“Does that hurt?” the doctor asked me, pressing against my swollen foot.
“Yes?” I asked, then added, “No. I don’t know.”
“You’re grimacing.” She moves her hand to a different spot.
“Yeah, I think it hurts.”
Putting my foot down, she makes a note on the computer. “Has the pain worsened since it happened?”
“Maybe. I’m not sure. It comes and goes.”
This was me in the doctor’s office on Thursday as I got my foot checked out after having it hit by a baseball on Tuesday night. Thank goodness she didn’t ask me to rate my pain on a scale of 0-10 because I would have given two answers on two opposite ends.
The truth is, I have no idea how to gauge my pain. When I broke a toe in high school, I walked on it until it healed, wearing four inch heals every Sunday. I never went to the doctor, even though I could clearly see that it was misshapen.
“That’s impossible!” people have told me.
Maybe for someone who grew up in a normal environment—where belts are not considered legitimate whipping tools, where sexual abuse doesn’t lurk around church corners, and where abusive siblings don’t minimize the pain they caused after throwing you across your room by your neck.
Bur for someone who faced the possibility of pain on a daily basis, I’m not sure I could have survived if I hadn’t learned how to ignore it. I became very good at dissociating out of my body, talking myself out of my feelings, and redefining sensations as something else—as something acceptable to my various abusers.
So what happens when I suddenly don’t need the protection of a high pain tolerance?
I have to teach myself to listen to my body again.
Notice I didn’t say teach myself to feel pain again. My body, on some levels, has no problem feeling pain. It registers in my brain just fine. Sometimes it’s from current stimuli; sometimes it’s from past traumas. I feel it, but immediately my cognitive mind works to control its interference. Deep breaths, creative visualization, etc.
Like most things in life, it’s not bad in and of itself. The ability to look past pain is a good tool for pain management.
However, that’s not so good when the pain is there to tell me that something bad happened—like my foot this week, or the shin splints that notified me that I needed to adjust my running a few weeks ago, or the pulled muscle that told me I pushed myself too far in yoga last year.
In high school, I would have ignored all of those unless I simply couldn’t function—and I would have done permanent damage to my body.
I may not feel any more inclined to acknowledge the pain now. I could have muscled my way through this current injury if I were determined. I chose to go to the doctor—not because the pain was more intense than it was the last time I broke a toe, but because this time I’m committed to caring for and loving my body.
Plus I’m surrounded by people, for once, who don’t understand why the hell I wouldn’t go to the doctor if I had a question of injury, so I had lots of encouragement.
Turns out the X-ray didn’t show a fracture.
Immediately my stoic upbringing ran its familiar diatribe. “You’re such a baby.” “You’re going to get fat.” “You’re so lazy.” “It’s not broken, so why can’t you walk?” “Is the pain really that bad?”
Apparently only broken bones serve as legitimate injuries to this “old me” that I’ve resurrected. It’s hard to make room for weakness and injury when you grew up on the motto “Pain is weakness leaving the body.”
But here’s one thing I realize now that I didn’t realize back when I could bully myself out of listening to my body:
Ignoring the pain doesn’t actually make it go away.
Ignoring the injury doesn’t heal it.
Pain is not weakness leaving the body. It’s weakness entering the body. It’s the signal that my body sends to my brain that something needs attention—something’s wrong. While there may have been times as a child when my mind needed to believe that the pain was unimportant, I’m not there anymore. I’m in a different place—a safe place—where I am responsible for listening and caring for myself, which means using crutches for a few weeks instead of trying to prove my willpower to those ghosts in my head.