Living with Pain: The Analgesic Power of Empathy

Living with Pain: The Analgesic Power of Empathy

Above my right ear was a long purple feather. Above my left, an orange one. Around my neck, a white plastic lei over a raspberry boa.

Deb, age 12, coal black eyes set deep under auburn hair, studied my ridiculous presence with the loitering eye of an artist. I was the mannequin that she unconsciously packed with vaporous imagery.

We were in the Kid’s Korner, where fluorescent lights cast uneasy shadows while painting us in a skittish pale glow, a glow that whispered, “Something’s wrong here. Something’s wrong.”

State_Department_Images_WTC_9-11_Smoke_Rising_through_SunlightYes, something was certainly very wrong, Pearl Harbor wrong.

It was the third week of September, 2001 and it was my first day having moved from volunteer to supervisor. The first paid job, though part-time, I’d held since I was force-retired in 1995 because of disastrous pain. Several surgeries later, I could work again, even if very part-time.

We were located at the litter slogged foot of 51st street, on the north end of one of Manhattan’s cavernous piers on the Hudson River, not far from the rubble of the World Trade Center.

It was mid-morning with grey clouds troubling the river and washing family after family against the guarded gates on 11th street.

Trauma, too fresh, haunted the serpentine line.

Sitting on a child’s chair, I held still as instructed by my 12 year old artist. As a child therapist, I performed as directed.

The Kid’s Korner was a part of the vast Family Center run by the city, state and feds to provide relief for families and individuals whose lives were blown loose by Osama Bin Laden’s cataclysmic reach.

People who came for help dropped off their kids with us, while they gathered in new lines for services to stitch their lives back together.

The Kid’s Korner wasn’t just a day care center. We had volunteers experienced in working in a variety of ways with kids — while being good at relating to children who were stuck in traumatic circumstances.

It was my job to advise the volunteers how to work with spooked kids and how to relate to their overstressed parents.

I also taught them how to recognize the accumulating stress in themselves, in reaction to what they were seeing and hearing. I advised them about secondary post traumatic stress disorder, and let them know when it was time to leave work and care for themselves.

When a volunteer identified a child they thought might be in trouble, they were referred to me as I specialized in post traumatic stress disorder.

I observed Deb play for a time with the volunteer and then gradually took over.

As I got to know her, Deb included me ever more deeply in her art work. Fortunately, this didn’t require much physical work for me, as my body in those early months at Ground Zero was still rattling around at its worst.

Mostly, it was the pain that would several years later be diagnosed as arachnoiditis in my lower spine, as well as fibromyalgia and the degenerative disease in my cervical vertebrae.

All Deb required of me was my quiet, still presence in a small wooden school chair, where she could apply all manner of artistic gewgaws to my head, doing so in a manner that everyone could see.

As she did this, the rest of my body, my pain, disappeared.

I was simply her medium, a medium feeling its way deeper into the presence of an unexpressed horror, an unnamed agony.

Each hour spent with Deb was like spending an hour in an anesthesia chamber, where I was bathed in an opioid mist. As her agony brushed its cold fingers across my heart, my pain receded further.

After two weeks, her parents told me she’d lost interest in school and was fighting uncharacteristically with her younger brother. She’d been alone watching the attacks from their apartment just south of the towers, but had never spoken of what she’d witnessed.

After building trust over several weeks, I asked Deb to tell me what she saw that morning.

Alone in the back of the Kid’s Korner, sitting across from me and holding my eyes with hers, draining me of all awareness of my pain, Deb spoke in a low steady voice.

Instead of slowly circling her story, she stepped directly into it’s center, as if she’d been waiting all along for me to ask.

“They jump. I watch them all the way down,” she told me. “Some jump from the flames, together holding hands.”

With no change in emotion, Deb added, “It sounds like giant pumpkins exploding, when they hit the street, I mean.”

Her pupils pinpoint. My heart stills. PTSD.

After a long pause, I ask, “The worst?”

I could feel her tears pulse, where no child should have to feel what she saw.

My body ceased to exist, except for my tears piling waves against my watery eyes.

“Hanging on the street lamps,” she whispered.

Time had collapsed for Deb.

I nodded.

She paused, dreamy eyes falling away.

“Meat,” she whispered hoarsely. “Meat.”

I held her cold hands.

And didn’t feel my own body until late the next morning.

Connecting with the depth of the emotion of another is the best anesthesia.

I’m not special, we can all try this.

It changes what and who we are.

Volunteering for suicide prevention or other hotlines is among the best anesthetics. The anesthetizing effect lasts for hours. The effect on who we are, longer.

So much longer when we reach deeply beyond ourselves.

Mark Maginn

Mark Maginn

Mark Maginn lives in Chicago where he is a poet, writer and social justice activist. Mark suffers from chronic pain and was a longtime volunteer with the American Pain Foundation. His blog “Left Eye Blind” can be found here.

The information in this column is not intended to be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Only your doctor can do that!  It is for informational purposes only and represent the author’s personal experiences and opinions alone. It does not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of National Pain Report or Microcast Media.

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This is beautiful and brave.