Last summer I went to Sierra Hot Springs in Sierraville, CA for a couple days with my then-boyfriend, now close friend, Mel Melvin. I expected a pleasant time in the natural hot pools but I did not expect the shock I experienced after a few minutes in the hottest pool there (105-110º Fahrenheit). At first I was a bit unnerved because I thought my body was going numb from the intense heat. It took many minutes to realize what I was experiencing was a lack of pain, or possibly the sensation of no pain at all.
Pain is my reality 24/7; you take it away and I don’t know how to understand what I’m feeling (or not feeling, as was the case). For 13 years my body had known constant pain in some shape or form or area in my body (now going on 15 years). That’s a big part of my life with ankylosing spondylitis. As soon as I realized that what I was experiencing was a lack of pain I began sobbing. I had a break down. I didn’t believe it was possible to be pain-free, ever, for any amount of time. I cannot begin to describe what I was feeling but it was not happiness or joy. The space my physical pain usually occupies was replaced with profound emotions: grief, anger, sadness, confusion, embarrassment, fear, anxiety; and the unrelenting, pulsing, nagging reality that this was temporary. With paradoxical anger I felt that my pain had been stolen from me. I felt naked (okay, I was). I wanted it back so I could escape this torture. Most people consider torture to be painful or threatening, but my torture is the faux-promise of being pain-free.
Please, let me back into my shell of pain, I know how to live in this body because it’s mine.
I can’t believe I just said that.
This sick thought left a bitter taste in my mouth as I remembered the many times I have told people I wish I could experience being in a healthy body for one day. I suddenly felt a profound sense of the unfairness of it all. My body felt like a burden in this blinding cloud of temporary painlessness. I felt cheated by life and by my body. I desperately wanted to scream, to sob out loud, to tell everyone that their bodies are so perfect compared to mine. But I couldn’t, and didn’t, because I was in a silent pool. My tears flowed freely. I convulsed silently. I did not want to cause a scene. I allowed myself to be invisible. I tried to ignore the dawning realization that I would never experience this again in the same way. No other waters would ever be able to deliver such a surprise and shock of being suddenly pain-free. I would be too aware of my body to be caught off-guard again. I freaked out in the politest way possible; I silently got out of one pool and into another.
On a realistic level I was also afraid of injuring myself. My body suddenly felt limber again, lively, agile, able. I wanted to do the difficult yoga moves and stretches I’d been able to do years before. I wanted to go running. I wanted to do it while I had this sudden, fleeting freedom. I imagined an hourglass on the horizon, quickly running out of sand, quickly measuring the time I had. I was acutely aware that overdoing it could cause me to spasm through the night and send me into a flare, leaving me in bed for an indeterminate amount of time. I was aware that if I did everything I physically felt I could do during my brief escape from the prison of my body I would be doing more damage than good. Because I have the mind of an athlete and my default is to push myself I knew I had to be extremely careful. I knew I had to limit myself and that angered and saddened me more than anything. This was a wicked test.
Many minutes, maybe half an hour passed, before I was finally able to speak again. It was impossible to describe for Mel what I was feeling. I mumbled words, made gestures, touched the places on my body that are usually so full of pain, then sunk into myself and looked down at the surface of the water. I was suddenly shy and afraid, yet oddly hopeful I would wake up out of this dream – or nightmare. Somehow I managed to communicate that I just needed to be held and to cry. I was overwhelmed and knew there was no way to begin to describe what was going on in my body and in my head. Eventually I explained as well as I could, but I understood on a very basic level that admitting to Mel that I would feel more comfortable when I got my pain back – that I was more scared of the lack of pain than I am of the familiarity of pain – was a concept he could not understand as someone without chronic pain.
It was only later, when I saw a sign about Watsu massage and a person receiving a Watsu massage, that I felt some hope. A woman was submerged almost completely in the water with flotation devices supporting her head, arms, and legs while another woman massaged, moved, and stretched her body gently, almost like a dance. I was transfixed. I stared as unobtrusively as I could. I imagined what it would be like for my body to completely relax in the warm water, without fear, and be moved about. I wondered what it would be like to be able to allow all my muscles and joints to lose their tension, if even for an hour. To really relax.
Watsu entered my mind many times after that trip. Then, several months ago this year a woman named Jillian emailed me to introduce herself as a Watsu practitioner. She wrote of how she has personal experience with people who have ankylosing spondylitis and wondered how she could be involved with my spondyloarthritis support group. I felt the stars had aligned. I was overjoyed while she was surprised I had even heard of Watsu.
I had my first ever Watsu session with Jillian yesterday. It was like dancing. It was like being in a womb. It was like being in the loving arms of a parent or grandparent. I meditated. I breathed. I trusted. I relaxed. I thought of blog post ideas. I thought of friendships and family. I thought of church and what home is. At some point I felt myself smiling and laughing without knowing why and was completely at peace with it. I still felt the dull ache of pain that is and will always be there for me, but it was masked by my determination to be free for the time I was in that warm, healing water.