The night before I traveled to Bethesda, I went to see my acupuncturist. She is an incredible, Scottish woman with multiple sclerosis. Incidentally she is also a talented painter and has a wonderful mind. I asked her for a last-minute appointment because when I woke up that day, the left side of my neck was really tight and sore. This is my sentinel location that lights up whenever I combine surfing, weight training and holding a 30+ pound toddler in my left arm, with a bunch of stress. So I show up at her lovely little apartment and sit down in the treatment room. She asks me about my neck and then, as any good practitioner would, she asks about all of my other systems. By the time we go through all of that I think my diagnosis might be freaking mess. I don’t know Eastern medicine, but I think they probably have a medical term for that.
I lie down on the table and she lifts up the sheet to reveal my abdomen. “What is this?!?” she asks. I explain the surgical scar in the nonchalant way, I’m accustomed to do. She looks at me with a serious expression and with a firm, Scottish accent states, “That’s trauma. Your muscles remember that.” She asks me what I’ve done for treatment of the wound. I’m not sure what to say…nothing? She attempts to put some needles around the scar and has trouble getting them in through the thick scar tissue. After the needle treatment, she performed massage on the scar and recommended that I massage it regularly so my chi doesn’t get blocked in there.
Her words, “That’s trauma,” have been ringing in my ears.
For years, I have been coming to NIH and having, basically, the same experience. I show up and stay as shut down as possible until it’s over and I can go home. I know my family and friends have been confused about what has made it so miserable. I mean, everybody gets that you have to do some tests that make you feel kind of crappy, but you’re in DC and there’s lots to see and do. At least you get some time off of work. Etc., etc. I’ve heard all of the reasons why it shouldn’t be that bad. Until now, I think I was with everyone else. It SHOULDN’T be that bad. So then I was judging myself for my inability to enjoy any of it, which just made everything worse because now I was miserable and I couldn’t talk about it because that meant something negative about me. This is shame! Hello, shame.
So, I think a couple of things have made a difference this time. First, I am just starting to acknowledge the trauma I’ve suffered. It has taken me 13 years, but I am finally in a position to be generous enough with myself to consider it. Sometimes my abdominal muscles still spasm in response to touch. This is a reflex called involuntary guarding and is the body’s mechanism for protecting inflamed, underlying tissues. I think my brain had a similar response: Create a thick wall around emotion so I don’t have to feel the pain. But now, I am willing to take that down.
I used live with so much fear, but this fear is slowly being replaced by willingness. I am willing to feel pain for myself or another person. The interesting thing about being willing to feel pain is that it frees me up to be open to joy. I don’t have to live, waiting for the next shoe to drop. I can lean into moments of joy BECAUSE I know I can totally
handle breathe through pain (no one handles pain—pain will not be managed into submission–that’s a law of the universe!).
Being willing to feel pain also frees up brain power. My default is to spend 90% of my awake time churning through ways I can stay out of pain. This can be anticipating other’s needs or wants, ruminating about their reaction, considering how I will completely fill a weekend without my son because being alone with myself and my thoughts can be terrifying, etc. When I can let go of the fear of pain, suddenly there is less in my life that needs managing.
Recently I rediscovered this quote from Brené Brown’s Rising Strong:
“…scars are easier to talk about than they are to show, with all the remembered feelings laid bare. And rarely do we see wounds that are in the process of healing. I’m not sure if it’s because we feel too much shame to let anyone see a process as intimate as overcoming hurt, or if it’s because even when we muster the courage to share our still-incomplete healing, people reflexively look away.”
You are seeing a wound that is in the process of healing.
Today I had an experience that, to me, marked some progress in my healing. NIH is closed on the weekends–so no tests today. I visited the Burning Man exhibit at the Renwick Gallery. Each year at Burning Man a massive, intricate wood temple is constructed as a place for reflection and prayer. The temple is burned at the end of the festival. A similar structure was erected in the gallery.
At the top of the stairs is a doorway into a vast, dimly lit room. The walls are covered in intricately cut balsa wood. This sign is displayed at the threshold:
I remind myself to feel what I need to feel and I start to make my way around the room, reading the inscriptions left on the walls by my fellow humans. The first one that sticks out reads, “Megan Ray Your Momma and Dad love you! R.I.P.” I feel the lump in my throat as I consider the pain behind that sentence. Another says, “I deserve to live like everyone else, even if my brain is a little different. I’m grateful that I didn’t successfully commit suicide and that I’ve been given another chance to live.” Heart-wrenching. There is a drawing of a penis (because it’s impossible to give people permission to write on the walls and NOT have someone draw a penis). Several directives to “Vote” and “Register to vote.” Lots of song lyrics and quotes, mantras, etc.
I can’t help but think of how I would have seen all of this even as recently as a year ago. I would have kept the emotional and provocative inscriptions at arms length—don’t want to risk stirring up feelings and vulnerability. I would have been judgmental of the penis and other irreverent inscriptions. People are the worst, right?!? You can’t trust them with anything sacred. While I take no issue with encouraging people to vote, I would have seen those inscriptions as inappropriate as well. The exhibit is supposed to be about grief and loss and I wouldn’t have been able to make a connection from that to voting.
It’s easy for me to know what I would have thought because those thoughts are still in my mind. But, they are weaker. The stronger thoughts are now those inviting me to actually consider the pain of losing a child, to let that sink into my soul. To understand that those who are irreverent or draw genitals in a sacred space are likely afraid of or repulsed by the kind of vulnerability that such a place requires. I’ve been afraid of and repulsed by vulnerability too. To know that for some, the directive to vote might purely be a political directive, but for others it is a deep expression of their grief and loss. A way to take action in a world that feels very out of their control.
What I now have room for in my mind and heart, that wasn’t there before, is the understanding that, behind each inscription, is a life full of fear and love. One that can only be partially understood by a simple inscription.
I take a balsa tile and write my own inscription. It feels imperfect and unoriginal, but just like I do each time I post on this blog, I tell myself, “It doesn’t have to be good, it just has to be true.”
Thank you for being a witness to my healing. Namaste.
I probably don’t need to tell a psychiatric PA the effects of trauma… but they are real and they boil up to the surface sooner or later. May God’s spurit be with you.
Ever since Eli started going to Burning Man, I’ve been intrigued by it. This display looks amazing, and I love your tile. I’m trying to stay open too.