Fearfully and wonderfully made, she said. And then, Breathe, as she plunged the needle into my back. I pressed my fingers against the wall, and made a mental note that I needed to use hand sanitizer as soon as this was over.
It would be a while, because it was, as Christians say, a kairos moment. Time passes in chronos, or chronological time. And then, there moments like the one I experienced in a lime green exam room in the half-empty neurology department across from the refrigerator repair shop. Kairos – a neurologist gives you a witnesses just before she turns the dial and sends an electrical pulse down your leg.
Fearfully and wonderfully made, I whispered, and leaned into the pain.
The next one will be stronger, she said. Are you okay?
Fearfully and wonderfully made, I repeated, louder this time, so that she could hear.
I had shared with the neurologist that I was a United Methodist pastor, and then, later, as she was setting up the test, I told her that, by this pain, I had learned more about the human body than I had ever known before.
We are fearfully and wonderfully made, she said to me, eyes on machine that she would utilize to shock my body.
Eventually, our session ended. She ordered another MRI, and wrote me another prescription, to go with my usual prescription, for the pain. The kairos of the moment left giddy. Surely, God had been at work, so did this mean that this neurologist would be the one who would find me a cure? Would this be the medication that – once and for all – would numb the pain?
I still don’t know the answer to the former question, but I know the latter to be affirmative. Yes – she gave me the magic bullet. Just a week into taking the new prescription, I no longer experienced nerve pain. Because I no longer experienced anything. Of what it was to have the full dosage built up in my system, I told a friend, I now think I might understand purgatory. I was not in pain, because it was to not be in anything. I was not in my body. I was neither here nor there. I had no energy to do anything, but also, I could not sleep.
I tolerated the new prescription for less than 72 hours. Then, I abruptly stopped taking that medication, and cut my other medication in half. Pain, as it turns out, is not the worst fate.
I don’t presume to speak for other people’s pain. If I have learned anything in all of this it is first and foremost that we can never presume to know the experience of someone else’s body. We can hardly presume to know our own. I have been surprised, again and again, how I have been able to tolerate pain that has seemed unbearable. I have been surprised, also, when I cannot seem to bear something that seems like it would be easy to tolerate. Pain can rewrite any of the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. Pain can shatter personal truths that we have assumed would forever stand, come what may.
It took days for the new medication to leave my body. Those days were the worst, because just as I had wanted immediate relief from the drug, I wanted immediate relief from its side effects. In those cloudy days, I came to appreciate how people who live with chronic pain sometimes lose touch with friends and family. I wanted to hear from anyone – nothing they could say to me could have anything to do with life. And nothing I might say to them could have any value either. Because what is the point of saying, I do not feel like myself and, despairing, What if it stays like this forever?
My mother assured me that it would not. The side effects of the drug may take a few days to wear off.
I hung up the phone thinking, Well, what the hell does she know? What you may not know, reader, is that my mother is a retired pharmacist, and was very good at her job.
That is a truth I already knew about my mother. Here is a truth I have learned about myself. My vulnerability is contingent on hope. In order to risk opening up, I need to believe that in doing so, there is some new or unforeseen possibility. I did not know this until hope had left me. I did not know how to articulate this until, days later, I heard someone else do the same.
And here is another truth. The hope that I had been carrying throughout this time of pain has not been hope. I have been living on a false sense of certainty. This doctor, whatever doctor I am sitting in front of at the moment, will be the one who will get me back to the way I was before. This will be true, because I cannot go on as I am now. It is a simple fallacy to think that we can return to our former selves. It is a foolish naiveté to assume that everything can – and will! – get better in an instant. This false certainty, far from being an antidote from despair, is the gateway to it.
I do not wish to apply my false certainty as a forced equivalency to the ills of our national morality. But I have wondered, in these past few days of reengaging with the world, if there is not some correlation. I am, after all, steeped in the problematic, quintessential American mindset which glorifies a heavily redacted past and clings to quick fixes and immediate relief. The truth is that healing takes time. It starts with identifying, acknowledging, and accepting the problem. And it is only often possible if one is willing to listen and accept that things cannot – and perhaps, should not – go back to the way they were before. Healing is a vulnerable act. It requires hope that something will change.
Two days after I stopped taking the medication, I woke up as myself. I knew it as soon as I opened my eyes. Lord Jesus, I whispered. (Really, for a Christian, that is the prayer for any occasion.) My mind flashed to all that I could get done, all that I could do on that day. And I kissed the dog on the head, as I rolled over to put my feet on the floor. As soon as I was standing, nerve pain jolted in my foot. I stopped for a moment to let go of all of my flashing forward. I felt the bottoms of my feet on the concrete floor.
I breathed in. Fearfully and wonderfully made.