"Listening to my body" is often interpreted to mean, "Eat right, exercise, and if you're feeling good, you're doing something right."
That is not at all what it means to me.
To me, "listening to my body" is something best done when my body is talking, and (in particular) in pain.
Over the years, I have pushed my body. Hard. I've taken it over mountains, deprived it of sleep, and faced down (and occasionally beaten) Olympic athletes with it. I've broken it and re-built it, thrown it down hard and helped it back up, and starved it and fed it. In short, I have seen the limits of what it can take, and I know what the signs of failure are.
My body, in general, is a study in pain. I once tried to think of what it felt like to not have a feeling of pain in my body, and realized that such a state did not exist.
I do not believe that we can do much about pain. I commented yesterday that I may have taken more pain pills in the past few days than I had in my entire life. Perhaps it was a bit of an exaggeration, but honestly, six pills each day for 3 days (the maximum a bottle of Advil says you should take) came out to 18 pills. It is entirely possible that that is very near the number I've taken of my own free will since late high school. But then, that is how I see pain: you will experience it. If it gets bad, you can take something for it, but you will still feel it.
And most importantly, your body will let you know, in no uncertain terms, whether it can handle the pain and repair itself.
In this one place, my body has never once let me down.
As I said above, I have battered my body horribly over the years. I have pushed it beyond the limits I believed it could take numerous times. It has never once failed me.
I remember a time in college, after a terrible, horrible fencing meet. We had lost every round, and coach was not happy that we had traveled eight hundred miles to come back as losers. No one blamed him.
That first Monday back, we had the hardest practice I have ever experienced. There was no fencing, none of our normal exercise. We ran until we could no longer run, and then we ran longer. We then did pushups until we could no longer lift ourselves, and then we did more. We did situps until we could no longer lift our shoulders, and then we did more.
Every person on the team found something within themselves that pushed them further that night. We tore ourselves apart in front of the two dormitories that dominate west campus, and a number of students watched us struggle for that last pushup, that last lap around the field. They watched us all, one by one, drop from exhaustion, get back up, and do it all again.
My body finally told me when enough was enough. I was not the last to leave that field, but I also was not the first. My body said, "Michael, if you do one more squat-thrust you're not going to be able to walk back to the locker room." My body had already faltered during this practice: it had told me, "No, no more." But this time, it addressed me directly, in the way only a person who has seen their limits can understand, and said, "That was the last one."
I ended that practice and walked away from the field with Coach's barely perceived nod of consent. I held myself up with my locker door in the locker room, sagged against the wall in the shower, and stumbled home where I fell asleep on the floor, unable to crawl into bed.
The next day, my body was in complete revolt. Every muscle burned, every joint ached. But I went to class, and then I went to practice, and I competed hard with my teammates. I knew my body had seen its limits, and I knew where they were. A crouching en guard was fire in my thighs and calves, but I knew this was easy. A simple extension to attack shot a bolt of pain down my bicep and around my back, but I knew it was nothing I couldn't handle. I was sore for a week, my body openly displaying a weakness where all it wanted was rest, but I knew when I could push it and when I could not. My body told me when there was nothing left in it, or when it needed just a moment. The pain was not, so much, a limiting factor. It was much more a liberating, guiding light. It told me when to go and when to stop, when to open and when to close.
I was hiking once with some friends when I learned the meaning of perseverance. As I climbed to the top of a ridge and back down into a gap, I caught a radio signal from the back of our column. They were two hours behind us, and one of the crew was not able to continue with his pack on. It was two days less distance to go forward than it was to go back to the road, and he could not stay where he was, or he faced separation from the group and an extra half-day (at least) to get out. I had just ascended three thousand feet in about two miles, and was halfway to the grassy, inviting gap. My legs were on fire from the climb and I was, I admit, exhausted.
I dropped my pack and walked back to where I could get radio contact again. They were asking for help.
Dave's pack, I knew, was ten pounds heavier than mine. With the water I needed to carry down (and then back up), that was an added four to eight pounds, depending on how much I drank or gave away. Add the descent of three thousand feet, followed by an immediate return, plus the time constraints involved (hiking after dark with a sick friend was not my favourite activity, and stopping before we reached a viable campsite was not an option), and you have a potential recipe for danger and possibly even disaster.
I thought about my predicament. I had legs that were on fire and dearly wanted a rest, and I had a friend who was vomiting blood down the mountain. I had a leisurely three hour wait ahead of me if I stayed, and a friend who might not make it to where I was if I gave in.
I gave myself a thorough once-over in my mind. It would do me no good to go down this mountain and become a second casualty to the heat and exhaustion. If that would happen, it would be best if I never went down at all: the guilt of losing one friend is nothing compared to the guilt a man can carry if he causes his friends to carry him as well. Could I do it?
