Life in the Waiting Room

By Pat Akerberg, Columnist

I wonder how much of our lives we spend standing in lines or sitting in rooms waiting.  Thanks to the intractable pain of trigeminal neuralgia and severe surgical complications, it seems that my life has morphed into one big waiting room.  

For the last few years I’ve had lots of cause and reason to speculate about what purpose waiting might serve, besides trying ones’ patience in a world where everything is measured by speed, action, progress and the like. 

Usually waiting brings those things to a halt temporarily.  In fact, Webster describes waiting as a form of being “temporarily undone.”  We consider that kind of short interruption typical.   However, when being temporarily undone turns into becoming permanently undone, how one lives and copes presents a major challenge.

Normally, when we wait we stay in a place of readiness or anticipation until something expected happens or someone arrives.  Things that fit this kind of waiting are sitting in doctor’s offices waiting to be seen, waiting for our reservation at a restaurant, or waiting to advance to the front of a line.  

So expectation, anticipation, and hopefulness are typically attached to our investment in waiting. But those very hopes also have the capacity to backfire if the outcomes we desire have been thwarted or become unattainable.     

It occurs to me that the combination of chronic pain and waiting then becomes a form of “endurance” training.  Note the root word “endure." Much like the “blue plate special,” it involves accepting everything on your plate with no substitutions.  You get what you get; or as those of us who have been physically compromised phrase it, “It is what it is.” 

I wait and hope for sleep to come, real sleep without pain strikes.  I wait for my next Rx to be filled, wait for my medication to take hold, and wait to be able to speak or get nutrition in me without triggering facial pain.  I wait to schedule an appointment or test, and then wait until the day comes.  Then there’s waiting to actually see the doctor and get the test results.

Always I wait in the hopes of discovering something that might provide relief, give some encouragement, or suggest a possible new option.  

There are extra long waits for the neuropathy in my arms to calm down enough for me to type.  It takes days of waiting to be well enough to leave the house for a medical appointment or have a friend visit, along with artful calendar management. Afterwards, I often wait until the high price that those exacted subsides.   

It seems I’m always waiting, watching, and wondering all the while how I will continue to carry out this vigil of unrelenting pain day after day, after week, after month.   Scary thoughts like that can produce anxiety in even the most peaceful person.  And just like riding a wave, I wait for those thoughts to recede.

Some say that life is a school full of learning lessons.  Deep down I’ve always disliked that theory.  Having to experience what didn’t go well so you can learn more for “later” seems so backwards in benefit at times. 

That’s because in retrospect I’m aware that some things we learn don’t always offer a mulligan, a do-over, or an apparent way to benefit from the learning.  But despite that hard reality, I still suspect that our pain and waiting must have something to offer or teach us.

Time spent waiting can be repurposed into a personal workout regimen that involves active, conscious heavy lifting of a different kind.  Let’s face it – self care doesn’t just happen; it takes work!

We can learn to make our lessons learned work for us, instead of lying in wait feeling frustrated and held captive by them.  We can resolve to better prepare and focus on what we need from appointments, figure out how to better advocate for our needs, establish some boundaries, and take the hard actions that will best serve us going forward.

Remember the old question, “So, what are you waiting for?”  That question implied a sense of urgency to act and get on with it, whatever “it” represented.  Maybe our particular “getting on with it” is about learning how to step up and master a new set of skills that will strengthen our internal core to better cope with waiting in pain. 

Instead of being permanently undone by waiting, we can turn that time into honoring non-action as a selective way to wisely conserve energy.  Occasional pity parties can be replaced with reflection about what really matters to us.  We can tenderize the resistance that keeps us blocked and willingly open up, allowing ourselves to be nudged toward flexibility and tolerance.  Or use deep breaths and time-outs to relax enough to go with what is for now.     

We can apply all of this while still fervently holding on and searching for better pain relief, waiting for something hopeful to make itself known. 

In the meantime, to quote the famous Austrian poet, Rainer Maria Rilke: “The point is to live everything. Live the questions now.  Perhaps you will, gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”    

Pat Akerberg suffers from trigeminal neuralgia, a rare facial pain disorder. Pat is a member of the TNA Facial Pain Association and serves as a moderator for their online support forum. She is also a supporter of the Trigeminal Neuralgia Research Foundation.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.