Learning So Much It Hurts

Growing through your injuries

Sometime over the last year, life became a real pain in the neck.

As long as laptops have existed, I have been curving my body around them, Quasimodo-style. Finally, a few months ago, the little ropes of muscle that have held the full weight of my head like reins holding back a thundering team of Clydesdales for twenty-plus years said: This is bullshit. They quit. Chaos and Pain ensued.

For those who are interested in such things, your heavy, heavy head is supposed to be held up by your spine. But when you crane your neck forward, two little muscles called the Levator Scapulae get into the game. The Levator… (I can’t help but say that word in a scary monster voice…seriously, try it…) are curiously small and “anchored” on the top of the moveable shoulder blades, so when they get stressed, they pull your back out of shape and your shoulders hunch up while your chest caves in. They have no business holding the full weight of a head in normal times, much less during the five-month period in which I finished my MBA, wrote a record number of huge proposals for my full-time job, supported my husband in his new job, and did a bunch of freelance writing…to relax. All of this with three teenagers at home for the summer.

It started as a nagging knot that I rubbed with tennis balls and tried to ignore for a couple of months. It ended with me lying on the floor sobbing with breathtaking pain in my arm, back, and chest, and my husband walking out of a meeting with his boss to come rescue me.

The verdict? A couple of herniated discs, an impinged nerve, long-term use of a medication whose website features people twice my age, and hours of exquisitely painful physiotherapy. There are new pillows. There are needles. There is neon Kinesio tape, which I call my racing stripes. There is gnashing of teeth.

I feel pretty embarrassed about the whole thing. It’s not like I injured myself doing something impressive, like flying trapeze, or slinging full-grown men across the room at CrossFit. I sat at my computer for hours on end, engrossed in stuff I truly love, diving into the screen like a sea turtle.

Some Things Are More Than Naked

Some things are more than naked, like a man wearing only socks. Or a woman wearing only a neck brace. I cannot tilt my head back to kiss my very tall husband. That special place I nestle into on his left shoulder has become a minefield, shooting hot spikes of referred pain down my arm. In other news, I can no longer do the intensive exercises I love, plus the meds are making me stockpile water—on my ass. So I’m the heaviest I’ve ever been right now too. That state awakens a veritable lion’s pride of eating disorder and body image issues, which sleep just over the hill even in the best of times. Also? I’m snoring like a water buffalo.

The good news is that my neck can heal…IF—here’s the bad news—I make some dramatic and sustained changes to my lifestyle. If not…[insert all kinds of catastrophizing, including me ending up alone in my parents’ basement]. Also: spinal surgery and metal plates. Is there a choice here?

Ironically the most important thing I learned during my final graduate school term is that the very things that I have relied on to define who I am have turned out to be a real liability to who I am…and who I want to be.

Learning So Much It Hurts

So. I am learning, yet again, that becoming a better person is damn hard.

It actually hurts. And because it hurts, it takes courage to keep at it. Just as my physiotherapist is releasing and breaking up the knotted bands of connective tissue that have led to a systemic breakdown in my body, I have to break down and rebuild the zillions of deeply embedded habits that make up the fabric of my productivity—and associated identity. There are setbacks. Generally, it hurts worse before it feels better. But on the other side of the tears there is release and relief, discovery and recovery. For example: Last night I took a contemporary dance class. It wasn’t pretty, but I was there, dancing, and I remembered a part of me I used to love. It hurt, but next week it will feel better.

I am learning that balance is as much about varying my physical activities as it is about being happy and/or managing stress.

Some people assume that this is a physical manifestation of an emotional imbalance: I couldn’t handle the stress of doing “it all” and so the solution must be to “relax and take it easy.” I’m happy my MBA is done and the kids are back in school. And I’m not one to shrug off doc’s orders to get a weekly massage. But overall, this was brought on by physical imbalance, and not emotional burdens. I’ve learned you can be extremely happy and out of balance.

I am learning to reframe my goals, grounding them in more enduring aspirations for my life.

