Updated: Jul 23, 2022
It takes courage to stop talking about your symptoms. Prior to having the knowledge and awareness of TMS, it is only natural that one would discuss their physical symptoms with others. In my experience, I almost always received a great deal of support and feedback in response to expressing what I was experiencing physically. People are typically very understanding and compassionate towards the physical pain we experience, and there is no shortage of advice in regards to what is to be done about it. Unfortunately, the advice that is given does not get to the root of the problem, and furthermore, it reinforces the belief that the pain is physical in origin. Advice typically takes the form of an admonition, "eat this" or "don't eat that"; a specialist of some sort or another to go see; a treatment to receive; a drug or supplement to take; an exercise to start or stop doing, etc. etc... These are the easy responses often provided when someone else's pain and discomfort, is causing us, pain and discomfort. It is much more difficult to point out that the real cause of everyone's pain and misery is actually emotionally rooted, that chronic tension and stress are wreaking havoc on our bodies, and there is no easy fix that can be found in the form of a pill, diet, surgery, spinal manipulation, or any other physical remedy. Even more difficult is just being with someone in their time of struggle, holding the space, and not attempting to provide answers that you do not have.
Throughout my days as a chronic pain sufferer, my identity had become insidiously intertwined with whatever ailment I happened to be experiencing at a given time. The physical pain we experience often becomes the connection point between us and others, it gives us something to talk about and a problem to solve. Whether it was back pain, shoulder pain, plantar fasciitis, my iliotibial band giving me trouble, or in the end, a variety of horrifying pelvic pain symptoms, you could invariably find me having intense discussions about these pains with whoever would listen. As the pain increases, so does our identification with it, our lives become completely centered around attempting to relieve and find a cure for the pain. Rather than talking to others about life, our struggles, and how we are doing, we talk about our pain. Let's face it, it is much easier to talk about our bodies than it is to talk about our relationship difficulties, our fears and doubts, and the infinite variety of challenges life throws our way. In this regard, the emotional aspects of our lives get left in the dust—along with our dreams and any ounce of optimism we may have had left—and our physical ailments become more and more of the reality we inhabit. We are able to soldier on in the dire circumstances we find ourselves in, and we continue to automatically repress our negative emotions like finely tuned machines. If we are completely unaware of TMS and the true nature of our troubles, this will continue indefinitely.
We learn from a young age that if our bodies are hurting or broken, we can get out of doing things we don't want to do; that we can avoid or escape situations that we find unbearable. Does faking sick in order to stay home from school ring any bells? Shit, often times even when we were actually sick at home, it was preferable to being healthy at school. We also learn that simply not wanting to do something, is not a good enough answer, and how we feel emotionally is rarely acknowledged, let alone empathized with. "Just tough it out!" This relatively innocent avoidance technique as children, turns out to be real bad as we become adults, especially because we do not even realize that this is what we are doing. We unconsciously create symptoms in order to both receive much needed support and empathy from others, and also to allow us to either escape, avoid, or at least have a break from the things that we can no longer stand. As kids we may have faked a limp, or some other sort of pain or illness, but it is not long before the pain and symptoms become all too real. Imagine that you need some time off of work, now what will be more accepted by your boss or manager? A bad back, not being able to turn your head more than three degrees to the right or left, or needing a surgery, or... that you are feeling overwhelmed emotionally, that you are working through an immense amount of grief, fear, or anger? Or, that you are just too depressed or anxious?
The truth is that in our capitalist, profit and progress above everything society, no one gives a shit about how you feel. Unless you are physically incapable of doing your work, don't bother asking for time off. This goes for familial, social, and cultural expectations as well. And so, we all learn that the only acceptable way to gain the love and understanding we so desire from others, is to have a physical ailment or illness. It is reinforced over and over again that physical ailments and illnesses are the norm; this mixed with the fact that our nervous systems are chronically locked in a maladapted state, sets the stage for the epidemic of chronic pain and other "diseases of civilization", we are currently seeing in the world.
