A Pained Life: An Unexpected Gift

By Carol Levy, Columnist

This past Christmas I started thinking about a Christmas long past.

I lived in New York City at the time, but was spending the holidays at my mother's house outside Philadelphia. My family had been estranged for many years (especially from me), and for some reason one of my two sisters came to the house to spend Christmas with my mother and I.

The presents were opened, gifts from my mother to us and from us to our mother. I had nothing for my sister and expected nothing from her.

There were a few more boxes under the tree, but I assumed they were gifts for other people for later that day. To my amazement and consternation, my sister picked up one of them and handed it to me. “This is for you,” she said.

I took it with trepidation. “Why is she giving me a gift?” I asked myself while slowly removing the wrapping. I worked hard to keep my expression neutral as I pulled off the tissue paper and looked at the gift.

It was a blouse, bilious green decorated with farm animals, silos, barns and ribbons. It was probably the ugliest thing I had ever seen.

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I smiled nicely, thinking what is her point? Why waste money to tell me via a blouse how much she dislikes me?

“Oh, thank you. This is.... really... nice,” I said.

My sister’s only reply was, “You're welcome.” There was nothing to indicate she meant it as the insult it sure as heck seemed to be.

Later on I walked into the kitchen. My mother was crying, “I can't believe she would give you something like that!”

It was awful. How mean, childish, and cruel. Such a waste of money merely to hurt someone, and for reasons never explained.

I returned home to New York. I hate the idea of wasting anything, so instead of throwing out the blouse, I decided I would use it as junk clothing, for painting or using solvents, etc. Nothing I could do to it would make it worse than it already was.

I had not taken it out of the box. I did so now and put it on. I looked in the mirror. To my amazement, it was adorable. In the box it was a horror, but somehow once I put it on, the ugly worked its way into cute.

I wore it until it wore out. I can't count the number of compliments I got, like “Boy, is that adorable.”

So what is the take away?

I didn't give the shirt a chance. I jumped on the meaning of it – horrid, mean and nasty. I didn't say anything to my sister or ask why she would give me something so ugly. I knew what it meant. I didn't need any help with the translation.

I think of this story sometimes, when someone I thought I had a good relationship with says to me, “Your pain can't be that bad” or “I've seen you climb the stairs, so I know you can.”

That’s like waving a red flag before a bull. Or a ringing bell to a boxer. How dare they! What does it take to get them to accept my pain and disability? My anger rises with my blood pressure. I am ready for a fight. 

But maybe I am jumping to a conclusion that never was.  Could they have meant something else? Maybe even an awkward kindness like, “I don't want you to have pain that bad. I don't want you to be so disabled.”

Maybe Ogden Nash said it best in his poem, “I Never Even Suggested It.” It was written about men and women quarreling, but I think the last line is what counts: 

In real life it takes only one to make a quarrel.

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Carol Jay Levy has lived with trigeminal neuralgia, a chronic facial pain disorder, for over 30 years. She is the author of “A Pained Life, A Chronic Pain Journey.” 

Carol is the moderator of the Facebook support group “Women in Pain Awareness.” Her blog “The Pained Life” can be found here.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represent the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.