Focus

There’s a lot going on.

My own health took a hard dive late last year and the damage continues to evolve…

…On top of an increasingly human-hostile political system and increasingly deadly climate.

Fun times.

So, yeah, sitting here on a big pile of crap. But that’s not the problem.

What really bugs me is this relentless, quiet, basso-profundo voice murmuring in the back of my brain, “Hurry up. You don’t have much time. You, personally, don’t have time to waste. Pick your focus. Nothing else matters. Get to work. You don’t have much time.”

I used to have a lot of projects running at once…

  • I didn’t tell anyone, but I secretly hoped I’d be able to run again. I used to run 4 miles up & down a canyon in the redwoods before work most days. It was glorious. Before that, on the other coast, I ran 5 to 10 miles along the banks of the river in Alexandria, Virginia, because it felt good and kept my head clear for work on the HIV ward. I ran from one place to another because it was faster than walking.
    Yeah. Well. Between dysautonomia screwing up my circulatory responses and adrenal glands, the tissue fragility of mast cell dysfunction vs. undiagnosed EDS offering to rip holes in my tissues again, and the recurring exercise intolerance, I can let that one go. I enjoyed it at the time, look back on it fondly, and intend to be grateful for that much.
  • I was going to start a business with a line of absolutely stellar pain creams I came up with. Seriously good stuff! It’s at least as good as the medical marijuana salve I used to make from top-shelf medical-grade bud — but totally legal everywhere! I was looking forward to getting that out to my fellow painees, doing some good and making some money. (Comment if you’re interested. I could be persuaded to sell my stock-on-hand.)
    Instead, I’m willing my recipes and equipment to a friend who knows people. She can get it out, and make more when that’s gone. Meanwhile, I’ve got a few hundred bucks locked up in the only exception to my “2 piles” rule for money: 1 pile (my paycheck) for monthly expenses, and 1 pile (an insurance account from the Worker’s Comp branch of the higgledy-piggledy US system) for treatment and survival. That 3rd pile, which belongs to the business and only to the business, is gathering dust. It might help her get started.
  • As regular readers know, I once hoped to make my own safe home to age, work, rest, and die in.
    The downside to owning a home is clearer than ever, and to a limited budget and limited body, it’s a disaster waiting to happen. That dream is dead, staked, burned, and the ashes are buried at the crossroads.
  • I love fixing sh-tuff. The dopamine wave is delicious. However… too many piles of sh-tuff waiting to be fixed, plus associated tools and supplies.
    I’ve donated, bartered, and tossed away more than I even knew I had to spare. So far, I don’t really miss it.

Months ago, I gave up all my arts & crafts except writing and drawing. (And making masks.) I came up with some chirpy sounding reason, but it was about clearing my agenda and narrowing my focus.

There’s something intense about that voice. I look back and realize I’ve been responding to it since before this GI crisis evolved. Thinning out my pursuits. Thinning out my belongings. Thinning out my life.

Narrowing my focus long before I could hear the words this clearly.

For awhile, I thought it was a symptom of wonky chemistry, as I’ve had to do that medication square-dance that people who need neurotransmitter stabilizers have to do now and then. Chemistry is pretty good in here now, and that voice is clearer than ever.

So, here’s what there is to work with:
* I’ve done a lot of writing and training.
* The biological-sciences part of my brain has kept its doors jammed open, despite all the other closures.
* I’m an honest enough historian to know how too many people have been shut out of the process of using their health care systems, due to gender, race, class, and lousy sociohistorical times.
* Me and my friends have developed some powerful tools for being seen and being believed.
* Also, we’re pretty delightful cartoonists. (Hey, it’s a great teaching tool!)

It might be time for all of this to come together. My mission, should I choose to accept it, is to “drive” turning all this into a body of work that can continue teaching, training, and translating between chronically & profoundly ill patients and the rest of the world, long after I’m gone.

I have only 2 jobs now: stay as well as possible for as long as possible, and craft that legacy.

It’s frightening to contemplate pushing everything else off my plate, but the experience of the past year has shown me, over and over, the peace and release that happens after.

I don’t have to find the perfect home, although I’d sure be grateful if it landed on me and sucked me right in. (I can’t pack myself up to move one more time.) I have to make this one work better, and get on with the rest of my life. I honestly don’t think I’ve got a lot of time.

But then, I’m not sure that’s the point. Maybe I just can’t focus on more than 2 jobs anymore.

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Chaos theory

  1. As regular readers know, I’ve had an eventful life. The past 20 years, particularly, have been a circus of bizarre improbabilities, oxymoronic paradoxes, and irreconcilable conundrums. My life reads like a dystopian comedy, if your sense of humor is sufficiently twisted.

This is why I’ve got the category “imp-possible” going in this blog. It looks merely cute, but it has a lot of layers. Imps could be little devils, or little fairies, or little children. They emphasize the power of the small. It feels like the only power left. “Imp” also suggests the power of the unexpected.

As the current American president’s so-called “tax cut” comes home, the US Disability Income management agency, Social Security, has decided to trim costs in anticipation of their lost income: they’re cutting my pay, on the grounds that the Worker’s Compensation element of US health care paid me off for being hurt. Separately, they handed over a bunch of health insurance money so Medicare wouldn’t have to pay for my work-related treatment.

