Angel wings & tactical things

This morning, I woke up feeling like a butcher knife was lodged in my heart, the memory of barking and snarling voices ringing in my ears. No surprise there; it’s to be expected.

My first coherent thought was, “This needs to be better.” I think that about a lot of things, but this one is mine to deal with.

I pulled one of my tools out of my mental toolkit, and flicked my eyes from ceiling to floor, ceiling to floor. (I’m a side-sleeper.) When I felt an urge to close my eyes, I did. When I opened them again, the butcher knife had shrunk to the size of a stiletto, maybe a medium-sized knitting-needle.

This magic technique is one way of using “bilateral stimulation.” Bilateral stimulation is a way of using neuro-anatomy to manage neuro-chemistry, using your brain signals to heal your mind. There’s loads of material on it in the field of trauma psychology.

Basically, the way our brain processes “sidedness” (the fact that we have a left, a right, a front, and a back) is even deeper than the way it processes strong, primitive emotions, like fight-or-flight-or-freeze. Those emotions tend to disrupt the brain’s normal processing of memory, thought, and decision-making, which can be useful when mastodons are stomping over your village — what you need to do is move faster than you’ve ever done in your life, and not camp on their migratory route in the future.

Most decisions we have to make are not on that order. Even when we live with a brain that keeps wanting to go there, it’s still rarely useful. So, it’s wise to have a few tools that can keep it in check when it’s working “after hours”, so to speak.

One way to do that, which works for most ordinary stressors, is meditation. It gives me practice in creating a still space inside, where I can survey my surroundings, assess things, and choose the best way forward, from this non-triggered space. The “success” of individual meditation sessions is irrelevant to this skill, because it comes naturally as a result of persistently going back to meditation and working on it over and over. Like with many things regarding central nervous system care, persistence is key.

When my skills are toppled over by what goes on around me (cf. my last post! A perfect example of losing it and coming back again), these other tools come out of my “bag of tricks.”

Glancing from one side to another is easy, portable, and requires only some vision and muscular control of your eyes. Pick a spot about 45-60 degrees ahead of you on your left, and a corresponding spot on your right. Flick your glance from one to the other, and back again, not too fast, not too slow. The right speed varies from person to person and time to time. Feel out the point where your system naturally drops to a median, attentive level. It doesn’t feel dramatic or unnatural; I experience it as a sort of a natural pause, as if it’s waiting calmly for something reasonable. Getting someone properly trained in EMDR to teach you what this feels like is really helpful, but you might be able to find it yourself.

There’s a bit more to it: real EMDR training starts with finding, and programming into that deep layer, a “safe place” to go to in your mind; establishing a certain connection with what some call “your wise self”, so you can re-assess your situation and re-evaluate your responses without the triggering; and learning what happens to you, in particular, during the process, so you can self-treat with fewer problems and more success.

Other techniques of bilateral stimulation include the “butterfly hug.” Cross your arms so your hands rest on your opposite collarbones, and tap one side, then the other side. This feels very comforting. It’s not my go-to, because the nerves going through my elbows don’t like bending up that much.

Thigh tapping is widely taught in disaster- and war-related trauma recovery. It can be done sitting, standing, or lying down. Simply tap your legs, first one side, then the other, with the hand on that side. Left hand left leg, Right hhand right leg, back adn forth. The signal demands attention from the brain, which pulls itelf off of panic duty and gets back to processing information and sorting memories in a healthier way.

My physical therapist recently taught me the cross-body crawl. I can do this standing, sitting, or lying down on my back. Reach over with one hand and bring up the opposite knee, then switch sides, back and forth.

This does several things: it provides bilateral stimulation, which calms the panicky system down. It tones the core muscles, especially done while walking! It reminds the brain where the limbs are, which is kind of a huge deal with CRPS, which tends to muddle our brain’s map of our bodies. The cross-body crawl tops my current list of things I wish I wouldn’t do in public, because people look at me funny, but I’m going to do it anyway, because it’s so helpful to me.

I’m also able to focus on nutrition, physically the biggest player in the healing game. I made a green soup last night — Not Chik’n brand bouillon with all the green things I could find in the store that weren’t cabbage relatives (because they push down on my thyroid), and yesterday that was parsley, leeks, mature spinach, celery, and dandelion greens, plus carrots to smooth it all out. I cooked the rather harsh-smelling leeks in butter until the smell sweetened, then dumped everything but the spinach in and simmered for awhile, letting the minerals leach out into the broth. Then I cooked the spinach on top more briefly (so it wouldn’t get bitter) and threw it all in the blender.

