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Francesca Louise Grossman

Fiction Fridays, Guest Posts

AND HERE WE ARE AGAIN, DANGLING

November 6, 2020
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Hi! Jen, Angela and I are thrilled to welcome you to Fiction Fridays!  On the first and third Friday of each month, we will feature fiction, so take a break from all the chaos and read a story or two as you head into the weekend. You’ll be happy you did, we’re sure of it.   TGIFF!  –Francesca

By Francesca Louise Grossman

I sit crisscross applesauce on our shag rug, balancing a cup of cold coffee on my thigh. Emily, my two-year-old, is sitting next to me on the floor eating weeks-old Cheerios she unearthed from the couch. My first thought is thank God I don’t have to get up to get her breakfast. I know in my heart this is wrong, she deserves new Cheerios at least. But Emily woke up at 4:40am this morning and my limbs are lead. I have no more energy to give and it is only 9:30 am.  

But still. In many ways, this morning is a vacation. Until my husband and son return from their church camping trip, I am off my usual incessant duty. Emily I can handle, even with her ghastly wakeup times. She is sweet, calm, often docile. She’ll watch Dora or Wonder Pets and give me thirty minutes of peace. She contrasts so drastically from my son Ethan, who, at six, has been diagnosed with ADHD and simply can’t sit still. And she exists in deep contrast to my husband, Benjamin, who hasn’t been calm one day in the twenty years I have known him.

Aside from Emily’s chewing, the house is mercifully quiet. 

I lean my head back on the couch cushion. The wonders of motherhood include being able to sleep sitting up with your eyes slightly open. 

My phone buzzes and my awake-nap is interrupted. Of course. 

“Hello, Heather, hello?” The voice sounds vaguely familiar, but honestly it could be my mother. 

“We called you before but it went straight to voicemail,” the woman continues. 

Who is this? 

“I have called Benjamin’s cell phone a number of times,” she said. 

I think it is the church lady, the woman who is running the camping weekend. Oh lord, what has Benjamin done now? 

I look at the time again and realize they should be on the bus home by now.

“What’s the problem exactly?” I put my coffee on the coffee table and heave my body up onto the couch. 

“The problem, Heather…is that your husband and your son have not returned to camp, and we have been waiting over an hour. It seems they are…missing.”  

I laugh out loud at her delivery. “Is this like a murder mystery game or something?” 

I’m not kidding. An elaborate real life player game would be right up Benjamin’s alley. Driving everyone crazy would also be. 

I can’t see her but I swear I can hear her eyes rolling. 

“Maybe it’s the reception?” I say. “Maybe you could try calling him again?”

“The reception here is fine, Heather.” She is saying my name too many times. “I’m honestly not sure what to do, the bus has to leave. Benjamin knows this.”

The church lady is right. Benjamin knows that the church trip started on 10 am on Saturday and ends on 10am on Sunday after one night of camping in the woods. 

“A full 24 hours!” he had said to Ethan, trying to convey how exciting that was. “We’ll have so much fun!” 

I remember thinking, a 24 hour break from their frenetic energy, God IS Good. 

“Well you can’t leave them there.” I say. 

I try to remember what this woman looks like. She’s the family coordinator of the church, and in my memory, she looks exactly like she should. A little plump, wavy brown hair to her chin, glasses on a chain against her very ample bosom. High mom jeans. Keds. 

“Heather, we are not planning on leaving them here. We called the police.” 

“The police?” This seems aggressive to me. “I don’t think that’s necessary. They probably just wandered off.” 

The woman (maybe her name is Janice?) sighs and I understand. 

“He was drinking?” I ask.

At first she doesn’t say anything, but after a few moments she replies. “All of the adults had some wine and beer last night,” she says. “I didn’t partake.”

“Please don’t protect him,” I say, pinching the skin between my eyes. 

Now I see that things might be as bad as she suggests. He had promised. He had said he wouldn’t even bring anything to drink. 

My mind goes from annoyed to worried to livid. I’m sure he’s just sleeping somewhere, probably with Ethan curled up in his lap. How many times am I going to have to get Benjamin out of trouble? How many times am I going to have to come save him? 

But then my stomach sours. What if they aren’t just sleeping somewhere? What if something is actually wrong? 

My palms sweat and the back of my neck erupts in goosebumps. I fume and worry simultaneously. I know this feeling. This is the feeling of being married to Benjamin. 

 

Janice sighs again. “Well, I think Benjamin had quite a lot. He was singing well after the kids and most of the adults went into their tents. I had to poke my head out twice to shush him. No one saw him this morning. No one saw either of them.” 

“Dammit. Are the police there yet?” 

“On their way.” 

