October 29, 2011

One More Step: Healing What Ails Me

This post has absolutely no relation to what I set out to write about this chilly morning, but that's the nature of the artist's pledge to follow their inspiration. It produces things you least expect. In my case, for more than the last month, I was inspired to find out what was causing my back pain.

And now, just like that, it's gone. After plaguing me non-stop for a month, with constant hip pain for almost 7 months before that, my back pain simply disappeared. I don't mean all little aches from overdoing it or sitting in a chair too long, but the inability to carry my baby or bend over and brush my teeth without spasms...no more. Such is the nature of that type of pain. I wrote a few posts about it and what I believe its root to be (unrelieved tension), but I didn't really note what the specific day was that it stopped. Oh well, it's not important—the good thing is it's gone for now.

The funny thing is, I remembered that when I got up early this morning and carried the laundry basket downstairs. While my back was hurting, my husband would have had to do it for me. All I did this time was peek over my shoulder to see if he or the baby had stirred from slumber while I hauled it up and off the floor, reveling in the fact that less than 2 weeks ago that would have been impossible. And how great that felt. It's funny how little you appreciate certain things until you don't have them anymore, like simple physical abilities. Of course I would be amiss if I didn't reflect at least a LITTLE on what I think might have been the key to getting it to hit the road.

A full acknowledgment that it was stress-related tension was the first step—realizing that not just the back, but the hip was involved was also key. That way, when it started to switch back and forth, I didn't get too worried that something was wrong with me, which I think perpetuated it over the last several months.

A sincere effort to get into a regular exercise routine was also important—one that I haven't even started yet, mind you, but plans are laid—I signed up for swim lessons at the local pool that will start next week. And I also got my bike fixed up and out on the road after collecting dust for almost two years. I'd been walking a lot until my hip started hurting, and that really put me out mood-wise. Just knowing that I'm getting back on track with physical activity makes me feel better about myself, which spreads like ripples.

Regular journaling, and reflective time, whether it be in meditation, affirmation, or prayer, seems important also. Writing gives me an opportunity to process and externalize things that well up inside. The reflective time allows me to either "let go" of things out of my control, or recognize things that I can influence.

There were also a couple miscellaneous things I had to deal with internally, like my mindset about some things. The closest I can come to summing this up is along the lines of the "God give me the serenity" adage. Or, something I believe the Dalai Lama said, which to paraphrase, goes like "If something is in your control, why worry about it; and if something is out of your control, why worry about it?" In other words, don't pretend you can't do something about a situation—have the courage to change it if you can. And if you really can't do anything about something, try to let it go. This is really hard because we get into habits of truly believing something is out of our control when in truth it's in our hands. Indeed, we have quite a bit more power than we think we do, and even that acknowledgment can be frightening because it means we have no choice but to act. The converse is also often true—we attempt to change things that are really outside our influence. Perceiving the difference between these two things is truly a life skill honed with time and intention.

For non-believers, this last piece might be the hardest part to embrace, but I also think that a little daily prayer (to whatever spirit you decide on) is wise in order to align your perspective to the greater context of the universe. Tapping into that source of universal power can be of great comfort... it's not just you who's holding the reins of your life in this world, and you can't always know what's waiting for you on the other side of a struggle.

October 20, 2011

Fall and Change: The End of a Cycle

If I had to pick a favorite, it would probably be fall. I just remember so many delightful things about it growing up, like going into the orchard to pick apples, raking and jumping in piles of all the multi-colored leaves, the holidays that come with it—Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas right around the corner. As an adult, I look forward to harvest season, the nice weather, and more social and family get-togethers.

Today it dawned on me that there's something even more noble about fall: an undeniable beauty and peace at the end of a cycle. The seasons are a rhythm of increasing and decreasing sunlight and life on Earth. In the northern hemisphere, the winter solstice marks the moment renewal begins—the return of the light. Spring is a time of flourishing.  Summer is rich decadence, and Fall is of harvest and decay. It's a natural pattern, one that we can't resist, and why would we want to? We know this is the way things are meant to be.

Yet during day to day life we have a more ambivalent relationship with change (at least I do). Sometimes we say, "It's time for a change," or, "I needed a change." But sometimes we're not so psyched about the idea: "You mean you want me to change?" or, "I can't change the way I am..."  As for our attitude about change, it's almost as if it depends on our perspective: we resist change we take to be negative, but embrace change we deem to be positive. It's a very subjective perspective, that depends on many things—our culture, profession, gender, our experience, our age, even our moods.

