Thoughts on Pain and Memory

Working at Tikkun Magazine is great, but it doesn’t exactly pay the bills (especially since I live an hour and a half away from the office). So before my daily commute, I work at a pain management clinic in Palo Alto. It’s not my dream job, but I’m learning a lot. Checking insurance coverage, billing, multi-tasking… basically, I’m an organizer-in-training. But the thing I didn’t expect to learn, the thing I so desperately didn’t want to learn, was the tricksy nature of pain.

After I graduated this past spring, I meant to emark on a self-healing expedition. I meant to treat the wounds I’d set aside in favor of acing classes and managing a publication. But the thing about healing is that it requires resting. And the thing about me is that I cannot rest.

My various “disorders” and “abnormalities,” if you want to call them that, all point me in the same direction: my body and mind both refuse to relax. I have to trick myself constantly into letting go. Insomnia and sleep apnea make it difficult to shut down after a long, hard day at work. Bipolar disorder and ADHD make it difficult to ignore all the mental side-conversations and focus on a task, no matter how much I enjoy the task. Anxiety, the biggest demon of them all, makes it difficult to breathe and let go of concerns after they’ve been put to rest.

Over the years, I’ve taken various forms of medication for ADHD for sproadic periods of time. But a racing pulse and sweaty palms inflamed all the other disorders. I invested in a jar of melatonin, too, but the dizziness in the morning made it so difficult to wake up that the benefits just didn’t outweigh the costs. And truth be told, I gradually and totally began to abuse my already tenuous relationship with coffee and caffeine more generally. That one I’m still trying to kick.

So now that I’m finally working on my health and daily habits, I’m having to actually put in more effort than ever. Self-healing sounded like a really passive, relaxing experience that I could put little to no effort into. But it turns out that this process takes an enormous amount of energy.

The other thing about the self-healing process that I was not prepared to deal with is the physical, emotional, and cultural pain I’ve managed to suppress over the years.

At the clinic, I’m learning a lot about physical pain, and how it is connected to and reflects emotional, cultural, and spiritual pain. They work on these spots on our bodies called “trigger points.” We can be experiencing pain in our wrists as a symptom of an over-active muscle in our upper fore-arms. (I’m a little embarassed at this point because I studied anthropology for four years, which means that I should be able to give the proper Latin name for each individual bone and muscle. But, y’know, us cultural anthropologists tend to run screaming for the hills when faced with human anatomy charts.)

So they’ll treat the fore-arms for a few sessions, and lo-and-behold, in less than two weeks your wrists will be all shiny and new, like nothing ever happened.

The same thing can be applied to social situations. There are certain words that can trigger different emotions in different people. We all know these words, but we’re not allowed to say them aloud. We can suggest them, raise our eyebrows and gesture a lot, but to say them aloud will probably result in some blank stares or sharp breath intakes. I just wrote about one of these words–rape–in my last entry. I talked about how that myserious, taboo quality that is associated with the word “rape” is what gives rape its danger and feeling of inescapability.

Earlier this summer, when I told my family I’d been raped two and a half years ago, my dad sent me to Harbin Hot Springs for my birthday to take some time to meditate and relax.

Yep. Relax. My biggest nightmare.

Sure enough, during my first ever professional massage, something inside of me snapped. Laying there, face-up, covered in massage oil, butt-naked, my body began to quiver and began to weep like a little baby. And then later, during early-morning yoga, the same thing happened. Wet cheeks, snot, and everything. I was so embarassed.

Muscles store memory. That’s why you can ride a bike after not riding for a few years, or remember the steps of a dance after it’s been several months since you last danced. But muscles store more than just physical memory. They store chemical and emotional memory, too.

Recently, I started doing yoga twice a week before work. (The early wake-up is brutal, but totally worth it). I also started recieving treatment at the clinic for scoliosis. I’m also slowly weaning myself off of caffeine. I’m already down to one cup of black tea in the morning. But every time I go to yoga or get treated, I’m all jittery afterwards. This jitteriness is a result of my muscles remembering the caffeine, and so I experience the same symptoms as if I just took a shot of espresso. It’s incredible.

At Harbin, when I cried during my massage and yoga, my muscles were remembering the rape, forcing my mind to connect with the trauma of being taken advantage of.

But I also think that pain can be stored in cultural and spiritual absence. During college I connected with Judaism in a very academic, intellectual way. But I was still missing something. I found that something at Beyt Tikkun last week at Rosh Hashana services, when the congregation formed a circle and hugged each other. Same reaction as before–bawling my eyes out like a little baby.

Humans are weird. We can carry around preposterous amounts of pain and not even know it. I have been carrying around physical, emotional, cultural, and spiritual pain for years, and it hurts to let it go. My body, mind, and spirit are screaming at me, “Keep going! Don’t let up!” as if self-forgiveness and honoring my needs is weakness. Women are trained to ignore ourselves, to put the needs of others, especially men, in front of our own. Overcoming this training is a battle. You have to look inside of your mind and heart, and pick out what doesn’t belong there. “Hey! That isn’t mine! Someone else put that there!”

It’s painful to wake up and realize that someone else has put you to sleep for twenty-two years. But it’s nothing compared to the pain of carrying knots in your body, fear in your mind, and loneliness in your heart. It’s a pain that can’t be forgotten, and yet so completely and totally ignored. And so completely and totally overcome.

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