I walked into the Emergency Room lobby for the third time in six months, knowing full well they could not help me. But it calmed my racing mind just simply to be in the halls of the hospital. It was an ironic place to seek comfort – surrounded by pain – but oddly it felt cathartic to share my suffering. All I knew at that moment was I could not survive the night alone in bed in my current state of hysteria. There is power in commiseration which can lift our spirits.
As the doctors conducted the familiar diagnostic tests, I felt safe in the hands of these professionals despite the overwhelming sense they could not help me. They admirably went through a checklist of questions, as they did in my previous two visits here, trying to diagnose my symptoms. It would remain a mystery to them, just as it had to the numerous specialists I consulted between ER visits, as to why my upper left arm would flare up with excruciating pain. But I felt if I was near death, or on the verge of collapse, I was right where I needed to be which gave me great comfort. Just being surrounded by medicine and life support machines provided relief. All the pulsing, beeping, dripping activity assured me I was protected from harm. I could feel my panic dissipating and this emotional reaction in my mind soothed me. I was aware of my breathing, which slowed considerably, and felt a sense of calm. My fear was gone and swept away all my anxiety. I was present in the moment, content with where I was in the comfort of the hospital and now simply just had to be. If this army of doctors and high tech equipment could not save me now, then surely my time had come and was now at peace with that realization.
Precisely at that moment is when I became fully aware that my arm pain disappeared. I could no longer feel any pain! The doctors carried on with their probing, oblivious to the miracle generating in my mind, as they continued checking off a list to diagnose my symptoms. I was in some eerie moment of Zen, blissfully free of my suffering. I don’t need to be here, I thought, my arm feels fine. Now I felt like a fraud, embarrassed to be taking their valuable time. But I continued to answer their questions, only now I was responding from memory of how it felt to be writhing in pain. My mind was whirling inside, thrilled to be free of any symptoms but simultaneously conjuring up how I felt just a few short minutes ago in order to accurately report it to the ER Team. As I continued to share my pain -with the severity and drama I felt it deserved when I entered the hospital – my mind refocused and attached to the reasons I was here. My arm flared up again. A rush of contradictions flooded me again, as I was relieved to feel the pain return in order to genuinely articulate it and justify my ER visit but deeply saddened to return to this state of suffering.
As I waited for the results of the tests, I stared up at the fluorescent lighting of the bare ceiling in my lonely hospital room and wondered….what just happened?
I was discharged from the hospital but my problems had only just begun. Little did I know I was entrenched in a valley looking up a very steep mountain. Looking back now it seems so daunting; I’m not sure I could have mustered the energy or courage to endure all I did on this journey had I known what would transpire. But I persevered and it transformed my life.
My life became a revolving door in the healthcare system: in and out of doctor’s offices and daily blood test checks at the hospital. My mental psyche became preoccupied -obsessed! – with all the medical activity, especially as I had never really experienced any alarming health care before in my life. My successful career became increasingly difficult due to a combination of pain and lack of mental focus. My morning gym routine came to a grinding halt and I disconnected from friends and social groups. My world was becoming smaller, allowing me (to my detriment) to focus even more on my affliction. I continued to deteriorate and, at the advice of my GP, protected my arm in a sling. Now I looked injured and felt handicapped – a psychological disaster – and referred to my condition as (BWBW), a Bird With a Broken Wing.
My entire upper left quadrant – neck, shoulder, back, chest, arm – continued to tighten up and compress to the point that I could not raise my arm at all or even brush my teeth without cringing in pain. I was in pain 24/7 and new habits formed. I would only hold my Starbucks cup in my right hand and reach over with my right arm to close my car door; I could not sit or lay back comfortably so would crawl in bed to lie on my right side; Constantly sleep deprived, I was not able to function well during the day. Mercifully, my company relieved me on a personal leave of absence which subsequently turned into Long Term Disability.
