Finding the Silver in Pain

Psychologists believe (and rightly so) that the vast majority of humans will go out of their way to avoid pain. Americans are notorious for our propensity to pop pills instead of just bearing the pain. Most of us have never known levels of pain beyond the occasional headache or broken bone or scraped knee.


Pain (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As a reader, I’ve read shelves worth of books where the characters undergo immense amounts of pain and torture. I’ve noticed that some authors forego description of the actual sensations and just say “pain lanced through her” or “ripples of pain cascaded over him.”

I’m just about to finish Jacqueline Carey‘s Kushiel Trilogy, and her approach to pain has made me reconsider how I write this difficult human experience in my work. Her protagonist is an “anguissette,” a woman marked by their punishing god Kushiel and fated to always experience pain and pleasure as one. Yes, the books are NC-17 in parts — but if you are a reader who values the honesty of human emotion and stories that leave you wondering what’s real, take a chance on them.

First edition cover

First edition cover (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I got my first migraine in 8th grade. I remember sitting in class, trying to look at the white board, struggling to see the words there, having to look down at my dark-colored binder to give my eyes a respite. I didn’t know what was happening to me. I’ve seldom experienced the nausea that accompanies many people’s migraines, and mine often end after 10-15 hours, but in recent years, my migraines have taken a turn for the unbearable. What they lack in duration, they make up for in intensity.

I had one last night, and I struggled to finish the last four hours of my cocktail shift with the strange blurred aura around my vision and each oppressive light bearing down on me. I woke this morning with a pounding heart and shallow breath, not a little surprised that I had survived the night. Does that sound melodramatic?

I’ve always been someone to hurt myself a lot. I still have scars all over my legs from multitudinous skinned knees and run-ins with sharp objects. I’ve a scar on my thumb from mistaking the knuckle for a potato and removing my skin with the peeler instead of the tuber’s. I’ve had head wounds and broken bones, one bash on the skin that went down to the bone, and I’ve impaled my leg on a fence.

Beyond that, I’ve always suffered from severe menstrual cramps bad enough that they’ve caused me to lose consciousness. And there’s the migraines.

Last night, just driving home felt like torture. I almost never use the mirror flip on the rearview mirror to dim the lights behind me, but I used it last night and drove the 15 miles home with my left hand blocking out the reflection in my side mirror. I kept thinking, “Five more miles. Two more miles. One more mile. Three more turns, then home.” I came inside to only dim light and had to stand in the hallway to blearily tell Spouse I was going straight to bed.

I laid in darkness, first consumed by relief at the lack of light. But my migraines are not so forgiving.

When my kitten woke me up from a fitful sleep, pressure mounted in my head. My husband had come to bed and lay sleeping in the dark, but dawn had begun to light the sky and even the pastel dimness of the early blush of sun made me gulp with panic. I struggled to the hall closet in the dark, found a bottle of ibuprofen by touch alone, and counted out five into my shaking palm through waves of pressure that felt as though they preceded a nuclear bomb.

Laying in bed again, my heart gulped shallow beats against my chest. My head felt as though someone had taken an ice cream scoop to the inside of my skull and tried to fill the remaining cavern with too much air. I buried my face in my pillow to battle the blossoming dawn. And melodramatic though it might sound, I doubted my body’s ability to withstand the mounting pressure, ever-increasing and relentless.

I finally had to wake my husband. If I get a migraine during the day, he massages my head, helping to spur the blood flow in my neck muscles that have turned to concrete and the fissures in my skull that seem about to rend themselves with every passing breath. His fingers released the pressure in tiny spurts, careful and deft. My fluttering pulse began to strengthen. My panicked breathing subsided. And after a long while, I slept.

So today I woke, feeling shaky and abused. I couldn’t think of what to blog about. All I could think of was the ten hours of last night that the migraine claimed. I scarcely remember the last few hours at work, and the drive home exists only in flashes of bright light and cringing. Migraines, at least mine, create a phobia of light. Where every patch of glowing brightness makes me flinch away and I trade breath for darkness as I bury my head under pillows and blankets — even then there is a spotlight glaring behind my eyes, illuminating the inside of my head as if I’m staring at the sun with no eyelids to shield me, no way to blink, no way to scrunch them shut.

As a writer, I have to embrace these experiences. Maddening and frightening though they can be, they are gateways. My inability to escape them makes me vulnerable, but being forced to wade through them liberates me from using descriptions like “pain lanced through her.”  If you read the description of my ten hour ordeal, you will see that I never once used the word pain.

As much as humans want to avoid it, pain is an essential human experience, and one that is as inevitable as the earth’s continual circling of the sun. It may be unpleasant, but in ways it is exquisite.

Writers, consider this challenge: next time you are writing of love, of pain, of death, of hope…do so without using those words. And readers, glut yourself on the wealth of description in books. Let your favorite characters be your avatars of experience. For better or for worse.


About Emmie Mears

Saving the world from brooding, one self-actualized vampire at a time.

Posted on April 14, 2012, in life intervention, writing process and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. Beautifully written – I’m so sorry for the impetus. A great exercise and one I’ll keep in mind.

  2. No one who has ever actually had a migraine would call you melodramatic. I am fighting one now. I have gotten them since I was 15 or so, and then when I was a bout 6n months pregnant, I started getting tension migraines. They basically feel like a c-clamp squeezing my head. Any change in BP like sitting, standing, laying down, peeing…will trigger waves of pain as my BP spikes and I feel my pulse in my head.
    I am battling one now. (I say battling, because it keeps waxing and waning, and if it was in full swing, I wouldn’t be on the computer, I’d be at the hospital.)

    But it is a good point you make regarding author’s descriptions of pain. I often think of what they describe as unrealistic in the sense that most people receiving that kind of bodily assault (whatever sort of thing is going on plot-wise) would crumple under the pain and panic of it, even the non-life-threatening injuries. Most people are simply not equipped to deal with pain.

  3. I’ve been lucky enough to have never had a migraine *knock on wood*, but judging by everything I’ve heard, they sound awful. I admire you for sharing your experience. It sounds tough 😦

  4. I suffered from terrible migraines all through my childhood and teenage years. Thankfully it’s been many years since I’ve had an attack but they are vicious and debilitating and the pain of them is indescribale. To people who have never experienced a migraine they do not understand the pain and think they must be just a bad headache. I don’t know how you got through your shift at work. I would have had to leave.
    Next time I’m writing a scene about love or pain I’m going to take your advice and use different words to describe these emotions.

  5. I feel your pain. And I mean that literally. If I don’t get my prescrption migraine meds soon enough I can feel that C-clamp trying to break my occipital bone at the back of my head. I also grew up with terrible cramps. All the way through my 30’s I could be out of commission for half the month between cramps and migraines. After my hysterectomy I realized they were related because the headache frequency dropped almost immediately. But by then my body was conditioned for the migraines so other triggers developed. I just had neck surgery for nerve impingement, so when post-surgical spasms subside in a month or so, I hope that migraines finally are practically nil and no longer control my productivity. Feel better, Emmie.

  6. Excellent post! Your descriptions were dead on, from what I’ve been able to observe when my husband and son get migraines. I will remember your advice, because you’re right about the way pain is conveyed in most fiction.

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