It was winter, 1980. I was working at a mental health clinic in Chicago.
The unmistakable electricity of conflict entered the room like a live power line downed in a storm. It shuddered and crackled with growing insistence; arching, snapping and threatening.
I knew where we were. But did this family, sitting in my office as the winter wind shook the windows, know where they were?
The parents sat on my right and between us was an old desk from the closed mental health hospital in our neighborhood. Next to them sat their 6 year old daughter and 10 year old son. The latter was a fire bug (Smokey, in my mind), a boy who was setting off alarms far and wide with a hearty new interest in the physics of flames.
They were all in my office, engaged in family therapy to stop the fire breathing child and understand what on earth was happening to them.
As is not unusual in cases like these, the underlying tension between the parents began to slowly and frighteningly expose itself, the underlying conflict that brought about the the radical transformation in their son — from loving boy to budding arsonist.
“Well, I am disappointed, Jack,” Mary Ellen blurted at her husband, her face paling and pupils dilating madly.
The match had been lit.
Jack’s face blanked; thunderstruck.
Their tension was nearly unbearable to me. I didn’t want them tramping unaided into a new, terrifying argument, leaving the smoking casualties, their children, behind.
The silence slowly smoldered.
Mary Ellen fidgeted, wrenching her pale fingers as if strangling kittens. Smokey was on the edge of his seat. And Jack? He disappeared behind a mask of blank concern while their daughter carefully studied her pale pink doll, stroking its blond curls and whispering endearments.
“Jack,” Mary Ellen cried with her accelerant of despair sloshing into the far corners of my dimly lit office. “Don’t do this.”
At that moment Smokey, with a distant smile, arced a flaming matchbook through the air. It landed, burning blue and yellow on my desk squarely between the suddenly wakened parents. I wanted to stand up and cheer.
As a therapist, it was one of those exquisite moments when I could intervene and explain, with the help of the “obstreperous” son, what had just happened to save them from the pain of their conflict with each other. How their son was willing to sacrifice his place in the family to keep his parents from exploding, to keep them, whatever the price to him, from pulling apart into separation or the conflagration of divorce.
I was able to help explain that their boy’s behavior, far from being destructive and paving his way to mental illness, was instead heroic. That he’d do anything in his power to keep his parents away from the heat of their own dissatisfaction with each other. What child wouldn’t? With a bit more exploration, it was apparent that this couple also saw any potential conflict between them as the opening scene on their own private Armageddon.
Yes, as you might suspect, Jack suffered from severe neck and spinal pain, and it was spreading and he wasn’t talking. What man would?
We all come to emotional intimacy with barely disguised hope and a trunk full of fear and trepidation.
This was from a time in my career when I was just beginning to look at the growing pain in my own body, pain that was still in the ballpark and not running around loose in the neighborhood.
In the 30 intervening years since that matchbook and this column, I’ve come to the conclusion that we are thrown, against our wishes, against the hard edges of our deepest fears in ways that don’t happen when pain is absent. Mostly, these fears stay in the unconscious.
But when pain goosesteps into our bodies, it also marches into our unconscious. When pain takes hold in a family, it’s as if a permanent escalator sets up in our unconscious minds, conveying our demons back and forth on its molten steps. These fears don’t just burn through the person with pain, but through all family members. We all step onto the escalator together.
It truly is, especially for children, a conflagration.
Under this type of stress, it’s useful to remember that what follows is fairly normal. If I project onto you my fears, and you onto me, and we onto our children and they onto us… the monsters on the escalator burn brighter.
In Smokey’s family and in others where there is the centrifuge of pain, we spin ourselves away from normal sharing and intimacy. Our fears drop into the bubbling lava and the more they bubble away the more frightening our thoughts and feelings become.
Under the demands of stress, our brains usually hand us the defenses of fight or flight. Smokey fought, his parents fled. Mostly, we swing from one pole to the other in dealing with these very real monsters of pain.
So what do we do?
That’s easy.. .well… easier said than done: We communicate.
It’s a two step process: (1) Identify our fears while helping other family members do the same, and (2) share, share, share.
How? By journaling our dreams and thoughts in a pain notebook. Through meditation and mindfulness. By talking to each other
That’s not so bad, is it? No, but it’s fraught with the dangers of opening up to each other and the fear we have about that.
Try out a good social worker who’s experienced with chronic pain or disease. Talk to friends, self-help groups or clergy. There are tons of people out there who’ve devoted their lives to helping us communicate.
In my next column, already brewing away, I will go into more depth on this simple idea of communication as a way to cope and live with pain.
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 represents 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.