Menthol and camphor have been the subjects of a scientific study commonly known as pain gate, introduced by researchers Ronald Melzack and Patrick Wall in 1965. The gate control study theorized that the transmission cells in your body that perceive pain and send those signals to the brain can be triggered by a non-painful sensation. This can close off the “gate” from perceiving the pain caused by other stimulants.
In the case of Bengay and Vicks VapoRub, the user applies the product where they are feeling an ache or a congestion blockage, and the menthol and camphor causes that tingly feeling on the skin. That mild burning sensation triggers the transmission cell, making it more difficult for the actual pain or congestion sensation to be perceived by the brain. The unpleasantness of the pain, at least to our brains, feels like it has subsided.
Unsurprisingly, parts of Melzak and Wall’s study have been proven incorrect since publication. Still, the two informed so much of pain theory today, likely because their findings gave the less science-inclined a clear metaphor for what might be happening in our bodies.
These days, I’m finding it difficult to know what I really, truly find soothing. I’ve been thinking about the paingate theory and the idea that when our bodies are alerting us to immediate danger, we are able to interfere with that message. We can effectively tell our bodies to stop hurting with the alchemy of soothing. Melzack and Wall believed their theory explained why we’re inclined to rub an ache or bruise, that the touch sensation would interrupt the message’s path to the brain, reducing the perception, and therefore the feeling, of the pain.
To soothe, then, is somewhat of a trick. To rub a salve like Vicks VapoRub where your breathing is tight is to say to yourself, focus instead on the sharpness of eucalyptus and the softness of petroleum; let the coolness of the mint make breathing feel fresh and new.
With all the dull pain I’m feeling from being alive at this particular moment, paired with the familiar sadness of longstanding clinical depression, soothing feels both in and out of my control. The trick is mine to conjure. Sometimes, I think, I get the trick wrong—that I choose instead to fall back on what I know makes me feel bad, in an attempt to distract from all the other badness that I have less influence over. I binge-watch for hours, or stress shop, or drink too much; these things make me feel more distracted than soothed, but I willingly trade in one pain for another.
On a FaceTime call with my parents, my dad recalled how he used to put Vicks on me whenever I had sipon, the snot that drips down from a runny nose. For maybe the fourth time since my in-person social life paused, he instructed me not to drink cold water because it might make my throat scratchy. Hot water is good, preferably with lemon. I rolled my eyes in my head, then felt a little sad and a little moved by how he is just doing what he can. His pleas and advice are something rather than nothing. And right now, something rather than nothing is just about all I can offer to the ones I love.
His pleas and advice are something rather than nothing. And right now, something rather than nothing is just about all I can offer to the ones I love.
I say “stay safe out there” to my friends and family, even though I know that the factors we can’t control outnumber the ones we can. After hanging out six feet apart in the park, my friends and I say “text me when you get home” with our goodbyes, as if to speak ‘getting home safe’ into existence for each other. I tell my cousin who is a doctor and my aunts who are nurses to “please be careful,” even though I know that even care, with all its power, cannot guarantee health, or safety, or recovery, or resources, or tests, or medicine, or protection against the lack of care from others. Then again, maybe these home remedies, coping practices, superstitions, and well-wishes aren’t just tricks or distractions. Maybe they are insistences: insistences on our well-being, insistences on the safety of our loved ones, insistence on moments of peace, of reprieve, insistences on joy, of plain fun.
My Nanay was insistent on her soft skin, her free breath. Even my own tendencies to disassociate are perhaps indicative of an insistence on a different world where my life feels less precious and endangered. Maybe the miracle isn’t a product, but the insistence on choosing life in the face of what feels like endless deceit and violence. If a miracle is something that is difficult to explain, then showing up tomorrow when we know what happened yesterday feels pretty supernatural.
I think for a long while from now, there will be intense pain; loss that sits at the bottom of our stomachs, that peeks in and spills on the floor like a ray of light shining through a frosted window. The pain will subside and return again. Hopefully, there will be healing that lasts, one that doesn’t just soothe the pain but removes the danger altogether. I have to insist on it.
andie millares is a poet, arts lover, and serial hobbyist from New Jersey. andie is a Lambda Literary Playwriting Fellow and Kundiman Poetry Fellow, an organization for which she also serves on the Junior Board. Currently living in Brooklyn with the world's most handsome cats, her work has been published in Reductress, Eleven and A Half, and Foglifter Journal.