I’ve lived with chronic pain for nine years now—and counting. Every second of every minute of every hour of every day of every week of every month of every year, I’ve been in excruciating pain—the kind of pain that only a select group of people understand. No matter what I do, or not do, the pain is with me. Even at 4:00 a.m. while I am sleeping, a part of my mind is aware of the pain coursing through my joints, muscles, spine, and brain.

Like everyone with severe chronic pain, it affects every aspect of my life: work, relationships, physical health, mental well-being, and overall life quality. I had to quit my job. My relationship with my fiancée was strained almost to the breaking point. Myriad side effects and secondary challenges cascaded through my body, creating systemic ill health that spread far beyond the original pain source and into virtually every cell.

Perhaps worst of all was the mental suffering: not only was life over as I knew it, but my future seemed bleaker still. I was certain I was on an inexorable downward trajectory that would prevent me from achieving (or even attempting to achieve) my hopes and dreams, and I even came to wonder if life itself was worth living.

My own chronic pain journey began on a Monday, a day that I’ll never forget. I was an intensely active and athletic person. To that point, I’d never suffered a serious injury—not a broken bone, torn ligament, or surgery of any kind. I was in my early thirties and didn’t think about injury or pain at all. In hindsight, I realize I was pushing my body too hard. But it didn’t seem that way at the time.

The day that will live in infamy started with an hour of weight training at 7:00 a.m. That morning, I bench-pressed 225 pounds repeatedly, despite weighing only 147. I vividly recall doing “one rep too many,” straining and arching to push up that last rep. At lunch, I joined a pickup soccer game taking place on a field near my workplace. After work, I went for a grueling five-mile run, outdoors, on trails and gravel roads, up and down steep hills. As I crossed the “finish line” of my run, there happened to be a game of volleyball that included some of my friends. Still drenched in sweat from the run, I jumped into the game, twisting, leaping, spiking, and diving until sundown. That night, before bed, I did thirty minutes of yoga postures—far too aggressively. To cap it off, I was sleeping at a friend’s house on a mattress that was old and saggy.

The next morning, I awoke in excruciating pain. That began my long journey into the medical system and the depths of despair. It took two years to find a doctor who correctly diagnosed me. Most of that time I spent curled up in a ball in my bed, barely able to function between endless doctor appointments and medical tests. Eventually, it was determined that I had a rare injury: I’d stretched and torn multiple ligaments in my right sacroiliac joint. Alas, there was no treatment, surgery, or cure for this particular injury.

Secrets of Thriving with Pain

Seven years later, my formerly bleak outlook is decidedly different. Although the physical pain persists, I’ve reclaimed my life. My work is exactly what I want it to be, our relationship has never been better, and my body—while hardly a bastion of perfect health—has at least stabilized at an acceptable level. Most importantly, I’m wiser, happier, and in the best mental and spiritual health of my life.

The best news: no miracle drug, treatment, or surgery has found its way to me. Instead, I’ve regained my functionality and joy through a series of simple, integrated steps that together have synergistically allowed me to thrive as never before.

How can this possibly be good news? Because no magical, silver-bullet cure is required to reclaim our lives, anyone can do what I’ve done. Nor is most of what we’ll discuss particularly expensive. The majority of this program is either free or involves redirecting the same (mostly medical) expenses we’re already incurring into more productive directions. No matter what ails you or how much pain you’re in, your road to a flourishing life is wide open.

The secret to thriving with chronic pain is to simultaneously engage it physically, mentally, and spiritually. Each small, achievable decision and practice works together and reinforces the others. The end result is success on all levels of your being.

Which brings me to perhaps the key to making this program work: we must abandon magic-bullet thinking, usually detrimental to our long-term well-being. “Magic-bullet thinking” is the belief and obsessive pursuit of a single medical, emotional, or even religious “cure” for our pain. Our hope is that this one thing, whether it be a medication, procedure, bodywork, cathartic psychological realization, or religious experience, will easily or instantly cure our pain. This seldom happens.

Some might feel this is a disappointing, even pessimistic, view. Far from it. Optimism is a critical aspect of the program. Authentic optimism is grounded in reality and then guides us toward making positive decisions at every fork in the road. I’ll explain more about the nature, benefits, and practice of optimism later in this book.

Abandoning magic-bullet thinking frees us for real, lasting solutions to come into our lives. Instead of constantly chasing—and then being disappointed by—every new “fix” that comes our way, we exit this emotional roller coaster, taking the positive aspects of many different approaches to pain management. I’ve found that with magic-bullet thinking, we are often too quick to dismiss, or allow to lapse, ideas and practices that offer some benefit because we’re disheartened that they didn’t completely remove our pain. This way, we build an overlapping arsenal of positive tools that allow us to do more than cope with the pain; instead, we thrive.

In a way, the result is magic—just not in the way we expected.