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Feel the Burn

Last weekend I burned my finger. It was the worst burn I have ever sustained. I knew that almost immediately by the level of pain. The burn was small but deep, covering half of the fingerprint of my left hand's ring finger. I couldn't believe that something so small could be so painful. I scurried to the sink and ran tepid water over the burn. Apparently butter, milk, aloe, cool water, ointments and ice are passé for burns these days. It's all about tepid water running over the burn for a minimum of 5 minutes. So I had some time to think.

My first thought as I felt the throbbing waves begin in my fingertip was “Ok. That’s number one now. Definitely number one on the WNTD list.” I’ve always assumed that most people are like me and spend an inordinate amount of time considering ways they don’t want to die. And that over the years they have compiled their own personal list. Being strangled to death while looking into the eyes of a psychopathic home intruder is on my list. As is death by dehydration. Freezing to death was on the list for ages until I did my research and found out that according to multiple sources (who? I wonder) going out freezing is actually not that bad. Number one on my list of late is slowly drowning in the ocean. Encircled by peckish sharks with darkness falling and zero hope of rescue. That used to be number one. But now as the pain in my burnt finger mounted I had time to reconsider my options. “Thank God I wasn't alive in 1692" I murmured to myself. “They” for sure would have found some reason to burn me alive at the stake up in old puritanical Boston during the Salem witch trials. I don’t think I could have handled that. I mean if a little burn on the tip of my finger is this brutal I can't imagine what a full body burn would feel like.

Once I had completed the 5 minute burn rinse and moved “burned alive at the stake” to the top of my WNTD list I removed my finger from the water. Immediately the pain became so intense that I could literally think of nothing else. Nothing. All my consciousness and attention was directed, as if by a laser beam, to the pain in my finger. “Oh” I exclaimed as my husband sauntered into the kitchen to see how I was doing, “this is why people cut themselves. I get it.” My long-suffering spouse rolled his eyes and made himself scarce while I sympathized with the few cutters that I’ve met. I understand it now. The cessation of thought due to the total concentration on the pain was interesting to notice and gave me new insight and compassion for cutters. That's what I was searching for with drugs and alcohol. Cessation of what for years was a self-loathing and potentially deadly undercurrent of thought that flowed smoothly, endlessly and destructively under all of my thoughts.

I gave myself another five minutes under the running water as a change started to occur in my fingertip. While still under the water, the sensation of the burn started to vacillate between a sharp stabbing pain traveling through my entire hand up to my elbow and complete numbness. And in that numbness I felt such relief. Such a huge rush of endorphins that once again I sympathized with anyone who takes a razor to their own flesh. But like drugs and alcohol and all other quick fixes to our internal distress, these “coping mechanisms” are wildly destructive and therefore unsustainable in the long run. All these quasi-suicidal habits stop working after a while. Then we either up the stakes or find new, hopefully healthier, ways of managing and solving our existential distress.

Eventually I got bored of standing by the sink and decided to take myself and my finger outside. It was a freezing cold and windy day and I decided that even though it was against the internet's “burn management protocol” I really couldn't stand the pain anymore and freezing the finger seemed like my best option.

I wet my finger and went outside, all bundled up except for the wet and gloveless burned left hand. I did feel some relief at first but was concerned as the finger was still, now fifteen minutes in, fluctuating between a dizzying pain and that surreal numbness. Standing outside in the wintery chill I looked closely at my finger and saw that a large bubble had formed over the burn. 1 inch long by ½ an inch wide the bubble covered the entire surface of the burn and surprisingly seemed to be mitigating the pain. I went back inside and admired my blister. I was amazed. I’d had burn blisters before but had never spent much time considering my body's response to having been scorched alive.

I sat down and examined my finger. The liquid inside the bubbled skin was rapidly rising, filling the blister and sloshing about all over the burn. “What is that liquid?” I wondered. I assumed it was water but just to be sure I consulted what in my house we call the third spouse, or, the internet.

Lo and behold, what I found out was much more remarkable than I anticipated. What my blister started to fill with, almost as soon as I had sustained the burn, is something called burn blister fluid. According to Google this fluid is an ultrafiltrate of my own plasma. This fluid is rich in repairing proteins, immunoglobulins, various cytokines, prostaglandins and interleukins. This fluid is antibacterial and pro-inflammatory (which in the case of burns is needed) healing and protecting the burned skin from further damage and infection. This liquid is so adept at healing burns that in severe burn cases the fluid is drained from the patient’s larger blisters and sprayed over their existing, non-blistered wounds. This burn blister fluid leaks in from neighboring undamaged tissue as a reaction to the injured skin, protecting, soothing, and eventually restoring the damaged skin as best it can. And the body starts this process of healing the wound immediately upon being burned. There was so much more information to be gathered. Hundreds and thousands of articles about the body's ability to heal itself. Pages upon pages, too full of medical jargon and terminology to be understood by a mere human like me.

What I did understand is that this body of mine, this taken for granted and under-appreciated vehicle of mine, is an amazing piece of machinery. A work of such brilliant technology, biology, physics and chemistry that it cannot be reproduced by man. And it’s mine. All mine. No one on this planet has one like mine. And I don’t value it nearly as much as I should. In fact I spent years, in an attempt to not feel my feelings, slowly destroying it. I spent my teens and twenties ingesting poisons of all sorts. Drugs and alcohol and cigarettes and weed. Once I almost smoked cocaine but thought better of that in the very nick of time. I have starved this body. I have made this body binge and then purge - pizza and bagels and ice cream and boxes of sweet cereals. I know people who have cut and burned themselves and have the scars to prove it. Others who have taken needles full of heroin and speed and opioids and narcotics, synthetic and otherwise, and jabbed them into their own veins again and again and again. For years.

But this body of mine is a miracle. Look at that blister. A burn blister and the fluid within is miraculous. I’m looking at the blister now. 10 days after the initial event. The fluid has almost all disappeared. The blister itself has become a hard calloused covering over the still damaged skin beneath. In time, once the body deems fit, that callous will disappear and no one will be wiser but me. I see that a portion of my fingerprint has been burned completely off, never to return.

I'm happy to have sustained this small burn and am grateful that the pain was so intense but short lived. This burn gave me a new appreciation for my body, for this amazing machine that can walk and talk and think and laugh and cry. A body that I have spent decades first destroying with substances and then more decades berating with thought. This body that I have internally deemed too fat, too bony, too pale, too tall, too short, too weak, too flabby, too brittle, too old, too defective to love. I have spent way too much time hating this extraordinary body. A perfectly healthy and beautiful body, a body capable of creating its own energy and so much more. Our bodies and minds are supposed to be engineered not to self-destruct, but to heal themselves if damaged in any way. So I see that being an addict, whatever the cause of that perverse affliction, is a conscious revolt against what our bodies are programmed to do, which is to survive and to thrive.

This is what living in recovery from addictions feels like for me. A conscious decision to heal myself. To stop my slow drug and alcohol induced suicide. To have newfound gratitude for this marvel of science, the human body. I felt the burn, and I’m happy I did. It was a wakeup call to take the time to consider my human body. To appreciate my human body, and above all to start treating it with the love, kindness and respect that it certainly deserves.


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