I'd been in Dr. Ben's office as a patient several times over the previous months, had sat on that same bench and had my neck adjusted, had been on the table to have my back adjusted, and on every other contraption in his office for various positioning and adjusting.
Dr. Ben's back was to me as he hung my x-rays in the lightbox and stepped back to look at them. They weren't new x-rays. They were the same x-rays that had been taken at my first appointment with him, when my headaches and low back pain had increased to a point that I knew I couldn't write it off as "normal aches and pains" or "to be expected from old injuries" anymore.
I'd had a few horseback riding accidents and a car accident, and probably some pieces of those accidents showed up on my x-rays. What showed up more specifically was degeneration of the discs in my cervical spine and scoliosis, a curvature of my spine that was most likely congenital. My particular curve was an S-shape with some added rotation in the lower back. These details became a sort of explanation for some of the pain I was experiencing.
That day, I was there for a follow-up appointment. I was feeling great. I hadn't been having any headaches and I'd been working with a personal trainer to strengthen my lower back and core which had made a huge difference right away. I was either at the rock climbing gym or going to dance classes at least 4 nights of the week.
I didn't even feel that I needed any adjustments that day, but had kept the appointment out of collegial respect and I thought Dr. Ben would be happy to hear about my progress.
After an especially long time looking at my x-rays, Dr. Ben turned around said, "You poor thing. You must be in so much pain." His voice was sad, even mournful.
I was stunned. I felt great. I thought I felt great. But suddenly, I was crushed. What was so wrong with me?
Normally, Dr. Ben asked me how I was feeling. I had expected that. I hadn't expected him to tell me how I must be feeling.
I think maybe I asked him why, but I don't actually remember. I know I let him do the adjustments. I even scheduled another appointment.
And when I got home, I was pissed.
I was shocked at how much power his suggestion that I must be in pain made me feel hopeless, made me feel that at twenty-two years old, my life was destined for ruins.
Maybe Dr. Ben was off his game that day. He'd been running late. Maybe his mind was still on another patient. I considered all of these possibilities, but none of them undid the complete deflation that I felt.
I did go back to see Dr. Ben the next week, still pissed off. And with an arrogance and assertiveness that I am grateful to my twenty-two-year-old self for having, I told him how the last appointment had made me feel. My conclusion was that if he needed to look at my x-rays before adjusting me, he needed to do it outside the room. He needed to be able to listen to how I was feeling, not tell me how I must feel based on some external, visual representation of me.
His response was adequate. He was apologetic. He acknowledged that he screwed up. He even admitted to me that x-rays tell very little about a person's experience of pain. That someone can have perfectly normal x-rays and be in excruciating pain and that someone like me can have all sorts of problems on their x-rays, but not be in very much pain at all. He also made several jokes about my Irish heritage and temperament.
Over the next ten years, through many moves and many jobs, I sometimes had flare-ups of similar symptoms: low back pain, neck pain, and headaches. Most of the time, I managed things pretty well. Sometimes massage would get me through it, sometimes acupuncture.
I tried chiropractic a few more times, but after another chiropractor I'd just met looked at my x-rays and told me, "You'll probably be in pain for the rest of your life" I've never gone back.
I refused, adamantly, these suggestions that pain was going to be a part of who I was.
What I have realized more recently is that along the way, I adopted a different story, a different guardedness to protect me from this belief that others had about me.
Rather than being a person who was in pain, I became a person who refused to be in pain. More than that, I lived in fear of being in pain for the rest of my life.
When my symptoms came up, I trivialized them or I tried to make them go away as fast as possible.
But I also stopped doing a lot of things. Initially, it seemed circumstantial. I was in school full-time and working so I really didn't have a lot of extra time.
I became much less active. Walking and a few carefully selected yoga classes became my primary physical activities. And whenever there was any indication of my "old" pain, no matter what I was doing, I backed off. I stayed in the safe zone.
And then, in spite of all the carefulness, four years ago my neck pain and headaches started to be a regular thing again. Worse, the headaches were accompanied by nausea, dizziness, and occasionally blurred vision. And honestly, it wasn't the pain that was hard to take, but how disorienting it was to try to function while dizzy and not being able to see straight.
Nothing helped. I couldn't find a fellow massage therapist who could work on my neck without me ending up in even worse pain. Acupuncture didn't touch it. I did have some positive results from osteopathic treatments, but I was frustrated to be back in a loop of weekly appointments just to return to a baseline of feeling ok.
Somehow, I stumbled upon Feldenkrais classes, called Awareness Through Movement, and I started going every week. Sometimes classes were focused on "lengthening the hamstrings", sometimes on "3-D breathing" or "rolling like a baby". At the end of every class, regardless of the focus of the lesson, I felt a thousand times better than I had at the beginning. And weirdly (because my issue was neck pain and headaches), it was a lesson called "the pelvic clock" that made my neck feel amazing and made me think, Ya know, I feel like going for a run. And I'm pretty sure it's going to be ok.
I did start running. And I could run without bringing on a headache! That was the first time in my adult life that running without pain was possible.
One of the things I loved (and continue to love) most about these classes is that every class I went to gave me some movement, some small and subtle instruction that I could also do at home. Not an exercise exactly, but a structured exploration of my own physical way of being in the world and the potential to discover something new, something that would allow me to move more freely and more often.
For over a decade I'd lived in a world where, if pain showed up, I relied on another person, another expert to help me get back to a baseline of "ok". The opportunity to change that and to change it through movement and the use of my own structure was life-changing.
I could lie on my own floor at home and do some of these movement lessons that I'd learned and feel better. I could even feel "more better" after doing that than after going to an appointment with my osteopath.
This was one of the experiences that compelled me to return to a career as a massage therapist, and also to pursue the opportunity to be a teacher and practitioner of these lessons and this way of working with the body.
A year ago, I started the practitioner training program for the Feldenkrais Method of Somatic Education.
This new venture has involved, in part, an even more in-depth study of my own physical habits and beliefs about my potential. I had to come to terms with just how much my previous experiences with pain and what I'd been told about the likelihood of my being in pain had shaped my beliefs about myself, my beliefs about my own experience of pain, and my beliefs about my own capabilities.
This process is still very much in discovery, but I can tell you that I'm more comfortable in my body than I can remember ever being before.
I can go for a run whenever I want to. I started studying aikido and go to classes a couple times every week.
I still have mornings when I wake up a little off. And I still have evenings where I realize that I spent too much time on the computer without a break. And I still, on occasion, feel exhausted at the end of a full day working with clients.
But I know what to do to make it better. I can spend ten or twenty minutes on the floor exploring my own movement and discover what's holding me back. And I can find a way out of it.
It still feels a little bit magical.
In October, I'll start teaching Feldenkrais Awareness Through Movement classes on a regular basis.
More details and class schedule coming soon. Be sure to join my mailing list to stay in the loop! :)