Julie Franklin, 58, North Manchester lives with fibromyalgia and attended Breathworks' first mindfulness course for pain management in 2001.

Fibromyalgia Awareness Day is May 12th and Vidyamala is taking part in the Fibromyalgia Online Summit from May 12th to 14th.

Julie's Story:

I first started with symptoms of fibromyalgia after I fractured my lower spine, thirty years ago. I was still experiencing lower back pain, some months after an accident, and I began to notice pain in other areas of my body, including upper body pain and pain in my arms and hands. I was in the surgical corset as a result of fracturing my spine, but ongoing pain, as the fracture healed was down to Spina Bifida Occulta.  A consultant recommended surgery on my lower back but was dismissive of the pain in the rest of my body.

The pain across my body worsened. The consultant had dismissed me and my GP was totally unsupportive, telling me that people often got left in pain and I would just have to get used to it. However, I did get a referral to a local Pain Clinic where they called me the 'woman with the mystery pain'.

By this time I was getting very despondent and began to question how much pain I was really in. Consequently I pushed myself through the pain to continue working. I was also experiencing constant headaches, had developed IBS and felt constantly fatigued, along with what I now know as brain fog.

Within months of getting a new job, it became obvious that I couldn't continue working. I was spending all my evenings and weekends in bed. I was also totally disillusioned with the medical profession and started to explore alternative health. I took up yoga, tried to learn relaxation techniques and used massage when I could afford it but I was also still pushing through my pain. As a result, I developed depression. I was becoming so overwhelmed by the pain that it was difficult to see beyond that. I now rarely went to the GP about my symptoms, even though I had been living with them for about eight years.

I attended a course at a specialist pain clinic at Walton Hospital in Liverpool and found the course really helpful, especially mentally. It was the first time I was completely open about all my symptoms and my depression and also the first time I felt the medical profession really took on board how much pain I was in. I came back feeling mentally rejuvenated and with various techniques, including relaxation, to manage my condition more effectively.

Unfortunately, true to form, I didn't take on board the pacing element of the course. I convinced myself that I could go back to work and went into business with my now ex husband. I found being self employed in a demanding business, made it difficult to keep up with all the practices and techniques I had learnt.

When I was forty, my marriage broke down and I had a hysterectomy, as well as having to manage a difficult divorce and ongoing financial problems. I returned to Manchester to be near family and I enrolled on various courses to keep me busy. One day I wandered into the Manchester Buddhist Centre and saw a notice for a day of Mindfulness for people in pain.

After the day, I didn't really understand what Mindfulness was. However, I also came away feeling that I had been told something of importance which if I fully understood could help me see life in a different way. When I got a notification of the first course to be run by Breathworks, I immediately booked.

The course did indeed change my life. I had used various techniques over the years to help with my symptoms but not used them in an integrated way. Breathworks gave me a model to use, underpinned with the idea of Mindfulness. I took to meditation easily after years of practicing relaxation but it was the idea of Mindfulness that transformed how I thought and behaved.

The idea of primary and secondary suffering was integral to that. It helped that eventually I got a diagnosis of fibromyalgia, years after my initial accident. It gave me some insight into all the various symptoms, which I couldn't necessarily do anything about. However, what I could do was stop looking at my body in a negative way and work with it in the Body Scan. This transformed my experience of pain.

Where the pain had always felt solid and overwhelming, I could actually see how the pain differed in intensity and sensation throughout my body. It became something to explore rather than block. As I continued with that exploration I was able to again take pleasure in small things, like the sun shining through a window or the sounds of the birds in the garden. By pushing through the pain rather than simply being with it, I had lost the ability to see that I was more than the pain and if I widened my focus beyond that, there was pleasure as well as pain.

I have continued with a regular meditation practice, and I bring Mindfulness into my day, by being mindful of daily activities like brushing my teeth, brewing a cup of tea or simply stroking my cat and feeling the softness of his fur, and the sound of his purring. I have become much less reactive. I was often angry and irritable, the more pain and fatigue I had. By being aware of my mental states, I can catch myself much earlier and respond more skilfully in whatever situation I am in.

In terms of my Fibromyalgia symptoms, they haven't improved overall, and I have developed respiratory problems linked to it. However, by pacing and having appropriate rest, including stopping to meditate, I can influence my pain levels within a particular day. I am much more aware of the ebb and flow of my pain and fatigue and can respond more creatively, with those and other symptoms. I have a lot of insomnia but rather than worrying about it, I meditate in bed on nights where I am getting little sleep.

I still suffer from depression on and off but because I am much more aware of my mental states, I can be aware of when I am ruminating which makes it worse. I can also see that as with my pain, the depression isn't solid and I am more aware of the nuances of my emotions.

My quality of life has certainly improved since learning Mindfulness. I still have difficult times but I'm also much more aware of the joy in life. Living with a chronic illness isn't easy but it is still possible to have a life enriched by living in the present moment. For anyone living with fibromyalgia, I would advocate learning mindfulness, for through it we can learn the pleasure that is still present, amidst the pain.