From Chronic Pain to Quantum Leap

From Chronic Pain to Quantum Leap

Could long-term pain be more of a metaphysical compass than a debilitating curse?

  Campuhan Ridge Walk , Ubud, Bali.

Campuhan Ridge Walk, Ubud, Bali.

“The soul has no culture… no nations… no colour or accent or way of life. The soul is forever. The soul is one. And when the heart has its moment of truth and sorrow, the soul can’t be stilled… Some feelings sink so deep into the heart that only loneliness can help you find them again. Some truths about yourself are so painful that only shame can help you live with them. And some things are just so sad that only your soul can do the crying for you.”

~ Shantaram: A Novel by George David Roberts

Every waking, breathing moment of my life hurt, and then some. It had been that way for so long that I was beginning to forget what it felt like not to be in pain. Regardless of what task I was engaged in, even while I was trying to relax or sleep, that awful bitch called chronic pain was consistently tormenting me, and not a doctor or specialist for miles could convincingly explain why.

It finally dawned on me one morning—as I peeled myself out of bed after another sleepless, excruciating night—that if everything I did hurt than maybe it was time to change everything.

So I started making big plans for my grand exodus, what I’d later discover the Hindu’s call a “Quantum Leap.”

Merriam-Webster describes a Quantum Leap as “an abrupt change, sudden increase, or dramatic advance” while students of the yogic traditions have a more complex definition:

“This movement from one state of consciousness to another seems frequently to be characterized by two primary factors, one of acute inner tension and spiritual anguish followed by a sudden and often dramatic release or surrender of the personality to a higher aspect of consciousness.”

It took me years to fully wrap my head around it, but the following seemingly simple concept has since become the guiding principle on my chronic pain recovery journey:

My dis-ease and my pain is not a curse but is actually a beaconIt is a compass that will lead me towards the aspirations of my essential nature; to a more peaceful, authentic, healthy and fulfilling life.

But the big trick is, I have to LISTEN to it.

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 Panorama images of Bali, Indonesia from my first month of travel after my Quantum Leap. April, 2016.

Panorama images of Bali, Indonesia from my first month of travel after my Quantum Leap. April, 2016.

 

Getting real about the pain

“If your body is screaming in pain, whether the pain is muscular contractions, anxiety, depression, asthma or arthritis, a first step in releasing the pain may be making the connection between your body pain and the cause. ‘Beliefs are physical. A thought held long enough and repeated enough becomes a belief. The belief then becomes biology.’”

Marilyn Van Derbur, Author & Motivational Speaker

Before I could even begin to conceive of my Quantum Leap, I had to become willing to fully acknowledge the realities of my illness. This proved to be no easy or simple task, otherwise I wouldn’t have forced myself to push through extreme (and at times debilitating) levels of pain for seven brutalizing years before I finally called Uncle.

In the 12 step meeting rooms of Chronic Pain Anonymous, this process is described in the first step: “We admitted we were powerless over pain and illness—that our lives had become unmanageable.”

Like many other chronic pain patients, I had been doing my damndest to not only numb out the physical agony I was feeling all those grueling years, but I had also become a master of denial in order to mask the unbearable feelings of guilt, shame, sadness, anxiety, overwhelm and rage around the topic of my illness.

Compounding my capacity for denial, my condition was often challenged, ignored, dismissed or downplayed by others because I outwardly didn’t appear to look sick. Friends, family members, bosses and coworkers couldn’t see the havoc that was going on below the surface of my skin. Even if they could, many of them would have deliberately chosen not to see it because it’s difficult to watch someone you care about suffer. Sometimes even the medical practitioners, doctors, therapists and insurance providers I turned to for help would downplay or dismiss the existence of my pain.

The invisible, fluctuating, and mysterious nature of my long-term illness made it difficult to accept head-on. When I had periods of respite or dramatic decrease in pain, I was often not able to admit—to myself or to others—when the pain returned with a vengeance because the disappointment of another failed attempt to get well was too mentally excruciating for me to bear.

