The Hot Cocoa of Peace


I’m thoroughly enjoying a cup of cocoa made by an excellent friend, warmly mulling another cocoa and another excellent friend.

C and I met at the American school in Cairo, Egypt, in the mid-1970’s, and I share this story with her kind permission. I had just moved there and she had just come over from the German school, where she had spent her first five years of school. Her mother was English, a working artist, and her father was American — although his English accent seemed slightly stronger than his wife’s – teaching drama and English at the University.

C told me something which, in this era of rising intolerance and martial rage, gets more interesting all the time…

At the German school, they had cocoa with their morning break. At that time, at least, German children took their cocoa without sugar – more like coffee, really, but milkier and easier on the adrenals. But, every day at 10:30, one of the staff would bring out, on a little silver salver, a sugar bowl and a small spoon, just for the one child who was used to having her cocoa sweet.

It’s a simple story with a lot behind it.

This was less than 30 years after Germany had succumbed to two bitter defeats — an internal one, when they collectively gave in to a meme of hatred and intolerance; and an external one, where they were eventually crushed — despite superior technology and better training — in an epic war.

We lived in a country that had been one of the pivotal battle-grounds of that war. Think of Rommel, the Desert Fox, or google El Alamein.

This one child was the product of their two most bitter recent enemies.  And they were both nuns and teachers, second only to nurses in their capacity for passive-aggressiveness, suppressed rage and murder with a smile.

The way they handled it was this: they taught her the same, scolded her the same, cared for her the same, made accommodations as she learned the language but expected her to finish her homework — and, every day, brought sugar on a little silver salver just for her, so she could mix exactly the right amount of sweetness into her cocoa.

It could have been seen as coddling, and there’s no question that C enjoyed the little feeling of specialness. It could have been seen to spoil her. Instead, it was a demonstration of — well — not just tolerance, not just accommodation, but of real graciousness and decency, a touch of comfort in a foreign environment, and a tiny gift of autonomy inside the regimented life of a strict school.

As it turns out, it was a lesson well learned, because C has always been one of the most gracious and utterly decent people I’ve ever met, while being wholly individual.

She’s also the most adept amateur historian I’ve ever even heard of, one who shows the real sensitivity and love in the word “amateur.” Hard not to be, growing up in such a place, with parents grabbing at life with both hands, as hers did.

But it’s hard for me not to think of an intelligent, middle-aged Teuton with an excellent memory, bringing a little Anglo girl sugar on a salver, without any fuss… and wonder what that added to the mix.

I sit here, wreathed in gentle steam, and wonder what it would take to share my cocoa with all this anguished world. It would be a better place indeed.

And I’d be happy to bring sugar on a salver to anyone who likes it.

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Into hot water.. then cold water.. then hot..

This is a bit odd and I haven’t heard anyone else with CRPS trying it, so I’m just tossing it out to show how weird things can be…

I’m cold intolerant. Absolutely can’t handle it. My body locks up and the pain goes all-body and through the roof.

Can’t take too much heat either; makes me weak and foggy, and can trigger POTS symptoms (in my case, that’s mostly nausea, bloating, dizziness, weakness, lethargy.)

My body temp drops so much when I sleep that I’m cold to the touch. A housemate woke me once when she touched me affectionately as I slept, then found I was so cold that she shook me awake — she wanted to be sure I wasn’t dying. That’s how cold I was.

My first massage therapist, a good friend of mine, insisted I try the hot/cold plunges at Harbin Hot Springs, which happen to be 47 F and 118 F.


I told him that was completely insane and did I need to explain dysautonomia again?

He kept at it, and I finally went there for a few days. I was in bad shape, one of those times when I think I’m not going to live for long because there’s so much that’s so wrong and there’s so little energy left. So there wasn’t much to lose, as far as I was concerned…

At least it’s not an ugly place.

Took two and a half days to work up to it, starting with cool bath/dry sauna, working up to going between intermediate baths, dipping in the really hot for moments, splashing arms then trunk with cold. Eventually I could go for the full plunge. I did 2 full exchanges, and was all right. In fact, I was pretty good. Felt crisp, not chewed.