As my friend said, “It’s like a chlorophyll bath.”

Meanwhile, as long as I persist in my meditative practice, the work on finding a home charges ahead. It’s a lasting puzzle to the linear part of my mind why an hour spent on meditation makes the other 3-4 functional hours I can squeeze out of the day ten times more effective. I’m gaspingly glad that it does, because it’s a heck of a job to find a safe place for this body.

This cascade of events has carved into my very bones the understanding that it’s meditation that will save me in the end. It’s the axis of my mundi, strange as that may seem to those who’ve witnessed any of my eventful life.

I feel the wings of angels stirring my hair now, and I can’t worry, only take the leap and trust that I’ll fly, rather than fall.

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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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A fond farewell

J just drove away from here for the last time.

Friday, he filled up the kindling box and organized the firewood to his satisfaction.  (Yes, it has been cold enough in the mornings to need a fire sometimes. In late June.)

Saturday, he helped my friends change out a very troublesome toilet. It was not a task for the faint of heart.

En route, he let me know he’d decided to leave this weekend, 2 weeks earlier than planned.  I could have handled it worse, but it wasn’t good.

Being part of doing something as fundamentally Freudian as changing a toilet helped, though. We both were a lot better afterwards.

Sunday, he took a “recovery” day but still mowed the whole lawn, did the lion’s share of washing every stitch of clothes and linens for me, cleaned the kitchen, and vacuumed the living room.

I wrote up an illustrated “so long & thanks for all the fish” sort of letter for him, so he could leave easier in his mind. I saw him read it, pause, smile upside-down and let one eyebrow drift up. A shadow lifted.

Neither of us slept much last night, but spent hours hearing the other toss and sigh a floor away. While I was rattling around upstairs at midnight, he came up and asked for alka-seltzer. I gave him half a box for the road. (It’s part of my gluten-exposure first aid kit.)

This morning, unable to lie down past 5:40am (my feet were spasming something awful), I got up and took a shower straight away, giving him time to slip away if he wasn’t up to seeing me. He waited until I was dressed and ready, then gave me a warm hug and a warm kiss and asked for my blessings.

I carried the cat out to wave goodbye.

When I came back, there was, of course, exactly the right amount of water in the kettle for my tea.

So, this is what it looks like to let go with love.

It’s still devastating, absolutely devastating, but a lot less wracking and a lot quieter than the usual alternative.

And now, back to my regularly-scheduled programming of coping with agony, loss, DIY for gimps, too much work with too little time and capacity, appropriate depression/anxiety, and impending homelessness.

Send in the clowns!

Today’s task: get my last box into storage, retrieve my camping stuff, and assess whether I’m safe to use the table-saw I’ll need to rent to do the subflooring downstairs. Probably not a good idea. That might have to wait. At least a week.

Okay, storage it is. And work on prepping the car for camping. Because the future happens whether I’m ready or not.

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3-4 solid tools for tough times

(If you’re looking for my housing-search info, go here for the latest with all the tables, and here for the one before that 🙂 )
I’ve often remarked that one of the really SPECIAL things about CRPS is the way it essentially “re-traumatizes” the brain: in many ways, it duplicates what happens to the brain when horrific things happen — car accidents, war, etc.
That’s so not right.
This is why we tend to be a leeeeeetle intense at times, and why those of us who survive it long-term become Jedi masters about managing how we appear to feel and how we manage how we really feel.
A key component, as many of you are well aware, is helping yourself find and develop the tools that let your brain process the endless hurt, integrate useful lessons, and release the bitterness, day by day by day. 
 
