Phantom Pain

@1986, By Cale Kenney

Razors scrape dead, green flesh away, digging the gangrene out of my perineum like a hunting knife scrapes away the mold on a piece of animal meat.

My surgeon didn’t think I would feel it because he had given me a local anesthetic.  During my initial amputations I’d already had so much of the general anesthetic that I’d gone to hell and back in hallucinogenic hazes and was in danger of a psychotic breakdown if given more.

But a local anesthetic doesn’t numb the brain, only the nerves, and my mind oriented itself in the room,  saw that these doctors were “helping” and still went wild with felt implications. Body broken and besieged, I felt my only power lay in speech.

Sobbing: “What do you think I am? A piece of meat? These are my private parts, and you are digging a hole right through me. You have no right.  This is my body.”

I behaved as though I were a child. As a child I was accused of being dramatic. Now I think that they leveled me with that charge because whenever I had a feeling, I tried to give voice to it, and children are a mass of feeling. They haven’t learned the “rules” of the world yet, the general principles by which we adults can rationalize, philosophize and control our feelings. Children just react.

And so at 19, when I had my motorcycle accident, I was still a child. I did not know yet that my body was the vehicle my spirit inhabited for its time here on earth, and that that the purpose of this vehicle in its interaction with others was to leam lessons in order to evolve. And then help others.

I didn’t know pain was a perception, or that it is learned. I didn’t know pain has an emotional component which provided its intensity, and I didn’t know that my body has no imagination of its own, only my mind does, and that because of this, pain can be controlled. No. I didn’t even suspect these things. I just hurt.

But in 15 years I have learned those general principles, of personal responsibility, and these rules about pain’s perception. So now on those days when the memory of these attacks on my flesh come back to haunt me in the form of phantom pain, I lay in my bed and invoke God, deep breathing, autogenic exercises –“My hands are heavy. My hands are warm.”– and the lessons I have learned, and I chant to myself that nothing is harming me, this is just a bad dream and I probably overdid if or I might have an infection, or this will just be an inexplicable dark night of the soul when the  ghosts  of  neural  confusion overwhelm my mind.

The pains come in stabs, in dull thuds, in charley-horse type spasms where no rubbing of a muscle will relieve, and where trying to ignore/deny the pain will only use up energy that I need to concentrate on my breathing. I must feel the pain in all its intensity by first lying down, and letting go and relaxing my body and mind while I am stabbed, poked and burned with acid over the length of my limb. I know now it is useless to anguish over why this is happening — I save that for the neurologists who say that sometimes nerve endings are cut in such a way that the damaged nerves form neuromas that tangle out at the end of a severed nerve and send confused pain messages to the brain.

I think of the phantoms as psychic leeches which will not let me forget that however much I adapt to my “loss” I will never be without the consciousness that someday I will see my whole body deteriorate and eventually die, but by then I hope I’ll have learned my lessons fully and will take comfort in the greater knowledge that my body is just a vehicle…Breathe deeply, now…..deep…..for my soul to evolve.

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