On pain

cracking up, holding together

cracking up, holding together

I’m working on a big client project right now. The subject? Ha. Pain. Specifically, pain for cancer patients: what it is, what causes it, what it feels like, how to talk about it, how to treat it, people’s fears and emotions around it. Yesterday, I spoke with a lovely, lovely man who was so open and generous with me about his (ongoing) physical pain: what he lives with, how this disease has bankrupted him, how difficult it was to make his needs for relief to hospital staff understood and respected. He broke down a couple of times during the conversation, and we sat in silence for several moments while he collected himself and I focused hard on keeping collected.

And yet, the first thing he said to me when we got on the phone was, “You sound tired.”

I am tired. I’m not sleeping all that well. These are painful times for so many of us, at so many levels. Acute and chronic individual physical pain; anxiety and depression, as so many of the responses to Robin Williams’s death have brought up; the ongoing atrocities in Ferguson, in Gaza, in Syria, in places too numerous and scary to mention. It feels as though we’re all living a little closer to the surface right now, more nerve endings exposed, rubbed raw and referring outward, pinging off of other things so that we don’t know exactly why we’re weeping in the grocery aisle, doubled over in the archway between the kitchen and living room.

From this project and others similar to it, I know that people find it hard to describe their pain, to remember it once it’s passed, to articulate it in the midst of it. Personally, I've found it difficult to say much articulate, coherent, about world events, but I'm not comfortable sitting in silence either as people's humans rights are violated, over and over. I don't want to be the hospital nurse who could do something to alleviate the pain and chooses not to. It’s exhausting to live in the midst of pain, to get up as it literally and figuratively knocks you over again and again, to stand and move forward. Some of us don’t get to stand up and move forward. Too often, that’s through no fault of our own but an accident of geography, chemistry, skin colour, gender, sexuality, heritage. And guess what? In my research for this project, I came across this: “Inadequate pain treatment in patients with cancer remains a significant problem and appears to be more frequent among minorities,” who are nearly twice as likely as white patients to receive inadequate pain treatment. 

No wonder I’m so anxious these days.

Pain is information. It’s a sign that something is wrong, that something needs to change. We need to change things, because we are all too tired, rubbed raw and living too close to the edge. We need to take care of each other, every single one of us, to ask what we can do, to do what we can without being asked. We need to say, "You sound tired,” to open up about what’s going on and — if nothing else — sit in silence for a moment or two of acknowledgment, and then find some way to speak up, to help.