Shortly after my 2nd daughter was born, I was diagnosed with a case of Torticollis. My head and neck were stuck in a static position, staring straight forward. The slightest fraction of movement to the left or right would cause searing pain throughout my head and neck, radiating down through my body and causing spasms down my back and leg.
The causes for the pain were not a mystery to me. From a purely physical standpoint, the changes a woman’s body experiences growing to house and birth a baby, the cumulative effect of a job that required sitting for long periods of time, a commute that was long and stressful, and years of treating my body poorly before I began recovery had all taken their toll on my body. But I knew this neck pain was more than just physical in origin. Looking back, I can now see how my body was still carrying the psychological wounds of pregnancy losses and the imprint of trauma. As bodies do after experiencing a trauma, mine was protecting itself from further hurt. For years, I had asked so much of my body and, resiliently, it had provided me so much. It had taken care of me even when I hadn’t taken care of it.
Here’s me on my first day of the semester with the torticollis. Notice my slanted, awkward head position. My daughter is 5.5 weeks in the photo and I had spent my pseudo-maternity leave prepping 4 new courses. I was exhausted, not sleeping and adjusting to newborn rhythms of waking every 2-3 hours.
I knew I was coming back to a group of students who were not very happy with me, including some who were openly antagonistic and disrespectful. I had taken a leap of faith leaving my previous job just months before, knowing I needed more time to be a mom. My previous work had been a place I felt valued and supported and where I felt fairly confident in my work. Leaving that stability and support to enter into this new position, where I felt isolated and unwelcome, while pregnant was untethering. I questioned whether I had made the wrong decision. I would have had 14 weeks of a maternity leave had I stayed in my previous job. I would not have been prepping so much new material. I asked myself "why did I leave?!"
So, yes, I knew where the pain came from. Why my neck throbbed and why moving it felt too painful.
I became so good at not moving my neck, in fact, it started to feel like I could not remember what it felt like to be able to move it. As if this had always been my only reality. Having my head in a static, forward-facing position, my view became much narrower, unable to see to my right or left, forced to focus solely on what was straight in front of me. Tunnel vision.
For the relatively brief period of time I experienced it, I imagined what it might be like to be paralyzed. To lose full mobility. How it might feel to have your world get smaller permanently.
Desperate for relief from the pain, I sought out chiropractic. The first few visits were excruciating. I remember saying snarkily “Squeezing a human being out of my lady bits during childbirth didn’t hurt as bad as this!”
After adjusting my neck during the first visit, the chiropractor gave me homework. He said:
A couple times a day, I want you to do this in both directions. Turn your head as far as you can toward the pain, in whichever direction. And when you get to a point you think you can’t go any further, I want you to take a deep breath in, and on the exhale, go further.
But it hurts so much. I can’t, I told him.
I know it hurts. But you can. Your brain is sending you pain signals that you can’t move your head but, in fact, you have full mobility. I was able to move your head just now. There’s nothing actually keeping your head from moving. And, the only way to heal it and get rid of the pain IS moving it.
His description brought me to tears in his office as I thought of how he was perfectly describing what I ask of my therapy clients. I ask them to turn toward their pain.
When we experience a trauma, when we’ve been hurt in a way that we never imagined was possible. When our worst fears come true, our bodies and spirit respond defensively to the fear of the experience of pain. Believing the only way to protect ourselves from further hurt, afraid of more loss or trauma, we attempt to avoid the pain when in fact, the pain is what we must often experience fully in order to heal and grow.
In order to heal, we must experience the pain first.
Pain is, well, painful. Rarely does one seek it out willingly. Quite the opposite. We run from it. We find ways to avoid it. We stuff it. We cover it up with other experiences. We pretend we don’t feel it anymore. We stay in situations or relationships that cause the pain, as if to convince ourselves that we’re not actually experiencing pain.
Eventually, the fear of pain becomes the pain source itself. And we become the fear. It can immobilize us. Keeping us stuck in the fear of pain. Causing us to forget that an experience without pain is even possible.
There is an alternative, though. If and when we’re ready, and with the right support and safety, we can choose to face the pain. And by doing this, we choose hope.
We can choose hope.
I don’t mean this in a fluffy way that we might read about on a Hallmark card. Hope is not fluffy. Hope is often painful. Hope is work. Hope is exhausting at times. But hope is what keeps us moving forward AND toward genuine and meaningful connection with each other and with ourselves. It is the belief and desire and expectation that our worst fears are not truths. That things will be okay. That our pain is not permanent. That we can handle whatever comes and that we are stronger than we may have previously believed.
When my chiropractor asked me to turn toward the pain, he knew it wasn’t an easy or simple request. Just as I know, it is not an easy or simple request to ask you to turn toward your pain. If you never choose to turn toward it, there’s no judgement or risk of being a lesser person. It doesn’t mean you’re weaker or bad, inherently. We all have to be ready to face our individual pains and traumas. And sometimes, we never are. Sometimes, the pain feels too great. Sometimes, the pain is too great.
But, if and when you are ready. Ready to not exist in the fear any longer. Ready to choose hope instead of fear, start turning toward your pain.
Go as slowly as you need.
Take as much time as you need.
Ask a loved one to be present with you as you turn toward it. Find a good therapist who can be a support and witness to it. It's not necessary to face your pain alone.
Turn toward it as far as you are able. And when you think you can’t handle the pain anymore. When you think you can’t possibly go any further toward it, take a deep breath.
Feel the inhale. Feel the exhale.
And keep going.