I’m co-writing a paper with a friend at the moment. It’s a fascinating process of inspiration, negotiation and long periods of not knowing what to say next. On her suggestion, we each wrote an autoethnographic piece on our own relationship to the subject matter. They’re just short fragments of our own, deeply personal experience to illustrate some more general, academic points about our complicated relationship to pain. Here’s mine…
I was 19 when the truck hit me. I remember it in bright snapshots, but I don’t really remember the pain. I remember hearing a stranger’s voice shout:
‘Go back, go back, you’re on her legs!’
I know I couldn’t look down for fear of what was left of me – my fear that pain had, in fact, unmade me.
I remember the junior doctor who insisted I was fine. I was told I could walk, and went white from the pain of trying. When they told me my disorientation was due to the morphine, I didn’t question them.
I walked on that leg the next day and every day after because I believed them when they told me I had no pain or injury to speak of. I did this even as bruises slowly spread from my hips to my toes.
The places on my body where 3 tons of steel and rubber pressed one calf down into the other knee still hold the shape of that impact; and are still numb to the touch. They ache in bad weather. When you know where it is, you can feel the mended break in the bone.
I was lucky – I healed straight without further medical intervention. For years I’ve contemplated a body that could bear so much and feel so little. But then the training I had received in self-denial was older by far, and deeper than bone.
The first way I learnt to reclaim my body is creatively painful. The tattoo that snakes around that broken tibia is precious and intimate. I remember that pain. It hurt more than my other tattoos, and that was important.
I remember the tattooist looking up at me, thinking I was about to pass out. I didn’t, of course. I’m unreasonably proud of that.
For over a decade my spiritual practice has revolved around a daily reconciliation with my sensory self. I have trained myself to feel and respond with mastery to that feedback.
This is a practice that thrives on both self-soothing and intensity. This is a practice that explores pleasure and pain; ease and resistance; reclaiming and transformation.
I remember slipping deeper into a Pigeon pose than ever before and feeling a line of fire dart from my right shoulder blade to my feet. I wept inconsolably and felt, again and again, the truck’s wing mirror smack into a tight knot of fascial tension. I felt it releasing.
Now, as my body ages, its aches are more persistent; its equilibrium more easily upset. I struggled for months with an imbalance in my right hip that can still leave me powerless; helpless to correct or ease.
A friend says:
“Try long holds; passive and deep”
It contradicts everything I know to be healthy, but I am desperate enough. She says – lean into the pain and you’ll find it’s not the pain of injury. This is different. In the deep fascia I hold still in my discomfort to listen to the pain, and it shifts.
I return to my running. Each breath is a calculated alchemy of intensity and exhilaration. Each step is another move in the battle to full awareness.
I know I cannot explain the difference I am learning between good pain and bad. I walk into class and tell my yoga students: this practice shouldn’t hurt. I tell myself, it’s not really a lie, not really. Not for beginners.