We have a bedtime ritual at our house. Most nights we (me, Mom, Cricket and Butterfly) stay up to watch The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. When the last show is over I say “The end” and turn off the TV. The dogs start to stretch and walk towards the hallway. Mom complains that she’s too tired to get up from the couch. I turn off the lamp by my computer, and then the air conditioner, and head off to brush my teeth.
By the time I’m ready for bed, Mom has turned all of the lights off, including the hallway, dining room and kitchen lights. I have to go looking for Butterfly, because she still can’t climb up her doggy steps (though she can race down them in a second), but Butterfly has taken to waiting for me at the end of the hallway and then twirling a bit in the dark and flattening down near the front door. She is bright white and therefore glows in the dark, so I can always find her, but, as neon as she is, nothing else in the room glows. So, the other night, as I bent down to pick her up, I smacked my eye against the back of a wooden chair. Correction, smacked my glasses, which smacked my eye and nose and the surrounding orbital socket.
The pain was extraordinary and I made some bizarre animal sounds and both dogs came over and Mom turned on the light to see where I was. I thought I was going to vomit, but I sat down on the floor, then flattened out, and the girls sniffed my head for injuries.
My immediate thoughts and feelings were anger – damn it chair! Damn it dog! Damn it Mom! And then there was some self pity, as in, why do these ridiculous things always happen to me?
As soon as I could stand up, I went to lie down on my bed with an ice pack on my eye, and the puppies by my side, and Mom standing over me looking very concerned. The thing I didn’t expect was the sobbing. It wasn’t a specific, wordy, list of anxieties or resentments, it was simply very loud sobbing, mixed with attempts at humor, and laughing, and asking why I was crying in the first place. I had to push hard to put the feelings into words, and guess where they’d come from and attach them to things I could reasonably be upset about.
Something about the sudden pain, or the shock, or where the injury hit my brain opened a whole capsule of emotions, and I was crying and whining and suddenly feeling hopeless about everything in my life, as if the physical pain were attached to a set of emotional fish hooks I didn’t even know were there.
The episode passed in less than an hour, but it made me wonder about the biological, or at least physiological, origins of emotional pain.
Physical and emotional pain seem to run over the same circuits in the central nervous system – which is why they’ve found that Tylenol can lift your mood and Prozac can reduce your knee pain. Many chronic diseases cause emotional pain, especially depression, simply by using up your Serotonin trying to relieve the physical pain, so that there isn’t enough Serotonin left to cushion even the smallest emotional upset.
By the next day my eye only hurt when I pressed on the area, and I had a small bruise against my nose from my glasses. The only lasting effect has been that I refuse to follow Butterfly into the dark to pick her up. If Mom insists on turning all of the lights off half a second after I leave the couch, and Butterfly insists on running into the dark to play chase, then that little puppy will just have to sleep on the floor.