On Discomfort

There was one major experience in my life that helped turn my perception around. In the summer of 2010, my life revolved around Super Smash Bros. I played every day, listening to music for hours on end and clacking away in my room in my grandpa’s house, traveled to my friends’ house to stay there for as long as I could, went to tournaments whenever possible. The in-between time was spent partying, blurry nights with fluorescent screens and swervy vision, chillin. It was interesting to note the differences that weed and alcohol caused in this medium; my number one medium, Smash. I slept on floors, ate Pizza Hut and Chipotle, played my friends for countless hours, slept from 4am to 1pm, then woke up again to repeat the cycle. Whenever I was back in Palos Verdes, I would run around the neighborhood. Every two weeks or so my life was punctuated by a tournament, where my performance was either a grateful recognition of all the work I had put in, or a crushing defeat leading to self-doubt. I had learned to tolerate pain, and this was important; it meant I “got better.”

Later after that summer, when my ties to the SoCal Melee community were the tightest, I went back home for winter break, and attended a tournament/party combo. It was my friend’s birthday, and his goal was to get everyone drunk and have a fun time. To put it colloquially, we chilled. Kicked it. After a stressful tournament, it was cool to go and relax in the atmosphere of the game, putting salty feelings behind us and bonding together in the light of shared interest and competition. This would be the night that things changed, where I recognized my own mortality.

It was about 2AM, and Weston, my new friend who had recently gone from game acquaintance to homie, suggested that we go and take a walk. I said sure, let me just finish this enormous mixed drink. 7 & 7. Ten minutes later, we went out walking around the San Fernando valley. My recollection of events started to get hazy; this was probably the only time in my life I’ve blacked out. The night became a series of vignettes, individual scenes loosely strung together. The intermittent in-between time wasn’t there. I knew exactly where we were, this place being an old smash hangout, and we went down to the corner to get donuts. I was giggly, goofy, laughing, and soon we were there. We sat down at a table, and I remember feeling so ridiculous. I marveled at the difficulties of pronouncing my thoughts; I knew what I wanted to say, but the motor control wasn’t really there. I tried to remark on this difficulty, but the individual words dissolved into a languid stream of laughter. We ordered bear claws, which the baker would have done in ten minutes, and then decided that neither of us really wanted donuts in the first place! We ran out giggling.

My balance was pretty off at this point. I was goofy, as goofy and carefree as I’ve ever been. I tried to run across a street; bad idea. I fell. OOF! I got back up, invigorated. Soon after, I tried to run again, faster this time, a dead sprint—I fell again, HARD. I tripped, ate shit, went down on my right shoulder and rolled. I remember lying face-down on the ground, collecting myself. This was a memory that I hadn’t felt since childhood; the despondency that comes from realizing that you are seriously hurt. Interesting.

It was bad. We were almost home at this point, and Wes helped me back up. Things went south. After being injured, some of my deep feelings came out. What was I doing in this place? Was all the time I spent on the game worth it after all? What the FUCK?! Alcohol is a powerful truth serum, which is something that I like about it. It makes my inhibitions dissolve; self-expression seems easier, because everything inside gets intensified by about ten times. When I’m happy, I’m giddy, jubilant, and energetic, and when I’m angry, I become furious. We were having a deep discussion (though nearly all of it is lost now), and in the cold air, in the middle of the night, I brought up some of those nasty murky feelings.

“Sometimes, Wes, I just get so mad.” My voice was escalating. “I just get so, FUCKING, MAD!” I punched a stop sign as hard as I could. This discontent was the only thing I had to come back to. What kind of life was that? Deep below everything, was this the central tenet of my life? Was this the one thing, this anger?! I was confused, beside myself, hurting. Hormones and neurotransmitters ran amok in my system; my brain was doing crazy things. Wes had to calm me down, touching my shoulder. “We’re almost there. Joe! Come on!” I went inside, curled up on the floor, and passed out.

When I woke up the next morning, my shoulder hurt. I was impressed that I couldn’t move it without excruciating pain. There were physical motions that I was absolutely incapable of performing; I could not put my sweatshirt on without using my left arm to lift my right arm into the sleeve. When I went back to my mom’s house, trembling and hung over, I had to eventually let her know. Alcoholism runs in my family, so this was a red flag. We had a great talk about it though, and I got a chance to (healthily) express some of those feelings that were so deeply ingrained. Two days later, we went to a doctor, who told me it was probably OK. Most likely a rotator cuff injury, since if something was broken I shouldn’t have been able to lift my arm as far as I did.

After winter break ended and I went back to school, my shoulder still hurt. I couldn’t sleep on it the way I had earlier, or I would wake up with cramps and pins and needles. Yet I still tried to force it to perform. Rock climbing was OK, for the most part, but what really hurt was bench press. “Don’t be a baby,” said my friends. I was stupid for believing them over the signals that my own body sent! There was a grinding of joints and tendons in my shoulder. I knew it was damaging me.

Eventually I talked my dad into taking me to a kinesiologist, an old family friend. He laid me down on a massage table and proceeded to violate my back and shoulders, laying into the knots that I had built up from months of improper usage. He used his knuckles and shoulders to drill into the tightest, most painful spots in my whole existence. These were the knots I had ignored for all these months, the bottled up pain I couldn’t acknowledge. Each new stronghold he found burst with exquisite sensation as it was prodded, beaten, and massaged. He gave me exercises to strengthen the back of my shoulder, pulling it back into alignment. He tested my range of motion, which was considerably greater than it had been at the start of the session. On the way back to Santa Cruz, I sat straight up in my dad’s car, amazed at the amount of relief that I felt, both physically and emotionally. I had put this problem off; I knew it hurt, but now it was finally on its way to getting fixed. Thank God.

It was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I couldn’t go on like I had been, ignoring the uncomfortable aspects of my life; I wasn’t invincible, and these were my limits, presented in hard physical terms. The shoulder injury was something I could not argue with or rationalize away. There were things that I could not do, period. Yet I felt WAY better after acknowledging my pain, instead of tolerating it. Strength is not the ability to bear pain, but rather having the courage to examine and confront its causes. What else could I discover by applying this method to the rest of my existence?

I really feel that body and mind are one; if you have pain in your body, then there is a blind spot in your field of perception you’re ignoring. This incident was the catalyst towards change for me. I did the assigned posture exercises, avoided further injuring myself, and started stretching more. I began exploring my reality, since I now knew the damage that came from ignoring the rough parts.

I think I fractured the furthest end of my scapula, right before the acromion, pushing the rest of my shoulder forward into the chest. As a result the muscles in my back had to work harder to hold the shoulder back; the posterior deltoid and the infraspinatus ended up all knotted. I don’t ever think it will be back to 100%, even though the knots are gone; there’s some scar tissue in my shoulder joint, and it still sits differently than my left shoulder. Fortunately, I think it’s back to about 95%, and will stay there (or slowly improve) forever. Also, I became more ambidextrous as a result of this injury—I learned to trust my left hand more, and my left shoulder picked up some of the slack, becoming stronger and more balanced.

This event was one of the major turning points in my life, and has helped define the way I see the world, with the body as a central analogue for understanding the self in its entirety. I hope it helps you out in some way! By putting energy into the sources of my physical discomfort, I learned about the importance of doing the same thing mentally and emotionally.

Next up: Untying Knots.

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