Working Through Pain: Principles of The Relentless


My face hurt every time I turned to look at something. My head harrowed like a bitch if I made even a slight expression. Exiting the freeway, I turned into the gym’s parking lot with my brain feeling like a sore testicle.

No parking spots.

Suddenly the lies began speaking to me again: Look at that. The gym’s full. You’re hurt. You’re tired. You’re hungry. Besides you fought well last night. Why don’t you just use this day to rest. You can come in tomorrow and train twice as hard.

Bullshit! I told myself. Don’t listen to the lies!

I saw a car’s reverse lights come on and immediately my hand clicked the turn signal to claim the spot. Are you really gonna do this? You can’t spar today. Look at you. The wind felt its way into my spine despite the sun. Global dimming or global warming, they’re never there when you needed them.

As I reluctantly waited for the car to back up, my thoughts drifted to last weekend, when I visited my friend, Nazy, in Fremont.

I knocked and the door opened.

“Hi, Roun,” Nazy greeted—tiny and sweet—peeking out with her smiling Persian eyes.

“How are you Nazy,” I said, leaving my shoes outside before entering. I gave my friend a hug and then we went through our routine. First she complained that I hadn’t visited her in a long time (even though it really wasn’t that long), and then she accused me of completely forgetting about her. To this I responded with my usual, “of course not,” and, “I would never do such a thing”—just a few of the many counters I had come up with over the years.

“How’re the kids?” I asked, referring to her twins—two twenty-one year old boys, whom I had become familiar with through our acquaintance. Nazy was older than me, but for some reason we became very good friends. In fact, by this time I was somewhat part of the family—a stepchild of sorts, a bastard that only comes for dinner and leaves without washing the plates.

“Oh, you mean those little shits?” Nazy said, her smile quickly turning into a gathering menace.

I laughed at her sneer. “You love them,” I teased. “They’re your babies, remember?”

“Yes, dumb babies!” Nazy shot back. “What is they do all day? Eat, poop, sleep?” Then her eyes turned to their pet, a little brown dog walking in a red t-shirt. “At least that little shit doesn’t ask for money.”

I laughed again.

Had I not known Nazy, I would think her serious. But Nazy’s life had been a fascination of mine. Through the years I had learned so much from her, particularly the art of suffering—the art of working through pain with your dignity intact.

At thirteen years old, Nazy was forced to marry when the Mullahs overthrew the Shah in Iran. For five years, she was repeatedly beaten and raped. And at eighteen years old, at the height of the Iran-Iraq war, Nazy crossed to Turkey with a child in hand while pregnant with the twins by foot. Like ghosts moving in sand, they walked through roads that holed up bombs, dodged air that blew out lead, and finally came to the United States as refugees during the mid 1980s. I knew Nazy loved her sons with her life. In fact she loved them so much that one time, when she heard them fighting, Nazy tore a hole into the twins’ bedroom door with a broom for fear that her sons might beat each other to death.

Today, people saw Nazy as a motivated single-mom, going through nursing school. But six years ago her life was very different. Back then she was a master chef that ran her own place. She was independent, confident and she had a work ethic built for tremendous monetary success. But one day—random and sudden—life threw her another curve ball.

Coming home from work, Nazy went to the bathroom to wash her hands. But as she turned to leave, her foot slipped, causing her to fall into the bathtub behind her. The nape of her neck landed on the acrylic corner and broke to pieces four of her lumbar spines.

Mary_Ellen_Mark_Feet_Strapped_Down_in_Bed_1976_c1976_1858_41When Nazy woke up, she found out that she was paralyzed from the neck down. In one single slip, in one single insignificant moment, she lost her legs, her hands, her voice, her business, her freedom, her future—she literally lost everything except her life. She couldn’t even breathe on her own so they drilled a hole in her throat and hooked her up to a machine. And because of a constant, tearing pain at the back of her head, she was kept high and sedated at all times. “It was a very hard time,” she told me once. “The whole thing for me was the same. The same room. The same bed. I had pain the whole time. And it wasn’t like, oh it’s night time, time to go to sleep. No. The only time I would sleep is when I am so sedated. I was just there lying in the bed all day, all night. Just looking. For nine months.”

