Wednesday, February 27, 2019

The Methodology of Hope

This morning I woke up in darkness, as did all of the Methodists I know. But Wednesdays are "hope" day at the school where I work, so I put on my HOPE sweatshirt and showed up in the cold and dark. Just before 7:20 am, my room filled with two dozen teenagers. Without a lot of hope in what would happen next, I put eight poems in front of them and assigned three students to work through each poem from three different literary theories. A wise endeavor on an already dark day? Maybe not. But it was first hour on a Wednesday, and this is what we do.

Then something happened. They started to read the poems out loud. They knew this is what one does with a poem. (That may sound obvious, but believe me, that in itself was something pretty cool to witness.) They started to talk about the poems. I joined the group reading “There are Birds Here,” and we started to notice lines like “how lovely the ruins,/ how ruined the lovely/ children must be in that birdless city.” “What do we call that?” asked one girl. “Yeah, it’s so cool! Is it antithesis? Can we use that word in poetry?” “And why is the city birdless if he’s talking about there being birds here?” “I noticed that he’s contradicting someone the whole time, but who is he talking to?” We asked the poem questions and asked each other questions and by the end of the conversation, we sat back in our chairs and sighed. The magic had happened.

Then, third hour, the class that is most vocal about its distaste for poetry also sat down in their groups and immediately started reading. What is happening? I thought. A girl summoned me over to the “Richard Cory” group, told her partners to keep reading, and asked me about rhyme scheme. Before I could finish my answer, one of her partners finished reading, half-stood, and pounded his fist into the desk. “This. poem. is. AWESOME!” he shouted. Yes, shouted. “No, seriously!! They’re all like ‘he glittered when he walked,’ like he’s everything they want, and then he goes home and Cobains himself!” All the people around him stopped their own reading and flipped to “Richard Cory.” At the end of the class, he went up to the kid who most vocally hates poetry and said, “No, really, this poem is the bomb! This is the best poem I’ve ever read. Did you read it?” Who knew. Today was the day the magic finally happened.

Fifth hour, my senior jock boys met with me about the cataloging they noticed in Whitman’s poems and another two talked about how the death of Poe’s mother and wife led to him writing really dark stuff. Seventh hour, a kid asked to borrow a highlighter and spread out eight pages of Billy Collins on the floor in front of him, laid on his stomach, and started to read. Eighth hour when my “An American Sunrise” readers saw the connection to “We Real Cool,” they gasped audibly and their mouths dropped open. The “Richard Cory” group was discussing whether or not any of the great industrialists had committed suicide.

Yes, today was the day when the magic happened: the magic that only happens when they’ve already voiced all of their complaints, when they’ve read so many poems that the fear is gone, when they finally suspect that poetry is about real things and they have lots of tools to find those things and that it’s OK to like a poem. It’s been painful getting to this point. It’s been dark. There were days when I thought that since everything else in which I put my trust has slipped into brokenness and darkness and I’ve felt that any attempt at striving toward a better society is futile that maybe this would be the year when poetry wouldn’t work its magic. Instead, poetry reminded me that the methodology of hope is to keep showing up. To wake up in the dark, put on the hope sweatshirt, and say, “Here are eight more poems; see what you can do.”

So on Sunday, we’re going to church. Because that’s what we do on Sundays. And we’re going to ask the church some questions. And we’re going ask each other some questions. “...but they won’t stop saying/ how lovely the ruins/ how ruined the lovely/ children must be in that birdless city.” No. There ARE birds here. And hope, too. Year after year, poetry teaches me (again, again, again) to just keep showing up. To read it again. To ask another question. Until we figure it out.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Parental Paradigm Shift

I've noticed that the truly momentous events in the parent-child relationship don’t turn out to be the ones for which there are Hallmark cards and pages in the baby books. Sure, I celebrated my son’s birthdays and school promotions and confirmation, but if I had to choose moments when my son changed from one thing into another it would be moments like the first time he walked into the kitchen during dinner when I had left him in the family room. He WALKED in. Suddenly, my whole understanding of who he was and what our relationship was transformed.

I had another such moment tonight. As a mom, and, I’ll admit, as a high school teacher, I wasn’t expecting my son’s first day of high school to be more than another, albeit important, first day. I find, though, that after tonight, my vision of him has shifted. This summer he was a frequently and deliberately irritating middle-school boy. He was largely who he has been for the last decade. Although the change was likely more gradual than it feels, tonight I saw a different person.

