September 17, 2013

10 Things I Learned From My Injuries. ~ Rebecca Taylor

What Pain Teaches: Life Lessons

1. Pride comes before a fall.

It’s a cliché to say this perhaps, but if a cliché could be my friend, this one would have been with me all my life. In the midst of action and excitement it is far too easy to relax and assume that, as you are enjoying yourself now, there is no more work to be done, you need pay no more attention.

You might have a fantastic idea for a game, but you might also end up with a fractured thumb from a bamboo cane fight (nine years old). You might think you totally have this slope, even in zero visibility, but you can’t see the ice patch— that’s why it’s so dangerous. And you might think you’ve walked it off, injury-free, just to find you’ve broken two vertebrae (16 years old).

While it’s easy in hindsight to point out where you stopped being careful, at the time, it often feels like you are just getting better at what you are doing; but, this is the real meaning of pride— to put yourself above your abilities and your skills, and close off your awareness of the wider world.

If you don’t need to pay attention half way through, you wouldn’t have needed to at the beginning— indeed, if you really don’t need to focus, you would probably find what you are doing so boring you wouldn’t be involved in the first place.

2. When people say “rest,” they don’t mean: Do everything you normally do with a bandage on.

“Lots of rest” is also almost a cliché in medical advice, but you shouldn’t think of it this way. Many injuries seem better long before they are actually healed, and the period right before everything is better is usually the time you push yourself and make everything much, much worse. Resting is not a sin, it’s not a sign of laziness or weakness, and it’s not something that you have to earn or justify.

I badly damaged my wrist six years ago, through a combination of yoga and kayaking, and I became more and more frustrated with how long it was taking to heal. Talking to my brother, he asked me how long I rested it. I said, “For a couple of days, then I did some light stretching, with it bandaged.”

“That’s not rest. If you didn’t rest it, no wonder it didn’t heal.”

He was right. I never allowed myself enough time to heal, and six years later I still have to be very, very careful with my wrists or I re-damage the tendons and end up with it wrapped for three days. Just as Savasana is the key to avoiding injuries and reaping the full benefits of our yoga practice, so with the rest of our lives.

3. Listen to your body.

The injury to my wrist seemed so small at the time, but has been one of my longest running injury problems. And, although I would like to blame Bikram yoga, or specifically the yoga teachers in that studio, I made the decision to listen to their bad advice, rather than listening to my body.

The worst part was I had experience with yoga and I knew the difference between the sweet ache of stretching a muscle and the sharp pain of something going wrong in your joints. So when I mentioned to a yoga teacher that I had pains in my elbows during the Locust poses, and she smiled, shook her head and said “Don’t worry, it’s meant to be like that, it’s just your elbow joints opening up,” I should have remembered that this teacher didn’t know me.

As my boyfriend pointed out to me later (when I was in so much pain that I couldn’t grip things with my fingers), “She doesn’t know that you don’t complain about pain unless it’s serious.” But I wanted it to be OK so badly, I wanted to push myself so much, that I willingly ignored all the warning signs my body gave me until it was too late. Which brings us on to…

4. Masochism is not the same as challenging yourself.

The human body has evolved over millions of years, I believe, to work as a finely tuned instrument, with bells and whistles to warn you of danger and risk of death. Unfortunately, the human brain seems to have evolved specific traits to override these warning signals, in the hope that risking yourself will end with a reward—be that more food, more children or better defenses from enemies. We have also developed emotions such as pride, fear and a guilty lust for punishment to justify these risks and nowhere can this be more obvious than in the modern world of yoga.

From contortionist photos of poses on tumblr, to bare-faced insecurity at watching the willowy figure at the front of the class wrap her limbs around each other, the unhealthy obsession that Western culture has with competition and progress can be a hard habit to break. And the “If it doesn’t challenge you, it doesn’t change you” mentality, which I can see has definite benefits, also has massive drawbacks; it encourages people to view their bodies as tainted by some Yogic Original Sin, needing to be redeemed through trial and tribulation.

