Pain Woman Takes Your Keys

By Sonya Huber


University of Nebraska Press
March 2017

Reviewed by Cheyenne L. Black


One hundred million Americans live with chronic pain. To give some context to this number, 11.9 million are living with cancer. Sonya Huber lives with pain every day and in her new collection of essays, she explains that she has rheumatoid arthritis, Hashimoto's thyroiditis, and fibromyalgia. The pain woman she uncovers here is at once serious and witty, sarcastic and warm, but calmly accessible. Huber, in a comfortable, confident tone, offers access to understanding in a way that pain itself has heretofore denied. 

Personified pain walks up and bows in greeting at the entry of Pain Woman Takes Your Keys.

Huber sees pain as having agency, and pain grapples with her, trying to get ahold of her, as well as its own existence. But pain is demanding. Right off, pain wants. There is desire in pain, longing, and compliance seems advisable with this moody, shifty master in order to facilitate that it go away. Huber first depicts a relationship with pain that is controlling, competitive, and needy. "Pain licks its hot spots like an anxious dog," Huber writes. "Pain demands that you make eye contact with it, and then sit utterly still." And, "Pain envies flesh and its soft strength and ease of movement."

According to research, a majority of pain people are women. Huber touches on these experiences specifically in a variety of ways, notably revealing, "My notion of myself as a conventionally performing 'woman' has changed because I am less available to provide extra emotional effort in the form of friendliness, niceness, and emotional attention to others. I am more curt because I have to reserve my strength, and this necessity makes me more abrupt and less able to soften the edges of what I really think. Pain has made me into a different version of myself—me as if I were a desert, as if I were a house built by Frank Lloyd Wright. Pain changes the way I write and the way I think."

In The Body in Pain, Elaine Scarry writes about the ability of pain to defy language, "Whatever pain achieves, it achieves in part through its unsharability, and it ensures this unsharability through its resistance to language." In Pain Woman, Huber gives pain room for language that those living with pain, pain people, whose experiences language evades, may find gratifying. There is companionship in the pages for the pain people who live in a body with a demanding needy master who sometimes isolates them and gives them only couch-time as compensation. This is not to be confused with language that portrays a need for sympathy, no, Huber makes no plea. Nor does Huber offer her pain up as inspo-porn.

Her plainspoken vulnerability illuminates the conditioning of pain, the athleticism of it, and the renovation of a life as its outcome. But she doesn't want your pity.

"I am a different person in pain," she writes. "Not worse, just different. If I were a pie chart, I'd be maybe 15 percent pain. The weirdest and most difficult thing I do each day is try not to freak out about that. Instead of looking away, I have to study it, to know the way it creeps and shimmers." There is beauty and analysis in the language with which she emboldens herself. There is magnification, examination, compassion, and knowing, "Pain is wild with grief at the discomfort it causes."

The bout between pain and person with pain is vivified, destigmatized. "What I learn is that the kingdom of the ill is a vast bedrock. We appear weak and reclined, yet we cannot be invaded or defeated. Look at us: We are unbreakable in our brokenness. We cannot be cured and are therefore invincible."

Huber explores her experiences with physicians deftly, and with a light hand, inviting compassion for both parties as she writes, "Some doctors have given up on me merely because I wasn't an easy win for them. Doctors are people too and want to succeed. It takes a strong will and self-aware doctor to truly grapple with the treatment of a phantom that may not be fixable."

Although she acknowledges her desire for a cure, she also evinces the changes pain has wrought in her life and the need to accept, to adapt. But even so, Huber never wanders far from her own desire to stop being in pain. This aggravation and ataraxy, thrust and drag, is the foundation of her portrayal of both pain and person in pain.

Therein lies what it is to know someone with chronic pain and what it is to read these essays: Pain people know that all of the wanting in the world and all of the yoga in Portland will not cure them, but of course they wish it would. The arc of these essays, then, isn't one that leads to a happy place where the author reveals that three continents, an ashram, and seven miracle drugs later, she has found something to enlighten pain people, or the people who love pain people, something which will reveal her miracle and inspire everyone with her fortitude. Instead, she offers language.

And that is what was needed. Language to cook the pain over, to rub in to the self, and to share with the people to whom they've been trying to explain themselves. Language shared is, well, not exactly pain shared. But maybe it is pain believed. Elaine Scarry, again in The Body in Pain, writes, "To have great pain is to have certainty; to hear that another person has pain is to have doubt."               

Pain evades language; pain renovates the body and mind that it inhabits. We are susceptible to a disbelief of the pain of others primarily because it cannot be easily seen or measured. But with the right language in place, if we can accept that language is seeing, we can begin to understand. And here is the place Huber stands with Pain Woman.

On finding that understanding with friends Huber writes, "I just want them to know and to have known so that they can form an accurate and honest picture about me and who I really am. That's intimacy, I suppose, and it seems to break down the wall that anxious sympathy erects."