adventures in pain

louise carter

on pain

A small child falls from his chair and hits the tiled floor beneath him with a fleshy thud. My reaction is visceral – I make a sickened, rubbery sound at the base of my throat, unconsciously clutching a hand to my mouth. There's a moment of stillness before he starts to wail – just enough time for him to observe our reactions so as to gauge the severity of his misfortune before he reacts.

His mother – a person who has been witnessing similar tragedies take place in his life every day for the last six months, holds steady – the smile from our conversation remaining artificially set upon her face as she assesses the situation. But being a novice around children, I've made all the rookie errors – and his reaction reflects the horror of mine.

“It's hard to get used to,” she tells me as she scoops this screaming entity into her arms, “but it's best if you don't react if they hurt themselves. If you can convince them that nothing bad has happened, most of the time they'll believe it.”

fearing pain

“Cheer up!”, “Don't be sad!” and “Stop crying” are statements we've all heard and have probably also told others. Most of us don't even notice the words as they come out of our own mouths – they're as instinctive as the gasp that came out of me as my friend's child fell.

When we see others in pain, our immediate reaction is to make it stop – or at least to try and change their response to it.

Why do we do this?

It seems like a stupid question. Why wouldn't pain make us feel uncomfortable? After all, pain is the most extreme form of physical discomfort. But more importantly, pain signifies a health threat. And since we are still, despite it being the 21st Century, largely beholden to the functionality of our mortal forms for the privilege of maintaining conscious awareness, pain is a condition that we're compelled to end as quickly as possible – because the alternative is that we might die.

There's no shame in being afraid of death – it's highly sensible. Whatever your particular belief system may be, most of us can agree that the condition of being alive grants you access to a certain array of enticing privileges. Pain is a physiological response that tells our brain that something bad is happening – 'bad' being defined as something that could result in these privileges being revoked.

So okay, pain = bad. For the most part, this point of view is useful, and I advise that you stick with it. But like any blanket rule, there are always going to be grey areas. And like any deviant, these are the areas which are always going to fascinate me.

what is pain?

I'm not a scientist. If you want a dictionary definition of pain, Wikipedia is ready and willing to confirm what you already knew (or suspected) was true.

A more useful question would be: what is your experience of pain? How would you describe it?

It's harder than you would initially think – pain is by its very nature difficult to describe. For one, it's not the kind of thing you can leisurely observe at the point it's happening and sketch with a set of Derwent watercolours. Secondly, even the act of recalling pain can, in itself, be painful. Thus pain remains a largely unknowable condition that most view as best skipped over and forgotten. It's over. You're safe now. Go to sleep.

rites of passage

Self-harm, piercings, reckless drinking, tattoos – you see these words, and you immediately start to picture a young person – a teenager, most likely.

I remember singing along with total conviction and sincerity to Alanis Morrisette's 'You Oughta Know' as a fourteen-year-old, despite having absolutely zero experience in the arenas of love, sex or betrayal. Listening to poor Alanis express a desire to scratch her nails "down someone else's back" over and over and over was an intensely enjoyable experience for me – and also, evidently, for the 33 million others who also bought the album. (I'm showing my age – a more contemporary example would be the ground-breaking success of Adele's bombastically angsty '21').

Why would listening to someone experience pain be enjoyable? And why do we find ourselves able to relate to the painful stories of strangers – even if we ourselves come from a place of limited experience?

Adolescents are all about new experiences, keen to throw themselves into the path of pain without the mnemonic safety harness of experience that weighs more heavily upon us the older we get. It's an inevitable process of aging – and a useful one – without it we'd be like Bart Simpson in that episode where Lisa connects a cupcake to an electric charge and sits back to watch her brother shock himself again and again without ever growing wiser.

We despair over the risk-taking behaviour of young people. The 'just say no to drugs' message is promoted in primary school, before most kids are able to grasp the concept of consciousness, let alone altered states of consciousness.

I've heard it said that even if all drugs and alcohol were removed from the planet, we'd all be standing in our front yards, spinning.

