Take a look at this person.
Take a real good look.
Then ask yourself: Is this person in pain?
She looks fine, you think. She doesn’t have a handicap placard on her car. She doesn’t walk with a cane. She isn’t wearing a brace. You furrow your eyebrows, and then you think: She looks totally normal.
The thing is that when this picture was taken, she was in a world of pain. She had three sort-of healed spinal fractures and a calcified nerve cluster. Even though she was smiling under the artful disguise of Microsoft Paint, she was hurting. She was wearing a back brace under that dress. She changed into flats as soon as that picture was taken. She found a place to sit down and close her eyes, trying to match her inhales and exhales to the thud-thud-thudding of her spasming muscles. She had her special dichroic glass pill case in her handbag filled with Tramadol, Nabumetone, and Vicodin. She had already calculated how long she could stand being upright and the time it would take to get back to the train that would shepherd her home where she could flop into bed and succumb to the black wave.
Does she look like she’s in pain? That is the eternal question. Those of us who hurt, we participate in the world because we don’t want to be left behind. If we do things, we pay for it later. But we don’t want to be left out.
And we always have the “Pain: The Motion Picture” soundtrack playing along in the background of everything we do.
Whenever I’m out and about, I look at other people and wonder what their pain is. Maybe it’s a herniated disc or a bad knee or a bunion. Maybe it’s an old skiing accident or just the echoes of sleeping wrong. The ghosts of our experiences build us, layer upon layer, into who we are. Those seemingly small problems grow and swell and consume us because of their actual enormity. To us, they are infinity.
So next time you see someone park in a handicapped spot and get out of their car with apparent ease, hold off on the judgment. I could be that person. I qualified for a handicap placard years ago. I qualified for disability earlier this year.
And yet I look totally normal.