Tuesday, 15 July 2014

On listening to your body...

Just over two months ago, my back went on strike.  Completely gave out on me.  If I so much as tried to sit up, a sharp spasm of pain shot up and down my body, freezing me in place.  I couldn't stand.  I couldn't walk.  I was paralysed by pain.

It was a rather quiet picket line.

The warning signs had been there, of course.  This had not come out of nowhere.  Since the new year I had been suffering lower back pain on and off.  Sometimes it was tolerable, only a slight twinge here and there.  Other times it had me limping stiffly, wincing every time I stepped on my right side.  I stopped running and stopped wearing heels.  I consulted a doctor, and later an orthopedist.  The orthopedist prescribed painkillers, muscle relaxants, and physiotherapy.

The pills were easy enough to swallow, but the physiotherapy was hard to keep up.  I was travelling all the time for work and saw no need to slow down.  I only made appointments when I could, between gigs.  So my treatment ended up being completely inconsistent.  Always at a random time, and always with a different therapist.  The therapists gave me exercises, but I only did them occasionally, when I had time and remembered.  Most of the time I didn't bother.

I'm not sure what exactly I was thinking.  Maybe I expected the problem to go away on its own.  Maybe I thought I could reschedule its healing for a more convenient time.  Maybe I thought it would disappear with the help of a few magical pills.  In any case, I didn't make time for my body.  I simply didn't think it was important.

So the months went by and the pain continued, and I carried on travelling and singing as usual.  Until one day I flew to Sweden with a heavy backpack, and ended up immobilised on my boyfriend’s couch.

It's a funny thing, having a body.  Most of the time you don't really think about it.  As long as everything is working, you take it for granted.  It will always be there, carrying you from place to place, digesting your food for you, and taking whatever punishment you throw its way. 

My body and I have never had what you would call a healthy relationship.  As a young girl I always resented it for being bigger than other girls' bodies.  I called it bad names.  I told it I hated it.  I cried and complained about it.

Later, in my early twenties, I became bulimic.  During this time I committed horrific atrocities against my body.  I starved it.  I overexercised it.  I stuffed it full of junk food, poisoned it with laxatives, and forced it to throw up.  All of this my body suffered quietly, without complaint.

I am no longer bulimic, but I'm still very hard on my body.  I regularly put it through long journeys, alcohol-soaked weekends, sleepless nights, and stressful auditions.  I often feed it excessive amounts of fat, salt, and sugar.  Even when I’m doing something "good" or "healthy", like exercise, I don't do it to love or nurture my body.  I do it to punish it for last night's chocolate binge, or to control its weight and size.

Regretting another night with Ben and Jerry...

And I do all these things without thinking.  Because after all, I'm young.  I can get away with this behaviour.  My body can take it.  My body is invincible.

Until it isn't.

I suppose at a certain age all these things begin to catch up with you.  The wear and tear begins to show.  And suddenly you find yourself paying dearly for transgressions which used to go by unnoticed.

Back in Sweden, I spent four days lying on that couch.  It was a surreal feeling, suddenly losing the ability to move.  Getting up to go to the bathroom was a huge ordeal.  It would take several agonising minutes to sit up.  Then I would use my boyfriend's music stand as a walking stick as I hobbled across the room slower than an arthritic 90-year-old grandma.  The pain was horrific.  Even with the maximum dosage of painkillers and anti-inflammitants – I was taking 16 pills per day – it was excruciating to move.

My "stand-in" walking stick

Gradually, I began to rely less on my "walking stick" and limp without it for longer distances.  I began to walk again – still crookedly, and still with pain, but walking nonetheless.

And so began a long and arduous healing process.  From then on, I made my health a priority.  I visited doctors, orthopedists, chiropractors, and osteopaths.  Everyone had a different idea of what exactly was wrong and what I needed to get better.  It was difficult to weed through all the different opinions.  But I tried my best not to over-rely on popping pills, to listen to my body, and to figure out what was working best for me.  I dedicated time to my body every day.  Whether it was stretching, getting a massage, or simply resting when I needed it, I made sure I was taking care of myself.

I continued to work, which was a humbling experience.  Everyone noticed my limping and could tell how much pain I was in.  People were very sympathetic.  They meant well, but their concern often frustrated me.  I wanted to be strong and independent, not an object of pity.  Of course, by this point I was accustomed to my condition.  I had accepted that for the time being, this was the state my body was in.  But to everyone else – every new colleague and employer I encountered – it came as a fresh shock.  And I grew tired of hearing their shock, of thanking them for their "gute Besserung"s and accepting their opinions and advice on what I should do.

So. Many. Opinions.

There were times when I gave in to despair.  I cried about how unfair it all was.  Why did my body hate me so much?  What had I done wrong to deserve this?  When was I ever going to feel better?

Other times I let myself think I had found a miracle cure, a definitive diagnosis.  Now it was all over and everything would be fixed.

Then a few weeks later things would take another turn for the worse and my frustration would return.  Whatever I did, it seemed my body would find a new pain or affliction to hold me back.

In my more lucid moments, I would think that my body was trying to tell me something.  But what?  Did I need to travel less?  Sleep more?  Eat better?  Cut back on coffee?

It took a while before I realised that my body's message could in fact be very simple.  Maybe my body just wanted me to notice it.  To acknowledge its presence, to thank it, and to treat it with some dignity and respect.

You see, that's the other funny thing about having a body.  You don’t really have your body, do you?  Your body is a part of you.  It's who you are.  And yet we insist on using this language of ownership.  As though our bodies are something separate.  A vessel, an unthinking object, a vehicle to transport our brains from point A to point B.

For as long as I can remember I've thought of my body as something completely remote from myself.  At the best of times I've tolerated its existence.  At the worst of times, I've berated it for being so fat, so ugly, so stupid and useless.  With all these aches and pains holding me back, the temptation to scream at my body has become bigger than ever.

But I don't want to keep screaming at my body.  I want to start a new dialogue, a dialogue of patience and understanding.  I want to connect with it, listen to it, learn to love and appreciate it.  Because my body is myself.  If I don't love my body, I don't love myself, and I am neglecting a huge part of what it is to be human.

I'm building a new relationship with my body, and it won't be built overnight.  It will take a long time to undo such a long history of abuse and resentment.  I need to accept that there are no miracle cures or overnight fixes.  Like any relationship, it needs time to develop.

This is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

It's been over two months now since my back gave out on me, and the healing process is far from over.  After an MRI and a diagnosis of a bulging disc, I've been through a long stint of physiotherapy (this time with much more intensive and regular treatment).  But despite all the work in physio, all these months of limping have left me with a knee problem which just won't go away.  I begin staging for an opera in less than a week, and I'm still not able to walk completely normally.  I've had to inform the director of my physical limitations, and – perhaps even more difficult – I've had to accept for myself that I'll be working with a less-than-perfect body onstage.  It's not ideal, but it's the way things are.  And no amount of railing against fate or cursing my body will change that.

The best I can do now is to keep loving my body.  Nurture it, cherish it, thank it for everything it does.  And trust that in time, with the proper love and care, it will find its own way to heal.

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