CM Magazine Cover
From Vol. 4, Issue 8, August 2022

The upside of a life turned upside down

Feature || KAREN DUFFY

View PDF Back to Latest Issue

“I had to move past mourning for my old life, and figure out how to make the most out of this life. It is up to me to play the hand I have been dealt.”

Pain that hurts you, pain that changes you

There is pain that hurts you and pain that changes you. Chronic pain changes you. 50 million people in the United States live with chronic pain, and I am one of them. Maybe you are as well. Worldwide, the estimate is 1.5 billion.

Two decades ago, I developed a horrible headache that wouldn’t go away. I was eventually diagnosed with a rare disease, sarcoidosis of the central nervous system. The cocktail-weenie-sized lesion growing on my spinal cord was vanquished by years of chemotherapy, but the nerve damage remains. Every day, I awaken to the feeling of an evil, invisible parrot on my right shoulder, tearing his razor-sharp claws into my clavicle and pecking away at my soft neck with his serrated beak.

At first, I was ashamed of my illness and the deficits it caused. I lost the use of my left hand. My balance was off and I relied on a cane. I was in my early 30’s and was hobbling around like a crone.

I felt embarrassed for extracting the resources of worry from my family. I tried to hide my illness the way you’d try to cover up a stain on the front of your crisp white shirt. Trying to hide a chronic illness and chronic pain is like trying to keep a beach ball underwater. It will eventually pop up and smack you in the face.

I had to learn that when you live with chronic pain, you must embrace acceptance. That doesn’t mean resignation. Acceptance unleashed me from the resentment that life didn’t turn out the way I expected and opened the door to making the most of the life I now had.

Sickness is an impediment to the body, but not to the will

I had been a reader of Marcus Aurelius, but it wasn’t until I was stricken that I began to read Epictetus. He lived in chronic pain, and I was inspired by the connection I felt to him. If he could accept his affliction and rise beyond it to become a great teacher, surely I could accept my new condition and become an engaged and inspired student.

Sickness is an impediment to the body, but not to the will. - Epictetus, Enchiridion, 9

Suffering is inevitable, pain is optional

Haruki Marukami wrote that “Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.” This is a way of reflecting on the Stoic dichotomy of control. I cannot control when my pain will ignite into a debilitating flare up, but I can choose to accept that this is a part of my life, and make accommodations. I schedule rest periods, and I take the medicine that helps me deal with the pain. It’s said in New York City you’re never more than six feet from a rat; I’m never more than six feet from my medication. I’ve made peace with the fact that the medicine I take to stay alive made my hair fall out, caused me to grow a mustache, and impacted my mobility and vision.

Admiral James Bond Stockdale was an American fighter pilot who was shot down during the Vietnam War. He famously used the teachings of Epictetus as a guide to enduring seven years as a prisoner in the notorious “Hanoi Hilton.” He was repeatedly beaten and tortured. Like his mentor Epictetus, his leg was broken. For a two-year stretch, he had to wear leg irons around the clock. I thought that if Epictetus could help Stockdale endure that, he could help me cope with my puny miseries.

It is up to me to play the hand I have been dealt

I had to move past mourning for my old life, and figure out how to make the most out of this life. It is up to me to play the hand I have been dealt. When I am tethered to my sofa like Gulliver due to a pain flare, I try to make the most of the days by taking online courses and reading. I find ways to feel useful, even if it is just writing a thank you letter. I accept that for today, I have to adjust my goals.

The true man is revealed in difficult times. So when trouble comes, think of yourself as a wrestler whom God, like a trainer, has paired with a tough young buck. For what purpose? To turn you into Olympic class material. - Epictetus, Discourses 1, 23.1-2

I like to think that my difficult times have revealed my true self: I am a pain patient advocate and a student of philosophy, and I’m definitely not Andre the Giant.

Karen Duffy is a producer, actress and former MTV VJ. Her latest book on Stoicism. Wise Up ( is published by Seal Press.