This January I had major surgery on my right shoulder. In the madness of overworking coupled with an intense yoga practice, I somehow partially-dislocated my arm so sharply that it tore the labrum (the cushioning between the shoulder socket and the arm bone), the bicep tendon, and one of my rotator cuff muscles (these muscles hold the arm in the socket). Because I did not deal with these injuries for some time, I also developed bone spurs in the joint. Go big or go home, right? What is most disconcerting, is that I cannot pinpoint exactly when it happened. There was a fall, yes, “but I injure myself all the time,” I would ‘reassure’ people as I explained the diagnosis. Never stopping to consider this way of living is unhealthy. Never stopping to consider this way of thinking is unhealthy. Never stopping, period.
To say I am a workaholic is an understatement. I am not just addicted to work, I am addicted to “doing”. I live in a state of perpetual momentum and while this has served me in career, it has also harmed me as reminded by the lines of scars on my shoulder. What am I avoiding by staying in constant motion? Why is it so hard for me to just “be”?
Recovery is an opportunity for rest and reflection. Instead, I spent the first month grading teacher training exams, planning a wedding, and filling my schedule as if I were still on the hamster wheel of the grind. Each day I woke at 6 a.m. convinced that if I allowed myself to sleep in, I would never be an early riser again. I sat at my desk in excruciating pain, typing at the computer one keyboard letter at a time. I wrote most of this article one-handed. Partly because I needed to move, mostly because I was afraid of gaining weight and losing flexibility, I started doing yoga four days after the surgery. Hopped up on pain killers, my arm cradled in the sling, I would use a chair for balance and hope the burning in my thigh from Warrior 2 would supersede the screaming incision sites. I attempted household tasks as if I were functioning with two arms, sloppily trying to cook with my left hand. Constantly dropping and spilling things, then admonishing myself for making a mess. I would fold laundry with my teeth. Asking for help felt blasphemous. “I have to do this”, I would snap at my fiancé when he offered. I should not have been doing anything.
Around the third week a constant burning in my upper back became so severe that all I could do was lie down to calm it. Pain medicine would not penetrate and the sensation spread down my arm and into my hand. I tried to continue working at my desk, pushing through the sensation. I was under so much stress between the thought of going back to work (I was due back the following week) and searing back pain, that my shoulder’s progress not only halted, it reverted to where it was right after surgery. As my physical therapist dug his thumb into thick scar tissue he told me a story of a patient who was under so much pressure her shoulder never healed. She gave all her attention to her work and family, neglecting her recovery. He explained, “your recovery should be your priority. You should be your priority.”
Returning to teach meant coming back to a full plate of public classes and a Teacher Training. A schedule of this breadth is taxing in the best of health, never mind directly out of surgery. Before the operation, I envisioned returning to teach with my arm in the sling, sitting cross-legged at the front of the room, but when the month mark came I barely had energy to wash my face. The back pain only abated when lying down. I was torn between this obsessive need to work and a deeper knowing that I was not ready. Where did I get the idea I would be okay to lead a class of people at this point in my recovery? The truth is - I made it up. I literally picked a date that suited when I thought I should return to work. A date that fit my schedule. Never mind my managers and doctors telling me I would need more time. Never mind my body physically resisting me. Never mind my soul knowing full well I was not ready.
I was controlling my recovery, just as my addiction to “doing” is an attempt to control every aspect of my life. What am I avoiding by staying in constant motion? I am avoiding the uncertainty of the unknown. I am avoiding the overwhelming anxiety I experience when not in control.
I was born into an incredibly vibrant home. My Dad is a music producer and with that came a lot of movement. People coming and going. Moods up and down. I am technically the only child between my parents. My half-siblings are up to 15 years my elders, so they did not live in the house consistently and the home structure would continually shift from a full house to an empty nest and back to full again. By age 7 I had lived in 4 different houses, 3 cities, and 2 countries. “The floor was constantly shifting,” Dad says when remembering the old days. There was no solid ground, things felt 'out of control' and for a child that can be incredibly troubling. My little girl nervous system could never settle down. As I got older, perpetual anxiety became my baseline. Try as I may to identify triggers, it is often generalized. In high school, I used drugs and alcohol to mask the constant unease, temporarily sedating the butterflies that love to wreak havoc in my tummy. In college, I hid my neuroses behind over-achievement putting so much pressure on myself I was nearly hospitalized for anorexia, the ultimate addiction to control.
I got (addicted to) serious about yoga in my early 20's and it was the first time I found space between the terror. I was in the movie business, over-worked and under-appreciated. Living on a steady diet of Diet Coke and cigarettes then wondering why I was extra anxious. I would rush from Hollywood to Santa Monica to take classes at 8:30 at night, the only time I was not working, and it was the first time I experienced peace. Not having my Blackberry constantly going off with angry emails from my boss. Not having to deal with my Mum’s cancer. Not having to be with the swirling of tension and fear that lived within me. The room was dim, the music was loud, and I could just move with my body. Yoga was pure bliss and I was hooked. I started to go two times, three times, and then four times a week. My decision to quit my thankless job and start teaching was two-fold - my Mum’s cancer became terminal, a reminder me that life is too short to not love what you do, and I craved a more peaceful existence. I did not realize yet that you can change jobs, boyfriends, where you live, but until you shift internally, nothing will really change.
Once an addict, always an addict, I used my teaching career and practice as if they were drugs. Teaching every waking moment and planning my schedule years in advance gave me a bigger high than a line of cocaine. It gave me the high of feeling in control. My practice was also a fix. I had to do it or I started to have withdrawals, feeling uneasy and angry. I would work for months on end without break. Chasing my next exciting opportunity, my next high. This shoulder injury is not the first major injury I have had since I started teaching yoga, this is my fifth! I have sprained my neck, torn my hamstrings (yes, plural), crashed a motorbike in Bali (this was yoga related, believe it or not), and contracted an infection in my knee that put me in the hospital. I would learn my lesson for a month or two and slow down, but then I would start jonesing again for my next thrill and start right back up at the same pace. I could not stop. There was nothing peaceful about my yoga anymore, it was all an escape from the anxiety of "being".
The shoulder surgery was the longest sustained period of slowing down I had since, maybe birth. This of course, was not up to me, something bigger was driving the boat. When I tried to force my recovery, my upper back started to scream in pain and the Doctor’s realized I had a pinched nerve in my neck. The only thing that relieved the pain was lying still. My body (and the Universe) physically forced me to get still, to just be. I had to surrender, I had to give up control. Supported by my family, friends, and colleagues and I finally allowed myself to recover. I pushed back my return to teach, leaving it (eek) open-ended. I pulled back from a training, and waded in the fear of disappointing everyone and losing such a great opportunity. One of the places I teach required that I return when I can fully use my arm, which would not be for some time and instead of fighting it, I allowed the classes to be removed from my schedule. I sat in the space of possibility, the unknown. For the first time in my life, I fully surrendered my control and in doing so I finally began to recover, not just from my shoulder, I started recovering from myself.