Through The Looking Glass: A Cure for Phantom Pain

by Alexandra Pattillo | 5/19/17 2:05am

by Tiffany Zhai and Samantha Burack / The Dartmouth

This article was featured in the Green Key 2017 Special Issue: "Awakening."

It’s 5:30 p.m. on an especially warm spring night. Sunlight’s last rays cast across Mink Brook. There’s a Bernese mountain dog playing fetch with his owner, periodically running head first into the water and shaking his fur across the sandy bank. Other students have strung up their orange and purple hammocks on two nearby trees and have spent the past hour pondering both our sense of mortality and the best way to make a Collis breakfast sandwich. I’ve just finished a long run through the winding trails that lead to this sun-soaked corner of the Upper Valley. Lungs pounding from the end of my run and sweat pouring over my face, I strip down to my shorts and sports bra and dive into the brook. The shockingly cold feeling is immediate and visceral as my body adjusts to the temperature of the river. I lean my head back and float, feeling the warmth of the first few inches of the water. I see tiny birds darting in and out of clouds ahead. I feel some river weeds wind around my legs. I am buoyant, free from my commitments and suspended from stress.

I am living in a dream. It’s a dream I come back to, time and time again. I dreamt of it on my foreign study program in Prague and while sitting in my living room in Atlanta on my off-term. It’s the dream I’ll carry with me long after I leave this college. I’ll carry other dreams of hiking through blazing red leaves in the fall, making homemade pizza at the Dartmouth Organic Farm, dancing on elevated surfaces in basements or taking midnight walks to the golf course. I’ll dream of the days I pushed away my work and responsibilities and instead took a drive or walk with friends to paint pottery, visit a farm or go to a diner to eat oversized blueberry muffins. I won’t dream of the endless nights I spent pouring over papers, the hours and hours I spent in the periodicals on sunny days or the time I skipped lunch with a friend to print photographs in the darkroom.

No, Dartmouth hasn’t always felt like a dream. At times, it’s been incredibly difficult — even nightmarish. At Dartmouth, we rarely talk about the issues we carry, the things which inform our perspectives on the world or hurt us and shape how we treat others and view ourselves. Every student, every human being, carries with them a kind of phantom pain.

Phantom limb syndrome means feeling something that is no longer there and feeling something that you cannot see. When a limb is amputated, the pain doesn’t always stop; the feeling of that limb, how it moves, its weight, doesn’t just disappear. After it’s gone, you can endure unexpected pain with no known cause for months, even years. Phantom pain, similar to phantom limb syndrome, is feeling a gnawing sense of longing, deep in your bones.

For some of us, it’s the depression we hide from our roommates, the drug habit we just can’t kick, the feeling of exclusion on this overwhelmingly white, wealthy campus, the parent at home who depends on us a bit too much or the crippling sense of self-doubt that we feel might swallow us whole.

My phantom pain is panic. I spent much of my freshman spring term dealing with panic attacks which made my breathing go shallow and paralyzed my body and mind. Growing up and throughout high school, I never felt like the world was closing in on me, until that freshman spring.

Like many other Dartmouth students, I don’t often let others see my phantom pain. I exude positivity, even on days when it isn’t authentic. Sharing what we carry or showing our weakness would make us soft — and we are not soft. We are badasses. We are environmental engineers and early-admitted medical school students and Fulbright scholars. We bury this phantom pain over and over, beneath accomplishments and successes.

How do we alleviate the phantom pain, externally invisible yet omnipresent in our lives?

The only antidote I’ve found is to pay attention to the moment.

At dinner the other night, a very wise friend shared a quote by the poet May Sarton: “The quality of life is in proportion, always, to the capacity for delight. The capacity for delight is the gift of paying attention.”

When the future is too daunting to imagine and the past too painful to remember, engage in the present.

I would not have survived at Dartmouth without this strategy. By actively practicing it, I’ve been able to consistently quell this panic and develop real happiness.

This act of paying attention is what I grab onto when the water rises above my head. Any time panic rises within me like a rustling wildfire, I actively feel the air in my lungs, look up to the sky to explore the curling wisp of a cloud or look down and notice the slight bend of a blade of grass reaching toward the sun. I listen intently to friends, ignoring my phone or my desire to think of my seemingly endless to-do list. I try to lessen their phantom pain and in doing so, alleviate my own. I remind myself that I have a heart that pumps 83 gallons of blood through my body every hour and a brain with neurons that fire 200 times per second. I am alive. I shift my focus back to the present, I exhale and my phantom pain slowly fades.

We’ve all had moments that change the course of our lives forever, moments which shake us out of normalcy. Maybe it was making a mistake and hurting a person you loved or failing a final exam after a late night out. Or maybe it will be saying goodbye to Dartmouth. Maybe it was the first time you experienced loss or grief or suffering or deep hurt. Maybe it was when you watched classmates lose their chance to be in this world.

These moments remind us that there are no guarantees. We are not promised anything in life. We are not promised the chance to graduate or start our careers or get married or grow old. We are only promised the moment at hand.

Do not be afraid of what might be lost. It will be lost. Ultimately, the only relationship we will always have is with ourselves. Everyone we know will eventually die or move away or have six children and no time for weekend ski trips or weeknight drinks. But do not agonize over this reality that you stop living the only life you have. Don’t attempt to climb the slippery slope of prediction or prevention of these realities to the point that you lose sight of the beauty and the people in front of you.

Instead, dive headfirst into the universe a moment can hold. Be astonished.

This is how you cure your phantom pain, if only for a moment.

I’m back at Mink Brook. I’m floating in the lazy current of the shallow water. I’m disconnected from the world around me, calm and content. I swim back toward the shore, begin to make my way up the bank, sand soft on my feet. I’m walking in that familiar dream. I’ll wake up soon, but for now, I’ll savor the last few ray of sunlight, warm on my skin.

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