I saw every type of specialist, who admirably ordered every imaginable diagnostic test multiple times over the months: 3 MRIs, 4 XRays, 4 Doppler Ultrasounds, 2 Nerve Conductions, 2 Electromyograms (EMG) and even had trigger point injections. Nothing identified a diagnosis as all these tests failed to assess the reason for my pain. I was on blood thinners so I had to get my blood checked daily so the hospital became my new destination. After literally exhausting the entire medical staff –25 doctors in all and every conceivable specialty- another trip to the ER, I felt Western Medicine had failed me. No one could diagnosis my mystery pain or the cause of my symptoms. I had doctors literally wave their arms up in the air like white flags, including one doctor who prescribed a Chronic Pain Support Group within five minutes of reviewing my file and barely even looking at me. This loss of hope only compounded the throbbing in my arm even more
I turned to alternative treatment options: Chiropractors, Acupuncturists, Energy Specialists, Physical Therapists and Massage Therapists – all of whom were helpful but only offered short term relief. I’m an eternal optimist but psychologically I fell further into a deep black hole. When at the end of my rope at almost two years at struggling with this unidentifiable pain, I met an incredible Rolfer who helped me make tremendous strides in my recovery. Rolfing is a deep tissue massage that literally realigns your soft tissue. Ironically, during my twelfth visit, I casually mentioned to him that he apparently has a client for life. He replied the only way he ever lost loyal clients like me was by a philosophy expressed in a fascinating book. I begged him for the title and that was the beginning of my journey towards healing.
It never occurred to me, or any health practitioner in my saga above, to ask what was going on in my MIND. Their whole orientation was to treat the symptoms and not the cause. It was as if Mind and Body were two separate entities. But this book was written by a renowned back surgeon who discovered a connection between Mind and Body, the correlation that psychological disorders cause physical symptoms. These typically originate from repressed and/or deeply suppressed emotions in the unconscious and manifest as pain in the body. Put another way, the buried emotions that we don’t want to deal with or know how to cope with get stuffed down into our bodies and creates physical pain to distract us from the emotional pain. Our Mind makes the calculation that it’s easier to deal with a tangible pain in the body versus the emotional feelings swirling in our minds. I can hear a collective gasp as you ask in disbelief: our Mind is purposely inflicting pain on our bodies? Our initial reaction typically finds us incredulous, perhaps offended – even insulted – by this suggestion. The notion that the cause for physical pain could be self-inflicted, an inside job, sounds ludicrous at first blush, especially as there continues to be a stigma attached to disorders relating to psychology. The reality is if a doctor told you your very real chronic physical pain is “all in your mind”, you probably would be running for the exit door thinking he is a quack. Ironically, we will hastily accept the verdict of surgery and/or popping pills for life rather than contemplate the extraordinary power of the mind.
It took a while to process and digest this newfound philosophy, but I could see myself in all the pages of the book and the clients he treated. I was so desperate to heal, or at least diagnose my dis-ease, that I kept an open mind to this psychosomatic philosophy. The more I researched the Mind, the more doors I opened into how to calm and ultimately manage the Mind. I had an insatiable curiosity about the power of the Mind and studied Mindfulness and many elements of Buddhism. I attended Meditation gatherings and retreats and shifted my level of awareness. I created a website dedicated to exploring the connection between Mind, Body and Soul. Ultimately, it transformed the way I view life and deal with adversity. It was a secular endeavor but I was on a spiritual path that enhanced my wellbeing, filled me with gratitude and an entirely different perspective on life.
The lessons from my studies and personal experience helped me realize the Mind is a powerful instrument that helps us navigate through life in so many ways that is unique to being human. But it also can be your own worst enemy, an inner bully, that beats you down and tears you apart. Our minds carry on this insane inner dialogue, ranging from the mundane to the extreme. We are constantly judging and criticizing, seeing through the lens of our biases and opinions. So much so, we identify with our minds and driven by our ego. We are consumed by our thoughts and defending our precious ego, judging everyone and everything but also, sadly, ourselves too. This inner narrative can be destructive, creating negative feelings and emotions that often manifest in our bodies. We tell ourselves we are not good enough, not worthy, not beautiful, not smart enough, etc. We have challenging relationships, often with emotional triggers, and this can create internal stress and tension. Of course, we have many happy thoughts that bring us joy too but it’s important to be in a state of awareness to observe all Mind activity as we tend to emphasize the negativity on a continuous loop that can be harmful to our overall health.
We are essentially the only living thing on this planet consumed by thought, literally immersed in our thoughts the vast majority of the time. We rarely live in the present moment, either dwelling in the past or fantasizing in the future. This robs us of fully enjoying the only precious thing that matters most: NOW. We are too busy reliving past drama or anxiously thinking about what’s next, often to our detriment as this serves no essential purpose other than destroying our inner peace. It’s a form of insanity that we are spiritually unconscious and causes enormous pain and suffering.
The silver lining with suffering is it often serves as a catalyst to transmute into consciousness. It set me on this path and I’ve now come to realize it is the greatest gift I could ever possibly give myself. I live with gratitude, and intentional awareness, on my journey to become an awakened one.