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My Pain Memoir 4 ~ Barbara Stowe

Talking Back to the Joykill Judge; Goals get me out of the Pain Gaol

 

Gentle movement challenge was part of the program Pearson prescribed for persistent pain when I consulted him in Penticton in 2012. After I came back home I knew I had to set some goals that would challenge my resistance to movement.

On a good day I could walk for 10 minutes. I decided to increase that by one minute per week. My ultimate goal would be 20 minutes, going fast enough to break a sweat. It was unimaginable — the thought of the pain I’d doubtless encounter made my mouth go dry and my heart race — but what was going to happen to my heart if I couldn’t move fast enough to work up a sweat again?

Joe and I were renting a house on the Musqueam reserve. The Musqueam band had recently built a new community centre down the street from us, a two-minute stroll from our front door. Every day for months now we’d been walking by, peeking through ground-floor glass walls at a gym with treadmills the faced the Fraser River. How I wanted to be on one of those treadmills with that inspiring view! How much easier, to challenge pain while gazing at the flowing Fraser and fishing boats!

I love a sweaty workout. There’s something purifying about it, something real, something I sorely missed from my dancing days. Sure, the sharp gym tang of other peoples’ perspiration could initially be unpleasant, but after awhile I’d usually forget about it, or even, mysteriously, begin to enjoy it. Scientific studies have proven that pheromones in men’s perspiration can make women relax, so it doesn’t surprise me that the smell I like best in the world, to my husband’s bewilderment, is his sweat.

In the gym, with everyone working out, challenging personal limits, the atmosphere would be motivational. But there was a problem. “They’ll never let a white person in,” I moaned to Joe. I don’t actually think of myself as white, being olive-skinned and of Jewish ancestry, but skin colour wasn’t the real barrier. What had we newcomers contributed to this community, besides paying rent? Why should the Musqueam let me into their gym?

One day I decided I was going to try anyway. What was the worst thing that could happen? Someone would ask me, no doubt most politely, to leave. We’d been treated with an admirable civility by everyone on Reserve. The Musqueam were nothing if not courteous. Their manners floored me, considering what outsiders had done to First Nations peoples.

As I walked past the totem poles standing guard near the entrance, and up to the front door, an internal judge snapped: “Fool!” I knew I had to combat this inner bogeyman if I wanted to get into that gym.

In recent years I’d noticed this carping critic getting louder. When I pitched a first screenplay to Hollywood, I heard it big time! “Who do you think you are?” it sneered when I called production houses. The “gatekeepers” dismissed me with a curt refusal before I could get ten words out of my mouth.

Then I started placing a tealight on my desk and ceremonially lighting it before picking up the phone. The critic scoffed “New Agey nonsense”, but candles calmed my nerves, and I “saw the light” as a symbol of hope. “This screenplay is good!” I told the joykill judge, mentally citing proof. Hadn’t the University of British Columbia given me a fellowship for a Masters program in creative writing? Hadn’t this script placed highly in several well-respected contests, including one run by Francis Ford Coppola’s company? Sticky notes about this “evidence” helped buoy my spirits as I punched in numbers.

It was like the gatekeepers could smell confidence coming down the line. Now, they’d pause long enough to let me finish my pitch, and I’d get the green light to send a “one-sheet”, the first step in the long, agonizing dance to getting a script to the screen.

Because of Pearson’s program, I’d been monitoring my thoughts ever more closely, and on the doorstep of the Rec Centre, I told the critic where to go. “They’re delighted to see me!” I thought fiercely. “They need numbers to make this Rec Centre ‘go’!”

I didn’t know if this was true, but it seemed plausible. I could always feel the heart on the Rez, the inner beauty and connection of a people whose values were congruent with protecting and preserving the things that were most important in life. But too many mornings we’d woken to solemn drumbeats and looked out our windows to see a funeral procession walking to the graveyard up the hill. Often the mourning was for a young person whose death was rooted in the disconnect from family and cultural traditions that colonial culture had visited upon them. How could people suffering such losses be motivated to put on workout gear and go to a gym?

