On pain

Recently I thought I might like to write about pain. It’s a state I’m often in, thanks to myriad overlapping conditions. If I’m writing to explain and describe my existence, then pain is primary.

But the thing about pain is that it shrinks the mind. Consciousness is reduced to a stabbing, thudding, pulsing, sensation that screams its primacy through the brambles of everything else. And it’s entirely subjective. Empaths can transport themselves inside someone’s emotional pain, but barely anyone can truly recall physical pain, other than its intensity or their despair at experiencing it.

That’s why writing about pain is uninteresting. We find it hard to imagine — it’s a sensation locked inside ourselves. All we see is a grimace, which we don’t enjoy looking at for too long. We see the tears on the face of people we love, but we don’t know how to help. We wish for stronger injections, some kind of relief, but we have no idea of how it feels.

It irritates me, perhaps for that reason, that when I’m feeling bone-tired, dead behind the eyes, S says ‘Yes, I’m tired too’. I think, You don’t understand. You can’t understand. I feel like I’ve been left for dead in a swamp after being run over by a lorry. All my joints are stiff and shooting pain. My head is poured concrete. But why should he understand what I’m going through? It’s locked inside me. If I wrote a whole book about pain, who would read it? Others who have suffered from chronic pain, just so they could read about someone who’s experienced the same thing and yell ‘Yes! Yes!’? What would be the use of that?

I think of Martin Amis writing about his toothache and how Nabokov suffered from the same (in which he shared a detached sense of literary delight, i’m sure). It was well-written, and you could imagine the texture of the pain, but I didn’t strictly empathise with it. I thought: Oh, it sounds bad. I’ve had days like that, when I’ve been blinded by pain, a trapped nerve hollowing out my guts. But I couldn’t feel Amis’s pain.

This morning I had my teeth cleaned at the dentist. I tried to meditate to relax. Thinking, what colour is this pain? what temperature? I learnt these prompts from a meditation app which had a 30-day course on pain. Rather than distracting yourself from pain — sometimes in itself impossible — the course told me to dive into the pain, explore it, examine it. In doing so you become so absorbed in observing the pain you become almost detached from it — or at least the despair arising from it. So I thought about the colour of the pain in my gums as they were stabbed and poked.

I thought about my breathing and tried to not react to anything, having full faith in the dental technician not to hurt me. I tried to play dead, relaxing every muscle from head to toe, as if a bear or lion was approaching. Nothing bad can happen to me, I tried to think. She knows what she’s doing. She’s a professional. But then I thought: But she can’t feel my pain.

Pain is the primary signal that tells you when something is wrong. If she can’t feel my pain, she doesn’t know when she’s gone too far. She doesn’t hear the warning signal. So maybe I should react. Then I noticed that I was already doing so. A split-second neural response, a bolt from my parasympathetic nervous system, made my head recoil like an agitated anemone. I furrowed my brow. Just to let her know, that hurts.

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