'I Don't Feel Pain. My World Is Dangerous'

I was in my early twenties, living in a little apartment two miles from my college campus in Colorado. It was a typical Wednesday night of studies, music and gossip, and it was my turn to be the chef for my roommates. I was making macaroni and cheese.

Amid a rowdy discussion of whether my roommate truly appreciated her art appreciation class in the same way I did, I looked down at my lap. I was ferociously stirring the unyielding cheese-like powder into the bay of milk and butter when I gasped. The hot pot was sitting on my lap.

At that point, I had been paralyzed for a little over three years. A car accident left me with a set of shiny wheels and absolutely no choice in the matter. My spinal cord was injured beyond repair, which left me with the inability to move and feel below my sternum.

Ryan Rae Harbuck with Baby
Ryan Rae Harbuck with one of her two children. Harbuck was in a car accident when she was younger, which resulted in her paralysis. Ryan Rae Harbuck

Nonetheless, I had grown very accustomed to the new life that was laid out for me and the wheelchair-accessible path I was headed down. Of course, things were challenging and even upsetting at times but, for the most part, I was just like any other college kid.

But my brain hadn't told me about the pot being hot. So for minutes I sat, stirring the macaroni and cheese in the boiling hot pot, right on top of my flaccid legs. In those minutes that I stirred, I was none the wiser—laughing and joking about my day with equally oblivious roommates. Unfortunately for me, I couldn't ignore the injury in the same manner I was able to ignore the pain.

I had full-thickness burns in equal hemi-ring shapes on both of my legs. There were countless dressing changes and gel ointments, and subsequent medical bills, to encourage my already circulation-starved legs to actually mend themselves. It took months for them to heal, and I still have the scars.

That was my first taste of my new relationship with pain; the ultimate consequence of the lack of pain altogether.

Another careless moment in college left me with a bone infection in my unsuspecting pinky toe. That bone became so infected that it infected my entire body and needed to come out.

I recognize that I wouldn't have been in so many of these situations if I could have felt the pain from the actual injury at the start.

A painless childbirth

"You are so lucky!" So many women have roared in response to my inability to feel labor contractions. They typically follow with how blessed I am to not have to endure such an experience. But, to me, it's one of the most primal, human experiences. I'd be honored to share in that pain.

Ryan Rae Harbuck with Baby
Ryan Rae Harbuck in hospital with her baby. Harbuck did not experience pain during childbirth. Ryan Rae Harbuck

When I was pregnant in 2013 and then again in 2018, I had the extremely real fear of giving birth whilst sleeping soundly at night. It was no joke nor any four-leafed clover.

As it was, I ended up with more than luck on my side with both of my childbirths. Each of my two children were born when a medical professional recognized my contractions for me and directed me to the hospital in time for two fairly unbelievable, yet uneventful, births.

I was hooked up to contraction monitors while in active labor, where I watched the thin line dance up and down, displaying what I always knew to be true: I still cannot feel pain.

I had always suspected that I would feel pain if it hurt badly enough. The harshest reality of my world is this physical proof that I am undeniably and completely paralyzed.

Why I long to feel pain

Pain is the single most important sensation of them all. It allows us to identify when we are in trouble, working hand-in-hand with our fight-or-flight system. Pain can also help us learn how to push beyond what we previously thought was possible, which happens over and over again in athletics and moments of newsworthy crisis. Some even say pain is what makes them feel alive.

Having been denied that most primitive physical sensation, I have come to long for it. If I had the ability to feel pain, to have my body alert my brain with innate neurological bells and alarms, so many things may have been different.

Ryan Rae Harbuck
Ryan Rae Harbuck writes that her life would have been very different if she could feel pain. Ryan Rae Harbuck

I may not have ended up on an eight-month period of bedrest for a villainous decubitus ulcer that grew from the inside out and the outside in, all while I went about my day not noticing. I had been working as a high school biology teacher and I was forced to quit my job, rely on a daily home health care nurse, and become isolated from the world around me. I would have graciously taken that physical pain over what I experienced.

Most recently, I heard of a friend and writing mentor who passed away. He was a wheelchair user too, paralyzed from the waist down for most of his life. I do not know all the details, but I do know that he ultimately died due to the complications of a relentless bedsore. A bedsore. Of which he never felt in the first place. These kinds of wounds are sneaky and relentless and, ultimately, could be caused by so many things. Even a hot pot of macaroni and cheese.

My body cannot be trusted. It will never take the cues that are inherently instilled to protect me. My synapses have been hushed and the communication has, and always will have, failed. I will forever be forced to imagine pain for myself.

So, today, I recognize that I am different than most. I walk hand-in-hand with pain as an eerily absent and silent friend: appreciating everything that it is and everything that it can't be for me.

Ryan Rae Harbuck is a writer and the author of the memoir, When I Grow Up I Want to Be a Chair.

All views expressed in this article are the author's own.

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