You'd have to be Sherlock Holmes - or the primary care-giver, parent or partner - to spot the tells. The unnatural smoothing of the forehead. The thousand-mile stare. The gracious, unexpected freeze. The slight smile, even, because smiling releases serotonin, a natural pain killer. And this is what indicates that the invisible leopard is eating your stomach, tearing out strips of flesh, gnawing inwards, snuffling deeper for the tasty organs.
"You look well!" or, more disconcertingly, "But you look so well!" or worst of all, "You don't look sick!" Few illnesses come with handy suppurating sores. But even so, fair enough: punch someone in the stomach and they'll groan, yelp, scowl, grimace, their face crumples, they double over. That's what pain looks like. With chronic pain, though, eventually you just stop displaying pain. You can't scream and scowl your whole damn life, you know.
I'd forgotten all this, so I'd forgotten to take ibuprofen before I left the house, even though my period had started. The pain only really hit when I reached the coffee shop. Today's plans: coffee-shop planning of my week; shop for presents; pop over to my friend B's to deliver presents to her kids; clean house; dinner out. Today's metaphors: two large millstones slowly grinding my stomach between them; an invisible leopard eating my belly; a hot tide rushing up and down my leg marrow. It's immensely distracting: brain, interrupted.
"Coffee?" says the waitress.
One, two, three. Why's she asking? I'm here every Sunday, and often in between, they all know me, I only ever have coffee. One, two, three. "Yes." One, two, three. "Please." One, two, three. Smile.
She gives me a quizzical look, but I can't see how to explain that the invisible leopard eating my stomach is responsible for the odd delays.
I sit, very still, and wait. I've taken the ibuprofen, now. It will start working soon. The beautiful calm of intense pain, I think. How it interrupts one's thinking, every natural chain of thoughts and flowing intellectual flight cut into snippets, processing power swamped by overwhelming sensory stimulation, attentional blink - my esoteric musings are cut short: fuck! That bloody hurts!
My coffee arrives. I can't lean forward to reach it. Shift my chair? Pain level: 8. Duration: 3. Visibility: 1. Nah. Shift the table instead. Pain level: 5. Duration: 3. Visibility: 1. I shift the table, but coffee slops into my saucer. Shit. Now I have to cross the restaurant to get a napkin. Pain level: 7. Duration: 30. Visibility: 10. It's like the bloody shipping forecast in here. Poor; losing identity later.
I can now reach my coffee. Each time I lift it, carry it through the air to my lips, and return it, I'm quietly screaming inside. Stuff it, not worth it. I'll drink it in half an hour, when the pain killers set in. I also can't lean over the table to start my planning. I reach into my mental timetable to start adjusting my already crammed schedule by half an hour... Ah. Right. Revised plan for the day: sit still for half an hour, then plan. Apologise to B re visit, presents, kids, etc. Aplogise to partner re house. Dinner out?
So I sit. A smooth forehead, a dreamy gaze, a Mona Lisa smile. (Plus invisible leopard.)