The really cruel thing about chronic pain isn't that it hurts, though it does. It isn't that it never goes away, although that is true, too. It isn't even the constant, wearying reassurances from friends and strangers that yes, they had back pain once, and ooh, it was terrible, they couldn't get out of bed for three days. It isn't, though it's a close one, the fact that people invariably think "chronic" means "very bad", when in fact it means that it goes on and on until you wonder whether your body is any match for it.
No, the cruellest thing about chronic pain is that nobody believes you. Nobody really believes that you have pain in your body that has been there for years and years, every day, relentless and unceasing. For a long time I didn't believe it myself. And that is the other mean thing about chronic pain: it makes you doubt yourself, your body, your sanity.
Normally, you trust what your body is telling you. You avoid things that cause you pain. When you wake up in the morning with a headache, you can blame the doorframe you walked into, or the 10 vodkas, or the doorframe you walked into after the 10 vodkas. When I woke up one morning, at the age of 13, with back pain, there were no doorframes or vodkas to blame. My GP was sure it was a sporting injury; I was sure it was not. And it didn't go away.
Over the next decade, I had chiropractic, physio, massage, acupuncture, and worrying amounts of painkillers. I spent a week in hospital with crippling headaches. I had weeks off work when my neck seized up inexplicably. I had x-rays and CT scans, diagnoses (mostly wrong) and prescriptions. But what nobody told me was that the pain would never go away. Not for a moment.
The breakthrough for me was a referral to the National Hospital for Neurology in London last year. I finally got a diagnosis - joint hypermobility syndrome - and within weeks was on an eight-week pain management programme. I was lucky - I had only 13 years of pain. There were people who had racked up 20. We were all angry. Angry that it had taken so long to get a diagnosis; angry because we knew it would be pointless anyway. Angry because alongside the physios on the programme were clinical psychologists; angry at the assumption that it was all in our heads.
In fact, the psychologists were not there to tell us we were crazy, but to ask why we couldn't talk to friends and family; why we weren't honest with ourselves about how miserable pain had made us (I had recently gone to my GP feeling depressed and hadn't mentioned the pain once). The physios made us - creaking, terrified bodies that we were - stretch and mobilise, promising that the pain did not mean we had hurt ourselves. Chronic pain is rather like having a limb amputated; you can still feel it even though there is nothing there to feel.
A year on and, well, it still hurts. But I try not to pay attention, except when it gets too bad. I have changed my habits - I don't sit still or stand up for too long (no more than 10 or 20 minutes at a time) or I will pay for it. I still don't think anybody believes that the pain is there all the time. But I know it's never going to go away and I'm fine with that. Most of the time. There is, though, the risk of taking things that little bit too far. I broke my hand recently, but carried on as normal for a week before seeing a doctor, in pain but functioning. Returning to work, post-x-rays and with my hand in a cast, it was hard to explain. But one colleague got it. "That pain management course," she said, "Do you think it was a bit too effective?"