In honor of The Sun’s fiftieth year in print, we’re revisiting topics that have appeared in past issues and reprinting some of the original responses. “Pain” first ran in our January 1978 issue, which featured the first-ever Readers Write.
I have chronic pain from deteriorating spinal discs. I’ve also been a swimmer all my life, and for the last thirty-six years I’ve been a member of a swim group that meets multiple times a week. Recently, when I had another orthopedic problem to tackle, a friend said, “Wow, I’m amazed you keep swimming.”
Her remark made me think of my mother, a classical pianist. Mom persevered in the face of the sexism of the 1940s through the 1970s and built a robust musical career. Late in life, my sparkling mother taught me by example how to keep going despite aging. In her eighties she still vigorously practiced the piano, even though she suffered from arthritic pain. I remember watching her work on a piece by Franz Schubert, one of her favorite composers, and struggle to find a comfortable fingering.
“Damn,” she said. “Maybe this will work — ooh, that’s better!”
Her hands were redder and more swollen than usual.
“Ma, doesn’t it hurt when you play?” I asked.
She stopped and looked at me over the rhinestone glasses she wore.
“What, you think it doesn’t hurt if I don’t play?” she said.
She started up again, Schubert flowing from her twisted fingers, music filling the house.
I was trying to gain control of a spooked horse at full gallop when the saddle started to roll. I thought, If I don’t get off, I’ll end up underneath him, so I flung myself from the saddle and woke up on the ground. The pain in my right leg was like nothing I’d ever felt. Max, my riding companion, came thundering up on his horse, and I saw his face crumple as his eyes traveled down my body. My lower leg was pointing in the wrong direction, broken clean through in several places. We were miles from civilization, on an old trail in Colorado’s Canyons of the Ancients.
“I’ll be OK,” I reassured Max as he rode off for help. “No one dies of a broken leg.”
An hour passed. The sun started to sink, and a cold wind picked up. I started shaking from hypothermia, shock, and internal bleeding. Each shiver sent an agonizing jolt through my leg. I tried to focus on warm thoughts: my husband, my three kids, my comfortable life in the Washington, D.C., suburbs.
Flitting in and out of consciousness, I heard a whisper: The control you think you have in this life is an illusion. Everything is broken. As the words washed over me, I felt oddly peaceful. Somehow the pain became more bearable.
That was the first miracle. The second was the lone hiker who came across me. She covered me with her jacket and lay as close to me as my distorted leg would allow. My shivering waned. Eventually a rescue team arrived with four-wheel drive, capable hands, and morphine.
After surgery and five days in the hospital I returned home. Our family life was upended; I couldn’t walk for six weeks or drive for months. My husband and kids stepped up and did just fine with me sidelined on the couch.
Before my accident we’d been toying with the idea of leaving the D.C. area and buying rural land in Upstate New York. One night, at a family council, we took turns talking and listening. My husband and I were on the fence, afraid to give up our comfortable suburban life for one full of unknowns. My eldest son spoke last. “What I hear holding us back is fear,” he said. “We just proved we can weather a tough time. We can do this.”
Six months later I graduated from crutches to cane, and we moved to a two-hundred-acre retreat center we’d bought near Ithaca. Now, fifteen years on, my kids are grown and leading full lives. I have a new husband, a rewarding job, and a life I love. My leg still pains me now and then, reminding me that life can’t be controlled, so why not go for broke?
Lansing, New York
It is not difficult for me to select my most painful experience because it is still going on. I actually rub my own waste products on myself.
I have no clear idea why I do it, except that I suspect it is caused by guilt.
I have a psychiatrist, whom I see once a month. He is extremely bourgeois, and this limits him and maintains his superficiality. He suggests that I just increase my ingestion of Prolixin. Prolixin is the major tranquilizer he prescribes for me. . . .
I have four children, and my husband left us after he got his doctorate years ago. All the outside jobs I have had were shit. I would come home from these lousy jobs and have to do housework and give as much attention as I could to the kids. I grew to resent the children. The inner life that has always been so essential to me, for I am an artist, was dying. Finally, I was laid off. I collected unemployment, and the months went by. I didn’t seek another job; I made no effort; I couldn’t force myself to go back to that unbearable level of existence.
My unemployment started to run out; still, I sought no job. The car broke down, and the money in the savings account was almost gone. I went into the bathroom after all the children had gone for the day, and, taking a pot of feces and urine that I had saved from the morning and hidden, I climbed into the bathtub and rubbed the stuff all over me and ate it. My head started to spin and I was afraid I would faint. I was scared that I would go down the tub drain.
