The Answer to Chronic Pain
This was written after a conversation with a friend who has chronic pain. I’ve changed some things but most of this comes from the real stories she told me.
Libby was in the hospital once again. The nurse had told her she could lay down on the hospital bed- and she would have loved to because she was so tired after not sleeping for two nights, but the back of her head felt like it was on fire again. The nurse wouldn’t even give her a shot of Lidocaine to numb the pain. Libby had been in here often enough that the nurses all knew she would probably pass out if they even touched the back of her head right now.
“Dr. Winnard isn’t here tonight,” a big black nurse in pink scrubs recognized her and peeked around the corner to tell her.
Dr. Winnard knew her story well because it was his procedure that had gone so awry. He had tried to burn the problematic nerve endings in her neck to numb them. But the procedure had instead exacerbated the pain- the pain that had already seemed unbearable. He had made her far worse simply because he hadn’t seen the research paper until after the surgery- the paper that told him these would be the consequences.
It had been one year since then. It had been five years of this nearly constant pain.
He was still her doctor, and in that time she had learned to forgive him. “Only with help from God,” she always admitted.
It was the last time she was in this hospital, about a week and a half ago, that his only prescription for her was “You should just go and be with your friends.” She was already on the highest dose of morphine he could give her and he knew she found a strange comfort in her church community. He wasn’t a Christian but he had previously asked her, trying his best to understand why it was so meaningful to her, “Does being with those friends make the pain less somehow?” And she had stopped and thought before she said, “No, it’s different. I don’t know what it is.”
Her friend Sarah was in the chair at her side now. Libby had had to call her in the middle of the night to help her get up to get her morphine, but upon arriving had decided to take her to the hospital.
Sarah understood pain too, in a way. Her toddler had passed away 6 months ago from a battle with some rare type of lymphoma. It had been a horrible battle for two years. But this is partly what attracted her to Libby. A few of them had made Sarah an honorary member of what they called ‘the Morphine club.’ There were several of her friends that dealt with chronic pain, and most of them were on constant morphine. Their other friend from church, Kara had been in the club. But she had passed away three months prior from brain cancer. There were just a few of them left. And most of them didn’t know if the rest of their life would be in this horrible pain or not. This is what they lived with. And it had been a really hard year.
Now Sarah put her hand on Libby’s hand and Libby started to smile but didn’t turn her head because they both knew it would make it worse. Then the same nurse came in. A big, beautiful black lady that knew Libby well.
“Do you wanna try Ketamine again?” She said to Libby very hesitantly.
Libby responded just as hesitantly, “Okay. Yeah, I guess we could do that.”
The Nurse said, “Are you sure?” They both knew it was the date rape drug and often caused horrible, horrible visions. This was the risk.
“My psychiatrist determined she thought I could do it and it was semi-okay last time.”
The nurse pulled a syringe out of her pocket and began to prep it for the IV. “You’re a very strong woman, Libby.” The nurse paused and looked over at Sarah who still had her hand on Libby’s. “And you have very good friends.”
“I couldn’t do it without them.” Libby saw the nurse’s hands almost pause in thought, so she added urgently, “But I’d still like the Ketamine.”
What Libby said didn’t quite register with the nurse. Her hands still didn’t seem to be making much progress. The nurse glanced at Sarah’s hand and then Sarah, and back up to Libby as she continued. “Yeah I’ve been amazed at how you have been. . . helped so much, I guess you could say, by your friends just being here.” She chose her next words very carefully. It seemed her interest was more than professional. “I hope this doesn’t sound weird. And I’m a Christian too, but it seems like you and your friends understand something that most of us, and the other patients, don’t.” She stopped, as if some internal battle of her own was going on. She turned to Sarah and said, “You all don’t try come up with the right thing to say. You all don’t even say anything most of the time but your presence just changes something. But it’s not because you’re shy or scared or anything. I don’t know what is different bout all y’all.” She forced herself to smile and then shrugged as she turned away, trying to hide that her eyes were watering up.
Sarah just smiled peacefully at her and squeezed Libby’s hand.
“Wait!” Libby pleaded. The nurse turned back around. “the Ketamine?” She heard herself and then added, “Sorry.” She had indeed sounded a bit irritable.
“Oh!” The nurse shook herself out of it. “Of course. Sorry hunny.” And she moved toward Libby’s IV.
The nurse set the syringe into the IV bracket and plunged it into the tube that led to Libby’s blood stream. Libby curled onto her side, turned to Sarah and tried to smile. She mouthed the words, “Thank you.” They both knew that this would put her out for a while. Libby had a bit of fear in her eyes. The risk of horrible visions was great.
Sarah mouthed right back, “You’re so brave.”
Libby heard her phone buzz a couple times in the bag on the side table before she was entirely out. Somehow it seemed her morphine club friends always knew which moment to pray for her and text her encouragements. She didn’t even need to see them to know that the 3:15 am texts were her morphine club friends at her bedside in a way as well.
