A book that might save your life, or, Back Pain: Part II

betty ming liu Health, Inspiration, Money, Relationships 13 Comments

For the past two months, I’ve been miserable. Severe coughs, headaches and back aches made me feel like a frail, old person. I was so scared. But then, a little paperback saved my life with secrets to great health. Maybe this post can save you, too.

My problems started with a simple, allergy-type cough. It built into a hacking cough that rattled my entire body for two weeks. Then came a few weeks of terrible headaches. And then, worst of all — my back gave out. Escalating ailments of this sort never, ever plagued me before.

Bedridden and trying to cope — that’s where you found me in a recent blog post. Thankfully, fellow blogger Joel Friedlander saw it. Taking time from his busy day as America’s self-publishing guru, he dropped a comment.

He told me to get “Healing Back Pain: The Mind-Body Connection” by John E. Sarno, asap. Although this oldie-but-goodie has been around since the ’90s, it was news to me. He said the book saved his life. I’ve never heard Joel say anything like that, which made me pay attention.

It took only a few hours to read the book. Sarno, a medical doctor who specializes in chronic pain, sees many patients who suffer from frozen and aching backs, knees, legs, shoulders and necks. Migraines, allergies and acne are also among a long list of additional complaints.

The physical traits are only one component of the problem. Psychological issues are the real issue. Sarno’s patients struggle with repressed anger and fear. The emotions often date back to childhood experiences.

Before I picked up this book, I already knew I was stressed. I had set a bunch of unrealistic work deadlines for myself. Instead of dealing with my ridiculousness, I kept pushing myself to work harder.

But I had NO IDEA that my behavior patterns were part of a body-brain game of deception — orchestrated by me. My sub-conscious self has been very, very busy.

What I learned: The feelings I choose to ignore live on inside me. My brain assesses the situation and sends the body a message.

Hey Body, she’s at it again! Betty’s going into denial. So hurry up and give her a head ache. Or maybe we should up the stakes. Maybe, throw out her back. We’ve got to to distract her from any possibility of self-reflection. If she’s busy dealing with physical ouches, she won’t have time to realize she’s making herself crazy.

I have all the traits that feed this sort of behavior. Here’s Sarno’s check list:

  • Achiever personality surrounded by nice things.
  • Always feels like she/he isn’t doing enough.
  • Strong need to be good, pleasant, accommodating and helpful.
  • Hardworking and trained to be a perfectionist.
  • Very responsible and conscientious.
  • Compulsive about getting things done a certain way.

The obsession to please and perform turns us into walking stress bombs. When the emotional pressure is too much, tension explodes in physical pain. Sometimes, the pain travels from one area to another, which is what happened to me. With each new problem, I became more and more fearful until terror slammed me on my back in bed. Immobile, wincing at every tiny move. Paralyzed by fear. Mad at myself for blowing deadlines.

Once I finished reading the book, I was face-to-face with my Great Wall of Denial. I needed a day or two to decide if I could commit to Sarno’s advice. Could I really bear to examine the past yet again, but through fresh eyes? Could I literally walk myself through the fear of further injury?

The process of believing in myself on this level was frightening. Every physical step I took was an act of trust in the unknown and maybe, the unknowable. I had to balance fright with physical pain with meditation and breathing.

The first day on my feet was all about practice. By evening, I was walking quite well. A few times, I bumped into dog or one of our cats, which made me freeze and wince. But then, I practiced the other part of this meditation: talking to my brain.

In fact, me and the brain are having a conversation right now. This very second, I’m worried that this blog post makes no sense. That you’ll click away. That I’m worth nothing, which means I’ll never win a MacArthur genius award. As I’m thinking this, an achey feeling surfaced — slowly yet suddenly — nagging at my right hip. Oh, no! Pain. Another flare-up. Maybe I shouldn’t go to the gym later after all. I might hurt myself, again. This sucks. I suck. Life sucks.

See how this destructive cycle works?

But the pain can go away. I just have to learn to truly relax. To reset the tone, have a look at my cat Minty. This big boy is my inspiration:

Minty back

Okay. Deep breath and exhale. Let’s talk…

Hey Brain, no more playing games. I know, I know — I’m changing the rules. It’s not you. It’s me. You’ve done a good job of protecting me but I want to change. I’m ready to deal with the past. It doesn’t scare me anymore. The rage is pretty much gone. I’m not even angry at my father! So I want a new relationship with you and my body. 

I want to truly enjoy life. To do that at the next level, I must end a core behavior pattern that dates back to childhood. Control freak parents trained me to be a people-pleasing perfectionist. I love them (now). They did their best. No more rage. Let go. Move on.


