I swallowed lightly, a canary in a coal mine. Yup. Swollen. Raw. My third sore throat in three weeks.
I have a 17-month-old baby; perpetual sickness is what I signed on for. Nonetheless, I’m anxious. Is this going to blow up into a down-for-the-count sick week? Didn’t I just have one of those? Here we go again: I feel awful, then my husband gets sick, then the baby gets sick, and then we’ll just keep getting each other sick. Forever. Fudgenuts! This is the expletive I’m practicing in order to avoid swearing in front of my kid. But I miss my f-bombs. Especially when it’s a Sunday night before a full day of clients and my throat hurts.
If I could remember to breathe, I might notice that I’m in a Dirty Pain spiral. Dirty Pain — as opposed to Clean Pain — is an idea from mindfulness practice that I find very useful as a parent. Clean Pain is what hurts right now, in the present. Dirty Pain is the story we tell ourselves about that pain, be it in the future or the past, that adds to our suffering.
However, as it approaches 10 p.m. on Sunday, I don’t breathe. Instead, I do some deep Google-diving. But for the grace of the Internet, I’m spared a diagnosis of cancer or imminent death. WebMD delightfully takes me to the possibility of low humidity — we are having the driest winter on record in Los Angeles, where I live. I’m relieved! Low humidity means I’m not sick. My throat just hurts because it’s dry, climate-change dry. I don’t have to worry about the rest of the week! I don’t have to worry about being sick forever! Hashtag blessed!
In this celebratory moment, I realize how my sore throat has brought some serious Dirty Pain — namely, anxiety about how bad my would-be cold is going to get. Anxiety is very real. It’s uncomfortable to worry about the week ahead, the not feeling well and all the corresponding inconveniences. But right now, my throat is the only thing that hurts; that is Clean Pain. I actually don’t know what the rest of the week will be.
Clean Pain has far more remedies than Dirty Pain — especially when it comes to a cold. You can pop a Sudafed and a few Advil. Go ahead and buy that $8 turmeric-cayenne-ginger shot. Run the humidifier all night long. Moan pathetically — but not so loud that you wake the baby. Play Candy Crush with reckless abandon because you’re sick and can’t go to the gym. Rest. From Eastern to Western approaches, there is a long list of action steps.
But treating Dirty Pain is harder. There’s so much we’re invited to worry about as parents that’s far scarier than a cold: Will they get really sick? Will they struggle to make friends? Will they feel alone? Will they suffer in a dystopian, post-apocalyptic future? While planning ahead to address future concerns is undoubtedly an important parenting responsibility, some of these problems are not in our control. All we can really do is treat Clean Pain when it’s happening, and be mindful about what kind of relationship we have with Dirty Pain.
Mindfulness can help us to navigate Dirty Pain. But even if you’ve already dropped your New Year’s resolution to meditate everyday, you can still borrow some of the practices. Namely, you can notice and name Dirty Pain. (“Hey! It’s Sunday! Why am I worrying about how I’ll feel Wednesday?”). You can gently direct your mind somewhere else — count sheep, for example, or try to remember the lyrics to your favorite song in 10th grade — and acknowledge that you’re doing your best to take care of yourself and your family.
As Sunday turns to Monday, it’s clear that low humidity isn’t the problem. I have a cold, and my sore throat has charmed its way into my nose. My son is coughing and my husband is feeling run-down. But I’m keeping my mind on the sweet hush of the humidifier and not worrying about what tomorrow may bring.