“Have you tried hypnosis?”
I’m so used to the way I am now, wearing the brace, walking slowly to maintain my posture, using a special cushion to support my back, that I had forgotten that most people only see the disablement, not realizing what an improvement this is for me. They hear the words “chronic pain” and coming rushing over like butterflies to flowers, and I, having forgotten how many butterflies there are at book club, wasn’t prepared for it.
I should have been. I had stopped going to book club for more reasons than the late hour in the middle of the week. I should have remembered how much I hated the gauntlet of consternated butterflies I had to pass through on my way out. But I’ve been so limited in my excursions that, up until last night, it had been months since I’d had any exposure to social gatherings that didn’t involve people who knew better than to offer anything beyond sympathy and support.
I’d forgotten that most people won’t let a little thing like an extremely rare, catastrophic injury they’ve never heard of stop them from piping up with the one treatment they are sure will work. Of course, they have to check to make sure I haven’t tried it already, with oh-so-concerned looks on their faces, but usually, I haven’t (which, considering how many treatments I have tried, should tell you something right there), and they can barely wait to triumphantly present me with their brilliant solution and accept my undying gratitude.
Typically, it goes as such: someone will ask when it happened, and what caused it, and what “they” (meaning those useless doctor people) are doing to fix it. And as soon as those pesky details are out of the way…
“Have you tried hypnosis?”
It was as we were trickling out into the darkened street after book club last night, and I had no idea how to reply. Despite lots of practice with these sorts of interactions, this offering was crazier than most, and I could not bring myself to validate it. I searched vainly for some middle ground. “Ummm… actually… that’s not-”
“Not your thing?”
“Not my thing,” I echoed gratefully. “No.”
She persisted, “You know, there are lots of stories of people undergoing these major, invasive surgeries while under hypnosis.”
Again, I could not call to mind an appropriate response. Inappropriate responses, on the other hand, were clamoring to get out of my mouth. I’m sorry, but unlike you, I don’t actually believe everything I read on the internet. I also haven’t tried levitation, by the way, but I’m pretty sure that won’t work, either.
So I said nothing, and she continued, undaunted, “There’s a friend of mine who does guided meditations, and they’re just so amazing, they’re like, almost real, like you feel like you’re actually transported, but anyway in the real world, she’s a hypnotist…”
I could not contain my sarcasm any longer. “wait, are you telling me her hobby is guided meditation, but in the ‘real’ world she hypnotizes people?”
“Yes, she says if you’re responsive to hypnosis–”
I felt my temper start to coil up inside me. Here we go again with yet another piece of woo claptrap that requires that the patient be in the right frame of mind for “it” to work, whatever the “it” is. It’s just another way of blaming the victim, as though it’s her own fault that this or that treatment, real or imaginary, failed to help her.
“Well, thanks for suggesting it; I’ll look into it” I interrupted, trying to smile. I was unable to command much in the way of sincerity, but I did achieve my goal, which was to end the conversation, however ineptly. She took the hint and started walking to her car, calling reproachfully over her shoulder, “or not, I mean, whatever. I just thought, you know, it’s helped a lot of people.”
As though I was the moron for not taking her suggestion seriously. No doubt she was insulted, and I probably could have been at least a little more gracious. But there is a beast inside of me that starts rumbling and gnashing its teeth whenever someone tries to push their favorite flavor of woo on me, and my ability to control it is not always reliable. Catch me after I’ve already been sitting in a lumpy green chair for an hour, for instance, and I cannot keep the damn thing from breaking the leash.
Which meant that I had absolutely nothing left for the next woman who swooped in, before the other one was even out of earshot, proclaiming, “You know, I was thinking, listening you talk to her back there – have you thought about swimming?”
I replied in the calmest tone I could muster, which was perhaps a bit closer to brittle than it was to calm, “Swimming is the reason I’m in this situation. That’s what caused my injury.”
