On aches and people

About four years ago, I started getting a lot of headaches. The first twinges usually started in the afternoon, every heartbeat pulsing painfully in my temples. By late evening, I’d be slumped over in my desk chair, keeping as still as humanly possible, gingerly holding my head at whatever angle was the least painful, while my eyes felt ready to explode from the pressure in my head.

In early fall, I moved, transporting my stuff piece by piece via backpacks and bags through public transport, and the headaches were daily. By then, I knew they’d only get worse as the day progressed, and even sleep would only bring temporary relief until the whole cycle started over again the next day. Eventually, as I stood on the tramway hanging my head and desperately trying to keep as motionless as possible despite the train’s movement, knowing this was only the beginning, a friend offered me some painkillers.

My family was never anti-medicine: all of us three children got fully vaccinated, enjoyed regular visits to the pediatrician and the dentist (terribly enjoyable, as everyone knows), and had a fully-stocked home remedy kit for all minor health issues. Yet the only times I can remember taking painkillers were the two times I broke my arm and once after dental surgery, and in all those cases, they were officially prescribed. The intuition about medicine I inherited from my social environment was that less was always better: if it was absolutely necessary to treat an issue that would get worse or cause long-term damage otherwise, sure, but in all other cases, toughing it out and letting nature do its work was to be preferred over pharmaceuticals.

Rationally, however, I could not support that intuition. Sure, drugs put strain on bodies, but so did pain; drugs might have negative side effects, but so did pain if it kept you from doing healthy things like getting outside and exercising.
I accepted my friend’s offer, and an hour later, I was completely, blissfully pain-free. I could raise my head! I could move! I could think straight! The haze of agony I had been in had lifted, and the dread coiling in my stomach about the pain still to come had vanished, and life was so damn beautiful and rich.

The second argument in favor of pain over painkillers is that pain is just a symptom of an underlying cause, and addressing and eliminating the symptoms does not address the root of the problem. At best, this means that a problem that could have been solved persists, and the person in pain keeps themselves drugged for way longer than necessary instead of solving the whole problem, at risk of negative side effects or addiction. At worst, the problem gets worse unnoticed and complicates later treatment or even kills.

My friend did not just give me painkillers, they also advised me to go see a doctor. I did, because they were right – it could have been a tumor for all I knew. The doctor asked a few questions about the nature of the pain, reached out a hand to touch my shoulder, diagnosed me with tension headaches, sent me to get some ultrasound treatment right away and wrote me a prescription for some cream to relieve tension.

I was relieved it was nothing worse, had an ultrasound wand pushed across my shoulders and neck for a while without any noticeable effect, and went back home. I never filled the prescription – I loathe creams, and after all, it was just tension, nothing dangerous. And I didn’t have any headaches for quite a while after the ultrasound treatment.

Eventually, though, they crept back. I researched home remedies online, kept a close eye on when the headaches happened, and avoided behaviors that seemed to cause or aggravate them. I went hiking with my father knowing I’d be in pain when I got back, and I avoided going for walks, and I went to the grocery store more often so I’d have to carry fewer groceries back at once.

When I found myself hesitating instead of saying yes to climbing trips even though I would have loved to go, and all the home remedies helped very little or not at all, I decided to bite the bullet and visit the doctor again. (A different doctor, actually, thanks to another move.)
“It’s not that bad”, I told him, embarrassed that I had come about such a minor issue, “it’s just that it sort of keeps me from doing things.”
He blinked at me in utter bafflement. “Of course”, he said. Then he prescribed me a cream and physiotherapy.

I actually got the cream this time (and even used it a few times), and I even made an appointment with the physiotherapist (although I ended up missing that one and couldn’t afford the late fees and never went back).
I also got food for thought. He had seemed absolutely puzzled that someone might think being in pain was not a good enough reason to get treatment. Even though the pain was the only problem here, and there was nothing more wrong with me, he had deemed it worth being addressed. And that had taken me by surprise – I had fully expected reactions ranging from mild derision to outright annoyance at me coming with such a trivial problem, and to tell me firmly to pull myself together and stop whining.

Pain is actually bad. It’s not just bad if and because it keeps you from doing things, it’s bad if and because it is suffering, and suffering itself is bad. Wanting to be free from suffering is not an outrageous or unreasonable demand, it’s completely natural and understandable. Freedom from suffering is good, actively experiencing pleasure (even selfish pleasure, like you’d get from a climbing trip!) is even better.

These are my rational beliefs, but my aliefs (my more intuitive, more emotional responses) growing up were completely different. Ignore it. Grow a thicker skin. You think this is pain? Others fare much worse, and don’t complain about it. You are weak, and everyone will know it if you whine about it. They will scoff and laugh at you, or turn away in disgust. Don’t be such a pussy.

At the time of the doctor’s visit, I had already been working on these aliefs for quite a while. I had become better at recognizing when they influenced my thinking, my expectations, and my decisions, to consciously remind myself of my actual, rational beliefs in such situations, and to find ways to bring my aliefs in line with them. I had allowed myself to experience feelings I had shoved away and repressed before, and to actually consider my own feelings and desires when making decisions (even when they were not socially approved). I had stopped having sex I didn’t want, and I had started transitioning.

But it was and still is an ongoing process, and especially the aliefs about the thoughts and reactions of others still affect me. And with good reason: there’s no easy way to refute them. There are people who will think less of me for showing pain. There are people who think I should grit my teeth and bear it rather than addressing it, or address it by giving up on things I love and that give me pleasure rather than turning to medical treatment for help. (Yes, I’m talking about transitioning here, but the same applies in many other cases. How many people have been advised to treat their depression by doing yoga instead of taking antidepressants? How many people have been told that they are doing recovery wrong, or grief, or even sexual pleasure?)

Those people can fuck off, though. Not literally; literally I’d rather they stopped to reconsider their approach. But they are not the ones suffering and missing out on pleasurable experiences, and their values are not my values, and they don’t get to decide what I should do.

If they think me weak, let them. In the meantime, I will climb mountains and apologize to noone.

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