By Cynthia Toussaint
I lead a life of contradiction.
I’ve experienced horrific pain, a non-caring medical system, and total loss of the career I felt I was born for. Yet I feel completely blessed.
Twenty-seven years ago, I was a 21-year-old ballerina with a bright future. Then a minor ballet injury in my right leg triggered the chronic pain disease, Complex Regional Pain Syndrome, too often called “The Suicide Disease.”
For the first thirteen years of illness, my doctors told me my physical problems were all in my head. That abuse left me bedridden for a decade and unable to speak for five years while the CRPS spread throughout my body and ravaged my vocal cords. After my disease was diagnosed in 1995 (later I developed fibromyalgia as an over-lapping condition), I enjoyed significant improvement and moved into a wheelchair.
But my anger with my predominantly male physicians gave me the gut feeling I’d been dismissed because I was a woman. I wasn’t alone. Studies show women are more prone to chronic pain diseases and feel pain more intensely than men, all the while receiving far less care. We get sedatives and psychiatric referrals, while men tend to receive serious diagnosis, painkillers and aggressive treatment. Simply put, women hurt more and are helped less.
So I founded the nonprofit, For Grace, to ensure ethical and equal treatment of all women in pain. Our goal is to empower women to become better advocates for their pain care and to declare war on gender bias and the ever-convenient “it’s all in your head.”
Helping women heal and make positive choices has brought a miracle into my life – a physical remission and emotional healing beyond anything I could have imagined. All of this has been triggered by the wisdom I’ve gained from my challenging journey. Bottom line: I attribute my healing to a newfound ability to listen deeply to myself.
Here’s how I nurtured and listened to my own voice:
I began by removing toxic people from my life, even those I loved intensely. This, at first, brought great emotional pain, compounding my physical illness. But I kept going.
Next, I fired my Western doctor who urged invasive therapies I knew were wrong for me. I followed my instincts, the key to my healing, and switched to Integrative Medicine. This gentler approach allows me to partner with my physician and take responsibility for my pain care.
Perhaps most importantly, I began writing my memoir. This helped strengthen my voice and "exorcize" my pain, sorrow and anger, freeing my body's natural healing powers. I strongly recommend daily journaling for women in pain, as it opens the door to their creativity and power to heal. I am a firm believer in the curative benefits of the creative arts – dance, music, art, theater and narrative expression.
After being unable to exercise for nineteen years, I now swim a mile three times a week. I’m singing and playing the piano again. I’m even walking through ballet pas de deuxs for the first time in 30 years! I suspect this is just the beginning.
I embrace my “tragedy” as a great gift; it has taught me to listen to myself. My values have deepened and evolved, forging a wiser and more empathic human being. I know how precious each moment is and on a daily basis, I experience the great reward of helping people. I wouldn’t go back for anything.
Cynthia Toussaint is the founder and spokesperson of For Grace. Toussaint championed and gave key testimony at two California Senate hearings – one was dedicated to CRPS awareness, the second explored the chronic under-treatment of and gender bias toward women in pain. She will spearhead a third hearing in Spring 2010 that will explore the barriers to care that women in pain face. Toussaint is the author of the upcoming memoir, Battle for Grace, slated for release in early 2010. Learn more at www.forgrace.org.