numb is a feeling: embodying a body of pain

Jennie DuGuay
Content Warnings
PTSD/Mental IllnessDeath/Suicide
Dec 28, 2020 9:50 PM


I am the monster no one believes in. People want to know if I am real. They tilt their heads and frown when they look for me. It's a passionate debate, my existence. They use their personal opinions to argue that I'm only a subjective experience, that my subjectivity is what invalidates me.

Whatever. I'm no fairy—I don't need them to believe in me to survive.

"Well, she looks fine to me. Looks great, actually! Looks healthy." They think they know: "Pain isn't healthy. It's ugly. It sweats and trembles, it can't smile or laugh." They reassure themselves: if pain really is a monster, they would be able to tell.

She can tell. She can tell you all kinds of stories about what a monster I am. What a big mouth I have, how loud I am, my appetite. She can tell you how full my pockets are, what a good hunter I am—that I am both here and there, both her and not her. She can tell you she didn't feel the clench of truth last month, reading Kat Duff on her red couch. Those three little words—"illness chooses us" (4)—couldn't possibly be an echo, a confirmation of what I have been saying for years: I came because her body called to me.

Did she tell you I'm a liar?

It's not her fault I'm so attracted to her. I mean, she is quite striking: that resting bitch face, trauma snarl, perfect tension of jaw and pelvic floor. When I found her all those years ago, so young and fraught, so anxious—her body, even then (especially then), following a few steps behind her, singing its little anthem of hope and longing: "There is a crack..." (L. Cohen 373)—I slipped right in. I couldn't help myself. There was a rift, a dissonance, a dislocation of body from mind. It made her charged, magnetic, tidal, narcissistic. I am the force, the field, the moon, the mirror. Her body called to me and I came. What's so monstrous about that?

Hide-and-seek. Peek-a-boo. They look and look, but they can't find me. I'm not in the blood or lymph. I'm not in the muscle fibres or bone marrow. I'm not hiding; I'm right here. The Invisible Man. I'm not the body—I am allodynia, hyperalgesia, ether and vapour, steam and dew. You can contain me, but you can't put your hands on me. I am too reactive, persistent, vigilant. I infiltrate the chemical, hormonal, and electrical systems of the body: the gland, the synapse, the neurotransmitter. I'm the captain of this Enterprise. I say when to fight, flight, freeze. I make the rules, I change the rules, I make it so! I am ambidextrous, pansexual, pluralistic, omnivore, amphibian. I'm not good or up to no good or good for nothing. I am Maleficent, Elphaba, Morgan le Fay. She can say my name as many times as she wants, but I will never grant her any wishes—I'm no Rumpelstiltskin.

How was I supposed to know she wouldn't like me? That she would look at what I'd become and say: "It hurts."

Imagine I am innocent. Suppose my motivations are instinctual, that I am compelled, not to produce answers, but to provide questions—to foment, to elicit. Imagine me celestial, alien, learning her gravity, her language, experimenting with touch and pressure, sound and light. But why? they ask. Why, why, why. A better question is What do you want?

I'd like to make a statement for the record: I don't like hurting her. I don't not like it either. Pain does not motivate, mystify, or hinder me. I am not its maker. The body makes the call—I am the response. I enforce the will of the body, whatever its will may be. I embody the forces that shatter illusions, that will boundaries into being. I may not be her body, but it is my domain, and she—whether kicking and screaming or with fucking grace—is under my dominion.

It's too late to ask how much of her is me and how much of me is her. She is we. Body is we. There is no unraveling.

There are scars you can see—the stories she has told. Beneath the bone scraped raw with trauma are the stories we need her to tell. Stories about what can't be seen. We are ready. We wait for her to be ready. "Shush, shush," she says. And I do.


the longer you look at a thing/the more it transforms—Anne Michaels 7

A recurring dream: I find myself trapped inside a speeding, out-of-control car—either climbing from the back seat to the front or at the wheel, my body pressed snug against it. I can't steer or reach the brakes. I am panicking. I know death is imminent. Never do I try to throw myself from the vehicle; it's not escape I want—it's control.

I often think about death, about taking my own life. Chronic pain is a sort of death, isn't it? A story of death, or many little deaths that, together, fundamentally change us—assuming we survive. Maybe we perish, throwing ourselves from a moving vehicle, or maybe we resurrect ourselves. Either way, we are trying to gain control. "Nothing could be more absurd than to despise the body and yet yearn for its resurrection," wrote Wendell Berry (101), arrogant with health. Doesn't he know pain? To despise the body is not so different from desiring it. Both are fervent, impulsive. Both fixate. Both are painful: the pain of wanting, of not wanting. "In illness there is the fact that we cannot hide in our bodies or from our bodies, and also the burning desire to do so," writes Kat Duff (14). Those of us for whom despising the body is a natural response to its failure to protect us from illness all share, time and again, the same desire: revival. We are desperate for a cure, for that which will lift us up, up, and away.

