Health: Woman who takes the strain out of pain

Thousands of sufferers have reason to be grateful that Marie Langley refused to heed doctor's orders. By Heather Welford
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The Independent Culture
IT HAPPENED 10 years ago, but Marie Langley can still remember her consultant's words. "He looked at my notes and saw I'd already had spinal surgery and so on. Then he simply said: `Well, there's nothing I can do for this at all. You'll just have to go away and learn to live with it. Off you go now.'"

The "it" Mrs Langley had to live with was constant, grinding pain, the legacy of a bad fall almost five years before. She had slipped on a highly polished floor at the primary school where she was a teacher. She was left facing permanent physical disablement and life in a wheelchair. "After three years I went back to work - but I couldn't manage. It wasn't anything to do with the wheelchair. It was the pain."

Looking at Mrs Langley now, wheelchair-bound but confident, lively and smiling, it is hard to believe that she was ever ground down by depression, anxiety and pain. But hearing the consultant dismiss any shred of hope triggered an overwhelming depression that led to suicidal feelings.

"I know now that the emotional pain of despair makes physical pain even worse," she says. "Keeping up the facade, hiding the pain and depression from other people, is exhausting. I have found that tackling that emotional pain can be the first step to coping with the physical sort."

Now Mrs Langley, 65, runs Unwind, a non-profit-making international network of support for pain and stress, publishing tapes and books used by thousands of people, and their medical advisers. She is in daily contact with sufferers through her helpline, with other support groups and with physicians and surgeons all over the world.

Mrs Langley's work developed out of her own struggle to find a way out of her pain, knowing that the medical route was closed. With the constant support of her family, she read about some of the mainly American techniques of pain management. She learnt about relaxation techniques to cope with stress and anxiety and researched whole areas of complementary medicine and self-help systems.

The list of therapies she draws from is vast. She uses, among others, aromatherapy, reflexology, massage, visualisation and colour therapy. "The crucial one is relaxation. I use it all the time, literally. I don't have to think about it. It has become second nature."

She stresses that, while she no longer needs painkillers, she's not against drugs. "Unwind works with doctors, hand in hand with drug therapy, when it's needed. But the crucial thing is that self-help can put the sufferer in control of the pain, and not the other way round."

She explains: "What works for one person may not work for another person. And when you're in any sort of pain, you can suffer setbacks; you can feel nothing anyone can say to you is any good. You've tried everything, and nothing helps. Giving someone a way out of hopelessness can be the first step."

Mrs Langley's background in teaching at primary school has helped her develop her materials. A four-part series of Break Free books, each focusing on one aspect (depression, anxiety, pain and negative thoughts), gives sufferers a highly practical step-by-step strategy. "Sometimes, you need to tunnel your way through the pain, but you can only do it in tiny stages," says Mrs Langley. "Sometimes, people just aren't ready to do it. I can sometimes tell in their voice, if they are on the phone, that the time isn't right for them. But we keep in touch, and it may happen later."

Mrs Langley's aim is that doctors will recommend other treatments to patients rather than sending them away without hope. "Things have really changed in the last 10 years, but people still end up thinking there's no way out. I'd like to see more doctors give patients a list of resources where they can get help for themselves. Why can't they say: `I'm really sorry we can't take this any further, but here's something you can do for yourself.' "

For Unwind's self-help programmes, send an A5 sae to 3 Alderlea Close, Gilesgate, Durham DH1 1DS