Pain and pleasure

Contrary to what the title might suggest, this isn’t a post about BDSM or Fifty Shades of Grey.

It’s about life and how we exist in the world as human beings, as social creatures. And how we experience a world where all too often the things that really matter are lost to the things that are expected of us.

I had an experience recently that was the catalyst for me writing this post. I have lived with “a bad back” since I was 15 years old and it’s been a problem that has gradually gotten worse over that time. Recently my GP recommended that I have a CT scan guided injection of cortisone in my lower back to help reduce inflammation and make me more mobile. I had never had such a thing and in spite of my innate mistrust of needles, I went to the radiology clinic and had the injection.

It was – to say the least – a profoundly traumatic experience. Very painful, downright scary really, but worst of all, it was an experience that was disconnected from the rest of humanity – and this compounded the unpleasantness significantly. The staff who performed the procedure were competent and perfectly nice, but the experience was exceptionally isolating physically and mentally. Laying on the bed of a CT scanner, unable to see anything, and not being told much of what was going on was hard. The accumulated effects of isolation and the very real pain of my back, the needle and the injection actually brought me to tears toward the end of the procedure.

The radiographer, seeing this (I assume), put her hand on my arm to comfort me. Until that point I didn’t really appreciate just how alone I felt. The simple action of a comforting hand on my arm was almost overwhelming. A visceral flood of emotion that nearly carried me away.

I believe that in that brief period I had an experience that is similar to that of many of the women who come to me. Deprived of touch, of human compassion, and living with emotional and sometimes physical isolation, it can be a profoundly moving experience to have someone do something as simple a be nice to you. It’s little wonder that like me, some people end up in tears when they come to see me – which is always, to my mind a sign of progress and a good thing, even if they may feel embarrassed.

Perhaps the first thing to note is that it is very, very difficult to understand another person’s pain, be it physical, or emotional. If you haven’t been there – and recently – you can only guess. We have evolved the ability to forget just how bad pain can be for good reason – remembering all of our pain vividly would be crippling.

But empathy combined with the shadow of our own experiences is a powerful social took. It allows us to value someone else’s suffering even if we can’t quantify it exactly ourselves. Unfortunately not everyone empathises well – witness much of modern politics.

Being on the receiving end of a lack of empathy, from wider society, friends and family, or a partner can be profoundly isolating and damaging. I see it too often in my work, but I do like the fact that I am in a position to give women a non-judgmental environment where they can be themselves without fear and start to take back their lives.

I’m likely to need more cortisone injections in the future, and I am most definitely profoundly grateful for what modern medicine can do for us. But I think that a little more attention paid to the human aspect of the treatment would have given a better result. Likewise, I would like to see our society spend less effort and time on the material and invest more of itself in the social and the compassionate.

John.

6 thoughts on “Pain and pleasure

  1. This is a really touching post – hoping things only get better for you.

  2. A comforting touch by someone always helps, just know that and noone has to be alone to deal with such pain in their life. Just to sit with you is all it can take. Life is very uncertain but we need to take each day as it comes and enjoy that day to the next. Will be thinking of you to take the pain away. x

  3. Dear John,

    I have tears in my eyes as I write this.
    So many times I have held the hand of someone who is in pain, who is scared, who is grieving …. and I have often wondered if it has helped them even in the smallest way.
    At times I worry that it is an intrusion or that it may not give them comfort.
    I tell nurses that are new to the profession that they need to not look at what the machines say, but to look at the patient…..
    I am glad that someone reached out to you at that moment when you felt in need.

    Thank you for your words and the way you share your experiences.
    Ella

    • Hi Ella, my guess is that yes, what you do does make a difference. Strong pain is terrible, and just the simple human gesture of touch can be enough to make it bearable. I think that your advice to your peers is quite right, and I certainly have benefited from your approach.

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