On one level, the importance of challenging yourself is a self-evident truth, but on another level, it is meaningless. Your body will do what it will do, you will do what you will do, but fighting your body from the inside is a naïve attempt to bully the world to fit your agenda. Love and cherish your body, have respect for it, and you will change its physical form without unnecessary and dangerous punishment.

5. A serious injury or illness will show you who your friends are.

Like any other teenage girl, I had my share of unhealthy friendships. Perhaps luckily, I was given the justification to dump these friends after they only visited me once in the three months I was bed-ridden after breaking my back.

Somehow this kind of thing always seems to take us by surprise when it happens. It’s painful and confusing to question why they don’t want to be around you, or how easily you seem to slip from their mind. Sitting around in pain, with all that time on your hands, it’s hard not to assume that the problem lies with you: that you are broken, that you will never be fixed, and that things will never be the same.

Without your friends to help you through, these problems can swallow you up. Those people who do come through for you—who come to visit, who go on about their problems even, so you don’t feel like you are the only one with a poo-sandwich on their plate—these are much better friends than the ones who have walked away. With friendship, quality always beats quantity.

6. Substance dependency is a lot easier to fall into than you think it is.

Never assume that it couldn’t happen to you. In the same vein, never assume that it hasn’t already happened to you.

Being in constant pain is draining physically, mentally and emotionally. It turns you into a different person and it makes you forget what it is to be without pain. Painkillers, amphetamines, benzos, anti-inflammatories, cannabis, cocaine, alcohol… all of these medications can help you forget the pain, but the stereotype of the middle-class, pill-popping housewife is common for a reason: it is really common.

Drug dependency does not recognize itself in the mirror. It can’t hear its own voice and it reacts viciously to having its covers ripped off and being exposed. As a teenager, I was given a prescription for 200 painkillers that, due to my age and the wonders of a nationalized health service, was both free and easily renewable at any time. Years after I should have stopped taking them, I was trying to get a new prescription at a different doctor’s when I was refused. After various calamities and bad decision making processes, I ended up stopping the painkillers I had taken every day for various back-pains and “twinges” and I discovered that, actually, my back didn’t hurt nearly as much as I believed.

This is the power of addiction: my body created pain to justify taking the painkillers. A decade later and I still struggle with substance dependency. If you think you may have a problem, you can find help quietly and privately, but don’t be embarrassed about it—dependency seems so shameful, but this is also part of the process of your dependency—justifying why you “can’t” seek help.

7. Panic is the enemy of getting out of this alive.

If there is one thing that will cause problems more than anything else, it is panic. Panic happens when we give in to the voice in our head that screams “Faster,” the voice that makes us think that worrying about a problem will solve it; but, that stops us from taking action because we are so caught up in the moment of terror, we forget to act.

Whether it is saving a drowning puppy caught under glass, giving another puppy CPR or the puppy Heimlich maneuver (really, I have no idea why puppies around me seem to have such a death wish), stopping to “think” is often a euphemism for refusing to take the responsibility of decisive action, the responsibility that you might just make things worse by intervening. The paralysis of indecisiveness is like the fear of heights I’ve had from looking down while climbing an, admittedly probably not that high, boulder— once it has taken hold it is much harder to shake off than if you had not allowed yourself to look down in the first place.

Hitting the ground hurts, especially if you land on an angle. In school, playing the part of the front-end of a donkey, I accidentally walked off the front of the stage into the orchestra pit during my dance. One cello, three music stands and my French teachers’ daughter were injured in the process. Mid-air I remember thinking “I need to turn.” In just the same way, the first time I got turned over kayaking, I remember thinking, sitting upside-down, under-water, “I need to turn”, and suddenly I was the right way up. If I had panicked, in either situation, I could never have moved.

8. Have money kept aside for injuries, just as you would for any other emergency.

Being injured is expensive. No matter what country you are in, how good your health service, or your insurance, if you don’t have some money set by for emergencies, you are going to need to have a friend that does. Between travel costs, medicine, treatment, overnight stays, tests, inflated invoices and the occasional bribe where necessary, credit and cash is sometimes the only way to get healthy, as sad as that may be.

