The Body in Pain

Ah the burning and the pressing and the searing and the ....

Ah the burning and the pressing and the searing and the ….

I was thinking about pain this week, mostly because I was in pain. It was worse than the humdrum, everyday kind. I have mentioned my ailments before—boney fusion in my feet and an upper-back injury. Compared to the chronic conditions and health challenges that many face, they are no big deal. But lately my feet have been killing me, plus I have been suffering (and I do not use this word lightly) from engorged breasts after officially weaning my son. I was surprised by the intensely searing pain that occurred—I could not sleep and it literally made me puke—because I had gradually decreased his feedings over the past few weeks. I was not the only one in a bad way at my house. Although Sebastian was no stranger to formula, the lack of breast milk made him constipated. What’s more he was also teething. He regularly screamed while straining to push hard substances from the inside to the outside of his body. It was horrible to behold.

Lower back pain is so very common.

Lower back pain is so very common.

These visceral experiences made me wonder what other bodies feel like. Do most people have some kind of ache or pain all of the time? I suspect so. Though pain can be visible in stooped backs, slow gaits, and wincing faces, it is often difficult to see. It is also difficult to convey in words. I asked my friend at the gym to describe her chronic lower back pain. After months of tests, the doctors have come up empty, finally sending her to have an MRI. Her pain is practically unbearable and she daily breaks down in tears of frustration. “The pain,” she said, “is like a twisting, a compression. I want to open up my back and scoop something out of it.” Yet even this rather graphic account cannot really convey her painful sensations.

Cold cabbage leaves helped a little.

Cold cabbage leaves helped a little.

“How does this constant pain affect your life?” I queried. “It makes me quick to anger,” she replied. “I actually think I might lash out or even hurt somebody.” I then realized that my haywire hormones and agonizingly sore breasts had had a similar impact on me. I had, after all, recently shouted at two elderly people. One old guy got onto the elevator with me and Seb, pressing all the buttons, including the alarm button. I had visions of being trapped with him and a hungry baby, waiting for the technicians to arrive. “DO NOT TOUCH THAT” I shouted at the top of my lungs, scaring the shit out of him. Then I did it again. The next day, I was walking on the sidewalk when I heard an insistent bicycle bell behind me. Assuming that the biker was politely informing me of his or her presence, I continued moving at the same pace in a straight line on the far right side of the concrete. An older female cyclist then brushed past me and turned directly in front of me, forcing me to stop suddenly. “I DO NOT GET OUT OF YOUR WAY! YOU GET OUT OF MINE” I screamed while displaying my best bitch face. “I know, I know,” she responded with a trembling voice. “That is why I rang my bell.” … WTF? Okay so in this case, she deserved my wrath. All the same, I don’t usually shout at strangers. That’s what burning, pressurized tits will do to a reasonable person.

Are other angry, horrible people simply in pain? Is that why they go bat shit crazy and engage in road rage incidents? What is the overall impact of pain on everyday life?

I stole the title of this post from a well-known book by Elaine Scarry, in which she discusses physical pain and how it “unmakes the world,” especially in its most extreme form—torture. She argues that torture makes language impossible, and is thus utterly opposed to human creativity. Though her book is both complex and fascinating, I am more interested in the history of everyday pain. The study of pain during the early modern period is currently a hot topic, with scholars considering how pain was described and treated. It is more difficult to discover how those in the past actually experienced pain, but I have come across a number of visceral written descriptions. I will never forget, for example, a short treatise that I read while working at the Bibliothèque nationale in Paris, about a man who underwent surgery in 1612 in order to have kidney stones removed [8-TE97-10]. The surgeons were reluctant to operate because the suffering man was 63 years old—an advanced age at the time—but the elderly courtier was in so much pain that he gathered his courage, went to confession, and insisted that the surgery proceed. The head surgeon made an incision in the man’s perineum and inserted “une sonde,” a long thin instrument into the wound. While strong assistants held the patient down, the surgeon used tweezers to search for and remove several stones. After an hour of probing for more stones, the tormented older man was covered in blood, crying in agony, with eyes half dead and a black tongue. In the end, he survived and thanked God for allowing him to endure such horrible pain. Ugh! This is a rather extreme case, but other sources reveal that various injuries and conditions, as well as the presence of body lice and fleas, were commonplace during the early modern period. At first I concluded that people in the past had experienced more pain than most of us do today. What could be worse than undergoing surgery without any anesthetic? But I now think that physical sensations were understood and literally felt differently in the past, and probably from person to person. Historians agree that pain is experienced diversely according to various cultural factors. Now I imagine that we are all fighting our own pain battles, unable to describe our feelings, left wondering about the severity of our condition.

Me and DYT in 2011. Consistent back training has saved my life.

Me and DYT in 2011. Consistent back training has saved my life.

