Physical Pain vs. Painful Guilt

By Olivia Kaschak 

I’ve always considered pain to be an essential part of life. To learn, to navigate our world, to mature—you need to bleed. Pain is a physical reminder of being human. It tells us that we work correctly, that we experience the right reactions to bad decisions, that we can feel. As a child, this ability to feel proves itself often, as our screams and cries follow mistakes we had to make. Falling off of a swingset once, for example, gives us a scraped knee to remind us how to act. As kids, pain is like a smack on the knuckles. It’s a punishment that teaches us to be. I know that I have endured physical pain time and time again, but, because of my family and my dedication to pleasing them, it has never once hurt.

If anyone asks me my favorite childhood memory, I get stuck in a sea of “I don’t know”s or “I can’t remember”s. My childhood too often is a mystery to myself, as I can never seem to connect the past to the present or the girl in the memories to my current self. However, I can remember my mother’s face while she sticks a bandage on me. I can vividly remember worrying about my family, and I can sometimes catch glimpses of a wound that has since been lost to history. 

According to family lore, I was five years old when I gave my family their first real scare. If I squint my mind’s eye, I can feel the carpet of my Grandma Lynne’s living room, and the scratchy fur of her dog, Boomer. Boomer and I had been hiding under the coffee table, tugging her slobbery rope toy back-and-forth. I giggled and pulled until my belly hurt, and Boomer’s teeth bared. Boomer was my buddy, and her teeth shining never before scared me, no matter how close I got to her furry face. This day, I tugged her rope harder and quicker than she’s used to, and she gave me warning. She grumbled a low growl, and I encouraged her to keep singing. I had liked the vibrations that rippled through the rope.

I don’t remember the ping of pain—I can only recall the taste of blood in my mouth. I spit it out, cried when it didn’t go away. Boomer latched herself onto my lip as I giggled at her growls, and she refused to let go. I didn’t like the taste of the blood, and I didn’t want to kiss Boomer. I just wanted to play.

Grandma grabbed Boomer’s collar and dragged her outside quietly. She was just a bit older than a puppy, and I felt connected to her in that way. Grandma didn’t push or hit Boomer; she just took her away. It wasn’t Boomer’s fault, maybe I should have let her relax with the rope. I dribbled blood down my chin to ask Grandma if Boomer would like to bring her rope outside to keep playing.

My mom gasped, scooped me up, pushed a cold cloth against my face.

“Uh-oh! She was being a little too silly! Next time, let’s give her some space.” I could feel her leg bouncing underneath me as she said this in her highest pitch. 

I was focused on Boomer, Mom was focused on me, Grandma focused on keeping the cold cloth against my mouth as we huddled into the car. I pushed my grandma’s hand, and reminded her to let Boomer inside before we left. She would get cold, and grow bored without her rope. I didn’t understand why my mom and grandma sighed and laughed. 

It didn’t seem like a huge deal. It was just some blood. But, I ended up in the ER. My lip was stapled back together. To this day, I still say that the staple was worse pain than the bite. I went back to play with Boomer the next day—just not in her face this time. My mom and grandma never gave me the chance to fear her, and I never blamed Boomer for the bite. 

I just told myself, “Be more careful next time, Liv, she’s just a puppy.” 

Just as it did with Boomer, my priority of fun over danger continued to dictate my decisions as time passed. Two years after the staples of my dog bite dissolved, I found myself reveling in being left home alone while my mom worked. I was more mature then, and my judgment seemed to have evolved enough to stay smart. It was just a few hours, and Mom was working at Grandma’s house—nothing felt out of the ordinary. 

Mere days prior to this test of responsibility, I had mastered my first-ever cartwheel. It took me ages to become brave enough to catapult my legs over my head, but I managed to stick the landing. After that, I took every opportunity to show off my skills, even with no audience. 

Naturally, I used my time home alone to teach myself how to handstand. My cartwheels were choppy, not enough air time. In my adrenaline-induced logic, my couch seemed like the perfect place to practice, and I went to work. One after another, I propped myself up on my arms and held my legs high. I’d been running toward the couch, flipping my back to its backrest, and resting my legs against the window behind it. 

I felt accomplished, rebellious, free. I didn’t have anyone to tell me how straight my legs were, but my arms felt strong. The couch kept squeaking as I hopped onto it over and over again, serving as an orchestra to my gymnastics. It was the most fun I’ve ever had on my own; that is, until one handstand fought back. 

My arm had slipped on a particularly enthusiastic jump, and my legs bent quickly. My foot smashed into the window rather than resting upon it, and my ankle fell victim to the shards of three thick panes. I crashed down, and twisted around to see the damage, with my ankle pushing the boundaries of the window’s circle. I tried my gymnastic skills once again in rolling backward off of the couch, ripping my foot out of its glass prison. Hobbling through the house and down my porch, I managed to hop across the driveway to tell Mom about the window. 

She had been using Grandma’s office for her online work, and, while I was leaving a trail of bloody footprints behind me, she had been finishing a phone call. I decided to wait outside of the office door, my foot in my hand, my back against the wall, my breath held. As she rambled niceties to her coworker, I sucked my sobs back into my chest, wondering how loudly Mom was about to yell at me. 

