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  • Writer's picturechristaleigh

Phantom Pain

I was catching up with a friend last night who told me that late in the summer, he’d accidentally cut off three of his fingers.  I responded typically, asking what/how and if they were reattached or not.  He started telling me about how, at first, he wanted the doctors to just amputate because that promised the shorter, more predictable recovery.  But then he went for the re-attachment, and he was glad he did because the body was a miraculous thing and his fingers were fully functioning.  He was even beginning to have feeling in them again.

And my friend, he knows a bit about the trials I’ve faced this year.  So he made a reference to the healing of his hand; that maybe we’re quick to opt for the more predictable, faster healing amputation over the risky reattachment and subsequent, painful healing.

I told him about my sister-in-law, who lost three of her toes this summer.  I made a bit of a joke about how even if he’d lost them, he’d still feel them, because isn’t it nice of our brains to try to find things that aren’t there anymore?

And then I thought about it all day today.

In a similar circumstance, for my sister, the doctors reattached the toes and inserted pins and all kinds of surgical things in hopes that her body could hang on to those toes for dear life.  In the end, she lost them.  She sent me pictures throughout the ordeal, and I couldn’t even truly sympathize with what it must have felt like to have any part of your physical body separated from itself, let alone the trauma that must have come with the failing of the toes to heal.  Watching a part of your body necrotize before your eyes…  it must have been like the cold hand of death was wrapped around her foot, while the rest of her is very much alive.

She has talked about phantom pains.  I’ve heard a lot of people who have lost a limb talk about phantom pains.  And today, I was wondering why it is that the body doesn’t remember what a foot feels like in that sand at the beach, or what a hand feels like touching the cheek of a lover.  Why is it that when the body sends out a signal to look for a missing body part, the signal is pain?

I’ve always known that pain is a sign you’re still alive, that’s a cliche runner’s credo.  And it’s true.  You can learn to live with massive amounts of physical pain.  You can tolerate far more than you think you can, and when you can’t tolerate any more, your body generally doesn’t just die- no. It lets your brain take a nap.  You’ll pass out before you die. I haven’t fact-checked this, but I don’t think anyone has ever died just from being in tremendous pain.  It might be true, too, that tremendous pain actually invokes the will to live.

So I was thinking about how odd it is, that our brains are capable of amazing feats of self-trickery, but prefer to deal with the separation of self with pain and tingling and uncomfortable sensations.  Wouldn’t it behoove the human body to send signals that weren’t altogether dreadful? Like, hey, so the leg is missing.  Remember what it felt like to pull a sock up to you knee?  Or, our hand is missing, but it’s cool, sit here while I remind you what it’s like to pet a dog behind the ear.

Yet, the body chooses pain.

Maybe it’s because when some part of us dies but the whole remains, only pain can justify the loss.  Maybe we wouldn’t value our wholeness if the body didn’t remind us what it is we’re missing.  Maybe we would be quick to amputate if human physiology told us we would delicately be reminded of what we lost, or worse… we would eventually not remember at all.

I think my friend was right about how his experience is a metaphor for other damages in life.  When something that is part of you is severed, no matter how big or small- as important as a middle finger (because, hey.) or as insignificant as a pinky toe- it was part of you.  Your brain will shoot lightning bolts of energy, searching for that which has been lost.  If you were fortunate enough to be able to successfully reattach it, pain signifies healing.  Every ounce of pain builds a new cell who’s only desire is to keep as much as it can of what the body stands to lose.  If you’re less fortunate, and the damage is too great, you’ll still live. But the body won’t let you forget about what you’re missing, it won’t let you forget that you’re a little incomplete. And there’s nothing you can do, because what is gone, is gone forever.

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