How Pain Changed My Life For the Good

A Personal Account of the Gifts of Trauma

By Cindy Williams

On June 10, 2008, life as I knew it changed in an instant. One moment I was climbing, and the next moment I was falling. Thirty-five feet, to be exact.

I went from being a physically fit, active, vibrant young woman who climbed, backpacked, skied, ran, and maintained a full-time massage practice to being injured so badly that I would not be able to return to any of those activities without pain. The impact on my life was significant and permanent.
Massage, bodywork, yoga, and the love and support of people around me have been the cornerstones of navigating this experience. To this day, I continue to feel the effects of this one moment in time, and I reach to these life-affirming gifts to keep me going. Another gift that came out of this experience is one that I could not have imagined at first. Now that I know what it feels like to experience and manage chronic pain for many years, I have a deepened ability to feel genuine empathy for the clients who arrive to my table in pain, and I can support them in a meaningful way.
Prior to my own pain, I certainly offered empathy and care to clients who reported pain. However, I had no idea of the extensive struggle that chronic pain imposes on a life, sometimes for an indefinite period of time. My injury gave me a new level of understanding.

The Domino Effect of Pain

Since massage therapists come into direct contact with clients in chronic pain, I offer my story as a perspective on the far-reaching domino effect pain and injury can have on a person’s life. Pain is more than a physical experience. It is mental, emotional, and financial as well, and I believe we have an opportunity as massage therapists and bodyworkers to provide a space that encourages hope and support on all of these levels.
Prior to my accident, I had created a life I loved. I was consciously grateful for my health, my work, my ability to make a difference in people’s lives, and my capacity to think positively. I lived alone and supported myself with my massage business. I had even recently fallen in love.
After the accident, I wondered why I had to endure the pain I was in even though I had given so much energy to gratitude and goodness. It was difficult to understand. It was also difficult to go from being independent to dependent. The first years of recovery included a slew of surgeries, doctor appointments, physical therapy, and pain-management treatments I could not take myself to, so I was required to tap into a list of friends to rely on. I felt like a burden.  
Grief arose from the loss of my ability to do the things that once brought me peace and joy. My relationship was compromised with jealousy as I watched my partner experience outdoor adventures without me. A small flicker of hope stayed alive that someday I would recover to the point of returning to my previous life activities. I believed in my power to heal. As the years passed, I eventually had to accept that my life had to take on a new story.  
Pain wore me down so much that I struggled to have resilience to these emotions of sadness, loss, grief, and anger. I didn’t feel like myself any longer, and it took everything I had to get up every day and make the best of it. My nature is to have a positive attitude, yet this experience was requiring significant effort to maintain a positive and clear mental space.  
Added to this mental game was the financial burden of pain. Even with a great insurance policy, costs still add up from surgeries, office visit co-pays, pain-management treatments that aren’t covered under insurance, and alternative treatments, such as chiropractic, massage, and acupuncture. During my first year of recovery, I was unable to work except for some administrative project work I could do at home. I took a big financial hit, which caused an additional layer of stress.  

Massage, Bodywork, and Yoga to the Rescue

Massage, bodywork, and yoga wove a golden thread through this entire experience, offering the most consistent relief from the physical, mental, and emotional challenges I was having.  
Within days of getting out of the hospital, one of my dearest friends and the owner of the massage school I was teaching at offered energy work. Her work brought movement when I couldn’t move my body freely or lie in ways necessary to receive massage. The effects of this work were profound in easing pain. Her presence and generosity lifted my spirits.  
At eight weeks post-injury, I was given permission to progressively spend less time in a back brace and begin introducing gentle movement to my spine. I had just completed restorative yoga teacher training prior to falling, so I knew how to safely perform gentle stretches that eased my spine back into movement and breathed life back into my whole body. My yoga mat also became a safe space to feel the difficult emotions and allow them to move through me. A fellow yoga instructor came to my home to guide me through Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy, which caused profound shifts and unwinding of trauma in the early phases of recovery. Again, the generosity and care of a bodywork practitioner was priceless and heart-mending.
Throughout the first year of recovery, previous students, fellow instructors, and bodywork practitioners I had traded with all showed up to offer me free massage and bodywork. I had never felt such an outpour of love and support in my whole life! I am certain that without these treatments during the critical beginning of my journey, the foundation of my healing would not have been laid so solidly.
Five years into recovery, however, things came to a breaking point. I was trying too hard to recreate my old life instead of accepting a new life with limitations. It was then that new paths arose: I was introduced to a bodyworker who taught me visualization practices for promoting healing in my body; I watched a video of a man who dedicated himself to yoga to heal his pain; and I listened to audio recordings of Joe Dispenza, DC, and his teachings on self-healing. Suddenly, everything turned around. These paths provided the inspiration and education I needed to move myself in an entirely new direction. Part of what motivated me was my own bodyworker’s willingness to hear every detail of what I was experiencing, offer me resources to learn more, and help me realize that even with limitations, I could have a fulfilling life with less pain if I would make some adjustments and commit to disciplined healing practices.

Healing Through Empathy

Empathy, the ability to encourage, listen to, and imagine the feelings and experiences of another, is powerful medicine. Sometimes people who are in pain don’t look like they are in pain. When a person has been in pain for such a long time, they adapt and the pain becomes the norm. It can be tolerated by lack of attention to it and/or compensation around it, and everything appears just fine. I’ve had my story glossed over, because from the outside, I look fine.  
If someone tells you they are in pain, believe them. Take them seriously. Ask to hear their story. The story matters not only to your treatment and support of them, but also to the depth their own healing efforts can reach when they feel like someone understands.
Ask them to describe their pain, as well as if, and how, it limits them. When and how did it start? What helps it feel better? What makes it hurt the most? Pay attention to their details as they report to you, and to how they express themselves. People can sense when another is paying attention to them, which opens a great pathway to honest communication and understanding.

Our Unique Offering

I’ll be frank. We can’t fix these challenges for our clients. While I believe in the body’s ability to heal, I also accept that some damage can’t be undone and some chronic pain never subsides completely. But it can be managed through a disciplined self-care effort. What we are able to uniquely provide as massage therapists and bodyworkers is a combination of in-depth knowledge of how the body works (especially the nervous system and its regulation of physical, mental, and emotional processes), an educated and compassionate human touch, an empathetic ear, and encouragement toward self-care practices.  
As I near the 10-year anniversary of this event that changed my life, I feel more gratitude than sorrow. It brought me to where I am now. My idea of adventure has changed, and when I do take part in shorter versions of previously enjoyed adventures, I know what to do before and after to keep pain at a manageable level. I only see a few massage clients, but it is an honor and privilege to offer a safe and sacred space for the few I am able to work with and help. I like to think my work reaches further now, because I educate on a large platform about the power of the roles of massage therapists, bodyworkers, and yoga practitioners to support people in pain. Together, we get to make a big difference to the health and well-being of those around us.
These are beautiful gifts I will cherish forever, and I expect they will continue to evolve as they present themselves to me in new ways over time. My hope is to inspire you as others have taken the time to inspire me. I welcome your stories too!

Cindy Williams, LMT, is a graduate support liaison for ABMP and has been actively involved in the massage profession since 2000 as a practitioner, school administrator, instructor, curriculum developer, and mentor. She maintains a private practice as a massage and yoga instructor. Contact her at