I have a high tolerance for pain.
I have learned this by experiencing a great deal of pain over the course of my life.
It’s hard to draw comparisons, having (obviously) never actually felt anyone’s pain aside from my own – but doctors, dentists, nurses, midwives, and plenty of other folks have looked at me with alternating skepticism and astonishment:
“You’re obviously not in that much pain, or you’d be crying like a baby.”
“I know how much that hurts. I can’t believe you’re smiling and laughing right now.”
When I was a very young girl (toddler years), I experienced something I’ve never fully comprehended in any explicit sort of way. I remember it almost as though it were a dream. Thirty years later, I’m coming to grips with the fact that this could very well be the vague memory of a sexual assault – something I’ve always suspected happened to me, but have never really talked about. In fact, I spent nearly thirty years denying it to myself, coming up with all sorts of reasons why that would be “impossible” – reasons which have all fallen apart under the clarity and scrutiny of hindsight.
The thing I DO remember – clearly, starkly – is the futility of trying to fight “the monster” away, and then the PAIN. How it exploded into me, shooting through my entire body all at once, completely incongruous with the things I thought I was seeing and experiencing. It took my breath away, it paralyzed me, and my entire world dissolved, along with my frantic tears, into darkness – resolving eventually, slowly, into a haze of real and familiar surroundings.
It’s the only “dream” I’ve ever had where “the monster got me.” It’s the only “dream” I don’t remember falling asleep before slipping into. It’s the only “dream” I don’t recall waking up from. It’s the “dream” that precipitated countless other nightmares and night terrors. Nightmares wherein “monsters” would leap toward me as if to pounce on me and devour me – and in every such dream thereafter, I would wrench myself out of it at the last possible moment, sitting bolt upright in my bed – heart racing, shaking, unable and unwilling to return to sleep. Terrified of experiencing that all-consuming pain again.
I suffered from awful stomach aches for years as a young girl, on a regular basis – and I remember the thing that made me cry wasn’t so much the pain itself, but the fact that nobody believed me when I told them I was in pain – because I was too calm about it. I was accused of making it all up to get out of doing things.
I still cried, as a young girl, when I’d fall and skin my knees – or when I’d accidentally cut myself on something. Or when I took a significant and sudden impact while playing outside, or rough-housing with my brother. This was usually more because I was startled – or because seeing my own blood dripping out of my body was still novel in a scary way. The tears never lasted long – the pain was (relatively) so brief and so small.
When I was seven years old, I fell and fractured my wrist. It was a sharp, searing pain – but even that was “small” by comparison. I cried for a little while, but was quiet by the time we got to the emergency room. That was my first experience having a doctor tell me that I must be “fine” because I didn’t APPEAR to be in significant pain (even though I told him it hurt quite a bit). He seemed genuinely surprised when he saw the x-ray. I had to wear a cast for weeks.
I’ve had many a rolled/sprained ankle, pulled muscled, contusions, and all manner of lumps and bumps which hardly gave me pause.
My first taste of REAL pain since that horrible “dream” (I still think of it as a dream in spite of my suspicions to the contrary, simply because I have no actual proof that it was anything more than that – and I’m not sure I’d want such proof if it exists) was when I was 14 or 15 years old. I was bitten by a black widow spider – unknown to me at the time, but revealed later when the bite mark was discovered.
That pain was other-worldly. It began as a sensation almost as though someone was applying a vice to my shoulder, and over the course of a few hours it spread along my spine and through my entire body, intensifying until it crackled and burned like a fire being stoked, like a jolt of electricity, like a giant sheet of thick glass cracking in half inside me if I dared to move or breathe. I remember lying in bed for days, all but paralyzed by it. Eventually drifting into exhausted sleep – only to be jolted awake by the pain that exploded from my spine when I shifted.
But I didn’t cry.
As it turns out, I have some kind of genetic condition which seems to cause tooth enamel problems – which means I’ve had a lot of fillings and dental work since I was a kid. The same condition ALSO seems to impart a hefty tolerance for anesthetics and analgesics – and pretty much anything that’s commonly used to numb or dull pain.
As a child, I didn’t understand why dentists didn’t believe me when I said something hurt. They’d give me nitrous oxide through a little nose piece because they thought I was scared. Because I was calmly objecting instead of screaming in pain. (P.S. the nitrous did NOTHING for me.)
