Learning to Walk

November 5, 2017

Let me tell you what I think about pain, things I’ve learned from observing my patients – and from personal experience:

  • Pain, especially chronic pain, has a lot to teach us. It is an opportunity for us to gain some deeper insights into why we have the health concerns we do, examine how our beliefs, habits and lifestyle choices affect us. This can lead to a level of discovery and healing that goes far deeper than ‘curing’ the pain.
  • You are not your pain. You are not your sore knee (though you may feel that way). You are a person who has a sore knee. It is true that if the pain is bad enough, it can take up all your thinking, pushing away any pleasure you have in other areas of your life. But the fact remains that you are so much more than your sore knee.
  • Western medicine has, in the past, tried to help you live with your pain by giving you medications to manage it, and prescribing physical therapy to ease the structural side of pain. Unfortunately, this means that doctors are looking at you as the sore knee, not so much the person with the sore knee. Recently, because of the opioid epidemic, doctors are beginning to see the broader you, and are prescribing things like acupuncture and yoga before the pain meds in order to address the broader picture – which is you, the person with the sore knee.
  • There is a difference between curing pain and healing pain. ‘Curing’ has been pretty much a wash, except in acute conditions. Maybe. ‘Healing’, now, that is a journey that teaches us many, many things about ourselves.

I know all of this to be true. I see it every day in my clinic, in the thousands of treatments I’ve done in my acupuncture career. In addition, Chinese Medicine has given me a wonderful template for explaining all manner of stuff that happens, and it has given me the ability to become an observer in my own life, someone who is able to engage fully in her life without obsessing over it.

Imagine my dismay, then, when I began to have lower back pain myself after a fall in 2013.

Initially, walking was almost impossible. I could shuffle, but striding out wasn’t happening. My sleep was affected because my back would ache, and rolling over was extremely painful. I found myself deciding things like not getting up to walk across the room to get a drink just yet, because I knew it was going to hurt.

I began to obsess with the whys and wherefores. The fall wasn’t the only player. I used to ride horses, had numerous falls (though for most of those I landed on my head, and don’t get me started on where that thought would take me), and I’ve been in several car accidents. Add pregnancy and delivery, hard physical labor when I was younger, a 10 year span that was horrific mentally and emotionally, and I could see that my back, and specifically my pelvis, had been carrying quite a load for some time. (Ah hah, another body mind spirit connection.)

I began to analyze every step. Why was I able to work a 5 hour acupuncture shift without pain, then leave to walk down the street and barely make it? If I put my foot this way, would it hurt less? What’s a good way to change direction while walking that won’t bring tears to my eyes?

I started freaking out in my head because, you know, I was almost 60. Life was very good, and I was enjoying moving through it. What’s with this? Was this the beginning of The Decline? I mean, it wasn’t even 10 years ago that I walked 110 miles in 9 days.

Would I be walking like this – slowly and in pain – for the rest of my life? Or worse – was I about to spend the rest of my days unable to move from my chair, staring out the window and watching everyone else have a life?

What was I afraid of moving into? (Beside old age, that is, and is that another clue?) I was pretty sure if I went to the doctor, she’d tell me I had arthritis, which is useless information to me; I see patients all the time with arthritis and the western medical approach is pain killers that don’t work all that well, and physical therapy, which admittedly might be useful, but still. When I walked out of her office, my back wouldn’t be functioning as I remembered it did. (Oh wait. How accurate was that memory?)

I realized that I was used to walking briskly, with long steps, and hitting the ground as if I owned it. I saw that that movement had actually been changing over the last few years. I was, gasp, slowing down. Not only that, but I didn’t have that swing in my step that felt so loose and free – that swing that I rarely noticed in the past. Now I was taking shorter steps, and not from my back, and hitting the ground hard was jarring.

I began to be very, very aware of how I walked, the mechanics of movement that I hadn’t thought about since I was a toddler. In short, I began to walk mindfully. I wasn’t able to ricochet through my walking on auto-pilot because my back pain wouldn’t let me. It was forcing me to pay attention. Yeah yeah, blah blah blah. Geez.

I began to remind myself that if I kept, well, obsessing about this pain (and who wouldn’t? it was always there), I would make it linger. Maybe I had to accept that it was here in my now, and use it as a chance to change something that might be more than just the way I walked.

If I walk more carefully and more slowly my world is an entirely different place than it was before. If I think about each leg moving, how each foot feels when it meets the ground, if I think of moving with (what I hope looks like) dignity, maybe even regally, what do I see and feel? It begins to not matter whether I walk this way forever, and the truth is I won’t. Tomorrow or in 5 years or 20, I will have a different walk. I might learn to walk again, in a new way that reflects the changes in my life. And once again, thanks to this opportunity, everything will look … different.