This is how it feels when you can't fix yourself

A few years back, I got a root canal on a lower left molar. It was my first but, given my genetic dental heritage, possibly not my last. Everyone knows that “root canal” are two of the most loathsome words in the arena of mundane medical procedures. I dreaded the pain of the procedure, knowing that, unlike with my wisdom teeth removal, I would be awake for it.

The surgery was weird1 but it was not painful.  When it was over, I was sent to the pharmacy with a prescription for 800mg ibuprofen tablets that I could take if — IF! — I felt the need.

The pain came on later in the day, as my local anesthetic wore off. It’s always a challenge to accurately describe past pain from memory, but I remember it being bearable (with the ibuprofen in my system) until I went to bed. Then my lower jaw began to throb and rage. I just wanted to sleep, but I couldn’t sleep because I couldn’t stop thinking about how much it hurt. I tried ice, I tried heat. I probably consulted home remedies online. I probably took another mega-profen; I’m not sure.  But I AM sure that my last conscious thought that night was, “this is the most acute pain I have ever experienced.”

From this temporal distance, I can observe, factually, that this unbearable pain — the kind of pain that keeps you from being able to think about much of anything else — didn’t last long. A few days, perhaps, coming on in waves and worsening at night. But I spent those worst-of-it hours longing for something — anything — to lessen the ache, something to make a little space in my head for any thought or action other than the fact of the pain itself. When I found room for another thought, here’s what came to me: Oh. Now I see. This is what pain can do. How could anyone be expected to live with a pain like this?

This thought was not really about my pain; I knew I’d be healed soon. But what about chronic pain, pain with no timeline?

Yesterday was World Mental Health Day, and a lot of impassioned mental health struggle-and-survival stories reeled across my various feeds. Mental health struggle-and-survival stories are also reeling across my actual life much of the time, yesterday notwithstanding. I have a story of my own, a twisted and ever-evolving tale of delayed-onset trauma, non-specific panic, and inborn sensitivity that I am still piecing together. I will probably never stop piecing it together.

I don’t have the time or energy to tell the story right now, and you don’t have the time to read it. But here’s the synopsis: when I was 19, after months of bearable pain (fear of driving at night, anxiety about starting college, confusion about my career path, etc) I toppled over into the “unbearable” zone. I felt like my entire personality had gone missing, and in its place was something jagged and shivering. Hope and light, my constant companions since girlhood, were alien planets to me now. Worst of all, it seemed like I would now be this hobbled stranger forever. And I didn’t understand why.

Mornings were the worst, because each morning I would wake up and realize that I still felt this way: body overtaken by aimless dread, no matter what my head told me (I kept trying to think my way out of this feeling, but nothing stuck). Throughout the day, I was quick to tears and unable to explain the problem. How could I be crying over The Simpsons? Why was I suddenly freaked out by the thought of having to walk to the train station at night? People told me I looked tired a lot, but I wasn’t tired; I was in the non-stop, 24-hour equivalent of a panic attack.

I could distract myself somewhat by being around other people. My new college friends (bless them forever) were patient and gentle with me. One sardonic guy in my dorm had been given a deck of illustrated inspirational cards by his mother. He gave one of them to me one day: “Life is simple and easy,” it read. And the best part was, he knew how ridiculous it was. He wasn’t attempting to heal me with the words on the card; he was offering me a gesture of solidarity, of “Can you believe this horseshit?” There was even a horse on the card.

When my best friend’s mother (a school counselor) told me that I should see a therapist and seek out a prescription for an anti-anxiety medication, I felt the closest thing to hope I’d experienced in weeks. I have come to understand what a huge gift and privilege this was: to be told, unequivocally, that I was not expected to live with this pain, and that seeking medical intervention was only logical; to be told this by someone who knew me and was offering a professional’s opinion. She even told me which drug to ask about first.

And it worked. If anything, I oversimplified the problem: I turned my psychological event into an issue of brain chemistry alone. It would be 11 rocky, largely counsel-free years before I understood that I’d only done half the work. But that’s yet another chapter in my unwritten mental health memoir, one that I’m not going to get into today. The medicine (paroxetine, if you’re curious) was a game changer. There’s a reason my friend’s mom’s advice fell on ready ears. When I showed up at that counselor’s office for the first time, I was such a stranger to myself — the pain was so bad — that I knew for sure something was deeply wrong. I knew it as surely as if it had been a rash all over my body, or a toothache. I wasn’t broken, but something in my body was. I knew something broken could be fixed.  I knew I did not have the tools to fix it alone.

This is a difference that it’s easy to forget when we talk to or about people suffering from depression, anxiety, or other debilitating mental health struggles. There are modes. There’s a day-to-day manageable mode — one where a mantra like “life is simple and easy” might genuinely make a huge impact, and “doing the work” looks like gratitude practice, reframing, and talking things through. But there’s also a mode, less common but far from uncommon, that needs something more. One that shows up not as a “broken” individual, but one in whom something is amiss. Ignoring the existence of this level of mental illness, or pretending that it’s something to be “powered through” is as nonsensical as suggesting someone should power through diabetes or cancer or a rotten tooth. We live in a world where not everyone has a trusted parent, or friend (or friend’s mom) to impart this truth. People are still, even in this millennium, left thinking that if they can’t fix it themselves, they’ve failed. Or, worse yet, that “not being okay” is itself a failure.

My root canal sucked. I wish you never have one. I wish I never had one. I hope I never have one again. I am, however, glad that it helped me better understand the fearsome power of untreated pain. As for my… “nervous breakdown” I guess we’ll call it? I cannot, in good conscience, write to you in the voice of that inspirational deck of cards. I cannot say I’m grateful for my darkest hours. But I’m pretty fucking grateful to be so far past that crawling, unbearable pain that I’m not afraid to think about it, or write about it (lest I conjure it back). I’m extremely grateful that I can live my life with a certainty that eluded me for so much of my 20s: the knowledge that the pain, when it comes, has a timeline. It’s not my new forever.

By far the most practical result of having suffered this acute battle with mental illness, though, has been the understanding it left me with. I hate to see a friend in pain, but I’m grateful that when I hear about a certain kind of pain, I can see it for what it is. I don’t have to tell them to try harder to solve it themselves. Instead, I can say: This is not your new forever. You’re not expected to live with this pain. Now let’s see what we can do to fix it.

ICYMI: Watch me on the pilot episode of Andy Greene’s Horror Movies with Friends, then stick around to watch more!

Sweet Valley Diaries is on hiatus…now’s the perfect time to catch up!

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…And loud. I got some five-star advice that’ll pass along, should you find yourself in this same surgical position: bring earbuds to keep me distracted from the sound in my head.