This is where a regular inner practice comes in handy. I’m sure there’s something most of y’all have got going, possibly related to CBT or DBT or mindfulness, for anxiety, grounding and self-calming; these are great tools. To strengthen yourself further and create more resiliency, try taking that to the next level in some way.
Here are some tools from my life and from survivor workshops and so forth. Individually, they’re amazing. Together, they’re mutually reinforcing and geometrically powerful. They are:
  • Free writing
  • Journaling (not the same thing at all)
  • Disciplined movement
  • Some kind of meditation
 

A. Free Writing:

1. Set a timer or page-count. If possible, use paper and pen rather than keyboard.
2. Once you start, just keep the pen moving forward, no crossings out or edits, just keep the pen moving forward. 
3. When the timer/page count is done, stop right there. It’s okay to finish the sentence, but stop.
> This does something important, which we don’t really have language for but which is absolutely primitive-brain-supportive, that helps de-sting one’s thoughts and experiences.
> Start as short or long as you think it would be successful to do, and go from there. Time spent doing free-writing is never wasted, but running around and art are good too.
> Walk away and do something physical or practical afterwards.
>> Take at least 2 hours before coming back for another round. The brain needs the integration-rest-time, for this to work.
> If you leave out any of these points, then you’re journalling, which is also great, but it’s a totally different strategy as far as the brain/mind/emotional landscape is concerned.
This technique is particularly useful after school, after a big incident when the feelings have calmed down but the mind is still recovering, or before starting a big project.
 

B. Journaling:

1. Put it outside the head and onto a physical medium.
That’s it.
> Journaling can be written, drawn, painted, danced (if filmed), sculpted, photographed, montaged, whatever. Out of the head and onto/into a physical medium.
> We journal for ourselves alone. The writing, pictures, even the dance footage, are not for showing. They might be shown later, after the period of life has passed, but that’s not the point. More commonly, they lay the groundwork for exponentially better art that’s made later.
> Keep them close, where they can be consulted by the one who did them. Nobody else is involved.
> Journaling exteriorizes and preserves our thoughts/feelings/subjectivity so they get less “gluey” and less scatty and become easier to handle.
> Looking over a period of life’s journals can be a great way to shine a Klieg Light of God on things, and free you up to make great changes quickly.
> It’s compost. Don’t expect it to be sweet or glorious, just let it compost. It pays off over time.
 

C. Disciplined movement

Of any sort: dance (Traditional, hip hop, jazz, modern, square, anything), t’ai chi, yoga, playing drums, gymnastics, long-distance running, group sports (plenty of opportunities for seeing both useful and silly ways to handle conflict), canoeing, sailing, etc.

Big grinning woman in spectacular Hawaiian ceremonial dress dancing with her arms
Photo: Joanna Poe in Honolulu
> This literally helps organize the brain, especially a growing brain, most especially that of an intelligent child.
> It also helps regulate neurotransmitters to a healthier balance.
> The body working under specific direction of the brain is enormously neuro-protective and re-balancing. Nothing else works half as well for the brain, the mind, the feelings, and the immune and digestive systems, as disciplined movement. Its value simply can’t be overstated.

D. Meditation

Of any of several kinds.
It seems most useful to have a couple of different kinds of meditation, so if you’re not up to one, you can do the other, and the benefits are mutually reinforcing.
1. “Still” meditation is mostly based on breathing with attention, and once that gets more natural, there are progressive layers of using attention & breathing to strengthen, stabilize, and regulate inner life and responses to outer events in life.
2. “Standing” and “Moving” meditations are often easier than still meditation when it’s harder to focus. The posture and/or movement provides a way into the meditative state.  Also, it qualifies as “disciplined movement.” Two-fer!
> Different methods of “still” meditation only become interesting once you’re generally pretty comfortable with sitting and breathing, and being able to put your attention on some place in your breathing path and just rest it there. (Feeling the air come in at the tip of your nose. Feel it come down to 2″ above your navel. Or rest your attention on any place in between. I love the feeling of it moving in my lungs, so that’s where I focus. My mom focuses on the tip of her nose. Just pick one and learn to rest your attention there — with a naturally-upwelling calm delight, yum! — while breathing.)
> Set a timer, and respect it — just like with Free Writing. For that period of time, all you have to do is the meditation, of whatever kind. It’s okay if it’s boring. It’s okay if it’s frightening — you’re actually safe and okay, and it’s okay to breathe through the feelings and let the time pass. The timer is your safety net. Remember that it takes about 5 minutes before and after meditating to transition, and that’s okay too.
> “Standing” and “Moving” meditations come in millions of styles and schools. These include yoga (hot, cold, slow, fast, many schools!), t’ai chi, qi gong (thousands of schools), judo (those who engage in judo are referred to as “playing” rather than “fighting” judo — it was my first martial art; surprised?), aikido, Shaolin — in fact, any martial art with a great teacher… and of course these come in styles relevant to the countries in which each particular school originated — Japan, Okinawa (my Dad’s karate style), China, Tibet, India, even France (savate) and Brazil (capoeira)… lots to choose from.
 
