Essay: My Valiant Harpooner
With my osteopath I feel like we are rewriting the story of my body together
By Andrea Lynn, PhD
For Scott Sternthal D.O.
I am moved by fancies that are curled
Around these images, and cling:
The notion of some infinitely gentle
Infinitely suffering thing.
– Preludes T.S. Eliot
When I walk into the osteopath’s office he smiles, wipes down his table and tells me to “hop on.” The gesture recalls early childhood, when you hopped on to things because an adventure lay ahead, even if it was just some mechanical horse in a shopping mall; a kiddie ride for a quarter bought you a few minutes of motion in a world of constraints. My most recent visit was because I had tripped. I fell smack on my face. I am a teacher and at the time of the fall I was in the middle of the semester.
I told the osteopath that I had sent my students an email warning them about my appearance. I wondered if they would think I was accident prone or attach a more sinister cause – addiction or violence? As I began to say “They’ll think I am…” the osteopath completed my sentence for me “…the walking wounded.”
The walking wounded?
Something about those words struck an uncomfortable chord.
Are we not all the walking wounded, I wondered as he cradled my neck in his hands.
* * * * *
‘You cannot disown what is yours. Flung out, there is always the return, the reckoning, the revenge, perhaps the reconciliation.
There is always the return. And the wound will take you there.’
― Jeanette Winterson
Words resonate unexpectedly.
My Osteopath could have simply been referring to the wound as an injury. For others it may sound like a zombie reference, but I live with the “wound.” And sometimes, despite my best intentions, I let it define me.
For many of the walking wounded, our histories are written on our bodies. Some scars we are proud of; the ones we feel we’ve “earned.” I still have the shadow of road burn on my elbow from falling off my bike as a kid attempting to ride over Mount Royal. Other scars feel like an assault. We didn’t get them from being daring; just an unlucky draw in the genetic deck. My surgical scars cluster around my neck and chest. These lines etched into my skin tell the story of my disease. Some are barely perceptible, others run long and deep.
Society labels me a cancer survivor. I hate living under that banner. It is true I have had cancer twice, and it is true I have survived. But those are not necessarily the biggest obstacles to my existence. I have also survived my parent’s divorce, my mother’s subsequent depression, walking stoned on the ledge of a 10th-floor apartment in Miami, speeding down the highway in Stuart Silverberg’s parents’ Lincoln Continental; Stu, tripping on LSD and at the wheel as I desperately sang out from the backseat “Stuart just stay in the lane, nothing can go wrong if you just stay in the lane!”
From my vantage point, the moment we open our eyes, we are all surviving something.
But I will give the cancer its due, the lasting impression it has made. I often feel its icy hand of death upon my shoulder. I shrug it off, but in some way or another it is always there, a grim reminder, a portent of suffering to come, and at its worst, a constant and uncomfortable pinch in the neck. To stave off this interloper, I cope as any good capitalist would: I throw some money at it, outsourcing my healing to a competent team of self-care practitioners. I have had traditional massages, Ayurvedic treatments, shiatsu, acupuncture, reiki, even shamans waving feathers over my stomach to gently free the spirits clinging to my life force. All in a desperate attempt, I suppose, to stave off the inevitable. This approach is not cheap, but one thing about cancer, it makes you a lot less worried about the future.
My new favourite modality is Osteopathy. I trust this strong molecular approach to healing. I do believe that everything in our bodies is interconnected and that the pain in our heads can be related to our feet. I used to think of the body as just a sack of skin and bones, some organs thrown in, a couple of pints of blood, but turns out the whole contraption is held together by this white sticky glue called fascia. Fasci are the ties that bind us together and without their connective force, you would literally fall apart. Ergo, when you cut the body, you cut the fasci. Scars are the evidence, telltale signs of fascial tension. Some say “our issues live in our tissues” and this tension can be responsible for a whole host of ailments and aches. In many ways, all the different healing modalities address the same idea of “blockages” in the body. From a Western perspective it is the nerve endings that run through the fascia; in Eastern lingo, energy meridians. I have experienced great results with acupuncture, but you have to be in the mood for all that needling. In osteopathy you are held; the touch is gentle. And unlike massage, where I find the effects only last as long as I am on the table, I continue to feel release for days after.
I am well aware that a significant portion of the population feel that Osteopathy, despite the fact that osteopaths receive virtually the same education as medical practitioners, is akin to quackery. I believe this is due to its seemingly esoteric method of diagnosis, referred to as palpation. Palpation is a method where the practitioner “listens” to the body. It would seem as if the osteopath’s sense of touch operates at a higher frequency than the rest of ours – like super human ears that pick up the sound of a dog whistle, except in this case it is another’s pain. Palpation, of course, is a common medical practice; doctors palpate our bodies all the time, listening for hollow spaces, or feeling out lumps. But it ends there, like an x that marks the spot, and doctors attack it with a knife, blast it with medicine, or worse, tell you the pain is all in your head.
When I go for modalities that lay their hands directly on my body, I tend towards women. But I had a sprained ankle a while back and this practitioner was close enough for me to hobble over. He also had great reviews on Facebook.
