Virtual Gallery Assignment

Poem by: Stephanie Wang Zuo, John Hopkins School of Medicine Class of 2017

Here and There
We alternate between here
and there. You see,
there is a line, crooked and cracked,
an emaciated demarcation,
a highlight in air, breathlessly coughing
and smelling of phlegm.
It would be very painful
to cross it, this line.
Unable to be broken,
we wax in and out.
How to describe such a thing?
Mind-numbing and distracting,
distasteful, unpleasant, depressing and miserable.
Regret, helplessness, extreme
sadness. Sick,
like you’re sick.

What pulls us along is an anti-happiness,
it drags us past the line,
it is an anger and an envy, a struggle for
God knows how long.
It nests in suicidal thoughts,
family problems, rolled-up eyes, severe
shock, pain.
Pain, it’s like,
it’s a…

A scar, a feeling I couldn’t recognize,
a breaking of the arm, a finger cut off,
a scrape of the knee,
a ball to the head, hurt jaw, appendicitis, unbearable
distress, tears, a scream, almost
dying. Well,
I don’t like pain.
You can’t think, can’t do anything.
confusion. There is a leaving behind,
a change of identity—
you lend a hand
because you have to. You are supposed to do that.
To help.
The pity, the obligatory sad eyes.
I wanted to stay away, I was really
at the hack of her cough,
her eyes, feverish.
I actually wanted to avoid her, avoid
crossing the line.
The millionth tripping from one side
to another sounds like fish scales,
feels like rain, the starting
and stopping, the forgetting and remembering
of hoarse throat, runny nose,
seasonal allergies, itchy and flushed.
Forget about it,
concentrate on something else
, calm down,
try to ignore it for
telling people won’t change anything,
screaming and shouting won’t do anything,
It’s like no one understands, I deal with it
myself, I can kinda block it out.

Everyone does things to alleviate it.
I’ll pray, but the only thing
that really makes it go away is time.

Halos of stars plaster the sky
and the constellations only appear
when a story is made for them. Let us figure then
a way to line everything up against this thin mark
between two vast caverns. The body flung
from here to there
is yours and mine. As it will always be
your body, our pain.
Our pain, my body.

What stuck out to me most about this poem is how, even though the author says pain is a really hard thing to describe to another person, I found that the way she wrote it was just specific enough and, at the same time, generalizable. I felt as though I could understand and feel the pain of those she wrote about while also feeling like the topic could have been about my own painful experiences. The biggest thing that cued me in that she was describing a pain experience were the direct quotes from the people she interviewed (in italics); each person has a very unique experience with pain. Several of them incorporated their faith, citing that only God knew the length of their suffering. Still others wanted to avoid pain, which is often something we do with any type of pain—it makes us uncomfortable and we don’t think anyone else can possibly understand what we are going through, so we clam shut. We feel like we must endure it alone.

A line that really stuck with me was a “feeling I couldn’t recognize.” This phrase in particular often describes physical pain because oftentimes, we are feeling that particular sensation for the first time. Like, when you have appendicitis, you can’t compare that to another bout of appendicitis you’ve had. When you dislocate a bone, you’re probably not even sure what’s wrong right away because the feeling is so foreign to you (you just know you’re not supposed to feel that way). There’s also the continuous motif that you want to separate yourself from the pain and suffering of another person. With emotional burdens, you take those on by hearing from the other person about what is bothering them. But with physical burdens, they can try and describe what it’s like, and you can even be with them all throughout the process, but you can never really know what they are experiencing; as the author mentions, language is inept at describing the human pain experience.

I gained a better understanding of the human pain experience after reading this poem because I realized pain never really ends. Either you experience something so painful and overcome it, only for it to come back later (say you reinjure the same body part, cancer comes back, etc.), or your memory of that singular pain experience will haunt you for the rest of your life. Mirror neurons are fired when others go through similar experiences and you are reminded of your own suffering. Pain is eerie like that—we can never escape it. And even if our own experiences aren’t so bad, chances are we have seen a loved one in a great deal of pain and that memory is seared into our eyes, mind, lungs too, taking our own breath away just from the thought. We experience physical pain from seeing others in physical pain.

Another thing about pain is that even though it is unique to every individual, we have all experienced pain in some form or another. It is a part of the human experience. And though we can’t describe it fully, it is indescribable for all of us. And that, too, makes our experiences somehow similar.

What are some ways that you have tried to describe pain you have experienced to another person? Do words cut it, or do pictures (or some other method) do a better job? Do you find that a certain group of people are better at understanding you (for example: family members, health professionals, people from your own cultural backgrounds, etc.)? Do you feel that trying to describe physical pain is more difficult than trying to describe emotional pain? In order to feel heard/understood when describing your pain, do you look for any elicit responses to your words in the other person (like cringing or exclaiming)?


  1. Hi Allie! I personally find that describing physical pain is way easier than emotional pain, and I think this is due to my background in anatomy and what we have learned in our classes about different pain. For example, if I wake up and my arm hurts for some reason I can describe the pain as dull, achy, sharp, or shooting, and I know in my head if the correlates to muscles or nerve or something else. I think for this reason it is a lot easier to describe physical pain, especially to my health profession friends. In contrast, when I am in emotional pain, I can’t pinpoint it and say I am feeling this way because of a certain anatomical flaw, so I think this is a reason it is harder to describe.

  2. Allie,
    Wow, what a moving poem. It was extremely well written and brings the reader into the world of the patients. I think when we try to share our painful experiences, we look for responses from others unconsciously, whether we are trying to elicit responses from them or not. I think the speaker feels justified if the listener cringes for them – that their emotion is not outlandish. I would say, being from a Vietnamese background, that I feel like some minority cultures do understand me better in some aspects of pain – I guess I should say I think certain cultures rank certain things in similar importance. It may not be physical pain, but a culture that values piety and respect as much as mine does would understand why a behavior feels so “wrong” when we observe it, rather than a culture that doesn’t care and doesn’t see anything abnormal about such behavior. I think physical pain, like many other emotions are most accurately felt when we have the words to describe it. But we often don’t – hence even in this program, our professors have jokingly taunted us when we make up terms like “boggy” to describe an unseen pain. I think we try our best to get empathy by framing our pain in ways we hope others will be able to understand.

  3. I have found in the past that describing pain is extremely difficult. Like you described in your post, pain can be hard to describe and put into words because it is often a sensation that we have never felt before. When I describe pain, I often try to put it into words and use metaphors to pain sensations/experiences that I have had in the past (like running into something, being kicked, etc.). Additionally, I have found that it is easiest to describe my pain to my family since they have often watched me go through other painful experiences.

  4. In general, I have had a hard time describing pain with words alone. I have relied on the help of health care professionals (doctors, PTs, counselors, etc.) to help me understand and articulate the varying forms of pain I have experienced. I would say that physical pain is easy to describe for me than emotional pain. It is easier for me to “justify” and “understand” why something physically hurts. However, feelings of lowness or anxiety seem more abstract and hard to explain. One thing I have found helpful, is learning through others how they articulate and describe pain. I can then use this “vocabulary” when trying to describe my pain or help understand what others are feeling.

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