Since getting my foot tattooed 5 days ago, I have been thinking a lot about pain (funny that)
As a student nurse we were always taught “pain is what the patient says it is” and encouraged to use (but appreciate the limitations of) pain scales, which for those who aren’t familiar basically involve the numbers 1-10, and/or a series of emoticons with facial expressions ranging from blissfully happy (and one assumes, pain-free) right through to Just Kill Me Now.
The thing is though, pain is just not that simple is it? There are so many different variations of pain, and each person’s response is going to be entirely different.
There are those everyday things that we all seem to agree are fucking painful, like stubbing your toe, getting a papercut, or stepping on lego. They cause us to yell in pain or swear (or both) and maybe bring a tear to our eye without actually threatening our overall health or survival at all.
Then there are those things that sound so painful we struggle to imagine how it’d feel unless we’ve experienced it- being shot for example. I’m guessing most people reading this won’t have been shot, but still agree it sounds like it’d bloody hurt. But then when it comes to hugely painful and life-threatening injury, our bodies often step in and swiftly remove consciousness, so the pain is at least put on hold.
When people have asked me in the past to rate my pain, I have always struggled.
“On a scale of 0-10, 10 being the most pain you have ever felt, where would you put your pain?”
“Ummm…six, or like, seven maybe?”
I bet you anything, everyone ever asked picks fucking six or seven. Anything less than mid-point and it’s like- what are you even bitching about then? Anything over 8 is going to seem melodramatic. I’d save my 9’s and 10’s until the pain was so bad I couldn’t speak…and then what use would they be to me?
Plus there’s the difference between acute pain and chronic pain. OMG I’VE BEEN STABBED vs waking up everyday with dull pain. And you can’t underestimate the factor that fear plays in pain. If your leg hurts and you think it might fall off, you’re going to be more preoccupied with that pain and less able to distract yourself from it, each niggle is going to increase your worry tenfold.
For me, I can handle short sharp pain, if I know what the purpose of it is, and know that it’s not causing me lasting damage. So- piercings, tattoos, electrocution…no really…I had nerve conduction testing done 16 months ago and it’s basically just lying back and being electrocuted over and over and over. But any kind of long-lasting throbbing, niggling pain- I’m outtie. Also, I am a major worrier, as anyone who has ever spent more than 5 minutes in my company can attest, so I’m much less able to cope with pain if I think it’s the symptom of something REALLY TERRIBLE.
So, with all that in mind, I have compiled this List Of The Most Painful Things That Have Ever Happened To Me Ever so that I can refer back to it next time someone asks me to use a pain scale…
Rebecca’s World of Pain Top Ten Countdown
10. Actually getting my Foot tattoo
It’s tickling…buzzing…scratching, sweet baby jesus, really fucking hurting. Every muscle in your body screams “Run away from this pain! Why are you just SITTING THERE?!” while you force yourself to remain still and remind yourself I want this…I WANT THIS…I WANT THIS
9. Afterpains after having my second baby
It was soooo ironic that after my totally drug-free, beautiful home birth I was like “What is this shit now?! Hit me up with some pethidine and look sharp about it!” (the midwives just laughed at me and told me it gets worse with each child and to think how the mothers of 6, or 7 or more babies felt when they got theirs)
8.Having a nerve hit during my first lumbar puncture
I have tried, many times since, to find the words to describe this but always fail, because it was a bit like how I imagine it would feel to be shot in the leg but only momentary, and there was the fact it was instantaneous pain from my hip right down to my foot. Basically: Did not like. Would not recommend.
One of those times where you feel so bad you fail to see how it’s possible you still exist. Mastitis is sneaky because it creeps up on you, one minute your boobs are just a bit warm and tingly and you’re thinking you’d better feed your baby and the next your whole body is slammed with aches and pains, and you’re feverish and your breast is like a red hot lump of rock and you’re verging on delirious. I was capable of nothing during my worst bout of mastitis. I took my baby to bed and didn’t get out, except to pee for the next 72 hours.
6. Foot tattoo healing
This is basically me right now:
As a student nurse I was observing one of my patient’s surgeries, for the first time- an oesophagectomy, which for the uninitiated is a fucking loooooong and tense ordeal. I stood on a stepping stool away from the sterile field and peered in at my patient’s internal organs, aware of a dull throbbing in my jaw. Eight hours later, the surgery wasn’t done- but I SO WAS. I drove home pondering what could have gone so terribly wrong in my jaw- the answer? Impacted wisdom tooth. I promptly had it yanked out and the cavity became infected- mmm mmm. Have I mentioned I fucking hate teeth?!
Dear god in heaven, what the merry fuck is this torture? I thought my face would explode. Every movement of my head was pure agony. I lay still, in bed, crying and fantasising about sticking needles in my face to drain away the gunk and relieve the pressure.
3. Labour augmented with artificial syntocin (aka, synto is a BITCH)
The contractions came out of nowhere- bam, bam, bam. My whole body felt like it was being crushed in a vice, I could feel my uterus straining against the brutality of the action. I couldn’t understand how I could be in so much pain and survive. I completely forgot I was having a baby and began to think I was dying.
2. Sutures after childbirth
Now, this one may take some explaining. Because I know people are going to be thinking “Earache? Worse than HAVING YOUR VAGINA STITCHED?!
Well I’m here to tell you…yes.
I have a long tumultuous relationship with my ears, being as they have been attached to my head since birth but are also ridiculously unhelpful. I had a childhood of recurrent ear infections, somewhat lessened when I had my adenoids removed when I was 7. I can vividly remember nights spent crying on the sofa, with a wooly hat on, while my parents tried to distract me from the fact I wanted to CHOP OFF MY OWN HEAD.
Then as an adult, they stopped. It’s like my ears grew out of being such shits to me, and realised “Hey, we’re actually attached to her- maybe we should work together in harmony?!” and then…AND THEN…
When I was pregnant with Rudy I was so run down, I kept getting cold after cold, and then eventually of course, I got the inevitable ear infection, and then it spread to my other ear, and in a moment of pure desperation I put a couple of drops of warm olive oil in there, which initially provided some light relief and then very quickly made it feel much much worse.
I sat on the bed, crying, holding my head and wishing to god that someone would shoot me. I ended up having to call Chris home from work so that he could take care of our toddler while I drove myself to A&E (a challenge in itself when all you can think about is the white-hot needles someone appears to be stabbing into your skull). I was diagnosed with a raging ear infection and perforated ear drum.
(Interestingly the pain was probably at it’s worst just prior to it perforating).
There is no getting away from earache, it’s right there, brain-adjacent. I mused that if someone could offer me an epidural in my skull, I would totally take it, no questions asked.
You know how there’s the kind of pain where you are hurting but you’re still socially aware? Like “OMG, ouch I broke my ankle but I am going to politely answer this health professionals questions through gritted teeth anyway because I still actually care what other people think?”
Well this was NOT that pain. This was “I am a wild animal, I have gone deep inside myself and I will grab strangers in the street and ask them to knock me out with a baseball bat just to make it stop” pain. And that is why it makes the number 1 spot. Because as a student nurse I remember being told “people are not themselves in pain” and sort of thinking “well…surely they’re just themselves but in pain. So if they’re rude or nasty when they’re hurting then they’re probably the kind of people who would act like that anyway”…nuh-huh. There are types of pain that make people act in ways they never otherwise would and after that experience with my ear I totally got that.
So there you have it.
A few things that didn’t quite make the list:
- coming off my bike at the age of 7 and going over the handlebars, and then having my Dad pour TCP into my raw gravel-covered knees
- my sister breaking my nose with a hairbrush
- skating into a wall and winding myself playing roller derby (although- oof, that was some shocking and painful shit)
- bruising my coccyx (also roller derby)
- falling down stairs (multiple occasions over the decades)
- my second labour and birth (which I’d happily repeat any day- but won’t be, before anyone gets excited)
- cracking my head open on my Dad’s metal toolbox at the age of 7 (I still have the scar and I can remember the blood and panic, but not the pain)
- getting my bellybutton piercing caught in the button of my jeans
- having my first set of earrings ‘removed’ as a toddler, when the skin had grown over them (sounds horrific, but don’t actually remember)
- that one time I was hospitalised as a kid for ? appendicitis but it turned out to be a UTI (although that shit was intense)
You know, actually, the more I think about it, the more painful life is, but somehow it only seems to exist in the moment. So aside from a handful of memorable experiences (see above!) you sort of forget what it feels like. With that in mind, probably in another few months I’ll be wanting to reorder this list to de-prioritise my current foot tattoo experience, but for now I’m sticking because DAMMIT IT FUCKING HURTS.