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Living with Chronic Pain
interviewed by Instructor Lis

Imagine living with pain.  Erica does – constant pain in her knee from osteoarthritis.

The symptoms began about seven years ago and increased to the point where she had to seek help.  It was a worrying and frightening diagnosis for Erica.  Her mother suffers from the same condition, as well as rheumatoid arthritis.  Having seen the crippling results and the ensuing depression from living with chronic pain, she was determined not to be beaten down by the same thing. 

Erica’s husband, two teenage daughters and an ailing mother and mother-in-law all need her attention and support.  She is acting deputy principal of a government primary school and has just completed a post-graduate degree from the University of New South Wales which involved periods of residency interstate.  Her life is overloaded and stressful at the best of times although her husband takes care of much of the housework.  The last thing she needs is a chronic, degenerative painful condition in her knee.

The anti-inflammatory drugs prescribed for pain relief caused stomach upsets so she had to find an alternative.  Overweight and with high cholesterol, Erica discovered with shock after a thorough medical examination that at some point, she had had a heart attack.  There was no alternative, she had to become fitter and lose the excess weight.  She tried many different approaches.

She took up walking with a friend but after a short period, the friend who also led a stressful life had to stop.  Dieting didn’t seem to have any effect and in desperation Erica even hired a personal trainer.  However, this too proved unsuccessful as the first left Canberra and the second although genuinely keen to help didn’t have enough experience or knowledge.

Yoga was next but the positions put too much strain on her knee and left her in agony.  Getting out of bed in the mornings made forty-something-Erica feel as though she was in her seventies, hobbling to the bathroom like a geriatric.

As a child, Erica had trained hard at gymnastics.  She feels some of the pain she is experiencing now has been increased by the looseness of her tendons and the flexibility of her joints, which allow excessive movement without strength in the structure.  A heavy fall when ice-skating as an adult jarred her hip and spine and she thinks this may have been a triggering factor for the complaint.

In October 2001, Erica and a friend decided to try Tai Chi.  Erica’s husband had learned many years ago at the YMCA so she knew what was involved.  She needed a gentle exercise system that would gradually improve her body without too much strain.  Also when she started Tai Chi classes, Erica adopted a new diet and swiftly shed 15 kilograms.

Tai Chi has brought about a heightened awareness of her body so that, when practising, Erica finds she can think about how she moves.  She has learned to hold the joints (ankles and knee) still and move the leg as a whole unit.  Muscles are working harder and there is a stronger support system.

Although she suffers pain when she practises, Erica loves her Tai Chi and can’t imagine life without it.  She likes the way the movements are slow and focussed enough for her to feel the effects as they occur.  She heeds the instructor’s reminders to “practise but don’t over do it, work within your own limitations.”  The most difficult aspect of Tai Chi for her is remembering the sequence of movements.  Her co-ordination was good from the early gymnastics training but she becomes so absorbed in the wonderful feeling and flow of the form that she forgets what comes next.

Erica had previously practised Transcendental Meditation (TM) so she was familiar with the concept of meditation before learning Qigong.  TM, she says, is much more a mental discipline whereas the Fa Soong Gong we teach combines physical relaxation with the mental.  The circular movements help her to relax.  They also generate strong internal energy.  It’s this feeling of energy that she particularly enjoys.  If her body is not relaxed enough, it is too difficult for her to separate mentally from the pain in her knee.

Would Erica practise Tai Chi if she didn’t have the incentive of a degenerative health condition?

“Absolutely yes,” she said.  “Tai Chi creates a humility.  It keeps you balanced because there’s always the feeling there is more to learn; there’s always a striving aspect.  You can’t get away with anything because you have to be right there in the moment, doing it without any trappings and with no support.  You can’t fake it.  It strips away all the external rubbish of modern life.  Tai Chi keeps you grounded.”

Last year Erica attended a workshop by Fei Wang for the advanced students.  She was amazed by the way Fei moved, the connectedness and relaxed force in his body.  She realised there was a lot more going on in Tai Chi than she had been aware and that there was much more she could learn and develop.

When she practises Tai Chi now, the pain is tolerable although she does take a new form of pain management pill that is kinder to her system.  In her daily life, her knee is not as painful as it was and the condition is not deteriorating the way she initially feared it would.  Any bending of the knee hurts but the recovery time is faster.  She can get straight out of bed and walk about without hobbling.

Erica says it is impossible to say how much credit she can specifically give Tai Chi for her improved physical situation.  However, it has given her a way to cope with the stresses in her life, a way which nurtures and calms her inner self.  It is something she can continue to practise and improve upon for the rest for her life.

(This is an actual interview, but the name has been changed for reasons of privacy.)