Perhaps the changes that we feel more passionately about have to do with our own selves. However, since we often don't notice changes going on around us (or do, but choose to ignore them), it can be difficult to even notice a shift in ourselves. It's funny to me that our culture clings so insistently to an identity that defines us as individuals, when in fact we grow so much throughout the course of our lives. In fact, physically, comparatively few of the original cells we were born with are still with us as adults! In essence, we replace ourselves over and over as we age.

For me, it's frustrating that, despite knowing that change is a necessary and healthy part of life, that I overlook its role so often. It's satisfying when I can slow down, appreciate the moment, and not get too caught up in the past—i.e. what we could have done differently, or the future—the what ifs of a situation.

Observing my daughter is a prime example of how important it is for me to stay focused on the present. So much is happening with her today—her development is so rapid that if I look away even for a few hours, I might not catch the first time she says "duckie" or even her first steps by herself. That's not to beat myself up over the hours I have to spend working, but a reminder to fully appreciate the moments I have with her.

The growth of a human and the cycles of the seasons are expected changes, that we're fairly prepared for. But then there are unexpected changes that take a bit more attention to notice when they are first happening. Mood swings, for example. A good friend moving away. An ant infestation on a plant in your garden. An ill pet. It pays to stay aware so you can catch these changes as they occur, and that way you won't be so surprised when their results affect your life.

Completely unexpected events catch us completely by surprise—they can either delight us to no end, like a friend dropping by or calling out of the blue, or winning a contest. They can throw us off balance, or even do harm, like serious illnesses or acts of violence. But we also have the opportunity to see some seemingly random events as not so happenstance. For example, in the American culture of my birth, death is a very difficult subject, but in my host culture, Mexico, the end of the life cycle is embraced at this time of the year, in the Day of the Dead celebrations. Or on another topic, no one really predicted when the Occupy Wall Street movement would occur, but many people were starting to get fed up with the course of our country's evolution, and so it should come as no surprise that the day would come when people would demand a change.

By seeing occurrences as part as the natural cycle of cause and effect, maybe we can relax into the feeling that; either we did everything possible to positively affect the outcome of events, or that we did everything possible and it's out of our hands. That must be where the phrase, "God give me the courage to change the things I am able, and the serenity to accept that which I cannot" came from.

It would be an omission on my part were I not to acknowledge the role of reading Buddhist books, such as those authored by the Dalai Lama, in influencing my thoughts on the subject of impermanence. Reflecting on the momentary (and cyclic) nature of things helps me to appreciate the little things that I might otherwise overlook in my daily life. If that gives me just one more iota of peace, that's a change I can embrace.

October 5, 2011

Coming Into My Own

The past two weeks have been a challenge because an old problem I thought I'd gotten rid of reared its ugly head. Since the night before my daughter's 1st birthday, I started having terrible lower back pain. Since the pain inevitably affects my life, I posted on my Facebook page that my back was out & what I thought was behind it—a psychogenic pain syndrome. Judging by the response (0 comments so far), either my friends and family think I'm loca, or this is too heavy of a topic for social networking.

But if I were crazy, so would be Jeannette Barber, John Stossel, Howard Stern, and Dr. John Sarno, M.D., as well thousands (if not millions) of people that this venerable but controversial NYU medical professor who developed the TMS theory believes the disorder affects every year. John Stossel, 20/20 correspondent, talks more about the pain syndrome here.

I've been having bouts of incapacitating back pain off and on since the spring of 2002. Back then, I thought my back pain was due to an on-the-job injury. I visited the doctor, who prescribed NSAIDs and bed rest. The pain became practically paralyzing. The MRI said I had bulging discs. The physical therapist prescribed exercises. The bodyworker helped me breathe deeper and visualize a protective shield. This went on for months. Then I saw an acupuncturist, who balanced my energy meridians. Ironically, the stress relief treatments worked better than the pain relief treatments. The massage therapist said I was tense. The chiropractor adjusted me and told me I had an instable SI joint. Still no long-term relief after four years. Finally in 2006, I read the book Healing Back Pain by Dr. John Sarno, which told me my back pain was psychogenic in origin: Tension Myoneural Syndrome.

Reading that book was the only thing that really reduced the length and frequency of my bouts of pain—once I really accepted its role in my life, I went an entire year without a major pain event, and when I did again it only lasted for days, when for the past four years, I'd have at least 3 bouts of pain that lasted from 1-2 weeks every year. To me, the book was the most powerful medicine I'd encountered so far.

