On Chronic Pain, Somatic Therapy and Accepting My Nonbinary Self

On Chronic Pain, Somatic Therapy and Accepting My Nonbinary Self

On Tuesday morning, I was performing my early morning ritual of scrolling through my Instagram feed. There was nothing out of the ordinary, I viewed a few stories and liked a few posts. As I was about to close the app on my phone, a photo posted by the Audre Lorde Project caught my eye. It had a black background, with the words “Nonbinary Awareness Week” printed in bold, capital letters.

The caption read, “The first annual Nonbinary Awareness Week will take place from July 12th -18th 2020, the week surrounding July 14th, International Nonbinary People’s Day, to spread awareness about people who aren’t exclusively male or female.”

I stared at it in confusion. How had I, a nonbinary person, been unaware of the existence of this week? Throughout the rest of the day, I saw posts from celebrities and close friends alike celebrating their journey to self-discovery and appreciation.

Instead of feeling happy, I felt uncomfortable.

Upon discovering “Nonbinary Awareness Week”, I felt some sort of obligation to create a post. The problem was, I had absolutely no idea how to synthesize my experience into an Instagram caption. I wasn’t sure I even wanted to, but if I stayed quiet, would that mean I wasn’t good enough, or proud enough to fully embody my identity?

My journey towards coming out as nonbinary wasn’t easy. Two years ago, I requested medical leave from my job as a community organizer at a Jewish organization for what I thought would be a simple sinus procedure. Days after surgery, I experienced my first migraine. Panicked, I called my surgeon who told me the pain would subside in a few days. A few days turned into weeks, then months. I was forced to quit my job and moved out of my apartment in Washington Heights and into my parents’ home, located twenty blocks south.

In the years that followed, my parents sent me to visit practically every doctor, neurologist, and specialist we could think of. Each person essentially told me the same thing, that a simple reaction to surgery shouldn’t cause such a severe pain reaction for a sustained amount of time. No one could figure out what was really going on, and with each diagnosis (or lack thereof), I felt increasingly helpless.

I fell into a deep depression, and my chronic pain only worsened. I isolated myself from family and friends. I couldn’t work, couldn’t sleep, I had severe anxiety and panic attacks almost daily. My cabinet was full of different migraine and chronic pain medications, but none of them seemed to help or give me the relief I so desperately needed.

My only solace was therapy. For one hour a week, I got to completely unload all of my stress, my worries, and fears that had been piling up at an astronomical pace. I was coming to the end of a session when my therapist said, “I wanted to let you know a client of mine who has chronic pain similar to yours has begun seeing a somatic therapist. You should consider going in addition to our weekly sessions, and I think it could really help.”

“Okay” I responded, “but what exactly is somatic therapy?”

“Essentially, it’s exploring the relationship between your body and your mind in regards to what you’ve experienced in the past,” she explained.

“I mean I’m willing to try anything at this point,” I shrugged. “Sounds simple enough.”

As it turned out, somatic therapy was not so simple. In fact, it was one of the more difficult things I’ve ever experienced. Mostly because, after years of willfully ignoring cues from my body, whether it be not taking care of a cold or getting too little sleep, my relationship with it was practically nonexistent.

“I just don’t get why it won’t communicate with me,” I lamented to my somatic therapist during a session. “I feel like I’ve been trying so hard and it won’t let me in.”

“Well, maybe you just need a different approach,” she suggested. “Stop asking yourself why your body won’t communicate, and start asking why you refused to pay attention to your body for so long.”

How was I supposed to know the answer to that question? After a long few weeks of thinking about my relationship with my body in my adolescence, I realized the truth. It took another few weeks after that to say it out loud. Sitting in an afternoon session one Thursday, I finally mustered up the courage to say, “So, I think I know the answer to your question, about why I didn’t pay attention to my body.”

My therapist smiled, silently encouraging me to continue. “It’s because I was afraid of what it was trying to tell me. I didn’t want to know the reason why I was so uncomfortable with my body was because I was actually uncomfortable with my gender,” I whispered, “I think I’m nonbinary.”

“How does that feel?”

“I don’t know,” I laughed. “Exhilarating, but also frustrating? I can’t believe it took my body screaming at me in pain for me to finally address it. It also just feels like being present in my body was becoming too painful, so it found a way to allow me to not be present.” I sighed, “I can’t believe this whole thing boils down to the fact that migraines allow someone with gender dysphoria to disassociate.”

“I know that it’s awful, and feels terrible. But you also have to acknowledge that your body was trying so hard both to protect you and to get your attention, it just went about it in a very extreme way. We just have to find a way to communicate that you’re safe now.”

My body and my mind reached a new level of trust and partnership that day in therapy. Since then, my life felt like it began to move forward again, albeit slowly. After coming out to myself, I came out to my parents, my brothers, and many of my friends. With each person I told, it felt a little bit easier to breathe. Without feeling like I needed to hide or isolate myself anymore, I started having fewer panic attacks and my anxiety began to lessen.

Though I still experience significant pain each day, my body feels lighter and more unburdened than it has in a long time. I’ve been able to start working again, reconnect with family and friends and, most importantly, myself. I think before this entire experience, I would have felt obligated to share something on social media because of external expectations. While I still fall into that way of thinking from time to time, my new relationship with my body allows me to take a step back and look at what I really want.

What was best for me on Tuesday, I realized, was to take a step back from social media and spend some time with myself. I didn’t feel like I could summarize my experience on Instagram in a way that was affirming or made me feel good, and I didn’t have to. It was only the first-ever “Nonbinary Awareness Week” ever, after all, and I didn’t feel the need to jump into the proverbial social media deep end just yet.

For now, my own awareness of my identity and the pride I feel at how far I have come is enough.