When I was in college I wrote a paper about the concept of pain. Pain is a personal experience for everyone; we all have pain in our lives, whether physical or emotional. What interested me was the process of communicating pain.
We've all been at a doctor's appointment with an unexplained ache or pain. Usually, the doctor will examine you, then as you to rate, on a scale of 1 - 10, how bad your pain is. This always struck me as problematic, because we experience the world - and pain - from our own unique perspective. What feels, to me, like the worst pain I've ever experienced may be a 3 or 4 to someone else. In an area as objective and scientifically rigorous as medicine, I wanted to examine why this subjectivity exists.
I was surprised by what I learned, though the more I thought about it, the more it made sense. We use numbers because, even though pain is hard to quantify, it's even harder to describe. Think about it: when you last tried to describe pain to someone (a cut, a stubbed toe, an unexpected fall and bruise, a broken bone), you probably told them that it hurt.
Okay, so what does hurt mean, objectively? According to the dictionary, hurt literally means "physical injury". That doesn't actually tell your listener anything about the pain, just that you are in pain.
The next layer of detail usually contains a series of adjectives. You might say it burns, aches, tingles. It might feel hot or cold, the pain could be sharp or constant. The descriptors are endless. But there's still a misalignment here, because the way I experience the world is unique from yours.
The reality is, we can't accurately describe pain. In my paper I explored all the challenges this creates, from getting an accurate diagnosis to simply being able to properly articulate how you feel.
This is a topic that's close to home for me, because for the past eight years I have suffered from chronic pain. I broke my ankle the summer of 2012, and less than six months later I was in so much inexplicable pain that I could no longer walk. Doctors were scared to treat me - I had procedure after procedure, none of which did anything to help. Every specialist I saw didn't know what to do with the generalized symptom of "pain". Some even thought I was making it up, though my leg was covered in colorful splotches and was cold to the touch.
For those of you who have suffered similarly, I know you understand how disempowering it is to have chronic pain. It is so often an invisible disability, but also completely debilitating. Pain permeates every aspect of your life: you can't sleep; you suffer nausea; everyone around keeps asking if you're okay, though you clearly aren't.
During the five months I was in a wheelchair, I got a taste of the other end of the spectrum: what it's like having a very obvious physical disability. It was shocking and humbling, and one of the worst experiences of my life. Though the only part of me suffering was my leg, people assumed I was unable to advocate for myself; invariably, they would address my mother, or other people I was with, asking in hushed tones, "is she okay?"
Since re-learning how to walk, I have shed the outward label of disabled. But I still am. I still struggle to walk, and some days can barely get out of bed. My disability is invisible, but it is still a disability, and it affects the way I see the world and the person I have become.
It's not good, or bad - merely yet another label I carry with me.
Bridget is the author of Summer Twilight, available for purchase now!