This is the final post in a 3 part series about my experience with chronic back pain. You can read Part One here and Part Two here.
After I finished Dr. Sarno’s book I was still a bit groggy from the muscle relaxers I’d been taking for the last few days but my mood immediately lifted. I felt like I’d just been given a second chance at life. It was nearly midnight, and as I glanced past the medication bottle on the nightstand to reach for the light I remember thinking to myself, ‘I’m never going to take this medication again for this pain.’
The next morning I scoured the Internet and watched many of Dr. Sarno’s interviews and lectures that I found on YouTube. I furiously took notes and by mid-afternoon, I was clear on what I needed to do in order to manage, even eliminate my pain.
1. See a Doctor.
First I would like to point out that accepting this as a diagnosis would not have happened had I not been seen, examined and tested by a myriad of doctors to rule out anything serious. One must be sure that there isn’t something physically wrong like a tumor, cancer, etc. before beginning treatment.
2. Accept the diagnosis.
If one cannot get past the step of accepting the diagnosis, it simply won’t work. For me it was much easier to admit to myself that this was my problem when my latest MRI taken 6 months ago actually showed a slight improvement in my back which baffled my doctors since my pain was worse than ever. I’ll admit though, the hardest part for me was accepting the fact that the excruciating pain I’d lived with for so long was due to my inability to deal with my emotions; subconsciously I was the cause of my pain, therefore I had to take sole responsibility for my treatment and its success.
3. Recognize and understand exactly what is happening to my body and do not be afraid of it. Say to myself, ‘There is nothing structurally wrong with my back.’
Pain and the fear of pain is a vicious cycle. For example, when sitting caused great discomfort I would do whatever I could to avoid sitting – knowing that if I sat for longer than a few minutes I was sure I’d experience it. If I felt the slightest twinge, I’d freak out wondering if it was a sign that my back was going to go out and therefore I’d quickly change my behavior. Pain (or the fear of it) was controlling nearly every aspect of my life.
Taking control of my fear was my first step. I needed to accept that my pain was due to mild oxygen deprivation caused by a trigger in the brain. Whatever troubles I was trying to repress (ahem – I’ve always been very good at pushing aside negative emotions) was coming out in the form of physical pain. My brain was actually trying to do me a favor by giving me something else to focus on other than the issues I didn’t want to or couldn’t deal with.
4. Understand why I’m experiencing TMS Symptoms.
To do this I needed to write down a list of all of my fears and concerns. This took some time, but once I focused and pushed myself to do it I couldn’t get over how much I was hauling around in my mind. On my list were a myriad of issues, a few of which I will share:
My art business – I have a fear of failing, of not being good enough, of wasting my time, of never gaining any recognition. In a nutshell, I don’t have enough faith in myself.
My People-Pleasing Personality – Though I am much better than I used to be, I still have moments where I tend to do the ‘right’ thing instead of what is actually right for me. If you are like me, you can understand how frustrating this can get – always trying to keep the peace. When I do things like this I know there is no one else to blame for my decision so I try to forget about it and move on. Really, what I need to be doing is dealing with this part of me that creates so much tension and frustration. Shoving things down into a dark area of the mind isn’t good for anyone whether one is suffering from pain or not.
5. Tell my myself that my pain is not serving me anymore and move on.
This became my mantra. From day one whenever I experienced any pain I’d stop and have a conversation with myself. Sometimes I would get furious and say to my back, ‘Fuck off!’ and continue about my business, ignoring the pain. Most of the time however, I was more gentle with my words. The day after I read the book I drove to the store and my back began to ache. I remember saying, ‘It’s okay to let this go now. This pain no longer serves me. I am now wide awake and can take care of myself.’ I continued down the road to the store and the pain, remarkably, eased to the point of non-existence.
6. (and this one was difficult)…Rid myself of all my back pain aids and resume all normal activity.
In order to proceed with my course of treatment I needed to get rid of everything I used to treat my back pain. Continuing to use those items served as a security blanket and only reinforced the idea that I believed there was something physically wrong with my back. I gathered together all my medications, my heating pad, my back pillow, my accupressure mat, back tape – everything I relied on to ease the pain in my back was placed in a bag and taken to the basement.
My biggest test came right before our vacation. We had a long flight ahead of us with a layover before landing in Ft. Lauderdale. Normally I would make certain that my back pillow was in my carry-on bag and that I was loaded up on heavy doses of pain medication. Probably one of the bravest things I’ve ever done: I left everything at home. Not only did I make it through both flights with minimal discomfort but I had no back pain during our vacation. On the first leg of our 4+ hour flight home, on a scale from 1-10 (with 1 being in the least amount of pain and 10 being the worst) my overall pain was about a 2. Normally I wouldn’t have been able to survive an hour of sitting without readjusting my pillow and squirming in my chair; my pain level would have easily been a 7 or 8. When we were about to board for our final leg home (another 1.5 hour plane ride) I felt a twinge in my lumbar area that got my attention. Immediately I started questioning what it was that was troubling me. It became clear that I was becoming more anxious the closer to home we were because I kept thinking about all of the things I needed to do: laundry, catch up on email, get ready for my upcoming art show, make phone calls, etc. Once I recognized what was bothering me the pain went away. Really.
Writing this has not been easy. In fact, only 4 people in my personal life know about my life-changing experience. When I recognized TMS as my condition I was worried about telling my husband because he is a firm believer in science and if something cannot be proven, he is skeptical to believe. He would never condemn anyone else’s right to believe in anything they wished, however it was important to me that he was on my side. That evening when he came home from work and I told him everything I’d learned, he sat for some time before speaking. I said, ‘All right, just come out with it and tell me what you really think.’ To my surprise he replied, ‘I just realized that your back is always worse when you’ve got a major stressor going on in your life.’ He then led me to a very important discovery that nearly knocked me off my chair. ‘When did your back pain begin?’ he asked. It started my second semester in college.
…the same time I began gaining weight.
It’s now been nearly three weeks and I have not had the need for any medications or back aids I routinely relied on. I can sit freely at my studio drafting table and paint as long as I wish. I can sit in a movie theater comfortably. Instead of waking up and going to bed thinking about my back, it is now the last thing on my mind. I am back to doing my regular yoga practice – all nearly free from pain. My life has changed so dramatically, I am still amazed. I choose not to dwell on the last 20 years; instead I look forward to the things to come; the things that I will do – all without fear.
I hope these posts have been informative and helpful. Thanks for reading.