Archived Story

Victory is temporary; pain is forever

Published 10:50am Friday, March 23, 2012

Column: Notes from Home

Though I’m like Mr. Spock when it comes to displaying emotion, I am a wimp when it comes to pain. The slightest cut, scrape or bruise gets my immediate attention.

I remember fishing with my oldest daughter years ago, when a boy fishing with his father caught my ear instead of a fish. I screamed like a girl, even though there was very little blood (I should have thanked him; I’d been wanting a second piercing in my ear). The other father, who took the hook out, was doubtless unimpressed by my display of manhood.

I bring this up because, for the past two weeks, ever since a couple of really stressful days at work, spasms of pain have run through my shoulder and arm all the way down into my fingertips. While I have been injured before — severed fingertip, broken toe, heart surgery — I can’t remember the last time I felt this much pain for this length of time. When I cut off my fingertip, in fact, the blade was so sharp I didn’t feel any pain at all . . . it was the sudden rush of blood that told me something was wrong.

The pain in my shoulder meant no sitting in my favorite chair — still true, even as I write this — because it put pressure on the source of the problem. For the same reason, lying down to sleep was also difficult.

After three days — and nights — of this, I went to the clinic for professional advice. The physician prescribed stretches, massage and the combination of a muscle relaxant, naproxen sodium and acetaminophen. But there were still times — like about 1 a.m. – when drugged up as I was, I would still have welcomed something stronger. Whiskey? Pot? Heroin?

While there is still some lingering soreness in the shoulder and arm, the worst part of this experience is behind me, I hope. I’m trying to cope with classes and meetings sans medication.

Everything that happens to us makes us stronger, though, right? Or at least teaches us something. What did I learn? That I really didn’t know anything about pain and what it does to a person. I thought I did — I’ve been a hospice volunteer, after all, and did an internship in a hospital chaplaincy program. I read about pain. I listened to people talk about their pain. But I didn’t really understand pain.

Other people do, like the woman who sells me iced tea every day; I know the pain is especially bad when she wears a brace on her wrist. The former student with bone cancer understands pain better than I ever could, too.

When pain is a constant companion, it’s nearly impossible to stay focused on anything else. And it’s not just my wimpiness saying that. Plenty of research has demonstrated that physical pain causes lots of problems for human beings, even if the reasons for the pain are invisible to most everybody else. One of those problems can be addiction or trying anything that covers it up — like the aforementioned controlled substances (which I did not try, if anyone from the DEA is reading this).

Along the way, I’ve read that men are actually worse at dealing with pain than women; if men experienced the levels of pain that women do when giving birth, we would die from the overload to our nervous systems.

I’ve also read the banners and posters in gymnasiums telling young athletes the dangerous lie that “Pain is temporary. Victory is forever.” The “truth” of that is exposed in the bodies of middle-aged men and women who live with constant pain from damaged joints or backs or brains. Unlike accident victims or cancer patients, they had a choice … once upon a time.

If the commercials on television are enough evidence, a whole host of men — and women — medicate away pain, even intense pain, on a regular basis, pain caused by doing too much to our bodies at work or in the gym. Why else would drug companies spend so much money advertising all those magic pills?

In fact, it’s probable that more of us live with pain than are willing to admit it, except maybe for the screaming wimps with fishhooks in their ears.


David Rask Behling teaches at Waldorf College in Forest City, Iowa, and lives with his wife and children in Albert Lea.