Harmless Armless

Anatomical representation of a human arm. Image is in the public domain.

Anatomical representation of a human arm. Image is in the public domain.

A hot blue zigzag of pain slashes through my sleep. Screaming obliterates whatever I was dreaming about. The screams are mine, wordless, guttural roars rising to hyena howls, and I can’t stop them.

I know this kind of pain. Nerve pain. There’s nothing like it. There’s almost nothing for it, either.

I must get up, however hard that is. I must get away from this arm on fire—or find something to put out the fire—or find someone to cut off the arm—or some way to knock me out of my misery.

Between screams I gulp baking soda and apple cider vinegar painkiller—not that I expect it to do much; then stumble into the bathroom and jam the shower on, full heat. At this hour—it’s not even 4 a.m. yet—I can barely lift a foot over the shower sill and the darned water seems to take forever to get from the inadequate hot-water heater in the basement to my bathroom, but at last hot water hits the spine and right arm and shoulder, the shower noise muffling the sounds of my agony. Gradually the screams subside. Wearily I curse myself once more for not prioritizing the installation of tankless hot water, which would have allowed me to stand under the hot stream until all the pain ran down the drain. As it is, there’s barely enough hot water to wipe off the snot and sweat and drive the pain to a level where I can climb down off the wall. Then I quietly apply arnica and magnesium chloride before clambering back into bed, elevating the right arm and praying for another four hours of sleep.

Five thirty a.m., screams tear up what’s left of the night. The arm and I go through the whole shower-and-TLC routine again. I throw in arm-raising exercises this time, hoping better blood flow will extend and sweeten sleep.

Seven a.m., here we go again. Third shower of the day. By this time the hot-water tank has twigged to my needs and I get a good long shower, thinking of my rising electrical bill as I appreciate hot running water as the only meaningful mark of civilization. I’ve had all of six and a half hours of sleep, none of it deep sleep. I give up. I’m too worn out to dare another bout of bed. What physical activity will distract attention from the arm? Sweep the floor with my left arm. Sort pills. Teach my left arm to use the computer mouse—hah! As if that’s going to work! And no driving till afternoon, and then only with the left arm—if the guvvamint knew the extent of my impairment, it would rip up my license.

By afternoon, generally the fire in my arm and back has died down. I might risk a short nap. By evening, I might appear and feel almost normal, so normal that I tend to push off bedtime. Why? Because the other end of bedtime is…waking up screaming.

Twenty-five years ago an accident tore up two vertebrae, one lowermost in my back and one between the shoulder blades. The herniated disc at the bottom of the spine nearly sent me to hell with pain so intractable and terrible that I lost fifty pounds in two months. Surgery saved my life on that occasion. The surgeon advised that the disc between the shoulder blades rarely herniates and that in all likelihood it would give me no trouble for the rest of my life.

The relief when the terrible nerve pain ended was so great that I thought nothing of ignoring the higher vertebra. Its only symptom was occasional tingling and numbness, usually in the right arm. “Tumbness and ningling,” I’d joke feebly, preventing pain by elevating the arm on a pillow at night. Mornings, the arm would often take its own sweet time coming back to life, sometimes twitching amusingly, a neurological phenomenon called myoclonus (the twitching, not the amusingness). From the depths of fibromyalgia, I even wrote a poem to that kind of pain, a poem that seems equally apropos to this new affliction, this so called polymyalgia rheumatica.

Hmm…. Two diagnoses of diseases with “no known cause”—with some oddly similar side effects! Was the weird and deeply hidden part of me that sometimes belches poetry trying to tell me something?


Waiting for Arms




                        into wherewithal

            of wilderness of sleep

I am just a bag

of silly sound on sticks

willing enough to walk

            to clack about the world

but this no good because

there are no arms

to heave the carcass up

            to heft the

steaks and ribs and flanks

            into the ego yes the jacket

            strait into the rat-race of

                        the breathless world


there are no arms:

Harmless Armless yes I am;

            I peer at warm depressions

in the blanket where the wonder

of the night still warms the sheet

but arms have flaundered off with

fingers maybe scribing

on the body of Another,

perhaps the pen of agony

            the tingle that I take

            into the shoulders

            is a second sobbing soul

or the numbness of the night

            is still erasing

            and erasing, and

            my encircling truants

            (each of them

            an erroneous child,

            oblivious of bells)

are trying, oh so trying,

before they socket into day,

            to bleach away the blood

                        from morning sky


Image is in the public domain.

This post and others made possible with help from generous contributors to the Wellness 4 Wolffy campaign. If you enjoy this blog and want to see more posts like this one, please help support Wolffy in her quest to get well.

An image saying "Wellness 4 Wolffy" in blue text. Two wolves stand howling on either side of the text, and the number 4 rests over a paw print.

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