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The Pain Cave

By Ryan Haarstick, VI Form

“Last five-hundred! We are three seats behind. Power ten. Here we go!

One.two.three.four,” barks the coxswain from the bow of the boat.

I need to make sure my pulling is hard. I am exhausted. I must clear my mind, stop thinking, and keep my eyes in the boat. My shins are paralyzed; I cannot lift my feet. I have to push through it.

Since ninth grade, I have been rowing with the St. Mark’s Varsity Crew Team, working my way from the fourth boat to the second boat, and finally to the first boat. Now is not the time to give up. I took my teammate Alex’s seat at the top, and as the youngest member in my boat I have to prove myself. I focus on the back of my teammate’s neck. I need to dissociate (a common term in athletics–not to be confused with a symptom of mental illness) in order to get through this. Into the Pain Cave I go, my metaphorical place of complete contentment.

Pain can be mental, physical, or emotional, and I often experience all types. The Pain Cave has separated me from my burning thighs and my asthmatic lungs, as well as the anguish I felt when my Nonna was put on hospice at my home when I was away at boarding school at the end of my junior year. I step out of my body in order to manage whatever I am going through, whether it is passing runners in the last mile at a cross-country meet or pulling an all-nighter to create a speech for chapel. The Pain Cave is a place that I force my mind to go, a place where I do not think–I just do. Going to the Pain Cave is much like getting a little taste of nirvana. I am able to disregard anything stressful in my life and just move forward.

I grew up being mediocre at most things, except clearing my plate at dinner. I was overweight, lacked confidence, and spent the greater part of my younger years trying to change into the person everyone expected me to be. As I matured, this became less important. My freshman year I joined crew, a sport others and myself never thought I would do. I worked hard and was surprisingly quite good at it.

St. Mark’s also exposed me to Buddhism through a class titled “Eastern Religious Thought,” which changed my philosophy on life. I identified with “living in the present,” “not attaching to insignificant things,” and “committing to positive morals.” I connected with my junior year English teacher who forced me to think instead of just do. I developed a writing process that, though far from standard, works for me. Instead of simply digesting lectures, I became an active participant. Most importantly, I saw the value of my education and my responsibility in making my own choices. As I gained greater insight into how to live my life, I developed my ability to go to the Pain Cave.

The Pain Cave is not an easy place to be, as I am usually there to get through a difficult time, but the results are quite rewarding. Though others see me as I am now, I will always carry a part of that overweight and timid little boy inside of me. Going to the Pain Cave allows me to converse with others confidently and honestly. It helped me make the right choices for my junior year, not taking AP Biology just to look good, but rather Computer Science because of my natural curiosity of technology. It aids me in coping with disappointment in friends and family (and occasionally grades) to move forward. No matter the difficulty of the time I am going through, if the problem is menial or serious, the Pain Cave is my place to just be.

“Five.six.seven.eight.nine.ten. Let’s go.”

Ryan Haarstick is a VI Form boarding student from Lincoln, Massachusetts.  He is a Prefect in Thieriot South.  Ryan is also a Co-Captain of the Boys’ Varsity Crew Team and loves to build computers.

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