“OK…”

Emily has squirmed away from me, her two year old body wriggling in between the couch and the wall. She likes to do this when she’s nervous. She must hear the frustration in my voice. 

“So when will you be here?” Janice asks. 

“Be there?”

“Yes, I’m going to stay behind. The bus is going to take the rest of the families back to the city. You need to come here to talk to the police.” 

Of course. I hadn’t really thought it through, but of course. I have no doubt that by the time I drive the hour and a half to the campsite, Benjamin and Ethan will be sipping juice boxes and catching spiders, but clearly I can’t say no. 

“OK, I’ll be there.”

“Good.” 

I pull Emily from her slot and she reacts by bowing her back and screaming. My 4:40 am brain pulses in pain and I drag her to the kitchen to grab random snacks that I’ll throw at her as we drive into the low mountains outside of Boston. She’ll sleep most of the way. I’ll do my best not to. 

When we arrive, the rain has started, the world outside of the car blurry and surreal.  I hear dogs barking up the hill. Those can’t be…police dogs?

I unstrap Emily and hike her onto my hip. Benjamin, I think, what have you done? 

I run as well as I can with a toddler on my hip up the muddy hill towards the crowd. I almost barrel into a police officer who looks more like Smokey the Bear than anyone from Law and Order. 

“Hello Ma’am, I’m Officer Bugg. You’re the wife?” 

“The mother,” I say. “And the wife. Heather Marlow.”

“We’re doing the best we can. It’s raining, which makes things harder. We’ll find them.” 

“So you think this is serious? I mean…it’s really a problem? They’re like actually missing?” 

“That’s how it looks, yes.” 

My mind spins as I recalibrate my experience. My baby is missing. Ethan!

“What can I do?” I ask and Emily starts to whine, upset I yanked her from her dreams. 

“Well. A few things. Questions. Does this happen often?” Officer Bugg asks.

Which part? I think. The part where Benjamin drinks so much that he goes off to who knows where and comes back who knows when? Or the part where he takes Ethan with him? 

“No,” I answer.

“One other question…and I have to ask. How are things with you and your husband? Would there be any reason for him to take off with your son?”

The question smacks me across the face. Things with Benjamin have not been good. They have not been anything, if I’m honest, for quite a while. He drinks, I duck out of his way until he sobers up. He makes promises, like he will not drink on the church camping trip. He lies. I forgive him. There have been periods of our relationship when this happens. But it always straightens itself out. He gets sober. Sometimes for months and months. One time it was over a year. In those times we eat breakfast together, he makes the four of us eggs and pancakes. His long hair stays tucked behind his ears. He rubs my feet, thanks me for sticking with him, tells me how much he loves me. But lately we are in a slump. A bad patch. One that has me sniffing his coffee cups in the middle of the afternoon.

“We’re fine,” I lie. 

He would never hurt me on purpose. He would never take Ethan away from me. He would never do anything more than what he always does: punish himself for the sins he believes he can’t help but make. 

I put Emily down on the ground, even though it is muddy, and let her squish the wet earth in her fists. I see Janice a few yards away but I don’t move towards her. She glares at me with what feels like the wrath of God. My head pounds and the dogs bark louder. I close my eyes. 

Benjamin. 

It took him exactly one minute to win me over at an off-campus party in our college town in upstate New York. He strode across the room towards me and I pretended not to have been watching him. His gangly frame navigated the space with such elegance. I remember thinking, that man must be a dancer. He all but sashayed in front of me, his cheeks red, his hair sweaty, and handed me a beer. He tipped his bottle and his head in my direction. 

“Benjamin Marlow,” he said. “Pleased to meet you.” 

There was something about the way he said that, like he was truly pleased, along with the smile he offered through his green squinted eyes, that made me pay attention. We danced that night in a sea of sweaty friends of friends, Benjamin’s hand holding me by the small of my back, one of my arms resting on his shoulder, my head thrown back in endless laughter. 

When he asked me to get out of there, I went. His gaze ignited something in me, a do-good midwesterner with only two boyfriends in my past. I couldn’t get enough. I didn’t want to. I still don’t. 

But sometimes…

After we had been dating for about six months Benjamin told me he had given up cocaine and hard liquor the year before we met. We were lying in bed, polka dot sheets in a mess at our feet. 

“But you still drink,” I said.

“Beer.” 

“That doesn’t count?”

He smiled and shrugged. “Seems to be OK.” He turned over so we were both facing the ceiling. 

“What made you quit?” 

“I became stupid,” he said, and dove at me, covering my questions with his mouth. 

I later learned he had crashed his car into a storefront. He spent five months in jail, did community service for eighteen. 

