Bringing physical pain to the page

Can we learn to be in pain?

Katherine May asked this in her newsletter last week, and I’ve considered the question on and off since.

First, if you’re unfamiliar with May, allow me to introduce you. I, along with many others, discovered May during the pandemic when I read her book Wintering. Its subtitle: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times.

Here’s the thing: Wintering isn’t a pandemic book. It just happened to hit shelves a month and a half before the world shut down and all its inhabiants fell in their own individual spirals of “What the hell do I do now?”

Wintering is beautiful and cozy, meditative and poetic, and exactly the type of thing you want to pull off the shelf on a blistery Sunday morning. It’s May’s second book; she references her first, The Electricity of Every Living Thing, in it, which is a memoir of both walking the Southwest Coast Path, which hugs the southwest coast of the United Kingdom, and learning that she has Asperger’s Syndrome.

May’s autism is so much higher functioning than my brother’s that it seems disingenuous to compare the two; but as I learned in Electricity, there is certainly crossover. In a scene or two, she describes what it feels like when she experiences sensory overload–what, to an outsider, or at least to my family, looks like a tantrum coming from my brother.

OK, I’m sugarcoating all this: When he experiences sensory overload, he has a tantrum.

All this backstory is to say: I admire May. I love her for explaining something that my nonverbal brother literally cannot. And I appreciate her for the bouts of calm she wrapped me in while I read Wintering.

Naturally, I subscribe to her newsletter. Last week’s was titled, “Can we learn to be in pain?” In short: She broke her toe and wondered that we only ever hear “X has a high pain tolerance,” never “X has a low pain tolerance.”

Which made me laugh. Because I don’t have a low pain tolerance–I have NO physical pain tolorance. Nada. I used to hyperventilate when I needed shots. And not just as a kid, I’m talking through my teenage years.

A few years back, a drunk asshole with no license or insurance rear-ended me, totaled my car and broke my nose. I went to the doctor to see if I needed surgery. (I did not. It was mostly a clean break, though these days when I flare my nostrils, they’re crooked.) To test the break, the doc needed to press on the nose. Which, again, was broken. Every time he came at me, I flinched, hard. I was utterly terrified, and I could not control the flinch. Every nerve in my body fired, “This man wants to prod your poor, broken face, HIDE!”

He got so. So. Pissed at me. Luckily, my mother-in-law, a retired nurse, was with me and dealt with the doctor. I, instead, basically shivered there, still in the throes of some trauma from the accident. I had absolutely no ability to deal with shithead doctors.

Which brings us to a prompt: So much of writing is about emotional pain, especially for those of us ((raises hand)) who hunker down in love poems like we’re prepping for a blizzard. Instead, write about your response to physical pain, perhaps told narratively.

I’m tooling with a poem about it right now that I’m hoping to send to some journals–alas, that means I can’t share here. Instead, I have an erasure piece from May’s Electricity, based on a section where she details a bout of sensory overload. I tried to find my brother, who has no words, in her words. This is what I found. It’s the first untitled piece I’ve ever written.


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