This is the tale of three characters: Helen her Pain and I. I am the narrator of course, but you’ll hear more of my story later… Pain and Helen and I have lived within each other for most of our 56 years of life here on this planet. In fact, we can’t actually remember a life without each other.
Helen was born in Zambia, in Central Africa into a happy Catholic family, had two older sisters, an Australian Dad and a South African Mum. Pain arrived amongst us about 9 months into Helen’s life when the family were living in Mount Isa in the form of septic arthritis in her right hip and then with the osteoarthritis that followed. Since then Pain has co-habited with us in the form of sepsis in several other parts of her body, osteoarthritis throughout her spine and hands and the Pain surrounding about 30 anaesthetics experienced for multiple surgeries on different parts of Helen’s body and that include hand surgeries, gynaecological interventions, dental surgery, a pilonidal sinus excision, gall bladder removal and many more. Last year was the biggest ever surgery with a re-replacement of a 26 year old artificial hip with 3 days in Intensive care, 2 weeks in hospital and about 6 months of fairly intensive rehabilitation. Sadly, by that time, her hands and back were far more painful than her hip. Fortunately however, by this time, she had begun to be aware of my voice and to interact with me more regularly. This had started to happen through her willingness, finally, to begin working and practicing Mindfulness some 4 and a half years prior and then especially through her journey with Breathworks from July 2016.
You see, I am Helen’s awareness of herself as an embodied human being. I have remained relatively invisible to her for most of her life. She was taught to and knew how to relate to God or a higher being, but wasn’t very conscious of me. She and her pain co-existed too, though usually in silence. They lived together a bit like two rivalrous siblings: sometimes hugely resentful of each other, often mean to one another and on rare occasions, mutually considerate. But mostly they just reluctantly acknowledged that the other was there with no kindness or generosity and resented having been forced to share the same home (or in this case, body). It was clear that they did not like or accept each other in the least!
Now let me tell you a bit more about Helen. She was born, as a friend once commented, like a Duracell Bunny. She had no “Off” button and only one speed - and that was high! Luckily her Lithium-like battery gave a full 16 hours of service every day before she’d collapse into bed for a recharge. She jam-packed every day with hobbies, learning, travel, work, friendships and sport. Horse-riding and slalom water-skiing – the latter - preferably at high speed, being her most exhilarating activities. She also held leadership positions, acquired 3 degrees and a diploma, worked as a High School Teacher and then as a Clinical Psychologist, a university lecturer, a trainer of therapists, co-author of a book and the wife and mother of one son, now 18. And did this in around 30 homes in Africa, New Zealand and Australia.
Over these years, she also experienced several very traumatic events, including the suicide of one sister who had suffered with intractable epilepsy, a severe brain haemorrhage in her other sister, a terrorist attack and a horrible accident involving her son. She collapsed in a heap at times, but got up again and pushed on regardless. Oddly, it never occurred to her, that Pain, in any form, might be shaping her identity.
In 2014, her Mum (who was living with her and her family) had a catastrophic stroke and died in the midst of a busy and difficult time at work for Helen. And, after 30 years of sitting still in a chair absorbing the pain and trauma stories of hundreds of people, training and supervising many Psychologists and other therapists, her world came tumbling down. And Pain: emotional and physical – was there with her in full force and this time, she could not ignore or push away her co-habitant anymore. She had been shovelling Mindfulness, Meditation, Self-Compassion and Compassion-focussed therapy to her clients for well over 10 years, but blindly, had never considered that she needed it herself. She even told her GP that she’d rather bang her head against a brick wall, than meditate – such Buddhist nonsense!
But she actually started meditating the day after the GP’s suggestion (using the many books and CDs she had in her therapist’s library) and through this, finally began to realise that I was there. And that she and I (her embodied awareness) could be together in dealing with her painful experiences. But, she was hoping for a solution, for a way back to her busy life of achievement, accomplishment, doing her best, being there for anyone and everyone who needed her. To what she SHOULD be doing as a human being. And so, pleased with her very partial recovery, she pushed herself hard enough to get back to work in full force - lecturing again. But alas, Pain in her wrists, hands, and back had not submitted and began shouting so loudly at her, so out of control, that she fell down in a heap again, feeling that she had failed and let down so many people.
In July 2016, she came across Vidyamala’s amazing story and blessedly, continued to deepen her understanding of who I am. Vidyamala’s books, the Breathworks courses and daily Breathworks core meditations enriched her Mindfulness journey - encouraging her to connect ever more closely with me and her body and to face Pain and begin to accept the reality. And she began to more fully realise that I loved and liked her, could be her best friend, and that I understood her, got her quirky sense of humour and accepted her for who she was. And, that I could be kind, and was an alternative to her own harsh voice, her punitive internalised parent always chiding and pushing her to her limits. Through applying the principles of Breathworks, twice weekly Pilates with an inspired teacher, she endeavours to listen to her body. She uses her breath as an anchor when in pain, seeks out the smallest pleasures in everyday life, aims to pace herself and notice what makes her pain worse, to alter how she works and plays accordingly (even if these strategies are somewhat erratic at times). She is learning to be kinder and more compassionate towards herself - a big change for her, and to connect more with others who are more understanding of her story. Sadly for her, but with growing realism she knows now that there is no going back to life the way that it used to be. That her days of ignoring Pain, pushing it away and resisting it are over.
All her new learning and self-discovery were tested by fire last year, with the massive re-do of her old artificial hip entailing a 50cm cut with 40 stitches, bone grafting and more. She cried, she laughed, she struggled, she breathed, she meditated and body scanned, and brought loving kindness to herself as she listened to Vidyamala’s words via Audible books hundreds of times over. Earlier in the year, at a Breathworks retreat, Vidyamala asked her whether she (Helen) thought it had been worth her reading her 3 books aloud for the Audible versions as it was such a big time commitment. Helen’s reply was, “you don’t know how much it means to me to hear your voice sometimes when the pain is awful and you shall be with me through my recovery journey as a result”. Vidyamala hugged her and it was a warm moment which was treasured through those dark days.
So where to, with this narrative about Helen, Pain and I? It will contain the same characters and yet we are all quite changed. All three of us are now involved in exploring and creating a new and different path which is unfolding day by day, but with no real knowledge of how the future or our life together will be. But at least she has finally acknowledged me as her best friend.