A Brief History of Her Pain

Jen Soriano

                              I will keep Broken Things.

                              I will keep You:

                              Pilgrim of Sorrow

                              I will keep Myself

                              — Alice Walker

1996 AD

Jennifer S. Asian. Nineteen years of age. Junior. Clinic visit due to pain “like lead shooting through arms.” Average build, average height, flat affect. She clenched then twisted her fists, repeated, as if juicing two lemons ‘til dry.

Jennifer S. received standard procedure for cases like this. The Wartenberg wheel: steel teeth rolled across inner forearms and palms to assess nerve response. The tomahawk hammer struck against wrists, knees, and elbows to elicit deep tendon reflexes. Posture examined as well as muscle strength. Mental examination waived by the attending practitioner.

Results: no nerve damage detected by Wartenberg wheel. No delay in deep tendon reflexes elicited by tomahawk hammer. Patient status: Normal. Slumped posture. Weak grip. Pain likely due to over-reaction to college stress.

Jennifer S. sent home with naproxen, medical report, reminder to schedule a pap smear. Patient exited the clinic with difficulty, shoulders caved and arms cradled, as if nursing a porcelain baby.


1800 BC

In Egypt, the Kahun Papyrus is written — a text entirely focused on women’s health. This ancient text becomes the first comprehensive medical document known to man.

The Papyrus mentions a condition of mysterious pain and mercurial emotional states lacking apparent physical cause. This is what will later become known as hysteria. It also reveals that though seemingly mysterious, the condition does indeed have a physical source, a dislocated or starved uterus.

To treat the condition, sweet oils must be applied to the vagina, or unpleasant things must be eaten to lure the misbehaving womb back into place.

The Kahun Papyrus may not only be the first medical text known to man, it may also be the first text written by women. The authors may have been priestesses, since healing was within the domain of spiritual leaders. But being women, these priestesses may have also had misplaced wombs, and therefore may have also been physically pained, emotionally disordered and hysterical.


2013 AD

I am waiting patiently for the doctor to say something. She moves her reading glasses to the precipice of her nose and examines the grey film at arm’s length. Silence. She shifts in her chair, flicks her hands so the film goes thwack, and moves it up toward a sickly florescent light.

“Your uterus is tipped,” she finally says. “And see this?” She points her pen at a cloudy curved line. “That’s your fallopian tube. But where is your ovary? It must be hiding behind your uterus. And see the other one? The other tube is like a slinky.”

My husband looks at me like he’s afraid I might faint. Instead, I bow my head to suppress a chuckle. Leave it to the fertility doctor to discover what I had long suspected: something was amiss in my womb.

I smile because it’s amusing to learn there is so much interesting activity down there, the fallopian tubes contorting like acrobats, the ovaries and the uterus playing hide-and-seek. I am entertained by the thought of my reproductive organs performing a three-ring circus, since that area of my body — the life-giving viscera, the motherly matrix of me — has always felt comatose, near dead.

                  Diagnosis: Hysteria tipped

               to hear water bone ancestors’

               sobs buried, alive.

2002 AD

Jennifer S., twenty-six years old, Philippina. First visit. First time in therapy. Presents as anxious. Used entire box of tissue. Complained of pain in arms, back, neck. “Debilitating.” Asked her about childhood. Silence. Mentioned silence multiple times. Two older brothers.

I offered her framework of taboos. Common in Asian cultures. At mention, Jennifer S. became animated, articulate. “I didn’t pay for an anthropologist. Plus, you’re wrong.” Probed possibility of sexual abuse. Patient claimed relationship with brothers was positive. “One of the best parts of childhood.” Defensive affect. Gave her article on breathing techniques for pain. Patient left crying. Anger issues.

June 12 — Jennifer S. canceled appointment. Claimed therapy “made her feel more hysterical.”


200 AD

The Roman physician Galen clarifies the connection between hysteria and women’s body parts. Centuries before him, Hippocrates reaffirmed the Kahun Papyrus by diagnosing emotionally erratic behavior as a disease caused by the migratory womb. Hippocrates elaborated by explaining that hysterics’ wombs have a tendency to move upward, crowding the organs and causing, as one might imagine, all sorts of problems.

