When it comes to physical injury, I’ve been lucky. I have never broken a bone, never strained a muscle, never sprained a ligament. When I was four I had a tonsillectomy, but all I remember of that procedure is that my mom gave me apple juice through a straw and my dad gave me an Etch A Sketch. I recall the nurse poking my arm for the IV. That tiny needle prick seemed the worst thing that could ever happen to my body.
How could it be that I escaped my childhood in one piece? My family lived in the woods at the end of a dead end gravel road. My little brother and I built what we thought would function as hang gliders and launched ourselves from the tin roof of our chicken house. We climbed trees and jumped out of them. We sailed down hills, helmet-less, on our bikes. We clambered, cartwheeled, careened, and crashed.
I had an intimate knowledge of splinters, which would be coaxed out gingerly with a sewing needle sterilized in scalding water. Bee stings were smothered in a poultice of my father’s spit, brown and thick and smelly with chewing tobacco, which was said to draw out the poison and soothe the pain. My knees and shins were never without brick-colored scabs, and bruises bloomed and darkened on my tenderer parts like storm clouds that meant business.
But mostly I used my body as I used my days — carelessly, with recklessness and abandon, without any thought of limits or the threat of expiration.
At church I was taught that our bodies are the Temple of the Lord and should be kept pure so the Spirit can dwell there. The metaphor was fuzzy to me, but I imagined my sins as the mess my mom was always telling me to pick up off the floor. I imagined Jesus coming behind me as she often did, leaning heavily on a vacuum cleaner, sucking up stray crumbs and fuzz across the room and back again, His tired feet sinking into the fluffy carpet.
When we got sick or hurt, that might be the devil moving into our bodies, trying to keep us from doing God’s work. Jesus wanted him gone, like He wanted to chase the moneychangers from the temple. If we asked, and it was His will, He would heal us. The more people who asked, the better the chance of success. But the sick or injured needed to believe — truly believe — they would be healed, or it wouldn’t take.
At other times, we were taught, a physical affliction could be the manifestation of spiritual sickness, or divine payback for something done wrong. It was all very complicated, really. I wondered, did I walk around whole and unscathed because God wanted to protect me, or because I wasn’t doing anything bad enough to warrant a slap on the backside? When I did eventually fall, what would that mean between God and me?
Or was it that Jesus had been beaten so we would not have to be? Is that what was meant in the Bible by, “with His stripes we are healed?”
Either way, when we took communion, I could never chew the cracker I was given when the pastor said, “This is my body, broken for you.” I did not want to break Jesus’ body again with my teeth. I let it soften in my mouth and dissolve until I could wash it down in one swallow.
When we are injured, what we want is to be healed — and quickly. But before we can heal a wound, we must understand the nature of the injury.
Recently, in an effort to learn more about my ancestors, I have been reading books about Appalachia, including Folk Medicine in Southern Appalachia by Anthony Cavender. This book explains how, because of the isolation of the region, modern medical practice made its way slowly into the mountains. There was little understanding of germs, how disease was spread, or what caused infection. Treatment for disease and injury was often based on puzzling traditions and an incomplete knowledge of human anatomy.
Is your baby colicky? Pass her three times around a table leg, or beneath the belly of a horse, and she will quiet. Does your husband have an earache? A few drops of urine spooned into the ear canal should do the trick. The Cherokee believed a swollen throat was sometimes caused by a blockage of insect ghosts. A frog spirit would be summoned by incantation to eat the ghosts (or a fish spirit if the insects were the type who lived on the water).
But what does this have to do with us now? We live in a time where medical procedures thought to be miraculous not too long ago are now common, performed in a day at outpatient centers. The hearts of animals are used to keep humans alive. Tiny microscopes are threaded through miniscule incisions. Tumors are scraped away from delicate tissues, and arteries unclogged as if they were wide as sink drains. There are machines that can take pictures of the inside of our bodies. Wonders, it seems, will never cease.
But if you have been sick or injured, then you know, there is always something surprising and mysterious and even scandalous about it. You have been betrayed by your body, when you had gone around all this time thinking you and your body were one thing, inseparable, a winning team. And although the doctor’s approach you with their sterile, shining instruments and unfailing clinical cool, still you panic, and inside you feel hurt.
Because you are hurt.
And although doctors now have treatments for most maladies, what comes after that — the healing — is something one must do alone.
In 8, a slim but powerful memoir, Amy Fusselman writes about those other, more common injuries — the emotional ones.
After years of seeing a therapist in hopes of recovering from a childhood trauma, Fusselman decides she wants to try out a biodynamic craniosacral therapist — that is, someone who heals by the laying on of hands.
The therapy — thought to be kooky (and that’s putting it kindly) by most Western practitioners — was suggested for Fusselman’s young son, King, after conventional methods failed to alleviate a buildup of fluid in his ears. She writes of the experience:
I took King to see her. I watched as she put him on the sheet-covered massage table and sat next to the table on a big blue exercise ball and held his ankles. I didn’t question why she was holding his ankles when I have to say I assumed she would be holding his head.
We managed to keep King on the table with toys and snacks, and at the end of the session Patricia told me King had some kind of bone jamming in his skull. I was concerned, of course, to hear about this, and I asked her how serious it was.
She held out her hand to me. “Do you want to feel it?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said, looking at her, I think, with a little dread.
She took my right hand, and I felt something traveling up my arm, to the base of my skull on the right side, where it stopped, and then I felt a dull, hard pain there.
I took my hand out of hers quickly, as if she had burned me, and asked her, “Is he in pain?”
“No,” she said calmly, returning her hand to her side. “Every body is different.”
In the rest of the book, Fusselman — who is not a religious person — writes not only about her experience with this unusual form of therapy, but also about motherhood and monster trucks and learning about how to drive a motorcycle and the Beastie Boys and figure skating and her husband Frank. By the end, the reader begins to suspect that each of these things is a brick on her path to healing.
She drives the point home. Although pain, sickness, and injury are universal experiences — and medical knowledge largely standardized — everybody is different. Every body is different. Every heart, and childhood, and family, and fear, and faith is different. That means every healing will be different, too.
Now that I am older, I am more cautious with my body. I no longer jump if there is nothing below me but hard ground. I look both ways before I cross the street.
Although so far I’ve escaped severe bodily harm, I have had my share of invisible wounds, and I no longer expect Jesus to walk into my living room to tidy things up. I am trying, a little bit every day, to find out what I need to build my own road to healing. And to help those I love locate theirs.
Sometimes the materials are common, and sometimes they are rare. Sometimes they are conventional, and sometimes they are kooky. Sometimes they feel holy, and sometimes profane. I am not above any of it — the bandages or the prayers, the spit or the surgeries, the songs to clear our throats of ghostly insect wings, the touch of one hand or of many — if that is what it takes to turn harm into healing.
Dyana Herron is a graduate of Seattle Pacific University's MFA in Creative Writing. Originally from Southeast Tennessee, she now lives in Philadelphia.