There is pain in the Kentucky mountains, from which an ever-diminishing cache of coal is drawn. Factory work has dried up, but it left injuries—a break here, a crush there. Some people’s bodies throb with the ache of repetitive injuries, of pain that must be endured daily, by the nanosecond. It cannot be operated on, or if it can it’s only to lessen the pain, not eliminate it. The pain is a reminder of hard work and how little there is to show for it. That pain lives in the bones, swells in the joints and grips the chest with equal amounts of longing and letdown, slowly bringing life to a halt. The pain crisscrosses the state’s vehicular arteries, indiscriminately pricking the lifeblood of rural and urban communities. The people who live with this pain live have a deep need for things to not be as they are, a desire for an alternate reality where life doesn’t hurt so much. Addictions to pills or heroin or alcohol wear themselves on people’s bodies like a second skin. I see people clothed in this skin daily. Some of them are my neighbors. They are so wounded they can only inflict more pain on each other. They scream and howl threats at each other in the middle of the street. Pain as performance. One stabs another early one morning. Through the pain they are simply trying to be heard and be visible; they know others will avoid meeting their eyes and confirming their existence. I am here, they yell to a cloudless sky. Look at me. I am hurting. I am in pain.
The Lexington, Kentucky Narcotics Farm, which operated for nearly 40 years between 1935 and 1974, was a federal prison and treatment center that many artists checked into; there was and still exists an odd sort of romanticism around substance use and abuse and the creation or enjoyment of art. William S. Burroughs wrote Junkie during and about his stay. So many jazz musicians checked themselves in, including Sonny Rollins and Chet Baker, that when they reached a critical mass they formed a rehab pickup band. It is easy to gloss over a jazz musician’s addiction when you are decades removed and just a listener. We didn’t smell the vomit, we didn’t witness the withdrawal shakes, the fevers and sweating, the itch. We did not sit with a musician’s worried, scared families. We play the music through our digital middlemen, or on vinyl if we’re really feeling ourselves and are comforted by the warm gauze of studied, consumerist nostalgia, and we say, “Oh, it’s so good. You can hear the pain in her voice.” Pain becomes aspirational, the only legitimate form of expression. We brag about our ability to listen to pain, or we admire the ways in which it is used to render something beautiful. Even now, with contemporary artists, we sneer when they put pain in their pasts. We say: “They were so much better when they were fucked up. Their work was so much more interesting.” Not understanding that pain is a body or soul’s cry for help, not applause.
Pain (as defined by Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary):
- Localized physical suffering associated with bodily disorder (as a disease or an injury); or a basic bodily sensation induced by a noxious stimulus, received by naked nerve endings, characterized by physical discomfort (as pricking, throbbing, or aching), and typically leading to evasive action.
- Acute mental or emotional distress or suffering. See also “grief.”
In James Hannaham’s novel Delicious Foods, crack cocaine gets the largest narrative voice. Scotty (as in “Beam me up”) is a manipulative lover, not a fighter. To Darlene, one of the main characters, he says “Surrender to yes! … Say yes to pleasure! Fuck pain. All that damn pain? Leave it behind you.” Scotty’s manipulation works because, for various reasons, Darlene thinks that she deserves pain. “The kinda pain that filled up the sky and turns into the weather. Like that big red storm on Jupiter.” Delicious Foods is similar to the Narcotics Farm. It’s a place where people conduct farm labor. But unlike the Farm, whose premise was labor through recovery, Delicious Foods was straight up slavery and to hell with recovery. People were kidnapped and “paid” for their labor with the drugs they needed to numb the pain. Was the Farm any better? Despite the critical addiction research that they conducted—specifically treatment of heroin addiction with methadone—doctors “paid” patients for their participation in experiments with extra heroin and experimented on them by re-addicting them to drugs in order to study their responses. What Delicious Foods points out and what the history of the Narcotics Farm evinces is that there have always been people whose pain is considered necessary, or whose bodies are deemed expendable to advance an agenda.
I have scraped knees and knuckles hard enough to expose white flesh, burned body parts accidentally while learning how to cook or curl my hair, and been lied to by immature lovers, but I don’t have aches that keep me up at night or greet me sharp as needles in the morning. I don’t have a bottomless hunger for anything. I flirted once with the idea, deep in my boredom, that substances made me a better writer. At certain points in life I would, once home and properly drunk, pull out my laptop and start banging away at the keyboard, random thoughts that felt poetic in the dim fog of tannins but in the cold, sober day never rose above the level of adolescent diary. Trying to create art out of marijuana was similarly unproductive. Even using it to consider someone else’s art produced mixed results. Do the bass levels on a piece of music sound better? Yes. But the experience usually ended in binge eating and falling asleep. Chug the whiskey from a flask and then get on a subway train, giddy as it hurtles you into what you hope will be an eventful night with colorful strangers whose names you won’t remember. Smoke the pot and kiss someone you have never kissed before. Hang out with a friend and tell lies together all night and see what will happen. “One time I was sooooo” fill in the blank. Eventually I got tired of the stories I was telling myself. I did not have to be in pain to write or write well, but I should know what it looks like and I should understand enough about the human experience to know whether that pain is knife or fire or rain or a dull, persistent thudding that blurs the edges of a life into something gray and unrecognizable.