“Thank God for the pain. Without the pain, I would not have been desperate. Without desperation, I would not have seen the way to surrender. And without surrender, I would not have found my truth.”
What qualifies me to offer you advice about your pain? Well, I’ve got two master’s degrees (one in Human Physiology, the other in Traditional Chinese Medicine). I’ve been in private practice as a licensed acupuncturist for nearly 14 years and have helped thousands of patients find relief from a wide variety of chronic and stubborn medical problems. I’ve dedicated my entire adult life to studying health from every possible point of view — all the way from the laboratories at Monsanto headquarters to the energy vortices in Sedona, Arizona — nothing has been off-limits in my quest to understand the human body in health and disease.
But, at least in this context, my most important qualification is the fact that I’ve struggled with (and overcome) chronic pain and autoimmune disease myself, using exactly the strategies and techniques described on this site. In order for you to get better, you are going to need to be willing to believe me when I confront you with some truths that may seem pretty challenging. When you’re tempted to write me off as full of crap, please remember that I’ve walked down (and am still walking down) the road I am suggesting that you tread. I’ve wrestled with all of this myself. I know how you feel.
PART 1: PAIN
Texas was not part of my plan
My story starts in 2003, when I was dragged kicking and screaming (only a little bit of an exaggeration) from my blissful life in Denver, Colorado to live in Waco, Texas so that my now ex-husband could take a job teaching at Baylor University. I really, really, really didn’t want to move to Texas. To give you a bit of context, I should explain that my entire extended family lives in Colorado and I always took for granted that I would live there and raise my family there, too. Texas was most definitely not part of my plan and having to move there in the height of the August heat seemed particularly cruel.
At the time my strong-willed and rambunctious toddler was causing me to seriously question my competence as a mother. I will spare you the details, but I was deeply unhappy in my marriage. I was finding it hard to make friends in my new community — my forthright, opinionated personality rubbed the Southern sensibilities of my new neighbors the wrong way and I felt like I was in middle school again, shunned from the popular girls’ table at lunchtime. I was isolated from the large community of professional peers I had had in Colorado and was facing the task of building an unconventional medical practice in a community that my prejudices caused me to view as hopelessly backward (I have since been proven wrong). To top it all off, at the time we were attending a church that taught that my desire for a career of my own was selfish and harmful to my son, the problems in my marriage were evidence of a spiritual disorder on my part, and that in order to be a good wife and “helpmeet” (which I desperately wanted to be) that I must set my feelings to the side and put a smile on my face so that my husband’s sense of self would not be damaged by my discontent.
None of these circumstances were catastrophic and I’m certainly aware (especially in retrospect) that an awful lot of people have infinitely more difficult lives than I did. I explain all this, however, to set the scene. At that time I wanted nothing more than to be like the other women in my new community — I ached to be a relaxed mother of an obedient child, a good Christian wife who was happy to submit to the leadership of her husband, a woman who could find joy and contentment in making a warm and attractive home with no desire for professional accomplishments of her own. The fact that I could not fit the square peg of these expectations into the round hole of my temperament created an enormous amount of (mostly unconscious) tension for me. What I didn’t realize at the time is that, owing to my perfectionistic and controlling personality, I was already carrying around a vast storehouse of unconscious anger. The additional tension caused by the move and everything that went along with it created a situation in my psyche that was like a pressure cooker on a stove with the heat turned up too high — something was going to have to give.
Then along came the perfect distraction
Three months after the move, I was riding in the backseat of a friend’s Suburban when we were broadsided on my door by a woman who ran a stop sign because she was talking on her cell phone. The force of the impact sent the vehicle spinning and then eventually rolling into a ditch.
The forces involved in the accident were pretty extreme and so it was no surprise that when the adrenaline rush wore off that I found myself in a lot of pain. What was surprising (at least at the time; it makes perfect sense to me now) was that in the months that followed, my pain got much worse, not better. Agony spread from my neck and back to my entire body. My hips, elbows, fingers, shoulders, and knees ached like I had the flu. Even my scalp hurt. The pain made it next to impossible to sleep. Even simple things like swallowing my meals was excruciatingly painful.
