Updated: Aug 30
By: Kenneth Mortensen
Where it started
Let’s go straight to my childhood, where it all began.
From very early on, an underlying feeling of unease was lingering. I had of course no idea what this was, other than feeling worried, anxious and alone. Something was constantly “off”. I simply did not feel good enough. This basically ran my life from a very young age, into the adolescent years, which were very hard, and into young adulthood. I did not fit in and felt awkward. I did not feel safe either, especially at home, having parents who struggled in their own way and were unable to give their children unconditional love. In school I was an easy target, often at the end of the bullying stick. It took many years before I was able to put the pieces together to understand myself and my life.
DISC HERNIATION YEARS
Fast-forwarding to the birth of the physical pain years.
After a walk in the woods in my early 30s, pain started developing in my lower back. It got so bad that my chiropractor decided an MRI was needed, here the very first “severe” herniated disc was discovered.
It was a confusing period, but I quickly learned that this was very serious. I was more and more overcome by fear. Then followed visits to a number of specialists, aiming to figure this out and “fix” the pain. A strict exercise regime (especially for the core muscles) was also introduced. To be fair, there was improvement for a while, as I was very dedicated in the process.
A few years later, in the midst of a workout, a sudden jolt of pain hit the lower back. This one was terrifying in the moment. I panicked.
The following days…weeks…months…well actually years, were filled with severe lower back pain and numbness and radiation in the legs. Accompanied by Fear. The big F!
This was now running my life.
In desperation I tried everything you can think of; doctors, physiotherapists, chiropractors, osteopaths, naprapaths, specialists in hospitals, healers etc. And of course, all the pain killers… I know now that all these visits, all these professionals, were only keeping two things alive: 1. The fear. 2. The pain. Why? Because there was a 100% focus on the structural “problem”.
A decision was made, partly by the medical world and partly by me: My lower back was weak, and this was a problem I would need to live with for the rest of my life.
I must say, there are wonderful people in the medical world, who really want to help, and are also very knowledgeable in doing so. Some of this help has even been really valuable. In regards to acute pain and injuries we are extremely fortunate in the western world.
When it comes to chronic pain, sadly, we have a long way to go.
Too often do we only look at the one part of the puzzle, meaning a structural origin to pain. This cannot possibly paint the full picture.
LET’S TALK ABOUT FEAR AND IDENTITY
Fear caused me to be constantly cautious. A weak lower back is in need of protection, so my life now revolved around this.
My identity had changed. Not just for me, but for everyone around me. I became “Kenneth with back pain”. In a way, this identity was comfortable, because I wanted everyone to acknowledge my pain. I needed their sympathy! Little did I know that this only helped to maintain the pain.
A few years after the last severe disc herniation founding, the pain was so unbearable that I needed to do something. I was desperate. Through a friend I discovered an expert of artificial disc replacements at a private clinic in Norway. He had a wonderful reputation, so I went to him. I placed all my trust in the good doctor. I also believed him when he said that my two lowest vertebral discs were defective, and I was born that way. It was genetic.
We decided to go ahead with the surgery to replace my discs. This was not covered by any insurance, so I needed to pay from my own pocket (20.000,- USD). But I had no choice, and made it happen.
The whole process was actually quite freeing in the moment. I was ready to die if this did not work, as I was exhausted. I felt it in my whole system.
I woke up after the surgery, and felt I was in very good hands. I still trusted the process of the surgery and the time that followed…but the pain was not gone.
I was shattered. Why was I not getting better??
Let me try to describe the physical symptoms; All-consuming.
Sitting for longer periods was a major problem, with pain radiating down both legs, accompanied by numbness and lack of strength. Standing still for longer periods was even worse. It felt like my whole back was on the verge of collapse and both legs were disappearing from under me. Standing still when talking to other people was extremely taxing, and all I wanted to do was to end the conversation quickly and move away. Did I mention my personally type is being a huge people-pleaser? This stopped me from leaving. So I instead stood there and endured the pain, only to collapse shortly after.
