I see myself falling before it actually happens. I’m cycling on the way to a Christmas party with a group of friends when my front wheel catches on the bike ahead of me. I flail, my mind flashes forward—look away now if you’re squeamish—and my chin splits as I hit the ground. We’re covered in fluro lights and green glitter, and in the aftermath the group twinkles and a friend shines a fluro light at the new gap in my chin.
‘You know,’ my friend says in his dad voice, ‘it might be worth going to the hospital.’ Surely not, I think. I am already waving everybody off. I want no fuss. In fact, I would like to be left alone. There’s a deep self-consciousness that comes when other people have a front row seat to your pain.
The hospital isn’t far and a friend walks there with me. I hold my bleeding chin together with tissues and she kids that I really know how to take it on the chin. I laugh and tell her to stop. I’m worried my chin might my split again.
I am glad she’s here with me. She steadies me when I feel wobbly, holds my mishmash of things as I rummage through my coat pockets looking for ID, and wipes specks of glitter from my chin. And when I am glued back together she says, ‘Phew. Now that’s what your chin is meant to look like. I didn’t want to say, but that was a serious hole in your chin.’
I’m given a final check and then sent home. I feel like I can only move 10 or so metres at a time, so we sit in the atrium of the hospital for a while. I babble now; about the shit storm that was 2016, and those strange things that pop into your mind during times like these: Did I send that email? Is the fish in the fridge still okay? Where am I again?
The maths of the pain equation has never made sense to me. The more pain I’m in, the less able I am to ask for the help I need. I suspect this happens because most of the time I don’t know what I’m dealing with. So, should I ask you to put a spotlight on what I’m feeling, I imagine we’ll both get quite the awkward look-in.
Left to our own devices, then, we deal with pain in all sorts of interesting ways. I am a fan of the humour route and walk down it frequently. In fact, before I leave the hospital I am already joking that I have scored a free chin tuck. It’s just that my chin is trembling, and I tell it to stop because I know it means tears.
Still, if you can’t laugh, what then? I have always liked what film director Rebecca Miller says about the role of humour: “I feel more and more that making fun of ourselves is the mark of civilisation. If anything is going to take the world down, it’s humourlessness.”
This holds true for me because I’m an old hand at the less dignified alternative to the humour route, anger, too. I have come to think of it like the lashing out of a wounded animal; a flinching beast that snarls at the first sight of approach—no matter how well intended. I have ruined friendships with this. Hurt, untrusting and disoriented, I protect myself with snarliness—vicious words, glares, silence—lest the world hurt me any more than it already has. It is self-protection at its delusional best.
The lashing out is also a deep embarrassment at being caught out lying on the ground. We are, after all, grown ups. There was no down on the job description. Time and time again I have not asked for help—a hug, a set of ears, a day off—because I feel as though I should be able to handle it. How bad, after all, can it be? Oh, how silly I have been.
Funnily enough, both these approaches—humour and anger—say I don’t need you. When what I mean to say is, I really do. It’s the maths of the pain equation gone awry again. You see, I’ve always found that pain is a whole-body thing. What begins in one place—be it in my mind or on my chin—aches and chokes and makes me gasp until I am sure it is etched all over my face.
So, when I spit ball words at you, or brush you away, I am convinced you see what I see: someone who is scared to be in the company of pain. The truth is you’ll probably just see someone being rude because there is a devastating incommunicability to pain.
How do we give ourselves a moment’s grace? In between the snarliness or the I’ve-got-this jokes, how do we soften just enough to put our hand up and say ‘I’m not okay.’? More and more, I feel the underlying question that stops me from saying it is this: If I fall, openly and honestly, can you catch me in some way?
There is, after all, a great big awkwardness to all of this: of seeing someone writhing, and not quite knowing how to reach out and hold a stethoscope up to their pain. Our instinct is to look down or away. Not because we don’t care, but because it feels like we’re not meant to see this, and we don’t know how to tenderly acknowledge someone else’s pain.
One of the most common ways we do acknowledge pain is to say ‘I’m sorry.’ It is simple, sure, and easy to sweep away, but when expressed genuinely it does more than just fill awkward air time. When used honestly it means, as Seth Godin says, 'I see you and I see your pain.' And to this we can only say, ‘Thank you.’ Thank God that you, dear person who is not in my head, can see that I, wannabe grown-up, am not okay.
And what then? Around about here is where I wish I could skip to our happily ever after. But asking for help and giving it is much messier and longer than this. This is why I feel guilty involving you in my mess. It’s why humour—receiving it that is—is only ever a temporary fix, and it’s why there is no neat ending to all of this. There are just people that try to lift me up, a pinch of glitter, awkwardness and this new scar on my chin.
The word for help in French is ‘au secours’. Literally, ‘to relief’. I like it because it signals that you are adrift, and need to get back to a place where you can feel at ease again. So, when we can bring ourselves to signal for help—even if we don’t know what it is we need—I feel that this is what we actually mean: Please, throw me a rope. I’m paddling. Can you tug? Oh and bring a spotlight because I can’t see where I am.
Tugs and paddles; this is the best way I can think to describe the mysterious path we follow back to a place where we feel okay. It’s never a one-woman job. I know this now. I need floaties to catch my breath as I process my mess.
When I come home from the hospital that night I join my housemate in the kitchen. She’s been at home sick and we both look like Eeyore as we shuffle around making tea. My friend messages to check that I’m doing alright and the next day I call in sick. I paddle, she tugs. I will be okay.