To Lose My Chronic Pain, I Had to Find My Rage

When our culture hits the “mute” button on women’s anger, it isn’t just silencing us; it is also torturing us, disabling us and killing us.

chronic-pain-women-repressed-emotions-rage
(Fred Murphy / Creative Commons)

The pain started in my back, a part of my body I couldn’t see. Secreted away, yet cradled at the very center of my being: The back was, I’d later realize, a fitting storehouse for a lifetime of emotions that I was hiding from myself.

But at the time, seven years ago, I had no clue that I was hiding anything—or that feelings could have any real bearing on the flesh. All I knew was that my lower right back had, out of the blue, decided to set off a metronome of dull throbs whenever I sat for more than twenty minutes. I was 26.

Over the next few months, the pain became both more intense and more constant. Soon I was never without it, whether sitting, standing, walking or lying down. An MRI revealed a herniated disc between my fourth and fifth lumbar vertebrae. A diagnosis—great! The routine medical encounters of my thus far healthy life had taught me the next words to this song: treatment, healing and, eventually, a sweet forgetting that I’d ever been out of sorts to begin with.

But chronic pain patients eventually learn the lyrics to a different tune, one that loops eternally in a minor key: new doctor, new treatment, no improvement. In fact, my pain only grew worse as medical practitioners prescribed me a deluge of treatments and medications.

Chronic pain patients eventually learn the lyrics to a different tune, one that loops eternally in a minor key: new doctor, new treatment, no improvement.

And I soon discovered, to my horror, that my wrists and right leg were beginning to hurt, too. Some amorphous agony seemed to be slowly spreading its wings inside of me, conquering my body limb by limb.

Before I met chronic pain, I’d been halfway through a Ph.D. program. But now, three years later, I could no longer imagine finishing my dissertation, or much of anything ever again. All I saw before me was an endless march through pain’s dark forest, a lifetime spent in an opioid haze, unable to work, a burden to my loved ones.

So, a month before my 29th birthday, I made two plans. The first was to undergo microdiscectomy surgery, a procedure whose prognosis was relatively unpromising for my pain presentation. The second—if the pain wasn’t helped by the operation—was to end my life.

A session of late-night symptom googling saved me from both fates. I stumbled upon Dr. John Sarno’s 1998 book The Mindbody Prescription, which argues that chronic pain of many stripes can be caused and perpetuated by repressed emotions. Sarno dubbed this phenomenon Tension Myositis Syndrome (TMS), proposing that its m.o. was mild but painful oxygen deprivation to a given body part.

Particularly prone to TMS, Sarno had concluded through his decades of practice, are those of the “goodist” persuasion: people-pleasing, conflict-averse perfectionists who (often unknowingly) stifle their own negative feelings. His prescription for such patients was deceptively simple. First, learn to feel your feelings as powerfully as possible, through exercises like rage-journaling; and second, remind yourself on a daily basis that these feelings, and your fear of the pain, are keeping the pain in business by trapping your nervous system in hypersensitized high alert.

I was wildly skeptical. How could pain as intense, as debilitating, as eminently physical as mine possibly hail from the ethereal kingdom of feelings?

Yet I couldn’t deny that the contours of my personality fit the TMS diagnostic criteria to a T. I had always been the unflappably cheery daughter, the gold-star-chasing student. I would later realize that these personality traits had been powerfully encouraged by the social conditioning of growing up girl in America. Women here are told early and often that expressing rage makes them unpleasant, unattractive, unfeminine. An angry man is strong or righteous; an angry woman is a bitch.

An angry man is strong or righteous; an angry woman is a bitch.

But if being a bitch was going to get me out of pain, move over, Meredith Brooks. I began to rage-journal each day, standing at my desk and using voice-to-text to avoid taxing my ever-sore back and wrists. I listed out my stressors and gripes into a Google doc: an old disagreement with my partner; an exasperating phone call with a parent. It was hard, at first, to kick the impulse to intellectualize and defang my anger.

Entry by entry, though, ladylike Chelsea began to cede ground to another, gruffer self. “I WANT TO SCREAM IN HER FACE AND PUSH HER DOWN,” I found myself writing one day of a (still-)beloved friend. I looked in shock at my computer screen. I suspected that I had just met a part of myself whose company I’d shunned for decades. She was the black tar of my being, my fed-up “inner child”—one who gave the murderous toddler-monsters of David Cronenberg’s The Brood a run for their money.

This long-lost id wanted to yell obscenities at family members who’d hurt me, at the colleague who’d belittled my work, at the passerby who’d mocked my parking job. These furious desires didn’t have to be proportionate. Nor did I ever have to act on a single one, according to Sarno’s book. I would never actually lay a finger on the friend I’d imagined shoving. My mandate was simply to let myself feel the frustration that had birthed that fantasy.

One word for what happened next is miracle. That week, my wrist pain began to abate. Over the next few months, the back and leg pain followed suit. Soon I could sit again, type again, work on my dissertation and spend time with friends, all without wishing I were dead.

But the ordeal wasn’t quite over. The pain came back repeatedly, each time setting up shop in a different location: my stomach, my forehead, my neck, my hamstring and knee.

Online TMS support groups assured me that this deranged game of symptom whack-a-mole was actually a promising sign. I kept journaling, and indeed, each ache and twinge eventually vanished.

Mounting scientific evidence, including two studies on back pain released just this past year, suggests that there is a very real connection between bodily pain and buried emotion. These findings—as well as the testimonies of thousands of chronic pain recoveries posted on TMS forums—suggest that our mental and our physical selves shape one another far more profoundly than much mainstream medicine would have us believe.

Let me be clear: I am by no means claiming all cases of chronic pain are emotional or neuroplastic in origin. But the mindbody etiology of some pain deserves a central, not a cursory, role in mainstream medical training and treatment for chronic pain. Until this revolution occurs, millions of people will continue to suffer unnecessarily.

And a disproportionate number of those sufferers are women. Little wonder. If repressed feelings can cause chronic pain, it follows that the people who swallow the most anger would fill their bodies with the most agony. When our culture hits the “mute” button on women’s anger, it isn’t just silencing us; it is also torturing us, disabling us, and (given the high suicide rates among chronic pain patients) killing us.

We can at least begin to unmute ourselves, though. TMS work led me to discover the normal amount of human anger that dwells within me, and this emotional rebirth has, in turn, taught me to shrink less from self-expression and confrontation. That friend I’d journaled about, um, physically assaulting? I later called her to let her know I was upset with her. As we tenderly hashed it out, our mutual respect and love only grew deeper.

These days, when I feel the faint pressure of a headache forming, or sense the familiar throb in my lower back, I no longer clench my eyes in anticipation of anguish. Instead, I pick up my pen.

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About

Chelsea Davis is a writer from San Francisco. Her essays on film, literature and culture have appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Literary Hub, Electric Literature and the Public Domain Review, among other publications. More of her work can be found on her website, chelseamdavis.net, and she's on Twitter @UnrealCitoyenne.