On Chronic Pain: A Little Theory, A Lot of Magic

I cannot run. Well, I can run, but I am not supposed to. Four years ago, I was diagnosed with a hip impingement—a degeneration of joint tissue in my right hip. The orthopedic surgeon held up the X-ray and pointed to a very small spot where the cartilage had been worn away. It could have been genetic, he said, it could have been doing too many splits and grand jetés in ballet. The cause was unknowable. The pain of the impingement was something I would have for the rest of my life, he said. Nothing to be done, he said, but I should stop running, should take up swimming, biking, walking instead—anything that would not be too hard on my joints.

I was never much a runner to begin with, but the reality of never being able to run a marathon in my life, even if I wanted to—to have this option closed off to me forever made me despondent. When I returned home from the orthopedic center, I fell apart in our family kitchen. In front of my father and sisters, I just cried, repeating: "Why? Why? Why?" Why was I given such a body? I hated it for its inadequacy, its stings and throbs, how it prevented me from being fully alive like other people.

To embrace the magic of my body, its particular quirks and conditions—the impingement, the ensuing tendonitis, and then eventually the dermatillomania and vaginismus and anxiety—to see this body as something to celebrate was and is complicated. There are moments when I feel utterly monstrous and grotesque—even if it does not appear that way, with my bright lipstick and cute dresses. When I asked friends for any theory out there on the grotesque body, I was directed to the philosophy of Mikhail Bahktin. I am not much of a theory person. Truthfully, I often find theory dense and difficult to follow. However, reading Bahtkin's thoughts on the grotesque creatures of folklore in his essay "The Grotesque Image of the Body and Its Sources" helped me to embrace my body as a possible site of magic.  

According to Bahktin, the grotesque body "is a body in the act of becoming. It is never finished, never completed; it is continually built, created, and builds and creates another body" from the parts of animals, inanimate objects, transgressing the boundaries between the inner body and the world. This can be seen, Bahktin argues, in fairy tales, myth, and folklore, in the representation of "extraordinary human beings," beings with "a fanciful anatomy": half-human, half-animal creatures, like sirens, satyrs, centaurs, elves, sprites, and giants. 

This idea—that having irregular, unusual, "not-normal" bodies could share this affinity with transformation and magic—was empowering to me. The strange, enchanting beings that populated my imagination as a girl—the fairies, unicorns, mermaids—could suddenly be held as emblems of existing with disability, conditions, irregularities. My body has felt deviant and humiliating at times, something to keep hidden and to myself. But returning to fairy tales repositioned my thinking—it helped and still helps me to reclaim my pain as, perhaps, magical.

It is striking to me, on reflection, how often bodies morph, meld, become changed and irregular in fairy tales. Bodily transformation is crucial to the protagonists in a majority of fairy tales, particularly those of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen: Thumbelina is born the size of a thumb and later grows wings to become a fairy; princes live as frogs or swans or beasts; the Little Mermaid loses her fishtail and grows feet, which cause her pain like sharp knives. These transformations are depicted at times as mystical and, at other times, deeply agonizing. I found reassurance even in the anguish of these stories, maybe because my own bodily changes—those of injury, aging, genetics—are painful. Fairy tales acknowledge this pain through the modes of spells, witchcraft, enchantment—a framework that excites me, as it allows me to see the possibilities in my conditions, to see them even as heroic.

Johanna Hedva's "Sick Woman Theory" thoroughly discusses this desire to reclaim "traditionally anti-heroic qualities—namely illness, idleness, and inaction" as heroic. I find so much courage and encouragement in Hedva's writing, especially when she states: "Sick Woman Theory is for those who are faced with their vulnerability and unbearable fragility, every day, and so have to fight for their experience to be not only honored, but first made visible." To me, Sick Woman Theory is inherently entwined with the bodily transformations and folkloric creatures of fairy tales. If we see heroism in facing our vulnerabilities, if we see the possibility of magic in our conditions, there is power in recognizing our abilities and disabilities as sites for beauty, strength, and resilience.

On particularly painful days, I still tend to ask myself (and the universe): "Why?" However, I am trying to bring a whimsy and imagination to my body. I visualize myself as this sparkling creature-princess with glitter and orthotic shoes and prozac pills, an image of myself as an extraordinary human confronting daily pain, a pain worthy of telling.



EMILY CORWIN is an MFA candidate in poetry at Indiana University-Bloomington and the former Poetry Editor for Indiana Review. Her writing has appeared in Gigantic Sequins, Day One, Hobart, smoking glue gun, and elsewhere. She has two chapbooks, My Tall Handsome (Brain Mill Press) and darkling (Platypus Press) which were published in 2016. Her first full-length collection, tenderling is forthcoming in 2018 from Stalking Horse Press. You can follow her online at @exitlessblue.


Works Cited

Bachtin, Mikhail. "The Grotesque Image of the Body and Its Sources." Trans. Helene Iswolksy. Rabelais and His World. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2009. Electronic.

Hedva, Johanna. "Sick Woman Theory." Mask Magazine. Mask Media, Jan. 2016. Web. 1 June 2017.