On Being Parented and Parenting: Overcoming Past Experiences Through Understanding Pain of Fibromyalgia

“If you look deeply into the palm of your hand, you will see your parents and all generations of your ancestors. All of them are alive in this moment. Each is present in your body. You are the continuation of each of these people”, Thich Nhat Hanhbookcover-1

Since I am convinced that fibromyalgia is the result of a hyper-aroused nervous system, I wish I knew for certain if it is caused by early inadequate parenting by our parents and/or difficult childhood experiences in highly sensitive persons, or if we are born with highly sensitive nervous systems. I have my hunches, built upon numerous interviews and talks with many people (mostly women) over many years. In particular, my view is built upon my own experiences. Therefore, I will go out on a limb and suggest that we are not born with an easily aroused nervous system, but rather it slowly develops over many years as a result of our early socialization . Yet, even saying such a thing brings up the issue of children with fibromyalgia. Maybe, just maybe, they were born with the pre-disposition to this condition. What a dilemma! More questions than answers once again. Maybe it can be both nature and nurture. Parent blaming has become something of a modern day occupation. That is certainly not my intent. Who among us had perfect parents or are ourselves perfect parents?

What did our parents know about parenting? Like most of us they passed on the values and beliefs they had acquired from their own parents. Generally though those of my parents generation (they are currently 90+ years old) believed in a patriarchal, strict household without much awareness of the psycho-social needs of their children. Life was difficult for the people raised in the Depression era and many had struggles that caused overwhelming challenges when they became parents. School and church were strict and frightening places for their off spring, as they were for them, and we 1950s kids received little sympathy as we accepted the status quo without question, as they did. I often still remember the horrors of Catholic school, fainting spells, hyperventilating at night, sleep walking and nightmares. There was very little to soothe my nervous system as my mother was herself a fearful woman and for many years I was an only child subject to her worries and anxieties, becoming her mother.

My father has what is termed a ‘borderline personality disorder’ and is subject to numerous rages but I was never ‘physically’ or ‘sexually’ abused by anyone as a child. Psychological abuse is another issue however, which can be just as abusive. School and church were also experiences which were harmful to my psyche. There I was constantly on guard as a nun in a rage was not to be reckoned with at any cost. I would never have dreamed of rebelling; instead I became supervigilant. My parents would not have understood why I was having these fainting spells, nor would have many of that era. I can’t blame them. The information we have nowadays is so prolific that we can understand better what a healthy environment should be like for a child to grow to be strong and confident, without living in a state of situational generalized hypervigilance. But, even as I raised my own children I did not know what I know now watching my young grandchildren. I made my own kind of mistakes, like most parents. Like those of us with fibromyalgia I carried the weight of the world on my shoulders, I had an intense belief in obligation to my family of origin as well as to my own children with a sense of duty that was unrealistic. I was always second guessing someone’s needs and would self reproach myself for the smallest negligence of what I considered my duty. Many women and men are like that. Many children develop this hypervigilance early in life. The cost of such high expectations of self is an overaroused nervous system which is never in a state of rest. So what is to be done to help tame this self imposed overly empathetic, sad and tender heart of people with fibromyalgia? Undoing a personality that developed early in life is not an easy task. Other than psychotherapy I see little choice other than mindfulness meditation (or other peace inducing techniques) and physical touch which is meant to be soothing. But, what kind of touch?

I have recently been reading blogs on www.SomaSimple about various approches to manual therapies written almost exclusively by physical/physiotherapists and MFR practitioners. To be honest I understand very little except to realize that the language of these professionals is not easy to decipher. There appears to be a great on-going debate about the limited value of myofascial release, which does not allow the client to avoid dependence upon the therapy. Among the many issues discussed, one which is rather interesting, is whether or not it is possible with MFR to bring forth repressed memories. Why this is appealing to me is because I am trying to understand the relationship of  pain and the brain in the hopes that I can grasp the concepts that can help me in my day to day struggles. It would seem that the controversy is between those therapists (not all, of course) who believe that with the release of the fascia the person begins to acknowledge painful experiences that have been stored in our memories. At least this is how I interpret some of the debate.

But, the issues are not all about repressed memories. Rather, there are theorists who argue that the model of MFR is one which does not help the client to avoid feelings of helplessness. These pain scientists are the professionals, like Diane Jacobs (see my link to her works) who focus more on manual therapy which recognizes how touch affects the Central Nervous System (and the brain) and who educate the client to understand this relationship. They argue that those who believe that fascia release is a means to bring about relief (albeit temporary) without acknowledging the client’s role in changing the nature of our own brain is to do a disservice to the person who suffers. They recognize that it is important to help the client understand the relationship between pain and the brain and involve the client in the process of understanding this rather than being a passive receiver of manual therapy. This is a quote from Diane Jacobs’ site regarding the Melzack’s Neuromatrix Model which she embraces (by the way my own PT Nick has given me a copy of this matrix to use in my own case and the reader can find it on Jacob’s site). This model “allows for you the patient , to see yourself in the center of your own experience, not only part of the big picture, but the one who will help your own brain turn itself around”.

