In the last couple years I’ve gained weird insight into the constant chronic pain that defined my life from 15 to about 25. I’m 36 now, which is part of what makes it weird to me. I guess it’s incredibly normal and prosaic actually, you know: hey! We do learn things as we get older. Surprise! But also what’s weird is that the information seems so simple now. The pain was so all soul-consuming and perspective-distorting it is unbelievable and annoying that part of what caused it to continue was so simple and, worse, caused by my own brain and body trying to protect me. But there are mega magical lessons in this for me, despite how infuriating it is, so figured I’d share.
In a nutshell what happened was I got injured on my neck near a nerve that runs a lot of the communications and paperwork up in the brainal area and across the feelings system (technical terms). And that nerve hit the red button, danger!, and all my bones and muscles complied to come to the rescue. From what I can tell, they tried hard to build a fort around the back of my neck, bending vertebrae backwards to make a wall, dragging shoulder blades up to the ears, yanking the back of the head down and curling the spine ducked low. In pain I went to a thousand specialists of various flavours and tried to uncurl myself too hard in the opposite direction: yanking up and straight, arms tight next to the body, ribs pulled in close to the heart. And the nerves kept shuddering in fear, and getting twisted and plucked, the left side of my face and lungs jerking in pain like strings on fire, like a heart attack, etc.
Someday I’ll tell you the story of how it stopped, but for now it feels kind of boring especially since I didn’t really understand what had worked. Suffice for now to say, it involved a bunch of stuff most notably Alexander training, and after 10 years it lifted. And then, just last year around this time, it happened again. Not the migraine, thank goddddd; when I feel like that might come back I get all weepy and freaked out. 10 years is a long time to live with that and it’s made me jumpy with fear that it might come back someday for good. No, last year it was just the return of the bright gold line of pain along my left side from my spine to across my heart, like a band that won’t let me breathe. I went to the hospital and stayed while they did all the tests. Not a heart attack, good you checked, etc. The same old answer: it’s nerves and we can’t see nerves, or do much to help you with them when they go so subtly, so spectacularly awry.
What helped was to ignore the dictates of my red alert brain screaming hold still or else, screaming you are dying, screaming incoherently – a message that makes total sense in the face of nerve pain. But ignoring it in favor of a gentle jiggle changed everything. Bear with me. Shaking the pelvic floor (booty), shimmying the shoulders in defiance of the feeling that everything would shatter, wobbling the heavy head until it felt allowed to lift off of the top of the spine and float as it is miraculously designed to do… with a gentle vibration the knife loosened. The body escaped the constraints of the freaking-out mind. The infinitely vast and delicate nerves remembered how to find their way back into place. When that particular pain comes now I can literally shake it gently off. And the neurons begin to learn a new post-trauma pathway.
Here are some of the lessons I try to carry with me from this experience: thinking about small repeated gestures and systems and tweaking them in the tiniest, goofiest ways changes stuff, sometimes in a big way; gentleness and joyful small action can defeat even decades of pain. Being angry that something so small and stupid could keep me imprisoned is not a good reason to stay there. Being grateful for any breath I get is not at all unreasonable. Sharing as much love and fun and as many ideas as I can while I have clarity, while I can find any perspective beyond a shadowing circle of pain, is just plain common sense.
Mega caveat: I know people who have lived with chronic pain so long and profound that this idea of changing it with posture, dance, and different kinds of thought about body is probably exhausting and insulting. Fair enough. If you know anyone like this too: please love them as hard as you can and lend them your strength, because they are using all theirs all the time in ways you can’t see. If you live with this, I love you and I’m thinking of you every day. Everything about my experience was probably different from yours except this bit: in pain you are in isolation. I know you are doing what you can just to make it to the next minute, but I also believe this: there are secrets in your mindbodyheart, secrets the world can benefit from if you can share your own weird world, and especially the stories of your seeking for ways out of the labyrinth. So much of the world is in pain, the stories of how we face and fight and are defeated and triumph and fight again are alchemical and will be how we unlock new ways forward… even if it’s just by one screaming dancing bloody two step at a time.