I’ve always been an active person. In my senior high school yearbook, the phrase most associated with me was, “I’m so sore.” I was a dancer and soreness was how I knew I was doing what I loved.
When my hips started hurting in my early forties, I shrugged it off. After all, soreness was my thing and I’d started doing high intensity interval workouts to lose the weight I put on when my thyroid tanked. But as the decade wore on, I had to stop those workouts because of the hot pokers jammed in my hips. I even stopped doing yoga, which I’d practiced for over twenty years.
I got massage, acupuncture, Muscle Activation Technique, CranioSacral therapy, hypnotherapy and more. I saw everyone but an MD, who I figured would only offer a Band-Aid in the form of drugs. I wanted to get to the core of what this pain was about so I could get rid of it at the root.
A man was trapped in a house by rising floodwaters, praying to God to save him. A neighbor came by and offered him a ride, which he declined, saying God was coming. Folks stopped in a boat and he said no, still waiting for God. Finally a helicopter arrived when he was on the roof and offered him a ladder to climb to safety, and he waved it off, still waiting for God. After he drowned and went to heaven, he asked why God let him drown. God said, “I sent you a truck, a boat, and a helicopter, and you refused them all. What else was I supposed to do?”
Eventually I stopped going out, made excuses, pretended I was busy. When I did go out, I stayed seated, making sure I was the last one to get up after everyone turned away so they wouldn’t see me wince or catch how long it took me to straighten up. A wide-legged shuffle replaced my New-York-paced long strides.
If my body were a car, I wanted to key it and shatter the windshield with a baseball bat. I moved to Santa Monica from New York, in part so I could drive instead of walk. I fell in love with and rescued a dog and wept as I hobbled around the block with her, stopping every few steps to gather the strength to continue.
In early 2015, at a retreat, I slowly stood to ask my teacher how to deal with my chronic pain and she said, “Your pain could be the thing that wakes you up if you use it to get free. It’s up to you.”
Her answer landed like a bomb in my gut. My heart raced, hands got sweaty, and I cascaded through rage, betrayal, hope, confusion, curiosity, insult, recognition. Locked in the effort to get rid of it, I thought getting free meant being pain-free.
The idea that I could have freedom in the midst of debilitating pain felt like squinting at Mt. Everest from sea level, blinded by sun on snow.
I knew a loving gauntlet had been thrown. I accepted the challenge and began to ask myself questions like:
—Even if this pain were never to go away, what could I be grateful for right now?
—What qualities am I being called to develop through this experience?
—What does this pain want to teach me?
Instead of treating my body like a carcass of meat and bone to bend to my will and fume at when it didn’t comply, I began to discover what it wanted and needed. As I opened to listening, my body began to teach me about my real self.
My identity as a fiercely capable and independent woman began to unravel. I began to ask for help, to let others see more of me, including my pain. I began to experience bouts of joy, even when my pain was cranked to top volume, because I had more connection with others.
At the end of 2015 I went to an orthopedist for X-Rays, finally ready to accept that there may be more wrong than blocked energy. Turns out I’d been born with dysplasia and my hip joints had deteriorated and grown sharp bone spurs from the long-time rub of bone on bone.
The hot pokers I felt were real. Replacement was my only option. With gratitude, I grabbed the ladder offered by the helicopter of surgery.
By the time I saw the orthopedist, I was in love, living with my new partner and waking up grateful and joyful to be alive, even though I still could barely walk. The mobility I’m gaining now, in 2019, after both replacements are done, feels like gravy poured over a wonderful life, no longer the pre-requisite for it.
Even as I revel in my renewed mobility and give thanks every day for being able to walk again, I keep this in mind: “We think that the point is to pass the test or to overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart.” — Pema Chödrön
As I emerge from a decade of chronic pain with freedom and joy, the next gauntlet has already shown up: managing my elderly mother’s affairs and growing needs from across the country as an only child. Things come together and fall apart, indeed. At least now I know the questions to ask in order to navigate with grace the shifting terrain.