Pain Tolerance

When I was a little kid I took great pride in having a ‘high pain tolerance’. If I fell (which happened a lot in my slippery high-heeled cowboy boots), got into a fist fight with my male cousins (never one to back down), or burned myself in our outdoor disqueras – I would grit my jaw and swallow the searing pain and let it pool in my stomach. Let it sit there like a dare to see how long I could hold it without getting light-headed. I dug my nails into my palm or pinched the inside of my upper arm to transfer the pain and feel present in what I was actively doing to myself, for myself.

When I brought up stress at work, severe PMS depression, or struggling in general, my doctors waved it off. Not one heard me. When my ex-husband threw a heavy sound system and broke my toe, the ER doctor removed my nail and started giving me stitches as I flinched and sweated until they asked if it hurt. They didn’t even think to check if I had been administered pain numbing medication and I didn’t know that asking was an option. The same happened after a vaginal birth that required stitches. I didn’t want to be a bother. I thought it was a test to my abilities. As a mother of three children, thrice I said, “No drugs. I want to experience everything.” But really I was afraid of seeking comfort.

As I grew older, this “high pain tolerance” was nothing more than an old belief and voices that said, “Don’t cry! Why are you crying?! I should be crying!”, “Crying is for funerals”, “Callate llá!”, “Don’t tell anyone.” I internalized these voices and messages. I believed that I didn’t have the right to show emotion nor the “luxury” of expressing my pain.

For a long time I believed I didn’t feel physical pain like others. I had a shield, a super power that would make me an impenetrable spy (hey, I dream a lot!).

I didn’t know it was okay to admit to feeling pain.

Then with each birth came a storm of postpartum depression that engulfed me, leaving me unmoored in a treacherous sea of feeling nothing, unprompted tears, feeling like a live wire, raw emotions, unsolicited trauma memories, and a pain so excruciating it hurt to breathe. I finally went to therapy.

The only difference between me saying my pain is a 5 in the pain scale compared to your 10 is that I have been trained by harmful behaviors and neglect to eat and hide my pain. You have been cared for when you fall, when you get burnt, when you are emotionally devastated. You know it is natural to feel pain and you expect to be comforted.

I didn’t know that it was okay – as a human being – to express how much I was hurting.

I didn’t know that seeking comfort is not selfish, not a weakness.

After four years of therapy I learned to ask myself, “What would you do if this was happening to [insert my child’s name]?” Only in this manner could I allow myself to empathize with myself. Only in this manner could I understand how much pain I was in.

On Wednesday morning I was out for my daily walk waiting on an iced latte and croissant, feeling giddy and abuzz with the impending inauguration, and feeling in control and in awe of my life.

I was notified of my younger brother’s arrest for one count of murder and two counts of attempted murder.

I started choking on spontaneous sobs swallowed by old pain denial mechanisms and trying not to pass out. I didn’t want my partner to see me, much less the strangers walking right by me to get coffee. I felt rage at their rudeness. Didn’t they see that I was hiding – away from the coffee kiosk? Couldn’t they go around?! Couldn’t they see I was failing and trying hard to hide this – to close this ocean of pain threatening to undo me?

I am in pain.

For most of the last week I have teetered between sobbing, feeling empty and impotent, and white hot rage.

I’ve leveraged all of my tools from therapy to remain present. To keep being a mother. To keep being an employee, a wife, a friend, a person. What has been constant is this heavy weight of deep pain that makes me want to do anything to stop it.

On the outside I look the same.

I look ‘fine’.

But I am not fine.

I do not have a “high pain tolerance.” Brown and Black people do not have a different way of feeling pain. We feel the same pain. We have just had to hide it to survive.

But surviving is not enough. I need to deal with this pain so I can focus on helping my brother. I need to release some of this pain so I can breathe.

I need to stop hiding. See my pain. Respect my pain please. Respect that I am struggling and trying my very best.

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