I realize that this is a very brief and simplistic overview of the arguments regarding pain but my point is: can MFR  (or Cranial Sacral work) actually help my brain to heal from the past trauma of childhood if I don’t better understand the nature of pain? I have had many various kinds of ‘massages’ if indeed some MFR practitioners (many of whom are PTs) are willing to be called massage therapists. In my personal experience none of them have resulted in experiences that are akin to bringing up repressed memories. In my view massages could in fact, soothe the body and mind, but at best the effects cannot be long lasting. Yet, they do bring temporary relief and yet again, they are a great expense. It seems to me that if we are to deal with past experiences that have left ‘scars’ in our psyche (brain), then trained counsellors are the professionals we should seek out, rather than massage therapists. Having said that I have also been reading that bringing up painfuI past trauma is not good for the nervous system since it reactivates it . Instead we are encouraged to remap the brain and not dwell on the wounds of the past. (For a very comprehensive understanding of the mind/brain that is much easier to understand than most of what is written by those whose research is focused on consciousness, please read The Biology of Mind-Origins and Structures of Mind, Brain and Consciousness by M.Deric Bownds.)

I have had MFR, Rolfing, Neuromuscular, and soothing types of massages such as reflexology, and jin shin. None of them have left me wanting to explore past psychological pain, although most have released tight muscle knots. Some of the types have been physically painful, others have been soothing, but none of the therapists have tried counselling at the same time as treatment and for that I am grateful. After many years of talk therapy I have begun to realize that the stories I tell myself  need to be changed. Furthermore the ways in which I absorb the pain of others needs to be addressed. Susan Wendell (The Rejected Body Feminist Philosophical Reflections on Disabilities) calls this “channelling other people’s pain”.

It is the gentle work of such PTs as Diane Jacobs, and my own physiotherapist, Nick Matheson which seems to me to be the most promising, that is, that which directly addresses manual therapy of the skin in an effort to gently and slowly send positive messages to the brain while simultaneously educating the client to understand the nature of pain, and equally as important, the issue of physical movement.

We can’t undo the life traumas that have affected our nervous system(brain/mind/consciousness), but we can try to understand how we are not completely helpless and doomed to a life of turmoil without a sense of hope. We do not have to care about other people’s happiness to the exclusion of our own healthy mind set. We are not personally responsible for everybody else’s happiness (or pain); being in that head space absolves others from caring for themselves. It is foolhardy to believe we can solve other people’s problems. This is our daily challenge, particularly since living with pain is a constant in our lives. In my book I discuss my own struggles in this regard, as well the women whom I interviewed talk about theirs.

4 comments

  1. Shakota says:

    I’ve just discovered your blog while looking for Fibro research articles. I am an RN who had to quit bedside nursing due to fibromyalgia 8 years ago. I can identify with the hypervigilence from insensitive parenting. Somehow, to make sense of my parents’ lack of connection and caring, I had to become super-empathic and caring. I also had some traumatic experiences with men that stemmed from a lack of bonding to my parents or their lack of concern for me.

    Thanks for a great blog!
    Shakota

  2. Barbara Keddy
    Barbara Keddy says:

    Isn’t it interesting how super-empathic people gravitate towards such professions as nursing?
    When I was a young student nurse I imagined I had every disease the patients had and it was a devastating occupation for me. That was why I switched to academia so that I would not be around people who required so much care. But, of course, that did not change anything. I just found other ways to overly care for people (students, family etc)! It seems that when we have these tendencies of being hyper sensitive we soak up all we can from others’ perceived (or real) needs! Still, is that all negative? In these troubled times we need more empathy, but we need it from others ourselves too! Then the guilt sets in as WE are afraid to seem to be in need and not giving enough of ourselves! Maybe just being aware of all these things is the first stage before we can ‘let things go’. I just received a wonderful birthday gift from my husband … a piece of pottery that has a message inscribed on it: “Remember to Breathe”. Great advice, Shakota, for all of us with this peculiar malady! ‘Letting go’ and ‘breathing deeply’ 🙂
    Thank you for your in-sight and message. Best wishes and better health.
    Barbara

  3. Evelyn says:

    I just wanted to let you know how interesting this was to me. It describes my childhood too!

    I still remember when I was only 10 years old and my mother just gave birth to my baby sister her name is M I had a hard time dealing with it because my mother was very ill and I had to take care of a newborn baby and the house at that age. I just did it! I didn’t think about it, i felt it was normal. Now that I am 50 years old I remember how hard that was for me and how it has affected me. All my life I could remember my mom beating me and yelling at me. That was my supervigilance. Trying not to upset her so I did not get hurt. That was horrible for me and when I became a parent myself I found myself doing the same thing. I stopped myself and promised that I will not touch my kids. I have two older children and I learned to discipline them in other ways. Which I believe were more effective. Now I have my son that is 27 years old and he is super sensitive about life. Depression has taken over him and I am very empathetic for him. I believe that this is genetic. I hurt all over and no doctor can tell me what is wrong. But I believe that is must be Fibromyalgia after discussing this with my Chiropractor he agreed. I have learned that I need to move around. Pilates and walking work best for me. Those gentle stretches are a great relief for my intense feeling in my body. Thanks for this blog.
    Evelyn from New Jersey

  4. Barbara Keddy
    Barbara Keddy says:

    Hello Evelyn:
    How much sadness there is in families. I hear these stories over and over. It is so difficult not to take on the unhappiness of others, but particularly so when it is your own children. Certainly walking is among the best of gentle exercises to do, especially when you feel overwhelmed with stress over your son, that and deep breathing. Have you tried mindfulness meditation? It takes so much discipline and when we are habitaully “in tune” with the misery of others it isn’t easy.
    Hurting all over is definitely one of the symptoms of fibromyalgia, particularly if you have ruled out all else. My best wishes to you, Barbara

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