I remember it clearly.
Lying in bed, writhing. I had never felt pain like it: it was as if my head was bursting open from within.
All I could do was fill the house with my screams.
Chronic pain & me
I began my journey with chronic pain shortly after exiting high school. It came on quickly and unexpectedly. I’m still not sure what the tipping point was.
As a child, I had been obnoxiously active. I played all the sports I could. There was nothing I enjoyed more than the thrill of good-natured competition. And yet, as I was supposed to be stepping into the prime of my life, I watched my peers walk on by me.
This was deeply frustrating.
I felt like I was boxing with a ghost. I kept getting attacked by unseen hands.I couldn't figure out where they were coming from or how I could stop them. All I seemed to do was take a beating.
Thus began my journey with a variety of experts.
A road-going nowhere
The first balm I and my family tried to apply to the wound was visiting a chiropractor.
We went with a doctor named Michael. I was going there to be ‘aligned’ and Dr. M gave a convincing air of alignment himself. He was middle-aged, bald, and looked like he jogged to work each morning. He seemed clean, knowledgeable, and above all, reassuring.
I went weekly and noticed a real difference. Immediately, that is. I always felt good when I was there, but that feeling never lasted.
Money was tight and, while I got value out of our sessions, I was going to need to look elsewhere for my solution.
Another crack in my sanity.
I moved onto physiotherapy with similar results. My therapist was lovely but mystified at what was causing my pain. Structurally, my neck and surrounding areas appeared to be fine. Unlike my chiropractor, I didn't even get temporary relief from whatever was ailing me.
My hidden opponent was winning. I felt hopeless.
An unlikely discovery
I was big into the performing arts. I wanted to become an actor. On the days pain did not debilitate me, I found my home in a local acting school.
As I couldn’t spend much time on my feet performing, I read a lot of books about acting. My favourite, and a book I still treasure to this day, was The Intent to Live by Larry Moss. He is the deeply passionate teacher of such folks as Leonardo DiCaprio and Hilary Swank.
While I was soaking up his guidance, I came across a recommendation. Something called the Alexander Technique (AT). Though it is unheard of in the public sphere, it is hugely popular amongst performers. Hugh Jackman, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Luptia Nyong’o walk alongside many other notable names as practitioners.
Performers use AT to access the full potential of their instrument. It helps them release excess tension and find a state of poise and ease from which they can step into any demands a job might require.
That the Alexander Technique has this dual-purpose made it an unusually fortuitous find for the pain-ridden 6'6" aspiring actor I was.
Transitioning out of pain
A quick google search showed me I was lucky enough to have a couple of teachers where I live in Vancouver, Canada.
After a brief phone consultation, I had my first session with Mark.
I walked into my session and was greeted by a man who seemed at once both remarkably affable and mindful.
I sat down on a stool and tried my best to not slump over. We talked about what brought me there, and I learned what I might expect.
Over many sessions, Mark helped me realize that my pain was not mysterious in the slightest, it was caused by what I was doing.
A metaphor might help.
If you drive your car like a madman, always speeding and slamming on your breaks, it takes a toll on your vehicle. You constantly need to replace things sooner than they should need to be replaced. You know this and your mechanic knows this.
Now, imagine you did not know why your brakes only lasted half as long as they should. If you are dealing with an honest mechanic, they wouldn’t just keep taking your money. At some point, they would suggest that it might be something you are doing on the road that is causing all these issues.
I was that driver. And I learned that most of us are to some degree or another.
The whole time I was raging at my unseen adversary, I did not know that I was my own victim.
A guiding principle
The Alexander Technique has had a far more profound effect than just relieving me of pain. If practiced long enough, it is very much a way of life.
It somehow combines the mental clarity of meditation with an unmatched potential for bodily poise. And the Alexander Technique doesn’t require formal practice to ‘realign’, it is integrated into daily life.
It is about changing habitual ways of using our body. In this way it not only releases tension, but it prevents that tension from redeveloping.
Formal practice helps, but is ultimately a springboard into a life where the line between formal practice and everything else is blurred.
This past year has been difficult for our bodies and minds.
I am sure that a byproduct of everyone being forced indoors has been a surge in the type of pain and tension the Alexander Technique is perfectly positioned to address.*
If you are American and would like to learn more, a resource for finding certified teachers is: https://www.amsatonline.org/aws/AMSAT/pt/sp/home_page
If you are a Canadian like me, that place is: https://alexandertechniquecanada.ca
Both these websites have lots of helpful information to fill in the things I can’t cover here.
*None of the information presented here is intended to be used as medical adivce. Always seek the advice of your doctor for health matters such as chronic pain to find what is right for you.