Pain, the great humbler

Life finds so many ways to keep me humble. Whether it’s hiding my eyeglasses in plain sight, my inability to remember whether I charged my phone the previous night, or the often Herculean task of getting through the day without a coffee stain on my shirt, my life is a series of small humiliations. However, nothing cuts me down to size quite like  physical pain.

I recently got my first spinal injection after dealing with a compressed nerve in my lower back. What started as the familiar back pain I’d endured over the years quickly devolved into great, jagged stabs that ran down my leg and numbed my foot. Overnight, I turned into my father, a karmic punishment for making fun of how he’d groan when rising from the couch. I was prescribed a cocktail of painkillers to get me through the workweek without sobbing in a corner.

Unfortunately, the drugs dried up my colon like a popsicle in a pizza oven. If I didn’t keep my digestive tract hydrated, it would soon slow to the pace of I-95 during rush hour construction. Suddenly, I was having uncomfortable discussions with my pharmacist about the proper use of suppositories (which, until then, I’d assumed were line items on an accountant’s ledger).

My pharmacist had looked at me with pity the first time I came to her with my prescription for OxyContin, oxycodone, and prednisone. When I came in for a refill, she looked at me as if I were a street corner junkie. I’ve always known pharmacies run out of these drugs because keeping a large supply invites armed burglaries. However, I don’t get the allure in the first place. They barely dulled the pain outside of making me sleepy and somewhat duller than normal (a feat in itself). I never bothered with the last refill.

Prolonged exposure to pain teaches us the difference between agony and discomfort. I’ve been one of the lucky few who never understood the many hues in which pain arrives. Pain was the Voldemort of our family, an evil whose name rarely passed our lips. My mom was the mother of seven and an emergency room nurse who’d seen too many horrors to be shaken by a broken bone or two. Unless the bleeding threatened to stain the carpet, our family motto was, “Rub some dirt on it.” Her threshold for pain was legendary: To this day she refuses pain medication, allowing herself an aspirin or two despite crippling osteoarthritis and a hip operation she keeps putting off so as not to be a burden to anyone as she convalesces.

I have only a pale shadow of my mom’s fortitude, but my wife often accuses me of hiding my pain from her. She doesn’t understand that logic is distorted in large families. As the sixth of seven children in a Catholic family, to me, physical pain has always been accompanied by smothering guilt. Who am I to complain about a little nerve damage to my spine when others are, at that very moment, undergoing surgery without anesthetic in some third world country? Our brains are wired to compare our plight with that poor child at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital who’s undergoing a bone marrow transplant.

Catholics can’t catch a break because nothing makes talking about our pain more difficult than looking at that guy on the cross. Some master the art of silent suffering, but I’ve learned I’m not one of them. I might not acknowledge it much to the outside world, but it colors my every thought and action.  My wife gets sick of me saying, “It is what it is” whenever she asks how I’m feeling these days, so I’ve started using a quote from the Roman philosopher Seneca: “Remember that pain has this most excellent quality. If prolonged it cannot be severe, and if severe it cannot be prolonged.”

I know — it’s obnoxious. But I can be a real pain when I’m in pain.

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