In the weeks to come, the minnesota review will feature a four-part mini series by Virginia Tech MFA student Kari Putterman. Today’s post is the first of four excerpts from her essay, Living Tissue on the Page. Be sure to check back next week for the next part of the series!
The plan was, be the first one to arrive to class every day, that way no one would see me take out from my backpack the pink lacrosse ball and sit on it. Arriving to class before everyone else, however, was especially difficult at a school with so many impression-concerned, competitive about-(of all things)-punctuality types, but did I really care what those types thought of me? Last one to leave was easier. Write in planner or check phone until the classroom clears out; stand up; slip pink ball in backpack.
Years later, I can joke about the sophomore-junior year butt crease debacle. No doctor could figure out how to treat what was causing the pain, and after all the traditional tests and treatments failed, and then after all the invasive doctorly things failed, I tried every homeopathic thing I could think of: I sat on a pink lacrosse ball because maybe the ball would release my piriformis. I slept with a knit scarf keeping my legs tied together because if one leg flayed out, that motion could unnecessarily strain my hip. I ate no gluten or dairy because you know, inflammation, and drank cherry juice every single day. I foam rolled every night and performed a forty minute P.T. routine called ‘flossing the needle.’ I remember sitting down, doing homework, getting thirsty and debating for so long, which is worse, staying thirsty or the pain that will happen if I stand up, walk to the sink and back?
My first plan of attack was Google. I scoured all of my old reliables. Letsrun message boards, Running Times, Sportsmedicine.com. I tried “glute pain running” and “butt pain running” and “butt glute pain running.” I wanted to find other people who had had the same experience, who I could relate to and who would validate this pain that the doctors didn’t get. My object proved elusive, but the amount of near-misses I’d find kept me typing, searching, clicking. I tried, “butt pain shooting down leg and can’t run.” I tried, “butt crease top of thigh pain.” Whenever I heard of a pro runner getting injured, I would jump on their Twitter, wanting to see someone else going through what I was going through. I canceled out for terms like “lumbar spine,” “herniated disc,” “sacroiliitis,” things I had been tested and cleared for. All the while, I was telling myself, It doesn’t matter what some message board post says. It only matters when your own butt crease stops hurting. But I still believed that if I could find my pain in words, then I might find out how to make it better, or at least validation that it really sucked. I didn’t stop. My next set of search terms could be the time when I’d get the right phrasing, the right combination of quotes and no-quotes, when the search engine logarithm would be set just right, and there it would be: my compatriot, the one who would understand me and heal me. Oh, here’s a good one, “butt pain’ ‘leg lock’ running chronic.” Search:
I remember the earlier rounds of injections, and the MRIs and acupuncture and dry needling and sports massages and the doctor’s waiting rooms and the bout on crutches, winter in Manhattan and the mile-long uphill crutch to get to class every day.
I remember enumerating experiences that were disappearing forever. I’ll never know what it’s like to race in Heps. I’ll never know what it’s like to have a full collegiate cross-country or track season. I’d even take track! I’ll never know what my body can do. I’ll never know what it’s like to score points for my team. These were things that you only got one chance at, and the undiagnosable butt crease pain had me irreversibly side-lined and feeling bad for myself.
I’m only twenty! I would cry inside my head. I shouldn’t be missing out yet. And then, I’m only twenty-one! Then, I’m only twenty-two! But by then I was thinking, I’ve been in chronic pain for three years; and there was nothing I could do about it, it had already happened, irrevocable, like everything else.
What I don’t remember is the pain. I know it was there. I know I couldn’t fall asleep because of it and that crossing my legs or laying on my side was unendurable. But I know the pain was there as if I had read about it, or heard the story from someone else. Oh yeah, that girl who went to all those doctors and got that weird surgery? The one who carried around that pink ball and thought no one noticed? I know the pain in words. But even the word pain contains, built into its function, a road-block, a refusal. Pain, as a word and a concept, seems so impenetrably personal and so completely temporal that there is no way to completely convey it, to convey it so that someone else can feel it, too.