Social Security confused the two, and then added zeros to the left of the decimal, divided it by 12, multiplied that by the square root of Guatemala (I’m making this up, just like they did), slapped a bonus on it, and decided I make OVER $5,000 PER MONTH and they’re going to count 80% of that and dock my pay by ~$160 per month…

I’m allowed to make over $5,000/month? Where? How? Sign me up! But wait… huh?? You think I actually have $5,000/month???

Yeah, I’m confused too. (The payout was good, but not that good: I got a sturdy, 10-yr-old car and a year’s worth of rent in a clean, dry cottage out of it.)

That $160 is what allows me to keep my pain-cream-making gear & off-season clothes in storage *and* pay for my writing course at the 50% discount I negotiated with the teacher (I’m doing that course instead of buying books & music for a few months.) I’m not sure any of that counts as extra these days.

They said this would be (future conditional tense) reflected in my pay as of December 2019 (whaaaaat???)…

Either they’re as confused as the rest of us, they’re in even harder denial about which year this is, or they’re setting up to make the pay cut retroactive in case they decide that that’s in their best interests. Also, Social Security being who they are and the current US administration being who they are, this feels like the first move against our lifeline, not the only move.

… I’m sitting here speechless again. Happens every time I think about it.

This is on top of the brutal horrors of approaching winter (relentless agony, burning brain, incapacitating fog), no bathtub (CRPS’s disruptive surface effects creep up my legs and over my back and make my shoulders, hips, and right arm into bloated purple sausages wrapped in electrified barbed wire, with no way to push back), encroaching mold (which multiplies everything, including mast-cell hyperreactivity/disabling allergies, heart dysrhythmias, gut problems, and it adds respiratory diseases to the mix), and gastroparesis so bad that every other day I have to do a big ol’ — you don’t want to know. Trust me. Even I can’t make it funny.

My psychotherapist is savvy, sweet, and has that merciless faith in her client that the best of them wield like surgeon’s tools (yes, this is relevant, hang on through the curve)… I fell apart completely in our virtual visit and whispered in stricken tones, “I don’t know if I’ll make it this time.”

After acknowledging the depth and legitimacy of my feelings and recognizing my prior successes against staggering odds (she does know her job!) she encouraged me to see the breadth of creative possibility embedded behind, “I don’t know.”

I blinked, because that sounded pretty darned merciless, even for a top-flight psychotherapist. (Keep in mind that surgeon’s tools include, not just scalpels and silk, but electric saws and the sprung barbs known, deceptively, as towel clips.) She wouldn’t give up, though.

I agreed to accept that as a working hypothesis.

On reflection, that thought began to feel more like pre-2019 Isy, before my heart got ripped out and stomped on a little too hard by a few too many, and my system fell apart so badly in the storm of it. It began to feel more like the Isy who, 13 years ago at the start of the Hell Years, looked around at the absolute rubble & blasted mess of everything I thought defined my life, and realized someone was still there doing the looking, so there was still an “I” and I wasn’t done yet. It felt more like the Isy who made the term “imp-possible” a regular category. I didn’t know where that would lead me, but…

I didn’t know how to finish that sentence yet.

This morning, while listening to an audiobook that’s a romantic comedy about overthinky nerds (still relevant; hang on through one more curve), I used the toilet successfully for the first time in months, without having to resort to the apparatus hanging nearby for the thing I’ve had to do that I won’t tell you about. (It involves soap & warm water, nothing too ghastly.)

I use audiobooks to keep my brain from overheating. It gives me just enough to focus on that I don’t drive my thoughts off a cliff, and it’s not so intrusive or demanding that I can’t do ordinary tasks at the same time.

This one had gotten to a part where the author discusses basic chaos theory: chaotic systems (and I defy any biologist to come up with a more chaotic system than a dysautonomic human body with longstanding central pain syndromes) … where was I? Right. Chaotic systems tend to get more and more chaotic until a sort of tipping-point is reached and they reorganize at a higher level of criticality.

What the heck does that actually mean, anyway?? What do they mean by a higher level of criticality?

Partly, it means that a lower level of energy is required to maintain that state of chaos, even though it’s still a higher level of chaos.

And that (I thought, as I looked up at the equipment I was going without at last) meant that I could do more coping with less effort.

Once you’ve prioritized your needs hard enough and developed your adaptations effectively enough, it gets a whole lot harder to throw you off your game.

I can work with that.

The next level of chaos is here. I have no idea how it’ll unfold. That said, I’ve already reorganized at a higher level of criticality.

I’ll meet it somehow. I don’t know how. I’m still here doing the looking, so I’m not done yet.

In honor & memory of Ruth Bader Ginsberg.

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Next step, stop!

Update on wifiddling…
I got an idiot-proof radiation meter. Wifi is in the microwave band of 2,500 GHz and the additional 5,000 GHz band, which are part of the radiofrequency band, abbreviated as RF.

Here’s the reading from upstairs’s wifi, beaming down to where I used to have my sofa:
TriField Meter showing RF reading of .029
Here’s the reading where I have the sofa now:
TriField Meter showing RF reading of .004
I found a couple other hottish spots, but I also found a sitting spot that registers nearly 0 in every direction (as does most of my bed) and that’s where I take tea and pills in the morning.

I really like having data. After finishing my last post, I thought I was going to have to spend $1500 at the very least for partial protection, and start at $2200 for the whole enchilada, and where the heck would I get that? (My savings are tied up in a messy little mobile home I can’t go anywhere near.) Instead, it turns out I just need to move the furniture a little, and stay back from the windows that look next door. MUCH cheaper!

