the mermaid’s choice

I can’t remember the last time I sat in a class and got absorbed in a lecture, so much that time sped by and I couldn’t believe that class was over already. I can’t remember the last time I sat in a restaurant with friends and relaxed after dinner, drinking coffee and talking with no thought of the time passing. I can’t remember the last time I stayed up all night reading a book. I can’t remember the last time I stood outside and watched snow falling into a cone of streetlight and let myself get lost in the beauty. I can’t remember the last time I forgot where I was or what I was doing, so absorbed in the moment of what I was seeing or hearing or experiencing, like a sunrise, or a beautiful piece of music, or the sound of my cat purring as I buried my face in her fur.

I can’t remember a life without pain. Nothing in my life is like it used to be. Oh yes, there’s been personal growth, and positive change in my state of being, in my contentment with who I am and where my life is going. I don’t mean to sound ungrateful. But for some reason, lately, I’ve been missing the small things. Like standing at the edge of the ocean and letting wave after wave come swirl around my feet, turning up the sand so I sink, millimeter by millimeter, until I’m buried up to my ankles, just losing my self in the feeling of the cool, wet granules between my toes, in the sound of the ocean, in its salty smell. So strange, that salt has a smell; it doesn’t seem like it should. I miss wondering about things like the smell of salt in the middle of the afternoon and losing track of time.

I can’t remember losing track of time.

Sometimes, I can watch a TV show and not notice time passing for a few minutes, but then there will be a lull in the action and the pain pokes through and pulls me away. Before this happened, I always felt so rushed, wondering “where the day went.” That never happens any more. I am keenly aware of the leisurely pace of every passing minute. I never manage to lose more than a few at a time, here or there.

There’s not even the novelty of figuring out how I’m going to manage to do some task or another any more. It’s been over a year. I’ve done pretty much everything at least once. Before, at least, I was able to apply my mental faculties to the process. Now, I don’t even have that. I know how to sit, to stand, to walk. I know how to wrangle groceries in and out of my car. I know how to maneuver a heavy object by using my body weight as leverage rather than engaging my shoulders.

I automatically avoid the puddles when I drag my rolling backpack to class and back. Without thinking, I choose the handicapped parking spaces with the extra room on the passenger side so I can swing the door wide open and tilt out the backpack, or the hand truck, or whatever else I need to take with me. I have a special way of walking, opening doors, stepping on and off escalators, getting in and out of cars, pumping gas, donning and removing coats, using the self-checkout line at the grocery store. I know how to time my pain medication to line up with my activities.

And even though I do all of these things, I’m still in a lot of pain. The pain would be worse without them, of course, but it’s an awful lot of work for a relatively minor improvement. I suppose I should be grateful that I have the medications that I do, that the coping mechanisms have become automatic, that I’m no longer embarrassed to ask someone to do something for me. But over the holidays, when my friends go out and I have to stay in, I find myself missing awfully being able to lose myself in such activities. I just can’t do that any more. The pain never goes away.

Last night I consoled myself by melting some peanut butter in my chocolate melting pot and pouring it over a bowl of vanilla ice cream. For the ten or so minutes I took to eat it, I felt something like comfort. But my shoulder was there the whole time, just digging and digging, like it had a mind and a purpose from which it would not be diverted. If only I could be more like that. I still haven’t given up on meditating every night, but despite months of practice, I’m not getting anywhere with it. I try to just lie there and let the pain be a part of me, but my mind can’t resist wandering off, trying to put as much distance between it and my pain as possible.

I want to sit in a chair and be comfortable. I want to lie in a bed and be comfortable. I want to cross my arms and be comfortable. I want to be able to hold a plate or a book for more than a minute or two. I want to look up or down without the sudden, breathtaking slice of pain shooting up my neck and down under my shoulder. I want to lift something, hold something, lean on something, without having to concentrate on holding my shoulder in place. Because if I stop paying attention to it, it will creep out of position and the volume on the pain will turn up and up, and then it won’t matter how I hold it, it will just hurt until I can get up and move around, and if I’ve waited too long, even that won’t help.