Galen agrees to this womb thing, but disagrees on the nature of its errors. Hysteria is not due to the uterus’ itinerant movement, but to its unfortunate ability to retain blood and also female sperm.

The treatment? Not as unfortunate: pelvic massage, sexual stimulation, and release — better known as orgasm. So begins a millennium-long heyday of treating hysteria through sexual healing.


2006 AD

I am sitting on an examination table swinging my legs while yet another doctor asks the requisite questions.

“How long have you had this pain?” She looks squinty-eyed, like she is having trouble seeing me, though I am only two feet away.

“More than ten years,” I reply.

“What caused it?”

“I don’t know. I’m hoping you can tell me.”

“What makes it better?”

“Muscle relaxers. Moderate exercise. Sex,” I say.

The doctor looks at me sharply, and I think disapprovingly, like a nun. I have overestimated the amount of camaraderie we would have as two relatively young women of color.

“I’ve read about JFK and back pain,” I prattle on. “And about how he was addicted to sex because dopamine helped ease the pain.”

Her head jerks up and she asks, “Have you ever been on opioids?”

“No. Other doctors say they wouldn’t help my pain, but sometimes I wonder.”

“Hmm,” she nods, presumably relieved I am not an opioid addict.

“Oh, and I have a sharp burning pain in my abdomen and have to pee all the time,” I recite. I’ve rehearsed this line with a doctor friend who says these are the magic words that will get me an MRI, one of the few diagnostic tests I have not done.

The doctor pops her head up to look at me sharply for a third time, her eyes nearly pinched closed, as if she’s hoping I’ll disappear. I wonder if this is a tic of hers and if she might be a bit hysterical herself.

She reaches over to palpate my belly. Perhaps she’s checking to see if my organs are all in place.

“Ow,” I remember to say after a brief pause.

My performance is unconvincing. She sends me home with a diagnosis of “Unexplained chronic pain” and a bottle of Trazadone. An anti-depressant. A mild sleep aid. To me, the text on the bottle screams, “Go to sleep and shut up!”

I go home to my boyfriend Mark and pop a Trazadone like a Tic Tac. The effect is pleasant, and I have a drowsy memory of his chest bending and blurring above me as we have that familiar slow, sweet, sweaty sex that stretches out like saltwater taffy.

Mark and I have had sex nearly every night since we started dating. For the past two years, sex has been our chosen form of communication. And so, unlike most of my female friends who date men and want something more, I don’t struggle with boyfriend communication, because we don’t attach much importance to talking. Also unlike most of my female friends, I am even more emotionally impermeable than your average dude. Who wants to plumb the depths of feelings when, uncaged, they could eat you alive? Better to pet what’s on the surface where it is safer and much more fun.

Together Mark and I move like cats, independent and tactile and self-serving. We palm limestone and soak in sulfur pools. We fall asleep with limbs intertwined and wake stroking hairs on naked forearms and calves. This sensuous and silent way of being is a temporary balm to my pain.



2003 AD

New patient: Jennifer Soriano. Twenty-seven-year-old Filipina woman. Non-profit employee. Second time seeking therapy. Cites history of depression. Previously unable to find suitable therapist. Last therapist (Susan X.) offended patient with theories of Asian heritage and adjustment challenges, suggestion of sexual abuse with no basis. Jennifer complains of persistent pain in sacrum, arms, neck. Excerpt from journal, which she brought to first session:

I feel crazy. The pain is becoming me. It is taking over me like smoke subsumes a room on fire. So I laugh because what else can I do. My head shakes left and right, involuntarily as if I’m saying no to something inconceivable. My ankle twitches, my pelvic bone cracks, I swallow a rising howl. I shake my head and fix my face. I prepare myself for another day of pretending to be good.

Pain may be classically psychosomatic, emotionally based, physically experienced, real and intertwined with mind-body. Says she hears voices. None urge her to cause harm. Voices say variations of no, express anger, ask questions.