As an adult, I’ve had my wisdom teeth pulled one by one (three down, one left to go) as they’ve become abscessed and infected. That’s another special variety of all-consuming pain. The pain of having the teeth pulled while the anesthetic was already wearing off, and the pain of recovery both almost felt GOOD by comparison.
I’ve also had two root canals, and each time I’ve had to make them stop and give me more anesthetic – and both times the endodontist looked at me in disbelief and basically said “I can’t believe you can actually feel that and you aren’t screaming right now.”
Childbirth was another variety of all-encompassing pain, but perhaps the easiest to bear. It was productive and purposeful pain.
None of the doctors, nurses, or midwives involved in either of my two births believed me when I told them I was about to have a baby – based on the fact that I was smiling and laughing all the way through transition, only getting down to the “guttural roaring” business when I was actually in the process of pushing them out.
When my first son was born, the doctor tried to tell me there was no way I was dilated enough yet (“you wouldn’t be able to talk like this, you’d be in too much pain”) – until she actually checked me, and proclaimed that – wouldn’t you know it – yes I was. Then she gawked at me in disbelief as I quickly sprang up, unaided, assumed the all-fours birthing position, and squeezed out a baby in two pushes.
I seem to experience pain differently than most people. I definitely have learned to handle and process pain differently than most people. And, stubbornly, the more other people dismiss or deny my pain on the grounds that I don’t react to it strongly enough for it to be real – the more committed I become to suffering in stoic silence.
In the Summer of 2017, I was bitten by a tick, which I didn’t find for several days, and also didn’t remove properly. I fell ill almost immediately (actually, I started getting sick before I found the stupid little thing) with a whole host of bewildering symptoms. And, much more quickly than is normal, it seems, the infection made its way into my nervous system – and I found myself reliving the same kind of crackling, burning, searing pain that I experienced after my spider bite all those years ago; like a white-hot poker; like someone blowing on smoldering coals deep inside me, and feeling them pop and explode. Sometimes like an electrical shock. Sometimes like being latched onto by a small but merciless set of razor-sharp teeth.
This is pain that settles in and lasts for days or weeks at a time, slowly fading away only to pop up somewhere else along my spine, radiating into my hips, my legs, my arms, my neck.
It eases up a little over the course of the day as I force myself to move around – but I can only sleep for about five hours before I wake up to crackling pain again; too much pain to sleep. Too much pain to even keep lying in bed.
This is the only physical pain I’ve experienced, since that “dream” nearly my entire lifetime ago, that has left me sobbing helplessly because there was nothing I could do to escape from it. No position that alleviates it. No drug that dulls it (that I’m willing to take, anyway).
I was treated with antibiotics, and it went away – but came back. I’ve repeated that cycle four times now. Each time I’ve had a longer reprieve between episodes – but it always comes back, along with a handful of other symptoms.
It came back about a week ago.
I haven’t cried this time. A lot of people probably don’t even know I’m in pain. If I told them, they would be surprised. They might not believe me.
But it’s REAL. It’s so very real. It’s excruciating. It’s exhausting.
Today, my husband – who suffered a back injury once upon a time which left him with some very similar pain (which also comes back in episodes, albeit for different reasons – point is, he understands) – held my face in his hands after he kissed me good morning, and said: “It’s amazing that you’re smiling right now.”
And as I laughed, tendrils of white-hot lightning licked their way down my neck and spine and into my ribs.
I smiled again and went back to making coffee.
I don’t know WHY it is that I bear pain so well. It’s certainly not that I don’t feel it.
I also don’t wonder “why” very often.
What I wonder – as with so many things – is “WHAT FOR?”
What is all this pain FOR? What is the purpose of this suffering?
Or maybe: to what purpose can I direct it?
The older I get, the more comfortable I become with the sorts of ideas that would seem kooky – even fanatical – to my secular/atheist friends and family.
Such as: God is preparing me for something – and that something is going to hurt. I don’t know if it will hurt me materially, physically; or if it will be an immaterial/non-physical kind of pain. Both are very real. I’ve learned a lot about bearing immaterial pain over the years by experiencing and bearing material pain – and vice versa.
Or, perhaps, this pain is simply my penance.
Perhaps it’s a little of both.