Heart Cramps


When I used to play competitive football (soccer), I would occasionally get cramps in my calf muscles. Sometimes they seemed to make sense because they would show up in minute 100, ten minutes into overtime of a football match. Even professional football players can be seen sitting on the pitch late in a match fighting muscle cramps. Maybe this was a part of extreme physical activity…but then sometimes the cramps did not make sense, seizing me in the middle of the night or only 30 minutes into a run.

I would try to prevent them by taking Calcium Magnesium pills, eating more bananas for potassium, and becoming more regimented with my post-training stretching. Nevertheless, the cramps continued to emerge and disappear with no apparent rhyme or reason.

One very hot summer, I ran an evening half marathon (13.1 miles) in Davis, CA. Unfortunately, this was a race where the missing water station at around mile 11 was not just a poor error but a dangerous one. The temperature was upwards of 90 degrees Fahrenheit and the humidity was high, even though the race began at dusk. People were sweating just standing around. Despite training, I felt sluggish and my legs very heavy. I was not keeping to my pace and struggled to accept that I wasn’t going to finish within my desired time. When I got to the finish line (luckily after only 12 miles because of incorrect race mapping), I was plagued with extremely painful calf cramps.

The on-set of cramping didn’t occur until I stopped running, and they had me lying on the medic’s table nearly screaming in pain. The medics were concerned that I was in pain from more than just the cramping, for the degree of pain I was expressing. I downed a Gatorade (electrolyte-filled sports drink), had a friend run to get salt tablets (which they didn’t have at the tent!?!), and had the medics continuously massaging my muscles to try to relax them. Friends squeezed my arms to show empathy and did their best to console me.

It was my birthday and I was running the race with my then partner to celebrate my life. A handful of friends came to cheer us on and take us out to a favourite burger joint known by the locals as Murder Burger (I wasn’t vegetarian then!). Yet here I was, full body cringing in a medical tent.

About 4 or 5 years later, I am reflecting on that memory because I think I am experiencing a new kind of cramping. I’ll call it emotional cramping. I’d rather call them heart cramps but that might imply a cardiovascular emergency, and I am definitely not having a heart attack. But the cramping I am referring to does relate to matters of the heart – my spiritual heart. And I have a unique physical sensation in my chest that comes up regularly but that I rarely feel I can accurately describe to other people.

This pain in my chest is a pain of absence – not so much a longing, but an ache from a space that has gone too long unfulfilled. I think that this space became clenched very tightly as I was growing up in a toxic environment. I couldn’t dare to have my heart wide open, but there was always some tiny bit of space that I left open in hopes I could be seen and cared for one day.

I suppose it’s like a clenched fist to air molecules. It seems like there is no gap, but there is actually, a huge chasm between certain air molecules in my fist and the skin cells in my palm. A gap that most people don’t see or recognize. A gap that is hidden by a functioning hand and fist. But, a gap that is made ever so clear when my fist becomes unclenched and I can feel the release of tension.

When my spiritual heart releases tension, I release a lot of tears.

This is what happens when I open myself and my heart to the world more and more fully. I am clenching less which means I allow this gap in my heart to feel the fresh air, and I am reminded of why I clenched in the first place. I clenched my heart so tightly because of all the times when I was open to people and they hurt me. My healing has been about opening more and clenching less. I have fluctuated between being open and closed, open and closed, wanting to be seen by the world, and wanting to hide, in fear of being hurt. This is normal and closing off sometimes is useful self-protection.

But thing about being closed to the world and others is that I couldn’t learn that I am loveable. In the tiny space I created for myself to be truly me, I had to love myself. I had to find love inside myself when I was never shown it. I had to mirror myself as a child and find love and light in dark places. This wasn’t easy and I had to make some sacrifices along the way.

When I relax the tension in my heart, I feel the sorrow of those sacrifices.

Just like the cramping I experienced at the end of the race, my heart cramps are from reaching the end of an extra-long battle. I’m sure I could name this battle in many ways, and maybe I reached the end a long time ago and now I’m just realizing it.

Nevertheless, I feel as if I have reached the end of stage 2 in a battle to win peace and acceptance of my life and my self.

Since moving to England, I believe that I have gone from a sense of constantly struggling to an experience of facing hardships in life. Struggling looks and feels a lot more painful to me. It’s wrought with doubt and a genuine feeling of fighting for survival. Facing hardships is difficult, but it comes with a sense of a future where the hardship will pass.

Struggling is about making sure I have a life to live.

Facing hardships is about having a future. It’s about about having a life in which I have hardships to face.

Struggling is about not knowing if I can make it, trying even when I am convinced that all efforts are futile.

Facing hardships is about knowing I am capable of facing obstacles, knowing that my efforts make a difference.

Thirteen years ago today, I was struggling. I took my first full step into freedom and hoped that one day I wouldn’t have to struggle any more. I thought that my struggle would end with rainbows and constant feelings of happiness but I was sorely mistaken.

I am not someone who has ever been able to embrace the position of ‘my struggle made me stronger and I’m grateful for that.’ However, I will say this:  

Working to overcome my struggles have made it possible for me to feel joy in the small things. And those small things are readily available in the world.

Overcoming a fight for my life has also made it possible for me to feel joy in walking next to and with others who are on their freedom journeys.

For me, I am learning to embrace my heart cramps and my tears. These are my truths and my truths really do set me free.

Minh Dang