To explore: mother wound, focusing therapies, teddy bear technique.


1350 AD

For centuries now, the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans have been treating hysteria as a problem of the misbehaved womb. Treatments have ranged from sweet oil application to prescriptions of sweeter sexual release.

With the spread of Christianity and Catholicism through Europe a more, shall we say, holistic diagnosis is unleashed: a misbehaved womb is just one part of a whole unholy, transgressive woman.

Dominican friar St. Thomas Aquinas marries hysteria with evil, and the sick woman witch is born. He concluded that because of weakness, women are more prone to temptation from the Devil, one result of which is the curse of hysteria. St. Thomas also declares that all unstudied women who practice healing of any kind are minions of the Devil himself.

The punishment is cure, and the cure is punishment: exorcism.


2001 AD

I still wonder what happened to her. I don’t remember her name, but she had brown hair, long like her willow-branch arms, and the slinky bearings of a catwalk model. I was assigned to her after shuffling desperately into a neighborhood healing studio in search of immediate pain relief. I don’t remember much about the quality of her massage. But I do remember that toward the end she asked if she could share something; she had heard a word emanating from my left shoulder.

“It’s a word I never use,” she said. “I don’t even know what it means.”

“What is it?” I asked.

“Remorse,” she said. “Does that mean anything to you?”

As the word left her lips the same sound arose from my left hip. “Remorse,” I repeated. “Yes, actually, it does mean something.”

“Well, whatever it means, remorse runs through your shoulder.”

Remorse runs through my shoulder!

What a poetic way, I thought, to describe the draconian pain that has seized that piece of my body for years.

I’m Sorry! often rings through my left side. How Dare You! often echoes through the right. I don’t remember when I began to hear the voices, but I think they came as I started to heal.

I was stunned that this willowy woman could somehow “hear” these reverberations, and interpret them to the point of uttering a word she didn’t understand. Maybe I wasn’t crazy after all. Or at least, maybe I wasn’t alone in my madness.

Later, she tapped my forehead with her pointer finger, then backed away from the table with her head down, an intense look of focus on her face.

“There were two purple orbs on your right side, and now they are surrounding your whole body,” she said, still looking down. “I’m supposed to tell you that it is enough, that it is enough to support you.”

As she pronounced this, my eyes grew wet with tears. Support and protection — these were nice ideas. As in, they seemed to be nice things to have. Some of my body pain, I had come to believe, arose from living in a perpetual state of bracing in self-support, for want of external protection. I wanted to say this to her. I wanted to affirm whatever and whomever she was channeling. Instead, I simply asked, “Do you always see things when you give massages?”

“Not always.” She returned to the table, her hands hovering inches above my left shoulder. “But it’s something that runs in my family. My mother used to say ‘get the phone,’ and five seconds later the phone would ring.”

In retrospect I wonder if her witchly powers forewarned her of what was to come. A few weeks later, I arrived at our next session eager to ask more about the purple orbs and remorseful shoulder. But she never made it. On the way to the studio her bike hit a car, or a car hit her bike, I’m not sure which. I just know she had an accident, which she supposedly walked away from, but I never saw her again.

                  Diagnosis: Thorny vine thick

               insisting original sin — no,

               sorry. Let me begin again.

2008 AD

J. Soriano, thirty-two years old, long history of chronic pain. Accumulated patient inventory:

               ~Plastic traction machine with inflatable polyurethane pillows to mold curves into the spine where they should be but aren’t

               ~Rubber-studded balls for rolling over sacrum and neck to prod feeling into Bermuda triangles where nerves disappeared into adhered masses of muscle tendon and bone

               ~Wartenberg wheel and tomahawk hammer

               ~Electrical stimulation machine with wires and electrodes to interrupt habitual pain transmission with battery-powered pulses

               ~Double-domed polyurethane trigger point prop to relieve pressure around cranial nerves

               ~Sacroiliac belt to stabilize misaligned pelvis

               ~Paraffin bath machine to coat hands and forearms in hot wax for pain relief and treatment of muscle spasms

               ~Ace bandages for tendonitis in ankles and wrists

               ~Cortisone shots for neck and sacrum

               ~Bottles of Trazadone, Zoloft for secondary effects of chronic pain relief

               ~Bottles of THC tincture and cyclobenzaprine — the good stuff, what really works, what calms the nerves and shuts the system down


1486 AD

German Dominicans, perhaps inspired by fellow friar Thomas, publish Malleus Maleficarum. The Hammer of Witches, as it is known in English, is a veritable how-to manual for identifying and convicting witches, taking one line from the Bible as its mandate: “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” — Exodus 22:18.

