Mental toolkit for overwhelming times

As I’ve said before, much of brain-retraining has to do with speaking to the primitive parts of the brain in ways it can’t ignore.

Being overwhelmed is very common these days. So, this tool is helpful for far more than just  my fellow painiacs. I originally laid this out for someone else dealing with very different issues, and realized as I did so that it was a darn good tool and I’d have to remember it for myself. It has already been a help to me, so I hope it helps others as well.

The State of Overwhelm

I can tell when I’m in the state of Overwhelm because life is just a big old mess of decisions and problems and unresolved issues which are so toweringly massive they stop making sense. My usual ability to sort and prioritize and manage information freezes up, and my brain skids off into the ditch.

pencil and ink wash drawing of WW 1 red cross van sliding backwards off a mountain road

Once I’m in Overwhelm, it’s unreasonable to try to reason my way out of it in my usual way. Each thought is blocked by half a dozen issues backed up against it.

I’ve got to simplify. Not just that, but I need to SUPER-simplify — break it down into binary questions — that is, questions with only one of two possible answers. It’s the only way I can start managing the pile.

(What follows is a technique used in several disciplines. I’m avoiding jargon and simply using the words I use in conversation.)

The roadmap out of Overwhelm

When I was rebuilding my credit, the first thing to do was to figure out what I really owed, and what someone else was supposed to pay. This is a good template for dealing with Overwhelm.

First, whose job is it, really?

When I get overwhelmed, it’s hard to tell what’s my responsibility and what’s really someone else’s. It feels like this:

white box with orange speckles throughout, with the words "my job" on the left and "someone else's job" on the right, with no barrier between them

All the jobs are kind of muddled around in the space and there are too many jobs and not enough space.

When I draw a mental barrier between the two, things suddenly start to clear up:

plain white box, with a line down the middle. "my job" in left part, "someone else's job" in right part.

Notice that, at this point, I don’t need to know who the “someone else” is; the first step is to be clear about whether it’s my job or not.

Managing my care?

my job slash someone else's job box, with my job illuminated and someone else's job darkened

Ordering tests and prescribing meds?

my job slash someone else's job box, with someone else's job illuminated and my job darkened

Testing those meds on my system, tracking their benefits and drawbacks, and updating the prescriber?

my job slash someone else's job box, with my job illuminated and someone else's job darkened

Keeping the dishes clean?

my job slash someone else's job box, with someone else's job illuminated and my job darkened

Keeping the outside steps de-iced?

my job slash someone else's job box, with my job illuminated and someone else's job darkened

(It’s my one outdoor job, and my partner does everything that I can’t and a lot that I shouldn’t, so I bundle up and take care of the steps without a whimper.)

Second, is it something volunteers can do or is it a professional job?

This is an important distinction.

binary box, with "volunteer job" on left and "professional job" on right, with bar down middle dividing the two

When in doubt, upgrade.

Volunteers

Take care not to abuse the skills of your volunteers. You may know lawyers, counselors, accountants, and so forth, but that doesn’t make it right to ask for free professional services from them, except under unusual circumstances.

If those who help me out aren’t being paid (either by an agency/employer or by me), then they’re a volunteer, regardless of the skills they have.

I tread as lightly as I can on my volunteers. It’s an important long-term goal not to alienate them, but to keep them comfortable with me and happy to stick around.

Professionals

The corollary is, I have high standards for my professionals, and hold them to those standards with all the clarity-with-courtesy I can manage. I have no hesitation about firing someone who consistently fails to measure up.

I put a lot of legwork into choosing my doctors. Here’s an overview of the process and links I used a few years ago: How I find my doctors

It’s certainly worth the time and effort to find good people who can do justice to your life and your needs. The question is whether you can find the slack. I hope so.

Examples

Fix the heater?

binary box, volunteer/professional, with professional job illuminated and volunteer job darkened

Put us up for a night until it’s fixed?

binary box, volunteer/professional, volunteer job illuminated and professional job darkened

Give hugs, tea, and sympathy when I’m recently bereaved?

binary box, volunteer/professional, volunteer job illuminated and professional job darkened

Train me in how to get my brain to reprocess deep pain (and the staggering scope of loss associated with it) without short-circuiting?

binary box, volunteer/professional, with professional job illuminated and volunteer job darkened

This is definitely not for volunteers; too much knowledge about neuropsych and too much investment of time is required.

Professional level brain & mind care

For some things, talking to a friend, doing something strenuous, or meditating a lot, is enough to allow a person to heal heart and mind. Life itself is generally a good therapist.

