Somewhere around the age of 26, I woke up and couldn’t really get out of bed.
The reason, in the immediate, was that any attempt to put weight on my legs sent shooting pains through them. Real, intense, shooting pain like there were rods lodged inside the legs and they sent out shocks when they detected any movement or effort. I have forgotten what I thought at the time, but I do remember how much it hurt.
The mattress was on the floor, so I was able to roll and crawl to a phone and call for help. After getting clothes on (somehow) and getting down three flights of stairs (somehow), I waited outside and was taken to the hospital. During this hour or two before I was picked up, I learned which positions hurt the most, which the least, and tricks for getting around, somewhat. I also stopped being shocked at how much it hurt and just winced or yelled an awful lot as I discovered a new angle, a new approach that would make it all hurt anew.
At the hospital, after some battery of tests, I was given a bunch of over the counter pain relief, some crutches, and no real idea of what was wrong. I do remember one young doctor saying “You know, this really acts like gout. But you wouldn’t have gout – you’re 26.”
I hobbled on crutches for a couple days, the pain went away, I lived on.
A couple years later I was arguing with my girlfriend while she was driving her car. I remember this because in the middle of yelling, I felt something very unpleasant and I told her to stop arguing because something felt very unpleasant.
The thing about pain is that you both remember and don’t remember it. I can, these many years later, describe it as a tightness, a strain deep inside my gut, like shoelaces of nerves had been pulled very intensely, and were now knotted in a bow, and my movement in most any direction was pulling at them. That’s what I remember made me go from thinking I’d had a bruise or a swallowed knick-knack in there – its that there was no logical sense to my ratio of pain to the motion. Moving and trying to get into a good painless angle did nothing, and then it would stop, and then it’d come back harder, and I was rapidly losing brain function. I asked and then really begged my girlfriend to take us back to her house.
On her couch, it just got worse, we didn’t know if I had a burst appendix, a knife I’d somehow fallen on, or if something inside me was just going necrotic and taking out my organs. But boy, did it hurt. It hurt until I ran out of ways to think it was hurt. I wanted desperately to take something to knock myself out but then I simply assumed that I’d die in my sleep and that seemed needlessly unpleasant and surreal. So I lay there, looking up at rafters, overcome with pain, waiting for either healing or death. Some measure of healing happened, and ultimately I fell asleep, as if I’d run a marathon.
Let’s move ahead to the diagnosis, that came in my mid-30s. Kidney stones.
There’s two kinds of kidney stones – the calcium ones and the acid ones. I have the acid ones, which are notably rarer and as a bonus, the treatments, which I had many, many, many meddling Dr. Google-Readers give me over the years, are entirely opposite. Drinking cranberry juice doesn’t work, for example – a lot of people told me to drink cranberry juice. No.
Due to a set of circumstances where I didn’t seek out the best doctor but just fell into doctors, I didn’t really have a doctor look at me, properly, with competence and awareness, until somewhat recently. This doctor has done wonders. So there’s your happy ending.
Now, let’s go back.
By my early 30s, I was passing 100 kidney stones a year. That is not an exotic allegorical statement – I was passing some sort of stone every few days. For months, and then years. On the whole, over time, I didn’t even notice them. In fact, I almost got worried when one didn’t show up in a given week. It was just another fact of life, like waking up feeling tired or occasionally having a joint feel sore. Stuff happened, and some of it involved the fact that I ceaselessly created stones and passed them frequently, with small pinpricks of pain involved in the process.
By the time this was all happening, pain was rapidly not becoming a problem for me. The kind of pain one might have from hitting your foot or shin against something, or from grabbing something sharp, I could notice, but it was more like hearing a distant yell, like someone cupping hands and shouting that you should turn back, the woods are not safe. It wasn’t immediate, and it certainly wan’t concerning. By this time, most pain was being given a level of interest far beyond what it probably should have been.
The reason for this is because of the times when it got my attention.
Imagine, if you can, a very large meatball inside a bowl that is only a little larger than said meatball. Imagine that meatball is kind of sloshing back and forth, kind of randomly, in the bowl. That’s how it felt, and how it started.
I’d feel some overarching dullness inside myself, and I started to get really good at recognizing it. The feeling, you see, was a largish stone, and one that had gotten in some way stuck. I got really, really good at noticing this, because I knew what was coming next.
If I was lucky, I could run in some direction and get my hands on water. Lots and lots of water, like quarts of it. I’m really fast at drinking water, and I’d stop mid-conversation and drink everyone’s water at the table, or run towards a store and buy a gallon of water and start drinking it at the cash register. Anything, you see, to get as much water flushing through my system as absolutely possible.
If I was lucky, and a few times I was lucky, the meatball would evaporate. It’d kind of roll into a cloud version of itself, and waves of discomfort would subside, like a pool minutes after someone jumps in it.
