Ritual Confessions

February 9, 2008


Filed under: Uncategorized — elissakaren @ 7:59 am

Today the pain in my throat lessened by the hour until it was its own ghost: a presence, hovering there, no longer able to make itself fully felt. My occasional episodes of illness always bend my thoughts along the same path:

How do people with chronic pain learn to live with it? What if I felt this way all the time? Would life be worth living? (Almost certainly not.) Would I hold up under torture? (Most certainly not.) Isn’t it amazing that 99% of the time, I wake up feeling fine? The idea that 99% of the time, nothing hurts… suddenly this fact seems like nothing less than a miracle.

By sheer coincidence, I bought an anthology of non-fiction this past week which has a great essay about chronic pain. The author’s name is Eula Bliss; she’s someone whose name I hadn’t known. While reading her piece, I kept looking up from the book to stare in appreciation at the air in front of me before returning to the page.

A sentence I found striking: “Hospice nurses are trained to identify five types of pain: physical, emotional, spiritual, social and financial.” She paraphrases in her next line: “The pain of feeling, the pain of caring, the pain of doubting, the pain of parting, the pain of paying.” I know I would have paraphrased differently: “The pain of injury, the pain of loss, the pain of rootlessness, the pain of estrangement, the pain of poverty.”

But really, aren’t there a thousand shades of pain? An infinity of ways to suffer. And all of them have been inflicted, endured.

Another line from Bliss’s essay that I appreciated: “Zero is a number in the way that Christ was a man.” (The title of the essay is “The Pain Scale.” Zero marks the left end of the scale, the “number” that translates as “no pain.”)



  1. I’m so glad that you’re feeling better.

    From one who knows — I can tell you that the endurance of chronic physical pain is a very curious phenomenon that involves what I would call pain-category bargaining. If I’d had a great deal of financial and loss-related pain along with the physical pain, there’s no question that I would have killed myself long ago to get the hell out of here.

    I do know how circumscribed my emotional life was, due to how much pain I was in, because I knew I couldn’t endure great emotional pain as well as the daily physical suffering. It would be impossible, for example, for me to be doing the psychological/emotional work I’m doing now if I were still in that kind of pain on a daily basis; I simply wouldn’t have the stamina for it. My observation of people who have chronic pain, and have had it for a long time, is that they tend to be very, very careful regarding what they take on. They usually live quietly, because they know they can’t take risks with other kinds of pain.

    After more than twenty years at a continual 5–6 on the standard 1–10 standard pain scale, I’m now hovering around a 2, and still amazed at the difference it makes. And yet, you know — the pain you have is the pain you know how to deal with. Looking at your life, and what I know of it, I would not trade my physical pain for the pain of loss you’ve suffered. I couldn’t deal with that, even as you might find it impossible to contemplate the prospect of waking up every day and having physical pain as the first thing to greet you.

    And so I tend to think that there is some greater wisdom somewhere that gives us the type of pain we are able to endure. Because we all have it, in one way or another. And it is a rare person who would genuinely trade his own pain for someone else’s … with the exception of people who love genuinely, who would gladly take on more pain to spare the loved one. But that’s not a trade — that is a desire for sacrifice of the purest kind. Unfortunately, it’s a sacrifice we’re not permitted to make.

    Comment by davidrochester — February 9, 2008 @ 6:28 pm

  2. PS I was out showing houses when you called — I hope Charlotte was just having a bad day, and not coming down with strep, poor lamb.

    Comment by davidrochester — February 10, 2008 @ 4:04 am

  3. David, I was so startled by what you wrote this morning — the part about my loss(es). Did you mean my 9/11-related loss? Or something else? Or more than one?

    Comment by Elissa — February 10, 2008 @ 4:48 am

  4. Hey, where’s my little icon?

    Comment by Elissa — February 10, 2008 @ 4:48 am

  5. icon test

    Comment by elissakaren — February 10, 2008 @ 4:50 am

  6. okay, good

    Comment by elissakaren — February 10, 2008 @ 4:50 am

  7. My sense is that more than once, you have lost someone whom you believed to be the love of your life — the 9/11 loss, and in a different way, your blind man. More than once, you have done the thing I fear most in the world, which is to invest completely, and to lose completely. Which is not to say that you were not enriched by the accretion of the experience you had, of course. But from my point of view, you have endured the intolerable. And from some people’s point of view, I’ve endured the intolerable.

    It’s all a question of how to define what’s intolerable.

    Comment by davidrochester — February 10, 2008 @ 6:04 am

  8. Well, you’re right, those two men were the ones I considered the great loves of my life before I met my husband. And while one of them is still alive, I have literally never seen him again. But I never think of those experiences in terms of “losing completely”. And that goes beyond feeling enriched by the experiences, which of course I do. But there’s a line in my novel: “The consolation for having lost him was having had him.” Would it be crazy, David, if I said that just having had the time that I had with the two of them fills me with the most profound satisfaction? Nothing and no one can ever take that away. I draw on it all the time, even now. I had them, I knew them, I held them, I comforted them, I saw them naked, I saw them cry, heard their private thoughts, was privy to their secrets. I made love to them, slept with them, showered with them, traveled with them, listened to their fantasies, got to look at the cards they held close to their chests. I feel more blessed than I can possibly express for having been there. They weren’t meant to be my life partners; they were meant to be what they were to me. I don’t mean that Fate or God didn’t choose them for my life partners; I mean that a life partnership with either of those men would not have served either party best in either case. Which isn’t to say that separating from them didn’t hurt. It hurt like hell. But it wasn’t a pure loss by any stretch.

    Comment by elissakaren — February 10, 2008 @ 6:29 am

  9. No, of course it doesn’t sound crazy, because you’re you, and that is how you experience your life. In a similar position, that isn’t how I would feel, though, which is why I said I wouldn’t trade my experience for yours; my perspective is such that I would think of it as losing completely, not because I would want to think of it that way, but because that is simply how I am wired. ‘Tis better to have loved and lost/Than never to have loved at all has always seemed completely insane to me. I wish I could look at it that way, but I can’t. Perhaps if I’d ever actually loved anyone, I’d feel differently about it.

    Comment by davidrochester — February 10, 2008 @ 7:25 am

  10. Here’s my hypothesis — *when* you actually love someone (because I have no doubt that this is in the cards), you *will* feel differently, because the experience of that love will leave you differently wired. Which isn’t to say that love conquers all (because I don’t believe it does). But it is to say that love will affect your very wiring just as surely as hate and brutality have.

    Comment by elissakaren — February 10, 2008 @ 7:36 am

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