Even though my circumstances are better now, I still do this.
I have lived with debilitating fear for as long as I can remember. At the age of five I was afraid I would die in my sleep. At six I was convinced I would spontaneously go blind. At seven I became so claustrophobic I refused to use public restrooms, leading to countless embarrassing moments, including the time when I urinated on my father’s lap on a train. In fourth grade I ate almost every lunch with my teacher, just in case I choked on a fish stick. These phobias ruled my life, but the mental illness they were a clear sign of went unnoticed.
When I was sixteen years old, I became obsessed with the idea that I was a pedophile. It began around Christmas, when I tickled my seven-year-old cousin at my uncle’s house. Later I could not stop thinking about what I’d done: Had I touched her inappropriately? Had I done so with bad intentions? I combed through my every thought and action, feeling unbearable shame.
For the next ten years I did everything I could to stay away from children, even though the mere thought of harming a child repulsed me. If I had to interact with a boy or girl, I would freeze and avoid eye contact. Afterward I would replay the incident in my mind as proof I had not harmed them.
My only relief came from my mother’s support. Desperate for another person’s opinion, I confided my fears to her, and time and again she assured me I had done nothing inappropriate. The solace would last just a few hours before the obsessive fear returned.
One day I went to a Barnes & Noble and quietly sought out the psychology section. In a book about obsessive-compulsive disorders, I found a chapter titled “Pedophilia OCD,” which described my terrors exactly. I couldn’t believe it. I felt more hope than I had in years.
I began therapy soon after, which taught me that pedophilia OCD is not uncommon but is rarely discussed. I discovered that my symptoms were connected to my subconscious attempt to suppress the trauma of my own sexual abuse at the hands of my father.
When I was twelve years old, my mother and I lived in a long, narrow house a block from the ocean. My mother would drink in the evenings after dinner: red wine with one ice cube in the glass. She became belligerent and argumentative when she drank. She would find something about me to criticize and then go on about it until she had worked herself into a frenzy. I would try to defend myself and often ended up crying and shouting back at her, but you can’t reason with someone who’s drunk. Either she would scream at me to get out, or I’d storm out the front door myself.
I would walk around the neighborhood, breathing in the cool ocean air and trying to calm down. I could see people through their front windows, gathered around their living-room TVs to watch programs like Bewitched. I felt sad that I didn’t have a home where family members could enjoy each other’s company.
After an hour or so I would return to our house and try to nap on the cold, hard cement patio while I waited for my mother to go to bed. Once all of the lights in our house were off, I would quietly push open the window of my small bedroom, crawl inside, and curl up in my bunk bed.
In the morning my mother would act like nothing had happened. I wouldn’t say anything, because I didn’t want to set her off again. One time I mustered my courage and mentioned that she had lost her temper the night before. She said she didn’t remember it. I still don’t know if my mother had blackouts or if she just chose not to talk about her behavior. Even now we discuss only the funny things that happened, never the hard ones. My mother’s motto is “Let bygones be bygones.”
Maybe that is the best advice, but it’s not always easy to follow. Even today, if I happen to see a rerun of Bewitched on TV, I flash back to those lonely nights spent wandering the streets.
“You have to suffer for beauty.” The first time I heard that phrase, I was in my twenties. My friend and I were heading out to a Christmas party, and as she squeezed her feet into pointy-toed high heels, grimacing with discomfort, she shrugged and muttered, “You have to suffer for beauty.”
I’d never heard the saying before, but I immediately knew what it meant. Despite my having been raised by a hippie mama on a diet of whole grains, Ms. magazine, and overalls, society’s expectations had gotten hold of me.
As a teenager I saved my babysitting money to pay for diet pills that made me dizzy. While outwardly cheering body positivity and acceptance, I was quietly trying to starve myself thin. As an adult I’ve paid to have some hair on my body ripped out with hot wax, while pouring harsh chemicals on other hair to make its color more “fun.” I wear uncomfortable bras that make it hard to breathe, shoes that hurt my feet, and dresses that leave me freezing because they’re “pretty.” Perhaps the most painful part of trying to measure up is the constant inner voice judging my appearance and scolding me for any perceived misstep.
I wish I could be like my cat, who is the most beautiful creature I’ve ever seen and content just as she is. I wish I could reject societal pressures and embrace a broader definition of beauty. I look at all the women in my life, with their various sizes and shapes and ages, and think they are gorgeous, but I can’t do the same when I look in the mirror.
