My backstory of empowerment

When filmmakers and fiction writers speak of backstory, they mean the story behind the story, the part we don’t necessarily see on the screen or the printed page, but the essential elements that make the protagonists who they are. What was Hamlet like as a child? We don’t exactly know, but we can feel that here is a full character with an authentic history because Shakespeare gives us such depth of personality on the stage. We can imagine outings with his father, play time as a child with Ophelia, time alone with his books, etc.

Our own backstories are not, generally, left to the imagination. Most of us know well what we did as children, what forces led us to where we are at this moment. I suggest, however, that we know the former a bit better than the latter. That is to say, we know what we did, but we don’t always know what led us to what we did, or what we are doing.

Here’s an example: My sister and I are driven beings, and we have the stress to prove it. Speaking only for myself, I received two Bachelors degrees at the same time that I was working full-time. We always feel that we aren’t doing enough unless we’re doing more, and better, than is expected. My parents, who were both hard-working but generally laid back public school teachers, used to laugh—when they were not worried, that is. Where did we get these ambitions, this insatiable drive to perform? Surely it wasn’t from them, who led good, but low-key lives!

I never understood myself, until recently. My dad held four jobs when I was a very small child, just to make ends meet. Then when money was a little less tight, he went back to college for in-service credits and would work on his assignments after hours. My mother, meanwhile, began college when I was very small and did all her graduate work while I was growing up. My idea of what normal adults did, therefore, was to work nights, weekends, and in between. It didn’t matter that my situation is somewhat different from theirs. That’s the story I tell myself about adulthood.

Today I am thinking about another kind of backstory. I have experienced severe muscle pain the last few weeks, at times severe, at other times more bearable, due to a number of factors. Any pain is annoying, to say the least. But my story is that I am extremely healthy and pain-free, that I can carry, bend, lift and generally do whatever is necessary. Being extremely petite, this is an important story for me, because I don’t like when people take one look at me and assume that I CAN’T do these things. (I have a dear female friend who is six feet tall who feels exactly the opposite, interestingly enough.) Anyway, the experience of being in pain these few weeks is doubly distressing for me because it contradicts the story I tell myself about myself. In other words, the person experiencing this pain, who can’t lift the heavy garbage bag into the trash, who must carefully balance grocery bags in each arm, who cannot attend yoga class, who lies on a heating pad to watch TV, who at this very moment has a TENS unit pulsating on her hip—this person is not me. She/I am an impostor!

Leave it to me to have an identity crisis just when I am going through a muscle crisis. Hey, I guess it’s like the old joke, paraphrased here from The Two-Thousand -Year-Old Man with Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks: “Doctor, my leg is killing me! What can you do to ease the pain?” (Doctor pokes him in the eye.) “Doctor, what did you do that for?” “Took your mind off your leg, didn’t it?”

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  • irenesavarese  On September 2, 2011 at 9:51 am

    What a great post Caren, although I am sorry to hear about your pain.
    Yes, why do we do what we do? That is the question. Growth and getting ahead is essential for us Americans. Are we afraid that if we are not growing we go to pieces ultimately ending up living on the street? Sometime i think that I have a choice between depression (if I don’t work hard) and anxiety (if I put myself out there to succeed.) So what is worse? I take anxiety and reframe to excitement, because that is something I can live with.

    • Caren Neile  On September 8, 2011 at 7:13 am

      Thank you once again for another insightful (and helpful) post. I agree with you that the key is all in the reframing. I’m going for excitement, too, not too difficult here in Vienna. See you soon!

  • irenesavarese  On September 8, 2011 at 8:08 am

    Looking forward to having you back and hearing about your experience. We will miss you on Saturday!

  • Michael Stock  On September 20, 2011 at 9:05 pm

    I knew it was my parents fault. It struck me at yoga the other day that my skin is not going to ever get that youthful look back. Aches and pains take longer to heal, hang in there.

    • Caren Neile  On September 20, 2011 at 11:23 pm

      Thanks for the comment. Meanwhile, I got an MRI today….

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