“I never would have forgiven myself if I hurt someone,” he said, crying. 

“Or if you hurt yourself,” I said. 

He leaned over and kissed my head and I drowned in the heat of him.

Over the years Benjamin’s addiction has been another person in our relationship. It lives next to us, always leering, waiting for Benjamin to tip his head in its direction instead of mine. I do everything I can to keep it at bay, but I am not strong enough for both of us. Especially since we had children. I love him, but I can’t always love him enough to stop his pain.

People believe that loving an addict is wrong. That it’s important to let them go, fight their own demons, live with their own bad decisions. 

“Heather? Ms. Marlow?” 

It’s clear the detective is getting annoyed with me for drifting off into my mind. This is how I think—in tangents and circles, even in stressful times—but it doesn’t seem the moment to explain.

“Yes, sorry.” 

“The dog found something.” 

I turn to see a dog in a navy blue vest racing through the trees. I don’t think, I run after him. 

“Ms. Marlow!” I hear the detective yell at me, but I don’t stop. 

“Watch the baby!” I scream to him, and I look back for a second to see her trying to climb up his leg. 

I fly through the trees behind the dog. I’m here, I’m here, I’m here, Ethan I say in my head to the beat of my feet. I slip and slide around in the muddy leaves on the forest floor. Somehow I stay upright and keep running. 

Abruptly, the dog stops. I slow down and watch him, as he sniffs at the bottom of a tree, one with a straight section of bark right at the bottom. They were here, I think. Benjamin would have led Ethan to rest here. This is a perfect resting tree. 

The dog sniffs more, takes off again. We go in the direction of the lake. 

We run to the edge of the water, the majesty of the foggy hills trying to make its way into my psyche, but all I can hear is the labored breathing of my mantra. Ethan…I’m here. I’m here. I’m here.

The dog splashes into the water and I follow, quickly waist deep in the murk. I can’t see the bottom but it feels mushy and uneven under my boots. The rain pelts the lake water around me like tiny bullet holes. The dog swims in a circle. My brain starts to understand what it means that I am in the lake with a German Shepherd barking and police stampeding and my son and my husband are missing. 

I hear a wail from somewhere that feels like the core of the world, but I realize it’s from my stomach. I have abandoned anger and have landed in full blown terror. I start to swim, and I make it a few feet before my arms and legs give out. Someone grabs me from behind and I buckle. 

They drag me out of the lake. The dog stops barking. The air falls silent. 

“What does that mean….the dog…. did he find something?” I’m pleading with the officer who dragged me out, pulling on his jacket with two hands. Another officer is behind us holding Emily, muddy in his arms. I take her, bury my head in her hair. She smells like baby shampoo and sweat. Someone has wrapped a wool blanket around her, and now they lay one on my shoulders as well.

  “It doesn’t mean anything. It ran cold. The rain makes it hard,” the officer says. 

I squeeze my baby tighter and shut my eyes. In a million years I will never forgive Benjamin for this. I will never let him back into my house. And if the lord in heaven keeps Ethan alive, I’ll spend the rest of my life serving only him. 

I hug my daughter, as if squeezing her compensates for me allowing my son to go missing. 

“Mama,” I hear, and squeeze Emily. “I know you’re cold baby.” But I look at her, and she has fallen asleep on my shoulder. 

“Heather, we should go back, the dogs will keep going if they can…” Detective Bugg is talking, but I’m not listening. 

“Mama,” I hear it again. Quiet, a breeze of a word.

“Shh, wait, do you hear that?” I ask. I put a hand on the detective’s arm to quiet him. 

“Hear what?” 

I shift Emily to my other side and listen into the air. Are the trees mocking me? Am I starting to hallucinate? 

“Mama?” 

No, that’s real. I can hear that. It is not in my head. I turn, scanning the crooked forest. The rain blurs the trees in front of me, but the voice is clear. “Mama!”

A small square of yellow pokes out behind a pile of brush about fifty feet from us. Ethan? I stumble toward the yellow square and it moves, showing me a little more of a t-shirt I know well. I have washed this t-shirt a thousand times. 

“Ethan!” I scream and sprint towards the brush, Emilly bouncing against my shoulder. Ethan! He’s there, he’s alive. Oh thank God. I’m going to kill Benjamin. 

I skid into the wet leaves and hook myself around my baby boy, wet and shivering. I kiss his head and open my blanket, wrapping the three of us into our own world, as things should be. 

“Oh Ethan baby, I’m so happy to see you.” I hug him until he winces. I lighten up. 

“Honey where were you? Where’s Daddy?” 

“He saved me,” Ethan says. 

“Saved you from what?” 

