Ouch, My Back

If you google this tagline, you get all sorts of hits. Memes, funny and not so funny videos; articles by MDs, osteopaths, PTs – and there’s even a moving company in Canada with that name, whom I must applaud for really, really excellent branding. Medical information aside, there is also a great deal to learn about correlations between our psyche and chronic pain. Duh, you say? Well good for you if you knew this already. You might want to skip this post, for it might bore you.

I can personally attest to two types of pain. One is the pain that is my subconscious‘ code for overwhelm. It has manifested, over the course of my life, in headaches and migraines, and more recently, in frequently occurring back pains. Now, pain is not great for clear thinking, nor is stress, so it’s a bit of a tall order to be all detached and say to yourself: Oh, you’re just drowning in too many things all at once, you’re just feeling unable to cope. You’re experiencing pain, but is it really pain? Take a break and look after yourself. In that moment, I’m oftentimes just reacting. And my knee-jerk reaction is reaching for medication.

Second hand, pain was a huge part of my childhood, as the daughter of a rheumatoid arthritis patient. My dad developed RA when I was about 7, when we lived in Romania still, and what the first treatments were, I have no idea. I remember the conversation regarding the emigration to Germany was about reuniting with family, living in a democracy, being able to travel. But it was also, to a large degree, about the hope to be healed, because of better medical conditions in the promised land, which, sadly, did not come true.

At the time, as far as I know, the psychological aspects of his condition were not part of the therapy. They treated the flares with cortisone and the pain with opioids. The rest was a dire prognosis for a life of constant debilitating pain. It’s not surprising he lost the will to live, and passed away merely 5 years after we moved.

One thing I recently read is that there is research indicating suppressed rage manifesting as chronic pain. Interesting. Internalized anger, directed at yourself, hurting your body because of being unable to express that you’re mad? Wow.

My father’s family history was, as with many of his generation, determined by WW II. His formerly quite wealthy family was disowned after the war, reason enough alone to feel rage. Then, both his siblings were taken to Russian labor camps, which they did not survive, and I can’t even imagine the survivor’s guilt he must have felt. Could this explain his developing RA? Subconsciously punishing yourself for being alive by making your existence as painful as possible? It’s possible. Add to that the silent rage caused by being forced out of your family home, left with no possessions to speak of, very little perspective, trapped in a totalitarian country where you needed to keep your head down if you didn’t want to end up in prison … Stands to reason all that needed an outlet.

My own back pains are, of course, on a completely different pain level. They started with some discomfort during my second pregnancy and got worse over the last 10 years, to the point of my being unable to sit in a chair for longer periods of time, sometimes. When I get like that, I work in a nest, be it on the couch, in bed, or the hammock. Warmth is key.

If I take the time to think about it, I can literally feel my back seize up when I’m stressing over something, when an assignment or an appointment makes me anxious, when there’s just too many things, one on top of the other … When I’m caught up in the situation, however, I sometimes lose perspective, and I forget. It’s easy to let the pain get the better of me and just react. And my knee-jerk reaction is reaching for a pill box, because of how I grew up, I think. But interestingly, whenever I do manage to read the room and realize my overwhelm, I can get a handle on it by not treating the pain, but trying to do something about the reason.

That said, I mean absolutely no disrespect for anybody who suffers from a painful medical condition. I’m not belittling any of that, God forbid. This is just my own personal journey, and may not be valid for anybody else. In case it is for you, I’ll try to describe my emergency plan. Maybe it works for you, maybe you come up with your own strategy. The working theory is that the pain is not the problem but a signal from my psyche to look after myself, pronto.

When in pain, I ask myself:

  1. When did the pain start / what triggered it?
  2. Is it a symptom for stress?

If the answer to these questions points to overwhelm rather than having thrown out my back, I try the following:

  1. Carefully prioritize my to do list, and cross off things that don’t absolutely need to happen
  2. Ask someone to help out and/or bow out of things
  3. Take a break and relax: lie down and close my eyes; run a bath; take a walk with the dog; do some yoga or breathing routine; sleep

I question whether it’s really a painkiller I need, or if it’s relief. If the honest answer is the latter, this is the tricky part. Admitting to needing a break, or help, takes courage in a society that has little patience with inability to cope. A change of mindset is needed! In business lingo, acknowledging my pain as a symptom for psychological distress and working with that is actually a smart business decision. I’ll be 100% more efficient if I take a break to regroup, and continue refreshed later, or the next day.

I’m happy to say that it can actually work like that, if I manage to not be swallowed by the pain. This is not to say that a painkiller can’t help. Maybe it’s easier to think clearly when you’ve taken the edge off with an ibuprofen or whatever your meds of choice are.

Pain fascinates me, can you tell? If you’re still here, thank you for reading, and I would really like to know about your own perspective on this. Can you relate to anything I wrote?

I’m leaving you with a calming, beautiful image today, that makes me draw a deep breath. Be well, and thank you for reading.

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