My osteopath felt immediately familiar to me, in the way that if you went to summer camp and remember that remote group the “trippers.” Like some elite team, these acoustic guitar playing, hiking boot wearing group of teenagers would take you out on canoe trips, knew how to be build a fire, pitch a tent, and most memorably for me, made you clean up the dishes after eating their “tripper shit” – a delightful blend of whatever canned food the kitchen staff sent packing. We campers scrubbed the sticky pots with decomposing scouring pads, perched precariously on jagged rocks facing a rushing stream, while this good looking, nature wielding group, got high with our counsellors. Our kids will never know this debauched negligence in the current climate of helicopter parenting, like running wildly with the plastic bags from your parent’s dry cleaning, creating balloons of air like parachutes, or just letting your dog meet up with her pack, roam the neighbourhood, return hours later covered in mud. Seems like everything nowadays comes with a warning, a waiver, parents can even log into a camp’s website and see live streams of their kids. These trippers would never survive that kind of scrutiny.
It is not that I found my osteopath reckless, it is just that his demeanour has an earthy take-charge kind of vibe, like he would be the first tripper there to scoop you from the stream after you tumbled in from your dishwashing post. My osteopath always suggests I go see my GP if I come in with a sprain, swelling, or any other pain that may benefit from medical imaging. I do my best to avoid doctors. I hate wasting my time in their purgatorial waiting rooms only to be given a cursory glance and sent off. I find few can sustain eye contact. I understand that doctors too are broken by the repressive medical system: too many bodies, not enough support. And yet, few rise above, rather they stare at the computer screen, while you try to describe your symptoms or fears; tending to your body with blocked ears, narrow fields of vision.
I know of no part of the body that equals the fascia as a hunting ground.
– Andrew Taylor Still, Founder of Osteopathy
I am assuming what Still meant was a hunting ground to find our sites of tension. For those with pain, we seek to express the magnitude of the beast, like some white whale, but what trips us up is its elusiveness. We feel terrible loss, want revenge, and I think mostly long to be reborn, to emerge whole again. I do not know when my pain began. There is of course tangible loss, amputation, surgery, scars.
I feel my pain runs deep, bone deep, marrow deep, deep down to unknown depths.
I’d like to think Still chose the name Osteopathy because it appealed to more than the superficial or physical diagnosis of discomfort. In Ancient Greek osteon means “bone” + -pathy, -patheia, a form of pathos “suffering, disease, feeling.” Still suffered tremendous loss and witnessed great pain over the course of his lifetime. He lived through the horrors of the civil war, a wife who died while in labour to a child that also perished, and the deaths of many of his children to various diseases. All these experiences heightened his need to seek out alternative forms of healing and to understand both why the body fails and, more importantly, how we fail our bodies.
* * * * *
To have great pain is to have certainty; to hear that another person has pain is to have doubt.
― Elaine Scarry
After the first biopsy to remove the lymph node from the base of my neck I developed a “crick” – a tightness that seized me whenever I felt stressed or turned a certain way. And it has haunted me for years. Sometimes the pain radiates all the way down my arm or up into my jaw. I have tried every modality to deal with this pain, and while at times there is relief – the pain always returns. I shared this history with my osteopath.
I freely admitted that I am weary of doctors. Actually, I blurted out that I hate doctors. The words sounded childish leaving my mouth, laced with ingratitude. But I cannot help it. The medical community, despite some truly special souls, have indelibly stained my experience of vulnerability.
I live in a society that marginalizes the disabled, the sick. Natural selection does not favour the diseased and so I think people have a primordial repugnance to the weaker of the flock. My first real understanding of this intolerance to expressions of pain came when I was 15. I felt an inferno in my left eye. I remember my mother taking me to Emergency at the Children’s Hospital and the doctor on call telling me to place my chin on the rest and open my eye wide so that he can peer into it with a strong light. I struggled. Each time I opened my eye, I felt searing pain. The doctor snapped at me, informing me that he has patients with glass in their eye that can do better than I can. Tolerating pain is a contest where only the stoic win. I was losing. After a few more tries, I manage to keep the eye open long enough so he could make his diagnosis: a scratch on my cornea. I leave feeling humiliated, internalizing his scorn.
I learned my lesson well from that initial eye doctor’s reaction, and so when I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma at 25, I made sure to swallow my pain. The first staging is a bone marrow biopsy. A painful procedure where a doctor inserts a hollow needle (in my case through my hip) to collect marrow. The hope is that there is no disease in the marrow. My hematologist was impressed with how well I handled myself during the test. I did not make a sound except to let him know all was well. I felt a kind of elation that my doctor was proud of me. That even if the cancer may be in my marrow, I had still passed the test.
