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One such patient, under my care, describes how he must “wake up” his phantom in the mornings: first he flexes the thigh-stump towards him, and then he slaps it sharply—“like a bay’s bottom”—several times. On the fifth or sixth slap the phantom suddenly shoots forth, rekindled, fulgurated, by the peripheral stimulus.
—Oliver Sacks, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales

It is a great temptation, when a part of you has been cut away, to welcome numbness where it may be found. Perhaps what has gone missing is your leg, as with the patient Oliver Sacks describes in his fascinating book about the intersections of psyche and flesh. Perhaps it is a spouse you have buried, or a child. Maybe it’s a friendship that went awry, neither of you knowing why, only that you don’t talk any more, that the very thought of talking makes you cringe.

To have much in life, as most of us do, is almost certainly to lose some of it before we are done.

Friedrich Nietzsche and Kelly Clarkson are wrong; what doesn’t kill you doesn’t necessarily make you stronger. What doesn’t kill you may cripple and embitter and alienate you. The question, I suppose, is whether you will live, or rot.

The quandary of a legless man can be instructive in that regard: A man who has lost his leg is stalked by a painful shadow limb. It throbs so intensely, in some patients, that actual surgery is necessitated. Sometimes the ghost of yourself, in other words, can be so painful that you feel compelled to cut real flesh, to toss out the good after the bad, as it were.

This is certainly no less true when it is some deeper part of ourselves that has gone missing. How else to explain why so few parents of dead children stay married, or why people who forsake their families become harsher, hollower? When the shadow of you hurts, it may seem nothing can be done but press a scalpel to what remains, and carve out the parts screaming through your nerves that something is terribly wrong, that there is supposed to be more to you than this.

The pain of this haunting, as Sacks describes, can be exacerbated by things left undone, and by subsequent events. A patient might report, for example, still feeling the aggravation of a toenail that had begun to grow inward before amputation. Another might report pain, in the phantom leg, as a result of a disc that slips after the amputation. Hurting in the empty places—from amputation, from leaving things unfinished, or simply from life’s progression, is not so uncommon, is it?

I was angry with him, I didn’t say goodbye, and now he is dead.

She is getting married today, and her mother is not here to see it.

We ache in the places where something has become nothing. We are all of us haunted by phantom limbs. Who wouldn’t pray for numbness?

The man with a phantom limb, however, needs to feel something there, if he is ever to walk using a prosthesis. “The disappearance of a phantom,” Sacks tells us, “may be disastrous, and its recovery, its re-animation, a matter of urgency.” The mysteries of the body, the micro-senses and equilibrators it employs to keep us from falling on our faces, the synapses that coordinate our responses, the muscle-memory that is our internal catalog of mistakes and special circumstances—all these combine to give the legless man sensation where the eye tells us no sensation should be, feeling where flesh has been hacked away.

The nerves may howl and the heart may quail, but if a legless man is to walk again he must battle the numbness, unless he wants to sit down and rot.

I sat down to write all this to you, because I figure at least one of you needs to hear it today. I suppose I sat down to write it to myself as well, because God knows I need to know it, chasing numbness as I did in the years following my daughter’s gruesome, painful death, and then again after my divorce. I need to know this.

Sometimes this broken world hacks away at our flesh. Other times it hands us the blades, and we sunder ourselves. Drink down whatever forgetting medicine invites you and the stump will stop hurting, but as God is my witness, you will not move from that place of loss. You’ll lie on the floor, raging at the sky for taking your legs, raging at God, raging at anyone who offers to help. You’ll rage and you’ll drink the numbing draught and then, one day, you will be alone.

You must feel this pain, if you ever want to walk again, if you ever want to leave this dark place. To dispel the bad phantom, Sacks writes, you have to maintain the memory of the limb. Only then can you have hope of moving from the cutting room.

People think you forget in order to move on, but it’s not true. You have to remember. Your body needs it. Your life needs it. Remember, and live.

This post originally appeared at Good Letters on February 22, 2013.


The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Written by: Tony Woodlief

Tony Woodlief lives in North Carolina. His essays have appeared in The Wall Street Journal and The London Times, and his short stories appeared in Image, Ruminate, Saint Katherine Review, and Dappled Things. His website iswww.tonywoodlief.com.

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