Simply put, I was spent. After spending twelve weeks in a neck brace, of spending my senior year of high school not participating, but observing, of not engaging in life, but surviving it, I felt completely broken and lost.
The rug I once stood on so securely had been pulled out from under me. I mourned the loss of my enviable first-chair viola position in the orchestra. I remember sitting in my typing class, eyes glazing over in front of the computer screen, behavior that was atypical for me. I was escaping; I was doing my best to escape the persistent and profound physical pain in my body. The numbness that resulted from overloaded nerve pathways extended from my face and limbs and eventually captured my heart, too.
My post-school hours were no better. Every day, I went to the chiropractor for an adjustment, and every day he made me wince. Two days a week, I saw a massage therapist in his office. Those sessions were helpful, but not at all pleasant given the throbbing pain that pulsated through my body. Three days a week were spent in physical therapy using big blue exercise balls and traction devices that would stretch my neck for me. My favorite part was when the PT put ultrasound goo on my neck and lightly run a smooth heated wand over it. I had only periodic visits with the neurologist, who was paid thousands of dollars to tell me things I had already heard.
When after this protracted period of time I realized that I was not healing quickly, that the pattern of my days had changed and would remain changed for some time, I felt like I was losing my identity. I could no longer perform and produce at the levels I once did. I could only exist, warming chairs and consuming oxygen. The things according to which I found my worth -- things I had wrapped myself around -- were gone. I felt stripped and confused, disoriented by my circumstances. Sensing how worn down I was and how in need I was of someone to talk to, my chiropractor referred me to a friend of his who practiced psychotherapy.
We discussed a lot of things. I told her that I didn't know who I was anymore and that those who were once my friends no longer cared to be. I told her that my conversations with God circled like a hamster on a wheel, with me the hamster. I ran and struggled and strived and tried, but didn't get anywhere. I lamented my new routine, and I mourned the loss of those things that provided enjoyment: being able to move freely, being able to play music, preparing for a solo piano recital. I told her how worthless this made me feel. She asked why.
I'm not doing anything, I said with disdain, landing heavily on the words "doing" and "anything."
Why do you need to be doing something? she asked.
I sat in uncomfortable silence for a few seconds, not understanding the question. What did she mean, why do I need to be doing something? We all need to be doing something. I remember wondering, what if nobody did anything, what if we just all sat around and consumed oxygen and stared at each other? Is that really what she's getting at? How will anything that needs to get done, get done?
After a few minutes of silence, I told her, I don't know what to say. I don't understand.
Why do you need to say anything? she asked.
First, she's asking me a question that may or may not imply I don't need to do anything and now here I sit on this couch across from her, my therapist, who is telling me I don't need to talk? What in the world is going on here?
The confusion must have been evident on my face. Kirsten, she said. Do you believe that just sitting here on this couch, not playing an instrument and not talking to me, that your worth hasn't changed one bit? Do you think perhaps that just sitting here, "taking up oxygen" as you've said, that you are every bit as valuable as when you are producing and performing at your peak?
I was utterly stunned.
I was in tears, weeping for the rest of the session.
I began to realize that I had defined myself according to what I did, to how well I performed, to how much I produced. Rest meant a loss of worth. Mistakes meant to me that I lost my value to others, and if I lost my value to others, what good was I as a person, what good could I possibly do in the world? I could not control the expectations of those around me, and my response was to bend myself to meet them, as ridiculous as those expectations might have been or however skewed my perception of them had been. I learned quickly in the world that pretty = thin and so I bent myself to that expectation. I realized how out-of-control I had felt and how my body felt the self-imposed wrath I had against God and the universe and the people around me.
No longer able to define myself according to how I could perform or what I could produce, I had taken on by necessity a lifestyle of rest and self-care. I resented it utterly. I felt weak and worthless. I defined myself according to the loss of my ability to execute on any of these things.
And now I was forced to acknowledge: I had built my worth around a vacuum.
The paradigm around which I had centered my life was crumbling. The rug beneath me was gone and the world around me was spinning.