It turns out I’m just shatteringly tired. I’ve been living with too much fear for too long. Fear uses up a lot of energy and neurochemicals. On top of the relentless pain signalling (which uses a lot of energy and neurochemicals) and the neurochemically-expensive and exhausting work of having to juggle the exponentially increased effort and decisions required by disability AND poverty (each of which uses a lot of energy and neurochemicals)… once I got a safe and sane chance to rest, it’s like aaaaall those energy bills are coming due at once.

… To clarify my relationship to an excess of rest, let me relate a work anecdote.

I was new to software. I was still used to the pace of nursing, which is inhuman and unforgiving. I said something about having completed 4 out of 5 of my tasks (which I didn’t realize I had another week to complete) but I hadn’t completed the 5th because, I said with chagrin, I was probably being a lazy cuss.

The entire room erupted in laughter. Me — lazy? What a joke!

After 20 years post-injury and still being upright, articulate, and seasonally functional (which takes a TON of relentless work) I’ve almost adjusted to the idea that I’m the opposite of lazy. What I can do, I will, as soon as I can do it safely and adequately. That’s just how my programming goes. Good thing, too, or I’d never have made it this far.

It turns out I’m just phenomenally tired right now, 99.98% of the time. I’ve begun to stop apologizing for it, because it’s clearly beyond me. It just is, and will continue to be until it’s over.

When I can, I will do more. I have absolutely no worries about that, because I know in my bones that I’m the opposite of lazy.

I just really need to rest. I didn’t know it was possible to be this weary. Of all I’ve read about profound idiopathic exhaustion, the only thing that consistently works with no further damage is to rest thoroughly enough and long enough. Plus maybe a bit of careful, inch-by-inch support with Chinese herbs, which I’m also starting.

Rest. What a concept.

Well, here I go…

Ready? Set?

Resting.

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No wonder I can’t get up! Rad realities

After the ghastly fiascos of last year, imagine my overwhelming relief to finally — FINALLY! — find a clean, safe place to live, in one of my favorite towns in the world.

The past weeks of unbudging exhaustion — starting from roughly the time everyone in the building got back from their holiday vacations — I put down to my body going into a “deep recovery” mode after the astonishing stresses it survived. I knew neighbors had wifi, as most adults do in this country, and noticed I felt better in the sunny side of my bedroom — behind an enormous brick wall, as the bedroom is an addition built onto a century-old, balloon-built brick building — so I’ve been spending a lot of time sitting there, letting all that earthing happen between me and the wifi signals.

Today, more or less out of the blue, two or three neurons fizzed together and I realized there was something differently-familiar to this feeling of having had all the air let out of my tires and my batteries totally drained. There was a knot of yuk behind my xyphoid — right about where the vagal nerve comes through the diaphragm and shakes hands with the stomach on its way past — which has rarely gone away.

Following these clues — my neighbors getting back, the bitter exhaustion, the yuk behind my xyphoid — I pulled out my elderly-but-spry laptop and asked it about the wifi signals it can see.

Here is what it sees in the living room:
List of available wifi networks, several with 4 bars

Here is what it sees in the bedroom, behind the double layer of brick wall with a door in the middle:
List of available wifi connections, mostly 3 bars

That one bar of difference is definitely palpable, to me. Also, I know that one of my near neighbors has turned off their wifi right now (bless them!) because there’s sometimes another network on this list which has all 5 bars when it shows at all; it chases me right out of the living room because I can feel it like an incoming missile to my gut.

This exercise simply goes to prove my longtime suspicion that, indeed, wifi is the Un-Healer for me. I can’t get off the couch for long, simply because I’m being soaked in it all the time.

Give me a moment to get myself together, please. This is tough.

Detail of a Bosch painting. Whiskery demon holding and reaching for a misereable man.
Bosch knew.

It could be worse. I could be unsafe, breathing mold, AND being soaked in wifi.

Solutions

First, a key term:

Faraday cages are structures that use particle absorption, grounding, or deflection to create a radiation-free space inside. I’d expect to incorporate all three elements, for a more durable and predictable kind of protection.

Grounding

There are some low-tech, lower-cost things to try that can have the effect of minimizing my exposure to wifi signals:
– Grounded skin, that is, a grounding mat I keep my skin connected to, to carry away the signal before my body takes it up much. I haven’t had terrific results from these yet, but I may have gotten a bogus mat before. I’ll experiment with wire and foil before investing in anything better.

– Rad sinks (already in place), a mass of metal dense enough to act as its own ground — in my case, big heavy old-fashioned steel filing cabinets. I should really paint them thickly in matte black to get the best results (preventing signal-bounce), but it’s hard to think of a less useful work-setting for a colorist like me. I’ll keep thinking about it, though, because I’m pretty sure it could help.

After that, it gets a bit more iffy vs. more expensive.

Shielding

Make a Faraday-shielded pod I can pick up and move around, and sit in when I’m doing anything for long. Given the inexpensiveness and availability of pop-up structures, black felt yardage, and that shiny mylar stuff, I could cobble that together, probably with a zipped door and a couple of battery-powered computer fans. But dayum, would that be claustrophobic, gloomy, noisy, and a space-hogging eyesore! Also, it would render most furniture effectively unavailable for shielding time.

