Natalija Paunić

I woke up in pain. It was not an immediate pain, the one you can track right away and give it a name. I noticed it while on my laptop, eating a pie for breakfast, and some radishes on the side. I was watching the last season of Dead to me, one of the things I watch to have some time pass while my brain shuts off. One of the two main characters now has cancer in the show and, involuntarily, I keep on simulating the sensation of that information mentally. They call this ‘mirror empathy’ but I’m sure many would find it obnoxious and self-centered: my body tries to imitate how it must feel to be turned against oneself. At that moment, I realise that the joints in my hands have been hurting. I don’t know how I know it, I just know, that it’s been there for some time. This is not the moment when it started, it’s just when I perceived it. 

In the next hour, I see myself to bed (with the final episode of the show never watched). My hands hurt with simultaneous dullness and profanity; at times, it seems like I am imagining it, because the pain seems far away from me, its source is detached but its power is overwhelming, like a pebble falling into a lake, creating a wave that grows bigger with space, expanding. I know, in my mind, that this is the pain over which people will disregard me, consider me weak and insane, but I can’t stop feeling it. It sounds bizarre, and there is nothing else wrong with me, all I feel is a throbbing that’s so deep, or so far, that it only sends a monotonous low-pitched wave to my brain. I literally want to cut my hands off. I put them under my hips, as I lie on my stomach, so that I can stop feeling everything, entirely. It doesn’t work, but it feels like it should, so I keep them there. After some time, I start crying, because it won’t stop and I have to text people to get me to the hospital, and texting requires hands. My parents come to see me and examine my hands (my parents are doctors), I start crying, again, as my father touches the root of my thumb. One of my racing thoughts brings me back, my 32 year old self, to some earlier time when I used to hug and kiss my parents much more often. I contain it, and we schedule an appointment at the hospital. 

As my soul is partly patched in the aftermath of that visit, I get the feeling that I should relax, I sit down and watch Pressure Cooker, something without terminal patients, and I drink half a bottle of wine to it. I feel like it should do what the 2 ibuprofens did not and numb the pain, but it doesn’t; I fall asleep after some hours anyway and wake up very early for the appointment.

They draw my blood, and as we wait for the rheumatologist, the nurses and I talk about our cats. The doctor arrives, she presses my joints too fiercely, but this time, I don’t cry. Her attitude is inadequately chipper, sporty; her hair in a ponytail, sneakers and jeans. She thinks it’s nothing serious, something acute, immediate, a response to a trigger. Just in case, and with respect to my parents, we do the x-rays, the technician demonstrates the necessary positions of my hands for much longer than I expect him to. He seems to be flirting, cautiously, which I find only mildly flattering, because his own hands are small and hairy, as he readjusts and touches mine.

I go for breakfast, to a place near the hospital, where one of my best friends got married, and where I got my first real joint injury: a sprained knee, degenerated cartilage, some actual medical terms. I was dancing too much, doing squat-jumps in heels, while carrying children that I don’t know, for reasons beyond me. This time, I’m only here for the french toast. It’s terrible, it smells like eggs which is almost never in a good way, but the waiter is nice, he unsolicitedly brings a tissue for my hands, because there’s honey all over the food and I wouldn’t want to leave it on me. I can barely hold my fork. A sleazy pairing of middle-aged men who give off fatty-liver vibes throw glances at me, but I am neither uncomfortable nor bothered, which is surprising. I wonder if I’ve grown, or if this situation gave me confidence and reassured me that I’ve suffered enough for today. I leave a generous tip, I even smile, I take a cab and redirect it as the driver wants to do me dirty with a longer way home. Again, unbothered, I arrive at my apartment, and to the first blood test results — and as I have suspected, they are not very informative or conclusive.  

