“Yeah, Doc, I drink. I drink a lot. Some nights I drink a case of beer and a half pint. Can’t sleep if I don’t drink. Relaxes me. Pure and simple. Numbs me up like novocaine.”

A toothless grin.

“It’s the feeling of floating away. I don’t know, I just keep coming back to it. Stuff goes in, feel a little flushed, a little rush, then I go somewhere else, you know? I just kinda float off on a cloud for a while. Things back here hurt. I don’t have a job. I can’t buy my kids stuff. I can’t provide. I’m nothing, Doc. I’m nothing to nobody.”

One tear, sliding silently down the weathered cheek like a raindrop after a crashing, lightning-filled storm.

“It just feels good somehow. I know that’s weird. My mom freaked the first time she found out I do it. Oh, I don’t know, whatever I can find. My Dad’s box cutter, a kitchen knife. Razor blades are the best. I watch myself do it, you know? I sort of float over myself, watch myself cut. The lines are neat, sharp, clear. But it’s the blood that helps me. Watching the blood trickle down makes me feel something. It makes me feel human. It just- I don’t know- it just makes me feel something. Anything.”

A recent conversation with a friend made me revisit a concept that I return to over and over again in my professional life.

“We all just want to be significant. We all just want to know we matter.”

Simple concept, that. Self-worth. Self esteem. Mattering to your friends, your family, your spouse, your children, your employer. Should be a given, shouldn’t it? We’re all created, we all have a place here, and we all matter. At least we should.

What keeps some people from feeling that they really matter? What drives them to drink, to inject themselves with toxic substances and to incise themselves in neat, orderly rows of red ooze?

Pain. The common denominator is pain.

No, I’m not talking about the pain I felt when my doctor jabbed my knee with a needle last night to give me relief from unneeded fluid buildup. I’m not talking about the pain you feel when you hit your thumb with a hammer or burn yourself on a hot stove. I’m not even talking about the pain after surgery for the cancer that you now know will eventually kill you.

I’m talking about that deep, aching, throbbing, existential pain that makes you question why you are even here. Why you are alive at all. Can’t relate? I am so glad you can’t.

That kind of pain burns a hole in your soul like change hanging heavily unspent in a pocket. It demands to be felt. It will not go away. It eats at you, day after day after day, making you question your values, your worth to your children and your ability to contribute anything of value to the world at large. It wears you down like a slow-moving glacier, cold and heavy and relentless, sliding over the once-green bumpy mountainside of your life and reducing it to one, long, perfectly smooth expanse of nothing. It leaves no distinguishing marks. You become nothing. You are nothing.

And so you fight desperately to spend that pocket change, to trade it for something shiny and new, something that will make you feel good for a minute, an hour, a day. You try with all your might to melt that glacier, knowing full well that it is too large, too heavy, too wide and deep to extract from the hillside of your life below. You push up and out, but feebly. You take the last breath from the last air in the last pocket, and you resign yourself to the fact that no one will even know that you were here. You are nothing.

So you drink. You can quit anytime you want to. You’ve done it a thousand times. But you don’t.

So you push the plunger one more time, biting the rubber and holding it tight, feeling the inescapable, orgasmic flush of absolute pleasure that will kill you. You don’t care if it does, because for this one moment, this one beautiful moment in time, all is right in the world and God Himself is sitting here with you, stroking your sweaty forehead and easing you out of the world you’ve come to hate.

So you cut. You make the lines fine, evenly spaced, surgically precise. You wait for the first drop of blood, the first small rivulet that stands up for one second, supported by its own surface tension, that same surface tension that has kept your life intact for one more day. You watch the blood trickle down, a small red river of pain, tiny, tiny pain that flows out of you and is controlled by you and is something that you can deal with. Something that you can see, and feel, and hide from others for just one more day.

Maybe tomorrow will be better.

Maybe tomorrow the pain will go away.

15 thoughts on “Pain

  1. I have seen people spend years blindly acting out this kind of pain. Sometimes I wish there was a memory deletion machine to eliminate the source of a lot of pain. I have seen people ask for ECT because they thought it might eliminate memory.