I’ve tried rad-blocking clothing. This poor challenged body needs a good few feet between my skin and shielding, or the feedback gets incredibly painful. Can you imagine that thing that microphones do with feedback, happening to your spine & everything connected to it? Yeah, that’d be cute by comparison to the experience of me wearing rad-blocking clothing for 5 minutes. So, rad-blocking clothing is not an option for me.

– Creating a shielded-fabric blockade around my bed, looking rather like a mosquito net but costing the equivalent in silver netting, which it often is. Silver is an excellent conductor. If properly grounded (always a consideration for a Faraday cage you want to use for more than an hour!) this can, at least, create a low-rad place to sleep that still has air flow — and room for the cat. It’s not the total radiation seal that a proper Faraday cage should be, but it’s a compromise that works well for many people. I can certainly tell if it needs to be better sealed for my purposes; boy howdy, is that clear to me now!

Shielding & grounding my whole space

Then there’s the costly, smelly-toxic, protracted option of having a minimum of 2 good coats of rad-blocking paint (at ~$200/quart, I’m guessing a total of 5 or 6 gallons for these high ceilings, plus the ghastly oil-based primer required), securely wired into the building ground at appropriate points by an electrician ($1k), with adequate layers of 3M UV-filter film ($?) cut to fit every single window ($hundreds for labor, because I can’t do that), the sashes of which will also have to be painted or filmed over… And do something to cover the gorgeous old maplewood floors to block rad bounce from the basement. That, given my abiding love and admiration of maple in every form, would be absolutely criminal.

So, that’s not going to happen.

Or, of course, there’s the prospect of moving again, to which my internal response is way out of the decibel range that blogs can carry. I have JUST gotten my hotwired system to stop leaping awake every hour or two, convinced I have to pack and move again. I really need not to move for a good while.

This is a great place in so many ways, and I really like being here right now. I aim to make it work.

I project that my solution, whatever it is, will be a compromise, like this home — so much going for it, but still missing crucial elements. I’ll have to come up with something that will protect me enough to heal while I’m here, since that’s the point.

First steps

I think the first thing to do is shield the bed. Like I said, not perfect, but it should improve my overnight recovery-time. The means to do that is readily available and I already know the better makers and materials-technology. I could probably get that up in a week.

After that, I’m thinking portable pod, big enough for a chair inside with a little writing desk. Might rig up a window or viewing port, using something reflective but not too dark.

Any engineers want to come play with these ideas and problem-solve here? 🙂

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Floating again

I’ve removed two posts:

  1. “Departure & apology” is moot, completely overtaken by events.
  2. “Outrageous fortune” has the seeds of a good tutorial for navigating intensely difficult, but very predictably-patterned, situations which painies are very likely to find themselves in sooner or later, especially in relation to other painies. (Currently, it’s mostly “bleeding on the page,” which is not very useful.) With a top-flight professional in the field as a cowriter, I think we can turn that into a useful tool which could help limit damage in other situations and provide good tactics and strategies for self-extrication and perspective.

 

To provide some sort of segue between two very different periods of life, I’m including the end of the second piece here. It seems like a pretty good transition marker.

bursting milkweed pod hanging between rock, birch, and sky

So now… I spend alternately painful and peaceful hours in meditation. I walk in the fresh air whether it’s warm enough or not. I drink another glass of water every time I pass the sink. This will pass. This will pass. I still live, so I must breathe and keep on. This will pass.

It’s now a week … and already the formless future is beginning to gain a bit of shape. It’s nothing like what I’d imagined before. I imagine nothing now. I wait to see what emerges. So far, my family of origin is leaping onto their shining steeds; high school friends are posse-ing up with an offhand, “That’s Buxton; we look out for each other”; and a meditation center that works for me and a glowing kindred spirit have popped out of the fog, pointing out a way before me.

Meanwhile, the milkweed is bursting its pods — a glorious, silken, dizzyingly delicate reminder of the peaceful beauty of letting go…

Outrageous fortune is starting to come from a different direction now. I will feel whole again someday; I feel it in the wind.

Hours before leaving the city after all that horror, my driver’s-side wing mirror got creamed. The rest of that side is fine, hardly a scratch, but… no wing mirror.

As metaphors go, it’s probably good advice:

Stop Looking Back.

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There’s always an afterwards

This, right after “Keep breathing”, is one of my go-to pieces of mind management. It’s about so much more than consequences. Let’s take an example.

A non-obvious choice

At work, before I got sick, there were a lot of big, well-built guys in the software engineering department, who wrote the programming code that made the business happen. (It was a software firm with a great gym on campus; hence, lots of engineers & muscley ones at that.)

There were a lot of diligent people (almost all of them fit, though few as statuesque) in the QA department, who tested the programming code that the software engineers wrote, and had to make sure it was accurate and well-behaved (yes, code is supposed to be well-behaved!) before it was finalized.

Among the QA engineers was a woman about 4’9″, one of those sweetly scintillating geniuses who didn’t seem to have a temper to lose.

One day, in a meeting, one of the most magnificent of the software engineers learned that something he’d made was not behaving well. He argued the point; this QA engineer calmly reiterated her findings. To my astonishment, he actually stood up, walked over to her, and loomed. I mean, LOOMED.

The entire room (mostly men) held its collective breath. It was out of character for this engineer to be unpleasant, as a rule; and to pick on a woman? Unthinkable.

But his brainchild had been criticized, and he did not like it one bit.