And the next moment that she was aware of, a vision began. But is was peaceful. She was in her church sanctuary. It was empty. The lights were dimmed. The candles on the altar were burning low as if they had been lit for a long time. All was silent except the quiet wicking of the candles. All of the usual red exit signs were gone. In fact there was only one door instead of the usual four. She was slowly approaching the big wooden table at the front of the sanctuary, where they served communion every Sunday. But this had always felt like an altar to Libby. This is where she felt closest to Jesus.
She had had sort of a vision like this a couple weeks ago, but without this drug. This was one of the strange types of miracles she had experienced because of this pain. She was at her house and the pain had gotten so great that she took the morphine and put on her big soft headphones. She found her church’s worship album on her phone and pushed play. Within moments, as the music played, she had found herself here in this same sanctuary. It had felt more real than the room her body was actually in. Just like this time too. And although the pain was still with her, she felt something else here. She was close to him, and she felt known. It was like he was in this room somewhere with her and he was watching her, lovingly. And something about that changed things. It was something deeper than pain. Something more ancient and more permanent than the pain that could only reach the extents of her tiny, fragile body.
These were the small miracles that helped her. The pain was no less real, present, or severe but yes, there was something about being in this place with her pain, but being close to God. Not just God, it was Jesus. Somehow it felt like Jesus was nearer.
As she neared the front she slowed down and looked at the empty table. Wooden. A white table runner draping over the middle like they did at Easter. But then she heard the door open behind her. She turned and bright white sunlight poured into the sanctuary, just like on Sundays. The door drifted slowly shut behind someone who had just entered.
It was a thin woman, coming towards her. She recognized this walk. Her eyes adjusted and she saw the face of the person she already suspected. It was Kara. And she held that sad knowing smile that the rest of the Morphine club members knew so well. The smile that said, “We don’t know if this will ever get better but at least we have. . . at least we have. . .” Libby still couldn’t put it into one word the thing that made it all okay when they were at their worst.
Kara slowed as she got close. Her eyes were shining. It was the healthy Kara. Not the Kara ravaged by cancer. And she said to Libby, “Libby, you are so brave.” Her voice was so sweet. “You are strong enough to do this. You are not alone. You are His beloved.”
Kara smiled that knowing smile again and reached for Libby’s hand.
When Libby woke up and opened her eyes, Sarah perked up at her side and leaned down to meet her gaze.
“I had a vision.”
Dread for her friend flashed in Sarah’s eyes.
“No, it was a really good vision.” Libby smiled as her eyes watered. “I saw Kara.” Sarah smiled that knowing smile. That smile that knew a history of so much pain but which had so much. . . so much. . .
“She looked really good.” Libby smiled at the memory. “But she told me something. She said I was brave and I was His beloved.”
Sarah nodded and tears welled in her eyes now too. “Yeah. His beloved.” She cherished those words too. Then Sarah added softly, “I think He understands us more than anyone. I think he’d be in the Morphine club.”
Just then the nurse crept in hesitantly and asked, “How was it?”
“It was great,” Libby said, still fragile.
The nurse shook her head in the same awe she had before. “You guys are amazing.” Then she said with a hesitant frown, “So no visions or anything?”
“Yeah, I had a vision.”
“Uh oh. But it apparently wasn’t too bad?”
“No, I saw a friend.”
“Really? Someone in your little Morphine club, I bet.” She shook her head because she still couldn’t understand that indescribable bond that these people had when they had gone through such hopeless pain for so long. “Who was it, if I could ask?”
Libby started crying for some reason and put her hand to her mouth. But in between her jagged breaths she said, “He came to me. It was Jesus.”
Sarah squeezed her hand hard enough to be urgent. Libby looked at her confused.
“You told me you saw Kara.”
Libby and Sarah shared that knowing gaze again and Libby said, “Yeah, you’re right I totally did see Kara. I don’t know why I said Jesus.”
The nurse shook her head and said, “My Lord. You girls. I just figured out what it is you guys have.” They both looked at her and the nurse continued. “When I see you guys look at each other like that I can see it in your eyes. You both have tons of pain. I mean, tons of it. I know your story.” She pointed at Sarah. “But you two gots Peace. It’s peace you guys have in the pain. It’s like you’ve all been to the same place that no one else has been to. And Jesus is there. And in this little country or room or house or wherever it is, you’ve brought peace back with you.” The nurse turned around and threw up her hands in amazement.
The girls smiled and watched her big swaying frame slip through the door.
“My Lord. My Lord.”
I know not everyone’s experience is like this. And not everyone has friends as close as Libby. But the Christians I’ve asked who have been through similar things have all said that they know Jesus in a closer way than they ever could have without the pain. Please feel free to share this with anyone who wants to better understand chronic pain. Thanks for sharing your story with me, “Libby.”
Raw Spoon, 7-3-16