19 Jul Learned Patterns and Pathways
A few weeks ago, just after arriving at the beach for the 4th of July, I took a walk with my wife. My feet were hurting and I was feeling kind of achy so I stopped to rest a couple of times. I had just returned from a shoot in Detroit with Dr. Howard Schubiner who deals with mind-body illness. It was a bit of a grueling trip for me because I shot a lot. This explained some of the soreness, but I also wondered if there was something bothering me that I wasn’t fully aware of. A lot of the time, when my foot hurts, there’s something – or many things – that I’m not dealing with. I wasn’t consciously worried or upset about anything that I could connect to. I was stressed out about getting our film done, but that wasn’t new, and we were making progress so I was actually feeling pretty good about that. After our walk, we slipped into some warm tide pools and floated with our daughter and her friend. I jumped in the ocean very briefly, but there had been several shark bites in recent days so I didn’t spend long. By the time we got out to go inside, my hands were turning numb and I was shivering. The water was warm and the day was hot, so it was odd that I was so cold.
A couple of weeks earlier, we had filmed an interview with my brother about his bouts of psychosomatic illness. After struggling with “growing pains” in high school (i.e. leg cramps at night) he found his hands turning white, numb, and freezing to the touch when he went to the beach with friends just after we graduated from high school. He was told it was raynaud’s syndrome. Looking back he could easily see that the fear and uncertainty of his future probably played a large role at the time, and the problem disappeared when he got RSI (carpal tunnel syndrome) a few years later. My first thought was that I had “picked up” this symptom from our interview. In my interview with the doctor in Detroit, he had talked a bit about he often “got” symptoms that his patients had. Mindbody symptoms can be contagious. However, I realized that I was also starting to run a fever and that the soreness and chills were related to that. Still, I also understand that I am more likely to get this kind of cold when I an unconsciously stressed. I got a terrible MRSA infection about 10 years ago that almost killed me. I realized later that it was likely that the infection became so severe partly because we had a miscarriage at 3 and a half months, and I had not really dealt with my grief about that.
I took a warm shower and then took a short rest before dinner. It was July 4th, so I knew that I had to get up and see the fireworks with my daughter, but part of me just wanted to stay in bed. After dinner, we went to a roller rink. As I said, my feet had been bothering me, but I was determined not to let it stop me. I had a great time whipping around the old rink with my daughter. We then hit the beach for some fireworks. We didn’t see any organized ones, but our beach neighbors set off massive ones that we had to run away from. By 10 pm, my fever was starting to take off, so I went to bed while my wife put my daughter to sleep in another room.
Unfortunately, I did not sleep. I had a hot, dry fever that left me achy and uncomfortable. The real problem though was that my foot was gripped tight like a vice. It wasn’t exactly painful, but it was frustrating. My foot pain began about 12 years ago when my older daughter was just learning to walk. Each time she started to fall and possibly skin her knee, I would get a hot shot of adrenalin in both my stomach and my leg. It would often take my breath away for a moment. Even when she didn’t fall, I got the heat and the pain. This still happens to me whenever I see someone falling or almost getting hurt; I feel it directly in my gut and my leg. I thought about those moments this morning as I read an article about a neurologist who suffers from mirror-touch synesthesia, a condition in which he “feels” what his patients do. This gives him great insight into their condition, but it also means that he has to feel so much discomfort and pain. I don’t think that I have this condition, but this idea connected to how conscious I am of my children’s potential pain. Looking back, I can see that it was during this period that I developed the neural pain pathways that later came to haunt me. A couple of years later, I was playing basketball when my leg gave out. I hobbled to the side of the court and watched the rest of the game. The next day, I was able to walk, but my leg remained stiff and sore. I continued to struggle with pain and stiffness for many months. I see now that the pain and tightness were in the same place that I would get the adrenalin charge in my leg. At the time, I was shooting for weeks at a time in Florida, following cops as they searched for a serial rapist. I worked long hours in uncomfortable situations, and I just gutted it out through the pain. As it started with an “injury” at first I didn’t see it as being related to the kind of pain that Dr. Sarno talks about. However, when it persisted I began to re-read his book and focus on how my emotions might be affecting me.
