Listen to this story
That pain doesn’t kill you
Early seventies, I was riding my dirt bike up a steep incline, almost vertical. At the top of the ride, where momentum runs out and gravity takes over you cut the bars hard and return to the bottom, a perfect vertical U turn. It feels great to do it, a small mastery. I came to the top, threw my weight to the high side, pulled the bars hard left and started the return to the bottom. In that moment, feeling great, I was slammed sideways, but I have no memory of that because the impact of the motorcycle that hit me knocked me unconscious.
I came back to life at the bottom of the hill, dazed, lying under my bike, the motor screaming, the hot exhaust pipe searing my leg and gasoline from the shattered fiberglass tank leaking all over me. I knew I was one spark away from dying. My left arm looked bent and I was pinned underneath but I wriggled out somehow, cut the motor and stood there shaking. My left hand didn’t work and my jaw was hanging down but both eyes were ok, and both ears, and not much blood anywhere that I could see. I was conscious, I was alive.
The kid on the motocross bike, the one who had T-boned me didn’t look so good. He was lying on the ground next to his bike, his arms and legs twitching around in seizure mode. We had been riding on a piece of land near Highland Mills, New York, the middle of farm country. There was no-one else around. The road out to the highway was dirt and it was about a quarter mile to the pavement. I started walking and the pain started coming through the shock. The numbness around my jaw and arm gave way to grinding hurt. With every step my body screamed its unhappiness but I knew I had no choice, I had to keep moving. I walked my pain out to the road, stumbled towards a farmhouse in the distance, rang the bell and prayed someone was home. Standing there with my bloody face and ravaged clothes I hoped whoever was there would open the door and help. They didn’t, at least not right away. I managed to tell them about the accident and the kid on the ground and they told me to sit on the porch while they called an ambulance. I sat there with my hand hanging down and numb hurting in my jaw and I was happy enough for that. I knew I would make it.
About how much pain you can experience
A year or two ago I was having trouble with a recurring wart on my finger. The wart made it difficult to work and finally I went to a doctor to have it removed. He froze it off with liquid nitrogen but it came back, so he froze it off again and once more it returned. When it came back the third time he said to me “I can get rid of this if you want but it’s going to hurt…..hurt a lot”. He told me he was going to freeze it off again but this time “I want you to wait until it hurts too much to bear and then I want you to count to five before you tell me to stop”.
Liquid Nitrogen on your skin feels like a cold metallic fire. I have regular treatments to freeze off precancerous bits of skin so I know the sensations well. For the first few seconds it’s mainly the sound of gas spitting out of the little pipe at the end of the canister, then a freezing feeling followed by cold icy pain. If the doctor’s working on a bigger area it goes on for a while and you wish it was over. That kind of pain hangs around for a day or so and that’s not fun but then it’s gone.
This time when I held up my finger he took it in his hand, turned it to where the wart was then blasted it full on with the frozen liquid. After a few seconds the pain came up like a radio cranked to ten, loud and icy bright but distorted at the same time. The nerves aren’t made to report stuff like this with fidelity, only urgency. I felt the pain rising like no other thing I have ever felt, not gall stones, not sciatic nerve, not the motorcycle accident. This was a voluntary submission to pain, feeling it climb to the top of the scale while I waited for the moment when I could truly say I’d had enough. I learned that day, the extent of pain that part of my body could produce. It grew unbearably, hurt expanding and ever more intense until it reached its limit. At some excruciating level the pain came to its impossible top and I sat there feeling more concentrated sensation than I have ever known. The pain stayed right there, a bright crystal hurting shriek waiting for me to end it. I counted, one, two, three, four, five and then as though it didn’t matter I said “enough”. In that five count I had learned what my top was. There was no more pain than that, it couldn’t hurt any more.
That pain endures until it’s gone
At its worst I lay there making little mouse noises of pain, turning from position to position hoping something would bring cessation either to me or to the pain and wondering what I did to deserve this. I know better than to complain to others. When I told my friend David “My back has been killing me” he replied “HAVE YOU BEEN CRAWLING TO THE BATHROOM FOR THE LAST FIVE WEEKS???”, no I haven’t and I’m glad of it.
I’ve been living on too much Ibuprofen and Norco and CBD but I can limp to the bathroom and sit up for a while to eat . What I can’t do is find any interest or spark of desire for the projects I’m supposed to be working on. The pain drives out everything except awareness of itself. In the moments when it abates I sleep or drift. Norco is good for that. I feel the hazy junkie afternoon settle around me like a warm blanket. Time goes by without passing and soon it’s time for dinner or TV or another news-feed check. My achieving mind grumbles that the days are passing by but my pain avoidance body says it’s ok. Maybe it is.
Three weeks after I wrote that and after a third epidural I am now mostly pain free again. A few Ibuprofen, maybe a little CBD and I have resumed work and take an interest in life. As always there is no experiential memory of the pain, only the story I tell myself about how bad it ached and for how long.
That emotional pain is as real as physical pain
Emotional pain doesn’t attach to a physical place in the body so for me at least it’s harder to identify. I can go for days with my hurt or anxiety cranked up before I become aware of it. “Nah, nothing’s wrong, I’m just feeling a little empty…maybe I’m bored”
For many years l dealt with emotional pain by regularly self-medicating although I didn’t call it that back then. I called it resetting my clock when I’d get fucked up for a day or two so I could high function the rest of the week. Therapy helped me see some of that and time showed me a little more. I don’t reach for a drug solution now when I feel lost or anxious, instead I work. I write my stories, and hope working will take me to a better place. Sometimes when the stories are published the people reading them feel moved to tell me the stories of their lives and that’s cool too. I really love that.
About what pain is and what it’s not
So here’s what I’ve learned from all of this. Pain happens to you — but it isn’t you. In the moment when we are filled with pain it’s hard to separate from it — but in truth we are the thing that feels the pain, not the pain itself. I watch my pain when I have to now and at the same time I experience it I wonder if I will tell a story about it when the pain is gone.
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