Tom’s original story was one that I never thought was possible. He recounts his journey of undergoing 28 surgeries over 22 years in this blog. His is among many stories that has shown me that the body has a powerful capacity to heal if we can just get out of the way. I asked Tom to write this blog to illustrate a couple of points.
One is that going back into The Abyss is inevitable and part of life. The key is to learn to use the tools more skillfully to come back out of it. The second point is that none of us really have the luxury of remaining angry without significant mental or physical consequences. Your body’s physiology is on overdrive and people get sick.
I was aware of this possibility when he first began to deal with the situation with his neighbor. I even warned him about it. Even though he intellectually knew anger was a problem, it is a powerful force that pulled him in. He not only became ill, but seriously so. None of us have the luxury of remaining angry without paying a price. Interestingly, effectively processing anger ALWAYS is the gateway to true healing and that is also part of this story.
Tom’s latest encounter with anger
I lived more than 22 years in debilitating chronic pain. I lost my business and seriously damaged many relationships. Having had 28 surgeries including 7 spinal operations, my medical history includes 3 heart attacks, opioid addiction, and a suicide attempt. I was trapped in the hell of the abyss for a third of my life. Since discovering Dr. Hanscom’s book “Back in Control” several years ago I have been free from chronic pain. Now at age 67, I have survived and am thriving.
This past winter I became very stressed and angry at my neighbor lasting a few months. He notified me that he planned to cut down the cedar trees surrounding my front yard sanctuary, I was furious. My cobblestone courtyard, complete with a triple waterfall was ringed by towering evergreen cedars and my covered front porch. It was green, quiet, and very private. I loved it as my place for meditation and relaxation. My rocking chair was my perch as I watched the hummingbirds zip around my hanging baskets and frolic in my fountain. The sound of the waterfalls is music to my ears. My neighbor made me so upset for what he’d done to me, as I became a victim! I went indoors to the basement and literally screamed. I allowed myself to remain angry; incensed, for 3 months. It made me sick.
The symptoms begin
Soon after finding out that the demise of my sanctuary was imminent, my right eye started to constantly tear up resulting in tears streaming down my face. Being very upset, I’m sure my emotional state caused the tears to stream. The tear duct clogged up which resulted in me needing surgery, which included the surgeon accidently burning the inside of my nose due to a surgical error. After the first surgery they “…went back in there…” a second time. The pain was indescribable, some of the worst I’ve ever experienced. I HATE the term “going back in there”. Twenty years ago, my neurosurgeon went “back in there” 3 times. It didn’t help.
The demolition date for the trees was set, and my sanctuary was decimated on the morning of my 67th birthday. My green amphitheater was gone in a matter of hours along with my sanctuary and privacy. The neighbor’s house towered over my courtyard with an unimpeded view of my yard and porch. I implored him to buy tall replacement plants to restore some of my privacy, but he said, “I don’t care…that’s your problem”. I talked him into allowing me to buy the replacements. He chipped in all of $200 towards my $2,500 cost to plant his plants in his yard. My anger escalated. The sanctuary should by restored in about 10 years. Meanwhile I’m building a replacement sanctuary in the backyard.
Just as I was healing from the complications of my eye surgery, I woke one night in a lot of pain. As I sat up, I was overcome with pain in my right flank. I laid back down desperately trying to determine what was happening. I writhed in pain the rest of the night refusing to admit I was in trouble and telling my wife I was hurting. By the time I decided I needed to get to the hospital I could no longer sit up as the pain was too intense. My wife called 911.
My anxiety level skyrocketed. I was frightened by the duration and intensity of the pain. A CT scan revealed a blockage in my right renal artery. The doctor said it was like the kidney had a heart attack (infarction). My right kidney was damaged, and its function was reduced by about 50%. They medicated and admitted me to the hospital.
Now COVID–and The Abyss
The nurse woke me at 2:30AM and said, “Sir, please wake up, you aren’t going to like what I have to tell you.” She was right, I didn’t like it when she told me my hospital roommate had Covid-19. He was an elderly man with serious respiratory distress. He had been coughing and hacking for the past 2 hours with no mask and the door closed. I bolted from the room and was quarantined for the remainder of my four-day hospital stay. No visitors allowed.
