I have spent the better part of my life making a study of pain. This began out of necessity at age 19 when I was delivered a life sentence in the form of a spinal condition known as spondylolisthesis. The day I received the news, I was flat on my back in an orthopedic surgeon’s office, X-ray slapped on the lit screen, panicked and in agony.
My diagnosis was fraught with warning: no long travel, no active sports, beware of certain sleeping positions, and the most emphatic: the likelihood of carrying a baby to term without serious injury was small to none.
Having been a child who’d swaddled her baby dolls and stuffed animals with equal passion and purpose, this final piece of news hit me hard. A life without the big and vibrant family I had envisioned? Was this a life at all?
The spinal fusion surgery the doctors were recommending could wait they said. I was young and if I was very careful and followed their complex instructions, I might live until 40 without it.
Even so, the reality lingered in my thoughts: a body cast, a long recovery, a limited life.
A contemplative soul by nature often pondering life’s secrets and complexity, I knew inherently that perhaps this wouldn't be my fate. I didn’t at the time, however, know quite why, or how.
A Mind-Body Approach
A psychology student and a curious being, I opened myself to the possibility that there was more than one reason human beings experienced pain. Exposed to Dr. John Sarno’s theories of mind-body medicine, I made a bold gesture: I would do a psychology experiment, on myself.
Sarno’s theories posited that we live in a mind-body system. Although we may look damaged on an X-ray or MRI, these abnormalities are part of being alive, and do not account for the surge of chronic pain cases in our society.
Instead, he espoused, repressed emotions are the root of human pain. To heal, we must consider not only our physical selves, but our emotional ones as well. We must boldly draw back the curtains of our lives, and peek within. We must walk into our darkest rooms, and turn on the light.
Following Sarno’s instructions, I dedicated myself to the excavation of my subconscious. Although a frightening concept at first glance, I embraced its necessity with appropriate desperation and surrender.
If, as I contend, life is a choice between “what hurts” and “what hurts worse,” this journaling exercise was certainly a better option than a limited life of chronic pain and potentially catastrophic surgery.
In my efforts over the following months, I came to know myself on another level. I looked at a child who didn’t feel heard; a life driven by fear and shame and overblown expectations which were, as William Shakespeare so aptly put it, “The root of all heartache.”
I sat with the sadness, the anger, the resignation, and the grief. I sat, with patience and kindness for myself, and finally arose from the effort pain-free.
Although still broken via MRI, I have traveled the world, surfed, skied, and rollerbladed my way from one year to the next, and slept any way I’ve well pleased.
My beautiful babies, Isabella, Oliver, and Charlotte are 15, 13, and 9. I carried them to term, exercising until the day each was born. I am 44 years old and have never had a surgery.
Uncovering The Pain
As a psychotherapist who’s dedicated my private practice for years solely to the cure of chronic pain as I experienced myself, I have learned that in order to broach the pandemic of chronic illness we must first consider a most important query: Where does pain live?
Is pain in our bodies? When we suffer from Irritable Bowel Disease, does it exist within the stomach? Is fibromyalgia located in the nerves that run up and down our arms and legs—does pain live there? Do muscle groups, as they ache and spasm, carry the pain within them, isolated?
How about the pain of the heart… where does that live? Do we not ache from loss in our physical bodies, our stomachs sick with the receipt of bad news, our skin awash with hives upon certain panic?
We certainly feel pain in our bodies, but as modern medicine has shown us through the uncertain results of surgery and the epic disaster of opiate pain medications, perhaps we must search further for relief.
I have come to know with confidence through years of watching the most severe cases of pain and conditions resolve completely, that we have the power to rid ourselves of the symptoms associated with many and varied diagnoses through properly guided introspection, and simple unearthing of the matters in our lives which have been repressed out of necessity.
There is no need to actually resolve any issue one is experiencing. It needs only to be genuinely known.
I often present the query to my clients: “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?”
I ask this to awaken them to the reality that even if we don’t acknowledge our repressed emotions, they will surface somewhere. Sometimes this is in the form of physical suffering, and sometimes it’s simply a feeling of being stuck, as if the world is for everyone else, and not for us.
It makes a sound; it crashes with passion in each falling. You have a choice whether or not to pay attention to it, but either way it will resonate.
When we have inconvenient feelings and very natural reactions to our lives, they make a sound within our mind-body systems. When we fail to listen and give them a moment of our attention, they build up in strength and eventually can cripple us in pain.
Pain has great power. It has greater power than any other force, because when we are in acute enough pain, we can literally do nothing else. Through the simple witnessing of our own conflict and beliefs, the world opens to us. The path, formerly littered with branches and obstacles, is rather a passage of curiosity and hope.
As for me, I am overwhelmed daily with gratitude for my pain, my journey, and the bounty of my life as a result. It is my heartfelt wish that those walking this road open their minds, find their willingness born of surrender, and embrace the healing that is possible.
© 2020 Nicole Sachs. Used with permission.