The Message of Pain

The last several months have been tumultuous to say the least. No need for me to name the running total of state-sponsored injustices, the mass acts of violence, or acute natural disasters. Land-sliding into its 4th quarter, 2017 has yet to let up. 

As an artist, I've experienced what feels like withdrawal symptoms from not putting out music or performing in more than a year, which was a conscious decision I made last Fall to focus on a new project that's taken longer than expected. I've snapped at business partners and ghosted on relationships. I've been emotionally beat up by an onslaught of fear-based government policy that specifically takes aim at me and my family and friends. I've been overwhelmed with the question of my responsibility as an artist and a semi-public figure. How will I respond to every trending headline? What can I say that hasn't been said, or do that hasn't been done? What do people want to hear? What do people need to hear? At times, quitting has felt like the only reasonable option.

Yet even with the downhill spiral of my news feed and a host of personal setbacks plaguing me all summer, I didn’t truly feel the weight of all this physically until now. 

It started with a creeping fatigue while I was out at a friend’s book launch. I got home and my throat began itch. The sinus congestion hit in the morning. Only on the right side of my face, though. I was barely able to down a glass of water before the stabbing headaches began. I can still feel my scalp buzzing like an electric fence. 

The internet tells me these seasonal migraines are called cluster headaches and they’re resistant to pain meds. Every attack brings with it a piercing pressure which clogs my nose and makes my eyes well with tears.

Embarrassed, frustrated, and debilitated, I pressed my face into the pillows of my bed praying for the pain to stop. I couldn’t write or record, and even returning a text was more painful than usual. The attempt to sleep it away was unsuccessful.

It took almost two weeks for me to finally see glimpses of my former self. I felt healthier, but now the pain at the top of my head had traveled to the hinges of the jaw. I had been grinding my teeth again out of stress.

As I lay awake shifting from side to side, I had all the thoughts. What's my body trying to tell me? When will it be over? What does it feel like to breathe again? Is there a lesson to this? I could only draw on my own personal history with pain, which has taught me a few things:

  1. Pain puts you in the present. There’s something about stubbing your bare toe on a leg of furniture that makes time stop between still and slow-motion. All your mental energy instantly goes to the place of impact, pre-packaged with a four-letter word. Physical pain is disruptive and jealous for your attention. When I’m in the fetal position begging for some over-the-counter drug to do its thing, yesterday’s regrets and tomorrow’s worries become mere sides to the main. All I care about is how bad it hurts and what I can do to fix it right here, right now.
  2. Pain gives you perspective. If there’s anything I’ve learned from growing up with a chronically ill parent it's to never take your health for granted. My father’s been in and out of hospitals for heart, blood, and brain issues since my early teens, and every time it’s been a vivid reminder of what’s really important. My dad’s pain becomes that of the whole family. We don't feel the same physically, but we bear all the suffering that we can emotionally. We carry it in our heads and in our hearts. And instantly all the ancillary bullshit clears away. Materialism takes a backseat. Existential career woes and drama among friends get put on a strong pause, because the priority is healing. 
  3. Pain brings with it a purpose. In the case of family crisis, that purpose is often just to be there and be aware. In the case of personal struggle, the purpose is rest and remedy. Diagnosis. Victory. You may need to slow down to hear what the message really is, and listen without judgment. After all, the body doesn’t lie. And most of us only get one per lifetime. 

Now that I've identified my pain as the messenger, I'm not as hard on myself. I've taken a step back to appreciate the moment, no matter how uncomfortable. 

It’s not easy to explore our physical or emotional pain without reaching for a substance to numb it. But it’s inevitable. And if there’s a gift it's in the feeling.