So I suffer in skimpy dresses and pinching shoes. I stay quiet. I smile.
I became a lawyer for domestic-violence victims after a childhood of learning that my emotional pain wasn’t important. How I felt, what I needed, why I was sad — none of it mattered to my father. “Buck up and bear it,” he’d tell me.
That’s what my clients hear when they petition the court for an order of protection against a boyfriend, husband, father, or brother who has emotionally abused them.
Unfortunately the judges I’ve faced didn’t care that one client was paralyzed by her abuser’s insults, or that another’s abuser took over her Facebook account, or that a third was forced to walk a mile to work in an Alaska winter when her abuser cut off her access to her money, her phone, her purse, and her car.
Domestic-violence judges sympathize with women who come in with black eyes, cigarette burns, or fractured bones. Visible bruises also get their attention. Judges recognize the seriousness of physical injuries and are quick to help. But my other clients — the ones with no bruises or lacerations — look “fine,” and the court fails to acknowledge their invisible pain. “Stop the histrionics,” one judge told a client. “This is part of life.”
When he died at the age of ninety, my father still believed what he had taught me: that life is tough, and you don’t get a break. It’s all I can tell my clients after a losing day in court.
I injured my lower back when I was twenty-four — a disc herniation that was misdiagnosed and mistreated as a muscle strain. I followed that up with two herniated discs in my cervical spine when I was thirty-two.
I’ve spent every day since then becoming intimately familiar with pain. I have taught myself to rate it on a scale of one to ten, to note whether it is intermittent or constant. I have armed myself with the appropriate descriptive terms: burning, stabbing, throbbing, aching. Burning requires ice, a topical gel, and rest. Stabbing or throbbing means it needs heat, a massage, and likely an anti-inflammatory. Constant aching means it’s time to pull out the big guns: visits to the orthopedist and the physical therapist, steroid packs, cortisone shots, and four to six weeks of patience until I can tell the doctor that I’m a solid three on the scale.
When my partner of six years told me he was leaving, I held back my tears and focused on my tried-and-true methods to manage pain. When I felt burning in my gut, I iced it with frozen-margarita nights with friends. I curled up in a ball on the floor, my cheek resting on the cold wooden boards.
When the stabbing in my heart reached a seven, I ran for miles, replacing the pain with sweat. I distracted myself by packing up his things and asking for more projects at work, toiling through a thick pile of legal briefs and long hours of research.
When the longing and loneliness became a constant ache, I reached for the big guns: I talked to a therapist. I tried new hobbies. I scheduled trips. I joined dating apps and went on dates, dates, and more dates.
Unlike my back pain, my heartache can’t be precisely managed. Eventually I asked myself for three to five years of patience while I moved through the stages of this loss. The old adage is true: only time can heal some wounds.
I’ve always been a tough cookie. As a kid I never winced at the doctor’s needle. Cuts and scrapes were badges of honor. I played volleyball with a broken arm and yanked out molars that were barely loose. Later I ran marathons and practiced yoga that bordered on contortion. I had stamina, guts, and willpower in spades — or so I thought.
Then I experienced childbirth. Of course I insisted on a natural birth, certain I would be able to handle it. The contractions were like an earthquake vibrating through my body, demolishing everything to rubble. I lost control of my breathing, my bowels, my senses. After hours curled in the fetal position, I was finally fully dilated, and, several fiery pushes later, our baby was born.
I have three kids now. Being a mother is the hardest part of my existence. The amount of patience, flexibility, and endurance I summon daily to keep my family together is beyond whatever I thought I was capable of. It makes natural childbirth seem easy. But at least I now know I can truly handle anything.
Home from college for the summer, I went joyriding with my friends Tasha and Janice in Tasha’s orange Vega. I was the smallest, so I sat sandwiched between them in the front seat, my left hip cocked up over the console. Every time Tasha shifted, I had to lift one butt cheek out of the way.
The night streets were shiny with rain. When we stopped at a red light, the car behind us skidded and hit the back of the Vega. The impact sent a jolt of pain through me that would last for decades.
For the first month after the accident, I could turn my head only by rotating my chest and shoulders as a whole. The sole treatment I received was a few weeks of muscle relaxants. Being young, I bounced back at first, but the pain returned. Making plans became difficult. I would be fine for days, but then my left hip would seize up, sending white-hot spasms down my leg. Some mornings I hopped straight into the shower; others I was late for work because it took me half an hour just to crawl out of bed. I might be able to walk to the store a block away, then collapse on the way home carrying a small bag of groceries. There were days I ate peanut butter on crackers because I couldn’t get to the store.
