I grew up in a haunted house with a parent disabled, possessed and ultimately devoured alive by chronic physical pain. One day, Pain, an occasional intrusive visitor, burst its way in, and never ever left. Pain sat with us at the dinner table, rode with us in the car, spent sleepless night in front of the television reclining in barca-lounger, or in a home hospital bed manipulated by magic buttons. Pain spent up all of our financial resources, taught us to walk on eggshells, pressured us to forgive all outbursts and unreason, and garnered the tongue-clicking pity of the neighbors. Eventually, Pain blocked all obvious pathways to warmth, comfort and connection, as cold and dark as a cloud blocking the sun. It took up more and more and more space each passing year – until there was no room for anyone to live with it at all, until there was barely room to move or breathe.
All of us were so used to Pain and the daily incantation of its horror-litany that we grew to hate its oppressive presence. We hardened our hearts, and had no empathy or patience left for it. We were sick of its specter, and sick of its name. We surrendered to its power as it disabled us all. Pain sucked everyone dry, and left nothing behind.
Pain runs in families.
I had my first migraine at age 7. By adolescence it was typical for me to become blind-sick, with an invisible hot metal spike in my eye and throbbing skull, nauseated or vomiting before and after any high-stakes event: A big test, an audition for the school play, a nervous first date, or at the mall choosing matching his and her outfits for the high school dance.
Through young adulthood I was sick more often than not: 18-20 violent, nauseating migraines a month.
In Pain’s clutches there is no room for anything else, no comfort, no connection, no conversation. It hurts to talk, to open my eyes, to listen, to breathe. Clothes hurt, light hurts, sounds hurt, smells hurt, the throbbing of my heart beat hurts. There is nothing but Pain.
But more often than not, Pain would pack its bags and slip away before morning, like a one night stand – as if it had never been there at all. I was ready to start the day as if I had not spent the previous 24 or 48 hours nauseated, throwing up, dozing in-between waves of pain on the cool tile of the bathroom floor, the street light burning through my eyelids as it seeped in under the crack of the closed door.
I was actually getting off easy compared to what I knew Pain was capable of. I was able to have friends, to work, to fall in love and sustain a relationship, (although early in our relationship my now husband worried that I had bulimia because of my constant nocturnal nausea). I could read, play, study, live as long as I did it in between headaches.
No doctor ever asked about it. If I did mention that I thought I might have migraines, they responded that it was common and suggested that I try some product over the counter.
I assumed it was normal. It was how it always had been for me.
At 30, my first social work position, required me to have an employee physical. The agency MD noticed I had ticked the “headaches” box and conducted an earnest assessment.
“Eighteen to twenty a month!” she exclaimed. “And you’ve never had any treatment?!?”
Treatment? What are you talking about? What for?
“Most people do not spend 20 nights each month in severe pain throwing up in the dark!”
The new fangled medication she prescribed for me twenty years ago to spray up my nose made me throw up immediately. I decided on the spot that medical treatment was ridiculous if this was the best they had to offer. I deepened my mediation practice, sought out acupuncture, took Feverfew, B supplement, magnesium, yoga practice, Qi gong, Food eliminations. I reduced my migraine load to 9-12 a month.
I thought it was a miracle. I felt cured.
Better than I had ever hoped for.
The only time I saw my condition in the popular culture was in old re-runs of my favorite sitcom from childhood. “Frank, take me home, I have a sick headache!” Darren Steven’s overwhelmed mother would whine, the back of her hand pressed dramatically to her forehead after Samantha and Esmarelda had let their magic loose in her presence. Like the Bewitched script writers, I associated migraine disease with weakness, manipulation, psychosomatic illness.
So I had headaches a lot. There were hundreds pain reliever/headache commercials on TV. Other people could cope it seemed, why not me?
Early in my practice, I could get through most of my work hours. A couple of times a month, I would excuse myself from session, to be sick, and then return to the client and resume the work.