MRIs showed herniated discs in my thoracic and lumbar spine and eventually two specialists told me I had a clear-cut case of trauma-induced fibromyalgia. They emphasized to me that I would never again be free of pain. I was prescribed Vicodin, Flexeril, Lyrica, and Ambien and was told that I would need to take them every day. Indefinitely. As a practitioner of natural medicine, I bristled at this notion. But living with the pain wasn’t an option either. Before the accident I had lifted weights, done yoga, run, and relied exclusively on natural medicine. Afterward carrying a single grocery bag in from the car made it virtually impossible to get out of bed the next morning. The notion of facing a lifetime like this was discouraging to say the least.
I was frightened and confused
I was still rattled from the shock of the accident itself and couldn’t get in a car without breaking out in a cold sweat. I needed to be able to keep up with my responsibilities as wife, mother, and acupuncturist and my pain was keeping me from doing that. The authoritative words of the doctors rang in my head, telling me that I needed to accept this as my new normal. My faith in myself and in the natural health care methods that had always worked for me in the past was shaken. A small voice inside my heart tried to remind me that healing physically and emotionally from the accident might take time but that ultimately my body had the capacity to regain its equilibrium, but much louder outside voices disagreed. My physicians told me that fibromyalgia is not curable and that people with disc injuries like mine get worse, not better. Stories that I found on the internet scared me to death — Google led me to dozens of stories of people who had lost their ability to work, had to apply for disability, and fell into desperate straights following injuries like mine.
So I swallowed my pride and swallowed the pills
Although the medications dulled my pain and gave me some much-needed rest, they made me tired and depressed. Even though I took them exactly as prescribed and never engaged in behaviors characteristic of addiction (such manipulative or dishonest behavior to obtain medications, using medication to manage emotional as opposed to physical pain, or unwillingness to discontinue medication even when it is no longer being used for a medical purpose), I was physically dependent on the pills and hated it. For a few years I sought other treatments for my pain, but eventually I gave up and resigned myself. At some level I began to doubt the medicine I practiced – every day I saw acupuncture and herbs bring about remarkable changes in the lives of my patients, but I had given up hope of those same means helping me.
The awareness of this inconsistency nagged at me constantly. Eventually I stopped talking about my pain because I was tired of it. I hated it when people would ask me if I was feeling better because I never was. My pride made it hard for me to accept sympathy or assistance, so it was only a small handful of people outside my family and my physicians who even knew about my struggle. I felt incredibly alone.
A few years after the accident I started experiencing strange fevers in the afternoon and my skin became incredibly sensitive to the sun. The small joints in my hands and feet started swelling and aching and I became overwhelmingly, bone-numbingly fatigued. By that time I was under the care of a rheumatologist and my next round of blood tests showed that I was beginning to develop an autoimmune disease. I was diagnosed with undifferentiated connective tissue disorder and put on yet another drug (Plaquenil).
PART 2: DESPERATION
I put one foot in front of the other
Through all of this I parented three young children and single-handedly started and ran a successful small business. My first marriage melted down and I carried myself through a difficult divorce. My second husband and I did the extraordinarily challenging work of blending our families and supporting my sons through the emotional fallout from my divorce from their father. I exhausted myself as I forged through all of this, never taking time off work and never pausing to grieve the things that I had lost or appreciate the things I had accomplished.
“Coping requires that we repress emotions that might interfere with whatever we are trying to do and TMS exists in order to maintain repression of those emotions.” – John E. Sarno, MD, Healing Back Pain
Weeks turned into months and months turned into years
With the exception of the 20 months I was pregnant with and nursing my twins (during which time I experienced a partial remission of my symptoms), between 2003 and 2012 there were a total of over seven years when I literally did not miss a single dose of my meds. Each time I tried to wean off of them my life (and the lives of my children and husband) came to a standstill because my pain and other symptoms roared back with such a vengeance.