So, surely attendance figures would matter. Statistics could be cited, and there was no colour in numbers. Besides, I didn’t want something for nothing. Clutching my wallet, I pasted a smile on my face and marched through the door.

In that moment, I flashed on my father.

An obituary tribute to Dad published in the then-underground Vancouver newspaper the Georgia Straight, written by columnist Bob Cummings, described his smile as “75% natural human warmth and 25% solid determination”. It was that part of him I recognized in myself now.

Dad defined chutzpah. He’d ask anyone and everyone he met to sign a petition or donate to one of his activist initiatives. He used to write an environmental column for the Georgia Straight, and delivered the paper to stores all over the Kitsilano neighbourhood. Sometimes I went with him to pick up the edition at College printers, but I’d stay in the car whenever he grabbed a bundle of papers and strode into a shop. I was embarrassed.

One day he emerged from a corner grocery store triumphantly clutching a $5 bill. “Donation to the Don’t Make a Wave Committee,” he said, carefully placing it in a labelled envelope. It amazed me that a Chinese grocer, who was probably saving every penny he earned to send his kids to college, would hand over hard-earned money to send a fishing boat to stop a nuclear bomb test.

How narrow my thinking was. Of course the grocer read newspapers, too. His family was just as much at risk as ours from the 5-megaton bomb the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission was planning to explode on Amchitka Island. Seismic experts warned it could create an underground earthquake and initiate a tidal wave that came all the way up to our coastline, citing a chilling precedent: an underground quake in Alaska in 1964 had instigated a tidal wave that swept all the way to Vancouver Island and wreaked havoc in Port Alberni. I shivered just thinking about it.

And then the sneering censor snapped me back to 2012. Pathetic! it said. My parents were trying to save the world, when all I could do was try to get into a smelly gym! The weakling of the family. Artists were selfish and narcicisstic. Why wasn’t I helping others, trying to change the world?

I told the voice to shut right up and marched into the Rec Centre. The band member at the reception desk eyed me warily. I could almost smell his distrust, cloaked inside a ritual civility, and when I explained what I wanted, he hesitated. A moment later, I was walking out holding a membership card. And, he wouldn’t take my money! Later, he’s said, there’d probably be a charge for outsiders, but right now, it was free.

As I floated down the street, I mental high-fived myself for challenging the internal bogeyman. I couldn’t wait to grab my gym bag and challenge pain in a brand-new gym with the best view in town, only a two minute walk from our front door.

Every day after breakfast I went to the gym.Some days were harder than others, but each week I managed to add a minute to my time. Afterwards I gave myself a body scan lying down in bed and totally relaxing, as a reward. By the end of 12 weeks I could go for 20 minutes straight, walking so fast I was almost running. When I wiped the treadmill down and towelled off the sweat, I felt like a champion.

That was 2012. I’d started working again, teaching a continuing ed course in creative writing at Langara College. I was standing in front of a class for 3 hours at a time, writing at home, and could pick up our 12-pound cat most days. Even if my upper back still hurt enough that I’d ask for Joe’s help to lug grocery bags up from the carport, I was so much better, both physically and mentally. Istarted teaching gentle movement classes to seniors.

I had a life.

Then came the fall of 2015, and repetitive lower back spasms, and in six months time I was, once more, virtually a shut-in in a bathrobe.

I thought I knew pain and how to deal with it. I had Pearson’s methods. But lower back spasms were different from the thick dull upper back pain I was used to. These acute twinges scared me terribly. And how could I possibly apply Pearson’s methodology, which required calm breathing “in the belly”, when my exhale was shaky? Worse, belly-breathing made my lower vertebrae shift alarmingly –, at least, that’s what it felt like.

I’d been told different things over the years about the spondlolisthesis in my lower spine. The first I’d heard of it was at age 22, when a physiotherapist looked at an X-Ray of my lower back and said a piece of my vertebrae was missing. “How can you possibly dance, with your back?” she exclaimed.

