I’ve been thinking about this for many years, having worked closely with peoples’ bodies as a massage therapist as well as working in traditional allopathic medicine settings where I interacted with patients. Most pertinently, of course, I think about this in relation to my own body. Our bodies “contain” us, our organs and our psychologies, emotions, memories, etc. But, within all these layers of physiology and psychology, there are sensory neural and motor receptors that hold memories of touch, smell, sound, taste, and sight, too. Be it in that elusive thing called a mind (after all, what is the mind?), our brain, our heart (both the organ and yet another elusive thing), whatever we perceive or believe is a soul, and most significantly, for my writing here, our skin—our body’s largest organ.
About 20 years ago I had a successful, full-time practice as a medical massage therapist and saw both men and women. Sometimes people wanted to talk through a massage and most times there was no talking except me checking in to ask about pain, pressure, temperature. My understanding of anatomy is acutely sensitive: I could “see” muscles and often heard clients wonder how I could place my hands on “exactly the right place.” Essentially, I felt I had a gift for “feeling my way” into a body as well as interpreting the messages in a body. Our bodies are places in space and time; they hold us in place through gravity, wherever we may be on Earth. Our bodies are constantly recording information. Some of us are more attuned to our bodies’ signals when facing stressful situations, scary or dangerous and threatening. Some people say they “feel” with their gut and act from that center. Others notice the heat of flushing skin turning red and hot or tiny hairs literally standing up on the back or our necks or arms. And, sadly, many people are unconscious in their bodies, unable or unwilling to listen to the messages or overriding their best “guesses” that form when we are conflicted. I once heard that pain is the body’s vocabulary and that has stayed with me as an important reminder when my mind goes into “mind over matter” mode.
Our bodies are places of stories because every one of us has stories buried deep within or literally exposed in postures and areas of chronic pain that deform and force adaptations. We may walk with our shoulders rounded forward, our heads bent, our chests concave so that we breathe shallowly. We may have work that is hard physical labor, such as construction or even waitressing that forces us beyond the pain of repetitive motions. Musicians are pained, such as drummers, whose arms are often sinewy and muscle hardened. You may now be wondering about your own body: how do you stand, walk, sit? What type of work do you do that makes your neck hurt all the time or causes carpal tunnel syndrome in your hands? What illness has molded you into someone you don’t recognize when all your hair falls out from chemotherapy, the many scars left by procedures, the endless needles pushed into veins, or the “guarding” of places made too vulnerable?
When my son was born there were some problems because he was early by a month. His jaundice became profound and the doctors ordered multiple blood draws every day. Being so small, the blood was drawn from his heels, which turned purple-blue from all the insults of needles. I kept wondering what his small brain was recording then of pain, along with the darkness he was kept in, blindfolded and almost nude, in a plastic box that delivered light 24/7 to beat back the jaundice. All I could think was that he has come into the world and was lonely. It broke my heart, especially when we had to leave him at the hospital. What is the story his body holds from that time, unconscious, but real?
The stories in our bodies are often unconscious to us, and, too often, stories of violence and abuse, of unbearable fear such as that experienced by a soldier on the front line, or stories underwritten by shame. Unexpressed anger is there in tightened knots as is grief, and grief is the one story I thought about the most. Unexpressed grief turns a body to stone, literally and figuratively. It can freeze our lungs and diaphragm so much that we barely breathe, and never deeply. Or, it can be a place of chronic pain that one day suddenly releases itself with unexpected images and memories flooding us into a new state of consciousness. I have witnessed people in just such a moment, on my massage table suddenly thrown into a state of panic and bordering on shock as the memories surge through their bodies and emotions.
