“infinitely flexible and constantly amazed”; gifts of Illness

I have a journal that, the way it works, when you’re writing in this year’s entries you see those from the year before. Today I had a moment of discouragement when I saw I’d recorded “lots of kidney pain” – and that I had written the same thing a year ago. By the way, my brain works okay so I know that as years unfold this may be a regular part of my life and years may stack up of “lots of kidney pain” – so this is, in its way, just the beginning of my path of Acceptance.

Now, (conscious contact with one’s) chronic pain has been, for me, quite a spiritual experience and a game-changer in so many ways. But this post isn’t about pain – or even the attendant nausea and fatigue. This post is about loosening my death grip on Knowing The Story, or Having Things Figured Out.

I got sober in May 2011 and a few months after that I began to be plagued with severe kidney pain, as bad as the first time I had it so many years ago. In fall 2011 I remember sitting and sweating through my job chairing a Recovery meeting at a treatment center and then calmly, shakily, driving myself to the ER and throwing up. Now as I began to seek treatment for my kidneys – again – the treatment became ongoing, not just a visit here and there. At first a few sober friends told me that perhaps my drinking and my kidney troubles were related; my drinking had made my kidneys ill (causation). I asked my nephrologist/specialist about that, and he waved the theory away. He is a kind of hilariously handsome guy (to me anyway), all wearing a white lab coat with impeccable manners and a slightly aloof disposition. And now he tells me I was born this way (meaning I was born with a kidney illness – Renal Tubular Acidosis Type II).

This didn’t make sense to me for a while – I comprehended what he was telling me, but my heart told me something else. I kept trying to find ways to blame myself for my kidney problems! And you know over the months I asked him a couple more times if I’d caused this condition, and specifically why it is these severe bouts of pain were flaring up now that I was sober. He kept saying: you didn’t cause shit, and your sobriety is a total coincidence, nothing to do with the other.

I’m not sure he’s right that the whole thing was coincidental.

My first horrific kidney stone pain was at age sixteen. Since we didn’t know what was happening, it scared my father and I very much the morning of onset (my father vomited from anxiety before he took me to the ER!). Once we figured out what it was I felt this relief I wasn’t going to die soon. I got a prescription for Vicodin, and soon after this it seemed the stone had passed. I don’t remember using the Vicodin very much and I certainly didn’t get hooked on it – like so many others I’ve now had occasion to meet. But here’s what’s odd: after a bit of trouble at age sixteen, I was mostly (not completely) asymptomatic, as far as I can tell, the exact number of years I drank.

People today ask me if I’m in pain and because I’m in chronic pain and I do not use narcotics or painkillers I can no longer answer “yes” or no because I simply do not know. I used to say “No” when I wasn’t in a lot of pain. But I am beginning to realize I am in pain if I’m awake (I hope my body finds respite while it sleeps). Sometimes it is in my conscious awareness and sometimes it is not. To be honest, I think it is almost better when I am consciously aware of my pain (that is, when it is quite severe), because that keeps me in the moment and keeps me knowing exactly what I’m supposed to do (breathe deep, pace, vomit, pray, stuff like that). The daily and by-rote experience of what I would call very low-level pain, I deal less well with. I am apt to feel discouraged that I am fatigued (hello! I am sick!), or I feel irritated I’m nauseated (hello! I am alive! Isn’t that something to be grateful for?), or succumb to anxiety and depression and start thinking What Am I Doing Wrong? (that’s just… dumb. But, I do it).

I am not thrilled I am in pain, but I am not angry about it and I don’t feel Special Snowflake about it, either. Pain is part of Life and everyone has pain. I am grateful to start being honest about my pain – that’s new for me, historically. Re-joining the human race and knowing that A. my pain is real but B. I am not Special has been very helpful and has restored a bit of humor. Sometimes when a situation hurts, I find the most help in laughing about it! It’s just my Life, no big deal. Like I like to say, in a Buddhist mantra close to my heart:

Two Tears in a Bucket /
Motherfuck it

I guess what I’m thinking is, if I don’t know my own story I shouldn’t speculate on others’. I never know why or how someone medicates and with exactly what substances or processes they are medicating with. When I see someone behaving poorly or even in a scary way I like to reflect that they are doing their best with what they have. This gives me a lot of peace and keeps me flexible and compassionate. And truth be told – excited! There is a lot I don’t know.

Did I drink to medicate chronic pain (along with whatever emotional pains I felt)? Who knows. Today I know that is a possibility, and the fact I suffered under an illness for years without properly caring for myself makes me sad. The possibility I developed another illness – alcoholism – as a result of improperly caring for myself – is a very interesting one! When I think that this is a possibility, I have a lot more compassion for the woman who went through this. She has been through a lot! She should take it easy, take a break.

I don’t know why I am alcoholic, or how I became one. I don’t know why my kidneys are busted. I’m okay not knowing, today. I am no longer as attached to my self-stories as I used to be – which ultimately means I am no longer attached to figuring out your story either –

and that maybe, just maybe, I can actually be here for you. And for me.

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