“Liv! Are you okay? What happened? Where does it hurt?” Mom had heard my sobs, swung the office door open, and sat me up on the office’s chair. 

I mumbled about my handstands, the window, and the glass. Mom shook her head. She asked me about my foot. I shook my head back, and emphasized that the window was in shards. Her response was another shake of the head, a scoff, and a wave of her hand toward the doorway. She didn’t even furrow her eyebrows in anger. Silence triumphed over potential scolding. 

She simply held my shoulders as I hopped along to Grandma’s bathroom, and we took our places on the tub’s edge. My cries quieted, once I realized that Mom was focused completely on me. She didn’t even consider the window, and I realized how severe my ankle’s cuts truly were. Even though it stung, the water rinsed my worries down the drain. My handstands were never meant to be perfect, but my mom’s gentle cleaning and consoling will always be. 

“No more crying. Dad will fix the window, and I’ll fix up this ankle.” I thought about Dad dragging a brand-new window into our living room, and Mom and I shared an all-knowing glance. I knew that my ankle would heal in no time, and, more importantly, that breaking the window didn’t upset Mom too much.

A year later, I gained yet another scar. My brother, Nico, and I decided to take a break from his PlayStation to run around outside. Having eight years of experience ahead of me, Nico prided himself on teasing me—as all great big brothers do. That day, he chased me around the connected driveway of our house and my grandparents,’ who lived directly next door. The driveway allowed Nico and I to swerve in-between my mom’s car and my grandpa’s pick-up truck during our shenanigans. The cars typically acted like barriers in our silly battle games, offering us big, immoveable shields from our sibling-opponent.

This time, Nico decides to play tag. I was never much of a runner, but 8-year-old me would be damned to let Nico win his own game. He tagged my shoulder as we ran down our porch steps, and I took off. I sprinted around the driveway, the yard, back through the driveway again, with Nico and his long legs constantly on my tail. I was winning for what felt like hours, leaving him in the dust. 

I turned my head, my mouth full of laughter and taunting, to see how close Nico was. He was far, but Grandpa’s truck was close. I never slowed down when we played tag, and this day I was setting a record. Instead of Nico tagging me, my forehead tagged the front fender of the truck. 

I can’t recall how the collision felt. I know that I was forced to stop running, and that I fell straight down to the concrete driveway, my fender-busted forehead getting bumped again. I don’t remember screaming. I just remember Nico using his scrawny teenage arms to pick me up, and I caught a glimpse of my own bloodied face in the truck’s window as he started to move. He started running with the same speed I had before tagging Grandpa’s truck. Nico kept repositioning me in his arms, muttering all of the bad words Mom would hate to hear him saying. Once Nico finally reached the porch, he dropped me and scooped me back up before I knew I had fallen again, thanks to a stumble on the first step. I told him I was sorry that I wasn’t walking. 

My mom, working on the kitchen table that watched our side door, heard Nico’s panting before she saw me. She jumped up when he propped the door open with his foot, and I tiredly pulled the handle. Nico set me on a stool, and told her the story as she bundled paper towels around her hand. I felt woozy, but I put up my hand to my wound.

“Sorry, Mom. I know you’re busy with your extra work.” It was a Saturday. Even an 8-year-old could piece together that she wasn’t too busy for this, for me. I apologized for the second time in the time it took to start wiping the blood away.

I don’t remember what this scar felt like before it healed. I sometimes see it when staring into the mirror too long, a centimeter-wide reminder of my concern for my brother’s arms and my mom’s kitchen-table work. The pain wasn’t strong enough to overpower my awareness of how my family reacted to me getting hurt, and how guilty I felt for having their attention focused on fixing me. I can only see it from their eyes, and remember how quickly they sprang into action. I remember the butterflies in my stomach once the dizziness went away—a physical sensation of how loved I felt, not the sting of the head wound. 

I’ve never broken a bone, or been in a big accident, or had a serious sickness. I’ve never fallen under the circumstances of pain that would, in my mind, warrant my family to worry. A dog bite, some cuts, and a head wound only dominate my memories of getting hurt due to their theatricality. I can only remember the scenarios that accompany them, and the way my family’s gasps and coos of comfort replayed in my head afterward. The pain is as lost as the time from then to now, but I will always be left with the way my family reacted to my being in peril. They pampered my injuries while simultaneously encouraging my strength. I focused on how my physical pain put them out, distracted them from their day, forced them to demonstrate their care for me. 

Because of this discrepancy between pain and emotion in these specific memories, I better understand my high physical pain tolerance and my emotional sensitivity. I’ve always been quick to put the feelings of others above my own, and to shrink into my guilt of displacing those who prioritize my comfort as much as I do theirs. I never feared getting hurt, because I knew I would be cared for—though I’ve never been comfortable cashing in that favor. My family has always connected pain with learning and love, and I believe that I am better accustomed to our world because of it. As a result of this unconditional, encouraging love, I forever will sooner worry about disappointing those sticking the bandage on me before the cut underneath it. 

Meet Olivia Kaschak 

Editorial Staff

Editorial Staff