Pole dance, pain tolerance, and privilege

My physical therapist once said to me, “You have a really high tolerance for pain.” I was lying on my back on her treatment table as she kneaded a stainless steel scraping tool into my shoulder. As she worked, she implored, “Just let me know if this is too much.”

I was at her clinic for my cranky shoulders, a not-uncommon gripe among pole dancers. My first reaction to her assertion was a polite, “Oh, really?” I had no idea if my pain tolerance was any higher or lower than the average person’s, and no reason to think her observation was anything more than just that: a neutral observation. Your fingers are cold. Your arms are freckled. Your hair is brown. Yet I was proud. In a way, I had been training my body for many years to receive a comment like this—and not just through pole dance.

I grew up a fat, sedentary, depressed child. My body was a stranger, a thing that happened to me—all of its aches and pains, its weight meted out in gradually increasing numbers on the bathroom scale. It wasn’t until college—out of my parents’ house, alone in a new city—that I stumbled into bodily autonomy. Able to feed and dress and move myself in ways that had no baggage or expectations attached to them, I did. I became higher-educated, and I became un-sedentary for the first time in my life. The college gym gave way to outdoor running gave way to the pole studio.

With each new endeavor, I developed a greater familiarity with my body. My eating and exercise habits changed. The aches and pains that I didn’t understand began to disappear, replaced by aches and pains that had a clear source. Sore calves? That’s from the 18-mile run I did on Saturday. Headache? Oops, I forgot to drink enough water yesterday. I found control over, and comfort in, the body that used to control me.

Pole is an inherently painful sport, and pursuing it has taught me the difference between good pain and bad pain. I know, for example, that the searing pain between my thighs in superman or across my stomach in a hands-free cradle should not worry me the same way that shooting pain in my shoulder should.

Contorting myself around a hard, inflexible metal bar and using my skin as friction to prevent sliding, my nerves have become peripherally desensitized. The initial, brutal shock of the pain that is pole dance has become less and less. I wouldn’t call it a completely painless sport—not by far—but the sensations are comfortable, familiar. They throw up no red flags.

By this alone, I wouldn’t be surprised if pole dancers did have higher pain tolerances than the average person. But my complicated relationship with pain goes beyond this.

This past week, my brother graduated from college, and I went “home” to visit my parents. A couple of days into my trip, a pain like no other pain I’ve ever experienced settled into my bones. It was an all-encompassing, my-bones-feel-like-they’re-exploding-and-nothing-gives-me-relief pain. Not foam rolling, because the pain wasn’t in the muscles. Not stretching, which was impossible: just bending over slightly sent searing pain down the backs of my legs and through my pelvis. I didn’t know what was causing it. I didn’t know how to make it stop. I felt like my body was malfunctioning.

The fact that I was staying at my childhood house complicated this. My mother is very into alterative healing. Growing up, if I had a headache, a cold, a cavity, a stomach ache, eczema, or even acne, I was shamed for it—especially if I chose to treat the discomfort with over-the-counter medicines. In her view, suffering is result of something you’re doing wrong. If only I wouldn’t eat the things I eat. Or if I’d just take the supplements she recommends, or stop “letting” myself be anxious. She has the answers, and I’ll always be less knowledgeable about my own body than she is.

So when the pain started, I didn’t tell her. I’m an imperfect human, raised by an imperfect human, and instead of saying, “It’s my body, and only I know what I’m feeling, so please refrain from offering unsolicited advice,” I waited in agony for her to go out to her garden so that I could scour the house for Advil, in hopes that it would allow me to sleep through the night.

As much as I disagree with my mother’s methods, I don’t want her to be disappointed in me. It’s never been easy to earn her approval—and it’s not even something I’m sure I want. I have a high pain tolerance, but it’s come at a cost.

This experience has given me just a small glimpse of what it’s like to live with chronic pain. It was scary, not knowing the cause and not knowing how to make it better. I never felt more thankful to feel nothing than when the pain lifted—whether briefly, thanks to the Advil, or finally, when after about a week, I started feeling like “me” again.

Yet, who is “me”?

“Me” is the person who makes choices without having to consider her pain level, but “me” is also the person who was waylaid for a week by pain she didn’t choose or even see coming.

She’s proud to have a high pain tolerance. But she’s also ashamed for once believing this made her a better person.

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