I know a little bit about pain. For about ten years I suffered from cluster headaches, also known as “suicide headaches.” About every three months I would have a month with two or three per day, each one lasting about an hour. Eventually I learned from a nurse that breathing pure oxygen would stop them, so I got a prescription for a regulator and oxygen, and it worked. Eventually, they stopped paying their visits. “One of the benefits,” my doc said, “of getting older.” For more on cluster headaches, JFGI.
I mention this not to attract sympathy – I am grateful for the oxygen and the eventual disappearance. No, I am interested in other people’s pain – how to understand it. The issue occurs to me because for the last month Kim has been experiencing a lot of pain in her back, hips, butt, and legs. It keeps her from sleeping. If it were anyone but Kim it would limit her activity, but she is still out there pulling weeds, moving rocks (“only small ones!”) and planting flowers and bushes. I still do the heavy lifting, and she will stop if I speak to her sternly. Her son, Scott, got angry and yelled at her, and her daughter, Genne’, a physical therapist, explained the potential permanent damage that might occur, but they aren’t around on a daily basis. Kim is constitutionally unable to stop working if I am working where she can see me.
How bad is her pain? The docs and nurses use a 10-point scale. Kim usually scores at around 6, largely due to fibromyalgia and some arthritis, but lately she’s been at 8 or 9 – high enough to drive her to her oncologist to get a painkiller prescription. She wanted enough to get her through our move to the cottage, a process that will begin in a week or two depending on whether Godot Construction gets our home finished. We figure that the process will take about a month, if you include time spent moving furniture around and getting everything in place.
How does Kim’s pain compare with my cluster headaches? If we both gave them the same numerical rating, does that make them “the same”? Would using colors be a better way to describe the quality of pain? Some pain is red, some yellow (my hockey puck cuts), some purple (cluster headaches). Or maybe as music – some heavy metal, some the Bee Gees, some Beethoven’s Ninth (but not in a good way). I remember when my brother John was having his mental illness diagnosed after he was arrested. They had to put a label on him, ending up with schizo-affective disorder. That’s like looking at a cloud and asking if its shape is a square, triangle, or rhombus. Everyone’s pain is qualitatively different. A common high bar for pain is childbirth, an experience with which I am unsurprisingly unqualified to speak. Kim mentioned the pain of extensive burns, which she sees as a 10, but more research needs to be done – research that I don’t want any part of. We just can’t know what a pain sufferer is feeling.
I am currently pain free, but I know from my experiences with the common cold that if I experienced pain anything like Kim’s, I would make sure I was heavily drugged, without Kim’s hesitations about addiction and her reluctance to be too groggy to landscape our hillside and butterfly garden. And when we move in, who thinks she will trust me to put all the kitchen-ware, her art gear and photo equipment where it belongs? I predict that she will pop a pill to help her sleep and tough it out the rest of the time.
Her stoicism makes it hard for me – or anyone else – to know how much pain she is suffering. I still sit back, most days, and let her cook dinner after a day of landscaping – though I usually offer to do the dishes all by myself. Maybe she should wear a flag with a number on it, or perhaps a color. But she doesn’t like to talk about her pain. Another thing we don’t talk about: The nurse-practitioner who prescribed pain pills suggested the pain might be a sign of her cancer’s spreading. We push that thought aside by keeping busy. Next set of scans will be in a couple of months.
Another dimension of pain is that experienced by the loving witness. No, it’s nothing like the pain itself, but still . . .. Pain is the body’s signal that something is wrong, and you should do something about it, or maybe stop doing something. Hard to do or stop doing when it’s your beloved’s pain, and you feel helpless. Get a back pillow? Give a shoulder massage? Hold her hand when she has to step up or down? Remind her to take a pain pill? Help her walk to the couch when back spasms make her kitchen work impossible? Put on her shoe or sock when she can’t? Grab that rock before she can pick it up? It may sound like a lot, but it’s not. It’s not adequate, not at all . . ..
“What I do with my pain,” Kim says, “is focus my attention on what I enjoy – photography and just being outside, building this house despite the frustrations, and taking care of my husband.” Sometimes, however, the pain becomes too much. Today, however, we are turning in measurements for our shower door that someone failed to order, buying paintable switch-plate covers, getting a table out of storage to see if it fits in the bathroom, and driving to Charlevoix for lunch, a haircut, and some relaxation. She reports that she is having a good day, pain-wise.