The other day, I went for some deep tissue body work with my rolfer Cathy Allen. You can read about her here. I told her about the book. She said patients have been telling her about “Healing Back Pain” for years. She’s never read it but heard only good things.

To my surprise, she believes in talking to the body too. When something appears, whether it’s back pain or a cataract, talk to it.

“You can ask it, ‘Why are you here?’,” Cathy told me. “It’s all about working skillfully with our experiences. You don’t have the answers. But you can let your experiences speak to you.”

This is a new level of personal trust.

I think I can do it.

What about you — do you relate?

Comments 13

  1. I can soooo relate! Won’t bore you with details but I’ve had the feeling most, if not all, my recent ailments are stress based but I haven’t taken the next step: doing a deep dive into the causes. I’m going to check out “Healing Back Pain.” Thanks as always for your insightful post.

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    Doralee, I hope you enjoy the book. It offered me a whole different way for me to interact with my brain and body. Living consciously!

    Of course, right after hitting “publish” on this post, the nagging side stitch flickered in and out of my right hip. It’s there now. And I’m consciously breathing into it, explaining that we have to stop this old pattern. Stop. It’s okay to stop.

    Good luck and good vibes to you. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Betty, my friend, you really have to get on my Reiki table soon. Then we’ll have a whole new conversation about relaxing, restoring, and recalibrating.

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  4. Great post Betty!
    I have been “talking” to my body for the past 20 years- since a diagnosis of Lupus.

    It’s a powerful act and I taught me kids to do it too. Don’t know if they listened, but it’s a terrific “truth.”

    Thanks for your excellent bit of writing here…. Joy

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      Thanks, Joy! And you talk to your body too? Interesting. This reminds me of how I felt when I started seeing a shrink. I felt unsure of how my friends would react (the people-pleasing gene, once again). But then, I was surprised by how many people I admired were in therapy. It’s a creative process. It’s ALL a creative process.

  5. Fantastic, congratulations on your progress, Betty. Just keep going. It took me several weeks to come out of the pain/fear/holding cycle. Here’s the thing about Sarno: I went to several neurologists and back specialists, every one of whom thought I would probably need surgery. Hey, I don’t blame them, that’s all they had to offer. By doing exactly what you are doing, in a few weeks I was almost normal, although I couldn’t torque my body hardly at all. Eventually I lost weight and started exercising more. Then I took up mountain biking, probably the most physically strenuous activity I’ve ever done. In the years since, I have been very thankful I didn’t take the surgeons’ advice, and I haven’t had a recurrence of back pain of any kind for years. So just keep going, I predict it’s all going to work out well for you. And BTW, you’re pretty brave!

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      Hey Joel, you’re brave too! Now that I’ve been there, I appreciate the literal leap of faith involved. Those first few steps post-reading terrified me even more than the weeks of pain. What if I crippled myself?! Thanks again for the great advice. And hmmm, mountain biking…that’s pretty bold. I’ve never been much for the scenic outdoors but I’ve gotten interested in hiking. The Madrid vacation made me appreciate walking everywhere. A hike might be next. Thanks again. A million thanks!

  6. OMG! Can I relate! I have just begun a group therapy at the VA to deal with pain. The group leader is a pain psychologist with the pain clinic. Our group is made up of veterans of various ages dealing with physical pain, mostly back and head aches, fibromyalgia, etc. We all also are plagued with PTSD, depression, and anxiety. Previous thought was that these mental ailments were brought on as a result of the physical injuries. Now, the VA is leaning towards the concept that the physical ailments are the result of long term suppression of mental pain from childhood abuse, war abuse, military life, and all the other stresses that you talked about. Our group is being “trained” to stomach breathe, relax, talk to our brains, and yes re-examine the past traumas that we suppressed into ourselves for so long that our bodies are fighting back with numerous forms of chronic pain. Thank you for yet another confirmation the “thought” this book has revealed to you. I continue to love, relate to and learn from your writings. Continue to heal, Betty. We need you!

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      Wow, June. What incredible work you’re doing. Your group really speaks to me. Did you see my “Back Pain: Part I” blog post? http://bit.ly/22Olbo5

      In it, I go on and on about another great book. All about PTSD by the godfather of PTSD: “The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma. ” http://amzn.to/1SL8Vh0

      The book is riveting for several reasons. The author, Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, put PTSD on the map. He shares the history of getting respect for PTSD. Personal stories fill the book — heartbreaking, page-turning accounts about wounded soldiers, incest survivors, rape victims and more.

      I think this book opened me up, prepped me. After reading it, and dealing with my own terrors over back pain, I was ready to hear Sarno and start talking to my brain.

      Thank you so much for stopping by. Glad to hear about your group. Good luck with the new techniques you’re learning. It’s inspiring!

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