Support me on Patreon | Can we learn, as a society, to simply be in pain? | Leah Hazard on The Wintering Sessions | Emily Fine’s ‘biblioadventure’
Last Thursday, I broke my little toe. Nothing dramatic happened. I just walked into a speaker that has always been there. I suppose I was jetlagged, and that my internal map had lost its precision after a couple of weeks away. But there it was: the sickening crunch that took my breath away en route to the kitchen. The surge of pain.
Those are the moments when you wish you could wind back time by a few seconds. It would be such a minor offence to the space-time continuum, but it would save a lot of pointless suffering and inconvenience. I swore, and swore again, and clutched my foot, and sat down for a while in the hope that the whole thing would go away. It didn’t. After an hour, I thought I should probably do something about it. Thanks to a kind lift from a friend, I spent my lunchtime in the local minor injuries unit. An x-ray, and it was confirmed. A broken toe. The most minor of minor injuries. Nothing much to do but limp.
How can such a tiny region of your body generate so much pain? It’s the kind of thing you’re supposed to be able to tough out, but I found I couldn’t. It hurt, and that not only slowed me down, but made it hard to concentrate on anything much. I couldn’t find a single comfortable position to work in, and every movement made me anxious. What if I stubbed it all over again? What if someone trod on it? Even sleep was a nerve-wracking prospect. I might stretch out my foot in the night and find the hard wall, or get up to pee and forget to take enough care. Anything could happen, or so it seemed.
I’ve often heard people say they have a high pain threshold, but never a low one. I have no idea how you might judge such a thing, anyway - how you might measure your pain against that of others, and decide that you feel it less. Or is it that you feel it just as much, but ignore it more? I’m honestly not sure. But, just as most people judge their IQ ‘above average’, few of us would want to admit that we handle pain worse than our peers. It is deeply uncool somehow, a failure of bodily nonchalance. To be in pain - to find it unbearable - is to give yourself away. You are weak. You are fallible. You are not one of the brave.
But pain is a signal. It is your body’s last line of defence, its way of asking for care. If we ignore pain, we do harm. We pride ourselves in tolerating small amounts of pain, but if we learned to act on them instead, we might save all manner of catastrophe. I know this well enough myself. By ignoring the twinges of pain in my abdomen for weeks, I ended up being floored for months by a serious infection in my bowel. I thought it was the right thing to do: to not make a fuss, to push on through. Eventually, the pain became unbearable and I had to take myself to hospital. In my weakness, I got lucky. A dear friend’s mother recently died of exactly the same thing. She hadn’t said a word to anyone.
Pain is a strange thing, anyway. Being autistic means that I don’t always notice I’m in pain, but instead I might feel confused and drowsy. I can be agonised by the label in the back of a shirt, but unbothered by a migraine until I realise I can’t see. I feel menstrual cramps in my knees. My broken toe, incidentally, hurts somewhere in the middle of my thigh, and I found that the pain receded a great deal when I emptied the kitchen bin. My brain was reading the smell as pain. I can’t explain how that works, but I can tell you that it all boils down to the same thing. The bin needed changing. My toe needed enough rest to heal. Both had ways of signalling their need. Both are, in fact, morally neutral, simple acts of good maintenance.
Can we learn, as a society, to simply be in pain? To notice it, and tend to it, and to give it the time it needs? To address its root causes rather than pushing on through, and to acknowledge its social dimensions, the care it requires, the webs of interconnection on which it draws? To truly hear people when they tell us that they are suffering, and to truly hear ourselves when our minds and bodies are in agony? It starts with an act of ownership, a willingness to admit to our own weaknesses, our own exquisite vulnerability in this big, hard world.
My toe is feeling better already. I’m keeping it strapped to its next door neighbour, and walking very slowly. For the first few nights, I padded it in bubble wrap, and that made me feel a little safer. A week on, I don’t feel the same need to guard it. It’s healing. That’s all it needs to do.
This week’s Wintering Session is a remastered episode from Season 1: my conversation with Leah Hazard about the big changes in her life - positive and negative - that keep leading her back to midwifery. I’ve just finished her next book, Womb, and it’s incredible. Pre-orders are open!
There are exciting plans for a Wintering Sessions relaunch in October, including a new name! Watch this space…
I had an amazing fortnight in the US, meeting my publishing team for the first time, lunching with some fellow writers, giving a lecture at the Chautauqua Institution (a week before the terrible attack on Salman Rushdie), and leading a workshop with Elissa Altman in Rockport, Maine. We were lucky to have Book Cougar Emily Fine as an attendee, and you can hear about her ‘biblioadventure’ here.
Tomorrow, I’m heading off to lead my first ever Wild Rest retreat in Cornwall. It’s lucky my toe’s feeling better, because the coast path and coves are calling me! We’ll let you know how we get on, but hopefully there will be more to come.
Live dates & workshops
Literary Festival: Liverpool, UK, 30th September, 7pm - 8pm. I’ll be appearing via Zoom at the Gravity Festival, in conversation with Prof. Philip Davis and Melissa Chapple. Tickets here.
That’s all for now - look out for my recommendations for your Stray Attention on Sunday. Take care.
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If find this even as a therapist. People will sit on my couch and explain a horribly painful scenario and then immediately tell me why it has a silver lining, or that their trying to find the positive. There’s nothing wrong with a silver lining, but I think it’s often just a bypass of acknowledging the pain. I wonder why we cannot let ourselves ache first? Humans are fascinating. I hope your toe is mending!
This was so beautifully written. Thank you for this. I'm glad your toe is healing.
I'm looking forward to hearing about your retreat. The name "wild rest" just brings up such amazing images!