The Relativity of Pain

The Relativity of Pain

I am comforted, oddly, by the possibility that you cannot compare my pain to yours. And, for that reason, cannot prove it insignificant.

-Eula Biss


When grass is cut, it emits chemicals. Green leaf volatiles and oxygenated hydrocarbons mix together to create that fresh cut grass smell. The scent is refreshing and calm, but this release of chemicals is a cry for help when the plants suffer tissue damage. The chemical concoction alerts certain insects to come and eat the smaller ones feasting away on their leaves. There’s no concrete evidence that these plants can feel pain, yet they know when they’re being hurt. These blades are cut, ripped up by small hands, eaten by bugs and dogs and cows. They have no defense.


The third time I broke a bone, I fractured the growth plate. Cracked. Ruptured. Shattered. The doctor told me I was being brave. What else could I be? At nine, I couldn’t do anything but stare at my twisted wrist. Every touch from my doctor agonizing. The padding slithered around my arm, each layer of wet cast mold clung. A purple cast for purple skin.


There are many studies that show animals feel emotional pain more than physical pain, will even choose the latter. In just one study, a mother rat walked across an electric grid 58 times to bring her babies back to their nest, getting shocked with each step.


My father died when he was 39. The funeral was held at our church. My father was cremated, so he had no casket. There was only a blueish grey marble box which looked too small to hold him centered on a table at the front of the room. The church had always taught me that suicide was a sin, yet there we were. Celebrating the life of Mark Perrin. Over the years I’ve wondered if the pain of a bullet equates the pain of an unhappy life. Either way, it doesn’t matter. Pain cancelled out pain.


Pain:  /peIn—From the Latin “poena”

  1. n. “Punishment; penalty; suffering or loss inflicted for a crime or offence.”
  2. v. “To take pains or trouble; to exert oneself with care and attention; to endeavor or strive for a particular result.

I used to think pain was only our suffering, something we received. But pain is no longer the consequence, it is the action. We take pains—they are ours. We give them homes with hardwood floors and blue shutters. We let them grow within us until they give us our desired consequence. No pain, no gain.


The doctor said four to six weeks for my wrist to completely heal. At school my friends signed my cast and bombarded me with questions.

How did you do it? Did you cry? How bad did it hurt?

How bad? I didn’t know how to explain it. I’ve never understood comparisons of pain. My broken wrist did not feel like a kick to the shin, or a fall off a bike, or being bitten by a dog. It felt like a broken wrist.


Aristotle viewed pain not as a sensation, but an emotion—a passion of the soul. The soul produces the pain. It comes from within.


NFL icon Doug Flutie’s parents passed away just one hour apart from heart attacks. His father died first, followed by his mother. They had been married for 56 years. The extreme grief and shock of the loss of a loved one can put stress on the heart, causing chest pains, low blood pressure, rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath, and can even lead to congestive heart failure. Broken heart syndrome. The emotional pain becomes tangible.


At school, my brother and I were put in grieving classes. We had to talk about our feelings and how we were dealing with things—how we were trying to move on. The teacher gave us a paper with an outline of a person and a list of colors that represented different feelings. Sadness, fear, guilt, anger, jealousy, nervousness, and happiness, but I wanted to color my body pain. She said most children mistake mental pain for physical pain, but there’s no mistaking how my stomach churned and eyes burned when I saw his empty parking spot in the driveway.

September 13, 2015

September 13, 2015

She opens her eyes, the surroundings foreign. Her eyes try adjusting but light breaks the window, illuminating the room. She rubs them, charcoal mascara clumping and breaking off onto her cheeks. The bed comes into focus and she’s lying sideways—they’re lying sideways. His body mirrors hers. He inhales deeply as his body turns ever so slightly to stretch. She looks at her phone—9:46am. They’ve been sleeping for a few hours. With a small kiss, he wakes. They lock eyes and he smiles, warming her in a way the blankets cannot. He opens his phone and starts scrolling. As she recalls the events of earlier this morning, exhaustion falls back over her. She reaches out for him and takes his hand in hers, their fingers intertwined in mid-morning calm. He squeezes slightly, assuring her. She thinks about Friday, about him, about them—her head spins. “Just friends” was a concept she believed in until this moment, seeing a future in his eyes. She lays her head next to his and melts into the comfort of their morning.