My body was an unpleasant place to be so I retreated to inhabiting my mind. Although this tactic gave me some distance from my physical pain, it caused me to lose touch with simple sensory pleasures. I no longer enjoyed the feeling of a full belly after a good meal, the comfort of a cozy bed, the warmth of the sun on my face, or the pleasure snuggling with my children.
I felt disconnected, discouraged, depressed, and stuck. Even though I had every appearance of success, my quality of life was nil. Worries about the future nipped at my heels whenever I wasn’t busy with something else and the meds made my mind feel cluttered, like a house that hadn’t been organized and deep cleaned in years. I found myself wasting hours and days scrolling through my Facebook feed and wandering around the Internet, seeking to escape. I was snappy with my husband and kids and alternated between feelings of seething irritation and wracking guilt.
One day I woke up and knew it was time to change
Marcus Aurelius said “If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.” Well, I was ready to take back my power. I was sick of pain and most of all I was sick of pills.
I got a dog-eared old copy of The Mindbody Prescription off my bookshelf, re-read it, and began implementing the self-treatment protocol it laid out. I had first read this book about a year after my injury, but at the time I reacted with defensiveness and skepticism to its bold claim that the vast majority of pain has its origin in the mind and the emotions rather than in the body. Now, out of desperation, I was ready to be more open-minded.
According to Dr. Sarno, my chronic back pain and fibromyalgia was caused by a condition called TMS (this acronym originally referred to Tension Myositis Syndrome, but was later revised to Tension Myoneural Syndrome or The Mindbody Syndrome). The gist of what I learned from Dr. Sarno is that pain was a ploy on the part of my psyche to keep me distracted from unconscious emotions that were so shameful or overwhelming or socially unacceptable that they would threaten my whole sense of self and ability to function in the world if they were to bubble into consciousness. According to Dr. Sarno, my pain was absolutely real — in fact it was some of the worst pain a person could suffer — it just had its origin in my mind, as opposed to my body. According to Dr. Sarno, when unconscious emotions threaten to emerge into consciousness, the autonomic nervous system causes blood vessels to constrict (a phenomenon that can happen as quickly as a person blushes when they are embarrassed). This constriction deprives muscles and nerves of oxygen and causes pain, pain serves as a very effective distraction, and difficult emotions remain safely locked away in the unconscious mind.
When I considered this claim with a really open mind, it made perfect sense to me. It helped that Dr. Sarno’s hypothesis corresponds exactly to Chinese medicine concepts which date back over 2000 years. The Inner Classic of the Yellow Emperor (written around 200 BCE) says “bu tong ze tong, tong ze bu tong” which translates roughly to “if there is no free [blood] flow, there is pain; if there is free [blood] flow there is no pain”. There has long been an awareness among the sages of Chinese medicine that unresolved emotions are a primary cause of this lack of free flow. Over and over again I had seen in my practice as an acupuncturist that when I treated my patient’s emotions, their physical maladies often evaporated.
I discovered I was a lot more pissed off than I realized
I had never thought of myself as a particularly angry person, but as I read through The Mindbody Prescription, I saw myself on every page as Dr. Sarno described individuals whose unconscious rage created debilitating (and distracting) physical pain. Each of us has a bad-tempered four-year-old child buried deep within our unconscious mind who kicks and screams with rage each time her desire for immediate gratification of every selfish impulse is obstructed. Well, from my earliest memories, my whole life has been about resisting impulses and doing the right thing — my perfect 4.0 college GPA, my unbending work-before-play ethic, my unwavering ability to remain calm under pressure, my trim and fit body, the zero balance on every credit card in my wallet, my lifelong drive toward mature and responsible behavior — all this set me up for a whopping case of TMS.
