It was three in the morning last Friday when I got up to go to the bathroom - but didn't get much farther than, "Ow! Ow ow ow ow ow..."
Somehow, I had moved in such a way that sent a sharp pain splitting down the right side of my neck. And it wouldn't quit. "Ouch, ouch, ouch, ouch..." I hobbled to the bathroom - yes, it felt like hobbling, even though my legs were fine. My ability to move at all suddenly felt incredibly limited.
"You tweaked your neck," Sean said in his matter-of-fact manner as I stiffened my whole body to lie gingerly back in the bed. "I've done that before. You'll be fine."
"A few days."
"A few DAYS?"
"You'll be fine."
(Marry a calm person, y'all. It's a gift.)
As he drifted back to sleep, I lay awake, experimenting to see which angles of movement hurt (lots) and how far I could turn or nod my head (not much). How had this happened so quickly, by doing something so normal? This pain was going to change my whole day, I just knew it. Good thing we were off work anyway. I'd need to call in to see the chiropractor, and I wouldn't be able to drive myself over because checking my right blind spot was suddenly not a thing I could do. My self-exasperation rose. If I had waited a few minutes to get up, or gotten up earlier in the night, would I have gotten up in a different way, preventing the tweak? Couldn't I rewind just thirty minutes and be a bit more intentional about my movement? But of course, how would I have known to be?
As I made breakfast and very carefully puttered around the kitchen, I grew increasingly aware of how restricted my mobility had become. I had to turn my whole body to the right, rather than simply twisting in that direction. Any sudden movement - even one that didn't seem like it would involve my neck - spurred a deep twinge. "Ouch!" I could feel myself start to tighten up in other places, sending messages to other body parts: Don't swing your arms too much! Don't reach up too high! Don't bend down too low!
I was shocked by the pain from my body, thankfully something I haven't had to deal with much. But I realize that my brain actually has a history of doing this. It's called anxiety.
I've never been officially diagnosed with anxiety, and I know that many others experience it even more deeply than I do. But I know it's there. Out of nowhere, something shifts (tweak!) - a breaking news headline, the phone goes straight to voicemail, a door creaks, the siren speeds down the road behind our house... And I go tense. Maybe my body moves normally, but my brain is suddenly stiff and my gut fills with rocks, because all I can concentrate on is what's wrong something's wrong what if that something wrong is about to come slamming into my life... Nothing else will do. Nothing else to do. I have to concentrate on the potentially terrible, because if I don't... well, I don't know what, but it can't be good...
At least that's what I thought for a long time. Or maybe I didn't really think - I just did, I just felt, I just rolled with the unending cycle of what ifs that would suddenly pummel my mind. I stiffened at even the thought of pain or change. And sometimes I still do. But I've learned that there are ways to slowly climb out of the cycle. Which brings us back to that head-twistingly painful last Friday...
Ask for help. At 6:35 a.m. I left a sleepy, desperate voicemail at my chiropractor Pat's office. "I know I haven't been to see you in over a year, but..." In terms of my body vs. my mind, help with physical pain can sometimes be easier to ask for than help with mental struggles, but even if that help is a call to my mom, or a text to a friend, or talking to Sean, then that's a start.
"Don't move so rigidly," Pat told me as I sat in her office a few hours later. "Stiff movement to prevent pain is only tightening everything else. Move normally." If that isn't a message to my busy brain, I don't know what is.
Find externals to support the internal. Pulled neck muscle? Ice and Advil, stat. Anxiety mode? Meditation. Movie. Journaling. Texting to ask for a prayer. Going for a walk. I haven't needed medication at this point, but everyone's different, and I know it helps a lot of people.
Stretch into the discomfort. This one is tough for me sometimes. I took the list of neck exercises that Pat gave me on the way out of her office - the same sheet of paper she's been giving me for nearly twenty years of tight neck muscles. I've never gotten into a rhythm of doing them. Why? They're not hard and they probably take fifteen minutes, tops. Maybe I'm stubborn - and/or maybe I've been in a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy. My neck is always going to be tense. I'm always going to be anxious. Not necessarily true - if I use the tools I've been given. So far, I've done the neck exercises twice this week.
Locate the source of the tension - that seems important in body and soul matters, too. I found the muscle causing the majority of the tension and tried to loosen it best I could - and it started to help. There was some sense of comfort in just knowing which muscle it was. I just started a new Headspace "pack" (what they call 30-day meditation sessions on different subjects) on anxiety, where they talk about "noting" - paying attention to whether anxiety is caused by thinking or feeling. Simply noting which one, not dwelling on it.
Patience. My favorite! (Or not.) Patience with my body, patience with my mind. "It'll go away," Sean keeps saying, and he's right. It's already mostly gone. But there's still a remnant of pain - just like there's often a remnant of anxiety hovering near me. I'm pretty much used to it. And with these lessons and tools, and people to support me, I'm learning that what comes on so suddenly, be it a muscle tweak or a moment of unfounded fear, should be noted but not dwelt upon. Not a day ruin-er. I'm slowly learning to loosen up and to pull gratitude even closer, so that it blocks anxiety's view, and reminds me that I'm lucky to have the ability to move and stretch at all.