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Living with Chronic Pain: Freedom Despite Limitations

... and how I decided to become a psychotherapist.


Where is the freedom in a life restricted by pain? In every moment! Sounds odd? I can understand that. But believe it or not, it doesn't matter what kind of pain it is: the commonly taken lower back pain, nerve or headaches, fibromyalgia, arthritis... completely irrelevant.

Over a quarter of a century ago, I learned this from an admirable man, and it had several life-defining meanings for me. Here, you'll read what happened... and maybe you'll find something for yourself in it too.

About my career choice as chronic pain patient


I'm often asked why I became a psychotherapist. Uh, is that something special? After all, psychology has been one of the most popular subjects of study for decades - at least in Germany. Maybe people wonder because I'm often so optimistic and happy, which doesn't quite fit the image they have of psychotherapists, even less so when suffering from chronic pain. Perhaps they feel there's something conspicuously lacking in me, maybe I don't look pensive enough, or perhaps they're desperately searching for an obvious mental disorder. Did I fulfill the stereotype well enough?

Okay, yes, I can indeed be affected, thoughtful too, and my experience is that everyone has their own burdens to bear - why should I be an exception? Being in pain? Yes, I've been dealing with it for 26 years by now - every day. Maybe I've just learned to deal with it well over time. When others find out about it, they're usually more affected than I am. Do you know that feeling? Sometimes, it's just not obvious to others.

But what are the important things that enable me with my pain, etc., like this? What makes me have such an unwaveringly optimistic view of my fellow human beings? Yes, I do have that... even though I think our lived ethics haven't necessarily kept pace with cultural evolution - there's room for improvement there. It's also true that optimism doesn't mean I find everything that happens beautiful, perfect, and good, oh no!

There is freedom in every situation!

However, I am a staunch advocate of the idea that we can find a certain freedom in every situation of our lives. This may sound a bit strange, especially when the body constantly torments you with pain. Where is the freedom in that?

Of course, it's not the kind of freedom to do whatever you want. It's more about inner freedom, the ability to decide and choose. In every situation! Always!

Film Set

What brought me to this? There are two events in my life. I'll tell you about one today.

It started with an encounter. This is largely to blame for why I am a psychotherapist today. What few people know is that I never, really never wanted to become a psychotherapist. Yes, really. Back then, I wanted to go into film and studied German literature. Psychology was my minor. I thought it was worthwhile because films always deal with people who are somehow special in a certain way. So, that subject seemed relevant. Understanding a bit more about why people are the way they are was my goal.

But for heaven's sake, keep me away from clinical psychologists. "They're all crazy! And that soft-soapy nonsense," it was enough to make me run away, and it wasn't my thing at all. Plus, there were the, for me, completely incomprehensible arguments between therapy schools. So no, no, and no again! Count me out. But I was still interested in the content.

Then it happened. The "Evolution of Psychotherapy" congress took place in Hamburg. The big names and founding figures of psychotherapy were invited: Albert Ellis, Aaron Beck, Paul Watzlawik, Eugene Gendlin, Otto Kernberg, etc. Viktor Frankl arrived as the main speaker at the age of 91. As a student helper, I hoped for a spot at the entrance control so that I could attend the lectures for free. But no! I was assigned as one of two taxi drivers. It took me a few moments to realize that I was almost the only one, apart from my friend and fellow student Alexander, who had the majority of the speakers all to himself in the car for about an hour and a half. Alone with the stars of the event, so to speak. Exciting!

Learning from role models

So I picked up Viktor Frankl and his wife from the airport. I only knew his name and knew that apparently everyone admired him. He seemed to be a heavyweight in the scene, that much was clear to me. And that's why I was surprised when a rather small but agile man and his extremely nice wife got into my taxi. Okay, I was a bit over-excited - such a mega-celebrity of psychotherapy and me in a car. His wife and he were teasing each other endearingly, and I thought to myself, "If I ever grow old with someone, I want it to be like that. How wonderful!"

