Healing from Whiplash

Me and my daughter a couple of months after my injury.

I didn’t know I was going to pass out—all I knew was I didn’t feel right. For the past six hours, I had alternated between nursing my newborn baby and taking trips to the toilet for, um, stomach flu purposes. I arose from the toilet, took a couple steps, then fell forward, hitting my face on the granite counter top, and then fell back and hit my head on a door frame. I woke up seconds (minutes?) later, shaking and cold on the bathroom floor. I managed to crawl to my bedside, grab my phone, and call my husband who was sleeping in the guest room.

My husband rushed to my side and helped me get into bed. He had gone to sleep before either of us knew I was sick. He stayed home from work the next day and took care of our boys. I didn’t have signs of a concussion, but I was exhausted and dehydrated; I didn’t want to go to the emergency room. I decided to stay in bed and rest as much as I could between nursing sessions. I though I’d be fine.

A few months later, I went running for the first time since having my baby. I felt okay while running, but the next day I had an intense headache and pain in my neck and back. This was new for me—I ran track and cross country in high school and did a number of races in my mid-twenties. I went to a chiropractor I had seen before and, not even considering the connection, didn’t mention my fall. He adjusted my back and suggested that if running triggers this much pain, I shouldn’t run. I agreed.

During my pregnancy with my fourth baby, we moved to a new state. A few months after she was born, I got a gym membership. Ellipticals and exercise bikes felt fine. Weight lifting brought the good kind of hurt. Then I tried running. Again, I felt okay during my run, but the next day had a splitting headache and pain in my neck and back.

I found a new chiropractor and went in for x-rays. He asked if I’d ever been in a major car accident. I had not. He said that my cervical spine was supposed to have a particular kind of curve, but my curve was going the opposite direction, indicating a serious whiplash injury. I was floored. I thought back to my injury from passing out. He agreed that may have caused the injury and could explain my ongoing headaches and pain after running.

When I passed out, I knew I was injured, but I had no idea how it would impact my body for years to come and how much work it would take to reduce the pain. After months of regular appointments for adjustments, therapies targeting my neck, muscle work with a massage therapist, and low-impact workouts that helped me get in better shape, my pain was greatly reduced. My injury was not caused by running, but running involves the right kind of pressure and force to aggravate my underlying spinal issues.

Like running, Sunday church didn’t used to hurt. It used to be a comforting part of my weekly routine. But over the last decade, I found that more often than not, I was leaving church feeling drained, exhausted, and in spiritual pain.

When COVID shut down Sunday meetings, I had my first ever extended break from church. Like many people suddenly managing homeschooling and worrying about keeping our families and communities safe, it was a time of great anxiety. But as the weeks went on, I found that my spiritual pain that had been raw and inflamed for years was subsiding. Sundays didn’t hurt anymore. In fact, they became a day of peace and rest. I know this isn’t how everyone experienced the shutdowns. I want to hold space for those who found new sources of pain, isolation, and loneliness while recognizing that for me, the break became an opportunity to heal.

For years before the shutdowns, I would come home from church on Sundays upset about casual sexism, racism, and queerphobia in talks and lessons. I would be exhausted from trying to keep my young children reverent, from chasing toddlers in the hall, or from sitting on my hands and debating with myself about just how many comments I could make in a class. But even as I would emotionally spiral, I’d recognize that my reactions were at times outsized. Even if a comment I heard was legitimately problematic or hurtful, my underlying spiritual pain wasn’t caused by the good, imperfect people doing their best to serve their ward on volunteered time. Sunday meetings were not the source of my pain—they were just the place that forced my pain to the surface.

Oakland California Temple

My pain was rooted in theology and the patriarchal structure of the Church. If I could point to any moment of spiritual whiplash, it would be going through the temple for the first time and encountering that I as a woman was asked to covenant to my husband and not to God. There were other moments of pain that accumulated through the years—a few serious instances of ecclesiastical abuse and other issues that were historical or existential in nature. The pain was real, but it wasn’t my Relief Society teacher’s fault.

At times, my pain spilled out sideways, and I hurt the feelings of people I loved as I yearned to be heard and understood but couldn’t find the language and didn’t know a healthy model of individuating out of an enmeshed family and religious system. I resented each time that I would knowingly abandon myself and my core values in order to be “obedient” and gain the soft power offered to well-behaved (white, cis) women in the Church.

But with the sudden, extended break from Sunday meetings, I was able to take time to sort through my feelings more deeply. I talked with trusted friends. I met with a therapist for several months. I accepted that there are things that I believe and trust to be right for myself that some people I love will never understand. My husband and I reshaped Sundays to focus on family, rest, and Christ-centered lessons.

With my physical pain, I have to keep up on the activities that bring healing or the pain returns. I focus my fitness efforts on low-impact workouts like weightlifting, walking, and yoga. I stretch and use a foam roller every night. Of course I would never intentionally pass out and hit my head again, but I have learned to listen to my body more closely and avoid activities that trigger unnecessary pain.

I’m learning to listen to my spirit. I’m gaining the necessary perspective to see how my neighbors are not the source of my spiritual injuries. This helps me follow Christ’s commandment to love my neighbors as myself. I’m still figuring out what some of my boundaries will be as activities return to pre-COVID levels, but I am not going to put myself back into the same situations that injured me. I want to keep moving towards healing both physically and spiritually.

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5 Responses

  1. Sandra M says:

    This. I think many have felt similar feelings. The way I get past the frustrations of church is by recognizing that it, as well as all members, are works in progress. Speaking up in a loving way when it’s necessary is important for your soul and for the continued growth of the church. Being involved and loving others is an important precursor to having influence with them and creating change. I hold on to moments of testimony and that gives me patience to wait and pray for changes and the spiritual presence/courage to know when to speak up. There have been so many changes in the right direction! Have patience: God isn’t finished yet.

  2. Elisa says:

    I think many feel this way — the break with Covid has been an enlightening reprieve.

    My issue is partly some of the negative things that are said, but mostly just that I don’t seem to be operating with anything close to the same set of assumptions or beliefs that those around me operate in, so a lot of Church just feels alienating and, honestly, kind of boring and pointless.

  3. Caroline says:

    I relate so much. The temple was definitely a moment of intense spiritual whiplash for me. It caused injuries I don’t think I’ll ever heal from.

  4. I love how you have been able to recognize the source of the pain, and how it differs from the comments of ward members that trigger it. Being able to do that of such an important skill.

  5. Di says:

    Having had two concussions I can relate to your pain. How you related that to pain at church was a lightbulb moment. About six months before the pandemic hit I was called to be a primary teacher and at first I wasn’t thrilled about it because how could I teach things that I doubted myself? But the positive thing was that it took me out of SS and RS classes which often became the source of pain or agitation from comments that were diametrically different to my own. Blurting out my opinions would often cause awkwardness or feeling distanced. Found it harder and harder to live authentically. My husband and I haven’t returned to in-person meetings yet but when we do I know it will be different. For me that may mean only sacrament meeting. Moving from 3 hour church to two was a huge improvement but I’ve enjoyed our home church so much more.

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