A while ago I was talking with a friend about my experience with chronic back pain and I ended up delivering this pithy epigram:
Pain, I said, gives you answers to questions that you didn’t know to ask.
That’s pretty heavy, she said.
Yes, I agreed. I had no idea what I meant.
Xeno, the philosopher who came up with the neat trick of using infinite division to prove that an arrow in flight will never reach its target, must have suffered from chronic pain. Most of the time we live fluidly with our body, letting it get through the basic business of the day. We don’t need to perform any conscious calculations or make minute plans every time we want to get up from a chair and go fix a snack or grab a pen from across the room. Our bodies are full of automatic features, from the basics (respiration, sleep) way on up to the awesome add-ons that we take for granted.
Last Christmas I left the group behind and joined the small club of people who inhabit stripped-down bodies, the ones where most of the add-ons have been vandalized or stolen. I left my body in a bad neighbourhood, I guess. Some people have lost so much that they’ve Vadered up with wheelchairs, prostheses, oxygen tanks and tubes and leg braces. I’ve taken the cyborg-lite route with an extendable black metal cane.
My cane is the signal of my membership in the club of stripped-down bodies. People in crowds seem to sense the cane before they see it, stepping aside and offering a polite excuse me even from a distance of several feet. Everyone fixates on the rubber stopper at the end of the cane as they scoot aside. I wonder if they’re reacting to a primordial fear of something biting at their feet.
The stripped-down body changes your relationship to time. Time in its tiniest increments fills my mind, dogs me when I move and paces around me when I’m still. I spend as much time as possible completely still these days, partly to mitigate some of the pain I experience, but also to be relieved of an obsessive reckoning of moments.
Let me illustrate by way of lunch. I can only walk for so long before the pain in my legs forces me to stop and rest. That’s about half a city block. So my choices are limited to the coffee shop in the lobby of my building. Let’s say I want something better than a newspaper to read, a book or magazine. If I choose to take a book, then I can’t carry anything else. If I take a magazine, I can roll it up and tuck it awkwardly between the cane handle and the palm of my hand. Taking nothing leaves one hand free, but then I’m usually left with the business section from some paper. Taking a backpack or tote is usually too awkward, and the imbalance of weight makes it difficult to stand upright.
By the time I get to the café counter, having used the shortest possible route, I need to sit down again and let my muscles relax. The relaxation is actually a set of spasms throughout my limbs as the muscles try to hold on to the tension. It feels like water boiling under my skin. I usually sit at the edge of the pool with the koi and the man-eating turtles until I can pull myself up again with my cane.
At the counter I order, say, a coffee and a sandwich. The cashier places coffee and sandwich on the counter in front of me. In order to pay, I have to put down the magazine and put my hand in my pocket, but the slight shift in position sets off the nerves in my left leg and I can’t support my weight. I have to prop the cane against a vertical surface and grip the edge of the counter, leaning my hip in to ease some of my weight off my feet. At this point the spasms in my leg have risen to my arms, and they’re starting to shake. My fingers lose their fine coordination and I’m reduced to pulling bills and coins out of my pocket and slapping them on the counter while the cashier, who is used to this display, waits for me to lay down enough money. Finally I’m done and she hands me the change. I stuff the change into my pocket with a jerk, and when I’m lucky it all goes in my pocket. Usually something escapes and hits the floor, which gives me the comparative relief of squatting down to pick it up. Sometimes the cane hits the floor too, which causes anyone nearby to hop backwards. The story about Moses’ staff turning into a serpent must be the expression of a deep-rooted equivalence buried in our hindbrains.
Once the money is taken care of, I’m faced with the dilemma of having ordered one more item than I can carry. The distance between the counter and the table is relatively short, but the act of paying for the food has set off too many spasms, and the best I can hope for is a forward rush to the nearest seat, using the cane as an intermittent brake more than support. The woman at the counter takes the coffee and I take the sandwich. I have to wrap the magazine around the cane handle to get everything to the table in one trip. If it’s a book then I need to take the extra trip or ask for help, which I do frequently.
Once at the table I need to let the tensed muscles in my legs, back and stomach relax once more. After a few minutes I’m okay to unwrap the sandwich without dropping it or sip my coffee without showering drops on my wrist. Even as I read the magazine and eat my sandwich, I’m thinking of the maximum length of time I can spend in my seat before getting up becomes too painful.
Aside from the particular details of pain, this is still pretty much the same decision tree that everyone climbs when it hits lunchtime. In my case, I need to think carefully about every decision I make, because each action produces a degree of greater or lesser pain, greater or lesser convenience. Time is measured out along nerve impulses. The upside of all this is an increased concentration, a more intense attention to the tiny details of my day. It sets me slightly apart from everyone, leaves me free to think about whatever I please. Pain is probably the most backhanded gift I've ever received. Like the time my friends bought me six Guinness, drank five before I showed up, and packed the remaining Guinness in a nest of shredded pornography with a little figurine that broke the bottle, so what I got for my birthday was a box of broken glass and soggy porn and a figurine that somehow had a smug look on its face.