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A Pain Too Real

Updated: Jan 10, 2020

There are some things so painful they should kill you, but they don't. Childbirth is like that, if you skip all the fancy pain blockers and relievers. Child loss, even more so. And there is no epidural for the shattered heart.

When I was pregnant with Evelyn, I developed a kidney stone. Because my belly was so full of baby, the stone would try to pass—for a time—but then it would get stuck and stop. When it would move, I would experience these excruciating bouts of stabbing pain in my side and back. Pain so brutal it would lay me out, unable to move or speak, unable to do anything but double over and writhe with the agony of it. All while being stuffed to the gills with a child in the third trimester of pregnancy and caring for a toddler barely past her first birthday. In between these episodes, I could go for days without feeling a thing. It was just long enough to lull me into forgetting how bad the pain really was, just long enough to allow me to feel confident to get up and accomplish things, to go out among people—drive a car, run errands, go for dinner. And then, like my own personal lightning bolt, I'd be browsing a supermarket aisle, or carrying my daughter up the flight of stairs to our apartment, when the terrible, stabbing, burning sensation would rip through me again. And no matter where I was or what I was doing, I was caught, blindsided, frozen with the feeling of something so overwhelming I couldn't form a cohesive thought.

That was my second kidney stone. The first one was much worse.

They have compared the pain of kidney stones to gunshots and natural childbirth, and I believe them. I can't speak for the former, but I can for the latter. I passed on the epidural for all three of my deliveries. I had my children in a hospital because I had to, my pregnancies were all high risk. But I tried to have them as naturally as possible. By the third time, I thought I was a pro. I had it down. But then they gave me Pitocin to progress my labor. And I felt myself near the brink of insanity with a pain so wild, so unbearable, I thought my body was splitting in half. I remember thinking I would never come back from the place that experience sent me, that I was lost. But I did, and I wasn't.

I used to consider myself something of an expert in painful experiences. My appendix ruptured when I was six. A few weeks later, I developed a deadly infection. I underwent two surgeries that year. I still have flashbacks of drinking barium, of the hum of a hospital in the morning, of throwing up down a security officer's back, of seeing the tube that emerged from my incision when they would clean it.

A few years later I was stung by a nest of Yellowjackets. I got away with half a dozen stings on my face, neck, and hands, only to swell up with a giant, itchy rash for many days. I had my first case of shingles when I was 11 years old. I've had it six more times in my life since. And of course there were the kidney stones I mentioned and the childbirths—three of each. I slammed my hand in the car so hard once that it developed a great big hematoma, and I had to wear a sling for several weeks and do my homework with my left hand. I developed a fever and rash all over my face that the doctors couldn't identify, which blistered and peeled only to repeat the process all over again. I contracted cat scratch disease from a feral kitten and was sick as a dog for two weeks before I even figured out what was going on. And when Evelyn was born I developed mastitis, a violently painful breast infection, with fevers upwards of 104—three times. And I still nursed her for her entire first year.

None of those experiences prepared me for what I am facing now.

And if I had to go through them all at the same time, it would still pale in comparison to the agony of her loss.

Tomorrow, my baby girl will have been gone for six months. I find myself reliving the pattern of that kidney stone while I was carrying her. I can go for a few hours, maybe most of a day, forgetting that I hold a sadness inside of me that is so big it could swallow the world in one devastating gulp. Somewhere inside, the grief is momentarily still, lulling me into a quiet complacency and the belief that I can find my way to investing in life again, rather than being a hostage to it. And then, my own personal lightning bolt strikes. I may be out walking the dog, or in my living room folding laundry. I may be driving to the drugstore, or in the middle of a movie. It doesn't matter where I am or what I'm doing, I am caught, blindsided, overcome with a despair so powerful I cannot form a cohesive thought. The breath is sucked from my lungs, and I double over where I stand. My face contorts in an expression of fathomless suffering, and I make sounds no person should make. Because there are not words to match this ache. We haven't invented them. And even if we had, I cannot think through it to find them anyway.

I suppose this is what "progress" looks like, toggling unpredictably between unfeeling, dissociated automation and un-functional, reeling devastation. Is this what people are referring to when they tell me things like Time heals all wounds and You'll feel better eventually ? Do they think I don't know better? Do they not know better?

I wish this was just a "wound". I wish I had an infection or a bee sting or a virus, something there's an antibiotic or a surgery for. But this is not a wound at all. It's an amputation of the soul. It's a complete and comminuted fracture of the heart. It won't grow back or reset with time. It can't be anesthetized or inoculated. This pain will never subside. It won't pass like that kidney stone finally did. There's nowhere for it to go. It will be my constant companion for the remainder of my days. At best, I can hope for some pockets of relief, when the sorrow grows still and hushed like a sleeping giant, and the strength and endurance to carry it inside me without imploding.

Now I know, in a way that kidney stones and shingles and ruptured organs and Pitocin could never show me, that there are some things so painful they should kill you ... but they don't.

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