Healing and Disability: Creative Adaptation to Change
By Elizabeth Zenger
In my work as an acupuncturist, I have embodied the belief that healing is a return to wholeness that embraces our entire being, in body, mind and spirit. Genuine healing happens from our core. It is healing from the inside out.
In the past year, healing challenges in my personal life have deepened and transformed my understanding of what it means to be whole. It began when someone very dear to me was nearly killed in a car crash, and is now disabled. The path of recovery that we have followed informs my life and my work with a new understanding of disability, pain and healing.
I now realize that healing is more than simply the return to balance, or to an original state of wholeness. It is also a process of transformation and creative adaptation to change. Faced with trauma, our bodies, minds and spirits can move us forward to a new wholeness, one that embraces the change and takes us places we might never have imagined.
One cell phone call, and my whole world changed: it was someone from OHSU hospital, saying I’d better get to the ER quickly. “A C2 fracture,” I was told at admitting. That’s the axis vertebra, at the top of the neck. I was devastated. I knew what that could mean. He could be a quadriplegic, or perhaps on a ventilator for the rest of his life. Yet somehow, he had beaten the odds. When I saw him in ER, he was able to breathe and speak, and move his arms and legs. Although five vertebrae had been fractured, the spinal cord had not been severed. It would be months, however, before we would understand the full extent of the damage.
The staff in ICU called him “the miracle child.” For weeks I felt elated knowing my loved one was still with me, and grateful for the outpouring of love and support we received from friends and family. It was a rare and special time of open expression of love. Although our lives were engrossed in his recovery, improvements could by seen day by day, and my spirits were high. “Thank God he survived,” I would think, “Thank God he is still alive.” I felt we were lucky.
In my quieter moments, I became aware that beneath the jubilation of survival I held a belief that somehow, someday the recovery would be “complete” and things would go back to “normal,” the way they were before. I found myself entertaining the fantasy that I would wake up one morning and the accident would not have happened. Yet I knew that the hardware holding my sweetheart’s head on his shoulders—two eight-inch titanium rods and a plate—was there to stay.
As months went by, I began to realize that some symptoms weren’t going away so easily: hand, shoulder and neck pain; numbness and tingling; loss of fine motor skills. With those rods and plate, he would never be able to turn his head more than an inch or two. “Thank God he survived,” I thought, “and, dammit, this is a loss.” I didn’t feel we were so lucky anymore. Would we ever go backpacking again?
Wholeness - Perfection
In the short dark days of mid-winter, the permanence of the change sank in on me. In my heart, I knew that he was as whole as he had ever been. And yet, how can one be whole when there has been an irretrievable loss?
I began to look at disability very differently. For one thing, I began to notice people with disabilities. While I certainly was never consciously prejudiced, I was surprised to discover that I had held a subtle, unconscious belief that disabled folks were lacking something, and therefore somehow less than whole. I had run smack into my own judgmental perfectionism, equating wholeness with perfection. Now I understand: wholeness does not equal perfection. Well, I don’t have perfect pitch. Does that make me less than whole?
Moving through the acceptance of my loved one’s disabilities, I have finally been able to fully embrace a belief that I had held in my head but not in my heart: wholeness is individual, it looks different for each person. And that includes me, too! My work is to seek out and understand that wholeness for each person.
The Dance with Pain
One of the gifts this past year has brought me is a new acquaintance with chronic pain. As an acupuncturist, I have understood pain from a practitioner’s point of view. I am used to working with people who have chronic pain, and I am a part of each person’s support network for her/his healing process.
Now I find I am engaged in that process from a different role: that of companion and caregiver to someone with chronic pain. My loved one and I walk the path of finding the resources that he needs to heal, and seeking creative approaches to alleviating pain.
As a healer, I work with a system of medicine (Classical Five Element Acupuncture) that is based on natural laws. I understand pain as a call to attention from our bodies, minds and spirits. Every symptom we have is the body’s best attempt to return us to balance. Pain is a message to our consciousness that something is wrong. Suppressing pain without treating its cause is like turning off the fire alarm without putting out the fire.
My loved one’s injuries have challenged my belief that when we treat the core, the symptoms will clear up. He now has structural changes to his spine that are permanent. Those changes are a part of his core, and they cause a sensation called “pain.” How can we treat the core when there’s been a permanent change? Treating the pain becomes a part of treating the core.
There are times when the sensation of pain is so overwhelming that it simply needs to be shut down. Right after the accident, my loved one was in enormous pain. I know first-hand that it was absolutely necessary to control pain at that stage, to allow him to be present in his body and to heal. It didn’t take long, however, for us to see the down side of pain medication: when the pain is dulled, all the other senses are dulled, too. Part of our experience is lost when we shut down the body’s call for help.
Pain is more than pure physical sensation. There is a part of pain that comes from our minds and spirits: judgment that the sensation is unpleasant; labeling the sensation as “pain;” fear, anxiety, and other feelings that lead us to back away. Often, what our minds create is worse that the physical sensation. To truly heal, the emotional and spiritual parts of the pain need to be treated, too. The catch is: to heal the mind and spirit, we need to be fully present and willing to engage our pain—the sensations, the judgments, the fears. If we continually numb ourselves with medication, a part of our experience is lost. We lose the opportunity to truly heal and live fully.
I’ve come to see the treatment of pain as a continuing dance: two steps forward, one step back. We move towards our pain, and then we move away. In the past year, I have watched with admiration as my loved one engages with his experience of pain, and then backs away when it’s too much. I’ve helped him seek out acupuncture, qi gong and other modalities that engage his vital energy to assist the healing process. Slowly, with an enormous sense of determination, after one full year he is now able to live completely without medication.
Life is Short, Get to the Core
When I listen to my heart these days, I feel a new sense of impatience. “Our time on earth is short and precious,” my heart tells me, “Do what’s most important in each moment.” I’m less tolerant now of the small pretensions, the masks and images of daily life. I’m bolder and less afraid to live from my heart, less hesitant to touch the heart of another.
In the treatment room, a lot depends on getting to the core as quickly as possible. It’s the route to genuine healing. It takes courage for the client to go there, and it takes courage for me to go there. It may mean touching a place where the person is vulnerable and suffering. Or it may mean challenging denial. Each person’s spirit gives me an opening at some point, an opportunity to see them as they truly are. I am dedicated to being fully present and engaged, to honoring my clients by seeing the opening they give me and addressing what the spirit calls for. If I am caught up in the small preoccupations of my ego, I will miss that chance. Life is short. The opportunity may not come by again.
As time has passed I find that my feelings move back and forth between all the phases of grief and transformation, and I embrace them all—gratitude that we have survived, denial and acceptance of the loss and pain, and acceptance of the gifts of transformation. We are still healing, still discovering what is possible, and still finding new ways to work with pain. Perhaps we will go backpacking again someday, or perhaps instead find something else we would have never thought of doing before.
Trauma carves us like glaciers carve the Cascades. It sculpts our bodies and spirits, and we are changed. Like the mountains, we are full of life and we regenerate. It gives us our character and our beauty.
Elizabeth Zenger, Ph.D., L.Ac. is a certified practitioner of Classical Five Element Acupuncture, with private practice locations in Portland and Gresham, OR. For more information call 503-740-0369.