So pain is my bitch right now. She’s been on my back — well, technically deep inside my left buttock, weird I know — for three months. She and I have been down this road before. But that familiarity does not bring comfort. She comes to bed with me every night and she’s still there, with renewed vigor, when I wake up in the morning.
I tried fighting her at first. Fighting is what I know how to do. I’m good at it. So I would drag pain with me to places she did not belong, frankly. And sometimes I could grit my teeth and fake my way through it. And sometimes it was just a bad idea, and pain would win and then I would make some excuse, plan an exit strategy, and hobble out the door.
There have been efforts to make pain go away courtesy of Western medicine and the pharmaceutical industry. There have been adventures in woo-woo treatments too. Some of these approaches have brought an hour or two of relief. Others don’t send pain away but they do transport me to the Land of Nod for eight hours and when one has been surviving on just a smidgen of shut eye for days on end, sleep — whether it comes naturally or is drug induced — is a delicious thing my friends.
While I’m not proud of it, I have had days, even weeks, where I’ve thrown myself a pity party. It’s not a fun event, this soiree for one. Friends and family, experiencing compassion fatigue no doubt, aren’t game to go along. And why would they want to? So I’ve wallowed in the unfairness of it all and whined and complained about the relentlessness of it too. And bemoaned all the things I can’t do now that bring me joy — like hiking and dancing and gardening and simply jumping out of bed with a smile on my face instead of a grimace. Trust me, this is not a good look or a way to endear yourself to others.
But when I’ve been able to get beyond my own suffering I’ve found myself exposed to suffering in other souls. Sometimes this suffering has shut me up and made me feel ashamed of my own whinging. In the past couple of months I’ve eaten with people who have survived hideous cancers, endured a chronic illness that almost killed them, or cared for children with serious and complex physical, mental, or emotional conditions. There have been losses, too, of loved ones. While I have, of course, empathized with their experience I have mostly been in awe that these people are able to string a sentence together that does not pertain at all to what must be front and center in their minds. Rather, they are delightful dining companions.
Just this week, while attending a canning class, I sat next to a woman who was in agony from an autoimmune condition that was now impacting her spine. She wore a pain patch, she told me, but otherwise I’d never have known that this bright and shiny soul was suffering. Similarly, at a party of cookbook and food writing types I bumped into a friend who’d recently had a hip replacement, a surgery that doctors typically say takes four to six weeks to recover from. But in her case, the surgeons unintentionally broke her femur while drilling through bone during the operation, and her recovery was more like four to six months, she told us cheerily, as she deftly steered the conversation to more uplifting matters. These encounters, I’ve begun to think, are signs from the universe: Get over yourself already.
I think I hit bottom on Friday morning, when the pain was so severe I found myself gripping my Wedgewood stove and sobbing, long and loud enough to wake my sleeping son. The teen shuffled out in his dressing gown (robe) gave me a hug, offered sweet words of comfort, and then said: “Just checking, Mum: It’s the pain, right, not the meds?” His concern made me smile, I assured him it was the pain and that I wasn’t losing the plot through some drug-induced fog, and then I wiped my face and said: “Porridge?”
He nodded. I pivoted from stove to sink. Filled the kettle. He grabbed the oats. I found a pot. And we went about the familiar, comforting routine of making breakfast because really nothing is so bad that a pot of tea, along with a bowl of porridge — laced with cinnamon, and dotted with plump raisins, shaved almonds, and a generous sprinkling of dark brown sugar — can’t make just a little better.
And then it was time to hit the desk and meet a deadline. The story of the day: Practicing gratitude. Another sign from the universe, I thought. I finally picked up that book my friend Julie bought me, Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness. You may have opinions about such approaches. So be it. Don’t judge me. I need all the help I can get.
And so like a 12 stepper who has fallen off the wagon, I am back to chronicling what gives me meaning and brings me joy in a gratitude journal I keep hidden under my bed, where pain cannot find it. It turns out, there is much to be thankful for: Shooting stars, a friend’s hot tub, gorgeous weather, a short walk, galpals giggling at implausible final reel developments in an otherwise sweet romcom, the fresh and tender greens and beans from a buddy’s garden shared over a family dinner, the abundant herbs from my own veggie plot, bunched up and doled out among willing takers.
This week, I’m going to try another procedure to make pain go away for good. Or, if not for good, at least six months or so. And I know when I come back from the surgery center the first thing I’ll want to do is warm the tea pot my friend Jay gave me, just the perfect size, feel, and pour, and fill it with the luxurious tea my friend Felicity has been bringing me, and then I’ll curl up on the couch and nurse that tea and I’ll want people to tell me stories that transport me to another place for the day.
So put the kettle on. Make your favorite brew. And tell me a tale. I’m all ears.
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