Living life vibrantly with chronic pain

By Sari Huhtala

rachel-thoo
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said “Take the first step in faith. You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.”
Perhaps this is akin to the type of mantra that was replaying in Rachel Thoo’s mind when she resolved to give herself three months of pure, clean living – in body, mind and spirit – in order to shift from her addiction to Percocet for pain management to an all-encompassing holistic approach to healing.
If what we think about is what expands and grows in our lives, then ruminating about the pain in our lives will only serve to grow the experience of the pain, Thoo, who lives near Restoule, ON, says. From that vantage point, one can see how shifting the mindset from illness to wellness can, and will, help expand the state of wellness, she adds.
Born in Malaysia and raised in Toronto, Thoo, who moved from Toronto to Restoule about nine years ago to live on 100 acres of land to live with her partner away from the busyness of city life, always had a deep connection to nature and an innate knowing that the body has an ability to heal itself given the right conditions. Having never ingested a pharmaceutical in her whole life and having lived the way nature intended – on foods that nurture and heal, her addiction to opiates led her to feel like she was “living in a dark cave.”
Thoo’s life took a downward spiral after a car accident 12 years ago left her with pinched nerves and herniated discs in her neck, resulting in chronic headaches, neck pain and pain radiating in her arms.
At the time, she was running a catering business in Toronto, often working 12-hour days for up to 10-week stretches. On her days off she found herself trying to recoup by simply lying on the couch, with her mind engulfed in the state of pain.
“I used to be very healthy. I never even took a Tylenol. If I had pain I would do yoga and stretching. It always worked for me, but this time it didn’t.”
The one constant in her life after the accident became pain and fatigue. Three years slipped by and she knew something was horribly wrong and so she sought help from her doctor.
“Something told me if I went to see the doctor I’d be going down a path I wouldn’t understand; a dark path.”
That dark path would eventually become one of addiction to Percocet.
Help from the medical community came in the form of a pill. The first pill the doctor prescribed was codeine, but it didn’t work for the pain so on her next visit he prescribed Percocet and suggested she up the dosage to eight times a day.
“On the third day I could still feel the pain. I don’t think I took eight in a day, but at night the throbbing pain in my shoulder was worse than the pain in my neck.”
She began to recognize that the shoulder pain was linked to emotion and stress. It made sense, she says.
“When you’re in physical pain for a long time it just makes you want to cry,” Thoo says.
The shoulder pain then led to sleep deprivation, which further wreaked havoc on her emotional state, she adds.
Her doctor prescribed Amitriptyline, a serotonin-reuptake inhibitor (SSRI), to help her sleep.
“I had researched the drug and knew it was an SSRI, which is a form of anti-depressant so I had asked the doctor ‘Isn’t this an antidepressant?’ and he said ‘No, it’s to help you sleep.’”

It’s easy to see how the downward spiral can take hold for those living in chronic pain, she points out.
She had visited her doctor to express a desire to get off the SSRI, and was met with resistance.
“It’s strange how the doctors get angry with you when you simply want to get off of the medications,” she says.
“I just wanted him to understand that I was living in a dark cave right now because of my situation. Nobody teaches you how to live with pain after an accident. Ok, so there are pain clinics, but the doctors at the pain clinic I went to just wanted to give me a synthetic oxycodone to help manage the pain. You should see all the pills I had and this was all within two months of initially visiting the doctor.”
Pharmaceuticals appear to be the easy way to manage the pain, but one has to question the extent to which the quality of life is affected and wonder if there isn’t another way, she says.
“I remember asking the doctor if I was addicted to Percocet, and he said, with a snarky laugh ‘You were addicted three days in.’”
On a quest to free herself from Percocet and other pharmaceuticals she started tapering off the pills and continued on the path of tapering off for six months.
She had been religiously taking magnesium supplements and other vitamins to boost her health. The doctor had asked her if she needed stool softeners because of the side effects of the pharmaceuticals.
“I don’t understand why doctors don’t just tell their patients to take magnesium to help soften stools.”
Somewhere in the chaos of life she began to forget to take her vitamins and found herself in excruciating pain one night. Rushed to the hospital, she discovered her intestines had become so blocked that it would lead to a lengthy hospital stay.
“I thought to myself, this is good,” she recalls. “This is the place to get off the pills. Sometimes being honest makes people go into other places. The nurse who wrote my medical history wrote me down as an addict.”
Although they were giving her morphine to help her sleep, she was no longer on the Percocet.
After 10 days in hospital she was ready to go home. This was the turning point.
“I decided I would give myself three months to heal. I never knew what addiction felt like, but I knew that I was going through withdrawal at the time. I didn’t read the news, listen to the news or go on Facebook. I spent my days doing yoga. At the time I thought if this doesn’t work then I’m out of here because I can’t live with the pain.”
This is where resilience kicks in – the ability to remain focused on a path to recovery in spite of how one is feeling at that very moment.
“The more yoga I did the more I hurt. By the second week I was in severe pain. You have to take that risk. You’re in pain anyway. You have to be careful and mindful about what you are doing, but to give up completely, I wasn’t willing. Three months later I had one hour of living pain free,” she says. What an elated feeling it was to live that hour without pain, she recalls. It translated into hope, she says.
“Then I had one day of living pain free,” she says.
You have to change your perspective, and that change comes from meditation and mindfulness of the thoughts that are replaying in your mind, she says.
“Once you start feeling better you have hope. Change your focus. If I’m focused on other things I don’t focus on the pain. The more you sit there with the mantra playing in your head and focus on the pain the more pain you will experience. You give as much thought as you want to the things you want to grow in your life.”
And change her focus she did, shifting her attention to creating vibrant health despite the pain. She delved deeply into fermenting her own foods to heal her gut from damage by the narcotics. She focused on anti-inflammatory foods like ginger, turmeric, lemongrass and blueberries, she started juicing greens and only ate wholesome, real foods to manage the inflammation in her body. She made sure she walked bare feet outdoors daily, earthing and grounding, while at the same time gaining beneficial microbes from the experience.
Now she lives in balance with the seasons – planting and gardening in the spring and summer months, fermenting foods in the fall and studying plant-based nutrition and reading during the winter months. She holds workshops on fermenting foods to pass on the wisdom she has gained. She still experiences pain, but living in harmony with what her body, mind and spirit needs allows her to live vibrant and healthy.