A recent bout of toothache both before and after dental treatment made me reflect on the characteristics of pain.

Firstly it is not easy to define – although everyone has experienced it.   I do not quite agree with Dr Johnson, who said, ‘Those who do not feel pain seldom believe that it is felt.’     Generally, the difficulty is not in recognising that an individual is in pain, but rather in assessing what kind of pain and to what degree they are suffering.    There is no way of telling whether someone bawling and screaming is in greater pain than someone hunched and silent.   There are some physical signs – pallor, sweating – but these are not the inevitable or the only companions to pain.

There are different kinds of pain.    There is the intense blue white pain when you stub your toe badly, or are hit by some object – but mercifully this is generally short lived.   There is the persistent dull red pain of a long term injury or sprain.   There is droning lasting pain, and short sharp stabbing pain.     But when a  medic asks you to rate your pain 1 – 10, he has no way of telling whether your 3 would be another person’s 6.    Pain is a solitary experience.   There’s no question of us all being in it together and George Osborne suffering too.    (More’s the pity.)     With pain, you’re all on your own in the darkness.     Actually, I’ve always found, notwithstanding the care and kindness of husband, family and friends, a great comfort came from the family pets who seem to have an instinctive empathetic awareness of one’s distress, just as they themselves are touchingly grateful for your care of them in their illnesses.

Some pain encompasses one’s life like a tight ring.    If every breath pains you, then you can’t see beyond your next breath.

Emily Dickinson put it rather elegantly:

Pain has an element of blank;

It cannot recollect

When it began, or if there were

A day when it was not.

It has no future but itself,

Its infinite realms contain

Its past, enlightened to perceive

New periods of pain.

Gripped by pain, you can’t think; you can’t talk; you can’t decide on anything.   You just want to lie there and not move so as to escape the pain.

When I broke my hip, in the immediate aftermath I experienced bouts of pain, accompanied by violent shaking, interspersed with short periods when there was a brief respite from this.   Since I have had Parkinson’s Disease for over 14 years, and shaking can be part of the condition, I assumed this was connected with my illness, but have since learned it is a perfectly normal reaction to shock.

I have experience of two other types of pain – that associated with childbirth, and of migraine.

The pain of childbirth is always mitigated by the hope that it will have a positive outcome – the birth of a live and healthy child.   Everyone has a unique experience of course, but in my view the fact that there is a pattern to labour pain makes it easier to endure.    Contrary to those old films where the lovely heroine clutches her belly in sudden collapsing agony, in my experience the first pain is so mild and passes so swiftly you doubt if it was really present.    But very slowly the contractions build up and speed up until the pain is like a band tightening round your belly and clutching at your throat.   But I found that when I got to the stage that I’ve thought, I really can’t stand much more than this without drugs; suddenly you were in the final pushing stage which is not painful, just hard.

My other experience is of the pain of migraine and that too had a pattern.   I suffered these from my teenage years to my early fifties.   They commenced with a feeling of well being and euphoria.   If ever I thought, I feel wonderful, I would think, Oh no!   I have always had acute hearing, but in the day or so before a migraine this would become so incredibly enhanced it was an affliction.   I could hear the conversation in the office in the floor above me.   In a large restaurant, if I concentrated hard, I could listen in to any conversation in the room.   (For this reason it is prudent to be guarded in what you say.   Persons with normal hearing have absolutely no idea what some people can hear.)   This became an unbearable overload of ‘input’ and then the pain would begin, very slowly as a dull ache behind one eye.   Once the process was underway, there was no stopping it.   Painkillers would perhaps take the edge off it, but it had its own inexorable progress.   Pain would build up gradually over 2 days rising to a crescendo when one had to retire to a darkened room and lie as still as possible.   Sometimes one would vomit at the peak, and crawling to a lavatory and being sick while having a headache of such intensity was not an experience to be undertaken lightly.    Then the pain would slowly diminish over two days.   Finally for a day or so one didn’t ‘have’ the headache but it hovered above one’s head and one felt very fragile.  At last it would depart and one would be pain free for some weeks.   The whole migraine lasted for about a week, and painkillers enabled you to function, more or less, apart from the period of high intensity where you absolutely could not function, but that lasted for  about 4 hours at most.

At the present time I have lower back pain, probably at least in part related to the drugs I take to help with my PD.   I walk through a wall of pain every morning, which is sometimes quite an effort to contemplate before tackling.    The pain is never entirely absent, but it eases somewhat through the day.    It would be easy to succumb to depression about this, but fortunately I have an optimistic disposition (and in truth much of the time it is well within what is tolerable.)

I absolutely hate consulting anyone, or having people near me or looking at me.  I can remember as a child of under school age going into a violent paroxysm of rage because my mother had been so bold as to consult a doctor without prior discussion with me, and her understandable astonishment at this reaction.   Of course this instinct just to crawl off to a dark place and endure until it gets better is not always the wisest policy nor is one’s judgement necessarily at its best at such a time.  But eventually either it gets better or the pain (or your companion) forces you to seek help.   Everyone’s reactions are quite different.   My GP told me that some patients turned up in his surgery every time they sneezed, but he obviously also thought waiting until one was (possibly) at death’s door was hardly sensible either.   Never the less, even though I only consult them under duress, I am very grateful to the medical team that supports me for without their advice and care my life would be much less full and satsifying.    Also they put up with my foibles and eccentricities with tolerance and good humour!

Of course an emotional pain, though not perhaps initially physical, is no less distressing.   We have all stood smiling in our place, have we not, while some deadly blow has struck at our heart?   Your lover has been unfaithful;  someone you cherished has died;  your friend has betrayed you.    You may give no external expression to your hurt, yet within you feel mortally wounded; bleeding internally;  about to die.   You won’t of course (not yet.)   You’ll live and suffer.    I find at these moments thinking and feeling functions split; and the Thinker, still coolly functioning, says to the Feeler, who is collapsing in slow motion:  “We can’t deal with this now.   Hold it together until I can get us to a safe place.”   That moment is like standing alone on the  sands, watching a giant tsunami approaching and realising it’s too late to run.

Never the less there are some positive aspects to pain.   It draws our attention to a problem which left unattended might prove fatal.    There’s the blessed relief, the wonderful reprieve, when it stops.   And it’s undeniably true that we learn more in pain and adversity.   For one thing, you learn of the kindness and generosity of others, and the charity of receiving.

As someone who (within the bounds of being mostly of normal health) has endured quite a lot of pain, I wonder if having a type of constitution or personality that is sensitive to experiences, can intuit as it were quite delicate things – whether that general delicacy of sensation  or fine calibration to matters not always easily discerned – whether that goes with a tendency to experience pain?     For me, not having that sensitivity to movements and subtleties around me would be like stumbling through the word blind and deaf.    I would not relinquish the tendency to pain (though I will do everything sensible to alleviate it) for a more robust but less reactive  personality.    You have to take the rough with the smooth.      I’ve had more than my entitlement to smooth so all in all, I have no complaints.    My feebleness of flesh may be a poor thing, but it is my own.

If we had no pain or bad times, how would we know the good times when they came, or be able to truly appreciate the days of well being and rejoicing?   However, if anyone has any suggestions to help with my back pain, I’m listening!


About adhocannie
I am a good natured woman with a long memory and a swift tongue. I like loooking at things and thinking about them. Also food, clothes, travel, reading, sewing. I try to see the ridiculous in things, but sobriety of reflection keeps edgting in. I have husband, children, grandchildren, friends... I feel rich in things that matter. I am a happy exile. I like writing. I do not like talking about me (though I do.). You willl be much more interesting.

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