Thursday, April 25, 2019

Hibernation. Sloth sleuthing. Things I didn't want to write.

I've often wished to be taken in by a sleuth of hibernating bears (A group of bears is called a sloth or sleuth. True story. Words are fantastic.). And we would hide out in a luxury cave eating, sleeping and being detectives. Because winter is the worst and Bearlock Holmes is the best. But alas, I have yet to receive an invitation to the sloth sleuth party. I have, however, found myself in the company of a tower of giraffes (A group of giraffes is called a tower. Unsolicited advice: a good thing to do if you are ever feeling sad/mad/bad/not glad/dissed by some cad/like you've been had, is look up the names of groups of animals). Giraffe Tower and I spent much of the winter hibernating inside the house, watching true crime and untrue crime and Catfish the TV show (Coincidentally, the Tower likes all the same terrible streaming shows I do). And cracking tough cases like who left the trail of jelly blobs on the counter (Pete) and who left the empty box of Sudafed inside the closet (Also Pete. Admittedly, the suspect list was very short). Now that it's officially spring, by which I mean we've actually had a sunny, semi-warm day or two, maybe I will come out of hibernation. Though I'm not sure I'm quite ready yet.

I did not actually intend to hibernate. Generally, I like going out and doing things and seeing people. But I also really, really like being at home alone. Especially when I don't feel that great. I can't remember when the pain first started, it was so long ago. It was merely a dull ache at first. In my back, mostly. Sometimes my hips and knees joined in. Just for fun I guess. It felt like muscle soreness after a very long race. But that feeling usually subsides in a day or two. And this pain persisted and increased in intensity. At first, I just endured it. It wasn't debilitating, in that I could still go about my normal life and do most of the things I wanted to do, albeit more painfully than I would have liked. But it was annoying and wearying. I didn't know if it was physical or emotional pain, stress-induced or grief-induced, or some combination of everything all at once. On some level, I felt as if I deserved it, like this was my penance for a wasted youth spent shrinking myself, starving myself of nutrients and affection and joy. But I'm older and maybe a bit wiser now, so I was just like, no, that thought is mean and untrue, no one deserves to be in pain. On another level, I felt like maybe it was grief and genetics, because back, hips and knees are where dad was always in pain. He self-medicated his pain with vodka. When I was young, I self-medicated my pain with anorexia and excessive exercise. It works until it doesn't. Well, it seems to work but in reality we were just avoiding the pain instead of alleviating it. I say this without any judgment. You do what you have to do to get by. But there are ways of getting through life that don't involve hurting others or self-destruction (you might think self-destruction doesn't hurt others, but it does. It hurts everyone who loves you).

Being alive is beautiful and amazing and challenging and painful. Life is hard for everyone. (For some, that hardship is further compounded by systemic oppression). I'm very lucky to be in good health and that my problems are minor compared to what others have to face. Still, the perpetual physical pain was starting to get to me. I didn't want to avoid it or endure it. I wanted to figure out the cause of it and hopefully find a solution. The process has been frustrating and challenging, yet so transformative that, while I still have a long way to go, I am almost thankful to have had this experience (Almost. Aches and pains suck and I wouldn't willingly sign up for it. But it has brought me closer to being the person I want to be). I won't say that I've figured it all out, because I haven't and I probably never will. But I have figured out how to go about figuring things out. And they key to that is basically, be curious and be compassionate.

Before I go into all that, I just want to preface this by acknowledging that I am exceedingly privileged. Here's a non-exhaustive list of all the privileges I have: white privilege, thin privilege, economic privilege, cisgender privilege, heterosexual privilege, able bodied privilege. I have health insurance. I am wealthy enough to afford treatments that aren't covered by health insurance (which seem to be the ones that always work best for me). Even the physical pain I experienced, while frustrating and depressing, was mild compared to what many other people experience. I point this out because it's fucked up and unfair and I'm not telling the whole story unless I include this information. 

