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