I wrote Loolwa a few weeks back, impressed with her post, “Fundamental Principle of Dancing with Pain®,” and she graciously invited me to write a piece on imagery and writing for natural pain relief, specifically, on how I incorporate it into my work as a physician.
After thinking a bit, I realized that (of course) I’ve learned most about this topic from those dealing with chronic pain. Here are some observations and impressions from my review of patient charts.
Please note: I practice mind-body medicine. Thus, by the time people with pain see me, they’ve already had a diagnostic work-up and most have begun medical treatment of some sort. Many also utilize alternative treatments such as acupuncture and bodywork. Imagery and writing are pieces of a larger treatment picture.
1. Pain needs to be heard.
As I see it, that’s the first step: inviting a language by which pain can express itself. In a different situation, I might invite this language through paint or clay or dance. In the work I do, I invite pain to express itself in words: What is the pain like? What does it do?
Pain is a shark biting. An alligator. A gladiator. A serrated knife. A Punjabi sword. Pain is a burning oil well. An instrument of torture. A barbed wire. A downed power line. Pain sizzles. Explodes. Stabs. Screeches. Shrieks. Pain longs to be heard.
2. Pain needs a place in which to be soothed.
This can be an actual place in the world — a soft bed, a perfect chair, a garden. It can also happen that a soothing place is not yet available in one’s world, or it can happen that one may need a more potent place.
Here’s where imagery comes in: One can begin to imagine a more potent place. A place where the pain might be held and healed and soothed.
Sometimes I invite this imagery in the office. A person might imagine with eyes open, or perhaps with eyes closed in a kind of light trance akin to hypnosis — what is sometimes called self-hypnosis.
At times I suggest homework: To imagine a healing place as one is falling asleep. Or I’ll suggesting asking for a healing place in a dream. Or to just hold the question lightly (Where would be a good place to bring this pain?) and notice what happens.
I encourage folks to practice imagining these healing places. And to write down the details as they emerge. Writing the details of a place can be a way to make it more potent and more real.
One woman’s healing place is on a train. A Victorian train car, she tells me, with beautiful red velvet seats. The train carries her through wheat fields. Then into the Tetons. All this time, her grandmother stands at the door of her sleeper car, keeping watch.
The wheels on the train click their rhythm. Inside the sleeper car, she begins to make up her bed — a bed that is big and fluffy and deep, with special powers to draw out the pain.
Another woman’s healing place is underwater. She imagines herself, first, riding out in the boat. Then donning her scuba gear. Dropping down beneath the surface of the water.
The details bring it to life: Light filtering through the aqua blue. Coral like an underwater kingdom. And the fish. Angel fish. Silver fish. Blue tangs. Yellow damsels.
She describes the way her body feels: ultimate freedom of gravity; moving fluid and slow; feeling water moving through her hair; no sense of time. And after visiting this healing place and returning: a sense of quiet, harmony, as if now there is something inside, in reserve, that wasn’t there before.
3. In a healing place, sometimes it’s possible to discover a new medicine for pain.
With practice, imagery can become easier to summon — and richer. Healing images emerge. For instance, the pain imagined as burning oil wells comes to need massive hoses streaming onto the fire. Then a cap on the wells.
Pain imagined as a downed power line — an image of a nerve as a downed power line — responds to a silken thread which spins out and coats the raw nerve, like making a pearl. Or pain is a tangle of seaweed on the beach. Responding to a long, steady process of smoothing and combing the seaweed, pulling it apart. This can be soothing.
It can also take time, and practice. And, sometimes, when it feels like the process is taking too long, a figure in the imagery might speak — like a figure speaking from a dream: “Can’t you see how hard we’re working?”
And sometimes hearing this can itself be soothing. To know that enough is being done. That plenty is being done — even when this work is not apparent to the naked eye. And to begin to feel then a kind of compassion and patience for one’s own body.
4. The process takes time.
The process of healing often takes so much longer than most of us thought it would or should. And the process is never as linear as it seems it might be.
It’s not a straight line rising toward cure or wellness. It’s hills and valleys. It’s a roller coaster. It’s an unexpected reprieve — a string of wondrous hours, or days — and then a recurrence that can feel worse than the original pain because a person has tasted the sweetness of reprieve.
Healing is two steps forward and one step back. And one of the more powerful ways to use writing for healing is to track this process in a journal and begin to learn the curve and shape of one’s own healing.
5. Pain appreciates compassion.
The body appreciates compassion. Which, come to think of it, is what attracted me here, to Dancing with Pain®: A sense that Loolwa has discovered and cultivated a compassion for her own body, and is now extending that compassion toward other bodies, out into the world. Something that strikes me as being much-needed.
Diane Morrow is a physician and writer in North Carolina, with a long-time interest in how the act of writing can benefit healing. She completed a professional training program in Interactive Guided Imagery at the Academy for Guided Imagery, and she teaches an ongoing writing and healing workshop at Cancer Services of Winston-Salem. Learn more about the use of imagery for natural pain relief and about Diane’s use of writing for natural pain relief.