Pain’s relationship to time is paradoxical. When I think back just a few weeks to consider the pain consuming my eye–a pain the head doctor at Mt. Sinai described as “the absolute worst thing you’ll ever feel,” to my immediate agreement–the pain that dominated my every day, that taunted me with its back and forth dance–I remember nothing of the feeling. My body is incapable of remembering this way, although its memory is excellent in so many other regards.
Physical pain, then, while sometimes intimately associated with trauma, is an animal all its own. Recent studies have taught us that trauma embeds itself in the body’s memory, so much so that even our grandchildren can feel the effects of whatever trauma (through poverty, racism, &c.) we survive.
Looking back on my own pain is like watching a slideshow. Although the images themselves are stark, brightly colored, perfectly detailed, so much remains missing between each memory:
Here I stumble from the 1st Avenue subway stop, holding an ice pack to the side of my face, my forehead, my eye socket in turn, wincing in the glaring August sun, gripping Tom’s arm with a desperation cousin to terror.
Here I huddle in my dark bedroom, shuddering as I drip antibiotics into my eye, since the medicine I’ve been prescribed burns.
Here I sit in one of the clinic’s examination rooms, repeatedly telling my doctor how consuming, how cosmos-erasing the pain is, almost constantly–and knowing as she continues to smile and nod that she doesn’t care or believe me or…
It doesn’t matter why. It doesn’t matter if she’s ignoring my complaint because I’m black, if this is one occasion studies have noted, when black folk have been under-medicated, assumed to be addicts, or incapable of feeling pain, or liars. It doesn’t matter if she won’t give me medicine because doctors are now under terrific pressure to avoid prescribing opiates, when a year ago our medical system was completely dependent on them. I don’t care. I’m hurting badly, and I’m left with my ice pack and Advil.
Luckily for me, the constant pain only lasted for about a week, but for a while, that was my entire consciousness. I couldn’t even read or write; my eye was not only useless, but operatic, a diva hitting her highest note with shimmering strength. My suffering required constant attention, and I was helpless against its whims.
You see, I remember. And yet…I can’t remember at all.