Wednesday, November 05, 2014

anna stesia

A few years ago I had some surgery, and surgery, while it buys you pain, also buys you pain meds. There are probably some noble souls* among us who don’t exult when they find themselves in position to take heavy narcotics, but I’m not one of them. A nice little prescription for some Percocet or Vicodin is the dangling carrot on the other side of whatever crappy something-or-other I’m going to have to go through to get it. 

*or chronic pain sufferers—a tip of the hat and an apology for the above bit to you guys, all of whom I’m sure would love nothing better than to be able to get off the pain meds. I see you, I note you, and I’m wishing you freedom.

So I had this surgery, and afterwards I got to spend a few weeks in bed hopped up on Vicodin. Every time I laughed or sneezed or coughed it felt like I was getting barbecued from the inside out, but you know, I didn’t laugh or sneeze or cough that often. The rest of the time I was sailing in a warm haze, watching Netflix and eating the entertaining snacks my fine husband brought in to me. 

The only problem with the Vicodin was that it gave me horrible, vivid, rubbery dreams. I had to stop taking it every night by 8:30 or I was doomed to wander until dawn in the grossest parts of my subconscious. I asked my doctor if he could give me an alternative, and he wrote me a prescription for Tramadol.  

I took Tramadol for one day, beginning at 1pm. As soon as it kicked in, hoooly smoke. The high was the sweetest in history; I’ve never felt anything like it before or since. I felt like I was wrapped in furs riding through heaven on a parade float. A revelation. Tramadol. Jesus. I was the luckiest lady ever to get cut open. 

You were supposed to take a dose every four to six hours. My feeling was, hey, let’s make it four. The four end of this schedule is where the party’s at. Why let this feeling fade any more than it needs to? As soon as the minute hand ticked over to 5pm, I popped in Tramadol No. 2. 

I thought I was a genius until a couple of hours passed.

Here are some of the common side effects of Tramadol: 

(I’m not going to list them all because you have a life to live and there’s no time.)

feeling of warmth
feeling sad or empty
feeling unusually cold
trouble concentrating
unusual feeling of excitement

Here are some of the rarer ones: 

change in hearing
cold and flu-like symptoms
difficulty moving
disturbance in attention
false or unusual sense of well-being
feeling hot
feeling jittery
flushing or redness of the skin
headache, severe and throbbing
hot flashes
loss of voice
muscle aching or cramping
night sweats
tightness of the chest
trouble sleeping
trouble breathing
And then there are all the side effects that you have to call your doctor/head to the emergency room about immediately, but this isn’t a PSA and this post isn’t about prescription drugs even if it really seems like it is right now, so I’m not going to list them. 

Anyway, I had a lot of the side effects listed above, but I don’t see anywhere 








which I guess all fall under the “agitation” heading. I was sweating, freezing, nauseated, metallic-feeling and dead panicked, and I spent the whole night until the sun came up googling Tramadol horror stories (oh, you can find ‘em), pacing back and forth between the bathroom and the bed, and praying my fucking head off. 

Spoiler: I lived. 

My point is that there’s a downside to sweet, sweet numbing. And that’s what I’m wanting to talk about today. Numbing. The instinct to numb. I press that little metaphorical morphine drip button probably fifty times a day, in all my different ways, because I’m constantly deciding that whatever major or minute level of mental or physical or emotional suffering I’m undergoing is unacceptable and must be stopped in its tracks. 

Nurse! (Candy Crush.)
Nurse! (Web surf.)
NURSE! (Xanax.)


A glass of wine, that’s a nice one. Classy little magic carpet ride to an adjacent reality where it’s always evening and there’s always a fire in the fireplace and the day’s responsibilities are complete and there is no tomorrow coming to bring new ones. Also, wine feels rich, like money, like where there’s wine there can never be dirt or poverty or hardship. I’m in from the cold, insulated. Somewhere a few rooms away, barely audible, Robin Leach is narrating my own personal episode of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, or I’ve dropped into the Little House on the Prairie where Half-Pint stumbles onto a cache of fool’s gold and the lens goes all vaseline’d while she imagines her family drifting slo-mo through Walnut Grove wearing fancy, blinding white linen. 

I like wine. I don’t drink that enough. 

A beer during a Seahawks game! I’m a lightweight but I metabolize alcohol differently during a tense football game. It just disappears into my system leaving no tracks, it feels like. I’m too keyed up to notice any effects other than not dying from sports-related freakout. 

Pot, we’ve had some times. Eleven years ago, after I broke up with my previous boyfriend and before I met Dave, I bought myself an attractive little pipe and made the plan to take up pot smoking for real. I’d dabbled since I was a teenager, but I decided it was time to take it up as a proper identity. Rakish, unflappable stoner. (I was the very definition of flappable so this appealed.) But my stoner plan only lasted a couple of months because I met Dave and fell in love, and Dave was sober, and also I was in love so I had the best drug of all flowing through my system: oxytocin. (Roxy Music says love is the drug—and who wants to argue with Roxy Music?—but I’m not going to tackle love here. I’m not stupid.) So pot and I parted company until I was prescribed medical cannabis during a long illness a couple of years ago, and that was not the party I’m talking about.

