Before Boot Camp: Fighting Chronic Pain First Before Fitness

This is Part 1 of a two-part story. Before I can write about my next inspiring Good Girl – fitness instructor and health coach, Laura Collins Downing - I first need to explain why it took years to find my way to her. I’ve written about my fibromyalgia in previous blog entries but I haven’t really explained what I needed to work through and how I worked through it. Eventually, after three years, the pain is under control but there was A LOT of trial and error before I learned what works best for me. 

What is fibromyalgia? The definition below pretty much sums it up, though in my mind, it neglects to include the drama, misery, sorrow and despair that go hand in hand with fibromyalgia. Plus, it doesn't say anything about its relationship to chronic inflammation. Prolonged inflammation can lead to all sorts of health problems including cancer so it’s important to get things under control before they spin too far out of control.


Fibromyalgia: a common syndrome in which a person has long-term, body-wide pain and tenderness in the joints, muscles, tendons, and other soft tissues. Fibromyalgia has also been linked to fatigue, sleep problems, headaches, depression, and anxiety * [* add: “all at once”].

‘Tenderness’ – that’s putting it mildly. My pain was so debilitating I could not go a day without a nap. I would wake every morning with one thought and one thought only: when can I get back into bed? How sad is that not to want to embrace each and every day of your life? I could no longer enjoy life’s pleasures – something as straight forward as preparing a nice meal for my family was overwhelming. I could barely unload the dishwasher let alone stand at the chopping board or stove for very long. Reaching up or bending down in the kitchen was torture.  In short, I was miserable. Pain prevented me from doing everything I loved to do. My only joy – and I clung to it like a piece of wood in the ocean – was walking my dogs.

The good news is that fibromyalgia doesn't have to be a crippling disease. In this brief video Dr. Jeffrey M. Thompson of Mayo Clinic explains how you can take charge and reduce your pain and live a happier, more fulfilling life.  His advice is spot on:

1) Reduce Stress - relax, breath, meditate, have fun

2) Get enough sleep

3) Don’t drink - alcohol interrupts your sleep

4) Cut out caffeine and nicotine

5) Exercise - find the right routine for you

6) Pace yourself - “Don’t over-do. Don’t under-do”

7) Eat Healthy Foods

But that’s just a short list – it’s far more complicated. Everyone is different, so it’s important that you follow your gut to figure out what works best for you. Here are some tips of my own that might be useful to you: 

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Be patient with yourself. This is not a quick fix. Ask loved ones and colleagues to be patient with you, too. You are not making this up. Your pain is real and it will take time for your mind.body.spirit to heal. When the healing eventually hits, you will be happier than ever before [I promise].

Take on one challenge at a time. Work through one item on the above list before you move to the next. Surrender and Accept that these are challenges – they are not easy and they are not fun, but it will become more fun as each success makes you happier, more positive, stronger and more confident. Eventually, you will want "the total package" for yourself.

Read up and visualize what each action means to you. Prepare yourself with ways to change your behavior and always remember that change is good and will translate to less pain and a better life.

Don’t set yourself up for failure, disappointment and self-judgment. You already feel rotten enough, so make sure every challenge you choose to tackle is one that you are ready to embrace. That way, you are sure to succeed.

Be realistic. Changing your life is the hardest work you will ever do, but it is also the most rewarding. We are hard-wired to resist change so it really helps to have a meaningful mantra to call upon when the going gets tough. 

Pain made me incredibly grumpy because, well, it hurt... but also because I could not enjoy anything in life. I could not join in bike rides with my son and husband; take fitness classes with my friends; prepare gorgeous meals; garden; host dinner parties; paint landscapes and absorb the beauty that is to be found in the normal, benign every day.  Pain was cutting off all my life lines and this is the mantra I created for my journey to wellness, happiness, and love:

because I love, and love deeply, 

I will love myself enough to change and to heal 

so that I can love more completely.

With my mantra in hand, I attacked my condition from every angle – for a complete mind, body, spirit overhaul. Here’s a summary of the past 3+ years of my life, and how I approached each challenge on the Doctor's list. I took BABY STEPS and I did not - could not - rush through this...

Reduce Stress: relax, breath, meditate, have fun

When I first embarked on my journey to wellness, I could not meditate. Not knowing an OM from an onion, I chose the closest thing to navel gazing calm and stillness that I knew – reading. Instead of taking a nap, I would read. I was resting but I was not sleeping and I was not in bed but in our sunny living room. That was my first baby step. I was doing something that I love and it was relaxing and while I was at it, I was learning how to change my life around. Doesn't sound so bad, right? 

It was during this phase that I devoured the profoundly inspiring Raising Lazarus, the Science of Healing the Soul by Blair Justice and J. Pitman McGehee. [I will definitely write about this book soon]. In short, the book uses Science and Spirituality to prove that we all have the power to rejig our brains. No pill popping required. Just dedication and focus.

