My Weird Relationship With Pain

Six years ago, I went to a Rise Against concert and flung myself bodily into the mosh pit.  I was sweaty, beaten, and in pain.

What I didn’t know was that my appendix had burst.

How could I?  My body processes pain differently than most people, apparently.  I walked around with a belly ache for two more days before finally hauling myself to the doctor’s on Monday.  When he asked me what my pain level was, I infamously said, “Four, maybe five out of ten.”

“You should have been screaming,” he later told me.  Because sure enough, my body was flooded with poison, and though I didn’t know it at the time, I had only a 40% chance to live.

Whoops.

So about two years after that, when I was laying in bed on a sleepy Saturday morning, turning over because I had some chest discomfort that kept waking me from a thin rest, I stopped.  “This is a one out of ten,” I thought.  “Maybe a two.  But the last time I had a five, it nearly killed me, so maybe I should go the ER.”  And I got my daughter up, and griped that I was wasting $2,000 on some stupid ER visit but better to safe than sorry, and….

99% clogged in three arteries, including one known as “the Widowmaker.”  They cracked open my chest, gave me an emergency triple-bypass.

And it’s not like I’m insensate.   If I stub my toe, I will shout profanities to the high heavens.  When I got stung by bees back when we had a beehive, it hurt.  I just seem to have some upper limit to pain wherein literally life-threatening amounts of pain do not register.

So when I was in the cardiologist’s office yesterday after I failed my nuclear stress test – which is a totally badass name of a thing to fail – he asked, “Have you had any chest pains?”

Yes.  All along.

But I don’t know what they mean.

Because after you are diagnosed with a potentially-fatal heart condition, you feel chest pains all the time.  Because you are super-focused on that area that could, you know, kill you, and so any gas pains or random aches suddenly become this billboard-sized panic of “IS THIS THE END.”  I’ve talked with other heart patients, and it’s funny how many random twinges we all ignore right up until the time you can’t.

“Have you had any chest pains?”  And I don’t know how to answer that.  Yes.  No.  The last time I had chest pains they put me on a Holter monitor for three weeks where I wore EKG electrodes day and night, carrying around an electronic pack that registered by every heartbeat, and they found nothing even when I specifically said, “Yes, this hurts.”  On the other hand, I’ve specifically been in at least two situations where my pain should have been broadcasting “YOU ARE DYING, YOU ARE DYING,” and, welp, dying apparently wasn’t that bad.

So what do I tell him?

How do I know?

I literally have a body that doesn’t know what’s dangerous, and unfortunately there’s no easy way of calibrating it.  I’m going into the hospital next Tuesday where they’ll slither a tube up my arteries and literally poke into my heart like a tapeworm to see what’s going on, because I am incapable of self-diagnostics on any meaningful scale.

And that’s a low-grade fear I can’t get rid of.  Any time I feel any pain, I have to wonder, “Is this just your normal forty-year-old dude ache, or is this a harbinger of my impending demise?”  And that constant surveillance is exhausting.

Yet I don’t have a choice.  And maybe it’s better than the alternative; I mean, I didn’t want to be screaming in pain when my appendix burst.  But maybe I’d have had a lot nicer surgery if I had more finely-attuned sensors than these blunt-force nerves I had at my disposal.

As it is, I’m going in Tuesday to have them check out my heart.  Maybe it’s bad.  Maybe it’s not.

I have no way of knowing.

(Incidentally, here’s another thing that’ll kill me: repealing the ACA without a valid replacement for risky patients like me.  There’s no way I can actually afford the treatments I’ll need, and the preliminary rumblings from Republican Senators imply that the new laws might actually be more lenient in who they allow to be kicked off a plan – yes, even if I am gainfully employed – so calling your Senator to tell ’em the ACA should be retained, or at least the replacement should cover unlucky schmucks like me, is critical.  I wrote up an easy how-to manual to do it here.  You’d be doing me a solid if you did call.

(And no, plugging for the ACA {or at least a reasonable replacement} is not why I wrote this, but it’s sort of impossible in this day and age to write about my critical health conditions without pondering whether I’m, you know, going to be able to get coverage I can afford.)

 

1 Comment

  1. Martha S
    Feb 15, 2017

    Fascinating. I have a similar problem. Interestingly, a lot of women share it, too. I went to the doctor to have my appendix out when I was 19. I was going in for a persistent moderate-mild pain in my abdomen that I had gone trick-or-treating through, moved out of an apartment through, and done lots of other miscellaneous labor through for about 10 days. When my test results came back they immediately sent me to the ER and told me that it was a miracle my appendix hadn’t burst and killed me, and they didn’t understand how I was just doing these laborious things through it. They said I should be immobile from pain but there I was, shrugging it off in the urgent care center very surprised by the diagnosis. My reasoning was simple; it hurt less than my cycles did prior to getting on the pill, and sometimes after for that matter… Therefore it couldn’t possibly be that bad.
    I have a new metric now, especially for stomach problems. Is it worse than I could expect to feel if I were a healthy male of the same age? Yes? Can I identify an obvious cause of it (like my cycle or I worked really hard the day before or something)? No? Then there’s a real chance it could be a problem, even if it’s no big deal to me because pain is kind of a regular occurrence. You might consider using a similar metric in the future.

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