Chronic Pain and Fermentation

written by
ralph skunkie davis

I am trans and I experience chronic pain. These factors make it difficult for doctors to tell me when or if I will feel better. Being trans and being in pain are often linked to one another, in ways that are flattening and often humiliating. The feeling of powerlessness in exam rooms is familiar.

My research into fermentation began in a studious place. I wanted to see if my kombucha would react positively if it was sung to, read to, or otherwise accompanied. My ingrained, westernized idea of research was tied heavily to a preposition following the word. research. I knew what it was to be researched upon, researched on, researched by. I am more familiar with the role of examinee, less so with examiner.

My pain flared up when I returned to my hometown seeking shelter from COVID-19. I wasn’t sleeping well, not entirely because of pain, but because of my preoccupation with the thought of pain. In some ways, the anticipation of pain and discomfort had become more life altering than the pain itself.

  At the beginning of all of this, packing our things, reconstructing our lives inside of different walls in different cities who didn’t love us, I was distracted so much that I almost didn’t notice the pain at all. When I arrived at a place of rest, a house I half grew up in outside of Chicago, I was confronted by a lack of distraction. It was in some ways the least distracted I have ever been. Soon, within this stimuluslessness, I had resettled, if only a nominal resettling. Every time I sat still, I became completely preoccupied with my Pain Brain. this is not right. this is not right. this is not right. It was a new pain, one that I wasn’t sure could be helped.

At first, the solution to this preoccupation was to remain otherwise occupied. To make (bread) and make (poems) and make (paintings, meaninglessly) until I became exhausted, and then to fall into bed and close my eyes fast as to disorient the discomfort. More painful was when this busyness stopped working, 

I heard somewhere (citation needed) that the gut is the first brain, and the thing between your ears is your second. One of these stimulusless nights, on my last dose of antibiotics (which did little for my pain and less for my stomach), I ordered a scoby on Ebay with minimal research, mostly just to feel the thrill of the unknown and to get that little text message from my credit card company that a charge of $7.23 had been detected from an online source.

A scoby is an acronym, a Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast. It is a little mat of plant cells and bacteria that turns tea into kombucha. When It arrived, I felt love, which is a stupid thing to say, but that’s what happened. I felt something vague that I hadn’t felt since I left my chosen family in the pandemic move. I felt responsibility for this small disk balancing between 2 walls of a plastic bag, floating in yellow liquid. I felt dizzying power too, I would decide where it would live for the rest of its life, its diet, its temperature, its food, its relationships, its fate. 

Soon, the scoby was sinking to the bottom of a glass jar and I was outside that glass jar, watching it exist in a world I had created. I wanted it to grow so badly, even though I have always thought having specific expectations for a developing child is toxic. 

At first it was much like watching one of those small foamy men you win at the arcade grow in a bowl of warm water. Dead, but not stagnant. 

Then I thought about the sea monkeys I raised and killed by accident as a toddler. 

Then I thought about the community I left behind in the midst of what felt like the end of the world, watching these impossibly small yeast particles form families in fast forward. I felt feelings of loss, nostalgia, love, passion, and guarded hope that I cope around instead of with

I was thinking about a lot of things, but I wasn’t thinking about pain. 

Over and over again, I am reminded of the importance of cycles. Within fermentation, within transness, within love. Everytime something goes away, I am convinced it will never come back again. Chronic pain is similar, some mornings it is difficult to move my legs. Some mornings I don’t think about them at all. 

Some of this rigidity of thought is due to my age. I am very young, but will never be this young ever again. 

If the pain continues, will I be able to walk at 25? 

The answer is, maybe.

There might be days when I can, much like today, wake up to a mind given freedom from the body. I physically feel the absent weight of pain that is at once a part of me, yet remains achingly unfamiliar with each flare.

There also surely will be days of hunched resignation.

I know some people who keep track of their menstrual cycle with a calendar. With enough use of this system, they create evidence of a cycle. Not just a hormonal one, but a way to expect the somewhat unpredictable. This has happened before, they say, and this will happen again and again and again until it doesn’t. 

This I admire so deeply. And maybe I will have the courage to keep a calendar like this of my pain. On Thursday, I felt great. This weekend, I wanted to stay in bed.

Saturdays have become brewing days. When I wake up, I hold a joy that sits in my gut and my sacrum. Something approaching the pride of motherhood I’d imagine. The anticipated act is simple. I dip a straw deep into the vessel. I remove a small amount without disturbing the tender scoby. If the brew tastes ready, I remove the scoby from the surface of the wide mouth with a clean, gentle hand. It feels like a slice of skin, resting there, sometimes a labia, sometimes the bottom of a soft strong foot. This step I take seriously. I rehome the well-fed scoby into another jar, one with many other scobies inside, resting and growing and waiting to eat and create again. Some of them are thicker than others, 3 or 4 weeks old. They exist on a gradient of yellow brown to white, bubbling, ugly, by all accounts, and organ like. A case cannot be made for the beauty of a scoby. Some feel like tissue paper, completely translucent in the light, only days old. I do feel a sense of pride looking at this jar full of life, but I cannot claim any ownership over the little ghosts floating there. I know they would reproduce with or without me. They, at once, feel love and complacency.

I pour the sick, dense liquid into another vessel, this one with a stopper. The liquid feels sterile then, but of course it is not. A week ago, this was only tea, no more exquisite than the fat left sideways in a littered gutterred plastic cup. The process turns dark red black tea to a golden yellow, turns sugar into tiny worlds of gas, submerged. Every week, unflinchingly, I give care and love. The scoby takes the loose shelter, food, some sounds of a house well lived in, and maybe a song in between loads of dishes done, becoming something completely out of my control. 

Every week I remember what it felt like last week to perform these same actions. If I wanted, I could create a schedule, log it in Google Calendar, and be certain of something for once. Last week on saturday I felt this way inside my body, today is saturday again and I feel different. But I know that I will return to this 

action, a ritual one, that fixes me to this spot and discourages distraction.

These are cycles, gestation, chemistry. It is both immensely predictable and wildly enigmatic. I can communicate with this scoby in a jar about the same amount I can communicate with my own body, in all its shortcomings and aches. My body and the scoby both react favorably to the music of Sade.

I am not sure whether this is research I am conducting or therapy. However, because of this series of rituals I hold myself to, I think I can understand what it would feel like to be an examiner. I have become an examiner in the sense that I have no control over the actions or non actions within fermentation, I can only watch. I cannot control what happens day to day within my body either, whether I will get ill or get better. This process has also discouraged me from considering these binaries. 

I am at once sick and well, in pain and euphoria, accompanied and alone, a soul and a body. 

Does singing to my scoby make my pain better? It is impossible to say. Like many fixed factors of this life, there is only so much to be done preceding exhaustion. I know that the time fermentation requires has provided me with a weekly scale that is legible only to me. I know that within my scoby, there is the memory of my clean hand holding it, and it holding me. I know that I feel accompanied walking with these microbes inside of me, like a medium-sized church.

the trans guide

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