The text effectively enables the witch hunts that sweep Europe for the next few centuries. Its four-hundred-some pages boil down to this decree: if you are ill and you are a woman, and a doctor cannot determine what is wrong with you, then you are probably possessed by the Devil. Clear diagnosis, clear solution.

What follows, if not exorcism and flogging, is execution: burning at the stake, along with less storied forms of murder including hanging at the gallows, strangling, and beheading.

By the eighteenth century, an estimated sixty thousand Europeans are killed for conspiring with the Devil, acting hysterical, healing others, and various other documented manifestations of witchcraft. About fifty thousand of these, or 85 percent, are women. Most were healers, peasants, single, elderly, and many were ill, in mourning, or the victims of chronic abuse.


2012 AD

My landlord introduces me to Freddy. Aside from the willowy woman who heard remorse run through my shoulder, Freddy is the only other bodyworker I’ve seen who can detect the memories held by my pain.

I am lying on a table in a century-old house in San Juan, a white sheet pulled up to my chest. Mosquitos buzz languidly through the warm air.

Freddy applies a viscous, medicinal-smelling oil and begins to work it into the roped muscles in my neck. Suddenly, he stops.

“What does it feel like here?” he asks. His hands surround my throat.

“Um, like I swallowed a baseball, and it never came out.” The feeling is as easy to describe as the face of a favorite friend. The sensation is with me, every day and many sleepless nights.

“It must be very uncomfortable. Your muscles are in chronic spasm here, and it feels like your neck is pushed off to the right.”

“You got it,” I said.

“But my goodness, there’s …” He stops talking for a moment, then continues. “There’s something big that happened here, and your neck is holding onto that. It’s something, well … frankly — it’s something terrifying.”

I swallow with effort, willing my neck muscles to work around the familiar baseball in my throat. Something terrifying had lodged itself in my body. Something that makes the breath stutter and the voices yell No! and Stop! and How dare you! and I hate you! and I’ll kill you! and I don’t want to die! This I knew.

What I didn’t know was what that something terrifying could possibly be. This not knowing, this horrible mystery and orphaned pain, blends with guilt and self-hate to cry What have I done?! and scream Why?!

                  Diagnosis: Terrible knowing

               How to be good

               dare you the freeness to die

2010 AD

Patient, Jennifer S. Thirty-four-year-old female. Self-referred for an MRI and a neurokinetic evaluation. Conducted needle electromyogram. Needle electrode inserted in all target areas. Motor neuron activity normal. MRI showed one abnormality: an arachnoid cyst to the left side of the sacrum.

Offered patient cortisone shots. Surgery is an inviable option.

Spinal fluid flows through tissue growth. The spider cyst has interwoven with her dura mater; the tough mother membrane is inextricable from the arachnoid cyst. This may be a source of her pain. But it is simply a part of her anatomy now.


1885 AD

After the witch trials, post-Reformation Enlightenment Europe revives the scientific rather than demonic treatment of women with a new diagnosis called traumatic hysteria.

Traumatic hysteria was coined by the famous neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot. Jean-Martin concluded that women with unexplained physical malaise were in fact suffering from the after-effects of a traumatic event. It is Jean-Martin’s even more famous student, Sigmund Freud, who develops a psychoanalytic treatment for the condition.

Sigmund’s treatment involves pressing a thumb to patients’ foreheads and inviting them to recount arising memories or visions. This is one part of what he and his colleague Josef Breuer call “the talking cure.” The talking cure is based on the assumption that physical symptoms can only be healed once suppressed memories are resurfaced by Jean-Martin, Sigmund, Josef, and other learned men.

