Pain changes you: building your new identity from habits

Before my pain became debilitating, but while it was still a nuisance, I was a studious overachiever. I took my dog for a walk around the nearby golf course each evening with my boyfriend, but I didn’t get any other exercise. I frequently cooked tacos for dinner in our newly remodeled kitchen in our small stucco house in Albuquerque, New Mexico. We watched the Tonight Show a few evenings a week before bed and occasionally played Mario Kart on our Wii.

And then, my pain knocked me down to the ground. It had been gradually getting worse, but I had a steely determination to get through law school and begin my federal clerkship for an esteemed judge. I did make it through law school; I had to withdraw from my clerkship. In a flurry of events that followed, we moved and moved again, we found ourselves in Chicago in the midst of a polar vortex, we got married, my husband took the bar exam, my beloved dog died, my husband quit his job. Our lives imploded in good and bad ways, until we awoke cold and stunned in Chicago and asked ourselves how we got there.

Then came doctor appointments and physical therapy appointments, and soon, I was out of my wheelchair and walking again. But as the months wore on, my husband ultimately had to take a job out-of-state.  I was doing better, but I found myself completely lost. Who was I now?

The time at our disposal each day is elastic; the passions we feel dilate it, those that inspire us shrink it, and habit fills it.
— Marcel Proust

With the help of my therapist, I gradually built the semblance of a schedule. I’d walk to Starbucks in the morning, when I would work on some contract projects that other attorneys tossed my way. I slowly began practicing yoga at my physical therapist’s clinic three days each week. I spent the rest of my hours FaceTiming with my husband, tinkering around my apartment, or watching TV.  Those felt like really full days at first, after spending years isolated and suffering from excruciating pain. My husband returned after a year away, and we both began working. But over time, I yearned for something more, and I began focusing on creating new routines and habits.

In late 2016, I decided that I wanted an exercise routine. I enjoyed how strong I felt when I practiced a lot of yoga, and I yearned for a community where I felt comfortable.  I found a yoga studio near our house and joined their Fit Squad Challenge, which challenged me to five workouts per week for five weeks. I smashed it and challenged myself to complete one more month. And then another. I was growing stronger by the week and loved the way that I felt. After a year of meeting the Fit Squad challenge each month, I can now report that exercise energizes and restores me. I get antsy if I haven’t been on my mat for a few days, and I have an amazing group of women who have become close friends. It’s become a deeply embedded part of my identity, and I’m happier and feel more whole because of it.

So, while my husband and I were vacationing in La Jolla, California for Thanksgiving this year, I decided it was time for a new habit. I was increasingly uncomfortable with the amount of time I spent mindlessly scrolling on my phone, and I was embarrassed that I had hardly read a book in the previous year. I announced that, rather than playing on my phone in bed at night or when relaxing around the house, I would begin spending some of that downtime reading for pleasure instead. I didn’t set a quota for myself – instead, I challenged myself to ask whether reading might be a better option than picking up my phone. That challenge has been wildly successful, and I’m immersed in books again like I haven’t been for years. I’ve devoured 9 incredible books in the past 10 weeks, and I just placed another giant order from Amazon. I’ve been staying up into the wee hours of the morning, soaking up the characters in my latest novel and so enjoying the feeling of being an avid reader again. Perhaps it’s a little early to call this one a firmly cemented habit already, but I have a good feeling about this.

Now, if you asked me who I am and what interests me, I’d tell you: I’m a self-employed healthcare attorney and nonprofit director who loves walking my dog Crosby, I devour anything on the NPR or New York Times book reviews lists, and I practice yoga most days. I’m ridiculously happy and secure in who I am, and I’m so glad that, after everything I’ve been through, I took the time to find that woman again.

All content © 2018 Inspire Santé, NFP