I broke my back snowboarding in the Alps (*ahem* *ahem*) and the flight was relatively short, but the price of six seats (the space needed for my trolley) plus the nurse to accompany me, on top of transport to Geneva (in the back of a mini van with two guys who chain-smoked the whole way) was astronomical. But all that was covered by the insurance. What wasn’t covered were the three days I had to stay in a hotel while the doctor and insurance company argued about my evacuation.

Recently, I was talking to my boyfriend about malaria risk in Kenya; I asked him why malaria was such a big killer, if he had had it several times in his life and is still as healthy as ever.

“If you have the drugs, you will be fine. But if you can’t afford the drugs then you will die”.

Love of money might be the root of all evil, but money itself can sometimes save your life.

9. Medical professionals might seem like they don’t care at times, but that’s just because they are annoyed people keep ignoring their advice!

If I had a dollar for every time I have heard a medical professional sigh, I would have many, many dollars. I have heard every type of medical professional sigh at me—from dentists, to therapists, to physiotherapists, to surgeons. Usually, it is because the answer I have just given runs along the lines of:  Well, no, I don’t do what-ever-sound-professional-advice-you-have-given-me.

As a teacher, I am often shocked at how students will not follow precise instructions, because they don’t want to, they weren’t listening, or they think another way will be just as good. As a teacher talking to a child, I pull them up on it— as an adult talking to an adult, medical staff cannot exactly tell you to stay in at lunchtime and do your physio-exercises, or floss your teeth. All they can do is sigh, count to 10, and repeat the advice.

Rather than seeing them as giving meaningless advice, and not being sympathetic to my “victim” status, my target is to give them the professional respect they deserve by listening to their advice. Or 10 years later, when I’m in even worse shape and the same muscles ache everyday, I may wish I had just done the physio-excerises when I was young and stupid.

10. Be thankful!

This year was my year of getting fitter. I started running as part of this. After three months I was crippled by pain for two days. I couldn’t move my legs and had searing pain from the middle of my back down to my butt. After hospital visits and x-rays it has become clear that in the years since the injury, my back is deeply out of kilter. The two vertebrae I broke are odd shapes, the disc between them is dangerously thin, one of them is also sloping to the right— so the vertebrae above and below are under pressure to curve the spine into an “S” shape—and the force of keeping myself upright lead to a small “cliff” growing at the front of the vertebrae. My back pain came from my psoas (the deep stomach muscle that acts as the major hip flexor) and my piriformis (the muscle that crosses you pelvis horizontally at the back, and encases the central nerves that leads from your spine into your legs) in spasm.

I will have back problems for the rest of my life. But things could be much worse.

When I fell, I bounced off my head and flipped over to sit down, crushing the spongy, teenage bone between the outer shells of harder, “adult” vertebrae that were developing. A move to the left or right, and I could have snapped my spine. A different bounce off my head, and anything—from snapping my neck to crushing the back of my skull—could have happened. But more than “it could have been worse” is the equal thought “it could never have happened” and this makes me realize what it truly means to be thankful and accepting of what happened to me.

If I never broke my back, I would never have had time to sit on my own as a 16-year old and think. I would never have had the time to solve a Rubix cube. I would never have taken up yoga, and gone on to do Rainbow Kids Yoga teacher training. I would never have met my therapist, a man who changed my life. I would never have learned so much about anatomy, massage and pain management. I would never have realized how fragile life is, why I should take risks and why I should move to the other side of the world just to see what was there.

Being thankful means more than just saying “Thank you” to the world for beautiful things or people we love. It means having that same emotion for the bad things that have happened to you: people dying, being broken, being lost and alone.

Because all of life is a blessing.

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Assist Ed: Edith Lazenby/Ed: Sara Crolick

{Photo: via Vanity City Buzz}



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