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Thursday, November 14, 2013

Attachment to our Bodies

We Americans, in particular, are extremely attached to our bodies. A cursory look at the cosmetics, fitness, wellness, and cosmetic dentistry and surgery industries will confirm this. We are obsessed with how we look, and the impact on our behavior and self-esteem are astounding. We reward narcissism and punish the unavoidable, if postponable, effects of gravity. We want to appear younger than we are, yet be perceived as holding a wisdom that is achievable only with the experience of age. If ever there was a recipe for failure, this is it - but this isn't really a new story. I have written about it before.

Lately I have been struggling with my attachment to my body as a fully functional and relatively pain free entity. Since Christmas of 2007 I have struggled with profound back issues as an injury at work when I was twenty-five years has old progressed over time into degenerative disc disease with the chronic pain and limitation that accompanies it. Finally, in February 2011 I elected to have spinal fusion as my pain had become unmanageable even with strong medication. For nearly two years everything was much better. I could mow the lawn again, something that I never really enjoyed doing but suddenly loved because to me it meant I had conquered adversity. Little did I know that I had not won victory but rather a temporary reprieve. As the two year mark passed the little aches and pains that had returned became more substantial. Limitations returned, only now they were more extensive. Not wanting to believe that I was declining, I blamed myself and thought perhaps I was becoming soft. Yesterday I went for an MRI and learned nothing could be farther from the truth.

The beauty of computer technology is that now you are given a CD after your MRI and you can go home, pop it in your computer, and view the images. If you aren't sure what you are looking at you can Google what they should look like, though anyone who has been a back patient becomes fairly proficient in reading their MRIs if they are at all interested and pay attention at their appointments. Though I haven't seen my doctor yet, the images clearly reveal that something has gone terribly wrong in the two and one half years since my surgery. Though my fusion appears to be intact, meaning that all of the hardware has held everything in place, somehow material has oozed out of the space between my vertebrae where the discs used to reside and bone growth hormone was inserted in a cage-like device. Whatever that material is, and it may well be unwelcome bone growth, it is now pressing on my spinal column and causing me a significant amount of discomfort. The biggest struggle for me is that I believed that my surgery had worked - I became attached to that outcome.

My doctor had explained that the cause of my pain was most likely the disc or two above the fusion site. Even before my surgery I was told that fusion places extra stress on the discs adjacent to the fusion and that there was a good possibility that between five and ten years after a fusion other disc problems would develop. That sounded fair enough to me. Five to ten pretty good years was a tasty carrot, even if the stick that followed it might be another surgery down the road somewhere, and I now recognize I became attached to that time frame as well.

What function do our bodies really serve? Are we our bodies, do they just move whatever constitutes "us" around, or is the answer somewhere in the middle? If we lose an arm, or the use of our arm, is our body still our body or does it become something else? Of course it is still our body, we haven't been transported to another body. Somehow, despite that objective truth, I am sure that people who have the experience of losing use of a limb feel betrayed by their bodies. While that feeling is understandable, I am not sure it is entirely reasonable because we receive no guarantees or warranties at birth. Some of our bodies serve us well for all of our lives, other bodies serve us well for only a short period, while most of them fall somewhere in between the extremes. Those are the objective "body facts." Our expectations may or may not conform to our realities.

One of the ways we try to justify our disappointment resulting from our attachment is by establishing systems to explain our body's unwillingness to conform to our expectations. We don't like randomness, so we have historically blamed just about everything from sin, to bad luck, to karma for the adversity we experience. I have learned that while such explanations many ease the fears of those who have not yet experienced a particular adversity and are trying to convince themselves they never will, the explanations are of very little consolation to those of us who are facing the adversity already. It matters little to me why it is that when I go out shopping with my wife I need to keep an eye out for a place to sit down in case my pain flares, it just matters that I in fact need to be a chair hawk and so my participation with her is limited. It's not as if someones ability to definitively tell me why I need to sit down would change the reality of my limitation! If someone told me it was an unskillful action in a past life that led to my limitation now, it really wouldn't change my reality one iota. Yet that, too, is an attachment! Who ever said we get to be a mall rat forever? What sane person over the age of seventeen would want to be?

We can choose to live our life celebrating the things we can do or we can choose to live our life bemoaning the things we cannot do. In truth, there are times in all of our lives when we move between the two extremes as we adjust to changes in our health and abilities. That's a normal response to stress. After an initial adjustment period, however, it seems to me we are faced with a choice to either celebrate our abilities or mourn our limitations. I could choose to allow my limitations to keep me from accompanying Erin to the mall at all and instead sit home alone, but the truth is I never really accompanied her into the fitting room at all (dammit). What's the difference whether I am standing outside the fitting room waiting for her or sitting outside it? The only difference is how I choose to interpret my waiting, and nothing is stopping me from choosing to see sitting as an equally valid choice - and that's all it is, a choice. I can choose to stand an be miserable until I fall over or to sit and be comfortable, and only a masochist chooses misery!

