The onset of a southern California rainstorm, as seen from the back seat of my mother’s Toyota Corolla: A single raindrop lands with the sound of a bullet against an armored car. A splash across the windshield — heart stopping. As the sky shifts from pearl gray to dense slate, the fusillade comes faster, staccato, rapid fire. The car is engulfed in water, great pooling streams slide across the windshield; the wipers can barely keep up. The rainwater mixes with oil drops on the road — a hazardous blend: The tires struggle to gain traction and the car swerves on the suddenly slick pavement.
I awake tonight to a first bullet in such a cascade, but it is not rain.
In the 2000 film Unbreakable, we’re introduced to two characters at opposite ends of a spectrum: an extremely frail man with a brittle bone disease played by Samuel L. Jackson, and a man with superhuman levels of strength and invulnerability played by Bruce Willis.
“However unreal it may seem, we are connected, you and I,” Jackson’s character tells Willis’. “We’re on the same curve, just on opposite ends.”
In a recent issue of Wired reporter Erika Hayasaki introduced us to another set of people on the opposite ends of a spectrum.
Steven Pete has a rare neurological condition that makes him unable to feel pain.
Pete pauses for a moment and recalls a white Washington day a few years ago. “We had thick snow, and we went inner-tubing down a hill. Well, I did a scorpion, where you take a running start and jump on the tube. You’re supposed to land on your stomach, but I hit it at the wrong angle. I face-planted on the hill, and my back legs just went straight up over my head.” Pete got up and returned to tubing, and for the next eight months he went on as usual, until he started noticing the movement in his left arm and shoulder felt off. His back felt funny too. He ended up getting an MRI. “The doctor looked at my MRI results, and he was like, ‘Have you been in a car accident? About six months ago? Were you skydiving?’ ”
“I haven’t done either,” Pete replied.
The doctor stared at his patient in disbelief. “You’ve got three fractured vertebrae.” Pete had broken his back.
Pam Costa has the opposite neurological condition — she feels pain constantly, as if her body is on fire.
Because the inflammation is exacerbated by physical contact, stress, and even the smallest elevation in surrounding temperature, Costa lives her life with great care. She wears loose-fitting clothes because fabric feels like a blowtorch against her skin. She sleeps with chilled pillows because the slightest heat makes her limbs feel like they are crackling. “Have you ever been out in the bitter, bitter cold, where your feet were ice?” she asks me. “Almost frostbite? Then you warm them up and it burns? That burning sensation: That is what it feels like all the time.”
Pete and Costa are also connected, sharing a genetic link that has helped scientists understand why we experience pain and how to treat it.
Consistent, long-term pain, the kind that (Toni) Morrison suffers in her back—and that keeps her from standing for longer than six minutes—allows for a steady stream of thoughts, a ruthless spinning of the mind.
To our minds, this spinning feels akin to accomplishing something, I think. If we can’t tend to our lives in the physical realm, the mind kicks in double-time, and this weekend, my husband away at an Army training for the month, I’ve spent the hours in my bed accomplishing the task of going over errors big and small. I check them off like items on a to-do list: ways I’ve burdened my husband with impossible expectations; friends I’ve failed to call back; writing assignments I’ve left unfinished; jobs I’ve quit or underperformed at; bad impressions I’ve made; ambitions I’ve curtailed—all the ways I’ve failed to live a life I envisioned. These are the kind of terrifically unhelpful thoughts that surface inside the void, or at the very edge of it. Truly boring stuff, the kind I find too tedious to even bring up to a therapist. But, alone, in the dark, that doesn’t stop me from going there. When our bodies shun us to the back rooms of the world, away from colleagues and lovers and friends, we have only ourselves and our reckless, pulsing imaginations: This is where regret lives. Not big, dramatic regret, not those fatal mistakes for which we seek absolution, but the mundane, everyday regrets that go unnoticed until it’s too late, the ones that make up the unalterable course of our lives. The tiny little messes.
I generally know better than to go down these paths, but the tricky thing about chronic pain is that it blurs your mind, weakening not just your body but also your psyche, leaving it with just enough strength to follow the path of least resistance, to retreat to the most dimly-lit hiding place. There, I find myself clinging to people, dreams I’ve lost, plot lines that didn’t go the way I intended. It’s hard to see sometimes how or why I lost them, whether my health or just the natural course of life was to blame, and whether there is, really, at this point, a decipherable division between the two.”
“And once it comes, now that I am wise in its ways, I no longer fight it. I lie down and let it happen. At first every small apprehension is magnified, every anxiety a pounding terror. Then the pain comes, and I concentrate only on that.” –Joan Didion, “In Bed”
It’s happening, says the woman I love to someone in the other room. The someone is most likely her sister, and I hear the shuffle of clogs on the ruined carpet, the swish and swirl of her turquoise dress. I feel the shadow of her body in the doorway. I hear her breathing, tiny bursts of air through the nose and mouth. I feel and hear everything, but I am not a body. And because I am no longer a body, I do not register sound or voice. I do not register anything. Even my presence on the scratchy carpet. I do not know that I have been lying in the lap of the woman I love as she soothes my sweat-drenched hair, as she whispers that this will pass. I do not hear her because I do not have ears. I do not have eyes. I do not see the hazy outline of her humid-frizzed hair or the worry etched in her face or how she looks down at me and then out the window, out past the dilapidated houses of this rundown block in Lafayette, Colorado, past the Rockies rising in jagged edges to snowy peaks, past logical explanation. Because right now, I do not register logic. Because this pain is not logical. This pain makes me whimper, makes me produce a noise that is octaves higher and sharper than I can otherwise make. I become a supplicant to its needs. I have a mouth. Of this I am sure. I have a mouth but it acts without my guidance. Saliva seeps from corners. Lips chapped as cracked earth. The woman I love feeds me water. I sip from a straw, but all of it dribbles out from the corners of my mouth. All of it wetting my cheeks and chin, like a child sloppy with food. I am a child. I am helpless. I am without strength. I am without will. I believe I might die. That this might be the end of me, this moment. I believe that death would be a relief from it all.
Hang on, she says. It’s almost over, she says. The end is in sight, she says. Read more…
A central agony in these books is alienation—not only the pain of abuse, or heartbreak, or evaporation, but the pain of having your pain appropriated. The books themselves reclaim the hurt for their authors, and whatever their literary merit, they offer at least some catharsis for the reader, who can always relate. Rock songs make heartbreak seem valorous, but it’s more often a state of debasement in which you’d gnaw through the floor to get back what you had.
The books also serve as a caution, maybe a useless one, against letting passion erase us—against falling into the abyss. This resonates particularly with women, whose worth has forever been determined by the men they’re attached to, and whose place in rock and roll, never as liberated as it pretended to be, has been diminished and maligned. But love gets the better of all of us; it’s just that men have more often been the ones to sing about it.