What have I gained from pain?
My saga with chronic pain started when I was 15 and I dislocated my tailbone by falling on my ass one too many times during dance practice. What did I gain from that experience, I wonder? I suppose it was nice that I didn’t have to participate in PE class for two months. I got to skip the dreaded swim unit and walk laps around the pool instead. However, I was also in excruciating pain every time I sat down, stood up, laid on my back, and used the bathroom, so I’m not sure if skipping the swim unit was really a fair tradeoff.
I gained a distrust of doctors. More than a distrust, it was an irritation, a lack of respect. A newfound irritation that would only blossom into full blown contempt in the coming years. I saw a “tailbone specialist” who told me, absurdly so, that my only solution was to have tailbone removal surgery. I gained a deep sense respect for chiropractors. And I mean actual chiropractors, not the ones who just crack your back and send you on your way. Specifically my chiropractor, who slowly shifted my tailbone back into place over the course of several months when other doctors told me it wasn’t possible. Today, after five years, I still have pain in my tailbone, but it’s only a mild discomfort to me now, a buzzing in the background of my brain. But when I sit on a hard surface for too long or at the wrong angle, my spine shoots me a reminder that I will always be a slave to my chronic pain, always adjusting my actions to account for its constancy.
I started having jaw pain around the same time I dislocated my tailbone. I think the teeth clenching sprung from the discomfort of my tailbone situation, because pain only incites more pain, obviously enough. I developed TMJ, or temporomandibular joint dysfunction. The severity of my jaw pain fluctuated at first. Some days it wouldn’t bother me too much, but other days I couldn’t open my mouth wide enough to slip a toothbrush in between my teeth. Every medical professional I saw told me, essentially, to just chill out about it. I was clenching my jaw because of stress and if I just stopped being stressed, it would go away on its own. So what could I do but believe them and blame myself for being so stressed?
Five years of avoiding yawning too largely and three cracked mouth guards later, I finally dislocated my jaw! My body must have been getting tired of the half assed jaw pain, so I went ahead and whole hogged it, I suppose. I don’t even remember how many times I dislocated my jaw. I’m guessing maybe five or six times over the course of a week. The first time it happened I didn’t know what to do. I watched a YouTube tutorial through tear filled eyes on how to push your jaw back into place and slammed the left side of my face until it went back in. I continued to do that for the next week every time my jaw decided to slip out of place. Take a deep breath, count to three, hold my right cheek stable, and quickly force my left thumb downwards and inwards to push the bone back into the socket. And then smoke copious amounts of weed to deal with it all, of course. I would definitely consider myself an expert at relocating jaws now. That’s certainly a unique skill I gained from the experience. When it got to the point where I was holding my jaw in place to talk to people and drinking coconut water as a replacement for every meal because I couldn’t chew solid food, my friends told me I had to go to the hospital. I knew it would be a waste of time, but I had to do something because I couldn’t keep living in fear of the next time my jaw would betray me.
And a waste of time it was! Call it medical racism, misogyny, or dehumanization of drug users, but it was most certainly a waste of my time. Even after physically dislocating my jaw, I was assured that it was all just due to stress, and that maybe I should try being less stressed, if I hadn’t tried that already. They refused to x-ray my jaw, insisting that it wasn’t necessary even though I requested it multiple times. I did gain an opioid prescription for the pain though. I learned it’s incredibly easy to get opioids in Vermont even when you’re a self professed chronic weed smoker. And I gained a true contempt for Western medical professionals. And most unfortunately, I gained a deep sense of anxiety about my health, an unshakeable feeling that something was deeply wrong and no one would ever be able to figure it out, and no one would be able to make the pain stop. That my body would suddenly give out on me, that I may drop dead at any moment.
Pain incites pain, and the pain from dislocating my jaw created a chain reaction of chronic illness in my body. I was eating nothing but Chobani yogurt cups and mushy Maggi noodles that I boiled in my Tupperware, on a rather heavy dosage of an unsafe combination of drugs, and mentally in one of the most stressful situations of my life, so obviously my entire body decided to quit on me. I developed widespread joint pain and swelling along with a whole laundry list of other symptoms. This is what started the ongoing series of visits to rheumatologists, acupuncturists, chiropractors, dentists, and eventually a hypnotherapist, because desperate times call for desperate measures. I got a confirmed diagnosis of fibromyalgia (read: female hysteria), conflicting test results that suggested early stage rheumatoid arthritis or some other unknown autoimmune condition, and worsening health anxiety. When a TMJ specialist did a CT scan of my face and showed me that the joints surrounding the left side of my jaw were severely traumatized and there was permanent damage inflicted on my skull, I was overcome with joy. Vindication. At this point, I could not eat solid food on most days and had developed breathing problems because I couldn’t hold my jaw in place, but the most profoundly defeating part about my chronic jaw pain was everyone’s insistence that it was of my own creation, something I could choose to end if I just tried hard enough. I don’t deny that many of my experiences are psychosomatic, but I know my own body better than anyone and still cannot shake the feeling that something else is wrong, that the root of all my troubles is yet to be discovered. I just hope to find out what that is sooner rather than later.
Pain is gain, and I have experienced pain every day of my life for the past five years. So what have I gained? A high pain tolerance, definitely. An affinity for getting tattooed because the sharp, localized pain feels like a breath of fresh air compared to the constant, undefined aching and throbbing. A deep craving to be pitied. For people to understand how badly it all hurts, and for them to pity me for it. An even deeper craving to not be pitied, to be held in reverence. There’s something incredibly satisfying about the look on people’s faces when you tell them you’ve dislocated your jaw, or your tailbone. A horrified look. Horror, mixed with pity and awe. A look that says “I could never imagine being in such excruciating pain.” And I find comfort in knowing that I can imagine it, because I have lived it. Only I can know how much it hurts every day and how much strength I need to muster up to fight through the pain. Only I can understand the how the pain is me and I am the pain, how there is no separation, how it is woven into the very fabric of my physical existence. Perhaps I wear my chronic pain like a badge of honor because it helps me find peace in my suffering. It proves perseverance. Radical acceptance of pain and suffering is the only way we can continue to move forward in life, the only way we can live through the pain. Not despite the pain, but through it.
Fighting my chronic pain through unconventional means like meditation has led to abundant gains in the spiritual aspects of my life. Other than medical marijuana usage (read: smoking weed every day), meditation is the single most helpful tool I have used to conquer my pain. It helped me realize that my brain controls my pain, and I am my brain. It has taught me to find peace in pain, joy in suffering, equilibrium in chaos. It has helped me open my eyes and see the light that exists all around me during the darkest time of my life. But the single most important thing I have gained is the realization that the constancy of physical pain proves the impermanence of mental pain.