I don’t know about you, but when I was little, I was taught that the ONLY way to do jigsaw puzzles was to find the corner pieces, then all the straight edged pieces. The first step was always to build the outside ‘frame’. The theory (to which I have wholeheartedly subscribed since then) was that once you had the context, it was easier to fill in the details and get closer to the action in the middle…
Telling my story, though, has made me realise that life doesn’t always work like jigsaw puzzles. Sometimes you just have to dive into the messy middle and pull back slowly to help the context reveal itself, especially when there are multiple strands whose beginnings and ends are more than a little jumbled.
One of the stories that makes up my story started with what seemed like an innocent visit to a well-meaning chiropractor. She assured me my aching knee problem really was a back problem. I’ll admit I was more than a little skeptical, but the relief each treatment offered was more than enough to convince me that this was a viable option, at least for the short period the relief lasted. And so the cycle began.
I had pain… Damaged and sore, I sought treatment. Treatment providers changed shape and gender and function and promise along the way, but there was always someone or something in my picture. The treatment took away my pain and ‘fixed’ me… It felt like I had discovered a sure thing.
Slowly but surely, I started to need a more regular fix. Every few months became a standing monthly date. When one source of treatment was no longer enough, I supplemented with other practitioners who also provided ‘fixes’. Soon I had a busy repertoire going. In some weeks, I saw 3 different providers who each ‘fixed’ a different part of me. I was hooked. I had a habit I had never anticipated.
One day after a relief-seeking trip to an osteopath (and the day after sessions with a physio), I sat down to work. Something felt different, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. Then I tried to stand up. I realised I couldn’t. It felt like everything – and I mean everything – in my upper body was in lockdown. My neck muscles were so taut I couldn’t turn my head. Every muscle in my back was pulling together in some sort of weird solidarity. My shoulders ached with every breath I took and I had the headache of all headaches.
In pain-filled panic, I tried to arrange an emergency session but nothing was available for a few days. In that moment, I didn’t know how I would make it that long.
It felt like some scary tight-muscle-monster had taken over my body…
As I sat at my desk with tears streaming down my face, I realised I was in deep. I had no idea what to do or who to turn to or how to get out of it. I just knew I was in a place I didn’t want to be, living a life I didn’t want to live. Nothing made sense and I was scared, really scared. This was not the future I’d imagined for myself.
To be honest, I can’t even remember how I survived to tell the tale. Probably a combination of anti-inflammatories, wheat bags, gel, lotions, rest. No doubt a fairly significant pity party. Throw in some helplessness and hopelessness for good measure. And quite possibly a foul-smelling magic potion or two.
That weekend, we woke to a rainy Sunday. Lying in bed reading seemed like a perfect way to spend the morning. I picked up ‘Healing Back Pain‘ by John Sarno that had been sitting next to my bed for a couple of weeks. It was suggested reading for the life coach training course I was enrolled in and I’d been meaning to tackle it for a while.
My jaw dropped lower with every page I read. It’s a cliché, I know, but it felt like I was on every page and that this book had been written just for me.
I started taking some of the recommended actions. I felt like a toddler learning to walk but with each tentative step, I felt more confident, more capable.
Within a couple of days, I felt like a new person. As each day passed, I was able to do things I hadn’t even realised I hadn’t been doing.
It took just one week for me to realise my life had taken a dramatic upturn. I had no idea then where this ride was taking me but I’m so glad I jumped on.
Healing Back Pain opened my eyes to the fact that not only was there a name for what I’d been experiencing, but that other people had ‘it’ too. Dr Sarno called it Tension Myositis Syndrome (TMS). It’s more generally known these days as a Mind Body Syndrome (MBS) but whatever label you apply, finding a different way to look at what really causes pain changed my life.
For the first time, I understood how traumatic incidents in my past were contributing to the physical pain I’d experienced for years. I saw myself more clearly than I ever had before.
It might be true that I replaced my treatment addiction with one that saw me devouring books and websites and courses and programmes but my new passion for learning about the inextricable link between my mind and body has served me well.
As I ploughed my way through all sorts of material (and despite my lack of high school biology), I learned enough about the physiology of pain and stress to understand what it really does to your body to be in a constant state of fight or flight.
I realised that the stresses and strains of daily living exact a harsher toll on our systems than we understand at the time. I discovered that being in ‘freeze’ is a pattern that our brains learn and that we repeat the patterns of our lives until we learn how to create new ones. I recognised how traumatic events up the ante on our pain cycle, and that trauma lives on in our bodies, long beyond the original incident.
I understand now how we can unlearn patterns in our brains we’re not even aware of forming, that our brains can indeed be rewired and that it is possible to take control of our ill-disciplined minds. In acknowledging all of my past, I have found courage and resilience, and greater peace and calm.
As I learn to live with less stress,anxiety, pain and tension, I’m learning to speak the language of my body and to respond with attention and compassion when it tries to engage me. I’m learning that what I need most is inside me and that no band-aid, no matter how cute or appealing or tempting, is ever going to take my pain away.
Today I know I don’t need an external fix. I’m not broken. There’s nothing wrong with me.
I walk and cycle and yoga to my heart’s content. I do headstands and I’m even taking a special class to learn how to do handstands. If you’d told me two years ago I could even contemplate any of this, I would probably have considered you certifiable. There may still be many poses and exercises and activities that challenge and test me, but I’m in the game now, like I never was before.
As my journey has progressed, I’ve assembled an impressive armoury of tools and practices that help keep me pain free. Mostly, I’m pretty good at keeping things on an even keel. Like every human on the planet, there are times when I forget to do the things that serve me best and I need to work a little harder to get back on track. Now, though, I’m the one that dispenses my ‘treatment’, even when it seems far easier to outsource things to the nearest fixer. I learn and grow, adjusting my prescription with each twist in the road.
As I continue to turn towards my body and the wisdom it holds, I wonder at what an incredible journey this is.