I was already on edge worried about producing another clot and having another stroke before the Covid-19 exposure. With the news that I’d been exposed, I went over the edge and quickly descended to the bottom of the abyss. I couldn’t talk or think straight. Everything around me went dark as I was in dire pain both emotionally and physically. With my comorbidities including COPD, congestive heart failure, and a prior stroke I was at high risk for succumbing to the virus. I thought I may die from the kidney blood clot and/or the virus exposure. My anxiety level was off the charts.
There was no social interaction for the next 4 days. Staff came in daily in “moon suits”. I couldn’t see anyone I knew during my 4 day stay. When discharged, I was quarantined at home until I tested negative; 10 long days after my exposure.
Clenched teeth–the descent continues
The day I was admitted to the hospital was the same day that I was set to have oral surgery. A week before the kidney problem appeared, I had broken and/or damaged my lower 4 lower front teeth. While chewing, I clamped down too hard and the front teeth landed behind the lower teeth breaking them. I was crushing my food as my jaw was set and tense still manifesting the anger since I was not ready to let it go. It cost $10,000 for dental repairs because I was stubbornly holding onto my anger rather than processing it and letting it go.
It became obvious to me that I was triggered by the neighbor and was profoundly angry and resentful of what he had done to ME (the victim). Whenever I thought about or saw my neighbor, I’d have a real bad reaction.
There were 3 major health events within 100 days of my neighbor announcing that he was going to remove the trees that guarded my sanctuary. #1) required one surgery and two intensely painful “procedures”. #2) I broke my teeth by biting down too hard. #3) I had the renal artery infarction of the right kidney.
How did I go from lounging in the green circle in my sanctuary to being in the red circle back in the pit of darkness and despair? By failing to address and process my anger I caused myself to be sick. I knew how to calm myself through meditation, processing anger and climb out of the pit. Finally, I flipped the switch on my anger toward the neighbor and subsequently let the whole problem go. I’m building a new refuge and I’m back to greeting my neighbor. The eye healed completely, the teeth were replaced, and the kidney suffered some damage but is now stable. The most important consequence from this incident was me having to consciously decide that I was not going to be the victim and that I need to maintain my “practice” of the DOC Journey’s main tenets. Meditate and relax your nervous system. Refuse to discuss your pain problem with others, and always process your anger expeditiously.
My new life
Having been on The DOC Journey for 7 years, I’ve NEVER felt better in my life. My chronic pain is gone; my anxiety is under control. Over the 20+ years while in the abyss my anxiety was so high the future terrified me. The pain haunted and tormented me. Now I eagerly look forward to today with, awareness, renewed energy, and a pain free existence. My reaction to what was previously unending pain was living an angry, sedentary, reclusive, and psychologically paralyzed life. I’m now very active walking, swimming, and practicing yoga daily. I no longer perseverate about problems and issues over which I have no control. The physical activity promotes awareness, positive thoughts and the never ending “chatter” in our minds. I’m happier now than I’ve ever been in my lifetime. I’ve learned when and how to “flip the switch”.
The consequences of anger
I have learned a lot about anger from observing hundreds of patients navigate it or not and from my own journey out of chronic pain. There are no shortcuts. If you decide to remain angry, you are choosing to hold onto your pain. What makes this challenging is that anger is powerful, it protects you from feeling vulnerable. Additionally, the more legitimate your anger, the harder it is to let go. Tom certainly had a lot of legitimate reasons to remain angry.
Anger is so powerful, no one ever wants to really give it up. I have used a term, “flip the switch.” You just have to decide to move on. Life is never fair and other wrongs will continue to be done to you. If you continue to hold onto them, it becomes a heavy load. It also compromises your immune system and you’ll have a significant chance of becoming ill. Tom’s story is a classic example.
Processing anger is a learned skill set that will allow you to live the life you choose on your own terms. Tom continues to be a major inspiration for me.
I’m trying to adjust to this feeling of well-being. I’m so relieved to not be in pain anymore that I could shout it from the rooftop. One thing we need to pay attention to is the “why”. Why me and not so many others? But also, what traits, characteristics or beliefs do I and others share that have successfully made the transition from chronic pain to a pain free existence? That question hangs in my head daily.