  2. “Mattering to your friends, your family, your spouse, your children, your employer.” You’ve left one thing out of that: mattering to yourself. Because people with that sort of pain (and I speak from experience though I’ve not gone any of the mentioned routes) actually want to matter to themselves – possibly more than they want to matter to other people.
    In some ways, it’s why I use the internet. Without it I feel quite empty. That’s my addiction (and I’m not being in the least bit humorous here.)


  3. I’m not a cutter nor an alcoholic, however unfortunately have had to watch my brother deal with the latter for years. And have had friends with the former. These words couldn’t be more true, “We all just want to be significant. We all just want to know we matter.” Watched “Antz” years ago and my take away from this computer animated adventure film was Z realizing how insignificant he was amongst millions of other ants.


  4. Beautifully written, with a simple, straightforward view of why these things continue to happen quietly all around us. I’m so glad that you’ve brought this to light. I’m going to share this posting with a friend who is the father of an alcoholic son who finally checked himself into treatment and has decided (on his own) that he needs to stay another 30 days. I think this will help him to understand a little more clearly the battle his son fights daily. As always, thank you for the eloquent post!


  5. Val

    I thought I had covered that with the self esteem reference the two sentences before.

    But you know what? You’re right. I should have included that at the head of the main list. You can’t do any of the other without mattering to yourself and loving yourself first. I believe that’s true.

    I sincerely hope your emptiness is
    being filled. You are a special lady with a special talent.


  6. Diane,

    I hope your brother finds peace with the problem with his own demons.

    I also hope you understand how special you are. You are a very bright lady ( that last post of yours complete with detailed “engineering” diagrams blew me away!) and I know you are struggling mightily with making some sense of what is happening to you. You are in pain.

    How do I know? I’ve felt exactly the same way, in different circumstances. I want to understand everything about it, find a solution for it, implement it, call it done and move on to the next fixable problem.

    It doesn’t work that way, does it?

    You have an absolutely wonderful support group. Use them. Use the goddamn hell out of them. They are there for you. I know they are.

    Sorry for going on. I’m just in your corner in any way I can be.



  7. Penny

    You are quite welcome.

    Please feel free to share anything I write if if can help someone else. That’s one of the reasons I write.

    I have no ego and I don’t enforce copywrite, at least among my friends.

    Thanks as always for reading and commenting.



  8. Greg, I sort of don’t know what to think of you. Of course I’ve been intrigued with you since initially seeing your comments on Scorchy’s blog. Honestly, I’ve always thought psychiatrist were hokum, it’s the way I was raised (no disrespect intended). One day maybe I’ll hire you to untie the knots in my head 🙂 But, as a fellow blogger I truly do appreciate the thoroughness of your commentary.

    And nope I can’t fix BC.



  9. No way, no boundaries here. Come on I put a photo of my breasts on the web. Absolutely no reason for apology. Your comment made me think a lot.


  10. Thank you for being one of the very few MH providers who clearly gets it. It is so very hard to try to just explain the pain. I’ve tried taking time to think about specific words, but I can always see in their eyes that I failed again to make myself understood. So eventually I have up on that too, and now all I can come up with is “it hurts.” They don’t get it and they really do think I am crazy. I will probably borrow your words to try to explain.

    Thanks for talking throughout the blog about your patients like they’re people as deserving of respect and compassion as the ones on the oncology floor. We don’t always get that even from the personnel (Dr.’s, nurses, techs) on the psych unit.


  11. Quasi,

    You are quite welcome.

    Yes, please use these words if they help you to communicate to someone else what you are feeling and going through.

    Thanks for reading.



  12. The problem. as I see it, is few really know where these issues start. Is it upbringing?, hereditary?, trauma induced (whether remembered or not)?, a combination of factors?.
    Without knowing the source, it’s difficult to cure the problem if there even is a cure. Nothing out there in the world of medicine works for everyone, and many people don’t like or can’t afford them even if they did. (many psyc. meds are VERY expensive).
    As a nurse in an outpatient facility I saw many of the same people in and out of the crisis unit. Even those who were being seen on a regular basis at the outpatient. The pain is there. it is very real for those experiencing it. Is learning control the best there is to offer?


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