On Pain:

Confession: I hate pain.

But the reality is that pain- either the physical or the psychosomatic- often serves a purpose. It signals that something is awry. Pain is part of this human life. The pain of touching a hot stove at age 4 taught me not to touch hot surfaces. The pain of falling off of a bike and scraping my knee taught me how not to balance on a bike. The pain of tripping over a chain and hurting my knee taught me to watch where I am going.

And there have been times when I didn’t feel pain when I should have. One time, I was baking chicken, and my arm made contact with the oven rack, resulting in second-degree burns. I didn’t feel anything. And I didn’t know that I was healing until I began scarring. The skin was as smooth as ever. Another time, I fell down some stairs at a friend’s house. I heard the snap as the tendon connecting the muscles of my ankle to that tiny bone on the side of my foot stretched to capacity. But I brushed it off and went canoeing. What happened next? The canoe capsized and the same foot made contact with the rocky bottom of the creek. And still I tried to walk, until my foot could no longer hold me up. It took 8 weeks to heal.

I wake up to pain. There are mornings when just waking up is a concerted effort because my limbs are heavy and my joints are screaming out for relief. Migraine headaches used to be a mainstay until recently. The pain of being in the sunlight or hearing a sound was exquisite and memorable. Even my teeth hurt when I had migraines.

Then there are the emotional pains that come with being a relational being. I am oriented to connect with people and love them. When I love, I love unreservedly, and there is no question of whether my acts of service and quality time are acts of love. I love unwisely, according to some. My generosity comes at my own expense and I vacillate between self-care and caring for others.

Truth is, it’s easier to care for others than it is to care for myself. It’s easy to take Self for granted because Self is always there. I look Self in the eye every morning when I do my hair in front of the mirror. I make notes to Self whenever a task needs to be done. But when Self is in pain, the apparent choices are: wallow or push through and ignore the validity of my fleeting pain. I have had periods where I plodded on in spite of the pangs that shot through me with every step. I’ve denied my pain, as though it would go away. You could say that I am guilty of criminal negligence of Self.

At the moment, I am in a great deal of pain. It’s the emotional sort that leaves me feeling shattered. The kind that tears and prayers don’t immediately salve. But I’ve plodded through. I meet the deadlines, put on a smile for clients, and I keep a clean house. Four years ago, I would have been sleepless, listless and hopeless, lying in bed all day.

I’ve been there.

I’m not going back.

My efforts to avoid that pain only led to more pain. Painkillers or any other vice only mask the pain. They do nothing to address the underlying issue, and they can inhibit our ability to track the healing process. I could go for the pill that promises pain relief and boasts anti-inflammatory properties. But I won’t.

I look to the grim reminders: “Pain means that you’re still alive” and “Crying doesn’t indicate you are weak. Since birth, it has always been a sign that you’re alive.” And I amend that by telling myself that being alive is the bare minimum. To survive is one thing. To thrive is another entirely. I was born, equipped to survive. I should not have lived past day one, when the cord that was intended to give me life nearly strangled me. I should not have survived when I was bequeathed a hearing-impairment and poor vision. But I did.

Again, survival is the bare minimum. I look back at my life and see how I have thrived. I have been blessed with opportunities and I have risen to the occasions. At U.C. Berkeley, I did not merely survive. I thrived. In the sink-or-swim environment, I learned to swim like a champion. In the 2 years since graduation, I have thrived, even when pain told me that I was in the throes of death. Underemployment has not killed me. It has shown me how resilient I am and how tenacious I am capable of being. Still, the pain of not conforming to capitalistic norms of self-worth through work has not eluded me. There was a deep sense of shame about being unemployed that set in after 3 months of earnest job searching. It was a crushing sort of pain- savings depleted, hope spent, I realized that my degree and years of experience were not sufficient to garner full-time employment.

A year and a half later, it’s a dull memory, augmented by time and willful amnesia. This time, I feel like I’ve somehow failed to relate with a fellow human being and have thus failed in my humanity. My Achilles heel is interpersonal relationships. Ideas and concepts and realities are easier for me. But the changeable nature of both myself and others makes relationships even harder. I might as well attempt Fifth Order Runge Kutta Methods. Alas… this is the worthwhile risk.

So I’m taking a moment to step back and look at the bigger picture. Nothing worthwhile is easy. Pain is part of the process of learning and healing. Avoidance of pain denies me the chance to adapt and become stronger. In that sense, I am grateful for this pain.

4 Comments

  1. I’ve never really considered pain to be useful.

    But I’m so used to suffering in silence that it’s hard to imagine that there are other people who experience the same feelings that I do. But when I look too closely at my current situation, depression immediately sets in. I want to die. I’ll do anything to ignore the pain. I don’t deal with it because I’ll be miserable all the time. All of it is just under the surface; it just takes a single question and I’m bawling. My life is going nowhere. I’m not accomplishing anything. Life is meaningless – what’s the point?

    I ask myself these questions every time someone points out to me my lack of employment or the “reality” of my situation with student debt. I feel like I can’t have a life, that I have no choices. The powerlessness suffocates me. I don’t want pain in my life.

    I loathe my unhappiness – yet it is the only thing I’ve ever known.

    1. Hmmm. I hope you’ve known joy and happiness! I cannot imagine life without those.

      This is a short season in your life. Think of it as a time to prepare yourself for what’s next. Volunteer, work out, do something constructive. You are NOT powerless. Your lack of income & your temporary dependence on your parents is not a reflection on your worth.

  2. Thank you for this post. I can definitely relate since I was in a similar situation employment-wise not too long ago. I’m just grateful to have a really supportive family. Your last post on having learning through your job search also really hit home. I too have spent a little over a year looking for a job, getting turned down left and right. I felt like my life was at a standstill and that I didn’t have anything to offer. I just accepted a job but for some reason, I’m still kind of worried that something is going to happen to mess this up and I’m going to end up right back where I started. I think being rejected so many times has made me kind of paranoid, I don’t know. Like you, I’ve used my unemployment to volunteer, I started running and I continued my language studies so it hasn’t been a complete waste.

    I hope you can work through the pain. I really enjoy reading what you have to say. I wish you all the best in graduate school!

    1. Thank you for reading! And congratulations on your new job! I hope to be able to share the same news soon!

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