Pain, Fear, Writing and my Knees


I run.

I feel weird starting there because so often stories about exercise are thinly disguised humble bragging, but I promise this isn’t that. I don’t run fast. I don’t run far. I’ll probably never run a marathon. But sometimes when I’m running I smile at strangers without thinking and I get this feeling like the world is exploding with beauty, and those runs make me want my sneakers close by.

But, like everyone, I’m full of excuses. Running is hard, and going for a run doesn’t always win over Netflix or chocolate or my overflowing inbox. Last year was mostly Netflix and chocolate and my overflowing inbox. Every time I saw someone in spandex jogging in place on a street corner while the light changed my heart lunged towards them. When January came, I knew it was time to try again.

So, I willed myself back into my sneakers and joined a running group. It felt wonderful for a couple weeks, but then this ache started in my left knee. It was subtle but persistent, a low hum. And because I believe in listening to my body, I slowed to a walk when the pain started.

Every run, the ache would arrive a little sooner. I quit the group and invested in a fancy physiotherapist on the Danforth. I did my dozens of whimsical stretches every evening. But it didn’t help. I kept finding myself walking home in the early dusk, deflated.

Then someone on Facebook suggested that I go see Janine. Janine is a massage therapist. She works out of her tiny apartment on the outer edge of downtown. It’s one of those high rises with bus stops out front and brown carpeted hallways. Warm, still air in the lobby. Worn elevator buttons. This was not the physio office with the cucumber water.

Janine is good. Like — really good. She introduced me to my body in a new way, explaining my muscle patterns and their subtle imbalances, finding the pressure points and holding into them until they surrendered. I relaxed in that little room, trusting her to carry me out of this pattern.

But it didn’t help. Not even a bit. And neither did the arnica gel or ice packs or Epsom salt baths. Every time I ran, a tendril of attention would curl around my kneecap and then the pain would start up, familiar and disheartening. I started reaching for my sneakers less and less, staying home, choosing the bluey glow of Netflix.

Janine noticed, and one day, during our usual little chat before I got onto the table, she tilted her head, squinted a little, and started asking me questions I didn’t expect.

How bad is the pain, really?
What is it about the pain that makes you stop running?
What happens if you ignore it?

I was surprised. Ignore the pain? Isn’t pain a message? I told her that it wasn’t debilitating, it was actually only a 1.5 out of 10, but I should stop… Shouldn’t I? Shouldn’t we always listen to the messages our body gives us?

Okay… But if you’re not stopping because of the actual pain, the what’s making you stop?

Damnit. I could feel the truth of this rising into my face. I wasn’t stopping because I was hurt, I was stopping because I was afraid of getting more hurt. It was fear that was sending me home, not pain.

Janine nodded slowly and asked me another question.

What’s the risk of listening to that fear?

Holy shit you guys. That question. As soon as she asked it, the weight of all I’d lost filled the room. All those nights walking home after 9 minutes of running. All the money I’d spent trying to fix this. All the sadness. Giving into my fear of harming myself was holding me back from healing myself — from that thing my heart had been lunging for all year.

I was putting all my attention to what might go wrong, and not even considering what might go right, what might actually go perfectly, if I continued.

Janine just smiled, told me to get on the table, and held the tense spots until they let go.

You know what? The pain never came back. Not even a tiny bit. Once my brain stopped with it’s hypervigilant checking, the ache stopped calling for my attention and I was in another place, past that line I’d drawn. Running can be challenging, but it’s never painful. And I think maybe it never really was.

I am dumbfounded by this.
But I shouldn’t be.
I see it all the time.

I can’t count how many conversations I’ve with clients about the fear of what might happen if they write something.

What if it hurts his feelings?
What if I lose professional credibility after writing something this personal?
What if the idea doesn’t go anywhere?

It’s rarely the actual consequences of our writing that stop us, it’s the fear of what they might be. Just like it wasn’t actual pain that was stopping me, but the fear of the pain that might be.

Can I make this even more personal? I’m not exempt from that fear either. The truth is that I’m working on a novel. I’m incredibly excited about it, but I’m also plagued with debilitating doubts. I’m scared that if I tell people I’m writing a novel, and there’s no novel in a couple years, I’ll be exposed as a fraud. A fake. A joke.

When I’m writing though, there’s no trace of fear. No trace of pain. I love this thing. I love how it makes me laugh and soften my shoulders and look out the window of my study, sighing. It gives me that “the world is exploding with beauty” feeling. It leads me to all the things I need to learn. And it’s terrifying me. And since I don’t like being terrified, I avoid it a lot of the time.

But then I think about Janine, tilting her head, saying, “What’s the risk of listening to that fear?” And I remember that I don’t have to choose between discomfort and quitting. That I can put less attention into the pain and just keep going. And then, at least on good days, I get down to it.

There’s some very cheesy metaphor that will wrap this all up… Something about a forward motion, words like footprints, finding our way across the page, but that’s just not my style. The point, I think, is that the things we long for are rarely easy, but they’re usually way less scary and dangerous than they appear.

Truth is, you’re probably a lot closer to that thing your heart is lunging for than you think. Truth is, you’ve probably got exactly what it takes to get there. You can probably just trust that, and keep going.

Oh yeah, and the world is beautiful and exploding with beauty. We should smile at strangers without thinking. Whatever brings you back there is a true good thing.

And, if you currently have the means, I thoroughly recommend that you book a session with Janine.

Chris Fraser