Ethan is small, but not too small to explain things. 

“Saved you from what, baby?” I ask again. 

He starts one of those endless sentences little kids say. “There was a monster and it was chasing us last night through the forest and we came here and hid but I slipped and fell into the lake and he saved me from the lake.” 

Ethan can’t swim. Benjamin can’t swim much either. 

The officer comes up behind me, squats to our level.  

“Good to see you buddy. Let’s get you guys all warmed up and checked out,” he says, putting a hand on my back. 

“But what about my… he could be…” I scoop my baby boy into my arms and stand up, both of my children velcroed to my skin. 

“We’ll keep looking.” 

We walk back to the campsite very slowly because I carry both my children, Emily sleeping soundly, Ethan coughing lightly. 

“Ethan,” I ask again. “Where’s Daddy now?” 

 “Maybe he’s fighting the thing.”

It takes much longer to get back than it took to get there—the weight of the kids, the mud caked into my boots, and the fear. The fear that Benjamin is gone. 

I want to kick myself. I let my guard down. Maybe I just love him too much. The problem with loving someone who disappears all the time is not that they let you down, it’s that you let yourself down. Every single time you think it’s over, it has just begun. It doesn’t matter how healthy they become, how self-righteous, how strong. It doesn’t even matter if you believe them. It’s what it does to you to love something that isn’t true. That’s the hardest part. When you sit there with their broken pieces talking to your broken pieces. And here we are again, dangling. 

I exhale a breath I have apparently been holding.

When we get back to camp I lie my children down inside a makeshift tent the police have raised. The EMTs want to check Ethan, so I rouse him but he won’t let go of my hand. I lie down next to him.

“Ethan, where did Daddy go?” I ask him again.

He shrugs again. He doesn’t seem scared, just confused, and I realize that’s a better state for him to be in for the moment. 

One time I found Benjamin swaying next to a canyon on one of our hikes. 

“Step back you idiot!” I called. 

“What would I do without you?” he answered, backing up, but I swear I saw a little bit of wistfulness in his eyes.

It’s hard to think that the person you’re married to would rather be dead than be with you. 

I need to focus. He saved Ethan. I believe that. Was he thinking he was a superhero or a failure? Those are Benjamin’s only two modes. Did he jump in because Ethan was really in trouble? Or did he think he’d learn to swim like a fish in the time it took for him to hit the water? Like a chick can all of a sudden fly?

My children are sleeping again. 

“He’s in a bit of shock, and has a low grade fever, we’d like to watch him at the hospital,” the EMT says, picking Ethan up and laying him on a cot. 

As if from above I see myself nod, scoop up Emily, follow the gurney into the ambulance. “Where’s my husband? I ask the air, but no one answers. 

The trip down the mountain is fast in an ambulance. Ethan is fully awake now, excited by the speed. The EMT even blares the siren for him, and Ethan beams.

“Daddy will love this story,” he says. 

We get to the hospital and I fill out paperwork. Somehow my parents are there though I don’t remember calling them. They hug me and take Emily. 

“We’ll hold onto her tonight,” they say. 

I follow Ethan into an exam room. He’s still wet, and they give him a johnny to wear while they check him. He finds it hysterical that it is a dress with no butt. He tells me again how much Daddy is going to love this. 

I check my phone incessantly. Will they call me if they find his body? Will they come tell me in person at the hospital? How do these things work?  

I jump whenever anyone enters the room, sure it is an officer, delivering the fate of our new lives. 

They want to check Ethan internally. It was stormy, things were flying around in the water, just in case. They sedate him to do an MRI, they say that’s the best way to do it. As I watch my son go under, I see the face of his father fade away from me too. 

I sit outside the MRI room to wait for my son. My parents call to tell me Emily is fine, playing with the duplos they bought her, about to have supper. Someone comes up behind me, I can feel them standing there, waiting to tell me something. A doctor. A police officer.  If I don’t turn around, it will not be true. 

I turn around. 

Benjamin stands behind me, an arms length away, like he knows I might hit him if he comes any closer. 

“Heather,” he says. 

I look at him. His clothes are rumpled and off center, his hair is slick down on one side and standing up straight on the other. His face is creased, his eyes squinting. A familiar, musky smell of last night’s alcohol wafts off of him and straight into my nostrils. But it’s his hands I focus on. They are twisting a yellow tissue around one finger, cutting off the circulation, then letting it go, wrapping it around another finger, doing the same. I know this tic. This is the tic of my husband when he is right on that edge. He’s squeezing his fingers, but he’s imagining his throat. 

“I’m so sorry,” he says. “I don’t know what happened.”

The air feels so heavy. “Yes you do,” I say. 

