ON A SCALE of 1 to 10, how would you rate your pain? Would you say it aches, or would you say it stabs? Does it burn, or does it pinch? How long would you say you’ve been hurting? And are you taking anything for it?
Steven Pete has no idea how you feel. Sitting in Cassava, a café in Longview, Washington, next to a bulletin board crammed with flyers and promises—your pain-free tomorrow starts today; remember: you’re not alone in your battle against peripheral neuropathy!—he tells me he cannot fathom aches or pinches or the searing scourge of peripheral neuropathy that keep millions of people awake at night or hooked on pills. He was born with a rare neurological condition called congenital insensitivity to pain, and for 36 years he has hovered at or near a 1 on the pain scale. He’s 5′ 8″, with glasses and thinning brown hair, and he has a road map of scars across his body, mostly hidden beneath a T-shirt bearing the partial crests of Batman, Green Lantern, Flash, and Superman. Because he never learned to avoid injury, which is the one thing pain is really good for, he gets injured a lot. When I ask how many bones he’s broken, he lets out a quick laugh.