Trying to sleep at night…no surprise that this as quite demanding. Tossing, shifting position almost every 30 seconds. Lying on my back for too long, on any side for too long, or on my stomach for too long, it did not work. I could not win this one. It was a constant battle. It normally ended with me passing out in the end due to pure exhaustion, only to wake up again to more pain.
Many nights I pondered if I should call the emergency line. The mental part of it was horrible, asking questions I did not know how to answer. For example, if this situation right here was dangerous or not, am I going to lose sensation in my legs now or not, if I do not call now, will something forever be messed up etc… The mind is so tricky.
Once I went down that road of terror, I was caught up in the endless stream of catastrophic thoughts. This battle on the inside was so hard. And so lonely. So I can relate to everyone who go through something similar.
Side note. After a car accident quite a few years back, I also suddenly started developing heavy neck pain, that never seemed to go away. This was incredibly strange because there were no big findings on MRI (I took a lot of them).
How did it all fit together?
JOB AND SOCIAL LIFE
I had a desk-job since I was a young adult, working with computers. I liked my job, but it was sedentary 8 hours a day, including at least 1 hour in the car. Sitting for so long each day became a huge problem. To cut it short, in the end I started dreading going to work. For a long time I tried to hide the pain from colleagues. Quite often I sneaked out into the bathroom only to lie on the floor to get my legs up the wall, desperate for relief.
I got good at avoided social settings, including visiting friends and family. I was extremely worried that it would only trigger more pain, as being with other people usually required me to sit for longer periods of time. I also felt I had to try to “act normal” - as if I was in no pain. Oh, and I am also an introvert, a perfect combination with pain in a social setting!
Let’s visit shame. There is one time though that stands out, when my son was quite young. On the day his birthday there was a family gathering at a restaurant, where, of course, we sit for a looooooong time. I dreaded it even before we went there, but I knew I had to endure it. I love my son more than anything in my life, he is my everything. That is probably the hardest part about this whole journey where I have seen how my life has affected him, and the things I have been unable to do with him due to the pain running the show.
Towards the end of the birthday party, my back was screaming, and I could not take it anymore. I had to get up and leave. I had to get out of there. I felt so bad, but I also had no choice. I will never forget the feeling of “failing” in that moment.
It was a lonely journey. I felt no one understood how bad it really was.
The fear of making the pain worse drove me crazy. If I seemed to be having a good day, I was sure it was only a matter of time before it got bad again. I was waiting for it. And of course, voila.
I know today that I ran my body into fight or flight, only creating more tension.
The same applied to my training, where I both consciously and unconsciously caused tension in my own body because I was preparing myself mentally and physically for "the pain is about to show up!". The strange thing here was that I felt I was doing everything right. For years I stretched, I became very flexible, I gave my body great relief, developed strong core muscles... and yes the surgery too. But… nothing worked. Why?!? The frustration was overwhelming.
There was a gradual process of self-study, especially after I started to practice yoga in 2012. The journey of going inside and no longer always seeking outside of myself for all the answers, was a huge change. I really wanted to find out how it was all connected.
Little by slowly I started to alter the way I looked at myself, and life itself. I started to chip off pieces that were holding me back in my life. I started to dig deeper into patterns that I had carried with me from childhood. And most importantly, I started to look at myself with more compassion.
I was so used to being hard on myself. Never satisfied, there was always something missing. This underlying feeling of something being missing, being off… I finally found out why.
I had never felt that I was enough.
Because I had never received unconditional love from my parents. This was huge. A revelation! I had fought so hard - to be loved - to be seen. Again and again I craved and I craved and I craved! The craving left me empty. Filt with rage! Most of all sad. And I had never grieved that sadness. Not until I understood this so many years later did I grieve. Not in order to blame. But to give myself what I needed - Now. Compassion. Self Love. Unconditional understanding and Love.
All of this took time. Oh how many years I spent walking into the dark pit of the forest, and in no way can I walk out in just one day. Hey, I am still walking. This Life with all its vastness of feelings is never done. I am challenged every day. The difference now is that I am much more aware.
