From age 7 to 13, I lived with a daily dose of duty to rituals that I believed would secure my safety in this weird world. For instance, I had to count to 8 every time I turned a faucet on and off and if I messed up just a little bit, then I’d have to repeat that set again in multiples of 8, sometimes getting up to 64 and even 160. This happened with more than faucets. Cracks in my floor boards, stairs, doors, rolling my ankles, all of it. I believed in my bones that if I didn’t perform these things in perfect multiples of 8 that I would die in my sleep. Like, die croak dead … in my sleep … at age 7.
And, yes, I know I am describing clinical obsessive compulsive disorder and, yes, I was officially diagnosed with it decades later. The point of this post is not about mental illness, although I do hope to always and forever reduce the stigma around trauma, mental health, and getting professional help.
The point of this post is that I wish I could go back to that tiny 7 year old girl, put my hand heavy on her racing heart, hold her close and say, “I believe you.”
No one believed me as a kid, but that’s not because anyone was doing anything wrong. My parents responded to me the way most of us would lovingly respond: “It’s ok, Courts. Stop worrying.” They didn’t know that I would lie in bed at night, obsessing for hours over how easy it would be for my body to just stop breathing. How could I trust that this necessary act would continue without my help while I slept? I would then ruminate about cancer and strokes and brain tumors and so many other diseases. Thank god Google and WebMD weren’t yet a thing in the 80s. I had a working disaster search feature in my brain as it was.
How could they know that what I needed was to be believed? Can you imagine sitting down with your tiny panic stricken child and saying “I believe you”? No way. We want to stop the panic. We want to wrap our little people in giant bubbles and take a huge eraser to their fears and just smudge smudge smudge them away.
The problem, for me, was that the erasing only intensified the need for the rituals. The more I was asked to not worry, the more the fears roared. The more the fears roared, the more demanding the rituals would get, begging me to find yet another better way to find safety. That intensity brought shame and embarrassment. I would think, I’m such a worrywart. My worries are too much. Why isn’t anyone else thinking like this? What is wrong with me? And then, boom. I’d be lost in a solitary panic, held hostage by multiples of 8 and fictional stories made real.
In an odd twist and in no reflection of my current belief system today, the thing that resolved my rituals was a trip to Ocean City, MD with my best friend’s Episcopalian youth group at age 13. I distinctly remember wondering how I would survive staying in a room with a bunch of other kids, unable to perform the rituals. And as a result, the fears would whisper to me early in the morning before sunrise and force me to wake up and find my way to the bathroom and to the multiples of 8.
Finally, on the last night of the trip, I sat with my friend and all of her friends and the pastor asked us to bow our heads and pray. Coming from an agnostic family, I had considered all forms of head bowing and praying to be silly. But, for some reason, that evening, I was so tired that I did it. And then I heard the pastor say, “Aren’t you so exhausted? Are you so tired of trying to control it all? What would happen if you just let it all go?”
I don’t remember clearly what happened after that, but I do distinctly remember crying and crying and cryinggggggggg that night. I wanted to yell back to the pastor, YES I AM SO TIRED HOW DID YOU KNOW? And, shockingly, after returning home from that trip, I stopped performing the rituals within two weeks. I’d feel the taunting of the fears, the impulse to do the dance for them, and then I’d just walk away instead of saying Yes. I didn’t have words for it or a need to explain it, I just know that I started actually living after that. Like I had been living under a suffocating blanket for my whole life and just suddenly was on top of it.
I know that that is a lot to say in a blog post and I know many people will walk away with differing ideas of what happened to me. I will say, first and foremost, that I wasn’t magically healed that day. I still suffer from clinical OCD, although it presents differently for me today. I still require oodles of specialized therapy and treatment, in fact nothing has been more important for me in my life than professional help. I think it is dangerous to ever present the idea that mental illness can be cured or that a person can be divinely saved. So, my tendency is to dip into the science of what happened, while also holding hands with the mysterious aspects of being human that I’ll never be able to fully understand. And, so, what I’ve come to understand is that what occurred for me on that trip is that I surrendered to the idea that I – a human with limited power – simply couldn’t control “it” … my body, the world, catastrophe, disease, disaster, none of it. And the exposure to the refusal of the rituals and the fact that that refusal didn’t kill me, THAT was freedom. It was as if, instead of erasing the fears or repressing them, I had – that night and thereafter – asked them to crawl out of the shadows and join me. I even used to picture myself sitting at a tiny table, having a tea party and just letting them talk to me without a reaction other than, “There there, I hear you.”
I can see now that the fear of the fears was the toxic part, not the fears. In fact, the point of this post is actually to suggest that not only were my fears not toxic, they were friendly messengers with an intense need for connection and a tendency towards tantrums. They were the primal, unformed parts of myself that were simply begging me to listen. They didn’t want to be erased. They wanted to be believed. They wanted me to say, “I believe you.” And then they wanted me to get back to living. They wanted me to be powerful and to be connected to The Things That Matter, so that they could simply exist and be a part of the family of me.
The reason I am discussing this rather personal (hello vulnerability hangover on its way) experience is that I think we – as a society – have done the same thing with pain as we have done with fear. We have spent a lifetime trying to erase it or avoid it. We have spent hours awake thinking that the pain we feel might actually destroy us. We have spent money and resources on our own versions of health and fitness related “multiples of 8”, all the while believing this will be the way to be immortal and superhero-ic.
And it is exhausting. When pain gets avoided, it gets louder. It doesn’t go away. It just gets louder and it finds new ways to get your attention. But, its intentions are not bad. It just wants to exist, to be a part of your body, to be listened to. It wants to be believed. And if it is believed, just like my fears, it usually doesn’t have to get as loud.
I know that the way I am explaining this makes it sound like believing pain (or fear) is an easy choice. And so I will buffer this and say that it is not easy. It is the opposite of easy. It takes courage on top of courage. It is quite possible that our pain will send us messages that will change our entire life. Slow down, it might say. Stand tall, it might beg. Get help, it might whisper. Wake up early and move your body, it almost always says.
Is it worth it? Yes. Because freedom is on the other side. And what I mean by freedom is trust. The freedom I felt after letting go was because I unknowingly decided to trust something other than myself. And when it comes to pain, the freedom that can come from listening to it involves the reality that you will trust your body and it will trust you. Yes. It will trust YOU.
This matters. Aren’t you exhausted? Are you tired? I know you are. Let’s dig in together and give pain room to play with us instead of haunt at us.
Join me this September, this month where you think your life will make sense suddenly but then NO it does not make sense still, and learn about the friend that your pain truly is. We will show up together for 5-15 minutes of exercise on your terms. And we’ll be guided by our own brilliant PT Advisor, Stephanie Dillon, who will be providing bonus content every day on the science and the function of pain.
Click here to join, whether you are a new member or a current member. For new members, it’s only a $5 risk, which I think is way worth it because you are way worth it. Starts Monday, Sept. 7th.