Whatever Doesn’t Kill Me Makes Me Stronger Part 1: A Trip Through Pain

This is a different kind of blog for me, and a little more personal. It is the first Part of a series where I share some of my thoughts and feelings on Pain, by sharing my journey of a recent injury.

In a physical industry accidents happen. This is a given. And I’ve had my share of smaller injuries before, injuries that were painful, that slowed me down, but none that took me out of the game. Me, and those I work with, take safety extremely seriously, and we are all trained in First Aid. But this year I was reminded first hand that even when every precaution is taken, things can go wrong.

I find the mindset of a stunt person has to be pretty interesting. You train for safety and you know your limits, but these limits are pushed. What you are doing has risk– that is the nature of stunt performing. As much as you know your capabilities, there has to be that part of your mind that yes “Yeah! Go!” in spite of the risks.

I’m always amazed at how strong and how fragile the body can be – and you never know which one it will be. We all know examples of this – someone can somehow make it through a major accident unscathed, yet walk down the street, trip on seemingly nothing, and break an ankle, a wrist or a hip.

As a stage combat instructor and an actor, it is my job to think about pain, injury and death, and how to act them. Some pain is easy to play because you’ve experienced it; but for other pain, hopefully, you have to use your imagination.

I’ve always taught my students to be specific with their pain reactions. When ‘selling’ a punch or a slap or some sort of strike that has ‘connected’ I tell them to (1) decide the ‘reality’ of their reaction: did they chip a tooth? Is the wind knocked out of them? Are they seeing double? Once you have decided specifically what’s going on in your body, you must (2) pair this pain with an emotion, and this is where it gets REALLY fun! Maybe you’ve decided your nose is bleeding – you can still tell a variety of stories: your nose is bleeding and you’re extremely angry, is very different than your nose is bleeding and you’re excited – the latter may sound implausible but either can be appropriate, depending on the character and the scene.

But sometimes pain is so big, it overrides emotion.

When I tore three ligaments in my ankle rehearsing a stunt, the pain eclipsed all emotion. From the outside, it was very undramatic. Apparently, I didn’t make a sound and no one knew I was hurt until I crumpled to the ground. Then, and for several minutes, all I could do was breath. I think it was the most pain I’ve ever been in in my life, it took over every part of me. I just kept forcing air in and out of my lungs praying that the pain would release on my exhales, but it didn’t. The stunt coordinator got me lying down with my foot up in ice, and eventually I could speak, but the waves of pain just kept coming.

There’s an other side of pain that is not physical, but it’s not really intellectual either. It’s a deep visceral fear that comes from not knowing how bad the injury is, but knowing that a part of your body is wrong. I’ve always found change unsettling; I need time to figure out my new relationship with whatever has changed. This feeling goes on overdrive when it has taken place violently within your own body. There was a deep displacement in my guts that came with the unknown.

But the amazing thing is – just as your body heals itself (we’re all superheroes) your mind adapts. After an X-ray and a CT scan, I still didn’t know my ankle’s diagnosis, but I had now spent six hours in the hospital with my extremely distressed joint, and I was getting used to its new state. Even though I couldn’t move it and it was swollen into an entirely alien shape, it was becoming mine again. Once I had more knowledge about what was wrong with it, what I could and could not do with it, it became better still. The news was not good, but at least I knew I could picture what was going on inside the swelling, my relationship with my ankle, and how to safely relate to it, was clearer and therefore I could relax a bit. Never underestimate how calming knowledge can be, whether it’s good or bad.

I was told early on, by another stunt performer, that I must beware of depression and work to stay positive. This was probably the most important advice I got, as every trip to the surgeon brought worse news. It would have been so easy to allow myself to slip into a very dark place, watching my career go on hold, losing the ability to be independent.

Just like I’ve always told my students – pain is paired with emotion, and early on, once my pain left some room, I was able to identify that fear and shame were continually arising in me. Shame that I had hurt myself on a seemingly innocuous stunt, that I had let people down, and so on. And fear of what the consequences would be.

Once I identified these emotions I decided to see if I could make a choice about my emotional state. I decided to choose gratitude instead. The other emotions were still there, but I was determined not to dwell on them, and I quickly found that I had so much to be grateful for. This injury happened six weeks before my wedding. I was overwhelmed with the support I got over the weeks from my family, my wedding party, and most of all from my fiance who had suddenly become the breadwinner, care giver and main wedding planner. He took on the challenge with so much love and energy, it made the future very bright. 

This event was a good reminder for me of the importance of breath and awareness. We train stage combat physically and vocally, and the breath is the link. As actors, when playing an injury, we must start with the breath to find an authentic vocalization. And, as with my case, sometimes there is no sound needed: the rhythm or holding of the breath can tell a powerful (and painful) story on it’s own.

In terms of awareness, I think it’s always important to be able to identify what you’re feeling, whether you’re an actor or not. Emotions can come from all sorts of places, and only by being aware of them can you release them if they’re not healthy. For me, being in pain was enough without adding shame to it. My awareness helped me release that feeling and gain control of my mindset.

(I hope you don’t mind me sharing my story through the lens of what I teach in stage combat. I don’t mean to trivialize anyone’s pain by suggesting that it is an easy mental flip, because certainly chronic pain can be unbelievably demoralizing. Please tune in for part 2 and 3, where I muse about the stages of recovery, coming soon. If you have any comments please tweet me @CaseyHudecki)


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