#54: Side effects

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Gather around everyone….today I am discussing pain ❤️

CW: Reference to self-harm (via a book quote)

I got my second dose of the Moderna vaccine on a Tuesday morning. When I got home, I found Avi shivering on the couch like a bad omen. He’d gotten the shot the day before and insisted he just felt “a little hungover,” but his position on the couch (curled into a ball, head laying heavily to the side, eyes closed in concentration) betrayed him. His posture reminded me of the time I fell extremely ill in high school and told my mom my hair was heavy. My brother, meanwhile, had gotten his shot the week before, had sent our group chat live updates of the hell that followed, and now kept texting me asking how I was doing. Not as a kindness, but as a troll. I did think it was funny, to be fair.

It’s strange to know you are about to feel terrible. Few painful experiences in life warn you that they’re coming. You might suspect they’re coming, or work tirelessly to prevent them from coming, but rarely do you know for sure that they are, and when. I knew I would feel sick because I felt sick after the first dose, and the second is said to be worse. I also knew because of course I would. I always hurt; I’m sensitive by design; I never don’t catch the cold. In preparation, I decided to think of the side effects as a kind of covid exorcism—the last painful hurdle on the path to liberation, like walking on coals. I thought of a podcast I heard years ago about a man who forewent novacane for a cavity as a meditative challenge. His words echoed in my head: “Pain is not that bad! Really—it’s not that bad!” I think he meant generally: pain as sensation.

I checked the time. 12:45 p.m. I probably had a while before it hit, but how long? Tomorrow morning? Tonight? I spent the afternoon changing into stupid outfits for my fashion newsletter, racing against the flu clock, pausing occasionally to feel my own forehead, which doesn’t work. Eventually I sat down at my computer and lost track of time. Around 5 p.m., I felt it. A shiver down my whole body. Was it cold in the apartment? I looked at Avi, stilled curled up in a sweatsuit, unfit to weigh in. An hour later, I checked my temperature: 99.6° and rising. I put on pajamas and nestled next to Avi. We sat there for a while in silence, at a slant, like sick people in a commercial, or kids playing jello in the back of a car. We laughed a little in spite of ourselves, me on my way down, him on his way up, high-fiving as our symptoms crossed paths.

That night and following day, my body ached like I’d run a marathon. I barely slept, my fever settling around 100 until suddenly it was gone and I was fine. I went up to my roof with a book and fell asleep in the sun. I felt like I’d ascended to the next level.

It’s oddly comforting to be sick for a reason. I think of this every time I get my period, one of the rare painful experiences I can anticipate every month, sometimes down to the day. If I ever felt cramps out of context, I would be alarmed. But knowing their source and objective—my uterine walls are contracting so they can shed their lining—ameliorates them. Without mystery, it becomes a fact of life. And by tolerating it, embracing it even, I feel strong, like someone acquainted with my body and reality. I lay around, press my fingers into my abdomen like it’s a piano, and just exist. Acceptance serves as a kind of balm.

The British philosopher Alan Watts might call this “yielding.” In one of his many popular talks from the 1960s, he explained that our resistance to pain exacerbates it—that in fact our resistance to most things backfires: “Running away from fear is fear, fighting pain is pain, trying to be brave is being scared.” In the below excerpt, which I highly recommend watching (old-timey transatlantic vibes), he explains that accepting pain isn’t just about allowing ourselves to be human and vulnerable. It’s also about healing: our natural, biological responses to pain—versus our heady resistance—are much more effective at treating it. When we want to lay down, in other words, we should. “We are conditioned to believe that we will suffer less, that we will somehow triumph over pain, if we hold our feelings rigid. But… [o]ur reactions to pain are in a way therapeutic; they’re healing.” Crying, for instance, releases endorphins and oxytocin, which ease both physical and emotional pain. Holding tears back only hurts us more.

I’d planned to take the day off after my second vaccine. I anticipated the pain for days and even believed it would serve me. None of these things prevented my brief misery, but it did change it. I yielded, lay in my bed for hours, my cat next to me like a tiny body guard. I felt awful and somehow at peace. A vaccine is unique in that your immune response—and its possible side effects—are the goal. There is no question that your discomfort is proof of life, rather than the opposite. Obviously most experiences aren’t like that. But I wonder what it might mean to approach other types of pain with a similar trust. Pain as signal, instead of pain as problem. Or as my friend Michelle, who teaches movement, put it: “Pain is your body alerting you to a need.” Pain as language. Consider CIP, a condition that renders sufferers unable to feel pain: “Because feeling physical pain is vital for survival, CIP is an extremely dangerous condition. It is common for people with the condition to die in childhood due to injuries or illnesses going unnoticed.” With pain, we suffer; without it, we die.

