Finding joy and purpose despite pain.
Pain has been a part of Emi Kawase’s life since childhood. Her pain started with daily stomachaches that were followed by chronic headache, and then later compounded by back pain. She didn’t let her stomach or head slow her down. She was always the life of the party and loved going out with friends, even working as a hiphop emcee who performed with live bands. It wasn’t until her early 30s that her life shifted.
The sweet social butterfly turned into a lone wolf after becoming bedridden due to her sudden onset of extreme back pain.
“There were times I couldn’t get out of bed, I couldn’t stand,”
she explains. “Every single activity exacerbates the pain.” Though she doesn’t have a single life-altering event to explain her injuries and pain, that hasn’t kept the journey from having traumatic moments. Emi’s diagnoses went from stomach and head pain to a long list of issues: chronic neck, back, and knee pain; bulging and herniated discs; annular tears; degenerative disk disease; muscle spasms; fibromyalgia; chronic fatigue syndrome; and more.
Like many, Emi, now 35, lost most of her existing friendships when her health declined. “It was like the world turned black, but I learned to care for myself and love myself in a way that I didn’t before,” she says, adding, “I always had boyfriends. That’s why being single is so impactful now because I’ve learned how to make myself happy without having to lean on anyone for it. It’s taught me self-love.” Always positive, compassionate, and creative, Emi has learned to look for the silver linings. “I think every negative situation definitely has positive aspects to it—you just have to look for them.”
REDIRECTING HER PATH
Looking for the positives in pain wasn’t an overnight process. Emi went through a period of mourning that included an intense sadness and crushing anger. “It was like poison in my body that I couldn’t get rid of for a long time,” she explains. Emi knew that no matter how difficult it would be, she had to allow herself to go through the mourning process. She had to feel the anger and accept the pain before she could move forward. “Sometimes grief is about losing yourself and losing who you were. I changed a lot. I feel like a different person.”
Change doesn’t have to be a bad thing. “Sometimes it takes a lot of pain in order to understand the path and direction that your life really should be going in,” shares Emi.
“We shouldn’t be afraid of change. Change is really important and we should embrace it.”
For Emi, allowing herself to mourn the things she lost due to pain led her to be the person she is meant to be. All of her symptoms and suffering have helped mold her into a stronger and wiser version of herself.
Emi remembers how isolated she felt during the darkest moments when she could not even get out of bed. As she was dealing with the personal losses stemming from pain, she was also coping with the loss of friendships she had once believed to be unshakeable. Yet instead of becoming bitter, Emi learned a great lesson: “It is better to be alone for a while and make good friends later than to waste your energy on people who don’t care about you.”
Emi has also struggled with personal disappointments. A new career opportunity excited Emi until the stress and pressure left her so pained and fatigued that she never made it to the job. Her initial instinct was to berate herself as to why she could not do more or better. Feeling like she was constantly failing was frustrating and upsetting. And then she had a moment of clarity. Says Emi, “I just decided that I’m going to stop feeling disappointed!”
Emi then developed a plan. She explains the rules she gave herself: She chose to let go of minor disappointments immediately; for major disappointments, she allowed herself a day to wallow in the hurt before moving forward. It was definitely easier said than done, but this plan helped Emi reach a better place in her new life with pain. “I quit the emotion of disappointment,” she says.
“It’s been amazing and a major weight off of my shoulders!”
Not all in her head
Emi is deeply passionate about raising awareness around chronic pain and mental health issues as she lives with them both. Doctors had a tendency to not take her seriously because of her mental health history, and the diagnosis interfered with her quality of care. “Doctors were scared to prescribe pain medications,” she confides. Though her mental health history impacted her care, it also changed how she viewed medicine as a whole.
“Modern medicine is really limited in helping people with chronic conditions,” explains Emi. “My stress was making me sicker, and my regular doctors weren’t making those connections.”
Emi isn’t alone. A 2005 study in the journal Psychiatry found that chronic pain patients are four times more likely to suffer from anxiety and depression, and more recently Japanese researchers wrote in the September 2019 Journal of Neuroscience that there appears to be a molecular connection between chronic pain and depression. Despite these well-researched relationships, Emi’s doctors didn’t see how her emotional health, trauma, and abuse were all contributing to her struggle with pain. Emi’s biggest mental health hurdles were directly related to stress. “I can’t express how bad stress is for the mind and body,” she says. “I purposefully try to avoid stress whenever possible.” She now understands that taking care of herself is a vital ingredient to living a productive life with chronic pain.
Creative and compassionate solutions
Emi discovered that, for her, self-care meant learning more about herbs, supplements, aromatherapy, chiropractic care, physical therapy, and myofascial massage. “All of these things ended up changing the course of my recovery,” she shares. Adaptogens, herbal pharmaceuticals that can help short-circuit the body’s stress response, have allowed her to become a functional person living with pain. She believes so strongly in them that she now makes her own, including skincare products, and hopes to one day turn it into a full-time business.
Part of her improvement has come from self-declared “improv therapy.” During Emi’s worst days when she was unable to get out of bed, she found a way to release stress by turning the camera on herself. “I stopped looking at my bed as a prison and created a stage,” she shares. “I pretend to be someone else in a made-up situation and then put it on YouTube, under the alias Magenta Spikes.” It has made a world of a difference in her well-being. “I call it improv therapy because it really allows me to get my emotions out. I feel better and more accomplished after.”
Her improv therapy has also opened doors for her as an actress. She has been hired for small acting jobs and background roles, and even was part of a sketch on Saturday Night Live. While she enjoys these opportunities to express herself, it does put a lot of pressure on her body physically, so she is cognizant of her limitations and paces these acting opportunities.
Emi is very in tune with her body and her new life with pain. “I still miss who I was,” she admits. However, she has accepted her pain. Knowing it will be a part of her life has allowed her to take responsibility for her own care and happiness. “Don’t get stuck in mourning and anger, or holding on to who you were. You could miss out on who you are meant to become.” She has embraced her new life with pain and wants others to make peace with their pain as well. “Keep doing things that help you move forward toward a better future!”
Emi K. Wellness: @emikwellness on Instagram and Facebook
Magenta Spikes YouTube: bit.ly/2nIOG0E
U.S. Pain Foundation: uspainfoundation.org
National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI): nami.org