Chronic Pain

There’s something wrong with me. 

I think anyone who has ever struggled with addiction, trauma, or depression can understand this negative record that gets stuck on repeat in our minds. Maybe you’ve thought it in passing about the way you look. Or the way you think. Or your inability to have intimacy in relationships. Or your lack of excitement about your work.

Or maybe, you’ve thought that literally there was something wrong with you. As in your physical body and health. Maybe you thought that you were literally broken.

Not exactly the same thing, and yet, from my experience entirely connected.

(Note: I am in no way attempting to diagnose legitimate health problems that people may be suffering from. This is only my opinion based on my experience. By all means consult with a doctor for any forms of pain or health issues you may have.)

I thought this for a very long time. In fact, I still sometimes default back to this fear, and that is essentially what it is – running-wild fear.

I grew up dancing and playing soccer. Around fifteen I started practicing yoga regularly. I also started jogging on the treadmill. At the time, the motivation for exercise was often to lose weight, but there was also an element of loving the way it made me feel and how it seemed to burn stress and fear and depression out of my body. Especially yoga. It never occurred to me that I might injure myself or suddenly feel pain and discomfort in my body and that I would grow afraid of exercise. But it happened.

When I went off to Boulder I started to feel this pain in my left leg. It felt like it was in my knee and hamstring. Nothing majorly painful, but I noticed it when I walked for long periods around campus and town.

After a month, it started to really bother me. I remember taking a yoga class in late October and having to leave midway through because the pain felt unbearable and I was afraid I was injuring myself. I recalled that I had pulled my hamstring pretty terribly over the summer while stretching after a run. I also recalled falling down a couple of times while partying in high school. I started to wonder – did I injure my body in a serious way and not realize it until now?

I didn’t think too much about it, though. I was distracted by far more serious issues and coming to terms with the fact that my entire life was falling apart. It never once occurred to me that the trauma of that may have something to do with the pain I was feeling in my body.

A few years later, doing my best to stay sober and work through school and have a relationship, I started to grow paranoid that I was sick. Like really sick. At its most serious, I convinced myself at any given point that I had contracted HIV or was stricken with cancer. Sometimes I was paranoid that I had other mild STD’s, yeast infections, and UTI’s whenever anything felt the slightest bit off down there. When I couldn’t breathe right I thought it was because I had a serious case of asthma. When I got acid reflux, I thought it was because I was eating the wrong foods. I thought I had candida overgrowth and interstitial cystitis. Though I wasn’t in excruciating pain, I was still vaguely aware that my lower back and left leg felt “off,” and so I didn’t get much exercise. I completely ceased running and practicing yoga. My perception around all of this was that there was something broken, damaged, and malfunctioning in my body and therefore something wrong with me as whole. My solution was to go to medical doctors and search the internet for cures. Never once did it occur to me that perhaps my mind was the issue, that it was my thinking that was distorted and creating or exacerbating symptoms. I felt ashamed and frightened of the symptoms, like it was my fault and like I was defective. That’s what shame tells us, ultimately: that there is something wrong with us to the core.

And then the physical pain came back. Around 23 years old, in the throes of eating disorders and finishing my English degree and struggling in a relationship, I started to feel that terrible pain in my leg again. It had always been there, but I had grown accustomed to ignoring it. There it was though, back again, and seemingly worse. Now I felt pain in my lower back and shoulder and neck, too, and only on my left side. I sometimes felt strange tingly sensations and pain that seemed to radiate. I started to feel angry and resentful, because I assumed I was injured and that it kept me from exercising again (which I was desperate for in order to get and/or remain thin.) I grew determined to find out what was wrong with me and get it fixed. I searched the internet frantically for possible diagnoses and doctors who might be able to help me. I began to label myself as someone suffering from chronic pain. And it seemed to get worse. The more I searched for answers, the more hopelessness and self-pity set in and the more the pain and suffering seemed to increase. But I hadn’t connected the dots yet.

My entire life became about my pain. How unfair it was. How terribly sad. How much I couldn’t do. How depressed I was because of it. How much people didn’t seem to care or understand. How I couldn’t enjoy a single thing in life because my body hurt, and I was trapped in my body. Doctors didn’t seem to understand or really care. Nothing helped me feel better: not massages or physical therapy or acupuncture or Lidoderm patches or Tylenol or injections or chiropractic work. Nothing. In fact, the only time I seemed to feel any sort of relief was when I screamed and cried about it. There did seem to be some sort of relief that would come when tears left my body.

What was wrong with me??? Why couldn’t the doctors find anything and fix me??? Fuck!

And then I relapsed because of it. I felt so sorry for myself and so angry and so helpless, and this led me to losing any and all spiritual connection and willingness to keep showing up, and so I drank and got high again.

When that inevitably failed to solve the problem and I was desperate for recovery, I felt in my heart: there has to be a way out of this.

And that’s when I stumbled upon Tension Myositis Syndrome (TMS), or what is sometimes called Mind-Body Syndrome (MBS). A man by the name of Dr. John Sarno developed the term years ago after seeing countless patients complaining of acute and chronic pain that seemed to come from nowhere or maybe from an injury but that would not go away with regular treatment. Most of them complained of back pain that then seemed to “spread” to the arms and legs. Some had chronic migraines and stomach problems. Others felt pain in their hands and feet. Whatever the location was, the symptoms appeared the same, and the patients had many similarities in terms of their relationship to the pain: an obsession with it, a fear of hurting themselves more, and a belief that something was broken in the body. He discovered further that most of the patients seemed to have a similar personality type: perfectionist, people-pleasing, hard on themselves, conscientious. People who wanted so much to be good and do the right thing.

