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How My Chronic Pain Is Like a Horror Movie

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I don’t have a body. I have an amorphous blob of pain floating somewhere beneath my head. It hurts so loud that my ears are ringing. An orchestra of nerve endings vibrating in excruciating symphony. Its barbed roots run deep, permeating skin, muscle and bone: plunging into the depths of sanity and imprinting onto the soul.

Describing chronic pain is not as easy as saying “muscle, joint, nerve” or “stabbing, aching, cramping.” Those words make pain sound so simple and clean, as if it fits perfectly into a box in which it is easily contained. But chronic pain is messy. It blends and blurs. It is volatile and shapeless. Chronic pain does not color neatly inside the lines of language. The colors bleed together. The larger picture is a hazy distortion; indescribable as a whole yet if you look closely, the details of each brush stroke stand out in terrifying clarity.

Sometimes I imagine this is what it feels like to put your legs through a woodchipper. Other times, it specifically feels like sharp claws on raw, peeled flesh. Sometimes, it feels like I’ve first rolled around in broken glass, then set myself on fire. Or, have you ever stood under power lines and heard the buzz of the electricity? I imagine my nerves are trying to imitate that. My muscles and tendons are as tight and taut as a steel cage prison. My shins have been scooped out and replaced with pulsating, swollen firecrackers. My ribs are permanently suffocated by rubber bands and boa constrictors. My pelvic girdle is being pried apart as if it’s violently preparing for childbirth. Or perhaps its more akin to falling 10 stories and shattering all 206 bones, the shards then slicing through organs and tissues. It’s the type of pain that should kill you. “Tearing, burning, shredding,” yes, but also urgent, horrifying, desperate pain.

Chronic pain takes on many forms. It shifts. At times, unbearably monotonous— loyal and firm in the quality of its presence, and other times the abrasive, erratic ebbs and flows threaten to drown its victim in confusion. Chronic pain does not rest gently in one level, in one place, or on any scale from one to 10. The moment you think you understand it is the moment it will change its appearance. It doesn’t sit still long enough to be tangible, recognizable, predictable. Chronic pain is not a song repeating its familiar chorus, playing within the bounds of harmony or tempo. Chronic pain is a cacophony of blaring, out of tune instruments; the sounds of individual strings and horns as indistinguishable as any chords, rhythm or key. There is no cadence to the chaos of chronic pain.

There is no respite, not even in sleep. Chronic pain will stalk you into your dreams like a hungry predator. But it won’t just hide in the shadows and corners — no, it’s a bold, apex hunter. It will run you ragged chasing you through sleep all night, and it will follow your exasperated steps straight into morning; aggressively pulling you back into consciousness with the sound of an inhuman, guttural moan coming from your own throat. Welcome to your new alarm clock.

Chronic pain is an exit-less maze, an express train on a looped track. There is no escape, there are no breaks, there are no holidays. The pain medication you are shamed for taking may prevent you from crying hysterically 24/7, but that’s the extent of its relief. Yoga is a wonderful tool but it’s not a cure. Diet is crucial, but it’s not everything. Cannabis helps some folks, but is useless for others. Baths, massage, physical therapy, psychological therapy, we will do anything to ease those edges, but the pain still remains. And for the record, “positive thinking” is not a viable treatment plan, but thank you for the suggestion.

My doctor tells me that I’m creative with my descriptions of pain, but honestly it doesn’t feel like much of a choice. The checklist of words they give us aren’t enough to accurately convey the actual lived experience. “Chronic pain” makes it sound like persistent but manageable minor aches and pains, and I would give my right leg to make that true (literally, this leg is super messed up anyway). In reality, chronic pain is intense, overwhelming, torturous, visceral, soul-sucking, dream-crushing, life-stealing, all-consuming, petulant, raging, intolerable, inescapable agony.

If I limit myself to saying “muscle pain,” you will miss the glint of the blades tearing into my body. If I simply say it’s “burning, you won’t catch a flash of the flames consuming me. And if I say it’s a nine on your scale of one to 10, all-day-every-day-yes-even-when-I’m-smiling-pain, would you even believe me? But if I describe to you the intimate details of the woodchipper shredding my legs, the sound of the electric vibrations of my powerline nerves, or the nuances of the predator’s claws scraping at my raw, exposed flesh, as well as the specific sensations of my rubber-band-ribs, pried-apart-pelvis, or sliced-from-the-inside-out stomach, maybe then you can catch a momentary glimpse into what it’s like to live inside of this body.

So, my fellow pain-filled friends, what words do you use to describe your pain?

Getty image by gremlin

Originally published: January 10, 2022
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