There’s no denying reality in the flesh.
I’ve spent a couple of days out flat: coughing, sneezing and miserable.
But this illness is cake compared to how I used to get sick. Like the time I was at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts for some exhibit I couldn’t miss. I could barely stand I was so sick. I was coughing like mad, and I kept pulling a bottle of Robitussin DM out of my bag and swigging from it like a drunk. I don’t remember now what the exhibit was.
And this was after I got sober. Maybe you know—when you get yourself good and whacked out like I did, it takes a long time to unwind the messiness. It can take years to change things. Back when I was an active drunk, you couldn’t have talked to me about taking care of myself. At the worst of it, I drank a lot and almost every day. I smoked two packs a day. I took speed to stay awake and I smoked dope to ease the jitters; I slept inconsistently and not enough. I ate candy like an impulsive 10-year-old let loose in Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. I took enormous risks. I suffered a lot because of my recklessness, and so did the people who love me.
Early on, I got some help and I quit drinking and taking drugs. The change in my life was vast. Just like that—snap—I always knew where I was in the morning when I woke up. I didn’t have to avoid people because I didn’t remember what I’d said or done around them. Or maybe worse, I did remember.
What I didn’t recognize until years later may seem obvious to you in this short telling: my body was a mess. Without the ever-present assault, my body had a chance to re-balance, to regulate, and to do what it is so good at doing: helping me cope with life.
In those early days, I was just unlearning ineffective and damaging coping mechanisms. It took longer to develop good ones. I didn’t know what a fried-out adrenal system meant, and I couldn’t recognize how it felt to have a nervous system so overwhelmed that my only response was to ignore it and keep on moving. I didn’t understand that I was walking around holding my breath, my muscles tensed, and my mind reeling a million miles a minute. I didn’t recognize this jaggedness, but my life certainly reflected it.Photo: George Eastman House
I was young and young bodies can take a lot of abuse and keep on going. When I started paying attention and taking care, life in my body and mind began to smooth out. Over time, I would learn to love the relative tranquility of my body without the influences of alcohol and other drugs.
But learning to grow that tranquility has taken most of my life. Sure, I got rid of the most obvious obstacles to steadiness, but there were more. Over the years, I quit smoking cigarettes, I quit using caffeine and I quit binging on candy.
Life gets better every step of the way and I’ve learned tons. Still, I am me; I’ve had a habit of learning things the hard way. Sometimes I don’t know when to back off.
Flashback 26 years, to a car accident that has meant chronic pain ever since. I’ve had surgeries and rehab and ongoing body work to deal with the issues from this accident.
So I dance and do yoga to keep strong and stay fit. But a couple of years ago, my right leg went numb from the knee down and the most impressive pain of my life came to stay with me. I spent almost six months with an inability to get up and walk around for more than a few minutes without excruciating pain taking over.
Here’s the thing—leading up to that injury I remember being in yoga class, my leg up around my neck, and saying to myself, “Wow, my hip hurts even though I’m doing all these hip-opening exercises. I wonder what I need to do.”
Uh…how about “Stop that!”
I don’t think that answer occurred to me. I wanted to do what I wanted to do. Who doesn’t? Plus, I felt like I was doing good things, helpful things. So I didn’t listen to the obvious answer that my hip was looking for.
I learned a lot about bodies during those months of lying on my bed staring at the ceiling. About patience and being quiet. About not pushing so hard; about being gentle and letting things come and go. During that time and since then, I’ve deepened my ability to treat my body with respect, and to honor what my body needs.
I don’t say this as some highfalutin’ ideal. It’s practical and time consuming work every single day. It takes practice and it takes energy. Sometimes, I tire of the work and get exasperated with having to deal with it. But I know the cost of ignoring it. So when the nerve damage is acting up in my leg, I stop and listen. What is the stress here? Why is this coming now? What do I need to know?
This works for all kinds of body sensations. Even something as mundane as a cold has something to say. So I listen. I meditate; I mentally scan my body for stress and ask what it’s about; I pay attention to my breathing; I watch the way I hold the muscles in my body.
These days, when my body starts to show signs of jaggedness, I cancel appointments, get still and give my body the care and attention it needs.
Inevitably, in the listening and allowing, the pain or illness changes. This process of paying attention, and breathing into what’s there, and allowing it to inform me gives me more relief than a painkiller. It’s amazing how quickly you can get over an illness if you rest. We’re talking days, not weeks. Who knew?
Over the years, I’ve come to realize that our bodies know a lot not just about pain and illness, but also about tension, fear, anticipation, and joy, happiness, and contentedness. Our bodies don’t hide what we can’t or won’t pay attention to. They tell the story whether we are listening or not. It’s a story worth hearing.
Anne O’Connor is the founder of Tending the Fire Within, www.tendingthefirewithin.com, a self-development and reflection process done through workshops. She is also a long-time writer and journalist. She was the founder and editor of the Kickapoo Free Press, an arts and entertainment monthly in southwest Wisconsin. She is a former staff writer for the Star Tribune in Minneapolis and the author of The Truth About Stepfamilies DeCapo Press, 2003. Anne believes that people change…if and when their lives demand it. You can reach Anne at [email protected]
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Ed: Lynn Hasselberger
Assist. Ed: Sarah Winner