A Story About Pain

This is a story about pain. It’s also a story about severing the connection between mind and body to minimize the impact of pain, only to find that’s where the real damage happens.

Thirteen months ago, on March 31st, I fell headfirst down a flight of stairs. I held a cup of coffee in one hand and small stack of papers in the other. I was wearing a pair of modest high heels, a pencil skirt, and a blouse. One of the heels snagged on the carpet and I plunged face first. As I was somersaulting down the stairs my only thought was, “Is this really happening???”

When I lifted my head off the tile floor at the bottom of the stairs, legs askew behind me, coffee splattered on the walls, papers littered everywhere, my eyes met those of a colleague. He looked scared. Though I planned to brush this fall off as if it were no more than a funny story, the look on his face told me that to an outside observer, this was serious.

I worked 10 hours that day and hosted a meeting for a local tourism board’s marketing committee 8 hours after the fall. Between back to back meetings, I managed to find the time to sign an incident report where I agreed that I had declined medical treatment and that I would, from this point forward, leave one hand free to use the handrail on all stairways at the business.

That evening, I lay in bed in a shocking amount of pain and wondered if I’d be able to walk when I woke up the next morning. I was able to, and with that, decided to put this incident behind me, going back to my life with long work days and intense workouts as if nothing had ever happened.

I had become so out of touch with my body that I wasn’t able to recognize the trauma somersaulting down a flight of stairs had caused. Getting my work done, staying on the hamster wheel, was the top priority in my life. Dialing into my body and feeling that physical pain would have forced me to recognize it was a cause for concern and a time for recovery. I didn’t believe I had time for that recovery, so I pressed on as if nothing had happened.

Sure enough, my right shoulder became too tender to use in yoga, TRX, and boot camp. If I slept on my right side, I’d wake up in excruciating pain in the middle of the night. About a month after the injury, the pain had become constant. I saw a doctor and a physical therapist. Neither were very concerned. My doctor issued an x-ray and told me all I needed was rest. I saw the physical therapist three times, at the end of my third session she declared me on the path to recovery and liberated from the torture of her services.

Fast forward 10 more months. My right upper body strength is considerably weaker than that of my left. I continued to have constant pain in my right shoulder and though I have progressed, I have not returned to yoga and I can’t complete many of the upper body fitness routines in TRX and boot camp. Enough time has passed that I have settled into the belief that this is simply my body’s truth for the rest of time. I will never have full mobility or strength in my right shoulder.

And then my first running injury flared up landing me back in physical therapy. This time, I worked with one of the owners of the gym where I am a member. At the end of our first session, she asked if my shoulder was back to 100%. When I told her the injury was still lingering in my body, she added shoulder work to our weekly sessions. She taught me stretches to do at home, prescribed a sports massage to break up the scar tissue, and gently pulled and pushed on my shoulders once a week. Slowly my right shoulder lowered to the same height as my left. Both shoulder blades rested comfortably on the floor when I lie on my back. Two weeks ago, I was able to lift my right arm all the way over my head. A victory so great that I burst into tears. We’re working on strength training now, using heavier weights on the right side of my body so it can catch up to the development I’ve made by favoring my left side for over a year. I haven’t felt pain in my shoulder for the last 6 weeks.

It's a powerful experience, watching an accepted truth shatter before you. The mental journey I took with this fall down the stairs was one of willful ignorance to complete acceptance. But both ends of my mental spectrum were fully divorced from my body’s physical reality. I went from refusing to believe I was injured to unquestioningly accepting I wouldn’t heal. The tricky thing about our thoughts though, is that’s all they are, thoughts. And these thoughts were certainly not my body’s reality.

Feeling my hand hit the ground above my head for the first time in a year flooded me with emotions. I felt freedom from my injury. I felt mentally relieved that I was no longer trapped by a truth I had told myself for a year. I felt a reinvigorated desire to spend more time quietly listening to my body, giving myself the space away from critiques and justifications and analyzations that had done me wrong for the last year. I thought I knew better throughout this entire process, until my hand hit the ground and I was forced to see my thoughts had been wrong all along.

With this recovery, I have learned to separate physical injury and pain from my being. Much like with mental illness, I am not my injury. I am not my pain. The pain is temporary and is a warning sign that something in my body is amiss. It doesn’t change who I am at my core. That being in the center can recognize and accept the pain, but it doesn’t become the pain. I am not my limitations.

In turn, YOU are not your limitations. Challenge yourself to investigate what’s holding you back. Are the truths you tell yourself different from the reality of the situation? Sink into a quiet enough space to listen to your body, to your intuition, to your center. In allowing yourself to silence what you think you know, you may be pleasantly surprised by the alternatives that come to light.