How duration changes the experience of pain

Having some sort of time limit on suffering makes it endurable. It’s the same way that running a marathon is tolerable because you know that it will eventually end. Every step gets you closer to relief.

I don’t think I’m a lightweight. I like to believe that I’m an expert on pain, thanks to hours devoted to close study of it during the births of my two children – one at home, one in hospital, neither with painkillers. Those experiences taught me that the most intense pain imaginable can be tolerated for a time, and that the way we experience that pain – empowering, terrifying, humbling – can vary dramatically.

And so even childbirth, the most painful thing commonly experienced, doesn’t work as an objective measure. There are other sorts of pain, harder to describe. Chronic or recurring pains are insidious. They eat away at energy, optimism, endurance, sense of self. More relevant than a measurement or even a description of pain, then, is the completely subjective impact is has on one’s thoughts, behaviour, and physical health. Pain above a “level 5” – moderate pain that dominates your thoughts and to which you cannot adapt, according to one scale designed to measure it – frequently results in temporary personality disorders. At higher levels that continue without relief, personality disorders are almost ubiquitous and suicide is common.

From Carlyn Zwarenstein’s Opium Eater: The New Confessions.

It’s all in my head

People with migraine have a degraded “objective self” – that is, their “taken-for-granted notions, theories and tendencies regarding [their] human bodies, brains, and kinds” have been damaged. Sometimes people with migraine don’t even believe their own pain.

– Joanna Kempner in Not Tonight.

I remember crawling across a bathroom floor, vomiting, wondering what was wrong with me that I would go to such lengths to fake being sick.

How the expectation of relief changes pain

Pain is a complex experience

…I enjoy the waiting. Once I have decided that today is going to be a tramadol day, and I’ve given myself a deadline before which I absolutely will not cave in and take it, my experience of pain is transformed. Rather than grinding and hopeless, it feels charged, electric. The difficulty I have standing up (or sitting down) begins to feel noble. The constant, miserable, and exhausting stretching I do to relieve pain and stiffness in my joints acquires a warm-up quality.

I am already removed one degree from my own experience and it is a little more observable, a little more interesting.

From Carlyn Zwarenstein’s Opium Eater: The New Confessions.

You know you want this

I am very much looking forward to reading You Know You Want This after reading this interview with the author.

at 36, I have a handle on power dynamics and gender and all of this stuff. And it just seemed to me that at 20 – which is an adult, officially, at which age it is acceptable to go on a date with someone in their mid-30s – how could you possibly engage? It seems to me, now, so young.” One of the reasons Roupenian wanted to write the story was to explore how hard it is to delineate what is going on when attraction and repulsion combine, and when – as one tends to at 20 – one is lying to oneself about being in control. In such a case, she says, “the complications of it are more subtle than just, ‘Here’s this jerk who’s hitting on me.’”

Certainly when she was in her teens, she says, she would have benefited from the conversation around feminism being more nuanced than “everybody shouting ‘Girl power’ and ‘Girls can do anything!’ Which was great, but also, a lie.”

One of the questions Roupenian asks repeatedly in her fiction is to what extent one can ever clearly see the person to whom one is attracted. It’s a tendency among women to interpret their partners in a way that, Roupenian realised recently, is deeply gendered and completely unhelpful. “Often in relationships between men and women, there is this weird pact that it’s the women’s job to interpret their relationship for the men. That they have a right to say, ‘The problem with you is that you’re afraid of commitment, and if only you would show up at my house at an approximately reasonable time then we would be fine.’ And that is bullshit: that the men are ready to outsource their own understanding of themselves to the women, and that the women will do that job so the men will do what they want. And yet it’s a sort of agreed-upon game.”

Does she really believe no one has power over anyone else? “Emotionally, I do believe that’s true. But I think it requires a lifetime of learning to recognise the patterns.” For Roupenian, it has been a case of recognising a tendency to overestimate the extent to which “someone else has control over my happiness and ability to move in the world”, and, by extension, her control over others: “That if you’re unhappy it’s my fault, and my job to fix it. I do have a responsibility to make other people happy – you have to be a good person. But that is contradicted by the thing I have felt increasingly as I get older, which is that I do not have the power to make you happy; my ability to fix you is so limited; and my desire to fix you is complicated. For me, the process of getting older and seeing things more truly has been realising how little power we have over each other.”

feeling like loving someone meant trying to save them. For a long time I thought that was a critical part of loving someone, in a way that I do think codes female. It seems deeply embedded in ideas of what it means to be a good woman. Of helping people fix themselves; changing them a little, seeing the subtle violence and reaching for control.”