Get enough sleep 

Well, this one had my name all over it, so I made sure to do it well. I set up some “rules” to safeguard my sleep… I do not watch t.v. dramas ever – the commercials, noise, violence and freaky plastic surgery jobs on actors are all deeply unsettling and would leave me twitching the whole night through.  I do enjoy BBC period dramas but even Downton Abbey got me all worked up and weepy and pining for England that I was pretty much limited to BBC World News. I've gobbled down every book in The Game of Thrones series and couldn't wait to watch it. No matter how much I love the books and adore Peter Dinklage, who I first saw on the Nikos Stage at Williamstown Theatre Festival, it was not the right choice for a good night’s sleep. I had to remain content with my own movie, the one I had made in my head as I read each book back-to-back. 

Don’t drink: alcohol interrupts your sleep

OK, OK I confess this one was NOT at the top of my list.  It was at the bottom, just above giving up caffeine. But here’s what I did to cut back on alcohol. I first lobbed off BEER as part of going Gluten Free. Oh, how I miss a proper pint and a packet of crisps, but I don’t miss the pain and cramping those wheat-y bubbles bring.

White wine, champagne and rose´ were already off the list as part of natural selection – after living in the south of France for years, too much of a good thing is…well, not a good thing.  

That left me with red wine, but it had to be a New World vintage with an aroma I found to be less “mildew-y” than Old World and the sulfates somehow less sickening [please don’t ask me about the science behind that, but I will investigate it and write about it one day]. Red Wine eventually got the chop as part of total sugar detox and was later kept to a bare minimum as part of a low-glycemic diet. Wine leads to a sugar spike at some inconvenient point in the wee hours and disrupts sleep. Honestly, I would do anything for a good night’s sleep. 

Now, it’s just down to sugar-free-gluten-free-carb-free QUALITY TEQUILLA - on the rocks, or sometimes with fresh squeezed lemon and club soda. If it's party-mode I need to bring my own to a party because it's not usually served. 

One key lesson I needed to learn and incorporate into my life is that barring total abstinence, MODERATION is the key to alcohol consumption. I now drink 0-2 portions a week and it feels just right. If there is a special occasion or a super fun dinner party or a dance floor to trance on, then I allow myself a glorious release, but I follow every big night with a detox for at least a full 7 days afterward.  It’s an equation that works for me now, but I am feeling so good that I am thinking about giving up alcohol for good. [post script: lesson learned since writing this. After de-toxing for one month at the start of the year, I continued to maintain a very low to zero alcohol intake for another two months so it was a VERY bad, and dangerous, idea when after three months detoxing I thought I could have a 'glorious release' big party night out. Guess what, my system can no longer tolerate what it used to. I know, big duhhh, but more on that in a future post that I will link here].  

Cut out caffeine and nicotine

My husband and I quit smoking together, years ago, leaving the much dreaded caffeine detox last on my list. I have written about the misery of it in Good Girl GoGoGo Facebook posts and in my Daily Smalls section and in a blog post. It wasn’t easy, but I am very glad I did it. Eliminating caffeine leads to a good night’s rest, effective pain management over the long term, and a more balanced Acid:Alkaline ratio.

Exercise: find the right routine for you and don’t rush it

It’s really hard to exercise when it causes so much pain. For me, one work out could set me back for weeks. The posture of Grief had really taken its toll on me and I was not aligned and injured easily. It was critical that I start off ‘nice and easy.’ I had a wonderful and caring pilates teacher [Karen Lee] who brought my body back to life from the inside out. After two years on her machines and in her care for two private sessions every week, I finally had a core to engage and the confidence to move into more challenging work outs with Bridget Ford-Hughes. After three years, I did my first Boot Camp with Laura Collins Downing [my next story covers the joys of Boot Camp – yes, JOYS, something I never expected]. 

Pace Yourself: “Don’t over-do. Don’t under-do”

This is really important. Be kind to yourself. Keep striving and don’t give up, but don’t expect too much. I ran into trouble on my “good days” – there was no pain to stop me from doing anything and everything, so I tended to over-do it. I have since learned that “good days” are just that - “good days” and not “days to cram everything in.” 

Eat Healthy Foods

This is more complicated than it appears and requires some dedication to figure out what dietary choices are right for you. For me, it first translated to Gluten Free but I soon discovered that so many Gluten Free products are loaded with Sugar so I knocked them out completely. My diet then morphed into a Complete Sugar Detox [no fruit, sugar, carbs, booze or lentils for 8 weeks. I will write about this in my next blog]. I now happily maintain a low-glycemic-low-carb-gluten-free diet, with only occasional fruit, grains, and lentils. Basically, I eat protein and greens – TONS of GREENS - but let me reassure you, I eat well, very well. Everything is delicious and I am never-ever hungry or craving.

Keep your eye on the prize! Life for me is so different now. I don’t feel as though I am missing out on one single thing and that’s because Pain is no longer cutting me off from living my life. All of these changes, difficult though they were to make, have made me happy again, and that’s a fact. 

I hope this article helps you or someone you love confront and tackle the pain of fibromyalgia or other chronic pain condition. Perhaps it will inspire you to find ways to relieve your own pain or to help another who is in pain. Don't ever give up trying - it really is possible for Brightness and Gratitude to take Pain’s place.