sarah michelle gellar and the unbounded agony

I've spent the last several days getting in touch with my feelings. By which I mean constant physical pain. My back, which has been dodgy for years and has now decided to get really dodgy around the L4 and L5 vertebrae, has been giving me weeks of ever-increasing pain. It's like a dial being slowly and steadily turned up until I'm whimpering and cursing at 4 am, trying to wrestle my consciousness into sleep from the grip of the pain.

I'm not complaining here. And I'm not looking for advice. Everyone has advice. Everyone's advice is well-meant, based on hard-earned experience, and ultimately not much practical use to me. Go to a chiropractor. Don't go near chiropractors. Get acupuncture. Needles are a joke. Massage is wonderful. Massage is useless. Go to Dr. X, he's the most experienced back specialist in the city. Avoid Dr. X, he's a noneganarian butcher who's so palsied he looks like he's doing jazz hands. Dr. Y is the best. Dr. Y is the worst. Try ice. Try heat. And so on.

I have tried this and that. I have gone to three doctors and booked an appointment for a specialist. I have tried ice, tried heat, tried chiropractors, gone for massages. My physiotherapy starts Wednesday. The only thing I haven't tried so far is acupuncture, which is probably the magic solution to my troubles.

And I have tried drugs. I have not shied away from assaulting my nerves with chemicals. Weeks divided into alternating days of Robax Platinum and days of acetaminophen-caffeine-codeine tablets. You have to ration out the codeine pills because pharmacies are stingy with their narcotics. In between, wherever prudent, alcohol in all its body-numbing varieties.

After those ran out and the pain hadn't lessened noticeably, I switched from off- the-shelf and over-the-counter to begging-the-doctor. Flexeril as a muscle relaxant (warning: dizziness, concentration problems) and Arthrotec as an anti-inflammatory (warning: dry mouth from hell, upset stomach, nausea, possible diarrhea), which left me a befuddled, burping mush-mouthed mess for the first day or so. Then, after a week, when I realized that I was stiffer and in more pain, hydromorphone in 3mg doses, a ramped-up version of morphine. Warning: constipation. So along with the little green morphine pills, laxatives. "That's right," Schmutzie said when I told her about the side effect, "Junkies don't shit".

Hydromorphone is my first experience with narcotics of this stripe. I can claim an acquaintance with drugs of all kinds, from the familiar to the downright weird (and I'm not counting the time me and my friends all smoked darjeeling tea, based on a rumor that it was a cheap and legal high) but I've avoided opiates in all their splendor (codeine tablets being the exception). I refuse to believe that any junkie with dignity would stoop to this stuff. After two hours, one pill produces an icy numbness in the affected area, a sparking cold running down pain-inflamed nerves. I can still feel the pain; it's just put on a different suit or something. Two pills produce a weird mental fog and turn my consciousness into a cold slippery thing that feels slightly repulsive to the touch, and even with all that, I can still feel the cold lines of pain streaking from my hips and spine down into the soles of my feet.

The pain is worst at night. All of my muscles from my lower back to my calves, are tense and screaming, and rebel at the thought of relaxation. They spasm, quiver, lock up and pull me upright every time I try to find a comfortable position. I shove pillows between my legs, under my back, prop up my shoulder, hold up my head, whatever will give me a moment's relief. And moments of relief are all I get. A twinge will bloom into a radiant ache, a slight pull on a muscle will suddenly tense up a leg, and a tiny shift in weight will flood my lower half in pins and needles. When sleep comes, it ambushes me.

I've discovered that constant pain is boring. To put it another way, pain and boredom have the same effect on my mind. Time is forced open by pain; moments are pried apart and pain pours itself into the spaces. Under this condition, the pain becomes weirdly bearable, because after a while you have to start thinking about something besides the pain. Even though it won't distract for long, strings of thought start weaving in and around the pain, but in the emptiness and sheer monotony of pain, the existential lightness of pain, my thoughts throw their weave over empty spaces.

For example, Sarah Michelle Gellar.

I saw a picture of Sarah Michelle Gellar the other day at the Tribeca Film Festival. The night before last, as the pain and the morphine were beginning to get together and make things really loopy, I thought about the picture of Gellar, bony and dark-haired and barely recognizable as the star of some pretty crappy movies and one good TV show from the early 2000s. I wondered what she'd been doing between the end of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the 2007 Tribeca Film Festival - not what films or jobs she'd picked up in the last few years, but what she had been doing. I tried to picture her in a kitchen, waiting for her toast, or walking down a street, or flexing an elbow or standing in a huge empty room full of plastic-covered furniture with her husband - and none of it seemed plausible. I just didn't buy the notion that Sarah Michelle Gellar had done anything between early 2004 and two days ago.

I don't think that Gellar is a bad actor, although her attempts at seriousness and depth on Buffy felt pretty flat to me - she had a habit of registering torment by bulging out her eyes, as if she were coming to grips with an intense need to vomit. She just struck me as one of those people who deactivate the moment they're not being looked at.

Normally this is the kind of thought that pops into my head and vanishes again before I can wonder if it's even worth writing about, but in bed the other night, with pain strongarming its way into my consciousness, the thought filled up the empty spaces in my mind. It seemed to stretch and fill everything, spilling over into all kinds of categories that Sarah Michelle Gellar should never spill into. Gellar, I thought, as a real person, the one we don't see, the one that I refuse to credit with existence, is absurd, and if she's absurd, then so are other people. All the other people and the things that they do, the clothes they wear and the children they pick up from daycare. And I was implicated, caught up in the same absurdity, the same stretched-out emptiness. I was as implausible as Sarah Michelle Gellar and the whole universe. None of it, not even the thinking of it, was worth the effort of belief.

Except the coffee. Suddenly I remembered that I was looking forward to coffee in the morning. A bodum's worth of the strong black stuff. Coffee concentrates time, knits moments together and reinvests the world with substance. This is something that non-coffee drinkers don't realize. Even the hope of a cup of coffee was enough to dispel the existential horror of Sarah Michelle Gellar.

It was a close call.

Physiotherapy starts in two days.