12/23/2014 12:29 pm ET Updated Feb 22, 2015

Writing Through Chronic Pain


NPR has not called to interview me about chronic pain, by the way. Recently, the "NPR Asks" question was, "What is your experience with chronic pain?"

We're looking for people with stories of dealing with pain -- whether neurological, the result of injury, or undiagnosed -- and painkillers. How has pain affected your life, your relationships, your health? Have you managed your pain with painkillers or other treatments? Have you had to cope with depression or addiction in addition to pain?

I immediately submitted, fitfully typing out everything about the sciatic (neurological, result of an injury) pain that's been faithfully at my side for two years now, everything I've been futilely trying to put into a coherent essay, everything I've repeated dozens of times, to all the appropriate people (doctors, therapists, parents, close friends) and to too many of the inappropriate ones (colleagues, dentists, flight attendants, that one kind, pitying soul in line at the Duane Reade pharmacy on 57th Street). The drafts of the essays have rested in My Documents for too many months (saved hopelessly as fuckthisnonsense.doc and getyourshittogether3.txt), so I figured maybe the best way to get these thoughts out of me was to do a live interview. It would certainly save me from running around New York trying to tell 6 million people my spiel. I'll be able to tell the whole city at once, nice. No -- the whole NATION. They would be shocked by what I've dealt with -- the pain, the depression, the narcotic-dependency -- and they'd call me immediately, I knew it.

It was not a coherent submission, and they have not called. Metaphor and life lesson-wise it makes sense; perhaps no one should be given a microphone to speak to the entire, diverse country (a good amount of which has seen the kind of deep suffering I may never have to understand) in an attempt to throw the ultimate pity party. The message seems clear -- do not send this out in the panicked, stream-of-consciousness, self-absorbed, trite and overused form you've been indulging in. Reach through the pain, find the mind that can see this from a calmer, wider, more thoughtful perspective, and just, shut your pill-hole, okay?

I won't bore you with the details of everything I've tried for relief, but I guarantee you that, aside from drinking my own urine and sacrificing an animal in a pagan festival under the full moon, I've sought out nearly everything imaginable, to no avail and a heap of wasted cash. The pain remains unrelenting, as in, never not there. Better sometimes and worse others, but never not there -- like the sun, or episodes of Law & Order.

My massage therapist had sciatica for over 11 years before the pain began to dissipate. He told me, "For a very brief period -- three or four years -- the pain was so bad I'd stay in bed for days at a time." Four years. A brief period. Was he a sea turtle?

Nothing has brought me to hyperbole more than this experience, as demonstrated by this sentence. Sometimes, when people ask how long it's been going on, I have to force myself not to say "my entire life." Yesterday, my dentist wanted to know what medications I was taking. I sighed. You might want to pull up a chair; it's gonna take a while.

It doesn't, though. I'm only on four medications and when I come to the end of listing them my mouth hangs open in dumbness. I really thought there were more. They affect me, intensely, and I would feel panicked and in pain without them, so they feel much bigger, more numerous.

Incessant pain holds your mind hostage and beats it into a hallucinating, throbbing, obsessive ball of mush while it scrapes away at your sanity slowly, like Chinese water torture. One drop of water on the forehead: Shake it off and forget about it. Fifty-thousand drops: Spill state secrets and hand over the nuclear codes; nothing is more important than stopping that ceaseless "ping" of slight pressure. Things once considered top priority no longer cross your mind. A girl who used to carefully track her carbon footprint and recycle her pain-free ass off, I'd now dump toxic chemicals into the world's oceans and kill the endangered wildlife with my bare hands to sit un-irritated on the train ride home. Seems reasonable enough, right now.

"No, child," the gods of National Public Radio have responded. "It's not your time to talk. Take your place at the end of the line of chronic pain sufferers who deserve the total blow-out of a pity party you've been hoping for."

NPR found people with much more to say, I'm sure. After I told my dentist about my medications, he said, "Oh yeah, I know sciatica. Twenty years now; gets worse every day." I bet they called people who have fought, lost, won, and learned more than I may ever know. People whose lives have been torpedo-ed beyond having to bow out of events early and not being able to find a comfortable position to write in. It's no competition, but they win.

My 20s are frantically waving goodbye, and I'm clutching to them like girlfriends at middle school graduation. And with hope, as it was then, I will be wrong about the best time ever coming to an end. Staring down the barrel of 30, I'm beginning to understand that two years might really be nothing, and chipping away at the pain, never in a straight line, I'm taking tiny, massive steps. The biggest being: I just pushed the gripping, paralyzing, narrowly-focused despair out of my battered mind and onto the page. And my nerves, usually pulsing and firing, feel slightly lighter, and just a little quieter, for now.