(March 2005) I am sitting on my deck drinking a cup of hot tea and checking out the stars. Am very glad to be kicked back at home tonight. Haven’t really had much down time this week, seems like, and really could use some.
It feels good to relax.
My last entry got me thinking about how I live in my body, what it holds.
My relationship with my body has changed drastically over the years. I no longer believe that I’m invincible, for example (an illusion I carried around with me for a very long time). But one thing that is still true is that I have always been and still am adept at detaching myself from pain.
As a child, I was determined to not show weakness when I hurt physically or emotionally, especially when my father’s red-hot temper came out. I knew emotional displays (except anger, I suppose) disgusted my father, that he respected and expected stoicism from my brothers and me.
This is a guy thing, I suppose, one of those Robert Bly / Iron Man myths that involves facing down the symbolic Army sergeant or demanding father or whomever because this will somehow “make you a man.”
Whatever else it is, ignoring pain is a trait that was instilled in me as a value—one that’s right up there with swallowing your emotions and never showing weakness—and I have had one hell of a time moving beyond these flawed definitions of what real strength is.
As a child, when my father was angry and hitting me, I told myself that if I didn’t cry, then he didn’t win—and I usually managed to stand there with a stony look on my face and just stare at him defiantly (which only made him hit me harder).
Or sometimes I said “that didn’t hurt” with a snarl on my face while fighting every impulse I had to double over and clutch my hurting ribs.
My best trick, however, was reserved for times when something really hurt. Then I simply intellectualized the whole thing and said to myself “Pain ... what is pain, really?,” before launching into detailed mental descriptions of the nuances of this physiological response instead of actually responding to or acknowledging my body’s actual response to being assaulted.
I was tougher than my brothers in this arena, more determined—possibly because these reactions allowed me to create some measure of control over a situation in which I really didn’t have any other means of control.
My reactions also stemmed from the fact that—and yes, I do know how f*cked this is—I admired my father and wanted to please him. I knew he didn’t respect “girlish” behaviors such as crying and so I rejected them in my efforts to be the kind of person he did respect. I wanted to show him (and, I suppose, myself) that, just because I was a girl, that didn’t mean I embodied all those weaknesses that he scoffed at.
He respected people who swallowed pain and ignored sickness and exhaustion and, by Gawd, that’s the kind of person I was going to be!
I bought this message hook, line, and sinker, believing that it made me a pillar of strength that my father and the world would respect.
(Somehow, I never bought that, just because I was in a woman’s body, I was somehow less than men though. Instead, I thought that society’s definitions of women were just too narrow and that girls are just too damn eager to accept a skewed definition of themselves—and look, I could prove it.)
It is not surprising to me that my father once said that I am the best boy he ever raised ... and, I suppose, by his definition, I am. The problem with buying into this approach, however, is that it is one incredibly flawed definition of how to function in this world.
Turns out your body does respond to assault, whether or not you deny that you’ve been assaulted. It stores all that shit you repress inside and the poison just sits inside festering until it shows itself to the world in those shoulders that you keep tensed up all the time or that jaw that you keep clenched without even realizing it or those fists that you keep clenched and ready for attack. It sits poised until some minor thing or another causes it to seep out of your pores and show itself in your aggressive driving or your angry punches or, in my father’s case, in your attempts to break your children in order to make them strong.
My pain seeped out of me the first time I attempted relaxation exercises and then seeped out of me again the first time I got a body massage from a professional—two occasions when I actually managed to relax for what may have been the first and second time in my life—and my body responded both times with uncontrollable, wracking sobs.
Ten years ago I injured my shoulder at the karate dojo. I felt something tear, heard a loud pop, felt my shoulder fall out of socket (which was excruciating) and experienced that same wave of nausea that you experience when you break a bone (or at least I do).
I knew right away that I had really hurt myself this time and made an appointment with a dyke doc I knew socially, someone who specializes in sports injuries.
Unfortunately, this doc had just torn her biceps tendon playing softball, so she checked my range of motion and asked me to rate my pain on a scale of 1 to 10.
(This is a bad question to ask someone who grew up in a violent environment, because I have an atypically high pain threshold. Most people, turns out, would have said 10, but I said 4 or 5—no doubt listening to that voice in my head that tells me that I will be perceived as weak, will lose face and stature if I acknowledge my pain to myself or to others.)
The doc said “yeah, mine felt the same way” to nearly every symptom I described, then diagnosed me with her recent injury before sending me home with Naproxyn and a sheet of physical-therapy exercises.