When the marching band took the field, I honestly wasn’t expecting anything, but I was still surprised. It’s not that I thought he wasn’t going to be just fine, but I wouldn’t be entirely honest if I didn’t confess that I slightly anticipated that the fact that he’s never done anything remotely like marching band would maybe show a little. Maybe he’d be just a fraction of a step off or just going through the motions but not precise. Nope. He was, as far as I could tell, perfect. Perfectly in step. Sharp, perfectly crisp turns. He was as good as anyone else out there. When the band had to do dance moves, he looked cool. He looked like he’s been dancing all of his life. I mean, the kid—ahem teen—is fantastic! I had no idea. He learned all of that while I wasn’t watching.

Just as impressive is the story I heard from my husband, who watched him execute the day of high school, cross country practice, marching band performance, and team recognition. He wore one outfit to school and did a whole school day in a new building with a new schedule and new teachers. Piece of cake. Then he went to cross country practice and ran. He ate a sandwich, put on his white t-shirt and khaki pants to match the cross country team, and then put his band uniform on over that, including the pants. He performed flawlessly with the band--including the trombone suicides--left the field, stripped off one layer of clothes, threw on the cross country jacket one of his teammates carried out to the field for him, and then lined up with the team. He not only accomplished all of this in a day but planned ahead to make it happen without any direction, and he made it look effortless. Today was a big deal to me because it was not a big deal to him. Just another day in the life of a young man who has it together and gets it together on his own.

Maybe my jaw dropped just a little as I watched him on the field tonight. I can look backward in my mind and see the kid he used to be—only a month ago, I swear!—and I can turn my head just a bit and see the sharp, responsible, level-headed, capable man he is already becoming. I wasn’t prepared for that to happen. But he was.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Teaching Poetry and Learning Grace

My creative writing class. They are a sentence unto themselves and then some. And yet, just as a colleague promised, for the very reasons that they make me crazy, they will also be a class I remember for a long time and maybe even miss. In almost every sense of the typical use of the phrase, they are not my best students, but they are making me a better teacher.

Last week we worked on meter and rhyme. It was a struggle. A struggle that sort of defies description. Even so, yesterday we carried on with a really cool villanelle lesson that a colleague designed in which every student writes a single line in iambic pentameter with a few assigned end rhymes and then posts the line on a padlet that everyone can see. Then the homework was to cut and paste those lines into a villanelle template. Today’s plan was to look at how those same lines took on different meaning when used in different places in the villanelle: the point being that form affects meaning. Of course, today’s plan was entirely contingent on at least SOME students having turned in a sample villanelle. ONE person did. ONE.

I put a bunch of zeros in the gradebook. I showed up to class ready to lay into them. Why? Why couldn’t they do this super easy task? Why did they sign up for creative writing if they couldn’t write this one pre-made poem? I literally cannot make these people learn. I literally cannot make an assignment easy enough that they will even attempt to do it. Despair and frustration overtook my ability to make a new lesson plan. My colleague’s wise advice was to shame them by showing them that LITERALLY I was just asking them to cut and paste, that they could have done their homework in five minutes. Then make them do the assignment in five minutes and carry on with the lesson as planned. When the bell rang and they didn’t sit down and begin the Tuesday check-in, I stormed into the middle of the room and told them that I was already feeling low on grace due to having to change my lesson plans because noone did their homework and could they PLEASE just do the Tuesday check-in on classroom.

And then maybe because of the nature of grace, because it comes when we need it and not when we earn it, I was given grace.

One of my students raised his hand and said that the Tuesday check-in wasn’t showing up on classroom. I apologized and said I’d go post it. As I was posting it, I overheard what my students were chattering about: poetry. My posse of students, more than half of whom are failing CREATIVE WRITING (!) as well as multiple other classes, most of whom have experienced some version of being kicked out of their houses or lost parents because of the actions of those parents, most of whom struggle just to show up on a regular basis, many of whom see their deans more than their classroom teachers, some of whom speak English as a second language, were talking about how they like poetry. (“Then why the hell didn’t you do the poetry homework?” I thought.) The rest of them were talking about the fact that I am their only teacher who does a check-in. They wanted to know why and if I use the information for planning. I told them that I don’t necessarily use it for planning, but I like to know about them, and some people will tell me things when asked that they wouldn’t initiate on their own. I want to be here if anyone needs me. “That’s nice,” said a very uber-cool young man. “I like that you do this.” And so, because of the nature of grace, instead of shaming or blaming or accusing, something moved me to say instead, “What’s going on? My lesson plan was to look at how lines take on different meanings in a bunch of different villanelles, but I didn’t get a bunch of villanelles, and so today might not be as good as I meant it to be. Why did this happen?”