It never occurred to me to ask a friend to shop for me. I’d been schooled in rugged individualism, and my solution to adversity was humor, not community. When people saw me wincing and clutching a cane, I’d say, “Don’t mind me! I’m just twenty-something going on seventy-something.”
One evening I decided to brave the walk home from work instead of taking the bus. To my dismay my left leg suddenly cramped and turned to rubber underneath me. I hobbled to a nearby building and leaned against it.
The city had a community-policing program then, with cops on horseback. Two of them approached me and asked what was going on. They must have thought I was drunk, the way I was struggling to stay upright. I explained that I had back trouble that made it difficult to walk, and they asked if they could do anything.
“If you’ll help me in there, I’ll call a friend to come get me,” I said, pointing to a bar at the end of the block.
The two cops served as human crutches on either side of me. One held the door while the other ushered me in.
“In all my years on the force,” he said, “this is the first time I’ve ever helped a staggering person into a bar.”
Although it hurt like hell, I laughed.
“Would you want to be unable to feel any pain?” my sixth-grade science teacher asked the class. It was a hefty question for a bunch of eleven-year-olds, but I thought the answer was obvious.
“Yes!” I blurted out.
That was the wrong answer. Thankfully my lone voice was lost in the other kids’ loud chorus of “No!”
“Good! Can anyone tell me why?”
The kid next to me raised his hand. “Because you wouldn’t be able to tell when you’re hurt,” he said. “Like if you broke your arm, you wouldn’t know, and it would never heal correctly.”
We spent the rest of class watching a documentary about a congenital condition in which a person lacks the ability to feel physical pain. The camera followed a little boy as he bumped into every piece of furniture in his living room, his mom trailing behind and checking him for bruises or breaks.
When I’d answered my teacher’s question, physical pain hadn’t crossed my mind. I was thinking of the internal anguish I had no vocabulary for yet but now know as depression and anxiety.
There are days when I still want to answer yes.
Sioux Falls, South Dakota
The first thing my dad did when he came home from work was grab a Scotch. He was often angry, and the Scotch calmed him somewhat. At dinner he’d be sarcastic. Later he’d be pissed off if he found my brother and me watching TV rather than doing homework. He’d grumble until he fell asleep in his chair. In the mornings he drank black coffee and told us to keep quiet as he drove us to school.
When I was a teenager, my mom taught me to have a drink at home before going to a party, so I would feel less shy when I arrived. Have another when you get there, she instructed, so other people won’t think you a scold. Her plan worked: I loosened up and became part of the cool crowd.
In those days I could drink without feeling any pain. Golly, it was fun. I carried the habit with me to college. After a mighty binge my senior year I woke up feeling as though a red-hot spike had been slammed through my left eye socket. Was this a hangover? Whatever it was, it did not stop my drinking.
After graduation I took a job in San Francisco and married my college sweetheart. At the reception my husband’s best man walked through our receiving line three times to bring us champagne. My husband and I learned to drink good wine, but I’d still hang out at the Pied Piper Bar every weekday, smoking Camel Lights and sipping cheap booze. If I had too much, I would feel the hot-spike pain again, sometimes for days.
One Sunday morning I sat down to catch up on the bills, and the bottom edge of my field of vision started to fill with gray. Was I going blind? What had I done the night before? As the creeping blank spot filled three-quarters of my vision, I lay down on the bed and cried.
The blindness soon dispersed — as if the tears had washed it away — but then it hurt to see. The bright sunshine outside the bedroom pierced my head.
I saw a doctor, who diagnosed me with migraines. I had no insurance and told her I couldn’t afford the prescription she offered, so she recommended prevention instead. Migraines can be triggered by certain foods, changes in the weather, sleep patterns, hormones, stress — and drinking. To remain migraine-free I needed to figure out my triggers and avoid them.
While I was able to stop eating Snickers bars and food containing MSG, it was hard to give up summer gin and tonics and weekend mimosas. I often imbibed and ended up with a migraine the next day.
One December day, while running errands, I saw a billboard of a smiling young father holding his laughing baby with the caption GOOD FATHERS STICK AROUND. The pain in my head roared back. I thought of my father, who’d been around but frequently drunk. I thought of my husband, who would one day be a father. I felt a cold flash as I realized how much he drank. How could I not have seen it? He was an alcoholic, like my father. Then a voice inside my mind said clearly: Worry about your own alcoholism. I pulled over to the side of the road, stunned by this moment of clarity.