Learning to recognize that the pain was an undeniably destructive force in my life — that it was not some figment of my imagination and could not truthfully be dismissed as “not that bad”—was a serious, time-consuming challenge in itself. But I now see that I stood no chance of eradicating that pain if I wasn’t willing to get ruthlessly honest about it’s very real and persistent presence in my life first.

 

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 Hong Kong, April 2016.

Hong Kong, April 2016.

Taking my big leap

On March 30 of 2016, after months of deconstructing the life I’d built in San Francisco, I boarded my first one-way flight to Hong Kong before making my way to Bali, the notorious “healing island” of Indonesia. I was catapulting myself into a new mobile existence where the future felt overwhelmingly full of unknowns. As a high-strung control freak and perfectionist planner, all this was beyond unnerving.

I was categorically terrified.

I see now that the “acute inner tension” that had sent me packing was equal parts physical, psychological and spiritual. But at the time, my sole focus was on getting out of the state of constant bodily pain I’d been living in for the better part of a decade.

Seven years earlier (and a few months before my 26th birthday), I had been hit by my first agonizing flare up on the exact day that I landed my dream job at Pixar after a ten week internship with the animation studio. The pain was so ferocious that I could barely move my fingers to wrap them around the coveted job offer letter my boss handed me with a congratulatory smile that afternoon.

An hour later, the company nurse classified my condition as Repetitive Strain Injury or RSI, a “work related injury” associated with repetitive movements that’s characterized by a whole traveling circus of burning, stinging, aching, stabbing and seizing sensations. RSI is an umbrella term for any musculoskeletal pain disorder experienced in the upper body, such as tendinitis or Carpal Tunnel Syndrome––the condition my Grandfather developed after years hunched over the assembly line in a rubber factory.

The pain itself was excruciating, but I’d worked so hard to get there that I started feverishly constructing my own private forcefield of stubborn denial, refusing to accept the very crushing reality that my big career plans had been irreversibly thwarted before they even began.

After more than a dozen unsuccessful treatments, therapies and drug prescriptions, the doctor in charge of my Workers Compensation case told me that I was “permanently disabled” by age 28. As the subsequent years passed, I would leave Pixar for another gig in graphic design with big hopes of finding relief, but the pain levels and compounding health problems that ensued became more difficult to manage with the job change, not less.

By age 32 I found myself perpetually ill and consistently bedridden, my body pulsing with more overlapping pain and sickness than I’d ever experienced before. I was on the verge of applying for disability, had become dangerously depressed and was all too familiar with self-destructive and even suicidal thoughts.

Instead of hurling my broken body off the Golden Gate Bridge, I decided to put in my two weeks notice at work, my 30 days on my apartment lease and pull the plug on my Bay Area life to go vagabonding into the great unknownfor as long as it took to get better or go broke trying.

Despite how dejected, miserable and sick I had become since pulling off my own version of “The American Dream,” I wasn’t the foggiest bit aware of how everything I was doing in my adult life was tragically in misalignment with the wants, needs and desires of my core Self.

When I left for my “round-world-healing-tour” that foggy day in 2016, part of me arrogantly believed that a hard-working, successful person like me shouldn’t have to walk away from her career, country of origin and everything she’s ever known to get relief and answers about some crazy-making mysterious pain problem.

But as it turns out, that was exactly what I needed to do.

 

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 San Miguel de Allende, San Agustinillo and  Cliffside Villa  in Puerto Angel, Mexico in 2017.

San Miguel de Allende, San Agustinillo and Cliffside Villa in Puerto Angel, Mexico in 2017.

Reflections on my slow and steady compromise of Self

Somewhere along the line, I had completely lost track of my core belief system—of the foundational convictions that ought to have been guiding me through life all along. This kind of massive compromise of Self isn’t something that occurs overnight; it’s a masking and distortion of our inner truth that takes place gradually over the course of a lifetime.