My body was clear: "I don't want to do it," it told me. "But I can."
And with that, I scrambled down the rocks and descended to their location in a half hour. An hour and a half later, I collapsed in the grassy gap, dropping Dave's pack to the ground and asking one of the guys for some peanut butter and water. Dave was helped into camp an hour later, and we exchanged weak smiles.
I know certain pains that will always appear and then go away. There is a pain in my hip that comes at me in a cold fury during wet mornings on the mountains: this goes away within an hour if I simply push through it. There is a pain in my wrist from my fencing days that sometimes acts up: relaxing my hand for ten minutes will bottle that up. There is a nausea that sweeps over me if I fail to eat enough food: sixteen saltine crackers will banish that feeling immediately.
Things like low blood sugar and a lack of protein do not affect me: they simply don't exist in my world. It's no different than being hungry or dehydrated. Hydrate and grab something billed as "healthy" that doesn't involve corn, and my body adjusts back to normal. I say here, "doesn't involve corn," because my body seems to react poorly to corn in most situations. I have listened to my body here, and found that it disapproves of this particular vegetable on the whole, and so I reduce my intake consciously (though I still enjoy it from time to time).
There is also a psychological element to how I react to pain. I believe that persons specializing in physiological ailments are, generally (though not individually), quacks. This is, perhaps, due to my experience with athletic trainers, who once looked at a fractured wrist and told me to put ice on it. This was a different trainer from the one who examined a concussion I'd received the night before and told me to put ice on that, too. When I was told to ice my tonsils when I complained about a sore throat, well, you understand. Add to this the fact that I do not believe in chiropracty, massage therapy, and physical therapy, and you have a winning combination. The body, when working in conjunction with the mind, will heal itself, I reason. Thus far, my body has never failed to live up to that.
My personal experience has lead to a belief that these sorts of treatments are generally placebos: you expect a benefit, and thus receive one. In the case of physical therapy, I believe that the therapist promotes a feeling that you are, indeed, re-learning, which makes you believe that you are and causes you to show or perceive signs that you are re-learning, which then reinforce that belief that you are re-learning, which causes more positive placebo-effect. It has always astounded me that the people who do the best in therapy are always optimistic about it, and that they consistently return to it.
When I fell on Christmas Eve, I spent five minutes unmoving at the bottom of the stairs. I went over my body carefully, first with my mind, then with my fingers. I examined my elbow, the source of the most obvious pain. It felt bruised, but I wasn't sure. I wasn't broken, I knew, and it felt perfectly workable, if a bit stiff already.
My foot was twisted at an odd angle, but was unhurt. My arm had been wrenched pretty badly at the shoulder, but didn't seem to have lost any range, even if it was a bit sore from being pulled back at an odd angle. My back was relaxing against the steps, and actually felt the good, stretchy pain you feel when you're stretching after a long nap. My neck wasn't showing any pain yet. My leg was tensed up, and I relaxed it with a bit of a mental force.
At that point, I knew there was nothing to worry about.
The next morning, I checked my "bruise". It was not, I found, a bruise at all, but an ugly-looking abrasion. I was a bit stiff around the edges, notably in my elbow and arm (I could see a reddish tinge to my shoulder, and my right shoulder was a bit swollen compared to my left), and my neck was somewhat pained. I downed two Advil and proceeded to rest up. Again, my body was clear: I'll take care of this.
I did some housework, taking some pills when they ran out.
Then, on Monday morning, I was feeling it more. I took some more pills, and said to myself, "My, this is going to get a lot worse before it gets any better." I checked again with my body, which basically responded with, "I told you: I'll be fine." I did some more home improvement, and then went to bed.
Tuesday morning, of course, was the worst. My neck had finally stiffened up completely, my right leg was more sore than I think it has ever been, and my arm was generally uncooperative. These, though, were pains I knew: they were the pains of soreness that show that you're alive, well, and getting better. They're the pains that tell you that you'll come out of this one ahead, not behind. They're also the pains that go away in time.
I went through a similar experience last year, when I fell on the ice on Christmas Day. Don't move, but check. Feel. Let your body inform you of what's wrong. Once you're aware, then move, and listen to your body again. It'll tell you.
But, on the balance of things, I suppose it's best to simply point out that while I may seem a bit asinine about not wanting to go to a doctor (I just don't trust them, in general, to do anything to help me when I know I can manage on my own), I'm that way because I know my body and what it can take.
And today, I have minor muscle pain, most of which will be gone tomorrow. Thanks for the concern, honestly, but I'm firm on very little in this life, and my knowledge of my body is one of those unshakable faiths that I have.