Like a cat hiding its symptoms, I’d sit in session, grateful to focus on the client’s narrative instead of the mounting pain, the excruciatingly searing light emitting from the 60 watt light bulbs, the hypersensitivity to the smell of the therapist’s perfume in the adjoining office.
A few times a month I would have to cancel out and reschedule my day all together. My therapist never did this. Never once in over a decade together had he cancelled out at the last minute due to illness. I did it regularly. For years I was ashamed to admit to my clients what had kept me out of the office. I fobbed it off on flu, tummy bugs, bad colds, “coming down with something” I worried about treatments disrupted, the precarious appearance of my emotional fortitude and reliability as I teetered on the brink of disability:
“I feel another sick-headache coming on Take me home Frank!”
The rare but most shameful moments occurred when I couldn’t/can’t make it through a session. The session begins with a manageable amount of low-grade pain, which suddenly escalates, or an intrusive visual aura partially blinds me letting me know I am mere minutes away from Pain’s explosive arrival, and I need to stop suddenly.
Pain has cut clients off mid-thought, when I realize that the line has been crossed between manageable Pain, and Pain that has possessed me:
“I am so very sorry, I need to stop. I get severe migraines, and I can’t always predict when they will strike. I’m so so sorry to leave you hanging like this – but I think the most responsible thing for me to do now is stop. I hope we can reschedule, and I won’t charge you for this session, or the next one so we can talk about what this leaves you with.”
The client looks stricken, worried, fearful that they caused my headache. They rush out gathering their things and offering well wishes over their shoulder. I cannot get their distressed faces out of my mind or shake the guilt of having abandoned them as I sit, face buried in my hands, slumped and Pain-drunk on the long, smelly, flickering-florescent subway ride home.
When it cracks and I am myself again, I send a note, letting them know I am all right and not to worry – and schedule a time to talk about what happened, what it was like to see me vulnerable, to feel abandoned, what it activates from their past, and how it changes our dynamic going forward.
It took a long time for me to figure out, on my own, that certain clients, in certain self-states, could communicate to me through a migraine – that Pain could sometimes serve as a somatic countertransference, surfacing latent content in the session.
One man, kind, charming, intelligent talented, and highly anxious left me puking into my wastepaper basket immediately after session, several weeks in a row. I monitored my food triggers- no obvious culprit. I changed his session time – to the early afternoon, to the first session of the day – still it continued. I enjoyed him, cared about him, felt touched by his struggles, and courage. Yet, somehow, unconsciously, he was making me sick. Others wondered if I should keep working with him, but had no impulse to abandon him – I was used to this. When the anxiety, illness and chaos that he was struggling to repress finally erupted into a psychotic/depressive break, my somatic countertransferential symptoms disappeared entirely and forever, and we went on to work together for many years, forming a deep and treasured therapeutic alliance.
I don’t know if I have more clients with chronic pain conditions than other therapists, if I assess for it more, or if its manifestations sit with me more intensely.
I have clients who live through, with, and in spite of pain far more severe and disabling than mine: chronic cluster headaches, spinal injury, chronic severe nerve pain, endomitriosis, permanently disabling bone injuries, fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory diseases, autoimmune illness.
Am I therapist that is “good with” pain related issues?
There is no easy answer to how well therapists treat cases that activate our core conflicts. I suspect that I am simultaneously my best, and my worst with these cases.
I’ve seen clients, spend years, even decades like myself, ignoring, denying, hiding, carrying on, prematurely resigned, certain that their pain load, as excruciating, untreated, and disabling as it is, is immutable.
I have seen Pain annihilate people, drive them into a permanent haze of narcotic dependency and abuse, make them wish they were dead, or drive them to consider killing themselves to escape.
I’ve watched Pain eat relationships alive and suck their bones. It destroys by obliterating our ability to experience other people or even one’s own Self. At its worst, it doesn’t permit the experience of anything other than Pain itself.
I’ve also watched people move into states of conscious acceptance that Pain is permanent, and unescapable, and sometimes through that surrender, they discover how to survive and thrive.
