Lessons in pain

Sharp pain slices through the nerves running from the base of my neck into my right shoulder blade. I inhale quickly and hold my breath, there is probably a physioligical reason for this reaction, I make a mental note of where the pain is. My immediate reaction is to turn my torso in varying degrees until I find a position where the pain eases. It hurts to stand, to walk, to sit. I must try to remember what I’m thinking so that I can record the cognitive response to pain. What is shifting within me, how is my sense of being changing whilst in pain? Virginia Woolf wrote about pain, must find the piece. I swallow two ibuprofin, throw caution to the wind and take two more, I’m feeling desperate. The desire for relief supersedes rational thinking. Pain draws me into myself. The depth of field of my consciousness narrows. My immediate surroundings become annoying clutter. The presenter speaking on breakfast TV is becoming distorted. Her usually annoying laugh is amplified and some of my pain is redirected as anger towards her. The degree of hostility I feel towards her and her equally vacuous co-presenter is disproportiante to their ineptitude. Pain enlarges whatever emotional pain is already present.

This is what it may feel like to die, a weariness of the body, a soft unspoken desire to let it go. I know very well I am not dying but I am alerted to my mortality. This is a forced re-acquaintance with destiny, a little preparation for the final assault. I carefully navigate the passage and suddenly the thought that I am not alone in the house is hugely significant. My wife is making coffee in the kitchen and all of my children are asleep in their beds, that comforts me. I experience a rising wave of emotion when my wife asks how I am feeling and am deeply grateful that I am cared for. I have no real regrets as I realign my identity as husband and father, time well spent on earth. The other worries which yesterday overshadowed me, the unfinished manuscripts, ideas not acted upon – they are insignificant now; fallout from a burning ego. Actually, the garden I worked on last week suddenly seems more important than the dozens of cerebral projects.

Then there is relief from the pain, like being dipped into a warm marshmallow. The metaphor is bizarre but enters consciousness at about this time. I walk outside, unsteady (so this is what it must feel like to be old) and slowly take up residence on a patio chair. Descend into it with ridiculous deliberation. Now I feel the warm sun on my skin, feel like a fatigued lizard. But I am strangely grateful that I can move my toes with ease, feel the grains of sand from an antheap beneath my foot, see a snail navigate the teeth of an aloe leaf, hear a magpie lark and feel its melody in my heart. Is this me or the effects of the pain killers? I make a silent promise to myself that henceforth I shall first be grateful I am alive before I worry or entertain regrets. Pain can teach, there are lessons even though we desire less of it.


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