Pain Denial

"Well, it doesn't hurt", says my 84 year old grandpa as I squeeze the nail clipper around his coral like toenails. We wears a grimace laced with the tiniest bit of fear.

"But Pop-pop, it's clearly uncomfortable" I say backing off the ingrown nail.

"Uncomfortable, yes, it's uncomfortable" he concedes.

I'm unconvinced. I've heard his little 'Ooh's over the years as I've occasionally dug a bit too far in an attempt to keep his calcified toenails from growing further into the sides of his toes, exacerbated by what I call the "devil effect". This is when he clips the parts of them he can comfortably reach, the middle, and the pronged 'horns' on the side remain to cut ever deeper into his foot.

My Pop-Pop is an active guy. He ran for years, recently switching to walking. He did laps in the pool at my grandparent's house every day until a few months ago when they moved to an apartment without stairs and without a pool, and a family joke is that his favorite thing is raking leaves. He doesn't do that since the move, either, but he still goes to church every morning without fail, walks, and plays golf.

A few years ago he had a hip replaced and I stayed with them to help around the house. It was the first time in my life I can remember him acquiescing, only because of doctor's orders, to physical help. I was permitted to go to the basement to retrieve laundry, to fish leaves out of the pool, to help him with the staircase, and to put on his socks. The right hip had the replacement, and I remember the right foot swollen like a puffy lobster. To this day his right foot is always a bit more swollen than the left. I also remember that time spent putting on his socks as the most emotionally vulnerable I have ever seen him. He's always quick to smile, has a laugh that can fill a room, an inquisitive sexist condescension at times, and takes care of himself. This time, he could not bend over to take his compression socks on and off. I would put them on as carefully as possible, stretching the elastic maximally and guiding it over the foot, but when I had to re-adjust my grip at the heel he would sometimes let out a grunt of pain, clutch at his sitting surface, or look away.

"Does that hurt too much?" I'd say in apology.

"Just a little," he submitted.

Other than the sock ritual, I have never seen him admit to pain. Emotionally, he's always in control of a situation (even if it means selective hearing). Physically he can move around unassisted and he even learned to use the stove last year when my grandma broke her shoulder.  He refuses to wear hearing aids already purchased.  He refuses to slow down.  He's in control. He never has pain.

But when my clippers go for the devil horns I see that rare clench of the jaw, the tensing of the mind and body. I am not sadistic in this, but it needs to be done for his feet to work properly and his shoes to fit. He uses those feet a lot! So he always gives in to me after a few days of dodging my attempts with excuses of poor timing or not wanting to remove his shoes. And I always see the pained, slightly fearful, slightly irritated, resigned look on his face.

To me this is indicative of the societal narratives we perpetuate about normalizing pain, normalizing suppression, normalizing the unaffected masculine figure.  He "takes it like a man", this service performed for him in love to promote health. For whatever reason, he will not let himself see it as pain. Even during his hip surgery recovery he always told his doctors he had zero pain. How they got him to agree to the surgery in the first place, I have no idea. He must have suffered in silence for a long time.

No one should have to suffer in silence, whether it's joint pain, emotional anguish, or a recurring headache. We need to stop being tough. We need to care about ourselves enough to share our burdens - not as weights to unload, but as part of our shared human experience. We need to remove the shameful stigma of living with pain from the corrosive image of worthless sloth. Uncomfortable, pesky, tight, and the ever present "just" qualifier are common words that I hear used by yoga students to refer to their pain. Even if it's a 1 on the 1-10 scale, call it what it is. We need to call these things what they really are : painful. 

Only when we own our pain can the true healing process begin.


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