Of pain and gain

I’ve written here about being a school librarian, but I’ve never said much about the other role I played for the last third of my career as an educator: instructional coach. In short, my job was to support teachers in improving their instructional practice. My speciality was literacy, and I was often leading training sessions to teach teachers how to implement an instructional framework my district had committed to that I came to believe wholeheartedly in.

My faith was based in both research studies showing the framework’s effectiveness and in seeing how it transformed teaching and learning for those teachers I worked with who implemented it fully. For a very few teachers, I watched teaching become more joyful, less arduous, and more effective.

Why only a very few? you might be wondering. Well, because very few were willing/able to implement it fully. Many were frustrated and burned out by the many, many systemic inadequacies they worked within. Many had tried many, many things already that had promised to make things better, only to be disappointed when they did not, in fact, make things better. What I was asking them to do was not easy, and most of us won’t voluntarily do hard things if we don’t have faith or hope that doing them will make things better.

“I already do that,” they’d say to me. (No, they didn’t really. They did parts, or they did things that were “that” superficially, but not in the ways that mattered most. But they weren’t really doing it.)

“It won’t work because ______ (fill in with any number of things that are beyond a teacher’s control to fix or change),” they’d say. They believed that if someone else could just fix those things (poor attendance, kids’ home lives, lack of resources, etc.), the ways in which they were teaching would be just fine and they wouldn’t need to change what they were doing.

I was often frustrated and bewildered by their responses. There I was, offering a way that was in their control to make their teaching lives better–and improve their students’ learning. True, it would require them to teach in some radically different ways. It would require the shifting of some long-held paradigms. It would mean bucking tradition and giving up some things that they valued. But the current ways weren’t really working! (Everyone admitted that.) And they were unsustainable!

“What do you really have to lose if it doesn’t go well?” I’d ask. “Just try,” I’d implore.

Most did not. I could not understand the resistance I faced when I was offering tools of empowerment. So many people I talked with were so frustrated because they felt powerless. “The great thing is that you have the power to make things better,” I’d say. “And the hard thing is that you have the power to make things better.” It’s hard because if we have the power to make a change, we are the ones who have to make it happen. We are the ones who have to change. We can’t wait for someone else to do things to improve the situation.

This fall, as a student in a 7-week pain management course, and in subsequent experiences that have grown out of that one, I’ve come to a greater understanding of that resistance.

I hated my pain management course. I dreaded Thursday mornings, when I’d have to sit in a 2-hour Zoom meeting and listen to excessively chirpy and annoyingly positive facilitators tell me that I had the power to reduce my pain and make my life better.

I was pretty sure that those facilitators did not know chronic pain the way my fellow participants and I know chronic pain. They were not living it as we were. (I actually don’t know if that’s true. They might have been.)

They shared a poem that basically said it was our responsibility to change the course of our journey with pain, and the implication that it was my choices creating my pain (and therefore my fault) pissed me off so much I said in a session that I thought the poem was ableist and insulting and wondered if perhaps they could find something that gave a similar message about empowerment without the victim-blaming. (Yep, I was that person.)

I, and, it became clear, all of my fellow course participants, had already done and tried so many of the things they were “teaching” us to do. And yet, there we all were, still in pain that was negatively impacting our lives. That pissed me off, too.

In one session, I got extra pissed off because life circumstances for most people make the remedies they were suggesting impossible to implement. Many of the things suggested would not have been possible for me to do in my life when I was working full-time and single-parenting my kids. Since September, I have told others that my new job is getting a handle on my health and pursuing remedies to the various maladies that have plagued me for 3 decades or more, and I haven’t been joking. It has felt like a full-time job, doing All The Things (which I won’t list here).

And, man, if I don’t now get where all those teachers who didn’t want my Kool-Aid were coming from. I was just as burned out from years of struggle with my health and the healthcare system as many of them were from years of struggle with their teaching practice in a dysfunctional educational system. Like the teachers I worked with, my frustrations and anger and hopelessness were real and justified. Things have been all fucked up and it just isn’t right.

