My pain isn't in my head. It's in my subconscious.
The very first book I bought for my Christmas Kindle was The Divided Mind by Dr John Sarno. I've been reading it over the last week and, once again, Dr Sarno is going to change my life.
If you've been reading here for a while, you may know that I have suffered quite a lot from shoulder and neck pain associated with my writing and computer work. It's pain that's been around for a while, despite the fact that I have just about the most ergonomically friendly office setup you can get (weird mouse, dropped keyboard, large computer screen, good chair, blah blah blah).
You may also know that just after my first baby was born, nearly sixteen years ago, I suffered from another pain. It was a chronic RSI pain which went from my finger joints all the way to my elbows. It lasted for an entire year. (I wrote about it here.)
After exhausting myself with physio, doctors, specialists and even an Alexander Technique practitioner who lay me on a table, dabbed my ears with lavender oil and made me relax so much I was practically a jellyfish, I was no closer to finding a reason or a cure for my pain. It was going to have to be something I'd have to learn to manage, apparently.
It's just I don't like 'managing'.
I like fixes and magic bullets. That sort of thing.
Incredibly, I did actually find my magic bullet. And the gun that shot it was nothing more than a book. This one was the 'Mindbody Connection' by Dr John Sarno. Looking back, I can't believe that I actually ummed and aaahed about whether I'd spend the $30 on it. I was so glad I did.
Sarno's theory, backed up by a vast number of success stories over 30 years, not only in his practice, but in the practices of several other doctors who use his protocols, is this.
First, your pain is real.
Second, your brain is causing it.
With me so far? Many of us run away when we hear the words 'psychosomatic' and 'illness' put together. We think that the doctor means we are making it up. This is so far from the truth, I can't say it enough. The pain is real. It's where it comes from and what's causing it that is the psychosomatic bit.
Sarno argues that we all have a 'reservoir of rage' bubbling away in our unconscious. (Obviously, because it's in our unconscious, it's not something we're necessarily aware of. But make no mistake, 'nice' people are angry too.) The problem comes when the reservoir gets overfilled and the rage starts to bubble up to the surface. At this point, the brain steps in and says, "Hey, that's not going to be so great. I need to protect my person from feeling that bad. I'm going to turn it into pain instead."
In other words, the unconscious rage is diverted to become a chronic pain of some kind. Dr Sarno called it Tension Myositis Syndrome or TMS.
Really? you say. How can my emotions that I'm not even aware of have such an effect on my physical body? Well, it happens when you blush because you're embarrassed. Or when you get sweaty hands or a stomach ache or butterflies because you're nervous. Is it such a stretch to think that in one, united, complex system of mind-body, one part might affect the other? (By the way, the pain is caused simply by the brain witholding oxygen from the muscle. It's not harmful in the long run, which is good to know.)
Anyway, getting back to magic bullets and my chronic arm pain problem. I had literally nothing to lose except perhaps half an hour a day for six weeks or a month, which I spent journalling and thinking (according to Sarno's instructions) about what might be contributing to my unconscious rage. That's it. Nothing else. No treatments. No psychotherapy. Just simply thinking and acknowledging that I have unconscious rage for a bit of time every day.
Did I get better? Yes.
Really? Yes, really. I was fully functional within a month. My chronic pain problem was history.
Did the pain ever come back? It pops back a couple times of a year in one particular section of my right arm, as a signal that I am upset - usually about a particular topic. Once I deal with it, it goes away again.
Anyway, once I was better, I figured that all that part of my life was over with. I had acknowledged my unconscious rage, written and thought about it. For a while I talked a lot about it and lent out my book to people I thought might be interested but mostly people weren't interested because, really, who wants to be told that your pain is psychosomatic? I gave thanks for my own healing and let other people deal with their own stuff.
Five or six years later, I used the technique again for getting rid of a pain flare up in another area of my body. It wasn't nearly as bad, and it cleared up pretty quickly. And then I lent the book out once more and never got it back. Out of sight, out of mind.
Turns out I'm a bit of a slow learner though. Over the last six years, I've had, on and off, pretty bad pain in my shoulders and neck. Because it wasn't in the same spot as the original chronic disaster, though, and because it seemed so connected to my computer work, I figured it had an actual, physical cause. And because it didn't bother me all the time, I did 'manage' my life around it.
After a massive, out of the blue pain flare up just after Christmas just gone, however (and this was after being pain free for a long time), for some random reason I suddenly thought of Sarno and TMS again. And because someone I will not name still has my first book, I decided to make use of the seasonal $2.38 special price on the Kindle version of one of Sarno's new books, The Divided Mind.
This time I learned a few more things about brains and rage and unconscious pain diversion. First, most of my symptoms, current and into the future, are going to be TMS-related. I'm a typical candidate for TMS, being a perfectionistic, 'goodist' high achiever with unreachable standards. I tend to both suppress and repress angry feelings. Although my childhood was great, it was also pretty hard at times and unresolved child-rages can disappear into the reservoir too. I also have quite a few high pressure circumstances I have to live with (my son's autism counts, as does the fussy eating/difficult food situation in our family), all of which help fill up that rage reservoir. And as long as that happens, my brain is going to keep trying to protect me from feeling bad, especially if I'm not aware of what's going on, or I've forgotten how it works.
Second, my brain is sneaky and will move the symptoms around. It knows that I know about my arms so it's going to move things to my feet or my legs or wherever. I'm going to have to keep on top of this stuff forever.
Third, TMS doesn't just show up as pain. Sarno says that things like headaches, fibromyalgia, excema, allergies and gastrointestinal symptoms can be part of it. Also, depression and anxiety, both of which can serve as distractions from feeling the rage. (In fact, the list of possible symptoms is too long to reproduce. And he's not just theorizing. He has seen people with all of these issues cured. If you have a chronic, unexplained symptom that you just have to 'manage', it would be worth looking here to see if TMS is responsible.)
For myself, looking back, I can see so many unexplained symptoms that could definitely be related to TMS: losing my voice for three months ten years ago and having tight vocal cords ever since, various outbreaks of excema and nose allergies, various days spent flat on my back in bed with fatigue and, of course, So. Much. Pain. (By the way, I am pretty sure that my post-Christmas pain flare up and the excema that came with it are pretty much directly related to a particular circumstance that I've found hard to deal with recently. Additional rage into the bubbling cauldron, if you like.)
So I'm back to journalling and being entirely honest in acknowledging my various levels of rage and anger, even though of course, I'd rather not admit to them at all. Fifteen years ago it took a month to get rid of my chronic arm pain. This time it took ten minutes, and, ironically, it went while I was working on my computer.
"My brain is tricking me," I told myself. "There's nothing wrong with my shoulder at all." And that was that.
The excema is taking longer to shift, but I'm really working on the thoughts around it. I'm hoping a month might move it. And then I'm going to focus on getting my voice working properly after years of mild, annoying discomfort.
So, Dr John Sarno, you are a life-changer once again. I can't believe I forgot about TMS and how it works and let myself suffer through all that extra pain, but whatever. I'm not going to forget again. And I'm extremely grateful.
Note: *You may find this blog post controversial and confronting. Please know that I haven't set out to rub anyone else's pain in their face or to tell anyone what to do. I am simply writing what has worked for me. If it helps you, fantastic. If it doesn't, please don't come back at me about it until you've read one of Sarno's books and tried his protocol for three months yourself. I recommend the Mindbody Connection or this site.*