Chronic pain: is it for you?

Here’s how I see chronic pain. Let’s say you take it into you head to help the poorest people on earth, and you are sent to a city dump in Cairo or Mexico City. An hour after you fold the seat-table on the 747, you are standing amid Third World filth, smelling the overpowering stench and looking at the emaciated children with maggot-filled sores, and you think, “My God, I can’t take this.” But you discover that you are stronger than you thought and, after a few months, you get used to it. You still hate it, but you get used to it.

Today, I went to see Shan, my number one physical therapist (I see three in all). If I don’t have less pain in the next two weeks, Mark will want to do a joint replacement on the same shoulder that he did the decompression and tendon repair on in March, so Shan suggested a drastic approach. His “drastic approach” was to stick needles deep into my muscles and tendons. This made them twitch so violently that I bent some of the needles. Every time I thought that he surely must be finished, he would have me change positions and stick me some more. Sweat poured off me, yet the pain still wasn’t as bad as much of what I experience everyday. I tried to carry on a normal conversation. “You handle this better than anyone I’ve ever seen,” he said, and I took it as a better than average compliment. Afterwards, I was sore but a lot more limber.

I realized some time ago that if I want medical people to take my pain seriously, I have to hang tough when they hurt me. As an ob-gyn nurse, Peggy often gets patients in early labor who claim that their pain level is a ten on a scale of one to ten. Peggy will say, “Ms Babymaker, you need to pick a lower number because you’re not leaving anything for later.” I always try to leave something for later. Not that I would act any differently otherwise; I’m too macho for that. Sometimes, macho is good. Of course, emoting is good too. It’s just a question of when. I cry easily (real easily) when I’m touched or grieving, but never when I’m hurt or angry. That’s just how I am, and I like it.

The last time I cried because I was hurt or angry, I was in the fifth grade, and got into a fight with a former friend, Jack White, after school. Jack brought three other friends to the fight, and when they saw that I was winning, they penned my arms so Jack could beat me up. Only he never threw the first punch because I began sobbing at the recognition of such treachery as I had never thought possible. Aghast, they let me up without a word spoken, and I walked home still sobbing. My best friend, Grady Green, was sitting on the porch, and he consoled me. I’ll never forget that, although I don’t even remember what he said. For all I know, he didn’t say anything. That afternoon contained one of life’s saddest moments followed by one of its sweetest. I wish I had a male friend like Grady today. But I digress.

I was dizzy when I left Shan, and that wasn’t good since I was on my bike and a half hour from home with a lengthy errand to do en route. I knew it would be better to skip the errand and go ice my shoulder, but macho kicked-in again. When I finally got home, I iced my shoulder for ten minutes and then ran another errand, followed by more ice, and finally a third errand. If not for ice, I don’t know how I could bear the pain. I try to limit narcotics to the nighttime, yet I still have to get up every two hours for a new ice pack. Demerol, Vicodin, Percocet, Norco, Dilaudid; none of them are sufficient without ice. It’s quite the experience to be passed out on narcotics and sleeping pills, only to be instantly awakened by a pain that comes screaming through the darkness like an arrow out of nowhere. Fortunately, I can usually get by on either the one or the other as long as I supplement it with ice.

A lot depends on how bad the pain is, and that varies, but I would say that what annoys me worse than hurting all the time is not being able to do so many things. Even small things like running the vacuum cleaner. I’m still hoping that I’ll be back to normal in about a year, but if I have to have my right shoulder operated on again (before I have the left one done), it will be closer to two years, and there’s even the possibility that the left shoulder will require two surgeries too since it and the right one look like mirror images on an MRI.

I wish I could have avoided all this, but it hasn’t been a total loss, although I can’t think of much good to say about it either. Really, the only thing that comes to mind is that it has shown me that I’m tougher than I thought—and more adept at suffering. I might hope that it has also made me more compassionate, and maybe it has.

Despite my toughness, I think about death, a lot. It all comes down to how much pain and disability a person is willing to tolerate. I’m not near my limit because I still have hope, and I also have Peggy to consider. Death does seem like an easy way out though. I think that, well, what if I lose hope that things will ever get any better? What if I come to believe that I will always need someone to mow my fucking yard and vacuum my fucking floor, and what if I conclude that I will never pass another day without significant pain? That would be a hard row to hoe, but I could do it. I just hope I won’t have to.

I roofed a dentist office in the early ‘80s alongside Jack Tindall, the sixty-year-old man who owned it. Out of the blue one day, Jack turned to me and said, “You’re a master, and I’m a past-master.” I thought it was a strange thing to say because he was a rich man, and he didn’t have to be on that roof if he didn’t want to. Now, it’s Jack’s turn to be dead, and my turn to be a past-master, and the fact that I have the money to pay someone to mow my yard and vacuum my floor isn’t enough to compensate. Money seemed more magical when I was young and strong. Now it’s mostly good for paying medical bills. That still makes it my best friend, because without it I would be left to suffer and die like so millions of others in “the greatest nation on earth.”

If all I had to look forward to was a continual downhill slide, health-wise, I wouldn’t want to live that way, and if I didn’t have Peggy, I don’t know that I would. Some days, it’s hard to see the point, and my fantasies turn toward how I might escape. I’m only sixty though, and I do have hope for a better tomorrow, if not next year, maybe the next.