Sure, my back was not as flexible as I would have liked, but I’d danced solos in small ballet and contemporary dance companies, and her comment angered me intensely, probably because it scared the bejesus out of me. A piece of my spine was missing? “Dancing is not just physical!” I shot back. “It’s artistry!”

Another physiotherapist showed me a model of the spine and explained that with a “spondy”, one vertebra “slipped forward” on the vertebra below it. That, he said, was causing the pain.

Then I read a lot of documented evidence on the internet that showed that vertebrae cannot “slip”.

If I’d remembered what Pearson had said about how the brain tries to make a sensible story out of what’s happening, but sometimes gets it wrong, I would have guessed that the pain I felt was not caused by a structural defect but muscle spasms, a protective mechanism. But I was so gripped by pain and fear that I blocked out this knowlege.

Instead, I listened with increasing fear as my doctor explained the results of a scan he’d ordered. It showed the spondylolisthesis had progressed to Stage Two. If this progression continued, he said, surgery would be required. Back surgery was risky, and wouldn’t necessarily work.

I tried the Gokhale Method, the Egoscue Method, athletic therapy, physiotherapy and Svaroopa Yoga, and learned some valuable things along the way, but the spasms kept returning and I battled daily with my mind to keep depression at bay.

Finally, near the end of the summer of 2016, a year since this nightmare had begun, I swallowed my pride and emailed Pearson. It hurt to admit that I was back at square one, but I was desparate. Maybe he could help me again, even if I couldn’t breathe “well” (pun fully intended). He didn’t take private clients anymore, but would he accept one paid consult from a former client by phone or email?

Even before he replied I knew what I had to do, and bit the bullet. On September 1st I signed up for the six-month online “Life is Now” self-management program he’d developed. In 2012 he’d simply seen me for several appointments, written a prescriptive regimen on a piece of paper, and sent me home with a couple of CDs. Now, I had a wealth of material to choose from: educational videos about how pain works; body scans; breathing techniques and gentle yoga. If nothing else, returning to body scan meditation would help me relax and get back in touch with my body. As I explored the site some material was familiar, but there was plenty that was new.

Pearson agreed to a phone consult, but when he called I found myself mumbling, inarticulate and ashamed. The only thing I said clearly came straight from my gut:

“I got stuck in the joy and the bliss.”

“Ahh.” he replied

There was no need to say more. We both understood that this journey was about more than physical pain. There were lessons to be learned, deeper realms I’d been avoiding, connections between mind and body and spirit that my brain wanted to dismiss. Pearson’s 2012 prescription had called for “feeling joy and grief, daily”. I’d tapped deeply into joy, but avoided grief. The wiser part of me knew that it was there somewhere waiting for me, buried in a place I didn’t want to go.

As always, Pearson was kind and patient, and I silently admitted the truth to myself. Once again I’d been hoping for a quick fix, and he could only give me guidelines. I had to do the work, get into the exercises and commit to them, challenge my fears and go to those places that terrified me if I really wanted to get better.

Within a few days, the revelations began. I was listening to a body scan when I realized that, oh, Christ, I was breathing “in my belly”! That awful feeling like the lower vertebrae were shifting around had stopped. I hadn’t even realized that. Was I that out of touch with my own body?

Yes. My legs, the parts that I could feel, anyway, felt like rigid boulders. My calves were tense as rocks from the moment I woke up in the morning. My hands shook when I reached for my morning cup of tea. I felt like a stranger in my own body. What the hell was happening to me?

Even when I was at the Pain Clinic at St. Paul’s Hospital, my upper back pain had begun to spread to my ribs. “Oh, fibromyalgia,” the physio muttered when I told her. I wanted to stick my fingers in my ears. That word terrified me. I did not even want to think about it!

Fibromyalgia was very hard to treat, much harder than pain that stayed in one place. And my symptoms seemed congruent with what I’d read about this condition. The pain moved around so much now that besides the lower back, it was showing up in thighs, hips, buttocks, and around my ribs

Now, I remembered a book I’d found before consulting Pearson in 2010, a slim little paperback titled “Healing Back Pain” written by Dr. John Sarno, a professor of Rehabilitation Medicine at the New York School of Medicine. Like Pearson, he’d become frustrated with the medical profession’s lack of success at treating persistent pain.