Don’t touch the art

Alberto Giacometti's "Man Walking" Sculpture. Thin and elongated figure with a rough surface leaning forward with one foot in front of the other in a walking posture

Alberto Giacometti – Man Walking

I went to the local art gallery while they had a big Alberto Giacometti exhibit. Giacometti was a sculptor and his figures are very elongated and textured. The proportions are alien, but expressive. I wanted to touch them so badly, but, of course, that wasn’t allowed.

So much art seems made to be touched, especially sculpture and fiber art, but once it’s in a museum that’s not allowed. It’s frustrating. It feels like going to a restaurant that only lets you smell and look at the food, but not taste it.

I also visited a Vikky Alexander exhibition. She has a very good series of photographs of shop fronts and malls with all their reflective and transparent surfaces. I found it very upsetting – this kind of design is confusing and overwhelming and empty. I find myself confused and upset in many modern spaces, especially those devoted to selling shit. This exhibit helped me understand some of how that happens.

Nationalize the Irvings

The Irvings are a Canadian family who own the Atlantic provinces. That’s not hyperbole – they’re in the top 5 North American property owners – and they own much of the resource extraction and development, transportation, and English-language media in the Atlantic provinces – especially in New Brunswick.

The Irving empire was founded more than 100 years ago. Kenneth Colin (KC) Irving, born in 1899, took advantage of a decline in traditional colonial businesses in Canada’s Eastern Provinces in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to move into oil, gaining control of its distribution like a smaller-scale John D Rockefeller. He then moved into timber, steel and mass-market retail, proving to be a merciless negotiator and skilful wielder of political influence. Today his three sons follow the same approach. As the biggest employer in the Eastern Provinces and the driving force behind industrial activity, the Irvings have made serfs of the local population. No antitrust legislation can contain their appetites.

And they don’t just own everything that can be nailed down, they’ve effectively bought culture and politics in the region as well.

Their philanthropic pretensions fail to mask their interference in public affairs, both at federal level and in New Brunswick and the other Atlantic provinces, where they act like a second government. Few sports complexes, museums or university research centres (energy, forestry, sustainable development) are not Irving-sponsored.

And they’ve basically been handed the incredible forests of the entire region – and they don’t do a good job with them.

New Brunswick has also entrusted the Irvings, directly or indirectly, with managing its huge public forests, while constantly downgrading its requirements. The latest ‘Forest Management Manual for New Brunswick Crown Lands’ reduces the size of buffer zones between forests and habitable areas, authorises more clear-cutting, increases scheduled production volume and cuts protected areas from 31% to 22%. The legislation has effectively created a free trade zone for the family: the natural resources department requirements cannot be modified without their agreement.

Anyone who acts counter to the Irvings interests can end up losing their careers – including scientists and and civil servants.

The 2015 dismissal of Eilish Cleary, New Brunswick’s chief medical officer of health, caused a sensation: she was investigating the use of glyphosate by Irving forestry companies. Rod Cumberland, a biologist formerly employed by New Brunswick’s natural resources department, and Tom Beckley, a professor of forestry at the University of New Brunswick, came under pressure when analysing the impact of this weedkiller on local fauna and the lack of transparency in the provincial government’s management of forests.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, they also avoid taxes and get the laws changed so there’s less of them to pay.

The Atlantic provinces are poor and their services, though subsidized federally, are also often poor. The Irvings exploit these provinces, especially New Brunswick, and have so captured the political apparatus that it’s very difficult to create change internally.

The federal government needs to get serious about taxing wealth. Nobody should be able to gain this much power in a democracy. We need to break up or nationalize monopolies. We need to tax the fuck out of high incomes, estates, and rent-seeking. The Irvings aren’t good for anybody but the Irvings. Let’s break them up and tax them fairly and so they can be contributing members of society instead of parasites.