If you have to split your allotted time into three shorter intervals, then that is okay too—find out what works for you and use it. When you are feeling inspired but can’t face sitting at a desk, there is nothing to say that you shouldn’t curl up in your favourite chair and start your writing in a notepad or dictating into your phone until you feel capable of sitting down to type it up. That way, you will not feel as though you are losing time that should be spent writing; you are making headway regardless of what your word count is telling you. However, if you need to see the word count increasing to make you feel as though you are accomplishing something, then why not use a talk-to-type program on your computer to make your life easier?

Depression

It is only natural that these conditions accompany chronic pain. You are not able to do as much as you would like, people judge you constantly, everything hurts and you can’t help but feel inadequate, which you are not.

When I am at rock bottom I try and make use of my black cloud and write appropriately. My soft, cosy stories are a distant memory and I start to kill people—on the page of course—by writing dark stories that match my mood. Personally, I find that this helps, but obviously depression is unique to the individual so if you need to wrap yourself in a blanket and forget that writing even exists for a while, or get outside for some fresh air, then that is okay too. Don’t feel obliged to do things just because you feel that you should—when you are down, give yourself permissions to take care of yourself first.

 

Writing through the pain is hard but if you love something then don’t let your condition stand in the way. Keep a look out for writing opportunities where the publication requires you to be a chronic pain sufferer to submit, as there are plenty out there, such as Sick Magazine. Such publications always give long deadlines because they understand how our conditions work.

Most of all, try not to feel stressed out by your writing—it is supposed to be a pleasure. If you do have deadlines, see if you can make them flexible ones and, where possible, get your work completed as far in advance as you can, so that you have a bit of leeway if you are suffering badly closer to the time. It is all too easy to take on extra work because you feel that an able-bodied person would be able to do it and you want to prove something to yourself but think seriously about it before committing to anything. I have lost count of the amount of times that I have been worried about having someone think less of me or felt that I have let someone down. However, we have to bear in mind that we are able to spend less time writing than the average person so it’s okay to say no, even if it is just to ourselves. Health has to come first.

It is important to remember that you are not alone, there are many writers struggling daily to overcome their conditions. Talk to those around you and you may find that you have more in common with other writers than you would have thought.

Having always been an avid reader, Zoe now writes fiction and poetry to relax and escape into her own reality for a while.

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