hello my name is shingles

I had been ignoring the rash. I thought it was from the Aspercreme that I had slathered on my shoulder (in case you are in a similar boat and thinking of trying it, I should mention that it did not help).

The rash got worse. As it did, the pain moved out of my bones and joints and gathered itself in the skin around the blisters. Some of the blisters started to get crusty, which made me think of chickenpox.



That’s right: the Invisible Box of Pain is full of herpes. I guess I can cancel the physical therapy appointment.

Today, like every other day, Sam wakes up stiff as a board

Across the river, I wake up (like every other day this week) with my right arm in an invisible gom jabbarIt may be that other parts of me are stiff. I wouldn’t know. I am reduced to one flaming arm.

As I wake up more, I remember that the gom jabbar is not the Box of Pain. The gom jabbar is the poisoned needle held at your neck while your hand is inside the Box of Pain. It is supposed to be a test of your humanity. Will you pull your hand out of the box, or will you remember the needle and endure the pain?

Last night, having watched Judith Blackstone talk briefly about inhabiting the internal space of our bodies, I decided to spend some time inhabiting the arm. Why not investigate? In the arm, heaviness became vast space punctuated by nebulous blue and purple clouds of pain. It was actually quite beautiful. I remembered all the people who love me and have been brave enough to stay in the room with me and the crummy story that I’m not quite ready to leave behind. If the arm was full of space, there was room in it for their love. For a few minutes, my arm became a sponge and a Love Magnet. Afterwards it felt better for a while.

This morning the arm is a heavy burning log again. I can’t find much space in it. I wonder if it will be like this forever. Just as I am starting to feel the edge of despair, I hear the voice that sometimes comes to me from the place where there is no Inside or Outside. “You are a bridge,” it says.

A bridge, I think, is a useful thing. I am grateful for this piece of information, and for the sleep that miraculously follows it.

When I wake up again, it occurs to me that I can make an appointment with a physical therapist. I have not wanted to see a doctor. I have been thinking of the two possible outcomes of such an encounter:

  1. They could refuse to take me seriously, which would make the visit a waste of time and money.
  2. They could take me seriously, and there might be a series of expensive and time-consuming tests. The tests might or might not reveal anything useful.

Either way, they might start using words like fibromyalgia. Which sounds to me like another way of saying: “We don’t know what’s wrong with you. Please shut up and take these pills.”

No thanks.

But, as so often happens, it turns out that I have been catastrophizing just the teensiest bit. There is a third possibility: they could suggest physical therapy. I don’t actually need a doctor to tell me that sometimes physical therapy works; there is ample evidence of that in my back and my knees.

Meanwhile, the pain is fascinating. It is different every day. One day my hand gets involved, the palm feeling scraped and bruised as if from a violent encounter with a sidewalk. The next day my hand feels fine, but there’s a stabbing sensation at the rubbery junction of breast and armpit.

It feels somehow inevitable that something like this would happen. It is my bad shoulder. I sprained it, and it has never been the same. I was sexually assaulted, and that was the first place he touched me, and it has never been the same. The whole right side of my body is always stiffer than the left.

And yet: in the middle of all this stiffness and pain, there has been a kind of loosening too. My brain feels soupy and unformed. There’s the pain, yes, but there’s also that vast space lit with purple and blue. My brain is Bridge Soup, made of blue lights stretched across an impossible distance. What’s it connecting? Who knows?

another kind of soup

My arm is a Love Magnet. This is just as true as: my arm is trapped in an Invisible Box of Pain.

The sexual assault was not so much a punctuation mark between two crummy sentences as a comma in the middle of one longer crummy sentence. A comma, connecting the twin horrors of Before and After. That sentence seems to have ended. While I try to make sense of it, a new one is beginning. Once upon a time, it starts.

Once upon a time. And then what?  There was a cranky sleep-deprived middle-aged woman?  There was a bridge?

Sometimes I imagine that I can hear the river below me. Maybe that accounts for the ringing in my ears.

I am here in this excessively bright and hot room, writing with Julie and Sam, being stabbed under the shoulder blade. Or am I? Let’s say I am. My hand aches. I think I can hear my brain quivering inside my skull. I have been feeling feverish. I have been bleeding, on and off, for four weeks.

I should be in a red tent somewhere. With a dirt floor. Bare feet. Stirring a soup that smells like blood and potatoes. Maybe I am. Maybe I am simultaneously here in this bright hot library and in the cool red tent mixing up bridge soup.

My hand has stopped hurting for now. At least there’s that: a small loosening.

How many times this year have I been stuck on a bridge between Vermont and New Hampshire, feeling it shudder beneath my car’s tires or the balls of my feet?  A bridge is not a static thing. If it were, it would shatter. It expands and contracts so as not to dump all the dusty travelers into the river.

It stretches and shrinks and creaks and groans. And so do I.


My right arm and shoulder are a symphony of pain. It wakes me repeatedly: the burn and sting of the skin on the back of the arm, the gristly grind of the shoulder joint, the stabbing ache where shoulder meets torso.

It is “my bad shoulder” in at least two ways. I sprained it a long time ago, and it has never been the same. It is the first place he touched me, and it has never been the same.

That arm is covered in tattoos from elbow to shoulder. People ask me what the tattoos mean. They mean: it’s my arm.

Between the waves of pain, when I can sleep, I dream that I am trying to tell a story, or to scream, or to say the name of someone who suddenly isn’t there. If I manage to make a noise at all, it’s only a tiny strangled squeak.

But the other day I managed to say to a small circle of women: this time of year is the anniversary of my running away from home and being sexually assaulted. It was hard to make the words come out of my mouth, especially in a little roomful of people who were trying to Be Here Now. A voice in my head argued that it was 38 years ago. My arm and shoulder say otherwise. I am having a hard time right now. That is the truth.


Here is another truth: “the incident” (as I have taken to calling it) was only a punctuation mark between two crappy sentences. The truth is that I was orphaned, and nobody noticed. I was bullied, and nobody could stop it. I’m not supposed to say those things either, but I’m saying them anyway. This is my story. I can’t let go of it if I don’t own it.


The next day I tell my therapist about telling them. My week has been so full that I feel very far away from her, even though I am somehow managing to sit in the chair instead of behind it. She leans forward and says she’s so proud of me. She says it again, firmly, a shade louder. I feel very far away, but not too far to hear her.

A few years ago, during another round of processing “the incident,” I complained to my husband that it felt like I was trying to pull a fire truck by myself. This is a thing I have actually done:

this is me, pulling a fire truck. i am the only one pulling, but i am not alone.

But you don’t really pull a fire truck alone. You can’t. You are the only one pulling, but you are not alone. There is someone sitting in the truck to make sure it doesn’t accidentally run you over. There is someone holding the rope so you don’t trip over it. There are people watching. Most of them are strangers. Some of them are shouting at you. You can’t do it without the shouting.

Julie says: See the body as a beloved animal you are rescuing. Right now, take the steps you know how to take.

You have no choice, she says, but to make your way back into the awkwardness & the pain & the subtlety & darkness & juiciness of the body.

That is exactly what my work is about.

One foot in front of the other. So much darkness. So much juice. Such a long walk.

It’s a good thing I’ve got boots and a flashlight.