Anna O. was the first woman to receive the talking cure. She suffered from contractures, disturbances in vision, and a number of other symptoms including hallucinations. She was eventually celebrated as the first successful psychotherapeutic patient.

Much later, other very smart men and some women will look back at the early cases of traumatic hysteria, including Anna O.’s, and diagnose various neurological conditions, including Tourette’s syndrome and epilepsy — not traumatic hysteria at all.

As it turns out, Anna O. was not only misdiagnosed, she also was wrongly celebrated as a success story of psychotherapy. Anna O. survived, evolved, and eventually thrived not at all thanks to the talking cure, but thanks to the support of her cousin, Anna Ettlinger. Anna E. was by no means a scientist, doctor, psychotherapist, or even a religious or learned man of any kind. Anna E. was a woman who happened to be a writer.


2004 AD

After two years of sex, companionship, camping trips, sex, hot-spring-soaking, music-sharing, sex, and friendly passing of days, Mark and I break up because I’ve been cheating.

My real relationship is with voices inside me, with the sensation of dulled glass lodged in my wrists, throat, tailbone, hips. It is to this relationship that I give all my attention and worry, the majority of my money, the totality of the scarce nurturing I have to give.

Because this relationship is all-encompassing, I feel I have nothing left for a civilian life. I am engulfed in a battle between nerve signals that tell me I am hurt but will be fine, and nerve signals that tell me I am hurt so I must fight, flee, or take a scorched-earth policy toward ending it all.

Mark says this is just an excuse because I don’t love him. My primary care doctor concurs in her way. She says I “somaticize too much” and this internal battle is simply my poetic imagination getting the better of me.

                  Diagnosis: Maginot lines

               of cut-cord remorse

               severed breath stutters infernal fire

1936 AD

Bertha Pappenheim dies. Who? Bertha Pappenheim, the real woman behind the invented patient named Anna O.

Bertha Pappenheim, named Anna O. to protect her shameful diagnosis of traumatic hysteria, in the company of her writer cousin Anna E., transformed herself despite sickness into a women’s activist and author. Bertha published a number of works, including two collections of short stories, a German translation of Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women, and an original play called Women’s Rights in which she criticized gender-based economic and sexual exploitation.

In her will, Bertha asks those who would visit her grave to leave a small stone, as a “quiet promise … to serve the mission of women’s duties and women’s joys, women, unflinchingly and courageously.”

Apparently, for Bertha P. the writing cure proved much more therapeutic than the talking cure.


2012 AD

I open an old journal to find this passage. It’s something I wrote shortly after a trip to the Philippines, back in 1996 when I was still a college student, before my pain had fully grown:

The past nights have been filled with recurring dreams of the Philippines and of a mouse. They are fractured dreams. Broken scenes. In the Philippines I’m witness to my great grandfather tending the tilapia pond in his backyard. Reeds and tall grasses surround the brackish water. My great grandfather is suddenly with bamboo pole and has caught a fish, which he tosses to his wife, who catches it in her mouth and swallows it live, whole. A mouse scampers onto his bare foot. It stops to nibble his toenail before furling itself into the pond. In the distance there is a rumbling and several sharp pops. The two turn their heads, and when they turn back they have become my grandfather and grandmother, the tilapia pond has transformed into the main market of Manila, and they are running from an advancing troop of Japanese and American soldiers. The market floors bleed. There is a woman’s hand with delicately filed nails, lying by itself on the ground.

Though this dream occurred more than fifteen years before, I remember it more vividly than any waking day. I had risen the next day with my fists clenched and twisting, as if squeezing two lemons dry, as if compressing every ounce of my strength to keep my body parts from flying away.


1980 AD

One hundred years before this, French psychologist Charles Lasègue called hysteria a “wastepaper basket of medicine where one throws otherwise unemployed symptoms.” A century later, the American Psychological Association eliminates hysteria as a pathology once and for all.

