This month is National Pain Awareness Month: going strong for 16 years now. It started when a coalition of professionals was assembled in 2001 by the American Chronic Pain Association. This group committed themselves to raising awareness of chronic pain through mass media, conferences, and other platforms. Their goal? To educate the public about chronic pain, to reduce the traditional stigma attached to it, and to support continued research for its treatment and management.
Today, we will be discussing chronic pain from the perspective of one of the many caregivers for those in pain. Her name is Laurel Kinney. Kinney is a Certified Social Worker (CSW) and has worked extensively with people in chronic pain. Though Kinney no longer serves as a CSW, hopefully, her story will give you a better understanding of a social worker’s role in this type of care, and the challenges that come with it.
Q: Thank you for agreeing to talk with me, Laurel! I understand you have a new career quite different than social work! Can you describe your background, experience, and what you’re doing now?
A: Thanks for having me! I attended Reed College in Portland, OR, where I majored in psychology and later received my Master’s in Social Work from Columbia University in New York City. At Columbia, I interned at Calvary Hospital in the Bronx [New York] and worked there after graduation. I was a social worker for both Calvary’s patients and families. When life took me to Texas, I re-evaluated my social work career. I discovered personal styling was something I could use to combine my desire to connect with people on a deeper level in the lively and creative world of style and fashion. I began to learn styling in 2010 and went full-time with my personal styling business in 2013.
Q: Very interesting! I’m curious to hear how you combine those two, but for the sake of Pain Awareness Month, we’ve agreed to focus today on your work at Calvary. I’m interested in getting your own personal experience on caring for those in pain. To begin, what did you find were some of the psychological symptoms people dealt with when in chronic pain?
A: Oh gosh, you really see every single human emotion imaginable. They experienced a lot of depression, a sense of isolation: particularly a “drawing-inward” when they were less able to express their experience to others. Anger usually only manifested in those with more energy. Pain brought out whatever coping-related mechanism they felt most comfortable with.
Q: Was the transition from your studies to the job difficult? Were you nervous? Did you feel well-prepared? Any surprises or unexpected issues that came up?
A: I was nervous almost every day! I was working with people struggling with severe pain constantly. I felt a strong responsibility to respect and understand each of their unique experiences. We learned in school that no one has the perfect answer when it comes to helping people. So, just showing up and listening with empathy was the best thing to do.
Q: What is the connection between the mind and our bodies when the body is in pain?
A: It’s impossible to escape your body when your mind is telling you something is wrong. I’ve personally always struggled with anxiety and now I have been suffering from a nondescript back injury the past year. It’s been very difficult to cope with. Pain can take over your every thought. It becomes this part of you. You don’t like it, but also you can’t get away from it. Your life can become centered around only doing tasks that don’t hurt. It’s very frustrating; no solution feels like it solves the problem 100%. I hope I answered that OK!
Q: Absolutely. I’m sure many of our readers feel the same, so having you voice it is important. In your professional experience, did you feel certain approaches worked?
A: I had the most success in just being myself: being curious about each person’s experience and trying to listen without judgment. It feels good for a person to be validated. That’s what I tried to do. I *will* say what never works is saying, “I understand” when you really don’t, or can’t.
Q: That’s a great point. Where there any “tough” cases where you felt frustrated? How did you adjust?
A: Of course! I would constantly seek feedback from my coworkers: for other personal perspectives and for their support. I remember needing a lot of help overcoming some patients who thought I was “too young” to understand or help them.
Q: I’m sure those living with chronic pain require a lot of different kinds of healthcare – medical, physical, and psychological. But what about those in between times? What is no caregiver is there and the pain is great? Any advice?
A: Shift your environment, if you can. Go outside, change your view. Remain open to potential activities that can distract you from the pain. You never know what will help! Also, don’t feel guilty about disengaging or needing to zone out. Everyone needs a break from “work.” And pain can certainly be work.
Q: That seems certainly true, and a poignant place to end. I’d like to thank you again for sharing your experience with us, Laurel! I’m sure living with chronic pain is never easy, but it’s good to know there are people out there who care, and want to be there for those suffering.
Kinney is now combining her training in a completely different world than the world of hospitals. Visit the “about” page on her website and read her personal mission. I think you’ll find her work isn’t only about making people feel better about themselves on the outside. In fact, I think she’s up to something more. There seems to be something going on with Kinney’s styling that runs much much deeper than that.
- Pain Awareness Month History. n.p.: American Chronic Pain Association, 2003. https://theacpa.org/uploads/Pain_Awareness_Month_History.pdf.
- Kinney, Laurel. ‘Personal Stylist Austin’, 2016. Accessed September 2, 2016. http://laurelkinney.com/.