Several nights ago as I was having trouble going to sleep I started doing what I often do to bore myself to sleep: I counted my breaths. After I reached about 30 I noticed that I was feeling like I wasn’t getting enough oxygen. Uh-oh. I tried breathing more deeply but it wasn’t enough. I still felt like I was gasping for breath.

But I wasn’t gasping. My body was just doing its normal breathing. My body said I was fine, it was fine. And yet I had the feeling that I wasn’t getting quite enough oxygen with each breath. Continue reading

Getting back on the bike


My neglected Bianchi

Last year after I suffered a pulmonary embolism I got scared and fat.

Or you could say I lost confidence in my body and one result was that I gained weight.

Ironically, my lungs were found to be riddled with blood clots just weeks after I had achieved a major (for me) athletic goal: I had trained for months and then biked 100 miles one chilly, rainy September day. Actually 106.3 miles.

The health crisis had nothing to do with biking but it knocked the wind out of my sails. I had been all set to buy a new bike in the spring of 2012 and get even more serious about cycling. But all that conditioning—which certainly helped me through the crisis—began leaking away in the 8 days I spent in the hospital at the end of 2011. My energy was at a low ebb by this time last year.

On top of that I was put on blood thinners for the rest of my life because I have a genetic condition that makes me susceptible to clots, and I began to worry about bleeding. You always take a few spills when you are getting used to a new bike and clipless pedals. What if I were biking alone and fell and got a concussion and bled to death before anybody found me?

I didn’t buy a new bike in 2012, nor did I get on my old one. Not once.

I told myself all kinds of stories to justify not biking. I wasn’t ready for a new bike. It was a rainy, weird-weather spring, hard to get on the bike for those 5 consecutive days you need at the start of the season to toughen up your butt. The summer was too hot. I made trips to Congo in May and July.

All that was true, but it is also true that I had lost confidence in my body. I lost confidence in my ability to prevent a fall or recover from it. I lost confidence in my strength and energy. I had long since lost confidence in my ability to control my weight. And my body responded to my lowered expectations. I lost strength and energy, gained weight, and moved with less grace.

I believe my recent bout with back pain was partly a result of this loss of confidence in my physical self. My back had become the repository of all my doubts, insecurities, and fears. Even though I had already begun to reverse the weight gain and energy decline, my back was throwing one last spasm of grief and protest against all the vicissitudes of life as a mortal being. It was at its worst in early December, around the anniversary of the pulmonary embolism.

And then it recovered. I am writing this to celebrate my mortal body, now 68 years old. It is leaner, stronger, more energetic than it was a year ago. I am grateful for my physical presence in this world.

My body will take me on adventures this year. Maybe some of them on a bike. Maybe a new one.

Pain free in mind and body

IMG_0805 - Version 2I 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.

Healing back pain

healing-back-pain-mind-body-connection-john-e-sarno-book-cover-artSeveral years ago a family member was suffering from debilitating pain in her back and other parts of her body that had built up for months, with no apparent cause or cure. In the course of researching what might be helpful to her, my husband and I came across Dr. John Sarno’s book Healing Back Pain: The Mind-Body Connection. Eventually the philosophy and instructions in that book became an important part of her healing so we’ve been recommending the book to other people, too. We’ve bought a number of copies and given them away or loaned them out. Right now we don’t have a single copy in the house.

Which is unfortunate because I really need it right now. I have been dealing with my own back pain of unknown etiology, as the physicians would say, for the past month.

Here is what I have remembered from the book.

1. Sarno says that back pain and many other physical maladies are psychogenic. Not psychosomatic—“all in your head”; the pain and physical symptoms are very real. But they originate in the psyche. The body becomes the repository of stress and trauma that the mind refuses to acknowledge. When it becomes too much, the body cries out in pain and protest and develops a real malady as a distraction from the subtle pains of the unconscious. “I’m hurting!” is the message, and we assume the hurt is physical—because it is at that moment. But it doesn’t start there, although the body often uses a physical incident or accident or even injury as an excuse to bring the pain to the surface.

