Imaginative experience and rebuilding the brain

In 1986, the course of neurologic treatment changed forever when Mark Block, one severely spine-injured young man, chose “imp-possible” over “impossible” and, every day, spent hours imagining how it would be to walk again, imagining his “wires” getting hooked back up again, riding a wave of inner certainty that can only be called a gift.

 

He mentally rehearsed endlessly. Day after day after week after month.

 

And then, months into his care, he told the nurse, “Watch this,” and made his foot twitch. The first nurse dismissed it as a spasm. The second or third nurse got the doctor.

 

The doctor stood over the foot — really close — and said, “Do it again.” Twitch.

 

“Again.” Twitch.

 

“Again.” Kick.

 

One of the great moments in medicine.

 

Upon discharge, he walked out of the hospital.

Some of the meditations from my pain psychologist are visualizations. They’re made for a mass audience, not for people with chronic illness generally or CRPS specifically, so a certain amount of tolerance with the language is required. (At one point, the narrator says, after a pregnant pause, “Looking good.” Oh for heaven’s sake.)

Fortunately, she’s dropped pearls of wisdom about what’s important in these exercises, so I’m (naturally) mulling over a new set of scripts which attain those ends a wee bit more gracefully. (Of course, the files will be freely available to download.)

The key point is, it’s important to imagine what it feels/looks/smells/sounds like to be really well, really functional, really active, really smart again. Here’s the lowdown:

  • It’s not just a set of images, it’s a multisensory experience that I imagine as clearly as a good memory.
  • It’s important to do so vividly and frequently.
  • It’s important to think of imaginative experience as a good working hypothesis, rather than a hopeless quest or pointless daydreaming.

That’s key. Making it seem real, and not dismissing it afterwards. Over and over again.

That’s how the brain is persuaded — molecule by molecule, link by link, cell by cell — to give up its current structure, which pins so much of the neuro-anatomical, neuro-chemical and neuro-endocrine dysfunction in place.

Then, in many cases — and with suitable support from nutrition, psychological care and physical activity — it’s possible to reverse-engineer a healthier, more functional neuro-setup.

It takes time. It takes dogged persistence. It takes a vivid imagination — which can be developed, if it’s not already there. (Like getting to Carnegie Hall: practice, practice, practice.) Last but not least, it takes a smidgen of luck.

The imaginative experiences, if all goes well, help your neurological structure leap the chasm between what it is and what it should be. It’s an enormous leap of faith to get started, let alone keep going for as long as it takes to rewire such an astoundingly complex structure.

Of course, inner resistance and outer events are liable to leap out and knock us off track, because that’s what they do… and we have to find ways to pick ourselves up and dust ourselves off and get back on track as soon as possible.

It’s a huge job, inside and out — all that leaping.

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But it’s not impossible.

I’ve been mulling experiences that I can imagine failing to do with my current body, but remember doing with my healthy one.  I think I’ll write them out (word-painting at its most precise) and build really great imaginative experiences to come back to, again and again.

Running; sailing; riding; studying; traveling; writing complex books; lecturing on neurology, pain, and healing — you know that’s what I’m thinking about.

What would your imaginative experiences be? What would you leap the chasm for? What could you immerse yourself in, week after week, month after month, maybe year after year, for the chance of pulling yourself up to it?

It’s an interesting question, isn’t it? I have a feeling my list will change with time. As I sit with these imaginative experiences, I’ll see which ones really keep on giving, and which ones were better in theory than practice — and, of course, I’ll find the one I haven’t thought of yet, which will turn out to be key.

At the moment, the hard part is coming back to reality afterwards. That can really suck. But there are ways to deal with that — instant distraction, for instance — and the more I think it over, the more I think it’s worth it.

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Relentless

My pain psychologist is very insistent that 90% of my day has to be predictable. This allows my nervous system to heal and re-stabilize to the extent that it can.

I cannot even fathom that. 90% of my day? Do any of you have those kind of days, ever?

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Pauline Decamps? I’d love to credit this fantastic shot. Correction invited.

She’s been right about everything else so far, so I’m working on it.

Trying to bring stability to any single part of my life brings the inherent instability of life into high relief.

  • Every commute to the doctor’s office is a crapshoot. There’s no knowing just how long it will take, if there’s parking on the other end, whether anything unpleasantly LA will happen along the freeways on the way.
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  • Every trip out of the house, with all the neighborhood dogs and the roads being under construction here, puts the rest of the day on hold until further notice. Especially when my judgment is in the hopper because of pain, dysautonomia, or not being able to eat enough to prevent hypoglycemia.
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  • Every day is a mine field of discovering things I’ve forgotten and have to find a way to deal with, trying to clean up the past while coping with the present and preparing for the future.

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It’s heartbreaking trying to keep up with this, but I can’t stop. This disease never quits. It never gives a break. I must try to keep up.

I thought I was stubborn. I thought I was adaptable. I thought I could be relentless. I have to say, this condition puts me in the shade.

This is one of those articles I wrote to help myself find the nugget of gold. I’m still looking…

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I’m in a very small glass today, but that doesn’t change the scope of work — just what I admit I can do.

This relentlessness, this bitter intransigence, is part of any chronic disease. We find ways to cope, or we don’t make it.

  • I deal with the dietary restrictions by focusing on the wonderful things I can eat;
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  • I deal with weakness by learning to ask for help;
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  • I deal with the pain by focusing on what gives me joy;
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  • I deal with bouts of forgetfulness and confusion by automating as much as possible and using external aids like a whiteboard, checklists, post-its and the apps in my smartphone;
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  • I deal with the heart, lung, and endocrine issues by finding new ways to do things, and rehearsing constant self-control in every single freaking aspect of life.

It just wears on me sometimes. It’s a lot to expect of myself day after day after day after DAY.

Perhaps the nugget of gold is simply taking credit for my imperfect, ongoing attempts to manage an impossible body of work: staying alive and on the right side of the ledger, and trying to make it bearable. It takes some doing, and yet I’m here now. The future terrifies me, but so it goes.

Marathon update:

A bloody pair of athlete’s feet, with ringworm that’s trying to consume my right foot, both fungi profoundly resistant to treatment… Have been joined by an ingrown toenail which looks like a grandchild of The Blob… Which itself is hosting cellulitis.

So I’m off my feet for the most part, wearing slippers when I must walk. I have to knock the cellulitis back by Friday, so the ingrown (which is an outgrowth) toenail (though it’s really the flesh) can be cut away, and part of my nailbed stripped. All those loverly nerve endings…

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It’s going to be a rough weekend. Perhaps I should just have it all cut off, ha very ha. Too bad that makes things worse in CRPS.

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