My yoga teacher often encourages us to smile in poses facing the mirror. “Your smile may be the hardest pose to hold!” She cheers us on and smiles back in the mirror.
Smiling is something I do a lot these days. I got my life back from the wrecking ball of chronic pain, I figured out who I am, and I found the activities I enjoy. It sounds simple and linear; it was actually sloppy, tortured, and jarring. Today, when I see myself breaking a sweat in the mirror, I smile. I smile at myself, proud of how far I’ve come and everything I’ve conquered.
People who live in pain spend a lot of time smiling. But those smiles are different – they’re directed at others, they’re forced, and they’re intended to make other people feel more comfortable. I found that people get pretty squirmy when you explain to them that your pelvis feels like it’s on fire, that it necessitates you spending most days in bed, and that it’s why you’re parking in the handicapped spot at the store. I also found that people don’t generally expect a response of “horrible” to their inquiries of “how are you today?” So I quickly learned to smile at them and say that I was fine. They got less uncomfortable when I kept my pain to myself.
In those days, I never smiled at myself in the mirror. Nor did I ever marvel at anything my body was doing. It was turning on me, and I didn’t feel proud or impressed or pleased with its extraordinary strength – all of which had been harnessed to inflict pain upon me. If I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror, I’d look away. My clothes hung off of me, my eyes were sunken, my skin was ghost white, my posture was hunched. I looked sick and weak and miserable – which I was.
I didn’t receive many smiles when I was sick either – or rather, I didn’t get many non-pitying smiles. Living with an invisible illness, I bore witness to a nasty segment of our society – I saw the spots where our communities and capacities for empathy are badly cracked. Flight attendants refused to help me with my small bag onboard a flight somewhere for treatment, reminding me that I should’ve checked any luggage I was unable to manage myself. Strangers berated me in a parking lot for occupying a handicapped spot. My insurance company denied me ongoing coverage, deeming pelvic physical therapy an “elective” treatment. From my vantage point in my wheelchair, I saw my community scorn and turn its back on me. I was a young woman, a law student at the top of her class, and yet I didn’t act like it. I think people found it disconcerting and either couched their discomfort as hostility or aloofness. They either disbelieved my claim that I was sick, or they believed my hollow assertion that I was fine. I couldn’t win.
So, back to the smiling. When my body began to heal, and I began to see my muscles strengthen and grow, I started smiling a lot. I woke up feeling emotionally and physically good, and I’d roll over to smile at my husband and puppy snuggled beside me. I laughed over brunch with my girlfriends, befriended my yoga teachers, and giggled at a toddler at the beach. But most importantly, I started smiling at my reflection in the yoga studio mirror, my bathroom mirror, and my car’s rearview mirror. I started seeing myself come to life again. I’m sun-kissed, I’ve gained 45 pounds since my days in a wheelchair, I look strong, I look happy. I’m smiling at myself and for myself.
These days, when I do something silly (like practice a headstand for an hour and tweak my neck), I visit my physical therapist for a tune-up. She often gives me a high-five: “You earned this pain/injury!” It’s become a fun, congratulatory ritual where we celebrate my astounding level of health, achieved against all odds. Using that same framework, I think I’ve earned the smile shining back at me in the mirror. I tackled my first hot yoga class recently, and I couldn’t get over how badass and sweaty I looked as I tightened my ponytail in my car’s rearview mirror on the drive home. I nailed my extended hand-to-toe pose for the first time, but I quickly stumbled from my own enthusiasm after I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror. I have lots to smile about these days, and it’s so nice to see my healthy, sweaty, happy face grinning back at me from the mirror – I’ve earned that treat!
If you’re struggling with pain, try to start rewarding yourself with little things. Begin focusing on what you can do, rather than what you can’t. When you see yourself in the mirror, smile at yourself – compassionately, gently. You deserve to be treated with kindness and sweetness, so treat yourself to your favorite Starbucks drink, snuggle with your dog, buy fancy sheets, or nap in the sunshine. Afterwards, while the good vibes are still flowing through your veins (even if they do so alongside the pain), allow yourself to indulge in a smile that’s just for you, and nobody else. Pelvic pain’s a bitch, and you’re a fighter. You’ve earned this.
© 2017 Inspire Santé