But that doesn’t mean my pain class facilitators were wrong.

Seeing the parallels pretty quickly, I forced myself to do the kinds of things I wished more of my colleagues had been able to do with me. I made myself stick with the class. (I did skip one session, though.) I made myself keep trying new things. I made myself keep making and attending appointments and doing the things at home I’ve been advised to do. I read books and clicked links and watched videos. I made myself work to keep an open mind. I gave myself permission to be imperfect in all of this and take breaks when I just couldn’t with it all. And this week, I finally (I think, I hope) got to a doctor who was able to weave the many threads of my story with pain into a cohesive narrative. For the first time, ever.

And damn if those perky facilitators weren’t (for the most part) right. (Yay! And Fuuuuck!)

As is often the case with true stories, there is no black-and-white conflict, no easy cause-and-effect, no simple or neat resolution. There is much more “yes, and” than “either/or.” Yes, there are things I can do to improve my life with pain AND the pain has not been something in my control because it originates from my parasympathetic nervous system, which cannot be consciously controlled. Yes, it is, in a sense, “all in my head”–in that the pain originates in my brain–AND the pain is real, and felt in other parts of my body. Yes, the parts of my body that (now) hurt are structurally sound and disease-free, AND decades of living with a hyper-aroused nervous system have caused physical damage to some of those parts. (Also: In the past, some body systems were damaged, and that damage created pain, and that contributed to forming neural pathways that create pain now, even though I no longer have those organs that created the initial problem. It’s been tangly.) Yes, I lived and worked in broken systems for years that helped create these problems and that I was powerless to change, AND simply leaving those systems hasn’t made everything all better. (And won’t.) Yes, there’s finally a pathway to something better, AND going down it requires a lot of resources that aren’t available to a lot of people–which means that I probably couldn’t have done all that much to improve my situation in the years when I didn’t have them. And that we shouldn’t blame or shame those who don’t have what they need to be able to shift out of surviving a situation to improving it.

As was true for the teachers I worked with, there is no outside fix that will make everything all better and what I want it to be. There is no quick and easy solution, and certainly no perfect one. I cannot pick and choose the parts of a coping framework I can easily adopt and ignore other whole parts of it. If I do, I will get only partial benefits, if any. (Which is why so many of the things chronic pain sufferers been told to do over the years haven’t really worked for many of us.) Improving things will require me to adopt new paradigms and do things differently and it will take some time for me to see results. To stay on this path, I will need to abandon others, and there is some loss in that.

But I will tell you this: for the first time in years, I have hope that things can be significantly better. If you’ve ever lost hope and then regained it, you know what a gift it is.

8 thoughts on “Of pain and gain

  1. Ally Bean says:

    “Just try it.” Three words that can set you on a different path. I’m sorry to read about your struggles, and can only hope along with you that things get better. I imagine that you’ll be able to adopt the new paradigms and change your ways as you strive to feel less pain. Still, I empathize with your situation.

    • Rita says:

      Thanks, Ally. Trying is hard when you’ve tried lots of things that haven’t worked. What’s different for me now is that I now have an explanation of causes that makes sense. I always think that if we don’t know the root of a problem, any solution we might try is a bit of a crapshoot.

  2. Kari says:

    I feel for what you went through as an instructional coach. I felt myself as a parent going through what I am currently going through with Ellie as I read along with what you were trying to accomplish. It did strike me as a remarkable parallel.

    But the other parallel I see between your job as an instructional coach and our country, even our world, is our reluctance to change our habits. The first word that came to mind was inertia. I even took a picture of a quote from a Ram Dass book I read a few weeks ago, which I plan to share in an upcoming post. Most people become so tired and stressed out that even when they want to change, they don’t know how or have the motivation to do so, even when the tools are right in front of them.

    I’m glad you have hope, my friend. Please keep Ellie and us in your thoughts as we begin yet another challenging school week. 💕

    • Rita says:

      Oh, you and Ellie are in my thoughts more than you know. I do hope you have a good week.

