Pain’s many faces

Liz Breslin
Liz Breslin
The thing about this is that I’m thinking in bursts. I need to not think about it but there’s nothing else I can think about, writes Liz Breslin.

The less-than-millimetres of needle dancing through my skin are a distraction and a concentration of the highest order. Permanence, impermanence. Pleasure. Pain. How this is not a very Christmas/end of year subject for a Christmas/end of year column. How counting - oh, breathe, breathe. How counting - cases, tins, days, coffees, words, time since or until - may just be the zeitgeist coping strategy of 2020. What marks this year might leave.

Three hundred and eighty-seven days since I had the idea for this tattoo. Fifty-eight days since Nathan at Holy Skin drew and applied the design. Three sessions, twelve hours, some dollars, a buzz of pain somewhere between the sting of an electric toothbrush and the shock of stabbing yourself, repeatedly, while sewing a button on. Mostly at the stabby end because feet and ankles don’t have a lot of cushion between flesh and bone. It’s been a feet and ankles kind of year.

Twelve hours and also though, like puppies, this is for life. What does it do to the world, I wonder, while my foot weeps True Gold, when we measure art in dollars and hours? Twelve hours, so far, and I’m thinking about pain scales. Google is a good, close friend while lying on a black, plastic-covered table, and with my phone shaky and close to my nose I read about dolorimeters, heat inflictors, a pain-measuring method of burning people to check how much it hurts, first used on women in the 1940s while they were having labour contractions. We’re now on an Aqua mermaid scale precariously close to my ankle but indignity as well as needles make it hard to keep my leg still. Check how much it hurts? By burning? During labour? Two American men designed and performed this experiment, which is a fact not a judgement. They may well have thought they were improving on the Von Frey hair method of poking people with burned horse hairs. And who is to say? Me. I’m going to say this. Since pain is all subjective, presumably opinions on pain are permitted to be too, and I’m subjectively going to posit that surely, surely, at that particular juncture of life experience, people have enough to be getting on with without being burned for research as well?

I open the next recommend because what else to do and find myself looking at a line of round, bland, paperwhite faces: manic smile, casual smile, straight-line-mouth, sad face, full-on bawl. Rate your pain on a scale of one to five, says the page, whose credentials I have not checked out. I’m well-trained at and highly invested in any kind of one to five rating, but I have questions. What if I’m smiling as a cover up? What if I’ve schooled myself not to cry? How long are these results valid for? The pain, it comes and goes. Is there a face for painful but worth it? And what if the pain itself is making me happy?

It’s so fraught to compare one person’s pain (or pleasure, for that matter) to another. (And right now I am also in so, so much pleasure.) On one level, there’s curiosity. On another, of course, and never too far away from anywhere these days, is capitalism. If you can quantify pain levels, you can manage them. If you can quantify pain levels you can charge people money to manage them. Where does it hurt? Let’s monetise this.

Stretching my leg for a while because I can’t remember the last time I lay still this long in the daytime or ever, I remember again that this might not be the Christmas/end of year message we’re all looking for, but then Christmas/end of year is a time of disconnect because in my experience it’s often true that the people who are in the most pain are those getting the least help against a backdrop of upbeat seasonal songs. As if we may, possibly, sometimes, be celebrating the wrong things/wrong times/wrong places. But none of this has anything to do with tattoos.


Chronic (continuous) pain courses adrenaline through the body. Bravado is counter productive. R McCaw is not a 'legend' for having played through pain.

Having had my stern Calvinist say, best wishes to you.

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