“The body says what words cannot.” — Martha Graham
I am so very touched by the incredible messages of support I received in response to the last post I wrote. It means a great deal to me to hear from you – so many I have never met, who wrote in from all over the world. Your eloquent words have touched me beyond measure and your wishes have kept me buoyant. I thank you truly from the bottom of my heart.
To continue the story: the pain in my hands and feet became worse. My hands weighed heavy in the mornings, my feet hurt when I walked. I consulted numerous doctors, various experts. I ran tests for everything, trying to find the source of this strange pain. The symptoms indicated peripheral neuropathy, yet the tests came back fine. Medically, I was given a clean bill of health.
On one hand – hurrah, right? I don’t have vitamin deficiencies, my carpal tunnel is fine, my spine and brain are clear. And yet, this perplexing pain. I am dying, was the illogical yet persistent thought circling in my head.
Friends and family rallied round, bless them. With my accompanying listlessness, I know I wasn’t fun to be around, so the immense kindness I received from everyone moved me to tears. (Like when my Very Intellectual Friend, Dylan – who makes serious, award-winning films about global issues and for whom “light reading” comprises of dense historical, political treaties – bought us tickets to watch Book Club, because brainless entertainment was the only thing that could cheer up my gloomy state. And he pretended he wasn’t mortified – because, if you haven’t seen Book Club, it is as far as you can get from dense historical, political treaties. I will love Dylan forever.)
A senior neurologist who examined my case thoroughly could not find the cause of the pain. He concluded it was most likely a pinched nerve that would in time heal on its own.
After all the tests and all the doctors, I finally conceded: the lack of physiological evidence could mean my body was trying to tell me something.
As I look back, I see I have been getting signals from my body my whole life.
A month after I was born, my entire body erupted in severe eczema, continuing for years. My temperature would rise, my body would weep in blood and pus, bringing down my fever, and then it would happen all over again and again. Very few people could stand to be near me because the pus gave off a powerful stench. All my mother’s blouses and all my father’s shirts were stained on one side from carrying me.
The earliest memory I have is of my sobbing to my sister to help me. My parents would bandage my hands with soft white cloth so I couldn’t scratch myself and further aggravate the eczema. I remember going to my sister who was reading in the living room, standing in front of her, my hands protected in what resembled padded boxing gloves, and my begging her to please scratch my face for me because it was itching so badly. And I remember her crying as she shook her head and told me, I’m so sorry, I can’t do that, it will only make it worse.
There is a part of my mother who believes the eczema followed the excessive compliments received when I was born apparently a beautiful baby. (This concept of nazar can be found across South Asia, the Middle East and Turkey, hence the popular use of the “evil eye” as a protective talisman.) Having been cursed, as it were, by the overflow of praise I became a grotesque monster (my words, I hasten to say, not my mother’s). My sister’s childhood was comprehensively photographed for posterity. Mine was too pitiful; I have perhaps ten photos of me until I reached the age of five and the eczema lessened.
Another part of my mother thinks – and I concur – that the eczema was a reaction to the trauma she faced when I was in utero. Almost the entire duration of her pregnancy took place as Bangladesh fought its liberation war against Pakistan. My family moved from place to place, leaving their beloved home when the neighbourhood – filled with foreign embassies – became deserted. They moved to the north of the country then back to the capital, then to others’ houses then back home again, doing everything to evade the Pakistani military who were moving through the country, attacking and slaughtering millions of Bengalis. Numerous relatives were murdered or taken captive. She said she barely slept during those months, and was often times too petrified to eat. My body was formed, cell upon cell, from my mother’s terror.
The eczema returned when I was a teenager, as aggressive as before. I’d had several traumatic experiences since the childhood chapter, including the death of my brother, the devastation of which I know has not yet left me, even today. I had eczema from my scalp to my toes. In company I would restrain myself; once alone, I would scratch myself all over, feeling relief as the eczema wounds split open. The pus would seep onto my clothes, binding them. When I’d take off my bra, skin would rip off with it, making me scream in agony.
I was ostracised at school as other students believed it was contagious. I soon had to stop attending classes altogether – I missed an academic year when I became immobile as the weeping pus and blood congealed, locking my elbows and knees. I had to be carried to the bathroom, bathed, and fed. I was 16 – the age when one is possibly the most sensitive and emotionally fragile. At risk of blood poisoning from the open wounds, my body emaciated, unable to tolerate even plain cooked rice, I lay in bed howling all night from the torture of feeling as if my whole body was on fire.