Hysteria becomes divided into various descriptive diagnoses including dissociative identity disorder, somatization disorder, acute stress disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Some of these diagnoses will prove useful. Others of these diagnoses will become as mysterious as hysteria, with their own stigmas, judgments, and treatments that may help some to a degree. Overall they will fall short of healing the vast majority of women plagued by chronic illness and systemic disease.

Around the same time, the diagnosis of fibromyalgia begins to be more widely applied to patients with complex physical pain. On the one hand, this is a victory for women who have advocated for serious treatment of debilitating chronic fatigue and pain. On the other hand, western medicine in all its glory remains stumped by conditions like these, whose adequate treatment require an integrated view of mind and body, which is to say, an integrated view of the world.


2010 AD

“I think I have fibromyalgia,” I say to a doctor friend of mine.

“Oh, no, really?”

“Well, my doctors keep asking me if I have it, so maybe I do.”

“Honestly, fibro patients are the worst. I just never know what to do with them.”

“I can’t believe you just told me that.”

“It’s true.” He sighs, as if he is the one in pain. “I don’t know what to tell you. Maybe you should meditate.”

I am not this body. I am universal consciousness, no color, no shape.

I am not this body. I am universal consciousness, no color, no shape.

I am this body. I am not universal consciousness, no color, no shape.

I am this no shape. Separate color. Body consciousness. Not universal, no.


2011 AD

Time Magazine publishes a cover story on pain. The news is that chronic pain is now treated as its own disease, not just a sign of psychological deficiencies or a symptom of other physical disorders like misplaced wombs. The possible causes of chronic pain disorder are myriad.

Ten years earlier, pain was included in medical protocols as the fifth vital sign, alongside blood pressure, respiratory rate, heart rate, and temperature. Around the same time, the Girl Who Cried Pain study found that women are more likely to be prescribed sedatives or anti-depressants than men, who are more likely to be given stronger and more effective pain medication.

As of now, an estimated 100 million people in the United States suffer from chronic pain, most of them women. There is growing evidence that women of color are the most likely populations to be undertreated for pain.


2016 AD

Audre Lorde on pain — I had known the pain, and survived it. It only remained for me to give it voice, to share it for use, that the pain not be wasted.

Aurora Levins Morales on pain — The only way to bear the overwhelming pain of oppression is by telling, in all its detail, in the presence of witnesses and in a context of resistance, how unbearable it is.

Eula Biss on pain — If no pain is possible, then, another question — is no pain desirable? Does the absence of pain equal the absence of everything?

Audre Lorde again on pain — Pain is important: how we evade it, how we succumb to it, how we deal with it, how we transcend it.


2014 AD

I discover something surprising. After almost twenty years of pursuing myriad mind and body therapies, each one more esoteric and expensive than the last, I learn that one of the best treatments for my pain is pregnancy.

It was only after years of deliberate consideration that my husband and I agreed to try having a child. I weighed and finally accepted the risk that pregnancy and childbirth could exacerbate my pain to the point of breaking me once and for all.

What ensues is a veritable miracle. It turns out the relaxin, progesterone, estrogen, and other pregnancy hormones that flood my system are strong enough to drown errant pain signals. And my growing belly pulls my lower back into the appropriate curve that I’ve never had. For nine months, I experience what it’s like to be almost pain-free.

Giving birth is a different story. I have to be induced because my placenta stops functioning at thirty-some weeks. What follows is eight hours of excruciating back labor, along with placental bloodshed and terrible pressure on the arachnoid cyst at my sacrum. Despite the crushing pain, I am on a mission to labor without an epidural. My husband and a dear friend acting as my doula cheer me on as if watching their favorite bloody episode of Game of Thrones. Thanks to them, I endure transition, am lowered into a tub of mercifully scalding water, and soon after my baby begins to cannonball his way into the world.

Seven pushes later, he is born! I am ecstatic and wide awake since I am epidural-free. Labor is not over ‘til I birth the placenta and get sewn up, and then finally I am standing, cradling my son who rests his tiny chin on his thimble-sized fist and regards his own nose with remarkable alertness. My family throws a party in the hospital room.

