The Nature and Nurture of Pain

This is quite a few years ago, and I’m sitting in a car with girl. I was giving her a ride, but now we’re pulled over on the side of the road. It’s raining, and the windows are fogging over. The girl is thin, and so is the fabric of her dress. She has pale blonde hair, a pretty smile, and a pleasing frame. We’re talking about sex, and there is zero possibility of us having it with each other.

We both have girlfriends that we’re committed to, for starts. I don’t know if she’s flat-out gay, or if she’s bi, but it doesn’t matter. Our excitement in this conversation, the gleam in each of our eyes, isn’t about each other–it’s about sex itself. It’s the kind of thing that happens when you get two enthusiastic and informed hobbyists together, and they babble back and forth about the object of their mutual interest. Strong mutual interest in a topic doesn’t necessarily translate into strong interest in each other.
In addition to being into BDSM, she’s a cutter.

I don’t find that appealing, but I do find it fascinating. I’ve never talked to a cutter before, not about cutting. She’s explaining how it works, the physiology and psychology of it, and she really knows her shit on this topic. She’s researched the fuck out of it. I’m learning a lot.

A decade or two into the future, I’m going to strain to remember the exact things she told me, and how she phrased them. I’m going to fail, and I’m going to just say ‘fuck it’, and I’ll fake it, writing this blog post as if I have the kind of mental precision of memory required to accurately dictate something that happened so long ago.

“It’s not just about the pain,” she’s telling me. “And it’s not just about the control.”

I’d brought up the subject of control, the idea that one part of self-cutting was that the cutters were looking for a way to exert some kind of power over their own life. She’d given me the kind of physical, non-verbal response that you get when you’ve said something that’s perhaps in the right direction, but only part of the answer.

“When the body suffers trauma, when it feels pain, there are physical responses that take place. Pain lets you know that there’s an emergency going on, and the body starts responding to that emergency immediately. As soon as there is pain, the body starts pumping out painkillers to deal with it.”

She mimes cutting herself, using a single long fingernail to draw a thin line across the pleasantly pallid flesh of her forearm.

She uses the technical terms, naming the emergency hormones and what they do. The specifics will get lost with time, but the lessons remain burned into my brain. I’d read any number of things about people who were into pain, but none of them had really addressed this kind of root cause. The simple truth of it all–or of one key aspect–was that when the body experiences pain, the body produces painkillers, and people can use painkillers for recreational and/or medicinal purposes.

“These painkillers not only help numb you physically, and to give you a physical buzz, but also help do the same thing on a mental level. That’s why cutting and BDSM are popular among people who suffer from depression–they’re using the chemical results of physical pain in order to battle their mental suffering. That’s why I got into it–I have pretty severe depression.”

I haven’t yet realized that I suffer from depression, because it doesn’t generally manifest as sadness, and I haven’t realized that sadness and depression aren’t the same thing. I know at this point that I have periods of inactivity where getting out of bed in the morning seems like a horrible fate. I’ve often felt as if life was hollow, pointless, and cruel, but it hasn’t yet occurred to me at this point that the problem lies at least partially in my own brain. At this point in my life, I’m still young enough and foolish enough to think that I’m the one who sees things clearly, and all those happy people are the ones who are wrong. This outlook will change over the next decade or two, but in the moments of this particular conversation in the rain, I’m taking notes on self-medications that I naively believe are applicable to other people. I don’t consider self-medication, because I don’t yet consider that I have any form of mental illness or disorder.

Time will pass, and this will change.

I’ll remember the girl and the conversation many times in my life, particularly when I get my first tattoo. I’ll sit in the chair for an hour or so, having my flesh punctured repeatedly, enduring the pain, and I’ll ride a kind of semi-euphoric high for the next several days. I’ll feel like life is good, like things are right, and like it all makes sense. After the direct chemical high fades away, I’ll look at the tattoo from time to time, and I’ll have an echo of that high flash through my memory because there’s a Pavlovian link in my brain now between that particular piece of art and those feelings of well-being. I’ll remember this conversation, and I’ll understand what’s happening to me. I’ll wish that more people could have that kind of education into the nature and nurture of pain.

The Rubik’s Cube solver runs in your web browser and it finds easily the solution for your puzzle.

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