My body hadn’t ever really been my friend and this was evermore amplified when I was consumed with chronic pain later in life. I ended up detaching myself almost fully from my flesh. Things I did or things that were done to me were just ‘happening’ outside of my internal safe space, so that I wouldn’t feel my body letting me down anymore. And now, on this very day, I was flying to the other side of the world to willingly walk deep into thousands of miles of forest where I’d need to rely entirely on my body. So I guess I was a little all at sea.
I rested alone in my tent later that night, marvelling that I’d got up katahdin, down again and now was actually in the 100 Mile. My hip hadn’t popped out of place, my legs were working ok and my pain levels were really manageable; perhaps only a little higher than you’d expect anyone’s to be after this quick immersion into physical activity. How had I got away with it? Had my body not caught up with what I was doing yet? Perhaps the pain was going to creep up on me slowly – it had before. In fact, I shouldn’t be surprised if it did. My original illness had all started with only a few days of aching that… just… never went away.
The pain nagged me until I was struggling to lean over school desks at work and to get my shopping out from the car. I couldn’t really row anymore, but the team were counting on me for the Gig World Championships on the Scilly Isles. I was eating ibu- profen and paracetamol like sweets to get through the days, and sometimes the pain would surge enough to make me vomit. But I couldn’t give up on these things, the relationship I was in, the running, the rowing and my teaching. My body needed to buck the fuck up and get with the programme.
This is really where my pain story divides like sliding doors. In one direction is a sprain or a disk bulge that heals and I return to my normal life. The other is, unbeknownst to me at the time, the dark path into the woods of my life where I can’t go backwards, only further in. This is the same for all of us who suffer from some- thing chronic – in our minds or our bodies. Each week of pain, each therapy, each disappointment, each sacrifice closes a door behind you. This is the slow creeping beginning where you don’t even realise that your life has started changing, but when you look back you realise, fuck, it was then. That moment. That was the last time I was my old self, my real self. Chronic illness is like the child catcher – it sneaks in under the radar of an ache or a pain but puts a bag over your head, slings you in the wagon and drives you away from yourself. By the time you’ve realised what’s happened, you’re abroad from your old life and there’s no way to return. It’s possible to come back sometimes. I know I did, but your original self is no longer there. It’s moved. It’s an empty house. And if you want to move back in, you’ve got to furnish it with all the new luggage you carry – stuff that’s almost impossible to throw out.
Maybe this was the place to throw the luggage out. Maybe I could walk along this trail if my body let me, shedding bags and bags of the pain of the past as I moved through it, and go back to my old self. A kind of Leave No trace but of my trauma not of my physical presence. Maybe by the time I reached the end I’d summit Springer Mountain as a tabula rasa, scoured and empty of all the old baggage. Wouldn’t that be nice? I thought, rolling onto my other side, my Thermarest crinkling like a multipack of crisps as I did so. I smiled at the idea of being scrubbed clean and luggage-less, and fell asleep on the honest earth, listening to the crickets with a heart full of hope.
Unlost: A journey of self-discovery and the healing power of the wild outdoors by Gail Muller, published by Thread, is out now.