I was living in NYC, working in film production, and running 15 – 20 miles a week. Magazine articles warned about running on pavement and advised making sure there was enough support in running shoes. I never had a hint of a problem until one day on a particularly stressful shoot I was impatiently hauling an ice chest from one part of the set to the other, and it happened. I pulled a muscle in my back. The next morning I felt an electric-like jolt when I leaned over the sink to brush my teeth, followed by an incredibly painful muscle spasm that dropped me to my knees. When I could move again I called a friend who recommended a physical therapist. She listened to my story and told me I had probably herniated a disc and that the “electric” feeling was caused by the disc impinging on my sciatic nerve. I could picture it. My back kept spasming. I took muscle relaxers that made my tongue thick and uncooperative. The sciatica hurt, and I took pain pills that would have knocked out a horse. I slept on a mat on our hard wood floor. Nothing worked. Over the next few months the sciatica crept down my leg and finally reached all the way into my heel which became tingly and numb.
As it went from bad to worse, I went to chiropractors. I got Rolfed(TM). I got acupuncture. I got acupuncture with pulses of electricity running through it. I went to back specialists recommended by heads of athletic departments. I was X-rayed, CAT Scanned, and MRI’d. I learned I have scoliosis, extensive arthritic degeneration of my bottom 5 vertebrae, and several more slightly herniated discs that would surely cripple me if nothing was done. In any event, I was advised never to run again. The pain had become so bad, I couldn’t walk more than 3 or 4 feet without tearing up. I couldn’t sit upright, so I worked lying on my back. I slept with my right knee propped on hard pillows. A very expensive specialist with a posh office overlooking Columbus Circle told me I might never walk again if I didn’t have surgery immediately.
A producer I met gave me a copy of Dr. Sarno’s book “Mind Over Back Pain.” I was insulted. I didn’t accept the idea that this kind of pain was in my head. I had cat scans, mri’s, and an x-ray that showed the horrific problems in my spine. If I touched the place where the herniated disc was impinging on the nerve, the pain was so intense it made me nauseous. But I was terrified of back surgery going wrong. I wanted to run again. So I read the book. Cover to cover. It was encouraging. It made sense. I hoped it was true, but I wasn’t sure. I mentioned Dr. Sarno to the last back doctor I will ever see. He hadn’t read the book, but he’d heard of Dr. Sarno, and he scoffed at the mind-body connection in a smug way that I found offensive. So I called Dr. Sarno’s office to make an appointment to see the man himself. I was told he didn’t take many patients, and that the waiting list was months long. I begged. I pleaded. I somehow convinced his secretary to put me on the phone with him.
Dr. Sarno: “This is John Sarno.”
Me: “Dr. Sarno, thank you for taking my call. I read your book and I think I’m a Sarno patient, but I need to see you to be sure.”
Dr. Sarno: “You should read the book again instead.”
Me: “You don’t understand, I’ve…(and here I listed what I’d been through)…and I just need to be sure there’s really nothing wrong with my back.”
Dr. Sarno: “There’s nothing wrong with your back.”
Me: “I just need to see you in person.”
Dr. Sarno: “I’m not charismatic. I’m not going to ‘heal’ you.”
Me: “Please, if you could just see me so I can be sure.”
Dr. Sarno: “Young lady, it’s very expensive. And I don’t take insurance.”
Me (sensing he was going to give in): “That’s fine!”
Dr. Sarno: “(audible sigh) Ok. I’ll put you back on with my secretary.”
She had a cancellation for the next day. My husband carried me through the halls of NYU hospital to Dr. Sarno’s small waiting room where I lay on the floor. When he called my name, I raised myself with my hands underneath me, crawled into his office front-wise, and lowered myself gingerly onto the floor next to the chair that was there. He peered over the desk at me. A small man with salt and pepper hair and black glasses, he gestured impatiently at the chair, “Aren’t you going to sit?”
“I can’t.” I said and my tears started to roll.
“So you read my book?” he asked.
“Yes, twice.” I said.
“I have a new one coming out. I advise writing down everything that’s upsetting you. What do you do for a living?”
“I work in film production.”
He groaned. “You don’t know how many of you people I get in here.” I could see he was taking notes.
I had brought my scans in big envelopes. I asked him if he wanted to see them. He said no. I asked, “How do you KNOW there’s nothing wrong with my back?”
He waved his hand dismissively at the envelopes I offered, “You wouldn’t have been able to crawl in here like a crab if there was anything wrong with your back.”
I said, “But there’s a place there that hurts so much when I touch it, it makes me want to vomit.”
He lowered his glasses and looked over the desk at me, “Don’t touch it.”
I thought about that for a second. “Don’t you even want to examine me?”
“Ok.” He seemed resigned. He stood up and opened a door behind him that connected to a small examining room. As I scooted on hands and feet toward the room, I told him my leg was numb along the back and down to the heel. Once I had made my way up onto the table, he did a needle test on the back of my leg and confirmed, “You’re right. It’s numb.”
“Doesn’t that mean anything?”
“No.” He repeated some of the facts about TMS and how the symptoms develop that I recalled from his book. He told me he’d written a new book incorporating what he’d learned since he’d written the first one. I started to believe him.
I made myself stand up and walk out. The whole thing had taken 15 minutes.
In the waiting room I leaned on my amazed husband. It was painful. But I was standing, and walking.
“By the way,” Dr. Sarno said from his office door, “don’t sleep with a pillow under your knee anymore.” I hadn’t mentioned the pillows.
The pain and numbness took several months to go completely away, but my recovery started that day. There was nothing wrong with my back. Patients of Dr. Sarno were encouraged to attend a class he taught about the mind-body connection and how we needed to reinforce the association between chronic pain and life-stresses. I took the class.
I saw a therapist, briefly. I filled notebook after notebook with lists of things that were making me angry, scaring me, and upsetting me. I listed the same things over and over again. I was never going to be able to change most of the them, but acknowledging them, driving the association between the things on the list and the pain into my subconscious finally ended my ordeal.
I still get what I call “Sarno Things.” It’s my personality. At stressful times I’ve had mock arthritis, mock bursitis, mock “runner’s knee,” mock TMJ, mock carpal tunnel, mock plantar faciitis. As soon as I realize what is happening, I stop and make myself list everything that’s bothering me. If I’m running, I ignore the pain and make the lists in my head. And every time the pain goes away like a headache fades when you take ibuprofen.
I know I will never have chronic pain again. I don’t pay money to masseuses or chiropractors. I don’t worry about running on cement, or the shape of my running shoes. I run 20 to 30 miles a week. My life is my own, thanks to you, Dr. John Sarno. For as long as I live I will be grateful to you.
I hope you enjoy your retirement.
All the very best,