Honoring Pain

Getting older is not for the faint of heart. I am keenly aware of this today as I feel the pain from a chain of events that started with an old knee injury. I’d been concerned after experiencing pain and decreased range of motion twice in the past six months, but each time I chalked it up to events that involved unusual levels of activity. 

When it comes to my health, I often feel the bind of being highly sensitive and attuned to any pain or change in my body and a childhood full of responses to my distress that taught me to dismiss my knowing. I learned that I had to prove whatever I was feeling beyond a shadow of a doubt to get any care. When I fear I don’t have enough evidence for my case, I retreat inside myself, sure that no one could understand my pain or would want to be with me in it. 

So, despite growing evidence to the contrary, I kept on moving, and hurting, telling myself it was part of getting older. This was something I didn’t need to see a doctor to know was true. Until a Thursday in December when I struggled to get out of my chair after a long session with a client and had trouble getting my leg and hip to unlock. My client noticed, and with a concerned look on her face asked, “Are you okay?” 

The kindness in her face and question cut through my own dismissal, and I knew it was time to seek care. The long process of multiple appointments to assess and diagnose took another two months, enough time for the pain to spread, as I had been compensating for so long. While waiting, I went with the advice I remembered from my past knee injury, “You can’t damage it further. Keep moving so you don’t lose flexibility.” Turns out, this was just a sneakier way of dismissing my knowing.  

Saturday night, I woke up to throbbing pain, intense spasms that were enough to take my breath away. The cross-country skiing I’d said yes to, my need for connection and celebration overriding my acknowledgment of pain, had been more than “movement for flexibility.” As my tears flowed, my husband told me to breathe, reminding me that holding my breath would keep everything tensed and the pain worse. What I heard was, “Your tears and panic are the problem. The pain can’t really be that bad.” 

Turns out, you really can cause more damage when you refuse to honor what your body is telling you. 

Getting older has advantages too, including the accumulation of experiences that form themes and stories that have so much to tell us, if we are willing to read them. I am clearer than ever that this old story could kill me, or at the very least keep me from fully living the long life that I hope for. The kind question from my client came in the nick of time, reconnecting me to parts of myself that were caught up in old fears. It’s high time I admit and act on my desire: I want to live expansively and fully, not in retreat. And I want to trust the people who love me to join me in whatever that life holds.

Janet Stark is a deeply feeling introvert who has learned the value of creating nurturing, restful space in a loud world. She loves the connection that is possible when we slow down and listen to each other with intention. A few of her favorite things include the smell of freshly baked bread, soft blankets, good books, and the warmth of her puppy, Oliver, snuggled up close. Janet and her husband Chris love traveling, especially to spend time with their three adult children.