Realizations around disability and chronic pain.
My mother has suffered from chronic pain for over 15 years. She is the person who helped instill the value of exercise in me and it was truly sad to watch this be stripped from her to a large degree. It’s equally inspiring to see her resiliency.
Sadly, secretly (and sometimes openly), I’d judge her for years with spiritual gaslighting and good intentions that it’s mind over matter and so forth. This has value, doesn’t it? In part, yes. I’ve had many great experiences meditating and realizing the power of my thoughts. Yet it’s so easy to pass this message to someone else when not experiencing the discomfort or loss yourself.
Being a sober person, I’ve realized how much exercise is a part of my life now and even before. It helps me better be able to focus, feel good about myself, and fills me with pride. Is that a “good” thing? I used to think so.
Now to the not so far past and present. About 4 months ago I went into physical therapy (PT) for some discomfort in my hip flexor. Together we thought I had a muscle weakness which caused my pain, so we found exercises for me to work through it. It seemed to get better and worse and better and worse again but only hurt during my exercises, so we moved onward. I was told to follow my intuition and if it hurt stop. I did my best to do this but I wanted to exercise so I was stubborn and “managed.” Until about three weeks ago when I did a kickboxing workout where I experienced immense pain in my hip flexor the following days. It hurt so badly that I thought about going to the ER from just sitting upright in a booth.
At my following appointment, my PT, who also periodically worked on my posture, looked at my knees. She explained my knees point inwards a bit and gave me some tips to “try to see my big toes” while walking up stairs, lunging, and more. I, like the good worrier I am, did what some of us do in 2019. I, in part, stuck in my own stubbornness and in part from searching the interwebs, found many articles, webpages, and YouTube videos to perpetuate my fears. I ended up forcing my feet flat on the ground, which they didn’t want to do and tried to correct my posture almost every minute of my waking hours for two weeks. It should be of no surprise that by the time I went to my next PT appointment, my knees hurt so badly. I was in almost constant pain. This was my first time ever experiencing joint pain and it sucked.
What did I learn? Even though self-inflicted in my case, I came to terms with my deepest fears of living with chronic pain and disability, as this was a reality in my mind and to some extent still is. Reflective writing is one tool that has helped ground me to see my deepest fear as to not want to create what I’m unaware of that drives me. Things like supportive people, meditation, therapy, PT, staying in today, resting, externalizing “The Pain,” and more help as well. My knees have begun to get better and yet they still hurt daily, a full week after stopping my own self-correction postures. My X-rays showed my knees are within the range of normal and my femur is on the inside of my tibia and not straight above my patella. They think it’s a muscular imbalance that PT can help with.
So, what did I learn? I learned, just like my perceptions around race, I have biases. I am implicitly ableist. I had flashbacks and noticing of folks living with variations of the human body I’m not used to seeing and my avoidance of eye contact or the need to look away. Did I think I was going to catch something from looking at them? Yes, a part of me did without realizing it. Why don’t I have friends that are living with chronic pain and disability? Why didn’t I notice that when I flip through Netflix or other popular media the folks on there are almost exclusively able-bodied and not living with chronic pain?
I started to experience waves of shame and guilt for these privileges even though I know we’re not “bad” for them and it’s quite normal not to think about privilege until our attention is brought there. Still, I became sensitive to it. One day in class my professor mentioned exercising daily as a form of self-care she practices and it was the catalyst that set me off for a mini panic attack. I sobbed for ten minutes in the bathroom and it was hard to breathe. I couldn’t stop thinking of my knees and legs and part of it was my psyche and part of it was a real discomfort.
I’ve realized that additionally, I’ve fat shamed folks holding implicit bias because I judged them to need to exercise more or “eat healthier.” What I had neglected to recall is among the lines of an article I read this semester which talked about how we don’t get to choose our coping strategies. The fact that mine was and has a possibility of being taken away from me woke me to the truth that it’s nothing for me to take pride in. I have also been reinforcing the social construct of what “normal” bodies look like along with what folks should and should not eat and so forth. For me, exercise is an addiction as much as alcohol and drugs were. Don’t hear me wrong that exercise is bad — I’m not saying that. What I am saying is my attachment to exercising caused me so much pain and I realize how much I use it to separate myself from others and hold myself secretly superior. I think my diet could be included in this as well, although I do mine for what I see as a need.
Back to where I started. I still have a lot to understand about disability and chronic pain. I want to dig deeper with my own mother and understand her life better. I know trauma also lives in the body and I have much curiosity about the connection between intergenerational trauma, anxiety, and body discomforts.
Still, I think of words an undergraduate professor shared in his signature to his email and would often resonate in class — something along the lines of “life has to do with luck.” At the time I didn’t want to hear these words and didn’t believe them. “What was this white philosophy professor talking about?”, I had thought to myself. We’re taught in the US to work hard. I knew he believed in these ideas as well. Also, that we can change and create our own luck, right? What about existentialism and Victor Frankl? I adore his work and surviving two concentration camps. I find immense value and strength in his and others resiliency.
Yet I’m beginning to see how much luck has to do with it and I’m finding it humbling. I didn’t choose my skin tone, my body, my family, my assigned gender, and so much more. Of course, I can choose and work through how to react to factors in my life and still there is much to be said about systems of oppression that’s best saved for another story. I acknowledge my own hypersensitivity towards pain and aspects of my life due to many factors, some named. Specifically, I think of having secondary trauma from witnessing the experiences of my mothers car accidents and am coming to realize how much it has shook me.
A friend recommended a podcast which I found moving on chronic pain. It’s “The Fifth Vital Sign,” by Invisibilia, from March 8th, 2019.
I’d also like to share some books I’ve found helpful related to somatic and trauma.
- The Body Keeps the Score, by Bessel Van Der Kolk
- My Grandmothers Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies, by Resmaa Menakem
- Sensorimotor Psychotherapy, by Pat Ogden
- Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence — From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror, by Judith Herman
To gain awareness of your own implicit biases, take an exam. Learn more about the tests below: