Today is the third anniversary of the surgery that delivered me from 12 years of chronic pain. My shrink, who I went to under protest, told me to treat it as a holiday. A birthday. She said, for the rest of my life, I should take off April 19th and celebrate. So, as you read this, I’m in West Virginia tripping over my roots and relaxing at the Jabberwock which, I’m pleased to say, is the best bar in America.
Well, actually, I’m driving home as you read this. Weaving over the mountains and screaming hysterically at my fellow Washingtonians as I merge onto 270. But… That’s what holidays are about.
The shrink. I hated going to one, but it seemed like the thing to do. Miracle cures and long weekend holidays have handed my life back to me on a silver platter and, yet, I’m having trouble coping without the pain.
Looking back on the path of my life, things were easiest when I was in pain, hazed by drugs, an empty shadow of a person. I had two options: To give up and die, or to fight my way forward and carve out whatever meager existence I could manage. I have been often praised for choosing the latter but, the truth is, that choice was simply a desperate attempt to stay alive. Clinging to some last vestige of humanity by one fingernail.
But the world was black and white. If I decided to cling to that cliff, then I had to do things to create my life’s path. I had to prove to myself that I could function despite the pain and the medication prescribed to dull it. I travelled extensively, I started my own company, I took every fragment of my childhood dreams and wove them into something…anything…that said I am alive. I pursued the faint hope of life and salvation with an Ahab-like quality.
I was never able to truly connect with anyone while in pain. No proper lovers, and the few real friends I made had to tolerate this distant, inhuman shadow person. I didn’t have any real connections, any grounding. I didn’t develop new dreams or hopes. I stopped living when the pain started shortly after my 21st birthday.
And then I woke up 12 years later. From my excesses, I was in debt and trapped at a job designed to cater to the pain. A job that involved no brainpower and provided extraordinary paid leave and understanding of my condition. A job meant to only be around for eight or nine months a year, with the rest of the time spent bedridden, or in the hospital.
With the debt of my business ventures and travels piling up, I found myself stuck in place. Afraid to move. Now the distraction was not pain, it was everything around me. I was suddenly aware. I spent four months after the surgery getting off the meds and, by the following September, I was clean, still out of pain, footloose and fancy free.
And I stopped. I choked. Facing life for the first real time in my adulthood gave me the yips. Nothing was black and white anymore. The pursuits that I employed to try and save my life while in pain now seemed excessive and unwise. The money was gone, the drive was gone, the need for that drive had been wiped out over the course of six hours of brain surgery.
The resentment at losing 12 years consumed me. And, added to that, at 33, I had my first adult opportunity to think about the shit that happened during my childhood, and the eventual disastrous ends that both my parents came to. These things that normal people usually cope and deal with as they age just simply clicked on one day in my early 30’s. Everything at once pouring into this no longer shadow soul.
It took me a year to flush the pills that had been prescribed for the pain. It took me nearly three years to flush the final secret stash of painkillers. The healing process – and learning to enjoy life – was not something that seemed to take a natural course. I’ve been trying to jumpstart it ever since I woke up, today, three years ago.
And, still, I cringe when someone strokes my cheek, an old pain trigger. I turn away from the Metro as it rushes into a station, the wind another pain trigger. Still I put my face under the spray from the showerhead and I marvel at not being in pain. The last three years have all felt like a single day. I haven’t yet gotten over how fucking amazing it is to be out of pain.
Which is great, right? But life moves on. Love is found. Healing begins. But the dead calm of the healing process frustrates me. I want to snap out of it. I want to wake up completely and embrace life with the same abandon that I enjoyed while in pain. I want to say, fuck, yes, let’s go to Europe for the entire month of June. I want to throw myself into publishing books again. I want to find new hobbies and drive west into the setting sun until I get tired. I want to do all the things I once forced myself to do in a pain and drug haze. This time, I can do them as a normal human being. I can take away stories of adventure and renewal instead of tales of lost pills and days spent in a strange bed at a B&B unable to even drink water without white hot agony.
It occurs to me that I just don’t know how to navigate real life. I don’t understand how to do things unless the decision is life or death. The nuances of relationships are alien to me. Every relationship I’ve had has been of the same quality as every other endeavor I forced myself to undertake. That mad, desperate attempt to prove that I was alive. A formula that destroyed the other person involved.
Now I need to be taught, using the gentlest baby steps, how to work in a relationship. How to overcome the fear of pain and touch and intimacy. Which would be fine, I suppose, if I was some idiot kid. But I’m fucking 36. I need to get moving now, today.
So three years later, and I’m yet to fully snap out of it. I did wake up after the surgery, I am no longer a shadow person. I am a million miles from where I was yesterday, three years ago. But I guess whatever it is that we have deep inside each of us takes some time to heal. Takes time to truly wake up. The experts say that it can’t be forced. I have trouble with that concept because I spent 12 years forcing life. But I suppose I need to stop and think about the difference – I forced a superficial, imaginary life for those 12 years. I wasn’t actually living. I haven’t yet learned how to.
So…fuck it, I’m going to Europe for a month. But this time I’ll save up.
Wow… Reading that was extremely emotional for me. Now, I realize why you have not kept in touch for the past few years, as you had prior to your surgery. I can’t help but take it personally, since I had attempted to teach you about relationships -considering you one of my dearest companions- and believe I learned just as much from you in that regard. However, being part of your “forced” or “superficial, imaginary life” leaves me feeling empty for the role I played in it.
So, what is wrong about now living a life each day as if it were your last rather than before as “a desperate attempt” to live? — For your information, your formula did not leave me “destroyed”, but actually (in the long run) left me a much better human being. I cherish your involvement in my life since meeting you at lunchtime in August of 1995. Hopefully, you will realize that those 12 years were not wasted. So, don’t throw away your future by fretting your past… (you taught me that).
With love, Dragonfly.