Somehow I came to believe that up is synonymous with good, and down with bad.
Is it because I have been told to keep my head up, cheer up, speak up and stand up for myself? Or is it because looking up, I see majestic birds soaring overhead and looking down, I see skittish insects scurrying under my feet?
Well, it may be exhilarating to soar through the sky, riding the winds and twisting through clouds, but those birds have to come down eventually. In diving down to the ground, they seek nourishment. They ease their hunger and replenish their reserves. They find solace on a firm branch or the soft sand that meets the surf.
I guess in a way, the same is true of me.
I once was lucky enough to work with an 89-year-old woman who made everyone around her smile. She had fallen and fractured her left hip and shoulder. When she met me in an inpatient rehabilitation facility, she could not sit up, feed herself or pee in a toilet. Yet, for the three months that I worked with her, every time I asked her how her shoulder or hip was she smiled at me and said, “It’s just letting me know it’s there.”
I can hear her shaky, playful voice as I write this and I have never forgotten those words as I have developed a relationship with my own pain, a pain I had been pushing away when it was just trying to let me know it was there.
I am in pain every day.
I have arthritis in my lower back, sciatica and sacroiliac joint pain. The pain has been getting progressively worse for 12 years, to the point that it cannot be ignored anymore. It demands my attention. It screams at me until I turn toward it. On most days the pain leaves me sucking for air and depleted by the end of my work day, unable to do anything but lie in bed. I eat lying down. I am writing this lying down.
After a decade of attempting to ignore the pain at best and sending death threats to it as I suffered through what I “shouldn’t be doing” at worst, something finally happened that opened my eyes.
I was entering my second museum of the day and I was on the verge of tears. I wanted to enjoy this vacation day like any other 30-year-old should be able to and I swore at my back for ruining my fun once again. As I berated myself for being weak and feeble, I tried to power through because I did not want to keep my boyfriend from enjoying the day. However, this time I couldn’t do it anymore. I stooped down with my hands on my knees at the entrance to the museum and told him I thought I had to sit down. Then, despite my embarrassed pleas not to, he asked the museum guide for a wheelchair.
The moment I sat down, my pain eased. Once I got over my hurt pride, it started to sink in that this is what it feels like to just be in a museum. To just be, without being in pain. I had forgotten what it felt like to simply look at artwork (or talk to friends, read a book or sip a drink for that matter) without the constant echo of pain dulling my pleasure. This is what life could be like without pain! I tumbled into remembrances of my vibrant, joyous, energetic self and wondered at this life that left gaping holes where my pain pierced through.
Sitting in that wheelchair not only brought me a new understanding of what I had allowed my life to become by ignoring my pain. I was also brought to tears by the severity of my pain that the need for a wheelchair illuminated.
I was always the strong, tough one. As a toddler, my grandpa called me Wiggleworm because I could not sit still on his lap. In elementary school I raced faster than the boys and reined over the monkey bars. My identity was formed on basketball courts, roller blades, tree branches and at the crest of waves.
As I got older, my identity was honed at the sides of those who were suffering, physically and emotionally. I saw myself as a strong, stable person on whom others leaned.
Now here I was, sitting in a wheelchair balling my eyes out in the middle of a crowded museum. Finally I was forced to relinquish my limiting beliefs about my identity and what it would mean to be the one who was broken down. And trust me, I was forced. I did not go down without a fight. While that day was the eye-opener, I have been in the process of acceptance and letting go for the past two years.
I have been diving to new depths. I am prioritizing my health, even to the point of moving back in with my mom so I can afford to see medical professionals. I am finally listening to the wisdom of my pain. I work less, meditate, practice yoga, eat healing foods, read everything from Buddhist books to medical journals and I am learning to say “No.” I send love to my body for the pain it endures. I allow myself to feel the pain and ride the waves of sensation as they ebb and flow.
As my identity and beliefs shatter around me, I find clarity and meaning. Part of that meaning is being able to use my experience to help others who find themselves in deep, tender places. I am learning a great deal on this journey toward my pain that I never would have learned had I continued to pretend I was okay. It is a process that is far from over. I can tell you this, though:
Falling to new “lows” has presented me with the chance to know my depths and to replenish my heart, soul and body, just as the bird who dives to the ground finds sustenance before rising back up to heights of peace and exhilaration.
Author: Marisa Harrison
Image: Olenka Kotyk/Unsplash
Editor: Catherine Monkman