Deb Brandon: Living in Radiant Color


Kat’s world is pain.
I sat down next to her on the bench. “How are you feeling?”
She smiled. “Six.”
“That’s great! On Saturday it was a nine, or nine and a half, wasn’t it?”
She nodded. On Saturday, her nod would have been imperceptible.
Pain meds have little to no effect on her, even the heavy duty ones. She doesn’t bother with them anymore. She’s tried physical therapy, various surgeries, cortisone shots, alternative medicine. Nothing seemed to help, most made it worse.
Being stoic, her pain isn’t obvious to the casual observer. She smiles a lot and even laughs. The only giveaway is that she holds her back and neck ramrod straight. On Saturday, there was a slight sheen of sweat on her forehead, and her cheeks were red. Her smiles were tighter, and her laughter was quickly suppressed.
Kat is in my yoga therapy class. The other students in the class include stroke survivors, cancer survivors, a guy who broke his neck surfing, another who survived a heart attack, and a woman who suffers from horrific migraines.
I originally started yoga in order to improve my balance, one of the side effects of my brain bleeds. But in the process, I’ve found that I’m also increasing my self-awareness. I am learning to combat the ADD that has plagued me in the wake of the brain surgeries. My thoughts often flit about without restraint or direction. A few weeks into the term, I already started noticing a slight improvement in my ability to filter out distractions and quiet my mind.
Kat is hoping to decrease her agony.
She can’t stay in one position for long without her pain becoming unbearable. Kat hasn’t been in school for almost two years now, ever since she broke her back. Many of her schoolmates believe she died. She can only do her school work in shorts bursts, shifting positions as she works on her computer at home, standing, sitting, reclining, then back to standing. Lying down gives her no relief either—she doesn’t sleep well.
She speaks of two levels of pain, in the muscles and in the bones. “The bone pain is at ten. Probably not going to change. But the muscle pain… before yoga it was also a ten. If I can get it down to zero, I can go back to school. Maybe for like two hours a day.”
I can’t begin to imagine what it must be like.
I’m lucky. Yes, I’ve known indescribable pain while I was in hospital for the brain surgeries. But within half an hourI got relief from heavy duty pain killers. Like many other brain injury survivors, I often contend with excruciating headaches that don’t respond to meds. But fortunately in my case, the longest lasting headache was at a nine or nine and a half for four days—I know of brain injury survivors who have committed suicide because of relentless headaches that go on without an end in sight.
Like Kat, knowing that moving increases the pain, when suffering from a crippling headache, I hold myself rigid, all my muscles tense. But the tension aggravates the pain as well. My only chance at any relief is to relax. Through yoga, Kat is trying to learn to relax her back and neck, to ease her muscular pain. Perhaps, through yoga, I will learn to manage my headaches more effectively.
Though I can remember facts about pain I have experienced at various points since my brain injury, I don’t truly remember the pain itself. Time dulls past pain.
Whenever I see Kat, I ask her about her pain, where it is on a scale form zero to ten. She answers without hesitation. The pain is always with her, a constant in her life. Unlike most constants in our lives, the extent of her agony is such that she can’t grow accustomed to it. It’s there, like a malevolent being demanding her full attention, all the time.
Time will not dull her pain. Chances are that she will never be in a position to forget it.
Kat is fifteen years old. Never is a long time.