Trigger Points are Tricky
My eye starting hurting last year. It was like someone had punched it from inside my head. I figured I had cancer and would be dead within the year, so I didn’t go to the doctor because I didn’t want the news to be official. Instead, I worried. Some days my eye hurt more than others, so I worried more days than others.
I was lying on my friend’s couch a few weeks ago reading a book, and I put my hand to my neck, and I remembered.
There is a set of muscles running from the mastoid to the sternum called, appropriately enough, the sternocleidomastoid muscles. When you do something like lie on the couch with your head propped on a pillow, you shorten these muscles, and shortened muscles often develop trigger points in response to the compression of muscle fibers. Like anything associated with being human, muscles get irritable when they aren’t allowed to fully express themselves.
Trigger points are funny. You can live your whole life and think you are a person who has chronic headaches and inner ear pain and toothaches, when really you are a person who has trigger points in her SCM (you are quickly becoming an anatomist as you read this, and you now know that SCM is short for…yes! You got it!)
When I was on the couch, I put my book down and with my thumb and ring finger pinched my left SCM, the meaty rope that runs down the side of my neck and made my way, pinch by pinch, until I felt a blinding pain in my eye.
I’d found it. The cancer behind my eye was actually just a trigger point in my SCM. The trick is to squeeze the trigger point, not like you’re trying to kill it exactly, but like you’re slowly trying to suffocate it. (So, okay, killing it, but not violently.) The idea is the area is crying out for circulation so it can have renewed oxygen and lymphatic drainage (I’m writing out of my ass a little bit here. I’m on a plane and don’t have access to Wi-Fi or my anatomy books, but I’m giving you a generally correct description.)
You know when you are about to peel an orange, and you feel around for a soft spot where you can sink a fingernail, a finger, and get under the flesh? A trigger point feels a little like that. When I do massage I feel along people’s muscles for these puka shells of give, like a little bit of rot in the meat (I’m sorry! That is so gross! But it is accurate.) I watch the person’s face, watching for the wince, the Oh, yikes! What’s that? grimace. When I feel the soft bit, see the oooh in the face, I take a breath and press down gently, suffocating that sweet little creature until after about a minute it gives up and the wince goes away.
This doesn’t always work on the first or tenth try. You can aggravate a trigger point. I have had a trigger point in my scalenes, the muscles behind the SCM for over twenty years. I can’t figure that guy out. If I push on it, hold it, the next day and the day over that, it hurts even more to the touch and it never gets better. The truth it I avoid it because it doesn’t hurt when I leave it alone and it is excrutiating when I push on it. So it’s easy to forget about trigger points by not dealing with them just the way it’s easy to forget about a lot of things in life by focusing elsewhere. Like: if your marriage isn’t in the complete shitter why bother going to therapy? I mean, sure you aren’t happy, but you’re not completely miserable either.
The thing about trigger points is they don’t announce themselves by hurting. The pain they cause is referred to other areas of the body, so the trigger point in my scalenes is a source of chronic low grade headaches. It doesn’t even seem like the scalenes or the SSM are the problem. And so trigger points often go undiagnosed and people spend money fixing the part of the body that hurts but that isn’t the problem.
I could have my right rear molar taken out, but afterwards the area would still hurt because it’s not the molar that caused the pain. It’s the SCM.
For adopted people, not dealing with trigger points is like living in the fog.
The pain I associate with money issues, with abdominal issues, with constant low-level anxiety, with an inability to stay married is not an indicator of where I need to focus to find healing. Ida Rolf, speaking of the body said something along the lines of, Where the pain is the problem ain’t. But, boy, did I throw money and time searching for solutions to all the things I just listed. No one, no one, no one, not one damn person: no doctor, no therapist, no school counselor, no money manager, no parent ever said: These problems sound like symptoms. The real problem may be that you were relinquished by your birth mother and were then adopted.
Why did no one say this?
Because they had no idea.
And I didn’t either.
But I sure do now, and I spent the last two years pressing on the trigger point I lost my mother and although I thought I would die from the pain, I came out the other side battle scarred but so much wilder, so much more myself.
I have learned something that helps me teach writing. People tend to circle around the real story, the trigger point of what makes them compelled to write. I can tell when they are circling when they talk and the stories just spill out, stories these people clearly have been telling for years, if not for most of their lives. The stories are on greased tracks and they are not the thing. The thing is something else.
To find the trigger point I ask people not to talk much at all before we start writing. I don’t want them to swim in the familiar of who they think they are, what stories they feel compelled to tell. I try to break the pattern of the circling in their heads and to get them to say something new or to say the old in a new way so that the trigger point they have been circling, the story they are afraid of or don’t know a way into or don’t even know it’s what they most want to say has a way to come to the surface.
And once we find the trigger point, we have to stay for a while. Sit in the shock of this hurts until the hurt dissipates and in its place is the story of this happened and I am here. I survived. Well, look at me. I wonder what amazing thing I will do next?
I’m on a plane to Austin right now, headed to an adoption conference, and I’m flying into a trigger point. How do I know? Last night I got lost driving from work to home. I felt like crying even though it had been a good day. The four things I needed to do felt like a mountain made of glass. I didn’t want to go. I wanted to fall asleep and stay there. Why am I going? Because I have learned, after a lifetime of avoiding the things that hurt the most (I am not good enough, not smart enough, not kind enough, will never succeed, am not worthy, etc.), when I stay with those fears, press on them by writing about them, talking about them, thinking about them objectively, there are concrete steps I can take to create different situations. I can realize that more than anything, I am afraid of being alive. And I see the wild craziness in that fear, and I see a way out. I can change my beliefs. I can realize that, truly, I am not afraid of being alive. I am afraid of outshining my mother, and she is dead. So throw that one in the garbage.
What if pain is not the problem? What if it is telling us to stop, look, and listen? It’s such good news. It means there’s something better coming down the road if we’re just willing to push ourselves beyond our comfort zone and hang out in the place of what in the world is going to happen next?
For adopted people, it means there is work to be done. We need to learn to listen to ourselves better, to each other better. We need to be able to recognize the real problems and to ask ourselves what we can do to make life better for ourselves and for the babies and children who are, even right at this moment, being separated from their mother.
Neurologists say that tension goes all the way to the cellular level. This is an incredible idea. What would happen to us if we relaxed? What would it feel like to be in a body clear of trigger points, clear of tension? Tension thrives in the darkness. When we are aware that our fist is clenched because the day didn’t go well, we loosen our fingers and the day itself softens.
This is a wonderful thing to contemplate: the possibility of softness, the possibility of ease.
We are the source of our own tension, our own discomfort.
We are the ones who can let go.
My eye doesn’t hurt any more. I guess I’m going to live.