Sarno was surprised to discover that his patients fit a certain personality type: driven, perfectionistic and with a strong desire to be “good”, or at least, to be seen as good. I saw myself on every page of his book and considered his approach, but could not buy his theory that (for those with this personality) pain that persisted was due entirely to repressed anger, and could be conquered by shifting thoughts from the body to the emotions.

Not that I was against the idea of what the medical profession termed a “somatoform disorder”. Far from it! As I understood it, pain that was regarded as psychosomatic could sometimes be cured in one or two sessions with a psychiatrist. Hallelujah! But when I asked doctors if I might have a psychosomatic condition, they said I didn’t fit the profile.

I asked myself now: what if that profile was too narrow?

On September 9th, my husband brought the mail in.

“What’s this?” he asked, tossing me a package.

“No idea.” I tore open the brown cardboard wrapper and found a bulky paperback I’d ordered some time ago: “The Great Pain Deception”, by one Steven Ray Ozanich. I forgotten I’d ever ordered this book.

It had the worst cover I’d ever seen. “FAULTY MEDICAL ADVICE IS MAKING US WORSE” shouted the subtitle in capital letters. The image of a yin-yang symbol composed of human skeletal parts grossed me out. And the names of multiple health conditions were sprawled all over the cover. Self-publishing, I thought disdainfully. What ever made me order such a ridiculous book?

Not only did the book look like a dud, but I heard a warning voice. Don’t read it now, it said. Don’t mix pain care methods. Too many cooks spoil the broth.

But I was so curious. Ozanich credited Dr. Sarno’s methodology with helping him heal, and Sarno’s book had resonated with me, even if ultimately I couldn’t believe in his theories thoroughly enough to try his methods.

I opened Ozanich’s tome and began to read.

The cover might be awful, but Ozanich’s story was gripping. He’d been through Hell and back again. And, he was funny. “Denial Ain’t Just A River in Eygpt, It Flows Through Eight Other Countries,” quipped one header. And I laughed out loud when I read how he “wanted to be full of ‘sit'”, after back pain had prevented him from sitting down. Tell me about it, Steve-O, I thought.

It was reassuring to find that some of his messages resonated with the Life is Now program techniques. “Feel the entirety of the body…and force your mind off the painful area,” Ozanich advised on page 193. Didn’t Pearson say basically the same thing in his book and educational vids? I was just beginning to learn to apply this technique by practising with the Life is Now “Yoga Nidra” recording and other body scans.

Only, Pearson didn’t talk about forcing anything. His direction was to become conscious of areas that were not in pain, or felt good; to feel the sensations there; and then alternate attention between those areas, and the areas that hurt — as well as sometimes widening attention to include the whole body. This could retrain the protective mechanisms of the brain that were causing the pain and hypervigilance.

Regardless of similarities, there was still one big difference, though. Ozanich, like Sarno, focused on a personality type and the necessity of alwaysturning attention from the body to emotions (especially anger, which they said “goodists” repressed). Pearson’s work was not geared to one personality type, and besides getting in touch with emotions, his methodology offered many ways to relieve pain, including breath and body awareness. Who was right: Pearson? Or Ozanich and Sarno?

One thing was crystal clear to me by now: mind and body were intimately connected when it came to persistent pain. I’d discovered that when I was working with Pearson’s methods in 2012. Sarno, Ozanich and Pearson were in agreement on this point. Furthermore, Dr. Norman Cousins, who documented his extraordinary recovery from ankylosing spondilitiis in his bestselling 1979 memoir Anatomy of An Illness, had pointed out that the placebo effect is proof positive that there is no real separation between mind and body.

Come to think about it, I’d experienced proof of this when I was 11 years old. It was during a ballet class that I discovered that I could do “impossible” things with my body by changing my mental state.