Benjamin nods, rocking himself back and forth on his heels, nodding with his whole body, twisting the color out of his hand. 

“We were having fun. Things were fine. And then, he went in, and I went in and I don’t know.” 

My rage boils up and over and I push Benjamin with two hands against his chest. He falls easily, like he was being held up by reeds. 

“You DO know!” I scream. “You almost killed our kid, you piece of shit!” 

I look for somewhere to go but I’m waiting for Ethan to come out of the MRI, so I can’t go far. I walk to the other side of the room, sit on an orange plastic chair, cross my legs, folding myself into the smallest ball I can. 

“You’re right Heather,” Benjamin says. 

There’s no one else in the small room, and it’s as if his voice is everywhere. 

“I know I’m right.”

The door opens and they wheel Ethan into the hallway, beckoning me to come. Benjamin tries to follow us.

“Go home Benjamin,” I say. 

He nods. 

I follow the nurses and Ethan. Ethan is OK, nothing major is broken or punctured or collapsed. I breathe smoothly for the first time in hours. 

“We’ll watch him tonight, then he can go home with you in the morning,” the doctor says. “Why don’t you go home and get some things, we can bring in a cot for you.”

I nod and somehow get myself home in a cab. 

The house is dark. 

I walk in through the garage, flipping lights as I go. I can’t remember the last time I ate anything. I see a box of granola bars open on the counter and I grab one, bite it open, scarf it down. 

“Benjamin?” I call into the silence. 

He doesn’t answer. A chill starts at the back of my neck and zips down my spine. He’s here. I can feel him here. I can smell him. I listen for the shower and hear nothing. 

I tiptoe through the house, turning on lights, my throat closing.

Please God. I can’t do this today. Please let him not have done this. 

Every step of the staircase amplifies my worry and also my fury. No Benjamin, don’t. But I’ll understand. The two truths that eat at me always. I’ll be lost if he kills himself and I’ll also be relieved. I have never said this aloud before, but it is the truth. 

I reach the top of the stairs and it’s silent. Oh Benjamin. I tiptoe down the carpeted hallway, leaning against the wall, sliding towards our open door. The door would be closed, if he…wouldn’t it? 

I find him on the floor of our bedroom, sitting with his back against the bed. 

“Heather…” he slurs when I walk in. 

Somehow in the hour since he’s come home, he has gotten fall-down drunk again. I wonder if he was drunk at the hospital and I just didn’t see it. 

“Heather…” 

I hate hearing my name in his mouth when he’s like this. I can’t reason with him now. It’s not worth the fight we will have, my throat that will be raw from crying and yelling. Most likely he will remember none of it. 

“Go to bed Benjamin,” I say, shoving some clothes and my pills into an overnight bag. A hairbrush. One less thing to deal with, I hear my mind saying, and I am so ashamed. 

He looks at me, his eyes bloodshot, his face blotchy. He has not showered. The smell of murky lake mixes with the stench of sweaty scotch and it’s enough to make me gag. 

“I’ll never forgive myself Heather,” he says, and he’s crying now, his face crumbling into a mask of despair I have seen so many times before. 

I can’t go to him and hug his head to my chest like he’s my child. I have an actual child to take care of. I can’t always save him. 

“I don’t know if I’ll ever forgive you either,” I say. 

He reaches out a hand and I know he expects me to grab it. I know that when I leave, he might not be able to pull himself out of this. I walk by his outstretched arm anyway.

I pack a small bag for Ethan and grab my phone charger from the hallway outside our room. I hear the whimpering from the bedroom but I keep going down the stairs. I love him and I hate him. I want him to be OK and I want him to drink himself to death right there on the rug. 

I go to the garage. My van is still in the woods somewhere, I realize. I go back in and get Benjamin’s keys, listening for something major. A yell or maybe even a shot, but the air is silent. He’s probably sleeping, drooling onto the rug.

I climb into Benjamin’s 80’s Volvo, a car that should have died long ago but somehow keeps on. I take a breath and it smells like my whole past. Peppermint gum, sunflower seeds, scotch, beer, cigarettes, air freshener, tulips, pine, babies, cheerios, construction paper, glue. I feel him around me, his strong arms hugging me from behind, resting his chin on my head. It always hurt a little when he did that. 

I could get out of the car. I could go upstairs and fold myself into Benjamin’s body, rub his back, help him throw up. I could promise him things I don’t believe. 

I sit in silence for what seems like a very long time. 

Eventually I turn on the ignition and pull slowly out of the garage. I have someone else to take care of. 