When you realise how much you empathise with people you’ve never met: instagram sadgirls, distressed poets, NYC socialites with eating disorders and broken android cameras; it’s a transcedental experience, because you perceive yourself from the outside. I understand, through this, that I’m not a very happy person. I’ve always thought of myself as someone with a bright spirit, even if it often comes out as expressive, anxious or critical. But essentially, in the nights after the hands, I would wake up every few hours, in sweat, with worst possible thoughts about my life. How little I have achieved, how much time I spent being an idiot, how stupid I was for lulling myself into the bliss of benders. For someone who always brags about having no regrets, I seem to regret pretty much every choice I made these days, and way beyond.  

I’m hearing Best Coast in the back of my head: The sun was high and so was I. For about 4 years or so: I think I’ve been drunk since late 2019. I don’t remember many consecutive days on which I actually stayed completely sober, especially not after the pandemic started. You know how they say “it was all a big blur”, and the past generally normally is; but to me, time literally stopped, somewhere, except it didn’t, it was me who stopped. I got rid of major phobias in this period, but at the cost of excessive spending, constant moving, traveling outside my budget no matter how much the budget grew, and going out every day, everywhere, with everyone. And for what? I am the two sleazy middle-aged men with cirrhosis from the restaurant. 

My rationalisation of such behaviour always started and ended with my job. Since I work for a commercial art gallery, I constantly socialise with people, many of whom keep a similar lifestyle, so we always end up at dinner parties with curated experiences after openings, where we talk and party, and smoke outside, with swollen ankles. Our difference is that, many of them don’t stay til midnight to cleanup the booth after five days of the fair with minimal sleep, nor do they come back early morning to pack the works and ship them to Romania, for example, with a friend, because your regular transport canceled, after which one goes to finally see the city as fast as possible, travels to the airport and endures a redeye to another continent, in order to “rest”, which essentially means continue drinking in peace, this time with feeling. Not that I don’t feel privileged. This is a choice.

The pain I felt in my hands was a slow pain. Is that a term I can use? It felt very slow, like a rock, sedimenting across time, setting in. I tried to relieve it with meditation, and ended up listening to an instructed video by nurse Carol Joy: Acupressure for Yourself. I tried to do what she told me to, but at some point it put me to light sleep. I woke up to these words: letting go of what no longer serves you. I thought of the hands that wouldn’t let go. The spasm created by a stubborn grip. And, I cried (again).

I’m not sure if what I know about myself is pathetic or brave. What I am sure of is that I cannot get rid of an addiction, I can only replace it with another. Kind of like love, which transfers and continually grows into new places, people and things, if you really know how to love; love never dies. My addiction is a product of an obsessive-compulsive disorder, through which I systematically control my own destruction. I hide it exceptionally well, because I make it fun, and I make it my job. I laugh, I talk, I dance, I give you art, I am knowledgable, I read the room, I command it with a soft touch and a smile. I’m almost never a sad drunk, I don’t shout, I know when to stop — for the day. My ultimate trick was always to replace things. Replace wine with something stronger, something stronger with anti-anxiety pills, the pills with sex, the sex with crying, the crying with writing, the writing with reading, the reading with cleaning, the cleaning with Netflix. Netflix with physical pain, I guess, and then repeat.

The results of my medical exams are still inconclusive and pending. There is a theory that I had a rare reaction, something called “serum sickness”, to collagen, which I was taking for a short time, to strengthen my weak spots — my joints, ironically, places where my body parts come together. My joints said no. My rheumatologist calls them hyper-mobile, as they can move and flex much more than regular human joints. That makes me feel like portions of my body hang by a thread and linger loose, waiting to fall off. That makes me think of Rasputin from Fox’s 1997 animated film Anastasia, who disintegrates into bones that are scattered, but due to his stretchy skin, he stays whole as one person. Not a very good one; and I still think of myself as the princess.

I’m no longer taking collagen and, at this moment, I’m sober for longer than I’ve been in a long time.

But this is not a confession of someone who is going to quit just yet. Maybe I need to quit my job first.

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