I recently attended a writer’s camp in Big Sur, California, a stretch of rugged coast, and afterward took six days to drive from there to Colorado. I wanted to keep myself immersed in nature to let all that I’d learned percolate. I wanted to reflect, to think without distraction, particularly of the digital sort.

I didn’t have cell reception for most of those 11 days, my phone just a camera. I pulled my computer out but twice. Most of the writing I did during that time was by hand.

It was glorious. 

I hiked in three National Parks and drove through five of them. I experienced the majesty of Yosemite, the red canyons of Zion, the hoodoos of Bryce, the sandstone cliffs of Capitol Reef, and the surreal geological formations of Arches. I was in a constant state of awe and wonder as breathtaking scenes continually unfolded before me.

I was extremely grateful. I was changed by the experience.

It wasn’t the first time nature’d had a profound impact on me.

Dark places

It wasn’t that long ago, a mere three years, maybe less, that I was in a dark place, locked inside myself, unable to think beyond PAIN. PAIN. PAIN. Locked inside my house, unable to venture out or explore, unable to interact with people or the environment. Unable to sit on furniture, unable to drive. Just unable.

I was lost inside that dark place. Adrift, disconnected, directionless, purposeless. Just less.

I withdrew from the world. From friends, from family, from the places and things and activities I enjoyed, just when I needed them most. I was disconnected from everything.

Finding light

One day I managed to venture into our backyard, though I’m not sure how or when. I’d watch the birds, listen to the wind in the trees, feel the warmth of the sun on my face. I’d close my eyes and just listen, just breathe, just be. In those brief moments I found peace. In those moments I didn’t feel pain.

Spending time in the backyard led to walks to the mailbox, then a stroll around the block. Walks around the neighborhood led to short walks on local trails which led to long walks on local trails or along the beach, where I’d feel the gritty sand beneath my toes, the ocean air, the cold waves of the Pacific lapping against my ankles. I felt grounded again. Connected.

The longer walks led to hikes. The hikes pushed me to venture further from home. My world expanded.

Further from home eventually meant spending a winter in Colorado, in a small mountain town set amongst majestic peaks, snow covered meadows, forests of pine and aspens, and fresh mountain air.

New environment

My life, my routines, had revolved around pain. Never leaving the house, never leaving my head. I’d become accustomed to it. Worse, I’d gotten really good at it.

A new environment meant new routines.

I slowed down. Not so much my physical pace, which was slow enough as it was, but my mental one. I reigned in the racing thoughts I could never quite get a handle on before. I slowed down the endless mind chatter, the incessant dialogue in my head that made pain seem like it was everything, that pain would always be everything.

For the first time in years I could think beyond the pain.

I thought maybe, just maybe, pain wasn’t everything. Maybe pain wasn’t my future.

Half Dome at Yosemite. You feel this place, you don't just see it

Half Dome at Yosemite. You feel this place, you don’t just see it

I slowed down my breathing, too. Being outside does that for me, it allows me to just breathe. To take deep breaths. To feel calm, less anxious, less busy. I started to meditate, first while on walks, my best form of meditation, then more formally with apps.

I felt like I was falling back into the rhythm of my life. Like I was connecting to that rhythm once again.

I let go of fear by snowboarding for the first time in five years. The cold wind on my face, the hush of new fallen snow, the shush of my board made me feel alive again. I felt strong. I felt capable. I felt more.

Going to Colorado, going outside, was life-changing, my entry point back into life.

I need to be reminded

Sometimes I forget. Sometimes I forget the dark places I’ve been. Sometimes I forget how bad it used to be and when I do remember, I’m astonished at how far I’ve come.

Going to writer’s camp, going on this road trip, solo, just me and the road and the trails and the wilderness, I was reminded of just how far I’ve come, how much nature played a role in getting me here, how changed I am, how grateful.

People were too hard for me back when my pain was at it’s worst, when it was so bad I couldn’t sit on furniture, couldn’t drive, couldn’t go to the movies or out to dinner with friends. When it was so bad I couldn’t think for the pain.

I don’t remember much of that time, honestly. I don’t know how I spent my days, what we ate for dinner, what we talked about, what I did to pass the hours.

What I do know is that back then I didn’t know how to explain my pain, my life, and I didn’t want to have to.

Existing without judgment

In nature I didn’t have to explain. I could just be, just breathe, just exist without judgment. I even stopped judging myself. I felt connected to something again. That’s no small thing, feeling connected to something, when you’ve felt disconnected for so long.

