Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Pain That You Invite

I’ve known since childhood that I was a masochist. My sadistic older brother revealed my fate to me when I was quite young. This is perhaps a slight exaggeration and far more benign than it sounds.

It was the first vaccination I actually remember. I know I wasn’t even five years old. I have an absolutely clear memory of my brother, older by seven years, giving me some sound advice. He told me that I would not feel the pain of the shot if, right before the doctor plunged the needle into my butt, I would bite down on my thumb as hard as I could and continue biting until the shot was over and the band-aid was on.

At this early age I was already skeptical of my older brother’s shared wisdom. He teased me mercilessly and I had the scars to prove it. Regardless of his assurance, I’d already learned that a bed-sheet did not perform the same function as a parachute when I jumped out of the window of our shared second story bedroom.

The spanking I received convinced me that there was a difference between art purchased at the store, in a frame and hung on the wall, and my crayoned likenesses of our dog, our cat, our house and our entire family inscribed directly on the walls of our bedroom. Murals, my brother assured me, my parents would love. Maybe, he intimated, even have me copy to paper so they could sell it, allowing others to enjoy my art as well.

I’d caught on rather quickly that contrary to my brother’s suggestion, the cat did not really like to play baby-doll. The old tomcat suffered through being dressed up in doll clothes and stuffed in my miniature baby buggy. But he drew the line at taking a bubble bath. He let his opinion be known via the deep scratches on my face, chest and arms. I never tried that again.

I also learned the hard way that when I had an unfortunate “accident” (when I was very young I tended to pee a little when I got excited or anxious), attempting to hide the incident by taking the wet panties off and burying them in the backyard did not fool my mother, who expected to see me in underpants each evening as I got ready to take my bath or dress for bed. Another one of my brothers brilliant suggestions.

But to my surprise the thumb biting trick really did work. Every time. It became a habit fully ingrained whenever I faced an unavoidable pain. And a coping device I assumed others practiced as well. So as a teenager I was more shocked than embarrassed when I suggested this trick to friends, and they looked at me like I was a freak. They had never tried this? For god’s sake, why not? How could something that brought me so much … well … comfort in a weird way, not be embraced by everyone.

There was only one type of pain I found that could not be eased by biting my thumb, and that was really due to logistics. I firmly believe that dentists are the most sadistic people on earth. Other than the dentist who allowed me as much nitrous oxide gas as I wanted, even when my child was actually the patient, I’ve hated every dentist I’ve ever seen. Unfortunately my sure fire way to avoid the pain and suffering they delighted in inflicting was impossible. It was hard to bite down on your thumb when the dental assistant was prying your jaws open and you had six fingers, a drill, a mirror and the little suction hose all occupying your mouth. Not surprisingly, biting down on the dentist’s thumb really didn’t have the same affect. In fact I’m sure it made them more committed to their task of inflicting slow, agonizing torture through dentistry.

I bit my thumb through childbirth - twice, multiple vaccinations, the setting of several broken bones, sprained appendages, infections, cramps, smashed toes, numerous minor surgeries, and innumerable other traumatic and physically painful events. And it worked. Every time. Like a charm.

I’ve been a little too enthusiastic a couple of times and have actually drawn blood. The first time this happened my brother, still disappointed that his plan had backfired and his advice actually worked, suggested that I should probably be treated for rabies. Because, he explained to my parents with all the force of his thirteen year old wisdom, you just never know what might happen. I didn’t yet understand the fallacy of his argument that I could give myself rabies and spent days worrying about how I would hide the eventual foaming at the mouth. I wasn’t too concerned about the series of injections he’d described to me in gory detail. But I did acknowledge that getting through all of them might require the use of both thumbs.

I can now advise that other than the fact that one thumb is slightly misshapen, with permanent indentations where my teeth usually rest, I have suffered no residual damage.

Through the years, this “habit” of mine has caused me to consider my reaction to pain in general. I can unequivocally state that, all things considered, I prefer to avoid it. But I don’t shy away from it, perhaps because I have a tool I can use to manage my reaction. And I do get a sort of grim satisfaction from knowing that so far life hasn’t thrown me any physical pain that I could not soldier through. In some bizarre way, I almost welcome the challenge. I am, as my husband begrudgingly admits, something of a bad-ass when it comes to dealing with the aches and pains life inflicts upon us.

Does this self-inflicted pain I willingly invite make me a masochist? Probably/hopefully not. But, I can’t help but wonder.

So periodically I break into an old Shel Silverstein song and then test my reaction to the lyrics.

Oh, ever since my Masochistic Baby went and left me
I got nothin’ to hit but the wall.
She loved me when I beat her,
But I started actin’ sweeter,
And that was no way to treat her at all.
Yes, she is the one that I’m dreamin’ of,
And you always hurt the one you love.

And ever since my Masochistic Baby went and left me,
I got nothin’ to hit but the wall, oh no...
Nothin’ to beat but the eggs
Nothin’ to belt but my pants
Nothin’ to whip but the cream
Nothin’ to punch but the clock
Nothin’ to strike but a match.

Am I repulsed or enticed by the song's imagery? I’ll never tell.

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