April 10, 2016

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?