Now, I grew up with two brothers. I also worked as an ER nurse in one of this nation’s hell-holes. I know how this is supposed to go. One person looms, the other bristles, and things get louder, with the (sometimes implicit) threat-level increasing until one backs down.

two tense men, one standing, one curled on his back, pointing guns at each other

I learned that day that there is, in fact, more than one way that this absolutely primal interaction can go.

All 92 pounds of QA engineer peered straight up, neck totally relaxed and head dropped back, at the scowling 180-pound sculpture of irritation and physique, with a mild air of bland puzzlement. It was as if she was wondering if he really thought standing over her changed the facts, and what was the point, which it turned out was exactly what she _was_ thinking.

This image?

big great dane looking down at a little chihuahua

Not a patch on that moment. It was wonderful.

The engineer eventually breathed and went back to his seat. Like the super-smart guy he almost always was, he moved straight on to how to fix the problem.

The afterwards

Given the format of conflict most of us know, the QA engineer should have tensed up and snarled, and that should have turned into a shouting match and disrupted the rest of the day — possibly involving HR and resulting in reprimands for them and hours of “training” for all. That’d make for a difficult, expensive, exhausting, and largely fruitless afterwards. These two worked together a lot, and this could have started a long downhill slide in their work relationship, which would have affected a lot more than their moods.

Instead, the QA engineer stayed on task — she held the larger view of what was needed to bring the code “up to code”, so to speak. By doing so, she gave the software engineer (who, admittedly, shouldn’t have needed it, but we’re all human and make mistakes sometimes) enough mental space and time to calm down, refocus, and get on with the important thing. Which he did.

After that, he did his looming without moving from his seat, which was no more than anyone else did. Their relationship continued to be a little testy, since one necessarily had to criticize the other, but increasingly respectful because they were both so good at their jobs. (They loved each other, professionally, even when they didn’t like each other. Sound familiar?)

I  finally got it

I found my own level of tension dropping after that. Even when the brainstem is receiving hard signals, it’s possible for the cortex to choose wisely, instead of reflexively. Who knew??

My own team of software engineers were more shouty and less loomy, but it sure calmed things down when I could simply wait, relaxed, as they ranted, and then ask — in a calm, natural manner — what to do about it.

waves pouring around a still stack of rocks

It was great preparation for living with central (that is, driven by the brain and spine) pain.

Barely alive

Pain does things to the brain, and central pain does more, worse, longer, and harder. However, pain is not the only thing in my brain. I have all kinds of things there, not least of which is — my mind.

There was a period when I was almost dead (sorry, Mom.) Even getting to my knees was impossible until my body had turned up the volume on itself, which took almost an hour. I was living aboard a sailboat at the time, and the fresh air and gentle rocking did me a lot of good. Not enough, though.

As this period began, I thought about it long and hard, lying there in my berth, desperate to yield completely to the exhaustion but unable to give up on life until I’d figured out the plot. Seriously, that was all that kept me alive: narrative curiosity, and feeding my cat. (Hey, whatever it takes!)

But wait, this gets even funnier.

I mentally reviewed the many adventure movies I’d seen, where the protagonist gets through impossible situations and overcomes unbearable limits by pure willpower, because they choose — over and over — to take the next step or make the next move, however hard it might be.

It popped into my head that almost all of those movies were fiction. “Doesn’t matter,” I told myself. “It’s all right. Some of them were based on fact.” Sure, I’ll go with that!

And so, with Cleopatra (Queen of Denial) riding my back…

sketch of me, splatted, with one fist ahead of me, and a bas-relief of Cleopatra perched on my back

I pushed my pillows aside, planted a fist on the settee coming straight out from the head of my sleeping berth, and pulled forward. God, that was hard. I panted until I could breathe again, then muttered, “I choose to go forward, whatever it takes.” I planted the other fist, dragged myself forward another few inches. Panted, took a breath, “I choose to go forward.” Over and over. “I choose.”

After a few days, I didn’t have to say it aloud every time. After a few weeks, I didn’t verbalize it at all; it was a silent stream of intention. A couple months later, I got hooked up to an acupuncturist/naturopath/homeopath who figured out how to gently draw my shattered system back from the brink, without accidentally knocking me off the edge. (Dr. Daniel Donner in the Oakland/Berkeley area; very highly recommended.)

Becoming super-human, or maybe more fully human

It was around this time — with social media toddling out of the BBS/chat era with its first firm steps, and blogs becoming normalized — that I developed the theory that humans under unbearable circumstances have to become superhuman, and that this is why we have myths — to show us the way past our learned limits. To quote the sainted Sir Terry Pratchett,

It’s amazing how peope define roles for themselves and put handcuffs on their experience and are constantly surprised by the things a roulette universe spins at them.

We are so much more than we think we are, than we have let ourselves believe, than this tiny moment in history and culture allows us even to notice!

As an amateur historian and someone who bounced all around the world growing up, I’ve always had a pretty solid sense that what one time/place thinks is normal, is actually pretty darn weird in the eyes of the rest of reality. (“Eggs for breakfast? But that’s dinner food!” And the moment I realized it was breakfast in London but dinner for me, and so it didn’t matter what I had.)

What I learned a little later is that I don’t always have to blend in. In fact, there are times when it’s best to ignore “normal” and get on with what needs doing.

These days, “normal” is scarcely ever a relevant concept, except as a matter of how to tune my disguise.

I’ve noticed I get better results and am treated better by others when I fall within certain parameters of appearance and behavior — ones that are “normal” either for a nice White soccer mom with arty sensibilities (on the street), or a pleasantly intelligent professional (when seeing physicians & administrators) — so I track myself accordingly. Your mileage may vary — we’re all different — so, try different things and see what works for you.

