Affliction: On Finding Relief in Pain

By

I.

In the place I come from, once the Thai moon is fully swollen, the Kaumaras prepare themselves for Kavadi. For forty-eight days, they abstain from meat and sex and alcohol, sleep on cold floors, bathe in colder water, and pray. Mostly, they pray. In the final twenty-four hours before the festival, they do not eat at all. On the day of, they shave their hair, dig hooks into their backs’ flesh, and drag a cart for more than four hours, journeying toward the deity.

When I was young, it would not be strange to see these devotees in temples, spears piercing their cheeks, hobbling on bruised, bare feet. What I remember most is feeling not horror or fear, but jealousy. Even with countless pieces of metal puncturing their flesh, the Kaumaras had a look of absolute devotion. They did not seem to process pain but were possessed by something else entirely.

I saw bodies split from their person. I’d close my eyes at night and imagine metal piercing through my flesh, a blinding excruciating pain, how this could be a vehicle for transcendence. The body as a symptom, something to be placed inside a name and left.

 

It was a Saturday morning when I left for the piercing shop with two of my aunts. I was excited: I’d been wanting to re-pierce my ears for almost a year, but the consensus was that they hadn’t yet healed from their most recent infection. Even as I walked to the shop, hot fluid oozed sporadically from the wounded skin. Sometimes it was mixed with blood from my scratching and failed attempts to push through an earring. This didn’t bother me. I wanted to wear earrings like the rest of the girls. I felt ugly without them.

In the shop, a man with five piercings in each ear and a loud set of necklaces sat me down. I waited while he heated the pin and marked a point on my left ear. His breath was on my cheek, hot and smelling faintly of garlic.

He took his time. I tried to sit still and not fidget. My aunts gave me encouraging smiles. I sat straighter. I sucked in my gut. I breathed. In, and out.

Five seconds, then six. In the seventh, my world went white. The shock hit in waves: two, three, four seconds later, as if in echo. White-hot. White-blank. White in my ear fled to the tips of my fingers, my toes, my spine. There were hands holding mine, rubbing at the skin, skin that felt like leather, like it had died and ceased to be a part of me. I might have screamed.

I thought I’d spoken, but I do not recall speaking, only the memory of it. I searched for my tongue. Shaped the words. Pushed them out. It was other women I heard, though: Almost, sweetheart, almost. Almost. Just hold on. Hang in there. The voices sounded as if they had traveled through great distance—wind, water, or a dream.

The man holding the pin mumbled. I attempted to get up, but hands pushed me down again. Wrong spot, he muttered. The hands did not leave. They held me down as he heated the pin again, and I tried not to struggle, but my body refused to stay. He placed the pin—so hot it felt ice-cold—at my ear and scraped it against the place he’d already punctured. My vision collapsed. I again saw nothing but the white and then flashes of red and purple when the pain worsened. Again and again, he rubbed the pin against the skin, raw, burrowing it into the wound, until I felt faint with the intensity of the sensation.

I could have handled a single strike, but this persistent scratching—the pain was not a wave, but an entire ocean. I was overcome by a rush of hatred, pure and bone-deep. All that mattered to me at that moment was getting away from the pin, the pain, now. All that existed was this now. I have never been more present in my life.

Once he’d finished with that ear, I rose from the seat and left the shop. My aunts rushed behind me, asking if I was alright, what was wrong, while I walked straight into the street, cars and bikes honking wildly. I couldn’t—wouldn’t—sit for the other ear. I needed to get away; there was no other option. I’d rather have a car crash into me, right on that street. I’d have chosen death over it. The choice seemed wholly natural to me.

This was the power of true pain: It snatched away all rational thought and left nothing but the basest, most intrinsic instinct—to get away from the very thing that’d sparked it. It consumed, sloughing off the unimportant details of the world, the mind’s prattling—my body a single point of sensation, blooming.

Pain became a door I could pass through, beyond which lay a landscape of pure, unadulterated white.

 

II.

When I was fifteen, I started to lift weights. I returned from the gym feeling underwhelmed—I had expected something far more intense—but I woke up the morning after to a body that had sunk into a delicious soreness. I spent an hour lying on my bed and drifting in my flesh. Movement brought a sharp ache with it, and when I sat very still, I’d feel a distant, blurred pressure that was more pleasurable than anything else.

