Apropos of nothing (you want justification, get your own blog), a few thoughts on pain:
I. One Saturday, when I was seven years old or so, my dad left me alone in the car for a few minutes while he ran into the hardware store. I was in the front seat, and I got instantly curious about the dashboard. I pushed in a black round button. A minute later, the button popped out. Curiouser and curiouser, I saw that I was able to pull the button out of the dashboard. I did, and turned it around in my hand. The other side had incredibly bright, tightly wound orange coils. I touched the tip of my index finger to the coils.
I grew up in a non-smoking household. So, while I thank my parents for my limited exposure to secondhand smoke, I curse them for never mentioning the purpose of a car cigarette lighter. As you might imagine, it's an incredibly goddamn hot thing.
It was years before that fingertip regained its print.
II. I learned the word "torque" in the wee morning hours of February 23, 1980. I had been doing some twilight skiing the night before, and had badly broken my leg. It was what orthopedists (also a new word for this then 11-year-old) would qualify as a typical above-the-boot spiral tib-fib fracture. Essentially, the break was caused by the downward force of my body weight in combination with the fact that while my left knee was turning one way on a horizontal axis, my left ankle was moving the opposite way. The break spiraled up the tibia, and the force of the whole thing caused the smaller fibula to snap as well.
As the doctors explained, if you take a foot and a half long stick, hold it with one hand on each end and quickly twist your hands in opposite directions until the stick splinters, you get a good sense of how it all works. And, as I learned a few years later while watching some special effects show on TV, if you try the same with several stalks of celery, you can even make it sound like breaking bones!
I was a kid, and being treated in an otherwise excellent hospital, but I was given absolutely nothing for the pain — a fact that is incredible to me now. It's tough to explain to anyone who hasn't experienced it, but I'd have loved even a horse bit to grind my teeth against. Any muscle movement in my leg would twist the break even more. It was medieval and ungodly.
III. About 10 years ago, and just days before my sister's wedding, I managed to shatter my wrist. It was a dandy, involving both forearm bones, and several in the wrist itself, replete with "pulverized" fragments and the like. How I managed to do this at a ski mountain in mid-August isn't really important. What matters is that it was excruciating.
A passerby asked if I was OK, and I told her no, that I just broke my wrist and I'd love a ride down the mountain. I hopped in the back of her car. She asked my name and I told her. Then promptly passed out.
At the hospital, I asked the ER nurse for something for the pain and she cheerily returned with two vicodin. Gritting my teeth, and with an 11-year-old's hell in the back of my mind, I said something to the effect of "Maybe I didn't make myself clear. My wrist is currently somewhere in the vicinity of my fucking elbow. I've got a Blue Cross/Blue Shield card, and I'd like something only the slightest bit less potent than what killed John Belushi." Ah, she understood. She handed me the vicodin and apologized that it was all she was able to give me, but that she'd send the doctor right in. I thanked her and swallowed the vicodin.
The doctor appeared in the doorway a few minutes later. He cheerily asked how I was doing. I simply took my broken left arm in my right and held it out for him to have a look. Without taking a step closer to me, he just kind of made a grunting "Oh." sort of noise, leaned back into the hall, and said, "Could I get 100 of demerol and 30 [unintelligible] in here." He then came into the room and smiled. Through the agony, I tried to smile back.
IV. There exists a 0–10 scale for pain. Ten is pretty much reserved for drug-free birthing, passing kidney stones, burn victims, severe bone fractures, and perhaps, sustained blunt force trauma to the testes. It is both physically, mentally, and emotionally disabling.
The thing about extreme, crushing pain is that the moment it is alleviated, you have no real concept of what you've just felt. Clearly, those pain synapses are there for a reason — and likewise, they can occasionally be overridden for the very same reason: self preservation. Once the demerol hit, it brought the pain of my shattered wrist down to tolerable levels — 6 or 7 — and I could barely imagine what I'd felt only moments before.
I haven't been back to 10 on the scale since the shattered wrist. But playing hockey, I've since cracked ribs, separated my shoulder, torn cartilage, had my shoulder scoped, and broken my fibula. Because I've felt 10 before, I have only the vague sense each time that, though I'm in a world of pain, I'm still far from the top of the scale. I've hit 7s and maybe 8 in the past few years — and sneezing with cracked ribs is a miserable experience I'd wish on few outside those presently "working" or advising in the West Wing — but it's all been relatively manageable.
The human body is incredibly resilient, and amazes me in its ability to absorb tremendous amounts of abuse and slowly heal itself. Despite the amnesiac fog of pain, the mind is slower to heal — and rightly so, I think. Though I can't conceive of what number 10 pain feels like, I have some idea. And I'm not real keen on being there again. Birthing is not an option for me, but it's one of the very few pain projects I'd willingly take on. So, aside from that, I'll still play hockey, but I left behind my thoughts of buying a motorcycle the day I shattered my wrist. Accidents happen during everyday life, and I can roll with that, but there's no need to put myself out there in that sort of way — especially when I have so much other clearly important stuff occupying my mind.
That said, some amount of pain is life affirming. I'm not a masochist or tough guy by any stretch, but the day after a hockey game, when it hurts to get out of the car at the end of my commute to work and I find myself hobbling a bit, it feels good too. When the muscles I'd forgotten about ache, and I've got a welt across a foot or arm, I'm alive in ways that I'm not while sitting and working at my desk.
V. I've said what I can. Here are Trent Reznor's thoughts on the subject, via Johnny Cash.