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Guest Posts, healing

I Diagnose Other People for a Living, but No One Can Diagnose Me

July 15, 2019
surgery

By Melissa Neff

My psychology career has been devoted to helping other people learn about themselves. But when chronic back pain usurped my life, no one could tell me what was wrong with my back, or how to fix it.

As a psychologist in private practice, I divide hours into 15-minute segments, punctuated by the beep of a timer and my client’s choice of Batman or emoji stickers. A few weeks ago, I handed Jaden, an energetic and wiggly 6-year-old, a pile of putty to fidget with as we waded through an IQ test. Through a projective storytelling task, I learned what monsters were hiding under his bed, and what type of laser proton field he plans to construct to keep them out.

When Jaden’s parents return for the results, I explain, “Assessment is like pieces of a puzzle. Each test tells me something about your child.” Test by test, I plot out Jaden’s abilities relative to other kids his age on a giant white board, dotting his exceptionalities and weaknesses in purple marker. “He can solve 8th grade math equations, and he is smart enough to grasp that one day he will die; however, this thought, which most 6-year-olds can’t yet contemplate, terrifies him. So, he has constructed a laser field as a way of coping with demons that he does not yet understand.”

I inundate Jaden’s parents with labels – Gifted, ADHD, Autism Spectrum Disorder – labels which do not define him, but which describe him so we can strategize how to best help him. When Jaden’s parents leave my office, I want them to understand their child better. I want them to feel supported and validated about what they’ve always known to be true about their child, which often, no one else saw or believed. I want my clients to have answers.

Like many psychologists, I have, too, have spent some time on the other side of the couch. Like Jaden, I, too, have been plagued by anxiety. When I was still healthy, I spent nearly every day running and dancing and hiking those thoughts away until they melted into a pool of sweat at the back of my tank top.

But all of that changed six years ago, when I twisted my left foot the wrong way while shaking my booty to Rihanna during a high-intensity dance class. When my foot didn’t heal, the podiatrist shoved it in a boot for two months, which slanted my pelvis and led to a gradual stabbing in my low back that didn’t remit when the boot came off. I began to curse the Devil Spot, the dwelling inside my low back where it felt as if tiny trolls were stabbing me from the inside, punishing me for a transgression they had yet to reveal.

No matter how much stretching and resting and icing I did, the Devil Spot nagged at me, pleading to be heard like a tantruming child. Its screams grew louder and louder until they were all I could hear. Pain eclipsed my every waking moment, and suddenly, I became one of 25 million people in America with chronic pain. At work, I couldn’t stand up and talk to my clients for longer than 3 minutes. At home, it was all I could do to not toss a spatula across the kitchen, infuriated that I couldn’t stand for long enough to sauté a goddamn pan of broccoli.

I threw all of my free time and savings into rehab. I just wanted to dance again, to run again, to feel my body sherpa up and down mountainous hiking trails the way it was made to. My osteopath glided and jerked my left leg until my pelvis straightened, explaining in carpenter-speak how a normal pelvis should connect to the spine without jamming. My chiropractor jerked me back into place, asked me for my copay, and rushed me out the door. After each adjustment, I slid back into crookedness, but I kept going back for more because I didn’t know what else to do. My physical therapist urged me to try water aerobics. After about fifteen minutes doing low kicks with the 80-year-old women in my class, the Devil Spot detonated, forcing me to hobble out of the pool in tears.

Pain became the only thing I could think about. Nothing I did to stop it helped. In fact, every intervention seemed to generate more pain. The only thing everyone agreed on was that I should avoid back surgery. Failed back surgery is so common that it has its own diagnostic code.

Months passed. Years passed. For a while, I sought relief instead of fixes. I tried every type of massage –Hawaiian Lomi Lomi, deep tissue, and Rolfing. I begged Chinese doctors to poke my feet with long acupuncture needles. I asked a woman who saw angels to clear up energy from my past lives. The stabbing would relent for a day or two, but never more. So, I stopped. I stopped getting adjustments. I stopped trying to hike. I stopped at my third physical therapist. I stopped having dinner parties. I stopped getting invited to dinner parties. I stopped having sex or only had it in the dark, where I could covertly wince.

