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first person

Illustration by Mary Kirkpatrick

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Pain that comes from deep within your body, pain that invades your very core, is quite different from a cold or the flu, a paper cut or a bruise. This pain owns me.

For years, my mother complained of neck and back pain – to the point where she annoyed me. When I was 8 or 9, I remember coming home for lunch and finding her sitting in the bedroom with her neck in a massive brace that was attached to a rope with a weighted bag slung over the top of her cupboard door. I took a few steps back. The peanut butter and jelly sandwich that had been on my mind vanished. To me, it was a scene out of a horror movie, full of zombies with icy blue tendons, throbbing red arteries, cracking bones and bloodshot, bulgy eyes. It frightened me. It was difficult for her to move her jaw and talk while the brace had her in its demonic hold. After she unleashed herself from the grips of the thing, it hiccuped, the bag slithered down to the ground and the brace scurried upwards bouncing like some creepy clown puppet. I croaked some inaudible words and retreated to my room.

That was the day I learned that my mother had arthritis. My fresh little limbs, tendons and bones could not comprehend pain, other than a scrape to my knees or the occasional bout with a stomach ache after too much Pink Elephant popcorn. But getting an official diagnosis somehow legitimized her pain and unleashed my sympathy.

This year, I was diagnosed with my own disease: arthritis in my cervical spine. What I thought was a pulled trapezius muscle (from too many weight classes at the gym) turned out to be arthritis, nestled like a bunch of hungry maggots in the joints of my neck. Lifelong arthritis. Nasty, chronic-pain arthritis. Mean, evil, unrelenting, ever-present arthritis. I picture the maggots feasting on the spongy tissue between my vertebrae and it hurls me into depression. They will nibble away until they are satiated and I will be left with bone on bone, grinding away. This began my intimate relationship with chronic pain.

When pain comes to visit, I cannot ask it to leave. I cannot take medications to banish it or wine to subdue it. This pain knows my every weakness and it attacks with fervour. When I have a flare-up, it feels like I have wooden splints strapped with duct tape at either side of my neck and concrete bricks on my shoulders. All these years, I’ve taken my beautiful, sexy, sweet, neck swivel for granted. This pain is now a part of who I am. Initially, the pain scared me and I immediately stopped going to the gym, started taking a host of herbs and tinctures for the inflammation that crept throughout my body, and put heat packs on at every opportunity. I sit a lot, stay in bed too long and can’t seem to read or settle or even think about things that I used to love. Pain knocked my confidence in the one thing I could always rely on, my body. As a result, my self-esteem and ego took a gut punch.

So begins the journey of my lasting relationship with pain. Now that I have pain as my closest friend, many things have changed. I can’t dance with abandon. Any sudden movements I pay for, dearly. So, it’s strictly swaying to the beat for me. I will need more silky dresses and pearls for this slow dance. My right eye has started watering uncontrollably, as if I am only half crying. I keep telling people I’m only half sad today. My neck clicks with regularity. I think this is just in case I forget about the pain for a second. It’s a reminder not to get cocky, and not go out and do a Zumba class. Oh thou cruel host, pain. Now, I look at a bag of groceries or a bag of mulch for the garden and think: “What price am I willing to pay to hoist this load to my house?”

My pain doesn’t like pillows, of any kind, so the pillows get put back on the bed every morning, fluffed and camera-ready like the inviting imposters they are. My pain puts up with yoga on a day when it’s not raining but my years of lifting weights are behind me now. She will punish me with a vengeance if I lift a dumbbell. If pain gets angry, she will come to visit and not relent until she’s good and ready. That means there could be days, even weeks, of pinching, burning, pulling and aching. Clearly, my pain needs some anger-management training. I need to coax her back to level ground, calm her down and invite her to join me in a hot Epsom salts bath. This generally subdues her enough that I can sleep (without a pillow) for a few hours.

I reflect now on what I could have done differently. How could I have prevented pain from landing with such ferocity into my spine, the anchor of my body. Was it too much pizza, French fries and deep-fried chicken balls with orange sauce in my youth? Was it the countless fitness classes I’ve attended – neck cranked like a fish hook? Was it the stress of career and family? Too many hormones in my milk? Pesticides? DDT on my strawberries? My birth order as the youngest and weakest? Or is this my mother’s biological legacy to me? There is no clear, crisp answer to this state of affairs. Now I need to decide what to do with it.

Wendy Walters lives in Toronto.