I have been in a lot of pain recently (I’m fine; this is not a bid for sympathy) and it has changed how I see writing characters in pain. It has also made me appreciate the difference between an injury’s immediate pain and the kind that lasts for days, weeks or a lifetime.
I’ve been lucky. I’ve broken a few bones and dislocated my shoulder, but that’s been it.
Recently, I pinched a nerve in my lower back. The result was sharp, grinding pain in my left buttock, down the outside of my leg and into my ankle. It makes sitting, standing or lying down anywhere from uncomfortable to excruciating. Unlike a broken bone, this pain is on-going and the only relief are medication and exercises to warm up and stretch the muscles, but the exercises are painful.
And come morning, the muscles of tightened up and the medication worn off.
Pain is tiring
Even though I spent many of the first days inactive, I still needed to nap. Not just rest, but sleep for a few hours in the middle of the day.
Constant pain is draining. I don’t just mean that doing something as simple as climbing stairs or preparing a cup of coffee requires more effort, which is true. Being in pain zaps your energy, your concentration, your strength. It wears you down to the point of exhaustion.
And being in pain makes falling asleep difficult and sleep itself is lighter than normal. I found myself in a mental fog for the first week.
Without a name, your condition might not generate sympathy
Many diseases can be measured. How many parts per million, how many millimetres. No one doubts a spot on an X-ray or positive bacterial culture.
Pain is subjective. It is usually measured on a scale from 1 to 10—1 being barely there and 10 being the worst pain of your life. And pain is a symptom, not a disease, so being in pain has no medical name. Without a diagnosis with a fancy medical name, some might doubt the severity of your condition.
And the same injury for one person might be a nuisance, but for another might be excruciating. Since everyone has been in pain, some might doubt the amount of pain you are in. Or, not understanding its nature, tell you to “suck it up”. This might even come from health care providers.
This reaction can demoralize and isolate someone trying to deal with their pain.
Time is measured until your next medication
When I look at a clock, I don’t see the time of day but how long it will be until my next dose of medication. I’m not taking anything hard core or addictive. Simply Tylenol and a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug. They bring relief, but it wears off as time passes. So what time it is doesn’t matter to me. How long I have to wait for more relief is my top concern.
You are in pain in the future
It’s only a few weeks until Ad Astra, one of my favourite conventions since I get to see friends who live in Toronto and beyond. I moved into a new home in November, so am looking forward to improvements I can make on my new home once the weather turns warmer. And since I live downtown for the first time, I am excited to spend a summer in the centre of the city with all it has to offer.
But all of these future events seem impossible. Because I look at the future—in a few days, a few weeks, or a few months—and I can’t imagine them without the same pain I am in now. I can’t imagine walking through the Ad Astra hotel without my pain-induced limp. I don’t have the strength to work in my new backyard.
Being in constant pain colours everything, even your plans for the future.
You will try anything to be free of pain
With intense injuries, you might receive some intense pain killers. They can have intense side effects, but the medicines are stop-gap measures until your body can mend. For long-term pain, the side effects can be damaging to your liver or other organs. And since there is no way to objectively measure your pain, your doctor might tell you to get by on something like acetaminophen.
Sometimes it’s enough. Sometimes it isn’t. Dreading the pain that comes each morning and follows you, the fatigue, the lack of understanding, you might consider alternative therapies.
Now, I am not knocking all alternative medicine. I have found great relief in acupuncture. But there are a number of unregulated and unproven “therapies” out there. But when you are desperate, you will consider something that before your pain you might have considered more hand-waving than medicine.
I know I am lucky
In time, I know I will get better. Every day, I feel a little better—the pain easier to deal with, the exercises not as challenging. Every medical professional I have spoken with say I am following a normal and predictable path to full recovery.
Not everyone gets this optimistic prognosis.
So if you have never had to deal with persistent pain, but are writing a character who is, I hope this post gives you insight into what life is like. It’s one thing to take your experience with a broken bone and try to translate it into some other immediate injury. But the long-term, day-after-day pain that can follow you will change your character’s perspective.
1 comment on "On Being in Pain"
Matt: I am truly sorry that you are in so much pain and I hope you are able to come to and enjoy Ad Astra. That said, I do hope it will colour your writing AND your understanding of others who suffer from chronic pain.
I haven’t been able to work for 17 years now because of pain. I have been in constant pain (no days off that were pain free) for over a decade now. After a certain point, people lose sympathy for you and just move on with their lives without you (not that I want sympathy, but when I’m up to it I still want to do things with friends).
Everything you said about pain was *so* true. Thank you for sharing it with others.