Maggie is one of my favorite patients and success stories. It is one that surprised both of us. Her turnaround occurred a while back but I wanted to make sure she was stable and ready to relate her experience.
She is from the middle of Washington State and a middle-aged mother. She historically had been very physically active until her back injury. When I met her she had undergone three back surgeries for primarily leg pain. Her two lowest discs at L4-5 and L5-S1 were fused. She had not experienced meaningful relief of her pain.
Okay, so here it goes.
I was injured in February 2003. I had lots of physical therapy and taken many prescription drugs with no relief. I had undergone three surgeries within twelve months. In my mind they all failed. After the third surgery I just was not recovering to anyone’s satisfaction so the surgeon wanted to do a fourth surgery. He had no idea why or what he would do when he got in there, but he still wanted to do it. At this point my body and my mind were on empty. I was certain that I would not survive another surgery.
This when I found Dr. Hanscom and he advised me that I didn’t need any more surgery at that time. I continued to recover. I just needed more time to heal. I never really felt good again, but I pushed through. I am not a quitter so I put my head down and plowed through anyway.
Her L3-4 Level Breaks Down
She did pretty well for a while with low dose medications, physical therapy, and conditioning. She is very determined and continued to fully function in spite of her ongoing pain. When I saw her again she had developed spinal stenosis at L3-4, the level right above her fusion. She had pain down the fronts of her thighs that matched the constriction of her L4 nerves. I performed surgery, which was a simple release of the nerves. It initially relieved her leg pain but I eventually had to fuse this level as it quickly became unstable.
During the four years after the third surgery I had been to college and was working when my spine started to break down. Needless to say I went directly to Dr. Hanscom this time feeling confident that he would give me the straight story. Turns out that I did need more surgery. I treated this just as I had before–hunker down and plow through. The surgery was successful for a time and then in less that 1 year I had to have yet another surgery to fuse that level to the other two. This last surgery was brutal physically and mentally. I honestly was desperate–desperate to not be in pain, desperate to do what I wanted without pain. Just plain desperate.
I can remember grasping at anything that offered a glimmer of hope, while honestly thinking that there was no way out. This was by far the darkest time of my life. I didn’t want to survive, because surviving meant more pain. That was something I just couldn’t take anymore. Luckily I wasn’t selfish enough to follow through. I did eventually level off. Things were not good but I had seen to many weak people just make excuses in my life and I wasn’t going to be one of them.
I Wasn’t Aware of the Darkness
I did not realize during this period after I had performed the two surgeries how difficult a time she was having. She always seemed quite upbeat about the fact her leg pain had disappeared with the last L3-4 fusion. I was worried that she was so young with three levels of her spine now fused. I did know that she was still having a lot of LBP but she seemed to be willing to just live with it. I was also just learning more about the Mind Body Syndrome. She acknowledged some of the principles of the DOCC project but never engaged. I finally gave up on encouraging her, as it was clear she was not into it.
His DOCC Project was Annoying
For years I was very resistant to the writing exercises that Dr. Hanscom had introduced. To be honest he annoyed me. I appreciated his opinion medically speaking, but I thought there was no way it could be relevant to my life. My pain was legitimate.
About a year ago I was in the middle of a bad pain flare that lasted for months. I couldn’t get a handle on it. I had several tests that showed no change. I was relieved that I didn’t need any more surgery but I also didn’t know what to do. I sat in his office sobbing because I was hopeless, desperate. Dr. Hanscom started talking to me again about the techniques in his book and web site and as usual I couldn’t find the relevance. My mind and emotions were so clouded by pain. Even though I was not working through the exercises I kept reaching out to him. Dr. Hanscom was there every time I reached out to him.
I didn’t truly engage until he got a little nasty with me and told me that until I engaged in the tools nothing was going to change. He said that until I made a choice to stop being a victim there wasn’t much he could do. He said it’s a choice and one only I could make.
I was furious! I was NOT a victim! I had seen a lot of those in my life and that wasn’t me. I was angry and I stewed on his words for about 2 weeks knowing all along that he had a point. Then I engaged! To be honest I thought at this point what do I have to lose? The only thing I could do at the beginning was to write and read the web site. When I got to where that wasn’t enough then I would add more techniques. I had a lot of ups and downs, but the flares weren’t as severe as before.
