Feeling My Life


DSCN0626My mother’s best friend called when she received my last Christmas card. Part way through the conversation she said, “Your mother was so strong and stoic. …Emotions weren’t allowed in your home.”

This comment brought back a distinct memory from one of my last visits with my mother. At this point, she was almost completely paralyzed from ALS and we both knew the end was near. I sat at her bedside and read a letter that described all the ways she had influenced my life. Afterwards, I buried my face in my hands and sobbed. My mother looked over at me and said with obvious discomfort, “You will be fine.”
“I know I will be fine. But I will miss you so much.”
“I would like you to read that letter at my funeral.”
“I don’t think I can do it; I might break down.”
“No you won’t. You know what to do. You’ll get up there and handle it.”

And I did. A few weeks later, I read that whole letter at her funeral without a tear or tremble in my voice.

But this intense emotion had to go somewhere, and when chronic pelvic pain descended five years after my mother’s death, I would come to appreciate how holding a lifetime of unexpressed trauma had affected my body. Over five years of healing and with lots of help, I gradually worked through the layers: feeling my pain, discovering my truth, and gradually moving through it.

After Christmas this year, my daughter hopped out of the car at the airport on her way back to college.
I gave her a hug and said cheerfully, “Have a great flight! I love you!”
But as I was driving away I thought, “Wait a minute! How do you really feel?”
Immediately, and to my surprise, I started to sob. I pulled over and cried for a half hour. And then, like a summer storm, it passed and I felt peaceful again.

I realized that I was now experiencing my life in a whole new way. This may not sound good, but it really is. Because now my body is more fluid, healthy and free. Before I was numb to the pain in my life, but I also didn’t feel intense joy, wonder and connection. Now, I am starting to feel all of it.

Fierce Love

rainbowOn a few occasions, in the depths of pain, I laid on the papered treatment table as the nurse put medication into my bladder with a catheter. During the painful procedure, I sensed that the nurse was blaming my flare up on emotional issues and separating from me because I was visibly discouraged and angry. I was sensitive to this judgment because it mirrored my own internal state, and honestly I was probably my worst critic when I was hurting. On some level, I was angry at myself for being in pain, and I often discounted and ignored my painful body.

But over the healing years, I began to notice that the best way to get through the pain was to love myself through it. And not just in small ways; it was fierce love. It was being compassionate with myself even when I had energy for little else. It was being honest about the pain, listening to what my body was trying to tell me, and allowing myself to feel it. And in this way, each time the pain rose up to consume me, it also pried my heart open a little more.

There are few absolutes in life, but this one I know is true. We all have physical or emotional pain whether we want to admit it or not, and we could all use some “fierce love”.

Changing the Message

fireIn a recent essay in the Wall Street Journal, Judy Foreman, the author of “A Nation in Pain,” states, “Chronic pain, by the way, isn’t just acute pain that doesn’t go away after a few months; it’s a transformation of the nervous system that can literally shrink the brain.” Yikes! When I was in pain this comment would have made me feel completely out of control, discouraged and fearful.

While it is true that prolonged pain can change the nervous system, these changes don’t have to be permanent. When we activate different neural pathways that are calming and pain-free, the over-sensitive or prominent pain pathways may quiet down. It takes time, but eventually these novel ways of using the nervous system can become more of a habit, and there is evidence that with practice and experience, the structure of the nervous system can change.

So here is a new message: The nervous system can change, and this beautiful capability can help us heal.

Powerfully Psychosomatic

As part of her TED talk, Tessa Rankin MD tells this story:
Mr. Wright, who was suffering from late-stage cancer, asked for a specific drug to cure his tumors, and when he used it, he got better. Later, he read that the drug was not effective, and his tumors returned. When the doctor realized what happened, he injected Mr. Wright with saline and told him that it was a better concentrate of the drug. Lo and behold, Mr. Wright was cured again. But later, when he read that the drug was absolutely ineffective, he died.

This case depicts the placebo effect- a phenomenon where people can get better without the intervention or procedure. And it also demonstrates the nocebo effect- where a person thinks something bad is going to happen and it does.

Dr. Rankin states that the placebo effect is direct evidence of the body’s innate self-repair mechanisms, and the power of the mind/body connection. It is estimated that when fake drugs or treatments are given for a study, 18-80% of the time they yield measurable results in the body. The Institute of Noetic Sciences has a database of approximately 3500 cases studies where there was healing in seemingly incurable instances.

Before I worked through my pelvic pain, when an illness was labeled psychosomatic, I thought the condition was just caused by a person’s mind and therefore it was suspect and not really valid. But then I directly experienced how the connection between my body/mind/spirit contributed to my illness, and also helped me to reverse it. The more I appreciated the power of this connection between my mind and body, the more I could use it to help me heal.