My first kidney stone was lightning, and I dropped to my knees in a grocery aisle and readied myself for God. The second I carried like a demon baby until my doctor drugged me, dropped me in a tub, and used sonic earthquakes to shatter it inside me. The third erased layers of hard-earned self-control as if they were written on tissue paper.
I’m no good at pain. No one is.
Discomfort becomes pain when it passes reason, when it becomes phenomena, when what’s in you is visiting from elsewhere. You aren’t allowed to know the elsewhere, and, thankfully, you aren’t allowed to remember. Some recollections might ruin you.
In the doctor’s office or hospital they ask you to rate your pain on a scale of one to five or, if you don’t speak English or Spanish, show you a series of circular semi-smiley faces with increasingly dire expressions. No one who rates a five could see well enough or hear well enough to answer, but the rest of the scale is fictitious. What does an answer mean? No one knows a two from a three, and the real question is “How soon will you lose it?” or “Have you already lost it?”
When I was very young, I remember a childhood earache in the middle of the night that sent me wheeling into the front lawn during a rainstorm. I grabbed my head. I cried and howled like Baby Lear. Then my mother came outside, gathered me up, and carried me to the living room. She gave me something. I sat in her lap until I calmed down. She didn’t comfort me so much as keep me there, with her instead of elsewhere.
Being entirely in you, pain isn’t transferrable. You can’t share it, nor can you get comfort from anyone willing to share it. Maybe that’s the trouble with giving birth. What might be a bond between parents can instead be separation, the same event felt in different dimensions.
Pain, a scientist might say, means to tell the body something is wrong, but it overachieves. And, if it is hard to think about pain, it’s doubly hard to think of it having any purpose. Marx said physical pain is “the only antidote to mental suffering,” a measure of perspective, an interruption in our regularly scheduled programming. Emily Dickinson wrote about “A formal feeling” afterward when “The Nerves sit ceremonious, like tombs.” Faulkner said, “Given the choice between the experience of pain and nothing, I would choose pain.” But who sees it as redemptive while it’s happening? What pain teaches us comes later, and, if it comes later, are we only trying to explain what’s outside belief?
I’m more inclined to believe St. Augustine who called physical pain, “The greatest evil” or the essayist Emile M. Cioran who said, “The limit of every pain is an even greater pain.”
All the pain I’ve known has been short-lived and forgotten. The term “chronic pain” seems the cruelest oxymoron. I wonder what happens when intrusion is the order of the day and every grip on comfort is unreliable. How is that different from madness?
Maybe pain is the body’s defiance, the one reluctance that surpasses description, negotiation, or remedy. Maybe it’s telling us, “You don’t know.”