Chronic Pain and Healing: My Story
Twenty-three years ago, I was ensconced in my dream job as an attorney in the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, equally enjoying DC museums and the neighboring Shenandoah’s, when something happened to change the course of my life.
I was working at my desk when my back started to burn; it felt like acid eating my spine. My muscles seized and threw me from my chair. As I curled on the floor, my body seared with pain. The real trouble began the next day and in the days and weeks to come. The pain never stopped. It only intensified.
At the age of thirty, just two years out of Harvard Law School, I could barely stand. Sitting was impossible. Reclining relieved the compression in my spine, so it became my dominant posture. I’d commute, lying across the backseat of a car to work from a futon on the floor of my office, and I used a walker to get from place to place. Sometimes during this period, I was able to venture out into the world lying on a folding lawn chair. But for many, many years I was entirely bedridden.
The cause of this reversal was a surgery, when a physician severed nerve plexuses in my spine – major networks serving my pelvis, legs and lower back. The pain and muscular weakness appeared when the damaged nerves started to grow back.
At that moment, body systems designed to heal turned sinister, igniting immune and inflammatory responses that literally rewired how my nerves functioned. A light touch was a blow torch; when I showered, fiery hot needles pieced my skin. Nerve pain feeds upon itself as nerves become more efficient at carrying pain signals. The longer it goes on, the worse it gets. The body breaks down; the brain, itself, shrinks.
When this happened, I was enforcing the Americans with Disabilities Act, a civil rights law that protects the rights of individuals with everything from MS to cancer to HIV disease. Having the somewhat ironic good fortunate of working in a disability-rights office, I continued to work and held together a life as best I could.
Using video teleconferencing, I negotiated with the San Francisco 49ers and the Giants and the Walt Disney Company while reclined. I won arguments in Federal court from my folding lawn chair. I drafted the current regulations under the ADA, coordinated with the White House and supervised thousands of cases by hundreds of attorneys across the country from a screen and well-camouflaged bed.
Although it took considerable time and rehabilitative effort, I slowly and eventually recovered my mobility and health enough to enjoy hiking in the Colorado mountains. A combination of appropriate medical care, including pain management with opioids, integrative treatments, and a self-discovered, body based form of meditation -- all contributed to healing a condition that was supposed only to deteriorate.
Currently, I am writing and speaking about pain in the context of the opioid epidemic, resilience, and how we heal. Read my recent essay in Dartmouth Alumni Magazine, "At Pain's Weak Mercy".