December 2014. I’m paddling far out in the sea in paradise when I stand on a stingray. Not the little lad’s fault of course, entirely mine. I didn’t know about the ‘stingray shuffle’, the practice of gingerly pushing your feet through the sand to let any sunbathing stingrays ahead know you’re on your way with your comparatively massive self. And so, blissed out on said paradise while also blissfully unaware, I stood on his head (his back? His face?) and he whipped up his barb and stung me right in the side of my left foot.
Totally fair enough.
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Though it’s fair to say, I freaked. In an instant, the turquoise Tanzanian waters turned crimson. Blood spurted everywhere. EVERYWHERE. At first, I thought I’d stepped on some coral, or been clamped by some kind of bad bastard crab. My boyfriend-at-the-time was just ahead and leaped to my defense. The problem was, that day the tide was so far out that we were at least a kilometer from the shoreline. And you try carrying someone writhing in agony through waist-high water while that person’s alternating between shouts of ‘pick me up! Pick me up!’ and ‘Put me down! STOP TOUCHING ME!’
A barrel of laughs it was not.
By the time we got to the shore 45 minutes later, I had fully taken leave of my senses and had gone full banshee shriek. The pain was blinding. Stingrays are venomous, so it wasn’t really the point of entry that was the problem. It was more my entire existence on earth at that moment. It felt like there were little gondolas made of razor blades in my bloodstream, punting along quicker and quicker, growing bigger and getting more cramped by the minute. By this time, it hadn’t yet occurred to me to think about what was causing this absolute agony. On a regular day, I consider myself to be rational. But this pain was a feeling I can only describe as being fully transcendental. It put me on a different plane, like nothing I’d ever, ever experienced before. It was an absolute and utter shocker.
Alerted by my wails, eventually, a nice Dutch chap ambled up the beach, took one look at the wound and diagnosed it as a sting from a stingray. While Steve Irwin flashed before my eyes, he told me I wouldn’t die, but that it would be unbelievably painful for three days at least. The not dying part was immediately null and void because there was absolutely no WAY I was getting through three days of this utter hell. The worried hotel staff tried dropping iodine on the wound but to no avail. It was a pipe cleaner in place of a sword. My ex carried me back to our bungalow where I crawled under the sheets and continued to scream into the pillow.
Now, this is the point where people usually say – why didn’t he bring you to the hospital? Well to be fair, he did try, and I said no. The thought of a 45-minute taxi journey to what was – by all accounts – not much more than a hut with a few plasters in a drawer was just too much to bear (I know, I know. But remember – all rationality evaporated). I asked him to Google ‘how serious is
a stingray sting and how do you make the pain go away’ and – lo and behold – up popped a surprising answer. All you have to do is submerge the wound in as-close-to-boiling water as you can stand, and ta-dah! You’re fixed. Get the kettle on mate. STAT.
And my – what a fix. It worked instantly. It was actually incredible. Two tiny, shitty hotel kettles constantly on the go for the next five hours. This beach was our last stop of the two week holiday right before Christmas, and we’d gone all out. Which meant the bungalow had a gigantic bathroom and the perfect bath for this very activity, maybe even designed with this stingray remedy in mind (maybe). On submersion in boiling water, the pain completely subsided, leading me to declare ‘I’m fixed! It’s ok, it’s gone! Cool! Great! Jesus Christ! Amazing! Oh my absolute God!’. But the second the water cooled down, even by a degree, the pain would come rushing back, worse than before, a tidal wave of agony.
Google had mentioned that a full-body cold sweat means the venom has reached your heart. Once this happened, I knew things had taken a more serious turn, and I would need to calm down, and quick. My ex sat and held my hand, while my body contorted as the toxins coursing through my veins constricted my blood vessels, reducing my blood flow. The dance of the sugar plum kettles was a delicate one, and to be fair, any man who has the word ‘KETTLE’ roared at him repeatedly for five hours deserves a break. So I gave him one. When the torturous ebb and flow seemed to wane and the breaks between the tides of pain got much longer, I bid him leave and told him to go sit by the pool. Which he dutifully did. By the time I joined him that afternoon, the pain was gone, not to return – and we marveled about how severe and scary the situation had been, cured by the simple passing of time and a simple old wives-esque solution. I felt euphoric, invincible. If I could get through that pain, I could do anything. He told me he had read the only pain it can be compared to is childbirth, but didn’t want to tell me at the time. We laughed together. It felt close. He had done everything I had asked him to do over the course of the entire ordeal. It was the worst physical pain I had ever experienced in my life, and I couldn’t possibly have asked for any more.
