The Privilege of Small, Ordinary Discomforts

I'm writing about chronic pain today, because the last six months have brought about some big, big changes, and it's been a lot to take in.

The Privilege of Small, Ordinary Discomforts
A picture from last December, when I was visiting one of my favorite trees (a massive Virginia poplar) that had just lost a massive branch.

The last six months, I've been working really hard to understand how pain manifests and travels through my body. It's been nearly a full-time job of tracking my mood, my aches, my sensitivities, and I've got two-and-a-half filled bullet journals to prove it. I'm on medications that have effectively and nearly miraculously lowered my pain baseline way, way down, and suddenly I'm at a point where I can actually feel all kinds of discomfort that isn't completely overwhelming, suffocating, and terrifying.

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I am relearning that when I have achey metatarsals and toes, it means my feet are cold. When I have a tugging sensation in the back of my neck and in my jawline, it means I have to tuck my chin back in slightly to let my pinched nerve breathe and force my jaw to relax. When I have a stomachache, I have to check the time — if it's early in the day, it usually means I'm awake enough to be hungry, if it's evening, it means I'm anxious, and need to make sure nothing I eat or drink is acidic. When the inside of my knees hurt, it means I need to make sure I'm not falling flat on my feet but really thinking about creating space under my arches, to rise and realign my joints. When it’s the top of my knees that hurt, it usually means they are pretty done for the day and I need to lie down, hopefully soon. When my middle finger and fourth finger are numb and tingling, I have to check in on my ulnar nerve in my arm, and make sure I'm moving my arms in ways that counter the sedentary positions I seem to live in at my desk, and through gentle movement really open up those nerve pathways that run up into my shoulder and neck, where my pinched nerve at the base of my skull lives. I've spent over a decade and a half in a deep trench and my body has gotten used to being compressed from all that pressure. After all that time spent in the fetal position, hunched over hot water bottles, the past six months have been about consciously remembering to unfurl. Conscious, because my subconscious is hard-wired for a déluge that has rolled back (for now). My body doesn't instinctually know what to do with all these quieter little signals moving up and down the nerve pathways of my body. So I have to consciously remember every time to make space in my joints, make space between my shoulders, breathe and trust that this time, yes, the pain and aches are temporary. They're just passing through, as useful information. I am relearning to take notice of blissfully ordinary discomfort.

Six months ago, I didn't feel any of this. The only information my nerves carried up to my brain was PAIN PAIN YOU ARE IN PAIN with no distinguishing or helpful factors. Shooting, numbing, piercing, pressing, it was all of that, all the time, all over the place. I’ve been trying for the better part of the past decade to hear my body but nothing was coming through other than PAIN PAIN YOU ARE IN PAIN. It was a deafening fire alarm that just never turned off, even in my sleep the pain was still present in my dreams. After a while, you stop hearing the alarm, along with everything else. You become muddled as the world becomes muffled. And when you're in the emergency room again because you can't move your arm or neck or leg again, and some exhausted nurse or doctor is asking you to describe where on the pain scale you are, you know that anything higher than a seven will ensure eye rolling and near immediate dismissal of everything that's about to come out of your mouth, so you just say six (or maybe seven, if the health worker seems a little warmer than usual) and hope beyond hope that they will help you.

I don't know how long this will last. I don't know if the pain will come back. I don't know how long the medication combination I'm on will remain effective. I don't even know if the working diagnosis I've been given will stick. I've been given so many diagnoses over the years, I feel like doctors have been throwing wet noodles of spaghetti at me for decades to try and figure out what's going on. I especially try not to think about what will happen if the medication stops working. That way lies madness. But I’m also so weary about hoping that this reprieve will last. To hope, or not. That way also lies madness.

At least for now, I’m enjoying and learning to understand the privilege of small, ordinary discomforts.

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