One of the constant problems I hear from clients with chronic pain is how often they are not taken seriously by their physicians. Their doctors may see them as whining, even drug-seeking.
Mel Pohl, a physician, along with his coauthor Katherine Ketcham, opens his new book with just such a story. But, he admits, he was once the doctor who doubted his patients. The turning point was about ten years ago when he met with Loretta, a woman in serious physical and emotional pain. Loretta was taking massive amounts of opioid drugs that were no longer providing relief. The dosage was so large that she was in danger of overdosing, but the pain was so great that she was considering intentionally overdosing just to end the suffering.
Pohl is an addiction specialist: many of his patients in detox were in a similar state as Loretta. Her case connected the dots for him. Pain is real, he realized, and painkillers and emotional suffering can make it worse. Later, Pohl himself developed chronic pain and issues with painkillers, which gave him even more empathy and insight — and he is quite open in the book about his own experience.
The Pain Antidote: The Proven Program to Help You Stop Suffering from Chronic Pain, Avoid Addiction to Painkillers — and Reclaim Your Life is a wide-ranging work that starts with an overview of pain. We all know when we hurt, but it is a nuanced subject. It can be hard to understand when someone else is in pain, and it can be awful to be in pain yourself, but pain, Pohl and Ketcham point out, is a necessary part of living in a body. They describe the plight of those with Hansen’s disease, also known as leprosy, who suffer horrible injuries precisely because they can’t feel pain.
And the subject extends to our social lives. At times, people may treat you better because you are in pain, and when you change the relationship with pain, the relationship with yourself and others changes as well.
But pain also brings on many negative emotions that make it even worse — anger, resentment, guilt, shame, feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, grief, fear. It can also bring a sense of isolation.
According to the National Health Interview Survey done by the CDC, about fifty-four million Americans have chronic pain. And while our culture is geared toward instant relief in the form of drugs, Pohl steps in when the opiates no longer work and actually make the pain worse. His program is holistic, and includes changing your emotional relationship with pain through mindfulness. He draws from the Buddha, Laozi, DBT, CBT, acceptance and commitment therapy, yoga, and qigong. (I hope a later edition will include taijiquan, for it was Sun style taijiquan that helped me overcome back pain and migraines.) He also includes massage, weight-bearing training, TENS, Ayurvedic medicine, reiki, breath work, and body scans — a truly holistic take on matters of the body and mind. Pohl pays a great deal of attention to sleep and diet, too — two crucial foundations of living. If either of those two becomes impaired, our whole being is worse off.
Pohl and Ketcham also help the reader assess whether they are dependent on or addicted to painkillers.
This book is about restoring balance in your life — all your life. Pohl is the medical director of the Las Vegas Recovery Center, and his program is twelve-step oriented, including a spiritual component. There are folks who will balk at that, but I would still encourage them to take a look at this useful book.
A big part of the program is writing and keeping a journal. Pohl writes that the best thing that he can do for his patients is to listen to them, and that, similarly, writing helps us listen to ourselves in an attentive, mindful way.
Meanwhile, in addition to merely talking about the importance of diet and exercise, Pohl and Ketcham provide recipes. I appreciated that they include many vegetarian options.
Another very appealing part of the book is Pohl’s openness with his own struggles with pain and recovery. You can feel from the writing just how difficult it is to be in constant pain, and how difficult it can be to change that identity. As someone who works with many people with chronic pain, I am recommending Pohl’s book to my clients.
The Pain Antidote: The Proven Program to Help You Stop Suffering from Chronic Pain, Avoid Addiction to Painkillers — and Reclaim Your Life
Da Capo Lifelong Books, May 2015
Paperback, 320 pages