For Yago Colás, the anticipation of pain is often worse than the pain itself.
I’m sitting in a chair the podiatrist’s office. And I’m afraid. The doctor is friendly and talkative. We’ve exchanged pleasantries, and I’ve assented knowingly to his platitudes about the Michigan–Ohio State football rivalry. There’s nothing like football to make me feel unmanly. I’ve played sports competitively my whole life. I’ve followed football, basketball, baseball and, even, at times, hockey. I teach a college course on the Culture of Basketball for god’s sake.
But as soon as someone starts talking about football, no matter what I know (a fair bit) or what I feel (I care somewhat) about the game, I immediately feel like a fraud and a poser, certain that my interlocutor is a more properly masculine football fan than I. I imagine him (or her) beating me up, but kind of disdainfully. Unsettled, I veer wildly between falsely claiming more knowledge and interest than I have or falsely disavowing all knowledge and interest. So while this doctor is a nice guy, the topic of conversation already has me wobbling on thin ice.
Or maybe I’m having trouble feeling at home in the conversation because I already feel vulnerable in my masculinity. As I said, I have an ingrown toenail. And I’m afraid. An ingrown toenail! I already feel embarrassed that the pain of the infected toe itself has brought me here. What the hell kind of problem is that? In fact, embarrassment about the pain of an ingrown toenail is what led to being infected in the first place.
At first, I had ignored the pinch I was feeling with increasing frequency. Or rather, I pretended it didn’t exist. I carried on all my normal activities for another week or so, still trying hard to pretend I didn’t notice when some random foot fall or posture would put sudden pressure on it, sending a delicate, thin, stabbing needle into my toe. Then it got pink and a bit puffy. I looked online to see what to do. I got to the part about where the podiatrist cuts out the offending piece of toenail and I decided to try home remedies. I bathed in warm water every day, I applied topical antibiotic creams, I wore flip-flops all the time. It turned from pink to red and from puffy to swollen and hard.
Angry with shame, I went to an urgent care clinic, hoping for antibiotics that would be an end to this. I got the antibiotics. I also got the news that within a week of starting the antibiotics I’d need to see a podiatrist to cut out the ingrown nail, otherwise I’d clear up the infection with antibiotics only to have it return again. I toyed with ignoring the advice. But, I guess, finally, I’m now middle-aged and so somewhat more adult and somewhat less inclined to make that kind of foolish choice. I make the appointment, I take the antibiotics. And now, here I am, sitting in the podriatist’s chair. Afraid and feeling like a little boy, terrified that his first hair cut is going to hurt.
It would be better to have a more serious injury, I think to myself. Only, I’ve had plenty of them in the past year and, the truth is, these feelings welled up in me every time. Every time I’ve gone to the clinic—torn ligaments in my ankle, broken hand, migraine headaches—and the triage nurse has asked me to rate my pain on a scale of 1-10, I pause in silent shame and frustration. I am torn between wanting help and comfort and hating myself for wanting it. And I hate the nurse for asking me to quantify and express my need and vulnerability. Instead of finding the number that expresses what I’m feeling, I try to think what number a professional athlete would give, and then I subtract 1 or 2, and watch anxiously to see if I’ve overrated my pain. Whatever the source of my pain, however severe, I am ashamed of my pain and worry that I am unmanly for feeling it.
Still, when I went to urgent care for my ingrown toenail, I told myself that the pain was more shameful because it’s an ingrown toenail for god’s sake. After all, I wasn’t even doing anything manly—my body just feebly deformed and inflicted pain on itself. I told the nurse when she asked that my pain was a “1.” I could’ve said “0,” but then how would I explain being here. So I figured I’d just say “1” and let the red bulb that was my big toe do the talking for me. I fantasized about the doctor coming in, looking at my toe, and then throwing up his arms and exclaiming (before calling for an emergency surgery cart): “My God, man!! A “1”?! How can you stand this pain? This looks worse than some gunshot wounds I’ve seen.” But the nurse doesn’t seem impressed with my stoicism. I can tell she thinks I shouldn’t even be in here.
Now, sitting in the leather chair in the podriatist’s office a week later, I’m afraid that the anesthetic he’s just injected into my right big toe won’t work, or that it won’t be sufficient, or that it will wear off before he finishes cutting my toenail out of the flesh into which it has grown. I tell him I’m afraid. He laughs and says, “You won’t feel a thing.” I don’t feel reassured. At all. What else would he say?
He tilts my chair backwards, like the chair in a dental hygienists office. He explains, “It’s better if you don’t see what I’m doing. I’ve had patients who see what I’m doing and suddenly say they feel pain.” “Wow! Really? Well, I don’t want to feel pain,” I assure him, “and I certainly don’t feel any need to see what you’re doing. On the contrary.” He nods blankly.