“Well, maybe you could just float in the pool. It’s so nice to float in the pool–”
My voice grew more brittle, and probably a bit imperious, as well. “No. I am not interested in going to the pool right now. Let me explain something to you. I love swimming. I’ve been a swimmer since I was a little kid. Swimming was my favorite physical activity. I do not go to the pool and just ‘float around.’ I swim. I am a swimmer. It defines me.”
I turned to walk away, but she grabbed my arm and pulled me close, “Swimming doesn’t have to define you. You should define it.” She was several inches shorter than me, and eerie reflections of the street lights trembled in her widened eyes.
I wanted to scream. I wanted to shove her away. Hard. Somehow, I forced myself to stand still, putting my hand on hers. “Listen, I know you’re just trying to help,” I said quietly, “but I really just need to get home.”
She released me. “I’m just saying, it’s really nice to float in the pool.” She may have said something else, but I didn’t hear it, muttering to myself as I got in my own car, conveniently parked right up front in the handicapped space. Seriously? Float in the pool?Would you tell a runner who had torn his ACL to just go to the track and stand around and watch other people run? What is the matter with people?
Before this comes off as a total wash, I need to qualify that most of the gathering was absolutely delightful. Each one of my close friends came up to me with a gentle hug and a genuine smile, expressing how happy she was to see me. When we were standing around and chatting over cake (there was a birthday), one of them even pulled me aside and intimated how nice it was to have me back, and that my contributions to the discussion had been very much missed. Another could not conceal her look of horror as I gave her a brief rundown of my ordeal and the resulting chronic condition. “Please don’t look at me like that,” I assured her. “I’m fine, really.”
But maybe I’m not as fine as I think I am. I am better than I was, but if I was ever as sweet as my friends were last night, I have not made it back there yet. It’s true that I’m calmer now; I don’t cry so much, I am more patient behind the wheel of a car, and when I’m standing in line at a store, breathing deeply and allowing the shoulder pain to ebb and flow as it will. But as I replay the video of the post-club freak show in my head, I am unhappy with how poorly I reacted to the women who were just being solicitous. Or what they thought was solicitous, and who am I to tell them otherwise?
My walls have grown thin. I used to be better at keeping my self-righteous anger in check. I had developed the ability to cage horrible things before they flew out of my mouth. But this blog, and my solitude, and needing to practice brutal honesty about my pain and physical limitations, has laid waste to many of the barriers and gate checks I had built up to keep my snark under wraps. It seems I need to go back and do some patchwork if I’m to be going out more frequently again.
Which means that maybe I shouldn’t be going out more frequently, or at least, not just yet. I’m tired, mentally tired, not just physically. I’ve been learning how to simply be in pain, to feel it as it’s happening, without pushing it away, without running for my pain medication or my ice gel when it shifts and sharpens. To let it in without giving in to the desire to cancel my plans for however-so-long in hopes it will pack up its knives and settle back down to the dull ache I’m blessed with on quieter days.
I’m doing this because I thought it would take less energy to interact with the pain in a less adversarial fashion, but that hasn’t turned out to be the case. More important, I’m doing it because I’m tired of the daily obsession with it, fighting with it, trying to figure out how little or how much of it I will have if I do something, or don’t do something. I simply refuse to live like that any more. But it’s taxing, and it’s hard. It’s much, much harder than I thought it would be.
I thought I would get used to it, and maybe I will. Maybe I’m doing too much too soon (I’m sure I am). But I’ve been stuck motionless for so long that now that the bonds have loosened I’m desperate to escape. I want to cut them all free and run and run and run until I fall down from exhaustion. Real exhaustion, physical exhaustion, with the head rush and the swooning endorphins. I told myself I could do this. There’s a little voice inside me now wondering if maybe I can’t, or shouldn’t.
But I don’t want to hear it. I will do this, no matter the cost. I have to. I’m going to be free. I’m going to be independent. The pain doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter. I won’t let it define me.
I will define it. And I will be fine. I will.