I was sitting next to these people in class, after all, elbow to elbow at a round table, our feet sometimes swinging out and hitting another set of feet beneath the table, and these fellow people had no idea the pain shooting up and down, endlessly up and down, butt to knee, knee to calf, back to butt, butt to knee. And if anything was going on inside their bodies, too? Inchs apart all semester, and I’d never, I’ll never know.
The doctors, however, tried to know. Tried to break down that word, pain. The original doctors passed me off to a new set of doctors, pain management ones, and every day in the Manhattan Pain Management waiting room I would fill out questionnaires. On the first set of questionnaires was a drawing of a body (usually female, but once when they ran out, male) shown as two side-by-side bodies, a front body and a back body. I was supposed to draw where my pain was and draw what kind of pain I was feeling. Squiggly lines for numb pain. Straight lines for burning pain. Dots for dull pain. Zig-zag for throbbing pain. Beneath the bodies was the 1 through 10 pain scale accompanied by disembodied faces. The face for 1 was a yellow smiling face and the face for 10 was a red face with its mouth wide open and tears coming out of its clamped shut eyes. The faces in between grew progressively less yellow and more red, their eyes progressively shutting and their mouth going from smile to frown to deeper frown to wide open. Mark your pain along this continuum. This continuum was difficult for me. My whole life I’d been told that I had an abnormally high pain threshold. When I was little and doctors gave me shots, I never flinched, let alone cried. When I was in high school, I ran on a stress fracture until it turned into a full-on fracture mid-race. What if for me the pain was maybe a 5, but if for the doctor evaluating my chart the pain, if it was in his body, would be a 7, and, because of that disparity, I was giving him misleading and perhaps wrong information, information that would forever prevent him from relating or understanding or healing? And what if my own perspective was skewed? What if I had never experienced a 9 or a 10, so even though sometimes I would cry getting out of bed and think, Surely today is a 7.5 day!, if I had, earlier in my life, experienced a true 10 day of pain, I would know, crying as I struggle out of bed barely ranks as a 6. Still: I tried! But usually I didn’t know. What was the difference between a throbbing and a dull pain? Could a throb be anything but dull? What if sometimes my pain felt one way and other times another way? What if it felt two ways at once? What if my pain had become so constant and all-consuming that I could no longer distinguish between a numbing and a burning pain because it was all just painpainpain or urrrrhhhhhh or dddd and what if, because it was all just painpainpain or urrrrhhhhhh or ddddddff I was giving the doctors the wrong information and they would never cure me, never even manage me? But if I got the words right and was able to articulate the exact, precise kind of pain, then they’d know what to do, then they’d save me?
Despite my deliberation, the forms were never articulate enough. The PA would take my clipboarded forms, ferry them and me to the empty, freezing cold (always) examination room; the PA would read and enter all of my carefully inscribed symbols, leave the clipboard in a plastic holder nailed to the back of the door, and the doctor would arrive, read my forms, read the PA’s (to me) mysterious decoding and analysis of my forms, and say, “Describe the pain.” I would try! “I call it my butt crease pain, but it’s not really my butt crease. It’s just that it’s not my butt, and it’s not my leg, so butt crease seems … the closest. Sometimes it locks up and my whole leg just goes like dead. Sometimes the pain shoots down all the way to my calf, and that usually makes my leg go dead, too. Whenever I sneeze it always shoots down like that. It hurts the most if I sleep on my side, cross my legs, stand up, bend down, sometimes I literally can’t bend down, and it’s pretty much never not present.” The doctor will come back with things like, “What do you mean ‘locks up’?” or “What do you mean ‘goes dead?’” or “What do you mean ‘butt crease?’” And the session would usually end with me standing up and pointing, “It hurts here, and then it goes down here, and then it just centers right here,” and the doctor no longer taking notes and eventually asking, “Do you want a blanket? You’re shaking.”
Kari Putterman is getting her MFA in Fiction at Virginia Tech.