How I Let a Symptom become a Teacher

Last week, I got sick.

October has been a full month and I’d been going strong since school started back up in September – doing class work, research, seeing a nice slate of clients, throwing in a visit home, and hosting family members.  Life has been full and I have been grateful.

I first felt sickness descending as I was walking out of a volunteering gig at the Green Festival in Washington D.C.  A wave of tiredness came over me to the point where I felt wobbly.  The slow Metro ride home did me few favors as it rocked like a boat pulling into dock giving me an edge of nausea that subsided once we got off.  My lower intestinal area then felt really tight as though someone were giving me the Heimlich maneuver farther south than should be.  It hurt.

Sunday, I had an overwhelming feeling of malaise, like I hadn’t woken up totally.  I thought that walking outside would help, so I went to the farmers market.  Nope, my lower abdomen felt punched even more.  I went home and laid down, trying to do work, but my brain felt foggy at best.  By mid-afternoon, I took myself off the clinic schedule for Wednesday, because I knew I was going to be really ill that day.  Read that again, because it plays a role in a discussion we had the next day.  Generally, I was uncomfortable in my gut until bedtime when my neck started to get sore.

Monday, I woke up early to do a job at school before classes started.  I felt steamrolled and had I not made the morning and midday commitments, I would not have gone in.  In one of the classes, we had a discussion about people taking themselves off the clinic list.  What was I going to say?!  I know that I will be sick that day and getting up at 6 a.m. will be impossible? My belly still ached and my shoulders joined my neck in soreness.  I went home after my lunch meeting in order to get some rest, never felt restful, and went to bed with an idea that it was about to get much worse.

Since Tuesday is a clinic day that starts at noon, I hoped that sleeping in until 10 a.m. was going to alleviate some of my symptoms.  In the ideal world, I would have stayed in bed and ignored what I knew was coming.  However, given my clinic schedule for that day, I forced myself to school and “gut it out.”  When I rose from bed, my belly gripes were mostly gone, but my neck was not only sore, it was beginning to pulsate, sending pain behind my left eye.  It was not yet a headache, but usually at this point there is no turning back from what is going to happen.

By noon, I felt a throb behind my eye and a slight wave of nausea.  I tried to postpone my scheduled appointment, but could not find an amenable makeup date.  I decided to see the appointment through and accept the consequences later.  I found a replacement for another gig so that I could rest and possibly nap prior to my evening meeting.  An hour seemed to persuade my neck pain to remain there and I was able to complete my practitioner duties.  Within minutes of seeing my client off, the throb shot back up to my eye.  I drove home.

That night, my headache, shoulder ache, and neck ache grew progressively worse.  Nausea swooped back in.  Tiredness prevailed.  I went to bed hoping it wouldn’t be too bad.  At some point in the middle of the night, I woke up to use the bathroom and needed a glass of water.  I had to wake up the lovely Sara in order for her to get it for me, because moving about was making it worse.  She did.  I fell back to sleep though I could feel the pain still.  Toward daybreak, I woke up the moment I felt the headache disappear and eventually fell back to sleep, getting my best rest between 9 and noon.

I tried to do some homework and work around the house, because I was “better,” but my body told me that it was not yet ready, keeping some headache pulses and returning my neck ache to me until I went to bed.  I slept much better that night and stayed in bed to do work on school related activities rather than moving about.  The episode had passed.

The co-founder of my grad school, Bob Duggan, has told us since our first day of school to let our symptoms be our teachers rather than annoyances we want to obliterate at their first sign.  The aches and pains tell us a lot about ourselves if only we listen.  When he was explaining this to a group that included a guy who was getting 2-3 headaches of this sort per week due to stressful work environments, I pretty much thought he was full of it.  A headache?  My teacher?  Have you ever had a headache before?  But… And…

And I chose to give his premise a fair shake before dismissing it.  When headaches arrived, I first looked at what immediately preceded them – events, food intake, thoughts, anything that might have shaken me at that time.  Sometimes food played a part, but oftentimes the headache was triggered in response to how I positioned my body in times of stress.  I had become so habituated to tensing up – my belly, my shoulders, my neck, my mind – when disruptions arrived that I was not a body at ease.  I was a body at dis-ease.

And then came the headache.

Then I moved toward looking at what preceded the so-called trigger of my headache – the wide angle picture of life that led to the event.  There I noticed that the feelings of stress were often triggered either by me not putting myself into a situation where I felt called or by overtaxing my energy because I felt I had to do something or else.

Or else what?

Or else I might get fired.  At one place of employment where occasional lifelong headaches became weekly and daily events, I was in a position that required overtime at the discretion of management.  It put me in a disheartening position where we were forced to live to work, rather than working so that we can survive in this nation.  It ate up weekends and evenings here and there, and was set up that even if you had to stay until 8 p.m., you couldn’t adjust your schedule so you were still putting in your 8 hour day (and you were expected at your desk at the normal time the following day).  Some of us called it forced volunteerism, because we were not being compensated for the extra time.

Unhappiness, helplessness, or forgetting to give myself a break often brought upon the thoughts of stress that led to the early symptoms that resulted in a headache.  As I recognized this and tended to myself sooner, my headaches started to spread out.  Early in my school career, I had a headache a week.  Then, it went to two weeks.  A couple times, I lasted a month.  Before last week, I had gone a month and a half without a headache, because I was protecting myself more.

That brought me to last Sunday.  I knew I had overdone it.  I knew where I wouldn’t let myself have wiggle room in my schedule.  And I knew where I would.  My pattern told me that I was going to be unwell Wednesday, so I protected myself.  Telling others that, even people in the program with me, is too risky since it involves (to the outsider) predicting the future.  For me, it was self-awareness and knowledge.

In writing out my symptom progression and the history I needed to discover to locate possible triggers, I hope to awaken you to the possibility of more awareness about you and your little reminders before they develop into huge reminders.

But don’t thank me for it if it works.

Thank my school.

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One thought on “How I Let a Symptom become a Teacher

  1. Hey bro,

    Have you tried chiropractic yet? As you know, it has completely changed my life in myriad wonderful ways. When I start to get sick, I go in for an adjustment, and they see how I’m holding myself in a painful position, or how my positioning has led to all kinds of pain. I get sick much less, and I have as stronger knowledge that my body will heal myself when illness does come. Best of all, they’re doing most of the retraining of my body, so I don’t have do it consciously, often a stumbling block for a neurotic mind.

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