Confess Your Pain, Get a Prize

Crushing pain, coping skills, and strangers behind a bar

Posted Sep 10, 2019

About a year ago, I was chin-deep in a pretty impressive agony jag. The pain was unrelenting, the narcotics were barely trying, and the meds' nasty side effects had me edgy, nauseated, and anxious. It was a real "eloi, eloi, lama sabachthani?" few months, and I was well up against my limit.

On this particular day, I did what any of us would do: I shoveled my collapsing pile of biology to a movie, hoping to dull my awareness of the world for an hour or so. What fun! The movies!

I dug myself a nest in the back of the theater and settled in. Then a trailer for Love, Gilda--a documentary about comedian Gilda Radner, who told jokes, got sick, and died young--started. (Could any movie have been more laser-targeted to poke at my tender spots?) I was toast. My pain-numbed exoskeleton shattered, and I began sobbing messily but silently on the back row.

I gave up and let the blubbery tears flow. It's probably what Gilda would have wanted.

Then things took a horrible turn: all that sobbin’ had made it so I couldn’t breathe.

Scott Fogel
Source: Scott Fogel

I was not in the mood to prevent my own suffocation, but I did. I marched my splotchy, tear-stained face to the lobby bar. I made bloodshot eye contact with the bartender and asked for napkins. “The Gilda Radner documentary got me,” I said, half-laughing to hide my chagrin.

“Oh my god, that thing’s brutal!” exhaled the bartender.

“Someone else just came out here saying it made her cry, too,” a guy at the bar chimed in. They handed me all the napkins I could want.

Just like that, the clouds parted. I was not the fragile, pitiful creature crying at a movie preview; I was part of a community of fragile, pitiful creatures crying at a movie preview!

We bantered, and I felt better. I blew my nose, thanked the bar staff, and went back in.


Pain is profoundly isolating. When you’re in its grasp, you do weird things.

When the stupid preview hit me in the stupid feelings, and I had to confront the things I really didn’t want to do: be vulnerable to strangers, and ask for a favor.

I hate. Doing. Both of those things.

Somehow, the bar staff aced it. They did not pity me, or cluck their tongues, or tut-tut that they hoped I’d feel better. They did not invade my space with their concern. Thank God, nobody tried to hug me. Instead, they laughed with me, normalized me, and didn't even blink. We bantered long enough for me to zero out my misery scale. I got to feel charming and carefree for a few moments before I went back to rejoin my discomfort in the back of the theater.


Scott Fogel
Source: Scott Fogel

Let’s not overstate the importance of Good Human Contact. The bartenders’ friendliness did not fix me; this story would be unforgivably stupid if it had. It did provide a nice reprieve, though.

Pain is grinding, banal, and tedious.

Time has worn down my memories of this particular pain jag, but it’s sharpened my appreciation for the bartenders’ role in it. They were two strangers who looked directly at my pissed off, cat-in-a-rainstorm face, and responded, “hey! You’re the second one today!”

Ah, the gift of normalizing anonymity. Jackpot.


Caitlin Caven writes Better Living Through Snark about the crushing glow of chronic illness. If you would like to be notified of new posts, find us on Instagram.

Thanks to Scott Fogel for the genius illustrations, as usual. (His friendly demons remind us we are never alone.)