I spent the next six weeks or so attempting to do the physical therapy exercises that she prescribed, but my arm really wouldn’t work correctly and practically any movement I made caused my shoulder to slip out of socket. In fact, moving any part of my body inevitably resulted in some serious shoulder pain.
Lifting weights was also so painful that it sometimes made me light-headed. But I told myself, well, you’re injured, dumbass, and what you do when you’re injured is work through the pain and build your strength back up. I knew that to be true from playing basketball, right? So I kept trying to do my exercises despite the fact that I was not seeing any improvement or decrease in pain.
After six weeks or so of popping liberal amounts of Naproxyn that did not even begin to touch my pain but did a nice job of wrecking my stomach, I decided that I was not seeing any improvement and made an appointment with an orthopod who specializes in shoulder injuries. He examined me, asked me to rate my level of pain on a scale of 1 to 10, said that I was describing a torn rotator cuff but that no one could walk around with one of those, then pronounced that I had torn some soft tissue, probably my trapezius muscle and/or tricep and bicep tendons.
He also checked my range of motion and told me that some people just have loose sockets, are double-jointed, and I happen to have a greater range of motion than most. Build your strength back up, he advised, and this will help hold your loose shoulder in place.
Then he sent me to a different physical therapist, who had me throwing progressively larger weighted balls against a trampoline and catching them plus doing resistance exercises with weights that I pulled in all sorts of different directions before applying a mixture of ice and isopropyl alcohol to my painful shoulder.
These new exercises were excruciating too, but I continued telling myself that, like any sports injury, I was just going to have to work through the pain until I got my strength back.
I saw this physical therapist for maybe another six weeks, but my pain never improved and my arm just plain didn’t work anymore. I couldn’t move it backwards at all and you can forget my ever grabbing the passenger-side seatbelt again.
I wasn’t getting stronger, my shoulder was still falling out of socket, and my arm still would not move in several directions.
Finally, I asked the physical therapist if she thought I should return to the shoulder expert and if she would describe what my surgery options were. She also said that no one could not walk around with the kind of injury that would require surgery and encouraged me to continue building up my strength and applying ice.
And she added a new therapy: attaching electrodes to my shoulder and massaging my arms and shoulder while telling me to relax. I replied that I was relaxing but, when she let go of my hand or elbow, they never dropped to the massage table freely, so she repeated her relax mantra as I tried to imagine my arm as heavy, tried to relax, as she said to do, but I just couldn’t figure out how to.
Meanwhile, another six weeks or so passed and I was still in a significant amount of pain and was very tired of living with a shoulder that fell out of socket on a regular and excruciating basis, so I made another appointment with the shoulder expert and, this time, I insisted on an MRI.
He said that the test would confirm the location of my soft tissue damage, but that I would almost certainly be wasting a thousand dollars that my insurance might not pay, since no one could lift weights or walk around with a torn rotator cuff.
I insisted on the test anyway and said I just wanted to know with certainty what we were dealing with.
By this point I was holding my entire body differently, trying hard to keep myself so stiff that nothing in my shoulder could possibly slide around. And I was also holding that shoulder significantly higher than the other one while my arm practically dangled at my side.
I have the actual MRI report somewhere but, to make a long story short, it turns out I had damn near ripped my arm off my body. I tore a gaping hole in my rotator cuff—an injury that everyone said I could not walk around with—in addition to tearing my trapezius and bicep and tricep muscles and pulling my bicep and tricep tendons loose. I should not have even been able to LIFT those weights that I was using on a regular basis.
This kind of extensive injury could only be repaired by a total shoulder reconstruction.
In the course of preparing me for the surgery, my doctor described the kind of pain I could expect. The first week, he said, would be unbearable, but he’d keep me so doped up that I could bear it. Instead, I quit my pain meds the same day that I had surgery (after deciding that the pain I felt from jerking about while I barfed had to be worse than any pain I would experience from being drug-free ... which was, alas, inaccurate). I also met my friend Louisville, whom I had asked to come because the doctor said I would be unable to function for weeks—in my driveway when she arrived to take care of me.
What’s that LeRoi Jones line:
I am inside someone / who hates me.
Lordie, lordie lordie, do I hold a lot of f*cked-up, destructive stuff in this body ... but, as my friend Tuscaloosa says, if there’s a nuclear war, she’s placing her bets on me surviving it.
Sometimes I wish I still believed that, too.