The first time I experienced chronic pain was 15 years ago. I was about to start my final year of undergrad, and one random morning in the summer time my low back got very loud. The pain was unexpected and undeniable. Each night I would go to sleep hoping and, quite frankly, assuming my 20 year old body would just heal itself. After several months when I realized this wasn’t going to get better without help, the doctor I saw simply gave me opiate pain killers. He essentially gave me unlimited refills, and said I could either take the pills or get surgery.
The pills helped, and even if they didn’t, if you took an extra one you didn’t care. To this day I still think it was an act of grace that I decided to only use those pills for the first month. When I ran out a few days early, I experienced a depression and anxiety so great, I don’t know that I could find any real sense of reason to live. That lasted for several days, and I don’t think it was until it was over that I understood those terrible days to be withdraw. That was enough to make me decide I would simply live with the pain like my father and his father before him. We were tough, and bad backs just run in the family… luckily I would get a job after college that wasn’t blue collar. I could at least let my back have a break.
I was in my last year of college and working at a home improvement store. During this time I was feeling pretty down about life in general, and I was worried that I was wasting my time. No one from my family really knew how college worked. My dad, who is 78 years old, still calls himself an ol’ hillbilly. His parents moved to the city from a hollow in the Blue Ridge Mountains. My grandparents grew up taking horses into town. They didn’t have electricity and didn’t ever really attend school. When they were just children grandpa worked on a farm and grandma was a maid. They didn’t see college as a possibility or worthwhile endeavor. So it’s no surprise that when my dad was offered a college scholarship, his parents told him to get that nonsense out of his head. He dropped out of school after that and got his GED. He always pushed the importance of college, but he could never seem to understand why it cost so much and why I wasn’t making “good money” while I was in school.
All these fears were compounded in my own head, and they became so much worse when I did not find a “good job” immediately upon graduation. I was in unchartered waters and my patrons were constantly telling my that my ship was doomed to sink. Maybe even worse, I had started to believe it. All the while the back pain raged on while I just continued to live in pain. This lasted for two years. Eventually I got a job teaching art in a school for emotionally disturbed students. The work was demanding and stressful, but I finally was working in my field. This is what I had said all along that I would do, and finally here I was.
Unfortunately, like the back pain, those sinking thoughts had become a part of my daily internal script. Rather than feeling successful and overjoyed, I had developed an inner dialogue that believed I was doomed to fail. For my whole life I was an A-B honors level student. I had kept a job since I was 16, and not only had I completed university, I had landed a job as an art teacher! I never failed at anything, but that’s the program my brain downloaded. Each second of my waking life was shrouded in physical and emotional pain, and what’s more is that I accepted this as my normal and part of my personality.
While I never went as far into decline as many people I know and love, I still suffered and tortured myself through that suffering. Pain is terribly isolating and lonely. No one can really understand pain except the person experiencing it, and its profound implications don’t easily fit into our properly functioning society. I used alcohol as my predominant pain relief during this time. It seemed to quell my anxiety and depression, and even if my back and leg still radiated, I cared less when I was hammered. I would drink as soon as I was finished with work. Plus I was in a very stressful and sometimes violent sub-set of special education. Most all the teachers and social workers I knew drank quite heavily. We would often meet as soon as work was over for happy hour.
This is about when my whole life began to change, and I didn’t even know it. Ultimately this is a story about change and transformation. One evening after school I happened across a chiropractor who was offering free back assessments. All I knew about chiropractors was from my dad, and that was basically “those bone crackers are a bunch of bull shit.” That’s what I always thought, and maybe that’s why I had been living with this pain for so many years.
The chiropractor talked me into coming into his office for x-rays and a free treatment. His x-rays showed that I had several herniated disks in my low back and neck, and that I also had degenerative disk disorder. He told me he could alleviate all the pain and maybe even reverse the damage. I was skeptical to say the least. In addition to my father’s negative view and advice to avoid these charlatans, I was quoted an astronomical figure and told it would take six months to heal.
At 24 years old I was unable to walk around the block because of severe pain. I could not hike or jog. Everyone around me was healthy and using their bodies however they liked, and it seemed like I should be that way to. So I took a chance. I took out a $6,000 medical credit card and committed to three sessions a week for six months, and I’ll be damned if it didn’t work. I was still running that negative depressed script in my brain, but my physical pain was finally going away. I was going to the gym and lifting weights. I was hiking and riding my bike again. This is when I discovered the practice that would change everything… yoga.
Yoga was something I assumed would be easy. I could just sit there and sing koom-bye-ah or some shit, right? I didn’t know what I would need or have to do, but my chiropractor said it might help keep my back healthy. So in March of 2009, I left the chiropractor and headed to the local Bikram yoga studio. I didn’t know anything about any of this, so when I walked in and the lady at the desk told me all I need was a mat, towel, and a pair of underwear I was skeptical. “Umm, I’ll be back tomorrow,” I told her.
“What the hell was that,” I remember wondering. Just need underwear? What the hell kind of yoga is this? Everything I read that night on google suggested that Bikram was the yoga to help with back pain. It said it would be hot, but I didn’t use a/c in the summer… how hot could it be? The next day I showed up in my sweat pants and workout shirt expecting to sing hot koom-bye-ah, but instead I got my ass kicked. By the end of the class I was drenched in sweat, and I too had stripped down to my underwear (just like most everyone else in the class). I didn’t understand how this was spiritual. It just felt like torture exercise, and it was a hellishly hot 105 degrees. Evaporated sweat drops literally rained down from the ceiling. Ewwww. So gross. Spiritual? I didn’t think so…
Except, water never tasted so good. I remember specifically noticing that I never appreciated water fully until after that 90 minutes of hell. It was like water was the most precious gift I had ever received, and it might be that realization alone that made me go back the next day, and the next. Eventually, I left that Bikram studio for something else. I had gotten a job working at a front desk in exchange for a yoga membership so I just practiced at the new (to me) place.
This is how my back pain became my greatest teacher. While it was awful, and I would not wish chronic pain upon anyone, my back pain saved my life. Through my yoga practice and over the past ten years, I have evolved in countless ways. As my inner spirit got louder and as I learned to listen, I quit drinking and smoking. I stopped thinking of my depression and anxiety and something I had to silently suffer through and went to therapy. Like with the back pain and chiropractor, it was a long and painful process, but like with the chiropractor, it helped to heal me.
I’m writing all of this now because my back pain returned recently. I had totally forgotten what this sensation was like, and I can hardly believe that I was able to live with this for so many years. While it’s both excruciating and debilitating, this time things are different. Through my yoga practice, and through all the help I’ve received through these healing modalities and my healers, the script I play in my head now believes I deserve to heal. My script now knows that I am a worthwhile person who has more to offer the world when I am healthy. These past years and all this work taught me that I have great value and if I am not healthy I cannot share this value as easily with the people who need me.
It is my sincerest desire that this pain goes away as soon as possible. I wouldn’t wish these sensations on anyone. Even getting off of the floor is a nearly impossible task at some points. This decade has changed me though. I have the wisdom and understanding of these years to realize that this will heal, and when it does I might just have been pushed onto a new path of great health and discovery. It is also my sincere desire that if you are reading these words and are in pain, you know that you don’t deserve this. You are a worthwhile and important being, and you don’t deserve your pain. It isn’t your fault and you shouldn’t feel guilty for it. There are others who are in pain, and even though we can’t understand your pain exactly, we know how you feel; and we have compassion for you. There are so many meditation and gentle yoga resources for healing out there, and they can work if you do. Maybe this pain will a great gift of transformation, and even if it isn’t, you’re worth it!
Aum shanti shanti shanti