The Thyroid Connection; A Felicitous Feline; Challenging the Pain of De feet.
As September of 2016 wore on I was making slow progress, with the help of the online self-management program awareness exercises. In particular, there was a short “letting go” practise I did daily. I’d listen to this recording mid-morning on my iphone, lying on my side in bed, soothed by the touch of cotton sheets and a duvet. A soft, clear woman’s voice drew the listener’s attention to thoughts and emotions as well as physical sensations. “Make space for inner peace,” she said. It was her patient, humble tone, as much as her words, that helped me relax. In addition, her American Eastern seaboard accent reminded me of my birthplace. The familiar was comforting.
After this body scan, I’d trundle into my office with a cup of decaf and a cookie to check email. Periodically I’d glance at Dr. John Sarno’s 12 self-talk reminders, which I’d pinned on the wall, another strand of my healing plan. “The pain is due to TMS, not structural issues.” Did I really believe that? I wasn’t even sure I had the condition he called “Tension Myositis Syndrome”, but I sure had a hell of a lot of tension. And after proving I could lower the pain with thought or emotion, I no longer believed that structural issues in my spine were causing most of my pain. Maybe they played some part, though.
On September 13th, I noted in my diary: “Pain much less today — mostly L glute.” I got so excited at feeling better that I forgot to pay attention to my body, tensed up and started to hurt. I’d always been excitable. But for over a year now I’d been getting wound up much more easily. All day long my thoughts raced and my mood rose and fell — not a lot, I didn’t believe I was turning bi-polar, but my emotional temperature was certainly fluctuating more rapidly than the gently waving limbic ride I usually experienced in a day.
What was going on?
A host of other odd symptoms had cropped up, too. At night I’d wake up numerous times, intensely irritated by a scorching dry heat. Hot flashes? It didn’t feel like that. At age 28, chemotherapy for Hodgkins Disease had played havoc with my hormones, and hot flashes, exhaustion and depression had been part and parcel of that picture. This was the opposite. My heart pounded and I felt jittery, speeded up, and vaguely robotic. Plus, every morning when I teetered out of bed my body felt as tight and sore as if I’d been climbing mountains all night. It looked like it, too. How could muscles be so taut, given so much time lying around in bed? And when had my glossy, wavy hair become so dry and limp?
One night, tossing the covers off in a fury around 4 a.m., I remembered something. Just over a year ago, my GP had put me on medication to correct a slightly slow thyroid. Had he run any tests since? I couldn’t remember.
Snatching my iphone, I Googled “thyroid symptoms”. Up came insomnia, heat intolerance, heart palpitations, muscle tension and dry hair.
Feeling foolish, shaken and relieved, I slid back under the covers. Was my year in Hell due to an undiagnosed thyroid problem?
“Yes,” my GP nodded solemly, “it could be your thyroid.”
“I already stopped taking Synthroid.”
He handed me a requistion for bloodwork, and as I walked out of the office I wanted to raise a fist in victory. Now, I’d soon go back to normal!
First, though, a trip to a lab off-island was required. This meant sitting in a car. Sitting scared me silly, because it increased the pain and tightness in my lower back. “I can’t stand it if my back goes out again!” I thought as I steeled myself for a gruelling journey.
My husband drove. He had an appointment for dental work, so we’d get the blood test done, then drive to his appointment. I could lie down in the back if the pain got really bad.
We made it to the lab. But as we returned to the car, the “clunk” sensations and spiky pain that had heralded previous back spasms began. We were facing a half an hour drive to the dentist.
“Pull over!” I ordered.
“Just do it!”
My husband wasn’t used to being bossed around in this imperious tone. Even I was shocked by how I sounded.
He stopped the car.
“Here’s what’s going to happen. You’re going to drop me at a motel. Then, you go to the dentist and pick me up afterwards.”
“Is that really what you want?”
I gritted my teeth to keep from exploding. I was just barely keeping it together. We paid for a minimum 24-hour stay at a motel, and after reassuring Joe I was okay, he drove off.
I was not okay. I couldn’t force my thoughts into any of the calming, reassuring places I’d trained them to go, and I felt my mind splinter, like a broken jigsaw puzzle.
Great. Now I was sick in the head as well as the body.
Never in my life had I felt so scared and out of control. I climbed into the bed in terror and sobbed. Releasing emotion could be soothing, so I turned on the TV and then the radio, but no song or movie could distract my thoughts from darkness and fear. Was this what people in psychiatric wards experienced? I felt an empathy and understanding for sufferers of nervous illness I’d never known before. I stuck my earbuds in and listened to body scans as I waited for Joe.
A few hours later he was back, looking to me like a veritable knight in shining armor. But as we drove to the ferry the anxiety ramped up and I borrowed a cellphone from a stranger in the ferry lineup to call our local drugstore. Would they ask my GP to prescribe Ativan? We could pick it up on our way home.