For example, I want to be a vivacious, creative and adventurous woman who is irresistible to her husband and a great role model for her daughters. That woman does not hunch over electronic devices for fourteen-hour stretches. I am trying to change my habits by asking: What does that fabulous woman do? She meditates every day. She chooses movement. She never hate-talks about herself. This is radical shit, people! I’ve also made my desk into an ergonomic thing of beauty, installed an app on my computer that forces me to take a break every forty-five minutes and instituted a daily dance party policy in my office. After all, it is through this body that I get to give and experience love—I need to cherish it with my choices.

I am learning that the process is the point.

A mountain climber has no idea how she will scale that sheer rock wall…she looks for a handhold, then a toehold, then another. She clings to the rock in exhaustion, and makes just the next decision. She attaches ropes—in advance—to offset inevitable missteps. I am learning to have faith that in the aggregate, a zillion little life- and love-affirming decisions will get me up the cliff.

Finally, I am learning, over and over, that my marriage is one of the ropes: a source of profound safety and support. This wasn’t always the case for me, and I’m so grateful. As I have hurled myself into Operation: Lifestyle Overhaul with my signature intensity, my beloved Brian has been as solid as a Zen garden wall. When I breathlessly finished explaining all of the action points and milestones in my plan, his reaction was just perfect.

He helped me up on a step to get my eyes even with his, gently gathered me in his arms and said: “Um, is it okay if I just keep on loving you so much that it hurts?”

Years into our relationship, and two years into marriage, I’m still learning to believe that he will.

Photo: Kelly Benvenuto

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  • Katie

    Unrelated (though this was a great post!) but I’m glad to see you pop up here as I take it to mean that you are safe after the attacks in Nairobi this weekend. Sending positive thoughts for your healing!

    • meg

      She is, though they work very nearby, and were pretty close to being there. I got an email shortly afterwards from Manya, letting me know. I’m sure good thoughts/ prayers/ light/ whatever you’re into would be appreciated.

    • Manya

      Thank you. Healing needed on so many fronts today.

      • Katie

        I used to live in Kenya (Peace Corps) and my husband is from there so we have been glued to the news. Seems like all of our family and friends are ok, but we are heartbroken. Definite good thoughts for healing for the whole country going out.

    • Cassandra

      I was also glad to see she’s fine – I used to live in Nairobi and let only a couple of weeks ago. This whole thing hurts.

      • Manya

        Thanks guys. That’s a whole cliff of hurt that we are just surviving one toe-hold at a time.

  • Katelyn

    Wishing you so many good thoughts towards a permanent recovery! I have two herniated discs in my lower back and have been almost completely without incident for a year now. It *is* possible, and it takes so much work and maintenance to keep my back healthy and happy, since I am also a slave to a computer during the day and while I’m studying for actuarial exams.

    But I’ve actually gotten over a lot of my body issues because of it. While I put on some weight in the last year, it just doesn’t bug me as much because I can sit down, stand up, walk, and bend over without pain. I have confidence that if I treat my body right with healthy foods and exercise, it will settle into whatever weight it wants to be.

    I’m not going to fight my body anymore, I’m going to treasure it.

  • Ella

    What an excellent post! Thank you, Manya! I really look forward to your posts.

    Love this quote: “A mountain climber has no idea how she will scale that sheer rock wall…she looks for a handhold, then a toehold, then another. She clings to the rock in exhaustion, and makes just the next decision. She attaches ropes—in advance—to offset inevitable missteps. I am learning to have faith that in the aggregate, a zillion little life- and love-affirming decisions will get me up the cliff.” What excellent perspective.

    • Emily

      That’s the same part that I was going to quote! So lovely. Especially when the cliff seems kind of huge. Like now, for example.

  • Anne

    Fantastic writing, as always. This especially resonanated with me:

    “For example, I want to be a vivacious, creative and adventurous woman who is irresistible to her husband and a great role model for her daughters. That woman does not hunch over electronic devices for fourteen-hour stretches. I am trying to change my habits by asking: What does that fabulous woman do? She meditates every day. She chooses movement. She never hate-talks about herself. This is radical shit, people!”

  • Beautiful!

    My medical history looks like an advanced degree in life lessons. I did something similar to my neck. The doctor asked me how bad the car accident had been after seeing my MRI, except I wasn’t in a car accident. I’d just been hunched over teaching computer classes to kids for a year.

