Two days ago, I drafted a post describing my struggle with a herniated disc and the resulting pain. Yesterday, still dealing with pain and under the influence of supposedly helpful pain relievers, I accidentally deleted the document.
I wrote about feeling trapped on an island of pain, how being left (due to a set of unavoidable circumstances), alone for several hours to fend for myself, it felt as if my friends and family were swimming through the shoals of my pain and batting the seaweed of my frustration and anger aside as they headed for their own islands.
It’s probably just as well I lost the file. I was feeling sorry for myself and needed to rant, although writing the draft helped me come to terms with my predicament. Losing it helped me to understand that nothing is permanent including my pain, which hasn’t quite dissipated but has reduced, thanks to the ministrations of a good physiotherapist, the gentle restorative exercises he suggested, and plenty of rest.
I found another self on that island of pain, a self that swung too readily between binary opposites of hope and despair, a self who fell into the trap of believing life was either a vale of tears or a pain-free paradise. Why, I moaned, was I forced to endure the former when I craved the latter? This led me to reflect on the Buddhist notion that life is suffering, an inescapable misery rather than an occasion for learning, growing, and feeling compassion for myself and others.
Mindfulness techniques helped me cope; I sent my breath to the afflicted area, imagining it became suffused with a healing light and the relief, though momentary, was sweet. I also did a little research on neurological explanations of pain. In my situation, as I understand it, the nerve endings located in or around my herniated (and thinning) disc, alerted my brain to a potential problem; something was about to, or had, gone wrong. My brain then interpreted and sent the message on and I experienced debilitating pain. According to Norman Doidge , however, my experience was
an opinion on the organism’s state of health rather than a mere reflexive response to injury.
This means, I think, that in the process of collecting and sharing the relevant information, pain is little more than a construct of my brain. Could this explain why military personnel and highly trained athletes deal with pain better than most of us? They don’t ignore the brain’s signals, they recognise it as a construct and manage it differently than the rest of us.
As a result of my research I started a conversation with my brain, telling it my physiotherapist said I needed to move, that I would be careful and my brain didn’t need to tell me moving would hurt; it could also please ‘turn down’ the hurt, or reduce the length of time it hurt. Because, as Doidge reveals, that
neurons that fire together wire together,
and due to our brain’s remarkable plasticity,
neurons that fire apart wire apart-or neurons out of sync fail to link,
I attempted to reconfigure the neuronal link between what was occurring in my spine and the way my reactionary brain ‘read’ the information and conveyed it to me.
As I result, I found movement a little easier. This is not, however, a recommendation for dealing with pain, just a game my brain and I played, a narrative, if you will, I constructed to address the inconvenience of my situation.
As my pain recedes I ask myself once more who am I and do I believe life is suffering or is it a mindful awareness of both suffering and joy; a dance between the two? I called my original blog, ‘The Loneliness of Pain’ because, over the weekend, I felt utterly alone. My research, the meditations I did and my reflections on the idea of universal suffering helped me acknowledge that everyone experiences pain. As we move closer to understanding, from a scientific and neurological perspective, the nature and significance of that universal suffering maybe we will become more compassionate, loving human beings.
I have no doubt that I, and my lower spine, will recover. Back exercises will become a daily routine, as will being aware of how I move my body now it has fully entered the ageing process.
I understand now that the island I thought I was on is only a peninsula. Feeling isolated by my pain, or by any experience of loss or grief, is an illusion; to suffer is human and because we are human, we never truly suffer alone.