Only once had I ever requested a drug for anxiety. It was years ago, when I was doing a Bachelors program in Creative Writing. My story was due for workshopping — fair game for 16 sharp minds — and I was jittery with nerves as Joe and I sat down for lunch at a Greek deli. I ordered a decaf Greek coffee with my spanakopitta, but ten minutes later, as I climbed the stairs to the classroom, I started shaking and realized I’d just been given the equivalent of a triple espresso.
By midnight, still shaking, I asked Joe to phone my GP, who prescribed Ativan. It did wonders. The thought of that calming little pill got me through now as I lay in the back of the car, cuddling a stuffie and talking back to a sneering inner voice which said, “Shame on you!” and “Act your age!”
“I knew you weren’t the type to get addicted,” my GP said kindly. It was true, and though I longed for the relief of Ativan, after three pills in 24 hours, I stopped. At home, I knew I could manage.
The test results had come back normal.
However, the symptoms continued.
“When will they stop?” I asked.
The doctor shrugged. “They could go on for months.”
Okay. At least I had an answer. The repeated back spasms, anxiety, tension, the pounding heart and racing thoughts had all been caused by an overactive thyroid. Heck, I’d beat cancer! I could deal with a little thyroid problem.
Triumphantly, I emailed Neil Pearson, and all the other practitioners I’d seen since 2015, when the spasms began — two athletic therapists, a massage therapist, and a yoga teacher — and told them the pain was caused by a hyperthyroid condition which had made my muscles really tense.
Little did I know. There was a long road ahead.
One thing that helped me calm down, or rather, one of the creatures that helped, was our cat, Simone. We’d inherited this small black feline, complete with French name, from the previous owner of the house. She’d never let her inside, and we didn’t let her in either, as Joe was allergic. But she’d watch us through the glass doors in the kitchen, and at any moment in the day a furry face might pop above the bottom of the doors’ wooden frame and a paw appear, scratching at the glass.
I was a sucker for Simone. Four years ago, she’d been a powerful added incentive for me in our decision to buy the house. People who don’t like cats find this very funny. But not only did I fall for the cat, I knew that joy was very important for people in pain. Working with Pearson’s techniques in 2012, I’d learned how it released powerful endorphins and other mood-lifting chemicals into the bloodstream, opening what Australian pain physiotherapist David Butler calls our “natural medicine cabinet”, and I was bargaining that my love for Simone would eventually trump the pain of picking up twelve-pounds of purring kitty. If I could gather her into my arms repeatedly my back would get stronger and maybe it would stop hurting. The cat would help me recover from decades of upper back pain.
My gamble paid off. Months went by before I dared, but one day I bent down and scooped her up. My upper back felt like it was on fire, but it was worth it to have Simone drooling with happiness in my arms. Four years later, I could pick her up and feel no pain at all.
That pain had for the most part become a distant memory. Sometimes it would flare up but I knew how to make it calm down with self-talk, breathing and body awareness, and love — all the tools in Pearson’s kit. But now lower back spasms prevented me from picking up Simone.
I hated that I could no longer bend down to lift the cat. However, cats like to jump up on things and I could lift her off the barbeque she liked to sit on and stroll along the deck, enjoying the warm vibrations of her purr against my chest. Even when I was inside, the mere sight of Simone sitting on the barbeque, tail curling gently around her and eyes blinking sleepily — a sign of affection, it’s said — softened my heart, and my body began to relax. The cat was good medicine.
Stroking her fur, the way she put her paws around my neck and butted my chin affectionately when I held her, all this sent healing vibrations through my whole body. I’d always thought “good vibrations” was just a silly phrase popularized by The Beach Boys, but now, I knew it wasn’t.
Sometimes Joe — attentive to Simone’s comfort, but not a cat person — got exasperated when she scratched at the door.
“What does she want?” he’d grouse.
Occasionally when her food and water bowls were full and she was scratching at the door he’d open it, bend down, and ask: “What do you want? Eh?” It made me laugh. She wanted company, liked nothing better than sitting between the two of us on the sundeck, and whenever one of us went outside she stopped miaowing. But one day I looked at her reaching a paw up and thought, maybe she doesn’t want anything. Maybe she’s offering help. Animals know when people are in pain. In “Dewey”, a book about a famous library cat, the author tells how every week when a book group convened the cat would go directly to the one member of the group who was depressed, and jump up onto his lap, purring. I was sure Simone knew I needed to become comfort-able again, and that she could help.
After breakfast one morning I pulled out my notebook and jotted a reminder of three pillars of the Life is Now progam.
Need to do three things to heal:
- Aware of body
- Breathe calm
- Re-educate brain
What could I do to facilitate these healing steps?
I took a sip of juice and tapped my ballpoint pen rapidly against the table, until Joe looked up from his book with a frown and I realized what I was doing.
In a weird way, this was progress. For a long time, normal sounds — rock music for instance, at a volume I’d usually enjoy — had been getting on my nerves. (What did that actually mean, to “get on the nerves?” No doubt neuroscientists would find out, if they hadn’t already). Now, I could beat a tattoo with a pen without even noticing. Was my nervous system finally calming down?