Back to reality

The point is, even at the hardest moments, and despite intense cultural programming and bitter central pain, it IS possible to choose how to be.

We don’t hear that much, especially from movies, eh? Follow your feelings! Be impulsive — it’s cool! Violence works! 3 days is enough to know someone’s soul! Good people will love you no matter what! If it/they are not perfect, it’s broken! If others disagree, you have the right to hurt them back! Sigh.

In fact, these are symptoms of a traumatized brain. I know — I live in one that’s constantly being re-traumatized. Black-and-white thinking, catastrophizing, blaming, panicking — being totally overwhelmed by huge emotions, forgetting that there is a complex human being in the midst of them, one who HAS feelings but IS NOT the feelings.

This is the un-managed internal reality of central pain: full-on red-alert, a fire drill for an inferno that never stops burning.

Feelings, impulses, drives — they’re information, not commands.

Consciously or not, we choose what to be guided by.

This is why self-management is imperative for us — and why we can be a bit fragile when the pain is high, or we have to think about being sick (like at the doctor’s office.)

We have to work to manage this impossible mess without looking like we’re falling apart. If we don’t succeed, if we simply react the way “normal” people would “normally” react under that kind of stress, we can easily lose everything — doctors, jobs, family, friends, allies, resources, the lot. We have to be abnormally strong to handle abnormally large, abnormally relentless assaults on our peace and poise, not to mention our lives and minds.

This is why being “super-human” is not a bad concept — imagine being a better survivor than X-Men’s Magneto, a cannier manager than James Bonds’ M, as resourceful as Coyote, as implacable as Kronos, as benevolent as Kuan Yin. These mythological models, not “normal human behavior”, may be the only standards that are even applicable to people in extraordinary circumstances.

For people like me (and there are a lot of us, not only from central pain), with a brain constantly under siege from noxious primal signals and in a socio-historical moment aiming to squash the disabled/poor/female/peculiar like bugs, this understanding is transformative, and very freeing: I can’t aspire to be normal, let alone change the world… but I can learn to choose my responses, and if I have to aim higher than normal to do so, there are still models to follow — even if I have to go inch by inch, fist over fist, to follow them.

It takes practice, but it’s possible. As with muscles, our habits of mind get stronger with practice. Of course it takes time, but the time will pass anyway, right?

Catching the wave

The first habit to develop is learning to notice when the wave of emotion rises. That is the sweet spot, right before emotional/physical pain (in all their strangling glory) take over.

That’s the moment when it’s easiest to catch on and remember our larger job of doing well despite everything, the moment when it’s easiest to pick a good “afterwards” to aim for and follow the inner prompts that can lead to it.

I find that the temporary relief of discharging my anguish or rage is absolutely nothing compared to the lasting relief of making things better, one choice at a time. At times, I have to remind myself of this, pause, breathe, and take the time to choose a better response than the first or strongest one that occurs to me.

It’s a constant discipline, rather than a destination; life always has more surprises in store. But I’ve had practice, and those “choosing my afterwards” mind-muscles are in decent shape. If I can get clear of mind-muddling mold, they might get even better.

Hard to do that without being able to catch the moment. It took time to learn to identify it, and when I’m particularly disrupted by pain or shock or toxic exposures — especially toxic exposures — catching that moment can be temporarily impossible.

Given good nutrition and no toxins, though: reaching for a better way to be, comes soon after we learn to identify that difficult moment. It’s a wonderful skill; makes a person very powerful in the wider world, as well as in the interior world of “living anyway.”

I think it also improves my writing 🙂

Beyond the moment

I said earlier that “always an afterwards” was about more than consequences. It was an important part of my getting through what I call The Hell Years. It reminded me that, if I survived this — whatever it was — I’d get to find out what would happen next.

And boy, was that a journey worth making!

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Cold Watershed

In my blogs on getting safe housing, I’ve researched and discussed the following:

  • What aspects of ordinary housing do me in
  • What alternative building techniques could do for me
  • What’s involved in a fresh build, nontox and otherwise
  • What “reno” can really mean for me
  • All within my picayune means.

The last bullet point makes it all increasingly absurd.

In the most recent housing blog, I started getting my head out of that two-digits-to-the-right-of-the-decimal possibility. The  housing market has been creeping up, and this year it’s definitely putting those possibilities out of reach.

It’s time to stop thinking I can go it alone. I clearly can’t — not in any way.

Now, time to start researching in 2 different directions:

  • What’s a reasonable range of cost, given the kinds of houses that are on the market, to acquire a fixer and renovate it to my requirements?
  • How many other people or units could that accommodate, generally?

And  then, given those harder and more realistic numbers, figure out the following:

  • How to get that funded
  • Who’d be interested in funding it
  • A list of good prospective tenants who need safe nontox housing
  • What the contract with the funders would look like (several ways that could go)
  • What the contract with the tenants should look like

Because, as my Dad would have said and my other relatives still do, better keep everything clear and above-board. That’s what contracts are actually supposed to do.

Of course, this contract will have to have contingencies for my incapacity and death as a real possibility. Plan A, the place goes on the market and all investors (including my heirs) get their money back. Plan B could be more interesting. Depends on who shows up for this.

And all of this assumes I can stage-manage all this.

I’m so scared.

