02 Apr Melissa’s Dr Sarno Story
I will be 55 years old in a few weeks. White. Jewish. Grew up in Queens, then Long Island. Attended SUNY at Albany and received my J.D. from Fordham University School of Law. Moved to Westchester County, NY in 1994 with my husband, and I am a mother of two children; my daughter is almost 25 and my son is 22.
I am an only child. My parents were chain cigarette smokers. Growing up in Queens, we owned a small dog. I had asthma as a child, but the dog did not seem to set me off. Despite my asthma, my parents never quit smoking; in fact, they smoked in the house and in their cars in my presence with the windows closed. Other people’s dogs and cats made me wheeze. Interestingly, when I did not want to be somewhere, my asthma would kick in and my parents promptly would take me home.
My father passed away in 1980 from a massive heart attack; he was 51 and I was 14 years old. He left us $50,000 in debt. My mother worked 3 jobs to support us; I immediately got a job and subsequently put myself through college and law school.
Sometime in my early teens, my mother took me to see a pulmonologist. He examined me and determined that I did not have asthma; instead, he told my mother my asthma was “all in my head.” She had some choice words for him, we left and never returned. I also suffered from pretty bad headaches throughout high school.
The memory of my visit to the pulmonologist stayed with me. In my early 20’s, a friend invited me to stay at her house overnight in the Hamptons. She owned a Labrador retriever – a breed that previously had triggered my asthma. I really wanted to go, so I tested the doctor’s theory. Sure enough, I told myself I wasn’t allergic to the dog and never had an attack.
While the asthma attacks dissipated into my late teens and early twenties, a new ailment set in – terrible, painful kinks in my neck. My neck would go out often – and, on some unconscious level, I knew they were tied to stress. I worked through them with Tylenol and rest.
Around 1987, upon graduating college, I began to suffer from lower back pain. The kinked necks were replaced with awful pain that started in the lower right side of my back and then ran all the way down my leg. At the time, I had an amazing job and a wonderful boyfriend, but I remember thinking that, while I loved him, I definitely wasn’t ready for marriage, nor did I think he was “the one.” I began to worry about what to do next. What I did next, however, was to have such severe back pain that I ended up at a neurologist on Long Island. This was probably around 1988- 1989. The MRI, of course, showed a bulge in my discs – L4/L5 and S1. As my panic grew, so did the pain. I had my first of two surgeries and, when it was over, I had lost the feeling in my big toe on my right foot – the surgeon described it as “foot drop.” He also told me that it was very likely that my discs would bulge again, so my recovery may be temporary.
The back pain subsided for a time, and I started law school in September 1989. I finished my last exam in June 1990 and headed home to see my mother. When I got in the car with her, she told me that she had stomach and esophagus cancer; she was 49 years old. Over the course of the next two years, I attended law school and then ran to the hospital to be with my mother. Sometime in my second year, we learned that my mother’s cancer had spread to her brain. I was 25 years old and the doctors gave me a choice – leave my mother’s brain tumor alone so she would end up a vegetable in a coma and eventually die, or remove the tumor, so she would die of starvation from the stomach cancer. I chose the latter. Her brain surgery was performed at NYU and she did her recovery at Rusk.
My mother lived long enough to see me graduate law school in May 1992 (she was all of 85 pounds at that point, but she made it). By the summer, however, the cancer had spread everywhere, and she was dying. I studied for my bar exam sitting by her side. In September of 1992, I started my new job as a litigation associate at a prestigious white shoe law firm in Manhattan. My mother passed away on Halloween, 1992. I learned that I had passed the bar one month later.
I do not have any memory of debilitating back pain during law school – once my mother got sick, I was in survival mode – I typically didn’t have back issues until the quiet time settled in after something traumatic. I had been “fortunate” to be busy until my mother died, which seemed to keep the back pain at bay. I was an avid “jogger” during law school and recall that every time my back was sore, the pain would go away completely when I ran – it usually settled back in afterward, but while I was running, I had no pain and felt amazing.