When I sit with clients trapped in its jaws, I am terrified it will chew them up slowly, in front of me. My office transforms into the haunted house of my past. My own brushes with a near disabling pain condition rears its head. My demon-pain-fears, past and present whisper in my ears, terrorizing me.
These are the most harrowing countertransferences that I face. Yet, cognitively, I know that everyone one will and must forge their own, unique relationship with Pain.
There have been times I have chosen to disclose my circumstance, in order recuse myself from the illusion of objectivity, and allow my client to protect themselves from my own Pain-fear. A decade ago, a young client with chronic pain (who I had seen for many years for other issues) contemplated a surgical intervention that I was too tragically familiar with from my family history.
“Listen: I know that this is a very important decision and I want to support you in making whatever choice you feel you need to make for yourself. But, I have to let you know, it will be very hard over the next few months for me to separate my own experiences with this procedure from our discussion. I had a family member who had this very same procedure many times, with increasingly bad outcomes each time. I know that this is not objective data – that I am drawing on a sample of one, and it offers no statistical significance to help you figure out what you need to do. I have seen only the worst outcomes, not the best. So, that being said: I plan on doing my best to support you through this – but I need you to know that I hold biases that are specific to me – and if it ever feels like it’s getting in the way of hearing your own reason and intuition about this, please, I’ll need you call me out on it. If you see me very uncomfortable or looking fearful or worried, I just want you to be clear that it is about my history – and not about my approval or disapproval of your decision.”
The client ultimately chose to go ahead with the surgery, and we were able to stay close and connected through the pre-operative period, the surgery, the recovery and its aftermath.
And there are times that calling out my client’s Pain-blind-spots have helped me to see my own.
After years of feeling that I was functioning “well enough” with my 9 to 12 incapacitating headache days a month, my cancelled/rescheduled sessions, and my wellness practices – I heard myself confronting a chronic pain client on his resignation and encouraging him to find a reputable pain clinic that offered real treatment – not just narcotic pain medications.
“Your anger and fear that the pain will never go away entirely, are blocking you from exploring any avenue that could reduce your pain, and give you more of your life back!”
And then I thought to myself:
Ah yes, well then. Pots calling kettles, physicians healing themselves, doses of my own medicine and all that…
I googled “NYC headache specialists neurology” immediately after the session. I’d had chronic migraines since childhood. I was now over 40. I had never seen a neurologist in my life.
Two things had changed that made those 9-12 sick days or nights no longer acceptable. I began waking up ambushed by Pain in the morning. It snuck in as I slept – and it was staying longer – sometimes for days consecutively – violating all rules of migraine-hood as I knew them.
And I had become a parent.
A baby sleeping on you while you are in a Pain-stupor can be sweet and comforting. Trying to get two toddlers out of wet bathing suits, and diaper-changed under bright lighting in a noisy, crowded locker room after baby swim classes half-blind, in level 8 pain, and throwing up in garbage cans on the street while pushing a double stroller home is a nightmare.
I heard myself begging my kids to “be good” to “be quiet” because Mommy’s head hurt very badly. I heard the irritation and exhaustion in my voice 9-12 days and evenings out of the month as I scattered eggshells on the floor for them to walk on. I heard my kids ask, when they didn’t see me: “Is mommy throwing up again?” and watched them play Family: “I’ll be the mommy and lay down in a dark room!” I heard the voices and whispers that had haunted the house of my childhood. It now seemed a terrifying and real possibility that it could all happen again.
I found an excellent neurologist. With some trepidation, I went forward to try Botox – which paralyzes my scalp and back of my neck. (The standard protocol is to do the forehead and brow muscles too – which I opt out of. Being able to look worried, furrow my eyebrows and lift them happy surprise is three quarters of what is required of me professionally. )
Botox brought incredible relief -(and I have a very youthful scalp!) the number of headaches were not reduced, the severity was: no more nausea, and Pain took up much less square footage. I still had the accompanying neurological symptoms: occasional aura and visual distortions, agitation and irritability, light, sound and smell sensitivity, fatigue, dry mouth, word-loss, garbled speech.