Anyone dealing with chronic pain or a painful disability is probably familiar with the (often misused) concept of “pain acceptance,” but I rarely think about it in terms of my day-to-day life. I tend to avoid or resist pain as a kind of operating principle. Not just physical pain, which I experience often, but emotional turmoil of any kind. I do this out of fear, I think—to yield feels like giving up, or giving in—and also by instinct, but of course by doing so I miss something important about pain. Not just its inevitability, or its resistance to resistance, but its duality. Pain as release, presence, or even pleasure. The best way to alleviate period cramps is to orgasm. The second best way is to place a heating pad on your abdomen, which is almost as pleasurable. Alternatively you can do nothing but imagine your body doing its job, fulfilling its purpose, however inconvenient. Each one relieves something.

In an essay about pain in Leslie Jamison’s Empathy Exams, she writes about her experience with cutting. “I hurt myself to feel is the cutter’s cliche, but it’s also true. Bleeding is experiment and demonstration, excavation, interior turned out—and the scar remains as residue, pain turned to proof.” She does not endorse cutting, but she understands its purpose. In Jess Zimmerman’s newsletter last week, she wrote about a forthcoming book about pain: Hurts So Good by Leigh Cowart. As Zimmerman writes: “[P]ain makes ritual meaningful. It’s not always physical pain, though it is sometimes; there are coming-of-age rituals that involve being stung by bullet ants and coming-of-age rituals that involve reading Hebrew in front of an audience, and the pain is not the same in quality or quantity but it’s there. You mark out a threshold with this intense and difficult experience, and then you step through.”

It seems trite to write about pain and pleasure. I feel like a stoned college student passing you a joint saying, “Fuck, man. Duality, man.” I promise not to pull up the Wikipedia page for yin yang (although I did read it…). But the necessity of pain—it’s inherent value—is one of those lessons I’ll probably court forever. The pace and framework of modern life asks us to resist it: tough it out, work through the pain, pursue discipline and productivity over intuition and rest. In a way this denudes pain of its purpose, which asks us to listen, respond, yield. I know this and I forget it ad infinitum. And I remember every time I give in, and am rewarded.

In 2019 I profiled a woman named Abigail Bruley who lost access to most of her memories in a car accident at the age of 30. Before I spoke with her, such a loss seemed unimaginable to me. I was horrified by the idea of forgetting who I was right when I turned the age everyone else expected me to know for sure. But she was remarkably calm about it. Not just because it’s hard to miss what you can’t remember, but because the nature of her traumatic brain injury required it. She can’t binge-watch TV or scroll Instagram aimlessly or put herself in scenarios that will be overwhelming. She needs tons of rest and firm boundaries—things that, as she listed them out, struck me as healthy in a universal sense. The difference is her body demands it, leaves her with no choice, and the result is a tender, attuned respect for her own needs. What if we took our own cues as seriously?

1. Carvell Wallace’s Longform interview, and especially this bit of writing wisdom I wrote down while listening: “The specific means the general if you’re honest enough.” 

2. “Debunking the 5 Most Common Anti-Palestinian Talking Points,” the latest episode of Citations Needed by media critics Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson.

3. Danielle, a fascinating short film about time and aging from 2013 by Anthony Cerniello that I stumbled across this week while reading about something unrelated.

4. “The Things We Don’t Discuss,” a newsletter by Jill Filipovic about the lack of dialogue around parental regret—why so many people find the topic triggering, and what we’d gain by facing the taboo. (I also read this Maclean’s piece by Ann Kingston about parents who regret having children, which Filipovic linked to.)

5. “Everything Tiffany Haddish Eats in a Day,” a random YouTube recommendation that genuinely made me laugh.

6. “Who Should John Mulaney Be Now?” by Jesse David Fox for Vulture.

7. The most incredible internet video I’ve maybe ever seen of a dog putting itself to bed.

8. “The History of New York, Told Through Its Trash,” by Robin Kaiser-Schatzlein for the New Yorker.

9. Inexplicably, this tube top, which is probably too expensive for what it is (a sleeping bag stuff sack).

10. Six books (purchased not yet read): The Opposite of Loneliness by Marina Keegan, Girl, Woman, Other by Evaristo Bernadine, This Life by Martin Hägglund, The Balance Within by Esther Sternberg, Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong, and The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton. Was on a tear.

11. “Champagne Socialism,” an essay by Jennifer Wilson for Lux Magazine about the impact of luxuries like perfume and champagne in Soviet-era Russia.

12. This Smitten Kitchen chocolate chip cookie recipe, care of my brother, which I think officially beats the NYT crinkle recipe, at least in terms of longevity.

13. “The Town That Kanye Built,” by my friend and former editor Mallory Rice. We spoke about the story when it was just a germ of an idea and I read an early draft, so I was really excited to read it in its final form.

14. Kurt Vonnegut on “the shape of stories.” Someone should make a print of this graph?

15. Lol:

On the podcast this week: How to hurt

This week I’m going solo for another episode of Footnotes, wherein I talk through some things I read last week while writing. This time, instead of reading excerpts, I’ve recorded clips from actual talks, so maybe pretend we’re getting stoned and watching philosophical YouTube videos? I also talk about my relationship with pain and why I decided to write about it.

That’s all. Thanks for reading!

This month a portion of subscriber proceeds will be redistributed to Covenant House, New York City’s largest provider serving homeless youths.

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