I am no stranger to chronic pain. I used to joke that the gift my ex-husband gave me for our first anniversary was an ulcer. I realize now that my misplaced sense of humor about it was a way of minimizing the very real stress I endured. But even though my mind suffered through the traumas of narcissistic abuse, the toll on my body remains long after the emotional pain left.
Doctors have known for a long time that stress can cause illness. Stress puts pressure on all of the body’s systems, causing inflammation, heart disease, and digestive disorders. For me, like many others, lower back pain seems to flare whenever I get triggered or overwhelmed. Diego Rivera has a painting in which a peasant is bent over double carrying a load far too heavy for him. See it here: Diego Rivera painting
I think of that whenever my back reminds me that I need to be mindful.
Trauma is a load too heavy for our bodies to bear and chronic pain lets us know it.
One of the worst lies abuse victims tell themselves is I can take it. The truth is that no one can take sustained abuse without serious injury. And living with an abuser is a life of constant harassment. In the same way that repetitive motion can cause injuries like carpal tunnel syndrome, the constant fear of attack and recrimination causes our bodies to falter. I remembered today how my ex used to steal my pillows and hide them whenever I got up to take care of our babies. He would wake up enough to remove them. Exhausted, I would hunt for them until finally I found one and could go back to sleep.
Now I have too many pillows on my bed, more than I need. But it has only been in the last couple years that the little thrill of fear stopped ringing through my body when I awoke in the middle of the night. One of the things I love most about my current husband is that it would never occur to him to do anything so mean-spirited. But compound the little vicious games and the harangue and your body braces itself for the worst for a long time after.
Time and again in inner healing sessions, I watch as chronic pain arises. Each time, the one receiving prayer is surprised. But I tell them this: Every memory in your brain that has an emotion attached is sent down the neural highway into your body. Healing from PTSD is not just about resolving the memories. It is often about teaching the body new ways to respond, learning how to take care of oneself when our bodies are letting us know that we are in trouble.
Doctors have begun to treat chronic back pain, pain that will not resolve easily, with antidepressants.
This alone shows us that our minds and bodies operate together when it comes to chronic pain.
For myself, moving always stimulates a little bit of trauma. Since it is in the top five on the list of stressful life events, it’s no wonder that my body takes issue with it. With each move, I can expect several months of dissociation or spacing out and flu-like achiness in my body. I know to expect it and so use mindfulness and other techniques to keep my stress levels down. But how many force their bodies to soldier on without realizing that they do themselves and their bodies no favor?
When my chronic pain raises its unwelcome head, I remember Jesus. I went to a Shroud of Turin exhibit a few years ago. Interestingly, I learned that one of our assumptions about the whipping from the cat-of-nine-tails is incorrect. I was taught that the whip had little bits of bone and metal that would scrape away the skin and muscle. In reality, the cat-of-nine-tails had heavy little metal balls attached at the end. Jesus would have collapsed and died of blood loss in most cinematic renderings of the event involving a flesh-rending whip. The real whip bruised the bone. The pain would have been far more excruciating but not life-threatening. The word, excruciating, itself comes from the Latin word cruciare which means to crucify.
Which is why, when my chronic pain surfaces, I take it to the cross.
When my body aches or my right hip throbs, or when a headache begins to pinch, I remember Jesus on the cross. I imagine that no part of Jesus’ body and soul, escaped trauma. The pain would have been worse for him than any other on a cross that day. None of the others had their bones bruised or two-inch thorns gouging their heads. The humiliation, the betrayal, the harassment, He knew them all. And none of those things conquered Him and because of His resurrection, my suffering doesn’t have to conquer me.
I have a picture of Jesus on the cross. Only an outline, it doesn’t depict anything shocking or horrific. The outline is enough. I have had victims of abuse touch on His body where they have been hurt on theirs. There is something so healing in knowing that He doesn’t just bear our sins on His body; He bears the sins of others inflicted on us as well.
The prayer I pray for myself and that I lead others to pray is Lord, absorb this pain, this trauma, whether caused by me or by others, onto Your body on the cross. Such a simple prayer, really, but one I see relieve the bodies and minds of many, including mine. When we take communion to remember Jesus’ flesh and blood given for us, we need to remember that resurrection life is available to every cell in our body. The suffering of Jesus is an acknowledgment of our trauma as humans, among other things. But His resurrection is a promise that trumps every evil deed we have done or that has been done to us.
I would not preach the resurrection of Jesus unless I had experienced it for myself and seen it move in the lives of others. In this world, we often have a lion’s share of tribulation. But take heart, because Jesus has overcome the world and its trauma.
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