I jotted a note in my journal: Sound less disturbing?
There I turned my attention back to the three pillars.
For body awareness, I scribbled: FEET.
As a child growing up in New Zealand, I’d gone barefoot. My brother and I even walked to school shoeless. That was normal in the pastoral suburb of Auckland where we lived, and even my teacher came to school barefoot. But when we moved to Canada, and into a 5th-floor apartment in Vancouver’s highrise-heavy West End, my parents enforced the wearing of shoes. I still went barefoot at home, though, until my husband and I moved into my mother’s downstairs suite in her final years, and I got plantar fascitis from the concrete floors.
Ballet made my feet even more sensitive and responsive. My husband was amazed when I said my feet were more sensitive than my hands, but I’d learned the world through my feet, and since I’d started wearing shoes all the time I knew I’d become disconnected in some vital way, ungrounded.
I slid my feet out of my crocs now and stood up. Closing my eyes, I tuned in. Why were my soles tensing so against the hardwood floor? The answer came immediately: FEAR! This was going to hurt! But it didn’t actually hurt to stand here for a moment, did it? How much was the fear of anticipated pain, exacerbating…or even, causing?…plantar fascitis.
And, how much was ANGER at losing that proprioceptive barefoot connection, intensifying the problem?
I stood on the ergonomic mat at the kitchen sink. Pressing the raised rubber bumps with my toes and heels, I enjoyed the gentle massage of fascia tissue, the enlivening proprioception. Slipping into a Life is Now awareness exercise, I checked my breathing: ragged. When I tried to lengthen the inhale, to slow it down, the unpleasant shuddering in my ribs made me stop. I checked in with my body, pressing the mat…oooh, that remembered alignment, as I found the plumb line that ran through ankle, calves, knees, thighs, hips…spine stretching upwards…ahhh, this felt so good! How long since I’d stretched my spine up tall?
What about emotional awareness? What did I feel? Nothing. Just, numb. I realized I was tensing my belly, keeping all emotions tightly held in.
As I let my belly go, anger flooded in. Urgh! All this time, wearing shoes, disconnected! What I’d sacrificed, standing on those concrete floors! While my mother had deserved my care and attention, and while I honestly couldn’t have had a better mother, and while I was proud I’d been able to be there for her, giving back a mere fraction of what she’d given me, my inner child was FURIOUS that to live in her house I’d subjected my feet to concrete floors that shouted harshly at my feet all day. Like fascists!
No wonder they called it plantar FASCITIS.
There was a deeper truth too, a worse kind of pain. The agony of seeing a tremendously strong, vital woman forced to slow down and finally bend to illness and death. My brother and I had formed a tight team with her GP, working together to convince her to to take more medicine or go to hospital when she proudly resisted. We’d kept her alive until she was ready to go, and still, I couldn’t let go. Part of the pain of DE FEET?
I vowed to start going barefoot again. I had a gut feeling that I could kick this plantar “fascist” now.
Back to my notebook and the three pillars.
Pressing the ground to connect with my body was going to be very successful.
Now, what about calming my breathing?
There was a powerful breath awareness technique Pearson used: to pay attention to the feeling of the breath entering and exiting the tip of the nostrils. That first touch of breath used to feel calming, and more — mystical and profound in some way. But now, when I tried it, I only got more tense.
But, wait. Only the left side of my body was tense. Ribs, lungs, shoulders, waist.
My left nostril was blocked, somewhere. I wasn’t taking in enough air through my left nostril.
In the past, if I made a discovery like this, I’d go running to a doctor and ask to have my nose checked. But my belief system was changing. Since I’d found out that what medical professionals had been telling me for decades — that structural issues were solely responsible for my pain — wasn’t true, I wasn’t inclined to go to my GP except in an emergency. I was done seeking medical attention every time I found something not quite right in my body. I’d just keep watching and see what I discovered.
That took care of item Number 2: feel breath at tip of nostrils.
I took another sip of juice. How to attack the third pillar: Re-educate brain?
The videos in the online self-management program about how the brain creates pain, and how it can stop it, would serve. Plus, I’d keep sending mental cues to my nervous system to calm down. “That’s an old story. You just got over-excited. Let go.”
Joe’s ipod was playing quietly, and as the Doors song “Break on Through” came on he started singing along: “Break on through to the other side, break on through…oh yeaaaaaah.”
I took off my Crocs and joined him, singing and gently dancing around the kitchen. Dancing! This was a bold, brave step, challenging the intense fear that moving would cause another spasm. As my feet pressed the floor, the pain — focused in my left hip at that moment — receded, and a wave of heat and energy flowed down my leg into my foot. What had just happened?
Still exhilirated thinking about this moment later, I scribbled in my journal: “Grounding!”
Something was happening. I didn’t know what it was, but moments like these convinced me to keep sticking to my healing program, no matter what.