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Asking Why to Chronic Pain at Age 22

Asking Why to Chronic Pain at Age 22


Jan 9 2013
As troubling as the pain itself was how meaningless it seemed.

Somewhere between August and October of 2010, I stepped off the tracks of "normal, everyday life" into the no-man's land of chronic pain, then depression. At age 22, I started feeling a sharp, niggling pain in my left ankle every time I walked. After some months of unsuccessful treatment and fed by my own fears and anxieties, the pain gradually expanded into a black hole of existential despair that sucked away my hope and zest for life.

It sounds melodramatic. But anyone who has been in the throes of unrelenting physical pain knows the hard truth: Pain eats away at your personhood. Elaine Scarry, in her book The Body in Pain, lucidly explains that pain destroys language, because it has no reference to the outside world. Whereas other states of consciousness have an object – "love is love of x, fear is fear of y, ambivalence is ambivalence about z" – pain just is. Pain escapes our ability to explain in words and shrinks our world to the parameters of our body.

The language-destroying, meaning-escaping essence of pain perhaps terrified me the most. "What does it mean? Why is this happening to me?" I kept pleading to God. My fresh-out-of-college self was ready to take on life's unexpected adventures, but just not this one. Being sidelined by an insidious injury that didn't even result from some exciting feat like mountain climbing or salsa dancing was an anti-adventure. It lacked a plot line and forward momentum. Writing to a friend about my state, I told her I felt like I had fallen into an underground cave and was stuck there while people walked, danced, and skipped along overhead.

When people tried to comfort me by telling me that my experience was just part of life, that everyone suffers setbacks and losses, this scared me even more. I'd like to think that life is somewhat predictable, that if you exercise regularly and eat well, you won't come down with cancer or inexplicable joint pain. That God won't let people who love and trust him suffer without some word of explanation. But some health nuts do get cancer. And God does sometimes remain silent.

But even if God isn't speaking, humans cannot help trying to piece together a narrative. It's our nature. Viktor Frankl describes in Man's Search for Meaning how, even in the most dehumanizing conditions of a concentration camp, people still found meaning in their existence. I think there is a difference, however, between living out of the trust that there is a deeper meaning and putting words in God's mouth.

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