So I started physical therapy this week. Not wanting to overwhelm me, my lovely young therapist gave me only one exercise. It consists of keeping my head level, and pulling it backwards, holding for one/two seconds, repeat. One set consists of ten reps, and I'm to do five or six sets a day. Though I doubt this was the plan, it seems designed to draw attention to my extremely weak chin; when I'm doing the exercise correctly, my chin disappears all together into my neck. This being one of my particular neuroses, you can understand how seriously I take this, when I tell you I've even done the exercise on the train.
This is the first, tiny, glacial step in addressing pain I've had since 1992. I suspect I may have given myself whiplash by playing a Pentecostal snake-handler who speaks in tongues and has seizures. Sixteen shows, with me flinging my head backward violently. Yeah, that seems likely. But the pain has been a slow, creeping deterioration, making it hard to pin down, diagnose, and fix in the past. Initially, since my teeth seemed to be the source of the trouble, I thought I might need another root canal (having suffered one the previous year), but while I was relieved to learn that wasn't the problem, it still left me with no real solution. Next I had a doctor examine me; he was perplexed, but suggested I try antihistamines, speculating maybe my sinuses might be involved. Then he sent me on my way as well. Over the years I tried other doctors, dentists, and for a while, a chiropractor. The latter was the first medical person in a while who seemed to take my concerns seriously. Unfortunately he didn't help; in fact he may have made things worse.
During all this time I was staying reasonably active; my performing has generally been quite physical, I was taking lots of dance and movement classes, then I eventually started dabbling in tumbling and acro-balance. The pain by this point had become much more decisive in its characteristics, and it had moved down my body, eventually including, well, basically everything on the right side of my body. Eye, sinus, jaw, back of head, neck, shoulder, right arm (tingling down to my three smallest fingers), lower back, buttock, down my leg to my outer toes. The pain has been some kind of presence in my life for the last fifteen years, and has covered half my body for at least the last ten.
I got used to ignoring it. I worked at ignoring it. No one seemed able to help, or particularly concerned about it. I'm wary enough of medical people and their habitats, so if no one seems to want me to come visit him/her, I'm only too happy to comply. The dentists were typically a bit more sympathetic seeming, but generally I was also paying them more. Most of my medical care has been provided by low income clinics, and while it's probably just paranoia, I can never shake the sensation that the people who work there are always a bit irritated by my presence. "We've got indigent folks dying of AIDS here, white boy, we don't really have time to listen to your whining." Being accused of whining is worse even than being accused of condescension in my book, frankly. Even the idea that someone might be thinking that about me sends me running for the door.
So I soldiered on. Then about two years ago the pain got still worse, and I found myself starting to limit my activity. While we're cataloguing weird shit that Patrick is secretly neurotic about, I'll mention another one. Periodically I've asked myself, if I were to lose a sense or an ability, what would be hardest for me to handle? Sight, yeah, I'd miss it, but I'd deal, so much of what I love in the world would still be available to me. Hearing, that one would be harder, I think, but I think I'd still cope... no, when you got right down to it, the biggest fear I had was of becoming paralyzed. The idea of losing my ability to move has always been my special vision of hell. Why do I bring this up? Because recently I found myself thinking "wow, I do everything I can to avoid moving these days." I'm certainly not paralyzed, THANK you Jesus, but it was startling and frightening to think I was no longer really connecting with the world physically. This threatened a core sense of myself, how I relate to the world, other people, and it scared me a lot.
That may have been the deciding factor that got me to try getting help again. That, and a lucky encounter with a very nice therapist who was a friend of a friend, and gave me a free consultation (THANK you Sue). My first meeting with Kelly (lovely new PT), I realized I was just grateful to have her listening to me, taking my concerns seriously, acting like my problem was legitimate, treatable, and most importantly, WORTH treating. No idea how much of a difference this treatment is going to make, but just having it legitimized by someone else has been surprisingly gratifying.
I've also found myself examining my attitude towards pain. As a pretty young kid I began priding myself on my ability to withstand pain. I'm not sure exactly how this got started, but I have some ideas. This may come as a grave shock those who know me, but I was an extremely effeminate kid, and I was terrible, TERRIBLE at sports. Since in grade school and Jr. High, sports ability was the way you differentiated boys from girls, this presented me with some identity problems. With athletic ability off the table, that left me with few options to show my male bona fides. Chasing girls was a possibility, and I actually did that with some enthusiasm, until puberty had other ideas. So, sports and girlfriends were out, what did that leave me? I began cultivating a certain kind of stoicism, where physical pain of any kind was not to be acknowledged. This of course was a tricky way to prove oneself. One can't draw attention to any suffering, because that immediately defeats the purpose of being stoic about it (I understood this early on). Responding with Vulcan-like emotionlessness to accidents and obvious injuries was one way. But I also took great pride in suffering in private. My ninth grade year, when these things were reaching a fever pitch, I ran cross country with a twisted ankle. Every practice, every meet, I retwisted it. I managed to come in second in the city-wide race though, and felt more than ever that this was a way to establish some kind of nascent machismo. I even tried using cross country as my very own aversion therapy. Running long distance (which I actually hated, and probably wasn't well suited for, being a much better sprinter), I would fantasize about guys. Showering in warm water, I fantasized about girls. Then to end, I'd turn the water to cold, and think about guys again. This didn't cure me of homosexuality, but it sure as hell ruined me for long distance running.
My stoicism had all sorts of repercussions. I find it extremely difficult to ask anyone for help most of the time, though I've gotten better over the years. I sympathize with other people's emotional pain reasonably well, but a person's (particularly a man's) physical suffering has got to be obviously dire for me not to feel secretly smug. My first boyfriend was one of those guys who wanted 24 hour nursing when he had the sniffles, and I was a grave disappointment to him. I never told him to suck it up, but I felt the temptation frequently.
Add into all this the fact that most of my professional life has been spent pursuing disciplines that cause pain, albeit usually the healthy, 'things are getting stronger' kind, and it's not surprising that I stayed in my just-ignore-it mode. My PT asks me questions about the qualities, intensity, persistence etc. of the pain/tingling, and I often find myself growing a bit impatient with her. I don't KNOW anything about it, I've been IGNORING IT for a decade, don't you understand? I think I'm also somewhat suspicious still, like I think all her questions are really just designed to catch me out, like a police detective, and eventually she's going to accuse me of making it all up. Poor Kelly, she's doing great and I'm mostly being cooperative so far.
I suspect most American males would recognize this behavior. Maybe Americans in general would, since we as a culture have started to act like ill-health is a sign of moral weakness, sin, even. Writing this entry is triggering my 'stop whining' impulse even still. But I'm feeling cautiously optimistic. Both PT's I've spoken to have been careful not to promise too much. But with any luck, over time I might be able to move and sleep better than I have since my twenties.