(Content advice: contemplation at length of severe pain and the nature of suffering; discussion of spousal abuse.)
I don’t know if it’s even a thing any more, now that no one can afford proper medical care in our wonderful cyberpunk-dystopia-aborning, but back when I was young and it was still possible to spend a significant amount of time in a hospital bed without going broke over it, you’d hear complaints about how the TV was always on in semi-private rooms, and always tuned to something stupid.
(For those under age thirty, “semi-private” means the room has two beds, with a curtain between them for when one or the other patient needs something done that warrants privacy. The TV is shared.)
I had a kidney infection, not so long ago – self-diagnosed, and self-treated with pharmaceutical antibiotics available inexpensively online via a regulatory loophole that I’m sure someone will very soon try to ban. I certainly can’t, and would not, and do not, recommend anyone reading this chance with her health in the fashion I describe chancing with mine! But while it is of terrible quality and overpriced, and got via the “open market” so called, I do have health insurance, and was prepared to fall back on it if after 48 hours I observed no improvement – fortunately for my finances, two days’ treatment out of a $50 bottle of amoxicillin sufficed to resolve the overt symptoms almost entirely, and the remainder of the two-week course was required only to ensure they stayed resolved.
But I’m not here to talk about playing doctor with myself. I am here to talk about pain. Because it turned out, to my dismayed surprise, that while a lower urinary tract infection is mainly just itchy and annoying and makes you have to pee a lot – when it gets to a kidney, it is agonizing.
To be sure, I had a worse three days, the time I had an abscessed molar over a holiday weekend, and couldn’t get to a dentist until Tuesday – in fact that’s a lie I chose to tell myself, because in truth what I had was a relationship so severely abusive that, where I had done my best to move heaven and earth and finally found succor for my spouse in her own similar agony some years prior, she would not be bothered to lift a finger in my aid – not even to forbear from insisting, successfully, that I accompany her an hour by car to Frederick and back for family photos, because this would save a few dollars on having them taken some time when I was not suffering. Because my face was not swollen, as hers had been, and mere tears, and whimpering, and clutching ice to my jaw, and the constant desperate scramble for fresh cold water with which to rinse my mouth and dull the pain a moment – for her, none of this had any meaning.
Not every abusive relationship is as overt and plain as every other, and not every abuser must raise a hand to inflict pain. Sometimes the most vile of cruelty is also the most subtle. But I’m not here to talk about that, either – only that I am of late no longer hiding what was done to me from myself, because if I do not face it down I permit it to retain its power over me. And the consequences of that are worse by far than to face it and find myself occasionally there again, when hateful memories long pushed aside spring still lively from their corners. There again most strongly but only for a moment, in which I may find a way to leave, and in the fullness of time leave for good – unpleasant to be sure, but far preferable to the other thing, to being in part trapped there always. I am finding the measure of such matters now, and finding it complicated; please excuse the interruption.
Where were we, then? Oh yes – a worse three days, that abscessed molar. But I had a worse four hours, trying to fight off a kidney infection – and I had them twice.
There’s something you don’t easily remember about pain like that, once it’s behind you – and if you’ve never experienced it, you just have no way to know. Past a certain threshold, pain like this begins to ablate consciousness, and your sense of duration with it.
I don’t mean you pass out from it – that would be a mercy! You remain aware – but your ability to reason starts to go, and what replaces it, to whatever extent and for whatever period it is suppressed, is only the experience of pain. To the extent severe and enduring pain takes from you your ability to think, it gives you in return the ability to suffer.
And because that’s the case, you start to have difficulty telling time, as well. Oh, sure – you can look at a clock and see that it’s 14:21 now, and remember that that means it was 14:20 a minute or so ago, and will be 14:22 a little while from now. You can look at the second hand of a watch, and see that it goes around at just the same rate it ever has. It’s just that between every pair of seconds it traverses, there lies a tiny infinity of time outside time, in which there is only you and the pain. And though you can remember, sort of, a time without pain, and sort of confide that there will come such a time again, you can’t believe that. Not while you’re hurting. While you’re hurting, it feels like forever.