Thus, dismantling the false-self was a long and formidable process.

Because I had strategically and ingeniously been lead so far from center, coming home to my inner truth required blunt force and an abrupt upheaval of identity. It was only then, after hitting rock bottom, that I could even begin the lengthy and strenuous task of unraveling all the ways I’d allowed the external world––my parents, friends, teachers, lovers and society at large––to convince me to become something that was intrinsically in conflict with my authentic, unadulterated essence.

Even as a child in elementary school, I had an unusual distaste for corporate emblems. While the kids at school all showed off trendy brand names clothing or shoes, I stubbornly refused to wear anything with a logo on it.

This aversion to glorified consumerism made sense given my upbringing. My family lineage was full of hunters, growers, sewers and do-it-yourselfers—people who truly lived by the mantra “waste not want not;” who prided themselves in living largely outside the retail sphere and being self-sufficient. The influence of my paradoxically liberal, working-class, environmentalist father made me fiercely skeptical of capitalism as a whole.

Flash forward two decades later and I somehow found myself working at an elite branding and package design firm in San Francisco, helping some of the biggest, most profitable corporations in the world to consume even more power, capital, influence and psychic space in our world.

At the time, I was so blinded by the glory and prestige of doing work for powerhouse brands like Coca-Cola, Oreo, Amazon, Visa and Johnson & Johnson that I willfully ignored the fact that I was helping to generate sophisticated persuasion tools of unhinged consumerism, what Noam Chomsky might classify as “economic exploitation.”

Enamored by the worldwide visibility of the work, I looked right past the fact that I was dedicating most of my days to hocking harmful products—highly processed foods, caffeinated sugary beverages, and some very unnatural health and beauty concoctions––products that I largely preferred to keep away from my own body because of their suspicious formulas.

But I was thinking more about my salary, my resume and my portfolio then the larger social, political and cultural context of the work I was generating, setting aside my moral and philosophical convictions so I could feed my bank account and my starving ego.

I had allowed myself to become a creative cog in the corporate manipulation machine that my inner child and my core Self had long been leery of. For years I continued to work for corporations where the company culture or underlying moral philosophies were severely off kilter for me.

I had forgotten that Mother Nature is by far the most sophisticated and superior package designer of all time. As my late Father taught me a decade before I’d ever even heard the term “graphic design,” the many fruits of Her creation come in their own thoughtfully designed peels and containers, each one a brilliant piece of art that returns to the earth to become the breeding ground for new life.

I see clearly now what I refused to acknowledge back then: that even my agency’s most clever, award-winning portfolio pieces were little more than well-designed pieces of trash, destined to clog up overflowing landfills, wash up on beaches and litter street corners around the planet.

 

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 Santorini and  Sounion  Greece, March 2018.

Santorini and Sounion Greece, March 2018.

I had gotten so caught up in proving who I wasn’t that I completely lost track of who I was.

In trying to prove that I was no longer the learning disabled little girl who got held back in elementary school, I had become a fiercely competitive academic and then a hoop jumping corporate career woman, hell bent on beating out others in society’s success game. In my attempts to prove that I wouldn’t become a “starving artist,” I traded in my paint brush and writer’s notebook for an Apple mouse, setting my sights on the more practical and in-demand occupation of graphic designer (a profession that was once more appropriately dubbed “commercial artist.”)

After grad school I put my copy of Naomi Klein’s No Logo high up on the shelf and began applying for jobs with some of the farthest reaching corporate brands on the planet. Flabbergasted with the flattery of receiving call-back messages from top-tier companies, I conveniently forgot what I had come to study and understand well in six years of higher education: that unfettered capitalism and global corporate dominance leads to environmental destruction and mass-scale human demoralization, all for the benefit of the few.

After I packed up and moved to San Francisco to launch my corporate career path in 2009, the compromises of Self continued.

