Cramps as a Spiritual Practice

July 11th, 2009


Yesterday I decided that rather than taking two Alleve, which I knew, if taken in time, could stop my cramps, I would spend my day fighting the cramps off with my mind. I was trying to clean the house for my dad’s visit and I’d double over in pain and think, “Wayne’s right, just take the medicine.” Then I’d breathe, and think, “that which doesn’t kill me only makes me stronger.”

I read somewhere that learning to deal with pain by not getting upset about it reduces the pain itself, and makes the body and mind more resilient. In fetal position on the floor, I was thinking, childbirth is a lot worse than this and women do it without medications, so why can’t I deal with some measly cramps without resorting to a pain reliever?

This experiment, which just left Wayne shaking his head, partly has to do with my trying to take fewer drugs. I am always trying to take fewer drugs. Every time I go to a new doctor for the same or new problem, I walk out with at least one new prescription. Every doctor is sympathetic to my desire to take fewer medications, because they each know that all drugs have side effects, and some produce unpleasant interactions. Still, they insist, this medication is vital, and any potential side effects are outweighed by the benefits.

At the end of an appointment, I take the scripts, and dutifully fill them, resigning myself to adding other colors to my pill reminder. What side effects will I encounter this time? And how long until I can stop taking it?

After visiting the TMJ specialist for a second time, I knew he was probably right that I do need to reduce the swelling in my jaw, but wondered, what will this super strength Alleve over a long period be doing to my poor stomach? I want my jaw muscles to unclench, and avoid further degeneration of my jaw joint, headaches, and related problems, but how can I get through the day feeling so sleepy from muscle relaxants? When I came back complaining of the side effects from the second set of medications (after the first set didn’t have any discernible positive effect at all) I told the doctor I was done with the meds. He agreed, but said, “you’re asking me to treat you with one hand tied behind my back.”

I understand why it is important to take medicines. People used to die of strep throat and other infections before antibiotics. I understand that leaving certain conditions untreated, even psychological ones, like depression, can make be more destructive to the body than the medicines used for treatment. My mom spent her whole career in “drug discovery” for two major pharmaceutical companies. The drugs she worked on saved lives, and made other lives bearable. If I make claims about “Big Pharma” I’m not only implicating my mom’s life work, but my own beliefs that modern medicine is a positive force in our lives.

And yet, when I throw back my morning and evening meds, I look at each one and think, do I really need this?

I feel like when I take all these drugs I’ve bought into the our society’s medical shortcut–throw drugs at every condition. We have overprescribed antibiotics to ourselves and to animals and as a result, have produced mega-bugs, resistant to everything we’ve got. You can go into a hospital for some routine procedure and die from an infection created by this process. Then there are medications for problems that we used to think of annoyances and not medical conditions. Can all these prescriptions advertised on television really be necessary or even useful for the broad audience they might attract? Even the banal anti-inflamatories like Alleve, eat away at the stomach with long term use.

I discovered that the cramps came in waves, and I didn’t have to ride out constant pain, but just wait for each wave to pass. It also occurred to me that when I wasn’t just hoping for the drugs to kick in and make the pain go away, I actually felt like I had more control over it. I alternated between wondering if I could make it, and taking deep breaths, imagining all those muscles unclenching. I remembered that pain is not good for the body and soul. And then reminded myself that accepting pain, and not allowing it to upset me was probably good for me.

I said to Wayne, “I’m using my cramps as a spiritual practice.” I know just how insane that sounds, but I made it through the day without Alleve. For whatever that’s worth.

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