Two years ago I suffered from nerve pain of an uncertain cause: excruciating discomfort below the right side of my rib cage, like a burning cigarette against my flesh. I could not sit for more than a few minutes without a growing conflagration. Trying to sleep on my back delivered the same distress. I spent every day and night for a month standing or on my side. Upon making my return to a humanities class I still had to remain upright for long periods on the commuter train, with frequent episodes in a vertical position in the seminar room. Eventually, medication eliminated my symptoms and life went on without ever knowing for certain what caused the problem, even after extensive testing. I’m long past the treatment and the pain, but my experience was a trial.
I cannot draw parallels or contrasts. Not with you or anyone else, except those who suffer worse for far longer. Too many of you, I know. At the time, however, such knowledge counted for little. I lacked a yard stick to measure the combination of severity, the fraying of the soul, the psychological darkness, the difficulty of passing the minutes without counting the time, the presence of a thing I didn’t understand and couldn’t will away. The worst part? Not knowing if the unseen torturer had plans to leave.
As I mentioned, the most acute stage of the process lasted a month and over two months passed start to finish. The physicians were excellent. One idea persisted: not fear of death, but a life of endless illness. I would be ground to little bits like flesh subjected to mortar and pestle.
Pain tests you. You are asked what you are living for. The longer the pain, the greater the uncertainty of its duration, the louder the question.
Time stretches, food becomes a necessity — not a pleasure. Some folks you tell, others you don’t. The best of those informed remain concerned and supportive. A few disappear, usually to protect themselves from your travail and their fear of contagion; contagion of your distress or, just as often, the idea something else will target them.
Illness does not wait until all else in your life is ready to take on the burden. Issues with which you are struggling pile on, like a football team that’s already tackled you and enjoys the thrill of seeing how many bodies can be stacked on top of your own.
Joy flees, laughter is brittle — a momentary distraction. The “tough guy” images on TV don’t help, but suggest everyone else is more durable. The future — imagination of time ahead that would normally give anticipatory pleasure — slips away. All you want is relief. You work to hold on to your self, the one who prided himself in taking on difficult things, facing people, being a man. Self-image alters. Perhaps you are not who you thought you were; or perhaps you were that man, but are no longer.
You lack control of what is outside and what is inside, all except your response. The messiness of the world you thought you organized is evident, like carefully arranged blocks now scattered beyond reach.
What do you hang on to?
For some it is future plans, jobs to be done, achievements targeted long ago. Gratitude for what you still have is a mental weapon pitched at the physical giant set against you. Meditation can be a salve, but only if you are already an expert.
I had an uncle who was so into technology he wished to live to witness how men might change the world. I know of a former patient who stays alive because almost her whole family died in the Holocaust. She will not give away by choice the thing taken from them without choice, no matter the suffering she endures.
Perhaps you reframe the challenge before you as a test, the way a Stoic philosopher would. They thought pain was something unremarkable because such a time comes to most of us. Greatness, they say, is the product of the bravery you show only when events turn against you, not on the sunny days.
God can figure in, though individuals so sustained would not all give you the same definition of the role he plays. Then there are people toward whom you feel love and responsibility. You persist because of what they mean to you and what your absence would do to them. Made aware of the extent of your distress, they offer support and love more strengthening than water and food.
If, like me, you are lucky, the crisis ends. You recall it, but as an idea, not a sensation. Now, however, you are different. It is time to make sense of what happened, who you have become, and whether you wish to live in the same way, with the same values and expectations as before. You did not predict your response to the pain any more than you predicated its onslaught. One day you were fine, the next day you were not.
My friend Rick wrote a profound comment to my last post: “these are emotions we are normally unfamiliar with until the event happens, and so we do not know how to deal with them.” The surprises of life, especially when they are as terrible as he described (the suicide of his mother), leave us unprepared. Moreover, they can cause us to redefine ourselves. Those who act heroically or stoically perhaps think better of themselves. More commonly, however, we struggle with the blows life delivers and our self-image also becomes one of the casualties or, at least, one of the personality characteristics transformed by our bout with suffering. Perhaps the pain provides an opportunity to grow, but if so, without a guarantee.
You have been marked. Remember, though, that in the Hebrew Bible, there is also a story of being marked. Cain murdered his brother Abel, for which he received the “mark of Cain.” This, however, was not to harm him, but God’s warning to stop those who might wish to punish Cain for the crime.
For the rest of us there is no such indelible symbol evident to the world. Whether God has used a different way to safeguard you is for you to say. For myself, however, I was lucky to have a sustaining love and enough will to keep going. Objectively, the time was short, however much it seemed endless.
True, I know more about human frailty and my own limitations now. I think I am more humane, but do not think me a hero. I wouldn’t have chosen the ordeal had I been promised some great reward for my persistence. Nor would I volunteer for such “learning” again.
We are clay and sculptors of that clay, both at the same time. Its final form, however, is not our work alone. Unseen hands offer their careful, kind, or calamitous touch.
The photos are of the sculpture, Pain by Antoni Madeyski. The first of these was provided by A blakok. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.