“Men are pussies when it comes to pain!” a pal of mine insists.
This begs a word-by-word deconstruct and is nearly pure Dada in juicy ridiculousness. Are we implying that men are women’s pudenda or sweet, madcap furballs? And what, if anything, does pain have to do with this?
Ha. I jest. It’s a shibboleth of sorts that men are pervious to pain, and in fact will revert to toddler in face of same or illness. My own family was uniquely stoic in the face of any illness or trauma – I’ve seen my father pick digits off the garage floor beneath the table saw and laugh that he guessed he had to get to the emergency room. I remember opening up my own hand with a hand saw (and that’s why they call it a “hand saw” kids!), watching yellow globs of fat slide out from over tendons and cursing my bad consumer luck for having to now test the “urgent” in “Urgent Care.” I hate more than anything, having to wait.
I have been held hostage, for over a week now, to the mordantly exquisite pain of a fractured, cavitous tooth. I loped around it for nearly a month, gobbling ibuprofens and eating to one side, but it bested me last Thursday where at 2a.m. I woke up thinking the devil had exposed my dentistry and was digging through my teeth with red-hot claws like Madeline Kahn at the sale bra table at Macy’s one forlorn Christmas. The Madeline Kahn reference is true, by the way – according to an ex who used to work there, Maddy snapped a bra from another shopper with the kind of triumphant zeal only the holidays can evoke.
On the other hand, I always thought of my brother as a “lap baby,” one of those children who have figured out how to get nurturing from the immaternal by being consistently ill or in crisis. Here was the child who was allergic to everything: dust, wheat, dairy, chocolate for godssake, for whom we had to line mattress and pillow, drink powdered milk, eat carob, who had to go every week to Bethesda to our weird, basement cave-dwelling pediatrician for every child’s nightmare: the shot. My brother managed to tease a tenderness from our mother - a woman whose answer to my questions about what menopause was like was a strident, “I don’t know - I was too busy” - that I have never seen from the same woman who told me once, “I don’t know why people like to hug me when they greet. I rarely even see these people.”
Nonetheless, I hear from my besties that their husbands and boyfriends are big babies when ill. I suspect my own intolerance for discomfort and pain is linked to years upon heaping spoonfuls of opiated years, and that persistent painkiller addiction has sucked dry the well of serotonin for this ex-junky. I will attest that since detoxing off of methadone in 1994, I have occasional ingress to an experience of pain that would make Pinhead from Hellraiser moist with pride. (I just envisioned a Top Chef-type scenario involving Hellraiser minions as judges but have chosen to edit this fantasy to this aside…)
What do pain and illness have to do with gender?
I’ve been considering the difference between hating one’s body and true dysmorphia. Most of us who have been women in America know firsthand what it’s like to hate, or at least be disgruntled with some part of our body. I just gave in about my thighs – even when I was a skeletally thin Screaming Skull coke-head you could still spot the random thigh dimple. And my ass looks like an infant’s, no matter what exercise I enslave it to.
Dysmorphia, on the other hand, feels less like loathing and more like confusion. What is that and how did it get here!? It’s like – well, imagine waking up one fine morning and discovering you’ve got a tail. And not a cool, Nightcrawler tail – a freakish, fleshy tail of no aesthetic value whatsoever. Dysmorphia is the reverse of the phantom limb syndrome- it’s the itch of a living thing attached to your body, it’s the itch of being trapped in a body, like a cast, that isn’t actually yours yet you cannot escape.
The doctors at my local hospital won’t do my top surgery. It’s perceived as cosmetic, elective, and they "don't do cosmetic." The difference between “I can’t live with this nose” and “I can’t live in this body” is the difference between someone looking outside for validation, and someone who cannot even know the meaning of the word validation. There’s been nothing to validate but an immaterial longing, as if heartbreak was something one was born with. I understand how poignant both desires can be, but comparable? I think not.
Anyhoo, these are my thought when I’m not thinking “tooth.” Which is all I’m thinking these days, until tomorrow at least, where the good dentist shall scrape this wanton, shamelessly attention-courting nerve from my fractured face.
Men, women, and some of us interstitial: we’re all big pussies. At some point, for something. Let’s jump in a big pussy pile, like Max and the Wild Things; let’s howl together in righteous indignation to a god that would give us this strange neurochemistry, and let’s thank it for something too. Pain tells me to change a situation, and dysmorphia tells me to change the world. Together, we can do this thing, a tooth, a gender, and let us not forget a haircut, at a time.