I’ve been thinking a lot about pain this week, and how seductive it is.
Because it’s happened again. I wake at three in the morning. I’m wide awake and my heart is trying to escape my ribcage.
I don’t go back to sleep. I lie in bed and look at the walls. I fret. I listen to my heart beat. I go to work looking as if I’ve been punched in both eyes.
The source of the pain is almost not relevant. I extended my trust to somebody, not even a friend, an acquaintance, actually. And that trust was broken. And it hurts, a lot more than it should. My expectations of people, outside of my closest circle, are not elevated.
It’s disproportionate. So I’m not sure where it is coming from. Except it’s started me thinking about the time in my life when I was paralyzed. It was some time ago now. I remember it well. Paralyzed is scary. It concentrates the mind.
I was in a car crash. A drunk driver hit the car that I was in and I paid in full. It’s the inverse karmic equation that often applies to drunk drivers. The next day his worst injury was a hangover. I had three broken cervical vertebrae and was staring down the barrel of months and months of agony.
And I was paralyzed on my right side. Which you should try to avoid, if you possibly can.
Have your ever had your skull drilled? I have. It’s not fun.
It doesn’t hurt, because they give you all kinds of drugs, but (and this is almost worse) you can hear it because, guess what? It’s going on in your head. So they drilled into my skull and attached some clamps and at the end of the clamps some heavy weights to take the pressure off my spine. And I lay around like that overnight, trying to imagine what my life would be like if I couldn’t walk. Who would be around to help me? What would I do?
There’s a lot of unsavory details to this story and I’m going to skip them because it had a happy ending. I had a gifted neurosurgeon and he patched up my spine with some super duper titaniun and some bone that he borrowed from my hip, and several hours after the surgery, when he could see that I could move my right thumb, he got me out of bed and made me walk.
I’ve been walking ever since. But I’ve been in pain a lot too. Even though I was young and fit, messing around with the neck affects a whole bunch of other muscles. Until I started practicing Pilates, I was in pain every day. Not chronic pain, but pain nevertheless.
And I developed a lot of other issues because the body is a complex machine and when one part doesn’t work well, it sends a signal to other parts to play up.
So I hurt a lot. And I hurt for years and years.
The shocking thing about pain is that you get used to it. It starts to feel like a friend. Because you can rely on your pain, it will be there. I don’t know why this happens, but it does.
Emotional pain is like that too, I think. Otherwise I would not be feeling this over being slighted by an acquaintance. Lying in bed at three am, staring at the walls. Looking at my pain and thinking, “Welcome back, my old friend. We’ve been here before. We know the drill.”
The Mid-Westeners drove me to their house in the country last weekend and we did our customary stocktake of the status of my single life. One of the mid-Westeners is a graduate of a twelve step program and, as I may have already mentioned, he talks sometimes about recovery and how important it is to complete the journey, and not sit down for a rest and never get up. Both of them are quite strong on this point. The Minnesotan took me to task for telling a neighbor whom I hadn’t seen in a while that my husband had left me. Don’t phrase it like that, it makes you a victim, she said. You’re not. That’s not who you are.
I know that.
So this period of pain feels like an indulgence, almost. It will pass, because that’s what pain does. And it will come back, in some other permutation, and surprise me again, because I’m a human being and part of that job description is allowing oneself to be hurt.
And there’s something else, too. Pain gives you a voice. It gives you something to say. Happy is hard to write because there’s no drama, nothing to see there.
Still, there must be a balance.
So I’m going to end with a poem. It was given to me by a young man whom I met last week, and who’s just cast off on a very rough journey. His pain is much closer to the surface than mine. It is etched on his face. He looks like I felt, one year ago. He gave me this poem, which is by Robert Penn Warren. I like the way it strikes that balance. It imagines that the journey will end.
“This/Is the process
By which the pain of the past/in all its pastness/ May be converted into the future tense