Francesca Louise Grossman is a writer and writing instructor. Her work has been published in The New York Times, Brain, Child Magazine, The Manifest Station, Ed Week, Drunken Boat, Word Riot, and The Huffington Post among others. She runs writing retreats and workshops internationally, and leads an annual intensive workshop at The Harvard Graduate School of Education. She has a BA and MA from Stanford University and a Doctorate from Harvard University in Education. She has written an acclaimed instructional manual: Writing Workshop; How to Create a Culture of Useful Feedback that is used in universities and workshops all over the world. Francesca lives in Newton, MA with her husband and two children and is currently working on a memoir and a novel. Francesca is an editor at The ManifestStation.

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option.

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chronic pain, Guest Posts, Hope

The Shame of Pain

October 24, 2019
pain

By Francesca Louise Grossman

I have tried 46 different times to launch myself out of chronic pain. I know this because every time I try something, I write down what I have done, what it feels like, what it costs, whether it’s covered and how worth it is in a small purple book. No one knows I do this. I scribble in it like I’m confessing to my sixth grade diary. In it is the same kind of anxiety about the future that I had in sixth grade, just not about Andy Apstein and whether he was going to kiss me or ignore me. Instead, it is about the treatment or therapy I try, and whether this one will be the one to finally help.

I opened the book the other day to pen a possible 47th.

The book is chronological, of course, but I put it in alphabetical order for clarity. I flipped through.

It starts:

Acupressure: December 2010 – Feb 2010 – dull pressure, not much change, $120/hr not covered – not worth it

Acupuncture – July 2002 (on and off) until March 2018 – sometimes painful, usually calming, blood flow, lasts less than a day but is relief $75/15 mins – sometimes covered – worth it but has to be ongoing

Acetaminophen – When needed – does nothing – over the counter – $9.89 a bottle of extra strength – not worth it

Bioelectric Therapy – October 2016-April 2016 – possibly dulls pain a little – for about an hour $165/hr at office – not covered by insurance

Cupping – February 2014 – one time, hurt like hell, not worth it. $85/30 mins – not covered by insurance.

Codeine – March 2009 – April 2009 – numb, good, not a long term option – covered by insurance $20 copay

Craniosacral Therapy – September 2000 – October 2001 – When in conjunction with other body work  – Myofascial etc – decent relief but dizzy – lasts a couple of days maybe $200/session – sometimes covered by insurance

Cryotherapy – June 2018-October 2018 – feels great right after, like putting ice on a knee. Lasts a couple of hours, heart races. $60/3 min session. Not covered by insurance

And on and on—and on.

The book is 24 years old. The same age as my chronic pain, more than half my lifetime, all of my adulthood, eons.

This book exists because all this time I have had a continuous faith that there is a valve for this pain; that I can escape it, or, more accurately, it can escape me. For all these years I have I known this to be true. I will find it. I will heal. I am a warrior, a survivor; tough, strong, and able. People have told me that pain is weakness leaving the body in all different scenarios, with all different motivations. I don’t have this recorded as studiously but I wish I did.

I have other lists I don’t love revisiting, but help to explain the pain. In my twenties I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, an illness of the intestines that leads to violent pain and an urgent need to empty your bowels. I developed Colitis later, a more general type of the disease that bloats my stomach to look four months pregnant. I have had surgeries for my stomach, some of which were determined later to be unnecessary. I had thyroid cancer through out my twenties, finally treated when the tumor on my neck was the size of a ping-pong ball. I developed arthritis along the way, both as a peripheral malady and also it’s own disease. My body is gouged from piles of polyps removed from my insides, and (usually) benign tumors removed from my outsides. My neck doesn’t turn all the way to the right. My hips need forty-five minutes before letting me walk in the morning. I have an unidentified liver problem that swells without notice and bends me in two. If the saying is to be believed, there’s a lot of weakness in there, and it seems to be stuck.

*

When I was twenty-nine, I had surgery to remove my thyroid. The overnight nurse was a doozie of a lady.  Opera singer large, big calloused hands that vice-gripped onto my shoulders. Thighs thick as trunks that she used to pin me against the side of the bed so she could administer my catheter without “so much squirming.” She was brutal and brutish. A small silver peace sign sunk deep into her cleavage, drowning in flesh.

She had a hard time getting the catheter in, and as she struggled, she noticed my twisted face.

Pain is weakness leaving the body, my love, she said, repeating it over and over like a command until I could actually pee.

This is an extreme example, but at least once a year, often as much as once a month, this phrase earworms into my psyche. Related to illness and chronic pain or not, this saying has appeared like a subtitle again and again at the bottom of the screen of my life. When I was a weak child? A coach. A teenager who could not stomach even occasional beers? A boyfriend. A young woman unable to go to a bar without scoping out the bathroom situation ahead of time? A roommate. A thyroid cancer patient: a nurse. Doctors, PA’s, med techs. Physical therapists, friends, masseuses, acupuncturists, pharmacists, bosses, guy on the street.

