Sam woke in the dark to the beeping of her alarm insisting that it was, indeed, morning. She couldn’t prove it by the 5:30 AM sky in February, though. She woke with the pain already inside her.
Her body ached over the idea of just one more hour of sleep, but her mind was strict, Don’t be a wuss. Get up, lazy ass.
So she did.
The drive to the gym was quiet, and light was beginning to brush the sky, though the sun remained firmly below the horizon. Even the sun wasn’t up yet, she thought bitterly as she programmed her treadmill. But she had to be. Couldn’t stay in perfect shape if you didn’t do the work.
She knew what people thought. Just last week she’d run on her treadmill next to a woman who’d glanced at her with envy in her eyes and said, “You don’t even need to be here, do you?” It was said with a smile and meant as a compliment, but Sam felt the barbs beneath it. This is easy for you, isn’t it? You perfect little thing.
Maybe it was a good thing, she thought. If she invoked envy, then the shield was firmly in place.
Her legs moved diligently across the platform that rolled beneath her feet, picking up speed at her command. She could command her body and it would obey. Her heart was the more querulous entity. As her legs began to ache, she focused her attention on the sign that hung above the weight racks across the room: Know the difference between good and bad pain. She repeated it in her mind, like a mantra. This was good pain. This was aching legs that worked hard and muscles that were straining but not tearing, not yet.
Whenever her mind drifted towards feelings of worthlessness, she pulled herself firmly back to the now. Sure, she’d lost an account at work late last year – a big one. Yes, her latest in a long string of boyfriends had decided she wasn’t worth the trouble, wasn’t anything more than a good lay, and had walked out the door a few weeks before. Of course she had failed that test in freshman biology and run crying from the building. She still remembered the kindness of the boy who had seen her tears and stopped her. “Are you okay?” he had asked. She didn’t remember what she’d answered him. If she’d nodded or shaken her head or spoken some inane words that meant nothing. But she had acknowledged him in some small way and moved on, and he’d let her go, never knowing what it meant to her to find kindness and empathy when she felt so little deserving of either.
You’ve failed at so many things, her mind taunted.
But not at this, she answered. I have a great body. And she pushed it all the harder, pushed through the pain and through the tears that ached in her chest. She ran like fury, continually notching up the speed on the machine. If she just kept going, maybe she would forget that ache was even there.
“Wow, you’re really going hard today,” came the voice beside her. One of the regulars who she saw routinely and would nod to or make small talk with, but never let in. She couldn’t let anyone in, and over the years it had become easier to keep everyone and everything at a distance.
“I had brownies last night,” she answered, her breath puffing out from exertion. It was a lie, but lies didn’t matter. If she had to lie to get through the day, then so be it.
“I hear you. We’ve planned a Friday night pizza party because my oldest aced all her classes this semester and my youngest got three A’s and two B’s. Pretty exciting news in our household.”
Yep, Sam thought. Be perfect. Be the best. And then they’ll love you. Don’t show your pain; nobody wants to see that. What’s wrong with you anyway? Your life is not that bad. You’re just being a baby about it. But she said nothing, just nodded and smiled at… Cindy? Sandy? She couldn’t remember. It didn’t matter anyway – a name was just the first step towards genuine connection and that was a path that she wouldn’t walk.
She pushed and pushed. When she could feel her legs starting to give way, she dug in harder. Don’t think. Don’t remember how useless your life is. She built up the dam around her emotions with cement blocks, keeping it high and strong as the tide rose. She would be stronger than this. Her eyes circled the room and caught on her inspirational poster again: Know the difference between good and bad pain. With a nod, she thought, okay, enough, and gradually slowed the speed on her treadmill. She took a good fifteen minutes to cool down. It was vital to go hard, and nearly as important to take care of her muscles.
When her companion saw her slowing, she leaned slightly in Sam’s direction and said, “Good run.”
Sam only nodded, still catching her breath back. She knew when she had pushed too hard, but she wasn’t going to look too deeply at that right now. “I guess I’ll put in some extra time stretching,” she finally answered.
“You should join me for yoga class. It starts in…” she stopped to check the fitness watch she wore, “twelve minutes.”
Sam hesitated. A class wasn’t usually her style; she liked being solo. Don’t get too close to anyone, the voice in her head reminded her. Still, yoga was a pretty solo activity…
“Sure, I’ll see you in there.” She stepped easily off the treadmill, wiped it down and headed off in the direction of the locker room.
Soon she was seated cross-legged with her eyes closed, dimly aware of the slowly filling room. She’d been one of the first people to enter and was firmly ensconced in the back corner furthest from the door. No one had to see her and she didn’t have to see anyone. She could be alone here, where it was safest. But when the instructor spoke to the class, she opened her eyes and saw Cindy/Sandy wave to her from a position a few feet away. Sam offered a smile she hoped didn’t look weak and a tiny hand wave back in acknowledgement. Then she focused her attention forward, hoping it looked natural. There were too many people in here, she thought. This was a bad idea. Surely someone would notice… No. She stopped herself short. No one would be able to notice how fragile the mask was as long as she didn’t break. As long as she looked strong, she would BE strong.