Here is one small example of how the type of situation I am referring to can play out. Two years since learning about TMS, I rarely experience physical symptoms, but if I am not vigilant, they can certainly surface in times of increased emotionally-induced tension and stress. This last weekend upon finishing a half marathon at the beautiful Red Fish Lake in Stanley, Idaho, I sat with my Dad, step-Mother, and our Dogs, sharing a deeply emotional conversation amidst the gorgeous surroundings; blue skies and sunshine, the Sawtooth Mountains to our southwest, and the Redfish Lake at our feet. We spoke about my Grandfather's impending departure from this world, and the difficulty in connecting with him during this time. We discussed my plans for the future, and the difficult decision I had recently made to drop out of grad school, and leave the safe and secure position I had held in the local school system for the prior seven years. I also expressed the challenge of communicating my experience, and all the difficulty involved in carving my own path. All this without a single drop of booze to ease my troubled soul! My Dad and I soon decided to go jump in the freezing lake, upon standing up I experienced a fairly common head rush, I then voiced that I had gotten dizzy. It went unnoticed and I didn't think much of it until later, back at our camp, I arose from a brief respite in a hammock and without thinking, again voiced that I had gotten dizzy. This time it elicited a response from my step-Mom, "you got dizzy at the lake too, I get dizzy when I haven't had enough protein, do you need to eat some protein?" Then a good friend chimes in, "we have an organic protein mix from Costco, I can get you some if you'd like." My response, realizing what was taking place and knowing what I know about this sort of physical phenomena was, "NO thanks! I don't believe that is what's going on with me." In that moment I was able to see the way I was ever so slightly garnering attention, and also how I was experiencing a physical symptom that was most likely precedented by an emotion-evoking conversation and situation. I haven't been dizzy since, and certainly have not made any effort to consume more protein... I understand that this is a very innocuous example, compared to what is actually possible; I offer this story only to point out how quick we are to blame things outside of ourselves for every physical phenomenon we experience, how emotion provoking situations can elicit strange symptoms, and how if we aren't careful, before we know it we are changing our entire diet and food choices!
At what point did we start selling ourselves out? When did every minor bodily disturbance begin demanding medical attention? What ever happened to our belief in our bodies innate ability to heal itself? Reading a vintage, copyright 1965, book my Mom picked up for me at a thrift store a couple Christmas's ago, I came across some great passages that wonderfully illustrate much of what I am attempting to imbue. The book is by a wise and now deceased man, who as far as I know is largely unknown, named Marcus Bach, and is titled The Power of Perception. Within the chapter entitled Consciousness, I was struck when I read, "I am indebted to a medically minded friend of mine for a significant insight into feeling the commonly unfelt. Dr. David Means of Hemet, California, said, "When I have read over a patient's medical questionnaire I sit down with the person and say, 'You have told me how your body feels. How do you feel?'" Psychotherapist Leslie M. LeCron has somewhat the same approach when during the questioning session with his patients he asks, "Is there a deeper level at which you know you can get over this?"
He continues in a section entitled Why Not Help Yourself?, "Why do we refuse to count our blessings and insist that life should not have its moments of testing, encounter, or conflict? Why will we not see that trials are turning points urging us to tap our spiritual resources, and that they may be preparations equipping us for handling greater responsibilities? We give up too easily on ourselves. Something in our culture, many things in our culture, have robbed us of our self-reliance, our deeper awareness, our consciousness of God and good within ourselves. We want to be helped but we do not want to help ourselves. We want to pay someone for something we already have. We want to be coddled, pampered, loved, anything to escape the transforming power of an inborn resource which is life's innate gift to every last one of it's children. We talk about my doctor, my counselor, my deodorant, and my laxative!" And the more we give our power away to outside sources, the less and less confidence we have in ourselves. To those making a profit from our woes this is the perfect system, but how well is it working out for us?
