A friend used to say, “If everyone could throw their problems onto a table in the middle of the room and then listen to each other’s stories, everyone would go crazy trying to make sure they got their own problem back.”
Another friend is fond of saying about his problems (he is 84): “If that’s the worst thing I have to worry about today, I’m having a good day.”
These both came to mind this morning when I awoke with a backache. I do not know what I do in my sleep that is somehow more active than whatever I do while awake; I wish that fellow who occupies my body at night would leave me a crossed-off to-do list just to let me know.
My body’s healthy sense of irony tells me that the ache is located right where my spine no longer sends or receives trustworthy signals to or from the rest of my body. (Is this real pain? Yes. Lifting my arms to type feels like I am mowing the lawn, minus the satisfying sense of accomplishment or pay from my parents.)
My girlfriend heard me try to pretend nothing is the matter and matter-of-factly diagnosed it: yesterday I wore sneakers instead of boots.
In this snowless winter and warmless spring that 2016 has so far offered us, I have been wearing boots every day. I allow them to essentially do my walking for me: I lift my leg, and the weight of the boot seems to do the rest. With the sneakers, I lift my leg and my right foot goes left and my left foot goes right and “dogs and cats living together … mass hysteria!” (Quote from “Ghostbusters.”)
Because pain is one of the most personal of sensations, or appears to be—a burn might feel the same for you as it feels or me, but we only have our anecdotes to compare and weigh against one another; meanwhile, my back is on fire!—because perception is personal and pain is utterly a perception and not a measurable reality, those who suffer chronic pain are left with their own talent for creating analogies to make others understand their day, their night, their world. I do not suffer from chronic pain. I know individuals who do. I experience a chronic … let’s call it an ache. I took some ibuprofen, and now I am walking less like Groucho Marx and more like Zeppo.
(“Walking like Zeppo Marx”: That is an analogy that perhaps no one ever needs to use again.)
Anyone who has visited a pain specialist (I have not) is familiar with the range of sketched faces that they must circle to communicate how much pain they are in. I have a friend with fibromyalgia, and I remember her saying things like, “My back is at a 7, but my legs are a 5.”
People with chronic pain have a talent for analogy that perhaps they did not know they had until they learned that they needed to find a way to communicate what life feels like for them. They become good explainers, because the quality of their life depends on it.
(That friend of mine with fibromyalgia and I started a support group several years ago for those with chronic pain and chronic illnesses/conditions. A third party, who had a crush on my [married] friend, started attending. We were not going to ask people to identify their chronic anythings as a requirement for attendance, but he volunteered his: he had a broken heart. The group did not last.)
Good sensations seem to be almost universal; our senses of humor may differ, but a laugh is a laugh. Your feet might be ticklish while my arms might be ticklish (I’m not telling), but a tickle is the same for us both. Unless it causes pain, which it might for someone with fibromyalgia or CRPS (complex regional pain syndrome). As much as I love comedy and enjoy making people laugh, I have not yet found myself explaining why I found that one particular punchline made me laugh with a barely audible “Heh” (call it a 3 on the laugh scale that does not exist) and another one got a laugh from the back of my throat (a 7).
Ah, well. It’s almost noon and the temperature has not yet topped 50; boots today. A happier back tomorrow.
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A couple paragraphs from above first appeared in January 2015.
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