Some things are too complex, too deep, or too dangerous for amateurs. Despite our longstanding social taboos, people with recurring trauma (like central pain or abusive relationships) or PTSD (like survivors of war or child abuse or those who’ve been through worker’s compensation or disability applications on top of a devastating condition) are right and smart to get highly-qualified care for resolving the damage that these things do to our minds and our brains. The damage is not imaginary, and sheer force of will is not a great tool for healing it.

Sketch of brain, with bits falling off and popping out, and a bandaid over the worst

It CAN be healed, even the worst of it. It does NOT require chewing over the past; in fact, that’s often avoided in modern trauma counseling, because that can do to the PTSD brain roughly what our recurring pain does to  CRPS brains.

Line drawing of brain, including medulla, sliced near the middle so the lacunae are visible.

Some techniques DO re-map and re-train the brain to make room for more stability, more healthiness, and move even a CRPS’d brain closer to a normal state.

Less pain! More joy! Less instability! More abilities 🙂

Some keywords for finding relevant mental health professionals: trauma-informed, PTSD, pain psychology. These are jargon terms that usually indicate the professional understands how these profound experiences affect our brains, and how that can be rewound or reworked to a better state.

Another thing you can do

It helps to vote for legislators who see the value in health care, including mental health care. Conservative estimates say that each $1 spent on care saves between $10 and $100 in downstream costs (ER visits, health costs, police activity, lost productivity, lost wages, family impact, etc.) Middle-of-the-road estimates place the savings much higher.

Something to think about, in times like these.

Find your legislators here and let them know what you think:

  • In the US, here’s where you find national, state, and local legislator info: www.usa.gov
  • Canadians, here is your national parliament contact info: http://www.parl.ca/

Please feel free to add contact info for elected officials in other countries in the comments below. It has become clear that voting is a health-care issue.

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When I lose everything but me

This is one of several blog posts I drafted late last year and got distracted from.

This isn’t the duckiest or most amusing one to read, but it’s so important for so many that I’m posting it anyway. (My mother will probably want to give this one a miss.)

This level of fundamental-ness has a certain appeal in the depth of winter.

Fortunately for me, I don’t have too much trouble with existential questions. At a certain point, when everything I thought defined me had been blasted away, and in my mind there was not a single structure left that held a fragment of my old self, and all I saw stretching away to the mental horizon was blasted mud and broken stone and shapeless lumps and rot… I asked myself, “None of ‘me’ is left. Who am I?” And I realized that something was standing there, doing the asking.

That was my answer: I’m what is left after everything has been blasted away. I’m the immanent awareness, unable to be seen or described, simply because only less-permanent things can be seen or described.

As I think about that last sentence, I realize why objects lost their fascination for me. It was weirdly easy to get rid of gorgeous and glorious things I could no longer afford to keep. A couple of them I still miss, like my old bedstead (birdseye maple, passed down from my grandmother), but very few.

Things did get worse for awhile, and only curiosity kept me alive. (I simply had to know how the story went.) It propelled me through the work of surviving when my body had failed.

Angels appeared just before it was too late — several times; my life was a solid group effort — and eventually I fled the area and got my disability check (yes they were related) and could afford to survive. I have some photos that seem ethereal still, I look so nearly gone, smiling back from the edge of the grave, happy I don’t have to take that last step.

me_wrysmile

As usual, lately, I’ve wandered off-course.

My ability to track a tale (remember I survived the impossible because I had to see how the story went?) is enfeebled. It’s barely tottering along on one of those cumbersome canes with 4 feet, too heavy to lift and too necessary to leave behind.

I grind to a halt in my post, forgetting what I started this for, but this time, I’m letting you in on the secret. This blog is not retired, and being incapacitated has not excused me before, as a flick back would show. Or even when I was blowing bubbles.

I’m approaching this winter with the determination that it will be different than the last, which was an endurance exercise — one that went on for 9 months, as Spring never sprung and my Summer was clouded by meningitis.

So far, I’m getting more physiotherapy, more outings, and even have a weekly pain group I meet with. The higher level of activity is key; because exercise is so important for healing and supporting the brain, I have to find ways to stay active, despite the obvious drawbacks for someone with roaring sensory and cardiovascular issues to leaving the house during a New England winter.

I’m pleased with that. Yay, me!

Now for the other part.

Too much exercise is poisonous, because I have a solid case of exercise intolerance. I can safely walk less than a mile, which really irritates me. It takes that long just to warm up!

Also, drawing and sketching is back to being hard work. For awhile there, sketches flew out from under my pencil like they’d been crowded in there too long. Now, it’s stick figures with bad hair. I draw anyway now and then, because it’s better to keep trying than to give up altogether.

