Pain, Concentration, and Achievement

The timeline is as follows:

  1. [unknown number of months]: oral pain increases steadily
  2. surgery removes source of pain.  Surgery itself or sheer disorientation leave nerve completely numb.
  3. Two blissful days in which I am completely exhausted but mostly pain free.
  4. Nerve function returns, leaving me to experience the pain of having a portion of my jaw scraped off.  Although actually very little of the pain is at the surgery site.  It’s more likely a compressed nerve due to the influx of blood and lymph

I feel like this has given me a natural experiment of the effect of pain on productivity and concentration, since the shifts were so sharp.

I went to sleep pretty much as soon as I got home from the dentist.  When I woke up 16 hours later, I grabbed the book on my bed and read.  Eventually I looked up, it was two hours later and I’d finished half the book.  I couldn’t remember the last time that happened.  I finished a book a day in the pain free period.  Reading had a sense of flow that I didn’t remember it having in years.  And some of those books were not amazing, but they were pleasant and I felt absorbed, which also hadn’t happened in a long time.  The same thing happened with video games- I was able to enjoy some fun low-brain games instead of something socially worthy like Mass Effect or Papers, Please.  I began to entertain the idea that I might one day play an RPG again.

In the last four days I’ve struggled with two books by authors I’ve enjoyed before.  I dropped one and only finished the other because I figured out what I’m about to tell you:it was impossible for me to have a sense of reading flow.  I’ve always been a little fixated on updating my progress on books on goodreads- down to a percent or two if I’m listening to a mediocre book on my bus commute.  Less in other cases, but present.  That disappeared with the pain, and came back with it too.

Productivity wise, I at least felt way more productive while I was exhausted-but-unpained.  I would watch an episode of TV, do one little chore, then take a three hour nap.  My apartment was actually trending upwards, and I was getting very high quality sleep.  In pain, I don’t sleep well, so I don’t have that burst of energy that lets me clean, so I don’t tire myself, so now both pain and jitters are keeping awake, so I’m spending a lot of time in a stupor accomplishing nothing, including healing.  I have more energy in the sense of “I can walk farther without collapsing”, but am ever so slightly losing to entropy.  I’m not physically incapable of putting my dishes away, and I notice that it needs to be done, just not when I have any reserves to do it.

Elodie Under Glass (no relation) has a guest post up on Captain Awkward about the low mood cycle.  It’s brilliant and you should read it on those merits, but the important point for my story is that humans can get in a cycle of not doing anything because they don’t have any motivation, and not having any motivation because they never get anything done.  She calls it the thought->behavior->outcome cycle.  That point where outcome feeds thoughts and make you feel better?  I call it getting a hit of Accomplishment.*  When I’m in this much pain, there is no hit. I have a few possible explanations speculations for this:

  1. Body has narrowed success criteria for all actions to “did you make the pain go away?”  Moving my dirty dishes in the dishwasher did not make the pain go away, therefor it was a failure, therefor no Accomplishment.
  2. Normally there’s a mini flow state between initiating the action and evaluating the outcome.  When in pain, that walk from the couch to the dishwasher is interrupted every half a second asking if I’m done yet, and registering a failure when I haven’t.  With a 10 second walk, that’s 19 failures to one success- and that’s assuming the washer can accept the dish with no further work, and I don’t see any additional failures in the kitchen to deal with.
  3. Some combination of these
  4. Okay I thought I had more but apparently those are the only two.  In my defense, it’s amazing I’m writing this well considering the level of pain I’m in.

Whatever the explanation, pain clearly is constantly pushing me towards the low mood cycle.  I can break out of it with a big enough Thing, but Things that big are impossible to sustain, leading the cycle to collapse back down to low mood.  One of the few things I’ve been able to sustain for long periods is working at crisis chat, because when people talk it’s a jolt of energy, but then there’s some down time before they respond.**

You may blame the lack of proper closing paragraph on my screaming jaw or the fact that this post is completely speculative.  Or feel free to substitute your own reason.  Ideally something flattering.

*I am going to feel very dumb if there’s an actual drug with the street name of Accomplishment.

**After a few hours at crisis center I came home and couldn’t leave the apartment for two days.  I think that’s an energy thing.