Proof That I Exist

I’m impressed more by facts than by philosophy. I prefer evidence, not theory. I like things that I can prove - me, for instance. I can prove that I exist. I have a birth certificate, photographs, a copy of Alice in Wonderland that I wrote my name in when I was eight, and bank statements. If those aren’t enough, I have a fail-safe, people who will insist on identifying a lifeless body if I stop paying my bills. And my dog, Ripley, exists. I can smell her fur and touch her body and scoop up what she leaves in the back yard. There’s another fail-safe, the garbage can in the back yard that houses Ripley’s, um, leftovers. Proof, any kind of proof, even that kind of fragrant proof, makes me feel safe.

Unfortunately, some things can’t be proven. No one can prove that dogs don’t have souls. No one can prove that my brother has ever read a book. And no one can prove that pain exists. I can prove that everyone at the pharmacy knows me by my first name but not that I have pain. I can prove that I stay in bed for hours and hours but not that I have pain.

I can prove that I continually feel tired and drained but not that I have pain. I can prove that I often function with the animation of a cooked noodle but not that I have pain. People commiserate by comparing their own stories of current or past pain. Those are the people who haven’t experienced pain long enough to know that it is deeply personal. Pain can be shared but not compared. A broken arm feels different to everyone, physically and emotionally. And it’s the emotional aspect of pain that matters. Our bodies deal with physical pain mechanically, somewhat uniformly. When we drag our psyches and emotions into the fray, it gets ugly. The pain that kept you off the softball field for one season doesn’t translate to the pain that has sidelined my life. You’re in the Emergency Room facing traction and a few months of inconvenience. I’m in Room 101, facing my most dreaded fear and a life that doesn’t come close to resembling the one I loved.

Classifying the pain is just as difficult as proving it. Someone made a pain scale with smiley faces. Even worse, someone gave me the pain scale with the smiley faces. I guess it works with kids, or with people who don’t speak the same language as the doctor. But then, how many of us ever do speak the language of our doctor? I’m not suggesting that doctors aren’t people like us. I just think there are some things that go on in med school, things that we don’t want to know about, that alter their perceptions. I have found a use for the smiley faces though; I throw darts at them. If I can throw a dart and hit the bright and cheery smiley face, then that’s my level of pain. If I can throw a dart and hit the scale itself, it’s time for Advil. If I can pick up the dart but not throw it, Tramadol. If I can’t pick up the dart, Vicodin. If I can’t concentrate long enough to find the dart, Oxycontin. If I can’t find the Oxycontin, I cry.

It amazes me how quickly pain turns into depression, how quickly I become an observer rather than a participant in life. It feels like everything is painted gray, like I’m in the midst of a black and white movie, standing still while the action continues around me. My focus narrows dramatically. Time drags. I become a different person, a self-centered person who wields a knife. Ripley gets slashed with the sharp end of my emotions when I have bursts of anger or sadness. My family and friends get pummeled with the blunt hilt when I don’t answer the phone or can’t have a civilized conversation.

But it also amazes me that there’s nothing more grounding than unrelenting pain. When I have to walk more slowly, I see more flowers and dragon flies. When I lie in bed, I get to snuggle with Ripley. If I can’t take my friend Brady to the park, I get to see his delight when he licks the bowl after we make cookies. When I can’t work every day, I appreciate my job and coworkers more. I’ve even been able to add to my list of things that make me happy. Now, in addition to puppies and snowfall and children laughing, I’ve learned to value simple things like inexpensive narcotics, flexible ice packs, and drugs that don’t make me constipated. And I have a new career path. My doctor suggested finding a job that requires no lifting over ten pounds, no prolonged standing, sitting, or walking, and no repetitive twisting, bending, or kneeling. I understand Nevada has legalized a job that fits that description.

I shouldn’t complain. As it happens, it only hurts when I laugh, speak, sit, walk, stand, or lie down. And my life is full and varied. There are annoying days when I can’t remember how to adjust the volume on my car radio, ditzy days when you can hear the ocean if you stand close to me, drugged days when the squirrels out back are singing Barry Manilow songs, in key, and many successful days when I manage to stay alive despite the breathtaking incompetence that comes in the grip of chronic pain.

Prove that the pain exists? I can’t do it. But I can prove that the sun is warm on my face. I can prove that life is what you make it. And I can prove that I have friends to help me deal with it; friends who often ask, “Is there something I can get for you?” I always answer, “Yes, something tall, fit, well-educated and sensitive who gives a good massage.” After all, I don’t want to end up being the quiet neighbor who always kept to herself.

Jill Wragg is a retired police officer in Massachusetts.
She can be reached at

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