There’s a Buddhist term, dukkha, that translates to something like “suffering”, or “unsatisfactoriness”, and it’s about that “if only” feeling that chases most of us around all day. Oh, the alarm, traffic, my foot, my wife, this job, my neck, the weather, death, pain. Get me out of here! Fix it. Change it. I don’t like it. It won’t do. The idea is that these things that we’re complaining about, they’re not the causes of our suffering. Our suffering about them is the cause of our suffering about them. Those things just are what they are. We supply the suffering ourselves by wishing them different. 

So this is the trigger to get our numb on, these endless flashes of dukkha. You pick your numbing agent of choice—anything from Hershey’s Kisses to Angry Birds to heroin—and you shut the dukkha out. 

All day I enact these micro defensive maneuvers, and I’m starting to wonder just how long I’m going to resist coming all the way alive like this. Because that’s what I’m doing. I’m resisting coming fully alive. I mean, I’m breathing and I have a pulse and I’m conscious for most of the day and I’m walking around, so that’s not nothing, but I’m afraid of something and I keep fighting it off, and I suspect that the thing I keep fighting off is my own life, my own life force, and that seems bad. 


There’s a personality type system called the Enneagram, and I’m really into it. (I’m a sucker for personality type systems of all stripes. They mesmerize me. Astrology, Myers-Briggs, Chinese Zodiac, whatever, I love it all. I’m always trying to figure out just who it is exactly that’s walking around in this Tina suit and I’m open to ideas. Wide. Wide open.) There are nine different personality types in the Enneagram. I’m a Nine, aka The Mediator, aka The Peacemaker, aka The Peace-Seeker, which is the most potentially numbed-out type. According to the Enneagram, Nines repress their anger and squash all their attendant unruly boat-rocking impulses. This makes them easy to get along with, but you don’t achieve that kind of repression without a lot of help, so we’re masters of numbness. The challenge for a Nine is to become unrepressed—wide awake and present no matter what—and in doing so release all that untapped dynamism. 

Not only are there nine types in the Enneagram, but there are three sub-types of each major type. You’re also classified according to what avenue the mechanism of the type expresses itself through most often. So each of the nine types have three expressions: social, sexual and self-preservation. 

When I first read about this, I was gunning to be either the social or sexual type of Nine, because those sounded cooler than being a self-preservation type. Obviously. But no. Sorry. No. The more I read, the more I recognized myself in the safety-seeking, comfort-loving Self-Preservation Nine. Goddamn it. So turtle-y. The numbest of the numb.  

I don’t love this about myself but I understand it. There was early trauma in my life that was ferocious enough that learning to numb was job one, and a compassionate act of self-preservation. It was a necessity, and the best thing I could come up with. It wasn’t wrong. 

It wasn’t wrong, but it’s not somewhere I'm planning on staying, either. This armor of numbness is outdated. It doesn’t serve any more. And so that’s my big focus these days, coming un-numb. Meditation, yoga, healing work, you name it. I’m pouring it on. 

So what am I afraid of? What am I trying to squash when I’m numbing myself? When I send my little fishing line down into this line of questioning, I get a flash of facing some beast, some kind of enemy, going into a bright hot battle with annihilation at its end. Something wants me dead. Something wants to burn me up. I don’t know what that is. I'm looking at this through a veil, you know? Numbness! 

But practically, in real-life terms, what’s the danger in coming alive? For all of us? Well, maybe there’s a lot of shit that’s not working, and when you de-numb and can see it and feel it, you have to fix it. Maybe your body’s broken, or your job sucks, or your relationship is wrong, or your friendships are unsatisfying, or your living situation is untenable. Maybe something is hurting you. I mean, yes. Something is hurting you. If you’re getting numb, something’s hurting you, even if it’s just your own thought patterns. Ugh. Exhausting! There’s so much to do every damn day already. You want to say there’s more? Extrication or rebuilding or re-conceiving or healing or moving or or or. Fuck. Fuck! Pass the wine. Tomorrow’s problem. 

And we’re not just afraid of the rough stuff, either. 


One of my favorite words is poignant. 

poi-gnant adjective \ˈpȯi-nyənt

1:  pungently pervasive <poignant perfume>

2: a (1) :  painfully affecting the feelings :  piercing  (2) :  deeply affecting :  touching

b :  designed to make an impression :  cutting  <poignant satire>

3  a :  pleasurably stimulating

    b :  being to the point

I love the word, I love the experience of poignance. But it’s unsustainable. That kind of sharpness is for a quick in-and-out, not for an extended stay. 

When I was very sick and in the hospital at the beginning of 2013, I didn’t see my children for nine days. I’d never gone so long without seeing them, but I was too unwell to handle it for that first hospital stretch. After nine days I was ready, and Dave brought them to see me. 

