Redefine Normal // Rediscover Hope

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A Day (Or 14 Years) in the Life of Chronic Mouth Pain

Today’s interview in the Day in the Life series is with Robert D. Smith. I met Robert via an email conversation about my upcoming book Perfectly Abnormal eight months ago. Since then, he’s been a near-constant source of encouragement to me, challenging me to push the envelope with my branding and writing.

You can find Robert at TheRobertD.com, his outlet for giving tools, tips, and strategies to grow and engage an audience. Robert is the author of 20,000 Days and Counting, a simple guide to injecting meaning into every second you live for the rest of your life. He is also a private branding, marketing, and management consultant to numerous best-selling authors, speakers, entertainers, and cutting edge organizations.

I asked Robert to describe his chronic condition

It all started with a dental mishap that went from bad to worse over the course of a decade. The details are not important, but it ended with me having a great deal of pain in my mouth. It was indescribable. I did not know how to compare it to anything or talk about it with anybody. But the pain just continued to intensify. And that chronic pain has begun to affect every aspect of my daily life.

Every few months I was in front of a new specialist who looked, tested, asked questions, analyzed…and came to no conclusion. Eventually, I had eight hours of oral surgery. And the six weeks afterwards were some of the darkest days of my life.

There were two more dental procedures over the next eight months. It has been and will be an ongoing process to hopefully soon be totally pain-free.

What are some struggles nobody sees?

Chronic pain is isolating. It’s really easy to feel like I’m in a huge bubble, separated from the rest of the world. It’s like I’m fighting a monster that nobody else even sees. I feel an intense aloneness. It’s truly a fight I have to win from within, every day.

People didn’t see the part where I cried privately, at least twice a day. People just saw that I wasn’t talking to anyone, but they never knew why. What they didn’t see was the pain that kept me from talking to anyone.

What are the biggest challenges with your condition?

I physically couldn’t talk to people without excruciating pain. As a manager, I have people that I need to talk to in order to perform my job. And this condition kept me from doing that.

A lot of it has to do with management of pain. When I found myself in a physically debilitated state—I had to learn how my body works in a way I never considered before. For me, it was truly considering what prescription medication—used properly—could do in the process of pain management.

This was a tough lesson to learn. I was so against foreign substances of this type being put in my body. If they had prescribed me a bunch of broccoli and a crate of carrots I could’ve understood and complied with no problem.

On a different note, I also had to become accustomed with lots of downtime. My challenge was finding constructive ways to fill it. I read, wrote, listened to audiobooks, watched TED Talks, and some amazing movies. But filling the downtime was a big challenge.

What are the biggest misconceptions people have about your condition?

People don’t see the pain. They don’t even know it’s there sometimes. Nobody really knew what to do, because they didn’t understand the pain I was going through. And I could not explain it. It was totally unlike anything I had ever experienced before. And in my mind, I kept thinking it would go away.

There is simply no way that anyone could possibly understand this. That made the isolation I felt much more intense.

As I have been dealing with chronic pain, I have made a transition and realized that survival begins to happen on a moment-to-moment basis. Every thought and feeling is overshadowed by pain. My soul cries out for relief and no one is there to hear, but still I can push through, one moment at a time.

How do you reconcile whatever faith you have with your condition not going away?

I have learned to be grateful on a much deeper level now. For decades now, I’ve been living my life as if it was my last day, and this changed me. Even though my pain had gotten so intense that at times I couldn’t sleep, I’ve always been able to make a list of things I’m most grateful to God for. This has given me a touchstone, something I can return to in the dark times. 

What are some phrases that people use when talking to you, that you wish they would just stop using?

I felt that everyone I talked to about my pain had the best of intentions, even when I heard things like this:

  • Everything happens for a reason.
  • God never gives us more than we can handle.
  • Every cloud has a silver lining.
  • Think positive.

I know that people mean well when they said these things. I never judged what anyone said as inappropriate, because it came from a good place. Some days though I did want to reply, “But there’s always another side of the coin,” and finish their statements for them:

  • Maybe everything really does happen for a reason. But no one seems to know what that reason is. Therefore, my situation still sucks.
  • It is true that God may never give me more than I can handle…but people sure do.
  • Every cloud may have a silver lining. They also might all have a lightning bolt. Therefore, I have a 50-50 chance of blessing or electrocution.
  • And regarding thinking positive—every positive has a negative. So there.
What are some accomplishments you are proud of?

Working with one artist, Andy Andrews, for over three decades. That is unheard of in the entertainment business. It has been an unbelievable journey.

I am elated that we persisted in getting The Travelers Gift published; Over a 3.5 year period it was turned down by 51 publishers, but within six months of its release in late 2002, it hit the New York Times Bestseller list—where it stayed for 17 weeks. It has sold over one million copies in the USA alone with a couple million more in nearly 30 different languages.

If you have any questions for Robert about chronic pain, how he worked through it on a daily basis, or even about branding (it is his specialty), please ask in the comments.

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