ELIZA'S CROSS CANADA LOVE TOUR
I am someone who has tended to avoid painful experiences if I can help it. I'm only assuming, but I guess that's pretty common. Not only have I avoided physical pain, but also emotion pain and especially conflict of any kind.
When I was a kid and people would start fighting, I would quietly back away and find anywhere else to be hoping that no one would notice I had gone. When the “scary parts” of movies came on, like in “Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone” (spoiler alert, but also, you’ve had your chance) when Quirrell slowly unwraps his turban to reveal Voldemort underneath it, I would close my eyes. If I got physically hurt, I would nurse my wounds diligently and show them off to anyone who was around, and if I was emotionally hurt, I was not quick to forgiveness. I was the youngest in a big family full of cousins and being coddled was one of my greatest joys in life. I was hard on myself and a not-so-secret perfectionist, but I loved the “get out of pain free card” that being the baby of the family often afforded me.
Consequently, whenever I did encounter pain, it felt like a monumental event.
There was a phase of time when I was around 8 years old when I remember thinking that I was cursed. We had been lucky enough to be able to go to the indoor play place “Adventure City” a couple times that year, but each time right before going I had hurt myself badly. The first time I had a huge wipeout on my bike, and the second time my finger was accidently caught in a slammed door and I lost most of my nail. The nail incident was especially traumatic and the combination of the two had formed a very clear pattern in my head; “I go to adventure city, I get hurt.”
Confirmation bias then kicked in for me hard and in the coming years anytime we went to adventure city I would look for examples to prove my theory true. “I got kicked” or “I slipped in the ball bit” or “ I scraped my knee”, incredibly common things to happen in a rowdy day of playing on a giant play structure, but in my mind, irrefutable proof. It was reassuring to feel like I knew the way of the world and when the pain would come. It felt like I understood the pain, and if I could predict it then maybe I could control it.
As I grew up I unconsciously continued this pattern. I was a mostly a healthy gal but the times I did get sick or injured almost always centred around big life events. Specifically, things I had been excited about and looking forward to. Trips, sleepovers, performances, camping trips etc. Examples of this include but are not limited to: Falling off the stage in my middle school’s production of Annie, injuring my back two days into gymnastics camp and throwing up hours before my high school holiday show. I could relay each and every detail of these events and all the dozens of other examples, because I told these stories to others and myself over and over again. For so many years, I was surprised when I would get through an exciting event unscathed by injury or illness. I suffered through countless trips, friend’s birthday parties, performances etc. plagued by ailment and eventually I just got used it it. It changed my view of reality because I truly believed that for me that was just how life was. In many ways it became a part of my identity. It made me feel weak, and like a part of me was always holding my breath.
The incident that broke the camel's back, or more aptly its neck, came when I was 17. I have mild scoliosis, but I started doing ballet at an early age and the introduction of proper posture into my life came before puberty, so many of the negative effects my condition were mollified. That is, of course, until I woke up in the middle of the night in searing pain screaming for my parents. In that moment I was pretty sure I was about to die, all I knew about neck issues was that if your neck was broken you could die, and I couldn’t move a millimetre without experiencing more intense pain than I’d ever every felt, so much so that I was sure it must be broken. Up until recently it was the scariest thing I had ever experienced. I felt trapped in my own body, unable to move for fear of even worse pain, but somehow my parents and I made it to the emergency room.
The drive to the hospital was less than three blocks away but every second was excruciating. Every bump we encountered made the pain 10 times worse. Once the doctor finally saw me, I was informed that I had temporary torticollis (or wry neck), and to our dismay there was nothing to be done but take some pain medication and wait for it to go away. It could take days or longer, but the next day my performing arts high school was putting on its annual holiday variety show (the one I had been throwing up during two years prior) and I was supposed to be in 3 group dances as well as a variety of sketches and songs. In my condition, I would be unable to perform. It had happened again, only worse, because I couldn’t suffer through it, I was going to have to miss out altogether. Nothing about this felt controlled or reassuring, I was terrified.
The stiffness and the pain went away within a week (with the help of a chiropractor/naturopath that I still see) but the fear burrowed deep inside me, infesting my brain with questions: “Should I go on this rollercoaster?” “Should I stay home today?” “Is my neck going to spasm again?” “What if it just keeps getting worse and worse and worse?” “If it’s like this now, how will it be when I’m older?” “What kind of life will I have if I’m always in pain?”.
