It’s Always 10 Pain: How I Deal With the Hard Times

Last August. The end of the summer was drawing near, and at my hackerhouse in Sunnyvale it was as hot as San Francisco was cold. I was making dinner in the kitchen when one of my bunkmates, one of the many bright young college students who swarm Silicon Valley for prized summer tech internships, walked in home from work.

“Hey girl,” I greeted her. She said nothing but her face crumpled up into tears. I went into friend-repair mode, dropped everything, and ordered her to go out into the backyard next to the hammock and wait for me while I made us both a cup of tea.

Tea made, I plunked our mugs out onto the brick wall she was sitting on in the grassy yard. The steam from the mugs met the ninety degree heat of the air and I said, “Drink. Then tell me.”

“I just broke up with my boyfriend over the phone,” she sobbed.

I’d known she’d had a long-term college boyfriend back at home, but I’d also seen her over the course of the summer flitting closer and closer to a handsome Googler she’d met at the climbing gym. She was beautiful, hyper-intelligent, and there was always a restless flicker in her eyes. She had never struck me as the type of girl who was ready to settle down with her first college boyfriend.

So I nodded, and as I listened I tried not to smile, because even though I was experiencing a strangely fulfilling emotion as I realized that my own college breakups were nearly a decade of ancient history behind me, I also well remembered how world-destroying my own first college breakup had once seemed to me.

I listened to her whole story there in the backyard, as the hacker house’s dog rolled around happily in a pile of dirt, and I asked her questions to try to share in her mourning process.

Eventually we reached a companionable silence and a recent scene flashed through my head. I’d been at a bar, waiting for a friend to arrive. An older man next to me had had too much to drink and he was telling me about himself.

“My son died,” he had said. “My only son. He was in his early twenties. My wife and I mourned him differently, and it distanced us from each other. We divorced last year.”

“You know what,” I said to my bunkmate abruptly there in the backyard.

“What?” she said to me.

“I know this breakup is probably the worst emotional pain you have ever experienced, and it’s true that this kind of shit is fucking awful, but guess what?”

“What?” she said again.

I had a funny look on my face. “There’s only one thing I can guarantee you. Next time it will be worse.”

She burst out laughing with the tears still streaking her cheeks. I grinned.

“Isn’t that strangely comforting?”

“Yes,” she said.

A dear friend of mine works with special needs children and occasionally comes home with the best stories.

On the first day immediately after Daylight Savings Time ended last year she came home with a grin on her face. One of her favorite troublemakers had been out of sorts all day. Right around 5pm he had glanced out the window and then collapsed onto a child-sized couch, screaming and crying, unconsolable.

“What is wrong? What is WRONG?” my friend asked him.

He wailed and waved his hands frantically. “THE SUN IS GOING DOOOOOOWN.”

We laughed and laughed, but I completely recognized that I also get that frantic feeling every year for the first few weeks of daylight savings time. For me it’s a slight feeling of breathlessness, like I’ve run out of time too early in the day, did I waste it, will there ever be sunlight again? I just don’t collapse on the floor crying about it because it’s never the very worst thing in my world.

Some of her kids are nearly pre-verbal, and only repeat single words or small phrases to communicate. One is autistically obsessed with, you guessed it, trains. This kid walked into the classroom one day and saw another kid already playing with his favorite train set.

My friend saw the panicked look in his eyes and steeled herself as the hysterical storm began.

He screamed and kicked on the floor.


Sometimes days suck.

Sometimes it’s just that I’m hella tired and in caffeine withdrawal and my CEO isn’t listening to me. Sometimes the guy doesn’t wanna let me call him my boyfriend or I saw him making out with another girl at the party. Sometimes I don’t know how I’m going to eat next week. Sometimes I’m attacked by a dog and the white fat of my arm is glopping out of my wounds while they beat the dog to get it to unlatch its jaws from me. Sometimes I’m fucking 100% pissed because I got all the way to the coffeeshop to write for the whole day and just realized I forgot my laptop charger at home. Sometimes I’m having an adverse drug reaction in the middle of the woods of nowhere and in between stomach heaves so terrible I’m busting vessels in my eyeballs and choking for breath, I wonder if I should be afraid right now or if this is the year I should finally get health insurance. Sometimes I have this splinter in my left index finger, right at the tip, and it’s super hard to type and I’m trying to write a really important grant proposal and I can’t get it out and it’s just ow, ow, fuck, goddammit, midnight is getting closer way too quickly and I don’t want to finish writing this plus I am scared I can’t really accomplish the whole project anyway. Sometimes I’m fucking grumpy because I got invited to too many cool parties on one Friday night and I would really rather take a nap. Sometimes I cower in the corner of the staircase and think to myself, you can only call 911 when it doesn’t matter.

There are so many slightly different scales for pain, the kind of thing you stare at blankly in the waiting room of the ER as you silently beg to be called next. They all have these weird stick figure grimace faces showing increasing degrees of pain as the scale moves from 1–10. Like this:

A different friend just had a baby. The baby will be adorable soon but right now she’s this scrawny little acorn thing that just screams, sleeps, and processes liquid into and then out of her body.

I was holding her a few weeks ago when she screwed up her face and started wailing. Her entire little body went tense, every single muscle she had contorted, her entire face went purple and from that tiny mouth she issued a primal scream. I felt my entire arm vibrate while she farted extremely loudly three times (how can such a terrifyingly tiny creature have just made such an explosive sound ??) then she pooped into her diaper. I felt it squishing out of her rear end. Then she went back to sleep.

Reader, I realized something that day while staring into the contorted face of that extremely tiny, extremely pained, pooping eight-pound human.

It’s always 10 pain.

Life starts with 10 pain.

It will always be 10 pain.

The only thing that ever changes is our expanding context.

Sometimes when I have bad days I text the friend who works with special needs children, and I simply write to her, ‘THE SUN IS GOING DOOOOOOOOWN.’ She writes back, ‘TRAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAINS!’

Then she says, “What’s up?” and I say, “I broke my phone again during a seizure,” or “I slept with him and then he didn’t call me back,” or “I threw up for eighteen hours straight this weekend while crying,” or “They fired me,” or simply “I fucked up today and I’m ashamed.” And we talk it through.

A facebook friend posted this today:

“This past weekend was a little tough: Epic fever vortex full of abstract nightmares, coughing up blood, unfun hospital experiences, & then lost my wallet. Does anyone out there have any (positive thoughts) suggestions?”

This is all I have to say, friend: Life is hard. And it gets harder. As life progresses, our experience of 10 pain intensifies because we develop more complex expectations for the capabilities of our bodies, the behaviors of the people in our lives, and the abilities of our ideas about the world to successfully foretell the future.

When I’m at 10 pain, whatever 10 pain might be that day, I try to ask myself these questions:

What is the value of this experience?

Where is the beauty in this?

Where is the humor?

What do I understand now through having lived this that I did not grasp before?

Each day I try to grow more comfortable with the uncomfortable unevenness of life. I try to let the diversity of my life experiences enrich me. As they said at the end of the movie Boyhood, the important thing is that you’re still feeling things.

Feel better, friend. Best of luck.

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