Friday, March 23, 2007

Where Does It Hurt?

Last week my dog, Bug, had surgery, and what followed were two days of utter hell. Two days during which he didn't want me to get off of the floor next to him, two days in which he cried almost non-stop, two days in which I didn't sleep or eat much at all, two days in which I repeatedly lost my patience and now feel god awful about it.

The crying and doggy hysteria were unexpected. Bug was having a reaction to the transdermal fentanyl patch they put on his front leg for pain. Apparently, it was making him hallucinate being in pain rather than actually causing him pain. The pain medication I was giving him in addition to the patch wasn't working because there was no pain to alleviate. There was just an ongoing, tripped out belief that pain was there.

I'm not entirely sure that the difference mattered all that much, except in the treatment. (After I removed the pain patch, he was fine within an hour or two.) His cries were so real and so human and so unrelenting that I have no doubt he believed he was in pain. But I also was pretty sure that he wasn't, and so I kept mumbling to him, over and over, "You're ok, you're really ok." I wanted to scream because he didn't believe it. He only saw and thought and felt pain in an endless loop. He couldn't let go of it and I didn't understand why.

Now that I do, I'm completely captivated by this possibility. The possibility that we might hallucinate pain where none exists is interesting, cruel, and a little bit hopeful. How much of the pain we feel is not actually pain? How often do we want to cry out from a pain that we only believe exists but, in reality, doesn't? How often is the ability to just step out of a loop of pain and grief and pain and grief the only analgesic we really need? Is it possible that some pains can be relieved simply by realizing they aren't real to begin with? Could anything be that simple?

The more I think about it, the more I think so. I'm currently training to run a marathon. Distance running, from what I can tell, is a mind game. Every time I want to stop running. I question myself. It usually goes like this: "Do your feet hurt? No? How about your legs? Do they hurt? No? What about your lungs? Do they hurt? They don't? Then shut up and run." So often I believe that I must stop because I don't want to continue any longer. If I question that belief, I often discover it's not true. Furthermore, it's false in the most obstructing of ways. It's a belief I erected for myself because it is easier to believe I hurt than to hurt because I've stretched a new muscle or discovered I can't do what I set out to do.

There are so many things that cause emotional pain that they build up over time, new layers of scar tissue on an ever-battered heart. It's possible to revisit them and poke at them and discover they still hurt. Some of them will always hurt, will always be a real and true ache for which there is no anesthetic. But there are also things that hurt because I believe them hurtful. I long ago decided that they caused me pain and I yelp when I prod them and nurse them as wounds. I know, though, that they don't really hurt. I know that, like the pains I imagine half way through each mile on the run, they are only pains that keep me from moving forward.

The trick, I suppose, is trying to understand which pain is real and which pain is a figment of an imagination that once felt something hurtful and has been unable to let go. And the hell of this, I think, might be in coming to understand that many of the things that cause me pain are things with sources I might have imagined to be more horrific than they really are; that many of the things that ache are really sprained ankles obtained running from monsters under my bed.

Photo by Olga Berrios


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