Three people said they wrote their poems on paper and didn’t know they had to be turned in electronically. “OK,” I said. “Maybe we can still work with that. Let me think about that. Get them out.” Everyone else started to babble about how they just didn’t get it. “Didn’t get what?” I asked. “Tell me where the confusion starts.” About ten people raised their hands. After everyone had spoken once or twice, I said that I was hearing two possible places of confusion. One was that they didn’t understand what a villanelle does, and the other was that they didn’t see how to make sense of a bunch of random lines that didn’t necessarily go together. Most students said it was the second problem. The problem, dear teacher, was that my students want their poems to make sense. They didn’t want to write just anything and turn it in. Oh.

And then more grace happened. To show them that the point of the assignment was to help them see how form can help MAKE meaning, I pulled up the one poem that had been turned in. It was from a student who has not turned in anything else. She is from Colombia and struggles with English in addition to having the usual (in this class) list of personal issues. I had thought it odd that the handful of people who always turn in their work had not but that she had. With her permission, I projected her poem on the board and read it out loud. I read it with my most expressive awe-filled voice. I paused after a couple of the stanzas and pointed out something beautiful that had happened because of the form. When I finished reading, there was a moment of silence. “Wasn’t that beautiful?” I asked. “Didn’t she make something meaningful out of the lines that originally had nothing to do with each other?” The whole class nodded, unusually silent. I looked over at the poet, and she had her head down with her hood pulled up. I told her I didn’t mean to embarrass her but to show everyone what the villanelle form can do. She sat up, and tears were running down her face. Her friend, another native Spanish speaker, but one more adept at speaking in English, said, “No miss. She isn’t embarrassed. She’ do you say this? She wrote that for someone in particular. It’s emotional for her.” And then the class began to reread the poem and murmur about how beautiful it really was. They literally patted her on the back. They told her it was her best writing so far, and it was.

I held my breath. My lungs were filled with grace.

“Do you see how the form can help you write something beautiful?” I asked.

The class nodded.

“Do you want to try again?”

The class nodded.

“Do you want to just use your own rhymes and go it alone already?”

The class exhaled in relief and asked for me to post the template back on the board and a new assignment on classroom. One girl moved to her focus spot at a table by herself. Other people pulled up websites with rhymes. People started counting syllables on their fingers. Five hands went up: could I check this line? Did it have the right number of syllables? Did it make sense?

I ran around for about ten minutes posting things on classroom, answering questions, suggesting rhyme options. Then I stood still and looked at my room full of poets. They were learning. So was I.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

After the bell

The bell rings, and the students who were lined up at the door (I know--shame on me for not keeping my seniors captivated up to the bell) join the noisy throng of teenagers in the hall. The room is silent except for the clicking of keys as I answer an email from a parent. The hallway is loud with words and bodies in motion. The contrast causes me to pause and contemplate my place in the order of the universe: I get to be a teacher. What a breathtaking responsibility and opportunity. I get to see these young people every day while they are still young. God willing (or helping,) they will be ever so slightly different when they leave me, and they WILL leave me. They will walk into the world as they walked into the hall, with anticipation to be elsewhere, with an idea that the something out there is better than whatever it is they already have in here. But, sitting in silence in my middle age, I know that I already have what I was hoping for. This. Them.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Watching the Big One Approach

When I was a teenager, my parents took me to Ocean City, Maryland a couple of times. But in the two decades or so between then and recent years, I did not have much of an opportunity to go in the ocean. Last year, I took a life-changing trip to Brigantine, NJ with a dear friend who lives out east and goes to the shore regularly. While I was there last year, she taught me a “game” that she plays with her daughter to help her manage the breaking waves. She calls it “Under/over.” This year, I was again intimidated by the breakers--this in spite of the fact that I could see children employing the under/over strategy and living to battle the next wave--so Sara helped me play the under/over game again.

