Issue 21: Don't work through the pain
6 min read

Issue 21: Don't work through the pain

For the last month or so, I’ve been dealing with an infected cyst. It’s a pilonidal cyst, which is thankfully benign, but is painfully and embarrassingly located on my butt. I first developed it last June (on my birthday, I shit you not) and the flare up thankfully went away with a round of antibiotics. I avoided the dreaded I&D, “incision and drainage” procedure, that seemed to be a painful rite of passage for members of the r/pilonidalcyst subreddit I lurked. I would still need surgery in order to fully excise it.

When I opted not to do the surgery in the summer, I managed to go another six months without a flare up, but this last time has been excruciating. At a certain point, I couldn’t walk without feeling shooting pain. Even when I didn’t move, it was still a constant dull throb, like someone was grinding a doorknob into my lower back. I continued to work and self-medicate nonstop with extra strength Tylenol for a full week. That same week, I still managed to write and send the last issue of this newsletter.

I finally got the cyst lanced last weekend. It now ranks as one of the most painful experiences of my entire life. I was prescribed antibiotics since the infection had reached my skin, but a day later, I developed an allergic reaction and went to the ER. My hands started feeling hot and red spots bloomed on my skin. They started swelling until I couldn’t bend my fingers without hurting, let alone form a fist. I felt like Aunt Marge from Harry Potter when she gets blown up like a balloon at the dinner table.

Only when my hands were literally so swollen that I couldn’t do anything except prod my phone screen to type a Slack message to my managers did I take a few days off work and truly rest. I couldn’t unscrew the cap on my toothpaste. I could barely clutch a pen to sign my release forms at the hospital. I’m immensely thankful to my partner who did frequent dressing changes for my leaking butt wound. (Truly, shoutout to E for staring at my butt in the least sexy context possible.)

I look back on these last few weeks and my first instinct is to berate myself. The doctor had said I could’ve easily gotten my cyst lanced days earlier or whenever it started to hurt. Pain is the body’s way of telling you something is wrong. So why did I wait? Why did I insist on still working through the pain?

I was partially afraid of getting the I&D and half-hoped that it would get better on its own. I didn’t want to admit that something so embarrassing and not necessarily life-threatening was also incredibly debilitating. I didn’t want to admit that a butt cyst was the root of my misery. I already felt bad about having developed this cyst in the first place, as its risk factors of weight gain and sedentary lifestyle sent huge signals to my eating disorder brain that I had brought this upon myself. (Other risk factors include genetics and...butt anatomy and curvature, but it’s easier for me to self-blame.) I didn’t want it to take more from me too, which on impulse meant my ability to work.

It shouldn’t be a radical thing to say that it’s important to prioritize rest and healing. I know everyone has been hitting pandemic wall after pandemic wall, especially with pandemic anniversaries upon us. We’ve all gotten so used to working through trauma, whether it be sharp and immediate, or dull and constant.

Please do not think you have to work through pain. I realize now how odd it was for me to ignore my own health because it was not life-threatening. How dumb it was to think I could tough out an abscess. It was like looking at the pain scale in a doctor’s office and feeling like I couldn’t vocalize the hurt unless it was an 8 or higher.

You do not need to put your pain on a scale for it to matter. This is hard to do when our baseline threshold for discomfort has increased so much over the pandemic. But remember to give yourself space and time to step back, permission to not be productive, and allow yourself to heal. I know some people say that rest is part of the writing and I agree that we need to stop synonymizing rest with laziness and guilt. I also think we should treat rest as its own separate thing, divorced from our connotations of output, and still think of it as worthy of our attention.

Kate McKean sent out a newsletter yesterday that I wish I’d read weeks earlier:

It’s ok if you’re struggling. Not to be all the struggle is noble and shit because sometimes the struggle is just struggle and caused by things we can’t control in the least, that aren’t our fault, that are done to us, but the struggle is not wasted time. It just is. It’s just time.

As my therapist has suggested, I’m trying to just surrender to the struggle. I’m trying to resist the urge to make a narrative out of my own distress, to just fully acknowledge that the situation sucks and the healing time is necessary. Sometimes the struggle is just struggle. Sometimes a butt cyst is just a butt cyst.

And yes, it’s a pain in the ass.

A progression of four images of a man being dressed as a clown. (1) It's okay to be unproductive every once in a while. (2) I did nothing the whole day but tomorrow is a new day. (3) Tomorrow I'm gonna do everything I wanted to do today. (4) I'll wake up and immediately start doing stuff.

Creative resources

  • Check out The Center for Fiction’s upcoming writing workshops. I took Emily X.R. Pan’s class, Lining Up the Bones of a YA Story, and would highly recommend it!
  • “I Am Stalling and That’s OK” by Kate McKean
  • Novelist and critic Lauren Oyler on deadlines and writing: “If you had forever to write what you’re writing, it would be perfect, but you don’t have forever. (Maybe having forever is actually the dream?) What you have in its place is a more or less arbitrary stopping point that offers an excuse for not being perfect. Deadlines are an insult to philosophy, but an acknowledgment of life”
  • One more week to apply to VONA’s online summer workshops for writers of color. Workshops span fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and more.

Recent reads & other media

For Valentine’s Day, E got me Secrets and Lies by Selena Montgomery (AKA Stacey Abrams). Although I don’t typically read romance thrillers, this was really fun. An art thief and an ethnobotanist find themselves running for their lives and uncovering secrets rooted in the colonial past and indigenous tribes of Bahia, a fictional South American country.

I also read Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner, which was as heart-wrenching and healing as I had hoped it would be. I don’t think there’s been a book that’s made me cry so much and so cathartically. It builds on her New Yorker piece of the same title and her Glamour essay, Love, Loss, and Kimchi, exploring memory, culture, love, loss, and food. I have so many more thoughts on this book, but in the meantime, I’d highly recommend preordering it.

E and I watched Chinatown (one of his favorite movies) and rewatched School of Rock (we’ve decided that the blonde drummer looks like an American Draco Malfoy). I finished WandaVision and really loved watching it week by week. I’ve always been a huge TV fan and I didn’t realize how much I missed having a day of the week to look forward to for new episodes—and the recaps to read after. I also watched both seasons of Britain’s Best Home Cook on Hulu while icing my lobster red hands. As a more genial, British version of Chopped with all the cooks living in the same house, it satisfied the GBBO hole in my life. Plus, Mary Berry is one of the hosts!

Note: Book links are connected to my Bookshop affiliate page. If you purchase a book from there, you'll be supporting my work and local independent bookstores!

~ meme myself and i ~

Wellness is canceled. I would die for this bubble tea sailor duck. If The Avengers did a slides night. Cursed “forg” cake. This print of a fish orchestra makes no sense and I love it. DVD menus are a lost art.

An Epic Handshake meme between writers and artists, united by "hobby...hard"