Long story short, he discovered that there was in fact nothing wrong with them in their physical bodies. The main problem lay in their minds. (To learn more about TMS, I highly recommend reading Sarno’s books, The Mindbody Prescription and The Divided Mind, both available on amazon. You can also find tons of valuable information all over the internet as well as doctors who practice treatment for it in or around your area.)

The problem is not psychosomatic in the sense that the pain is not really there. We are not crazy or imagining our pain. The pain is very much there, it’s just not caused by what we assume. The problem stems from the unconscious mind and all that is buried beneath our immediate consciousness. Past and present trauma, rage, anxiety, fear, and daily stress all accumulate in the unconscious mind and do not get released to the surface. In fact, our mind is trying to protect us in a way. It assumes that we would rather not feel any of those nasty and uncomfortable emotions, and so they get transferred to the body, primarily the autonomic nervous system (ANS) which in turn restricts blood flow and creates a whole slew of physical symptoms. Once these symptoms take hold, they are further aggravated by our obsession with them and our fear of hurting ourselves and therefore not exercising or doing certain movements, which prevents the body from being healthy and releasing the very emotions that cause the whole shebang to begin with!

Recovering from TMS can be a lot like recovering from alcoholism. In fact, the two are often linked, as those of us who suffer from alcoholism are more prone to having a mind that would induce a TMS like state. The first and most imperative piece of recovery (and often the hardest) is accepting that there is nothing physically wrong with you. I can tell you from experience that this is certainly no picnic. We have to un-train our minds from thinking that because of past injuries or years of feeling pain that we have damaged our physical bodies beyond repair. We are so conditioned in the western world to think that if we feel physical pain, there is something amiss and we need to see a doctor and get treated. Most of the time, this just isn’t the case. This was very challenging for me at first. I was convinced that my spine was damaged or the nerves and muscles in my leg had gone awry or the tendons and ligaments were irreparably inflamed. It takes a long time to accept the TMS diagnosis and that there is nothing physically wrong in your body. Until you do this, real healing and relief is postponed.

What comes next is beginning to move through all that garbage buried in the unconscious and dealing with the stresses of daily life. This is a lot like the continuing 12 steps, where you take inventory of your behavior and begin to clean out the black goop. Therapy is often recommended, as is journaling, meditation, and resuming physical exercise as soon as possible.

This was terrifying for me, as it is for most of us who suffer from TMS. I was so afraid of feeling pain or injuring myself or hurting my body. But like anything, you start slow. I started taking walks here and there. I finally went back to a beginner’s level yoga class and worked my way back to intermediate and advanced. I went hiking. Bike-riding. Sometimes it hurt and I was terrified. But I kept doing it, all the while telling myself that there was nothing wrong with my body.

It is very much a two steps forward, one step back process. Like alcoholism, you are not cured and free of never dealing with it again. It can come back in times of high stress or breakthroughs in therapy.

It can also come back through different disguises.

I have had TMS manifest in every possible way, not just the physical pain I felt in my back and leg. I’ve had rashes, irritable bowel syndrome, headaches, migraines, skin infections, bladder problems, nausea, dizziness, eye problems, and random pain in my hands. Whenever these symptoms have initially arisen, my first thought is still – oh no! There’s something broken in me! Then I have to do TMS work, much like it helps to go back to steps 1, 2, 3 (in a nutshell: I’m powerless to control this, do I trust I can make it through with the help of a Higher Power, ok, I’ll stop trying to control it and see if HP can help) when facing a really challenging problem. TMS work means I have to trust that there is nothing wrong with my body and that the symptom is an indication of an emotion bubbling beneath the surface. Anger. Fear. Resentment. Overwhelm. Grief. Again, the mind would rather not have to feel those emotions, so it give us physical pain and symptoms to distract us – and it works! That is, until we recognize that it’s our whacky brain playing tricks on us, however benevolently. When we confront the emotions, our focus leaves the obsession with the symptoms, and the symptoms disappear. Sometimes immediately, sometimes over a period of time.

It’s pretty amazing. The human experience is such a trip.

I look back on all that time I spent thinking there was something physically wrong with me. And it didn’t just start when I was eighteen at Boulder, although it certainly heightened then due to the significant trauma I was experiencing and repressing. But even as a child and adolescent I would have occasions where I couldn’t breathe very well or my stomach would hurt severely or I would constantly have to pee and thought I had major bladder problems. I had a headache nearly every single day in high school, despite self-medicating. I suffered from acne for years, and while it can be genetic and hormonal, I think a lot of it was TMS related. I strongly believe that most of this was TMS related.

We live in such a stressful time and a society that encourages and applauds busyness and perfection and stoicism. We are trained to look at our bodies in parts – the foot doctor, the ear nose and throat doctor, the therapist, the neurologist. We fail to see that everything within us is connected. Of course there is a mind body spirit connection – how could there not be?? We don’t always realize or believe that most everything actually is an inside job. But it really is. Everything I have ever healed in my life came from within and from a magnificent power greater than me. We don’t get healing outside of ourselves and for most illnesses and physical ailments, we don’t get sick outside of ourselves either. It’s all within. Which is great news, because it gives us the power to heal our lives. (Just read, You Can Heal Your Life by Louise Hay and watch transformation unfold.) We don’t usually need a pill or a cream a shot or a back brace or a special shoe. We need to address what is happening in our minds, hearts, and spirits. That’s where sickness usually starts, and where we must go in order to heal.

May you be healed and free from suffering.

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