Four years ago, I leaned over the bathtub to pick up my then one-year-old son and something in my lower back snapped. It happened so fast: one second I’m bent right- angled at the waist, arms around my wet, slippery, tank of a kid, and the next second—flat on the floor. I couldn’t move.
Even the idea of moving was an impossibility. I lay there for nearly forty-five minutes—never in my life have I been as helpless—until finally, I worked myself into an awkward push-up position and slowly, slowly, military-crawled to the phone in the next room. I remember the pain made me see white, a blizzard on the backs of my eyelids.
Over the years, I’ve told this story to chiropractors, to physical therapists, to yoga instructors. “Do you have injuries I should be aware of?” they ask, and again and again and again, I begin: “I was leaning over the bathtub to pick up my son and something in my lower back…” For every time I’ve told it, every time I’ve relived it as part of understanding my own body, there is one part I always leave out:
I dropped him.
My beautiful, perfect, tank of a little boy.
I dropped him.
Around a year later, my physical therapist cleared me for yoga. I will never forget those first months, approaching my mat as though it were an active volcano. On it, I might hurt myself again, half an inch in the wrong direction and all this work, all this fragile healing could snap. “It’s not safe,” I said to my best friend Dia. She’d been practicing yoga for years and dealing with me for longer. “What’s not safe?” she said. “That?” indicating my mat. “Or this?” indicating my head.
One morning, my teacher, Francine, guided us into Cobra Pose and I started to shake. This always happened when asked to lie face-down. Too many times, I’d been unable to get up afterwards, my lower back seizing, and then, like always, I’d be back on that bathroom floor, my son lying next to me, his little eyes wide with shock. This image had become my drishti, my focus, my intention—for the life of me, I couldn’t shake it—and in the midst of my rising panic, Francine’s voice cut through like a life raft. “What if it isn’t a struggle?” she asked. “What if you welcome the fear?”
I’m not a cryer, but that day I couldn’t stop. I lay on my back, tears leaking sideways into my ears. Francine held my head in her hands, her calm, lovely voice continuing to guide the rest of the class in and out of poses while quietly holding space with me.
I’m trying to understand what is in my body and what is in my head. Sometimes, there is pain, a blizzard behind my eyes, and I name it: this hurts. I ripped something, pulled something, pushed myself too far. Other times, I think, Wait. That’s not pain. It’s fear. And then I think: Is there a difference?
Recently, I went to see a massage therapist for the first time, a woman named Dana who Dia had been recommending for years. When I arrived at her studio, she gave me a printed diagram of a body and asked me to mark the areas I wanted her to focus on. I circled the lower back. Then I circled the head, wrote the word FEAR next to it in all caps, and handed it back to her.
She glanced at what I’d done, invited me to sit, and listened for over an hour. “I’m too young for this,” I told her, and, “What if it happens again?” and, “I dropped him.” Something magical happened then: explaining it all to Dana allowed me to explain it to myself.
This healing of the body begins with words.
Dia is a yoga instructor now in San Fransisco. A few months ago I went to visit and joined her class, unrolling my mat in the back of the room. We’re friends now, that mat and I; four years of careful movement, of cautious breath, of stopping when my body says stop.
Dia leads us through Sun Salutations, through balance poses and Breath of Joy and in all of it, I am present, I am clear and fast and free. Then she tells us it’s time to play with handstands, and just like that—I’m out. I slide back into Child’s Pose. The rest of the class lifts their legs in the air with various levels of success, and, like always, I remain still. I protect myself. I breathe: inhale, exhale; inhale, exhale. Usually, teachers leave me alone. They’ve heard my story: “I was leaning over the bathtub and something in my lower back…” but this time, I feel a gentle tap. “Let’s try that handstand!” Dia says.
I shake my head no and she squats down next to me. “Do you trust me?” she asks.
I think of that day on the bathroom floor, my back bones snapping like kindling. I think of the creative writing classes I teach and how, on the first day, we talk about what it means to trust your insticts. Most of all, I think about Dia. For twenty years, she’s been there, telling me what I most need to hear; about my jobs, my relationships, my fears, my body.
“I trust you,” I tell her.
And then, for the first time in my life: I stand on my hands.
In my life outside of my body, I help people tell their stories. Recently, I had the privilege of working with a yoga teacher named Jen. She wrote about a student who cried in class. About holding this woman’s head in her hands. About holding space. “Does it happen often?” I asked, thinking of that day with Francine, and she said, “All the time.”
So much work I’ve done; this fragile healing. One morning, years ago, I lay on the bathroom floor unable to move, my then one-year-old son next to me, both of us dropped from an impossible height. For a single second, maybe two, his eyes were wide in shock; then he was up, naked and giggling. For forty-five minutes I listened to him run around the apartment, playing with toys, toddling on perfect, fat little legs—he was fine. Hitting the floor was one of a thousand moments in his short life where something could have gone one way, but didn’t.
We are fine.
For the moments when things aren’t fine, Francine has suggested a mantra. I am new to this mantra thing, still trying to find its place on my tongue in a way that feels authentic. I try because Francine gave it to me and I trust her, the same way I trust Dia to lift my feet off the ground, or Dana to place her hands on my lower back and help me find myself.
Netti netti netti.
It means Not That.
I am broken—netti netti netti. I am afraid—netti netti netti. I am silent—netti netti netti—and what if it wasn’t a struggle?