I went back later and did at least 5 or 6 more (I lost count, truthfully.) By then, I could FEEL my hands and feet as I couldn’t remember having felt them before: exactly where and what and how they were — which was, keenly alive.

I had no pain, no pain anywhere at all, everything was the right color — only a much better shade than I’d seen in years, and my head felt as sparkly as a diamond.

I don’t like to sound over the top, but it was such a feeling of absolute, perfect, poised and healthy ecstasy that words simply fail in the face of that experience.

Being totally pain-free makes us CRPSers high, but this was more than that. Everything worked, from the tiniest microvessel to the least drop of chemical messenger. My cells sang with the bouyant joy of it.

I copyrighted this image… kinda cool. Think I’ll use it as a logo.

I went out to the main pool, actually enjoying the cold roughness of the path on my unharmed feet, and drifted into the “quiet zone”, that is, the temperate pool. Although it’s not etiquette to contact strangers there, an awful lot of people turned to look at me and smile the sweetest smiles. I can only imagine how radiantly happy I looked. I felt that I was glowing brightly enough to light the whole space.

According to my online research, there aren’t many hot springs that have contrast baths at all, let alone to that extreme degree. If they do, they’re awfully coy about it…

I have hopes of a particular roadside hot spring at Yellowstone National Park that runs into a chilly stream. In winter, which it nearly is, that could be worth trying, though it would take a bit of effort.

I’m not sure how slippery it is, what the currents are like, or what sort of work is involved to get from hot to cold. I do have to be mindful of physical damage, until I can really find that cure I’m convinced is just around some corner on my winding path.

We shall see what comes up. I know this is something to add to the repertoire, one of the ingredients to combine into a cure, or something like it.

One more piece of the puzzle… a twitchy, morphing, complex, incredibly irritating puzzle, but one I’m rather stuck with until further notice.

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One for the money, two for the show…

I suddenly got tired of waiting.

I do this: churn up a great idea, spin possibilities, lay in lots of groundwork, get cold feet, get reinspired, hammer down some details, fall apart completely, then say “oh the heck with it, who needs drama, let’s stop dithering and get this done” — and off we go. (Editorial “we” there.)

I’ve gotten nearly all the stuff that I need — vehicle, bedding, cooler, and a power inverter to charge the laptop with.

I’m making a custom map on Google Maps with airports from the halfway point on (in case I need to fly out to make my next doctor’s appointment), campgrounds and national parks along the way, and increments of no more than four hours of driving per day — aiming for one hour at a time, with lots of long breaks.

There is flex built into this that lets me stop for a couple of days when necessary, to rest and reboot. Some days I might drive only two hours, or one. I got my ticket on Southwest so I can change it for free. It’s all progress.

I’m driving across the temperate zone during harvest season, so getting my produce is less of an issue than it would be at any other time.

I’m fed up with the mess in my car so that’s great motivation to thin out and repack.

I found a wonderful site called http://www.reserveamerica.com/ which includes national parks, state parks, and KOA, among others. And there’s always Motel 6 for backup, if I really need walls and a door.

And I’m wondering why I’d delay getting better. I’m off to combine the healing factors I’ve looked into and spend enough time on them to make a lasting difference.

Or not.

In any case, it’s time to try. At least it will leave me in better shape for the winter — always the worst, hardest, bleakest time. Maybe this one will be better..

Let’s find out.

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Remembering and re-membering

I’ve been doing intensive massage and craniosacral therapy for the past few weeks. I’m reminded, of course, that the neurological system extends throughout: bodies have memories. (There is some confusion about how those memories are stored. We’ll figure it out eventually.)

This, in turn, reminds me that the brain is malleable. CRPS changed it,

and if I’m thorough enough, persistent enough, and clever enough, I might be able to change it again.

Persuading the brain to remap itself is a remarkable process, because the brain uses the language of vision and metaphor and it responds most strongly to longing and fear. (This is one reason why mythology is so helpful, given the right story: myths tend to have powerful visual metaphors and visceral emotional force.)

The brain is also a monument to inertia: once it has started going down a certain path, it’s very hard indeed to persuade it to change course. I find I have to be firm, focused, and relentless, and since I also have CRPS-related ADD and periods of unbelievable vacuousness, that’s tricky… (I’m working on how to construct a webpage that has all my tricks and routines easily accessible, so I don’t have to remember what to do when my memory is at its worst. It’s a heck of a design problem.)

