With the exception of intermittent murmurs and the low growl of heavy machinery, the chapel was quiet. Candles flickered uneasy shadows on the walls and stained glass windows. It was peaceful, but a peace bought at a heavy price.
It was just after midnight on a Friday in early December 2001 in lower Manhattan.
I’d stretched out on one of the pews in the center of the chapel, trying to relax away the gnawing pain in my back from what was later diagnosed as arachnoiditis.
I stared at the dark ceiling of St. Paul’s Chapel. I was lying mute directly across from Ground Zero, where firefighters and construction workers were still uncovering bodies from the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
I had only been lying still for a few moments when the front door blew open and the arctic wind ushered in a clutch of ragged firefighters. They dragged themselves wearily up the side aisle as one by one they headed into empty pews.
After clanking their gear down on the pews, each began to peel off their heavy gear, right down to their sweatshirts and long johns.
I got up immediately. Their presence defined my presence.
You see, this was my defense against the clawing pain and residual thoughts of suicide that had been plaguing me right up to the morning of the attacks on the World Trade Center.
I was using my knowledge of post-traumatic stress disorder and disaster mental health to help those caught up in the attacks and their aftermath.
But, truth be told, I was also helping myself. I had found that whenever I could immerse myself in an intellectual or emotional way, I could find a path away from the misery of my body.
It’s a fail-safe mechanism.
When those firefighters had undressed and gotten some of the pea soup regularly brought to the chapel by a local restaurant, I walked up to a middle-aged lieutenant firefighter and asked if I could get him anything. Before long we were deep in conversation about his emotionally harrowing work.
It became readily apparent that he was way past his ability to endure what anyone should be asked to endure. He was in trouble and so was his family.
He’d been working on the debris pile every night he wasn’t scheduled to work at his fire house. With a blank look and pinpoint pupils, he said he had a cousin who would never crawl out from that pile alive.
After a long pause, he told me of his promise to his cousin’s wife that he wouldn’t give up at Ground Zero until her husband’s body was found.
He admitted to me later that night that he felt guilty about being away from his family so much, but he also felt guilt when he was with his family and not looking for his cousin. He knew he was trapped.
As he described his emotional entrapment, I lost touch with mine. All I could embrace was his experience. Mine quailed by comparison. I wasn’t conscious of this until later.
Thus, the draining dilemma of guilt for those of us in pain. If we take time out to withdraw from our daily battles with pain, we feel guilty. If we try to be with our families, we know all too well that we’re so impaired we can’t really be with them. And we feel guilty about that.
The most common word in the above paragraph is “guilt.” Guilt that we’re here and not there; and guilt that we’re there and not here. No matter what we do, we’re buffeted by gales of guilt.
As I listened closely to the lieutenant, without realizing it, much of my body slowly disappeared into the background, like the noise of the front-loaders outside dismantling the pile of the twin towers.
The low growling of the machines, like the low growling of the lieutenant’s guilt and my loss of attention to my pain, became a backdrop to the connection between us and the remains of the dead outside.
This connection deepened my concentration into the lieutenant’s eyes. The sorrow that passed between us was choreographed by the mechanical hum drifting in the dark.
The only parts of my body that existed were my eyes locked on his and my chest that seemed to rise and fall in rhythm with his. I’d never, outside the connection with my infant son, felt such an inclusive connection with anyone. It was as if, in some mystical way, a large portion of me became an attachment to the lieutenant’s dilemma.
As our connection deepened, he told me of his work on the passenger jet that crashed in the city the previous month. After much prodding from me, he described an incident at the crash site involving an infant, something so horrendous that I’ve not to this day been able to shake it.
He told me that the image was a like virus that he kept in his mind. It was because of this idea of viral infection that he never shared with his wife what he experienced. And by sharing it with me, he’d infected my mind.
By allowing this imagery to infect me, by allowing this horrible thing into my life, by allowing my concentration, and yes, my love for this man in those dark hours, I overcame for a brief time my body’s relentless pain.
Not all of us can do this. Not even me now. But I’m suggesting that by allowing ourselves to enter into the depths of the emotional and physical pain of others, we can alleviate, if only for a brief time, our own pain. There is nothing wrong with this.
There are many ways we can do this. One is to volunteer at a crisis or suicide prevention center, where we can get training to listen to and respond to others in the extremity of pain.
We certainly know something about suffering and ways to deal with it.
Not only do we have something to offer, but by offering ourselves we may just find the temporary relief that we so justly deserve.
Reach out. Reach in.
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.
National Pain Report welcomes other opinions.
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.