Nurses and doctors love a patient who sits calmly while they poke and prod. This relaxes everyone and while of course this is advantageous to both procedure and patient, it is not sustainable. Later on, after 9 months of chemo and radiation, I had lost all control. Only those who have had these procedures understand the awful ways your body expresses its discomfort, the sores in your mouth, the way your veins feel like they are on fire, how you can no longer swallow when your salivary glands are fried. But I will spare you the gruesome details, just to say at the end of that year I was stretched beyond my capacity to “suck it up.” I remember the relief when I was told that the port-a-cath implant in my chest was going to be removed. The metal bump in my chest wall was a constant reminder of the experience. The port-a-cath was initially there to help ameliorate the pain in my arms after 3 months of chemo and prepare for the next 3 rounds. I was under local anesthetic for this procedure. When the surgeon pulled the catheter out, I felt this weird sucking sensation and I suddenly burst out into tears and could not stop sobbing. In a sarcastic tone he asked, “do you want me to put it back in?” I do not think he was trying to be funny because as I continued sobbing uncontrollably, he just left the room. I remember one of his residents looking embarrassed for what I like to imagine was the whole theatre of cruelty that is a hospital, as he awkwardly came over to help me off the surgical table.
The last real affront to my sensibilities of what it means to be human, to have empathy for another’s plight, in a place that is constructed to hear, diagnose, and heal your suffering, was trying to describe the pain I felt post-mastectomy to the head of reconstructive surgery, that a resident had over-injected a tissue expander and I had spent 3 days in agonizing pain. Doctor D, as he was referred to, like a twisted nod to a Happy Days character, was standing far from the examining table, holding my file, edging towards the door as I spoke. When I paused in my story, he quickly interjected:
“You better get used to it, pain is the name of the game!”
I always hated easy rhymes.
* * * * *
English, which can express the thoughts of Hamlet and the tragedy of Lear, has no words for the shiver and the headache. It has all grown one way. The merest schoolgirl, when she falls in love, has Shakespeare, Donne, Keats to speak her mind for her; but let a sufferer try to describe a pain in his head to a doctor and language at once runs dry.
― Virginia Woolf
Sometimes when you have been handled roughly and someone touches you gently it makes you feel like crying. When I tell this to my osteopath, he responds that he always feels honoured when people cry in his office.
Our bodies do speak. They give us away. A skilled observer can easily tell those who work at a desk, from those who bear heavy loads. Our bodies are palimpsests. We still carry the traces of the corners we ran into as children. Certain places produce overwhelming emotion at the touch. Having experienced a double mastectomy, the whole of my chest area feels like an open wound. As such, I am always on the brink of tears. It is difficult to explain this to people. I communicate to the osteopath all this pain, how all this feeling converges in some point in my neck, deep in the marrow’s memory; the grip of the icy hand.
His kind eyes reveal an intention, a desire to figure out the precise location of my pain, how he can release it. This is why I go back to him – he wants to help. He does not make promises. He acts with the utmost professionalism. And he listens. He carefully listens with razor-sharp focus. And so when I finished my long litany of complaint, and my hypothesis that I carry this trauma deep in my tissues, he went to work.
He began with some palpation and then felt he located the “stickiness.” Then, for how long I cannot say, there was some twisting, some cracking, and finally an incredible release. I felt like a window opened in a room that had been sealed off for decades. This rush of air was refreshing, but also woke me up to what I did not know I could still feel. Death’s boney hand is real and familiar and the bones pinch. To feel it lift, to feel what my neck felt like before my first diagnosis, made me sad. I saw myself as this young girl, who had just fallen in love, and in a moment, because of a swollen gland at the base of her neck, her fate changed. I remember the day after I found out, I was sitting outside my mother’s on a lawn chair, the sun was pouring down on me and I noticed how lined and dry the skin on my thighs looked, like an old woman’s I thought. I was 25 and I wore that old woman’s skin like a shield. And the first love I fell into grew old too, withering under the weight of my anxiety and suffering, never having a chance. Mostly, as the space opened up in my neck, I remembered what it felt like to be young and risk your heart.
And the tears began to well and there was no way to hold them back. And so despite myself, I cried. I cried a lot. I let myself believe his words, that I did not need to be embarrassed, that this release was healthy. That he felt humbled.
That pain, the entirety of its intensity, so far, has not returned.
* * * * *
If you are lucky, you stumble on to someone who allows you to express yourself in ways you can’t alone. Because they touch you. Because you allow yourself to be touched by them. Sometimes it is a lover, a friend, a child, doctor, healer, an animal, just some breathing being that wants to comfort you. There is an unspoken promise when one body touches another. That the one who touches will give of their compassion, not take. And if we are quiet enough, if we open a space for trust, the body will tell another the story of its suffering in a language we do not have words for. That we can share our secrets, unburden ourselves from the pain lodged in our tissues. And that in those moments, no matter your body, its age, its history; no matter how broken, or left behind, or the whale size wound in your heart, you can heal. With my osteopath I feel like we are rewriting the story of my body together; reworking old lines that keep me bound to some narrative of sickness, sadness, and isolation. Only way I can think to describe what is happening. Stories are my bulwark against the wound. And they desperately need someone to listen.
* * * * *
When I tripped and fell flat on my face, I was worried that I had undone all that good work. That the fall knocked the pain back in, that I was the clumsily wounded all over again. But after a brief exam, my osteopath assured me that I did not re-injure my neck. I was just shook up.
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Andrea Lynn, PhD is a freelance writer, college teacher, and social media content producer living in Montreal, interested in this, that, and always the other thing.