To prove that I was more cultured and savvy than the small town tomboy I once was, I forced myself into an increasingly hectic, urban existence that my mind, body and soul unanimously despised. To convince others that I wasn’t a grieving, emotionally volatile, vulnerable and wounded individual, I often put on a brash, harsh exterior and regularly sedated my feelings with drugs and alcohol.

In my pursuit of material success and external validation––in living out the proverbial “someone else’s dreams”—I had managed to compromise everything that was once most sacred to me.

Outwardly I had possession of the things that contemporary society uses to measure accomplishment: a career and a job that people admired, a beautiful Bay Area apartment, a zippy car, a closet full of pretty clothes, a tufted headboard and an emersion blender. I continuously landed good-looking, financially successful long-term boyfriends (some of which even feigned interest in building a future with me) and I had a gaggle of fun girlfriends who joined me for periodical road trips and West Coast adventures.

But in spite of all that, I still felt unsatisfied and miserable (and deep down in my heart of hearts, I believe I would have felt this way even without the added insult of my chronic pain problems).

Although the drab realities of my Silicon Valley success story were far from gratifying, I clung to those original fantasies of happiness and prosperity with ruthless determination, steeping my pain and disappointment in pain killers and denial for the better part of a decade. The feverish process of continuously ignoring and denying the wishes of my true Self, combined with my mounting list of physical ailments, left me so hallowed out and ruined that I almost didn’t make it out alive.

Despite the rosy outward appearance I projected onto my Facebook feed, the universe had painted me into a corner so bleak that I almost had no choice but to walk away from my corporate-career-woman identity in search of a completely new existence.

And for that I’m forever grateful.

 

The alchemical antidote to chronic, inexplicable illness

Despite what much of Western medicine might tell us, I’m pretty sure there’s no “either, or” when it comes to chronic pain. While I’ve come to fiercely believe that there is a direct link between habitual pain and unresolved trauma, the cause isn’t likely just physical, or just mental/emotional either. I think that there’s a whole gamut of psychological, environmental, biological, neurological, and even metaphysical reasons why these conditions show up in a particular person.

But my experiences over the course of the last two years, and my inner intuition, has told me that the broader, ultimate antidote for my chronic illness is in finding the courage to be ruthlessly honest with myself.

As I anchored deeper into my core Self, at times it felt like I was being called to be the tight rope walker of my own existence. A friend once told me “When you embrace the dreams around you in the same way as the thread under your feet, then you are a wire walker.”

I realized that in order to regain control of my life and my chronic pain afflictions, I had to become willing to completely recalibrate my inner and outer world, and I had to forgive myself for straying so far from the life of my soul’s true desires.

This reconnection to authentic Self has led me to scrap my career and take on the life of a long-term traveler, to revolutionize my eating and purchasing habits, to upend and restrategize all my daily customs and routines, to experiment with a whole host of alternative therapies and plant medicine ceremonies, to reconnect with nature and my long-buried spiritual side and to undergo a lengthy period of solitary, self-reflection time.

But the hard work and change-making didn’t stop there.

 

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 Images from my road trip around Iceland, 2016.

Images from my road trip around Iceland, 2016.

Beyond the launch pad of my Quantum Leap

Finding the courage to take that inaugural Leap was a pivotal point in my healing process, but it was only the beginning of a much longer, wholistic expedition in recovery. Then I had to re-learn and continue to perfect the art form of self-honoring with more grace and sophistication––a challenge I continue to accept each and every day I wake up.

The Leap wasn’t some free-fall into a random alternate reality, it required me to tune in to my intuition and follow it consciously, then respond to all the new challenges that inevitably arose when I started to authentically honor my Truth. It required me to develop a deeper sense of love, trust, faith, compassion, forgiveness and respect for not only myself, but all my fellow man, my planet and whatever semblance of a higher power that resonated most with me.

