Taming the Tiger

imageArtwork by: Alana Alley

It has been a long time since I’ve been flared up… but here I am. With some help, I am now clear on the situation and the thoughts/emotions that are creating my stress. But beyond this detail… at a root level this stress is really fear.

This animal part of me wants to be safe and survive, and my body alarms are going off. For some of us sensitive souls and especially those of us who have experienced quite a bit of trauma in our lives, these alarms get triggered easily. Perhaps they even stay on at a low level just to make sure we are going to be okay.

At times, this fear has been out of proportion to the danger at hand and it has created stress, inflammation and pain in my body.

There is a part of me that understands that when I turn my thoughts from fear to love- both my body and mind can settle in a peaceful place. But when I’m really stressed another part of me shouts, “How can you talk about love? It feels like I’m running from a tiger!”

Then the peaceful voice chimes in again, “Look again. Sometimes that tiger has been created by your mind. Take a breath. You are safe.”

A Cry for Connection?

2014-03-08 13.39.13My life coach, Iben, once told me that some people with chronic pain stay in that state to get nurturing and attention. I bristled at this comment because no one wants a pain condition to be discounted as manipulation. One has to be very careful in making these connections. The pain is real and usually many factors contribute to it.

I was only able to consider this possibility when she clarified that this is often a subconscious reaction rather than a conscious choice. It helped me move from judgement to compassion when I considered that these people are trying to fill a core void however they can. On a subconscious level, they are hurting themselves physically to avoid dying emotionally.

Staying Present

DSCN0931About four years into my pain condition, I was having blood drawn. As soon as I saw the needle, I noticed that my mind was somewhere else, leaving my body alone to deal with it. At that moment, I realized that this was a dominant pattern in my life; I automatically moved my awareness up and away whenever I sensed potential emotional or physical pain.

During my second Myofascial Release course, the instructor said that you can feel when someone “left their body”. This seemed a bit out there to me, but then I noticed that sometimes when I was working with someone in the course- his/her body would suddenly  feel less animated and more dense. On a few occasions the person told me that at that time they had shut off the emotions or physical sensations they were experiencing at the time.

So as the needle was inserted, I made a conscious decision to stay present. I felt the pain and sent loving energy to my body. And in some subtle way, the whole experience was different.

Over the healing years, I got better at staying present, feeling my pain and loving myself through it. It became clear that, for me, staying present was a crucial part of healing.


Staying Strong

1491592_627565667304149_1279721523_nphoto by Mariane Gabriel

At the beginning of my illness, my doctor told me that I was strong and stoic and when I described my pain as a 4 on a scale of 1-10 she knew that many of her other patients would describe this same level of pain as a 10. This was curious to me because at the time, I thought I was weak and emotional. But over time I discovered that suppressing negative emotions had been my modus-operandi throughout life.

I was a good little soldier, and I got so good at hiding my emotions that I often tucked them inside before I felt anything. It took me years to recognize that there was an emotional component to my illness, and even longer to decide to look at what I was carrying.

I began to appreciate that I wasn’t weak; I had tried to stay strong for too long.

Painful Hierarchy

2014-03-08 13.30.36During a course for the alternative treatment, Myofascial Release, the instructor described how unexpressed emotional trauma can sometimes show up as symptoms in the body. When the topic was opened for discussion, I shared with the group how my repressed sexual abuse was related to chronic pelvic pain.

During the break, a fellow participant approached me and said, “I feel so sorry for you. You have had to deal with horrific pain in your life. It’s not like so many of the people around here who are upset or crying about the stupidest things.”

When I thought about this comment, I realized that putting information in a hierarchy and judging the relative importance of things is a great tool of the analytical mind. But this capability, which helps us focus and survive, can also be used to discount our pain or the pain of others.

I have to admit that on occasion, I have felt impatient with people who were struggling with emotional or physical pain, and even a bit superior. I have also compared my level of suffering to other people’s pain and deemed that mine was less intense and therefore not really valid.

But pain is pain, and for the person who is hurting it is always real. When we switch from hierarchy to equality and from judgment to compassion, we help ourselves and each other feel safe enough to feel and express our pain. And this is the way to healing.

The Way Out

IMG_0156It is a common notion that if you pay attention to your emotional pain you might get stuck in that uncomfortable place. For this reason, people are often afraid to really look at and feel what they are carrying inside.

So here’s a little clarification.

While it is true that ruminating can increase suffering, this is very different than looking at the emotional issues that may be living partners with physical pain. This process is not wallowing in the pain, wearing it like a badge of honor, or using it to get needs met. It is honestly looking inside and feeling what hurts you are carrying, and seeing how this affects your body and the patterns in your thinking and life.

Acknowledging pain in this way can actually help you get “unstuck”. And sometimes the only way out is through.

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


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.

Healing Is Feeling

DSCN3936As I was finishing my book, I looked back on the graph I used to chart my pain during the first few years of my illness. I was surprised by how many days my pain was high, limiting my ability to concentrate or perform tasks for much of the day. I found it curious that my excellent doctor, who was well aware of my level of suffering, did not look at this chart and prescribe more pain medication, and that I didn’t ask for it.

But now that I am on the other side, I am so grateful that she didn’t numb me from the pain because it was this discomfort that pushed me to open up my mental and emotional burden. It was the pain that kept me motivated to process and release the emotional issues that were entwined with my physical discomfort.

Don’t get me wrong, there is a definite place for pain medications, and there were times in my illness when the medication, Cymbalta, was crucial for my healing. On several occasions, I felt like I was falling into despair, wallowing in the dust on this healing path. This medication helped decrease anxiety, depression and nerve pain, and it gave me a little crutch so I could keep walking down the healing path. But this medication didn’t numb me out so I couldn’t feel my physical and emotional pain.

During the fourth year of my illlness, I attended a seminar for an alternative treatment called, “Myofascial Release”. When John Barnes (the person who developed the approach) said, “Healing is feeling”, I immediately, thought, That was true for me.

Expressing my suppressed emotions was crucial for healing my body. This release of emotion was different than lashing out in anger, wallowing in sorrow, reliving the trauma over and over, or adopting the pain like a badge or resume.  I had done all of these before. This was the process of moving through it.