I don’t think physical pain has ever made me cry. Emotional pain, yes. And sure, when I was a little kid and fell off my bike, probably I cried. But I’ve had a lot of physical pain in my life since then and I can’t recall that it has ever made me cry. I’m not claiming to be tough. Total wimp, here. Pain just doesn’t provoke that response in me.
Which is sort of funny, if you know me well, because everything makes me cry. Those commercials where the Clydesdales unexpectedly come home from college with their renegade golden retriever puppy friends in tow and wake up their mom when they brew beer for their under-age siblings on Christmas morning and it’s snowing outside? Yep, total waterworks. My kids often joke that I’ll even cry over a bad weather forecast. I’m not quite that bad, but it’s close.
Well, it’s been several weeks, almost a month now since the knee replacement surgery, and I’ve had some of the worst pain I’ve ever experienced. Yes, the narcotic pain meds helped, a lot, but it’s been pretty bad.
Not once did it make me cry, or even want to cry. Instead, my reaction has been to shut down and withdraw, in every way possible. To build impenetrable walls. Dealing with this pain has required every molecule of my concentration and focus. The kind of focus where you don’t want anyone to even talk to you, lest it break the concentration needed to endure.
But it’s not tears I’ve been holding back. It’s temper. Anger. An irrational welling of primal rage. Like a wounded animal with no capacity for reason, wanting to lash out at everyone and everything around me, never mind that they had no part in causing the pain, never mind that I signed up for this pain. But I’m not a snarling feral beast, so I’ve reined in even that strongest of emotions.
I suppose that sounds overly dramatic. Yeah, well, it has felt pretty dramatic around here at times.
There’s a saying attributed to military types that I’ve always disliked, because it’s utter fucking bullshit. Probably you know the one I mean: “Pain is weakness leaving the body.” As if pain somehow makes a person stronger. No, the hell it does not.
But for the first time, I sort of understand where this saying comes from. Pain, extreme pain, makes you shut down your emotions. And it makes sense to me that military types equate emotion with weakness. So I can see how, from their perspective, getting rid of emotion is getting rid of weakness.
For a writer, though, emotions are strength. Facing emotion, exploring it, poking at and manipulating it, is a necessity. It requires extraordinary mental fortitude.
In his book, STEIN ON WRITING, Sol Stein says this about the difference between fiction and non-fiction:
“Let us state the difference in the simplest way.
Nonfiction conveys information.
Fiction evokes emotion.”
To me, this is a fundamental truth. People read and enjoy and, most importantly, remember great fiction because of how it makes them feel.
Sure, we can quibble over the black and white of this premise, that fiction can also impart information and do all sorts of things other than just evoke emotion. I won’t argue that point, because of course it does. But the primary purpose of storytelling is to evoke emotion. Different genres, different emotions; all the same purpose.
As a writer, I feel those emotions first. When I write a scene that I hope will make a reader feel sad or angry or afraid, I’m going to be crying or fuming or trembling while I write it. This is the reason certain parts of a book are so difficult to write. I’m putting my characters through an emotional wringer, but I’m right there with them.
I imagine there are writers who are more experienced or more talented than I am who can accomplish this in their work without feeling those emotions. Without feeling vulnerable. I wish it worked that way for me. It doesn’t.
So it’s a bit of a problem, as a writer, when you’re in pain and your emotions are locked down tighter than– a thing that is tight [this is my brain on drugs, kids]. In a first or even a second draft, this wouldn’t matter quite as much. For me, the early drafts are just putting characters where they’re supposed to be and seeing what happens. It’s very dialog driven. I make vague notes about internal stuff like what they’re thinking and how it probably makes them feel. I add that stuff in later, along with physical description.
I suck at this, especially physical description. “They were in the woods. There were trees. Yeah, lots of trees. And stuff.”
Sadly, the two projects I’m working on are no longer at the draft stage where I can get away with saying, “And then there were emotions. And stuff.” They’re at the stage where I need to be vulnerable. That doesn’t come easily to me, even under the best circumstances. I need to be able to feel what the characters feel in order for it to have any hope of coming across as authentic to the reader. And I haven’t been able to do that. Honestly, I haven’t even tried in the past month. Actually, for longer than that, as I started to shut down emotionally even before surgery. In self-defense. Anticipating pain.
While there are still ups and downs, I’m finally getting to the point in recovery where the pain is no longer the all-consuming, steal-your-breath-away, hold-very-still-and-concentrate ordeal that it was the first few weeks. I’m also making good progress on weaning myself off the narcotic pain meds, which didn’t make me loopy after all. They just make me sleepy (and unable to come up with blog-appropriate similes). I’ve been taking all sorts of impromptu naps.
The really interesting part of recovery and physical therapy has been the insistence that I try things I don’t think I’m ready to try. Within hours after surgery, a pair of
drill sergeants deceptively pleasant therapists came into my hospital room and said “we” were going to stand up and maybe walk a bit. I wanted to laugh and say, “Yeah, right. You’re welcome to try, but this ain’t gonna happen.” But I stood up and they shoved a walker in front of me and we by god walked right out of that room and down the hall to the window and back. Of course, I was still drugged to the gills and wouldn’t have felt any pain if they’d curled me up and rolled me down the hall like a bocce ball at the beach, but still. I did it.
They sent me home the day after surgery, which I still find a bit mind-boggling considering what they did to me. Below is a print out of the actual x-ray of my actual knee, two weeks post-surgery, moments after they removed 37 actual metal staples from the incision. That was fun. Apparently, HIPPA rules say I can’t take a picture of an x-ray, even if it’s of my own body part. Hence the print out.
Yes, I have pics of the incision at various stages. No, I’m not going to post them.
I was ready to stay in the hospital an entire week, simply because the food was that good. I’m not kidding. It was fantastic and I didn’t even have to clean up the kitchen afterward. But they said I’d made remarkable progress and was ready to go home. They were right.
The in-home PT has been more of the same. The woman I’ve been working with is tough and insistent, without being mean. There’s no way I could do that job. Not effectively. I’m full of admiration and gratitude. She, too, is amazed by my progress and has pushed me way past what I thought were my limits.
Two instances stand out. The first one was an exercise to strengthen my hamstring muscle. It’s something I simply couldn’t have done, pre-surgery, as damaged as my knees are. I’ve had ample experience with how much that particular movement hurts. The second was walking down a set of stairs, leading with my non-surgical still-messed-up leg and relying on the so-called strength of the one they’d sliced to bits, mere weeks ago. The one that was still hurting and not even close to being fully healed.
I gave the PT a dubious look, but not trying wasn’t even an option. I am nothing if not determined.
Both times, I braced myself physically and emotionally for what I was sure was going to be excruciating pain. Pain that I knew, from years and years of frustrating experience, was going to happen. Both times, no doubt in my mind, this was going to fucking hurt.
And with that realization, both times, I fought back tears.
I think I’m almost ready to get back to writing.