Nine months. But at the time, Nazy didn’t know that. As far as the doctors were concerned, she was paralyzed for life. It was still hard to imagine that she was walking today, talking shit about her kids as though she was just like everybody else.

“Did I show you my drugs, Roun?” she asked, standing up.

I shook my head even though I had seen it many times before. It was routine after all. Breaking it might disturb the flow of our ritual, our little dance of catharsis and insight.

I followed her to the bedroom where a bunch of capsules and pills and packs of mini-plastic containers awaited consummation.

“This is what I have to do every day,” she told me clinically like a medical professional, which she already was. “Is because of the nerves. When your neck is broken, they hold it up first by drilling holes in your temples and putting metal bars so it becomes steady. Then they take out the pieces of broken bones and in place of those bones they put metal. That’s why I couldn’t turn my head like you guys do because of the metal touching the nerves. If I turn too much I feel a horrible pain.”

At that point, Nazy usually told me that because of her daily drug binges, her liver will soon liquefy and she won’t live very long. But I never bought into that, and we both know it was bullshit. There is no mathematics in life. And although years and doses of vicodin and morphine patches have melted Nazy’s face down to her cheek bones, there was still life in her eyes. She might have been desperate, but she was never digested by despair. She might have been born to suffer, but her suffering bred her to succeed.

“So, aside from getting high,” I said, trying to lighten the mood. “How else do you spend your days?”

“With pain and suffering, of course,” she quickly answered and laughed. “When you’re in pain, what else can you think? There’s nothing else you can think. Everything in your world is pain. It’s devastating. It destroys everything, every bit of you. Other people they look at you but they don’t know. They think you’re ok. But they don’t know what is you’re going through internally.”

I got conscious then, thinking I was one of those “other people.” But I saved it. This wasn’t about me. I shut up and listened.

“No matter how strong a person is, Roun, when you’re in that situation you have no hope. Not at the time. There was denial of course. First I said, I will get better. That after some time I will be fine. I said, one day I will do the things the others are doing. One day I will go to the bathroom by myself. All the things that I used to take for granted, the little things, all of a sudden has lots of meaning.” Nazy wiped her face—each wipe cauterizing unfinished wounds. “I prayed a lot, too. Praying sometimes to get better. Sometimes praying for hope. And sometimes praying to be dead. There were times when I would tell God, please just let me go. I don’t want this kind of life. But you wake up the next day and it’s still the same. Then the next. And the next. After a while, you just accept what is happened. Every day I was just hoping to get better. Just living one day for the next day. That’s how I lived. But I never gave up.”

At the time, sitting in my car, I pictured Nazy lying in bed in her vegetative state, during that one moment when she turned everything around. Her eyes were dry and red. Her teeth was grinding as the pain ate at the back of her neck. It grew and grew and crawled down to her chest. Then it spread to her arms and down to her hands. For nine months she carried it. But that night—just like the night she was born—her hand moved and grabbed the railings of her bed and pulled herself up into the world of the living once more.

As soon as the car left the parking spot, I took it. I put the car in park and looked at myself in the mirror just like they do in the movies. It was almost ass-kicking time so I turned up the volume of my radio and let myself sink to the pace of the drum beats in my chest.

They say change is gradual, but real change happens in a blink of an eye. A few moments ago I felt weak and incapable. Now I had no more excuses. And although I will never be as strong as her, I try to be like Nazy.

Bold. Resolute. Relentless.





  1. Beautifully written story about an amazing woman. I can now have a new mantra for dealing with my chronic pain issues. “My pain is pitiful compared to Nazy’s, so suck it up and get the job done!”

    Thank you for such an inspiring story about this amazing woman!

  2. She is amazing! Now I feel shitty complaining on small things in my life.My pain is paradise compared to her and I shouldn’t whine at all.

    She’s a very inspiring woman. Thank you for sharing her story.

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