So here's what happened. I spent last year learning to embrace rest and to enjoy being at rest as much as I enjoy being in motion. Rest helped but it didn't solve the problems that had caused the pain in the first place. That's what I spent the winter trying to figure out. I continued to rest and eat and sleep. All the time. As much as I wanted (Outside of work, which for some reason doesn't include nap breaks. Ok, the reason is capitalism. Naps are great. We all know it). I limited my runs to the short, easy, fun variety. I ghosted 3 physical therapists and 2 chiropractors. I feel a little bad about that last part, because I could tell that they were genuinely trying to help. It's just that the exercises they prescribed made me feel even worse and I didn't know how to explain that it wasn't what I needed at all. The diagnosis was basically the same: some kind of biomechanical failure that they would try to forcibly correct with various exercises, most of which only increased my pain and decreased my optimism. My body would inevitably rebel against these exercises because it doesn't like being forced to do things. I am stubborn AF, down to the cellular level. Plus, the body moves as a whole, so focusing on individual body parts is missing the point. A body isn't a simple machine like a car. You can't just be like oh you need a new alternator or carburetor or flux capacitor, problem solved! (clearly I know a lot about auto mechanic-ing). Bodies are amazing - they're weird and complicated. Every one is different and there's still so much we don't understand about them. My primary care physician gave me prescriptions for drugs, which I didn't want and didn't take. She agreed with me that they would just cover up the pain and not actually solve anything, but it seemed like her only options were to prescribe drugs or refer me for tests and/or injections/surgeries, which I also didn't want or need. I did have a minor epiphany in her office though. When I told her I was only running X miles a week, she said "That's a lot." At first I thought no, it isn't. But then it occurred to me: actually, my body was telling me that it was a lot, I just wasn't listening to it. (Note that I haven't included an actual number of miles. That's because I don't want anyone to read it and judge themselves against it, thinking it's a lot or a little, that they should be running more or less. Every body is different. We have different stressors in our lives and we handle them differently. Comparison, to others or to our past selves, is unhelpful and potentially harmful).

Throughout several months of PT and chiropractic appointments, I had been doing Feldenkrais exercises at home, first via YouTube and then The Balanced Runner Online Camp. It was the only thing that made me feel better, so I decided I would cut everything else out and just do that. I wanted to focus on what I knew was helping ease and prevent the pain and eliminate anything else that might be inadvertently impeding my progress. I signed up for one on one lessons with Jae Gruenke, Feldenkrais practitioner and founder of The Balanced Runner. It was expensive. Painfully expensive. I hesitated. I felt guilty about spending that much money on myself. But I was pretty desperate at that point. And two things convinced me to do it. One, I remembered a conversation I had with my dad where he was complaining about paying co-pays for doctors appointments and I had said "Dad, what better way is there to spend your time and money than on feeling better?" Two, I had an initial free consultation with Jae (I was still on the fence at this point) and she said something about how my body was moving in the best way it could. She did not simply point out all the things that were wrong with my form and movement patterns. Instead she asked me a series of questions about how I felt when I ran and what I could sense happening with various body parts. No shade thrown at any of the medical professionals I saw - I could tell they were trying their hardest to be helpful. But the message I was getting from them, well-intentioned as they were, was that my body was wrong and needed fixing. Finally, here was someone saying the opposite, that my body was doing its best with the information it had and we could help it explore more comfortable and efficient ways of moving. That's why Feldenkrais had resonated with me from the very beginning and I knew that this was the (gentle, curious, non-judgmental, hopeful) approach that I needed. PT and chiro felt like exams I was constantly failing. Feldenkrais felt like a treasure hunt where I was discovering fantastic new things about myself in every lesson. The lessons were focused on running movements, and obviously I was hoping it would help me run pain free. But I'm a process person not a results person. And I knew that whether or not it improved my running, Feldenkrais would help me become more connected to and fully at home in my body. That in and of itself was invaluable.

I thought I had made peace with my body years ago. When I stopped focusing on what I looked like or what I weighed and instead ate whatever I wanted whenever I wanted, based on internal cues instead of external rules. When I stopped focusing on race distances or times and just ran whatever I wanted whenever I wanted, for the joy of movement and exploring the outdoors. I already knew that judging myself or others by appearances or achievements was not in line with my values. But the back pain made me realize I was still judging my body based on its health/abilities and that needed to change. My acceptance of and respect for my body (and all bodies) needs to be unconditional. The white supremacist, patriarchal, capitalist, diet-obsessed culture we live in has created a hierarchy of bodies, as if some bodies are better than others (This is a lie. All bodies are good bodies). Then this false idol of the so-called "ideal body" is used to oppress and profit off people (See the list of books below if you're interested in reading more about this from women far more articulate and knowledgeable than me). Unpacking and challenging internalized fatphobia, racism, sexism, ableism, healthism, etc is lifelong process. I still have much to learn. But once my eyes were opened to all the bullshit lies society inundates us with about how we're supposed to look and act and be, and how harmful that is to everyone, but particularly marginalized groups, I could no longer remain ignorant or complicit. Unintentional harm is still harm.

