bottles of drugsOfficial Warning: this second half of Spring Broke does not involve tea (apart from 549 occurrences of the letter “t”), which does not really cut it per the T Ching content criteria – NO I did NOT obsessively count them, I used an editing tool.  HOWEVER, despite its dearth of tea, it IS about the mind-body connection and it has been my experience that most of the folks who are into THAT are typically Tea Heads too…

So, to recap Part 1: horrendous back/kidney pain had sent me to the UCLA Emergency Room, but the hospital could find nothing remarkable except a mind-boggling cache of you-know-what that was sent on its way thanks to two cups of Traditional Medicinals Smooth Move tea – OK, I lied: there is ONE tea reference.

The next day I woke with the same back-stabbing pain, but this time I took a Vicodin and headed for my doctor’s office. She reviewed my test results, assured me that it was most probably just a stress-induced muscle spasm and told me I could safely resume a normal diet and stop deforesting the Sierras. I filled a prescription for muscle relaxants, bought a heating pad, and slunk home, feeling sheepish but happy in the knowledge that my memorial would not be filled with GI Jokes.

For two days I followed her advice and took it easy, but started to worry when I realized that the senna in the Smooth Move tea – DAMN, that’s TWICE I lied to you – was no match for the cloggy side effects of the muscle relaxants. Fortunately, that very same day, a good friend lent me her book on back pain: Healing Back Pain. I started reading it right away, committed to doing whatever stretches and exercises it demanded…Downward Barfing Dog, Upward Clawing Cat…ANYTHING to get rid of the back pain and avoid the C-word that the pills were promising.

But, SURPRISE! The book was not about strengthening my muscles; it was about the mind-body connection and the role that stress and fear can play in pain. Now, living in LaLa Land where only liposuction is more respected than experimental medicine, I am one of the last hold-out disciples of Western Medicine left. I openly eschew chiropractors, herbalists, acupuncturists, and all downward-facing doggerel – I am proud to say my chakras have NEVER been touched. I blame this on my heritage: I am 50% German, 75% techno-snob and 125% slightly prone to exaggeration. Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny are the only fantastical deities I ever worshipped, and I lost them at nine when I FINALLY finished my lengthy and exhaustive double blind study that proved they COULDN’T exist – HELLO, Geraldo Rivera would have interviewed them by now!

But my sneaky open-minded friend fooled me: the book she gave me was written by a bona fide physician, John E. Sarno, M.D., a professor of Clinical Rehabilitation Medicine at New York University School of Medicine and attending physician at New York University Medical Center, so I was suckered into the first few pages and before I knew it I had gone to The Dark Side…

Not only did Dr. Sarno’s description fit me exactly, but his many years of practice successfully treating pain at the Howard A. Rusk Institute of Rehabilitation Medicine warmed my Scientific Statistical Heart. His diagnosis: my pain was being caused by my brain – but not in an evil way, like in the movies where the brain has been stuck in a pickle jar and it wants to exact revenge upon humanity – but in a kind way: my brain was trying to protect me from emotional harm. I was a victim of Tension Myositis Syndrome (TMS).

I learned that the most likely candidates for TMS are Workaholic Perfectionist Overly Responsible NICE people.  We’re just like well-documented hard-driving Type A personalities, except without the business suit, hostility, and heart disease.  Where Type A’s ream you outright before they keel over clutching their chest, TMS victims are NIIIIIIICE.  As in …oh, mom, today you decided to fill your walker with glasses of water and mis-matching shoes….that’s NIIIIICE.

happy feeling stormy thoughtsUs Nice Folks spend a lot of energy repressing the anger that we righteously feel when the world – which is OUR responsibility, of course – does not go the way we planned.  Dr. Sarno’s thesis is that much of today’s unsolvable conditions that seem to have no physiological basis (migraines, back-aches, and much more) are a coping mechanism that our brain uses when it fears we are about to face an unhappy thought lurking in our subconscious.  Rather than let us suffer, it kicks into action and deprives a back muscle of oxygen or constricts a blood vessel and voila: when you are blinded by pain, who can worry about self-starving, weight-obsessed relatives, friends falling through the cracks of the fractured economy, and psycho-intestinal cats you wish would DIE (who knew Easter grass could pass whole through a cat’s body and STILL be able to stain carpeting)? All the way to the ER last Spring, all I could think about was ME ME ME and how much it hurt hurt HURT. On that day, since I was convinced something physical had gone terribly wrong, fear also came into play, cranking it up several notches.

And the solution? Simpler than you’d guess. Step #1 is Awareness.  Just noticing the man behind the curtain was enough for my pain to melt away the same day I read Dr. Sarno’s book – it’s short, and I’m a Workaholic, remember?  Step #2 is Collect Underpants – NO, WAIT: that’s a South Park episode – Step #2 is if awareness doesn’t pull the pain plug, which it does for most folks, then some psychotherapy may be needed.  The key is to recognize that you are repressing a Not Nice Thought (NNT) and that your pain has no physical basis.  In fact, if you thumb your nose at your brain and actually dwell on the NNT, it speeds your relief. I tried this technique and it really works, but don’t ask me to tell you what I imagined, ’cause it was SO NOT NICE…

So, maybe you are thinking that us TMS-ites are wackadoos (after all, I am a self-confessed tea-sweetener), but Dr. Sarno’s book was full of testimonials from many regular meat-and-potatoes folks; no Brangelina Groupies swilling decaf vanilla soy pomegranate nectar, laced with Activia tofu omega-3 boba beads – do yours get jammed up in your straw too?! – just regular folks in pain. The reaction from my friends and family ranged from polite to skeptical: “wow, that’s nice – can you please pass the french fries?”  And I swear I could hear actual scraping sounds as my engineer friend Mitch rolled his eyes and imagined me running off to the airport with daisies in my salmon-colored sarong – is it my fault I look good in that color…?

The only ones who really got it were my doctors and my lucky husband who had a front-row seat for the whole drama. My primary care doctor, from the Iris Cantor – UCLA Women’s Health Center, had never heard of Dr. Sarno, but she was immediately on-board with the mind-body diagnosis. My Wonderful Therapist who I would marry if I were gay – and stalk if she turned me down – shared even more Dr. Sarno techniques with me: for example, some folks need to journal every day to keep the pain at bay. And my budget-tracking husband is blown away by the money we’re now saving on pharmaceuticals – anyone out there in the market for a dusty Costco Keg o’Excedrin?

So, now that I am pain-free and unleashed – back pain and a lifetime of headaches GONE – I’ve set my Workaholic Perfectionist sights on My Troublesome Gut. What repressed anger is making my system move like a pre-Global Warming glacier? What subconscious angst is slowing my metabolism down and holding hostage my inner Audrey Hepburn? I am determined to find out!  Just think, this might be the first diet I go on that does NOT involve counting calories…

But I’m SURE it will still include tea.  LOTS of soothing tea.  Like the delicious English Breakfast tea I had this month during Elegant Afternoon Tea at the fancy Ritz-Carleton Hotel in Marina Del Rey. But that’s another story…