I've also hear it said that the brain is lazy – instead of making the effort to really look at a person's face, we project the idea of that person we already have onto them, which is why we often miss details like haircuts and new glasses.

Is it pain that we are afraid of, or the idea of pain?

counter intuitive

Twenty-six years old, I'm sitting on the cheap carpet of my living room, cross legged. Outside the sky is maroon black; the room is lit by candles. Electronic music pulses softly, no one is talking – their focus is directed respectfully – almost reverently, on the scene that's about to happen.

"I am going to start hitting you," says my friend, her eyes alive with sinister mirth. "And I won't stop until you tell me to."

She's holding a thin length of white fibreglass, which we've affectionately dubbed 'white lightening'. It makes a whipping sound as it zips through the air, and the pain it produces is stinging hot. One stroke is enough to make you curse God, but multiple strokes – which are easy inflict because the cane is light and springy – bring about a pain so intense you would sacrifice anything for it to immediately stop.

Usually, when we play, she watches my body as I writhe and grit my teeth and clench and gasp, so she can figure out how much I can take. When to pause, when to push.

But this situation is different. This time it is wholly up to me how much pain and damage I am willing to endure. Which somehow makes the situation all the more sadistic.

“Ready?” she asks me.

I am the reason why this is happening. Every decision I've made in life has brought me here.


In those shocked, startled few seconds my confused nerve endings register nothing – as if the sheer force of the first stroke had jolted the plug from its socket.

But then it is immediately unbearable – stinging, searing, rupturing, burning. The impulse to flinch my leg out of harm’s way is fearsome – I’m clenching every muscle in my body with the effort of keeping my thigh in line with her punishment which is raining down on me at an unrelenting two strokes a second – ceaseless, ceaseless.

It’s only been about fifteen seconds; already my skin is dark red and starting to welt. I want it to stop, ohgodohgod I want it to stop, I can’t take it I can’t fucking take it I hate this I HATE THIS OH PLEASE OH PLEASE OH PLEASE –

– a switch clicks and the pain is suddenly abstract – I step outside of the experience. Although on one level the pain is still there (and getting worse), the sensation has become disconnected from the definition.

The word ‘pain’ floats innocuously in my mind, stripped of meaning.

Divorced from the mental conditioning that pain = bad, I’m able to appreciate the unfiltered sensation for what it is – colourful, sparking and searing through me like a comet skimming the atmosphere.

The patch of carpet in front of my eyes drops into a swirling abyss. I’m pressed against a windowpane and staring right into the heart of the universe, gazing in serene wonder at its perfect beauty and peace.

At which point, there is no need to continue.


freedom from suffering

Watching the bruises heal is part of the process. There were weekends where I could barely walk – my skin was so pulverised. But like a person hobbling around a day after a hard session at the gym, I enjoyed the pain; felt proud to have survived, to have endured it so bravely.

Physical wounds can be coaxed to heal. You can see, touch, and feel them – it’s a tangible process. As I watched the bruises graduate like a sunset relaxing into the dusk, I felt purged of demons. All else that was aggravating about life stopped affecting me as much. Compared to the lightening fire of fifty cane strokes on my inner thigh, more casual annoyances lost their hold.

No longer timid or fearful, I strode forward purposefully – further into adulthood.

Pain gave me permission.

forethought of grief

I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief.

- Wendell Berry, The Peace of Wild Things

I asked my friend to stop caning my leg on that particular night because I became able, in that moment, to separate pain from suffering. That experience marked a turning point not just in terms of how fearfully I approached the world, but how enthusiastically I pursued pain.

It’s possible to become overly familiar with things that are painful – it can become comfortable.

Which is ironic considering that my fascination with pain largely stemmed from my contempt for comfort – a reaction against our society’s insistence that anyone who does not take the path of least resistance must be crazy, foolish, or dangerous.

The unknown is scary. And when you haven’t known much else other than pain, you find yourself bound to dark places because that’s what you’re used to.

After all, happiness can be just as terrifying. To have experienced true peace only to lose it again is one of life’s most devastatingly painful experiences.

But what I’ve learned is that the universe knows when to pause, when to push.

The key is trust.

more by louise carter