Pain slows down time. Every breath is felt, every heartbeat, every movement of the eyes. Movement feels too fast, tilting the axis, spinning the room. Going to the bathroom is a brand new effort.
I don’t tolerate pain very well. And the anticipation of pain can be more overwhelming than the pain itself. Most of my life I struggled with a fear of needles, though I have probably had my blood drawn more than my family and friends combined. It seems the experience of pain has the same strange imbalance: I have lived with chronic pain in one form or another most of my life, yet I have this embarrassingly small ability to withstand it. (Complete with loud moans, uncontrollable trembling, leg shaking, and the most dramatic facial expressions you can imagine.)
This is what dominated my thoughts after having two upper ribs removed over the holiday break. The large artery in my neck was damaged by an extra rib that I was born with, the solution was to have the extra rib and the rib next to it cut out of my body. (With the medical equivalent of pruning sheers – shudder.) I faced the inevitability with a “just do it” mentality. Good thing I had overcome my pass-out-every-time fear of needles, because the IV alone was a thick, inch and a half long piece of shiny metal.
It is now three weeks later and I am progressing successfully in my recovery. The memory of the first day – the pain, the inability to filter my emotions, the exhaustion from simply opening my eyes – is still easily accessed. I still squirm in my seat when I recount details to inquisitive listeners.
Hours after waking from anesthesia I look at the clock on the wall, stare at my husband’s face, breath in, breath out, groan, move my right foot, and try not to cry. I hold back the sobs, not because I have remembered that it’s appropriate to restrain emotion for the sake of those around me, but because it will be excruciating to cry. The morphine doesn’t seem to help that much, but what do I know? So I just moan for more. And then I start counting the seconds, because that is all I can look forward to; be certain of. Each moment will never have to be experienced again. Each second is moving past me, beneath me, through me – detached and rejected by me. One – go away. Two – go away. Three – go away. Three seconds closer to freedom from this punishment.
I won’t even talk about the drainage tube that hung from my chest, an inch below my incision that was drawn across the top of my collarbone. The incision that every patrolling doctor declared as “beautiful” at first site. Not surprising, since my surgeon is arguably the best in the country.
But the pain, the experience did not kill me. I might even say it has made me stronger. How – I don’t know yet. It’s just intuition. And it’s now behind me, part of my story.
Yesterday I went to my second physical therapy appointment. The physical therapist stretched and massaged aching muscles and tried to increase my range of motion. Then he carefully placed his fingers around my incision and began to move the tissues to loosen them and help with the healing process. I can’t even describe how unsettling this was. I remembered this time how important it is for a 32-year-old to not make ridiculous noises. So I focused all my energy on remaining quiet.
He slowly moved in small circles, and then back and forth, up and down. After about ten seconds I realized the disturbing contortions that my face was producing. In embarrassment I murmured, “Just ignore my face.”
“I’m trying,” he said playfully.
And then I laughed, suddenly able to relax.