The game is simply this: most of the time, if you’re standing in the right spot, you can bob over a wave, riding up one side and down the other. But every now and then, when a big wave is going to break right on you, you take a deep breath, shut your eyes, and dive into the wave, emerging on the other side and missing the worst of the downward power of the break. Diving under a wave is still an intense experience for a Midwestern lap-swimmer like me--the water is salty and sandy; the power of the wave is still present and a bit awe-inspiring; and some waves are wider than others--but the game effectively prevented me from getting knocked down and tossed about. The wisdom of the game that Sara had to coach me on is to wait until the wave is very close to decide if it’s one you can ride or one that will likely take you down. I’d see a big wave coming fifty or more yards away and start to panic; I’d call out, “that one’s an under!” Calmly, Sara would respond, “No, wait and see. Sometimes something happens before it gets to you and you can go over.” She was right. Often, a wave that looked from a distance like it could easily destroy me would instead just lift me off the ground and deposit me back to it several seconds later. Those waves are fun, really. They are why we even bother getting into the surf in the first place rather than sitting on the beach or, worse, staying in Illinois and swimming laps in a pool with lane lines. There is joy in the lift, thrill in the ride.

As I try to plan for my teaching year, which begins in a few days, I am reliving the panic I felt in my chest as I watched a huge wave approach. The last few years in my department and school have had some periods of really rough surf. I’ve felt knocked down and tossed around a few times. This year I’m facing down teaching three preps—two of them new to me. Every year teaching English means an overwhelming quantity of responding to student work. Also, I’m just the type of teacher who, whether it’s worth it or not, revises everything. So even the prep I’ve taught three times already is, in many ways, new because I choose to make it better as I learn and grow as a teacher. I feel like I am standing in the ocean watching an enormous wave start to curl at the top, about to pound me into the ground.

In a fit of angst, I texted my friend Sara to tell her that once again I am afraid of what is coming toward me. She reminded me that I know what I’m doing and that I’m good at it. It may be that I’ll just jump up and bob over the top of this wave and that I’ll have a really good time doing so. I’ve learned from Sara and the ocean that sometimes danger looks worse at a distance. But I’ve also learned from Sara that even if this is as big and scary and as it looks, I can dive into it and come out on the other side.  For right now, I just need the courage to stay in the water and a good friend to coach me through the waves.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Getting free of chronic pain

I’m long-winded, and I feel like my pain story could fill a longish (but very boring) novel. So excuse the length. Feel free to skip any part that bores you.

I’ll start at what I first thought was the beginning and now see was the middle. In January of 2012, my back started to ache as I was training for a February marathon. I’d had lots of trouble with hips and feet (See? It was the middle!) before, so I attributed the pain to running 60 miles a week. That seemed a reasonable explanation. I took it easy for the weeks leading up to the marathon and ran the marathon in February 2012. The marathon started out very well, but by the time I finished, my hips and back felt really awful as, I thought, hips will do after running 26.2 miles. The recovery was slow but, again, not anything alarming until April 2012.

In April I still felt off: sluggish and tired and stiff, down on life in general, so I decided that the solution was to kick myself in the rear a bit. I’d been lazing around for two months, after all. So I went to the track to get back into speed work. My back hurt a bit, but I ignored it. I pushed myself hard. Then I went to power yoga, and my back felt worse. I ignored it. By evening, I was very uncomfortable, and by the next day, I could barely move. I went to the doctor and was diagnosed with a “sprained” back and was prescribed physical therapy. It all seemed so reasonable.

I went to physical therapy for 12 weeks (!) and at the end of those 12 weeks was still in pain. The trouble was, the physical therapist had done everything she could think of. I shouldn’t have been in pain anymore. She told me that it was just a matter of time and that I should just be careful as I returned to running. So I was.

By mid-summer, I was running again, still with some pain, but then the sesamoiditis I’d been fighting since 2010 got worse. I had had surgery in 2011 and physical therapy for that as well, but none of it helped. I went to a chiropractor who pointed out the imperfections in my back, and then my back and Foot hurt worse.

I went to a podiatrist who examined me very carefully, kindly, and professionally and (bless him) said that he could not explain my pain because the ultrasound really didn’t look like that of someone with sesamoiditis. He didn’t tell me I wasn’t in pain, but that’s what I heard him say. I was angry. I was in SO MUCH pain. In retrospect, I hear him saying that my problem wasn’t what I had been told it was. He probably didn’t know about TMS.