In the years since, that inner voice has guided me as I slowly learned how not to drink. It guided me with each sip of water I substituted for merlot, as I turned my empty wineglass upside down at a dinner party. I became the oddball nondrinker and could see the discomfort my sobriety caused my friends. Remembering my mother’s warning about appearing to be a scold, I explained to my friends that drinking gave me migraines.
I haven’t had a drink in twenty-five years. I still get migraines from too much stress or too little sleep, but the pain is nothing compared to the anguish of seeing my father’s alcoholism ruin his mind or my husband’s ongoing struggle to remain sober. Worse yet is thinking of all the years we reached for the next drink rather than for each other.
My husband and I have adopted a young cat and named him Apollo. He is a lanky orange-and-white tabby with a long, flagpole tail. Apollo loves belly rubs and opening doors. I take videos of him opening the bathroom door while my husband is in there, and we laugh every time.
What Apollo loves most, however, is to run. He goes flying through the house, sending the area rugs askew. He rips through the cat door and streaks across the yard.
One day he is suddenly lame in his left hind leg. He mopes around and won’t eat. We get him to a vet, who diagnoses him with arthritis. How can a two-year-old cat have arthritis? We bring him home and give him the prescribed pain meds. His hind leg improves, but he begins limping badly in front. He hobbles down the two shallow porch steps like an ancient feline. He can’t even jump onto a chair.
I make an appointment with another vet, who says Apollo has hypertrophic osteopathy: inappropriate new bone growth in the limbs. She says it’s very painful and often caused by cancer. I hold it together until I’m off the phone, then burst into tears.
Fortunately the new pain medication works wonders. After a few days he starts to run a little and is eating better. We get him checked for cancer. Nothing shows up. I start to worry about how long we can go on giving him the medication. (The vet warned me not to look up the side effects.) But I try to hang on to hopeful news: both the vet who made the diagnosis and the one who checked for cancer tell me that hypertrophic osteopathy can spontaneously regress.
Several weeks pass, and Apollo is ripping through the house. After consulting with the vet, I start to taper off his pain medication. I get up every morning to find the rug in the front hallway scrunched up and sideways. When I call Apollo in from the yard, he races across the grass, tears through the living room, and jumps effortlessly to the top of his indoor cat tree, as if he has wings.
Mount Shasta, California
The first time I had sex, it hurt so much I cried. My boyfriend was distraught, but I told him through gritted teeth to keep going. I was seventeen, and everything I’d heard about sex had led me to believe the first time was painful for women, or at least unpleasant. I thought the problem would ease through repetition, like building a muscle by working out. And it did. Sort of. The severe cramping of that first experience shifted to a persistent discomfort punctuated with sharp pangs.
For years I felt ashamed, as if there might be something wrong with me. I began to dread intimacy. Eventually I decided I just didn’t like sex, and I decentered it in my relationships.
The year I turned thirty, I began to have sex with women and discovered something unexpected: no pain! The delight of sex without any discomfort was an utter surprise. For the first time in my life I associated sex with pleasure.
In the kitchen one day I described this shocking development to my housemate. He chuckled and said, “Dude, you’re definitely gay.”
“No way,” I retorted.
It took me about a month to realize he was right.
As a sinus headache spreads across my brow, I walk right past the Tylenol in the medicine cabinet. When I curl up on the corduroy chair to watch TV, I’m distracted by menstrual cramps, but I don’t even consider taking Motrin. I’ve been told that a hysterectomy would be the answer to the ovarian cysts and heavy uterine fibroids that pinch when I cough or sneeze, but why should I relieve my pain when my kids can’t be freed from theirs?
I’m the mother of two children who have a rare, progressively debilitating genetic illness. I have held their hands through three kidney transplants, two tracheotomies, a feeding tube, a ventilator, central venous catheters, dialysis, and more IVs than I can remember.
As young children they would fight the nurses and doctors and beg me to take them home. It was awful, but it was even worse when they began to quietly accept their treatments because they realized I couldn’t help them.
What hurts the most is their gratitude as they become adults. My heart breaks when they tell me I’m a great mom. I almost wish they hated me for passing along the defective genes I carry.
I consider any pain I feel to be a just punishment for not being able to fulfill my job as their mother. If I can’t stop their suffering, I won’t stop mine.
Beech Creek, Pennsylvania
On a muggy Sunday I stood in the YMCA swimming pool, letting a jet of water massage my abdomen. My six-year-old daughter kept asking me to twirl her in circles, but I didn’t have the energy. The night before, I had thrown up from what I assumed was food poisoning, and I’d woken up with pain just above my right hip. I wasn’t concerned, though. I frequently had pelvic discomfort from endometriosis, even after having surgery to treat it a year prior. Just the stupid lady pains again, I told myself.
