The Origins of Pain
I saw a patient today who inspired me – let’s call her Sally. She suffers from a host of medical conditions that threaten to rob you of your mojo – fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, and chronic pelvic pain. When this young woman walked into my office, she looked like crap. Before looking at her chart, I thought she had cancer. Gaunt and pale, her skin hung on her skeleton like she was in the last grip of life. During the first half hour, she didn’t smile once. I felt the anxious tug we doctors feel when we see people like this, the one that says “I’m not going to be able to help this person,” which triggers insecurities and, often, judgments, in our own minds. It becomes about us, rather than being about them. We have a tendency to turn off because we don’t want to fail. But I vowed not to do this. Sitting in her presence, I was determined to be present for Sally and sit with whatever is true, rather than letting my own stuff get in the way.
What is true for Sally is that she has spent the last decade plagued by pain, fatigue, and a body that is betraying her. She has been to universities, fancy alternative medical clinics, and specialists. Someone told her that her condition is “incurable,” and somewhere, a while back, she decided to believe them. But she never gave up trying to be well.
When she came to see me for a gynecologic complaint, I heard her words, but what I saw in front of me told me that her condition was deeper than what her words betrayed. This was not about a pain in her pelvis, this was about a core wound. I listened while she talked about her pelvis, but I focused more energy on watching her, feeling her, being with her in the moment. What rang out loud and clear was this message: “I am not well.” And yet, I could see this glowing, radiant energy beneath the surface, a vision of a vibrant, vital being, leaping in the air and spinning with glee.
Unbidden, she began to tell me about her favorite place, a remote town near Santa Fe, where she owns a vacation house. She fantasizes about quitting her job, living there full time, and spending time with animals in some way. Currently, she owns her own business, selling software to help people maintain their gardens. She works until 2am many nights, finishing projects and meeting deadlines. A team of people bow to her leadership. Years ago, she gave birth to her company from a place of passion, but lately, she dreads everything about it. It has become her ball and chain, and she suspects it is related to her illness.
The Power to Heal
Last year, fed up with being sick, she considered quitting her job. She went as far as selling her primary residence, with the intention that she would live full time near Santa Fe. With money in the bank to help support her, she settled into a new life. And miraculously, her symptoms disappeared. For two whole months, she felt like a vibrant twenty year old, brimming with energy and vitality. She hiked every day, ate wholesome food, wrote in her journal, and meditated. “I did everything right,” she said. And her body rewarded her with new life.
Then her mother had a heart attack, and she left Santa Fe to return to California, where she is now caretaking her family. Because she is back in the area, she has resurrected her business. Within days of returning to her old life, her symptoms reappeared. She has been coming to our integrative medicine center almost weekly ever since. Her thick chart belies a series of supplements, laboratory tests, and referral letters that conclude, “There is nothing we can do.”
Yet, to me, seeing Sally for the first time, the answer is obvious. Her body has already told her what it needs to be healed. She needs to release the expectation she has placed on herself to care for her family. She needs to let go of her business. And she needs to move back to that small village near Santa Fe, where her body knows how to heal itself. Only I can’t say this to her. It is not my place to give advice. Advice implies that someone is broken — and nobody is broken.
Instead, I ask her, “What does your body need in order to get better?”
She says, “I need to find care for my mother, let go of my business, and move back to Santa Fe.”
When she says this, I see, for the first time of our visit, a faint smile. I ask her what she will do when she is there. She says, “Hike, ski, paint, play with my dog. Maybe start a new business, something related to animals.” Her smile widens. She begins to talk about the steps she would need to take in order to put this plan in place. Some steps she has already begun, as she has known intuitively what she needs to do. Within moments, she is grinning. I ask her how her pain feels in this present moment — right here, right now, and she says, “It’s gone.”
Then something shifts. A dark cloud wafts across her. She curls her shoulders inward. Her smile disappears. Her brow furrows. Sally says, “I can’t do this. And what’s the point? My doctor said there was no cure for my condition.”
Healed Versus Cured
I can’t help telling her the story of my father. Dad was diagnosed with a gigantic goomba of a brain tumor when I was 7 months pregnant. A body scan revealed that there was cancer everywhere. A biopsy confirmed metastatic melanoma, which comes with a near certain death sentence. My father, a physician who did his senior thesis on melanoma, knew the facts about his prognosis. So when he called me one morning at 4am to say that he had a vision and that God had come to him to tell him he had been healed, I groaned. “Oh no,” I thought. “The brain tumor is growing. He’s delusional. And he’s in denial.” I nodded and told Dad I was thrilled that he was healed, but I dreaded the repeat body scan that would tell him the truth. When the body scan showed that the tumors were growing, Dad got quiet. He didn’t speak of his vision again. My heart ached.
A month later, Dad failed to experience any of the expected symptoms of a gigantic brain tumor. He had no headaches, no seizures, no vomiting, no dementia. He was plain old Dad, only with a bald head from the whole brain radiation they gave him. So when Siena was born and Dad said, “Can I go now?” I wasn’t prepared. What did he mean, “go?” What exactly did he plan to do? Dad said he was going to quit eating and die a peaceful death. He wanted our permission. Reluctantly, we gave it.
Dad kissed us goodbye, and when I asked whether he was scared, Dad said, “I’m not scared. I’m joyful.” He kissed away our tears, closed his eyes, and died peacefully 48 hours later.
Only in retrospect did I learn a very important lesson — one that has fundamentally changed the way I practice medicine. I realized that, in spite of my skepticism, Dad had been healed – that there is difference between healing and curing. I always thought they were the same. Now, I realize that you can be healed without being cured, and you can be cured without being healed. I spent 12 years of medical education learning how to cure people, but no one once spoke to me about healing. In fact, we don’t even use the term “Healing” in reference to patients. We might talk about a healing wound, but a healing patient? Nah. Too woo-woo.
The Whole Picture
So when that doctor told Sally that she would never be cured, he failed to look at the whole picture. Yes, there may not be a drug she can take to rid herself of symptoms permanently. But I absolutely believe that she can be healed. Her body has already proven it to her. The power to heal lies within us all, if only we tap into it.