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I knew I was at rock bottom, when it was clear that nothing was working anymore. I remember going to my Alexander Technique lesson and lying on the table. Nothing David was suggesting would help my body to lengthen or widen and I was lying in an exhausted, trembling state on the table. He asked me what was happening and I said, I don’t know, there is just so much anxiety I cant seem to relax or expand my body at all.
I was in an incredibly black mood after the session and spent some time sitting outside on the step overlooking Argyle St in Fitzroy. I couldn’t believe my life had come to this… struck down by a mystery illness which had robbed me of my work, my music, my love life, and the normal functioning of my body and mind. I had tried everything and now it was clear… Nothing worked, and I had no future other than a painfully disabled and insecure existence.
I racked my brains to think about what to do next. I was totally exhausted without being able to sleep properly or manage my spiralling fears. In the depths of my despair my old friend and mentor Yehuda Tagar who was a Steiner trained psychotherapist came to mind. I asked David if I could use his phone and I called Yehuda, laying out my desperation in plain language.
He said, “Look Hal why don’t you go Paolo Moraes at the Anthroposophical Medicine clinic in Warranwood. He is a Steiner trained GP and I trust him more than any doctor I know.”
I really, literally, had nothing to lose, so I called him and miraculously there was a cancellation for the last session of the day available. I booked the longest session available, put down the phone, and quietly allowed myself a tiny glimmer of hope amidst the inky blackness.
After resting a bit more it was time to go. I hobbled down to the street, hailed a taxi and jumped in. I remember the taxi sweeping through the streets of Melbourne and a curious feeling bubbling up inside. It felt like something was about to change.
Walking in to the session, Dr Moraes was a calm looking middle aged doctor. I was so exhausted I asked if I could lie down on his examining table as I couldn’t muster the energy to sit up and talk to him. He agreed and started to ask me about my medical history. I was impressed with his patience and thoroughness. He followed every line of investgation about the possible provenance of my symptoms with a considered clarity and focus. I unloaded the details of my terrible ordeal and my own frustrated speculations about what was going on. What was supposed to be a fourty five minute session turned into an hour and then an hour and a half. We left no stone unturned and by the end I felt a lot lighter as Paulo’s care and presence held a safe space for my wounded soul.
At the end of the consult Paulo paused and looked at me. He said “Hal, I do not know what is wrong with you. If I was to offer you a diagnosis it might be Chronic Fatigue Syndrome because you appear to have so much fatigue on top of your pain symptoms. I think you should go back to Yehuda and maybe see what he has to offer.”
I said my thanks and we concluded the session. I got up and started to walk out of the consulting room. I recall feeling that even though he hadn’t been able to diagnose me with anything definitive, I had been thoroughly heard. I had really been listened to. I felt a lot lighter and then it happened.
As I walked back into the waiting room to pay for the consult an intuition hit me like a veritable bolt of lightning. I have no idea where it came from, but to this day I can remember the intensity and clarity of this sense of knowing. It (i.e. my intuition) said simply “understand your relationship to fear and anger”.
At that stage of my life my intuition didn’t speak to me very much, at least not in that “lightning-bolt out of the blue that you cant possibly ignore” kind of way. So it was a huge inner event and now I felt a tangible sense of hope welling inside. My body was broken, but I now had a clear direction to pursue my healing.
Understanding the mind-body approach
As soon as I could get in front of a computer I started searching for connections between emotions and pain syndromes. I found the work of US rehabilitation specialist Dr John Sarno and ordered his book “The Mind-Body Prescription” from Amazon as it was impossible to get in Melbourne at that time.
As soon as it arrived I devoured the book. His theory was that stress and unconscious emotions lie at the root of chronic pain and fatigue…this dovetailed remarkably with what my intuition told me. His alternative diagnostic suggestion “Tension Myositis Syndrome” or TMS matched very well with my symptoms of pain, fatigue, insomnia and anxiety, and with my tendency to be a perfectionist and a “goodist” (Sarno’s term for someone for whom doing good is important). He observes that these traits are often present in people with chronic pain.