Her Scan was Normal
When she called with a recurrence of her pain down the fronts of her legs I was quite sure that she had broken down the adjacent level at L2-3. Almost every time she had complaints in the past there was a structural problem. Much to my surprise the scan at L2-3 was completely normal and the fused level at L3-4 looked good. I was not sure that the re-programming tools would work as well for leg pain but I did not see what else there was to do. More meds and physical therapy was not going to be the answer. The conversation we had was pretty blunt. (I didn’t realize it was “nasty”)
About two weeks later she emailed me and realized that she had some difficult personal issues and possibly they could be contributing to her flare up. She also was not sleeping. I did not realize how upset she was as she is always very pleasant and to the point.
Within six weeks of engagement she noted significant improvement in both her back and leg pain. We were both shocked at the rapid response and the degree of improvement in her leg pain.
The tools that work the best for me are writing and making a choice every single day not to be a victim. Some days are tougher than others, but I have to make a new choice every day. I also used a small, smooth rock in my pocket that connected me to a time in my past when things were good. It calms me down and reminds me of the commitment to not be a victim. It reminds me that things change and change, though sometimes painful, is usually a good thing. I have learned the value of sleep, time to be quiet and take care of myself, and time to write.
These things do not come naturally to me. I have always taken care of everyone around me and never myself. Now I know that I have to take care of myself first or I have nothing to give anyone else. I still have pain, but it’s mild and is always connected to a lack of sleep or intense personal or work stress. It seems I am always battling stress but I can always “fix it” with the tools.
I am forever changed by this program and forever grateful!!
Shifting Your Nervous System
I have an email from her regarding the smooth rock she carries with her. There is a meditative exercise that I ask patients to engage in as part of their healing. The idea is to recall the most pleasurable part of your life and recall as many of the details around the period as possible. I suggest taking at least an hour to think and visualize. For her the stone reminded her of her grandmother who was her anchor amidst a lot of chaos. It is an exercise that re-connects you to the essence of who you are.
I was born a twin. She died at 3 months old from complications of Spina Bifida. After she died I would wake my parents screaming, stiff as a board, and inconsolable. I have always felt a deep loneliness for her. I have lived through divorced parents and strange living situations. They divorced because they could not deal with the grief of losing my twin. I carried this as my fault and some sign that I caused the divorce.
I have been held at gunpoint while watching a friend being beat and barely escaped myself. I have an uncle that raped and murdered twice and drug his family with him. I held my grandmother while she passed away. I am caring for my in-laws. I am a wife and a mother to 3 grown boys.
I have been through some painful things but I am so blessed. I am blessed enough to have my boys and I am married to my best friend. This process has taught me so much about myself. It’s taught me about why I react to things the way I do. It’s taught me that I have found joy through my pain. I am still learning every day.
Thank you so much for being my friend. Thank you for sharing your struggles. Thank you for listening and being there when I needed a friend. We are forever bonded by this experience and I will forever be grateful.
Break this up and use it as you wish. It’s not composed the way I had hoped but I have been so busy. My heart is in this and I would do anything to help someone else find a way out of his or her own darkness. I have thought about your request to talk to the media and I have decided that I will if you still want me to.
P.S. Something to add. I also learned that my way of dealing with my emotions and stress was not working. My normal response was to stuff all my stress and emotions because they won’t do anything but hurt people. I also have a tendency to hunker down and push through regardless of what I actually need to do. I have learned to deal with things head-on and the writing helps.
Do You Want Me to De-identify Your Story?
All of the stories in my book and on the web site are based on true stories. They have been altered in order to protect the identity of the characters. I asked her how much of her story she wanted to share.
I am my story. I have lived it. I am not ashamed of it, but proud of how it all turned out. I would not be who I am without the trials. Feel free to use my name as you wish. I am open to discussing it with anyone that could benefit from it. I am sorry you have had a hard time. (I had an extremely rough week) Hang in there! Have a great relaxing day even if you have to force it to be that way. It’s okay to slow down and take care of yourself.