More months passed. Each day, I averaged about a 7 on the pain scale. My stomach ached from popping Ibuprofen like Tic Tacs, but I needed them to get me through the day. I hated my life. I hated my job. I hated myself. I was becoming a person I didn’t recognize, a person whose fat clothes didn’t fit, a person who got her only endorphins from Dairy Queen Oreo Blizzards. I needed answers. I needed to find someone like me, someone who would sit with my images, get out their white board, and contemplate my symptoms until they morphed into the correct diagnosis and paved a road towards treatment. I didn’t care anymore that this might mean someone drilling my spine apart, filleting me like a fish, and rebuilding me piece by piece. I was out of money and patience, controlled by something I couldn’t get under control no matter how hard I tried.

Dr. Keller, my pain doctor, agreed that it was time to consult with surgeons, who are known for their diagnostic precision.

Surgeon Number One suggested there might be a tear in my disc.

Surgeon Number Two diagnosed sacroiliac dysfunction. If he just literally could nail together my pelvis to my spine, it would become less mobile and less painful, he said.

Surgeon Number Three, the arrogant one who I was sure would break the tie, turned around slowly in his leather chair and said, “I’m not sure why you’re here. There’s nothing wrong with your back.”

“Excuse me?” I asked.

“There’s no surgery I would do on your back, because it’s totally fine.”

The tears I’d been holding back busted through, my face opening into a floodplain. “It’s fine? Then why am I in so much pain? Why does my back stab so badly that I can I barely stand, or concentrate? Why can’t I ride in a car for longer than an hour? Why can’t I get through Costco without an automated cart?”

“You just need physical therapy.”

“I’ve tried that. Three times, with three different therapists. It hasn’t worked.”

“Acupuncture can also help.”

“I’ve tried that. Twice. Didn’t work.” I breathed back the snot dripping from my nose. When he didn’t offer me a Kleenex, I wiped it away with my sleeve.

“Do you think there’s a tear in my disc?” I asked. “That I need a fusion?”

“No.” But he leaned in closer as he noticed my tears.

“You know, I’ve had some patients with similar pain. You know what helped them? Therapy. They go see a therapist, talk a little bit about their family, and in three, four months – their pain goes away.”

Clearly, this asshole had omitted reading the check-box where I’d listed my profession as “psychologist,” implying that I know something about this stuff. Had he read any of my check-boxes? Was he saying that I was crazy? That I had conjured this problem within my body as a way of dealing with my issues? Had he read the referral from Dr. Keller, who’d shot me with cortisone in my SI joint three times that year, issued me a handicapped parking pass, and sent me to this man for an actual answer?

In my car, my head fell on the steering wheel, dousing it with sobs. I wanted to call my partner to debrief, but what was the point? I was still at the same place, with no answers.

For weeks, I contemplated my choices. I insisted that my doctor perform the dangerous discogram that did, indeed, reveal a tear in my disc. I had a minor surgery to cauterize the disc. But when I started to move again, the Devil Spot ignited and raged on. I blew up balloons with my new physical therapist to pull more air into my left lung in an attempt to align both sides of my body. I let a different physical therapist put her finger in my vagina, inspecting my pelvic floor for tightness. I tried new medications. I cut down my hours at work. I forced myself to meditate. None of it helped.

Left without a clear direction, I made a radical choice: to have a surgery that wouldn’t fix the problem, but which would mask the pain. An implanted spinal cord stimulator would send soothing signals to my brain to divert it from the perception of pain. I scheduled the surgery, but my insurance required me to have a psychological evaluation first. After laughing my ass off at the irony, I drove three hours south and sat all day in a fake leather chair like the one I had for clients in my office, checking off answers on personality inventories I’d spent years administering to other people. The psychologist gave the green-light, but on the eve of my surgery, my gut rumbled with uncertainty. Scanning my brain for a last-minute fix, I recalled a conversation I’d had with a friend’s father years ago, who told me that a physiatrist, a doctor of the muscles, had saved him from back surgery. I Googled physiatrists, found Dr. Landon, who was new in town, and told Dr. Keller that I wanted one more consult before moving forward.

In his office a week later, Dr. Landon thanked me for sending him a three-page synopsis with all my provisional diagnoses and every treatment I’d tried. He’d reviewed that and my imaging the night before. He spent two hours asking me a series of rapid-fire questions to rule out all kinds of different disorders. He looked me in the eye and listened to my story. He offered me more Kleenex as I cried. He spent two hours examining my hips, pelvis, legs, and back. He told me that he had a few ideas about what might be wrong, and he labeled them all: Sacroiliac Joint Dysfunction. Pelvic Floor Dysfunction. Hip-Back Syndrome. Myofascial Pain Syndrome. He assured me that we would go down each rabbit hole, investigating symptom by symptom until I had my answers. He didn’t have a white board, but he did make a drawing on his iPad explaining how my hips might be causing back pain, which made me consider my symptoms in a new way.