Meanwhile, back to packing and health appointments. One foot in front of the other.

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Interim choices

After my head exploded last month, it took awhile to recover. It wasn’t happening while I was up to my eyeballs in what I can’t do and can’t change, even with daily Epsom baths and extra antioxidants. So, I visited Mom for a bit, soaked myself in her hugs and books and art and homey-exotic collections of interior dec from my upbringing and her subsequent travels, had lunch with my cousin (who did an outstanding job of mental chiropracty on my crippled thinking), and came home almost ready to face my current world.

Which looks something like this:

  • Approaching the hard deadline for leaving my rented home.
  • Lump of expensive metal sitting in my driveway, not driveable.
  • Housemate & ex-fiance (who asked me to marry him for 5 years, until I said yes, then refused to set a date) who really truly simply can’t choose a life-ward path but is increasingly obsessed with orchestrating his end… with frustratingly irrational obliviousness that that’s what it is. I could write a book about this — it’d make a fascinating novel — but confidentiality forbids.
  • Understanding that, after 7 eventful years together during which we’ve saved each other’s lives more than once, that’s not the choice I make every day I rise up against my own pain etc,, but HIS path is not MY choice to make.

Okay, bluntly, that’s:

  • No safe-enough home.
  • No working car.
  • Newly “divorced.”
  • Expecting to be imminently widowed.
  • Helpless in the face of most of this.

And this is where I tune into the meditative practices, because there’s a way I’ve learned to breathe that lifts my heart and brings me into life, no matter what. Helps me let go of the need to care FOR someone as much as I care ABOUT them. Releases him and his future to the care of the cosmos, which is a lot bigger than me, and has a different perspective on life.

I have to get back to writing perky posts! I have to live with this heavy stuff, but it doesn’t usually set the tone of my being. I can’t allow despair more than a look-in, so I’ve learned what it takes not to.

…Breeeeeathe…

It’s probably needless to say that I prefer to stay on the kindest terms possible. Keeping my connections pleasant is hugely important in managing the underlying chaos of my system, so my nerves have less to be jangled by. One of my personal mantras is: Someone else’s bad behavior is not an excuse for mine. Sounds rigid, but it works well in the service of my larger strategy of keeping my system on a more even keel.

Here’s where I huff on my nails and buff them on my nonexistent lapel: I stopped 4 efforts to start an argument in 20 minutes yesterday, and I only pulled one of my old habits of “managing” his tortured thinking 3 times throughout the day. Just letting it all go. He is his, warts and all. Only he (I think) will have to face his consequences.

I also found a couple of possibly-soft-enough-ride cars I should be able to afford, with a bank loan. Just need to arrange the ride to check them out.

Here’s a little cherry on top of the hopefully-expanding sundae of possibilities: the ugly and ill-considered business choices made by the dealership who sold me that expensive hunk of metal, can be addressed by filing online (no car trip! No need to collect and print my documentation & evidence ahead of time! No repeat visits!) with the state’s Consumer Protection department. PHEW! I’m happy to let the authorities tackle this while I deal with my present needs.

Life is short; keep it kind. Be good to each other.

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3rd panel of triptych: The action of deciding

This is the third panel of the triptych. It took awhile to write. You’ll see why soon.

First panel: my pre-CRPS decision mechanism broke, but look! There’s a hack for that! Using remaining fragments, bubble gum & baling-wire, and lots of patience, I can still stagger through even fairly complex decisions.

Second panel: Speaking of complex decisions, I’m looking for a home that meets my physical needs and my financial limitations. Turns out, there is no such thing… Yet. Crossing every available digit and getting really creative.

Now: I’ve been mulling the origin of the act of deciding. When does that happen? It goes by so fast sometimes, I find myself dancing on a spinning log of results before being aware of stepping onto it.

It’s my nature to leap to a decision and be told I’m going off half-cocked, but what I’m doing is processing huge amounts of information very quickly at a largely subconscious or pre-conscious level. I can haul out all the arguments pro and con on no notice, if anyone wants to hear them.

At least, I used to. It’s CRPS’s nature to pour a whole lot of crude-oil over everything between my ears, so things just don’t happen that fast in there any more, and the gears are more likely to slip and chatter. So, I go through a more iterative process and take much more time. If I could adjust my expectations of myself accordingly, I’d be all set…

At the moment, I’m viewing the action of choice with great intensity. I’m convinced that decisions are especially difficult, especially fraught, and especially crucial, for people with CRPS. (Not that this is a competition. If what you read fits, just circle it and write, “me too.”)

Layers of decision-ing:
Conscious vs. Unconscious

So much happens at the unconscious level before we even are aware of having a choice, that it’s impossible to discuss a mental action like choosing without acknowledging some of the most important barriers to thinking clearly in the first place. These are factors that many spoonies (and all CRPSers) have to live with and figure out how to handle, or decide not to handle and just be driven by them instead. (The enormous initiative required to deal with them is overwhelming, so I gently suggest being tolerant of those who don’t, or feel that they can’t, circumvent the circus acts desribed below.)

