Back in what now seems like a lifetime ago – 2003 – I was lucky enough to be travelling through India. Although I had no way of knowing at the time, that trip would change my life forever. But not in the way you might expect.
After cleaning my teeth with water from a Mumbai tap – an act, ironically, so innocent and unremarkable in its dailiness – I became severely ill, overwhelmed with uncontrollable vomiting and diarrhoea.
My then boyfriend and I managed to make it to Goa where I spent two months in hospital. Unable to hold down solid food, I lost two and a half stone in eight weeks. It transpired that a water-born parasite – which I came to call Keith – entered my gut and, as a doctor explained, trashed the place. I was prescribed incredibly strong antibiotics designed to flush Keith out which I had to take constantly; for two months I consumed medication all the time, and it wreaked havoc with my insides.
By the time I got back to Bristol digestion had become hugely problematic. Everything I ate caused me pain and the anxiety that developed around that most basic human need was immense. I was signed off work for six months, bed-ridden and in agony most days.
I had tests upon tests upon tests and tried treatments of all kinds, none of which ever explained what was happening to me or alleviated my symptoms. It was devastating. I was in chronic pain but no one could tell me why, what to do to make it stop or, worst of all, if it ever would.
Eventually I was told by a doctor that I had post-infectious Irritable Bowel Syndrome and that this was something I just had to manage. Those words, “You just need to manage it,” delivered by someone in a position of authority, landed like a punch. The blow left me reeling.
So this was was my life now. It was like the person I’d been before India no longer existed. I left her in Mumbai and now I was Sophie Fagan, sufferer of chronic pain, carrier of Keith-related damage, continuously reliving a life-changing trauma. I didn’t know where my pain stopped and I began; we became one and the same. Worse still, I felt I had to wear a mask of bravery, to hide my fear and desperation from a world that still wanted me to be the Sophie it knew and had expectations of. I was afraid, overwhelmed with loneliness.
And then I started training as a holistic massage therapist and something began to shift. As I embarked on the journey that led me to where I am today, I came to understand the importance of self-care and compassion and the path I was taking through chronic pain began to change direction.
Receiving massage is an integral part of training and I found the experience of nurturing touch calmed both me and my pain right down, like someone had reduced the volume on my symptoms. I was able to reconnect with my body in a different, more positive way. I saw that my body could be a space for relaxation, not just the vehicle for trauma and chronic pain I felt it had become.
On a physiological level a cascade of changes happen in the body when calming, ‘feel good’ hormones are released into your system. Your breathing pattern changes, muscles that hold tension you may not even know they’re holding learn to relax and let go. This is a powerful feeling, especially when, as is the case for many sufferers of chronic pain, your body is always holding on, always in fight, flight or protection mode, waiting for the next wave of pain or even worse, resigned to its constancy.
Massage can be a way to give your body a break and take a holiday from your pain. Massage can say to your body, It’s OK, you don’t have to run now, you can relax and just be, your pain is not all that you are.
As a therapist I treat many clients who suffer from chronic pain and it’s an honour to help them reconnect with themselves in this way. With me they don’t have to cope, they can leave their masks at the door. I can meet them where they’re at and allow them some precious time and space in which to simply breathe and be.
If you or anyone you know suffers from chronic pain and would like to find out more about holistic massage then please feel free to get in touch. Remember that you’re not alone and you don’t have to suffer in silence.
With love, Sophie. X