I explained here how reading The Mindbody Prescription and recognizing that my pain was an effort on the part of my unconscious mind to keep me distracted from negative unconscious emotions was a key to my recovery from fibromyalgia and chronic neck and back pain. But now that I’ve lived pain-free for several years and have worked with hundreds of patients suffering from chronic pain and other health challenges, I have come to realize that there was another step I took (not even really realizing I was doing it at the time) that was at least as — if not more — important. What was it? It was changing the story I tell myself and others about my life.
After the car accident, and especially after I developed excruciating chronic pain, I developed a detailed narrative to describe the accident and my life afterward.
Here is how my old story went:
- One day I was riding down the road, chatting with my friends, when out of the clear blue sky we were hit broadside by a negligent woman talking on her cell phone.
- I remember so vividly spinning around on the road with the force of the impact and then rolling in the ditch. Those moments seemed to last forever. I remember thinking that I was about to find out what it felt like to die.
- For my whole life I had worked so hard to take care of my health and now, as the result of the actions of one irresponsible person, I cannot do the most basic things without pain. My body is broken.
- I am a victim.
- I am a back pain sufferer. I have disc injuries that will never heal.
- I have fibromyalgia, which is an incurable condition.
- I am broken.
- I join online support groups for fibromyalgia and chronic pain patients. I read the stories of many other victims. I feel their pain but somehow it is comforting to be “part of the club”.
- The chiropractor says my x-rays look really bad. He explains that there are limits to how much he will be able to help me.
- My entire life revolves around my pain and all the special steps I need to take to minimize it. If I sleep without my special pillow for even one night, my pain will be worse for weeks. If I drive for more than 20 minutes at a time, my pain will be worse for weeks. If I vacuum, my pain will be worse for weeks. If I wear anything other than orthopedic shoes, my pain will be worse for weeks. If I spend more than ten minutes in the sun, my pain will be worse for weeks. If I run out of my medications my life will grind to a complete stop. The bottom line is that I live in terror of my pain.
- When I look around my home and yard, I see baseboards that need to be scrubbed, flowerbeds that need to be weeded, and windows that need to be washed and know that I cannot do any of it because of my pain.
- The radiologist’s reports say that I have four herniated discs. When I go to the neurosurgeon’s, he puts the images on a light box and shows me. The disc injury in my thoracic spine looks especially bad but he tells me that it cannot be fixed.
- Each time I go to the pharmacy to fill my Vicodin and other prescriptions, I feel defensive. I imagine the pharmacist and the other customers judging me. I assure myself that these people have no clue how hard it is to live with chronic pain.
- If I happen to have a good day, I know that it is an exception to the rule. I am quick to tell myself not to get my hopes up.
- Each time I feel a twinge of extra pain or pain in a new location, I think “oh crap, another flare — I wonder how many weeks this one will last!”
- When I think of the future, I know that things will only get worse.
This was the story I told myself thousands of times over the course of the nine years I lived with chronic pain. It was the tape that played in my head constantly. It was the foundation on which my sense of self and my relationships were built. This story included a detailed network of images, memories, and intense emotions, including fear, vulnerability, disempowerment, frustration, bitterness, defensiveness, and grief. My whole life revolved around this story.
Then I read The Mindbody Prescription and made a deliberate decision to view things differently. Because I was desperate, I was willing to wholeheartedly embrace Dr. Sarno’s claim that there was nothing wrong with my body — that it was healthy and strong — and the place I needed to look for my cure was in my mind. So I read the book over and over again, I wrote in a journal, I did EFT tapping, and I (most importantly) changed the tape running in my head and I changed the story I told people about my life.
Here is how my new story goes:
- One day I was riding down the road, chatting with my friends, when out of the clear blue sky we were hit broadside by a woman who made a mistake that I could easily have made myself.
- I remember so vividly spinning around on the road with the force of the impact and then rolling in the ditch. Those moments seemed to last forever. I remember thinking that I was about to find out what it felt like to die, but later the woman who was riding in the front seat of the same vehicle told me that she was thinking during those same moments that it was going to be really cool to see how God would take care of us. As it turns out, I didn’t die and she was right. The purse that was sitting beside me in the car ended up crushed underneath the vehicle and I ended up walking away.
- It has been cool to see how God has made use of this whole experience. Had I remained the perfectly healthy, pain-free, active person that I was before the accident, I could never empathize with my patients the way I can now. On the other hand, if I had remained the debilitated person I was during my fibromyalgia years, I would have lived out about a tenth of my life’s full potential.
- There is a very distinct possibility that I had the disc injuries that were seen on MRI before the accident. Heck, there is research that shows that most people WITHOUT back pain have some type of disc abnormality as a result of normal aging and the areas where I had pain were never quite consistent with the discs that appeared to be injured.
- I can sleep on any pillow, whether its my favorite one at home or a cheap hotel one. If I’m a bit stiff in the morning, I just stretch and get moving and I feel fine by the time I finish my first cup of coffee.
- I have a textbook TMS personality. It was that, along with the fact that I was under particular emotional strain at the time, that caused me to develop chronic pain rather than healing within a few weeks like the other two people in the vehicle with me.
- My perfectionistic, goodist, controlling personality has made me the accomplished person that I am. It is part of me and I don’t have to change that. But I now understand that my temperament places me at high risk for internal tension that leads to pain if I don’t deal with it proactively. Fortunately I have a bunch of tools in my toolbox to deal with whatever life throws my way.
- When I hurt after exerting myself, it is because I’ve been inactive for a long time and my muscles need time to adapt. When I keep moving, I get stronger and don’t hurt any more. If my pain doesn’t go away in a reasonable amount of time, I know I need to start hunting for a psychological, not physical, explanation.
- My body is COMPLETELY NORMAL. It is NOT broken. My back and other joints are healthy and strong. I proved this to myself in the summer of 2015 when I spent weeks laying sod and moving rocks with no pain whatsoever.
- When I look around the house or the yard and see things that need doing, I do them. It’s not that chores are ever much fun and I am still prone to procrastination, but I know I have the physical capacity to do whatever I need to do.
- My medications were doing me more harm than good. Stopping taking them was the hardest thing I’ve ever done but it was also one of the most important.
- When I fill out medical forms, I love the fact that I get to check “none” when asked which medications I take and whether I have any chronic health problems.
This is the story I tell myself now. It is the tape that plays in my head constantly. It is the foundation on which my sense of self and my relationships are built. This story includes a detailed network of images, memories, and intense emotions, including hope, confidence, empowerment, purposefulness, and joy. My whole life revolves around this story.
Changing your story is a key step toward recovery
A couple of years ago I started paying attention and noticed a very consistent pattern among the thousands of patients who seek my assistance for a wide range of health concerns: people who tell negative, disempowering, and/or hopeless stories to themselves and others about their pain almost never get better, even when they are suffering from relatively minor problems. On the other hand, people who tell positive, optimistic, and/or empowered stories to themselves and others about their pain show a remarkable capacity to recover from even very serious or severe health problems.