Driving Myself To (and From) Chronic Pain
I was freshly 22, living through my first Chicago winter, and working my first job out of college on a computer at a desk in a dingy old middle school building.
I called in sick because I couldn’t get out of bed. When I tried to move my head, I felt wrenching pain through one side of my neck and down through my shoulder. I hoped a day of rest would help.
It did, a little. Some days my neck didn’t bother me at all. Yet others, I would wake up, virtually unable to move without triggering terrible pain. These flares would last for days.
I remember riding the Red Line and pressing my shoulder back against the steel train pole because the pressure gave me some mild, fleeting relief. I tried not to move my head from left to right on my jostling commute, with one exception.
There were moments that I knew I could generate a great crack in my neck. I would sometimes accept that shock of pain for the few minutes of relief such a self-adjustment would make.
Besides the pain, it was terrifying. I was young. It shouldn’t have been happening to me. It was stealing away days of my life, choices and possibilities. The fear and anticipation of the pain made each moment into a tiny horror movie because I couldn’t predict what would trigger me.
I tried massage. I tried physical therapy stretches and exercise. I tried medication. None helped for long; often things were made worse. I did not receive any referrals for imaging or surgery (for which I am now grateful.)
I was treating my problem as if it was a purely mechanical one, and the professionals I met who tried to help me saw my problem the same way. But to paraphrase physiotherapist and chiropractor Jørgen Jevne, people are not cars, and clinicians are not mechanics.
Nonetheless, this is how we tend to think about our bodies, and especially problems with our bodies. We think of alignments needing adjustment and of parts wearing out and needing to be lubricated or repaired or replaced. Basically, we do think of going to a mechanic to fix our bodies up. That mechanic might be a physical therapist, a chiropractor, a massage therapist, or even a surgeon.
Even foam rollers and prescribed exercises are like being taught how to work on your car at home.
Last week, I talked about a different kind of machinery — our mental machinery, the collection of habits we’ve developed over our lives to accomplish goals and protect ourselves, and how sometimes this machinery gets in the way. This often gets lost when we think about physical problems, when we turn to our bodies as cars.
With my chronic neck pain, I forgot that I was driving the car.
And that’s not really my fault. Actual driving requires a driver’s license, which requires behind-the-wheel training and comes along with a safe driving manual. The car itself comes with a manual. Our bodies don’t come with a manual.
So, imagine if you had a car with a manual transmission, a stick-shift, and you never learned how to drive stick. Trying to drive 70 mph in first gear, it wouldn’t be any surprise if you ended up seeing your mechanic on a regular basis. Of course, the mechanic would be happy to keep patching things up for you. If you didn’t know better, you might even think your new car was just a lemon, or that your old car is just worn down with use and age. But with all those grinding gears and expensive visits to the repair shop, what if what you really need are driving lessons?
I was fortunate.
Learning the Alexander Technique is like learning how to drive in gear.
As a kid, I had lessons in the Alexander Technique (a story for another day). But I remembered this powerful method for re-learning how to use my body was out there. It only took a single lesson for me to transform from chronic neck pain horror moviegoer into the director’s seat of my own movie.
With the help of my teacher, I noticed that I had developed a habit of drooping my head forward and down (think sad Charlie Brown), and then yanked my head back so I could see in front of me, crunching my neck. My shoulders had seemingly decided that the only way to deal with frigid Chicago was to live around my ears. Interrupting these habits reduced my strain significantly, but just as important, I noticed my fearful habits around the anticipation of pain. I stiffened to try to protect myself, adding more tension each day. I became hypervigilant to smaller and smaller amounts of pain, which made those smaller amounts seem ever-larger (a process called central sensitization).
I had to pause all that mental machinery — simultaneously postural and emotional habits — in order to solve what seemed to be a physical machinery problem. I had to learn to stop grinding my gears and allow my natural coordination to return.
And it did.
I realized that I had to help other people do this too.
Now I do.
And teaching somebody how not to grind their gears is just the beginning. I get to help people learn to drive like racecar drivers, to enjoy the exhilaration and freedom and power of their bodies, as they realize they don’t have lemons but Lamborghinis.
I am not arguing that mechanics have no place, but I couldn’t muscle my way out of my neck pain. No amount of mechanical work made any difference because the problem was not my parts, but how I was using them and even the stories that I was telling myself about them.