It's a lot to unlearn. I am still unlearning it. It requires confronting uncomfortable feelings in an open, nonjudgmental way. Feldenkrais helped me approach my physical pain in a similar fashion. The method teaches awareness through mindful movement. There's no stretching or straining. In the lessons, you do only the range of movement that is easy and comfortable for you. I've worked with Jae for several months and I've become so much more connected to and aware of my body parts and how they can move together efficiently. I'd been running with some low grade level of pain for so long that I'd just sort of gotten used to it. After one of the first lessons Jae sent me, I came home crying and Pete thought there was something wrong with me. But I was just so happy to have run a few miles pain-free for the first time in I can't remember how long. I have a lot more to learn, and I still haven't been doing any long distances, but running feels so much more natural and fluid now, like my whole body is moving together harmoniously. I didn't realize how much I had been forcing things before and how much unnecessary effort that was costing me. Some runs are better than others, of course. Because some days I'm more stressed or I haven't slept well or I haven't eaten as much or I have my period (yay so much fun always. sarcasm explosion) or whatever. The difference is I've become so much better at recognizing when something is off and knowing how to give my body/mind whatever is needed, be it nutrients or rest or sleep or saying no to things that I don't want to do.

I still feel aches and pains sometimes. I think that's just part of the experience of aliveness. But it's only on occasion, and not constant anymore. Now I think of pain as a sign, a call for attention and care. It's my body's way of alerting me that my cup is too full, that I'm at my capacity for stressors. That I need to ask questions and figure out where I'm doing too much, either physically, mentally or emotionally. I rest whenever I need to. I try to sleep better, though I am never as good at sleeping as I want to be. I don't push through the pain (and I've unfollowed anything that even hints at a no pain, no gain or similar mentality). I ask my body what it needs. Sometimes (ok, most of the time) I don't understand its language. But I am learning, little by little. To listen instead of ignore. To be curious and compassionate instead of judgmental or shaming. Sometimes I fail and that's ok, I keep trying.

My posture has improved somewhat, but that's a complicated issue. My dad used to encourage me to stand up straight and he'd say "You look like a question mark." It wasn't meant as a criticism. I think it was his way of telling me to stand up for myself, that he was proud of me and I should be proud of myself too. But I was a question mark. I had so many questions. Most people outgrow that toddler phase of asking why about everything. I never did. I didn't know how to be a person in the world. I mean, I knew what kind of person I wanted to be. But I also knew what society expected of me as a woman. And I didn't know how to reconcile the two. I just wanted to be my imperfect human self. I wanted to be a person, not an object or possession. I didn't want to have to owe anyone beauty or thinness or obedience or submission or any of that crap people expect of women. I am a person filled with wildness and weirdness, with strong convictions and sensitive to the suffering of the world. I am sometimes covered in dirt, sometimes covered in dresses. I swear more than the sailor I live with. And I don't care what is or what isn't ladylike because fuck that shit, I'm not here to be ladylike. One day maybe I will have good posture. But I don't think I will ever stop being a question mark. I can't just do things because it's what other people do. I have to ask why and does this align with my values and who profits from this and what are the other options?

So Giraffe Tower and I have been hibernating and Feldenkrais-ing and plumbing the depths of our existential angst or whatever. And mostly avoiding other people, to be honest. It's nothing personal. Either I didn't have the energy to interact with people or I didn't want to burden people with my lame problems when I know everyone is dealing with their own stuff. Plus, when I have issues to sort out, I need to do it on my own. I need refuge from the noise that is other people's opinions and advice and trying-to-be-helpful-but-unintentionally-making-me-feel-worse. I avoided big group functions, and especially races. The running community is great but it tends to be an environment of constantly doing more and more, whereas I needed to spend some time in a less is more cocoon. Though I feel dramatically better, I'm still working some stuff out and I don't think I'm strong enough yet to withstand people's judgment and comments. Judge away in private if you like, but please don't dump any of that here. I would however, love to hear your own stories, of struggle or success or whatever you want to share. I am always interested in your lives and experiences.

I wrote and re-wrote this many times. I didn't really want to write it at all but I don't want my social media to be a highlight reel, I want it to be real. This is where I've been, where I am and where I'm going. I am imperfect and this is my imperfect life. Maybe some of it will resonate with you, maybe it won't. Either way, thanks for being here. Love from the Tower.

Lyric of the moment: "I'm trying, but I'm graceless. Don't have the sunny side to face this. I am invisible and weightless. You can't imagine how I hate this. Graceless..." ~The National "Graceless" 

P.S. For anyone who's interested, I'd highly recommend these books. I found them to be quite life-changing: "Hunger" by Roxanne Gay / "You Have The Right To Remain Fat" by Virgie Tovar / "The Body Is Not An Apology" by Sonya Renee Tayor / "Shrill" by Lindy West.