I will never forget the day I changed my brain, and changed the pain.
It was in the second week of September, 2016. The day dawned bright and clear. My mind was not clear, though. The pain that had been dogging me for a year caused perpetual brain fog.
I struggled to finish a “to-do” list. after breakfast, distracted by the sharp ache in my lower back. It moved to my right shoulder. Then, the left side of my back and hip began to shout mercilessly.
Giving up, I threw down my pen and stepped out on the deck. The beauty of our 300-year-old Arbutus tree, Douglas-Firs, cedars and the garden below were wasted on me. Walking up and down, I decided to try talking back to the monster. I had heard this was one way people could affect their pain. But how?
I decided to try seeing the pain as a hyperactive child who kept interrupting a conversation I was having with another adult. The child wanted more attention, but I had given her plenty of attention already.
“Not now,” I said to her, not unkindly.
The pain screamed.
I sighed. Then I felt a certain strength invade my core. I felt the “child” beside me, outside of me, small and insistent.
“Later,” I continued calmly, not looking at her but straight ahead, “you’ll realize you just got overexcited.”
I felt distanced from the pain, then, above it. The image of one of my sisters-in-law came to mind, and her calm, firm, intelligent, compassionate voice. I felt almost as if I was in her body; not that I could possibly know what that felt like. And yet I felt I looked like her just then, chest lifted, heart open, spine aligned, hips strong above grounded feet.
My sister-in-law spends a lot of time in her garden growing fruit and vegetables. She mindfully prepares delicious food with this organic produce for her table. She has an earthy grounded quality I lack. I am excitable and her mindfulness is very attractive and reassuring, a balm to my tempestuous moods.
As I stood there on the deck, talking to my pain, it instantly dropped four points, from a 6 to a 2 on a pain scale where 10 is the worst and 1 the least pain you have ever felt. It was still there, but in comparison to a second ago, a mere dull blip on the radar.
I couldn’t believe what had just happened. I had greatly reduced my pain. With a THOUGHT.
I had changed my mind; changed my brain; and changed the pain.
I knew in that moment that the theories were true. I could teach my brain to unlearn the pain. All I needed was to find the right words.
The problem had started a year ago, in the fall of 2015. The summer had been stressful; both extremely exciting, and also, disturbing and dark. I had given an hour-long speech in Amsterdam. I had never given a public address longer than ten minutes before, and I could not stop questioning what I’d written, revising, adding, deleting and agonizing over every word.
Adding to the challenge was a 9-hour plane ride from Vancouver to Amsterdam. For several years my tailbone had been hurting. I couldn’t sit down for long, and I knew I’d have to stand up or walk around for much of the flight. Even the kind of cloth I wore mattered. It had to be 100% cotton, and a dress; pant seams pressing against my tailbone caused an intolerable burning pain.
Even seat coverings were an issue. I found myself squirming ungracefully in a cotton sundress on a seat upholstered with a nubby fabric that felt like wire digging into my rear end. I had the middle seat of the center aisle, sandwiched in between two passengers on either side, and although I’m only 5’2″ and weigh less than 118 lbs soaking wet, there was no space at all between me and my neighbours, no way to shift position. Outraged at the level of discomfort, I vented to my husband.
Looking around though, I saw no-one else squirming or complaining. My husband and the man on the other side of me looked quite serene. How could they enjoy such ease? I knew it was irrational, but this irritated me even more. At the same time I despised myself as a weakling.
The speech seemed to go over well, a great relief, although my inner perfectionist carped and criticized parts I wished I’d written better, filling me at times with hot shame. We went to a birthday party in Spain for my best friend, who was turning 60. We’d been friends for more than four decades, but now, unusual tensions arose between us. When we returned to Canada, they intensified. Things came to a head, and the friendship was broken.
I’d never experienced anything like it. Sure, a couple of friendships had petered out over the years, but they’d always ended with a whimper. This one went with a bang. Richocheting between anger, grief, blaming her, self-blame and forgiveness, I finally saw a counsellor. I thought I’d gotten all my feelings out, but they kept resurfacing. The counsellor described it as a divorce.
My back went “out” two weeks after we returned to Canada. It didn’t escape me that my angst about the speech and high emotions around the “divorce” might possibly have had something to do with the severe back spasm. But that was only a vague small thought at the back of my head, not one I took seriously.
The spasm took several weeks to subside, and then came another, and another: six of them over the next eleven months. Each episode kept me hobbled and fearful, dragging through the days and wishing only for night, when sleep might provide a few hours of respite. There was no question of sleeping longer than that. Every two or three hours I’d wake shaking and hot, heart pounding as my lower back tightened alarmingly. Weird “thunk” sensations, when some sacral vertebrae seemed to shift and the pain moved from the left lower side to the right, were particularly alarming. What on Earth was happening?
