For the past five weeks, I’ve had horrible sciatica. This isn’t new. I “adopted” the condition while delivering my first child, and could barely walk for two weeks afterward. Since then, it’s flared up in short bouts after I spend too long on my feet, which I then chase off with an hour on the couch. But this round has been brutal – and stubborn: over a month of almost nonstop literal pain in the ass. When I stand, it hurts. When I sit, it hurts worse. Sometimes, the throbbing in my butt wakes me from my sleep. Now, listen, I’m no wuss: I had two babies at home with absolutely no interventions. But anyone who has ever experienced sciatica will tell you that it’s a sick form of KGB-level torture. So it needs no explanation why I’ve been feeling like a rusted-out, mildly homicidal jalopy.
Luckily, I live in the age of Motrin. I have nothing but gratitude for the producers of those lovely orange, tic-tac-like pills, which help keep me an (actual) upstanding member of society. Obviously, they’re not my long-term plan; too much ibuprofen isn’t good for my body. But until the massage therapy and foam rollers and heating pads start making a real dent in this thing, Motrin is how I’m not going mad from chronic pain.
(Allow me a moment here to say that countless people live with chronic pain that is much worse than mine, and is not as easily fixable. To them, I say, you are warriors; I don’t know how you do it for weeks, months, years. May each of you be blessed with a speedy recovery and permanent relief.)
Something beautiful happens about ten minutes after I take Motrin. Suddenly, the pain starts to dim like the volume on a record player turning lower and lower, until it fades out completely. The moment it’s gone is exquisite, delicious, revelatory. My body turns languid, like I’ve been dipped in chocolate. What a pleasure to be free from pain!
It occurred to me as the Motrin kicked in at 3 a.m. last night, as I lay on my side with a heating pad on my butt, that being out of pain is actually how I feel most of the time. But there was no way I could have relished in it, or appreciated it so viscerally, without experiencing the pain first.
Then I passed out.
I was reminded of that thought this morning when I met a friend for coffee. This person has just experienced a loss, and was tempted, as I was after my mother died, by the lure of big changes as a way to outrun the pain. I assured them it wouldn’t work – I’d tried it myself – because they would still be there, along with their loss, wherever they went. I gave them the advice I was given and chose to ignore: “Just sit still. Be with the pain. It may never go away completely, but it softens, and you learn to live with it.”
Whether it’s small-scale like sciatica or a bigger, like grief and loss, there is a point to our pain. If nothing else, we relish its absence when it subsides. We delight in feeling okay again. And while the pain is still there, as crazy-making as it is, it does teach us something – if we allow it to. Outrunning pain is impossible; as someone who moved to a foreign country to escape my mother’s death, I know this for sure. There is nothing to do with pain but to sit still, wait for it to pass, and see who we are on the other side.
This morning, I walked up to the library to find one of our town’s famous cherry blossoms in full bloom. They seemed to have emerged overnight, along with the lovely Spring sunshine and bike riders and runners making traffic on the sidewalks. It felt as if, just yesterday, I was gritting my teeth against the cold wind, huddling into my coat, and scowling at the wintry gray sky. As I took in the magnificent blooms, the smiling faces, the glorious sun on my shoulders, I was grateful for those wintry days; without them, I would never have seen the cherry blossoms for the miracles they are.