Throughout the day, I carried this ache as if it was a secret. I was acutely aware of every muscle in my body and the relations between them: how a sharp pressure in the knee would blur when I stretched out my hips, how the muscles in my back shifted with every swing of my arms, how I could press a spot in my lower back and feel a complete release from my flesh.

In this way, I discovered myself.

 

Those hours in the gym became a ritual. Sometimes while working out, I’d enter brief periods of absolute euphoria. These moments were rare and both thrilled and frightened me. In response to extreme exertion, the body releases chemicals that result in a near-euphoric state; the intensity of the movement would have to be more than my body could take. This was an exercise in meditation, becoming present, alive—but it was also a real, physical threat.

I was finishing a set of lunges the first time it happened. I lifted the barbell onto my shoulders, shifted forward, and decided to go twice as far as I usually did. The first round brought only a mild ache and warmth as my blood rushed. In the third and fourth rounds, that ache intensified to a pain so deep, it felt sharp, even though it spread over every inch of my body. I shrunk to a single pinpoint, like the word contained—wrapped into myself. I was not prepared for the fifth. One step forward and my body was already trembling. Instant regret: a slew of thoughts crumpled into themselves like tinfoil. The weights dug into my shoulders and the back of my neck, where the pain became razor sharp. Ten steps forward and every muscle felt torn away from my flesh, taking me along with it. I thought of nothing except getting through this. I measured my life in degrees of pain, sweeping through every instance in the past where I’d hurt and rearranging my life in this new, timeless chronology.

My vision blurred; my world went white again. I closed my eyes and opened them, blinking, seeing only the white-hot ache that drowned me. I panicked, and then I didn’t. I felt inexplicably content; I felt inexplicably nothing. I became something past-tense. Faint purple and pink burst at the corner of my vision, and the white faded to reveal my own figure. Light haloed around it. I was convinced I was either dead or dying, and I had finally seen all there is to see. Nothing mattered except reaching this figure, nothing mattered except leaving my flesh, nothing—precisely nothing—mattered. I was only an object, moving in momentum, willing nothing except what was already in its course.

I cannot deny the relief this gave me.

 

III.

Burns are simultaneously unpredictable and forgettable, each wave bringing a fresh, raw agony. With each burn, pain emerges like something new, and I find myself wondering how I could have possibly forgotten the intensity of this moment. Because I always did forget: instead of the sensation itself, all that’d be left was a marker—an empty expression of whatever had happened. But these expressions were important; my life is punctuated by these periods of pain. I remember events in relation to pain—my ability to cope with and respond to it. I remember befores and afters; I remember myself changed. I have learnt to measure not just time but also myself in these degrees.

 

My worst burn seared itself into the back of my knee. I’d dropped a vessel straight from the stove, twisted my body to get away from its liquid, and ended up instead branding my skin with its sharp edge.

It was a few hours later, as I ran a hand over my legs, checking for damage, when I found it. A soft, purple worm had slithered behind my knee, skin burnt and risen to a crisp. When pressed, it yielded without resistance, but would not break. Two days later, I peeled it off with gentle fingers to find a red patch of skin, angry as a newborn.

This spot would be the focal point of my body for the next few weeks. Every movement derived from this place, and no action could be carried out without its reference. The cloth of my pants scraped against the wound, rubbing it raw. The pain was blunt and ever-present. The clothes I wore, the way I carried myself, the muscles I exercised, the places I went to—all of this was controlled by a single spot.

This was, I suppose, why I later started to slap myself whenever I sank into a vapid, vaguely depressed state. The sting recreated this burn—it honed my perception of the world. Pain gave me a focus for something that was previously scattered. It anchored me to my flesh in a way nothing else could.

 

IV.

At fifteen, the hairs on my legs and hands had grown so dense and long, they’d started to curl. I became a regular waxing customer at the nearby salon, going in almost once every twenty days.

The practitioner used a scalpel to smear wax over a strip of my skin. When done well—and this was rare—it was my favorite part. Ideally, the wax would be just hot enough to sink me into warmth. Blood would rush to my skin’s surface as if I’d just been born. Once the wax was smeared onto my skin, the woman smoothed a strip of paper over the wax. She’d press firmly, making sure it had adhered to the hair.