After trying multiple treatments, the eczema finally subsided after taking oral and topical steroids. I was given a long list of allergic foods and substances to avoid. I was left with scars all over me. These faded from my face but stayed on my body. My torso was black and blue as if someone had punched me; the skin on my limbs was dotted black, white and brown, resembling an intricate relief map of the world.
I consulted dermatologists in every city I visited, hoping a miracle treatment could help me, though nothing did. I was prescribed topical creams that did absolutely zero except make me poorer.
In my 20s, black tights and full-sleeved clothing were my saviour. In my 30s, I discovered a waterproof body makeup line at a London pharmacy created to cover up heavy scarring. I was ecstatic to find something to ease my self-consciousness. Applying it was laborious, requiring preparation of the skin, applying the cream then dusting it with a special powder to keep it in place. It gave my skin an odd uniformity – something I hadn’t seen it have, ever. But I felt liberated. Until I woke up in the morning after a party to find my white bedsheets covered in brown smears that took multiple washes to get off.
In my 40s I finally made peace with my skin, perhaps fatigued from the years of clutching. For so long I had resented the stamp on my body that just wouldn’t quit, no matter how hard I tried to get rid of it. Now I look at my skin and am no longer emotionally reactive. The marks are simply there, a part of me, no more shameful than my numerous surgery scars. (Can I take this opportunity to add that I’ve gone under general anaesthesia in three countries and I beg the medical profession around the world to please figure out how to stop making hospital food the most agonising part of the experience?)
As I’ve written previously, depression for me has always had a very physical manifestation, rendering my usually restless body heavy and limp, almost comatose. Then there were the medical issues that required surgery after surgery (three on the eyes, one on the arm, three on my abdomen).
As I examine my life I see a pattern. The continuous attempts to knock on a door, trying to get my attention. And when I didn’t give it, my body revolting with weeping eczema, expanding tumours, malfunctioning organs – and now pain.
Oprah once said, “listen to the whisper before it becomes a scream.” My body has been screaming at me my whole life. Or maybe they are still whispers, and I have this, possibly final, opportunity to listen and pay attention before it really screams.
The problem is I don’t speak body, I speak mind. I’m really very good at speaking mind. It’s my primary language.
The problem with speaking mind is that it doesn’t – it can’t – resolve issues in the body. Here’s an example: two years ago, I had an insight. I used to feel a constant push-pull inside of me; after ignoring this for decades, I finally decided to face it head on, and ask the part of me I’d buried inside what she was trying to tell me, and this was the reply:
You want to be perfect, unblemished, unscarred. But I am the pain, the sorrow, the shame you won’t acknowledge because they’re human frailties. And you think being frail makes you tainted, makes you damaged and unlovable. I am your grief, anxiety, loneliness, terror, suffering, insecurity, anger, guilt, humiliation. I am the hurt, and you are the bravado that pretends she doesn’t care. Well, I’m the part of you that cares. I’m the part of you that makes you human. I am not what you fear. I am what makes you lovable. All the imperfect pieces.
I had always felt somewhat haunted; yet every time I looked all I saw was my own shadow. And here at last was the key I’d been looking for. It shouldn’t have been a surprise that the very thing haunting me all along was my shadow – the dark part of me I pretended wasn’t there, because I so wanted to believe, after the sadness and suffering, that I had somehow magically overcome it all, that I was now All Light.
So it really was a monumental revelation. And yet, as with talk therapy (and I’m not judging – I’ve been in a lot of talk therapy): information doesn’t automatically lead to progress. Insight is the mind understanding it. But the shift has to take place in the body. And that means feeling the emotions I’ve been denying myself. Yet I always stop short of that.
I meditate, go to yoga classes, and like to think I’m more and more in touch with my yin side – that feminine, intuitive part that is plugged into the universe. But it’s still really, really hard to allow myself the time and space to feel those suppressed feelings. It’s been much easier instead to focus my attention on the side effects – the scars on my body, or the weight on my bones.
Two weeks ago, I went to an acupuncturist for the pain in my hands and feet. The pain, she said, are just symptoms of underlying emotional issues. She took my pulse, looked into my eyes and said, my dear, you have to allow yourself to receive.
But if I do that, I whispered back, then it means I need help, which means I’m flawed. And therefore unlovable.
(This is why I say: a lifetime of analysis and a degree from Harvard means ultimately nothing – the mind may be well trained, but until I speak body, I’ll be circling the same stinking trenches forever.)
I understand the cells in our bodies are continually being replaced so that every seven years, we have what is in effect a brand new body. Yet, just as I still carry the marks on my skin, so I also hold the weight of unfelt emotions.
