I became seriously ill with pain a few decades ago when in my late 30s. Like many of you, I had several diseases and conditions, and prior to my diagnosis I had suffered from intermittent intense pain since I was 15. After a traumatic kidney stone bout that took weeks to resolve I received my diagnoses of arthritis, fibromyalgia and Behcet’s Disease. Pain slithered like a demented snake through my body injecting venom into one joint after the next happily spreading its poison throughout my soon to be wrecked body. I was stunned by the speed of these demented invaders.
After a few years of my doctors advising me to stop working, I finally took the hint. Over two years I slowly closed my private practice of psychotherapy in Chicago as well as ending my full-time adjunct professorship in psychology. I also withdrew from my doctoral studies.
In 1995 my wife, Judie, took a position with a French hair care company in Manhattan and we uprooted ourselves from our home, family, friends and my successful career to move east. Months before our move, my older brother, Mike, with whom I was close, died at the age of 48. And the losses just kept pouring through the transom like so much multicolored junk mail. I sagged under their weight as gloom and sadness plagued my heart.
Like any good psychotherapist, I recognized the symptoms of depression and discussed it with my new doctor who put me on an anti-depressant and referred me to a therapist. I did all the right things, but all the right things only dented the problem, but dented it enough for me to stay alive. Over the next 15 years the depression waxed and waned, but never really let loose of me; it became my steady companion, like Winston Churchill’s Black Dog. I learned through experience that pain and depression danced together like Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey in Dirty Dancing.
Miserable as I was, I followed a path that I always wanted to take. In lower Manhattan I studied, wrote and eventually published my poetry. After several years with words swirling around my lonely head, I stepped back into the wider world by publishing my work in literary journals. Eventually, while living in L.A., I began the first halting steps to writing a memoir on my illness and how it waged war on me and my small family. For help, I reached out to writers groups and made new friends. After we moved near San Francisco I contacted the APF and I was immediately asked if I’d like to become a state leader. I said yes.
As I worked at my own pace on advocacy I began to make friends with other leaders from across the country, and just 18 months ago was voted onto the Foundation’s Pain Community Advisory Council where the work increased and I made new friends. My isolation, like a robin’s egg slowly broke apart.
My Black Dog with its anguish and isolation was really a chrysalis. A chrysalis that protected, and in a strange way, nurtured me. During the evolution of humanity the sick, hurt and injured always withdraw for a while to heal, become stronger, to remake themselves before coming back to their group. We in pain are no different. All those years struggling with the loss of who I once was had been a chrysalis for who I was becoming.
Before I lost everything I was in a world of family, friends and colleagues, professionally helping people one by one and living a private life in a private world. Emerging from my chrysalis, I’m now more public with my writing and my advocacy work for the Pain Foundation. I’ve testified before the FDA and legislative committees in the California legislature. Now I help lots of people around the country instead of Chicago or New York alone. I don’t know these people with pain as intimately as I did my clients, but I know pain intimately and healing in a chrysalis of isolation helped me in some small way help millions. You know what they say about lemons…