Bedridden as I’ve been with pain, I’m stuck with a view of my cluttered room to my right and apartment buildings directly in front and to the right. The buildings to the right, however, have been augmented with graffiti. Most of it is written in white spray paint: initials, names, the bubble- and jagged-letter signatures of writers who somehow managed to reach these heights or write upside down. The building owners probably think of it as an eyesore, but I think it’s a gorgeous way. The writing, the positioning, and the size and style reveal aesthetic and political choices. Why these buildings? Why these locations? Why predominantly names?
Is it enough of an answer to say that my neighborhood has been a prime location for gentrification? That young people actively resent the closing of local mom-and-pop shops and what they perceive as the irrevocable alteration of quintessential Harlem? That the chosen placement of the tags heightens their visibility?
tl;dr, ITT I attempt to forge my scattered brain cells into a single unit capable of cogent thought, thereby relate graffiti and graffiti-writing practices as a metaphor for online defacement, and consider the ramifications of such an analogy.
I’ve recently been obsessing over the 1997 film Event Horizon, a sci-fi/horror flick described by its director as “The Shining in space.” For those who haven’t seen it, the basic premise is that the Event Horizon, a spaceship capable of “jumping” through space simply vanished and then reappeared seven years later; thus, a salvage crew, led by Laurence Fishburne and aided by engineer Sam Neill, are sent to rescue any surviving crew members as well as the Event Horizon. The ship, however, has come back unspeakably alive. The film unfolds slowly and then blossoms into a veritable Hellraiser homage, replete with a chaotic entity, extremely fleeting sadomasochistic imagery, and notions of pain, nothingness, and hell.
I often work best to the soothing sounds of tortured screaming, so I looped this film in the background while revising final papers and conference presentations last month. After the semester ended, I idly checked YouTube for extra footage and discovered that whole sequences had been deleted. Paul Andersen removed segments that actually helped the narrative make sense and restricted the gore to frames lasting 1-2 seconds each, in addition to radically trimming the orgiastic distress call video that motivates the salvage mission.
So then I looked at the original script. The changes made from script to screen were fairly radical. Images such as a son cannibalizing his still-breathing mother and violent, cannibalistic sex were omitted or heavily, heavily modified. A sex scene between the hallucinating Dr. Weir (Neill) and his dead wife Claire, during which he overcomes his loneliness and she tears out his eyes at climax, is also omitted. These scenes did not seem overly long or gratuitous, instead contributing to the development of a character on the brink of madness. Similar scenes made the cut in 1970s and 1980s horror films. So why this film, and why these scenes?
In my life as it was prior to my diagnosis, in the course of my usual exploration of the Internet, I came across the Schmidt Sting Pain Index. It is an imprecise but admirable attempt to catalogue and describe the pain caused by Hymenopteran stings. I possess an amateur fascination with entomology and herpetology and with Schmidt’s original paper, which assigned a perhaps inexact number to each sting but accompanied each with a refreshingly creative description of the pain. An entomologist, Jason O. Schmidt was inadvertently stung by several members of Hymenoptera in the course of his research and realized the the potential uses of quantifying pain. Though it wasn’t his primary research, he didn’t waste the data; instead, he created a five-point scale from 0-4 to classify the kinds of pain one receives from being stung (The Straight Dope). Archetypal representatives are listed below:
0: Imperceptible. The stinger doesn’t penetrate the skin.
1-range: Sweat bees (light, ephemeral, almost fruity); fire ants (sharp, sudden, mildly alarming); or the bullhorn acacia ant (someone has fired a staple into your cheek).
2-range: The bald-faced hornet (mashing your hand in a revolving door); or the yellow-jacket (hot and smoky, like W.C. Fields extinguishing a cigar on your tongue).
3-range: The red harvester ant (bold and unrelenting, like someone is drilling your ingrown toenail); or the paper wasp (caustic and burning, with a distinctly bitter aftertaste: like spilling a beaker of hydrochloric acid on a papercut).
4-range and higher: The tarantula hawk (blinding, fierce, shockingly electric, like a running hair dryer dropped in your bubble bath); or the bullet ant (pure, intense, brilliant pain, like fire-walking over flaming charcoal with a 3-inch rusty nail grinding in your heel).
In my life post-diagnosis, this scale has taken on new meaning.
Fibromyalgia syndrome (FMS), a chronic systemic pain condition that is especially heightened by pressure, can range from a 1 to a 4+ on Schmidt’s scale but rarely, if ever, is it a 0. The symptoms are unique to each sufferer, but in my experience the pain has ranged from acute and persistent, like clasping a lit electric bulb between your bare hands, like blades sunk deep in a flexing muscle, like pricking, itching needles, noisy on the skin, like a sweaty fist working your heart, like vivisection, no sleep agent, no anesthesia.
This piece is for those medical professionals who wrote me off as healthy because I was professionally dressed, “I looked too good to be unwell,” or who asked me, point-blank, “And you’re sure it’s not all in your head?” It is for the people who tell me, with a tired, tolerant patience they don’t deserve to have, that “pain is largely psychosomatic, you know? Just stop thinking about it and it’ll go away.” It is for the countless, awkward Schmidt 4.0+ days I’ve had to dodge a well-meant hug, or flinched at a touch I couldn’t avoid. It is for Empire Blue Cross Blue Shield, which has conferred upon itself the godlike ability to decide whose pain is deserving of extended outpatient treatment. (Hint: mine no longer is.) It is for the people who sympathize but do not or cannot understand because I appear more or less functional. It is for the Schmidt 1.0 days, when I lull you into thinking I’m “better,” or the predominant and tolerable 2.0-3.0 days, when controlling my outward response can be performed through sheer will.
Mostly, though, it is for all the times you have not seen me break down and cry, on the subway, in line for a bus, on the NJ Transit stairs, on the walk from the train station to campus or from one classroom to another or in the bathroom during class breaks. It is for all the times I couldn’t take it, and you never knew.
This was my overarching impression of my first year as a Ph.D. student: too much reading, too much coursework, too much busy work, for any real reflection outside of class sessions. Forget integration with preexisting or current research, or time spent with the subject of research. There was too much insistence on fast turnaround and constant production, the same old reliance on the inescapable “publish-or-perish” adage, with the added pressure to present at conferences, seek out internships and future funding opportunities, collaborate, research, endure.
This is what I found so startling, this emphasis on endurance over enjoyment, on gritting your teeth through coursework to reach the relief of quals and the dissertation process, what should ostensibly be the most depressing, isolating portion of the Ph.D. experience. But the most repeated (and dare I say soundest) piece of advice I received all semester was the vague encouragement that “it does get better.” I’m still not convinced.