Over time, I added preventative medication, as well as the medication needed to stop a migraine in its tracks. I still eat medicinally and mindfully, practice meditation, and martial arts based energy work, I still use natural remedies whenever possible, take supplements to support neurovascular health, and draw on the support of alternative medicines. My migraine load, for the past four years or so is down to 4-6 a month. For now. Some months I am entirely migraine free. I haven’t missed whole days of work, and only occasionally need to cancel a late night session.
My journey has been from alternative and wellness modalities, to deepening my use of allopathic support. I have had many clients who have traveled the opposite path – traditional western medicine maxed out its offerings, or proved to be harmful or useless and engaging in alternative methods of treatment and self-care and wellness has been able to carry them farther.
Three years ago, Pain reared up and threatened to consume yet another client, with no prior warning, in the form of chronic cluster headaches – which bring with them some of the most severe, acute physical pain that human beings can endure. For a full year I watched a woman I cared about being sadistically, demonically tortured by Pain at its most hateful, explosive and destructive. Neither of us knew that she would survive if or if Pain could be successfully controlled. My own fears surely led me to make many errors. There were times as I watched her collapsing, her sense of self slipping away that I flailed and clutched too tightly, acted out my agitated panic, and probably compounding her sudden violent disability with my own urgencies. I could not sit at a distance, with naive certainty that “everything would get better.” I was not able to be inherently calm or soothing. I was afraid with her.
Was that what was needed? It was frankly all that I had to give. I knew what it was to be neurologically altered, to be unable to think clearly, to post-traumatically avoid any potential trigger, to have my senses Pain-distorted and to be surrounded by Pain on all sides. I knew how cold it could be when the Pain-cloud blocked out the sun. I don’t know how she or I could have gotten through that year together if Pain hadn’t taught me how to stay with her.
It was an unfathomably brutal and traumatizing year for her before the cycle cracked – and a year that made me re-encounter all of my own worst fears on a near daily basis in and out of the office.
But even as it was happening, and certainly once her pain was finally controlled, I was extraordinarily grateful to be reminded of what my relationship to Pain was good for.
Pain becomes bearable, meaningful only when we can discover how to make it of use.
Pain can sever relatedness, but it can also blast open a portal to connection. It reminds us of our own vulnerability, our mortality, and our powerlessness as an inherent aspect of our humanity. Pain can teach us how to be tender to others, and can lay a foundation for empathy, and intimacy to flourish.
Several months ago, my son, to whom I am not biologically related, developed recognizable symptoms: His coat hood pulled over his face, his thumb inserted into his left eye-socket – he complained that the subway lights would make him throw up, and retreated to a dark room to sleep two or three afternoons a week, sometimes missing school off and on for several months.
I knew what to do. We eliminated common food triggers, found him an acupuncturist, and pediatric neurologist headache specialist to confirm the diagnosis.
“Common conditions are common” the headache specialist said when I enquired about the nature/nurture questions that live in the heart of all adoptive families. “But because you have migraines, you were able to identify it quickly and get him care. Many kids go for years and years, or through their entire lives, without ever knowing what is happening to them or that there is help available.”
Don’t I know it.
Pain’s bestows the capacity to recognize its presence and to be moved to alleviate it in others.
Pain can destroy, no doubt. I still sometimes hate its guts and it can still scare the shit out of me.
But I’ve grown to also feel grateful for its dark gifts, and surrender to its teachings, as it has guided me, and others, toward unfamiliar routes to connection, relationship and love.
Last week, I had a whopper. My son, curled up with me, and began rubbing my head.
“Right there, right Mommy?” he clucked. “That’s the worst spot, I know. Don’t worry, you don’t have to explain. I know just exactly where it hurts…”
copyright © 2013 All rights reserved Martha Crawford