Learning from pain


Two months ago I had an MRI scan and this is what it showed up in my spine. You can see the soft fluid within the lowest disc bleeding out into my spinal cord. At that point I was in acute pain every day, through the night and into the next day. Today I feel very little pain. Back then I would never have believed that the pain would pass. I thought it would haunt me forever but it has passed and my body is coming back to me. People ask me what I did to cause so much damage. The answer I believe is simply life. My attitude to it. The way I ran my life. The expectations I had of myself. My inner critic. The drive to be perfect. The harsh treatment of myself and others. Not giving myself a break, and so on and so on. There was no single point of trauma. I believe this was a sustained, self-inflicted unconscious assault on my body. The opposite of self-compassion. The damage accumulated over time. Months, years, and decades of driving forward and not stopping to listen closely enough. The pressure, the tension the burdens all found their way to one single place at the base of my spine, until finally, it gave up and imploded, with devastating effects.

People also ask how I am treating it. Well there is no medicine, no drugs, no painkillers and no medical interventions or procedures. I don't wear this as a badge of pride. If I had been offered the magic pill in my deepest pain I would have swallowed it there and then. It's more that there was no quick fix available. I had to wait out the days and nights of suffering while the white blood cells in my body attacked the fluid that had lodged in my spinal cord. Over time it is being broken down, relieving the pressure on the nerves, the excruciating sciatica. I had to be patient while the inflammation response to the crisis area calmed down, subsided and normalised. I had to stop stretching or doing any yoga postures whatsoever to allow the tissues to heal. I had to come to terms with this weakness in my body. The disc itself will never return to its former self. There is healing taking place but discs do not regenerate. I must now be mindful of this place in my body, respect it, rest it, take care of it.

These days, if I get busy with things, if I try to multi-task or rush around or create an impossible schedule, my back starts to hurt immediately and I am unconsciously drawn to rub the place behind my knee where the sciatic nerve passes through. It throbs and pulses. My body is warning me. This is one of the greatest gifts from this dark night of the soul experience. My body is now an effective barometer, measuring realistic activity levels, behaviours and emotional attitudes. Maybe this was always the case but the difference now is that I listen, I respond and I take action, for my own sake. A compassionate response to my own needs.

I don't want to go back to the way I lived my life before my back collapsed. I have slowed down. I am doing less. I am filling my time more wisely. I am finding time to rest. I am strengthening the core muscles of my body to offer support to the weak disc. I am not afraid to work hard and I will continue to offer my services to the world but the balance is better now. The attitude and approach is different, softer, more allowing.

I can feel the old story calling every day. Do more. Earn more. Spend more. Get more. Be more. A relentless closed loop of effort with little reward. When I slip back into that my body sends me pain as a reminder. This is no longer sustainable, it tells me. You need to find a new way of being.

Everything is affected. My yoga teaching. My parenting. My relationship. My internal dialogue. Currently I am a yoga teacher who doesn't stretch. My body will not tolerate it in this moment. My teaching has changed. I realise that I was highly flexible with little or no core strength and that this contributed to my back injury. I taught that in my classes. Now I am building strength in my thighs, buttocks, hips and abdominals. Creating a support network of muscles for my tired and broken back. I am teaching more of this in my classes to my yoga students. Using new insights to redress the imbalance.

Much has changed. I am still processing the lessons and receiving more insights. I'm grateful for what has happened. For the pain and the collapse and the dark despair, thank you.

Ben ParkesComment