Stricken with untreatable and unexplainable pain, writer Monica Bhide finds solace—and strength—in a fragrant cup of tea.
Cooking has saved me from myself many times. I have cooked through miscarriages, through broken friendships, through painful breakups, and through deaths.
But today, my cooking therapy is failing me as the pain sears through my abdomen.
I bend over the stove as I use my right hand to steady my wobbling body. The other hand reaches for my belly, as though touching the area will somehow make it bearable or miraculously make the pain stop.
The pan on the stove is hot, the spices are sizzling, and I know they are going to burn. But I cannot move the pan away. My world begins to go dark. I clutch the stove. I close my eyes and hope, anxiously, that this is the last strong surge of pain. My heart hopes for a mild attack. My brain knows I have never had a mild attack.
The nausea competes with the pain, but the pain is winning.
“How bad is the pain?” my doctor asked on my last visit.
Like a knife cutting though my flesh; like being in labor, only there is no baby at the end; like being crushed by a big truck.
“It hurts a lot,” is all I could say.
When the pain started six years ago, I was sure it would pass. Yet I sit here today with this pain, this devil that has become my relentless companion. Will it define who I am, I wonder, or will I?
My doctor is a patient man, yet I see his brow furrowing. His smile is tempered, his eyes searching. My pain frustrates him. He is the healer who cannot heal the severe scarring inside my body that causes me such agony. I wonder if his burden is heavier than mine.
The acrid smell of burning cumin brings me back to my kitchen. I want to move, but the spasm is meaner than last time. Or perhaps I am just weaker.
I look around for the medication. I am not yet stronger than my pain.
I have learned over the years to be grateful for the pain. I remind myself that the pain is just that: pain. It is not part of an illness. Endless tests reveal there is nothing else that is causing it.
I hate that the pain makes me lose my identity for the moment: I become the writer who cannot write, the cook who cannot cook, the mother who cannot pick up her baby, the wife who cannot embrace her husband. The moment seems like it stretches beyond time. I feel my body break into a sweat, the bile rising in my throat, my very being resisting what is inevitable.
I struggle to sit, to lie down, to stand.
And while it is only a few times a month, the pain shows up at the worst times: my son’s first piano recital, my TV debut, a much-needed night of rest.
“Why is there so much pain in this world?” I ask my father.
“Perhaps God wants us to pray more,” he replies.
But when it hurts so, even prayer is hard. Cursing comes easily; thoughtful prayer seems impossible.
After reading several books on pain management and learning my own pattern, I settled on the only thing that helps me: being in my kitchen.
I learned the hard way that I cannot actually cook through the pain. I was in the kitchen during one particularly bad episode and bent over and grabbed a steaming pot during the spasm. It was only after the spasm passed that I realized I had burned my fingers.
Now, when the pain arrives, I swallow a pill. I head to my kitchen, and I pour myself a cup of steaming-hot green tea with a few basil leaves. I don’t drink it. Instead, I hold the cup in my hands and lower my nose to the cup to smell the basil and the sweet gentleness of the tea. The scent draws the memories that hold me for the seconds (or eternity) that it takes for the spasm to pass: sipping warm chai with my parents, watching my grandmother slurping her tea from a saucer, enjoying a cup of ginger tea and biscuits with aunts. My sweet tea always reminds me that things can get better. They do get better. Just like the good things, all bad things pass, too.
As long as the tea is hot, I will be in pain. The engineer in me has figured out that if I time the medication right, it kicks in just as the tea starts to get cold to the touch.
I have my tea with me now. I smell it again, this time with a prayer instead of a curse.
“Thank you for the strength to bear this pain,” I say over and over and over again.
The tea cools. The spasm passes. I find myself again and step to the stove to cook dinner.