On the TMS wikipedia site, TMS is summarized as "a condition in which unconscious emotional issues (primarily rage) initiate a process that causes physical pain and other symptoms. [The] theory suggests that the unconscious mind uses the autonomic nervous system to decreases blood flow to muscles, nerves or tendons, resulting in oxygen deprivation, experienced as pain in the affected tissues." According to Sarno, TMS manifests most commonly as back, leg, or neck pain, but can also lead to disorders such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS or colitis) and others. Sarno also considers fibromyalgia to be synonymous with TMS.  The personality characteristics of people who are most susceptible to TMS are, from the introduction to TMS wiki: perfectionists, people pleasers, very self critical, and very ambitious individuals.

This whole topic is both fascinating and embarrassing to me at the same time. Fascinating because although it's not the first instance where I've come in direct contact with the power of our mind, it's definitely the most in-my-face example of how my subconscious can control me, and how I can often take control of my own pain. Because of this, I've made great strides with this and other difficult aspects of my life.

However, telling people that I believe I "have this" condition can sometimes still be embarrassing for a couple reasons: One, there's still that stigma against mental disorders in both the United States where I'm from and in Mexico, where I live—in both countries a psychological condition is often seen as an imagined apparition (it's all in your head) or a personal debility. And there's a part of me, probably that very perfectionist, people-pleaser side, that doesn't want to appear weaker, or anything less than "on top of" my own issues, no matter how hard things get. I can remember a time in high school when we used to mock the concept of psychosomatic disorders, i.e. people who "do it to themselves" or "bring on their own problems." Kids are cruel, adults pretend not to be, but many of us hide our true feelings, which sometimes makes it harder for us to be genuine with each other (or even ourselves). But let's face it—all of us have struggled with unpleasant emotions—anger, jealousy, sadness, frustration, or worse— for our entire lives. To deny it would be ingenuous at best.

Second, I was trained as a biologist and a skeptic in the scientific tradition, and Dr. Sarno's TMS theory is more controversial—it smacks of pseudoscience. Although many prominent alternative physicians support his theory and believe it could relieve a large burden on the payout system for Workers Compensation (of which I was a part of, and back pain sufferers are a majority recipient), Sarno acknowledges that the vast majority of the medical community rejects his hypothesis. This is mainly because a major clinical trial has not been performed. Some researchers claim that his education program, which teaches people that their subconscious repression of unpleasant emotions leads to pain and that learning about the process can alleviate pain, is merely placebo effect.

On the other hand, I have a very open mind. It doesn't surprise me that it's not only hard to test for this effect, but that there's a lot of money to be lost on the chronic pain industry were this theory to be proven (for example I avoid long term use of painkillers).  Just because something hasn't yet been definitively proven through clinical trials doesn't mean it can't exist. Great strides are being taken to demonstrate through Western medicine what Eastern medical traditions have long since known—the intricate mind-body connection and the importance of approach to life in health issues. For example, Dr. Dean Ornish who showed that coronary artery disease could be reversed not only through a vegetarian diet, but also through meditation.

For many years I've self-diagnosed and treated with diet, herbs, and vitamins, and normally I've had a great track record—I'm usually in very good health. But when you're having a recurring problem and it comes down to the nitty-gritty of getting proper professional support with it, it can be a lot harder to heal when you're doing it on your own.

Which might be why, even though I haven't had a bout of back pain in almost two years, I'm coming to terms with the fact that I'm still struggling with this problem. August 2007, February 2008, and December 2009 were the last times I had TMS-type symptoms. In Dec. '09, I had a short-lived bout of back pain that both disappeared as soon as I figured out what was stressing me out. Since that was the last time I had actual back pain, I figured I was "cured."

But now I'm realizing that there were two other things that happened since then that very well could have been TMS in disguise: a brief bout of IBS in October '09, severe morning sickness in early '10, and hip pain that started five months after I gave birth and worsened daily until two weeks ago when it suddenly disappeared and the back pain started.

I'm going to save the story of how my hip pain progressed, how I thought it might be a degenerative joint problem, how it "coincidentally" morphed into back pain (and then back again a few times), why I became convinced that it was TMS after all, and what I think I need to do to get "back on track" for another time. But suffice it to say that I have my work cut out for me, in terms of coming into my own, yet again, and finding a way to heal myself.

Because I know I have something to learn from this struggle, and I don't want to needlessly miss out on another moment of enjoying my life.