As I began to see these patterns in myself, my meditation practice made it easier for me to be a neutral, curious observer of what was going on in my mind. When I felt pain, I sat down and reflected on what I might be upset about. I understood that I didn’t have access to my unconscious emotions, but greater attention to the conscious emotions that I was in the habit of repressing was enough. Over and over I told my psyche that the jig was up — its efforts to distract me with pain would no longer work. My efforts at mindfulness enabled me to begin catching myself dozens of times a day when anger would flash across my mind, only to be repressed or dismissed or denied (out of habit) almost before I realized it was there. I started making a game out of trying to catch the tail of those little bits of anger before they could scurry out of sight.
When I succeeded in catching a nasty emotion by its tail, I tried to just sit with the feeling or even examine it, even when that made me squirm in discomfort. I realized that if I simply let myself feel what I was feeling, emotions moved through me and naturally changed — as everything in nature changes. I was surprised when I experienced how quickly my negative feelings lost their charge when I used Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) or vomited all the secret thoughts and feelings in my head onto the pages of my journal. I was stunned to find that, as the negative feelings dissipated, the pain did too. If, on the other hand, I resisted my feelings or dismissed them, my pain would flare almost immediately and I was stuck with the bad feelings to boot. I was beginning to really believe that I had finally found my cure.
PART 3: SURRENDER
Each time I read a book I write the date on the title page. The title page of my tattered copy of The Mindbody Prescription chronicles my initial resistance to its message — I tried reading it twice in 2004 but was infuriated by Dr. Sarno’s claims. Like many people do, I read the first few chapters and then crammed it back onto the bookshelf in disgust. I tried again in 2010, but at that time I didn’t recognize how much my medications were muddying the water (more on this below) and so my efforts to apply the material didn’t meet with any success. Then, in the summer of 2012, I grabbed onto Dr. Sarno’s words like a lifeline and I read the book in its entirety five times in four months. At that point my life changed.
As these insights converged, my sense of urgency to get off my medications increased. Suddenly I could see clearly that not only were the medications not fixing the problem, they were making it worse because they were obscuring the relationship between my feelings and my pain. Every time I took a pill, I was kowtowing to the erroneous belief that I was broken physically. The meds were distracting me from the real solution, which was addressing my unconscious emotions and regaining faith that my body is healthy and strong.
I weaning off my medications one at a time. I followed my own advice – I gave myself acupuncture three times a week, meditated, became religious about taking my supplements and herbs, took Epsom salts baths, and did Qi Gong daily. (I should clarify that I did these things not because they were necessary to fix my pain but because they eased my tension enough that I could slowly get off my meds and stay emotionally present enough to work Dr. Sarno’s self-treatment protocol.) I started forcing myself to do things I had avoided for years for fear of pain — moving boxes and furniture, exercising vigorously, spending the whole day on my feet doing chores, sleeping without my special pillows. Rather than catering to my pain as I had for years, I diligently ignored it.
I needed that lifeline because stopping my medications was the hardest thing I have ever done
But as soon as I started tapering off my medications my whole body howled in protest against the withdrawal of the chemicals that it had subsisted on for years. My pain levels were through the roof, I was wide awake and pacing the floor in the middle of the night, and I was tense and on the verge of panic all the time. I was terrified that I wouldn’t hack it and would return to the pills with my tail between my legs.
But this time things were different – I had to know what my life would be like without these drugs – and something (God, the angels, the Universe, whatever) was giving me the wherewithal to make that happen. Thanks be to God that my husband and sons are patient and forgiving people because I can only imagine that I was awfully unpleasant to live with through this transitional time. The physical effects of withdrawal and the emotional effects of my new found resolution not to stuff my negative emotions rendered me a snarling bitch for a period of several weeks.
(These were the times that I thanked my lucky stars that I am an acupuncturist. Like opening the valve on a pressure cooker, a few strategically placed needles left me decompressed, centered, and settled within myself, if only temporarily.)
