joeshark.jpgPain: even the word looks like it hurts. Well-meaning athletic coaches continuously extol a “no gain without pain” mentality on moldable young athletes until they actually believe it’s a noble path. And have you ever try to explain pain to someone who’s never experienced it? How do you capture in words that elusive sensation that is at once both universal and specific, only surfacing to our consciousness when something’s wrong, the body’s equivalent of an S.O.S. code tapped out through countless nerve endings.

The human body is an amazing machine whose wonders and methods we’ve yet to fully understand. Our minds are conditioned to react to pain, the warning light on our body’s dashboard, and take the necessary, immediate steps to get the body out of harm’s way. In a normal challenge to the body, as the pain announces itself the mind reacts to avoid, sending signals to muscles to react. But pain is a clever mistress, frequently misguiding the mind as to the real source of the problem. When you have a problem in your back, frequently the pain occurs somewhere else, such as the legs. Like some odd creature whose markings disguise its eyes, pain diverts attention away from the true problem area. Why? Is this some sort of survival mechanism? Not sure anyone knows, but I can tell you from first-hand experience that it’s frustrating as hell to try to resolve!

Trying to describe pain using words or colors is obviously inadequate, and it’s hard to be truly sympathetic towards someone in pain unless you’ve experienced an identical injury. In the meantime, most humans survive the pain through the wonders of pharmaceuticals. Ah, the wonderful world of pain suppression drugs, those wonders that plastic coat everything and make the intolerable deceivingly tolerable. Gone are the days of “take two aspirin and call me in the morning.” Now modern synthetic opiates nuke your pain quicker, faster, better. My yet-unresolved spinal stenosis is rendered aptly into numbness through the magic of an all-inclusive drug cocktail: a pain suppressor, muscle relaxer, inflammation negator, and for icing, an ass-knocker of a codeine-laced nighttime “lights out” pill. Yet, through this drug-created plastic sheet I wrap myself within, I can still function.

How do you describe what it’s like to be on pain meds to someone who’s never been there? If you can, imagine a thin, impervious yet insulating plastic layer form-fitted over your whole body and isolating you from a first-person existence with the real world. You can poke through the coating to connect, but such touch is slightly vague in feeling. You feel liquefied inside a solid form; fluid and possibly coherent but randomly detached. If the pills are good enough, then you my friend are on a legal high, a trip that would bring a twinkle to the eye of a 60s-era hippie.

One of the downsides (and there are several) of pain meds is that eventually the blanket wears thin and you begin to reconnect with the very place and sensations you strove to forget. Now in order to remain in the desired isolation, you have to increase the dosage. Fortunately for me, I’m beginning to work out of this problem so I’m comfortable that I’ll avoid addiction issues. But for some people the “take a pill if it hurts” mentality our society supports versus searching for why it hurts means the cure is often worse than the disease. The doctor I’m working with believes in finding the root cause or causes more than treating symptoms. This approach requires more work on my part, but when we’re through it should result in a permanent resolution. And this time, the gain will be no more pain, and no more pain meds…until something else screams for attention.

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