One fateful day, our regular teacher was away, and her substitute — a lithe young woman with a faraway look in her eyes — told us we could do much more with our bodies than we thought, by using relaxation.

“Here, I’ll show you,” she said, scanning the class. She beckoned me over. “Sit against the wall.”

I plopped myself under the barre and shunted my back against the wall.

“Bend your knees. Put the soles of your feet together.”

I’d never been flexible, and when I put my soles together my knees were up at chest height. It was most uncomfortable, physically and emotionally. Any grace I possessed came from feeling the music, not limberness. Now, everyone could see just how stiff and awkward my body really was.

She placed her hands gently on my knees and told me to close my eyes and relax. Relax! How? But as she kept her hands lightly in place, without using any pressure at all, and kept repeating gently that it was okay to let go, the warmth of her palms on my knees felt good and her voice soothed me. She used imagery…beaches, sun, sand…and after a while, my hip joints let go a little bit…and a little more…until finally I didn’t feel anything anymore except a vague spreading softness, loosening and expansion. I couldn’t tell how much time had passed, and strangely, didn’t really care.

“Now, open your eyes.”

I blinked my eyes open and looked down. My legs were on the floor! I felt as if I was seeing them from far, far away, as if I was standing on top of a high mountain looking down at limbs that didn’t even belong to me. Then the thought came: “Those are MY legs!” and my knees snapped up to their former postition and I felt as stiff, awkward and graceless as before.

That teacher had never come back. Sometimes, remembering that day, it seemed to me there was something almost magical about her sudden appearance and disappearance and the profound lesson she’d taught us . It haunted me, and I could never replicate the result. Not in such a quick and dramatic manner, but gradually, as I dedicated myself deeply to dance, I learned how to relax my tight body more and more until I could do the splits or throw a leg above my head in grand battement.

I couldn’t help wondering if physical flexibility might help conquer mental rigidity. I knew I was uptight, even if I’d schooled myself to appear calm and graceful. This sobering truth had shamed me even as a child. We’d been sitting at the dinner table one night when the conversation took a deeper turn, and my father said: “Adapting to change is the most important thing in life.” My mother nodded and they smiled at each other, perhaps congratulating themselves for adapting so well to moving from continent to continent, leaving behind family and friends and secure employment. My brother too had adapted easily, it seemed, to new countries, homes, schools and routines.

“Oh no!” I thought despairingly. I hated change. I knew that my parents were right, and I was doomed.

Reading Ozanich’s book gave me confidence to challenge myself into moving more again. This guy had crawled out of bed in excruciating pain and forced himself to run for miles. Surely if he could do that, I could at least get myself out for a daily walk, even for five or ten minutes?

A guided imagery exercise on the Life is Now site inspired further confidence. It took the listener up a mountain, clambering over fallen logs and boulders. It hurt too much to imagine climbing over logs (more proof that it was my brain creating pain and not structural damage), so I pictured myself magically floating along sometimes, or being carried.

When I reached the top and stood there, hands on hips, sweaty and triumphant, I felt the joy and exhiliration of a new freedom. I knew this was her: my future self. Pearson and Ozanich both maintained that it was essential to repeatedly picture oneself moving with more ease or without pain at all. I had found this impossible until now.

I memorized the new me: face glowing, body lean and muscular in a burnt-orange top and pants rolled up to the knees, revealing strong and powerful calves. I hadn’t worn pants for years, because just the pressure of the central rear seam against my tailbone alone was enough to make it ache with pain.

This woman of the future was more than I’d ever been. She wasn’t trapped in pain or fear and her possibilities were limitless. It was a vision that would sustain me in the coming weeks and months as new revelations and forward leaps came coupled with setbacks, doubt, anger and fear. The journey would be long but I had companions: Pearson, Sarno, Ozanich, yoga teacher Eschara McNab, and Svaroopa Yoga founder Rama Berch, whose breathing exercises I would begin to incorporate into my days. They had all walked this path, and I was grateful for the wisdom they’d found and shared with all of us.