Pain, My Kin

September 21, 2020 § 3 Comments


By Travis Chi Wing Lau

Chronic pain does not require constant remaking of the world and of the self because it creates a new state of being: one becomes a person who lives with pain rather than a person or body in pain. The normative conception of pain as acute and temporary does not fully convey this. ~ Emma Sheppard, “Using Pain, Living with Pain”

Two weeks have passed since I flew during the pandemic from Austin to Columbus for my new job. Mercury, my gray tabby cat, thankfully slept most of the way, but I remained wide awake with my pain. I had reached that familiar threshold of ache—simultaneously sharp and dull—one that reminds me that I have yet again worked too hard against my body. A heavy box too forcefully lifted, a few too many times hunched over to clean a grimy bathtub or the floors. Action, reaction; pained, painful. No singular origin or conclusion, but a living spectrum beautiful in its fullness, in its shifting forms and intensities.

Yet even as I shuffled uncomfortably in my seat and processed the anxiety of relocating yet again to a new city, I felt accompanied by my pain. So often, I hear of pain described in terms of alienation or loneliness—that which someone deals with silently in isolation—but I have since felt a developing kinship with my pain. My pain who has remained a witness to every event in my life, who has provided the terms by which I understand them as meaningful events. This is the queer gift of chronicity: when the fantasy of “this will pass” collapses and the burdens of upholding it end, there is the gift of new kinship forged not from a remaking but a reacquaintance. Not merely resignation but redefining a sustainable relationship with pain who I thought I knew.

Learning to write honestly from this relationship has been the hardest but most profound shift in my approach to being a scholar and writer. Rather than trying to circumscribe my intimacies with pain within the act of writing or using writing to mediate my relationship with pain (which inevitably gives way to a futile, paranoid control over it), I have tried to crip my writing process toward a more compassionate invitation of pain into the precarious act of communicating ideas and experiences. A process that does not shy away from pain’s presence but is in fact constituted by pain and its vagaries. This, to me, is what a truly crip form does: poetry or prose that models the work of cohabitation with disability and chronic illness as kin.

In revisiting older work, I noticed such a desire on my part to speak for or over my pain or even to force out of it something we might call the “aesthetic” that neither respects pain’s complexities nor addresses it on its own terms. Pain’s terms are my terms, after all. Disavowing them or imposing someone else’ terms upon them was, unsurprisingly, that much more painful. As disabled writing is finally gaining recognition, I find myself thinking more about the painful cultures of writing in which we participate. So often we are, intentionally or not, encouraged to capitalize on our pain to be legible to audiences and publishers wholly uninvested in us as people living with pain. As with many BIPOC and queer writers, such rehearsals of our pain are seldom for us and in fact limit the horizons for how we collectively imagine pain and those who have relationships with it. While we might imagine futures without pain for those who have lived too long with it, we need to invest in more than just pain’s validation (we are here, we are in pain) and subsequent containment (a hotline, a statement, a short-lived balm). For those of us whose pain lingers, we have an opportunity to expand the narratives that we have long attached to pain by writing anew from that intimate space of kinship with pain. We can honor pain as a lived reality for so many of us, while also moving toward a less painful culture of writing and publication that fetishizes only certain forms and representations of pain. In the face of our current pandemic, a practice of painful kinship feels that much more urgent if only to enable reckonings with our own painful histories and institutions, our own respective relationships with our pain, and with each other as painful kin.
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Travis Chi Wing Lau is Assistant Professor of English at Kenyon College. His research and teaching focuses on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British literature and culture, health humanities, and disability studies. Alongside his scholarship, Lau frequently writes for venues of public scholarship like Synapsis: A Journal of Health Humanities, Public Books, and The Los Angeles Review of Books. His poetry has appeared in Barren Magazine, Wordgathering, Glass, South Carolina Review, Foglifter, and The New Engagement, as well as in two chapbooks, The Bone Setter (Damaged Goods Press, 2019) and Paring (Finishing Line Press, forthcoming). [travisclau.com]

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This Blog essay is part of our September 2020 special focus on Experiences of Disability. Read our guest-edited special issue of the magazine for more.

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§ 3 Responses to Pain, My Kin

  • Annie says:

    Thank you for sharing this with us, this is deep.

  • Thank you very much for sharing this. I have had chronic pain for 19 years and spent a lot of those years, fighting against pain with stronger and stronger drugs. I have spondylitis in my neck which causes a lot of headaches and osteoarthritis throughout my body, including my spine and hands and feet. I also have neurological pain.
    Nowadays I have had 2 knee replacements, I.have come off anti-inflammatories and use Tumeric instead. I spent 14 years on Oxycodone which I came off in 2019, it took me four months. I feel like I have got my brain back.
    I am an expert now on my pain and it’s treatment. I have a different relationship with it now. I accept it and know it is there for me to learn lessons from. I use a marvellous bed with massage built-in, meditation, walking and careful pacing to get jobs done. If I can’t physically do them, I pay someone else to do them for me. I used to have a wretched life, now I don’t.
    Best regards Carolyn.❤👩‍🦰❤

  • joellefraser says:

    I was very struck by this essay–the idea of living “with” pain rather than “in” pain. It’s a subtle but interesting distinction. Thank you.

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