Eventually I connected with people again, too. My husband, my family, some friends. (Always Buster, though, I always felt connected to Buster). I started connecting with places, with experiences that matter to me. I could  just connect, period. 

I was (am) grateful for those connections. I came at them with a new appreciation, a new understanding of how important they are. Just having the ability to get out and explore, to do, to interact, to engage, to experience, to see the world with new eyes is life changing.

I’ve come so far. Literally thousands of miles. From California to Colorado. From sea to desert to mountains. From the depths to the light.

I never imagined that was possible. But here I amthe majesty of Yosemite, a place to reflect, to exist, to breathe and just be

Yosemite Valley. I got to go to here!

How did I get here?

I think it had to have started with just going out into my backyard. Going into the backyard led to those short walks that became long walks that became hikes that became adventures that became this idea that maybe, just maybe, there was more to life than darkness, than pain. That there was a way forward. That there were ways to connect, to feel purpose, to feel worth. To feel more. 

It’s no easy thing. It’s taken me years to get here. But the years would have passed no matter what I was doing and if I’d done nothing, I could very well still be in that dark place where pain was everything. I could still be locked away inside myself, locked away from the world, if I didn’t take those first steps. If I didn’t keep stepping.

It’s not an easy road

Spending a week at writer’s camp before heading out on the road helped me to go back to those dark places (and others), coaxing me to reflect upon them, write about them. That’s what writing is, after all, trying to tell the truth of the human experience. The human experience isn’t easily distilled, though. Perhaps the human experience of pain even less so.

It can be hard to face difficult times, dark moods, dark thoughts. To sit with them, to work through them rather than trying to work around them.

But work through them we must, there is no around. When go around we go in circles, digging ourselves in, deeper and deeper, becoming entrenched, making it harder and harder to get out. We become mired in the past and can’t move forward.

To move forward, we have to move through it, the good and the bad.

It can be pretty damn scary to go there, though, I know. I’m scared, too.

People and places

We need places to go where we feel good. Spaces we can go where we feel like we can be ourselves without judgment. Where we can reflect, where we can feel. Places where we can breathe, where we can laugh or cry, where we can stop and think, or not think at all. Somewhere there are no expectations, no distractions, no constraints.

For me, that space is nature. Being outside. That might not be your place, and that’s ok, I highly recommend finding where that place is for you, though. Somewhere you feel connected and at ease. Somewhere you can just be, even if only for a few moments.

When you find that place, go there often. 

Sometimes it’s a place or an experience that reconnects us with the world.

Sometimes a book, a movie, a poem. Sometimes a person.

We need people we feel connected to. I’m talking meaningful connections, no superficial bullshit. People we can talk to, who we can share of ourselves with, who will hear what we say. People we will hear in turn. People who understand us. People who make us laugh, who cry with us, who love us no matter what.

These may all be different people. Some may be online, I have dear friends I’ve met on the interwebs. There may be people we’ll never meet but their art, their writing, their existence makes our lives better.

My people are my husband, my dog (yes, he’s a person), my mom, my friends who stuck it out with me, and the friends I’ve met along the way because our shared experience of pain. But there are also authors who seem to tell my story with their prose. There are artists who express my feelings on a canvas. There are musicians whose music touches my soul.

I am immensely grateful for these people.

There was a long time I thought I had to figure this all out on my own. A long time when I was ashamed to ask for help, afraid to share what my experience was for fear of judgment, afraid to let others know what I was feeling, what I was going through. I didn’t want to be weak, a burden, difficult. And so I was alone.

An amazing thing happened when I finally reached out, though. When I finally started talking about all this stuff, this human experience I was having. When I finally started writing about it when I couldn’t talk about it.  People were there for me. Not everyone, but there were enough.

Find those people. Cherish them and hold on to them. Tell them how grateful you are for their presence in your life.

I keep coming back to connection, meaningful connections with other souls, with the environment, with lived experiences, with ourselves. To feeling grounded. To realizing our place in the world. To understanding there are endless possibilities, even within our limitations, even with our pain.

There are many miles yet to travel. For that I am grateful. For all of it, I am grateful.

That’s all I’ve got for now

The Virgin River in Zion National Park. I ate breakfast from this spot, giving me time to reflect on pain, life, connecting

The Virgin River in Zion National Park. I ate breakfast from this spot.

