One… two… three… four… five… six… seven… hiss… I sucked air through my teeth as the pain hit, slowly releasing my breath as the pain receded. I slowly counted again, knowing that the waves came about every seven-eight seconds.
One… two… three… four… five… six… seven… hiss… the pain broke over me again.
Last night was bad. The phantom pain ravaged my missing leg. I managed to fall asleep, but then I woke up and couldn’t go back to sleep for a long time, despite taking a sleeping pill earlier.
I struggled not to tense the muscles in my leglet (stump), since that only made the pain worse, but it was almost impossible not to brace myself as the waves of pain hit, over and over again in the quiet darkness.
My phantom limb buzzed and twitched and hurt, a real, living part of me, even though it is gone. Tonight’s pain manifested as searing electrical shocks that cramped and burned across the top of my foot and ankle.
Glenn lay sleeping next to me, his warm back solid and comforting. On the other side, my cat Westley curled up with his head resting on the edge of my pillow, snoring softly. I listened to Glenn and Westley’s stereo breathing, each following his own rhythm, as I panted through the pain. Their syncopated breathing was adorable but insufficient to calm my whirling brain.
Nothing is as lonely to me as lying awake enduring waves of pain.
For a time, I practiced my gratitudes, not to deny my pain but to build a loving context for it. I am grateful for my warm, safe house. I’m grateful to have enough money to pay my bills, have a reliable car, and go to Maine every summer. I’m grateful to have a good job. I’m grateful for Glenn and my friends and family. I’m grateful for Westley and Buttercup. I’m grateful that I can afford to travel to professional conferences. I’m grateful for purple scarves and Diet Coke and dark chocolate with salted caramel and my new book on embodiment.
Sighing, I tried to turn on my left side; I prefer my right but can only lie on that side when the phantom pain isn’t bothering me. Lying on my right side squishes my leglet, and that intensifies the phantom pain.
After turning on my left side—slowly and carefully, taking great care not to disturb Westley, like a good cat mom—I then went through a series of twitches and adjustments to my leglet so that my phantom limb could settle comfortably.
As it inevitably does, my mind began sorting through the events of the day and the previous few days to figure out the genesis of this painful episode. Is it because of the travel and jet lag? Is it the stress of the committee work and writing deadlines and conference presentations that are due next week? Did I walk too much or not ride my exercise bike enough? Did I stay up too late the previous night? Is it the Diet Coke? The questions all circled back to one question: Is the pain my fault?
I breathed slowly and deeply, exhausted and needing another distraction. I tried singing in my head a psalm put to guitar music that the leader of my college Intervarsity Christian Fellowship group used to play.
As the deer pants for the water
So my soul longs after You.
I have absolutely no idea why I still remember this lovely song fragment, but it’s one of my go-to ways to calm myself. Every time my brain circled back to various sources of stress—damn, I forgot again to order those tickets!—I restarted the song, hearing Brian strumming along on his guitar.
That stopped working, too. I wanted to search for my earbuds and cell phone to listen to an audiobook, but I knew from experience that this would disturb Westley and likely cause him to leave. It’s less lonely with him there, so I discarded that idea.
Next distraction was making lists. What do I need to get for Thanksgiving dinner? Fresh cranberries, stuffing mix, dried poultry seasoning, potatoes, apple cider. Did I buy stocking presents for the New Hampshire branch of the family? How many book fliers do I need for next week’s conference?
I must have drifted off at some point, because I woke to my alarm clock, tired and cranky. Doing a quick internal scan, I was relieved to notice that the phantom pain had passed for now. I sighed gratefully as I disturbed Westley long enough to shut off the alarm and start the new day.