What is pain? The understanding that most people have is that ‘pain’ is signals from nerves to the brain. A useful survival trait since it helps us identify and protect damage to our bodies. But it’s not always as simple as ‘warning of damage’, because the brain is a funny thing. It can perceive pain where there once was damage that has now healed. It can generate pain signals even without any sensory nerve involvement, or misinterpret other sensory signals as pain. Pain may not show on any scan or test, but still be bad enough to affect a person’s life. That doesn’t mean it’s imaginary or fake, or that it can be cured just by thinking happy thoughts.
Our experience of pain is wholly individual. No-one else can feel exactly what you are feeling when you are in pain. People have different thresholds and tolerances for pain because there are so many unique combinations of factors that contribute to the perception. One person’s ‘ouch’ might be another’s ‘yeeeoowww!’
I have a condition which causes chronic pain, particularly in my joints and muscles. Because I am so used to them, I shrug off dislocations, sprains, bruises, cuts and burns with insouciance. It hurts, it’s a fucking drag but injury pain is the easiest for me to handle. I know it will fade. However, arthitic pain, stomach ulcers, headaches and trapped nerves reduce me to a whimpering heap after a few hours because they are unpredictable, more acute, can last for days and I have very little control over when and why they appear.
When you live with chronic pain, you get so used to it that when it goes away, you miss it. Or, not miss it exactly, but not quite know what to do with yourself when it fades. It’s weird to wake up one day and find that nothing hurts. You find yourself anticipating its return with a mixture of dread and resignation; you know it will be back and you’re on edge waiting for the other shoe to drop. You test it, to see if the reprieve is genuine or if it’s just lying in wait for the next ambush. You want to get it over with and find your way back into familiar territory because at least then it’s a known quantity. Sometimes you provoke it because resignation to physical pain is inside your comfort zone whereas dread, fear, uncertainty aren’t.
You might find it odd then, that despite pain having such a negative effect on my daily life; I am still able to find it a source of sexual pleasure, and seek it out deliberately. Or not – we seek out the things that are familiar to us, don’t we? I have a high pain threshold – perhaps unsurprisingly; I’m too used to it – but low endurance. Get it over with, make me scream, I’ll feel much better. If it goes on too long, the novelty fades and it becomes just one more thing to put up with.
In the differences between the pain I get thrills from and the pain I wish would just go the fuck away, lies the explanation for my pain kink. I like stingy, surface-level impact that burns and shocks but doesn’t penetrate – the opposite of the joint and muscle pain that plagues me. Slapping from an open hand or leather paddle, the bright lines of agony from cane-strikes, stinging hot wax, burning ice, shallow pinches and sharp scratches, make me gasp and flood my bloodstream with endorphins. Nothing like the wearying hopeless ache of clenched muscles, or the nagging lines of fire from trapped nerves or displaced joints.
Pain I can anticipate, that I have a degree of control over, which is foreseeably finite, is pain I can enjoy. Pain which precedes reward – whether that maybe an orgasm or simply words of praise – “good girl”, “brave girl”, “well done” – is pain I can trust. Pain that is delivered in ways that make me feel dirty, naughty, slutty, is pain that I am grateful for, not least because it pulls my attention away from my wonky spine, my floppy limbs, my tense jaw, and instead, nourishes my sexual self and my desire to be submissive.
Pain which is willingly inflicted by another human being, at my invitation, is a deliverance from the loneliness of solitary suffering, a shared thrill with visible marks to counter the imperceptible wrongness of my internal malfunctions.
I’ve been called a “hard nut” in admiring tones at a fetish club, as forceful blows from a leather tawse landed with ringing cracks on my already-reddened arse. I was grinning at the time, sinking into subspace from savouring the fiery impacts, but a flicker of pride at my apparent stoicism winked through my trace-state. Ha, I thought, you have no idea just how tough I am.
If I could be magically pain-free, would I choose it? Would I have to sacrifice the pleasure to be free of the misery, and would that be an equitable bargain? I honestly don’t know. Pain is such a huge part of my life, the forge on which so much of my personality has been hammered into shape, that I don’t know how I could live without it. Perhaps I’d always be anxious, waiting for the reprieve to end. Perhaps I’d find something else to mope and stress about. Perhaps I’d chase emotional pain as a substitute, the same way so many junkies switch to caffeine when they climb down off the horse. Maybe my brain is so used to pain now, that even if all the damage were reversed and my connective tissue were normal, I’d still feel the ghost pain of an EDS past. Who knows?
It’s a fascinating topic, pain, involving evolutionary biology, neurology, psychology, and many other types of -ology. The links between emotional state and the experience of pain are beginning to be explored, albeit with a clumsy, oversimplified model; and a ‘holistic’ approach to whole-body health is beginning to gain medical traction in the West, overcoming its hippie-mystic-perceived roots. Did you know that acupuncture produces the same patterns of brain activity as meditation? No-one quite knows why. We usually treat pain with drugs that alter our brain chemistry and the workings of our immune systems. It’s a lot quicker than learning to meditate and takes less effort than living a health-optimised lifestyle, but these drugs have side effects and dangers of their own.
Given the choice, I’ll take the spanking. Every time.