One such story involved a man, in his 40s, who suffered with chronic back pain; he even brought along his x-rays to show me. I was in a clinic setting, with a supervisor, and this man was lying prone on the table. I began to work on the muscles in his lower back and suddenly he became agitated, sweaty, and panicked. I was worried he was having a heart attack or that I had hurt him, done something wrong. What manifested was a memory triggered by where I touched his extended muscles, with his arms stretched above his head. He told me that as a young boy, he and his brother built dirt forts, against their stern father’s warnings, and one day the dirt fort collapsed on this man. He was in a prone position, his right arm stretched above his head, as he was on my table. The dirt covered him and he had a very small breathing space in front of this face, protected by his outstretched arm. His brother frantically dug him out, but not before this man had begun to wonder if he would suffocate and die as well as fearing more that his father would punish him severely once this event was made known. The two brothers kept this secret and never told anyone, even the man’s wife, who was also a friend of mine.
When I met this man he was carrying too much weight, in constant back pain. Yet, he worked as a ceramic artist: he worked with dirt to make art. After this episode, and assurances he would be evaluated by a physician to be sure there was nothing else going on, his body transformed. He lost the extra weight (the “weight” of shame and guilt in this particular story) and his chronic back pain eventually went away. More significantly, to me, his ceramic art became transformed as well. He began making huge vessels and pots, not the small, constrained pieces he had been making. His art became monumental and awe-inspiring. He was freed from a story buried in his body that had constrained him most of his life, both in the choices he once made for a career until his desire to make art won out, and in how he “lived” in his body. I felt as if I’d witnessed a miracle, that I was honored that he trusted me with his story in the moment when we were both scared by what was happening all because of the way I laid my hands on his back.
There is also the more distressing element of stories we carry after violence, sexual abuse, beatings, and a lifetime begun in childhood, perhaps, of living in constant fear. I cannot name all the types of physical and mental violation but, as a survivor or these things, I have watched my body and mind in reaction, in retreat, in hiding, and in shame. Years of psychotherapy helped, but new transgressions as an adult laid down memories I wish were not mine, as do many of you, I am sure. This is particularly true for women, who have suffered at the hands of men. I don’t know, yet, if telling some of these stories would make a difference for me, at least telling them here. I do bring them into my writing but my desire, all my life, has been to transform the sadness, grief, misery, hurt, ugliness and fear into something I can live with in such a way that the story no longer has the energy to hurt me. I choose writing and also, when my body was in less pain and disabled by a knee needing replacement, movement out in nature or just running and hiking, when I could. Nature, to a large extent, has “saved” me. It is because I can wander out into a space larger than my body and mind, as big as the sky, as rough as granite outcroppings, or as compelling as a rushing river or small stream. I chose the birds, who can fly, to be my anchors, too. I felt communion and expansion of my heart, my soul, my imagination.
This blog isn’t going anywhere final as a conclusion. The important thought is that our bodies are places of stories and I believe each of us must tell our stories before we die, however we choose. I realize people die without telling their stories but I wonder if sometimes it is because no one asked or no one listened, especially when the buried story warped a person into someone unable to give or receive love and compassion? We blame our bodies for a lot of things but our bodies are amazing, no matter how afflicted by life or circumstances, such as cancer. And our capacity for healing is far greater than we may consciously believe, because, ultimately it is all about belief and faith. I will end with a quote that has accompanied me for many years and was framed on the walls of my massage therapy office, for clients.
Our bodies are places of stories, however we choose to tell them or not, but they do “work” their way through us, sometimes as a splinter that needs to come out on its own or as a sudden revelation that alters everything. Ultimately, I believe that telling our story/ies, even if only in our private writings, heals us. What are your stories?
- Healing is a lifelong journey toward wholeness.
- Healing is remembering what has been forgotten about connection, and unity, and interdependence among all things living and nonliving.
- Healing is embracing what is most feared.
- Healing is opening what has been closed, softening what has hardened into obstruction.
- Healing is entering into the transcendent, timeless moment when one experiences the divine.
- Healing is creativity and passion and love.
- Healing is seeking and expressing life in its fullness, its light and shadow, its male and female.
- Healing is learning to trust life.
from Woman As Healer by Jeanne Achterberg