The Hum: An Essay in Response to Sonya Huber

By Jay Summer

pain woman takes your keys review
Image description: A hand holding three copies of the book Pain Woman Takes Your Keys

A couple of months ago, I noticed a new sound and vibration in my apartment. A whirring that seemed to come from below. Whenever I sat down to eat a meal properly, at the table, feet flat on the floor, I felt reverberations in my legs. At night when I lay down to sleep on my side, ear to pillow, my head buzzed with the rhythm of this hum, keeping me awake.

I considered approaching the management office, but hesitated. My apartment often fills with strong chemical smells that usually remind me of paint, chlorine, or cleaning products. When I’ve brought this up to them in the past, they’ve acted as if they have no clue what I’m talking about. They can’t smell it, nor can they think of a possible source. The maintenance room is below my unit and I’ve asked if there could be fumes from open paint cans, spilled sealant, or an industrial-grade cleaning solution wafting up, but they’ve checked and said no.

As someone with fibromyalgia and migraine, I’m more sensitive to stimuli than are most others. A sound, light, or scent that the average person doesn’t notice might make me nauseous, dizzy, unable to sleep, or in pain. Although I know this is a physical, objective truth that’s not “in my head,” I still feel self-conscious discussing bothersome stimuli with others, for fear of looking paranoid or “crazy.”

One day, after unplugging every single electrical device in my apartment including the refrigerator and stove to make sure the vibration wasn’t coming from within, I stopped the maintenance man when we crossed paths outside. Trying to seem casual, I asked if there were any new appliances in the maintenance room. A fridge? Air filter? Generator? I told him I could hear something I hadn’t heard before, something that seemed to be running constantly.

He answered no. I thanked him, and began walking away, trying to feel proud of myself for having the confidence to ask instead of upset that I hadn’t solved the problem. Then he said, “Wait! Maybe it’s the pool closet?”

Four years of living in this space, and I’d never heard of “the pool closet.”

He walked me around the building and pointed at a door that I’d assumed went to a storage closet. He explained that all of the pool water runs through a filter in this room, then chlorine and other pool chemicals are added to it. They’d recently replaced the former filter motor with a more powerful one. I’d always thought the maintenance room shared the same footprint as my apartment, but now saw the pool closet took up space directly beneath my bedroom. The mystery of both the new vibration and long-standing chemical smells were solved in one fell swoop.

I recently re-signed my lease and can’t afford to break it to move elsewhere, so I’m trying my best to counteract the negative effects of living above a “pool closet” while managing chronic illness. I’m opening my bedroom window every night to let fresh air in, running my air filter consistently, and considering buying a second air filter. I’m wearing earplugs more often and considering putting anti-vibration pads under my bed.

The other night, because of the pool closet motor, I had earplugs in when I began reading Sonya Huber’s book, Pain Woman Takes Your Keys and Other Essays From A Nervous System. I knew nothing about the book other than that it’s about Huber’s life with Rheumatoid Arthritis and comes highly recommended. I did not expect the first sentence of the first essay to make me instantly burst into tears:

“Pain wants you to put in earplugs because sounds are grating.”

In that moment, sitting in bed, earplugs-in,  I felt like I’d been caught.

The personification of Pain surprised me. From sentence one, Huber was exposing my secret, calling me out. I’m not my own person, making my own decisions. I’m Pain’s hostage, doing whatever Pain asks, hoping desperately that if I figure out what Pain wants and obey, I’ll eventually be left alone, or at least spared from Pain’s most sadistic urges.

I reread the essay over and over, tears streaming. So many lines stand out: “Pain leaves the meter running.” Oh, the bittersweet beauty and accuracy of that! Even when I can buy myself time, when I feel okay for a while, the meter is still running and I know eventually, something–a chemical smell, a new pool filter motor, something–will pop up and remind me who’s in control.

The lines that really hit me were those exonerating Pain of its culpability: “Pain does not mean any harm to you,” “Pain is wild with grief at the discomfort it causes,” and others suggesting that Pain loves me. Those lines reflect an idea I’d not previously considered. The idea that, like me, Pain is just doing the best they can.

I have accepted pain, time and time again. I’ve meditated, journaled, read self-help books, talked with friends and therapists. I’ve accepted pain. But until I read Huber’s essay, I had never, ever thought to forgive them.

Maybe Pain isn’t an evil kidnapper, greedy thief, or malicious torturer. Maybe Pain is the parent who’s trying their best but just can’t stop fucking up because of their own complicated upbringing. Maybe Pain is the ex-boyfriend who didn’t realize his attempt at love was actually abuse until years later. Maybe Pain is the carefree drunk driver who set out to let loose or fit in or forget her problems, not realizing her actions would end another person’s life.

What’s so beautiful about this first essay–titled “What Pain Wants,” originally appearing in Rogue Agent Journal as a poem–is how it communicates the sense that Pain is an unavoidable tragedy to accept and maybe even forgive.

I don’t interpret Huber’s message of acceptance to be something trite, like, “everything happens for a reason,” or “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” I interpret Huber’s message to be, “Pain sucks. Pain sucks, so, so bad. But still, I choose to forgive them.”

My original intent was to review Pain Woman Takes Your Keys and Other Essays From A Nervous System in a single post, the way books are normally reviewed. But once I began reading, I recognized it deserves more. My plan is to review (“engage with” would be more accurate) multiple essays in their own individual posts in coming weeks, then write a single post summing up my response to the book as a whole.

I hope you will not only follow along, but also follow Sonya Huber on twitter and buy her book from Nebraska Press.