Sarno Part Two

Even before I went in to see Dr. Sarno, I knew that I wanted to make a film about his work. My partners* and I had just finished our first documentary, “Horns and Halos” and we were starting our next one when the pain started. We are all drawn to stories about individuals who stand up to problems that the they see within the status quo, so a film about the good doctor made perfect sense. I was tempted to bring a camera to my meeting with him, and I kind of wish I had, but frankly I was a total mess at the time and I just couldn’t bring myself to do it.

On the day that I went to Dr. Sarno’s office, I had great difficulty walking because my lower back and hip were all locked up in spasms. In addition, as I found out during my examination, I had no strength in my calf so my foot wasn’t helping me walk, giving me a pronounced limp. I was extremely nervous before meeting the doctor. On one level, I was terrified that he wouldn’t be able to help me, and on another I think I was just nervous about seeing him. I have a hard time with doctors in general because I have a difficult time dealing with any level of authority. My mom will never let me forget that I got in trouble a lot during high school for not being respectful enough of my teachers. Before seeing a patient, Dr. Sarno discusses their problem over the phone. If he thinks that their problem isn’t TMS related he is likely to steer them away. He also won’t see people who aren’t at all open to the idea that their pain issues might be TMS related. Since a good deal of his cure his knowledge based it doesn’t make sense for him to see patients who are unlikely to be helped by him.

When I talked to him on the phone I told him about my father, my brother, and my own experience with his book. In his office I reiterated these points and explained how my downward spiral had taken place. He listened intently without interjecting too often. Then he examined me. He checked for any abnormalities and then applied pressure in several different places. I had pain in many of them. He made it clear that a herniated disc pressing on my spine where the MRI said it was couldn’t have possibly been responsible for pain in all of these places. I was pretty upset that my calf wasn’t working. He assured me that my nerve would come back to life. For the most part it has, but 5 years later I still do have a good deal of numbness there and part of my calf is still extremely atrophied.

I was feeling pretty emotionally raw as our meeting wound down. I wasn’t exactly in touch with the stresses in my life that might be causing my pain, but I was thoroughly convinced that the pain was TMS based. That knowledge was both a relief and a millstone. I knew that even a small amount of doubt would give my subconscious all the room it needed- in fact had given my subconscious the room it needed- to bring on the pain, and I was overwhelmed by the effort that lay before me. Despite my understanding I had still been unable to stop the process so I had doubts about my ability to overcome it. Even in that state I found myself pitching the idea of working on a documentary with him. He didn’t say no, but he didn’t say yes. That afternoon I sent him a copy of “Horns and Halos”. The next day I went to a small group lecture where he made his case persuasively using data, graphs, and humor. A few days later he called me up excited about working together.

Now we had to figure out how to make the film. We were interested in Dr. Sarno as a character, as someone who started out as an insider in the medical profession and was marginalized over time as the field changed. At the same time we wanted the film to be a way to capture his ideas and present them to a much wider audience. His treatment method is all about information, and we wanted to make a film that was compelling enough to reach a wide audience so that it could help the most people. As such it had to get across his message without feeling preachy and it had to connect with people on an emotional level. It’s also important to us that the film be about the medical industry in general. Back pain is big business –26 billion dollars a year big, and according to Dr. Sarno it’s basically a criminal enterprise. For decades he argued that there was no evidence that back surgery was anything more than a powerful placebo. In the last few years several studies have confirmed this. He also argued that there was no scientific evidence that herniated discs have anything to do with pain. Once again the science has borne this out to be true.

Dr. Sarno was adamant about not introducing us to patients. He is understandably very protective of his patients privacy. He was however open to us bringing patients in to see him. We did a little bit of reaching out to people but nothing really panned out. At that point we did some filming with him and started to work with the footage. We did some outreach for grants but didn’t get any positive feedback and got busy with other projects. We’re deeply frustrated about not getting further with this- because frankly I think that Dr. Sarno’s work is vital to cutting costs in health care. His methodology is about looking at the whole patient rather than a scan or an MRI. His work needs to be documented because unfortunately there are only a handful of practitioners who understand his methodology. He is incredibly marginalized despite the fact that he has an impressive track record of long lasting success with his patients.

I had a bad relapse a couple of years ago that lasted almost a year. I was in a lot of pain but continued to do almost everything I normally did. Again, I don’t think its a coincidence that it happened when my second daughter was two. Last year I got over it. Acupuncture helped me to get past it. I think that Sarno would argue against acupuncture, but I found that it helped me to get over a hump, and I was able to get to a place without pain that I was able to sustain for a year. I got hit with the hip pain about 6 weeks ago and I’m almost over it, but it’s a bitch when it happens.

This posting is an attempt to get ourselves back in gear. If you have had an experience with Dr. Sarno that you want to share- or are interested in seeing him and are willing to allow us to film with you before during and after please let us know.

*my wife Suki Hawley and I made two narrative features films together before being joined by David Beilinson while working on Horns and Halos. Since 2000 we have worked together collectively on several feature documentaries, and many other projects. I end up shooting a lot of the material, Suki is the primary editor, and David edits and produces. We all work closely together on all aspects of our projects.

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