25 April 2009

body talk: part 5

read previous body talk posts:
part 1
part 2

I woke up on the morning of Saturday, February 23, 1996 with a tight and stiff neck. While sleeping on the floor of a college dorm room certainly could not have helped this state, the memory of the day before came flooding back. Crunching metal. Speeding across wet pavement. Police cars. Phone calls to worried parents. Shock.

On our way to Seattle Pacific University for a preview weekend designed for high school seniors, P and K and I were deterred by the unexpected. Just a mile away from our exit, the car in front of us stopped abruptly. P was driving a large yellow Plymouth from the 1970s. When he slammed on the brakes they locked and we slid, fifty miles per hour, into the car in front of us. The long front end of the car folded like an accordion and steam rose from underneath the crumpled hood.

Oh crap, was all P said.

No kidding.

And so there I lay on the floor of the dormitory the next morning, barely able to move my neck, feeling a tight soreness in my shoulders that I had never before experienced. Any movement to the left or to the right produced sharp and piercing pain. I touched it lightly with the intent of attempting to coax relaxation into my soft tissue. But I winced at the lightest touch.

I was accompanying K in her cello audition later that morning. I was glad my accompaniment was on the piano and not on the viola; I couldn’t stomach the thought of lifting my stringed instrument to my chin, flexing the stiff but tender muscles of my neck to hold it against my shoulder.

My dad came and picked me up later that day; my mom had already arranged for me to see her chiropractor so we could begin the initial assessment of what kind of injury I might be dealing with. Dr. H touched me lightly, palpitating my spine and massaging my muscles. He gave me a soft neck brace that I affixed with Velcro at the back of my neck. It would be twelve weeks before I would take it off.

The relationship I bore toward my body changed entirely. My focus changed from keeping a thin body to managing its pain. There were many times where I would lose all feeling in my face and my arms. I learned that my nerve pathways where so overwhelmed with pain that they would shut themselves down.

I soon learned the full weight of what multiple physicians told me: I would have been better off breaking my neck. Soft tissue injuries were slow to heal. I had third-degree whiplash and it would be months before my life would assume even the appearance of normalcy. My piano lessons had stopped and plans for a senior recital were all but canceled. I had to give up my first chair position in the orchestra and instead sat and listened to music instead of participating in it. Every afternoon after school was spent at the chiropractor, the massage therapist, and the physical therapist. After a few months, I was referred to a neurologist. Eventually, the stress and the strain caused me to seek out a psychotherapist. That made for five health care providers I saw on a regular basis.

At first, I maintained a sense of humor about my circumstances. I made a show of wearing the neck brace and deliberately dressed myself in such a way so as to coordinate with it. I joked about making note cards with an explanation of the accident and my ensuing treatment so I wouldn’t have to tell the story again and again. But after weeks of worsening pain, I was not able to maintain the humor. In my spirit, I was so broken. When I prayed, it seems every word hit the ceiling and came crashing down to the floor with a leaden thud.

I followed the rules. I gave myself over to every prescribed treatment. I trusted my doctors. And nothing was getting better. In fact, it felt like it was getting worse. I was trapped. I was a victim and my body was holding me hostage. For the first time, I admitted to myself that I hated it. I hated my body.

What I didn’t know at the time is that this accident was precisely what was saving me.


  1. and i'm sad that you've been through so much in that body of yours. all that pain...my neck hurts just hearing about it. (my neck hurts a lot anyway, but your description made it tighten up and i found myself grinding my teeth.)

    i'm still listening.

  2. So much pain, yet I hear in your words how the pain leads to beauty. Pain, beauty, beauty, pain...makes me wonder who we think we are to ask for anything at all, sometimes...

  3. Tonight, as I bend and stretch my neck at Yoga, I will be grateful for every millimeter of flexibility and the small strain. And grateful that this isn't the end of your story. (Please, please hurry it up, would ya?! The suspense is tough to deal with. :) )

  4. Sigh.I love hearing your story, and yet hearing your story causes me pain on behalf of the pain you've endured.

    The parts that hit me the strongest were the places you said your relationship with your body changed from keeping a thin body to managing its pain, and where you said you went from playing music to listening to it. Both of those are such drastic shifts in focus for very different parts of your life: the physical and the creative. And yet I can even see overlap between them: focusing on the weight meant a lot of internal analysis and vigilance, and learning musical pieces requires a similar mental focus and attention to minutiae and detail and rhythm and fingering. Listening to music is about learning to rest, to soak, to just be and let the experience of the music wash over you. Maybe the new relationship that began to form with your body through this experience of the accident brings you to a similar place.

    Can't wait to keep reading. :)