Broken On The Wheel

Back in November of 2021, I was diagnosed with cancer. I met with oncologists, went through chemotherapy and radiation treatments, and have been given a (mostly) clean bill of health.

There’s only one problem: pain. Six months out from the end of my treatments, I’m still in enough pain daily to warrant opioids, medical marijuana, and primal screams. The doctors are no help, telling me I’m just taking longer than usual to heal – it’ll be all right.

I try to explain this to my inner circle, those people who say they love me. They try to give me some kind of encouragement. But they don’t understand what it’s like, why it’s become impossible to accept such platitudes. It’s hard to just say, “I’m in incredible amounts of pain and can’t interact with you today.” It doesn’t work. There’s no frame of reference. So I came up with a story to describe it. The fiction writer came up with a fiction story to describe something. What a surprise.

Imagine that you have been captured by a large, powerful, faceless organization. In the span of a few weeks, they’ve infiltrated your social circles and your place of employment. And they’ve taken you prisoner.

You awaken every day to a blank and empty cell. No windows. Walls and floor of industrial white concrete and no way to control the lights that you can’t reach anyway.

At first, it wasn’t too bad. You’d managed to keep a few things for yourself: a couple of good books, a few sets of comfortable and comforting clothes.

But every day, a man enters your cell and beats you with a rod of rebar. He doesn’t speak and he doesn’t show any kind of emotion. He beats you badly, then he leaves you on the floor of your cell, bloodied and in agony. And he will be back tomorrow.

You don’t know when during the day he will appear – it varies. The implement he uses changes too. Sometimes, it’s a bullwhip. Sometimes it’s a blowtorch. But he will come. He may miss a day, leaving you in breathless anxiety about when that door will open. Every day, the anxiety grows; your body compels you to attempt escape. But he overpowers you. Sometimes he’ll come several times during the day.

Months pass this way. Eventually you start asking questions: why are you doing this? What is it you want from me?

He refuses to speak, his poker face is perfect and impassive. You suffer your beating and he leaves.

Eventually, you start to beg. You beg for the pain to stop. You beg for him to ask you a question: you’ll tell him anything he wants to hear, if only he will stop. But he won’t be moved by pity or logic. The beatings continue. You scream in agony to an empty room and only end up making yourself more miserable. Your senses become dull to everything else except the pain. Your world revolves around that door opening and the torturer coming to visit.

When begging won’t work, you collapse, broken and defeated. You take your beating with sad resignation. Death starts to seem like a worthy option – your life as you knew it is gone forever. You have no life but pain now. You try to push the torturer to beat you until you die. But he won’t – the pain level remains the same.

And, despite your belief that some day you might have eventually paid for whatever crime put you here, it comes again and again and there is no end.

How long do you take the pain before death seems like the right choice? When you can’t get help to make it go away, do you continue or do you seek oblivion and respite from it? Why is it the right thing to do to put down an animal in this much pain and not a human? What is your limitation?

I am grateful for my loved ones. They do try. There’s just nothing they can do.

How long can I hold out? I don’t know. But every day I pray for less pain. I scream to the heavens for relief. And the heavens are silent.

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