A Retrospective Reflection
People now use the phrase “reaching out” to mean being the one to make first contact in a social exchange. “Pulling away” is sometimes used when a person is describing the need for less social interaction with someone, or with a social phenomenon.
But I have different first meanings for these phrases, in my long term memory and in my body memory. “Reaching out” means something more essential to me than being the first to message someone on facebook, so I am always a bit disoriented at first when someone writes me “thank you for reaching out.” Maybe it’s because I associate reaching out with a more pressing need than a willingness to catch up, and perhaps even something you don’t do unless it’s nearly a matter of life and death, or something equally essential, the way plants reach out for the sun, turning toward it and following it as it arc across the sky each day. It’s that kind of reaching that I want to mean here.
And the pulling away definition is a visceral one from personal body memory and body work, not one of emotional withdrawal. During my years of manual therapy, I received many treatments addressing a generality my practitioner and her teacher called Bone Bruises. You can read an overview of Integrative Manual Therapy’s explanation and treatment here. The way it was explained to me in our sessions was that when bone becomes injured, eithher through microfractures, impacts or general weakness, it softens and loses integrity. Manual therapists consider bone a kind of connective tissue like the fascia around it. When it becomes compromised, the fascia may adhere to it to help protect the remaining integrity. So treating a bone bruise involves inviting the bone to move again in a more full way, and inviting the fascia around it to allow it to do this. Often when being treated with an IMT technique, I would feel the release of these adhesions as a feeling of tearing or pulling with a slightly burning sensation. They were uncomfortable for a brief time, but then there would follow a feeling of release and greater ease of movement.
The feeling of pain is not easily associated with that of healing or release. I can remember my mother telling me when a scrape starting itching, that meant it was healing, so in some sense I was primed early for discomfort to be associated with a healing process. Hospice workers have written that pain brings patients back into their bodies in the present moment. In childbirth classes women are taught to breathe through the pain. So most often it is a thing to get around, breathe through, let go of, before getting on to something more fulfilling.
So given this usual understanding of pain, I am grateful I’ve had some experience in manual therapy where I learned to appreciate the pain associated with tissue releasing itself and opening my body to new possibilities of motion, even if just for a time. As we used to say in the 70’s, the seed has been planted. My body now understood this was possible, and to know how to recognize it.
A couple of years into eating low fat, plant-based and gluten free (2010), and a while after I had stopped going to manual therapy appointments (you can read about that transition in my post The Power of the Plateau), I started to notice on my daily walks with Romeo that I was sometimes having this burning feeling of tissue releasing or pulling itself away from my shin bones in my legs. It hurt when it happened, usually while I was in motion on a walk, but the result was more ease of movement in the legs I couldn’t have anticipated and hadn’t experienced before. I began to wonder if this way of eating was slowly providing healing to tissues that were then restoring themselves to a place of greater integrity as a result. Not unlike the sensation and effect I had experienced in IMT, but more protracted and attenuated in process, and perhaps then, more lasting, since they had decided on their own slow miracle time frame for such healing? It was a very exciting hypothesis to ponder, but there is no one I know who has done such a study, so I just let the possibility percolate within me, as if it might indeed be possible.
A couple of years after that, once I had resumed doing “reaching” my arms above my head poses more regularly in my yoga practice, I hit what I thought was a serious snag. One day I was laying down for my nap on the couch, and decided to “reach out” and pull the rattan table with my books and phone on it toward the couch. I hadn’t anticipated how heavy it might be and as I pulled, I felt that burn, and something like what might be a tearing sensation. It was very sore, but then seemed to get better. Then the holidays came and I began eating more soy foods than usual as part of the festivities. My inflammatory response went up, and I could not reach my arm out to put on my coat, or do poses stretching my arms above my head without feeling like I was going to faint from the pain. The doctor thought I might have torn a ligament, but he couldnn’t tell for sure. He said it would take a long time to heal. Once I discovered that the soy foods were increasing my inflammatory response, I stopped eating them, and the pain quickly began to improve and then disappear altogether. I could once again put my coat on, and stretch my right arm over my head.
Several months after that in the Fall of the year, I was waking up from my nap and felt the urge to stretch deeply in a way that would get at the area between my shoulder blades. I did this reflexively, without deciding to really, and all of a sudden I felt a tremendous surge of the burning release pain. I thought I might lose consciousness it was so sore. Worried that I had truly torn something that might incapacitate me, I called my friend Clark and told him when he got back into town that night I would need him to bring some wood in and build the fire.