It may not sound like a big deal. But the cost of carrying denied feelings is too high. The most profound quote I’ve ever read is by James Baldwin, who said: “I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.”
We really do do everything to avoid facing our pain, including turn the attention outward, often perpetuating further pain, causing devastation and destruction in the world. Nobody at peace with her/himself has a compulsion to hurt others. Men especially have been encouraged to bury their emotions and, well, see the result all around us.
And if we’re not destroying others, we’re destroying ourselves. We will numb and distract ourselves with anything, and modern life has enabled our addictions more than ever before.
Another cost: many of us hold onto thoughts that made sense in our younger self’s mind, reflecting reality as we best understood it then – such as, I need to protect myself, or this is what I have to do to earn love. We are always seeking confirmation of our deepest beliefs. So we act out in seemingly incomprehensible ways, and we then spiral further – wondering why the hell we’re so messed up, feeling doomed we’re our own worst enemy, trapped in a vortex.
I don’t believe in reincarnation but I understand the idea behind it as thus: you heal the wounds in this lifetime in order to move up in the next one. I think it’s applicable even to our one current life: digesting our past is like releasing a deadweight, allowing us to leap ahead.
I know I have to do the work myself. A talented acupuncturist or yoga instructor can support me, but they can’t feel my feelings for me. When a three-year-old falls and scrapes a knee, she howls with pain, acutely feeling the agony of that moment. And then it passes, and she goes back to playing. We need to re-learn from children the ability to allow ourselves to feel our sadness or pain in the moment, and let it pass out of us when we’re done.
To do this with accumulated buried emotions, however, feels challenging. Would I have to go as far back as feeling the fear swallowed by my mother as I grew inside her? Yikes.
I remind myself that I have done this before. A few years after my marriage ended, I went through an exercise (with the help of a book I sadly can’t remember the title of – something I’d bought online, pre-Kindle days) that helped me release the anger and frustration I felt towards my ex. I was about to have a second major surgery and I intuitively felt my negativity towards him was only harming myself. It wasn’t a super protracted process, and it included writing a letter to him (which was not meant to be sent, but burnt instead). Since then, the complex emotive subject has been neutralised. I can talk or think about it without stirring up old resentments. The relief.
I do know the universe doesn’t dish up anything we can’t handle. It’s coming up now because I’m ready to face it. I don’t need to be afraid, I tell myself. So this pain, the heaviness in my hands, the burning in my feet, this is my body saying: it’s time to feel some feelings. And then let them go.
Perhaps opening up to the darkness inside, what seems like a roar of a tiger in an echo chamber will be nothing more than a frightened, abandoned kitten. Maybe the screams will in fact come out as whispers. And maybe it feels like dying only because we’re ready to be reborn.
There are places I’ll remember
All my life though some have changed
Some forever not for better
Some have gone and some remain
All these places had their moments
With lovers and friends I still can recall
Some are dead and some are living
In my life I’ve loved them all.
— The Beatles, In My Life
Although I am no longer active on social media, I’m more than thrilled if you choose to share this post on your end, thanks!
“There is nothing stronger than a broken woman who has rebuilt herself.” The stories we tell not just each other but also ourselves is captured with breathtaking incision by Hannah Gadsby in her hour-long special, Nanette, available on Netflix. Describing her as a standup comedian is grossly insufficient. Laugh, weep, be devastated, be moved, raise your fist in unity. I rarely say something is required viewing, but this actually is.
I first read Tosha Silver’s book, Outrageous Openness three years ago. In a collection of fun short essays, she shows what can happen when we move aside our ego-driven small self and instead align with the Divine. It’s kind of taken me this long to truly get what she means and now it makes total sense. On her website are old recordings from her weekly talks (one can subscribe to her current ones here). I find that every time I randomly select one, it feels exactly appropriate for whatever I currently need help with. It’s kinda like magic.
I often say I am saved by the Beatles. When nothing else cheers me up, there they are with Ticket to Ride. Or Help! or There’s a Place. I have a special soft spot for George (who was only 26 when the Beatles disbanded! – this blows my mind). I love John. Ringo is awesome. But as a friend once mused, when was it that Paul McCartney became such a pill? While his solo music career survived the Beatles, he himself became a figure of vague ridicule, saying pompous, clueless things to the media. But McCartney’s recent appearance in the Carpool Karaoke segment of The Late Late Show with James Corden was wonderful. He came across as a genuinely good bloke – who just happened to co-write some of my favourite songs of all time. Watch it here:
Come along for the ride!