It felt like forever to me, both times. The first, during the afternoon, was bad enough. The second happened at night, and that was much worse; I felt I had just gotten to sleep, a respite I badly needed after the struggles of the day, when I felt myself being dragged back awake by the same feeling I’d had before – as if some awful hand had reached inside my back, and gathered up a fistful of my tender guts, and begun just to squeeze and to squeeze and to squeeze. You can feel it coming on, like that. And every second you hope is the second when it stops getting worse, and for far too many of them, it is not. I think it’d be less cruel if it were more of a surprise, but such things are not left to us to decide.
It was more than I could bear. The pain was plenty bad enough, but I was so tired – I felt tired enough to die. Not suicidal, and I certainly was not; I’m sure there exists pain severe enough to make me so, and may God forfend I should ever discover it firsthand. No, I mean only that, lying there that night as the pain came on, I wouldn’t have minded dying, exactly, because the dead are beyond suffering. I knew I wasn’t dying, of course, and the part of me that could still believe in a world without agony was glad of it. But the part of me that could hardly think but only suffer wished very badly, if distantly, that it should be otherwise.
(Do I shock you? Perhaps I do, and if so, I am sorry, and I hope very much that such things as I say here forever retain their power to horrify you – because as long as they can do so, it means you have not known such pain as I describe. On the day that blissful ignorance should disappear, you’ll be right there with me, have no doubt. But I hope very much that day never comes to you.)
I had already taken ibuprofen and Tylenol, as much as I dared risk with undoubtedly impaired renal function – taken them for all the good they might do, and a forlorn hope that proved; they were punching far too far above their weight. I could think of nothing else with which to try to ameliorate the pain; it would now have of me what it chose, I knew, for as long as it chose to do so. I could only try to take my mind off it, for what tiny comfort that might offer.
My iPad was to hand, on the bedstand beside me. I pulled it to me, flicked it on, started a playlist of Retsupurae creepypasta readings, and flipped it facedown next to my pillow. I couldn’t hold it up and watch, you see? I had not the wherewithal. But to listen took no effort.
And in so doing, I discovered something both picayune and wonderful. Because it did help! Not much, of course. Nothing non-narcotic could have helped me much just then. But it did enough – enough to remind me that time was passing, enough to make the difference between a million million tiny infinities of pain, and something that hurt just as much but lacked quite the same horrifying power over me. All I had to do, to escape a measure of the horror in which I was caught up, was remember I had ears, and try to listen to what I was hearing.
What it was didn’t matter much. Just that it was calm and quiet and gentle – Slowbeef’s voice is a fine one to hear from one’s sickbed – beyond that, it meant nothing, and I could track only for moments at a time in any case before a wave of stronger pain crested over me and forced me all the way back into my suffering body for a little while. What it was I was hearing didn’t matter – that it was: that was what mattered.
And after what was most of four hours but – unlike the earlier paroxysm which seemed to last forever – felt like both forever and only a little while, I found myself beginning to remember how to assemble the fragments I was tracking into something like the coherent narrative in which they originated, and by this touchstone I knew I must be beginning to come out of it again – that, though the pain had not yet begun to recede from my body, it was beginning to relax its terrible grip on my mind.
And after forever and only a little while more, I found myself remembering that the jokes I was hearing were jokes, and were funny, and that humor is a thing that exists – and realized I was a little closer to out of it than before.
And so it went until the pain itself began to fade. But even before it did, I had the blessing of knowing it soon would – and even before that, I had the smaller, but still very real, blessing of a tiny way in which to escape a little – of a link to the reality of a world not wracked and corrupted with pain, and the hope that I would find a way back there, once the pain had had its fill of me.
Silence would deny me that. And that is why there are televisions in hospital rooms, so often tuned to something stupid: for those entrapped by agony, they are a lifeline to the world.
We must not begrudge such things, inconvenient though we find them while not ourselves in dire need. For the world we share does not know how to be kind, and so if there is to be any kindness in this world for any of us, it must be we ourselves who choose to create it. A little kindness is a kindness all the same – and, through our example, perhaps the world may itself learn to be kind.
We dare not set any other example for the world, save at our terrible peril – for to do so risks that we instead create a world for ourselves in which the only hope for surcease of suffering lies indeed in death, and our only solace in life is that no hell is eternal.