I heard them before I saw them. I heard their footsteps in the hallway, their little voices. My oldest boy was six, my youngest was three. The poignance began its assault as soon as I detected my boys with my ears. And then they rounded the corner into the room, into my line of vision, and I was fully harpooned. Their scruffy, hopeful, tentative faces (so exquisite!); their puffy overcoats, navy and gray; their little pants. Their milky skin, the look and feel of it. Their flutey little voices. The feel of them pressing up against my leg and my sides. If you don’t think I have tears streaming down my face right this second to think of it, think again. It burned, the beauty.  

You can’t live there, not at that pitch. 


And yet.


On my 19th birthday, I hung out with friends at an apartment up on Capitol Hill here in Seattle. We drank and played Scruples, peppering each other with provocative questions. The question came up, “Would you rather live a life of great joys and great sorrows, with extreme highs and lows, or would you rather have a more moderate existence, missing the extremes on either end?” I expected a landslide with me for the former. 

Nein. Two of us opted for the former, and the rest of the room chose the more moderate existence. Team Highs and Lows was all ARE YOU PEOPLE CRAZY? and Team Moderation was like NO, ARE YOU CRAZY? and we both had a point. But I’d vote the same way today. I’ve bumped both extremes plenty and I still say it. 

I have to practice sustaining that sharpness a little longer, is the thing. I think it can stretch out and diffuse into something livable without losing its potency. I think this is the idea. 

I was talking with my teacher, Jim, about the difference between aliveness and stimulation. (Or, no. He was talking and I was listening.) He was saying that we’ve gotten so numb as a society that our craving for stimulation is ramping up just so that we can feel something. Louder, faster, bigger, funnier, sexier, more violent everything. But stimulation, while it gives us a jolt, doesn’t address the thing that made us go numb in the first place.

You know it when it happens, though, the other thing, the expansion of the aliveness within. It’s not contentment, exactly, or well-being. Those are by-products, maybe, of aliveness, or presence. Sometimes everything aligns and you catch it, your aliveness, and it’s not because of the things that aligned. It’s not because of the sunset or the food or the fire or the mountains or the company, whatever was in place when the flash happened. It’s not because of the good news that somebody’s going to live, or that you got somebody back, or you got the job. Those are the curtains opening, not the show. The life that’s running around in you all the time, that’s the show. 

We just keep blocking most of it out.   


Amy L. said...

Ok yes, this is one of those posts that I get to think about for the next few weeks and piece it together with the mismatched quilting squares in my own head and see what we come up with.

I am a (self-preserving) 3 on the Enneagram, true to form, in all the ugliest ways, unfortunately. Known as an Achiever on the Enneagrams that are gentle and polite; a Performer on the ones that like to take a harder look at reality. I am wholly and completely driven to do what I do every day based solely on how it will shape others’ perceptions of me. Yuk. You can stop being friends with me right now.

That drive to achieve the perception of perfection creates, not surprisingly, an unquenchable anxiety. A tap-tap-tap on my shoulder and the persistence of the questions: “This person/thing/moment is broken, why did you break it?” “Why can’t you fix it?” “What can you do next?” “What haven’t you done?” “Are you sure everything is ok, everywhere, with everyone?” This is my dukkha, not a distanced dissatisfaction with life, but a sharp, present dissatisfaction with me. I seek numbing not to escape life, but to escape my own self. I run away from the sharpness, the aliveness, the poignancy, because it’s too much around me. I am too much alive, too wide awake. I am trembling, Technicolor insomnia.

Alexandra said...

I wish this was The Atlantic and I was reading it there. Because that's exactly what this feels like. Beautiful, honest, real, painful, breathtaking.

Monique Kleinhans said...

this one is still pretty raw for me...having just stood all night by my mom's hospital bed as she experienced the most horrific reactions to narcotic painkillers. I've always believed that the highs are worth the lows and I think that I still do, but man....I also have to say that I have never been taken to that depth before.

Marie said...

I am fascinated by your reaction to painkillers and you are not the first to have told me this, though you are the most eloquent.

I get absolutely none of this sensation you describe with vicodin, only pain relief, although tramadol doesn't help me much with pain and gives me a headache (which is the opposite of pain relief, isn't it).

I don't drink alcohol either, never having had much of an effect from that, but haven't tried cannabis (yet).

Maybe I just have a natural gift for numbness 'cause I can do that, though trying hard not to these days.

Beautifully written and thank you to Neil Kramer for pointing me here.

angela said...

I relate to a lot of this — I can't take narcotics because they immediately knock me straight into that awful Vicadon nightmare you described. I definitely numb through other channels, though, avoidance being the major one. I'll be thinking about your words for a long time.

momcat said...

I stumbled on your blog, enjoy it, lived in Seattle long ago, and am also an Enneagram Nine. I smiled through your Jail post, recognizing all those elements that lead a person to that situation - especially hiding the warrant under a pile so as not exactly throw it away but not deal with it either. I treated bills like that for many years! I am in a process of staying alive to reality and the world. It is hard. There is a pot of gold at the end and it is my lost self. Candace