My lower back had gone out only once before. That was several decades ago, when my husband and I were moving, and I twisted around and lifted a heavy box. The pain only lasted a few days. This was different. Each episode lasted at least several weeks, and my ability to move became increasingly restricted. It took less and less each time to set my pain alarm off. Soon almost any movement seemed to bring it on; or, it simply stayed there, screaming all the time. As the months went by I lost confidence in my body and my ability to connect with it.
I didn’t go see my GP for a long time. I’d read a lot of books about lower back trouble and they all said doctors had a very difficult time understanding and treating it. Backs were complicated. I’d also heard my doctor was in pain from a car accident, and when I did go in, I saw a locum, who didn’t seem to know what to do.
I’d been a ballet dancer in my teens and twenties. I’d taught ballet and contemporary dance; jazzdance; hip-hop, and other movement disciplines. I’d studied Taiji and yoga. I figured I knew my body and could fix the problem myself.
I tried the Egoscue Method, the Gokhale Method, Svaroopa Yoga, athletic therapy, massage, physiotherapy, and learned some useful things along the way, but the spasms kept returning. After awhile, the acute phases subsided but I was left with a body so stiff and sore — especially my back, hips and legs — that I despaired of ever finding my former flexibility and strength again. Even gentle movements brought on alarming twinges. I was afraid of climbing stairs, sitting, standing in one place. I was living in fear.
The pain and fear crippled more than my body. They crippled my mind. Unable to work, I dragged around the house in a bathrobe. I let my social connections slide — the pain screamed so loudly I could hardly hear myself think, let alone keep up my end of a long conversation. I was losing my ability to connect with family and friends. My husband was incredibly supportive, grocery shopping and doing the housework I could no longer handle, but how long would it be before resentment took over and our bond, too, became too frayed to hold?
In desparation I turned to the work of Neil Pearson, a yoga therapist, physiotherapist, and internationally respected pain specialist. Neil had worked with cutting edge pain experts like scientist Lorimer Moseley and Dr. David S. Butler in Australia, and neuroscience increasingly backed up their work. Four years ago he’d helped me immensely, with upper back pain, so naturally I’d thought first of his methodology when lower back spasms began.
The problem was, the techniques Neil had previously taught me involved calm breathing practises, like breathing “in the belly”. With my lower back “out”, breathing in my belly made my lower back hurt and felt wrong. I had long learned to relax that way, but now the feeling of the vertebrae shifting around down there told me to stop. I breathed in my chest instead, turning to exercises that tightened my torso. I clung to the techniques of Esther Gokhale, tightening every muscle I could find in my core and reluctantly let go of all the joy and bliss Neil’s calm yogic breathing techniques had provided. Angry and bitter at this profound loss, I battled with my mind daily to keep depression at bay.
When I’d consulted Neil in 2012 for persistent upper back pain, I’d been in bad shape, too. I was spending most of my time lying in bed on a heating pad. It was the first time I’d been laid so low by pain (2016 would be the second) and knowing I’d recoverd substantially from that period gave me hope that I could conquer this second episode, too. I had to conquer it. The alternative was no life at all.
“Just don’t give up,” a friend said.
“I will never give up,” I assured her.
Neil had given me a prescriptive regimen of breathing and awareness exercises, plus gentle yoga and exercise of my choosing, that I could do at home on my own. I was able to check in with him from time to time on email. Now though, he was in high demand internationally and no longer accepting private clients. However, I knew he’d created an online paincare self-management program which included videos and recordings as well as written educational material. Even though I couldn’t breathe in my belly, I decided to try it. I had nothing to lose. It only cost $180, and I’d have access to the material for six months. [editorial note: Pain Care for Life price has been reduced to $90]
Once I took the plunge, the awareness exercises informed me of something that shocked me. The pain had disrupted both my body image and my body awareness. Almost a year had passed since this nightmare had started, and I could breathe in my belly without pain. The alarming feeling of the vertebrae shifting had pretty much stopped. I was so out of touch with my body I hadn’t even realized this. Not that my belly moved much. My whole abdomen felt like a rock; my legs, like rigid boulders. My entire body was as tense as a pistol. Weirdly, I hadn’t even noticed, until a massage therapist pointed it out. A former dancer, who’d recently been teaching mindful movement, I’d lost so much awareness of my body it felt like it belonged to a stranger.
In recent months, even as I reached out for help from athletic therapy, I had finally come to accept that my body was my responsibility. No-one was going to fix it but me. That was a big step. Initally, I’d been hoping to find something wrong that someone else could fix with a pill or by giving me the right exercise regimen. My scans showed “moderate to severe” deterioration of discs in my cervical spine, a mild scoliosis and a spondylolysis (fracture) at L5-S1. However, I knew by now that MRIs had proved that many people had such scary findings on their X-Rays, and no pain. Conversely, some people didn’t have much damage at all, and they had a ton of pain. The answer was not in the abnormalities my scans showed. Other injuries in my life had always healed. Why did I have pain?
It is the brain that produces pain, the brain that can turn them off. The problem was in my brain.
… Barbara Stowe, Pender Island