This is a book about pain. Chronic, searing, never-ending pain—a pain that’s shaped Sonya Huber’s life for years. It’s also a book about the language of pain, the discourse of pain, and her gradual movement toward being able to talk and write about her experience with this mysterious thing that dominates her life.
As someone who hasn’t yet experienced chronic pain, I relied on Huber to draw me into her world, to show me what it feels like, to allow me to begin to understand an experience that many of us will, eventually, know first-hand. And she takes on this project masterfully, introducing her readers to pain just as she might introduce a family member. By the end of the book, I’d begun to see my current pain-free state as an aberration, as a temporary fiction, and I was grateful that she’d facilitated my entry into a world that is, in many ways, more real than the one I inhabit.
Pain Woman Takes Your Keys and Other Essays from a Nervous System is fragmented and disjointed, much like pain itself. She circles around her subject, assaying it, exploring it. Reading the book, therefore, offers an almost visceral experience. To shape this experience, the essays are filled with metaphors. In the first essay, for instance, “Lava Lamp of Pain,” pain is compared to “evil pink evening gloves,” a predatory bird, and a criminal.
Pain, though, exceeds the boundaries of metaphors and, ultimately, language itself. Huber wants to describe and delineate this experience, but it always escapes her grasp. Chronic pain, we learn through these lilting, lyrical essays, remains mysterious, even though it’s indelibly and inescapably connected to her body and sense of self.
Huber also emphasizes that eventually, pain is part of most of our lives. It is, in this way, more constant and reliable than a lack of pain. In “Welcome to the Kingdom of the Sick,” she examines and interrogates the constancy and steadiness of pain. The essay opens with the following line: “When I am ill, only the kingdom of the ill is of comfort.” The kingdom of the ill, she says, is paradoxically more predictable and grounded than the kingdom of the healthy:
What I learn is that the kingdom of the ill is a vast bedrock. We appear weak and reclined, yet we cannot be invaded or defeated. Look at us: We are unbreakable in our brokenness. We cannot be cured and are therefore invincible.
In other words, far from being illusory, the kingdom of the ill is, in a way, more “real” than the kingdom of the well. As she says “We are real, and only illness reveals the true bedrock of illness. It is not imaginary. This land is the most reliable and most vast of the human experience.” As she grapples with feeling abnormal for being in chronic pain, Huber comes to realize that there’s nothing more normal, ultimately, than pain.
The arc of this collection moves toward the final essay, “Inside the Nautilus,” which is a moving account of Huber’s introduction to the McGill Pain Questionnaire. Unlike other pain rating systems, she finds that this questionnaire gets closest to providing a language for describing pain. It asks, for instance, “what does your pain feel like?” and then offers what she calls a “transfixing list of words.” Under the category of brightness, it suggests “itchy, tingling, smarting, and stinging.” Elsewhere, the questionnaire allows the respondent to choose from the following descriptors: “punishing, grueling, cruel, vicious, and killing.”
Immediately, Huber loves this questionnaire, because it provides a language for expressing her pain. During much of her experience with pain, she describes feeling marginalized and shunned, but when she discovers this questionnaire she feels validated. The questionnaire provides a kind of poetry of pain, and it lends a sense of reality to her experience. As she says, “I savored the form with a quiet outpouring of affection one reserves for sensitive thinkers and researchers whose work plumbs the core of human experience.”
Finally, it’s not so much the questionnaire, but this essay collection itself that allows Huber to develop her own pain discourse. Through these essays, she speaks the unspeakable. She gives form to the formless. She shapes the difficult reality of her daily life into a narrative that ties her experience with the broader human condition. And ultimately, through writing, she finds what she calls at the end of her final essay a “poetry within.”
A few weeks after finishing the book, I had surgery to remove a spot of cancer from my nose, and in the temporary pain of the recovery process, I found myself thinking of Huber’s essays. I caught a brief glimpse of someone I’d gotten to know through her writing—someone who will, most likely, become a more constant companion as I age. And this, ultimately, is Huber’s gift with Pain Woman Takes Your Keys. She recognizes our shared frailty, and she offers compassionate encouragement to tell its story.
Vivian Wagner is an associate professor of English at Muskingum University in New Concord, Ohio. She’s the author of a memoir, Fiddle: One Woman, Four Strings, and 8,000 Miles of Music, and a poetry collection, The Village.