In some recent posts, I wrote about the back pain that had begun to dominate my waking hours. Its onset in June was not precipitated by any event or injury. It just showed up. By the time I wrote about it in July, the pain had pretty much unpacked its bags and settled in, demanding constant attention and crowding out most of the activities I normally enjoy. After several unproductive visits with the physical therapist, I started seeing an acupuncturist. Acupuncture lessened the pain but didn’t get rid of it completely.
In early August, I went to the pain specialist to see if my symptoms warranted an MRI. No, he said, what I was describing didn’t sound much different from the episode that had sent me to him two years ago. He recommended that I continue with the acupuncture, and I left feeling both relieved and frustrated. Great — it’s not getting worse. Hurray, I can still feel my legs! But it’s also not going away.
One of my readers suggested a book titled Healing Back Pain by John Sarno, and since I was spending so much time lying on the couch, I had plenty of time to read. The author is a physician, and he believes that most low back pain is emotional, not physical, in origin. He proposes that unresolved pain in the body serves as a distraction, keeping us from dealing with “unacceptable” emotions that have been repressed, like anger and resentment. I read with great skepticism. I finished the book thinking that he might have a point, but I still didn’t buy it entirely. Or at least, I didn’t think it applied to me.
Here’s why. To the dismay of those who know me, I don’t repress much. When Mike and I were newly married, a woman we knew was in the process of ending her 14-year marriage. When I asked her what had gone wrong, she shrugged. “Shit builds up,” she said, like resentment was an unavoidable pitfall of any relationship. I took her words as a warning, so I try to address problems and aggravations as they arise. My loved ones probably pray every day that I might become a little more repressed, but one thing is true: very little shit builds up around here.
Shortly after that doctor’s appointment, someone criticized me during an argument, and the words hit so hard that they practically left a mark. I couldn’t believe how much it hurt. The person apologized, but days later, I still could not let it go. My reaction didn’t feel proportionate to the insult, so I asked Mike if he would sit and listen to me as I tried to talk my way through it. (Some people have therapists; I have an excellent husband.) I had to do my talking from the couch, though, because my back was killing me. Again.
It took about an hour of saying the same things over and over until I got to the root of what was bothering me. It’s typical of women, I think, that we start off feeling upset about one thing and find, after some circular conversation, that the origin of the problem is something else. That’s not news. What did surprise me was the realization that I had been carrying around a load of resentment for several years, one that I hadn’t even been aware of, and the earlier criticism had struck right at the core of it.
The other surprise was that when we finished talking and got up to make dinner, my back pain was gone. G-o-n-e. Like your basic Jesus-type miracle. For the past two weeks, I have been pain free. There used to be a chronic ache in my right shoulder and one in my right foot, too, and now they’ve disappeared as well. Over the past several days, I have moved furniture, repainted a desk, sewed, and sat through a two-hour movie without having to get up. I find this sudden resolution a little eery and unbelievable, but I’ll take it.
It would be simplistic to credit this recovery to one thing. I tried several approaches to managing the pain, and each probably contributed incrementally to its improvement. Still, it’s hard to ignore a dramatic change like the one I experienced. We already know that chronic stress impacts the body in a variety of ways, from cardiovascular health and the immune system to hormone levels and digestive problems. It’s not too large a leap, then, to make a connection between emotions and physical pain.
We don’t like emotions much. They’re not rational, they arise at inconvenient moments, and their intensity makes us uncomfortable. We don’t trust them, so we train ourselves to put them away where they can’t bother anyone, including ourselves. And some of this is necessary. A little teeth-clenching goes a long way toward the functioning of a polite society. I shudder to think of the awful consequences of expressing all our feelings. We have to keep some things to ourselves so that other people will let us hang around with them.
But now I wonder about the emotions we bury so deep that they’re hidden even from our own awareness. After half a century or more of buildup, they probably start to wear on the body. I’d have sworn that I didn’t have anything tucked away like that, that I knew everything about how I felt. Apparently, my back knew something different.