I’ve said too much. I talk too much. That “on the contrary” was so unnecessary—a sort of rhetorical ornament, excessive and functionally useless. It was like a confession: I’m an intellectual—and not an old-school public intellectual, or activist intellectual. I’m just a literary academic. So not only am I a chicken-shit, but now I’m babbling like the hysterical intellectual that I am. He already thinks I’m not really a man. Now I’ve confirmed it by parading the speech equivalent of a pair of giant hoop earrings. I feel bad enough—scared, ashamed that I’m scared, ashamed of my career and vocation. But now, to top it off, I’m ashamed that, in this moment of fear, some base, reptilian segment of my brain recurs to the most ridiculous notions about masculine stoicism in the face of pain. It’s secreting gender stereotypes and pounding my ego with them far too quickly for me to even take stock of them all, let alone critically combat them.
I’m leaned back with my eyes closed. The doctor continues to talk to me, over the clatter of the instruments with which I imagine he will tear open the flesh of my toes. I keep trying to scramble for a purchase: “You know,” I begin, digging myself in deeper, “I think it’s really worse with toenails, you know, because removing toenails is actually a means of torture. So I suppose I have that cultural reference in my mind, you know? And that’s probably why I’m scared.” He doesn’t say a word when I conclude my brief, unseemly rationalization, but continues to sharpen his blade. Real men don’t talk, and they certainly don’t talk like that. They don’t use phrases like “cultural reference.”
I hear the wheels of his chair glide along the floor. I feel his hand, cool and firm, gripping my right foot. “Do you feel anything?” he asks me. “No,” I say, “well yes, I feel your hand on the top of my foot.” He laughs, “Nah, you don’t feel a thing.” He taps my toe. It feels as though he is tapping a wooden block, but that wooden block is me. Inwardly, I grudgingly admit he is right, my toe is numb, but outwardly I peevishly insist: “Well, not in my toe, but I do feel your hand on my foot.” He doesn’t say anything. I am a disgrace. Old ladies come in here for much worse things and don’t complain and blabber as much as this weak loser.
I close my eyes and begin to wonder, would it have been better back in the day, without anesthesia. I mean, had I grown up in a world without anesthesia (or in the parts of this where it is unavailable) would I have developed a different relationship to pain? Would that experience make me more stoical? Or, conversely, would a world without anesthesia—which banishes pain—also be a world in which pain and, especially, the expression of it, would be accepted without judgment? Would my relationship to pain be less, well, shot through with convoluted neurotic thoughts and just be felt? And if so, would that be better? I imagine myself in the 18th century, enduring surgery with nothing but bullet and a whiskey-soaked rag to get me through the pain. Then I’d be a man.
I am startled from my counter-factual reverie by an abrupt, loud crack. “There we go!” the doctor says, “We’re all done. I’ll just dress that and you’ll be ready to go.” I open my eyes and look down at my toe. I see a gruesome bloody gap where the right edge of big toenail should be. Oh god. What was I thinking? It’s insane to even contemplate life without anesthesia! I have no interest whatsoever,in being a man if one of the requirements is that I pretend to be impervious to and unafraid of pain.
In the end, if nothing else, my intellect—though I have disparaged and derided it ceaselessly throughout the ordeal—comes to the rescue. I take comfort in the fact that one of the greatest and most admired philosophers of all time, Baruch Spinoza, defined strength as the capacity to be affected. His argument was that feeling, of whatever sort, was data, informing us about the state of our relations with ourselves and with the world. Taking full stock of that information was critical, in his view, to making reasonable assessments of what we can remedy in our situation and of what remedies to apply. We don’t need to be governed by the fear of painful feeling or the desire to avoid it, but we suppress or ignore the information provided by pain at our peril. Being thus equipped to brings us greater joy. But the foundation for this strength is awareness and acknowledgment of what we are feeling. I agree. I don’t think it’s a sign of weakness or unmanliness to fear pain, to feel pain, or to express pain. It is a sign that we are human, that we are alive, and that we are, in some way, connected to the world.
Sure, I still feel odd about how much the anticipation of pain terrifies me. But I found over the past year that the anticipation of pain—at least in my cases—was worse than the actual pain itself. I think that’s because in anticipating pain, as before and during my visit to the podiatrist, my mind overheated trying to wrestle intellectually with an experience that defies intellectual control. The more I sought to set my intellectual teeth against pain, the more it grew, the more distorted and neurotic my thoughts became, and the more exhausted and weary I felt.
Pain, it seems, is an experience to be felt rather than thought about. I don’t seek pain out. I don’t like pain and I’d rather avoid it. But if I can’t avoid it, then I think it might be better not to fight it.
Better not to fight it, sure, if it must come; but better still to avoid it if possible. A week later I went to the dentist for the first time in about ten years. I remembered being around eight or nine and going to the dentist and complaining about the pain of some procedure. The hygienist at the time told me that her 4-year-old son never complained about the pain. I felt ashamed. This time, as the hygienist set me up for the first of three one-hour cleaning sessions, the oral equivalent of tearing up an intersection with a jackhammer, she asked me if I’d like a little topical anesthetic on my gums to ease the discomfort. “Absolutely,” I tittered nervously, but as huskily as I could, “I’m terrified.”
—Photo Stephen Brace/Flickr