Dr. Landon asked me to postpone surgery until I tried the rehab program he created for me. “I will do my very best to help you,” he said as I left, “But I can’t promise anything.”

In the safety of my car, I simultaneously grinned and sobbed, allowing child-like bawls to crawl up my chest and quake out my lips, loosening my grief like leaves on a tree that had needed a good shake to break free. Finally, I had found someone who would diagnose me with the same level of precision, empathy, and care as I did for my own clients. I always tried so hard not to cry, not to complain, not to ruin conversations by talking about my pain, but hopelessness had become a rock in my chest, hardening around my broken heart.

For the first time since the Devil Spot had made my life a living hell, I felt less alone.

Dr. Landon’s program is working. I can stand for 30 minutes instead of 3. I can do half of an old lady water aerobics class without tears. Last week, I walked into a gentle dance class and grapevined and kicked behind Dolores for ten whole minutes without stopping, and shouted with her along to Huey Lewis. The more I squat and lunge, the stronger the tissue around my disc becomes. I am forcing myself to meditate, and when I sit in silence, I learn things – about the way I sit, the way I stand, the way I don’t take in full breaths, how I hold in stress until it becomes a stabbing pain in my ass. Surgeon Number Three was right, even if he was a jerk about it; I needed to go back to therapy, because how I manage my emotions is a piece of my puzzle.

Twice a week in neurofeedback, my therapist attaches electrodes to the calming center of my brain. Twice a week, I leave feeling less anxious, and in less pain. I am noticing that when I have a bad day at work, the Devil Spot cramps and pulses much earlier than usual. As I lean forward to bear witness to other people’s stories of abuse and abandonment, my muscles clench more with the weight of their stories. When I am a receptacle for other people’s pain, my pain worsens.

In therapy, it is my turn to speak. I tell my therapist the truth: I am no different than my clients. I was born with big feelings, big reactions, big thoughts. I never felt safe expressing them until I met my current partner, who holds me when I cry and does not ask me to stop, who listens to my ideas and loves every part of me that’s big.

It has taken me forty-one years to realize that I’ve spent my entire life putting other people first. As a six-year-old, I became a mother to my mother. After my dad left, she secured two or three jobs at a time to make sure we had Gap jeans and could afford to play after-school sports, but there was no time for cooking, cleaning, or feelings. When I tried to tell my dad how much I missed him on visits, when tears welled up in my eyes and my words grew gummy, he insisted we change the subject because it was obviously upsetting me. For him, I joined clubs and earned scholarships, learned to courageously mute all my big feelings, and championed his marriage to a woman who smiled at me through gritted teeth to ensure that I wouldn’t take up any more of his time. It was the right thing to do – choosing attachment over acceptance meant that I would be supported, loved. When I headed off to a big city college, I felt brave, strong, and independent. By graduate school, I was on my way to becoming a logical, impenetrable adult. I had a life plan: I would help people with their big feelings, and run far up mountains away from my own.

But I didn’t respect myself. I didn’t know who I was if I wasn’t helping people. I didn’t know that my voice needed to be heard too, until the right people listened. Now, I’ve begun to stop and notice when the pain flares, and ask myself what I am feeling, not feeling, or not saying. I let myself feel it, although I am still learning how to say it.

The more I creep back into my body, which froze with pain until I felt safe enough to learn why, the more I release the trapped emotion from my back and baby the Devil Spot back to life, the less I want labels and procedures. I insist to Jaden’s mother, who cries when I label him with autism, that a diagnosis does not define a person, but is a valuable guidepost – a roadmap – to greater self-understanding. What I don’t say is: I understand. We are all jagged and broken in some places, but if we don’t let our edges come up for air, if we don’t let others see them, hold them, and heal them, they will fester and become unnecessary wounds.

Melissa Neff is a writer and psychologist living in Montana. Her fiction has been featured in WitLit and Wild Quarterly. She is currently writing a memoir about chronic pain and how it has unexpectedly healed her body, mind, and spirit. She is fortunate to spend most of her days supporting her differently wired clients to become their very best selves. You can follow her on twitter at @MelissaNeff17.