    I’m hopeful that eventually I’ll become a quicker study of life’s lessons so I don’t have to keep visiting the doctor for refresher courses.

    • Hintzy

      I was similarly asked for a car accident history by a chiropractor after seeing the x ray images of my neck (I had gone because I was having daily headaches) the normal C curve of my neck was reversed by 7 degrees – from working in conservation with my head bent over a desk and fine art painting leaning into the canvas. It makes me wonder just how common this sort of thing is.

      • Manya

        It’s EXTREMELY common, and increasingly so. My doc said: Sitting is the new smoking in terms of negative health impact.

        • In all the health and nutrition literature I read, sitting is always cited as the number one indicator for health risk and longevity. EVEN IF you get the recommended level of exercise per day, and EVEN IF that exercise is sustained at high intensity for at least an hour, if you sit for most of the day, you are still at higher risk to develop health problems and your life will probably be shorter than someone who moves throughout the day.

  • Literally , yesterday I said to myself “I haven’t seen a post or comment from Manya in a while.” Glad to hear that you are in recovery mode. As a massage therapist I see what happened to you all.the.damn.time. So much so that they teach us about it school as “things you will see as a therapist.” It’s right up there with how to politely decline a request for a happy ending. Both are more common than I would like.

    Anyway, wishes for a speedy recovery and super glad you and the family are safe.

    • Manya

      It HAS been awhile. This is why. I have been here in spirit though, with my iPad at iLevel (I couldn’t resist).

      Ew, sorry about happy endings.

    • Emily

      PLEASE tell me how one politely declines a happy ending. I feel like that’s a skill that could be used in many aspects of life. (Indirectly, obviously.)

      • It involves alot of feigned ignorance and then pointed redirection. “My dear, the whole massage was special not just the end. Wow you have a lot of tension in your shoulder girdle. Let me look into that.” And elbows in soft places. Lots and lots of elbows.

  • Amber P

    Have you ever heard of Hanna Somatics? It’s a type of body work (not exercise) that is all about rewiring the brain and how it communicates with our muscles. I took a class for about 12 weeks and you learn how to release muscle tension with slow, gentle movements. It’s very relaxing and I totally recommend it! Here’s some more info about it: http://hannasomatics.com/

  • Shiri

    I have lots of joint problems, including two slipped discs in my neck that I injured while sleeping (!), so this really hit home for me. So much, actually, that I’m having trouble figuring out how to respond to it.

    One of the things I had to learn when my body first stopped acting its age and am now trying to relearn, as my neck injury set off my hips which set off my knees which set off my ankles, etc, is that all those people “doing it all” just may not be aware of their bodies, or be talking about what happened to them, too. And as much as I wanted to be better, as much as I want to be Good, all of this may just always stand in the way. Thank god my husband is ok with that; I’m trying to learn from him.

  • So many beautiful, powerful, important bits in here, but this one – “I’ve learned you can be extremely happy and out of balance” – hits home as I round out day five of a DREAM opportunity to edit a book…14 hours a day spent hunched over my laptop included. Perhaps it’s time for some reframing.

    Manya–learning often does mean pain, but your kickass writing sure makes reading about this topic painlessly glorious.

    • Manya

      Thank you. This comment made me feel great. Yeah, I wasn’t getting the “you need to get your life in balance” message because I didn’t feel emotionally out of balance, or extremely stressed out. That is major learning. But now that I’m making more space for physical movement and eliminating unnecessary screen time, I feel such a huge physical difference. It’s nice…

  • Ashley

    Oh, Manya. This was so perfectly written, and so needed.

    You’re an example of who I envision when I think about who I would be if I was my best self.

    Thank you for sharing with us!

  • KC

    I dearly love the image of diving into the screen like a sea turtle. That is fantastic.

    (also, simplifying things down to the question: who do I want to be? and what does that person do? sounds brilliant.)

  • Cali

    Welp, this is timely. I’m finally going in to my doctor on Tuesday about some ongoing neck/back/shoulder pain that I’ve been studiously ignoring for months, hoping it would just go away. Then, recently, I started getting shooting tingling/numbness/pain down my right arm to go with it, and my husband told me that he was laying down the law and that I had to make a doctor’s appointment.

