The Three Ways to Deal with Pain

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Yitka Winn
Human Parts
Published in
5 min readMar 5, 2015

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When something bad happens in your life, there are roughly three ways to deal with it.

1. Let it destroy you.

2. Repress, forget, and move on.

3. Dig your heels in, get your hands dirty, and transform your pain into something meaningful.

When I was four years old, something bad happened in my life. My parents noticed that my hands were not normal. My palms would sweat excessively — constantly, regardless of temperature, anxiety or any other factor. I could be on a beach or in a walk-in freezer, onstage or reading a book alone in my bedroom. No matter, the sweat poured off my hands in relentless waterfalls.

There’s a name for this: hyperhidrosis. It’s a clunky, ungainly title for something an estimated 200+ million people in the world suffer from, nearly all in silence and isolation due to the social stigmas associated with excessive sweating. It can occur virtually anywhere on the body — the hands, feet, armpits, face, back, or elsewhere. For me, my hands and feet have always been the worst. For some, it may also manifest as chronic facial blushing.

Because hyperhidrosis is a condition that lurks in secrecy in the lives of those who suffer from it, most people don’t understand what it really means to have it. They think, Calm down! It’s just a little sweat. Everyone sweats. Just learn to relax.

But it’s not a matter of relaxing. Though research is limited, hyperhidrosis is understood to originate in the sympathetic nervous system — a fully automated part of the body. Telling someone with hyperhidrosis that it’s possible to sweat less if they simply relax is like telling someone to make their pupils dilate or speed up their digestive tract at will. It’s not something controllable by conscious effort.

I’ve always thought of the malfunctioning chain of nerve ganglia along my spinal cord as a group of rambunctious children who’ve never learned to sit still and are — much like the inadvertent cruelties I’ve encountered over the years — hell-bent on wreaking havoc on my life.

Hyperhidrosis means spending your childhood being told by people who don’t know better — peers, teachers, coaches, parents of friends — that you are disgusting. It means being reprimanded for always turning in damp, curled school papers or test sheets, being told not to touch others until you go to the restroom to get clean. Didn’t anyone teach you how to wash your hands?

You grow up believing your body is too repulsive in its quirks to ever deserve someone else’s love, let alone your own.

It’s easy to focus on the things hyperhidrosis took away from me: a normal childhood, if there is such a thing. The ability to make confident first impressions when meeting strangers or interviewing for jobs. The possibility of ever being a surgeon, a musician, a sculptor, a massage therapist, a baker.

These sorts of lists put you at risk, though, for falling into the trap of Option #1 for dealing with pain: Letting it destroy you.

Option #2 (Repress, forget, and move on) would be plausible if I’d found a perfect long-term solution for treating my hyperhidrosis. Though various methods have helped me manage it better in adulthood, for various reasons, none are sustainable long-term — diminishing effectiveness, too many side effects, too expensive, too risky.

Which leaves me with Option #3. Perhaps, now that I’m a weather-beaten adult with a few decades of experience riding the hyperhidrosis carousel, it’s valuable to consider the subtle gifts this condition has afforded me.

To begin with, it has dug a deep well within me of compassion and empathy for others, regardless of the nature of their struggles. Whether someone has hyperhidrosis or some other secret source of pain, I feel compelled to help others feel less alone in this world. Would I be as committed to kindness were I not personally acquainted with the suffering inherent in its absence?

Having hyperhidrosis grants me the rare ability, in sharing my experiences living with it, to be vulnerable about something close to my heart. The thing about vulnerability is that it begets itself. When you allow yourself to be vulnerable, it frees others to let their own walls tumble, to join you on the rocky sea of human connection.

Hyperhidrosis isn’t like cancer or autism or ALS (thanks, Ice Bucket Challenge), where people have heard of it and thus developed the appropriate sympathies. As far as I know, no celebrities have ever stepped forward to create hyperhidrosis awareness campaigns. I can’t just say to a stranger, “Oh yeah, I have hyperhidrosis” and expect they’ll understand what I mean. Even in my adult life, I’ve had strangers turn their noses up at me after shaking my hand.

“Ugh, your hands are all gross and wet,” they say. “What’s wrong with you?”

My pain, more than any other factor in my life, has given me a sense of purpose. I feel compelled to write about the experiences — including my own — of those living with this surprisingly common, yet woefully misunderstood, medical condition. It’s one that forces so many of its sufferers into shadowy corners of shamed existence.

Pain, in any form, is a moral imperative to reach into those corners, extend a hand (even a sweaty one), and work to pull others into the brilliant, hopeful daylight.

Our pain may well shape us, but it need not destroy us. In the words of American poet Max Ehrmann … “With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world.”

Yitka Winn is a writer currently at work on a book — part memoir, part narrative journalism, part medical history — about living with hyperhidrosis. Learn more at clammythebook.com. Parts of this essay have appeared on her personal blog at yitkawinn.com.

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Yitka Winn
Human Parts

Freelance writer, editor, ultrarunner, snowboarder, mountain lover, life enthusiast. Contributing editor at @trailrunnermag.