Today, after writing this, I am going to go work out for the first time in over a year.
Walking, biking, weight lifting, calisthenics, and now even rowing on a machine are ways I have stayed (semi) fit throughout my 44 years. Exercising is how I cope when angry, relax when stressed, sort through idea knots I’m trying to untangle onto the page.
But a year and a half ago, a spot in the middle of my back inexplicably started hurting. I didn’t injure it or (Lord knows) overuse it in exercise. One day it didn’t hurt and the next day it did and here I am 18 months, many chiropractic and physical therapy sessions, a few Chinese massages, and a glut of Advil later, still hurting.
Desperate for relief (as people in pain often are), I recently bought a ‘Miracle Ball’ kit at Sam’s Club. In the instruction book, the author explained the cycle of pain: Something is injured, we tense around the pain, and that tension causes more pain. Rinse, repeat, and soon we are stuck in a cycle of never ending agony. The original injury may even be healed, but the tightening around the hurt becomes the new pain. Any woman who has been in labor knows that clamping around the contraction (our natural inclination) only makes it worse.
During the last visit with my physical therapist, he told me I was guarding my back and that it wouldn’t get stronger until I stopped and let it do what it was designed to–bear weight, bend, stretch, and twist. The more I guarded it, trying to protect that bad spot, the weaker I was getting. This weakness, in turn, made my back hurt worse, as weak muscles no longer were capable of properly supporting my spine.
As I lie on my ‘miracle balls,’ as hips scream and my tailbone revolts, I think of pain…the time my little cousin once reached her hand up to the glass-topped stove and burned her baby fingertips into bubbled blisters. Of mouths full of stinging sores that kept my babies from sleeping more than a few minutes at a stretch for days. At tender breasts suckled for the first time, cracked deep and bleeding and toe-curling pain when the milk let down into baby’s sweet mouth. Of stitches in delicate places and a face bruised as with a bat. Of a family rendering after three decades and loved ones gone apostate. Over sin and the pain still bleeding out from it. Of hard things dropped and blackened toe nails and appendixes gone south and a friend whose husband never loved her.
The therapist said to let go. To stop holding so tight, to listen to him, to trust him, He said I could push the pain out not by self-protecting, but by accepting it and relaxing under it. He put a tennis ball under that year-old knot and pressed, hard. Pain like fire took my breath away, but he said it would pass. Said feeling and even leaning into the pain would eventually heal me.
There’s something here, I sense, but it will take some sweating on the treadmill to iron it out. I suspect somewhere inside or around or underneath what that therapist said is something we need to hear and untangle if not to save ourselves from pain, then to find a measure of relief inside it.
Or maybe just to survive.