In February 1993 I met my future husband on a blind date. At the time, I was scared, totally alone, emotionally absent, and ready to settle down with any man who walked upright and whose knuckles didn’t drag on the ground. My husband turned out to be a wonderful person, but he was and still is to this day, kind of emotionally unavailable. Back then it was perfect because he didn’t even notice that I was out to lunch.
In June 1993 I became pregnant with his baby. We had just met, our relationship was going very well, but given my mental state and the fact that we had only been together a few months, we decided to terminate the pregnancy. We already had a planned trip to Puerto Rico over fourth of July weekend, so we kept our plans and flew down to San Juan with the procedure scheduled for the day we returned.
On the first day in San Juan, there was a message from my law firm. Good news, they said. Upon my return, I was to move to Philadelphia for a number of months to do document discovery. I was panic stricken; the thought of being alone and isolated from my support system scared the hell out of me. And then, it happened. I was in the “lazy river” of the hotel when, out of nowhere, my back went out. We flew home two days later; I was unable to sit on the plane, so I stood the whole way home, had the procedure the next day, and ended up in an orthopedic surgeon’s office days later. This time, I met with renowned surgeon Patrick O’Leary. As expected, I had bulges in my L4/L5 and S1 discs – we scheduled the surgery for August 1993. I recovered and headed back to work, but not before the surgeon told me it was not a good idea to run anymore, to which I explained that the only time I really have no pain is when I run. He told me that does not make sense and that I should stop running.
By Thanksgiving, I realized that, while my future husband was lovely, his family was not so much. Between missing my mother during the holidays, and the coldness of his parents and brother and sister-in-law, my sadness worsened. After the holiday, where I experienced how awful these people really were, my future sister-in-law informed me that her back was out. A few days later, so was mine. I vividly recall lying in bed and telling myself that I needed to work on grieving my mother’s death, but I could not do so until the pain in my back went away. The pain was all-encompassing.
By Christmas I could not walk at all, but, this time, my MRI was beautiful – no herniations. Dr. O’Leary could not figure out why I was in pain, so he discussed a spinal fusion with me. But first, he explained, he would like me to go see his physical therapist to see if that would help.
Upon walking into the physical therapist’s office, the first thing he asked me was if I was depressed. I instantly burst into tears, telling him how my mother had recently died and that I was a mess. He looked at me and told me there was nothing wrong with my back. He made me promise to not tell Dr. O’Leary, and he instructed me to go home and read John Sarno’s book, Healing Back Pain. I had been an avid fan of Howard Stern during these years so I was familiar with the name John Sarno but that was about it.
I purchased the book as quickly as humanly possible and read it in one sitting. I saw myself on each and every page of Sarno’s book. Through this whole time, I had been unable to get out of bed. Upon completion of the book, I took the elevator to the roof of my apartment building where the gym was located, got on the treadmill and began walking slowly. Instantly, the pain was GONE! The realization that my asthma, my headaches, my neck and later back pain were all in my head was both frightening as hell (no pill or surgery was going to fix me), but it was also very empowering.
Immediately, I called Dr. Sarno and set up an appointment. My future husband accompanied me to Sarno’s seminar because Sarno said if you’re living with someone, they have to understand TMS so they can help you get through this. Sarno also explained that I was part of the 5% who needed to work with his therapist to get better. And I obeyed.
By this point, I realized that my big job at a fancy law firm was not the key to my happiness; I secured a job at a smaller law firm, but I was starting this new job in so much pain and did not want them to know. Sarno prescribed Tylenol with codeine and I headed off to work. He explained to me that I cannot focus on the pain and the meds would enable me to focus on what’s really bothering me. He also told me that the pain can move from one spot to another as I worked through this journey – my “funniest” memory was me walking down 5thAvenue in my fancy lawyer suit and the pain -which always only was on my right side – suddenly shifted to my left lower back and leg. There I was, walking and yelling to myself out loud, “oh no, you are not real pain, I know what this is and go away!!!!” It worked!!!!