    I did discover some awesome stretches that have helped a TON in the meantime, so that’s something. At least now the pain is more irritating than excruciating while I wait for my appointment.

    I hope she prescribes me weekly massages.

    • Manya

      All of us really must get our ergonomic acts together. The simple mantra: Choose Movement has been so helpful for me. Much more helpful than “Work out every day.” I installed “TakeABreak” onto my computer and it forces me to get up every 45 minutes for 5 minutes. I stretch, do squats, do jumping jacks, take a walk, get some water… all kinds of things in those few minutes and it has really boosted my productivity. Another tip I got is when you are reviewing documents put your hands behind your neck like you are doing sit ups. The problem is that the FRONT of your neck and chest become contracted in, making the slump the default. Typing in bed on a laptop is particularly destructive.

      Good luck. And weekly massage is AWESOME.

      • MDBethann

        Thanks for the app recommendation Manya; I was going to ask that question. I spend a lot of time at a desk and sometimes forget to get up and move, so an app like that would be awesome.

  • Bee

    This is so beautiful.

  • JustAnotherBlue

    Oh, Manya, I’ve got this happening now too, and it sucks. Mine is not as severe as yours, but I feel a probably small portion of your pain. Be kind to yourself and get better. Sounds like you have a good support system going on there.

  • Dawn J

    Thank you for sharing, Manya. This essay really resonates with me. Reading it vividly recalls my own frustrations, unwanted compromises, and occasional despair in facing this kind of injury — but also that sense of hope, timid at first, then exuberant, that things can change and your pain can improve. For me, the first step was actually admitting (1) yes, I am in serious pain, and (2) I should stop ignoring it and actually get help. Is it strange that I felt guilty for where I ended up? Perhaps for all the ways I failed to avoid my injury, and perhaps because I felt my suffering was peanuts compared to what others face on a daily basis? Perhaps because in a world of endless self-improvement routines and impossibly high physical standards, I think it’s shameful to admit that my body is broken? Either way, I hope that readers will take your words to heart, and learn to practice self-care before the physical stress of sitting at a desk 14 hours a day lands them flat on their back.

    • Paranoid Libra

      Dawn your comment on it being hard to admit that your body is broken hits home to me too. It took a while for me to admit to myself that something wasn’t right with my stomach before I started to see a doctor for it all. It took a year to figure it all out but man oh man does it ever feel better to resolve it. Definitely a why the hell did I wait so long situation and realizing how much better my body could be to me.

      Manya so happy to hear after the mall situation you are ok, but sad you are having some body problems. Good luck getting your neck lined up properly.

      After reading this I am now sitting up straight at my desk with much better posture so thank you for inspiring me today to have good posture….which sadly will only last until lunch because I will eventually go back to but it’s comfy to curl over.

  • Katie

    While I certainly don’t like that you’re in pain, I love and needed this post today. It hit me on so many levels – as a massage therapist, a soon-to-be PT student, and someone who has been in he process of reworking my inner monologue for a while now. It’s been especially hard lately with being newly engaged and about to start some of the more superficial aspects of planning (ie finding a dress). I’m not fully comfortable in my body really ever, but especially at the moment because I gained a fair amount of weight in the 6 months before my now-fiancé proposed. I have to keep telling myself “Your body does amazing things every day; you are not defined by a number on a scale (or on a label).” But it’s really, really hard. So, thanks. Best wishes on your recovery.

    • Manya

      The most radical decision of all has been to Stop All Self-Hate Talk. Both my husband and I went cold turkey on that shit. The first week it was hard, but it’s gotten easier, and it’s really making my head BETTER and CLEARER. Also, I’m using getsomeheadspace dot com to help with daily meditation and it is AWESOME. I have done the whole “get healthy” yo yo every year for the last 20, with a net effect of gaining a couple of pounds every year. This neck thing has created a pretty profound paradigm shift. Also the whole: “Lose XX pounds” is just not motivating, because in my deepest heart of hearts I know it isn’t the answer to greater happiness (shit, when I was 20 pounds thinner I was way less happy than I am now). However, having a sexy marriage is really really important to me, and makes the decision to have one, delicious and savoured bite of cheesecake pretty easy. That’s another one of the points in my plan to choose high quality food and savour it. I don’t know if I’m losing weight… probably…. but I’m certainly feeling better in this body of mine.

