In Cat Power’s Ruin, she lists places where she’s been. She makes the places her own in the song, with rhythm and her pronunciations of locations. Two weeks ago I tried to mimic her, tried to make my illnesses my own, make them beautiful with rhythm. Migraine and menstrual pain, PTSD with fibromyalgia and flu. That’s the best I could do.
Last week I said I would share links that dealt with pain. I’m not sure that’s a good idea but I’m sticking to my word.
On Tuesday morning, Antonia Crane and I met up to discuss her interview with Jill Soloway. We drank coffee and she asked how I was. Then she said, You have trouble talking about pain, don’t you? I said, Yes. Most of the time I think about pain because I’m in pain. Once I start talking, I won’t stop.
In the past, when in pain, I have looked at Tracey Emin’s art. Her work on fabric creates a tenderness and rawness that highlights the pain her stitched words convey. I’m thinking of “Helter Fucking Skelter“ and “Psyco Slut”. Once I was obsessed with Exorcism of The Last Painting I Ever Made. Since I’m talking about pain, let’s look at this detail and this one. This, too.
My pain these days is physical. I’ve had my share of emotional pain and I’m sure I’ll have more. This is life, after all. When I was twenty-three, I had my heart broken while simultaneously experiencing a nervous breakdown. That was the year I read The Score repeatedly. That was the year I saw Stephen Elliott read the essay at a bar on Valencia Street.
The bar was crowded and the man I desired was there and so was another man I would fuck two years later and I hadn’t met Stephen yet. I would meet him three times before he remembered me. But that is irrelevant. At that moment, when Stephen read, everything faded away and it was just him but it was more than him. It was the space, the words. It was the shimmer.
In Why I Write, Joan Didion explains, “Look hard enough, and you can’t miss the shimmer. It’s there. You can’t think too much about these pictures that shimmer. You just lie low and let them develop. You stay quiet. You don’t talk to many people and you keep your nervous system from shorting out.”
But I didn’t know how to keep my nervous system from shorting out. That night I was high from painkillers and drunk from beer, I hadn’t slept in days (or months) and was losing weight because I didn’t have an appetite. I was shorting out, I was staying quiet and then I was leaving San Francisco.
This week, I emailed Stephen: Tell me to write that story about you.
He replied: You should write that story about me.
And I should.
Stephen Elliott’s Why I Write.
When I was nineteen, I had my first experience with PTSD. I had weekly panic attacks and that year spent Christmas visiting my father who was in a behavioral center, which is the new word for mental institution. That was the year he was homeless.
Do you remember when Mac McClelland wrote about PTSD and violent sex?
These days my father is dying and losing his memory (mind) in a bed somewhere in Los Angeles. I don’t know how to have a relationship with my father. I’m afraid I’ll know how when he is dead. I’m not saying that when he is dead is too late. I am telling you about fear and fear is one of the most painful experiences I know.
More about pain:
This essay is lyrical and makes me ache: Get Me Away From Here, I’m Dying .
Listen to He Was A Friend of Mine.
Read Cheryl Strayed’s The Love of My Life.
But like I said, these days my pain is physical. I spent half of last year in dental surgery. I was in dental surgery at least once a week for appointments that lasted hours. If you add it up, that’s probably sixty or so hours of sitting in a dentist chair under a bright light with my mouth stretched wide open. Filling, drilling, screwing, scraping, cementing.
I went to USC School of Dentistry, which is why it took so long. Melissa Petro’s The Other One Percent begins, “I’m at NYU Dental waiting to get a cavity filled. I’m at NYU Dental because I’m poor, although if I were really poor — I am thinking — I wouldn’t be at a dentist at all.”
When the dental surgery ceased, the fibromyalgia flared. Eventually I was bedridden while my body ached with pain day after day after day. I tore out this photo of Frida Kahlo from a book and taped it to the wall beside my bed. I looked at Tree of Hope – Arbol de Esperanza and Wounded Deer - El Venado Herico.
There was one particular night I became wild with pain. I texted Donna and Mike and J. for pills. Anything to Make. It. Go. Away. J. and I hadn’t seen each other for a year and I always refused to let him know where I lived but that night gave him my address and he drove to my house and dropped off pills and a TENS machine. I took all the pills and set the TENS machine to the highest voltage. The room started spinning, I felt like I was swimming, and then I was sleeping. Peace isn’t the absence of pain but when pain is unending, it sometimes feels that way.
I ask people to recommend me writing that deals with physical illness. If you have any you recommend, please leave titles in the comment section below. Recently I read The Measure of What is Possible and Interpreting My Malady.
Two weeks ago at 3 a.m. I was throwing up from a combination of the flu and bad cramps. My calves and ankles and the bones in my feet ached. I couldn’t tell if the aching was from the flu or from a fibromyalgia flare up or both. I was hunched over the toilet and all of a sudden yelled out from the pain. Just a long desperate cry. Followed by more cries.
When I got up, I banged my back into the sharp corner of the toilet paper dispenser. It was comical almost. It was like the punchline. I found painkillers Donna gave me from months ago and took two and finally fell asleep. In the morning, I rubbed my back and felt dry blood.
Antonia was sick with the flu and sent me an email. She wrote, I know you understand sick, if anyone understands sick.
I’m in pain all the time because, according to certain doctors, my neurons are abnormal and send wrong messages to my body. It’s neurological, it’s the central nervous system, it’s another example of shorting out. And no one can tell my why. They can barely tell me how.
In two weeks I’m flying up to San Francisco so a woman can beat me up. It will be my first ever dominatrix session. I went to acupuncture and the woman was surprised by how many needles I could take during my first appointment. Days after my acupuncture appointments my forearms were sore and tender. One night J. made me come eight times in less than two hours and left red scratches on my upper back, along the shoulder blades. He left bruises on my thighs and ass. Yes, the following day my body was sore. But I knew the why, I knew the how.
The funny thing is: Most moments, I’m happy. And when the pain threatens to dim my spirit, I listen to Nina Simone’s sing this song, among other things.