A brief history of pain

A brief history of pain

Recently, a friend of mine and I were discussing our various health issues, and commiserating how it's slowly, over the past decade, infected everything in our lives.

Like a small shadow that hangs on our shoulders, it gains mass with every passing year. And through every year of watching my health issues getting more and more complex, it remains difficult, sometimes near impossible, even in this age where mental health is part of a national conversations one day a year, to talk about chronic pain and health issues honestly with those around me.

It's difficult for me to discuss these things. Because I simply don't have the language to describe what I feel at any given moment, or the endlessness of it all, as my "issues" have come to stand by me during every waking and sleeping moment of my life. I'm so used to keeping up a bare veneer of functionality ("I'm fine. I'm fine. I'm fine.") that I forget to be honest with myself, let alone open with others.

It's difficult because it affects my relationship with other folks, too. Because there's no end and no resolution in sight. Because I have no answers to why my mind sometimes fails me. I have no answers to give why some days are a waking nightmare, for seemingly no reason. And I have no answers to give why my body consistently fails me, or why I've consistently failed my body. I understand the basic refrain of mind over matter, but there are also days when knowing that phrase is meaningless knowledge. Most days, my mental health issues and my physical symptoms and illnesses are one and the same—I'm using the word pain to describe all of it with purpose and intention in this text.

I'm in pain, and mostly it manifests physically, and it takes hold of me from seemingly out of nowhere. My mental and physical health have spiralled into one—and perhaps that mind-body split doesn't actually make sense in my case: it has not been useful for me to separate mental health and health, nor in trying to find solutions or coping mechanisms, and it certainly hasn't helped much in my dealings with doctors and medical professionals. And maybe this is why there's often no clear-cut explanation to explain why I'm in the hospital again, after my last visit three months ago.

My life is not a series of healthy days punctuated with days where things go wrong. It's a precarious balance between days where I'm coping better than other days. I suspect it's like this for many more people than I realise, even amongst the people I know.

Last Friday, I was in the emergency again, in atrocious pain because of my upper left arm and neck, and wondering what on earth did I fuck up this time? When am I finally going to run out of parts for illness or injury to target? Any one new event, or a new diagnosis of something or another, or a new pain I have to learn to function with—there seems to be no end in sight for most of these things. On Friday, a doctor sheepishly told me, an apologetic look in her eye, that there was nothing she could do to make it go away. Medication would help, but the underlying conditions (acute persistent tendinitis in my neck and shoulders) would take months, if not years of work to address.1 I've already been dealing with carpal tunnel in my right arm for three years, and now the pain has travelled and expanded to my left arm. These little issues are cumulative, and even when I can address one problem as it arises, my health feels rigged, like an infuriating and endless game of whack-a-mole. Sometimes, when I'm feeling particularly bitter, it feels like a slow invasion underneath my skin, in my mind, and it's happening just slowly enough that I am still able to recognize myself in the mirror day after day, but only just.

I don't talk about it, but it also feels like I talk about it constantly. Whatever relief I hope to get sharing what I'm going through is usurped by the feeling that I'm complaining, yet again, about same old, same old—writing this post on my website is no different.

Sometimes, I'll think of my eleven year old self. I think of that kid because that kid was standing in front of their homeroom one morning, desperation in their racing mind as they realised they couldn't think of any words to say to start the presentation. And it was that morning that that kid first felt something wrong in their chest: un mal de coeur au double sens, un étourdissement certain et persistent, et une douleur dans sa poitrine qui lui faisait mal, mal, mal


1By the way, none of that physiotherapy for tendinitis, not matter how extreme the case is, is covered by my carte-soleil (provincial government medicare) here in Québec. Considering how much carpal tunnel and tendinitis affects workers, and can progress rather quickly from minor irritance to full-blown life-changing productivity-hindering disability, this is a pretty huge gaping hole in our society that prioritizes productivity above all.

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