Updated: Nov 1, 2022
One year ago I was pain-free for the first time in 31 years. After a long and complex healing journey, I'd found The Way Out. Then my husband was diagnosed with cancer.
The anniversary of my husband's cancer diagnosis is here. And there is another anniversary - one year since I became pain-free for the first time in 31 years. Last fall, after a long and winding journey though every healing modality out there, I'd found the final, missing piece. Pain Reprocessing, as outlined in Alan Gordon's book The Way Out gave me tools to break the feedback loop between fear and pain. It was actually a culmination of more than a decade of exploring the mind-body-spirit tapestry that is chronic pain. (I wrote a series of blog posts as I was going through the process which you can find on this site). Pain Reprocessing worked so well for me, I believe, because of the foundation I'd already built.
Nonetheless, it felt like a miracle. I could pause and focus my attention on the beginnings of a sensation in my back, and it would fade away. Gordon jokingly calls it a Jedi mind trick - that's how I felt. I had a sense of control, of agency, of freedom, of empowerment - all the things chronic pain had taken from me. I started to think about all the things I could do now. And, I was ready to share it with the world, to guide others through the process. I saw infinite possibility.
Then my husband was diagnosed with cancer. We found ourselves on a runaway train of appointments, treatments, side effects, drugs. He lost his capacity to eat. And 20 pounds of muscle mass. He was a healthy and very fit 56-year-old who worked out religiously. Then, he was a patient. Not much more. I also wrote about that on this blog, until it all got to be too much. Then I just got through.
Pain reprocessing went out the window, along with everything but work, treatment, and caregiving. Miraculously, I remained pain-free throughout his 2 months of treatment. Adrenaline, I presume. Then, as he began healing, the pain came back. He has recovered fully (thank Western medicine, which "does" cancer really well, unlike chronic pain. And - by luck - he had a highly curable form of cancer). But the emotional tsunami of my journey through cancer has left more wreckage in its wake than I realized.
Since last March I've been trying to replicate the success with pain reprocessing that I'd had the previous fall, to no avail. To say it's been frustrating would be a ridiculous understatement. I'm a pain coach - I teach others this stuff for a living! I feel like a failure, a fraud, a fool.
On my healing journey I had learned about emotional suppression and its role in pain. I thought I'd gotten that piece worked out in a decade of somatic therapy. And when I found success with PRT in 2021 I believed that the "emotional work" was done. That it was resolved, that I'd worked it through.
I was wrong. His cancer was the mother-of-all-emotional triggers for me, it turned out. But I couldn't go there. Until now, I couldn't express - or even admit - the rage, the terror, the loss, the pain. It didn't feel "legitimate." After all, he was the one with cancer. And he recovered! It was over. It was horrible, yes, but it was over. The only emotion I thought was appropriate was gratitude. The only emotions I wanted to feel were gratitude and joy.
Then I started training in Compassionate Inquiry. Some guiding force in the universe led me precisely where I needed to be. I've been processing old traumas and current triggers. I'm uncovering core beliefs about myself, personality patterns, coping strategies that I didn't know were coping strategies. CI is about unearthing our automatic pilots - all the patterns, traits, reactions, and beliefs that we formed as a result of what happened to us (or what didn't happen to us that should have happened) when we were young and that continue to drive our lives in the present.
And so today, as the one year anniversary of the cancer diagnosis approaches and I find myself in a pain flare, I see that it's time to tell the story of the past year. Not the triumphant story of treatment and recovery, of coping and surviving. That happened. That was real. But the story of the emotions I never felt. I swallowed a boatload of painful emotions to get through his (our) recovery. I had to. I have no doubt that I had to. This is the point - our survival system knows how to protect us from what's TOO MUCH to feel. It protects us when we are children. It - mercifully - cuts us off from the unbearable pain, the powerlessness and aloneness, of adverse childhood experiences. And just as it was trained to do when I was tiny, my survival system cut me off from the unbearable emotional pain that got triggered when my husband got sick.