PART 4: TRUTH
After a hellish month of acute withdrawal, the dust settled enough for me to see that the meds had been a key cause of my pain
“Opiate-induced hyperalgesia” is the big medical term for a dirty trick that medication plays on thousands of chronic pain patients, me included. Constant exposure of my nervous system to the drugs had turned the volume control on my pain to its loudest setting. With the drugs out of my system my pain gradually quieted and my body became mine again. (The worst of my withdrawal was over within a month of being off all medications, but it took a full six months for my body to feel completely normal again.) Eventually I started getting nights of sound and restorative sleep. This was a revelation and a delight.
Most importantly, getting the medications out of my system enabled me to clearly recognize the emotional patterns that were contributing to my pain and also enhanced my confidence that my body had the capacity to regain its equilibrium and become pain-free. I could finally see clearly that I was not broken (I never was) — that I had the strength and ability to emerge from this decade-long detour finally free of pain. There is something incredibly empowering about no longer having to depend on something outside yourself in order to carry out basic life functions like getting out of bed in the morning, keeping up with day to day responsibilities, and sleeping at night.
The answers had been with me all along
For years my physical and emotional pain had distracted me too much to see what should have been patently obvious to an “expert” like me. Like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, through the whole exhausting ordeal all I had to do was click my heels three times and say “there’s no place like home”. Given half a chance, my body and mind had the ability to set things to rights, I just needed to get the damn medications out of the way so that my nervous system could function normally and so that I could see the relationship between my feelings and my pain clearly enough to do something about it.
The problem was that I had stopped listening to myself and had given up my power
In retrospect I can see that I had an acute injury from the car accident that unnecessarily evolved into a chronic condition because of the messages that I was given by my health care providers, as well-intentioned as they were. They told me that there was no cure, that typically people with my problem become progressively more and more disabled as they age, and that I needed to swallow my pride and accept that prescription medications and chronic pain were my lot in life. My pain and the stress that it caused made me vulnerable to these messages and I allowed them to penetrate to my deepest sense of self. I know without a doubt that my doctors’ only goal was to help me, but I can see now they were operating with a tool set that was limited. Western medicine is just now beginning to understand the complexity and power of the link between the body and the mind but insights of those at the forefront of this research have not trickled down to the way pain is managed by physicians.
This experience has returned me home to myself
Today I have the minor aches and pains that are normal for a body that is 40+ years old, but I can do everything that I want to do. I don’t travel with special pillows, I don’t live in fear of forgetting my medications when I go on vacation (because I don’t take any), the summer before last I single-handedly laid new sod in my backyard and helped my husband move 30 tons of rock. I no longer have fibromyalgia, I don’t have chronic back pain, my blood work is normal, and am back in touch with my Life Force. Rather than seeking distraction and escape from pain and the emotional ups and downs of life, I am present. From this place I can weather the storms of life — big and small — with equanimity.
I recognize that the path that I have taken in discontinuing all medications is not right for everyone. There is no shame in resorting to prescriptions when needed and I wholeheartedly support the right of chronic pain patients to access to narcotic pain medications. But for me, as difficult as it was, stopping medications was THE KEY to my recovery. It was only after the medications were out of the picture that I was able to have insight about the emotional dynamics behind my pain and regain my confidence in my body’s ability to heal itself. (Anyone interested in discontinuing their pain medication MUST consult with their prescribing physician about how to go about it safely.)
Having been through this experience, my passion for my work is stronger and my purpose is clearer. Helping people find relief from chronic and life-limiting conditions is not just a theory out of a textbook for me. It is first-hand, I’ve-been-there experience. If you are stuck — living a life that is limited by pain, insomnia, depression, anxiety, or any of the myriad of other symptoms associated with fibromyalgia and other types of chronic pain — please get in touch. I would love to share more details of my recovery with you and help you get started on your own journey back to health and full participation in your life.