One good way to access the central nervous system (CNS) in a way that specifically rebalances some of the most critical areas of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) is through bodywork, like therapeutic massage and craniosacral therapy (these link to my providers — both warmly recommended.) Here are a few of the reasons why.

  • Humans, and other mammals, are hardwired to respond deeply to touch. The “safe touch” of good bodywork is profoundly soothing to the ANS, and since the ANS drives the multi-system dysregulation of chronic CRPS, this is a powerful thing.
  • The rocking motions of massage stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, which has a lasting calming effect.
  • It releases endorphins, which reduces pain and brightens mood.
  • The tissue stimulation improves and stabilizes blood pressure and circulation, major factors with CRPS and dysautonomia.
  • Swelling goes down, as circulation is mobilized.
  • Hyperesthesia (pain to light touch) and allodynia (blunted sense of touch) improve because of something that clinicians call “desensitization”, a hostile sounding word which really means, “developing appropriate sensation.”
  • Hormones stabilize, perhaps due to the improved circulation and more stable ANS.
  • More stable hormones improve mood, reduce pain, and stabilize immune and inflammatory responses.

Therapeutic bodywork does all that. There is no pill or surgery in the world that can come close. Once I get my links sorted out, I’ll rewrite that for the medical blog. The value of good bodywork simply can’t be overstated.

A couple of weeks ago, during several treatments in a row, I had the curious sensation that my right arm and shoulder were being knitted back into my body. I hadn’t realized until then just how completely I had succeeded in shutting them out.

The still, quiet voice inside me indicated that dissociation should be intentional, purposeful, and temporary; if I wanted to be well, it could not be habitual. My inward guidance wasn’t telling me to stop dissociating (that is, mentally and emotionally separating myself from that part of my body), but to do so only when I needed to, to separate from too much pain.

Remaining dissociated is like disowning that part of my body, and I can’t persuade it to do anything when I’ve essentially cut it off. I need to persuade it to heal, and that’s a tall order.

During today’s craniosacral treatment (from the delightful and competent Sonja Sweeney), I remembered standing on the wall of my French-bed corner garden a few years ago, right before I fell off it and smashed my tailbone on the edge of a ramp. Pathetic lavender and dying weeds filled most of the bed, since I hadn’t gotten far with digging it up. Behind the glorious, fragrant, massive rosemary against the back edge, a 20-year-old growth of climbing roses spilled green and pink everywhere.

I had just completed a course of treatment that put my insides in the best shape they’d been in years. My stomach no longer bothered me, I was healthier and stronger, my stamina was better, and I was still inside the five-year mark with RSD.

What’s interesting is that, during this treatment, I was remembering the moment right before I got injured, not right after. My eyes were filled with roses and my nose with rosemary, and I was sketching out great plans for my bit of garden.

As I walked away after my treatment, that quiet inward voice said, “Remember pre-injury, not post injury. Remember that.”

It had to start with the rosy garden, because before the CRPS injury, I was working at Borland and was so involved with my work (which I loved) that I really had no idea how magnificently fit my body was, by the time I got injured. I simply didn’t notice it.

I enjoyed the activities of riding to work and running miles through the redwoods, but when I thought of my body, it was to criticize function, appearance, or both. (Except occasionally when I noticed those legs… :-))

In the rosy garden, I was aware of being better. And that was the point.

My brain needs something to reach for that has inward meaning and emotional oomph, so vague dissatisfaction is not a helpful point of reference. A sturdy inward “YES” is the goal: re-remembering this body, with all attached limbs fully integrated, blood coursing warmly throughout, everything moving and working, and that radiant feeling of blooming health and returning vigor.

I’m 46. I don’t expect feel the way I did when I was 34. But I know 60-year-olds who could kick the ass of me at 34. Being well is not an unreasonable idea, keeping in mind that I’m going forward, not back.

I’m inventing a frame of mind that doesn’t exist yet. Both remembering and re-membering give me important clues as to what it should be. I’m delighted to have figured that out.

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