The slow emergence of a new understanding started to change everything, including how I practiced yoga and how I moved in all my exercises.
I started approaching myself (including what I did not like) in a more friendly way. Curiosity led the way, supported by a strong center within. A calm center.
I knew now more than ever - that what had kept me in pain was the Fear. Being stuck in fear because my body was never safe.
Being constantly in fight or flight means the body does not feel safe. Correction: The Brain perceives unsafety for the body. The brain and the body is deeply connected. Well, it is actually just one system. So, what did I need to do? I needed to tell my brain that I was safe. How could I do this? By sending the message over and over and over. Mentally, emotionally and physically. I started to develop a practice to soothe my nervous system, for healthy outlet of stuck emotions, and for sweet tension relief.
My oh my was this revolutionary for my system.
MY TRUE IDENTITY
After the journey of deeper awareness started, there was a question I truly loved to ask myself. And I still do.
Who am I?
Leading into… What is my identity - I mean, my true identity? More on, how can I be freed from all my preconceived feelings about myself and all other people? How stuck am I or how free am I? How authentically connected am I to my true self? How honest can I be with myself? What emotions do I repress? Which feeling do I not dare look at? What have I not processed well enough? Oh and…how whole am I really?
This has been so important to me. To pose all these questions. My people-pleasing strategy from a very young age was a strategy to survive because I did not feel safe. So I needed other people to accept me. This was actually my brain’s way of looking out for me. But there would come a time when this would back-fire.
Growing up, I “learned” that other people's opinions meant more than my own. My emotions got repressed and actually stuck. What I did not know at the time, as that rage was also brewing on the inside. No wonder tension constantly was built up in my body. Now I see. And when I see - I can do something about it.
During an inspired period, born by my studies of self and yoga practice, I found myself embarking on a 200 hour Yoga teacher training in Mexico back in 2014. This is when my life really started to shift, slowly but surely. I found invaluable tools, new ways to approach and treat myself. Also in relation to my troublesome lower back.
I started questioning so much more! Especially my unconscious thought patterns. These automatic responses that are so often born from early childhood and here the brain learned how to protect the system of young Kenneth.
It as now time to unravel this.
I learned a huge thing: If I put a label on my sensations as “something negative that needs to get rid of” then I only intensify the symptoms.
A constant need to fix will only re-inforce the need to fix, feeding the brain alarm signal after alarm signal.
I learned that I don’t have anything to prove to anyone. And I certainly don't need to maintain any identity concerning my lower back!
I learned that I am enough.
I learned that I am so much more than my back. I am me.
What I found on my journey also benefited the students in my classes. Especially how I saw myself with new eyes. The more compassion I had for myself, the more compassion I had for everyone around. My relationships became increasingly authentic. I started seeing deeper underneath the layers, past their identities, past their external layers. I learned to tap into my true Source, and made a huge discovery. I started seeing my wounds and my pain as a gift.
MORE ON SELF COMPASSION
It is so easy to play a victim role, to have someone and something to blame. Not just with chronic pain, but no matter what I go through in life. What is certain is that playing a victim role will "unfairly" ask others to pity me. This will actually help keeping me stuck in victim mode. It only causes more suffering and more tension in my body. Creating awareness around my entire life, and knowing that how I choose to react from a given situation or condition will actually determine how I feel. This became part of the key to recovery, taking my Power back.
There needs to be Acceptance. And this is not a passive statement. It is a realization that will set me free. What if…I can be here right now, in this moment - and accept everything in my circumstance? What if I say…this is how it is. Right now. Instead of fighting it, I realize and accept that it is what it is. It does not need to be ok. But it is allowed to be - without resistance.
In that moment I am able to have a friendly look at all the parts of me that I don’t necessarily like. Parts of my life situation that I would want to change, is for a moment, allowed to exist without the need to alter it.
We are talking about a moment here - of fresh air. Of Space. If I can, just for a moment, sit with what is - allow without the need to fix or alter, what happens is something Magical is created: