When pain commandeers my limbs so I can’t walk the ten feet from my bedroom to the kitchen, my partner brings me peppermint tea and sits at the foot of the bed. We talk, sometimes, about the weather, what to do on these days, why every step I try to take feels like three back. Other days, we sit. Silence fills the room. There’s space to grieve and to ponder, but not too much. We’re each, I presume, lost in our own thoughts. I’m trying to remember what it’s like to be able to gather my own tea and share the bed all the same.
Smoke smudged across Seattle skies as pain scratched my knees like blackberry brambles. August 1, 2017 marks the first fire summer I remember clearly. The sprawling Cascades were painted over in dark, greasy slashes. I was set to start high school within a month, so that summer would’ve been memorable regardless of how ash fell instead of rain.
We had the world’s worst air quality for a while. The wind and rain returned before long, so I thought everything that happened was a one-off. Surely we would be smoke-free next year. Surely the pain would dissipate. Temporarily, I was right. Switching to low-impact exercise dulled the pain to a mere occasional visitor, and Washington’s autumn air was as crisp and fresh as usual.
That year, the Pacific Northwest experienced its second consecutive La Niña winter, a climatic phenomenon in which winter temperatures are lower than usual in the northern United States and higher than usual in the South. Caused by strong tradewinds that increase western coastal upwellings, La Niña events bring heavy rainfall and flood risk to the Pacific Northwest. Washington’s average rainfall was over 3.11 inches higher than the 30-year average; colder than normal temperatures thrust the state into a long winter. Four of the last six winters have been La Niña events. After months of endless rainstorms, it’s been all too easy to forget that our summers are turning grey as well.
We’re born without any sense of object permanence. Until we are eight months old, we remain unaware that objects continue to exist even when we can no longer see, hear, or feel them. We grow out of that, to some extent. Yet, when we can’t or don’t experience something, it’s easy to write it off as little or no concern. When fire and smoke season became a “when” not an “if” for the Pacific Northwest, the ability to brush it away as a freak weather event faded. The same occurs when your limbs crack loud enough to fill an entire chiropractor’s office: it becomes more and more difficult to blame on growing pains.
At first glance, I don’t necessarily fit society’s image of who someone with a chronic illness or chronic pain is. At newly 20, my body has few underlying conditions or genetic predispositions that would predict ever-present and often debilitating chronic joint pain, dislocation, and instability. What we see isn’t always what we expect; what we expect isn’t always true.
Despite falling out of vogue, the phrase “global warming” still comes to mind when discussing climate change, with warming being the key word. It’s often true; Southern California recently experienced a record-breaking heatwave that strained power grids almost to breaking. Rangoon, Myanmar, is expected to have summer temperatures jump 6℃ as it loses 6.5% of its annual rainfall by 2050. For many, climate change is more than drought and warming. For many, life without pain is impossible.
Between 2018 and 2021, every year was one of the top seven hottest years on record, with 2020 and 2019 taking the second and third spots respectively. Since 2018, I cannot think of a day without pain. My memories of smokeless summers too are hazy at best. Logically, I know both phenomena existed, but I can no longer conceptualize either.
When poison's in the air, escape is futile. You cannot outrun smoke. It soaks into every strand of the sky’s canvas while weaving its way down your trachea. When poison's in the air, your lungs are infiltrated instead of filtering. As you’re forced to inhale in a world where breathing is a chore that you delay for as long as humanly possible, you’re aware every particle sends you closer to death. And for what?
I ask myself that often: why do I keep taking shots in the dark in hope of hitting on another chance at something that doesn't quite feel like a life anymore? Can you even call it life when each day is blurred around the edges and unexplained pain is woven into every footstep? When there’s no known cure and every pain management technique to date has failed, what’s the point of trying to pretend life could ever return to what it was before?
When the trees can't breathe, neither can you. With every grassy plain that shrivels, wilts, and falters in the breeze, so do you. While the reefs lose their vibrancy and strength to weather storms, so do you. As a planet fades, so do you. Sure, with some kind of mitigation techniques, some preventative actions, and some work toward healing, maybe there's a chance to prevent some future damages.
You start to realize the same applies to you.
Still, when the common thread between climate summits and medical appointments is the fact that nothing ever gets done, hoping to avoid any suffering feels like a fool’s errand. Complain, complain, complain all you want, but getting anyone to believe there’s a problem—let alone address it—is a different story.
When I’ve finished my peppermint tea, my partner curls up next to me in bed and wraps his arms tight around me. When I’m too broken or beaten down to move, he comes to me so I don’t have to. Those are the days I don’t feel like fighting anymore, when I can’t manage to remember a time when August in Seattle was filled with the bluest skies I’ve ever seen. Somehow, he knows that a simple squeeze of support is often enough to snap me back and remind me that people are listening, that medical care and climate action are both possible, and that sometimes, we need other people to help us collect our tea from the kitchen.