How did you feel before starting the programme?
Before I started this program, I was suffering from low back pain for over two years. It started in the left SI joint, out of the blue, after my usual work out in the gym. For the two years after that, it was getting worse and worse. I stopped exercising. Sitting, standing, walking was unbearable (especially, sitting on a chair). I was in pain 24/7. It occupied my mind all the time. I was angry, depressed, tired, and I lost every hope. I was just 32 years old.
What interventions did you experience?
I have had all the MRIs scans, blood tests etc and had opinions from two different spinal surgeons (both in the UK and in Ukraine). They couldn’t find anything serious – a little bit of wear and tear in the left SI joint. When I heard this diagnosis, I was terrified. I thought I was going spend all my life with this pain.
I had three steroid injections which didn’t help and just made things worse. I saw physiotherapists, osteopaths, tried massage and acupuncture treatments. Nothing helped. The last thing was a radio frequency denervation of the SI joint, but this actually made things worse.
I ended up seeing a pain specialist who prescribed strong pain killers and kept increasing the dosage. The painkillers didn’t really help much and in addition to the pain, I started getting all types of nasty side effects.
By the time, I reached two years being in pain, I stopped sitting, walking, exercising, socialising, traveling, flying, and other things I used to do before. My life was hell.
Did you have any support?
Also, I did not have much emotional support as I don’t have a family. My friends could not understand me and what I was going though. I was so worried that I could lose my job – my only source of income and, more importantly, my work visa. There was lots of stress which only exacerbated the pain.
After all conservative treatments failed, I started looking for other options. One interesting fact made me look for other solutions – it didn’t make sense that I was feeling better when I was away on holiday, which made me think that there must be a reason for that.
How did you become aware of TMS?
I became aware of the mind-body connection, and psychosomatic stuff (which I was suffering from before) and I was also aware of my personal characteristics that contribute to the pain. For example I’m a perfectionist, can be really hard on myself and am not very good at stress management.
About a year ago, I started going into different forums about back pain and I randomly came across Dr Sarno and his work. I then started reading his books about TMS. What concerned me was that there was no reference to the SI join pain anywhere in his books. So, I decided to contact a TMS doctor who could confirm that I have TMS. I contacted Dr David Schechter in the US (as at that time I couldn’t find any TSM specialist in the UK) and had a Skype consultation with him. He looked at my scans, asked me questions about my childhood, my family, my personal characteristics and my life before in general, and confirmed that I had TMS.
I followed his programme for a month (I was listening to the CDs with his lectures, journaling, practicing mid-body awareness, etc.), but I still had so many fears and doubts and I was still in so much pain, but at least I had some hope.
Since there was not much progress after a couple of months following his program, I decided that I need someone to go through this journey with me.
Dr. Schechter suggested a couple of TMS specialists in the UK, whom I contacted straight away and Georgie Oldfield replied to me immediately. More importantly, she sounded so positive and supportive that I decided to have an assessment session with her via Skype and then followed the SIRPA programme and weekly 1 to 1 Skype sessions.
What did you discover during the SIRPA Programme?
During the programme I discovered how my emotions and stress are connected with my pain.
I started journaling about my fears, reframing old habitual thoughts about my pain, working to rewire my brain (which was the key bit in my recovery) and especially working on my conditioned pain associated with sitting.
At first I was emailing Georgie almost every day about my pain, my fears, new pain (in my right SI join, left shoulder and legs) as well as any successes, however tiny they were. She was there (and still is), she was such a support and offered that confidence and belief that I needed all these years and I started slowly getting better. We were adding a new challenge every week or so (eg, starting swimming, exercising with weights, going for a walk, seeing friends, and SITTING).
How did you progress?
Step by step, I started making progress. Any new success gave me more confidence to do more and to reassure me that I could not hurt myself if I added more activities. I kept a list of all the evidence of my progress (my evidence sheet) and referred to it whenever I had fears and doubts. It was a very useful tool. With Georgie’s advice I was also journaling every day whenever I had fears (by offloading them on paper and then rationalising them) and also before going to bed to reflect on a day: what lessons I’d learned and how I could see tomorrow going on. Reframing my old negative and fearful thoughts was a very useful tool too, which I still use in my day to day life until now.
The shifting moment in my recovery was when I managed to break the pain cycle – the conditioned response associated with sitting, which was the hardest part but the most rewarding. One day, while I was working from home, Georgie suggested I sit at the desk – before that, I was working on my laptop by lying down on a floor or sofa. I remember that day very well. I was in so much pain and I was really exhausted, but I had Georgie’s support. On the next day, I tried the same and it was not as difficult as on the first day. And, slowly, I started practicing sitting and not allowing myself to lay down at work “because it was better for my back”. I started treating my back as a very strong and healthy “mechanism” and that was very important in my recovery too. I was no longer scared to swim, run, dance and lift heavy things. I got rid of all my back supports, special chairs, cushions and anything else that could remind me about “my bad back”.
I asked my parents and friends not to ask me about my back and treat me as a healthy person who could do everything. Also, I was rewarding myself for every success, however small it was, be it just an acknowledgment, a present or a nice treat for myself. I was learning how to be kind and compassionate to myself, which was very important in my recovery.
What can you do now you’ve finished the SIRPA Programme?
Overall, it took me 6 months to recover from 2.5 years of back pain. I now can do everything – sit, walk, dance, travel, and fly. I’m pain free. It was a life changing experience, which I needed. I’ve learned a lot: that I don’t need to be perfect and that I can accept myself the way I am. I practice to be kind to myself and appreciate life and all the things I currently have in my life.
I still do have odd symptoms briefly from time to time (mainly when I’m worried or under too much stress, or when I don’t acknowledge my emotions), but now I know how to address them and the symptoms resolve. My pain changed my life for ever and for better, and I will be forever grateful to Dr Sarno and Georgie Oldfield for saving my life.