It was about as stressful a time as could be imagined. I had a 10-month-old, I was out of town for weeks at a time shooting an unfunded doc, which put a strain on my relationship. At the same time, I was also struggling to distribute a film that I had worked on for years, as well as trying to figure out how to survive as a filmmaker. Over time, as my stress increased, the pain got worse. I knew about Dr. Sarno and how emotions were connected to pain, and I tried to deal with my pain by being conscious of my emotions, but it just kept getting worse. Within a couple of months, my stress had increased because I started working on another film and my wife and I stumbled in to buying a foreclosed vacation home. It was a deal that was too good to pass up, but we should have passed it up. While trying to fix it up I kept having to lay on the ground because the pain was so bad. After about two months of dealing with that house, I found myself stuck on the floor one morning. I was in incredible pain, unable to move even an inch without aggravating the situation. I was panicked. After getting an MRI and being told I needed surgery I finally went to see Dr. Sarno, and subsequently started making a film about him. He helped me to get better but my foot continued to be the backstop for my stress.
Back in my room at the beach, I tried meditating to get my foot to relax. The fever made me feel unsettled and it difficult to concentrate. Even then I thought about how the illness might be related to my stress and tried to do what I could to slow my racing thoughts. At about 3 am, I took some Advil, and a little while later my fever began to break. I fell asleep but woke up a short time later soaked in sweat. After changing my shirt, I fell back to sleep and awoke around 9 am a little weak but feeling better. I was still slightly feverish and my foot was still very tight. I was struck by how quickly my pain went to my foot when I got sick, because it usually happens when I am stressed out, and I was actually feeling quite calm and relaxed. I thought about the idea that when our system is stressed, stress will follow learned pathways – ever since I first saw my daughter fall, my stress has followed the same pain pathway.
That morning, I took a short walk on the beach and thought about my father. We were staying a few houses up from the hotel that my family often stayed at when I was a kid. When my father died, we spread some of his ashes at this beach. The night before my sister had texted me to ask me if I felt his presence at the beach. I thought that perhaps being at there had affected me in ways that I hadn’t realized, so despite my weakness, I set out on a walking meditation to try to connect to my feelings about my father.
He was hit by a car 9 years ago and died instantly. At the time, he had been retired for a few years and he was suffering from a lot from different pains and weaknesses. He never got a definitive diagnosis, but he was told that he might have rheumatoid arthritis or even ALS. He had symptoms of both of these conditions. The morning before he was hit by the car, he had been told that the yoga, exercise, and supplements he was taking didn’t seem to be helping his condition. I had not seen him since Thanksgiving, but my brother had seen him a few weeks earlier at Christmas, and he was really having trouble walking. He hated to be taken care of and the situation bothered him a lot.
My father was gregarious and loving. One of my strongest and most comforting memories is of floating on the waves while being held by him or holding on to his back like a little monkey. However, he could also set very high standards and often had expectations that were unreasonable. For example, he insisted that my brother and I both apply to Harvard because he had some kind of fantasy about a “twins scholarship”. I had no interest in going there and did not get in. My brother got in and went. My father and I clashed about what I planned to do with my life when I finished college. While he tried to be supportive of my need to make art, the lack of security that this path entailed worried him, and each weekend when we’d talk he’d end the conversation with the phrase, “Write when you get work.” It infuriated me because it was a not-so-subtle dig, and I let him know how much it bothered me, but he couldn’t seem to stop himself. A couple of years later, we tried to work on a book together dealing with the difficulties of transitioning between a parent/child relationship to a more peer-based, adult one. We never finished it, but we did get closer through the process.
When I met my future wife and we started to make films together, my father was very supportive and proud of our work. At the time that he died, our relationship was in a good place. Still, I know that on some level there are things that I need to work out in regards to our relationship, so that morning, imagining him there as I walked along the beach, I repeated the phrase, “I’m mad. I’m sad. I love you. I miss you.” I recorded it along with the waves so that I might be able to listen to it on repeat in the future. I know that I need to connect with all of the emotions. When he died, I was too busy taking care of everything – and everyone else – to really process my own feelings.
By the time that I got back to the house, my fever had started to kick back in so I went to sleep for a couple of hours. We were supposed to go home that evening, but I was a little too sick for the drive, and my daughter really wanted to stay with her friend, so my wife went back home to meet our other daughter. That night, I slept in fits and starts, every few hours my fever broke and I woke up bathed in sweat. I had not been that sick in years. The next day I felt a little bit better but it took the whole week to regain my strength. I know that some kind of bacteria or virus caused my illness, but I also know that how I handled stress both consciously and unconsciously affected the whole process.