Conscious Suffering
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92 Conscious Suffering “To be competent to speak of pain is to speak of pain that isn’t yours. This requires experiencing pain that is yours.” —Sharon Cameron in Beautiful Work: A Meditation on Pain I’m sick. I’m so sick I haven’t gone to work for days. Staying home is something I rarely do. Usually I manage to drag myself in, despite a runny nose, headache, back pain. Not this time. I’m so sick I’m in bed in my pajamas and fuzzy robe. So sick I haven’t made it downstairs to turn on my computer and must instead write in my scribbly hand on a yellow legal pad and hope that, later, when I’m able, I can decipher these scratchings and type them into words. Because I’m a nurse, illness is part of my life, my daily bread, my soul-work. For more years than I care to remember I have cared for others. But now, I’m the one suffering. Usually, I try not to get carried away at the onset of a personal illness. Instead, treating myself as if I were my own patient, I take a history and then a body inventory. When did this illness first begin? What, exactly, are the symptoms? I’m on the alert for the serious symptoms, the ones that almost shout emergency room, things like shortness of breath, chest pain, fever of 103 degrees, unrelenting abdominal pain, and the like. For the past three days, I’ve been anxiously taking and retaking my history and body inventory. Headache? At first, it was mild but persisted in spite of Advil. Sinuses? Not a touch of congestion. Throat? For the first several days I felt as if ground glass had been mashed into the tissues of my upper pharynx. When I looked with a flashlight, saying ahhhh like I ask patients to say, I could see that my throat was beefy red. My throat, as patients say, was killing me. Davis text.indb 92 11/12/08 10:00:39 AM conscious suffering  93 Deep slow breath with mouth open. Lungs fully expanding? Well, almost. The virus had insinuated itself from throat to lungs, creeping down my main stem bronchus and spreading itself over the surface mucosa of my bronchial tree just as fine beach sand sticks to moist skin. The tissues scritched and scraped with my every breath. Whenever I took a breath, I felt as if I were a hundred feet underwater. Within days, my symptoms crescendoed, yet for a while I functioned, as we womendo,wateringplants,groceryshopping,makinglunches,andgoingtowork in the clinic as I have for years. Then, at work on day four of the still-on-my-feet part of this illness, I was suddenly struck with that peculiar and horrible feeling, as if someone had pulled a plug in my ankles and all my energy was draining out, streaming from my ankle bones in twin rivulets and soaking into the already stained clinic carpeting. One minute I was smiling and talking to a patient. The next moment I felt myself deflating, becoming pale. My heart raced. There was a high-pitchedbuzzinginmyears.Whatwaswrongwithme?AssoonasI’dthought that thought, I began coughing, a spasm so intense, so prolonged I couldn’t catch my breath or talk. While horrified hospital employees stood by, helpless, I waved my hand to signal I’m okay. When I finally mouthed the word water, three people scurried as one to fetch me a Styrofoam cup of warm tap water. Tiny sips seemed to calm things down. Then I felt faint. I flushed steamy hot and bright red, partly from embarrassment and partly from fear. I felt really, really sick. “I have to go home,” I said. It was barely an hour and a half into my shift, but everyone nodded, happy to have whatever germ I was harboring go home with me. Once in the parking garage, key in the ignition, I wasn’t sure I could drive. My vision seemed to brighten and dim, alternately, and my legs were shaking. I kept coughing, on the brink of another spasm, which frightened me. What if I coughed so hard I ran off the road or caused an accident? What if I managed to pull over but couldn’t stop coughing? What if I passed out in my car? Stuck between here in the parking garage and there at home, there seemed a better place to be; I decided...