This weekend two people are getting married, one of whom wasn't sure she would see her 23rd birthday. She was so sick that she couldn't function in her life in almost any capacity. Tomorrow she will walk down the aisle in no pain, and equally importantly, with no fear. I invite you to begin to believe in something again. This is not a fairy tale. I watch stories like Olivia's unfold every day...
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There are few stories more dramatic than Olivia’s. I use her story often to inspire people. No matter how severe and complex one’s pain, there is an answer and a cure in this work. I am forever changed having witnessed the severity of her struggle, and the valiant bravery with which she overcame it.
Olivia was 22 years old when her pain hit. When I use the word hit, it is purposeful, because her pain literally felt like a punch in the face. It was a time of change and flux in her life. Olivia had been accepted into a prestigious veterinary school and was finishing her undergraduate degree with honors, preparing to embark upon the rigorous four years ahead. With a passion for animals and animal welfare that is rare, Olivia had dreamed for years of becoming a vet and working around the world with exotic species, saving their lives and advocating for their causes. She was a perfectionist in every way; her long beautiful hair always in place, her body fit and slim, her grades straight A’s and her boyfriend the Ken to her Barbie.
Olivia was solidly on her way to fulfilling her dreams. With vet school secured, she and her boyfriend Alex decided to move in together. He was working at the time in a city about 3 hours away and the long distance relationship was getting tiresome for them both. So, they decided, he would move to be with her in her college town. He had more flexibility, and was happy to make the sacrifice. And Olivia was thrilled… but there was conflict brewing beneath her lovely surface which was only the tip of the iceberg.
On the weekend Alex moved his things into her apartment, Olivia was stricken by a bad headache. Although she’d obviously had headaches before, this one was pretty severe, and she was disappointed that she couldn’t be more helpful during Alex’s move. As usual with her perfectionistic personality, she beat herself up badly, full of shame and regret that she had been such a disappointment. And although she felt those feelings, we now know that she didn’t yet have the tools to feel as she needed to.
The headache became headaches, and the headaches were not just in her head - they were in her face. The pain grew stronger, and the throbbing and aching coupled with a feeling of intense pressure, like there was an enormous weight pushing down on her face, her forehead, and the crown of her skull. The symptoms grew and grew in intensity, and finally Olivia had to surrender. She was hospitalized.
As Spring turned to Summer, it became clear that Olivia would not be attending veterinary school in the fall. One hospitalization led to another, as she was flown from state to state to see the best doctors in the country. Hospital stays lasted weeks, then months. She was subjected to every test, treatment, and medication available to modern medicine. Her diagnoses included Trigeminal Neuralgia, Acute Migraine Disorder, and finally New Daily Persistent Headache - a disorder with no cure.
For over a year Olivia moved from hospital to hospital, treatment to treatment. Vet school was deferred, with the hope that her symptoms could one day be managed adequately enough for her to attend. The best they could hope for, they decided, was to enroll her as disabled and utilize a notetaker and an aide. But at this point, even a scenario such as this seemed like a long shot of epic proportions. Olivia was in severe mind-numbing pain 24 hours a day. She had no ability to function on her own. She could get no relief from any medication. The treatments left her emaciated, and her hair began falling out.
Almost worse than the physical pain and fallout, was Olivia’s mental health. It was completely broken. She was deeply depressed; completely helpless and hopeless. She had no more dreams of the future, and just stared into space as Alex and her parents lamented by her side. She didn’t think she deserved their undying support, but she didn’t even have enough energy to invest in insecurity. There was nothing left for her. Her spirit had died.
In an act of sheer desperation and a last impassioned effort to save her life, Olivia’s tormented parents flew her to South Africa to participate in an experimental treatment which involved going in through her mouth and nose, and severing the nerves in her face and scalp. Olivia lived alone in Africa for several months, her family and Alex visiting when they could get away from their jobs and lives. Her face swelled and her hair continued to fall out. Her depression worsened. As it became clear that this treatment was not going to produce the desired results and lessen her pain to a manageable level, Olivia became suicidal and was returned to the states.
As she describes it to me now, “I came home to my mother’s house, laid on her couch, and wished to die. There was nothing left for me.”
With veterinary school an impossibility even with disability services and no ability to care for herself, Olivia needed to be watched around the clock to prevent her from taking her own life. This time of their lives was so dark, her parents still struggle to discuss it, years later.
Olivia’s step-father Anthony, whom she adored and trusted, became acquainted with the work of Dr. John Sarno. After reading a bit of his writings, Anthony pondered that perhaps, as crazy as it sounded, Olivia’s pain could be TMS. Recall that TMS, Dr. Sarno’s “Tension Myositis Syndrome,” is an umbrella under which all pain originating from emotional processes can be organized. When someone is diagnosed with TMS, it is understood that although the symptoms are as real as real can be, the origin of those symptoms is not structural, but emotional. There is no shame in this! It does not make your pain less genuine, destructive or unbearable. It is just another way to arrive at the same conclusion. Yet on this path, there is a path out that is profound. And I’m telling you right now, it will save your life if you let it. In Olivia’s case, she was ready.