In many ways the fear of the pain became bigger than the pain itself, and as much as I continued living my life as I had, the shadow of that pain followed me and the next several years of my life were spent in constant conversation with my pain, attempting to fend off it’s advances. My neck never spasmed again after that first time but I spent many days in bed, my neck stiff and immovable, forced to rest for fear of it becoming worse.
I recently re-read a journal entry I wrote a couple of years ago on one such day. In it I wrote “I wish to know myself as intimately as my pain does”. Pain had become my barometer for what I could handle. It stopped me before I went too far, it pulled me back if I had been pushing myself too long, it forced me to rest. Unlike what I believed when I was a child, I was not the one who predicted, understood or controlled my pain, it predicted, understood and controlled me.
My beliefs around pain controlled my life.
The pain was real, but the stories were not. I can have fun without getting hurt, I can live a life uncontrolled by pain but to do that I had to face it. Not only face it but embrace it in every way. I had spent so much time resentful of the pain, trying desperately to push it away, and it only made things worse. I was ashamed of myself for not being stronger, embarrassed of what I saw as a character flaw, instead of merely incidental. When I look back at those events now, I don’t see my weakness but my strength. I am amazed by how I was able to make the best of those situations. I wasn’t weak, I was strong and brave. When I fell off the stage I got back up and kept going, when I injured my back during gymnastics camp I still went back every day doing modified versions of every exercise, when I had the flu during the holiday show I rested curled up in a ball in the dressing room whenever I wasn’t needed onstage, but when I was called I pulled it together and made it through each number so that my grandparents (who had flown in from out of town) were able to see me perform. Pain had not actually controlled my life, it was just a part of my life, a part I had tried desperately to avoid for fear of seeming weak for not being able face it. Except, I had faced it and come out the other end repeatedly. For all my avoidance and self blame and resistance, I had faced pain and it had not proved me to be weak, it had shown that I was strong.
When my mom was in the hospital, she was in pain pretty much all the time. She never described it as pain to her nurses, she used terms like “tight” and “uncomfortable”, but still it was present most of the time every day for months. Not just physical pain but emotional pain too. Through all the pain my mom was resilient and brave in the face of unimaginable circumstances. Even still, one day in a particularly hard moment she told me that she was afraid we would think she was a fraud because she had always believed in things like being able to “heal yourself” and meditation and “breathing through the pain”, but she hadn’t been able to do that. From the inside she felt like she was fighting a battle with pain she couldn’t win, and in that moment needed help seeing her strength. I responded right away "Don’t think that for one second when you are in the middle of pain you have to do anything but experience it, however you need to. It can be all consuming, but in the moments of grace you have been kind and encouraging and hopeful and playing with babies and having birthdays and living your life, so you have been doing exactly what you said".
She started to cry saying "How did you get so smart" I laughed and as a not-too subtle compliment to her I said, "I've been paying attention".
I feel like wisdom has a way of floating back and forth between people depending on who needs it. In that moment she needed to hear those words from me, even if she was the only reason I knew what to say at all.
I can’t overcome pain, no one can, I can’t control it or will it away or find some secret key to becoming its master, but I can accept it. Instead of trying to avoid pain I can embrace it as a part of life and stop letting it have so much power over how I feel about myself.
The other day I woke up stiff with a familiar twinge in my neck. I put on some muscle relaxing cream, I drank lots of water, tried to relax, and I kept going about my day. I had to clean the apartment I was staying in, thanks to a generous friend, before I left Halifax the next day on a five-hour bus ride to PEI (a not-so fun activity to do with a painful neck). I spoke with a friend on the phone and expressed that I was slightly nervous, but I was just going to start cleaning anyway, gently and a little at a time. So, I swept, and I dusted, and I washed the dishes and I cleaned the bathroom and did the laundry and made the bed and a few hours later the same friend checked in to see how I was doing. Much to my surprise I realized that pain had left as easily as it came, and my neck felt almost 100 percent better. I also I realized that even if it hadn’t started feeling better, I probably would have kept cleaning anyway, or I would have stopped and rested, either way it wasn’t a big deal.