Kate Brown met Tim Miller the day she walked into his tai chi class. It was while learning the movements of the ancient practice that she also learned she had much in common with her instructor.
Brown and Miller both live with chronic and long-term pain and through their newly formed support group, they are hoping to help both themselves and others who live with pain on a daily basis.
“I am hoping to share knowledge and receive knowledge for different coping strategies that others with chronic pain share,” she said. “Living with chronic pain is isolating and can be very depressing, and it is my hope that this support group will bring people suffering with pain a common ground where they feel heard and accepted.”
Ten years ago, Brown was a busy single mom when her life took an unexpected turn: while in a meeting with colleagues she suddenly lost the ability to speak.
“I thought at first I was having a stroke,” said Brown. “I couldn’t speak and couldn’t get a clear thought. It was difficult to maneuver my body and all I could do was cry. I was so frightened.”
She wasn’t having a stroke, but getting to the root of her problem would prove difficult until her doctor finally sent her to an internal medicine specialist in Vancouver who diagnosed her with chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia.
What followed was a long and intense series of testing at UBC hospital, with Brown’s specialist working closely with both her neurologist and family doctor.
“They were supportive in helping me get my life back on track within the parameters of a long-term disability,” she said.
Brown said her illness involves an overactive immune system and central nervous system disorder along with cognitive dysfunction. Fibromyalgia causes localized areas of tenderness typically above muscles, tendons or bones that hurt when pressed. People with fibromyalgia often have 11 or more out of a possible 18 tender points. Brown has all 18.
And because of the central nervous system disorder, many of her automatic bodily responses don’t function properly.
“You would not be able to tell this by looking at me unless my words came out garbled or I staggered when I walked, or after you spoke with me I was unable to respond to you,” she said. “You might think I was rude if it appeared that I interrupted you, but actually the rhythm of a regular conversation is difficult for me.
“You wouldn’t see that when I try to lift my leg I stumble because it doesn’t lift automatically, or that I need to park in a disability space because the floor in the mall is uneven. Or that the lights or noise in a crowded place make it intolerable for me to be there.”
For Brown, she has learned to live her life in increments, choosing when and how she can complete certain tasks, from something as simple as washing dishes to getting out and buying groceries.
“I have learned to ask for help when I need it. And most importantly to surround myself with people that are supportive and understanding.”
Miller’s pain began in 2010 when he and his wife, Colleen, were in a car accident on Highway 97 in Spallumcheen, involving a truck and a school bus.
“They thought we were dead,” said Miller, who suffers from pain in his neck and back. “We were lucky to survive, but when I got hurt, I went from full on working and then being stopped in my tracks. So it’s not just the accident, it’s what is left behind afterwards.”
The owner of a detailing shop, Miller’s accident left him unable to work, but he started going into the gym for strength-training.
He also started teaching tai chi, and that has played a large role in helping him to regain heath and mobility, although he still lives with daily pain.
“It does everything — it works the mind, soul, body and it brings relaxation,” he said. “I was on 20 pills a day to start, and the exercise helps so much, you get the serotonin increased — I get on a machine and do cardio and it helps so much.”
Miller has found a number of treatments have proven helpful in treating his pain, including rhizotomy, a treatment that uses needles to numb the nerve and prevent pain signals from reaching the brain.
Both he and Brown give credit to their family doctor, Dr. Tanja Redelinghuys, for not only her skill but also her empathy.
“She is one of the best,” said Miller. “She is amazing.”
Meanwhile, they are hoping the monthly support group will provide a safe place for others living with chronic pain.
“We want to bring information to people because people look at you and they label you, so we want people to feel safe.”
The Pain Management Support Group will meet the second Wednesday of every month from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. at the Schubert Centre, except stat holidays. For more information, please email Brown at email@example.com or Miller at firstname.lastname@example.org