Paths Beyond Pain LLC
Crushing Chronic Conditions through the knowledge of science and the incredible role our emotions play in amplifying pain.
Ann Miller (she/her/hers)
Chronic Pain Consultant
For all sufferers of chronic conditions.
Special understanding of LGBTQ+ individuals
and their loved ones
Here is a podcast that discusses my recovery from decades of chronic symptoms, and the unexpected gifts of doing the mind/body work.
My Recovery Story
In July of 2017, I woke up one Saturday morning, rolled over and my back completely seized up, paralyzing my legs and torso. On a pain scale of one to ten, it was a twenty… worse than anything I had ever felt, including childbirth. I was terrified as I tried in vain to move or get up. I called my husband, barely able to talk from pain, telling him that I was paralyzed, that I might need the fire department or an ambulance and that this time, unlike all the other previous episodes of back pain, this time there would be no recovery. I knew that something critical had happened. I braced for surgery, or lifelong debilitation.
I was no stranger to pain. I had suffered from intermittent back pain since my early twenties, seeing this chiropractor or that one, knowing that my scoliosis probably would lead to “the chiropractic lifestyle.” In my early thirties, along with the back pain, I developed a stomach disorder that included painful bouts any time I ate anything other than completely clean food. In my forties and early fifties, I had the following diagnoses: fibromyalgia, chronic Lyme, mold allergies, migraines, Hashimoto’s, adrenal fatigue, TMJ, bite misalignment, L4-L5 compression, bulging disc, disc degeneration, leg length discrepancy, benign positional vertigo, phantosmia (smelling smoke when there is none) and my personal favorite…. not enough fatty deposits on the heels of my feet. Through the years, I had seen countless doctors and specialists. I had toured all routes to get out of pain including, muscle relaxers, anti-inflammatory meds, physical therapy, chiropractors beyond number, acupuncture, supplements, bite protectors, lifts in my shoe, countless apparatus for the back, special diets such as gluten free or anti-inflammatory, round after round of antibiotics (for the “Lyme”), sitting in hot saunas, head position exercises, traction devices, and TENS stimulation. So, when my back refused to work in July of 2017, it was simply the latest problem in what I considered to be my broken body, only far more serious than anything before.
What followed this nightmare of pain was another year of orthopedic visits, MRIs, and chiropractic care. I had pain every day, but it did recede enough for me to work and function. Because of the fibromyalgia and chronic Lyme symptoms, I had already reduced the expectations I had on my body and my life, including a variety of coping mechanisms, resting for a day after any strenuous social engagement or travel, avoiding certain kinds of chairs, beds, shoes, avoiding some exercises, doing others …the list was endless. Now with this severe back event, I took on only the most basic responsibilities, resting whenever possible during the day, and turning down all invitations for social gatherings because I just didn’t know if I’d feel well enough to attend. My small careful life became even more fear based and even more diminutive. Then in July 2018, I collapsed again, back to square one, and it was this event that led me to ask…why always in July? Was there something about July? This was a watershed moment for me because I could indeed admit that there were a few things about July that made me very sad. So, laying in bed, with nothing better to do, I googled “back pain with sadness.” Glory be! Turns out there is a huge link between sadness and pain, and anger and pain, and trauma and pain. My mind was opened. I was ready to learn.
Over the course of the summer of 2018, I read books, listened to podcasts, studied detailed scientific papers, and totally immersed myself in a possibility that I hadn’t considered before…that my pain was serving as a distraction for my mind in order to protect me from painful emotions. The pain was very much real, had always been real, God was it real, but the cause was not structural or dietary or a spirochete that evades antibiotic treatment or any of the many other causes that those well-meaning but mistaken specialists had told me. The pain was caused by my suppressed emotions and the neural pathways they activated.
I know, I know. It sounds crazy. I thought so, too. In fact, ten years previously, a physician I had seen for the fibromyalgia had recommended an antidepressant as treatment. I remember being highly offended, thinking she was not taking my affliction as “real,” looking her in the eye and saying, “This pain is not in my head. I am not in pain because I’m sad, I am sad because I am in pain.” Sigh. This attitude would cost me ten more years of needless suffering and I don’t even want to think about how much money! But “when the student is ready, the teacher appears,” and I was desperate enough in 2018 to open my mind. The concept that emotions can cause physical symptoms is backed up by solid, concrete science. Emotions can send danger signals to the amygdala which then activates our sympathetic nervous system, also known as our fight or flight response. This, in turn, electrifies all sorts of physical responses such as muscle tension, quick, shallow breathing, gastrointestinal constriction, blood flow constriction, and a whole host of chemical changes through neurotransmitters and hormones. These are the exact mechanisms at play when we blush. An emotion causes a physical response. Chronic suppression of emotions can evoke chronic danger signals to the amygdala creating conditioned pain responses via learned neural pathways. Our sympathetic nervous system operates automatically and subconsciously. This is helpful in the case of immediate danger like being chased by a bear; however, it turns out that our bodies are not great at figuring out whether the threat we face is immediate. As the sayings goes, “it’s better to assume the stick is a snake than the other way around.” Except that my poor body had assumed that every emotion that I deemed “unacceptable” was a snake in the grass…for years. And I had no real coping methods for activating the parasympathetic nervous system, that system of rest and repair. It was time to get to work.
My recovery out of chronic pain was uneven, irregular, and enlightening. For me it was a combination of journaling, meditation, and rerouting my neural pathways away from old pain pathways into new avenues. It was part excruciating emotional excavation and part epiphany. I entered this work fairly convinced that I knew myself well, knew that I was a calm and peaceful person, knew that I was good in a crisis and that I didn’t experience extremes in emotion. Somewhere in my quest to be “good” and “do good things” and have it all together, I lost myself and lost touch with all the glorious emotions that course through me minute by minute. (See further stories in the Blog section of this website) Recovery from chronic pain required me to suspend disbelief, to be willing to face the fear of my emotions and of my symptoms, to learn to send my brain messages of safety, and to change old patterns of thinking. I nibbled away at doing this work deliberately and with commitment. I also consulted with a mind/body coach along the way when I became stuck in my thinking. Happily, I physically began to feel better and better. I started exercising again, working longer hours, taking fewer times to lay down during the day, and began enjoying traveling again. Not only did my back pain ebb away, but so did all the chronic muscle pains, dizziness, and other bizarre symptoms that I had learned to just tolerate. The fear pain cycle was unraveling. Surprisingly, and as a bonus, I began to authentically heal old hurts and forgive old emotional wounds. It was tough, tough work, and I kept at it. Little by little, month by month, I gained my life back.
Today I am an active and joyful 58-year-old. I routinely walk five or more miles a day for the simple reason that I love it, I have excess energy, and I can. It’s not uncommon for me to break out in song as I walk, and I make no apologies to my neighbors who might overhear. I work at both this business and as a regional director for a national nonprofit that I care about deeply. I still journal regularly, feeling profoundly an array of emotions that are perfect just as they are. I meditate most every day, filling myself with compassion for the very real and flawed and beautiful human that I am. I love to sit on the floor and play with my grandson, to garden, to hike, to go boating, and I love to dance like no one is watching. My life is small no longer.
Here is my recovery story on a podcast. I talk in great length about the processes I personally used. Your path may differ.
On this podcast I discuss a bit about my recovery and more about my philosophy in healing and reclaiming your life no matter how long you've suffered from chronic symptoms.