Olivia was ready to try anything. I mean, duh. Can you imagine this poor, sweet girl’s life? So, with her mother, Anthony and Alex by her side, Olivia went to see another doctor - one of Dr. Sarno’s associates in her city - to see if she was a candidate to treat her symptoms with Dr. Sarno’s methods. The answer was a resounding Yes. She should begin right away.
I met Olivia about a month later. By the time we made our acquaintance, she had already worked a basic therapeutic program with this physician, and her pain had come down to a manageable enough level that she was able to, independently, carry out day to day tasks. When her doctor referred her into my practice, it was April. We met via FaceTime, and she told me her story. I was silenced. Wow, this story was the worst one I had ever heard. She looked me in the virtual eye and said, “Is there any chance I can go to vet school in the fall? It’s the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do.”
Jeez.. I thought. Today was April. School started in late August.
“Yes.” I told Olivia that day. “You will go. But can you fly here? I need you in person.”
Olivia flew to me that weekend. She moved into the lovely boutique hotel in my office building, and we began our work. We had sessions for hours each day, starting early and working late, as I fit in every moment I could within my busy client schedule. I taught her everything I know, and she was a gifted and voracious student. She was fighting to save her own life; a battle to end all battles.
I explained to her what JournalSpeak meant, and I taught her how to translate her tapes into the deeper, emotional excavation that is only possible when one seeks her rawest truth. I shared my personal story with her. I told her with absolute certainty that she would be well, because I could see in her progress and her evolving understanding that she would. And she needed to hear that, because if you don’t believe this process will help you, it cannot help you. Your perception is your reality, and Olivia did not perceive herself as being well. Yet as we worked, I could see that flicker of light in her eyes which I see every day in my clients - she was also beginning to perceive that maybe she wasn’t that sick either. She was starting to believe that she might, juuust might, be able to recover from this literal hell in which she’d been living.
Olivia and I uncovered many truths in her courageous efforts. There was the fear about taking care of everyone else, at the expense of feeling her own feelings (a big one for us TMS sufferers,) which explained why her pain originated when it did. Alex’s move, although joyous, was a huge trigger for Olivia. It infected her with the deepest conflict: Taking care of her own wishes and desires while being panicked that the other person is doing something just for her. We looked carefully, together, at her childhood. We uncovered how her parents' epically contentious divorce had turned her into a little girl who was constantly taking care of others at her own expense.
There were also the seeds deeply sown of her perfectionism, of both body and mind. We realized that perfectionism wasn’t an irritating character trait for Olivia, but similar to Lucy with “lightening the mood,” a survival mechanism so imperative that it was dictating every facet of her life. Her father had created an environment in his home following the divorce that was so rigid and shaming, that Olivia feared literal abandonment if she didn’t live up to his impossible standards. Some might look at Olivia’s problems as privileged ones, but TMS doesn’t discriminate. She was not equipped to feel the pain that life inflicts on those of us who think our survival is only possible through perfection. If you think you’re going to actually die, your brain has to do something to save you, and Olivia’s crafty brilliant mind did a doozy on her.
Olivia returned home after a week, and we met via FaceTime regularly. She journaled, and she cried, and she broke down to me as often as she needed to. She began to learn that other people were safe too, and she slowly but surely began to trust that she could be less than perfect and still feel the love and acceptance of those closest to her. She took chances, and allowed the world to be her mirror. She drew boundaries with her family members who continued to hurt her…NOT because she had to in order to heal, but as a measure born from her process. As we’re going to discuss in just a minute, change flows naturally through the beauty of process. She didn’t cut anyone out or do anything drastic, but she decided what she was worth, and she started to act on it.
Olivia’s pain became less and less. She started to have days when she couldn’t feel it at all. Those days got more and more frequent.
In the late summer of 2013, Olivia walked into veterinary school on her own two legs without a note taker or an aide. She aced that semester with straight A’s - even though I kept yelling at her to make a fucking mistake here and there! The summer after her first year she traveled to Africa again, this time to work with a foundation that rescues and cares for elephants. She also spent time in Thailand with endangered species, and was the youngest veterinary student to be accepted into a summer internship at a prestigious emergency and referral hospital.
Her hair grew back, her body became strong, her mind became sharp again, and her spirit soared. In a million years, you would never be able to pick out that girl, swollen and skinny and sick in those weeks and months of hospital beds. Olivia is a force, who will absolutely make her mark in the field of veterinary medicine.
Tomorrow Olivia will marry Alex, the love of her life.