On Pain

Hi Internet,

I’m having a rough time, and I’m also having a hard time unpacking it all, so here we are on the blog. Let’s give it a go.

Here’s the basics: I’ve been having steadily worsening lower back pain for several months. I finally started the doctor’s visit/what’s-actually-wrong-with-me train a few weeks ago, but I am nowhere near a solution or treatment. There have been x-rays, there have been pills, but it’s getting worse and my day-to-day patience and pain tolerance are fraying.

Not comfortable putting up my actual x-rays, so here’s an artist’s rendering of my lower spine and pelvis. 

Yes, yes, I hear you say, reader, I’m very sorry you are in pain, best of luck–but let me continue.

I’m still dancing. And not in an “I will suffer and bleed and die for my art!!!” kind of way. Dancing–particularly ballet–actually makes the pain subside. Yes, I’ve been stiff in technique class and my range of motion is reduced, but the pain fades as I warm up and dance. Then after, I go sit in my academic classes and my back hurts so badly that I am holding myself off of the chair with my arms and changing position every two minutes. And once class is over, I walk up and down the stairs for relief, again, the movement easing what has become a stabbing ache.

Being professional-level active and then incapacitated two hours later is a mind f*ck.

I struggle with contextualizing pain. My whole life I’ve fought the idea that pain must be objectively bad to be worth bothering people about. Pain is such a slippery thing. Regardless of the fact that we have the same Aδ and C fibers, my ten is not the same as your ten, so why should I even bother labeling my level without the five-paragraph essay about the time I broke my ankle and the times I broke my fingers  and the UTIs and the time I smashed my head into a brick wall?

It’s a moment of cognitive dissonance. Intellectually I recognize it is unhealthy, but emotionally I can’t shake the niggling voice that reminds me others have it worse, and that I need some kind of permission to be miserable. It isolates me from the rest of humanity, adrift in the turbid sea of doubt and shame in my own mind.

I’m not normally someone who has dysmorphic thoughts about my body. I’ve never had an eating disorder, I deal with my shorter-than-average stature with a full tank of short-jokes and mild complaining. I am perfectly happy thinking of myself as a mind stored in a brain housed in a body. But nothing can make me dissociate from my fleshy prison faster than pain with no external evidence. I can say ‘I’m fine’ and people won’t know the difference. What if I’m making it up? What if it isn’t real?

People–well-meaning, lovely people–ask me how I am, and I don’t know what to say. I had a good ballet class, I’m probably not going to be able to stand up straight in three hours. I’m having a good day, but one of my vertebrae might be out of place and shredding my sciatic nerve and oh gawd someone please block WebMD from my phone. This spiraling happens with emotional pain too, but here, where the emotional and the physical are deeply entwined, I feel like I am spinning round and round on a never-ending loop of existential crisis.

So why am I writing this? To help myself sort through all of the emotions, first off. But secondly, to remind those who read this that there is no clearly demarcated boundary between ‘in sickness and in health’. I’m going to be in ballet tomorrow, doing triple pirouettes and grande jetés–but I’m also not going to be able to sit through afternoon class. A real essayist would tie this all back together with a quote from Susan Sontag, but I’ll finish with something a bit less profound and more fundamental.

My pain is real.

I could use a hug.


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