My endometriosis symptoms normally started and subsided with my menstrual cycles. Hoping to ride out this flare-up, I took ibuprofen, but it didn’t help. That evening I tried more painkillers, heating pads, and ice, wincing while reading my daughter bedtime stories about dragons and tacos. At 3 AM, unable to find a comfortable sleeping position, I googled “lower right stomach pain endometriosis or something else.” Naturally the list of terrifying possibilities for women was far longer than the one for men.
In the morning I dropped my daughter at school and drove to an urgent care. The doctor wasn’t sure what was wrong. I had no fever. I had a long history of pelvic pain. And I felt well enough to drive myself to the clinic, he pointed out. To be safe, he sent me for a CT scan.
At the imaging center I limped to the machine. Lifting my right foot sent shards of pain up my hip. The radiologist looked at my scan and told me to go straight to the hospital. My appendix had burst at some point overnight.
I drove to the emergency room, using Lamaze breathing to ride out the pain each time I pressed the pedal with my right foot. Along the way I called my husband, who was out of town, and asked him to arrange childcare.
The next morning I woke up in the hospital with an IV in my arm and a fresh set of incisions to match the faded ones from my endometriosis surgery. At first I felt proud: Look at how much pain I have learned to tolerate! I am invincible! Then it hit me: minimizing my body’s signals could have killed me.
To get in shape as an adult, I hiked the mountains of Colorado. As my thirties turned into my forties, my knees started to hurt, and I exchanged hiking the high country for hunting birds with my husband on the plains. We bought a small property where we could walk with our dogs and keep chickens and ducks. My knees began to hurt a bit more. Then one autumn I couldn’t walk a mile without breaking down in tears.
I had total knee replacements in both legs. In physical therapy I cried as I tried to recover my range of motion, but I didn’t stop working at it. Could I bend my knee another degree? Could I walk to the chicken coop without my cane?
A couple of months later our area was hit by a massive windstorm with hundred-mile-per-hour gusts. The sky looked like it was filled with glowing dust. I told my husband we should evacuate. While I put leashes on our dogs, he went to the detached garage to try to get a car out. That’s when a wall of flame forty feet tall came across our land, catching the house on fire. The wind blowing us sideways, my husband helped me get the dogs to the garage, but we couldn’t open the door. I called 911, and the first responders got us off the property. As we drove past burning trees and telephone poles, I could feel the heat through the side of the truck.
It’s been a little over a year since the knee surgery. The pain is a distant memory now. I can ride a bike and walk up and down hills without any problem. But there is nothing left of our house. A lifetime’s worth of memories was turned into ash: photos, high-school yearbooks, my mom’s paintings, my grandmother’s silver, collars of dogs we’ve had over the years, the flute I started playing in fourth grade. I don’t know how long I’ll keep looking for things only to remember I don’t have them anymore. I don’t know when this ache will fade.
I was twenty weeks pregnant with my daughter Cora when she was diagnosed with a condition that was incompatible with life outside the womb. Because of my state’s laws regarding abortion, her father and I had only ten days to decide whether I would carry this child to term — knowing I would never snuggle or nurse her — or terminate the pregnancy. We chose termination and induced labor at twenty-two weeks. That decision was the right one, but it haunted me. In addition to mourning the loss of a child I’d wanted, I had to cope with my choice to end her life.
The agony of that decision seeped into my whole being. I remembered the word fatal leaving the doctor’s mouth. I remembered the brief, precious minutes I’d held my motionless baby. The pain of those memories was a secret that I never spoke of and tried not to think about. Over time it twisted itself into a vicious voice in my head that undermined my confidence and pushed me into depression. I told myself that I had killed her.
Those were the words that finally flowed from me after I sought therapy: I failed as a mother because I killed my baby. It was a crippling belief that I’d never shared with anyone.
Since I’ve received help, my private anguish has turned into a sorrow that can be shared. I can miss Cora without blaming myself. I can allow her memory to be a part of our family. I have two other daughters who will grow up knowing they had a sister who died the day she was born. They will know it’s OK to feel sad. Secret pain is toxic. Healing comes only when you can share the pain with other people.
