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.
"Oh gosh. I haven't actually done the count yet," he says. "But somewhere probably around 70 or 80." With each fracture, he didn't feel much of anything—or even notice his injury at all. Whether he saw a doctor depended on how bad the break appeared to be. "A toe or a finger, I'd just take care of that myself," he says, wagging a slightly bent index finger. "Duct tape."
What about something more serious? Pete pauses for a moment and recalls a white Washington day a few years ago. "We had thick snow, and we went inner-tubing down a hill. Well, I did a scorpion, where you take a running start and jump on the tube. You're supposed to land on your stomach, but I hit it at the wrong angle. I face-planted on the hill, and my back legs just went straight up over my head." Pete got up and returned to tubing, and for the next eight months he went on as usual, until he started noticing the movement in his left arm and shoulder felt off. His back felt funny too. He ended up getting an MRI. "The doctor looked at my MRI results, and he was like, 'Have you been in a car accident? About six months ago? Were you skydiving?' "
"I haven't done either," Pete replied.
The doctor stared at his patient in disbelief. "You've got three fractured vertebrae." Pete had broken his back.
Throughout his body today, Pete has a strange feeling: "a weird radiating sensation," as he describes it, an overall discomfort but not quite pain as you and I know it. He and others born with his condition have been compared to superheroes—indomitable, unbreakable. In his basement, where the shelves are lined with videogames about biologically and technologically enhanced soldiers, there is even a framed sketch of a character in full body armor, with the words painless pete. But Pete knows better. "There's no way I could live a normal life right now if I could actually feel pain," he says. He would probably be constrained to a bed or wheelchair from all the damage his body has sustained.
His wife, Jessica, joins us at the café. She is petite and shy, with ice-blue eyes traced in black eyeliner. When I ask her what it's like to live with a man who feels no pain, she sighs. "I worry about him all the time." She worries about him working with his power tools in the basement. She worries about him cooking over a grill. She worries about bigger things too. "If he has a heart attack, he won't be able to feel it," she says. "He'll rub his arm sometimes, and I freak out: 'Are you OK?' " She looks over at Pete, who chuckles. "He thinks it's funny," she says. "I don't think it's funny."