Pain in the Present Tense

For me, failure is a feeling. It’s a heavy weight in my stomach. I get hazy and lightheaded.  Things start to slow down.

Lately I feel very heavy.

When I feel this, I retreat. I isolate. I pick apart all the moments, actions, words that led to this particular moment and I evaluate them, polish them, put them in a line like dominos and knock them all down with one touch, only to pick them up and reorder them again.

Glennon Doyle Melton, the author of Love Warrior, wrote something that caught my attention the other day and resonated with me. She said: “We have to choose carefully where we do our truth-telling… If you are going to share widely – make sure you’re sharing from your scars, not your open wounds….When we truth tell widely in real time, it’s alarming to people because it can feel more like a cry for help than an act of service. You have to be still with your pain before you can offer it up and use it to serve and connect with people you don’t know.”

I thought this was so wise and I realize every time I’ve written about failure I have done so from a place of perspective, of time.

But today is different. Failure is hitting me now, right now. So I guess that’s my first failure right there: I am talking about what failure feels like in the present tense. It isn’t meant as a cry for help. It isn’t meant to alarm you. It’s that sometimes the feeling of failure in the present is so overwhelming there isn’t any place to lay it aside and write about something that happened long ago.

This past December, after almost a year of chronic back pain, I decided to have spine surgery. There is no scenario or alternate universe in which I wouldn’t have made that decision. The pain was distorting my personality and interfering in my professional and personal life. I had no energy and every day was an effort to function normally, to pretend that it didn’t hurt as much as it did.

Then, the week before I entered the hospital, my boyfriend was hit by a taxi while riding his bike. Luckily he only broke his leg. But I spent four hours in the emergency room with him that night before they fit him in a temporary cast and got him crutches. It wasn’t until we got home that I burst into tears sobbing. First, it was out of relief that he was ok, that I hadn’t acknowledged how scared I’d been in the hospital. But then, it turned into something else. Not right there in front of him, but later the next day, I found myself crying at the thought of having to take care of him. It wasn’t that I didn’t love him, it wasn’t that I truly didn’t want to take care of him. More simply, I was so tired from pain, I wasn’t sure I could take care of him. I tried. If I failed, it wasn’t something that he ever shared with me. But by the time I was meant to go into the hospital, I was like a baseball player sliding into home base at a zillion miles an hour. In this case, home base was an operating table. I was actually excited when they wheeled me into the operating room. I had no fear, just a desperate need to feel better.

When I woke up high on Ketamine and Fentanyl, I felt oodles better. Until I didn’t.

I was actually excited when they wheeled me into the operating room. I had no fear, just a desperate need to feel better.

That first week in the hospital I had to lie on my back a particular way and couldn’t move without assistance. My veins where they placed IVs in both hands had collapsed, and fluid was building up like sludge. My back felt like it was stabbed with a hot spear. We changed my pain killers three times, added three different anti-nausea meds, and laxatives. I spent the fourth night in the hospital on Oxycontin and warm prune juice, puking and poohing so violently, my back went into spasm. The pain was like nothing I have ever experienced. I think I may have blacked out.

But the chronic pain I had before the operation was gone. Anyone would have called it a “success.” And the surgical pain was acute but it would end. It would heal. Even so the ride home from the hospital had me in tears. I felt like I was made of glass. I was afraid to move incorrectly or hit a speed bump. Everything in the outside world suddenly felt dangerous. I was told I wouldn’t feel the full effects of the surgery for six months to a year before being fully functional. And those first two weeks at home, I was too weak and so drugged out, I had nurses whose names I never knew. I can barely remember their faces. I couldn’t get up by myself, I had to be watched constantly, and even with the help of my boyfriend, best friend and sister, I still managed to lose consciousness five times in an hour one evening and wound up back in the emergency room being told I was taking TOO much Oxy. You would think the first three weeks would have been the worst of it.

But for me, the worst part started as I started to get better. As I started to walk and feel the soreness after just a few steps, when I saw how barbaric the titanium screws and plates and plastic discs looked on an X-ray, when the full understanding of how serious the surgery itself had been, when I realized I can’t run with my puppy or jump up and down to cheer, do a sit up, a jumping jack, or lift any weight at all. The time frame I had been given to heal was fine in theory but it was dawning on me how awful it was becoming in practice. My boyfriend’s leg had healed and aside from wearing my brace everywhere, I wanted to feel as healed as he did, but I didn’t. I couldn’t. I started to resent him for wanting to go out. I started to feel more helpless at the things my body would not allow me to do as I was healing than I did when I was in chronic pain. That helplessness turned to despair. Despair of being so debilitated, of missing out, of hating myself for being tired and just wanting to watch Netflix, of feeling old, of mortality. That despair turned to anger and I’ve taken that anger out on those closest to me. It seems I may have gone so far as to lose someone I love because I treated him like a punching bag and he was tired of the responsibility of caring for me.

I was so happy when I went into that operating room. I was filled with hope and a sense of renewal. It has been 11 weeks since my surgery and while my back is getting better, I don’t feel better. I feel alone in this even when I know I’m not. Time has slowed down to the point where I feel like I’m waiting for the next second to pass. One second further from my operation and one closer to being healed. And all of this may make sense to you. It may feel rational and even probable to feel this way after major surgery. All of that may be true. But that heaviness sits in my stomach. That haziness doesn’t clear. For all the “success” this operation was supposed to bring, all I feel is my failure to believe in that success, to remain positive and optimistic and hopeful instead of angry and helpless and frustrated. All I feel is my failure and inability not to take my feelings out on others. I still feel like I’m in pain. It’s not that I don’t believe this feeling can change. Perhaps when it does, I’ll be able to put it in perspective. I hope when it does, this won’t feel like failure at all. Until then, please forgive my failure for sharing pain in the present tense.

Photos provided by the author.

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2 Responses

  1. Stacy Morrison
    Stacy Morrison

    Oh, Stacy, how I wish we could usher sources that could fast-forward you through all of this. Thanks for sharing this. I’m a fan of pain-in-progress. Someone has to tell the truth about what it actually feels like to be human — before the nice and tidy ending presents itself. Sending you everything in me for you to feel better as soon as you possibly can — and for you to be able to tolerate this in between.

  2. Tanya

    I agree with what Stacy Morrison said — thank you for sharing. We see you looking beautiful at the Oscars and don’t realize how much pain you’re really in. I wish I could hug you. Know that many prayers are being said for you for physical and emotional healing. Real failure would be holding everything inside and imploding, instead of sharing with the world how you’re really feeling and that you need support.


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