Q & A

Sally Gander writes fiction and creative nonfiction. Her work has appeared in A Word in Your Ear and The Real Story, and is forthcoming in Litro. She has taught Creative Writing at Bath Spa University and Advanced Studies in England, and is currently writing a collection of personal essays.

Pain is about answering a question the body asks
Sinéad Gleeson

WHAT?

What takes too long. What has diversions, deceptions, experts with expressions of tolerant disbelief. What takes you to a spectacled consultant with vertebrae stacked on his desk, two physiotherapists and a variety of osteopaths, one of which adds a fresh injury, and finally, an osteopath who treats circus performers, who listens, who knows.

He tells you we’re doing this here, but that may happen there. His predictions come true enough times for you to trust him with your body.

WHEN?

Then— 

Car accident—aged nineteen. Two births—aged twenty-seven and thirty-one. Gym injury—aged forty-five. A lifetime of walking, sitting, writing, of disregarding your body, the vessel you need to transport your mind.

Now— 

Daily you collect new symptoms. You struggle to stay upright. You imagine your structure as chemistry vs. mechanics, a power battle to fuse and confuse, each testing the other for weakness and finding plenty.

Spine poses question—tingling tongue answers.

Blood poses counter-question—dizziness answers.

Ears, eyes, hips, shoulder… the questions go on.

Lost inside the puzzle, your mind’s response is exhaustion, to bed, soft sheets, warmth, darkness, but comfort is elusive and you wonder if the answer hangs invisible above your head—if you can just reach up with the right motion you might find it amongst the pins-and-needles in your fingers.

WHERE?

Everywhere.

Except. Your left arm, which is smug with glee. The left side of your face and neck. Your liver, lungs, kidneys, stomach, intestines, your heart (mostly). Your vulva, thankfully. Your skin, if you care for it. Your brain, when you’re quick with the migraine medication.

You appreciate these freedoms.

WHO?

The health professionals. Days packed with the sick. A skeleton jauntily topped with a Santa hat. Pale eyes through half moon glasses that say I can’t help you. Auras of willingness, knowledge, impatience, dismissal, confidence, empathy.

Your mother whom you visit on her return home, her arm in plaster. You take care of her the way she cares for you. You are astonished by how this act of giving fills you with meaning.

The family members, who sometimes remember, but sometimes ask you to pick up a crying child, scowling when you refuse.

Your friend who always remembers, who kneads the pressure points of your feet, who lays out the Child Cards to ask searching questions.

Your lover who is patient, who helps your body feel pleasure to restore some kind of balance.

WHY?

Here is the doubt. Speculation is all you have, but really, what does it matter as long as you have the How?

HOW?

Amitriptyline, Rizatriptan, codeine, paracetamol. Heat pack. Cold pack. Massage. Stretching. Strengthening. Unfurling, slowly, slowly, what has become furled.

The patient whose mind is constantly in motion will take longer to recover. Your osteopath tells you this. So you sit, counting your breath, filling your body with liquid sunlight and training your mind to calm, to just be. At night, this cleared space gives a new vividness to your dreams.

You watch The Singing Detective. Michael Gambon’s face, skin-sore, peeling-white, swollen with pain, hands so gnarled the longed for cigarette stays stubbornly in its packet. He is locked inside himself, peering out but finding no relief, so he sinks into a world of spies and femme fatales, casting himself as the sharp-talking, crooning private eye. When he is forced from his imaginary world, hurled onto the hospital ward he inhabits, despair is palpable in his spitting curse-rimmed rage.

His creator, Dennis Potter, had the same diseased skin and gnarled hands, so he wrote what he knew.

Sinéad Gleeson also wrote what she knew. Injury, illness and treatment, callous doctors, struggle, exhaustion, determination.

It seems the locked-in are propelled towards some kind of expression. When there’s no escape, no drug, no drink, no treatment to gift the clarity of comfort, the only motion that remains is the shift from sensation to proclamation.

Drugs of choice—the image, the sound, the word.

You watch your own drug splatter onto the page.

Jagged. Blurred. Fucking. Hateful. Spike. Seer. Split. Faint.

You say it all.

And when you’re done you sit and rest, fill yourself with light, or walk along the riverbank and look up at the trees, feel the pale sun on your skin.

You cherish the kindness of strangers.

And you look for others to care for.

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