Yesterday I had my eyebrows threaded and that always provokes a mini meditation on pain. Nine times out of ten, the procedure hurts like a motherfucker. (The tenth time the endorphin gods are with you.) Someone is ripping the hair off your face, so it’s no surprise you want to scream and shout, but I’ve never seen that happen at the brow bar I frequent. Women are tough cookies, in case you hadn’t noticed.
They say you have to suffer for beauty (and fashion, and your art – is there anything aesthetically-oriented that doesn’t involve suffering?). I had my eyebrows waxed once and lost chunks of skin. When the goal is beautification but you emerge bloody and scabbed, you’ve made a tactical error. Tweezing is great for top up maintenance, but for tackling the monstrous job of transforming my unibrow into two lovely arcs? No way. Also it’s a bit like cutting your own fringe, which any fool knows is a disaster of asymmetry waiting to happen. For best results, trust the professionals.
There’s nothing Asian women don’t know about hair removal. The dexterity with which a trained threader loops her tool up and around an anchoring tooth before twisting and tightening it in a series of little nooses to capture those delicate hairs is amazing. Amazing and painful. Did I mention that it makes your eyes water and your nose run? The times I thought I’d pass out from the pain even though I was semi-reclining?
Without going all Fifty Shades on you, I’ve noticed a difference between consensual pain and the kind that sucker punches without an invitation. I have tattoos, and the inking process hurts, but it’s a hurt I asked for. I’m too vain to blubber while it’s happening – heaven forfend anyone thinks I’m not cool enough to wear the brand. Ditto the eyebrows.
In the days when my experience was limited to headaches (migraine and bog standard) and the full complement of childhood scrapes, bashes and illnesses, I believed physical pain was preferable to emotional pain. That was before I encountered the game-changer that is chronic pain. At the height of my first head-to-head with Crohn’s I would burst into song to distract myself from pain that made it equally unpleasant to sit or stand. (Why do humans instinctively clutch the body part that hurts? You can imagine what a pervert I look when things are truly awful.)
Chronic pain warps the personality. It is so demanding. Think about me, pay attention to me, it hollers. Imagine someone jabbing you with their finger 24/7. (If you have kids you don’t have to fantasise.) Now imagine it’s not a blunt finger, but something sharp, say a razor blade or a nail.
There’s a distinction to be drawn between discomfort and pain, especially when describing it to doctors. I’ve become adept at “on a scale of one to ten” rankings. But pain is sneaky. Level Ten post-op pain is effectively quashed with a blast of morphine, and never mind how much it makes my face itch. It’s transitory.
Months of grinding Level Four nether region pain scar you in a different way. And that’s just one variety. This summer I discovered what it feels like to have ankles so badly inflamed that the bottoms of your feet swell, too. I was reduced to tiptoeing around my flat like a baby learning to walk, wincing as I went.
It’s funny how familiarity toughens you up in some areas and erodes you in others. I was a needle-phobic kid who screeched at injections. Several lengthy hospitalizations cured me, and today I’m the very picture of blasé. Come at me with a needle and I don’t flinch. Need a blood sample? My veins pop on command thanks to years spent pumping iron in my thirties. The drug I’m taking to combat my current Crohn’s relapse is subcutaneously injected every second week. Fair enough, they gave me pens instead of hypodermics so it’s not quite rock and roll, but I’m still piercing skin like it was no big deal. Because it isn’t.
Wasn’t there a saying, “better living through chemistry?” Last time around, after months of serious illness, the GP queried my request for a repeat prescription of cocodamol: “How long do you think you’ll keep taking these painkillers?” Arching one beautifully sculpted eyebrow, I retorted, “How long do you think I will have Crohn’s disease?”
Oh yeah, forever.
Thing is, I’m quite a tough number. I spent most of the summer taking half doses, partly in an effort to stay awake, partly in the spirit of not wearing my coat indoors: I wanted to feel the benefit when I did go to the proper dose. And for all the weeks where I took painkillers at regular intervals, there were others when I puttered along without popping a single pill. I make a pretty rubbish drug addict.
Pain made me sensitive in ways I didn’t expect. Once you’ve hauled yourself up stairs hand over hand via the banister because you hadn’t strength enough to lift your legs higher than an inch, you’re destined to feel pangs of empathy on catching sight of someone hobbling along on the pavement. I’m more attuned to others’ difficulties, humbled by their grace and fortitude in situations that make my suffering insignificant.
Perspective is everything. When the nice cardamom-scented lady rips the hair off my face, making it hurt so badly that I want to kick her, I remember that it could hurt a lot worse, and that it’ll be history within minutes. But when peristalsis sends a stabbing pain shooting through the core of me I think, you bastard, you can fuck right off.
Such foul language does nothing to soothe my butt, but it is such a balm for the soul.