I wasn’t often that lucky.
I am a weaver of metaphors. I am a person who tries to find the middle ground between the listener and the moon, and concoct a pointing finger that will lead you to the moon. But where do you even begin with describing pain like a pain of a stone that’s lodged in your system?
First, it’s often in your gut, deep inside, so it doesn’t feel like the sharp sting of a skin burn or a radiating line of a strained muscle. It feels like something deep inside you is twisting apart, and has no recourse to stop, and probably will never stop. After a few minutes, you forget when the pain started and you definitely stop assuming it will ever end. Oh, you definitely hope it will end, but it never seems to.
Sometimes I was just two eyes staring at something in the room and pain. One time I was a flattened person on the floor of an airport, screaming, everyone looking at me, while a stranger held my hand. Another moment, I was in the softest bed ever, in a visit to my father’s home, with my siblings watching me appear to be dying for no good reason. They scrambled through medicine cabinets looking for something, anything, but ultimately all they could do was sit elsewhere in the house until the screaming stopped and I fell asleep.
This happened a lot. I’m not telling anyone who has lived with or spent a lot of time with me something new – they probably have at least one memory of me either having to leave very quickly to go be possessed elsewhere, or they’ve sat nearby, wondering what you do with a body when that happens, when your friend is gone. They know. Things people shouldn’t have to consider with guests, my occasional attacks gave them time to consider.
I only got operated on once, by a doctor I’ve called Doctor Coldfront since the time he operated on me. He had the bedside manner of a mailman to a mailbox. I’m sure he was competent, but ironically, he made me hurt the most, although with that pain came some interesting revelation.
He inserted a stent into my left Ureter, which is the tube from a kidney to the bladder, while I was under. I didn’t mind that – I was asleep.
Some time later, and I’ll spare you too many details, he removed the stent under local anaesthesia, as an outpatient procedure in his office. I had requested a full knockout but he wasn’t interested in doing that – I assume out of 10% concern about putting someone under and 90% of the inconvenience for what he perceived as a minor operation.
I had nightmares about that day for a decade.
But as I said, some revelation came from that – which was that there are doctors and professionals all throughout the world, some even here, who use some level of medical procedure to torture out information. Some of them are paid by governments, some by private organizations, to do so. Back in the hazy glance of youth’s cobbled knowledge and self-assuredness, I thought that a reasonably strong-willed person could resist giving whatever information was being extracted, under torture.
Considering how I was treated by a doctor who was merely inattentive to my wishes, I gained the knowledge and the understanding that no – information is probably not worth keeping from someone who is intentionally, unendingly, aggressively intent on you staying alert and bathed in pain for as long as is necessary for you to give up whatever pearl of knowledge they wish to extract.
That’s an interesting lesson to have gotten.
I never spoke to that doctor again. I hope someone broke his heart.
So, why go into all this? Well, two reasons.
First, my weblog has been suffering a little from a case of the Nerd, and has way too much technical information without much self-revelation and consideration. So there’s a little self-revelation.
Second, I wanted to make clear to a certain subset of fans and followers as to what my secret is, since I’ve had people literally say that they are trying to “Jason Scott” something, i.e. throw a lot of energy at it, or never stop.
My secret is that I am all too cognizant of how quickly life changes, and how one can go from a moment of relaxing in the sun to feeling pain so great, so intense and miserable, that you will cry tears of anger at your previous self for wasting precious minutes and hours in the paradise of existence you had been granted. It is why I don’t like lying down for too long unless I am very tired, and why I often (but not always) get up with a burst of intensity, worried about what I missed and what needs to be done.
It’s also why I tend not to wear coats, and underdress for the weather. It’s why I can hold my hand over a candle for a stupid amount of time. And it’s why I hand people things and am confused at the look on their faces, only to realize it’s because I handed them something blistering hot or bitterly cold.
It’s because pain’s kind of an abstraction now. When I go to the hospital these days, I have to exaggerate what pain I’m feeling, because I realized after a few times that they were asking if it hurt, and my definition of hurt and pain is not theirs anymore. I can see clearly, and I can think about things, and I call that not being hurt, even with a hole in my arm or a knife cut that needs stitches.
I’d call it a superpower, if I didn’t make an effort to remember how I got it, and how truly useless it is, and how dangerous. But I have it.
In the meantime, here I am, working very hard, doing a lot of things, and counting the missed opportunities and the upcoming chances to do even more things. Because of the pills I got from the right doctor, three years ago, I have not had a single kidney stone, or a single day in true screaming pain that defined my life for so long.
And if that’s what I have now, a day without that pain, then that is a day it would be a crime to waste, to not pull the most out of, to not work on things until I barely can stand up and then fall asleep until the next round of things to do.
I do not recommend the journey to this situation to anyone.
Have a great day.