Cazenovia, New York
When I was ten and eleven years old, I was sexually and emotionally abused by my friend’s dad, who lived one door down from my family. As the child of South Asian immigrant parents living in the Midwest, I didn’t have many confidants. The only individuals I felt I could safely tell about the abuse were my canine brothers, Charlie and Max — black Lab/mastiff mixes from the same litter. (I wish I could include my parents on that list, but they were too preoccupied with surviving half a world away from everything and everyone they knew and loved.) The care my brothers gave me is a huge part of why I’m alive today.
When I was twelve, I saw undercover-investigation images of how animals are exploited, abused, and killed to further science and the food, fashion, and entertainment industries. I recognized in their eyes the same vulnerability I saw in the mirror. I connected with their pain in a visceral way and committed the rest of my life to fighting for them.
I’ve been an animal-rights advocate my entire career, and I’m proud to work for the most tortured living beings on the planet: the trillion pigs, chickens, cows, fish, and other life caught in the food system. I also know that the vigor with which I defend all animals (not just those deemed cute or worthy by our society) is linked to the fact that no one protected me as a child.
Silver Spring, Maryland
My family and I had recently moved to a new town. When spring came around and I began doing yard work out front, I started to meet the neighbors. Kristen had just had her first child with her partner, Wally. I started going on walks with her and her son and told my partner we needed to invite Kristen and Wally over for dinner soon. Wally was a gentle giant, and I thought he and my partner would get along well. Then the COVID pandemic started, and the burgeoning friendship got put on hold as we all fumbled our way through social interactions for the next two years.
Last November another neighbor texted me the heartbreaking news that Wally had taken a shotgun out to the woods and killed himself. At his funeral Kristen started the eulogy by saying, “I want to address the elephant in the room, which is that Wally committed suicide. He lost his long battle with mental illness, but I can’t have anyone thinking he didn’t love me or his son. He did.” She encouraged people to seek help for mental-health issues and then told several sweet and funny stories about Wally as pictures of their life together played on a screen behind her. It was one of the bravest things I have ever seen someone do.
The holidays came, and I teared up every time I saw Kristen’s Christmas tree in her window, thinking about how much she and her son must miss Wally. I brought them meals and offered to babysit, and other neighbors brought her son toys and shoveled their snow, but none of it felt like nearly enough.
A while later I ran into Kristen in a coffee shop. I noticed she was wearing mascara, which made me hope she was learning to navigate the ebb and flow of mourning. In the months after my mother died, it was a major accomplishment if I could get through an entire day without crying and ruining my makeup. Conventional wisdom says that grief will fade over time, but in my experience this is not true. The anguish of watching my mother die a painful, prolonged death is as sharp today as it was on the day she passed. I have to set the pain aside, however, if I’m to be part of society.
I wanted to pull Kristen close and tell her she didn’t have to pretend for me or anyone else that she was doing fine. I wanted to be brave and say something real, like Kristen had done at Wally’s funeral. Instead we made small talk about the weather and our children while we sipped our coffee.
Steven was a charming bad boy who knew all the right words and moves. When our relationship started, we were on a mission to get tattooed as many times as possible. We wanted to prove we could endure the pain.
I had gotten my first tattoo when I’d turned eighteen: an image from the cover of a book I loved. By the time Steven and I had been together for six months, my body was covered with shitty tattoos — and bruises from our fights. The violence had started gradually. I was making plans to move to Seattle and get away from him for good when I found out I was pregnant.
I decided to stay with Steven, hoping a baby would bring back the kinder person he’d been when we’d first met. But the birth of our son only made things worse.
During my fourteen hours of labor Steven poked me, insulted me, and yelled in my face. I remember gritting my teeth and digging my nails into my palms as the contractions rolled over me. I welcomed the pain as punishment for my poor decision to give this toxic relationship another chance.
When I finally escaped, I had to leave behind almost all of my possessions and most of my savings. But I was free.
I met with a tattoo artist and devised a plan to cover all the ink I had gotten during the relationship: two full sleeves and a back piece of traditional Japanese artwork. I wanted to erase the memories of his abuse with a pain that I chose.
Halfway through one of my sittings a large, bearded man walked into the studio and stood watching as the artist worked on my back. He asked how long I had been in the chair, and I told him about four hours straight. He shook his head and whistled.
“Women have such a higher pain tolerance than men,” he commented.
If we do, maybe it’s because of men.
All my life I’ve suffered from migraines. I inherited a proclivity for them from my mom. My dad sometimes scoffed at our complaints, even when the pain forced us to lie in dark, silent rooms for hours. He’d not only never had a migraine, but apparently had never even had a headache.
