What Physical Pain Can Teach Us

According to Herbert Ponting, who took this ph...
Image via Wikipedia

Once more, my favorite New York Times writer, Dana Jennings, has hit it out of the park with today’s Cases essay, in Science Times, on facing excruciating pain.

Mothers who’ve experienced labor know it. Athletes who’ve torn an ACL know it. I felt it when I finally went to the hospital in 2007 with a 104 degree temperature as the result of pneumonia. On the hospital pain scale of 1-10, (10 being the worst ever), I was about a 15. Especially if, as Jennings writes, you come from a culture of stiff-upper-lip silence and non-medication, it’s tough to admit you’re in agony, and frightening to have to gulp down painkillers you know, like Vicodin, can become addictive. Some physical pain can feel as though it is eating you alive.

And as someone who’s had three orthopedic surgeries since 2000 and many painful months of physical therapy before and after each one, I know what even low-level chronic pain does to you. It wears you down, makes you bitchy, distracts you, makes you withdraw from work and friends, shortens your temper. The American Pain Foundation offers a wealth of ideas and links.

Here’s a well-reviewed book on the subject by Marni Jackson, a respected Canadian writer.

Life After Stitches (or Staples)

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Image by Andy G via Flickr

One of the best writers at The New York Times, I think, is Dana Jennings, an editor there, who has been writing about his brutal and exhausting battle with prostate cancer. Unlike much Times’ copy, which can be polite, accurate but bloodless, Jennings’ personal essays on this subject practically jump off the page and grab you by the throat. They’re not always fun, but they remind me, anyway, what great writing is about.

In today’s Times’ column, Cases, a weekly, long-running feature about the personal experience of illness or healthcare (open to all writers, I’ve written two of them), he writes eloquently about the many scars his body now carries, from childhood mishaps to major abdominal surgery to acne scars on his back. His honesty is extraordinary, and, I think refreshing.

“For all the potential tales of woe they suggest, scars are also signposts of optimism. If your body is game enough to knit itself back together after a hard physical lesson, that means you’re still alive, means you’re on the path toward healing…The scars remind me, too, that in this vain culture our vanity needs to be punctured and deflated — and that’s not such a bad thing. To paraphrase Ecclesiastes, better to be scarred and living than a dead lion.”

As someone with coconut knees (tiny indentations on the top of each, like a coconut, from one arthroscopy apiece) and two scars on the inside of each wrist — one, a half-inch souvenir of a motorbike ride in Thailand gone awry and the other from scraping against a wet wire during a gale-force wind while sailboat racing off Long Island Sound — I value my scars as well. Like Jennings reminds us, they’re the roadmap of our lives, reminding us, and those who get close enough to see them, of some of the best, and worst, places we’ve been.