  • PAIN: Acts on the most primitive brain, and the primitive brain can’t think past the moment. Not its job.
    • Takes a good set of pain-management tips and tools to nudge the primitive brain to the back of the car, so reason can drive.
  • FEAR: Fear hijacks the amygdala and activates the fight-or-flight syndrome. Hijacked amygdalas distort the brain’s function even further, and the fight-or-flight response further destabilizes the already-wobbly central nervous system.
    • This is a one-two punch for CRPSers. It takes a lot of training and practice to work around that, but it usually can be done.
  • The MONSTER: know thy (current) self. Those of us with horrifying illnesses sometimes feel and seem like we’re taken over by some horrible, biting, unpleasant person who looks and sounds a lot like us, but doesn’t act like we normally intend to. This is tough all around. I find myself being emotionally hijacked — say, by a food allergy response, or a surprise pain flare — and, as I’m sitting there with tears of rage and fear pouring down my face and snarling, inside I’m going, “What the hell is going on? Why can’t I stop this??” It’s The Monster, and it’s off the leash.
    • Because I self-monitor so much, I can usually catch The Monster before things go too far, and I sequester myself (that is, I hide) and do distraction/self-care/Epsom baths/whatever until I’m back in charge as (& of) myself.

Bases for decisions: Information — & Certainty

When is the info in hand enough — both in quantity and quality — to base a decision on? (This is where I really miss those old rapid-processing days.) More fundamentally, how can I tell? Because determining and sorting the value of info is yet another, even higher-order level of processing than collecting it!

Having to make choices based on inadequate, unreliable, or unknown-quality info is a far more common task post-CRPS than pre-CRPS. Stumbling around in the dark and guessing, hoping for the best or maybe for the kindness of strangers, is not yet a default, but it sure is more common.

At some level — probably that mile-high view that my “wise self” hangs onto, whether or not it’s talking to me at the moment — it’s funny to see a super-clever type A whizz kid with delusions of promotion, like I used to be, stumbling around in the dark here. There’s a poetic justice to that, um, adjustment that even I can see. My darker side, perhaps, which I usually inflict only on myself.

“There’s always an afterwards”:
Sequelae & Consequences

Reality doesn’t care what drives my decisions; the “afterwards” I face is going to be what it’s going to be, and derive largely from the choices I make — not the ones I wanted to make, or was unable to make, or wished I could have made. They stem directly from the choice I did make, consciously or not, emotionally or not, rationally or not, wisely or not. It takes, again, a lot of practice and some basic training to keep in mind that there will be an afterwards, and force myself to make the decision that results in a better afterwards — even if it’s less satisfying at the time.

The increasing intransigence of reality is really annoying! Can’t it work with me a little more? Sigh.

The older, poorer, and sicker I get, the less flexible the world around me gets. Being young and perky was all kinds of help — I had no idea!

everyone over 50

I distinguish sequelae (|suh-quell’-eye|) from consequences like this:

  • Sequelae are natural results of something. They may or may not be a problem, may or may not need managing, but they’re just what happens as a result of factors we don’t necessarily control.
  • Consequences are results that must be dealt with somehow. Assessing consequences is part of rational decision-making. Who could be hurt? What might it cost? What kind of damage, or benefit, could happen? They’re predictable, if we stop and think things through properly. So, there’s a level of responsibility involved.

We RISK possible sequelae. We FACE possible consequences.

Too much decision-ing:
What About Control Issues?

In the category of bottomless dopamine sinks…

Trying to control too much of my environment is a total waste of effort. It soaks up decision-making chemistry, burns through my attention like a bonfire, and creates a lot more anxiety for absolutely zero net benefit.

People who knew (or dated) me in my 20’s quirk up one corner of the mouth a lot these days. I’m happy to let anyone decide anything for me — as long as it doesn’t do any further harm. My emotional investment in things like where to meet or what to eat, interior decor, stylistic choices, what others should do — pretty much nil.

My emotional investment in being in control is tightly centered on protecting my immune and nervous systems. That’s about it. Anything that meets those (admittedly, enormous & far-reaching) criteria and then looks for something more from me gets a big, airy, sky-bright “whatever!”

I realized that control issues were really a type of anxiety. I have my past traumas, like most, and loads of current problems which are terrifying to contemplate, so it’s reasonable to be anxious. Not helpful, though. Anxiety stalls my brain out completely.

This ratfink disease forces me to choose consciously — and learn to enforce skillfully — what to let myself worry about. It’s one of the great lessons of learning to live with this disease. Speaking as someone who started out being mildly thrilled by emergencies and wound up, at my nadir, being unable to get out of my home and onto a bus because of long-legged terror looming and lunging at me, I’m the first to say that managing anxiety is a journey, a process, any of those things that won’t be completed in my life because it now is part of my life.

This is why I now meditate twice a day. I was mulling, about a month ago, how much harder it was to keep my temper or keep my brain ticking over at a functional rate. The Dalai Lama’s dictum came to mind: “Meditate for half an hour every day. Oh, you don’t have time to meditate for half an hour every day? Meditate for an HOUR every day!”

I’d gotten to the point where an hour before bedtime was not cutting it any more. Figuring the Dalai Lama has never steered me wrong so far, I added another hour (or so) of meditation, after my morning pills go down.

I retest that now and then, but sure enough, if I don’t have time to meditate for the morning hour, everything takes longer and everything gets worse. If I do take that extra hour, I’m a lot clearer and my rate of being able to get things done — and to know, moment by moment, what I’m most able to do as my “glasses” change — surges up to a new normal. I’d like to get used to that — but never take it for granted!

Counter-intuitive, to say the least, but I care more about what works than about what I understand or believe.

Now, back to wrestling with reality to create possibilities that don’t currently exist… No hurry, though — doing the impossible usually takes more effort; might as well do it right the first time.

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