Learning That I Don’t Deserve Pain
When I was a freshman in college, I broke my ankle during fencing team practice. I struggled to my feet, and with a teammate’s help, I limped off to find the athletic department’s trainer. She was watching another team’s practice and was largely disinterested in my injury. “You’re walking, you’ll be fine,” she sighed.
Reluctant to turn away from the basketball practice thundering up and down the court, she finally wrapped my ankle in an ACE bandage. But by the next morning, my ankle was the size of a grapefruit and black bruises ran halfway up my calf.
The pain persisted despite my best efforts to self-medicate and will my broken self whole. I timidly returned to the athletic center a few times, but I balked at starting over every time. I walked the miles to the trainer’s room, where I would have explain to the familiar faces on duty who I was (no one), my sport (no trophies), and what had happened (nothing, really). The humiliation of begging for attention that could have been spent on more valuable athletes drove me out the door.
Who was I to complain, anyway? Sport is all about pushing through pain, and my daily actions were normal enough: hobbling miles between classes, climbing stairs to my dorm and the ladder to my lofted bed. I berated myself for not being satisfied with over-the-counter ibuprofen. Playing back to myself the trainer’s indifference, I felt I didn’t need to waste her time or mine just because I couldn’t tough out a little soreness.
I returned to practice with thick socks and a lace-up brace to keep me upright. A steady supply of ibuprofen and booze kept me numb — behavior that it didn’t even occur to me might be detrimental to my body’s attempt to heal. But still my performance was suffering so badly that when I went home at the end of the semester, my mother took me to a doctor.
He x-rayed my ankle, and pointed out the evidence of a break, with scar tissue crowded around it. “Sorry,” he told me. “It’s too late. You see what you did here? Look how crooked you are. Not like we’re going to break and reset it, eh?”
Grateful that he’d acknowledged my injury at all, I didn’t even notice his impotence and lack of action. I’d made my bed by not acting on my injury sooner, and now I had to lie in it. I spent the next four years trying out braces and supports for my ankles and knees, never trying to find and stop the pain at its root.
Hindsight makes it clear that my inclination to stoically accept this injury wasn’t one I invented on my own. Seeing myself as unworthy of something as simple as health and bodily comfort was a sign of how poorly I viewed myself. This was not an isolated problem. Looking back, I don’t think there was an evil master plan at work, but a constellation of lessons that made it implicitly clear that whatever happened to me was acceptable, and perhaps even deserved.
When I was a kid, I’d feared and distrusted doctors; stickers and lollipop bribes weren’t worth the poking and prodding. But as I neared puberty, what seemed an irrational child’s fear became justified to me. I slowly learned how many pregnancies my mother lost, how many doctors brushed off her concerns and her bleeding, and how her back had been wracked with pain for years. I had pictured my doctors, and wondered what she could have done for them to allow all of that to happen. What started as a vague distrust of physicians developed into a specific fear that I couldn’t trust them to aid me; instead of seeing limits to the power of medicine I saw limits to the care that they would give.
During this same time that I was learning of my mother’s pain, my prepubescent body was already becoming an object of scrutiny. On my father’s command, I spent afternoons running up and down the stairs of our apartment building so I wouldn’t get fat. Exercise wasn’t yet a fun activity; it was a demonstration of power. There was no schedule or workout plan, just the shout of “stair-climbing!” before I was hustled out into the hallway. I intuited that I was being punished for something: Did I eat too much that day, or was my shirt too tight? How were my grades? Was he just bored? I decided it was my body’s flaws, and I slipped into the grip of anorexia at fourteen.
I did everything I could to erase myself, my budding curves, my fleshy areas, and make my body as small and unassuming as I thought I should be. Gnawing stomach aches, sore muscles, acrid vomit, and muddled lightheadedness became the mark of success. On some level, I knew how destructive this was, but I justified it as the price to pay for controlling my body; if every extra pound was proof of my imperfection, then by withstanding enough pain and tamping down my body’s inappropriate desires, I could shed that weight and eradicate those defects. I could carve away the worthless pieces of myself to leave behind only the valuable bits. Bony bruised hips, concave growling abdomen, heavy limbs that would suddenly feel all too light, were affirmations that I was good at this one thing, as long as I continued to resist food.
My nutritionist pushed my parents to consider inpatient treatment for me. I hated her for this and continued my streak of fighting every meal plan and suggestion she made. I got what I wanted and continued outpatient appointments crammed into a normal life, but still I started to feel overlooked. If I wasn’t forcibly enrolled in a program, then perhaps I wasn’t sick at all, or perhaps I was just another unimportant patient left to slip through the cracks. And having seen other women, like my mother, casually denied care, my relief at avoiding an inpatient program coalesced into a suspicion I was also being ignored. I couldn’t find the self-awareness, courage, or humility to admit that on some level I wanted treatment, and instead I doubled down on the belief that I deserved to keep starving as a fitting cost for being fat and lazy, womanly and unlovable. I worked as hard as I could to forget that there was any other way of life.
Key to my recovery from anorexia was the Catholic faith I was raised on. Within its doctrine, there are two explanations for suffering — two explanations I internalized to justify my own. First, of course, pain can be a punishment, inflicted on earth or in the afterlife. The message is simple: bad people deserve bad things. Second, pain can be a cleansing strategy: a person suffers because they are inherently flawed, making them unworthy or unclean, but salvation, freedom, and love will be a direct reward of joyfully withstanding that pain.
Illustrating the latter is my patron saint, Catherine of Siena, best known for being the first anorexic. While she spent years taking political stands and writing letters to support her causes, even declared a “doctor of the church” centuries after her death, her final and fatal decision to live on communion wafers alone defines her. No matter what she accomplished for the church or in her studies, enduring a slow, wasting death to prove her faith was her most potent tool to earn God’s love and the respect of her peers.
My recovery from anorexia hijacked this doctrine of suffering. Instead of punishing myself with deprivation, I focused on the ache of choking down a meal. The loophole that allowed me to start eating again just re-imagined the form suffering took; I was only replacing one toxic mentality with another. I gained weight quickly, but it took years before my mind caught up. I wouldn’t see, let alone unlearn, this self-loathing pattern for another full decade.
I can’t pinpoint the first day I valued myself, any more than I can tell you the first time I didn’t. But when I learned that I was right about my snapped ankle, I finally began the process of learning that I didn't deserve pain or injury. I also have left the Catholic faith, finally learning not to view the world through its doctrine of suffering. Extricating the concepts of love and self-esteem from suffering and shame has been a long process, one that doesn’t just exist within the realms of physical pain or misguided athletic endurance.
Those early lessons, from my mother, my father, and church, taught me that being listened to and acknowledged corresponded to worth — and being overlooked, ignored, or reprimanded signaled worthlessness. But now I listen to myself. From the broken ankle to the destructive relationship with my body, I realized none of it would end until I stopped it. Even when it feels like pure narcissism, I am committed to building up a stubborn expression of self-esteem — the kind I hope to pair with my new identity as a valuable, complete person worthy of care.
Step by step, I’m learning to trust in and prioritize myself, and grow the brash mask I’ve developed into a resilient, confident self. I talk to myself as if I were advising a friend, someone who I can see as deserving of the best. I remind myself to demand care, and ask for it even when I want to crawl under the bed and hide. I overstate my worth, and demand love I’m not even sure I can give back. I see doctors I don’t believe in, hoping they’ll believe in me. I draw on the stubbornness and habit-forming that used to work against me to learn new ways to value myself.