The more we focus on and talk about our physical symptoms, and attempt to treat them in this manner, the more we reinforce this reality. Our brains become highly skilled at creating distractions for us in the form of physical ailments, and all the while we remain capable of avoiding our emotions—the aspects of our lives that are causing the emotional trauma can continue to go unaddressed. The trick to healing is that you turn the whole thing upside down, taking all of your focus off of the physical symptoms and remedies, and putting it on the emotional aspects of life. When a person does this with one hundred percent conviction, they heal. In the words of Steve Ozanich, "The concept in healing is to render pain meaningless and without tangibility. Never discuss your ailments by name." It's a hell of a lot easier said than done! When we are experiencing an intense pain, saying nothing at all about it presents quite the challenge, it takes practice. Instead we learn to take a look at our lives and where we are feeling emotionally uprooted, then talk about that. I can think of one exception to this rule that has proved to be beneficial during certain portions of my healing. This exception is the skill of linking a symptom to an emotional cause. If you find yourself incapable of not talking about a symptom, you can make it a habit to find out how it is connected to something that is going on in your life. You can relate to yourself and others that you are experiencing an increase in symptoms due to this or that that is occurring in your life. At some point though, even this must end, as it too subtly reinforces physical pain, aiding in it's continuation.
Now, let me tell you about Old Dan. This is what I called this fellow I worked with on a landscaping crew the summer of my final year attending the University of Idaho. I called him this, because we had two Dans on the crew, and he was about twenty years older than the other Dan. Old Dan was one of those rare people who just seem wise, wise yet goofy. Old Dan had left his corporate job in Portland, Oregon some years prior, and seemed absolutely content to make his nine dollars an hour mowing lawns for someone else's company, chew his Copenhagen, and eat his bagged lunch made by his, adorable I assume, wife. Old Dan said many things that I remember to this day, and I will never forget the general feeling of ease he embodied. During this time, I often found that my back was sore throughout a long day of mowing lawns, and, I never hesitated to complain about it. I recall him saying, "you know, it doesn't do any good to complain about it, it doesn't help to talk about your pain all the time." At the time, I found this observation... annoying. I also recall him telling me in response to my recounting of a night of vomiting blood in a bar bathroom, and subsequently discovering that I had a stomach ulcer, likely exacerbated by the binge drinking I took part in daily, "ya, well... it's gonna take a freight train to get you to stop drinking." At the time, I found this observation... troubling, though, my thinking about it likely only lasted until I got my post-work tall can of PBR, any concerns I may have had quickly taking a backseat to the festivities awaiting me. Turns out, Old Dan was right on both counts, it only took me another decade to accept it and change.
That summer was a whirlwind of what I recall as being good times, though I can now see that I was desperately avoiding the grieving and anger involved in the tumultuous ending of a seven year relationship, with my high school sweetheart. The level of repression and resultant tension and stress occurring was more than noteworthy, causing open wounds in the lining of my belly, to which I threw large amounts of booze on. I have come to see that where there is mental illness, there is often chronic pain, and where there is mental illness and chronic pain, you will soon also discover addiction. If you take one of these elements away by artificial means, like medication or forced sobriety, the others will soon rise to compensate. As for true healing and a permanent cure, nothing but directly dealing with the emotional energy will do.
I am happy today to be able to relate that pain is no longer what I primarily think and talk about. Far from it. See, once I stopped talking about the pain, the less I thought about it, allowing the pain itself to fade away and finally disappear. You don't get to stop having symptoms, then quit thinking and talking about them; that's not how it works, you stop thinking and talking about your symptoms, and only then do you stop having them. It is disheartening when you realize how much of your time was spent both fixating on and rationalizing your pain. In my experience, pain had become a constant companion, the basis for a waking nightmare that I endured for years, and was only later to be recognized as my greatest teacher. It is a beautiful thing when you get to witness this destructive habitual pattern coming to it's end.
It's why my body won't rest until my story been told, I won't rest until my stories have been told. -Blue Scholars, Talk Story
Love your struggle and remain free!