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Friend or foe?

By Rachael Sheat

I was recently asked to deliver a talk to people in pain and health professionals alike about my experience as a pain clinician and how I work in translating the fancy science into everyday, meaningful and digestible chunks.

If you have ever spent any time with me in a consultation you would know I’m a huge fan of the Lion King, and many Rafiki references have been made. On this particular day however, in this particular context, Rafiki wasn’t going to cut it.

I began searching for an image to depict what I was trying to convey to the broad audience that was tuning in. And then a light bulb moment. The Jungle Book! I can explain pain by using The Jungle Book! I started searching for pictures of the Jungle Book and came across this:

Yes!! This says it all!! Context!! Relationships!! Fear!!!! Perception!!

Disclaimer…if you visit me in clinic you may start hearing of my good friend Bagheera (above panther). How scary is a big black panther to the world….and especially to this tiny human! Immediately my alarm bells start tinging and my posture tightens up a little, my breathing rate increases ever so slightly. And then I “look harder” (sorry can’t help it another Rafiki reference ;) )… I look at how close the young boy is to the black panther. I look at how he is looking at him. He does not appear afraid. I look at the peace in this picture, the sunshine, the stillness…and I think to myself.. maybe there is more to this panther. Maybe, just maybe he isn’t so scary after all. It’s only when you have the time or capacity to hear the context of the story or see deeper into the picture that the perception of Bagheera may change. If we changed the background to be night-time and raining. If we changed the appearance on the boys face, would we default to feeling fear in the presence of Bagheera? Spoiler alert for those of you who haven’t seen the Jungle book…. Did you know that whilst Bagheera may appear big, intimidating and scary, and may even let out a loud fierce roar when he feels necessary, he is actually Mowgli’s mentor and protector. Once upon a baby Mowgli, Bagheera rescued Mowgli and saved him from the evil Shere Khan, raising him with the help of the Akela wolf pack. They took him in and raised him as their own. The relationship between these two is one filled with love and good intention. Could Bagheera be Pain in your story? I guess that is up to your perception of whether you see Bagheera as a DIM (danger in me) or a SIM (safety in me).

We work under the assumption that pain is a measure of protection and when the balance of the perception of danger outweighs the perception of safety, your protective systems may dial up, one of which may be pain. We have other members of the wolf pack too, that may may shake things up in times of “needed” protection too, like the immune system or the stress-hormone system (adrenaline and cortisol..those old friends!!). I, personally like to think of my pain as Bagheera. This has not happened overnight and for a long time I saw my chronic pain as the wildfire that was started by Mowgli with the torch from the man village, filled with rage, anger and despair, leaving a trail of mass destruction and chaos along the way. I guess it's been one enormous relationship, and so many learnings along the way. First step: I needed to be able to throw the torch into the river, with a helping hand, or a few helping hands, instead of suffocating in the wildfire. And then appreciating its intent and purpose for a period, to be able to offer a different perspective and allow it to teach me something. Something that may be of benefit to self down the road. After fire comes new growth after all. It’s pretty tough turning your pain from wildfire into a Bagheera, and even Bagheera and Mowgli, I’m sure don’t have a perfect relationship. But one thing is for sure. They do need each other to keep each other safe, and for that, and after all of these years, I am deeply grateful for.

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