Oh, For the Relief of Pain!: Everyday Magic, Day 977

When the anesthesiologist and nurse started me on Fentanyl last Wednesday, I told them I loved them both, and I meant it. By the end of the five days of hosting the gold heart of radioactive seeds in my right, the pain around in my eye and temple was so intense I was up most of the night before surgery. But once I got to the surgery prep room, told the good people around me of my nausea and pain, all manner of relief ensued: the nurse gave me a small cotton ball with peppermint oil for my nausea, then inserted some additional meds into my IV. The anesthesiologist gave me a Tylenol, then okayed the heavier narcotic which proved to miraculously fast-acting. In the body space where big pain resided, peace and joy rose over the land of my life within minutes.

All of this has me thinking a lot about the lengths I could go to to outrun pain, which are considerable. I can’t imagine slapping a kitten or stealing a car, but my mind along with the rest of me would toddle up desert mountains without water for pain relief. When I consider the times in my life when physical pain has ruled the roost — those three natural childbirths, a horrendous bout with an upper G.I. bleed once, and a history of dancing with migraines since I was a teenager — I know that when I’m in the grip of something painfully gripping, I would easily beg at the altar of pharmaceuticals for anything to take that pain away, and if that’s not possible, put me to sleep until it’s over. I have no doubt that had I given birth in a conventional hospital rather than a marvelous free-standing birthing center, I would have happily called out, “yes, please!” if an epidural was offered, forgetting my commitment for as healthy a birth as possible for the baby.

Then I consider the kind of chronic pain so many people I know live with — constant back agony, heart-numbing depression, myriad sharp pain throughout the body without rhyme or reason, and so many other physical and mental states equivalent to the ROUS (Rodents of Unusual Size) in The Princess Bride. There’s also the pain of the social body born of prejudices and biases: constant attacks on the self for not being white or straight or thin or whatever else enough. Lately, there’s the immense and needless pain of what is being done to thousands of migrant children, locked in cages without food or bedding, alone or crowded without enough ventilation or tenderness to survive on without incurring damage. We may not be experiencing such pain directly, but that’s the thing about pain: knowing it in enough intimacy often helps us tilt open the door of our own heart so that we can better see and respond to the pain of others.

My 12 days of surgery and migraine tussles suck of course, but perspective tells me it’s just a drop in the fuck-it bucket of what so many others are going through right now, whether it’s a six-year-old Guatemalan boy trying to keep a toddler fed on a concrete floor in Texas, a neighbor down the street carrying the shattered pieces of her grieving heart to the empty bed tonight, or someone who cuts me off in traffic because he was up most of the night with shoulder pain.

“Oh, for the relief of pain!” is a human chorus, coming back around at every turn if we look widely and listen deeply enough. What those of us harboring pain would do to relieve it is just as vast and complicated, and although this is surely what I always warned my students against — vague generalizations — I’m vaguely generalizing that a lot of pain in this world is fed by what we do or try to do to relieve the root of suffering. The opiate crisis, a rash of suicides, our collective issues with over-consumption that severely and negatively impact our climate and even our own survival — they all create ripples of pain, often without resolving the original pain or with replacing it with something even more vexing.

But that’s the thing: not all pain can be relieved. Some of the Turning Point writers I work with live with acute and constant pain from years of harsh chemotherapy or progressive neurological diseases. Some of my friends, surviving without beloved partners or parents or siblings, carry that vivid emptiness with them daily. Some of the people who brush past me in the food co-op or bank are hurting in an alphabet of pain most people can’t imagine.

All we can do is say it: I’m hurting. All we can do is ask: please help, or please just sit here with me cursing this embodied moment of sharp edges. All we can tell ourselves is, “Yup, it’s bad now, but I have hope it will be better tomorrow,” even if we’re repeating this refrain tomorrow. And all we can say is “I love you” to the world, even if temporarily disguised as a smiling nurse and anesthesiologist on the small island on what hurts surrounded by the bigger beauty of life.

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Depression Beyond Comprehension: Everyday Magic, Day 942

I screwed up.  When it comes to some close friends who suffer greatly from the kind of depression beyond comprehension —  mine at least — I haven’t always understood what my pals were going through or how to truly show up without my fixer-bee faux-super-cheery hero cape on. Instead, to sooth my anxiety over their emotional state, I offered a smorgasbord of solutions that would solve the problem (as I saw it) of despairs if that despair was just some fog the sun of new plans could burn away. True, I also listened well, but listening doesn’t always equate understanding.

With the recent suicides of Anthony Bourdain, who I loved from afar through his shows and writing, rift with irreverent, cut-to-the-chase and take-no-prisoners insights and questions, along with Kate Spade, have brought a flurry of stories about what it really feels like to be suicidal. The one that woke me up a bit more is “Anthony Bourdain, Suicide, and Grace” by the Film Crit Hulk, in which the author writes, “I cannot explain what it means to go through 60 percent of a given day fighting the very thought, but it is one of the most tiring, all-consuming things a human being can do.” He goes on to lay out the very logical solution suicide can seem like to someone struggling to get from one moment to the next, their thoughts and thinking reinforcing the dead-end darkness and incomprehensibility of their very survival. “And there it is: the grand reveal that the biggest problem with suicide is that it is genuinely a good solution,” the writer tells us.

I think about people I’ve known and know with anorexia, and how the brain itself, starving and running down a road to hell in a parallel universe, reinforces body dysmorphia, making it impossible to see the body as it really is: starving to the point of dying. I now wonder if the kind of overwhelming depression that led people like Bourdain and Spade and so many others to kill themselves works in a similar way, making heartbreaking sense to those afflicted with such an impulse to end it all that getting to the next breath takes every ounce of their determination. The Film Crit Hulk, also similarly afflicted, concludes of Bourdain that getting this far was a Herculean act of grace, “And I’m so proud of him for making it this long.”

Just because some of us don’t understand this in a visceral way — and how blessed we are! — doesn’t mean we can’t show up, ask what we can do, suggest grabbing a bite or seeing a movie, just listen, and breath alongside with the one struggling so hard to keep themselves on the planet. The Film Crit Hulk says to “just be yourself, and remind them of the world you share.” Not to say this will be the saving grace, but stepping up helps us better share the depths of this beautiful, sad, mysterious, and suffering common world. For those who have stepped off, may they rest in peace, healing, and power. For those among us, may they continue on in peace, healing, and power. For the rest of us, may we learn to stay, even when it scares us fiercely, with those who could use some company in their suffering.