|the most delicious teardrop trailer of them all|
My brother, Kevin, and I had a fun trip to the Adirondacks to check out the east coast gathering of teardrop trailers. They are even cuter in person. I kind of wanted to swallow one whole. Unfortunately they might be a little too tiny for my two-month winter vacation home on wheels. So the research continues: cargo trailer conversions, vintage "canned ham" trailers, vanagons...
A couple days after our trip, I was sitting on the couch in Kevin and Rebecca's (sister-in-law) house in Maine, giddy (not a word I apply to myself very often) about plans for my yet to be determined travel trailer. And generally feeling happier than I've felt in a long time. For no clear reason, when I stood up from the couch my back went out. Little did I know in that painful, miserable moment, the universe was about to grant me a glimpse of just how much my relationship to self is shifting.
I was consumed with discomfort, but even more intense than the physical distress was the emotional fear. A little backstory (pun intended): In 2006, I herniated a disc in my back. And for the next two, interminable years I experienced frequent episodes of awful back, leg, and foot pain. The pain was especially hard to manage since I can't take ibuprofen and my body rejects harder-core drugs like morphine derivatives. (Thank god for nerve block injections - they were the only thing that made a difference. I highly recommend them for those who've exhausted all other pain relief options.)
So when my back broke down in Kevin and Rebecca's living room, I was terrified that I'd just been sentenced to another two years of debilitating pain. Just when I'd decided that it's time to reclaim my life, health struggles be damned. But when I'd damned the struggles I had not included back pain in the inventory. That's a whole other ball game.
|Kevin next to one of the most adorable "canned ham" trailers we met|
A couple years after the original herniation in 2006, my back finally started to improve. It's never felt normal again, the way it used to before the herniation, and it tweaks easily but the mini-flare-ups have been tolerable. But in 2009, I had an acute flare-up similar to the one I experienced a few weeks ago in Maine, but not quite as bad, which is why I was convinced that this recent incident was actually not a flare-up but a re-herniation, since the pain was worse.
All to say, my body provided me with a little controlled scientific study: comparing how I interacted with my self during the acute flare-up two years ago with how I interacted with my self a few weeks ago during the most recent episode. Conclusion: the difference is night and fucking day. How you like my science now?
When I screwed my back in 2009, as with all other health struggles until recently, I berated myself for being scared, for being too sensitive, for being weak. I'd tell myself that other people, with the same degree of pain, would be so much tougher than I am, less tearful, less afraid, less catastrophic. I was certain that other stoic types wouldn't need to ask their friends to walk their dog or get groceries. I'm not sure which was worse, the physical pain or the emotional attacks on myself.
Fast forward to three weeks ago. The first thing I noticed is that I let Kevin and Rebecca in on my pain and unedited fear. Way in. Out of habitual embarrassment for the degree of my reaction, I had an impulse to pretend I wasn't totally freaked out, and to keep my shit together long enough to crawl off into the woods, like a wounded animal, to cry alone. (They live on beautiful wooded land in Maine so really, this was a tempting and possible scenario.) One of the reasons I sometimes hide pain is to avoid disappointment about someone not responding with just the right quality or quantity of empathy that I'm seeking in that moment.
From the outside looking in on my post-couch injury, it just appeared like I was physically uncomfortable. But I decided to drop the charade, sitting down very slowly onto a chair and I started weeping. I mean snot-everywhere, like you-just-told-me-my-best-friend-died weeping. My dear brother quietly pulled up a chair and just sat next to me while I cried and cried. I whimpered through the tears, "I just need to cry...I really need to let this out...I'm so scared right now that this is happening all over again and that I'm going to be fucked for another two years...Just when I was starting to get happy, really happy."
Kevin just listened carefully, and didn't try to fix my feelings. I could feel his warm attention burrowing into my aching back. My sister-in-law, Rebecca, who has her own back problems, circled around us, offering ice and other tokens of comfort. I was being orbited by love. Life is so much sweeter and humane when we let people in, giving them a chance to help and love, even when we risk disappointment about them not getting it quite right. But this team of two happened to deliver exactly what I needed: presence and compassion. And by letting out what was in, in the loving company of others, my fear started to break into more digestible bite-sized chunks.
And that chair-weeping support was just the beginning. Kevin had already earned major brother bonus points by traveling with me to the Adirondacks to check out trailers, leaving his infant son, Ethan, overnight for the first time. (If Ethan was your baby, you'd have a hard time leaving that little chubber too.) But now Kevin was heading towards hero status, driving me an hour back to my parent's place in New Hampshire where I was staying. (Kevin and Rebecca don't have a guest room and even if they did, I probably couldn't sleep there since I'm the world's most persnickety sleeper.)
|ethan - see what I mean?|
Kevin stayed overnight with me in New Hampshire to make sure I could manage okay.Then two days later he drove four hours, hauling me back to Boston in my car, since I couldn't drive. Then he turned around and flew home, all in one day. Needing, requesting, and accepting this kind of extraordinary help was its own giant hurdle. But, I felt like a very lucky girl to not only have a brother who repeatedly insisted "this is what we're here for", but to have friends offering support upon my arrival. Sweet Anna delivered groceries only two hours after I landed back in my nest.
But during that week-plus of acute discomfort and fear, I miraculously gave myself room. When I was tempted to revert to my old, habitual self-berating, a voice deep inside, one that seems to be getting louder these days, asked me instead to experiment with gentleness and kindness. In what felt like an epiphany, I came to see that my fear is and was just a part of my symptoms. Just as worthy of compassion as the physical distress. And not something to be ashamed of.
|Kevin, when he dropped me off in Boston before turning around again - I love this photo|
I'm a girl who scares easy, especially when it comes to my health, since it's been such a source of discomfort and pain over the years. Or as an old therapist (old as in former, and old as in elderly - I think she was in her mid-eighties) once put it so succinctly and without judgement: "you tip easy". Agreed. But that's not grounds for self-loathing or shame. My new, kinder inner voice went so far as to say this: "of course you get scared, you've had to deal with a shitload of physical discomfort over the years. The fear makes sense and you're entitled to it. And you're no lesser because of it."
I believe that how we think about ourselves is one of the things that puts us at risk for depression. I don't believe that we're sentenced to a lifetime of intermittent depression because it's "genetic". In my former life as a social worker, and in my whole life as a nosy girl, I've had countless conversations with people who struggle and seek. And there's an undeniable thread - people prone to depression, be it mild or severe, are also prone to being really hard on themselves. Coincidence? I hardly think so.
Until I'd witnessed these shifts in myself taking place over the last few months, I never believed that I could really change how I feel about myself. The work felt too hard, the beliefs felt inherent, and my self-help measures felt like nothing more than temporary stopgaps. And I was certain that I must be the one person in the world whose depressive tendencies would just never budge. The work IS hard. But this shit is changing. And if it can for me, the last unsalvageable on earth, I think it can for you too.
|me and ethan, on the couch that taught me a lesson|