Afterward, during many of the watery nether-times between post-partum day and night, while breastfeeding my baby in a nest of unwashed sheets, burp cloths, and dented pillows, I will think about the pain of labor and its remarkable difference from the journey of chronic pain.

It is nearly impossible to quantify pain of any kind and just as hard to describe how it feels. But the night I birthed my son I achieved an additional goal. I compared my pain experience to something more universally understood, and in the end my hypothesis proved correct: chronic pain hurts more than childbirth. Unlike the acute pain that comes with labor, or a tattoo, or any other process where pain is expected and known to begin and then end, at its worst chronic pain can feel more like torture. Unpredictable. Punishing. Infinite …


2015 AD

The Bone Whisperer. That’s what he calls himself, and he is the next best thing for my pain after pregnancy. I hold hope that he is also a milestone marking the end of the crisis-era of my struggle with chronic pain. My HMO-covered massage therapist refers me to him when, after eight sessions, she makes her final notes on the body diagram in my crowded file and says: “I can’t help you anymore, but I know someone who can.”

Judging from the people who pass through his office, the vast majority of the Bone Whisperer’s patients are women. But he treats problems as if they have no gender. He works with what’s common to all of us — muscles, tendons, fascia, cartilage, and bone. I know this is not all I am. But I am tired of having my gender and ethnicity used against me.

In eight sessions he has reset my tailbone, un-wedged my femur from my pelvic bone, unstuck my left remorseful shoulder, adjusted my top two ribs, reshaped my sacrum which was bent in five places, untwisted my anterior ligament, and aligned my right leg and hip to keep my kneecap from frequent dislocation.

His philosophy: intractable pain is often the natural result of force absorbed by the body through physical injury. His approach: anatomical and mechanical, decidedly non-pathologizing, and non-demonizing in its conviction that normal physical pain can be fixed with normal physical measures.

The result: my pain is reduced from a roar to white noise. The voices still come, but they are matter-of-fact rather than screams and cries, punctuated with periods rather than exclamation points. My fists relax into hands, I can breathe without having to think about it. I enter a new phase of being in which pain is a companion, a relationship I manage, rather than a fight against implosion, a battle that consumes me, and it matters less the knowing of why.


2016 AD

I am awake at 2:30AM after hours of deep breathing. It is another night where pain’s insistent whispers are louder than the beckonings of sleep. My husband and my two-year-old are snoring.

It is too late to take a muscle relaxer without suffering a hangover in the morning. Instead, I approach what has become my nighttime perch — a chair pulled up to the coffee table, facing the balcony windows with a view of the sea. I have taken to sitting here when sleep escapes me. Like a witch alighted on a tree branch, I can see the moon at eye level dripping light over the mercury black bay. I consider the night and its congregation of shadows. And I write.

What if we didn’t expect our women to smile through pain? Would the cries of female suffering become not demonic, not wheedling, not aggrandizing, but indicative of human need.


Modern medicine is archaic medicine and it has failed me …

Modern medicine is practical medicine and it has allowed me to type, work, become a decent human being …

Modern medicine is miraculous medicine and it has made it possible for me to have a child …


Aren’t women deserving of at least this much room for complexity?


My remorseful shoulder shakes, and I give in to the longing

for tremors that cleave fallow land

for aftershocks that swallow mountains

for rumblings that give birth to springs


What are the social equivalents of earthquakes?


Whatever this force may be called, I evoke it to soften ossified

lemons of paternal care and fell

the old trees of men’s knowledge. So that brittle taproots

become young branches that nurse infinities

of integrating and cross-pollinating blooms.


I am a lucky one, survived of wilted others

Resourced to navigate the labyrinth of disease

I gather scraps of tissue      remnants of skin      fragments of dreams

to collage the whole that is me, broken      feeling       and alive …


I wonder about the witches and hysterics. I wonder about our mother’s gardens.


What would my story be if I had lived in 500 BC? In 1800 or even 1960 AD? Or what would their stories become, if they would live in their bodies in our time. How many witches would have lived to write, how many hysterics would have healed to tell.

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