“We’re all just walking each other home.” – Ram Dass
“I think the only way to slow the pain down is for you to stop any activities where you have to extend your arms. No lifting, pulling or grasping. Anything. Not until the pain begins to diminish.”
My physiotherapist delivered the news to me after examining the neural tension in my arms. It was a stunning reversal from the previous two months of relative progress. I’d been putting into practice my new understanding of how my brain was influencing my body’s perception of pain. If I gave it what it needed – rest, attention to its demands, and avoiding added strain through activities that aggravated the damaged nerves – my brain would tone down the pain.
So I continued to sit down in the “Soft Kitty Chair” as an act of faith: if I more fully embraced ahimsa, the practice of kindness towards myself, I would find relief and hopefully healing. The extreme tradition of “tend and befriend” as embodied by Breathe into Motion (BIM) yoga was an entirely new concept to this German Mennonite workaholic. But there was no denying that the refinements that Mike introduced to my yoga exercise prescription were gently leading my brain and my body to a less painful place.
Until it didn’t. And I awoke one morning to an enormous jolt of stabbing pains, burning sensations and deep bone ache all over again. There was no identifiable cause for this reversal. It was an enormously strong episode of “breakthrough pain,” common to neuropathic injuries, where the nervous system once more becomes over run by pain signalling. There was nothing to be done, except to eliminate any more mechanisms of injury. And wait.
The oncologist put me back onto the testing circuit to rule out relapse. Over the course of the next few weeks, the results confirmed I was still in remission, and what we were seeing was the extent of the CIPN. My doctor wanted to return me to the previous medication regime, and I left her office with a new set of prescriptions.
As I endured the hike in symptoms, my mood darkened and descended into a state of near hopeless resignation. My husband took on almost all household tasks, offering all the support and encouragement he could muster. I sat in silent stillness. Once again, it felt like I was back on that ledge, overlooking an endless wasteland of empty years ahead, full of painful setbacks and the punishing struggle to carve out an existence. For the first time, I was tempted to quit: to give up, go back onto the opioid pain meds, and just lie down on the couch for the remaining years of my life. It was, perhaps, the most isolating and lonely chapter yet.
But I wasn’t alone. As my body began to reveal its deeply held secrets and show us the full extent of my injuries? My health care team embraced my suffering and poured all their creative problem solving and expertise into calming my nervous system. The physiotherapist saw me more frequently, coaching me about the latest research around chronic pain management. My massage therapist shifted her focus from my legs and feet, to my shoulders and arms, looking to release the neural tension that had become “guitar strings” pulling on my torso. Mike, for his part, began a renewed search for baseline and quickly modified my yoga exercise prescription. Any weight bearing activities involving my hands? Gone. Even holding a yoga strap aggravated me, so Mike found ways to modify poses so that I did not need to use my hands at all. I didn’t have the energy to balk, this time, as the pain was so all encompassing, so limiting, that I just wanted one thing – relief.
It meant more sitting. It meant witnessing my injuries with a clear, honest eye. It meant enduring more sadness, and seeing the full extent of life as a totally disabled person.
But it also meant this:
One day, when I was at my very lowest, I was struggling during meditation. Thoughts were racing through my head. In frustration, I gave up and opened my eyes. On either side of my chair, I found Mike, and another yoga teacher trainee, sitting on the floor beside me. Their presence was an outward sign of solidarity, acknowledging my suffering -but demonstrating I was not alone.
I knew, in that moment, that however harrowing this pathway, I could manage it. Each faltering step on my part, each loss and every teardrop of grief, was witnessed by a close circle of support. Every new challenge would be met with a new idea, or another tool to reduce the pain. In my darkest hour, I had been gifted with companions who could illuminate the path forward.
It was enough. I put the opioid prescription into the garbage, and decided that the Soft Kitty chair was my new home base. I would wait, patiently, for the tide to turn, trusting that eventually I’d be led away from my perch on the ledge above the wasteland.