The next step in my pain-healing journey will require going back there and getting those emotions out of my body. I do not want to do this. I hate it. It feels horrible. I want to move forward. But sometimes we have to go back to move forward - and this is one of those times. I need to go back to experience and resolve emotions that I disowned at the time. Not to wallow or dramatize the pain - but to allow, integrate, accept, and understand it with compassion and curiosity. This is yet another call to healing, to coming back to wholeness. Perhaps the process goes on forever. Healing isn't a place we get to. It's a path we walk for life.
I process feelings by writing. I've tried journaling over the past year - and it's helped me work through wounds and triggers with my family and with other key relationships. Emotional expression through Journaling or other means is a proven tool in healing chronic pain. But I haven't opened the emotional Pandora's box of the cancer.
Repressed emotional pain shows up as physical pain in my body. For some people it shows up as headaches, autoimmune disease, anxiety, depression, addiction. This I am learning, again, from my teacher Gabor Maté. I learned it when I read his book When the Body Says No years ago. And other books like The Body Keeps the Score. But I didn't dig into it the way I am now. There were protective shields keeping it from my view and I could not see through or past them.
Denial was one shield - denial that there was terror and rage in me. Minimization, I'm learning, is a trauma imprint. We learn to say things like "it's not the bad," or "it could be worse," or "I'm fine now" or "it's all good." The fact that he recovered supported the denial and minimization. What was there to be angry/sad/terrified about when the danger was past? But feelings - and trauma - don't work that way. They are energy. If they don't move through when they arise, they get stuck in the body. They stay there until we come back for them.
And there was another shield that I could not see past. I wasn't just protecting myself from those dark feelings. I was also protecting him. Or so I believed. I realized it this morning when I wanted to talk to him about it and I couldn't. I was afraid it would hurt him, burden him, re-traumatize him to hear about what I went through. (Duh, Dana, you really think he doesn't know?) It only felt safe to share the good feelings - the joy, the gratitude - about our triumph over adversity, about the blessing of his ongoing healing.
That pattern - "protecting" other people from my feelings - is also an adaptation I learned early in childhood. It's deeply subconscious. It shows up as a smile and happy, positive words. But the strategies of masking, denial, and dissembling come from a belief that I don't have a "right" to my feelings. That they are too big. That they are threatening to others, burdensome to others. That expressing them will threaten the relationship. Or even that they don't really exist.
It turns out a lot of us internalize this message, or some version of it, in our families of origin. If our big feelings - anger, fear, sadness - were not accepted and embraced and mirrored back to us by our caregivers when we were little, we engage in some form of minimization, repression, deflection, or denial when these feelings arise in the present. It's a thing, a trauma adaptation. This is a core teaching of Compassionate Inquiry.
Today, it is time to bring Compassionate Inquiry to my journey with cancer. Time to stop ignoring, judging, minimizing my rage, my pain, and my terror. Time to turn toward those tender feelings - and their antecedents in my childhood - with love, acceptance, compassion.
CI teaches us that certain healing practices require the safe presence of another person. Oddly, sharing this on this blog (as opposed to writing it in a private journal) is giving me that sense of being seen, heard, and witnessed. You (in my imagination) are my safe holding container. I feel less alone with it. I can't be alone with this anymore. Being alone with my big, bad feelings WAS the original trauma for me - and for so many of us. Bad things happen. But bad things happening is not trauma. Trauma is the effect - it's what happens inside of us as a result of what happens to us. Adverse experiences leave a traumatic imprint when we are left alone with them, when we have no one to tell, to share it with, to turn to for comfort. This is especially true when we are powerless children who can't possibly comfort ourselves, who can't make "sense" of what happens to us.
A. H. Almaas - one of Maté's teachers whom he quotes often - says "only when compassion is present will people allow themselves to see the truth." Ideally we can offer that compassion to ourselves. But that's not always possible. Sometimes we need the safety that comes with connection. Sometimes we need compassion from others in order to feel safe to go to the dark places. That's ok. That's why we are all here for each other. That's why I do the work I do - to offer that to others. It's ok for me to need that for myself, too. Caregivers need care. Healers need holding, witnessing. It's what ultimately allows us to keep our hearts open to and our compassion flowing for others. 💝