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  • Brian Tohana

My Back Injury - Living with Chronic Pain


While trauma doesn’t have to be a big incident, I still vividly remember a “big incident” trauma that I still struggle with to this day.

I’m in grade 8 walking outside at recess on the soccer field when my friend runs up behind me. He launches himself onto my back playfully saying, Gimme a piggyback! Surprised, I stumble and fall. He lands on top of me.

I end up in the fetal position facing the ground, knees under my chest, my forearms pressing against the ground. He lands squatting on top of me, his hands pressing between my shoulder blades. His weight on me hurts. I turn my head to the right yelling up to him urgently, Get off, get off, get off!

He pushes down to get up with all of his weight between my shoulder blades, my back snaps, and I scream. “Bang!” the sound inside my body resonates like a gunshot. I feel my spine snap. I fall to my side crying out in agony still in the fetal position. Friends, other students, and a teacher run over. I’m surrounded so the teacher tells them to give me space.

I see myself from an aerial view. I’m at the south end of the soccer field at the edge of the 18-yard box. The rest is blurry. Eventually, I remember my mom coming and I was doubled over as we walked across the soccer field together.

I saw a chiropractor and my GP that day. I sat in one of the offices frozen, hunched over, shoulders up to my ears, my arms still bent close to me stuck in the fetal position. I could barely move. At some point in time, the shock in my body loosened and I didn’t complain of any pain, so I received no treatment.

Ten years later in 2010, I began to discover and unravel the physical and emotional trauma that I’d unknowingly let set like poured concrete. I had no awareness of the pain and trauma for those 10 years until one day in British Columbia I bent over to touch my toes. My hands were about one foot away from the ground. I figured, if I bent over for a short period of time every day, I would eventually touch the ground. Within 30 days I had my hands flat on the floor.

That was the beginning of my journey into my body to discover just how much pain I was in. It wasn’t really until 2014, four years after I bent over to touch my toes, that I really began to become aware that something was very “not okay” in my body. My body seemed to function normally on the outside, but on the inside, it felt mangled and broken. It was confusing to look in the mirror (and still is today) to see someone “okay” and smiling, but inside feel like I fell off a mountain.

Eventually, I learned to call what I felt in my body chronic pain as a way of trying to communicate what I felt. The “chronic pain” (I don’t think any label can quite describe it) forced me to pay attention to my body to try and relieve myself from the pain. It cultivated massive self-awareness (and continues to) because I’m constantly paying attention to my mind and body just to be comfortable. I didn’t know it at the time, but that incident set me off on a search for meaning, for something more in life beyond pain and suffering.

We all have different coping mechanisms for life’s traumas, and some are more socially acceptable than others. With my back injury and chronic pain, keeping busy is an easy escape from feeling the pain so I make a point to meditate every day. I try to be mindful of the intention with which I engage in all my actions. From my coaching clients to acquaintances, I hear all the time how we do things to make up for the fear that we are not worthy of love and belonging. For some it’s over-achieving. Some of the highest achievers I know do so consciously or unconsciously out of a desperate need to prove themselves to others. They don’t know who they are beyond what they do. Many were rewarded in childhood for their achievements – things they did, so in adulthood don’t know how to turn off operating from their I am what I do belief structure. They accomplish more than most, all the while are exhausted and feel empty inside. I catch myself leaning in this direction sometimes only because I’ve witnessed it in so many other people, it’s a little easier to see in myself. Others over-eat, over-exercise, over-read, binge-watch YouTube. Whether we overtly label something as good or bad, we can be addicted to anything.

Even if I had the hugs of one million people at the same time, who truly understood the pain I’m in sometimes, I’d still feel helpless, hopeless, and alone. While that might sound like an exaggeration it feels true. I know what it’s like to feel defeated, discouraged, and angry with chronic pain. I know what it’s like to feel like I want to leave this body, crawling out of my skin in agony. Sometimes I’m more angry than I am sad because it feels unnecessary, unfair, and inescapable.

The pain isn’t the worst part though, it’s that I don’t see any hope of it going away. That feeling of being stuck is terrible. Hopeless, helpless, powerless... stuck. Why go on? I’ve asked myself and I haven’t yet found a satisfying answer to that question. So, what keeps me going? Ending my life seems too easy and it just doesn’t feel true to me. When I check in with myself, I don’t actually want to die, I just want the pain to go away. My mind turns pain into suffering, making bad even worse. There’s something in me that, no matter how bad things get, I can’t deny, wants to live and is somehow untouched by the pain.

When people try to offer well-intentioned solutions, I feel insulted and hurt. Everyone thinks they have the next best cure, remedy, treatment, wisdom, Have you tried this? What about that? If I could just let it go I would. If I could just feel it fully I would. If I could just see how I’m unconsciously creating it, I’d stop. If I could just have compassion for myself, I would. I’ve spent thousands of hours and dollars over the past eight years trying to heal, feel, and resolve this pain psychologically, emotionally, spiritually, and physically. It’s been challenging to stay open to potential new options because with each new thing that doesn’t work it’s like getting punched in the gut. More time and more money down the drain. Am I making any progress? I’m not so sure, and that’s really tough.

Turn your wounds into wisdom. ― Oprah Winfrey

Resilience fascinates me. A human being’s ability to get punched in the gut over and over again and keep going astounds me. How? Why? I hear pain transforms us and gives meaning to life. For me, it’s definitely sent me on a search for meaning. In Man's Search for Meaning, Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl says, "Despair = Suffering minus Meaning."

