For the second time in as many months, a client with a debilitating, life-disrupting chronic pain syndrome has confided to me, after a moment’s visible hesitation, oh well, you’re my massage therapist I can tell you: I was raped.

Forget for a moment the political speech about Rape Culture, even the Slut Walks (I have to admit I like those), and just think about the concept of sexual violence, which can be experienced by men or women but alas, sorry, most of it is still inflicted on women by heterosexual men if “men” is the word for them, a person’s boundaries have been trampled, she is forced to experience unwanted sensations in a place that should be hers to guard or offer, her whole body and mind is tipped over into fear and flight and survival and helplessness. Goddammit.

I am not interested — at least for the moment — in taking on here the broader culture that seems from time to time to treat such life experiences as, in effect, the cost of doing business. I’m just thinking about the doctors, here. Clearly none of a succession of “I am a mighty M. D., I will tell you what is wrong with you and prescribe a drug to fix it shut up now already” characters asked, or if told took seriously, what experiences had marked the life of a person presenting with pain, fatigue, measurable changes in the circulation and innervation of random extremities ferchrissake. None of them had asked (people keep talking, when they know you will listen and not judge) if their patients had already suffered from asshole parents, godawful shocks and bereavements, on top of having been forgodsake raped, no, they just wanted to find a problem for which there was a drug and get the hurting person out of their office.

The human nervous system grapples all those experiences and tries to handle them, and one set of brain cells creates an attitude of hypervigilance, where everything might be a threat so don’t you dare ever relax, and another tape-records a wretched violation in the body part that experienced it, and at some point it all caves under the load and the whole person feels crashed, wiped out, nominate your expression. (Scholarly references on request about how this process works.) Reliably at this point some doctor comes along to say he doesn’t believe in chronic fatigue or fibromyalgia or what have you. And of course if an actual rape didn’t occur, but a person was violated in some other way (there are ways, think it through), the chances of having a pain problem legitimized diminish even more. For added fun and excitement, the suffering person is usually asked to endure diagnostics or “treatments” that are — did you get there ahead of me? — helplessness-inflicting or boundary-violating.

And of course someone remarks somewhere along the line that “women predominate in diagnoses of these diseases.”

I suppose I was a hardass from an early age and the only guy who thought he might have a chance was the one who cornered me in a choir loft when I was fourteen, praise Jesus (an adherent of no faith, I sang in church choirs because I liked to sing, look what it lets you in for), and I got away after digging deep furrows in his hands with my nails, but you should not have to be an iron pumper and ass kicker to go through life without someone trying to take out their power issues on your personal parts, seriously. I am humbled and shaken by what it must take to move past it.

And humbled at least as much that anyone will set down that bag of pain in my workplace while I work to tell her body that no, pain is not your inevitable fate. It’s just a load of crap that someone or a bunch of someones tried to dump on you, look here, your shoulder or thigh or face can actually relax and feel good. Yes! Dang!… well… how big a privilege is it to be part of that?


3 thoughts on “Humility

  1. Very. While I am not a professional therapist of any sort, my privilege has been to get close to and, through honest caring relationship, show someone who carried the shame of childhood rape and concomitant inability to trust people that, look here, your mind and heart can actually relax and feel good. I’m not a hornblower: It took time for me to learn to hear this, in nearly those words, quite recently, and it is a privilege beyond expression.

    It was unclear at first if this client intended to correlate the pain with the trauma, or just needed to confide. Perhaps both, since her need to confide was taken to someone presumably outside the rest of her life far enough to be safe, while also skilled to help with chronic pain.

    • I don’t think she actually drew the direct connection between the trauma and the pain — she was just telling me how some medical treatments and tests only revived elements of the experience, and those interventions were unhelpful, not surprisingly. But in fact there is a mushrooming body of knowledge about the way that enough repeated terrifying, helpless experiences can push a person’s system over into chronic physical dysfunction — think of the pain or fatigue as a low-grade panic attack that doesn’t let up. It’s a little more nuanced than that, but that’s a working simile.

      I did not hit either of these ladies over the head with any speeches about “eureka, this is the cause of your pain” — I’m doing something for that in stages, and in time there will be occasions when I can suggest some reading if the conversation progresses. Just making a safe space and a comforting one is what’s in my professional scope.

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