"I don't feel funny anymore. I've started to wonder if I've changed," she said.
She's one of the funniest people I know. I'm sure she hasn't lost her wicked talents. But grief is pain and pain is work and she's not done with the work yet.
I don't doubt, though, that she's changed in a different way. Pain -- physical, mental, spiritual pain -- changes us.
This winter I've lived in a physical house of pain. I broke my leg before Christmas and had surgery to put in a plate and five screws on January 6. The physical limitations of crutches also brought on a lot of emotional pain. They robbed me of my main anxiety coping mechanism, exercise, as well as my freedom of movement. I can't carry anything using my crutches, I have trouble with stairs and I can't drive.
After my surgery, I had a nerve block for the first eighteen hours. The doctor told me to start taking the Oxycontin before I went to bed because the block would wear off during the night. It did, and not even the Oxy could touch the flames shooting up my calf. I ended up calling a pharmacist in the morning and asking if I could take anything else on top of it, something that blew my mind since normally I don't need much painkiller at all. Two Advil on top of Oxy later, I finally fell into restless sleep.
That whole next day passed in wave after wave of red-hot burning pain where the plate was. It felt like labor contractions, only in one little 3"x2" area. I willed myself to just bear this part, because at least the surgery was over and the path to healing finally seemed clear.
I'd get through this post-surgery week, then I'd be on crutches a while longer, then someday, I'd be able to put weight on my leg again. And then I'd walk. And then I'd run.
Soon after that horrible day, my pain turned a corner and I was able to drop down to one pain pill instead of two every four hours, then one every eight, then just two Advil, then one Advil, then, finally, no Advil. The only pain left now is the muscle ache in my shoulders, neck and arms from crutching around and the psychological frustration at not being able to exercise or drive. I don't depend on others well, nor do I like relying on other people to be able to leave my house.
In the midst of all this, I read Dan Ariely's THE UPSIDE OF IRRATIONALITY. In this book, Dan reveals a lot about his own personal experiences with burns over 70% of his body from a military accident as well as his adventures as an academic researcher. He really caught my attention when he delved deeper into pain.
I told my grieving friend about Ariely's studies, thinking it might help her, because what Ariely found was fascinating. After recruiting and testing a bunch of ex-military people who had either been injured, not been injured or had a disease, he wrote:
Moreover, we found that there seems to be generalized adaptation involved in the process of acclimating to pain. Even though the people in our study had endured their injuries many years before, their overall approach to pain and ability to tolerate it seemed to have changed, and this change lasted for a long time ... I suspect that people with injuries like mine learn to associate pain with hope for a good outcome -- and this link between suffering and hope eliminates some of the fear inherent in painful experiences. On the other hand, the two chronically ill individuals who took part in our pain study could not make any connection between their pain and hope for improvement.
It's fortunate I read this book so soon on the heels (ha) of my surgery when my memory of that searing bone pain was so fresh, because I really think Ariely's onto something. Yeah, the pain sucked, but I completely associated the post-surgery pain with progress, much more so than I did the fresh-break pain. This in turn made it easier psychologically to muscle through post-surgery even though the magnitude of pain was far worse. It's like the pain of childbirth, I suppose -- pain we deem necessary.
Maybe that's it -- maybe how we feel about pain depends on whether or not we deem it necessary.
I told all this to my friend, and then we sat on the phone in silence for a minute. It was one of those moments you get maybe once in a week if you're lucky when the workday bullshit lifts and you see the world for real before the computer dings or the phone pings or the kid walks in through the front door.
We hung up and the bubble of meaning popped, but I'm looking for the growth in all pain now. And I'm still very eager to run again someday.