I have been in pain for a half century. Yes, for 50 years.
In my early 20s I was finally diagnosed with a spinal problem, 6 years after the pain first hit me when I tried getting out of bed when I was 15. The day before, during basketball practice in my ancient high school gym, I drove for the basket on a breakaway. As I launched a layup, one of my larger teammates hammered me across the chest, sending me backwards into a wall abutting the baseline.
Bad court design, bad injury.
It took a while to regain my wobbly senses and survey my body, but I decided I was okay. Trying to get out of bed the following morning proved otherwise. My comic struggle to get upright introduced me to marauding, multiplying pain. It took 35 years to get the correct diagnosis of a broken spine and 8 hours of nasty surgery to correct some of the damage.
During those years I gathered up one miserable diagnosis upon the next. It took 20 years of useless or no treatment before a sharp eyed rheumatologist put all the symptoms together to pronounce the possibility of an autoimmune malady, Behcet’s Disease. That lovely entity was confirmed two years later by the sudden loss of half the vision in my left eye.
Through the last 25 years I’ve been bedevilled by reduced vision, but now in my mid 60s I see things more clearly. I still bump into furniture, small children, and my dog Dylan, but truly I see much better.
When I was in my 40s, I thought and sometimes wished that my life was going to be short. Just after graduating college my favorite uncle died at the age of 45. Then my 48-year old brother, Mike, was knocked down by a stroke. Five months later he fell to a heart attack.
When Mike died I was sure I was next in the queue and wouldn’t make it to 50, just 5 short years ahead. But I did make it to 50 — and started down the path of 15 surgeries correcting various damaged parts of my body.
The late psychoanalyst Erik Erikson wrote years ago that at 65, we should be entering the stage of Wisdom, or, if psychologically derailed, Ego Disintegration and Despair. I don’t think this original thinker had much contact with people living in pain. I’m not so acquainted with Wisdom as I am with Ego Disintegration and…well, we all get the picture.
I suppose that there is some wisdom to be gained from living a half century in pain, but truthfully, I’m not so sure. What I have learned over the years is that the notion of psychological or emotional disintegration happens repeatedly to people living with pain (PLWP) and isn’t confined to any one period of maturation. So by age 65 we should have practiced and mastered that disintegration bit.
Psychoanalytic theorists describe disintegration as an experience akin to shaking apart a completed 500 piece puzzle. What was once an identifiable whole disintegrates into its constituent parts of scattered, barely recognizable pieces. It gives meaning to the idea of “falling apart.”
This describes what happens to PLWP. It’s as if pain takes us by the neck and shakes us violently, the way a panther breaks the necks of her prey. For the most part, save for the truly desperate among us who commit suicide, the shaking unhinges us from ourselves through anxiety, obsessions, substance abuse, hopelessness, despair and depression, just to name a few of our disintegrators.
Those of us who’ve passed the age of 40 often talk about how time flies. But in the next quarter of a century after age 40, time flies by at the speed of light. This is both a blessing and a curse. The curse is that we experience ourselves aging far faster than we bargained for when we were 25.
The blessing forms around our pain. When we are in the midst of stunning pain, time seems to crawl as each minute is a nightmare and the disintegrators take up residence. What I’ve found with age is something of a gift; when pain strikes I have confidence that I’ll slide through pain without time sagging in on me.
I’ve also found that disintegration, while serial, isn’t permanent. Like the pain on whose back it arrives, it comes and goes.
I know that I can manage the worst pain, something I didn’t believe 25 years ago. The variable is that I know that what is happening to me in the moment is truly in that moment, and I no longer see catastrophe goose-stepping on my horizon.
I know however miserable the pain is, I will survive. Pain is not eternal, but brief. I wish I could have told my 45-year old self, partially blind and disabled by pain, just that: Hang on, kid, the extremity is brief.
I know that this isn’t always true, that sometimes the pain is extensive and pernicious as a home invader who steals your residence with no thought of vacating. But I’ve found over the decades that my pain rarely stays at 9 or 10; that it always, sooner and sometimes later, backs off. Like the sun breaking through on a stormy day, it just happens.
I’m not discounting the horrid pain you may suffer, I’m just postulating that intermittent, soft interludes return — allowing us to catch our breath and even feel contentment, joy and the life we think has passed us by. Those moments are fleeting, but they’re real and can sustain us.
Of course, these moments are an archipelago in a sea of pain. But reach for whatever life preserver you have and hang on kid, because this too will pass.
On the horizon there’s always another island, however small, however distant, to which deep currents will deliver you.
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.