For those who don't know Viktor Frankl, here's a radical summary, which certainly leaves out important points: He was a psychiatrist in Vienna, interned in Auschwitz during the Third Reich, and afterward was very interested in the reasons why some people broke under the strain while others coped much better with the horror they experienced there. He found out that those who somehow found meaning in it all were able to cope much better with this difficult situation. He then founded logotherapy - the therapy of meaning. This has had a significant influence on many forms of psychotherapy to this day.

I didn't know all that back then, of course. Young, naive, open, and curious, I sat in the car with this "giant" of my field. Then, out of nowhere, he suddenly asked me (and I froze): "Young man, what is the most important thing in life?"

His wife: "Oh, leave the young man alone."

He insisted: "No, no, I want to know now!"

Meanwhile, my mind was racing: "Oh man, Viktor Frankl wants to know from me what the most important thing is. What is the most important thing? What is the most important thing?" Sweat was forming in my hands, the steering wheel was getting a bit slippery. A long pause in the conversation.

Me (completely overwhelmed and helpless): "Being happy? That you're happy?"

My stress probably flooded over to them in a big wave.

Viktor Frankl (friendly and a bit witty): "Exactly! And how do you become that?"

That was too much for me. Something inside me gave up and didn't reveal any more thoughts - rabbit in the hole. Increasing nervousness, which was endlessly uncomfortable for me, set in.

Freedom of a dandelion

He was kind, didn't let me squirm, and continued talking:

"Meaning, one must give meaning to one's life, young man. Let me explain to you how I came to that conclusion. In Auschwitz, I was assigned as a doctor for my fellow prisoners. Along with a few others, we planned to escape. Of course, everything was top secret, or they would have killed us immediately. We wanted to escape at night, everything was prepared. To be inconspicuous but also to see everyone I was there for one last time, I took another walk in the evening. I came to a fellow prisoner whom I knew would die in the next few days. He was so weakened, he couldn't get up. I stood in front of him, and he looked at me in wonder. 'You're leaving, aren't you?' he said. And I didn't know what to say. I just looked at him... and at that moment, I decided to stay. I knew right then that I wanted to be there for these people and nothing else. At the same time, I knew that I would surely die if I stayed here. I decided to stay at that point. And, young man, this was the moment of the greatest freedom in my life. Not as a mountain guide in Austria, not as the pilot of a small plane, did I ever feel anything like it."

Even now, as I write this, I am still close to tears. Was there really a person who told me that they found freedom for themselves in the horror of a concentration camp? As a prisoner? Back then, I didn't really understand the importance for myself. But first, it influenced my choice, ultimately, to go into clinical psychology and psychotherapy. People like Viktor Frankl were authentic, smart, witty, and knew what they were talking about - no soft-soapy blabber. That was attractive. I liked that.

Even with chronic pain, you can choose

Even if you don't always see it - you can influence a lot

Being able to choose means freedom

But much more happened, which I only understood years later. A serious car accident released me into life with chronic pain. And even though the consequences are certainly not comparable to Frankl's stay in Auschwitz, you'll know what I'm talking about when I say that chronic pain can be tormenting, extremely limiting, and disabling. Besides, you're often alone with it, and understanding is scarce.

In moments when the pain strikes hard again, I still often recall the conversation in the congress taxi today. I imagine Viktor Frankl and think, "Then you'll at least find a little freedom now." And yes, I find it! It may be very small, perhaps just the decision of whether I want to sit, stand, lie down, or have a coffee, but it makes a huge difference! Pausing (we call it hitting the pause button) and then choosing, that's often all it takes. But in those moments, we're so caught up in ourselves that we don't even think of it, or do we?

I admit that I've never experienced a freedom like Frankl's in these moments. But it helps me (and many others) immensely, especially in difficult situations.



P.S.: If you're interested in learning how to push PAUSE when it's all getting too much, I invite you to try my free, short and easy to learn meditation "Breathing Pause" by clicking on the button below.

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