 

Abuse, Guest Posts

F*ck Self-Help

October 21, 2018
By Zoe Brigley

Because I work and teach on domestic violence, people sometimes write to me unexpectedly with their own stories. They are usually women (though abuse does happen to men and non-binary folks too), and often they have questions about whether a partner’s behavior is abusive. Very often it is.

Sometimes these can be liberating stories. A woman once wrote to say that finally, after ten years of an abusive relationship, she had left, and her life had changed irrevocably. Food was more flavorsome, smells were more vivid, colors luminous, as if she had been imprisoned in grey world.

Other stories are less comforting. I spent a month writing back and forth with a friend on Facebook living in another country. Her abusive boyfriend had dumped her, except she wasn’t really dumped: it was more a test to see how much she would put up with before he took her back. We talked many times about working to forget him, and to create a new life. Then one day on Facebook, she posted a photograph of the two of them on vacation, relaxing at a beachfront hotel. She stopped writing to me then, and while I hope that she is happy, I can’t help thinking about what I could or should have done to help her. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, healing, Inspiration

Out To Sea by Ally Hamilton.

December 24, 2013

By Ally Hamilton.

 

When I was seventeen I began dating a man who was twenty-one years older than me. My parents tried to stop me, but they have nineteen years between them, and even though they divorced when I was four, I was positive my relationship was different. Because I was seventeen and I thought I had all the answers. My previous boyfriend, who had been kind and sweet and awesome in every way, also tried to stop me. But he had moved across the country to go to college, and the truth was, I was heartbroken. I felt abandoned, even though he was talking about Christmas break, and calling every day. No matter; he’d left, and it stirred in me something old and raw and completely unhealed. So I let this guy who was so much older come at me with his cars and his boats and his private plane to his house in the Hamptons. He had a terrible reputation for cheating on everyone he dated. And I signed myself up for the task like I’d be able to fix that. Also, something inside me was believing the idea that I was the kind of person someone could leave. So who cared, really.

The first time we were together it was strange and sad. We flew out to his house, and went directly to the beach where we got in his speedboat. He drove us out to the middle of a secluded bay area. I knew he’d done it before, all of it. It was like some kind of ritual. Something to get out of the way. I knew he didn’t love me. That came a few years later, after he’d broken me and it was too late. But I let him have me, even though I felt nothing. I mean, I was hooked in, I was playing out all kinds of ancient history. But I wasn’t in love with him, and I certainly wasn’t loving myself. Not even a little. When it was over and I was swimming in the ocean, tears came streaming down my face, unexpectedly, without permission. I dove underwater, trying to wash them away, trying to wash the whole thing away. I don’t remember much else about that day, or that night. I think he spent most of the rest of the afternoon working, and I curled up in front of the fire with a book. I felt dead to myself, and also strangely satisfied that I’d done something so unlike me.

I stayed with him for three years. Once he had me, he kept a tight leash on me. It’s funny how people without integrity assume other people also have none. He was threatened by the guys at Columbia who were my age. He’d drop me off on campus sometimes and get upset if I was wearing lipstick, or tight jeans, or short skirts, or pretty much anything that wasn’t a sack. But he cheated on me regularly. He was good at it, I could never prove it, but I always knew when he was with someone else because it hurt. It hurt in the way that sends you under the kitchen table, holding onto yourself as you sob and wonder what the hell you’re doing in this situation, and why you don’t get out. But getting out wasn’t even possible at that point, because I was so attached to getting my happy ending. If I could just be perfect enough to get him to love me. If I could just hang in there long enough he’d finally realize I really did love him. Because after awhile, I did.

I began to see this insecure guy who felt he wasn’t enough, regardless of how many women he took to bed, or how much money he had, or how many sparkly, shiny toys. Nothing did it for him, not even the unwavering love of a good girl. I can’t call myself a woman when I think about this experience, because I wasn’t yet. I had a lot of healing to do, and a lot of growing, but I was very kind to him. And the longer I stayed, the more he gave me reasons to leave. For his fortieth birthday, I planned an elaborate surprise party. I rented a pool hall, had it catered from his favorite sushi place, and ordered dessert from an amazing pastry chef. I sent invitations to all his friends. I made a reservation at a new restaurant that had opened downtown that he was dying to try, and planned to take him to the pool hall from there. I ordered a bottle of champagne to be waiting at the table. It took me months to save up the money to pull it off.