*Published in The Helix Magazine, Spring 2016 edition*

Just breathe. Focus.

I look up and see masses passing through the sections of clothes, the store a blur of dove whites and soft tans. I feel a wave of nausea hit me; my fingers reach up and leave deep ruby marks on my neck in a desperate attempt to trick my brain into forgetting about my stomach.

4:37 P.M. I don’t clock out for another hour and a half, which elevates my already spiking heart rate. The smell of greasy, salted pretzel bites wafts through the air and tightens my throat. My eyes create a path throughout the store from my position in the front all the way to the back where the bathroom is and I calculate the approximate time it would take me to get there: around 20 seconds, if I walk fast. I look back at my table, an overwhelming sea of color coded undies piled high. A customer asks me a question I don’t know the answer to; I relay it verbatim over my headset with the strongest voice I can produce. Pointing her to another associate, her eyes run over my recent scratch and she thanks me uneasily.

The peak is always within 10 minutes. It’s almost over, relax. You can beat this; you always beat this.

I glance at my watch–4:39 P.M.

Panic disorder is diagnosed in people who experience spontaneous seemingly out-of-the-blue panic attacks, preoccupied with the fear of them recurring. Mine started during adolescence, around age fifteen. The first one is always the worst. A combination of sickness, pain, confusion, uncertainty, and fear all heightened to the highest level imaginable–a quick preview of death. Not knowing how or why it happens gets into your head, making you feel inadequate, isolated, and scared. It’s almost as if I am a car in a parking lot full of other cars. All of their car alarms only go off if someone tries to pick the lock, or smash the window open. My car alarm is more sensitive; it goes off if a leaf falls on my windshield.

4:42 P.M.: The Build.

My hands shake, which makes laying out the thin lace thongs almost impossible. I pick up the whole pile and dump it over, deciding to start from scratch. Focusing on the menial task takes up my concentration while I try to control my breathing. Sizing, laying, perfecting; the few things I can easily do. I look over at my manager–a long haired brunette layered in AEO attire. She rattles off the benefits of our store credit card to a customer effortlessly, including how, if they sign up today, they “save 30% on the first purchase.” She’s skilled and confident, her six years of experience shine through her. We lock eyes; I force the least panicked smile I can. She smiles back, unaware of my internal war.

Imagine being pushed into a cage with a hungry lion. Mouth watering, he snarls and circles you. Your body shakes, sweat drips, adrenaline rushes–that very real fear of death consumes you. But you’re not with a lion–you’re just studying in the library or at the movies with your friends. A seemingly safe place has become your death bed.

4:46 P.M.: The Peak.

You need to get out.

I wipe my hands on my jeans, getting off the sweat that has gathered in the middle of my palms. I feel my heart beating fast, it echoes in my ears. There are two immediate exits from my store that I can access right now, but the fear of disappointing my manager keeps me stuck in place. An acidic taste inhabits my mouth and I try to swallow it down but my throat is completely dry. I start to pace around my area in hopes that moving my legs will make me feel less claustrophobic. My legs tremble, I sway with every step. I walk around the wooden table that displays our t-shirts in an attempt to look busy. A small dip in the floor catches my foot and I trip over myself, just enough for the few people around me to see.

Damn it. Everyone’s looking at you.

“Are you okay?” A customer asks.

“Oh yeah, just caught a little bit of the floor, thank you.” I reply, feeling the sting of hot tears peaking out of my swollen face. Flashes of hot sweats and cold chills run over me and my body turns into a battlefield for opposing temperatures. It takes every bit of strength I have to contain the tears and fabricate a thankful smile.

4:53 P.M.: The Calm.

I inhale slowly, leaning on a wall next to the rack of push-up bras. I can still feel myself shaking, but regaining control of my breathing tops my priority list. As reality sets, I get hit with a wave of humiliation and sadness. The medical disorders’ stigma rings in my ears, confirming my own personal feelings.

This isn’t normal–I’m not normal.

The recurrence of these attacks are often unexpected, making it almost impossible to ever prepare for them. I glance around; everyone looks calm. A stillness sets over the store and things seem to slow down. I walk back over and stand in front of the undies table. Looking down at the assortment, a pit in my stomach starts to grow. I start to sift through the piles, wondering how long it will be until the cycle repeats.