The pain in the air is tangible.
My mother is sitting catty-cornered to me, drinking a vending machine produced swill that masquerades as cappuccino and flipping idly through the latest Janet Evanovich novel. I try to read the textbook that sits open on my lap, but the waiting room noises make it difficult to focus. The news anchor on the T.V. discusses a possible murder case. The old man across from my mother taps his cane on the arm of his chair. His grandkids giggle at some juvenile tale from his side. The receptionists chirp into their phones, a weirdly happy chorus. "Cleveland Clinic Pain Management Center, please hold. Cleveland Clinic Pain Management Center, please hold. Pain Management Center, please hold. Pain Management, hold. Pain, hold
I hear a new sound, a brisk voice shouting a name across the room, but even as I look up I know it isn't my name. The old man stands on his good leg, uses his cane to prod his grandkids forward, follows them towards the stern nurse with the clipboard. I look back to my textbook, but I can't ignore the clunk of his false leg as he totters across the waiting room. I glance up again. Age has given him the ability to hide his pain well. Well enough to shield it from most people, but not perfectly.
I catch my mother looking at me, but she quickly buries herself in her book again. She doesn't understand why I hate coming here. I don't think anyone who doesn't have to come here could understand. But the gray-haired woman sitting across the room understands. Her jowl quivers slightly as she attempts a smile, but it quickly fades to a pained mask of solemnity as a wheelchair bumps into her chair. The man in the wheelchair understands, too. He doesn't try to hide his pain, just grits his teeth and bears it as he pushes forward once more, mumbling an apology.
I feel eyes on me, and turn around, but the only eyes looking at me belong to the group of pictures on the wall. The doctors who treat me, treat all of us. They're all smiling, but then they always smile. I sometimes wonder if they enjoy seeing so many of us in pain. I usually conclude that they enjoy helping us, but then I come back to this hell and see their twinkling eyes and sparkling teeth and can't help but wonder again.
I tear my eyes away from the beaming pictures and return to my textbook. "Living things are homeostatic. Living things reproduce and develop. Living things adapt and evolve. Living things respond to stimuli." That makes me smile. Of course the textbook is going to over-generalize; it's written for a gen. ed. course, so it can't go into to much detail. But what is response? What is stimuli?
Does every living thing have the same reaction to stimuli as I do? Does a tree flinch when a drop of rain touches its leaf? Does a polar bear become immobile when it gets too cold outside? Does an amoeba swallow a scream when its brethren brush it on accident? Of course not. Trees and amoebas don't feel pain like I do; polar bears are made to withstand polar temperatures.
What about other people? Does a normal college girl find herself suddenly unable to take notes halfway through a lecture? Does a normal 20-something woman stay in on a Friday night because her arm is too swollen to go out? Does a normal young lady refuse to hold hands with a beau because the sensation of his hand on hers makes her want to scream? No. It seems like these events are only normal for me.
I look on the wall beside the secretary's pen and see a collection of Supplementary Informational Pamphlets. I've read some of these before. They say that allodynia is not inherently a debilitating condition, and that there is no reason for the life of a patient with chronic pain to alter from his or her pre-injury lifestyle and activities. Unless, of course, this lifestyle and activities aggravate the patient's injury, in which case adjustments must be made to the patient's daily routines. In other words, the only reason my injury should affect my life is if I have a life. This leads me to conclude that a patient with pain does not and cannot have a life, thus making the patient an unliving thing.
But I am a living thing, aren't I? My textbook says so. I wince, I freeze, I scream. I take pill after pill in the hopes of making my arm hurt a little less, work a little better. I avoid physical contact whenever possible. I don't write very much or very well anymore. I play the trumpet ambidextrously, just in case my right hand gives out on me halfway through a song. I don't even leave my room some days, relying on friends and family to get me food and take notes in class. I scream into my pillow when I should be on a date, wanting nothing more than my arm to stop swelling long enough for dinner and a movie. I lay awake at night, praying to God and anything else that might be listening for the pain to go away long enough to let me fall asleep.
Before my injury, I had perfect handwriting. I could play the fastest songs on the trumpet with ease. I gave high fives to my friends as often as I could. I lived life to the fullest. And then that needle was ripped out of my arm, and it grew cold, and it grew larger, and it grew painful. So, so painful. Those earlier days feel like a dream to me now, because I know that no matter what I do I'll never have them back. My arm will never again be warm, or unswollen, or painless.
According to my textbook, I'm a living thing. I've adapted. I've developed. I balance myself to the best of my ability. I respond to stimuli. But I look at that gray-haired woman with the quivering jowl, the wheel-chair bound man, and I know they aren't living like my mother and the secretarial quartet in the office are living. Neither am I.
The pain in the air is tangible, at least to us. It's in Quivering Jowl's neck, it's in Wheelchair Bound's back, it's in my arm. That's what the real distraction is. The sounds can fade, but the pain
the pain never does. It never really will.
"Alaine." I blink and look to my mother; she's standing at the entrance to the exam rooms, next to the stern nurse with the clipboard. I snap my textbook shut and pick it up twice; my hand drops it the first time. As I cross the room, the doctor's photos seem to follow me, their smiles never fading.
"Cleveland Clinic Pain Management Center, please hold."