*

I went to the doctor a few weeks ago and a delicate med tech took my vitals. She asked the normal questions, made the normal small talk, took the normal introductory tests. Her thin fingers flew across the keyboard, recording my responses. She asked me if I had any pain.

I wasn’t sure I heard her correctly.

“You mean right now?”

“Yes,” she smiled softly.

“Nothing acute,” I said.

“So no pain?”

“No. I mean, yes, I have pain, the same pain I have all the time.”

“What would you rate it, 1-10?”

How do you rate pain on a scale made for people with no pain?

“I don’t know, 4?”

She nodded and her hands took off. That was the wrong answer. I knew this, I knew that anything under 5 wasn’t worth her noting, that saying 4 was like saying I had a dull headache, or a splinter in my toe. But what should I have said? 7? Wouldn’t that be alarmist? Especially when that pain had been a relative constant for over twenty years? Especially when I knew from decades of experience that the litany of potential remedies for that pain were not going to help?

*

My husband stepped on a quarter inch wire sticking out of the ground near the beach in Fire Island this summer. The metal went a good inch into his flesh, and when he pulled it out blood sprayed mercilessly all over the sand and sidewalk. He howled. He made noises that I have never heard him make before and I have been with him through a lot of painful things. He was pale and sweaty, teeth gritting, eyes rolling back, that kind of pain.

Later that night, his foot gauzed up and iced, still throbbing, he looked at me and said “I’m so sorry you are in pain all the time.”

I didn’t know how to respond. This wasn’t about me, he was the one in pain, and yet a part of me felt smug at his discomfort. Now you know how I feel, was a momentary thought, I’ll admit it, and not one I’m not proud of.

But it got me thinking about pain and the way people relate to it. It is very hard to relate to pain if you aren’t in pain. Which is why I have such a hard time with the 1-10 scale.

Instead, for chronic pain patients, they should ask what kind of sharp thing is in your foot. Splinter? Pushpin? Nail? Quarter inch wire? Razor blade? Glass shard? Burning glass shard?

Nail. I would have said. Occasionally glass shard.

But instead I said 4 and she smiled.

*

I have fought against my pain and weakness for a very long time. I have tried, often unsuccessfully, to be like my friends. In my twenties I tried to stay out all night, I tried to ski, I tried to walk down the street without doubling over. I worked, I played, I drank, I sat as still as I could so that no one would notice the aftershocks. In my thirties I had children, pregnancy an event that paused my pain for a while so that when it came back it felt like a tsunami. Like many mothers of babies I didn’t sleep and then I had severe postpartum depression; I found having small children so physically demanding I came undone. I’m forty-one now and I am very often a prisoner in my house. My stomach bleeds, my liver pulsates, my head spins. Not all the time, but enough.

From my teens until today, this minute, and all those in the foreseeable future, there is pain. At least nail in foot pain. Sometimes glass shard. Never pushpin. A splinter would be welcome. In fact, when I think back on my childhood and that which was difficult – most sports, endurance, gym class, partying, anything else that required my body to function – I think it’s possible that I have been in pain all my life. Back then I never considered that my resting state was anything less than normal, but now I know better. Most people do not live with nails in their feet.

I hurt. I hurt in the morning when I turn over to get up. When I walk, when I carry groceries, when I turn my head to the right to reverse in the car. My stomach burns, my joints swell, my liver rejects everything I eat and drink.

I don’t talk about pain very often. I tell myself it is because people don’t want to hear me complain but it is more than that, I can admit that. I’m ashamed of my pain. I’m ashamed of my weakness.

What is it about pain that is so shameful?

We live in a culture in which wellness equals strength. People my age do cross fit and triathlons, women have babies without drugs, are lauded for their tight abs, their thick skin, their ability to play tough. I have never been strong like this. I have tried, but I have failed. I was never scrappy. I don’t think I will ever be. I am soft. My belly, the place of much of my pain, is squishy. Distended, bloated, doughy, depending on the day. I’m sensitive. I cry at pop songs.

Our society’s greatest hero story is about overcoming obstacles. We love a fighter. We love an underdog who comes out on top. We love triumph and happily ever endings. We love to fix a hoarder, intervene and send someone to rehab, remodel a decrepit house. We love treatment. We love survival. We love hope.

But hope is complicated. After all of these tries, this list of 46 different treatments and therapies, I no longer have hope that things will get better. I have hope that things will not get worse, which is not the same thing. I have a hope that feels a lot more like mercy than it does like faith.

