Years ago in New York City I used to play racketball at a gym on 39th Street. It was a way to stay in shape, indulge my competitive instinct, and work off some of the fear / aggression that seemed to accumulate in the body just from living in the city.
I was in a match one day, trailing by a couple of points. I reached for a low shot skimming a couple of inches off the floor to my right. I stretched the racket out, and the next thing I knew I was lying on the floor. Something in my back “gave,” whatever that means. When I tried to get up the most excruciating pain tore through my lower back, immobilizing me.
I apologized to my partner, who backed slowly off the court, and to the guy who worked the locker room when he came in and offered me a broom stick. I managed to get to a phone and Jill got me home in a cab. For several weeks I was flat on my back, with a friendly chiropractor making house calls. During the first few days I told Jill that if she had put the water a foot farther away I would have died of thirst. It was terrifying.
Eventually I “recovered” but for years I couldn’t torque my back, couldn’t carry anything heavy. I would have relapses once in a while for a day, and have to lay down. Life went on. Like anybody, I adapted. Often without realizing it. I just did fewer things, my range of movement shrank.
The cycle came around with a vengeance years later, after we’d moved to California. In an effort to get into better shape I was swimming laps at the local JCC. I was going to a back guy. But I was deeply unhappy, grossly overweight and in the worst shape of my life.
One day I had to stop stroking through my laps because I could no longer lift my arm enough. I crawled up the ladder and out of the pool. It felt like electric wires had been embedded in my legs and connected to a high-voltage battery. Movement was necessary, but like shocking myself in some bizarre self-torture.
The first neurosurgeon shook his head and prescribed tranquilizers and muscle relaxers and talked about the different kinds of surgery I could have. He was the head of surgery at the local hospital. I had massive bottles of codeine next to the massive bottles of Advil next to the bed.
The Cricket World Cup was on some cable channel. I downloaded a short version of the rules and spent days in bed popping codeine and watching cricket, trying to figure out the game without moving too much. Every other day I managed to get to physical therapy where I made minuscule movements for a while before heading home.
A week went by, another. Then a month. I went to another neurosurgeon. He clucked disapprovingly at the MRI I had brought with me, up on his little light box. During the consult he looked at his watch while telling me he could schedule me in for surgery right away. He called it “unroofing” my spine, just cut some bone away around where the cracked and ruptured discs were. No big deal, he said, he did them all the time.
I spent another week in bed pondering my options through the codeine haze. Jill had started to visibly wear down from doing everything herself. The teachers called, wanting to know why our son was walking around bent over all the time. Life was disintegrating in front of my eyes.
One day they were watching TV and saw a report on back pain. We watched together while John Stossel of ABC News told stories about a doctor at NYU who could cure disabling, chronic back pain in a most unusual way. His name was John Sarno, and he was head of rehabilitative medicine.
We ordered a copy of his book, called Healing Back Pain: The Mind-Body Connection “Without Drugs, Without Surgery, Without Exercise Back Pain Can Be Cured Forever.”
Books that Change Minds
It’s actually an odd little book. The main text is barely 80 pages, after which there’s a good bit of filler that looks like the publisher added to make it a “book.” It doesn’t take long to read. I won’t go into Sarno’s whole explanation for the syndrome of back pain, but I want to tell you what he said. It was remarkable, really.
Sarno claimed that his method worked 100 percent of the time for those people who accepted his diagnosis. People who couldn’t accept his explanation eliminated themselves from his treatment. Here’s his diagnosis:
There is nothing wrong with your back. You have had real pain from real nerve damage inflicted on you by your subconscious mind. Your subconscious mind has done this to get your attention. It wants to get your attention because you’ve been ignoring, supressing or otherwise getting rid of your anger and other strong negative emotions. You avoid them because you want to be a good person and an achiever at the same time. As long as you ignore these feelings your body will attempt to “get your attention.” Throw out your MRIs, stop going to physical therapy, taper off your medication and stop taking it. Get up and act as if you are completely normal, because you are. The soreness and pain will pass in a couple of weeks and you will be fine.
I was astonished to say the least. And yet Sarno claimed to have cured hundreds, thousands of people over the years this way. His entire treatment consisted of explaining his diagnosis and why it had happened, that was it. No exercise, no medication, no xrays or MRIs or cat scans, or anything. No surgery, nothing. Just a change of belief.
John Stossel had interviewed lots of people for the TV show we saw. One was Howard Stern, who told stories of being in so much pain he had to lay on the floor of his radio studio during commercials to make it through the show. He claimed to be completely cured. So did a producer for the Rosie O’Donnell Show, who had been unable to work because she was in so much pain.
What did I have to lose? The book spoke powerfully to me because I was desperate, in pain, and because I knew it was true. For various reasons I had been denying these strong emotions for years, decades. I had hit the wall.
The next day I took a codeine, but I got up and walked downstairs. I sat on the couch and said to Jill, “there’s nothing wrong with my back.” It felt great, even though I was in pain. Something had shifted. Something not in my back, not in the bony protrusions of the spine, or the disintegrating discs. It had shifted in my mind.
Over the next two weeks I kept doing the same thing. Gradually, a very little at a time, the pain subsided. I began to move more freely. Soon I wasn’t taking any pills at all. Within a couple of weeks I was able to operate at about 75% capacity. I canceled all the doctor and physical therapy appointments. Gradually I started to express myself more, to access the feelings I’d been sitting on for many years.
Often it wasn’t pretty. I was a newbie, after all. A few months later, in my 50s, I took up mountain biking. I shed the excess weight going up and down mountains all over northern California, in Hawaii, wherever we traveled. Within a year my life had completely changed for the better. I was in better physical shape than I’d been since my 20s. My marriage had improved, I felt more available to the people around me.
What happened? How was it possible? I’ve bought about 12 copies of Sarno’s book over the years to give to people. Let’s face it, back pain is pretty common. But I’ve learned something: I only give the book to someone who is in pain, who is getting desperate.
For some reason, it’s just the way we’re made I guess, we have to be pushed to the wall. Your wife can tell you, you friends can hound you, your mom can try to get through to you, but in the end you’re not going to do it. You won’t change until you’re terrified and desperate and looking oblivion square in the face and you feel the pit of your stomach drop away.
Then, the book works. Otherwise, it’s just another interesting read, like a lot of other books with some good ideas about the mind-body connection.
But when you’re ready, even things that seem completely logical and backed by evidence, the most concrete “facts” you think you know can change, and along with them, our whole world.