House of Pain

What’s your pain level at?


I’ve been hospitalized for some gnarly and painful surgeries.

Two things I find problematic:

One: Having more than one “In Case of Emergency” contact to list in my chart. No one I know picks up their ringing phone. Also, just for fun, for many years I listed an ex-boyfriend who’d done me dirty as my emergency contact, knowing I would derive some satisfaction if he were called in the middle of the night to identify my headless body at the morgue.

Two: The dreaded intake question: “What’s your pain level at?”

I have a wicked threshold for physical pain and feel that the distorted “worst pain possible” face at level 10 must be reserved for those who have a hacksaw lodged in their eye.

Growing up with the parental attitude of “I don’t care if you’ve severed your spinal cord you’re GOING to school tomorrow,” I developed a shake it off anti-hypochondriac normalization of physical pain.

A few years ago, I found myself in agony one night. My go-to mystery diagnosis is usually food poisoning. However, I felt like I was being sawed in half with a dull letter opener, not that I’d consumed bad romaine. I found out later that my appendix had apparently exploded like a dirty bomb, but when I checked into the Emergency Room and was asked for my pain level, 8 was as high as I was willing to reveal.

Believing that I was dying, I found the perfunctory pregnancy test annoying. Chop, chop! Like it or not, if I’m croaking, I’m taking everyone down with me. Next came the required drinking of a gallon of barium dye, which tastes like artificial fruit and anti-fungal foot medicine. Good luck keeping it down.

Once you’re out of all the scans and removed from imaging coffins, you are finally admitted into a hospital room, where you have a dry-erase board on the wall for nurses to keep track of med administration, their personal grocery lists, and the name of the current nurse on duty.

Self-projecting that all underpaid attending nurses hate their jobs, I felt compelled to make friendly small talk each time they came into my room. I found myself asking a pregnant nurse detailed questions about her upcoming baby shower—Lord, who am I?—when all I really wanted to do was rip the drugs out of her hands and self-administer.

Waking up after one of those 12-minute fitful sleep windows you’re allowed, I looked up at the board and saw, written beneath my name, the words STOIC PATIENT.

This was puzzling. I maybe had my own definition of the meaning stoic and wondered how someone had reduced me to these words. I asked the attending physician why I was considered stoic and who had made that personality assessment.

The short answer I received was: “You’re low-key and quiet and don’t yell at people. Your tone and facial expressions don’t match up with the severity of what’s happening in your body.” HUH?

That’s just being polite, isn’t it? Who wants to be yelled at? So, if I started throwing bedpans, leaning on the Call button, and cursing out nurses for stronger pain meds, would that be preferable?

Again, with my feelings of pure projection. These people probably hate their jobs most nights and patients acting out is so commonplace it’s surely exhausting.

So I’m thinking that even if I’m at a pain level where I’ve begun to hallucinate a conversation with Helen Keller, why make it their problem?

Hmmm… I wonder where I learned this? Why at pain level eleventy million do I feel it’s my job to make the attending medical staff feel comfortable and amused? It’s amazing how quickly I become a performing chimp. Once the sweet, sexy Dilaudid hits my bloodstream, I invariably start my nightclub act. Let’s have some laughs while we’re here. You’ve been a great audience!

While being rolled down the hall, I mentioned to the orderly that it might be funny to paint the recovery room ceiling in a satanic fresco of flames and devils to resemble hell.

He didn’t get it and ignored me. I still insist this is a missed opportunity to make people’s hospital experience more fun.

Once in the operating room, I remembered I hadn’t taken out my belly ring. By their reaction, I think this might’ve been the most complicated part of their procedure. Looking as though they’d never seen a piercing before they began haphazardly yanking on it, which went nowhere until I suggested they cut it off. I mean, they’ve got the cutting tools handy and all.

Understand this is where my absurd need to entertain and assist everyone finally ends.

Next stop, my favorite hospital experience: The magic of anesthesia.

I may be the only person who has zero fear of being put under. Everyone with their “What if I never wake up?” jive. Are you kidding? That’d be ideal! Takes a lot of pressure off me. It’s the best sleep I’ll ever have! Also, guess who’s not paying this exorbitant hospital bill? ME! Simply count backwards and die.

While in the recovery room somewhere between awake and floating toward the tunnel of light, the anesthesiologist came by my bed to tell me what a great singer his niece was and that I should check out her stuff on Bandcamp.

My eyes weren’t even open. I couldn’t have formed a sentence with a gun to my head.

Now this would’ve been the perfect opportunity to become something other than Stoic Patient.

Is it too much to ask that you stick to your job of keeping me breathing before you hit me up about your American Idol reject niece’s band?

Level 10 all the way.


Run of the Mill – Demo, George Harrison 

I Know, Dionne Farris 

Oh Shit I’m Fucked, Small Town Alien 

Forever in Blue Jeans, Neil Diamond 

Rocket 88 – single version, Jackie Brenston & His Delta Cats 

What I’m Looking For, Brendon Benson 

Socialite Death Squad, Idle Hands 

Kinda Fuzzy, Eels

Eyes on the Prize, M. Ward 

Bikeage, Descendents 

I Can’t Give Everything Away, Spoon 

Velvet Underground, Jonathan Richman