Since 1994, I have told countless people to read Sarno’s book. Many listened and those who read it were “healed” and became true believers. As part of my “pitch,” I told them the following two stories of my journey:
I became pregnant with my daughter in October 1995. My mother was gone almost three years by this point, but I had in no way done the hard work of mourning her death and moving on. My husband’s parents turned out to be worse than I had imagined; in fact, when they learned I was pregnant, they sold their house located 15 minutes from ours, and moved full-time into their NYC apartment.
With eleven weeks left in my pregnancy, the doctor examined me and determined that my daughter literally was falling out – my job was to go home immediately and spend the next 7-11 weeks in bed with my legs up. I explained to him that I could not do that; if given time to think, my back would surely go out – I needed to stay busy.
I made it about four weeks on my couch, without a visit from my in-laws or even an offer to help. I cried a lot during that time, missing my mother and scared to have this baby without her around to share in the joy. By then, I was a huge Sarno devotee, and I knew my pain was all in my head, but I just couldn’t keep it at bay. When my back finally went out, it was a bad one.
Remembering what Sarno said about taking pain killers to help ignore it, I begged my husband to take me to the hospital. At Mount Sinai in Manhattan, they gave me a bed and a lot of Demerol. I must have been a nightmare to be around, since I just laid there and moaned, and every time they wheeled a pregnant woman into the other bed, she asked to be moved out. After the second woman had requested a room change, I woke the following morning to a new roommate. I remember she had just given birth the night before, and she leaned over to pull back the curtain just enough so I could see her. She was a young Hispanic girl – she told me she was just 15 years old. She asked me if the father of my baby was going to be at my birth; her baby’s father had not been present. A little while later, a young black man entered our room; he took one look at her beautiful light skinned baby boy and told her it was not his baby.
I don’t remember anything else, except getting up out of my bed (I hadn’t walked since I arrived at the hospital days earlier). I walked to the nurse’s station and said, “I am 30 years old, I have a house and a husband, and I am ready to go home.” I did not have one minute of pain from that moment on. I was allowed to get out of bed at the 36-week mark – 7 weeks after my bedrest had begun. My boss’s son was being Bar Mitzvah’d the following day. I attended, danced the Macarena, and my daughter was born the next evening – she was four weeks early but she weighed almost 7 pounds. She had pneumonia when she was born, so she stayed in the hospital for a few days, but she was healthy and was going to be ok.
A few months after my daughter was born, I joined a baby playgroup with some other mothers in my neighborhood. I became friendly with these moms and occasionally the grown-ups would socialize. During this period, whenever my back would go out, I immediately would talk to myself and try to figure out what was bothering me; once I figured it out, I didn’t have to resolve the issue, just realizing what was going on was enough for the pain to gradually go away.
One day, my back pain settled in, and it was a particularly bad episode. It lasted days, mostly because I could not for the life of me figure out what was bothering me. Up until that time, the “issue” was usually easily attainable, but not this time. On the fifth or sixth day, I was in my bathtub trying to get to the bottom of my pain when it hit me. Days earlier, I had been speaking with one of playgroup moms. I knew that she also had lost her mother at an early age – I believe she was only 16 when her mom died. I had asked her what it was like to lose her mom to breast cancer when she so young. She looked at me and said, “my mother didn’t die from breast cancer, she committed suicide.” And there it was, my grief that her mother chose to leave her young daughter, when mine would have moved heaven and earth to stay alive. I couldn’t comprehend it and, subconsciously, it devastated me. Sure enough, once I realized that it was this conversation that had set me off, my pain began to disappear.
I finally did the hard work around 2006 – I found a therapist and when she asked me what was wrong, I told her that my mother had died. She asked me how long ago and I responded, “over ten years ago.” She looked at me like I was crazy and explained that I was not supposed to be in this much anguish. I consider myself to be a pretty intelligent woman, but I just assumed I was supposed to carry my grief around like it was brand new for the rest of my life. I worked my ass off to grieve my mother’s death and the loss of everything that came with it. I cried literally for months on end, and it was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but when it was finally over, I was able to be present for my family in a way I had not been able to prior. I can still cry at the drop of a hat when I think about my mom – it’s been almost 30 years and it still sometimes feels raw but going through the agonizing process of letting go was definitely worth it.