I took matters into my own hands and tried putting a pad in my shoe to move the pressure over to other bones in my foot and ended up giving myself a stress fracture by running on that pad. In the weeks of healing that ensued, when I had to stop running and move to biking, my back got more and more sore and stiff, and by mid-autumn, both my foot and my back were extremely painful. I couldn’t load my dishwasher. I couldn’t do laundry. I couldn’t exercise. I grew depressed. I grew suicidal. I started counseling for major Depression, but eventually I had to quit that because I couldn’t walk the mile to the therapist and then even when I drove, I couldn’t sit for an hour and talk. The therapist told me I needed to deal with my back issues, so I went to an orthopedist.

The orthopedic doctor said I had some issues with my hips, which didn’t surprise me, after the lifetime I’d already lived, and she ordered an MRI and more physical therapy.

Just before Christmas, I woke up one morning determined to make the best of a bad situation. I was going to very slowly walk for a bit on the treadmill just to get moving. I was terrified of getting really flabby and out of shape. As I was changing my clothes, I sneezed, screamed, and hit the floor. I couldn’t get up. I couldn’t move for the pain. I had to be heavily assisted to the car and then the doctor, where I repeatedly nearly passed out from the pain. I was given pain-killers and muscle relaxants. A few days later, the orthopedic doctor called with my MRI results and said I should quit therapy and go to a neurosurgeon immediately. A piece of my L5-S1 disk had broken off and was in my spinal column.

Because we live in the world we live in, I couldn’t get into a neurosurgeon until February, so I spent the rest of January drugged up and lying down, in agony. When I finally saw the neurosurgeon, he cleared his schedule and operated within days. I should have gotten better then, but I didn’t. I was in physical therapy until August, at which time, again, although I was in pain, the therapist declared that she had done what needed to be done, that I was getting stronger and would soon be out of pain. But that was in August of 2013, and by spring of 2016, I was in such pain I sometimes had to crawl around my house. I started to think about death again, which scared me, so I decided to take action.

I went to a chiropractor who said that the problem was that I was missing most of my L5-S1 disc. It was “bone on bone” pain, he said. He said I should give up running and probably biking too. I grieved a lot about that. He worked on me a few times and then transferred me to the physical therapist in his practice. The therapist was a great guy, and I trust his professionalism and knowledge, but after months of therapy, my strength tests were better, my nerve tests were better, and my pain was not better. It didn’t make sense. So he ordered another MRI and told me to see a neurosurgeon. My pain grew worse and worse as I finished up the school year and waited for my appointment.

The neurosurgeon told me that yes, I do have disc herniations, but they aren’t putting enough pressure on my nerves to be causing me such pain. Surgery wouldn’t fix anything. The pain had to be bone-on-bone pain. I cried, not because this was bad news, exactly, but because there were no answers and I was in real and debilitating pain. He recommended that I see a pain management doctor, so I made an appointment. The doctor was on vacation and then was backed up, so I couldn’t get in for two months.

I was depressed—again—about the fact that at the age of 41, I had come to the point of pain management. What did that mean? And what is “bone-on-bone” pain anyway? A friend invited me to a lake swim where, after only swimming half a mile, my back stiffened up. Why should swimming cause “bone-on-bone” pain? It didn’t make sense. Plus, I had previously been counseled not to get shots in my spinal column, and here I was signing up for a doctor who did that. I was confused. Something was off. Something was missing. I suspected that by going to specialist after specialist, I was missing the forest for the trees. So I decided to use my summer “off” to read everything I could get my hands on about Back Pain and what caused it and what the options were for treatment.

I went to the local library and checked out EVERY book they had related to back pain. I sat down to skim through every single one with the aim of deeply reading the top six. More than once I came across quick references to Dr. Sarno and his book Healing Back Pain. None of the books I read explained quite what Sarno was about, but it came up enough that I was curious. I went home and downloaded Healing Back Pain on my Kindle.

While reading Healing Back Pain, I had several Aha! moments. Dr. Sarno raises some interesting questions about the back pain epidemic. And then he described people who weren’t getting better using traditional methods of treating back pain. Hmm. When he pointed out that doctors aren’t trained in psychology and psychologists aren’t trained in physical disorders and so everyone is missing something, I thought, “Yes! That’s what I thought! We need someone who can see the whole picture!”