2. Psychogenic symptoms tend to come on suddenly, go on a long time or recur mysteriously, and seem disproportionate to any physical trauma. They often move around to different parts of the back or body. They are not continuous, often showing up after you exercise, for example, rather than during the exercise itself.

3. The way to deal with such pain is to bring all our subconscious mental/emotional pain and stresses to awareness. It’s not quite that simple, but almost. Our psychic pain doesn’t even have to be resolved—only acknowledged. And then we can talk to our body pain, telling the aching back, in effect, “There, there. I know that I’ve been dealing with a lot in my life lately—there’s this and this and this that I know of and probably a lot more. I promise to keep these things in my conscious mind and deal with them there. You don’t have to carry them for me.” This acknowledgement—and not any kind of physical treatment, no stretching or relaxation or special exercise—is the key to healing.

That is as far as my memory of the book’s instruction went. So I mined my unconscious for weeks, dredging up all the reasons that my back might have begun twingeing early in November and then seized up seriously after Thanksgiving in painful spasms that came and went so unpredictably that I was on constant alert.

I found plenty of reasons that my psyche could have been generating this pain, and they were all issues I thought I could deal with. But the more I talked to my back, the worse it got. And nothing else helped, either. Not rest, not exercise, not ice, not heat, not meds, not herbals, not, not not. My back was becoming a mass of (k)nots, one gigantic “No!” Every time something seemed to make it feel better, a spasm would come on and I would feel utterly defeated. I felt like I was coming apart in the middle.

I needed help. This past week I scheduled two sessions over three days with my daughter, who lives a few hours away. She is a Feldenkrais practitioner and she has always been able to work miracles with my body. I wasn’t sure she could help me with this, and I knew both of us would be disappointed if these sessions didn’t help. But, God be praised, they seem to have set me on the path to healing, for a combination of reasons.

First of all, she was able to untie the knots that my body had tied around the pain, all up and down my torso, front and back. Until much of the physical tension that had become embedded from a month of pain and frustration—let alone what might have brought on the pain in the first place—was released, nothing could help. This is why techniques like Feldenkrais are crucial in healing back pain. Massage or chiropractic may serve similar purposes.

While she was gently probing my body, Joanna probed my psyche as well with gentle questions, bringing me to a deeper awareness of the causes for my psychic tension as well as my internal resources for healing. This literal joining of the mind and body was astounding, nothing less than miraculous. I was so proud of my wise and gifted daughter. Few healers possess such a combination of skills.

Finally, she helped me remember a key instruction of the book, one I’d forgotten: Don’t give in to the pain. This is important because, although the pain truly hurts, it doesn’t hurt you. That is, the pain does not mean that you are injuring yourself further.

I stood up from her table feeling assembled in an entirely different way but still afraid that the pain would come back. She helped me get over that fear, not by denying that it would return but by finding a different way of meeting it when it did. She helped me summon my inner strength, my inner athlete, the one who could say, “Bring it on! What’s the worst you can do? A few seconds of torture and that’s it!” She encouraged me to breathe through the pain. It reminded me a lot of Lamaze instructions on labor pains. Huff and puff your way through!

I’ve been practicing these instructions for the past two days and they are working. The pain did come back (when I got into the car, when I stood up, when I went up steps, yada yada) and I huffed through it and went right on doing what I was doing. And it didn’t last.

Then I walked two miles late yesterday afternoon, feeling fine, but afterward I hurt a lot. This was a familiar pattern. This time, however, I tried not to let the pain feel like a defeat. I breathed through it. I went to bed early and slept long. This morning I am fine, proof that, whatever last night’s pain represented, no harm was done. I believe I am on my way to healing.

And I just bought the Kindle version of Sarno’s book so I’ll always have it. Why didn’t I think of that before? Duh.