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Living With Pain and Finding Its Blessings by Connie Livingston-Dunn
 

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  • It was April of 1984 on a Friday afternoon, when I always scheduled movies shown on a reel to reel projector in the activity room for the residents on one of the cottages. One of the residents, born with a rare form of brain anomalies, attacked another very passive resident, knocking him off the chair onto the terrazzo floor and cracking his head open. It took three of us to pull him off the helpless and bleeding man on the floor, who was then taken to the on grounds hospital to be stitched up. Then the attacker went after me when I told the cottage employee to take him back to the cottage, which meant he wasn't going to see the movie or get any popcorn. I got away from him.

    This particular resident had put two people off work before, one with a broken arm, and two with back injuries. At that time, the staff asked me to please intervene for them and being a good union steward, I went to the unit director and told him that they needed to put his meds back up to where they used to be before he attacked more residents and employee, but he chose to ignore the behavioral charts showing his aggressive behavior was increasing dramatically.

    The next day, when I went to the cottage, he saw me coming through the window and hid behind the door. He reached around the door, grabbed my waist length hair from behind and reached his hand around to knocked my glasses off and scratch at my eyes. Another resident came to help me and tried to pull him away and they both went down on the terrazzo floor on top of me and I tried to catch myself with my right arm as I fell.

    This was attack #30, at the state institution where I worked, with 12 of them being sexual attacks, and this one did me in. It was my third severe back injury and this one also included no use of my right arm with my elbow feeling like it had been hit by a brick really hard, only the pain never stopped. I couldn't sit, walk or lie down comfortably and sleep was restless and elusive. I wore my elbow brace, and carried my Bengay and heating pad everywhere I went. I had been a yoga practitioner since 1960 and could even get into a few 'pretzel' poses and now I could barely move, although I continued meditating in a chair for short periods of time.

    I am right handed, and the pain reached from my fingers to my neck and I couldn't paint, chop veggies, write, brush my teeth, comb my hair, lift or hold things without dropping them, well, you get the picture. I began doing things left handed, including painting, which definitely changed my painting style.

    I started fixing me a vodka and cranberry juice before I went to bed every night and that gave me some sleep until I woke up a few hours later in severe pain again. When I began fixing another vodka and cranberry juice in the middle of the night, I decided I needed to do something different or I would turn into an alcoholic.

    I had told the doctor that my elbow felt like it was jammed up and pinching the nerve, he paid little attention, gave me a cortisone shot and when that didn't help, he suggested surgery. I consulted another specialist and he said the first doctor had put the cortisone shot in the wrong place and that had caused more permanent damage. He explained that the odds on surgery were one third of it getting better, one third staying the same, and one third getting worse. Not very good odds, especially since a friend had that particular surgery done, it got worse and he had recently committed suicide. I decided against surgery.
  • Oasis Center in Chicago was offering weekend classes in certification in hypnotherapy and I decided to sign up for them and see if I could reduce my pain that way. I arrived one weekend a month for three years, in severe pain with my elbow brace on and my Bengay and heating pad. When it came time for the lessons on reducing pain, I was the class example on using hypnotherapy with chronic pain and under the hypnotic altered state, my teacher gave subtle suggestions through stories. What I learned is that we remember past pain and anticipate future pain and that increases our pain in the moment. This becomes wired in our brains and the key is to break this brain pain lock through positive suggestions while being in a relaxed altered state of mind.

    It worked and I began swaying gently to music, frequently while sitting in a chair and visualizing myself moving normally. This helped reduce my thoughts of past remembering and future anticipation of pain and gave some relaxation to my body which decreased the severity of the pain. I began doing some very simple yoga poses with props, when necessary. I stopped the constant dwelling on my pain and eventually I gave up my rage at the man who attacked me and forgave him. That was a great healing.

    In the meantime Sun Bear was coming to Illinois again for a weekend retreat. I, of course, would do a Stone Lodge (sweat lodge) again as I found them to be very beneficial and healing, and this one ended up being the hottest sweat I have ever done, four hours of it on a very hot day in July. While I was there, I met a sports doctor for the Green Bay Packers and told him of my arm, how it happened, etc and he asked me to stretch my arm out palm up. He took my hand, suddenly jerked it while turning it over and I let out a bloody scream, it hurt like hell as I felt it break lose. He said it would take a little while to get better.

    That night, as I began bunking down in our shared cabin, my elbow started tingling a lot, like when you hit your elbow and then you begin feeling the needle like sensations as it gets it back to normal. This continued for several weeks and gradually diminished. I started going to a chiropractor and after a couple of years my back got better, and this was certainly much less painful than the ice pack treatments that I endured three times a week with the last back injury. (Just before your back muscles froze, it felt like someone threw kerosene on you and lit a match).

    I still have challenges with my right arm, opening jars, holding it above my head, etc and I am careful to limit my right arm activities or my arm will get shaky and my hand very clumsy, and then I drop things and knock them over. I now paint using both hands although I do not paint precise details anymore since it is painful and my fine motor skills are not as they used to be. I must also be very careful of my back so that I don't knock it out doing things like yard work or heavy cleaning, and I am able to do some yoga again that helps keep my body, mind and spirit healthy. I have come to know my body in a much more intimate and healthy way and I either pay attention to it now, or I pay for it later. And I do use some adaptive aides to get by, like a folding basket cart to haul things or I ask others for help.

    I was eventually given a 30% disability and a 10 pound lifting restriction, and then they kicked me off of disability.

    Of course, I always look for the blessings hidden in all situations, and I finally got another great job with an understanding boss and then moved on to greater adventures that would not have occurred if I would have remained at that state job in Illinois.
  • This is my first left handed painting, it took over a year and I never finished the background. I did use my right hand for the words and signed it by bracing my arm, which took many days and many shaky attempts. It is from a photo I took in 1983 when I went back to visit Hawai'i.
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