The instructor guided them through the poses, and she found herself lost in a steady flow of words. Stand here, move your legs in this direction, move your hands in that direction. Control was the watchword here, she noticed, and began to feel more comfortable in the space. “Control your pace and your stability,” she heard and thought, yes, I can do that. It was reassuring to have to focus on each bend and twist. To listen and follow instructions and clear her mind of anything but the movement that came next. She demanded acquiescence from her body and it complied. And her mind began to drift a little as she listened.
“And now we will move into camel. Position yourself with your hips stacked over your knees, engage your core muscles and lift your chest into the air. Stabilize yourself with your hands pressed flat against your lower back, breathe in, and stretch your body backwards, back, back, back until you can see the floor behind you. Once you can, if you feel comfortable, go a little further and reach your hands back so that your palms are resting backwards over your heels. Let your chest open up to the sky and breathe. Breathe.”
Sam followed instructions naturally, listening carefully to the positioning of each part. As she did, she felt an expansion within her, stretching, reaching…
And the dam broke.
It broke with a fierceness and a velocity that she couldn’t have expected, and she would have prayed that no one could hear her choked gasp if she had heard it herself. Emotion flooded through her, obliterating any sense of control. She was powerless. She was wrecked in the storm.
Why couldn’t she be stronger than this, she wondered. Why was she so weak that her emotional damages always seemed to creep up inside her, like baggage that she was SURE she had left in a locker in a train station three states ago, yet here it was again. Pushing against her. Making her feel broken again.
The answer came gently inside her, like a whisper of sudden clarity. Know the difference between good and bad pain.
Something, something vital and shocking, snapped suddenly into place. Could pain ever actually be good?
By this time the class had moved on, and she pulled herself out of the backbend – slowly, as directed – stood up and walked from the room. She needed time to think.
The quietest place she could find was the locker room sauna, so she stripped off her clothes quickly and mechanically, grabbed a towel, and sighed when she stepped inside the heat and found it blissfully empty. No one to see these sudden new cracks in her façade.
Could any pain ever actually be good, her mind wondered wildly. Wasn’t it all bad? Didn’t she spend most of her life, her energy, running from it? Good pain…
Well, she had to admit, when she was running – physically running – there was good pain. It meant her muscles were working, stretching beyond their current capabilities. Maybe even tearing a little so they could rebuild and become stronger. Not too much tearing, but just a little bit.
The soul works like this, too, the new voice inside promised her.
What if… but it couldn’t be… but what if a little opening of the soul would actually give it the room to rebuild and become stronger. But to open her soul, she’d have to break down some part of the dam she’d so carefully built.
Know the difference between good and bad pain. She was alone. There was no one to see if she tried it and was a miserable failure. So she took a deep breath to steel herself, closed her eyes, and opened up to the pain inside.
You’re terrible. You’re a failure and useless and no one loves you. No one could. What value do you bring to the world? You’re skinny? You’re pretty? That’s nothing. Don’t tell me you’re smart. Lots of people are smarter than you. You keep your house clean? Whoop-di-do. You’re good at taking care of your body. What, do you want a medal, princess? The exercise queen. Do you think it makes you special? It doesn’t. Anybody can do this. Everybody’s stronger than you are.
Sam didn’t notice the sobs wracking her body as the voice – one she was so familiar with – went on its rampage. She knew every word of this tirade; she’d heard it in every quiet moment, in every breath of her day. But for once she held firm. She listened and she wept, and she begged the voice inside not to hate her. Wasn’t there anything good about her?
You’re kind. Not everyone is; it’s not as easy as you think, but you’re gentle with other people. You have it in you to be generous, if you choose to be. Suddenly she stopped crying. She had never heard this voice before. She was well used to the litany of failures, but had never once tried to hear redeeming qualities about herself. She listened harder. Is there more?
Of course there’s more. But that’s not why I love you.
Love me? What? How could it… With a shuddering breath, she decided to be brave and spoke her question out loud: “Do you love me?”
You can love you. That’s more important. You can listen to your pain rage with all of its fear and anxiety and still be patient with yourself. That’s where I come in.
“Who are you?”
I’m you. Don’t you recognize me? When Sam shook her head, ignorant of the quiet tears streaming down her face, the voice answered, Well, that’s okay. We have plenty of time. Thanks for showing up.
“How did I get here, through the pain? How did I find you?” How can I find you again, she wondered.
You listened to yourself. You let yourself hurt and were patient with yourself, without believing every word the inner critic spoke. You heard your fears as they are and didn’t try to brush them away with platitudes or excuses. Running from your pain doesn’t solve anything. Neither does wallowing. You have to let it in just enough to be able to see the broken pieces of yourself and decide to love them anyway.
“How can I love something that’s broken?”
I do, the voice answered softly. I love all of you. But my voice is quiet and it’s hard to hear me on the surface of your life. Come down here, down a level or two into the quiet, and I’ll always be here, loving you. I always have been, even when you couldn’t hear me.
“Who are you?” she asked again, still in disbelief. And the voice repeated its earlier statement in the quiet firmness of truth.
I’m you. And I am always here.