      • Dawn J

        Deciding to Stop All Self-Hate Talk is such great advice, but I don’t even know where to start in following it….I suspect that if I stopped to think about the Self-Hate Talk, I would realize that it pervades so much of my inner monologue as well as my outward speech. Any tips for recognizing and catching yourself in those patterns?

        • Manya

          Yes… I was shocked out of self-hate talk when I heard it mirrored back to me by my incredibly gorgeous and athletic (like seriously, olympic sprinter type athletic) daughter telling me that she was feeling fat. It was shocking.

          Also, Brian and I were both saying that we were old all the time, and we’re just NOT. It’s bullshit.

          My daughter and I made a pact that I wouldn’t talk like that if she wouldn’t–and we’d keep each other honest. I made the same pact with my husband about the whole “we’re old” broken record. I feel it bubbling up in my throat and just stop it. I think that the mindfulness meditation is helping too–check out getsomeheadspace dot com, and do the 10 day, 10-minute per day trial. It just makes you more aware of when you’re thinking the stuff. I decided to start with outward expressions–actual verbal self-hate, and have found that it is helping with the internal monologue.

          The other thing we are doing–at dinnertime–is explicitely verbalizing 5 gratefulnesses every single day. I try to make one of those things about something physical that I have enjoyed. Those are a few techniques I have used.

  • Elemjay

    Laptops are AWFUL! Working at them, carrying them around, causes so much damage to your upper back. Please be careful everyone who works on them! I too ended up in a lot of pain at the end of my MBA and have had to be very careful ever since.

    Manya – good luck in your recovery!

  • Katie Everett

    This really resonated with me too- I managed to incur two tears in the discs at the top of my neck via a combination on long hours in the office and relaxing via knitting! Its taken me 18 months to recover from excrutiating pain but finally got on the right track by discovering I need to swim 3 times a week and do yoga to keen everything on an even keel. Its a great motivator but it does get worse before it gets better. My aim on my wedding day was not to lose weight but not to be in any pain, which I am very grateful to have achieved.

  • Emily

    Good luck with getting better! I hope you can truly adjust your lifestyle to heal from and avoid pain.

    Public Service Announcement: If you EVER have pain while working at the computer, or doing anything else, STOP and GET HELP, IMMEDIATELY. The longer you let it linger, the worse it will get — and recovery time will increase exponentially (possibly to infinite, i.e. never).

    I’ve been dealing with Repetitive Stress Injury, closest symptoms to tendinitis, in my hands and wrists for years (from computer use), and can’t quite kick it. Once you find good techniques and treatments that work for you, it’s doable to get more functional. But the last bit requires lots of diligence, which I’m admittedly not doing right now.

    Not sure if this would be helpful for you, but I’ve found that The Trigger Point Therapy Workbook has been a godsend. Plus strengthening relevant muscles.

    Good luck!

    • Manya

      Yes, trigger point therapy and active trigger point release therapy is some of the stuff I’m doing. It’s helpful.

  • This whole post is so well written and hits on so many points that resonate with me. This line especially struck me:
    “I am learning that the process is the point.”

    This is a lesson I’ve really been working on in my own life with my own (totally different) challenges, and it is such an important idea to begin embracing, as it is bringing me more peace and presence than I’ve had in awhile.

    Also this paragraph:
    “I want to be a vivacious, creative and adventurous woman who is irresistible to her husband and a great role model for her daughters. That woman does not hunch over electronic devices for fourteen-hour stretches. I am trying to change my habits by asking: What does that fabulous woman do? She meditates every day. She chooses movement. She never hate-talks about herself. This is radical shit, people!”
    …it IS radical shit, and I love the idea of asking the question of what the woman you want to be does. I’m totally going to use that in my own life.

    Thank you for all this great insight and for sharing. Wishing you wellness and a full recovery.

  • Rachel

    “I’ve learned you can be extremely happy and out of balance.”


  • Rish

    I can hear your voice when I read “This is radical shit, people!” – that makes me happy. PS – why do so many of my fantastically talented and successful friends have as the end of their worst nightmare ending up living in their parents’ basement? That would never dawn on me as the worst case scenario

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