Physical therapy

About a month ago I started doing physical therapy. Like most forms of therapy, it’s a time-intensive, difficult, and sometimes intense process. Emphasis on process. And while I went through physical therapy once before, in my 20s for a problem with my shoulder, this time around has been a much more emotional — and enlightening — experience. I don’t know if it is because I am older or if it is because of the nature of my pain this time around, but I have found physical therapy to be much more than just the physical part it was before.

This time around the physical therapists and I are working on my core, which was essentially ripped apart by pregnancy. (Word to all the moms and expectant moms out there: I strongly encourage you to explore physical therapy if you are having back/leg/knee issues!) Even after some reconstructive surgery last year (for severe diastasis recti and deep, permanent tears in much of my abdomen), I have gained very little functional strength back, which has in turn put a lot of stress on other muscle groups — especially my back and knees. By the time I went to physical therapy, my knees were so inflamed, they were visibly bulging. And I had a constant limp because I could barely use the lower right side of my body without shearing pain. Not good!

Even though I had been having trouble sleeping, because of the pain, and my daily life was grinding to a snail’s pace because I was so hobbled by pain, it still took me a while to actually go to physical therapy after my doctor recommended it. I have no good explanation for this other than, I was afraid. This doesn’t really make a lot of sense, considering my last experience with PT was good. I had a problem with my shoulder, I got PT, I got better. You’d think a positive experience would make me more inclined to go this time around. Eh, not so much.

I was really worried about people poking around my abdomen, because it hurt even when my daughter would rest against me while sitting on my lap. But more than that, I was not looking forward to having people touch my hips and glutes and other groin-adjacent areas that were on fire with pain. Yes, I wanted the pain to end! But as a survivor of sexual abuse, I was already finding the pain I felt to be triggering. Knowing that rehabilitating painful areas often meant feeling more pain (if temporarily) was scary.

Ah, the catch-22 of healing, whether emotional or physical: In order to find an end to the pain, you will often have to feel even more pain.

But I screwed my courage to the sticking place and went. There’s a whole team of therapists at the place I go. And each of them offer their own brand of insight, tough-love, and humor. And I have found the process to be difficult, painful, intimate, rewarding, and eye-opening.

A big part of this physical therapy process has been getting incredibly painful massage. (Nothing relaxing about it!) In the beginning, they would find wherever I hurt the worst and quite literally press their hands or fists deep into those spots. One therapist calls them “demons.” Maybe. But there were a couple of times early on when someone was poking a fist into a tender spot and it was all I could do to stop myself from throwing a punch. (I had to remind myself that I am a reformed punk rocker with a life in the beige suburbs.)

At the same time, it was amazing and sometimes quite emotionally intense the feelings and impulses that bubbled up during and after those sessions. I had been warned early on during physical therapy that people experience pain and rehabilitation in a variety of ways, including emotional ways. But I was not at all prepared for where my mind and heart went. Even that fleeting impulse to deck somebody… it’s been years and years since I had that impulse. (Even longer since I actually did it.) And those moments threw me for a loop.

Don’t poke a wild animal, right?

Well, as this process has gone on, I have definitely had to wrestle with some wild parts of me that I thought were long dormant. There have definitely been moments that triggered some bad trips down sexual abuse lane. But (thankfully) those have been far fewer than I feared. It’s interesting to me that the cause of my current physical problems is because of pregnancy — which is an experience I am glad I went through and don’t regret for a second — but that because the pain I feel now is in the same part of my body as pain I felt in my childhood, it is such an emotional sensation now. When the therapists work on my left hip — which is where my daughter was trying to exit my body during childbirth — I am flooded with memories of that 37-hour experience. And I’m sure when we work that area, my impulse to scream is much stronger. Just like that instinct to throw a punch kicks in every now and then.

There is a sign on the wall at PT that says, “Pain is weakness leaving the body.” But I have had a different experience with my process. Perhaps processing pain (emotional, physical, or otherwise) is a way of letting personal power in. Furthermore, I don’t see the places on my body that need help as really weak. Damaged, maybe. Overworked, definitely. But weak? No. I think they are actually really strong. Because I think those places that get damaged at the places that took the brunt of the trauma/attack/injury. And they had to get by with less structural integrity, less strength. They had to adapt. And when it comes to emotional pain, maybe those are the places on the body that could take it. Those were the places that were, in fact, strong enough. That doesn’t mean I think they should take it forever or we should all live in pain. Indeed, I think quite the opposite. But there is something important — especially for those of us who have survived something horrible — in recognizing how strong we are. How resilient and strong we are to survive!

These days, I am getting around a lot better. There is still more PT to come and it is still really hard. (And it’s still tough for me to sit at the computer for very long, which is why I’ve been such a negligent blogger.) But as I get stronger and as the pieces of my body start to work together better, I have a sense of feeling more solid in myself. And I feel like my body is working better, too. My digestion (and IBS) have improved. I’m sleeping better.

Things fall apart. But things also get mended.

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4 comments

  1. Thanks so much for writing sharing your vulnerable story. I work with many postpartum women and indeed see a strong correlation between physical pain and held emotion. In addition to physical therapy and surgery, there are a handful of fitness professionals with skills to heal diastasis recti. I have a yoga based program for this and also some free video resources. Glad you’re on track to feeling better!

  2. Thank you so much for sharing your experience. I am about to finish my physical therapy degree and plan on working in the women’s health field. I am very interested in feminist perspectives on the work I do, but haven’t seen too much out there yet. While I’m certainly familiar with the emotions that surface through the rehabilitation process, it was especially meaningful to read your thoughtful reflections on the experience in relationship to the person you are in the world.

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