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04/10/2017 10:59 am ET

The Truth About How Emotional Pain Affects Your Body

Her life was in shambles, and her knee hurt like hell. Did one pain have something to do with the other? Oh, yes, indeed.
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Julia Breckenreid

Back when I was 30, my life fell apart. My marriage collapsed, I sank into a depression, and I lost my home, money, and self-respect. I also blew out my knee.

I wish I could say I injured it climbing Mount Kilimanjaro or something, but no—it was nothing that exciting. Here’s what happened: One afternoon, right in the middle of my God-awful divorce, I turned my head to look at something over my right shoulder, and suddenly my left knee...exploded. It made a sound like a gunshot, and I felt something inside the joint go snap. Then my leg went out from under me, and I hit the ground in agony. When I finally stood up, I was limping. And I limped for the next 13 years.

Long after I had put my life back together, my knee still hurt. I tried everything to fix it: physical therapy, acupuncture, ice, heat, yoga, massage, and ibuprofen by the handful. (The one remedy I refused to attempt was surgery, only because I knew so many people whose knee surgery had made their condition worse.) Over time, I resigned myself to the fact that my knee was just bad—the way certain dogs and art and upholstery patterns are just bad.

And then one day, about five years ago, I did a curious thing. I decided to try to really listen to my bad knee. We’d spend a quiet evening together, with the lights turned down and the phone turned off, in order to understand each other. I got very still with myself, focused all my attention upon my knee, and asked it, with loving respect, “What are you trying to tell me?”

I wasn’t sure what to expect. How can a knee answer a question, right? But I was desperate to heal myself, so I just lay there quietly in the dark, ready to listen to whatever arose.

And then my knee spoke.

Full disclosure: I’m not a doctor. Nor am I crazy. But I know what I heard that night. And when I say unto you that my knee spoke, I mean, my knee spoke. Suddenly a strong and unfamiliar voice filled my consciousness, and this is what it said: “Go faster!”

Julia Breckenreid

I could not have been more shocked. I’d expected it to say something like “Be more gentle with me!” or “Learn how to slow down!” But I had already been gentle and slow with my knee for 13 years, and it had never stopped aching because gentle slowness was not what it wanted. No, apparently my knee wanted speed.

Then my knee—realizing it finally had my attention—went on a rant. “I want to run fast!” it shouted. “I want to climb trees! I want to dance! Use me! Jump up and down on me! There is absolutely nothing wrong with me! I am wondrously designed! Stop calling me bad! Stop using me as a symbol of your divorce and a memory bank for all your past sadness! Stop treating me like a Victorian invalid! Stop babying me! Please talk to your therapist about your emotional troubles instead of holding your pain inside me! That isn’t fair to me! I am not weak! I am a knee, and I want to be used as a freaking knee! I want to run! Go faster!”

The next day, honest to God, I ran three miles—and fast. I didn’t feel any pain, nor have I experienced the slightest hint of pain in my knee since.

Again, I’m not a doctor. (Please don’t do anything dumb with your body after reading this column, okay? Sometimes there’s really something wrong with your knee.) But I share this experience because it raised within me an important question: Are you perhaps stronger than you think?

Yes, you have been hurt. Yes, your life has not gone as planned. Yes, your mind and body have taken some serious blows. And yes, sometimes we all need gentleness and care. But we must also be mindful not to baby ourselves to the point of incapacitation. Sometimes gentleness is the direct opposite of what your mind and body are actually crying out for. Life wants to be lived. Knees want to be used. And sometimes the only cure for pain is to go faster.

Elizabeth Gilbert is the author of, most recently, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear.

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