Recently I was traveling, and happened to sit next to a man on a long flight. As these things go, we struck up a conversation that was interrupted several times by one or the other of my children, but over the course of the flight, I pretty much heard his life story. When he found out I was a yoga teacher, he perked up, and began asking me questions about his legs. He’s a serious runner, swimmer and cyclist, and has been for his whole life. He does triathlons and marathons and 5k’s and he’s done Ironman several times, but over the last year, his legs started giving out. He’d be running a few miles, or swimming a short distance, or cycling around his neighborhood trails, and suddenly his legs would lose their steam, cramp up, refuse to go on.
He’s been to all kinds of doctors, he’s had MRIs, been to PT, you name it, and no one can find anything physically wrong. So I asked him if anything had happened in the last year, anything emotional. He looked at me like I was a little crazy, and then admitted he’d been through a painful divorce, and lost his mother, all in the same year. I asked him if running, cycling and swimming were coping mechanisms for him. Obviously, they’re healthy activities, but like anything else, when done to the extreme, they can be debilitating. He said without a doubt, these were the resources he used to “get through his childhood and teenage years”.
It turns out he comes from an abusive and alcoholic family, and he grew up feeling unsafe, unseen and unheard. He found relief by joining the swim team, the track team, and cycling to and from school when he got old enough. He said those were the times he could forget his life, the awful stuff that was happening at home, the rage he felt toward his dad, and the powerlessness he felt regarding his mom, whom he adored but couldn’t save. He said he’d been struggling with depression for most of his life, but it had taken a turn over the last year, and that he’d sought help from a therapist. He went on antidepressants for several months, but then stopped them cold turkey, thinking they might be the reason his legs were giving out. He said he’d never really wanted to be on meds in the first place, but also that they had helped.
Anyway, he’s been off his medication for months, and still the legs won’t do what he wants them to do. He said there have been moments when he’s so frustrated on a run, or a ride, that if he had a knife with him, he would have stabbed himself in the quads. That’s grief, rage and pain for you, and I’m sharing this with you, with his permission, because I don’t think it’s all that uncommon.
The body is with us through everything. We’re energetic creatures, and we both absorb and emit energy. If you grew up in a war zone, you’re probably familiar with cowering, crouching, covering your head and face with your arms, making yourself invisible or invaluable. Children who grow up this way don’t spend time discovering who they are or what makes them happy. They’re too focused on survival and how to maneuver or help or be “good enough” to stop the abuse, to consider things like what makes them happy, or what they’d like to be doing on any particular afternoon. When you worry for your own safety, or your mother’s, when you feel terrified and helpless, believe me, this stuff gets stored in your body. Maybe you grind your teeth or you have migraines, or you walk around with your shoulders up around your ears all the time, or you have ulcers, or you’re loathe to leave the safe space of your house (if you’ve managed to create a safe space for yourself). Trauma lives in the body, and unless you give it an outlet, unless you acknowledge its existence, you will carry it with you.
We all have our coping mechanisms, and some of them are healthy, and some of them are not. Even exercise, widely accepted as a healthy outlet, can become a source of addiction for people. In this particular case, we have a man running, swimming, and cycling away from a lifetime of pain. And you know, you just can’t outrun this stuff. At a certain point, if you don’t stop, and get still, and allow the pain to wash over you, it will own you for your entire life. I think his legs are giving out because his heart is in need of his kind attention, and I think he knows that, because he sought help from a therapist. It was still hard for him to accept that the source of his frustration with his legs could be emotional. Of course I can’t know this for sure, but there’s nothing physically wrong, and my guess is that once he allows himself to really examine and lean into all that grief and rage and guilt and shame (although he’s blameless), it will lose its grip on him. I think his body is giving out so that he has no option but to try things another way, because being on the run isn’t working anymore.
For most of us, this is what it takes. Most people will not wake up one day and decide to face their pain. Most people will have to be pushed to do that, pushed into acknowledging that what they’ve been doing simply isn’t working. Life has to become unmanageable and unlivable before the large majority of people will opt to work with their grief. I think this is because we fear the pain will overwhelm us, when the reality is, not facing it is what does that. Yes, he’ll probably be deeply uncomfortable, enraged or heartbroken for the short-term; he has a lot to process. The loss of his childhood, for one. The loss of his innocence. Some things are taken from us that we can never have back, and some mourning is in order for loss like that. The loss of his mother, the loss of his marriage, his house, many of his friends, his routine, his place in the world, but this is what’s in his path. You can’t cycle over that stuff. You can’t swim underneath it. You can’t run away from it. You have to turn around, sit down, and open to it. Then you can release the heat of it, the rage of it, the burning grief of it, and then, my guess is, you can get back on your feet and find your legs are working again, and that they’ll take you where you want to go, instead of where you need to go. That makes all the difference in the world, and that isn’t something that’s going to show up in an MRI. This stuff I’m talking about is the business of your heart, your mind, and your emotional body, and if you want to be at peace, you’re going to have to get acquainted with all three.
Wishing that for you, and sending you love,
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