A week before the party he confronted me in the kitchen in East Hampton. He told me he knew about the party, and he wanted to see the guest list to make sure I hadn’t forgotten anyone. At first I tried to deny there was a party, but he kept coming. He laughed at me. He knew it was at a pool hall. He wanted to know if I’d ordered food, and all the other details. He didn’t want to be embarrassed. I stood there in that kitchen and I felt everything fall away from me. I felt like I was made of bones that could disintegrate into a pile of dust on the floor, that his housekeeper could just come along and sweep away, out the door, into the ocean, to meet up with those tears I’d cried the first day. I told him every last detail. He took away any shred of joy I might have felt at having been able to give him something. Three days before the party, he went to the restaurant I’d made reservations at a few months before. So that the night of the party, the only surprise was that sad bottle of champagne, waiting at the table.

You cannot save anyone. All the love in the world won’t get the job done. You can’t make someone faithful or kind or compassionate or sensitive. You can’t make another person happy. They are, or they are not. You can harm yourself. You can allow yourself to be abused, mistreated, neglected and betrayed. But I don’t recommend it. A healthy, happy, secure person wouldn’t have been on that boat with him in the first place. Of course, he preyed on a seventeen year old, and when I look back on it I have all kinds of compassion for myself. But it took me years to get there. And a lot of yoga, and a lot of therapy, and a lot of weeping and writing and reading. Anything you repress, or run from, or deny, owns you. It owns you. And if you don’t turn and face that stuff down, you’ll call it into your life in other ways. The truth wants out. Your heart wants to heal so it can open for you again. Whatever is in your past does not have to define your future. But it probably will if you don’t do the work to liberate yourself. We have such fear. We think these things will overwhelm us, that we won’t survive. But what you won’t survive is the not facing it. That’s the part that kills you. That’s the part that makes you feel you could be swept away in the wind. Looking at your stuff hurts. It’s painful and deeply uncomfortable, but if you trust yourself enough to lean into all that pain, you’ll find it loses its grip over you. If you let yourself weep out the searing heat from those wounds, your whole being can take a real, deep breath, maybe for the first time in ages.

You can forgive those who let you down, who didn’t or couldn’t show up for you the way you would have liked or the way you deserved. You can forgive yourself for choices you might have made that were harmful to you or others. When we’re in pain, we don’t tend to treat ourselves well, and sometimes that also spills onto the people with whom we’re closest. But life can be beautiful. You can close the book on the old, painful story that was just a replaying of your past. And you can start working on this new creation that gets to be your life after you’ve healed. Not that the old pain won’t show up from time to time when you’re feeling triggered or tested or vulnerable, but it won’t grab you and knock you off your feet and show you who’s boss. Because it won’t be boss anymore, it won’t rule your life. You’ll just see it for what it is, an echo of a very old story that came to completion. It can’t be rewritten, it is what it is. But you get to decide where to place your energy and your attention. And I highly recommend you direct it toward love. That’s your happy ending, although it doesn’t end. You get to keep choosing it every day. If you do that, you’ll never find yourself sailing out to sea with someone who doesn’t know how to do anything but hurt you. Your own ship will have sailed. And maybe someday you’ll pass your seventeen year old self, weeping in the ocean next to your ship and you’ll pull her on board and show her your future. Which holds so much joy and gratitude and meaning and fulfillment, maybe she’ll weep there on the deck with you, not in sadness, but in relief.

If you’re allowing yourself to be mistreated and you need help, feel free to message me. Sending you love. Ally

allyeyesopen

 

Bio: Ally Hamilton is a Santa Monica-based yoga teacher and writer who streams online yoga classes all over the world. She’s the co-creator of YogisAnonymous.com, which has been featured in The New York Times, Yoga Journal, Self Magazine, Shape Magazine and The Wall Street Journal. She’s a regular contributor for The Huffington Post, a wellness expert at MindBodyGreen, and writes an almost-daily blog at blog.yogisanonymous.com. She’s the mama of two amazing kids and one energetic Labradoodle. She believes everyone can benefit from some regular time on a yoga mat.

**Jen Pastiloff has over 30 online classes at Ally’s studio Yogis Anonymous. Click here.

Join Jen and Emily Rapp at a writing and the body retreat in Stowe, Vermont Oct 2015. This will be their 3rd one together in Stowe. Click the photo to book.

Join Jen and Emily Rapp at a writing and the body retreat in Stowe, Vermont Oct 2015. This will be their 3rd one together in Stowe. Click the photo to book.

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Click poster to order book!

 

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