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Chronic Pain

Martha Beck's Fight Against Fibromyalgia

Life coach Martha Beck lived in pain for 12 straight years.


Martha Beck,

Ph.D., a preeminent life coach, author, and columnist for O, The Oprah Magazine, lived in severe pain for 12 years. From the time she was 18 to when she was finally diagnosed with fibromyalgia, she suffered from debilitating pain that doctors—and even some of her own family members—were convinced was "in her head."

Martha Beck,

Now 46 and nearly pain free, Beck is on a mission to help others recognize the symptoms of fibromyalgia, a chronic pain disorder that affects an estimated 2% of the U.S. population.

When did you first start suffering from fibromyalgia?

I was a very hyper, high-achieving teenager who had just finished my freshman year at Harvard. I was running about 100 miles a week at that time. One day when I was running, I was sideswiped by a car. Fibromyalgia often starts with a trigger, and this was mine. The doctor told me, "Lie down until the pain stops." Well, it didn't stop for 12 years. It's excruciating pain that feels like ground glass in your muscles.

Since you weren't able to get a correct diagnosis, did your family members doubt you?

Absolutely. Once when I was pregnant and very sick, my (now ex-) husband called his mother. She said, "Martha's just a whiner. If she's really sick, she'll get herself to the hospital." I got a lot of that. So I started not mentioning the pain to anyone.

Was the pain constant?

It ebbed and flowed. That's good in that I had good days. But it was also awful, because just when I thought it was over, the pain would come back, worse than ever. Stress made the pain worse. Life coaching was psychologically fulfilling and thus decreased the pain a bit.

As soon as I was diagnosed and started treatment I started to get a lot better. I get a lot more sleep now, I exercise, I constantly ward off stress, and I take medication. What I love about the non-medical approaches is that even if not all of them work, all of them will help you be healthier in general.

Why does stress bring on the pain of fibromyalgia?

It's not well understood. But the pain receivers in the brains of people with fibro are more sensitive. We don't know which way the causality runs. Does this sensitivity cause the pain, or did the pain cause the sensitivity?

I now consider fibromyalgia a great blessing. It's like having a sensitive compass—if I turn in a direction in life that is not going to be good for me, I immediately start to feel a little pain.

Don't you feel bitter about the time you lost and the people who didn't acknowledge what you were going through?

I would never use the word "bitter." I feel sad sometimes. I want your readers to know about the website I'm working on with the National Fibromyalgia Association. It's KnowFibro.com. When I look through the informatio and think that if I had read it when I was 18 I could have had a life during my 20s, I feel sad.

But I'm going skiing today. I'm 46. A lot of my friends say they feel worn down. The way I look at it is that I was parked in the garage for all those years, so I have a lot more life left in me.

Are you a better life coach for having had these experiences?

It's what got me into life coaching! I was too stressed out in the academic world. My pain was overwhelming when I tried to be a professor—not because I didn't like teaching, but because of the atmosphere. I had to figure out what I really wanted to do.

Do you have any advice for managing stress in the midst of the economic crisis?

Live 10 minutes at a time. A day at a time is too long. Nothing that frightening can happen to you in the next 10 minutes. In fact, most of what frightens you happens in your head—it's all fantasy. Those terrifying thoughts about the future rarely come true.

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