For me an untreated migraine feels like a railroad spike being pushed into one eye socket and pulled out the other over the course of three days. Light, temperature, and sound seem amplified, and moving my eyes can induce vomiting. There have been times when the pain was so intense I considered cutting my temples to relieve the pressure.
For most of my life the only “treatment” was to remain immobile. Aspirin and other medicines either did nothing or exacerbated my symptoms. It wasn’t until I met a doctor in an airport that I found a remedy. He suggested I try naproxen. I took one, and forty minutes later the headache was gone.
Dad was pleased to hear that I had found an effective treatment, but he remained skeptical about migraines and headaches in general. How can someone feel debilitating pain without any obvious cause? A broken bone, he could understand, but a mysterious affliction that comes and goes? Though he never said it aloud, I suspect he thought Mom and I were overreacting or even inventing our symptoms to get out of things we didn’t feel like doing. “It’s all in your head,” he’d joke.
In the last decade of Dad’s life he developed several medical issues, and his doctors performed tests to work out the correct medications and dosages. One of these tests caused Dad to feel quite worn out. He lay down for a nap and woke soon afterward, rubbing his forehead. Later I saw him looking in the bathroom mirror. He asked me if I saw any bruising on his forehead or temples. He said he felt as though he’d taken a sharp blow to the head, but he couldn’t recall one.
My diagnosis: Dad was experiencing a headache for the first time.
“This is what it’s like?” he asked. “How on earth do you live this way?”
Jersey City, New Jersey
I have never handled pain well, never properly mourned. I know that I should openly express my sorrow, that in so doing I would assimilate the painful experience and move beyond it, but sometime in the vague past I decided that pain was to be handled stoically (probably I read too much Hemingway in my youth), and I have not been able to change that habit. Even when others have sorrowed around me, I have not generally been able to join in. A counselor once told me, after weeks of intensive sessions, that he could not believe I had absorbed all he and I had gone through without breaking down. And several years ago, after a shattering personal experience, it took months of literal physical pain before I was able even to admit that something was wrong. (I restrain painful feelings in my gut. I tie them there with knots.)
But somehow those painful feelings incubate, and they come out finally in the stories I write. Generally I disguise the original incident until it is unrecognizable, and often I am not even aware what painful experience it is I’m dealing with. For instance, the year after I graduated from college, I returned one weekend to visit some friends there and found to my sorrow that whatever common ground we had once had for friendship seemed to have vanished as our ways of life changed; a couple of summers later I found myself writing a play about the same situation, but adding to it additional themes and an elaborate plot about a love affair that had never actually occurred. When readers, some years later, were asked what the play was about, they answered without hesitation, “It’s about abortion.” They were right, I suppose, but for me that play will always be about that original afternoon and the friends I seemed to have lost. Having repressed my pain, I project it on others in my stories, then feel it through them. I cannot say, as I have heard other writers claim, that the emotion is then entirely dead for me. But I have made something from it and, in that making, at least briefly, have controlled it.
All this is not to say that my stories necessarily succeed as works of art (I have not found, either, that they succeed better when the emotion is deeper or more genuine), or that they produce similar emotions in other people. But I have no answer for people who ask me why I write them, as if to say, You think you can write a good story? I don’t think anything of the kind, at least not while I’m writing. Good or bad doesn’t enter into it. I write them because they are there.
So I have no painful experiences to write about. I have written them all. I am like the dying Spaniard who was questioned by a priest. “Have you forgiven your enemies?” the priest asked. “I have no enemies,” the Spaniard answered. “I have shot them all.”
Durham, North Carolina
When I was twenty-three years old, I spent the summer at my grandparents’ house in rural Maine. One morning I started feeling ill while out canoeing. Back at the house, my grandmother looked at my blistered face and pronounced, “Shingles.” A visit to the doctor confirmed her diagnosis.
It was 1978, and there were no antiviral treatments yet. I’d have to ride out a month of constant sensitivity and surges of intense pain from my ear to my chin. Just trying to wash that side of my face made me feel like Job on his dung heap, scraping his boils with potsherds.
During that month I made a discovery: pain can be interesting. When it spiked, I observed it closely, noticing its movement around my face. Curiously, the more attentively I followed the pain, the more it shrank, as if shy.
I won’t claim this practice made shingles easy to bear. It was hard to focus when the pain was activating my fight, flight, or freeze response. I can’t imagine and hope I never find out how I would cope with constant chronic pain. Still, the practice stuck. Through decades of various aches and stings, I’ve mostly managed to greet pain as a fellow traveler in this marvel that is my body.