A friend came over yesterday to help install a keyboard tray on my desk. Two different trays, actually, neither of which fit, shades of the HVAC debacle from this past Spring. We packed them back up in their boxes so they could be returned, and when we finished, she asked if I wanted her to go so I could get back to sorting through my desk. I insisted she stay and talk to me for a while. We chattered about nothing in particular while we went through the desk’s erstwhile contents, strewn in a pile on the floor (most of which wound up in a yard-sized garbage bag), and it was nice to be in the company of a friend, just hanging out, just aimless companionship. But my shoulder was there the whole time.

The desk was the last segment of the apartment to be thoroughly culled. As of when we finished, later that afternoon, everything that is still here is coming with me to the new place. I’ve lost count of how many boxes and bags of stuff I’ve given or thrown away, but it must be upwards of two dozen. Amazingly, there is still a ton of crap here.

That’s how I feel about my life. I’ve discarded nearly everything I don’t absolutely need in order to function. But there’s still a lot of crap in here that I can’t get rid of, mostly because it’s occasionally useful, and even more occasionally crucial. The most noticeable of these is the psychological baggage that accumulates as a result of the constant, unrelenting, physical torture under whose cloud I am forced to remain. Every morning, before I begin my daily business, I make a decision to discard all that baggage and start fresh. I consciously let go of whatever anger, regret, anxiety, and frustration I built up from the day before. Today will be better, I promise myself. I always do that. I have to. If I don’t, the day bottoms out far too quickly, and I’m done before lunchtime.

But I’m so, so tired. Not physically tired, now, at least, not in the early part of the day, thanks to the coma-inducing meds, but mentally, I’m spent. I don’t want to do anything. I don’t want to do schoolwork; I don’t want to pore over the blueprint of the new place I drew on graph paper, moving things here and there in an attempt to find the most perfect arrangement; I don’t want to practice my music for the concert next weekend that will feature the little ensemble I rehearse with every week. All of my mental energy is focused on begging and praying to whatever is out there – if anything actually is – to please, please take the pain away, even just for a little while, so I can get something done and enjoy doing it like I used to.

And of course, nothing happens. The shard that has wedged itself underneath my scapula never disappears. It’s been there for so long that it’s not even interesting any more. It’s by turns annoying, upsetting, or soul-crushingly depressing, but there are no new impressions. I’ve gotten pretty good at compartmentalizing it, but the compartment is open; I can always see and feel what’s in it. All I’ve gotten out of this year-plus of experiencing it is improved skill at hiding it from the people around me.

Maybe this is what hell would be like, if there was one. Not some fiery pit, but a world just like this one, where you have to do the normal things everyone else does, but every single one of them causes you pain. Like the mermaid in the original Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale that trades her fins for legs so she can be with her prince, the price being that it feels like she’s walking on knives every step she takes.

I’m sure she thought it a worthwhile trade in the short term, but what if it never went away? Week after week, month after month, year after year, might she not come to resent the original reason for the exchange? Might she not look at him while he slept and feel the hate bubble and froth inside her? Might it finally boil over as she hacks him to death in his sleep with the sea witch’s knife and drips the blood on her feet to get her tail back?

In the original tale, she doesn’t get the prince; he marries a princess, and the mermaid throws herself back in the sea and dies rather than kill him to become a mermaid again. (Young people are so stupid.) If only she’d waited a few years; she might have come around to making a different choice. I wish there was someone I could kill to get the knife out of my body. Would I do it? I don’t know. Not at first, but how many years would I last before I gave in? Probably not very many.

But I’m not presented with the mermaid’s choice. I don’t have a choice. It’s just knives, all day, all the time. And it doesn’t matter if I’m tired of it, or if I hate it. There’s no such thing as a sea witch. There’s no-one to blame. It just is. And no matter where I am, what I do, or how I do it, I can’t ever, ever forget it.

About C. M. Condo

I am a late-diagnosed, high-functioning autistic living with chronic pain. I started this blog in March of 2014 as a way to try to process what was happening to me. It is my hope that by sharing it with you, we can both gain something, or at least learn something, from my experience.
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3 Responses to the mermaid’s choice

  1. caronbot says:

    I don’t have anything to say re: pain that would be anything more than a useless platitude, but I will tell you this: what you wrote about melting peanut butter over ice cream has inspired the fat kid in me, and that will be a part of my cheat meal tonight.

    Liked by 1 person

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