Pain Woman Takes Your Keys, and Other Essays from a Nervous System by Sonya Huber

32815566Rate your pain on a scale of one to ten. What about on a scale of spicy to citrus? Is it more like a lava lamp or a mosaic? Pain, though a universal element of human experience, is dimly understood and sometimes barely managed. Sonya Huber moves away from a linear narrative to step through the doorway into pain itself, into that strange, unbounded reality. Although the essays are personal in nature, this collection is not a record of the author’s specific condition but an exploration that transcends pain’s airless and constraining world and focuses on its edges from wild and widely ranging angles.

Huber addresses the nature and experience of invisible disability, including the challenges of gender bias in our health care system, the search for effective treatment options, and the difficulty of articulating chronic pain. She makes pain a lens of inquiry and lyricism, finds its humor and complexity, describes its irascible character, and explores its temperature, taste, and even its beauty.

Review:

I knew from the opening lines of the first essay, Pain Bows in Greeting, that I would like this collection.

Pain wants you to put in earplugs because sounds are grating.  Pain has something urgent to tell you but forgets over and over again what it was.
Pain tells you to put your laptop in the refrigerator.
Pain runs into walls at forty-five-degree angels and ricochets back into the center of the room.

The essays range widely from the near poetry of the above to magazine-type explorations of what it means to live with pain.  Some spin out metaphors.

Pain twists me like the ends of a Halls cough drop wrapper.  A few cunning turns transform a flat square of wax paper into a neat home for a lozenge.  If I do not unroll pain, I carry it.

All are fascinating.  Huber tells us what it’s like to watch your body slowly decline, to mourn the healthy body you’ve left behind, to try and explain and quantify your pain in just the right way to doctors and specialists.  You’re frustrated in reducing your pain to a number on a ten point scale.  You underestimate it so you’re not labeled as a drug seeker.  When yet another person suggests that doing yoga would help, you read “the implication: if you tried harder, you could fix it.”

It’s a window into life with pain that I’m grateful to have.  As a medical interpreter I feel better armed to assist patients who are in chronic pain themselves.  I also feel like I have the tools to be a better human.  A theme that has come up in my reading this year is that when someone tells you their story, listen.  Believe them.  Huber gives you no other choice.

I like some essays more than others, but it’s still an easy recommend to anyone who works with or knows someone in chronic pain, or just wants a beautifully written peek into that world.

Thanks to University of Nebraska Press and NetGalley for providing a review copy.

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