When I ask myself this question about weakness and shame I hear a quiet hum suggesting a better question: why am I fighting so hard?

In my experience, pain is not weakness leaving the body. I realize this is a trope, and any mantra is nothing more than a slogan. But slogans have power. They convince. And I’ll admit I have always believed this – that the suffering I endure might one day let me free.

When I was pregnant and exhausted, a friend of mine told me that of course I was tired, I was making a person in there. Though not the same, pain sometimes feels like that too. Of course I’m tired, I’m fighting against myself all the time, trying to quell the pain so that I can live my otherwise fortunate life.

I’m not delusional about this. I know I live a charmed life in almost every way. I am educated, from a family that loves me – even when I behave idiotically. I am not from a country ravaged by war. I have a husband who cares for me, does not abuse me, even dotes on me sometimes. I have two healthy children whom I adore. I am from a privileged minority, I have more than I deserve. I can walk, breathe and think to exist in my daily life. I can afford therapy, eastern medicine, treatment outside of insurance sometimes, to do part time work. I can try 46 things. In short; I’m lucky. Unfairly so. And yet.

Here’s the whole list, abbreviated to just the titles:

Acupuncture, acupressure, acetaminophen, alcohol, aleve, aromatherapy, bioelectric, CBD creams and oils, cupping, chiropractic, chanting, codeine, cranial sacral therapy, cryotherapy, dairy free, hallucinations, gluten free, guided breathing, fasting, fentanyl, flotation, ibuprofen, oxycontin, marijuana, massage, meditation, myofascial, quell, reflexology, radiation, salt baths, saunas, steroids, sugar free, sodium free, sound bathing, surgery, swimming, percocet, physical therapy, psychotherapy, psychiatry, praying, vicodin, xanax, yoga.

Everything helps a little. Nothing helps enough to be worth the life altering work and piles of money it takes to keep it up.

Here’s a truth: the things that actually take the pain away feel a lot like addiction. They don’t remove the pain, that’s the trick. They numb. And they are delicious. But they don’t last and they unleash other pain, often more severe that the original. It’s never worth doubling the pain tomorrow to have numbness today, no matter how attractive the reprieve.

So the pain is there. It’s always there and most likely it will always be there. I don’t know how it got in. Maybe the pain was waiting for me when I came into this world. Maybe it comes from my ancestors, my DNA, my parents’ tragedies, my childhood bullies, or little or big assaults. Maybe I am sensitive to the world for some reason, and it simply hurts to be here. As woo-wooey as that sounds, that’s the one that feels the most accurate, the most likely.

I think it’s actually softness that makes us strong. It’s not skin made of iron. It’s showing the underbelly. It’s not bracing for the storm, it’s putting a kite up in the wind. It’s the willingness to see the world as a series of experiences some of which are going to hurt like crazy and the ability to just keep going anyway. It’s vulnerability. It’s asking for forgiveness. From ourselves as much as from others. It’s mercy.

Mercy is an open palm. It’s the meaty bit. Curling your hand so that your knuckles face the world is so much easier. But a fist to heart feels quite a lot different from a palm to heart, resting square on your breastbone, staying there, the heel of it pulsing the same rhythm as the heartbeat on your chest, marching your body along in a long trek to some sort of quiet absolution.

My husband’s foot healed in a few days. He stopped limping. The knowledge that he would get better permeated and defined the experience – the faith that this would be over soon.

Therein lies the difference between acute and chronic pain, of course: in how we define hope.

So what kind of hope can I have? What if I looked at my years and piles of pain and perceived weakness not as a failure but as a step towards becoming who I am? What if I forgave myself the years of fighting myself and sank into the deep cool water of acceptance? How would it feel down there?

I do not mean that I should give up. I’ll try things if they look promising. 47, 48, that’s fine. But what if instead of fighting so hard I allowed the pain to be part of me? What if, for a while, instead of the restrictive eating and the therapy and the medicine and the exercise and the planning and the trying (and the failing), what if I just stopped? Even if it hurt? Even if the pain never left? Could I recalibrate to “0”? Could I see that as the most radical act? Doing nothing at all?

For now I’ll put the little purple book in the drawer. I’ll cap the pen and sit quietly. I’ll let what’s in me stay put. I’ll put my feet up, expecting and accepting the pulse of the nail that might be forever lodged there.

Francesca Louise Grossman is a writer and writing instructor based in Newton, MA. Her work includes contributions to The New York Times, Brain, Child Magazine, Word Riot, Drunken Boat Literary Magazine, xojane, Kids in the House, Ed Week/Teacher among others. She is currently working on a memoir and a novel. 

 

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