Of course, we don't make these shifts in perspective overnight. We need to allow ourselves the grace to allow some time for shift to occur. We need to be gentle with ourselves and avoid the value judgments that far too often seem to automatically accompany limitations. The truth is even when we are perfectly healthy we all have limitations. None of us can fly without assistance, few of us will even run a four minute mile, we can't really make ourselves any taller than we are, and none of us can learn a new language in a week or less. Odd that we don't have any problems with these limitations, isn't it? Do you suppose that the difference is that not too many of us expects to run a four minute mile, but for some reason in other areas we are attached to other expectations that may be equally unreasonable but we don't recognize them as such? Hmmm...



    I have had now, 3 back surgeries and all 3 occurred every 9 years! As a numerologist, I find that significant, as #9 is THOccupationalor COMPLETION!

    I will give you an edited version of my story: I was a healthy, very fit 32 yr. old woman, with no kids and after 4 mos. working in a new job, a VERY grueling acute rehab job working as an Occupational Therapist I badly ruptured my L4-5 disc. Got that fixed and did EVERY SINGLE THING POSSIBLE that one could do post-op, including all kinds of inner healing work too. I WAS THINKING I WAS NOT GOING TO HAVE ANOTHER BACK SURGERY!!!!
    Well, I did, and then a major fusion again, 9 yrs. later! And of course, taking on waaaay too much blame for my condition on myself!

    I too, have examined "what I am attached to" and I look at my back and all its GIVEN ME (Yes...GIVEN me!) as an opportunity to assimilate what the heck is going on and to honor what my 'meat suit' body is trying to tell me. It provides wonderful opportunities for me to sit down and take in the world around me! Most importantly, I have been learning self compassion and love...if it weren't for my back and being on disability-I would NOT have been able to care for my father who passed away earlier this year. He had cancer and he too, had back problems that for him-never required back surgery. I was grateful to get most of my 'back needs' dealt with while caring for Dad. I was also VERY GRATEFUL for that I was in that post-op "window" when you start getting better, which allowed me to take care of him. He moreless took care of me right after surgery even as he was approaching 90!
    His arrival of cancer came at the tail end of the year I had my back surgery ('09) and Dad beat the first episode of cancer but not the 2nd.

    My Dad was VERY, VERY attached to his body and it functioning like "it should". When it was not, my Dad fought the so-called "good fight" and slowly surrendered. I was VERY GLAD to be the 'one chosen' (as I DO FEEL it was a karmic thing between us) to be here for him as he did begin his descent into allowing what was taking place. I also needed to learn that I MATTER AND MY BODY MATTERS TOO!
    More importantly, that was MY JOB to take care of myself in the midst of some heavy-duty caregiving! Very challenging!

    Now that my Dad has passed on, I am grateful for those last 2 years with him-I lived with him since 2002 but the last 2 yrs. were filled with love. As he got weaker he became such a loving, grateful man towards me. Up to the last 2 yrs. he and I had a tolerable but somewhat contentious relationship. I had always felt like his "least favored" child, even felt judged that I needed back surgeries (like, what's wrong with her???) because even though HE had back problems, HE NEVER NEEDED any back surgeries, like I didn't *suck it up enuf*...this was the environment that I came home to and again, its that "attachment" to the body functioning and one should just 'get back up on that horse'!!!!

    All in all, this back thing and dealing with my Dad has all been terrific *GRIST FOR THE MILL* as some might say. Its kept me more alert and mindful of my needs and that my even having NEEDS is waaaay ok and also needing to take self responsibility for myself; needs, wants, etc.

    May you continue your journey of body awareness and thank YOU so much for your post...and allowing my post too!

    Mari Lynn Young

    1. I meant to say above that the #9 is the number of COMPLETION.

      And another typo: I meant to say Occupational Therapist.

    2. Hi Mari!

      Thank you for your wonderful reply! What an adventure you have been on. I am particularly fascinated by family dynamics - my family of origin is just a hot mess. So often I have read or heard stories of family members working through their stuff while one cares for the other. Those stories always impress me because of the courage and integrity it must take to care for someone we have had a strained relationship. I don't know if I could do it and hope I never have to find out. I admire your courage and your ability to heal your relationship.

      Every time I hear someone give advice to just suck it up I think of what the inside of our vacuum cleaner looks like. It "sucks it up" on a regular basis, and the results aren't very attractive! I'll take a pass!

      I have noticed that every time I have been laid up to the point where my activity level is restricted, whether post operatively or just post injury, has been so very rich. The opportunity to just "be" is such a blessing. I have also noticed that when I don't listen to my body it tends to do something to make me take notice - usually something that takes me out of comission for a while. Sometimes I wonder if my premature falling apart isn't the result of living part of my life a short distance from my body, but that's a long story!