It's been seven months since I last wrote a column for The Huffington Post. I've got a good excuse.
As my readers know, I've been in a wheelchair for 30 years, paralyzed from the chest down. And although I don't have use of my hands, I've always had good function in my arms. Seven months ago, that changed. I was going down a black unlit ramp in my wheelchair when suddenly my wheelchair took a tremendous lurch and I was flung forward into space. (What I couldn't see in the darkness was that the ramp ended in a step.) As I was thrust from my wheelchair, I landed on my head and neck, causing substantial injury.
At the moment of that accident, my left arm was completely paralyzed. For the next several days, I told people I was tired and didn't want to go through this anymore. After all, I had just lost 50 percent of the functional ability I'd had before the accident. I was in such great emotional pain that I preferred death to this new life I would be facing with even more loss and less independence.
Making matters worse, the accident caused unbearable pain in both of my arms. They felt like they were on fire. So there I was in agony -- both physically and emotionally.
Many neurologists and radiologists will tell you that emotional, physical, or even social pain all get registered in the same part of the brain. So whether our arms are on fire, whether we suffer from a trauma experienced years ago, or whether we have just lost a loved one (or function in an arm), the sensations associated with those traumas all end up in the part of the brain that yowls, "This is pain!"
The pain stayed with me, but my thoughts about death being an alternative gradually diminished. I survived intensive care and moved to another hospital for rehab. Several days after that move, alone in my hospital room, for some reason my mind turned to all of the people who love me. I am blessed that there are many. And for some reason I actually experienced the sensation of being loved by many people. My chest felt very warm and expansive, and I began to well up with tears. Then I thought of all the people I loved -- there are many -- again I began to cry. And in the midst of all these emotions, I looked down at my paralyzed arm in my lap and said out loud: "It's a f**king arm! "
In that moment I woke up to the love in my life and I saw everything in perspective. I was again reminded that love is a treasure and that arms are arms. The paralysis remained, as did the burning pain, but the suffering was diminished. At least for that moment!
All pain demands attention. And paying attention to pain saves lives. For most of us humans, when we feel any kind of pain, we begin to tell ourselves stories about what the pain means, how it happened, and who's to blame. As we speculate about what this means for our future lives, and so on, our stories become more detailed and elaborate until we have constructed grand works of fiction that we believe to be true. That's exactly what happened to me. The feelings of all-embracing love had been my grand awakening. But after that, it was as if I went right back to sleep, telling myself that the paralysis would never heal and that I would be in anguish for the rest of my life. (Of course my stories got even more elaborate, but no need to share them here; I am sure you all know what I mean.)
I later learned from my neurologist that pain in my arms is caused by my nerve endings being hyper aroused and easily agitated. That's why the slightest breeze feels like agony. For me the explanation provided by that neurologist was another awakening. What it meant was this: Aside from all of my dramatic stories, my arms were suffering terribly. And that's when I began to feel great compassion for my arms. No stories, just compassion for a part of my body that suffered.
I have long had this feeling of gratitude for my body. This body has worked so hard and endured so much to keep me alive all these years. And the more I feel compassion for my body, the more at peace I am with what happens to it.
And so it is with our bodies, our minds and our spirits: If we can hold them with understanding and compassion, everything changes.
Yes, we need compassion and love from others. Without it, we couldn't survive. But if we can hold our bodies, minds and spirits with gentle loving compassion, the well-being we all long for will become a constant companion.
Follow Dan Gottlieb, Ph.D. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/DanGottlieb