Since my intuitive realisation and the dawning of hope some of my anxiety had dropped away even though my body was still in a parlous state. Reading Sarno was like applying a divinely anionted intellectual balm for the soul. He laid out in lucid detail his account of the genesis of chronic pain and fatigue syndromes and with every chapter my excitement grew… at last! A proper diagnosis! The unconscious emotions were the missing link… the thing that none of my valiant 42 practitioners of healing had been able to help me grasp or even point to.
Sarno was adamant that the chronic pain was not stemming from my injured tissues anymore. Rather, he argued that tissues heal within days or weeks, and the ongoing pain is a response mediated by the Autonomic Nervous System as part of a whole-mind-body attempt to manage the stuff that was below the surface of consciousness.
I started to get physically better quite quickly at this point, after realising that the pain is not from physical damage from overuse as I had always believed. Eureka!
From here on, a virtuous cycle ensued in which less fear of the pain led to less pain, increasing my confidence in the mind-body approach, which in turn led to less fear of the pain that remained. It showed me in no uncertain terms how important the role of fear and anxiety are in the perpetuation of pain.
The other remarkable thing about that book was its description of the role of unconscious emotions in TMS. Essentially Sarno takes a neo-Freudian view that the pain and fatigue (or a vast number of other possible symptoms) are basically an autonomically mediated distraction mechanism, a way that the brain defends itself from painful emotions which are too threatening to allow into consciousness.
I started experimenting with trying to feel my feelings more. Each day as I awoke I would stay in bed for half an hour just sensing into my belly, dropping my consciousness as deep as I could, trying to feel more. Slowly the feelings started to show up, as I experimented more with sensing into and moving my body and breath. I also used journalling to explore and express my feelings through the written word.
I had to work consistently at identifying and letting myself feel the emotions which were blocked but it felt that as I did, each little release led to my body and mind feeling a bit lighter. Given the physical relief which ensued as a result (i.e. reduced pain) I experienced this as an exciting journey of discovery rather than a scary process.
To get some more support with this process, I tried Re-evaluation Counselling to help me understand my emotional self better, which was a great start. But later on I found that somatic / body based approaches to psychotherapy (in particular Radix Body Centered Psychotherapy) helped me to access the unconscious stuff more deeply and safely. As a major, major bonus I found that the more I did this style of work on myself my general level of wellbeing picked up immensely and other symptoms of depression / anxiety I had considered normal for years started to drop off also.
The rest, as they say, is history. These days I consider myself thoroughly cured of RSI / chronic pain / CFS. I still get the occasional twinge of pain which goes away rapidly when I apply my now well practiced mind-body approach to eliminating any symptoms. And when I am typing frantically to get something finished, or playing the drums loudly, or digging in the garden without pain, I often experience a sense of amazement and disbelief at how much my life has changed.
As well as Dr Sarno and the various people who helped me along the way, perhaps I should also give my intuition some of the credit as it was in fact this mysterious faculty of the self that pointed me in the right direction. Anyway, after spending periods of months in despair that I would be in pain for the rest of my life I feel extremely grateful to have my health back. I also have a much deeper understanding of myself and the reality of the mind-body connection.
Also if you have any feedback on my story, positive or negative, I would like to hear it, you can leave a comment below or contact me.
Please note some of the comments below may relate to an earlier version of my story which has been updated.
"Since I've started seeing Hal, I've quit drinking and smoking, gone off my antidepressants, stopped feeling shy, dramatically improved my relationships with my partner and with my mother, and largely gotten over my RSI issues.
Its been a transformational few months. I have to give credit to myself and to a course that I'm doing at the moment as well, but seeing Hal has really helped me get in touch with my emotions and given me the capacity to deal with life, rather than avoiding ... >>read more >>
"Seeing Hal changed my life. After 4 years of strong chronic pain I now experience minimal pain and have no restrictions in doing all the activities I love in life. Here is my story.
I initially developed RSI type pain in my wrists from typing and computer use while writing up my PhD. It manifested as strong pain right through both my wrists whenever I typed or used my wrists for normal activities. It eventually got so bad ... >>read more >>