- Meditation on Pain
About every six seconds someone stabs me in the middle of my back, just left of my spine. He stabs with a short, thick dagger, which he twists once, maybe twice before pulling it out. Six seconds later, same thing. With each stab, my breath stops short. Breathe, I tell myself, breathe. I try not to cry out. Crying out sinks the dagger deeper.
Sometimes it’s not a dagger. Sometimes it’s a mouth. A mouth of pain. About the size of a toddler’s mouth, it presses its lips together, holding the pain in, for six seconds. Then the little toddler lips open, and inside blooms red, screaming, gums and lips and tongue and little white teeth of pure pain. The lips close again, count to six, open.
The first time this happened to me, I thought I had pulled a muscle. I managed to drive to a walk-in clinic, where the doctor asked me to touch my toes. When I did, he told me I couldn’t be that flexible with a pulled muscle. I had shingles, he said. He prescribed antiviral drugs, for which I was deeply grateful. The only other time I had had shingles was in the 1980s, before the antivirals were available. I’d had a new boyfriend, who was horrified by the rash spreading down my torso, my arm, my hip. Everything ached, I remember, but I couldn’t let my skin be touched. The shingles lasted seven weeks, three weeks longer than the boyfriend.
Now the dagger sank only into this particular spot on my back, no rash emerged, and nothing spread. But by the time I’d filled the prescription, the dagger was twisting; the mouth of pain was opening, shutting, opening. I couldn’t walk properly. Half-bent, crying out with each step, I made it to the bathroom and wept on the toilet. I took the antivirals. I dug out a vial of hydrocodone, from my older son’s wisdom tooth extraction. My husband rolled the tv set into the living room, where I lay on my side on the couch, zonked on opiates, glugging brandy, and watching Beasts of the Southern Wild. I understood nothing of the story—only the rain, the wind and fire, that beneficent feral little girl, the melting ice caps, the roaring animals. [End Page 108]
Like the waters, the pain receded after three days. A month later, it came again. Ten months later, again, and again three weeks after I finished the antivirals. Shingles, the doctors said. Meanwhile, I’d started getting headaches, on the left side of my head at the back, every two months or so, that lasted almost two weeks without ceasing. The doctors called these migraines, or tension, or occipital neuralgia. The pain would not let me sleep, I told them. They regarded me skeptically. I get cavities filled, I told them, without Novocaine. When I broke my wrist, I didn’t even realize it. My pain threshold is quite high.
On a scale of one to ten, they ask me. We have conceived this scale, perhaps, in response to the conundrum framed by Virginia Woolf:
Let a sufferer try to describe a pain in his head to a doctor and language at once runs dry. There is nothing ready made for him. He is forced to coin words himself, and, taking his pain in one hand, and a lump of pure sound in the other (as perhaps the people of Babel did in the beginning), so to crush them together that a brand new word in the end drops out.
A doctor’s office is not the place for brand new words. It is the place for numbers. The scale gives suggestions: ten is “the worst pain you can imagine.” If you choose ten, are you dying? But dying, experts say, can be painless. A heart attack, a simple cramp in the chest, then the release of breath and it’s over. So think childbirth, but I can’t. Not because I’ve forgotten, the way received wisdom says you do, but because birthing pain was labor, was work, was...