I don’t want to exercise too little or draw badly, but I do it anyway. Why? Because there’s always an afterwards, and I still have to work on influencing an “afterwards” I want.

Meanwhile, as my ability to juggle logistics is holding ground, my ability to juggle language is slipping.

After I was a nurse, I was a writer. Before I was a nurse, I was a writer. I started calling myself a writer before the age of 10, and started rescuing and healing animals shortly after.

George_Goodwin_Kilburne_Writing_a_letter_home_1875

I’m crashing into the stupefying question: “What am I, if I’m not a writer?” I feel like nothing without that. I feel like an intrusive blob of snot on the face of the earth, out of purpose and out of place and not very pleasant to have around.

My immanent awareness looks on as my sense of self weeps helplessly. It is what it is. I am what I am… whatever that is. That will always be true, even as everything else changes.

Meanwhile, though my strength and endurance are rather better than I’d hoped, my blood pressure and pulse are less stable. One more set of variables (or issues) to chase down, one more group of tests to orchestrate, one more set of diagnostic efforts to get through, one more possible adjustment to my regime to figure out, integrate, and absorb.

By the way, that lower abdominal pain has no treatable cause. Nothing to be done but roll it into the bundle of issues (or variables) to manage and work around. Every. Freaking. Day.

This is what it’s like for me to head into winter.

A cousin and I promised each other that we’d live forever until the day we die. That agreement still stands, but gee whiz, could this be a little less tiresomely complex??

Update: And here I am, 2 months later, writing again. Still waiting for drawing to come back, though.

Digesting my food is hard work now, again. Always something.

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CRPS terminology, under the nervous grin

After talking with patients, doctors, and loved ones — and, as a trained observer, carefully noticing the changes in posture, expression, and tone as I’ve done so — I’ve arrived at the following conclusion. I realize it flies in the face of current accepted usage, but there are some things wrong with current accepted usage, and I don’t mind saying so.

/SeeYarP’Yes/ is not that hard to say.

No, it’s not proper to call it CRiPS unless you yourself have it. This is partly because “crips” is a term of abuse for disabled people and using the term for a particular set of disabled people won’t change that, and partly because Crips is the name of a violent organized crime group originating from Southern California. Neither is an appropriate form of address for those who have the most disruptive and intransigent pain disease known to science, and can’t perpetrate violence because of the devastation it wreaks in their own bodies.

Those who have this disease sure don’t need to be subliminally messaged with either association.

I understand that young docs are being trained to use the term in order to remind themselves that it is, in fact, a disabling disease. My view is that, if you’re smart enough to graduate from medical school, you’re smart enough to remember that disruption of the central nervous system can be pretty freaking disabling, in CRPS as in spinal injury or Alzheimer’s or anything else that disrupts the normal structure, chemistry, and behavior of the central nervous system.

The fact that the current name focuses on “pain” is a problem of nomenclature, which will change again as it often has since the year 1548 when it was first described by Ambroise Paré, father of forensic medicine and physician to the French court at the time. (Look him up — great guy. Prefigured that outstanding physician and gifted schmooze-meister Dr. Silas Weir by over 300 years.)

CRaPS, as in the game of chance, is not recommended. It sounds like a vulgar term for bowel excretions, which is — if possible — even more inappropriate. It’s certainly a “crappy” disease, but having said that, it’s time to move on and not keep reminding someone that they feel (and believe they look) like shit.

Of course your CRPS patients say they don’t mind. Check the power differential; their ability to bear to live is in your hands, doctor/loved one, so they’re highly motivated to be nice and go along with anything that doesn’t involve an immediate threat. They want you to feel good about them, so they will laugh along with you, however unreal it feels.

Have some decency — don’t call them or their disease CRiPS or CRaPS, even if they say it’s okay. They don’t need to feel any worse than they already do.

The CRPS patients can call it whatever they like, because only they know how bad it really is, and have the right — and need — to cuss it now and then.

/SeeYarP’Yes/ is not that hard to say. It’s only 4 syllables, like “pain diseases” or “really bad day.” It’s 20% shorter than the word “dehumanizing.”

This moment of intellectual — and emotional — honesty has been brought to you by a nightmare I woke up with this morning. My nightmares are a direct result of my disordered central nervous system, which can no longer process things normally and has to roil around and tear up the pavement in between the constant push-back and re-organization that takes place in my waking state.

It’s pretty crappy, not to mention crippling. But I rise above it, yet again, as I intend to do every day until the day I die. I sure appreciate anything others can do to avoid making that harder.

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