I am grateful to be pain free! I bend double to put on my shoes and go through extreme yoga twists with gratitude for the restoration of my body. I have to smile when the yoga instructors tell us to protect our lower backs because my own experience suggests that it is not the human back that is fragile; it is the psyche.
Over the past several months my back has demonstrated entirely contradictory characteristics. It has indeed felt fragile, weak, and painful, but it has also felt strong and flexible. To be more precise, strength and flexibility are my back’s normal condition—what you see in the photo is what I could do up to mid-November of last year and what I can do today. But I experienced a six-week interlude in which various sections of my back—low-mid, lower, and right shoulder, in succession—simply stopped normal operations.
Depending on which part was on strike at the time, I couldn’t bend over, twist, or reach higher than my shoulder without risking painful spasms. For a while I could barely walk.
I wrote about this earlier when I had gotten through the worst episode, but that wasn’t the end of it. It seemed that my back wanted to give me a few more lessons so I would really learn what it was trying to say.
You could say that I injured my back and it is now healed. But this simply is not true. Nothing happened to “throw my back out”: the spasms came on gradually. And the restoration of function does not feel so much like healing as a rebound to normal, as if my back just decided to stop making such a fuss.
I also believe that calling this an injury is misleading and downright harmful because it might cause me to treat my back as fragile, in need of protection, and, above all, subject to further “injury.” And when you think it can be injured it will oblige you by taking the next opportunity to do so. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Dr. John Sarno offers an alternate explanation. The pain and weakness in my various back muscles originated in my brain, which slightly reduced the flow of oxygen to these muscles. Those back spasms were real but they were of mental origin. The cure was two-fold: to physically restore oxygen flow as much as possible through massage, Feldenkrais, and exercise and, more important, to get my brain to stop sending those oxygen-deprivation instructions.
My experience confirms Sarno’s theory that the back pain is a diversion tactic. The mind doesn’t want to face painful, conflicting emotions and therefore lodges its distress in the body.
Over the past six weeks, each time I identified a source of psychic discomfort the pain began to release. But one demo was not enough. One set of pains would go away and another would pop up. Even something as innocent as missing my comfortable home and diet routines while I was enjoying great family time at my son’s house was enough to cause my shoulder to seize up. It did so because I hadn’t consciously acknowledged this particular conflict. When I did, it let go. The situation didn’t have to change; I only had to acknowledge it—and chuckle. Conflicting feelings often get blown out of proportion when they stay underground.
I believe my brain has, at various times in my life, chosen my lower back, my upper back, the skin around my eyes (exzema), my plantar tendon (plantar fasciitis), and the back of my left knee to fool me into thinking my distress is physical rather than mental. This allows me to continue to think that I am a psychologically strong person who can handle anything. Thinking I can handle anything causes me to ignore psychic conflict—especially unacceptable feelings of anger, fear, and anxiety that arise even when I am doing things I want to do with people I love.
These conflicting feelings are inevitable. There is no reason to avoid them or protect ourselves from them. There is no more reason to protect our psyches than to protect our lower backs.
There is every reason, however, to be conscious of them, to grin and breathe deeply and say, hah, that’s happening, I gotcha! And keep our minds, bodies, and spirits moving.