Human history is full of examples of people thankful for who they became as a result of their pain and challenging experiences. It molds and shapes us like a blacksmith’s fire that makes metal malleable. Even if that’s true, knowing that doesn’t make the journey any easier.

At a SEEDS Leadership workshop, I participated in a forgiveness exercise where over 20 scenarios were read out like, If you’ve ever been abused or abused someone, step into the circle. If you’ve ever had an injury or experience chronic pain, step into the circle. We were a group of about 30 people, so two to 30 people would step into the circle at a time with each new forgiveness statement then find a partner and stand to face them. We took turns saying, I’m sorry that happened to you. To which the other person responded, Thank you.

We went through the scenarios twice, and on the second round, I stepped into the circle again, If you’ve ever had an injury or experience chronic pain, step into the circle. I stood in front of my partner, looked him in the eyes and before either of us uttered any words, I touched my pain. It was like some otherwise inaccessible part of my inner being had a finger touch it gently. I took a step forward, wrapped my arms around him and started wailing. That began an hour-long trauma release. He laid me down on the floor and my body twitched, convulsed, and spasmed as I screamed in agony as if volts of electricity were flying through me. It felt so good to feel the pain. It felt so good to grieve the loss of innocence of that little boy who had his back snapped that one day in the schoolyard so many years ago.

The workshop leader came and held a beautiful safe space for me. I witnessed my body flail on the ground uncontrollably as I offered myself words of compassion in my mind, You poor thing. I see you’re in pain. It’s okay. You poor thing. I see how hurt you are. It’s okay. I embraced myself from the inside out, holding myself with such love as the pain expressed itself. I could hear myself wailing from the depths of my being, as if my child had been murdered, some unthinkable, irreversible damage done.

This was just one of many times I found myself lying on the ground with my body shaking as Peter Levine describes trauma release in his books Waking the Tiger and In an Unspoken Voice. In addition to this forgiveness exercise, Somatic Experiencing, Shalom Mountain Retreat Center, and Breathwork have all been doorways to accessing the stuck emotions in my body.

The bodies of traumatized people portray "snapshots" of their unsuccessful attempts to defend themselves in the face of threat and injury. Trauma is a highly activated incomplete biological response to threat, frozen in time. For example, when we prepare to fight or to flee, muscles throughout our entire body are tensed in specific patterns of high energy readiness. When we are unable to complete the appropriate actions, we fail to discharge the tremendous energy generated by our survival preparations. This energy becomes fixed in specific patterns of neuromuscular readiness. The person then stays in a state of acute and then chronic arousal and dysfunction in the central nervous system. Traumatized people are not suffering from a disease in the normal sense of the word – they have become stuck in an aroused state. It is difficult if not impossible to function normally under these circumstances. - Peter A. Levine

I know what it’s like to want to escape. I’ve paced around my bedroom and house not knowing what to do. I’ve stuffed myself with food when I’m not hungry. I’ve bought things I don’t really need. I’ve watched Netflix just to distract my mind. I’ve grabbed my phone hundreds of times just to see if someone messaged me so that I could avoid being with myself. I’ve drunk alcohol to numb the pain. I’ve smoked weed to help relax my body and mind. I’ve gone on YouTube to consume information to make myself feel like I’m doing something worthwhile even though I know it’s just a way of coping with my feeling of helplessness. Meditation is often the last thing that I want to do even though I know it’s almost always what’s best for me.

While screaming into a pillow, somatic experiencing therapy, and support groups are great, I think meditation is the simplest and most powerful practice for learning to feel pain and be with difficult emotions. Meditation is the practice of being. It’s confusing for our mind because it’s too simple. If the ego stops doing, then it ceases to exist! Meditation is a great practice of acceptance, non-judgment, allowing what is, realizing the true nature of physical reality that it is impermanent, and being with feelings of craving and aversion without reacting to them. Meditation cultivates awareness which creates space to shift us from reaction to response.

We may deny that an event occurred, or we may act as though it was unimportant. For instance, when someone we love dies, or when we are injured or violated, we may act as though nothing has happened, because the emotions that come with truly acknowledging the situation are too painful. In addition, dissociation may be experienced as part of the body being disconnected or almost absent. Frequently, chronic pain represents a part of the body that has been dissociated. ― Peter A. Levine

We tend to fight negative emotions because they’re uncomfortable so we think we shouldn’t feel them. We only want to feel good emotions, so we try really hard to avoid, ignore, suppress, reframe, or fight the feelings we don’t want to feel. It’s okay to feel depressed or anxious. Those emotions don’t have to mean there’s something wrong with you. Learning to feel pain and be with difficult emotions is really about learning to be with discomfort and understanding that feelings aren’t meant to be fixed or overcome but felt.

In childhood, many of us learned that emotions like sadness, anger, frustration, confusion, and jealousy were bad. Our difficult emotions were labelled as negative and shut down, invalidated, judged as inappropriate, or made unwelcome. We learned to be good in order to get love, to be validated, and to belong. We were conditioned to express only the emotions others approved of.

It doesn’t matter what the emotion is – sadness, anger, frustration, confusion, jealousy – the way we move through negative emotions is by feeling them and accepting them. I’ve heard from others or thought to myself, many times, I thought I dealt with this already. I guess not because it’s here again, the emotion we haven’t felt, the aspect of ourselves we’ve suppressed waiting to be seen, heard, understood, valued, validated, loved, and welcomed.

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