Sunday, December 17, 2006

Reason #7--It Takes the Objective AND the Subjective

As I mentioned before, I began writing my personal take on Marx when I was spending most of my time lying flat on my back. I was still functioning; I could take a couple of Vicodin and go teach class, grade papers and spend time with my daughter, but the evenings and the nights, as anyone with back pain can testify, were the worst. During one of the first weeks of my pain, before I had a regular prescription for codeine, I grew more depressed with each passing day. I did not care too much about anything anymore. Thank God for the narcotics that were able to at least get me off the floor and engaging in life on some level after that.

But the doctors didn’t have many answers. My physician referred me to a back surgeon, who said that I could probably go on like this indefinitely, but my condition would only worsen. He gave me back exercises to do, and he said that I may be able to lessen the pain with this therapy, but, longterm, the only thing he really had to offer me was surgery.

I wasn’t ready for that, but I was close. I did the exercises religiously. I talked to everyone I knew about alternative therapies, including massage, yoga and acupuncture, and I took their advice. In fact, I visited an acupuncturist a few times, but I couldn’t afford the $60 a session for long, and I wasn’t experiencing any tangible results, so I quit.

One friend of mine told me about a book called Healing Back Pain by a doctor named John Sarno. She said her husband had also been flat on his back, and this book got him up off the floor without drugs. Sarno had found that most people by their mid-20s had herniated and desiccated discs, but they had no pain. He acknowledged that the pain many of us experience was physically real, but questioned whether it was being caused by something other than the apparent injury. After years of treating these patients, he developed a theory that the pain was a genuine physical effect of an emotional cause, generally anger.

My friend explained this theory carefully, but I wasn’t ready to hear it. All I heard was that the pain was psychological, and I knew my pain was real. I’d insisted for three years that my neurological symptoms (skin crawling essentially) had been real, and the outbreak of severe pain as well as the CatScan of my discs was my vindication. As suspicious as I was of Western medicine’s shortcomings, my experiences with asthma had made me very resistant to psychological explanations, and I’d also learned that nothing but a doctor’s shot or prescription was a guaranteed fix. The same could be said for my pain pills.

I accepted her advice graciously, but I didn’t act on it. Instead, I stuck with my neck exercises, and by spring, when I was to be re-evaluated for surgery, my pain had diminished considerably, so I was able to put that off.

But, the neck pain came back for the holidays the following year, and I started going through several pills a day. That's when I finally read Healing Back Pain. I couldn’t put it down because it met me right where I was living. It carefully began by describing the horror of backpain in such a way that I knew Sarno knew what he was talking about, and he was clearly granting that it was real. He made a point of giving a physical explanation of the pain’s causes before daring to speculate about any emotional issues at its root.

Using his own story as a doctor treating back pain for several decades, Sarno eased into how he began to question the relationship between the back injuries and the pain. He noticed contradictions between what should be the effects of the injuries and their place of origin in the nerves. He argued that the pain was caused not by pressure from the disc but by a tension in that area of the back. He called that condition Tension Myositis Syndrome (TMS), and it was in his effort to explain this syndrome that he began to tackle an emotional root.

He talked about anger and how we are socialized not to express it and, worse, not even to acknowledge it. He personalized his theory by explaining how he had put an end to his own migraines by listing what was making him angry whenever he had the first visual symptoms of an oncoming attack. His theory of treatment echoed this approach. When pain was coming on, he told patients to think about it psychologically and emotionally. What was going on that might be making them angry?

What he found was that this approach seemed to alert the brain that the cause of this tension was being acknowledged. Very often, the perverse rewiring of the emotional response would cease. He said that many people became better the minute they began thinking of their condition in these terms.

I sat and read his book for about 3 hours straight realizing he had me. I had always been a “nice guy,” an empathizer, who rarely felt I had the right to my anger. According to Sarno, rationalizing away anger didn’t work. If I was angry, right or wrong, the emotion would find expression, and if I did not feel good about my anger (which I rarely did), it made an odd sort of sense that it would turn against me.

In the second hour of reading that book, my pain began to diminish. Sarno said it would grow smaller and begin moving around once I found it out. It did. Though I renewed and sometimes took my pain medication after that day, I knew in my heart I really didn’t need it the same way I did before. When I got the symptoms, I went through a process of listing just as Sarno did for his migraines, and the pain always diminished. I get some restless leg type symptoms still today, and my lower back pains (which predate the neck pains) still flare up at times, but even these can be greatly eased when I think of them as stemming from a tension disorder and an emotional root.

This has even got me pretty convinced of an emotional root to that asthma (which I denied throughout my childhood), and I do know that I can associate various aspects of it with my emotional state at the time. I also know that a strong asthma attack is potentially deadly, so I still treat the disorder with respect, but I no longer see the psychological root and physical reality as contradictory explanations.

I tell this story to complicate things a little in, hopefully, a constructive way. After all, though I associate Marxism with pretty straightforward scientific method, this example shows my personal experience with the shortcomings of conventional science. The important thing to note is that Sarno drew his conclusions based on scientific reasoning. He simply factored in that emotional element of what it is to be human in his exploration of the physical, something Western medicine still has a hard time doing.

In some ways, I think some rejection of Marxist ideas has a similar root cause. The Western mind is not comfortable drawing connections between objective conditions and their social expression. Instead, we tend to relegate science to things scientific (the physical world), and we treat psychological and social illnesses as subjective conditions, as moral weakness. There are exceptions, of course, but the treatment of anxiety and depression as simply physical problems to be medicated also leads down a dead end path.

This division between the rational and the spiritual no doubt accounts for our society’s extreme disconnect between science and spirituality. These ways to view the world co-exist in many unexamined ways, and that's one reason I've wanted to tackle monsters, Marx and music together.

But as my back story testifies, and as most of us quietly know somewhere deep in our hearts, the truth lies in some connection between the outer and the inner world, the objective and the subjective. We cannot solve our objective problems without the will and the vision to do so, but we can also not solve our moral and spiritual problems without an understanding of our objective conditions.

Marxism asks us to identify the contradictions between what we believe and what we collectively perceive to be true. In many ways, our daily lives are simply reactions to forces that bat us back and forth without any apparent rhyme or reason. Because of its focus on the relationship between the subjective and objective dimensions of what it means to be human (that's actually "dialectical materialism" in a nutshell), Marxism hands us tools for rising above the fray. Not grappling with Marx’s theory at all, as Americans in general have not, means attempting to navigate a sea of subjective squalls and objective currents blindfolded....

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