Yoga Postures For Chronic Pain The Politics of Pain

Start by doing what’s necessary, then what’s possible, and suddenly you are doing the impossible.

—St. Francis of Assisi

Speaking with 32-year-old Heather was a draining experience. As a newly minted pain specialist, I had been asked to assess her head, neck, and shoulder pain, which had been plaguing her since she slammed into a wooden fence while chasing down a fly ball during a sofball game. I actually had to read that part of her patient record a couple of times, for it was very hard to believe that this tired-looking woman slumped in a chair could have been dashing around a sofball diamond just one year earlier. Now, simply walking was nearly impossible for her, for with every step, severe pain shot from her shoulders to the top of her head.

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Depressed and anxious, unable to participate in any of her favorite activities—even going out for coffee with friends had become too difficult—Heather went from being an athlete to being “a champion sitter,” as she put it, who had packed on thirty pounds in just twelve months.

According to her chart, Heather was on a number of different medications, but she still suffered from debilitating pain, plus depression, and had trouble doing her usual chores. The pain made sleeping through the night very difficult, no matter how many pillows she piled up, or how many different mattresses or sleeping aids she tried.

“I’m desperate to get a good night’s sleep,” Heather told me, “but either I’m awake because of the pain, or I have nightmares about hitting my head that keep waking me up.” Constantly fatigued, Heather had trouble concentrating at work and was terrified of being fired from her job as a bookkeeper.

“My boss stuck me in the back room,” she told me, her tone tinged with embarrassment. “I think it’s because no one likes to see me grimacing and fidgeting all day as I try to get comfortable. Some of my work has been given to other employees because it takes me so much longer to get things done these days. And I can’t even do what’s left; at least, not very well. I have to write down every single thing because I’m so forgetful. Sometimes I even forget that I made a note. I can’t remember when I’m supposed to pick up the kids, when their events are coming up at school, or what they told me ten minutes ago.” She added, ruefully, “I’m not much of a mother anymore.”

Since her injury, Heather had seen her primary care physician many times. He did his best to help her by trying various medications, then referring her to a bevy of specialists, including two neurologists, two spine surgeons, a psychiatrist, a pain specialist, and numerous physical therapists.

“But nothing has helped much,” she sighed. “And a lot of them look at me that way.”

“Which way is that?” I asked.

“Like I’m faking it because I’m really a drug addict who wants more drugs, or I’m some kind of nut. But I’m not a nut and I’m not a fake!” she said indignantly, her eyes tearing up. “Why won’t someone believe me?! I’m not making this up!”

Then she handed me a picture of a beautiful young woman with a big smile and shining eyes, standing next to a handsome young man. They had two smiling little children in their arms. I almost gasped out loud at the difference between the picture and the woman sitting before me.

“This is the real me,” she insisted. “That’s my husband and kids. We look like a happy family, don’t we? And we were, but now I snap at the kids when they ask me for something. I really feel guilty about that—and about not wanting to be intimate with my husband anymore. I mean, I want to; I love him, and he’s so nice to me. But when I come home I just . . . I don’t know, I just avoid everyone, go into the bedroom, close the door, and watch TV. I don’t even like to be touched anymore; I’m afraid it will make me hurt worse. But that’s not me! I don’t like the way I behave now, and I don’t like the way I look with all this weight. I just don’t like me anymore.”

How could the medical system have failed her so miserably?!?

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