Yet once I got over the initial intensity of that burning release pain, I noticed something wonderful. The rotation ability of both arms, but especially my right arm, had improved. I was still in the afterglow of the shock from the sudden pain, but it was abundantly clear that it was only necessary to allow myself to recover from the exertion of that experience. I did not have to “guard” my arm or shoulder from further pain by moving it less or holding it in a certain way. Instead, my range of motion had increased. It was as if something that had been “stuck together” a very long time, found the integrity and strength to differentiate and turn and move with more freedom. Once again I wondered, were my tissues healing their “bruises” and compressions and regaining new life? I still didn’t have anyone to verify this with, but the possibility became more familiar, more like an inevitable effect of the way I was eating and moving in my daily life.
The expression often goes that “the third time is a charm.” I guess I’d have to say that’s true in the case of my relationship with this phenomenon of visceral pulling away. I’d say, though, that the process is so slow motion and attenuated that it’s hard to see it continuously; it requires some stillness and reflection, since it’s much easier to think of twinges and pains as isolated worrisome blips that things are going south again.
But I’ve learned not to believe that completely any more, even when it does indeed seem like the wave of improvement has flown the coop.
Around the same time I experienced this loosening of my shoulder tissue and subsequent more free movement of my arms and shoulders in late 2012, it also became easier to immerse myself in yoga daily. My evening practice time began to stretch from 10 minutes to 15. Then 20. Then 30. At the first of the year in 2013, after the holidays, I began to relearn how to do a sun salutation. Just one, first thing in the morning. At first my body couldn’t remember how, but then it did. As I would spread my hands like stars and support myself in the arch or the downward bend, the tissue at the base of my hand and in my wrist, this time the left one, would buzz and sometimes pop. Because of my experience with visceral “pulling away,” I was able to allow this sensation without worrying too much that I was about to go down for the count if I kept this up. Instead I just kept it up, and kept right on improving my ability to do the sun salutation.
As those of you with fibromyalgia reading this know all too well, connective tissue is, well, connected, to all the other connective tissue in the body. So if some of it is hurting, often other part of it will hurt too. By the same token, though, if some of it is healing and building integrity, then the rest of it will perk up and take note. And maybe even follow suit, or contribute, in what Dr. Campbell would call a wholistic way, to facilitating the improvements. More oxygen, more range of motion for one tissue can mean the same for other tissues, even those not adjacent. Or so it seems to me. So I felt this sizzle and pop just might be a continuation of that very slow sinuous attenuated unsticking process unwinding itself in my bones and connective tissues.
Since I first felt that in my spread hand holding weight last January, I have experienced a literal explosion of activity with my hands. More typing, more yoga, and in the Spring more gardening than ever, including the strength it takes to hook the garden hoses up securely, and even to repair one (which will be the focus of another blog post). I also often find myself in a forward bend for minutes while weeding or picking berries, essentially looking at everything upside down while pulling in the bargain, something that would have been impossible even a year ago. And, as you know, I’m now lifting 3 gallon water jugs occasionally when necessary.
So it surprised me almost speechless when it turned out that returning to painting with watercolors for a few days in a row sent my left arm into an utter tailspin. It hurt to grasp. It hurt to move it. It hurt to hold anything. It hurt to lift anything. And when I pushed through, the nerves sent out pins and needles that burned like fire. Apparently holding the brush, hovering above the paper, deciding to make a delicate stroke, was just too much. Or so I thought.
Part of me was pretty disappointed. But part of me was definitely engaged in a process that was still in motion, and that part of me said to wait and see. There will be a way through, a way to work with this. And so I waited. And experimented. Let my right hand do a little of the lifting of dishes, the smashing of banana into the cereal bowl, even a little of applying brushstrokes in a simple study or sketch. Something told me there was a great process of integration under way and to be patient. So I tried.
But in the meantime, I was as sore as if I’d been in a bar room brawl in the Wild West and someone had broken furniture over me or sent me flying out the saloon doors to land on the packed dirt of the street.
