I always hear my brother talk about how his kickbox trainer motivates him with the phrase ‘no pain, no gain’. When they have to take blows from the knees in the stomach, he prefers to shout, ‘blood is good’. My relationship with pain elevated to a higher level in 2012. One Atlantic wave, one relaxing dip in the water, and just one French sandbar.
I was 25 when I walked over the beach and entered the sea independently for the last time. Ever since the tradition is to drag me in and out of the water. Fortunately, besides that one occasion, I take care of the breathing myself. I cannot kick anything, or as my brother’s trainer would say: I could not punch a dent in a pack of butter. Breaking a vertebra is not good for you, especially in your neck. Three weeks on the respirator, completely paralyzed for months, in other words: a little kiss from the Grim Reaper. I was lucky, and get to live life with a wheelchair.
“After my accident I lay flat for months. Walking away from the pain is no longer an option now. I must feel that what made me run away for years. Allow it. Experience it. Integrate it.”
Ever since the accident, every breath I take has been intertwined with my relationship with pain. The spectrum varies between spasms and cramp, rusty joints, knots in the shoulders and neck, a constantly burning and tingling skin, and as icing on the cake: nerve pains that make you forget that time exists. This relationship barely leaves room for my own life. She’s too close on my skin, sometimes even gets under it. It intoxicates my daily life. But that should not bring down my spirit.
I was brought up looking away from painful things. Maybe that’s something Iranian. During the Shah my father disappeared for three years because he was interested in Marxism. My parents got married after the revolution. Their first month of marriage ended in a surprise trip. They had to leave behind teeth and give up nails, taking whips, batons and beatings. Two weeks after my mother’s release, my sister was born. She was allowed to greet her father behind bars every month until she was three.
My family’s traumatic experiences created an environment in our home where there was too much going on to say ‘auch’. There was too much to feel. I am also afraid to share my pain. It reminds me of the many confrontations with my powerlessness during the post-traumatic, manic and bipolar episodes of my family members. Writing this piece feels like stroking a hedgehog. Against his spines. Now you know a thing or two about my pet. I am curious about yours.
What kind of pain do you know?
As I summarize painful archetypes, I visualize a quadrant in which I can categorize all my experiences.
I find the ‘amount’ a difficult aspect of pain, because of the influence of conditioning that is involved in quantifying it. My old hands with a good layer of callus did not bother about shoveling the garden. Nowadays I have keyboard fingers that blister immediately, if I make it through the grass with my wheelchair. The top left corner of my quadrant is occupied by muscle tension and nerve pain. It gets interesting on the horizontal axis. Of all the stitches, stabs, injuries, and hurt I’ve tasted, one feels far more venomous than the rest: loss.
No, not a brawl or a game of poker. Loss, as in abandonment. Think of a lost opportunity, hope, time, love. Losing a loved one remains painful for the next of kin. The grief that goes with it is the toughest cookie in the drawer. Letting someone go is a pain that connects us all. The loss of my 25-year-old healthy self is still painful for me.
How does pain affect you?
Reflection: a temporary pain from the past affects me in the present. Not a genius insight, it is perhaps the primary function of pain. As a child I had to discover – through trial and error – that a candle flame is hot, to be careful with fire from then on. It costs my body energy to recover from a burn blister, so I can better prevent it. The pain stimuli that my consciousness receives from my body influence my behavior to protect my existence, because some damage cannot be repaired.
Introspection: how my hand pulls away from a flame out of reflex, does that mechanism continue in the non-physical part of the quadrant? For example, when my first girlfriend dumped me and had different boyfriend a week later, it hurt for a while. In my soul. After that, I dared not expose myself emotionally for three years and, according to contemporary terms, I became a fuckboy, a player, or just an old-fashioned bastard.
Contemplation: my brother fights in the ring. That boy is knocked upside down sometimes and sees the world spinning around. Why does he get up before the eighth count, when he knows that the same knuckles that just punched him down are waiting? What about that primary function of pain?
What do you do with pain?
Ever since we were kids, my brother and I learned to turn every mountain into a molehill. Growing up without a father, or with a mother who no longer recognized us due to a nervous breakdown: in our home those aren’t things to cry about. I myself never show that I am bleeding, my initial reaction is to deny any type of pain. As bad as it is, I always express my struggle as gentle as possible.
Norepinephrine, a stress hormone, is a natural anesthetic. Our body switches off the pain receptors in our brains, so when that wolf attacks you’re able to make a run for it. Only when the coast is clear do we feel where we have been bitten.
Doctor Gabor Maté taught me a lot about addictions and how they arise during a stressful childhood. Compulsive behavior to numb out non-physical pain shows up in many forms. When I think back, I see how often I have tried to drown out pain in my life with other signals. Preferably on the left lane, pedal to the metal. I had to work hard, party harder, travel far, fuck often, anything but standing still. The pain that catches up with me when I stop running is the pain of being abandoned.
After my accident I stayed flat in bed for months. No more running away from the pain. What I ran away from for years, I must feel. Allow. Experience. Integrate. It makes me think about whether I was protecting myself out of reflex, or whether my fast lane life was a well-disguised form of self-mutilation.
Do you dare to choose pain?
My brother is making fun of me as I write this. He’s the type who burns a cigarette on his hand to end a conversation. He denies emotional pain and acknowledging it is a weakness in his eyes. In my defense, I think I can talk about resilience. We know how supercompensation works from our muscles and bones. I grow after a stimulus if I can recover and reflect sufficiently.
The mind and heart of the human organism are also anti-fragile. Personal development and breakthroughs are only possible if I dare to allow pain. Wanting to avoid pain is inherent to being human, but pain is also an inescapable part of my existence. Recognizing painful situations is how we protect our existence, but it would be shortsighted if I classified every woman as a candle flame.
Now I wonder: in exchange for what kind of growth and change will I face pain and discomfort? When have I recovered enough, and can I reflect? Apart from me, what about us? Does hurt shut us down? Is that why we prefer to stay away from painful topics? Do we hide our vulnerability and prefer to show a socially accepted image of happy go lucky? Maybe I should write something about that…
Pettines slows me down, but pain as a taboo also limits me. Last week my girlfriend, with whom I have a relationship for three months, moved in with me. Thinking about the pain of past experiences, I wouldn’t allow that choice. Only with playful curiosity I can row against the self-protection mechanisms of my system. If I really want to be brave, I love all change. That requires me to have an honest relationship with pain. How about yours?
This article was originally published on Brainwash, in Dutch.