Belief

by Joel Friedlander on May 15, 2010 · 14 comments

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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.

In California

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.

Life, Disintegrating

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.

Resurrection

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.

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    { 11 comments… read them below or add one }

    Sue Collier May 15, 2010 at 6:38 am

    I have heard that the power of the mind can actually produce chemical changes within the body, similar to drugs. Pretty incredible.

    Thanks for sharing, Joel.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander May 15, 2010 at 4:06 pm

    And thanks for reading, Sue, always nice to have you here.

    Reply

    Clay May 15, 2010 at 6:54 am

    Well, I’m intrigued. I don’t read everything that Google Reader feeds me, but your post just happened to be the only feed in the box this morning, on a “batching-it” Saturday with my family all out of town. I’ve been slumping around all morning with lower back pain, probably from a bulging disk irritated a week or so ago by lifting a 40 lb box of books out of hole. Not a smart thing to do no matter how positively I think about my back. Anyway, your post has got my attention.

    I’m 59. A few years ago I was immobilized by blown disc (saw it on the MRI) that shot excrutiating sciatic pain down the back of my legs with every move. The doctor said surgery; I didn’t want anyone cutting around my spine. So, I decided to let nature take its course, try to act normally (hard to do when you can barely walk), and wait it out. It took a couple of months, but apparently the disc material broke off, dissipated, and life eventually turned back to normal. So, with my new back pain this morning, I’m tempted to think this is what life will be like, and it’s just a matter of time until a relapse. And then I read your post.

    I, too, am overweight (lost 50 lbs 3 years ago, and follow a good diet, but a lot of it came back on). I was obese as a child, am not an athlete, but I’m trying to get active again (started weights yesterday). I gave my bike to my college son last year because I didn’t think my back would allow me to bike anymore. Your testimony is giving me a tiny sliver of hope to rethink what I thought was unthinkable. I’m a big fan of John Stossel, so I’m going to try to find that segment online. And I will definitely order Dr. Sarno’s book.

    So, thanks for taking the time to share your story. I hope I can report sometime that it was a turning point for me, too. No turning back!

    Reply

    Clay May 15, 2010 at 7:18 am

    Forgot to mention that I have had recurring back spasms and back pain issues for 40 years. Not what I would call chronic back pain, but periodic bouts of debilitation that had me shuffling around, popping therapeutic doses of Ibuprofen, and seeking sympathy. It’s been, on average, at least an annual ritual of varying degrees of pain. That’s why I’m interested in the book.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander May 15, 2010 at 4:10 pm

    Clay, wow, I had no idea. Maybe this is something that will be beneficial for you. I recognize myself well enough in your description, that’s for sure.

    The part I left out of the story was Weight Watchers. Near the bottom, still drugged out, I started to go to WW with my wife. I just didn’t know what else to do. She quit after a while, but I kept going. Over six months I lost over 50 pounds. That was almost ten years ago, and I haven’t been overweight since. It was a radical change for me, not just a diet.

    All I can say, Clay, is that Sarno claims it doesn’t matter about the MRI. He says—and I believe there are studies about this—that people with awful MRIs often have no back pain at all, while people with chronic suffering can have perfect-looking MRIs. The biggest challenge for me in all this was really opening my mind to new possibilities. I hope you find some relief, whatever form it takes, and thanks for taking part in the conversation here.

    Reply

    Marcia null Degelman May 15, 2010 at 8:37 pm

    Joel,
    I’m a massage therapist and I’ve seen a lot of people in pain. I saw that 20/20 with John Stossel and I’ve never forgotten it. People often express the pain in their life in a physical way. It’s one way to get the mind’s attention.
    I have found a wonderful device, it’s called the “Bio Mat”. It is a far infrared heat mat, that also produces negative ions. It simply puts you into a state of bliss, warm and comforting. It’s also FDA approved for pain relief. If we can flood our bodies with positive feelings, it does wonders for our mind and body.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander May 15, 2010 at 8:42 pm

    Marcia, just reading your description started to induce a calming state in me! I’ll have to check it out. Thanks for stopping by.

    Reply

    Clay May 15, 2010 at 10:57 pm

    It’s not in the ABC archives, but I found the 20/20 John Stossel piece on Dr. Sarno on a site about the syndrome he defined (the video stops in a couple of places while audio continues, but it’s just necessary editing). Very interesting. I can understand the mind-body connection, and agree about stress (probably a big factor in weight-gain, too). However, I would think there could be back injury-related pain, too, such as from lifting a heavy box of books out of hole while bending over a waist-high wall (yes, I really did). We can sprain our ankle and no one would deny a physical cause for the pain, so why can’t we sprain our back? I’m ordering the book, so I’m sure Dr. Sarno addresses questions like that.

    Reply

    Tox December 30, 2010 at 3:04 am

    How did it go, Clay?

    I’m excited about your article and these replies. I’m having deep marriage problems, trying to work them out, but there is a ton of anger about what has happened and how the reconciliation process is working. I knew it was hard on my body (constant chest pain), so I started hiking (here in my hilly Asian country), biking and even lifting. Last week I did all three, and added a lesson in boxing, i.e. 4 activities in 5 days. I was feeling great. Then, Christmas Even, after wrapping gifts on the floor for a long time I felt pain getting up. Two days later I lifted a big suitcase out of a taxi and was in striking pain, first in my buttocks, now all the way down my leg and into my toes.

    I went to the Dr, had an MRI, and saw with my eyes that I had a L5S1 protruding disc. It’s also blacker than all the normal “white” discs and clearly going into my spinal nerve! Now I’m on pain meds and physio. But going to a new

    But I HOPE what your are saying is true. Right now I’m devouring Sarno’s book! I still can’t conceive how mind-power can make my protruding, dark and fluid-depleted disc go away. But I’ll try.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander January 2, 2011 at 5:57 pm

    Tox, I hope you get some help for your condition. I don’t know what that help might be, but ignoring the MRIs works for some people, while for others it might not be a good idea. From this story you’ll know that I was being scheduled for surgery to “fix” the “problems” with discs etc, but that was 10 or 12 years ago and I never did have the surgery. Sarno’s message is strong and direct, but it’s not going to be right for everyone. Believe in yourself, that’s the best message I have. Thanks for adding your voice here.

    Reply

    Marleen December 12, 2013 at 4:29 am

    Great article and a real funny picture ;)

    Reply

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