      One of the things I understand (about me, teachers, anyone facing a problem) is that we can become too tired and stressed. I’m not sure if I said it clearly enough, but even if I’d had the right tools in front of me a few years ago, I wouldn’t have had what I needed to use them (much less pick them up). And I couldn’t get where I’ve gotten now. It’s taken a lot of persistence and–most of all–time. I used to get down on myself for giving up on finding solutions. I have a better understanding now that I really, truly didn’t have what I needed to pursue or implement them. I guess this is what I meant when I said it’s complicated and messy. Yeah, we need to be willing to change and to do things. But if we’re too beat down, we aren’t in a place to change. I’m looking forward to seeing the words from Dass. I have several friends who reference him frequently.

  3. Marian says:

    I’m glad you finally have both the time and the resources to make inroads on alleviating your chronic pain, Rita. This — “I’d have to sit . . . and listen to excessively chirpy and annoyingly positive facilitators” — (ugh) reminded me of this interview I listened to a week ago on the radio: https://www.cbc.ca/listen/live-radio/1-57-the-sunday-magazine/clip/15960040-nora-mcinerny-rejecting-toxic-positivity-book-bad-vibes
    (I don’t think the phrase “moral injury” came into the above interview, but it’s also something that’s come to my mind with your post.)

    • Rita says:

      Thank you so much for this, Marian. I’d never heard of either Nora McInerny or the concept of moral injury, and…wow. I couldn’t hear the episode you linked to, but I Googled the author and discovered this: https://lithub.com/unravel-with-me-nora-mcinerny-reflects-on-an-anxious-life/ And, I’ve now got her book on hold with the library. I feel as if I could have written the excerpt I linked to here. It better captures the “yes/and” thing I feel all the time. Yes, I’m anxious AND there are some really damn good reasons to be! (Also–no big surprise, I’m sure–I hate toxic positivity. I think we use it to keep people quiet in situations we should not be quiet about.)

      Then, I googled “moral injury,” and then “moral injury” and “teachers” and that sent me to this: https://www.edweek.org/teaching-learning/teachers-often-experience-moral-injury-on-the-job-study-finds/2019/05 Which made me cry a little because a big part of why I left was that I could no longer stand feeling complicit in perpetuating things I think are wrong for students and teachers. This weekend I had lunch with two friends/colleagues I began my career with. We hadn’t seen each other for years. All of us left earlier than we’d planned, all of us because of this. We just couldn’t take it any more. The implications of that are enough to make one anxious. I hope that we can soon get to a place where we realize that not all anxiety is a sign of mental illness. That it is, in some cases, a perfectly rational response to circumstances.

  4. Kate says:

    Have you heard the song by Warren Zevon “my shits fucked up”? I don’t say this to make light if your chronic pain, or the chronic systemic difficulties in education, but because Jesse and I find it comforting when we are dealing with the overwhelm of handling our own chronic issues.

    And what is it about chirpy and positive people? I had one on the phone for a vet/Molly issue last week and HAD to hand the phone off to Jesse before I completely lost it. I just have NO patience for it. So…kudos to you for sticking it out. (I can’t see you being chirpy ever – even when you were trying to facilitate change in fellow educators though.)

    I am really glad that you’re finding hope. I wish you didn’t have to go through all of this to get there, but I am so glad you’re finding it.

    • Rita says:

      Thank you (really, truly) for making me laugh this morning! I had NOT heard that song, and what a gift! Made me actually laugh out loud, which doesn’t happen all that often. I think if we can’t have/develop a sense of humor about the hard things, we are doomed. More yes/and. (God, I love how appropriate is voice/tone is to the song.)

      What also made me laugh is that I don’t think anyone, ever has found me chirpy–not even those poor teachers who didn’t want to sit through my trainings but had to. I’m sure I was annoying in other ways, but at least not that one! When people who know me now learn that I was a cheerleader in high school, most are dumbfounded. “Yeah,” I’ll say, “I was the one who didn’t jump.” The things we do to try to be all right in this world.

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