How do you handle your pain? I find that working out is the best remedy. It gives me relief from every ailment. Many of us intuitively find solutions. One friend discovered that yoga is the only activity that eases the pain of her malformed hips. I “accidentally” built up the muscle in my back, which ultimately saved me according to my athletic physiotherapist. I am curious about whether or not you feel pain and how you have decided to treat it in your own way. I am also sorry that this post is serious rather than funny, but that is another sad impact of the sore feet, aching back and burning tit balloons.



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About feministfiguregirl

I am a 51-year-old professor named Lianne McTavish who receives as much satisfaction from working out at the gym as from publishing my academic research. About eight years ago, I decided to combine my two primary identities (scholar/gym rat) to create "Feminist Figure Girl," a fictional character who both analyzes and participates in bodybuilding. I competed in my first figure show in June of 2011, and then wrote a book inspired by the process, published by SUNY Press in February 2015. In this blog I will write about and consider my ongoing research on the body, while regularly making fun of myself. I recommend that you start reading my first post from August 2010 (available on the home page), instead of backwards from the most recent one, in order to get the full FFG effect.

7 thoughts on “The Body in Pain

  1. I may be quite strange, but I suffer no chronic pain and never have. The closest I have come is a chronic cough, which irritated everyone around me but not me–my partner finally insisted that I go to the doctor; many visits and much money later, it went away on its own, no thanks to medical professionals. However, it seems that almost everyone I know suffers pain all the time.

    This makes me wonder: am I simply very good at stoicism? Have I learned not to be in pain? For example, when I was younger, I would wear high heels. Today I would say “this caused me great pain,” but at the age of sixteen, no, I didn’t see my heels as causing pain at all–even though my feet actually still bear the literal scars of those shoes. I wouldn’t have classified it as “painful” at all, back then. Do I feel similar pains now, that I can’t identify yet? I don’t know…

    • Thanks Flourish. I think you offer a good example of the cultural construction of pain. You did not identify your sensations as pain in your youth; maybe you did not even register the rubbing or blisters that your shoes were causing? Now you would probably not be able to walk a block in similarly painful shoes. I too have thought about the production of bodily sensation and how perceptions change over time. My experiences relate more to class than age. I grew up in a poor neighbourhood but was bused to a “high-end” high school to take advanced classes once the standardized tests rated me a smarty pants. This move was utterly horrible for me, because I left all of my friends behind and was then ridiculed and shunned by many at my new school because my K-mart clothes were shabby and I did not have the right bodily comportment. I nevertheless considered myself superior in certain ways. In grade 9, for instance, I was amazed by how the “rich” kids were a bunch of cry babies, always putting on jackets and then taking them off; always using umbrellas and complaining about being uncomfortable. I did not feel the same sensations at all; I had not been taught to focus on individual physicality. I have since learned to do so, for better or worse.

      • I think one question here is what we identify as “pain we can fix” and what we identify as “simply the human condition.” When you were amazed at how the rich kids felt uncomfortable, perhaps on some level you knew that you weren’t going to have an umbrella–if you broke yours (for instance) it wouldn’t be replaced, or similar. So you were able to classify this as “things I can’t fix,” and shove it to the back of your mind. Similarly I know that the reason I didn’t feel the pain of my shoes was that I was so dedicated to the task of being femme… I didn’t see any other choice for myself, really. There was no point in complaining about the pain of high heels, or even allowing myself to feel it, because there was no way to change it. Today I wear Docs or minimus or whatever I want, wherever I want, and I don’t feel pressured by the world, but I didn’t have that same confidence at 16.

        Similarly, perhaps part of the issue is something you’ve written about elsewhere in this blog–that some people see exercise as optional and others do not. If exercise isn’t optional, then the pain it causes–the sensation it causes, rather–isn’t alterable, so one might as well redefine it as pleasure or something else. Maybe?

      • I like that idea. I also think that we learn how to categorize and respond to our sensations through cultural interaction. It is not that the body does not exist outside of culture, but that we necessarily process and understand it culturally. You have a different body now than you did as a teenager, and not just in terms of physiology.

  2. Lianne, your comment makes me think of the eighteenth century critiques of the wealthy and urban dwellers who were thought to be more prone to nervous disorders, which of course caused no end of pains…

  3. I do not suffer from chronic pain but I have recurring pain each month before I menstruate. The cramping and pain is equivalent to the middle stages of labour, it lasts for 2-3 hours with no breaks and then it is done. I used to fear dealing with the physical pain itself but now my fear is where I might be and what I may be doing when it happens. I was at a loud children’s birthday party one time and that was quite difficult and the other time I was on my way to the airport to fly to Paris. Luckily I was not driving and it stopped before I boarded the plane. I was put on a strong version of advil but all that did was give me an ulcer so I now choose to go medication free and I have learned to endure it, take a bath and deal with it just knowing that it’s temporary. I went to see an obstetrician about it about five years ago and he was quite irritated that I was even there. He said it’s common in women who’ve given birth and that given my age I’d only have to endure it for approximately another ten years.

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