I’ve been thinking about pain lately, physical pain–how it is that some folks live with it every day, how they cope, how they recharge, power through, scrape through, get dragged down. Can’t go over it, can’t go under it, gotta go through the door? Excellent pain meds to be had nowadays, but what are the costs of that regimen? Money shelled out, one’s day structured around the pills and their side effects. An awareness that off with the pain goes, perhaps, valuable sensitivities? Even pain that is short term–a few weeks of surgery recovery or healing from injury maybe–makes a mark.
My husband’s dad, for the little time I knew him before his son and I married, was in continual pain and nausea. When asked how he was doing, his wife would say, “There are good days, and there are bad days.” The only answer she had that was short, true, and not too excruciating to utter. Even with a morphine “cocktail” fed through a stomach tube, it was breaking him down, breaking his strong will. But in the end this slow death was a kind of purification for him, and, my husband said, he died clean, a new man. It took his wife years to recover from the grief not only of losing him, but (I think) even more from her self sacrifice in taking care of him, crotchety as he was, not a good patient, from what I gather between the lines, and she so full of mercy and always one to give the benefit of the doubt. Yet how could years of pain and nausea, deteriorating ability to communicate, nourish himself, move around, bring out the best in him?
My grandmother had debilitating arthritis, and lived with us in the winter, must have been in pain most of the time, though she was on various meds and had some relief from certain shots. She lived between her chair by the wood stove, under her electric blanket in the back bedroom, and the dinner table, using her walker, and eventually a wheelchair, to get from one place to the other. She was uncomplaining, mentally sharp, but I never talked to her about her situation and experiences of pain.
I haven’t had much pain. I haven’t sprained an ankle in twenty-two years, had stitches in twenty-four, never experienced any long illnesses, severe burns, surgeries, pinched nerves, slipped disks, or real migraines. Just a strained muscle here or there, a few bumps and burns. Even through the process of renovating our house, during which I was very aware of the many chances of injury with tools, climbing, heavy lifting, and so on, I only had a few scrapes, aches that eventually went away, and daily fatigue to contend with, made almost pleasant by the experiences of progress and accomplishments that resulted from my work. Yes, I am very thankful.
The other day, though, I was running with my dog when he suddenly lunged at another dog while I was off balance, and I fell and slid along the gravel trail, scraping and bruising my knee, hands and face. At first I didn’t move, just tried to catch my breath, let go of the shock, see if anything was going to hurt badly, and try not start blubbering. The two women with the other dog managed my dog and came to help me. I don’t remember their faces now, just that when one asked if I was okay, I said, ” I will be, I just have to recover myself.” But it was as if many things had jolted loose, I had a lump in my throat and was floundering, but wanting to be alone in my weakness. Though the women reached out, I tried to let them go with an assurance I was okay. One said she’d just make sure, and I made moves to get up, thanked them and they went on their way. It was mercifully quiet on the trail, no one else came along, so I could hobble along and talk myself through getting home the mile and a half back the way I came. My wrists hurt, my knee didn’t want to take much weight, and my whole body seemed to be experiencing microscopic reverberations through my core and limbs. “It’s okay, you’re okay, nothing broken. People fall down, you get back up, shake it off.” But I was till fighting the lump in my throat and the urge to crawl off somewhere and cry. Disproportionately to the physical side of the pain. The fall somehow shifted the weight of my inner burdens and I was starting to tip.
Maybe that would have been a good thing, letting out any unrelated grief at the same time. But I was out on the trail, getting chilled and had to keep moving. By the time I got home I was calmer, able to share with my kids what had happened and a bit of my reaction. They were interested and sympathetic. I went off to shower and get some bandaids to cover up the scrapes.
Such a minor incident, and I’m ashamed of myself for my lack of fortitude. But I’m no bike racer and I just don’t experience impact like that in daily life. The closest to it has been getting cracked in the shins or bumped on some other body part by a child or hard toy, which I also find jolting. Yet I have a high pain tolerance and am not squeamish. I can keep my head in most accidents, assess the damage, apply first aid, keep the patient calm and distracted, take charge. Blood doesn’t bother me, I’m not big on pain meds for myself. Same with sickness-I just sleep it off quietly and mostly keep up my spirits as long as I’m not down too long.
But it was all too sudden, and then the pain didn’t go away. My hands looked and felt like I’d been in a fist fight, and my knee was tight and painful. My face and jaw were marked and tender. And I kept thinking about how other people go through so much more, and I’d like to talk to them, see if they sometimes feel all lost, or so weary they can’t carry on.
When I was a teen I came up with the theory that there was only so much pain in the world, so if I was hurting I could be thankful someone else didn’t have to. Gave my pain a redemptive angle. Besides just “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” I don’t buy that dualism–what doesn’t kill you can also dehumanize you. I do understand the “no pain, no gain,” idea, but that’s about choice, pushing oneself, training. I’m thinking of hurt and injury, illness and deterioration.
I have a lot to learn. Pain, aging, and the inevitable walk toward the end of life. Not that I’m having morbid thoughts, or feeling particularly old, but I do believe in facing facts. Will I learn to roll with the punches, balance the agony and the ecstasy graciously, and will anyone see it as worthwhile to spend their Tuesdays with me as I go?
How do you handle pain, or have you seen pain affect others? What use is pain, anyway?