The Balinese Hindu’s believe that the way to achieve ultimate prosperity is through paying homage to three “causes of well-being” in equal harmony (what they call the Tri Hita Karana.) They consistently work to honor and balance: 1) their connection to humanity (in relation to both the self and the other), 2) their relationship with the environment (and their natural surroundings) and 3) their union with God (and their sense of spirituality.) They subscribe to the idea that if a person maintains equilibrium between all three pillars of this trinity, then they are destined to thrive and experience good health and happiness throughout their lives.

I had essentially lived in a state of prologued spiritual disconnect since my adolescence, therefor tuning in to the wishes of my authentic, spiritually-centered Self turned out to be a very long and strenuous process. It took a solid year before I found my foundational equilibrium, allowing the bulk of my chronic pain symptoms to finally lift. The whole experience was like undergoing a long-distance metaphysical obstacle course that was packed full of both big and small personal metamorphoses.

Beyond that initial launch pad—where I finally catapulted myself into a existential reset operation of my own design—I embarked on a long voyage of uncomfortable tasks and jarring solo missions. My core Self demanded things that my ego-mind, or false-self, had adamantly convinced me to avoid my whole life long.

I had to develop trust in my inner truth and eventually regained faith in my higher power, who told me that this rocky expedition in healing would eventually lead me to a much more peaceful home within myself.

All of which turned out to be true.

I now live a fairly pain-free existence, though I no longer strive for total painlessness. My RSI symptoms come out of remission once every few months when I stray from center and take something on that’s in misalignment with my core, or when I attempt to suppress emotions and thoughts that need to be aired.

I have since learned how to tune into the pain, listen to and honor what it wants of me, and have developed a meditation practice that usually eliminates all my symptoms within a few hours of flare up, without the use of drugs (a process I will describe in greater detail in a future blog post).

 

Finding communion in our common plight

I would love to say that in the process of ruthlessly searching the world over for answers to my own health problems, I’ve stumbled upon the basic blueprint for chronic pain recovery. At times I’ve fantasized about introducing myself to the world as a healing-work expert or guru; a wealth of pain recovery information who can lead anyone to a lasting cure with a short-list of easy to follow steps.

But in the past two years of battling my own dis-ease head-on, I’ve learned enough to know that such sentiments—no matter how well intended or how desperate people are to hear them—are little more than the fictional constructs of my own success-hungry ego.

More importantly, the idea that anyone else—a doctor, healer, specialist, lover or fellow traveler—can miraculously transform a mentally, spiritually and physically suffering individual into a state of painlessness is a bold-faced lie with dangerous implications.

While I plan to share as much as I humanly can about my worldwide healing experiments, both on my blog and in the memoir I’m working on, I won’t claim to have done the footwork for anyone else.

Healing work is not a “one-size-fits-all” enterprise. Even if the list of symptoms for two people sound eerily identical to one another’s, the treatments, methods, and recovery strategies that were most effective in one person’s fight against chronic pain may not produce the same results for another. All I can do is share my perspectives and experiences and have faith that they will provide a bit of guiding light for my chronic pain peers; people who are too-often stranded in a world of darkness with little hope or direction to help liberate themselves from suffering.

To survive the grueling obstacle course that lies ahead in any healing journey, having loving, compassionate voices that can provide us with support and encouragement along the way is a definite bonus. But I believe we each must essentially go it alone and take our recovery into our own hands, no matter how badly our hands may ache.

In my own healing journey, “the other” has provided me with valuable inspiration and direction. But in the end I discovered that no one else could rid me of my pain. Not even God could do the groundwork for me. My creator—or my higher power that I now refer to as “Mother-Father God”—can only provide me with a gentle and often times cryptic nudge in the right direction.

The rest was (and still is) unequivocally up to me.

 

 

A freelance designerphotographer, and writer, Cassandra Smolcic pulls inspiration and insight from an eclectic assortment of experiences and global backdrops. Her writing about health, travel, metaphysics and culture can be found on Medium and you can follow her travel images on Istagram @cassandra.smolcic. Cassandra is also the founder of the Chronic Pain Recovery Resources group on Facebook.

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