Deciding to Heal

2014-03-08 13.37.56 HDROn the day I met James our conversation began with cooking and within five minutes we were revealing our experiences with despair. James had recently retired and was feeling completely lost.

He confided, “I can’t sleep, and I can’t eat.”

“That happened to me too. When my bladder pain was at its peak, I would lie awake most of the night with my pulse pounding in my ears, and right when I’d dose off the pain would wake me up again. I couldn’t choke down any food, and in one week I lost five pounds.”

“It’s scary. The mind can take you places you don’t want to go.”

“I agree. At that time in my life I wrote in my journal that if I didn’t have a husband and children who loved me and were counting on me, I would check out.”

“I feel the exact same way.”

“About six months into the pain my psychologist told me, ‘You won’t always be in this dark place’ and at the time, this was a novel idea. I didn’t think I would ever be better. But she was right, and I did get better over time.”

I encouraged him to get professional support, to use medication if recommended by a physician he trusted, to reach out to his friends, to picture feeling good, to be easy on himself, and to keep his eyes and ears open for inspiration.

James looked in the eyes and said, “I believe you. You know where I am right now, and I can see that you are happy. Maybe I can get better too.”

I saw James a few weeks later and he told me that he had started seeing a psychologist and was taking medication. He was also taking a yoga class and learning how to meditate. A month after that we met again and James gave me a hug and told me that his mind was no longer spinning and he was sleeping through the night. When he told me that I was the reason he got better, I had to set him straight.

“Thanks James, but you are the one doing all the work.  I let you know that there was a healing road, but you are the one who has decided to walk down it.”

Changing the Lyrics

Last Sunday my church choir sang the song, “Smile”. I hate this song. I sang it once as a solo in high school and as I stood in front of at least a hundred grade school kids, I forgot all the words.

But that’s not why I hate the song. It’s these lyrics: “Smile tho’ your heart is aching, smile, even tho’ it’s breaking…Smile through your fear and sorrow…Light up your face with gladness, hide every trace of sadness, although a tear may be ever so near.”

I heard this message throughout my life, and I often hid my pain under a smile because I didn’t feel safe or accepted enough to show my true feelings. As I worked through my chronic pain, I gradually learned to acknowledge and express my fear, anger and sadness.

If you relate to this, I’m singing a new version of this song for you right now. “Cry because your heart is aching, cry to show it’s breaking. When there are clouds in the sky you’ll get by if you cry through your fear and sorrow, cry and maybe tomorrow you’ll see the sun coming through for you.”

Stress as a Teacher

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The choir was singing a complicated classical piece, and I had a little solo. During the service, my hands became cold and shaky, my spine started buzzing, and my pelvic floor muscles went into a spasm. As my body tightened up, so did my voice, and it rushed out sounding strained and thin.

My voice, which is full and resonant in the shower, always puts on a weak show in public. It is disappointing that I don’t have control over my body’s stress response, especially since I have learned over the years to calm my mind/body before it escalates into pain.

Then I remembered something I learned during my healing journey. Stress is a message from the body, which can broadcast what is happening in the heart and mind too. During my years of healing from chronic pelvic pain, my body would scream in pain whenever it was stressed. This motivated me to look at what might be causing my stress and to try to work through it so I could be comfortable again. Now my body only reacts when the situation is really emotionally charged, and it rarely escalates into pain. But when my body whispers, I definitely listen.

Stress is a part of life, and it is healthy to avoid situations that are really stressful and to do activities that calm your body/mind. However, stress can also become more that just something to control. By tuning into your body’s messages, which are different for everyone and perhaps subtle, it also helps you cue into what situations are stressful for you. By asking why you are stressed, and looking within, it can give you an idea of your inner challenges- the underlying thoughts and belief patterns that color your responses to life. In this way, stress becomes more than something to control, it also becomes a great teacher.

The Nervous System Link

1069149_542842402443143_483982884_nInterstitial cystitis often coexists and overlaps with other syndromes such as fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, and irritable bowel syndrome. A new study in the Journal of Clinical Rheumatology suggests that an overactive sympathetic nervous system may be the common factor linking these conditions. The study reviewed 196 published, case-control studies that investigated the performance of the sympathetic nervous system in people with these conditions. The common methods used to evaluate sympathetic function included: heart rate variability analysis, sympathetic skin response, tilt table testing and genetic studies. A majority of the studies (65%) described sympathetic nervous system predominance, providing some evidence to support this factor as a possible reason for why these syndromes often occur together.

Heightened activity of the sympathetic nervous system was a key factor in my condition, and I directly experienced the connection between my nervous system ramp up and my physical symptoms (pelvic floor muscle spasms and bladder pain). Treatments like yoga, meditation, deep breathing, walking in nature, and CranioSacral therapy helped to calm my nervous system and decrease my pain. I also worked for years with a therapist and uncovered unconscious trauma, beliefs and thought patterns that may have heightened my sense of threat and put my nervous system on high alert.

Over the years, my body gradually calmed down, and I am currently pain-free on most days without medications. Now, my body no longer screams in pain when it is stressed. It whispers and I listen.

(Photo by Mariane Gabriel)