A hand on one side to brace, hold, then pull. The pain itself was never as bad as I’d imagined and always worse than I was braced for. The key was repetition, rhythm: I searched for the point where I’d no longer be able to distinguish between these three moments—the heat, the pressure, the pull, all blurring into one single landscape. In this blurring, I’d lie there, completely passive, not even flinching as the hair tore from my skin, as the top layer of skin tore from my body, warmth flooding me in a dizzying rush. I’d learn to love my flesh only as I lost it.

Afterwards, when alone, I’d sneak some of the post-waxing oil out of the rack so I could rub it over my skin—paper-soft, paper-thin, ready to break. It was during these precious moments that I’d notice what it felt like to be painless. I’d sit on the bed, the pads of my fingers rubbing into my thighs, and relive the sting of the wax strip as I recognized its absence. As I lost awareness of my body through pain, I was shocked back into my limbs once the sensation passed. Hurting heightened everything, both within and without it.

 

Later, plucking hair became my obsession. I’d sit on my bed, the door locked, a pair of tweezers next to me on the mattress. I’d use my nails first, then the tweezers, to try and remove the hair that had grown in after waxing. Sometimes a small pin came in handy, the tips of which I could poke through my skin and tease out the strands. Hours later, I’d pull my pants over my ravaged, bloody legs, feeling inexplicably satisfied with myself.

Years later, I still find my hands smoothing over the tips of the hairs, twitching to find the tweezers. I hide the pin; instead, I cut my nails till they bleed. When I ignore the cravings, I settle into a state of sifting discomfort, like the feeling in my gut minutes before I throw up.

Pain is my clean slate. It’s my deal with the gods I still cling to decades after I stopped believing in them. And this isn’t, after all, an irrational deal—there isn’t much pain can’t promise you. There isn’t much you could be promised without pain. It was like the first face mask I smeared on at age ten—once it started to sting I complained to my aunt, but she only pressed my hands in hers and said, This is how you know it’s working. When I washed the mask off, I examined my skin in the mirror, rubbing my finger over the cheekbones to see if they’d gotten smoother. I was in a position to make demands now—I could order smooth skin, toned limbs—pain was how I learnt to own my body.

 

V.

I was walking back from the temple barefoot. The day was hot enough to burn. No matter how fast I walked or how I twisted and turned, there was no respite from the sun. The back of my neck felt like it was on fire. The sensation spread until it seemed that the heat was blooming from within me, from my navel, and I relaxed into it. There was no point trying to ease away, so I gave in. I let the heat frame me. When I was within sight of my house, I passed by the ther—the chariot. It was a huge, imposing structure, with wheels as tall as my own body. The whole thing bloomed upwards, carved with naked women, flowers, and whatever else will summon a god. I walked past. My feet blistered on the iron-hot ground. I felt it on the third step. I remember a coolness, but when I write it down here, it’s too light a word. The structure, the sound; it’s all wrong.

In Tamil, we would say abhishekam. The nearest translation of this word I can find is worship. The gods here are worshipped by pouring milk and water and honey and curd over their statues. When I think of this word, I think of the priests’ hands as they smear honey over stone, the intimacy of it, the look of absolute devotion on their faces. I felt as if someone had been pouring spring water over my feet and pressed their hands to my toes. Over and over and over again. Worshipped.

I walked into the house a minute later. Faint laughter. Then screams. Hands brought me to sit on the veranda. I stayed there, dumb. More hands brought a roll of cotton, slaked lime. Someone called a doctor. Hands lifted my feet, with none of the intimacy I had known earlier. In my foot rested a nail that had fallen from the chariot wheels.

Later, I’d find a trail of bloody footprints tracing the path to my house. As if some red god had walked down from their mount and touched earth. As if their blood was real. I’d be overcome by a desire to drop to my knees and touch my forehead to the dirt.

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Rumpus original art by Eva Azenaro Acero.

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If you or someone you know is struggling with self-harming behaviors we urge you to seek treatment. Crisis Text Line offers free, 24/7 support. Text 741741 from anywhere in the US to text with a trained Crisis Counselor. – Ed.


Shreya Vikram is a writer based in India. A Dorothy West Scholar, she has been recognized by the Adroit Prizes for Prose. Her work is forthcoming in Cobalt Review, Ruminate, Salmon Creek Journal, and elsewhere. You can find more of her writing at shreyavikram.com. More from this author →