Indeed, the subject of chronic pain--full of mysteries and unimaginably endless suffering--would fascinate with its stories of people with phantom pain in limbs that had been cut off years before. Sometimes they would even feel the sensation of nails digging into palms that no longer existed. The topic would capture my imagination with the accounts of the rare children born without the ability to feel pain, which isn't as fortunate of a thing as you would at first suppose, as pain can actually give you useful warnings. Such children would almost always die early in life, after years of tearing up their bodies by doing something as simple as jumping off a swing too hard. Just as too little pain was bad, I learned, so was too much of it. I would think about what it must be like to go on with pain that was not "acute" (temporary), but "chronic" (from the Greek word chronos: "concerning time, constant, continuous"), meaning that despite having no apparent medical purpose at all, it wouldn't go away.
My resulting science project--a report and a thick three-paneled poster board display, which I recently dug out of my parents' attic--reveals that I really got the drama of it all. On the middle board is the title, with the words "Chronic Pain" spelled out in twisting white wire garbage bag ties colored with a red marker. "Most of us well know what pain is and experience it quite often," reads the carefully printed explanation below, which was laid out on four strips of white construction paper pasted onto a red square, "but in the United States alone, for 40,000,000 people constant pain is a way of life. Here are some of the main ways people use to cope with their agony." I illustrated the intricacies of the nervous system with a diagram of nerves made of dried spaghetti noodles and a spinal cord of Styrofoam vertebrae, probably cut out of a disposable cooler, connected by a spine of blue drinking straws.
On the surrounding white poster board I had illustrated different remedies. One was "drugs," signified by a bulbous jar labeled "opium" and surrounded by a smattering of road-safety signs-"do not enter," "caution," "yield"--cut out of my mother's driver's ed book. I knew this was the most basic tool, as scientists had found traces of morphine in mummies unearthed from thousands of years ago. I also displayed another ancient method, acupuncture, using a photocopied line drawing of a hefty goateed warrior standing resolutely, his body dotted with acupuncture points. On display below was a vial of real acupuncture needles. But I had more license to play with the biofeedback machine on the table, which literally provided audio and visual feedback to a patient about the effectiveness of certain tension-reducing techniques. Demonstrating the machine required the use of an electricity-conducting pad from my limited stash. I would peel away a tab to expose the pad's side of sticky gel, which gave off a bitter odor of alcohol and petroleum combined. Then I would affix the pad to my forehead, plug the biofeedback machine's arm into the pad, and then contort the forehead at will. The machine, which resembled a professional version of a transistor radio, with its tiny bulbs and dials and handsome black carrying case, beeped in proportion to the tension levels I was creating.
But the pièce de résistance was an "interactive" board game, "The Control of Chronic Pain." The game's mission was serious, the players taking the perspective of someone trying to achieve pain relief; but the format was whimsical, ripped off from Candyland. The players, using a cardboard playing piece of a human figure, the kind that you see on public men's room doors, advanced along the steps of an upwardly curving path of blue footprints, with the ultimate destination point designated by the label "Pain Is Under Control." The players were escaping the villain, Pain, who was personified by three cardboard thieves who were pasted to the game board and who wore masks and stood in suspicious, hunched-over, lurking poses. A sign on the board explained the premise: "Wanted: PAIN. Charge: Hurting Millions of People. Reward: Relief." After rolling the dice, the players moved forward to spaces that gave further instructions, all soberly realistic, such as "Try to stop villain by surgically taking him out of nerve. It works. But there is numbness. Stay where you are." Another: "Advise a helpful drug to the victim. The victim gets addicted. Move back two spaces." The moral was illustrated by another sign on the board: "Pain Doesn't Pay!"
From the preface to All In My Head, pages ix - xvi. Copyright Paula Kamen 2005. All rights reserved. No part of this book maybe reproduced without written permission from the publisher, Da Capo Press.
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No Man's Land
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Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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