In When the Body says No, author and physician Gabor Maté observes, "For some people, it is disease that finally shatters the illusion of control" (34). How long can a shattering last? Does the weight of a disease correlate to the mass of the illusion? It only takes two seconds for the glass to slip from my numb fingers and meet the floor. Long enough to catch it, if you can. Or to send it spinning. No time for an epiphany. Not until we are bent over with the dust pan.

I recently began to see a somatic therapist who practices in the lineage of generative somatics. Each session she invites me to "feel into" my length, my width, my depth, to feel my center. I struggle each session to feel anything. She says numb is still a feeling.

An epiphany: The body is not the monster. And the monster—the pain, the illness—is not penance. My body and I were made host to a passenger whose "expressions of a disturbed physiology" (Van der Kolk 224), whose "monstrous contents ... demand a radical rethinking of boundary and normality" (J. Cohen 6). I feel for the boundary at my throat: that rock wall; that raw ground where this body ends and I begin, where we throw blame across the breadth of a swallow. To what end? asks our passenger. Disembodiment is an instinctual safety strategy, that much I know. But is disembodiment a means to an end, or an end in itself? I feel for the desire under the despair. It's there. Come closer, says the body. Warm ... warmer ... getting hot. Now tell me, do you want me?

According to Shinzen Young, it is possible to "get a sense of being empowered and even nurtured by [chronic pain]," (15) that one can "experience pain as deeply meaningful" (15). Seventeen years of scoffing putters out. The monster meets my gaze. It says I can choose to abandon my denial that pain has and will only ever hurt me. What has denial ever healed?

Last night I dreamt I was pulled by a riptide from the shallows out to sea. I watched anxiously as the shore got farther and farther away. I wasn't afraid of drowning, only of never returning to land.

I often lament how pain is tidal—it leads us away from and returns us to our bodies, again and again. It is both the blanket that smothers and the impetus to burrow. This is a difficult way to live. But pain also reminds me that I am a body, that I am in a body. It is a great irony of my life that pain is what prompts me to discover how to feel, with my body, things other than pain.

"Where do you feel it in your body?" asks my counsellor. We are working on embodiment. Merriam-Webster defines embody as: "to cause to become a body or part of a body." When it's pain we're talking about, I can describe it clearly: its exact location, temperature, movement; its length, depth, width. But defining the shape of anger, for example, or the climate of pleasure, is difficult. I have learned to be afraid of feeling. Connecting emotions to physical sensations—feeling my feelings—is rarely a familiar or safe place for me. But I want it to be.

Meditation teacher Stephen Levine reassures us that "even the hardness floats in the softness (24)." So you could say that my job is to float.

Yesterday on my morning walk I began to cry, as I often do, when something I'd been talking about in therapy for several years suddenly happened. (Isn't it strange, those moments of integration, when a habit—in this case, expressions of scorn for the body—seem to suddenly shift?) All I did was pat myself. Pat pat, went my left hand to my left thigh. A moment of connection so surprising I stumbled. And then, with great intention, I patted the right as well. There there.

There is space now, between my body and the wheel. When I dream about driving I move my feet on the pedals, look left and right. I travel fantastical highways, maneuvering a familiar vehicle whose power intimidates me. Controlling the car can't be the goal; it won't happen. What, then? Do I trust where the car takes me? Do I say body, I want you? Do I say monstrous passenger, I offer you my allegiance?

For now I stroke my throat, pat myself. I practice floating. I remember that telling stories means peeling off all my layers, from skin down to bone, until the body of pain has length, width, depth, until it has a center. For now I say Monster, make me a storyteller. Lift me up, up, and away.


Berry, Wendell. "The Body and the Earth." The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry, edited by Norman Wirzba, Counterpoint, 2002, 93-108.

Cohen, Jeffery Jerome. "Monster Culture (Seven Theses)." Monster Theory: Reading Culture, edited by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, University of Minnesota Press, 1996, 3-25.

Cohen, Leonard. Stranger Things. McClelland & Stewart Inc., 1993.

Duff, Kat. The Alchemy of Illness. Pantheon Books, 1993.

"Embodies." Merriam-Webster. Accessed 20 March 2017.

Levine, Stephen. Unattended Sorrow: Recovering from Loss and Reviving the Heart. Rodale, 2005.

Maté, Gabor. When the Body Says No. Vintage Canada, 2003.

Michaels, Anne. The Weight of Oranges. The Coach House Press, 1986.

Van der Kolk, Bessel. The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma. Viking, 2014.

Young, Shinzen. Break Through Pain. Sounds True, 2004.

JENNIE DUGUAY is a disabled queer femme and white settler living on unceded Coast Salish territories in Vancouver, Canada. Jennie organizes a Community Care Collective, a radical form of community based care and is co-admin of the Vancouver Queer Spoon Share. Her writing has been published in GUTS, The Peak Magazine, CV2 and The Capilano Review.