“It’s so hard to forget pain, but it’s even harder to remember sweetness. We have no scar to show for happiness. We learn so little from peace.” -Chuck Palahniuk, Diary
I’m a medical scientist. At a conference a few years ago, one of the doctors was recounting a phenomenon we are all familiar with – the patient who swears that their current illness is the worst they have ever had. It’s not, though. “They just forget how bad it is,” he surmised. They are lucky, these normal people. They get sick a few times a year, so infrequently that the light of their health overwhelms those dark spots.
I’m not like that, and I don’t think I ever have been. I’m very grateful for my good days, but when I look back over the landscape for the last few years, that’s not what stands out. I remember the happiness and enjoyment of those days, but not the physical feeling. It’s hard to commit the sensation of “less” or “better” to memory; it is merely a fact I can regurgitate when my doctors ask me. It evokes nothing in me physically.
I remember pain more than anything else. I feel like this says something about me as a person, but it’s true. I spend a lot of time with my pain, after all; it changes and evolves, but never really leaves. It started in my hands and feet, arthritis that I feel as soon as I open my eyes. Then my other joints, stiff and sore with motion, throbbing when still. My lower back, that feels like a seam along which my body will break when I bend. My lower abdomen, my entire GI tract that burns and twists. The throbbing in the long bone of my thigh, the twisting in my chest. The bright red sunburn of anaphylaxis all over my skin. I have become skilled at cataloguing it, at knowing what is normal and what is new.
Whether I like it or not, I have learned a lot from my pain. It has forced me to prioritize my life, to actively pursue the things I want and to eschew what I don’t. It has forced me to really want things, or to forget about them. My pain makes me tired and irritable; it guarantees I only spend time with those people who are deeply important to me. I never do anything just for the sake of doing it. And in many ways, that is a blessing.
It used to bother me when people talked about being grateful for their illnesses. I’m not grateful for my illness. I would rather not have it. But I like my life, and I like who I am, and my disease is part of the shaping forces responsible. I am more empathetic now, more organized. I expect less of people and am let down less. I deal with disappointment better. I accept that I cannot do everything I want to. I suppose I’m grateful for those things, even if I would rather have come to these realizations by another route.
Sometimes I’ll have a couple good days in a row and I think to myself, maybe this is when it gets better. Maybe this is when things start steadily improving. Maybe this is when my pain subsides and I get back the life I had where I could stay out late and drink alcohol and run a 5K and do yoga every day.
Realistically, that’s never going to happen. I will never be healthier than I am now; there is too much damage. But every once in a while it feels like a possibility, and it doesn’t erase the memory of the pain, but it does soften it, just a little.