Metaphoring into pain

By Sonya Huber

Writing about pain–describing it–has been said to be an impossible challenge, but participants in the U.S. Pain Foundation’s webinar on writing pain through metaphor have proved that assumption wrong. During the webinar, I shared steps that I used in the writing of the essay collection Pain Woman Take Your Keys, including focusing on a particular pain sensation, describing it with an everyday metaphor, and then carrying that metaphor forward and playing with language in order to further explore and capture the sensation. While this helps a reader without pain to also understand the chronic pain experience, it also helps the writer to know their pain and in some cases to be less overwhelmed by it, as metaphors help us familiarize the pain experience.

What I found in my own writing is that “metaphoring into pain” gave me a visual or sensory image to represent the pain to myself. In my own case that image then serves as a reference point for future times that I’m suffering with similar pain, allowing me to share my experience, to feel less isolated and overwhelmed, and to even find humor or interest in putting the pain into words.

These samples below are from participants of the webinar, many of them written during writing exercises on the spot, and I really appreciated both the vividness and the willingness of participants to join in this experience.

Metaphors for pain

My head is a too-ripe melon bursting at its seams.
Heavy, pulpy juices throbbing, pulsing, pushing, about to rip me open.

Peggy S.

Did someone spill lighting fluid under my palms’ skin and lit it on fire? Or is that hundreds of starved piranhas biting my palms flesh from the inside? My immune system is under heavy stress attack. (Damn you, Divorce!) My palms skin dries, splits, bleeds and heals so super fast, again and again, that I think of myself as a Superhero with regenerating superpower.

Iliana G.

Vulture sits on my shoulders
Gracefully ugly
Claws clench into my bones
Heavy so heavy, changing my balance
Can’t move from under it

Not a pet or spirit animal
Nor even a guardian
But he watches over my every move
A jailer, a judge, a snitch
Steering my moves
A ratatouille rat of pain

Teresa L.

Today’s pain is eating away at my hand, the way a ravenous black bear gnaws on the frozen carcass of an early winter moose.

Sandra W.

Pain in my right hand is like the roots of an oak tree. The roots run deep and are part of an amazing network that is essential to the growth and life of the tree. When the roots are unable to sustain life the mighty oak withers and dies one day at a time.

Lisa M.

The pain from the osteonecrosis that I have in my skeletal system often feels like a hawk is scavenging for food within my various joint capsules. This hawk is never satisfied. He scavenges all through the day and night. Once the hawk emerged in 2006, he has never left. I have tried maintaining my nursing license and my profession but it was hard caring for patients with his talons constantly embedded in my bones.

Heather B.

DIY body:

I’ve long considered my body to be structurally unsound. Connective tissue lacks connectivity. Over time it’s been reinforced with concrete, expanding foam filling empty spaces. Foam is peppered with pin tacks – workmen leaving tools on site. Nails rattle around my skull, settling at the back of my neck causing thunder and lightning sparking in my dreams. Tight elastic braces my neck, ensuring nothing escapes. Large metal cramps clamp my head to my shoulders while squeaky polystyrene fills arms and legs – hands and feet left numb and unco-ordinated. Thick gloss paint left out to not quite dry blocks my thoughts…

Louise K.

Sonya Huber is the author of five books, including the award-winning essay collection on chronic pain, “Pain Woman Takes Your Keys and Other Essays from a Nervous System.” Her other books include “Opa Nobody,” and “Cover Me: A Health Insurance Memoir.” Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Brevity, Creative Nonfiction, and other outlets. She teaches at Fairfield University and in the Fairfield low-residency MFA program. Find her at and on Twitter at @sonyahuber.