 

Thanks for reading, folks. As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts, stories, experiences, comments. Sometimes I feel like there’s no way anyone can possibly feel the same way I do, that my words will resonate on some level with someone, then I’ll hear from one of you and I don’t feel so alone. I feel connected. I think that’s important. I think there’s something there worth exploring more. 

‘Til next time, go find your place where you can just be and go be there for a while. And maybe tell someone you love that you love and appreciate them.

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4 Responses to "A moment to reflect: how changing my environment changed my pain experience"

  1. Thanks for sharing your story. I seem to be embarking into a new chapter of my life totally unformilar and uncomfortable to say the least. I am a husband in my early 40’s with two young healthy children. I have been a police officer for 19 years – currently off work the last 4 months due to back / hip / groin pain that has been ongoing for over a year.

    Your comment regarding not sitting down on furniture / not driving is what I am expereancing. I’m happiest walking / moving around or lying down on the floor.

    Could you suggest any books, articles or websites that may help me get my head around this chronic back pain, and also assist me in articulating this condition to my bosses at work, as I am anticipating some skeptizum and disbelief.

    Thanks in advance for your response and your openness

    Dave Haughey

    • Dave, thank you for reaching out to me and for the kind words. I am sorry that you have found yourself in such a similar situation, I know how difficult it is and how hard it is to explain to others what is happening and how painful just sitting can be. Are you currently undergoing any sort of physical or occupational therapy? Are you currently in the work comp system with your department? The work comp and healthcare systems can be such difficult things to navigate, I’m afraid I have no easy solutions. But I may be able to offer some guidance if I know more about your situation (my email is joletta.belton@mycuppajo.com if you want to reach me that way).

      Your symptoms sound very similar to mine, it was a very difficult and stressful time for me so I imagine it is for you, too. But do know that it gets better.

      As for materials that I recommend, that might also help in conveying what’s going on to your higher ups, there are a few books that I found incredibly helpful. One is called ‘Why Do I Hurt’ by Adriaan Louw. It does a really good job of explaining some of the science of pain, which can help reduce some of the fear and worry surrounding pain and improve pain levels, in a very short book. There is also a book called the Protectometer, which is a little more in depth and has an accompanying website (it is a companion book to Explain Pain which is a much more in depth look at the science if you want a deeper dive, but it can be a bit overwhelming).

      For online references, there is a free online course called RetrainPain.org that is a series of visual presentations that I think is done really well. There is also the Pain Toolkit, developed by a chronic pain patient. A couple videos that might help are Understanding Pain in Under 5 minutes and Understanding Pain

      Hopefully some of that will help, please let me know if you have any questions and feel free to email me or message me here anytime, I will help in any way I can.

      It does get better.
      Jo

  2. Thank you for being vulnerable and writing about the hard stuff. I found your blog post while googling trying to find some comfort in my latest back/hip pain setback. Your words made me feel less alone and encouraged. Several months ago I was in that dark place. Couldn’t sit or drive and found myself taking small trips to the backyard and mailbox just to feel the sun and connect with nature. I still find walking, sitting and driving to be a challenge but through 4 months of hard work my world is slowly beginning to expand. I dream of one day being able to hike in the woods again and be around more people again. I know I’ll get there one day even though it is so incredibly challenging. It can be terribly isolating to be young and struggling with pain. Seeing your beautiful pictures and knowing that someone else succeeded is encouraging.

    • Thank you so much for your kind words and for sharing a bit of your story, Liesl, it’s appreciated beyond measure. Your experience sounds so similar to mine, it amazes me when that happens because pain so personal and it often feels like no one could understand what we’re going through. But you are not alone and there is a way through it, you’re already traveling that path. It takes time and patience, which is often in short supply when we’re in pain! And a lot of persistence, flexible persistence, as one of my pain heroes often says. Being flexible is so important, as is being kind to and forgiving of ourselves. There is no one right way to do this and each of our paths will be unique, but there are also many others traveling similar paths, or who’ve covered similar terrain. You will be able to hike again one day! And for now, enjoy those moments of sunshine on your face, those trips to the backyard, the walk to the mailbox. It’s those small steps that will take you down your own path, a path that will continue to unfold as long as you keep taking those steps.

      Best to you my friend. I am always here to listen and would love to hear of your progress, no matter how small.

      In love and kindness – Jo

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