When Dr. Sarno described the TMS Personality, it was me! I am intense and passionate but careful about expressing my emotions—cautious and shy since childhood. I am a perfectionist, and I don’t enjoy causing conflict. I am my own worst critic, and I am severe. I am a teacher and mother. I am 41, trying to bring up a middle schooler and grade schooler and 115 high schoolers. My grandma just died. I am in the years of responsibility where TMS really becomes intolerable. Dr. Sarno was describing me! I devoured the rest of the book, putting everything else in my life on hold to finish reading it. Then I read The Divided Mind. Dr. Sarno hypothesizes that TMS is a cradle-to-grave tendency in some people, and I looked back on my life. Growing pains as a kid. Stomach pain every time I went to school for 12 years. A mysterious Leg problem my sophomore year of college that took me out of cross-country. A weird stomach condition my junior year of college. No one could find reasons for these pains, but they were real! As an adult, I’d had a weird floppy leg, where I lost control of one leg when running. I’d had Hip pain. I’d had Plantar Fasciitis. I’d had surgery for sesamoiditis but then foot pain for years afterward. Finally, back pain that didn't go away after surgery. I’d had a lifetime of unexplainable pains and disorders—when one dissolved another would appear. TMS.

In spite of this insight, my back wasn’t better. I wasn’t one of those people who read the book, recognized herself, and then was well. So I read all the other Sarno books. (TMS personality?) My back didn’t get better. I started journaling every day. My back didn’t get better. I keep reading. I took my books and journal on vacation. My back hurt throughout vacation. We went to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. I enjoyed them, of course, but every time we were hiking and my foot slid as I was going down a hill or I stepped in a small hole, pain shot up from the base of my spine to the base of my skull. I would gasp and freeze and cry. My family, used to me being in pain, felt sorry for me and was very solicitous. It’s hard to watch someone suffer.

My husband had asked, before we left for vacation and just after I read Sarno for the first time, if I thought I could go horseback riding and white water rafting. Sarno and the people on the TMS wiki (I had found it by that time) seemed to say that I needed to get out and live my life. So I had told him to sign us up. The day of, we were worried about what it would do to my back, but we went anyway. We rode up and up and up a mountain in Wyoming. It was beyond beautiful. It was bliss. We came to the ridge and a storm blew up on the surrounding ridges, whipping our hats off in the summer wind, sun shining through dark clouds. It was sublime, and I thanked God and Sarno for getting me there. Then we had to ride down.

I am afraid of horses, if I’m honest. I’m afraid of heights. After the week I’d just had, I was afraid of slipping down hills. As we descended, I was terrified and in pain as bad as I can remember. I was holding onto the saddle in a death-grip. I was gasping with every fall of the horse’s foot. My daughter, an eight-year-old, turned in her saddle with tears in her eyes. “Does this hurt you so much, Mommy?” she asked. “Are you OK? What should we do??” And then I decided that I was experiencing TMS. I told myself I was safe. I was safe. And I was in pain because my inner child was terrified and throwing a major fit. “So you are just going to let this happen, OK? You are going to live your life, damn it!” I demanded of myself. “You are safe. And you just need to allow the next hour to happen.” And then, as if by miracle, my pain started to melt away. By the time we got to the bottom of the mountain, I was fine. I had done it! I had used my mind to cure my pain! I had made the connection between my emotions and my body and seen a difference!

The next day, I went white-water rafting. I was fine. This, in spite of the fact that I had been blaming sitting to grade papers as the cause of my pain. Sitting to grade papers was worse than horseback riding and whitewater rafting? Ridiculous! I started an evidence sheet as Alan Gordon suggests and put those two days at the top.

Back home, my pain returned. I canceled my appointment with the pain management doctor, though, and made one with a TMS doctor. My pain got so terrible, however, that I called my friend that I was planning to meet at the NJ shore and told her I couldn’t make it across the country, and I wouldn’t be fun if I could. I was crying. I couldn’t even walk up my stairs. I couldn’t get myself off the couch into a standing position. I was devastated. She told me (bless her!) that all I needed to do was get well enough to make the flight and then I could lie on the couch all weekend. She packed wine and our favorite movies and said my pain didn’t matter. And then my pain got bearable. As soon as she took away its power, it calmed down.

