Discover more from People + Bodies
Hi, loves. 🌿
On pain and the suffering it brings
Last Tuesday morning, I sat down at my dining room table and, seemingly out of nowhere — like a flash of lightening, really — my back went into total, debilitating spasm: Imagine a tightening and tightening around your pelvis, the three distinct pieces becoming one. Imagine a carpenter taking his screwdriver and twisting the screw to its very limit, adhering the joints together. Then imagine the strain that caused shooting up the muscles around your spine, turning them to rivers of stone. The feeling was so blinding I had to focus hard, to breathe deeply to not pass out.
But there was nothing I could do: I was teaching one of my weekly writing classes and we were — ironically, it turned out — working through Joan Didion’s “In Bed,” a wonderful, short essay about her lifelong battle with migraine headaches. “Three, four, sometimes five days a month,” she writes, “I spend the day in bed with a migraine headache, insensible to the world around me.”
I do not suffer from migraines, but I was grateful for Didion in that moment, for her perfect articulation of the utter misery that is chronic pain. She writes about her years of resisting it, pushing through it, taking medications that didn’t work, not being taken seriously by friends and strangers and doctors, and finally learning that all she could do was succumb and accept. To spend these days in bed, which is where I went the second class was over.
I have lived with various forms and flavors of back pain for most of my adult life, since suffering an injury as a professional dancer in my twenties and an unsuccessful surgery to cure it in my thirties. For five years I woke up with daily, inscrutable sciatic nerve pain down my leg. After it finally went away — thanks to a wild, witchy French woman who taught me how to stand properly — a new kind (the aforementioned tightening and contortion of the pelvis) came with the birth of my daughter. This, too, took years and far too many physical therapists and acupuncturists and osteopaths and medications that didn’t work to get under control.
To speak in the parlance of those who live with any chronic condition — we are legion, aren’t we — I now have mostly “good days.” But I still, almost 18 (!) years into this, have flare-ups, or “bad days,” or even bad periods. I spent most of the fall of 2019 mysteriously unable to get from sitting to standing, my body simply unwilling to unfold. I’ve had spells where the nerve pain returns and I almost always come close to losing my mind. Usually I spend a few days — or weeks — dealing with it all over again, and then it does, eventually, abate. Still, I know all too well the feelings of failure and dislocation and dejection it can bring up. Every single time I am plunged back into the deep end. You’d think by now I’d know how to swim a bit better.
Often, in these moments, when everything needs to be dropped — the meals I was meant to cook, the walks I was meant to take, the classes I was meant to teach, the body I was meant to have, the life I was meant to live! — I feel like a total failure, a fraud. A sad, broken person who has, by midday, realized she forgot to brush her teeth or get dressed because she’s been too busy just trying to get from one room to the other, obsessed only with unsticking whatever has gotten jammed up, spending hours on the floor with a tiny soft ball under my glutes or spinal muscles my family calls “the avocado.”
We are pathetic, I said to my husband as he waved goodbye to us on his way to work last week, leaving me on the floor of our daughter’s room and her, just to compound the misery, in bed, sick, surrounded by tissues.
Don’t say that! he said. People get sick and injured! You’ll both get better!
This is the only reassurance I need and want in these hard moments: Yes, it will shift eventually, one of my best friends texted me when she could sense my panic through her tiny screen, you know this, you have evidence of it. You actually *don’t* have evidence of it staying fucked forever without shifting. So. Believe it will shift. She is right, my husband is right (he knows to tell me it’ll be okay several times a day), but when you’ve lived with pain for longer than a week or a month or a year — when it’s the same problem that comes back to say hello and threatens to move in for an extended stay — something inside you snaps. Well, fuck, it could last forever, couldn’t it? Or at least a very fucking long time and I cannot for the life of me do that again!
In my better moments — in the moments around the panic, when I know, on some not-terribly-deep level, this acute phase will, yes, end — I am able to allow these dark, slow days to feel not like alienation from the world I’m meant to be running around in, but a connection to a whole underworld of people who are also struggling: friends suffering from long Covid; with depression and anxiety that keeps them tethered to home; friends with broken ankles and busted up knees. One of them so kindly checked in on me last week and said, just take it an hour at a time. Only a person who has truly suffered knows to say such a thing, knows that even a whole day sometimes feels too daunting.
As I shuffled from room to room, asking my daughter to pick things up off the floor for me, I thought of a dear family member with Parkinson’s, working hard to do up his buttons and tie his shoes. I thought of the friend who was bedridden for months with the flu and Covid. I thought of a student who lived through cancer last year. I thought of my 29-year-old self who didn’t know if she’d ever live a day of her young life without pain. I thought of Joan Didion.
I tried to remember that even if we are alone in bed, on the couch, on the floor, none of us are all the way alone in our suffering.
ALL THE THINGS VOTE, VOTE, VOTE. In less important news: Getting my hands on Catherine Newman’s We All Want Impossible Things today, its release date! I think most of you have probably already watched it but I loved Bad Sisters so so so so!! much, and Hair Tales was also incredible. (Sent me down a rabbit hole to fall more in love with Tracee Ellis Ross.) Rereading Fleishman is in Trouble before the show airs (!). UHM, there’s going to be a Come As You Are podcast.
People + Bodies is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.