Feeling like I’ve just been in a bar room brawl when I wake up in the morning gives me occasion to consider the uses and meaning of pain. Perhaps pain is, as the hospice literature says, a way of returning to the present. But this pain seems to do something rather unique. It points me toward the future, because it demonstrates to me that a transition, albeit an uncomfortable one, is underway. Even more strange, I sometimes think of this transitional pain as “fake.” It’s not fake in the sense that it doesn’t hurt. But there’s something “fake” about the way it hurts. When I experience a true injury from a fall, for instance, the pain is a signal that I have indeed hurt myself. The evidence of that quickly manifests itself with a bump, a bruise, swelling, more pain and restricted movement. But these pains, while at their most acute points, can make me cry out in surprise and discomfort, they still feel like someone is ripping a giant band-aid off. And yes, damn it, that hurts, and brings a cumulative need for extra rest, but it rarely results in MORE hurt. Instead, the skin immediately starts to breathe and feel better.
I was challenged in this notion one night during the “pulling away” time of the tissues in my left arm and hand last summer when I returned to bed after using the bathroom, and found myself crying out in pain from supporting myself with the flat of my left hand. Apparently the base at the outside of my left hand was trying to “pull away.” It hurt so much I thought I would faint. All the next day it was very sore, but not so sore I couldn’t do just about everything with it while it was sore. This is one of the things that makes me call this soreness “fake.” Although I had to go slowly and be very careful about how I moved into placing my weight on my spread open hands, I was able to do several sun salutations. If I had truly sprained or broken a bone in that hand, I would not have been able to do that.
If not completely fake, I wonder if this pain is a kind of “fake out,” an exaggeration created by the condition of fibromyalgia. Like a friend whose tendency to exaggerate can exhaust.
People often describe pain they are experiencing as if there is a question buried within their words asking “what is causing it? what is the name?” or “how can I make it go away?” We are taught to do this, to describe it to the doctor, who will then diagnose and cure by removal. But over the years I have discovered a more useful question is “What is this pain telling me?” Because it’s always telling me something about what is going on in my body, and trying to get me to listen.
For a number of years I have reached within my mind to grasp a metaphor for the direction trajectory my healing process moves in. I’ve often said or written, “it’s going in the right direction.” But that direction does not follow a straight line. For a while I was fascinated and hopeful that something in higher mathematics might provide what I was looking for. It still might.
But this morning I realized that the metaphor of plateau functions not only as a slowing, but also as a comfort zone once I reach some kind of new normal or incremental improvement. Then when the body is comfortable enough with that range of ability, it reaches out toward more. The tissues that have compressed and softened and compromised themselves around whatever problem area they are supporting cannot easily release their responsibilities. So when they do, I often feel the rough tear of the “pulling away” phenomenon I have been trying to describe. The trauma that ensues from the shock of pulling away creates a halo effect of caution. So for a time (often just a day or two, but sometimes more) the area where tissue has pulled away back toward its own integrity is very very sore. Akin to the soreness after a long workout or hike, only with heightened sensitivity. Except it resolves. Then, as I begin to stretch with greater range, it gradually relaxes into its new ability. As it’s settling in, if I push too far, it might threaten to send up the initial shock and pain signals again, but when I find the right balance between resting and moving, I can claim the new motion with surprising naturalness and ease. It is usually only an increment of increase. But each increase makes a difference in my mobility, because they all build momentum with one another over time.
So far I have been talking about the tissues that facilitate physical movement. But something less tangible is also stretched in these experiences. If the mind and the body are the mirror for each other as I believe they are, then in that reflection I’ve also sensed the stretching of the perceptions that come with restricted ability to move. They harbor such thoughts as an iron will to protect from further injury or degeneration, and a fear of anything that might cause that. These perceptions, then, also slowly shift themselves over time. It’s a matter of not “sticking” to them when recognizing they are there. Just allowing them to pass through and be noted without adhering.
In a way this is like the “fake out” of the physical pain. They are the kind of thoughts that goose me with a sharp intake of breath and an “oh no.” And then I realize it is not needed. I would like to say I laugh like I do when what I call “the mushroom people” fake me out on my walks, making me think from a distance that a paper cup laying in the grass is a mushroom, so I’ll get all excited and go look. But often when I do that, and then laugh at myself for getting faked out, within a foot of where I am, there’s a mushroom.
So allowing myself to be “faked out” but not believing in the fake out is a mysterious key to allowing this kind of healing process to unfold efficiently. In this playful way, I can continue, like a plant does, to reach out toward the sun for more healing, more wholeness, and more choice about how I move through the difficulties of my conditions.