Years ago, we relocated from Los Angeles to Cleveland for my husband's job. The culture shock, like the winters, was extreme. The city had just one of everything - one art museum, one independent movie theater, one Japanese restaurant, one Mexican joint. When we told our neighbors we had come from LA, they looked at us as though we had just admitted to sacrificing goats in the basement. I had to retire my fabulous vintage wardrobe lest I be branded a weirdo. I even received an irony-free invitation to a tupperware party.
We were barely moved in when I began to have stomach symptoms. At first, the nauseating hunger made me suspect that I was pregnant. Then my father, who is a physician, diagnosed me over the phone. You have a beginning ulcer, he said. Sure enough, when I found work, a diversion from my despair at being mired in the midwest, the ulcer went away.
Several moves later, I find myself in the Bay Area. Over the past eight years, I have been dealing with a family situation that can best be described as death by a thousand cuts. I now have a visceral understanding of the Janis Joplin song, take another little piece of my heart. Picture my heart, sliced paper-thin and fanned out like carpaccio on a bed of arrugula. But I have a talent for compartmentalization, and so I soldier on. Still, it seems all that stress, anger and sadness I sublimate needs a place to go, which is why, at one time or another, I have had the following conditions:
• Panic attacks, in which I forget to breathe.
• A cricopharyngeal spasm - literally, the feeling of a lump in your throat. Except it goes away when you eat or drink.
• Occular migraines, during which my vision blurs for 20-30 minutes.
• Sinus migraines, for which I was needlessly fed antibiotics for years, until I was enlightened by an eccentric old ENT.
• Sudden unexplained itchiness of the face, hands and even the feet.
• Hip pain that was diagnosed as bursitis.
• Lower back pain and sciatica.
•A disc issue in my neck, with muscle pain in the shoulder and arm, and occasional numbness in the fingers.
At this point, you are thinking one of two things: This woman is a mess, or this woman is a nut job. But I can assure you, I am not a hypochondriac. I don't go running to the doctor all the time. I just take stress out on my body. I'm like a garden hose with an air bubble in it - you push the bubble out of one place and it pops up somewhere else. Now, if I get a weird symptom, I look it up. Chances are, there's a stress connection. But enough about me. Let's talk about you.
I believe there's a good possibility you just recognized yourself, even if your repertoire of ailments is less varied. Maybe it's "all in your mind" but your discomfort is real – even acute. Dr. John Sarno, whose book Healing Back Pain I have just finished reading, says this pain is physiologically real, but it's caused by the brain. It's the subconscious mind's strategy for deflecting attention from anger and anxiety. Your brain tells your nerves to light a fire under that tennis elbow, which diverts your focus from unpleasant emotions. But the pain really exists. It's not in your head; it's caused by your head. The theory is that the brain wrecks its havoc by reducing oxygen flow to the affected areas. Dr. Sarno calls this Tension Myositis Syndrome, or TMS. He believes disc pain, bursitis, tendonitis and a host of other minor chronic ailments are all manifestations of TMS. Sometimes, the TMS relocates in a new place. You finally lose the sciatica and your shoulder starts talking to you.
If you read this book, and you buy into the good doctor's theory, you can put that nagging sports injury, bad back, sore hip etc. to rest. Acknowledging that your brain is literally ordering your nerves to fire and cause you pain – viscerally understanding this – could make the pain go away. You've outsmarted your tormentor, the unconscious mind. Dr. Sarno gives his patients a list of Daily Reminders. I'll just reveal the first one: "The pain is due to TMS, not to a structural abnormality." I could reproduce the entire list, but I think a guy whose medical advice is to stop spending money on back treatments and realize that you are just TMS-ing deserves to sell a book or three. (Although I'm sure he has a thriving practice. I actually know someone who took his advice and didn't have neck surgery, and she is now a yoga teacher and pain-free.)
Garden variety back and neck pain are the least of it. Dr. Sarno suspects a host of ailments could be manifestations of TMS. Fibromalgia, plantar fasciitis, eczema, even acne. There is a lot in this book that is highly speculative, and I don't have the scientific background to vouch for it. However, Dr. Sarno's expertise lies in back and neck problems and he has many satisfied former patients.
As I write this, I am sitting at my desk without a trace of discomfort. No sacroiliac issues, no mid-back spasms, no aching trapezius muscles, no stiff, clicking neck. Of course I still occasionally wake up with a sore back, or over rotate my neck a bit and feel a twinge. Only now, I immediately stop and remind myself that it doesn't have to get any worse if I don't let it. If I'm honest with myself, I can usually identify the emotional issue my brain is trying to pawn off on my body, and once I figure out what's really ailing me, the pain goes away. Try this next time your bad back/sore hip/trick shoulder starts acting up. Especially if you've already tried everything else.