But it wasn’t right. I wasn’t right. Because although I didn’t ask for it, I did expect more.
Ten months later.
I was experiencing the worst emotional pain of my life. It was the end of our relationship, the end of everything. The months between had been the best of times had been the worst of times. Our relationship, our shared life was in London, where I had lived for the previous five years. That last year, a series of random occurrences conspired to bring me back to Ireland for a few short, sharp, intense visits. While there, the draw of my homeland, of family, of friends, of parents and siblings, of gentle, meandering craic, and jokes, and shopkeepers that say hello and ask you how you grow strong. The beauty of bumping into an old friend on the street and that being a normal thing. Being part of the in-jokes that can only spring into existence when your life is knitted closely together with the lives of those close to you. The big, beautiful, expansive Irish sky. All of this overwhelmed me. The siren call of the old town was strong. Every time I got on the plane back to my then home in London, my heart hurt a little more.
So, I made the decision to follow my intuition. I quit my job and come back to Ireland for a month to test the waters. Unorthodox yes, but hey. Two weeks in, I realized the truth – that I needed to stay. So I went back to London, to the beautiful house I shared with him in one of the most idyllic parts of North London, and I ended our relationship. It hurt hard, but it felt like an inevitable end. Sometimes – a lot of times – when love comes along, it’s not meant to be forever. We loved each other, definitely. But we needed different things. The random elements of that year had demonstrated to me that those things that I needed were fundamental – they couldn’t be taught. Or learned. And so, the feeling of the end is inevitable. The last few days we spent together were a coda. Tinged with sadness, yet completely joyful. And when we said goodbye, our big, fat, hot tears were indistinguishable from one another’s. But that’s how it was to be.
Except. Except, except.
Then, the shit hit the fan.
The reality of having upped and left my life of five years hit me like a tonne of bricks. I became convinced I had made a terrible mistake. Back in London for a great friend’s hen party a month later, I went to visit him in our old house. I told him how I felt, what I thought, how things were. I wanted to come back, and I wanted to come back here – to this house, to make it our home again, to come back to him, to remake us. He told me he would need to think. It was heavy. It was painful. It was – yes, it was razor blades. The next three days were torturous. And in the cold light of an October Monday morning, he told me. No. It wouldn’t work. That as I’d left and closed the door, he’d begun to ‘wind down his feelings’. Even at that moment, I knew it wasn’t his fault – it was mine. I was the one who had left. It was me who had chosen this. I’ll never forget the cry that came from within me when he said no. It didn’t sound like it came from me, it didn’t sound like my voice. It sounded and felt like my heartbreaking. I haven’t heard it since.
The next couple of months were bad. Real bad. It took a while to find the as-hot-as-I-could stand water. The pain was drawn out, and it didn’t occur to me to seek help. My loved ones worried, but they didn’t know quite what to do. There was nothing they could do. Google doesn’t have the answer for total and utter heartbreak. Believe me, I checked. The only thing I knew was that there was no way around this pain – only through. The kindnesses were my lifeline. Great friends taking me in and caring for me. Checking on me, even when I was the least craic person on the face of this earth, for months on end. And then one day, my Dad gently told me that although my ex was a lovely, lovely lad, he wasn’t the one for me. And that there’ll be another great love. And of course, like Dad’s are, he was right. And eventually, as the days and weeks went on, the black clouds started to lift, turning slightly grey at first. The day before Christmas Eve – one year to the day since I had been stung by the stingray – I stood on Grafton Street with my Mum, hiding my face under a wide-brimmed hat, shielding my tears from the world as they streamed down my face. The pain, the loss, the heartbreak had reached my heart, and it was all coming to a head. As I had managed to do so exactly a year earlier, at that moment, I decided I would take control of this situation, and fast. As my Mum hugged me and helped me, I promised myself that this was no longer going to be me – that I would be better, that I would get better. I would rebuild myself, and make myself much stronger. I would be better, because of this pain.
And you know what? I am.
What did going through the worst physical pain of my life teach me about going through the worst emotional pain of my life?
If you test something, even without knowing that’s what you’re doing, it might well sting you back. And that sting might hurt like fuck.
The only way to get through pain is to endure the heat of the boiling water. There’s no other way.
That freaking out will damage your heart. Watch for the signs. Don’t cry on Grafton Street on the day before Christmas Eve over a guy.
And this. One day you’ll check, and the scar will be gone. Totally faded to nothing. Almost like it never happened. But you’ll know it did. You’ll remember the pain, and you’ll remember in future to do the shuffle. And you’ll know that if you can get through that, you’re much, much stronger than you could ever have imagined.