NOTE: If you’re one of the people who write in because you’re completely confused by the “what’s going on with Havi’s arms?!” question, so am I. Sorry.
The short answer is that it’s some sort of stuckified chronic pain that was originally doing a pretty decent imitation of carpal tunnel or repetitive-stress-ish stuff, but isn’t. All I can tell you is that it involves my body talking to me about internal stuff going on. A lot.
We’re making progress with it. I’m learning. It’s healing. My arms are going to be fine. Just give us time.
Chasing the pain.
The pain in my arms is moving. Migrating, really.
It started in my hands and wrists and then spent several weeks inching up my arms until it found its winter hibernation home — and then it settled in for a bit.
From about two inches (5 cm) above the wrist to two inches (5 cm) above the elbow. That’s where it wanted to do its agonizing thing. And that’s where I’ve been working on it.
But lately the pain has been on the move again. I can’t tell if it’s running away or just chasing some confused dream of Manifest Destiny. Either way, it now starts about mid-tricep and goes up to the shoulder joint.
And it’s talking. It has a lot to say.
An astonishing piece of information.
The scene: on the massage table. Chris (my wonderful massage therapist) is working on my arms, and I’m trying to relax.
Me: Hey, arms? Is there anything you need from me while we’re getting this massage? Something I can do to help you relax?
Arms: No relaxing! You can’t make us!
Me: Wow. Okay. You don’t have to relax if you don’t want to. It sounds like this is really worrying you. What’s going on? Can you tell me more about this?
Arms: Relaxation is bad. Period. No discussion.
And then I had to stop and think for a bit, because I didn’t want to accidentally step on my arms’ toes — which makes no sense, I know.
It’s just that I didn’t want the conversation to end by me saying something that would make my arms think that I’m not really listening and that I don’t really care. Because then they clam up and don’t talk at all.
And at the same time, I was completely confused. Really? Relaxation is bad?
All these years that I’ve been teaching yoga and meditation… and leading — wait for it — guided relaxation exercises… there has been a part of me that thinks that relaxation is bad?
I mean, I freaking love relaxation. I have more (and better) tricks than anyone I know for magically calming down and for getting into a quiet, safe space.
But if I’ve learned anything about anything, then it’s that if you want to find out what’s really going on, you have to be willing to drop all the things you think are true. Or, you know, at least some of them …
So I just have to ask …
Me: Okay. I’m willing to accept that relaxation could be a bad thing. I get that you have strong opinions on this, and I’m sure you have completely legitimate reasons for knowing what you know.
Arms: Well, yeah. Hmph.
Me (trying for the most neutral tone I can come up with): What happens when we relax? What is the bad part of relaxation?
Arms: Oh. Relaxation is bad for you. When you relax, you let your guard down and then you get hurt. People take advantage of you.
Me: What are you talking about?
Arms: (they provide me with about twenty examples of different situations, in the form of various memories)
Arms: All that bad stuff? We’re not letting that happen to you again. We are not going to let you get hurt again.
Me: Ohhhhhhhhhhh. Oh. You want to take care of me. You want to keep me from getting hurt.
Arms: Well, yeah.
Me: Every single time. All my pain and all my fear and all my stuck. It’s always about protection and safety. It’s always about these really good intentions that accidentally produce horribly painful results. This is amazing.
Arms: Just don’t relax, okay? Don’t let down your guard.
Me: Ohmygod. It’s the vigilance thing again.
Arms: Don’t relax. Please.
Me: Can’t we just practice being mindful and aware as the way to make sure that I’m safe? Does it always have to be this painful?
Arms: Don’t. Relax.
Stumbling on an understanding.
Me: Alright. You totally have a point. In all the situations that you’re talking about, I was relaxed to some extent and I did get hurt.
Me: Here’s the thing. In all of those situations, I wasn’t paying attention. I wasn’t being mindful. There were almost always warning bells and little flashing red lights. And I didn’t notice them. And do you know why?
Arms: Because we didn’t cause you enough pain?
Me: No. No, not that.
Me (crying): In all of those situations, I was in a lot of tension. A lot of emotional pain. And the tension distracted me. It made it harder for me to notice other things that were going on.
Arms: Shit. Seriously? But the tension was supposed to make you pay attention.
Me: I know it was. It just didn’t work that way.
Arms: But tension is good! Tension is how we make you listen!
Me: Oh. Now I get it. I’m not talking to my arms, am I? I’m talking to my tension.
Arms/Tension: Yes. This is your tension. Tense is good. Relaxed is bad. Yadda yadda yadda. I feel like an idiot.
And then coming to an understanding.
Tension: I have been holding on for so long. So. Long. Trying to get you to be on your guard so that you can avoid these situations … and you’re telling me that the tension is the thing that distracts you from noticing? It was me all along?
Me: I didn’t mean it like that. I’m sorry.
Tension: No. This is crazy. I sabotaged my own plan and didn’t even know it.
Me: I guess. I mean, I guess we both did.
Tension: What happens now?
It’s not that funny, but it kind of is.
Me: I don’t know. I mean, I guess I’m supposed to release you. Ha. Pun. I mean, play on words. Releasing muscle tension. But then releasing my tension from duty. Funny.
Tension: I have failed you.
Me: Oh. I don’t think so. A little irony never hurt anyone. I mean, you know. Life is full of stuff like this. I’m glad I’m learning this now and not thirty years from now.
Tension (suspicious): This doesn’t sound like you. Why are you in such a good mood?
Me: I suppose can’t be mad at you if you’re on my side, even if right now you’re causing me pain.
Tension: So I’m going to leave and you’re going to replace me with mindfulness and watchfulness and paying attention.
Me: That’s the plan. Probably a good one.
Tension: I don’t know how to leave.
Me: Well, I do have massage every single week so, you know, we can practice.
Tension: That sounds good. Wait, what am I saying?
And then we both cracked up. And my massage therapist gave me this look. He thinks I’m crazy. But in a good way.