Off the Scale

By

“On a scale of one to ten, what level is the pain?” the doctor in the emergency room asks me.

“Six?” I say. No, it’s more than that, I think to myself. At least a seven. But it’s not a hot pain, like when I sprained my ankle, or a burning pain, like the time I was stung by a hundred yellow jackets. No, it’s a dull pain that started in the morning and has lasted all day. I didn’t even know I was in pain until I started throwing up. Then I was dizzy and couldn’t talk.

***

“How painful is the memory?” my therapist asks me. “On a scale from one to ten.”

Damn those numbers. “About a six?” I say. Now I’m just making stuff up. I pick a random number that seems right. How do you rate the pain of a memory on a scale of ten numbers? Could we do five stars instead? How about recommended memories? If you like this one, you’ll be sure to like that one? How about a thumbs up or down? Ebert style.

***

In the ER, behind a curtain (because they ran out of rooms) the doctor exams me with a nurse standing by. A ruptured cyst, they tell me. I cry. I blubber all over myself. Not because of the cyst—but because I now know I wasn’t crazy, I wasn’t being a wimp—something was really wrong. Something that is more painful than childbirth, they say. The doctor takes my hand, “I’m sorry you had to wait so long.” Seven hours in the waiting room, trying to not move. Trying to hold perfectly still. Don’t speak. Don’t move. Ignore the pain.

***

“Now, how strong is the memory? On a scale from one to ten.” After a session of EMDR. I’m a people pleaser, a middle child—I say a five. I want him to think he’s accomplished something. He’s a kind man. And maybe it is better—the memory. We found a lie and replaced it with a truth. We made progress. We brought people into the scene. Things were said. Stuff was accomplished.

***

At a party, a friend and I sit in the corner. “How would you rate your life right now on a scale from one to ten?” I laugh. I laugh because of the question. I laugh because I’m in the middle of writing this essay. In some areas it’s a nine. In some a three or a four. Can I even evaluate my own life? Am I allowed to? How can you rate a life that isn’t finished yet, a life that’s tangled up like the yarn on the underside of a rug?

Back at the hospital, after the drugs (thank God for the drugs), they ask me again. The scale. What number. I start to say three, maybe four, but then I say no—it’s about the same—I just don’t care about it anymore.

The male nurse laughs. He knows.

I feel so good. So at peace lying there at three in the morning in the hospital bed. They can take all night if they want. The pain is so far away. It’s a moon traveling around a distant planet. I can’t even see it with my naked eye anymore. My mind is calm. My headache is gone too—a nice side effect. I’ve never felt this good in my life. People are looking after me. There’s a nurse and a doctor assigned to me. They do scans and give me a prescription and send me home. I call an Uber because it’s five in the morning and I don’t want to be that friend.

***

I walk out of the counselor’s office. It’s like we’re digging at a weed that is as deep as the Pacific. I feel worse than when I came in. Isn’t it supposed to be the other way around?

***

My friend and I sit in the corner and talk about our lives. We guess at how they are supposed to go, and how they could have gone.

I go home. I take the pills. I rest. I watch Netflix. I walk slowly. I try to heal.

Jesus didn’t ask for numbers. People came to him broken and left healed. Ten to zero. Instant. Immediate. “The old is gone; the new has come.” Are we allowed to be on a sliding scale of wholeness? Slipping back and forth, up and down, forward two steps, back three.

Paul says suffering leads to glory. I wonder what glory is and if it’s worth it.

Hetty White

Or is the scale a figment of our imagination? Are we perfectly well and just can’t wrap our tiny minds around the brilliant light of our own glory?

Already. Not yet.

Although it tarries, wait for it. It will not tarry.

“What do you do when you are falling apart?” a friend asks me.

“I curl up like a baby on my bedroom floor, bury my face in the carpet, and put on music. It’s the only thing I can do.”

Paul says suffering leads to glory. I wonder what glory is and if it’s worth it. Job got replacement children for the way he handled his own suffering. He also found God. Will he ever get his first children back?

Maybe in the same way that you can’t rate pain you can’t rate glory.

Paul says they are “uncomparable”—our glory will so exceed our pain. By ten? By a hundred? By a million?

Malcolm Smith (and Jeremiah) says that Jesus entered our pain, became our pain, endured our pain. Our very own unique pain became his. And now we have the Holy Spirit. The great Comforter. We are “in-Goded.”

I wonder if the Holy Spirit is like the drugs at the hospital, or like the counselor, digging, digging, digging. Or maybe he’s both. Maybe he knocks us out with love and grace like an anesthesiologist, so he can do his awful surgery undercover.

If you asked Jesus on the cross, what level is the pain? I wonder what he would have answered. He experienced all of our pain at once. All of our physical, emotional, and mental pain at once. Off the scale—I think that’s the phrase for it.

And does he remember his pain at all, or does he only think of us? He got us out of it. Are we worth it? If so, then surely we don’t know what we truly are and what we will become.

I wonder if we will remember our pain at all, or if it’ll be like a strange dream that we once awoke from terrified—screaming and kicking in the middle of the night—but which has long since slipped away from our memory in the brightness of the day. Or like the moon of a distant planet that we can barely make out with our naked eyes.


9 Comments

  1. Sheri Cornett

    As someone with fibromyalgia, who has a journal where I literally rate my pain daily, I really appreciated this.  I am on day 4 of a mild migraine (one I can work through).  And I am trying to find the grace to still be gracious to others, to remember that pain is not the defining characteristic of me.

  2. Debrah

    Hi Hetty, your mom sent this to me. I’m still digesting your essay, so beautifully written. You are truly a gifted writer, and I really appreciate your honesty, and I’m inspired by your hope. …. debrah

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