After a long flight, I was in some pain when I arrived on the coast, but not terrible pain. I didn’t go in the ocean the first day, being afraid of having a pain spasm if I stepped in an invisible hole under the water or was knocked over by a wave. But that night I was angry at myself for not living my life. So the next day I went in the water. I was fine. We went for a long walk up and down the beach. I was so very happy to have no responsibilities and to be with my good friend. Then we went in the water again. I was perhaps a little too relaxed because as I was getting out of the water, talking to my friend, a wave knocked me over. I was tumbled under water and onto a sand bar. I had been wearing a hat and sunglasses when I was thrown, and as soon as I regained my footing, I asked about my hat. It wasn’t until I had it back in my hand that I realized that my first response had not been pain. It had been that I needed to get my hat. In fact, I wasn’t in pain at all. I had spent the summer afraid of slipping six inches down a hill or stepping off a curb because of the pain those things caused, and I had been thrown to the grown by a wave and not felt pain! I had very minimal pain for the rest of the weekend. More evidence.

The pain returned on the flight home, but instead of blaming the sitting position I was in all day, I thought that maybe I was stressed about going home. I started to think differently. I think that was when I really believed that it made sense to think psychologically.

I wish I could say that was the end of my pain, but it wasn’t. The school year started and my pain grew progressively worse, and sometimes it grew weirder. It started to attack me when I put my left foot down while walking, and then it would buckle the left side of my back and would make me almost fall. One day, it was doing that and then attacked my left eye. I was trying to teach while stumbling, gasping, and pressing on half of my face with tears streaming out from under my hand. It was so ridiculous I had to laugh.

In September I saw the TMS doctor. It was anticlimactic. He listened to my story and then asked me what I thought. “Do you think you have TMS?” he asked. I said I thought I maybe did. He said he thought so too. The fact that he didn’t say he knew I did was hard on me. He also said, though, that the idea that the cure would be immediate didn’t play out in his experience. People don’t go to see a TMS doctor if they get better from reading the book, he said, but he’s seen people get better. He told me that I needed to set the goal of getting back to running. And then I went home. But I wasn’t better.

Over the next month, everything got worse. TMS, instead of a ray of hope, was one more thing to do. It was one more thing to beat myself up about. Why couldn’t I fix it? When was I going to find time, amid my 80-hour work week and my two busy children, to journal and meditate and exercise? My pain got worse, as did my depression and anxiety.

I wish I could explain the turning point. I cannot. Maybe it was the day I took off work to sleep and take care of myself and saw my pain reduce in the span of 24 hours. Maybe it was reading Mindfulness and starting daily meditation. I think there were a few people on the TMSwiki that made a big impression on me with their counseling towards self-compassion. I can’t say for sure because I still have days or weeks when I don’t get any sleep or exercise, when I’m stressed and busy and in lots of pain. But now when the pain comes, I don’t despair because I no longer believe the medical explanation that I’ve ruined my back and will be in increasing amounts of pain for the rest of my life. I know that my back hurts and that that means that I’m not taking enough care of myself. When I was first diagnosed with TMS, thinking that was itself a stressor: it’s my fault I can’t get out of pain! I don’t have time to meditate! I don’t have time to journal! I don’t have time to sleep! I suck at taking care of myself! Now, though, I know that I have turned my pain around before. I know that as soon as I get a day or two to rest and take care of myself, my pain will decrease. I know I can do it.

This Christmas holiday, I have been getting lots of sleep. I’ve been meditating every day. I have eaten good food and indulged in some good wine. I’ve been going to exercise classes but being gentle with myself while there. I joined a yoga studio, and I’ve been allowing myself to be unable to do most of the asanas. I do what I can and I am grateful for what little I can do. Yesterday I went for “run,” but I walked for a minute after every three minutes of running. (I couldn’t have done even that much this fall!) This morning I went for a swim, and I didn’t beat myself up for being out of shape and slow. I swam 2000m and didn’t cramp up! This afternoon I realized that I wasn’t in pain. At all. I looked at my husband and kids and declared, in amazement, that my back didn’t hurt! It’s amazing how different all of life feels when one is not in chronic pain.

My back is the same as it was a few months ago. I am certain that I still have disc herniations. I still have two vertebrae that are “bone-on-bone.” Those things are permanent. They don’t heal themselves. But Dr. Sarno said that the same can be said for most adults, and most people are not in the kind of pain I’ve been in. Clearly, there was, all along, something else going on because here I am, sitting and writing my very long story and not feeling bone-on-bone pain. Here I am, one more moving-toward-success story!

Thank you, Dr. Sarno and Alan Gordon and TMS Beloved Grand Eagles and therapists and all of the people who have helped me see the connection between my mind and my pain. It’s good work you are doing in the world, and I am (for the rest of my life!) grateful.

If you, reader, have had multiple, weird chronic-pain ordeals, please do yourself a favor and check out Dr. Sarno's work.