I’ve found that most more-detailed techniques of managing and clarifying thoughts, feelings, and decisions are basically variations or elaborations of these 4 core strategies. Play around and find what works for you.
 
I copied this from a comment I wrote on social media. So many of us need reminding, especially me. I’m so frightened and overwhelmed myself, I want to put this info where I can grab it quick.
Off to set a timer and do some t’ai chi.
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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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Service animal in training

So, here she is: my little fuzzbutt of curiosity, in a mellow moment.

Photo: Laurie B., who’s also an excellent dj.

I told my pain specialist about her, as follows:

She is turning into a service pet already: when I hurt myself, she comes and brushes against it, providing a good sensory input to help me push back against the wa-wa of pain. When I’m upset, she stops what she’s doing and comes over to comfort me, so I don’t go so hard into my body’s “autonomic fuss”: color and vital sign shifts, sudden weakness, persistent nausea, emotional instability and pain, etc. She licks softly on the most numb or paraesthetic bits: my toes and wrists. She’s extremely well-behaved in public, handles being in the carrier pretty well, and is adapting to being on leash.

We’re working on the concept of when it’s time to sleep. Those of you with cats, I heard that sardonic laugh. However, I’m feeling relieved and pleased once again that my training techniques are paying off.

I do two things, which I haven’t read about much:

1. I think about what I’m saying. House pets read emotional and mental states extremely well. Probably because of this, I find that speaking to my fuzzy-butts in plain English, and halting my internal chatter to notice and mean what I say when I speak to them, is extremely effective. “It’s like they understand every word.”

2. Wow. Can’t remember what I was going to say for the second thing. That’s embarrassing. It’s like I have pain brain or something. Just like!

So, anyway…

Last night, she was bouncing off the walls at bedtime. Sigh.

I put on the classical CD I play to let her know it’s time to settle down — twice. (Mstislav Rostropovich and Ytchak Perlman playing something deliciously calming.) Usually, that knocks her right out. Better than Valium. Not that time, though. Did I give her extra vitamins?

As she pinged around my legs, I scooped her up and explained sincerely that it’s time for sleep. She paused briefly, all furry and cuddlesome, then went “nah, but thanks” and squirmed off.

I gave up and trundled off, flared limbs throbbing, head lolling with weariness on my sore neck.

I climbed under the covers, arranged my pillows, read my “bedtime silly” book for 5 minutes, and realized I needed some autogenic-training meditation (those are the ones that include, “your limbs feel heavy and warm”) to get my feet and lower legs to warm up enough.

I ignored the squacking and mooping noises (she has quite a vocabulary) from the next room. My limbs were finally getting warm.

Then Miss Thing popped up, literally, and let me know we were going to sleep now if it killed her. O…kaaaayyy…..

She made deep biscuits, pressing hard but still not using claws, first on my right shoulder, then on my right forearm, then on my left shoulder.

Then she turned around once, slapped her head down against my pillow, and conked out, her purr fading into sleep almost as soon as it started.

OMG the cute. Much brain juice. So impressed, too.

Did you notice — she zeroed in on the key spots that triggered my condition. She went straight to them. I have to spend hundreds of words explaining these points to humans; she just dialled straight in.

She is definitely my Service Cat.

Just need to help her get calmer in the world outside, and be old enough to develop a little more poise in the face of the unexpected, because always behaving well in public is a key part of Service Animal requirements — and that amazing little fur-girl will be all set.

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This is not a triptych

I’m a writer; I think in terms of story. I assumed I’d have some definite third stage of recovery from that breakup, but no, just more process.

Not just the emotional work of disentangling two mingled lives and learning how to be in the same room and hold a practical conversation in civilized tones, and not give in either to the huge love or the awful rage.

There’s the special spoonie stuff, brought to me by CRPS/fibromyalgia/dysautonomia/Hashimoto’s disease. Learning how to get everything done every hour of every day of every week, with little help, no encouragement, no prompting or reminding that I don’t think to set up myself on that increasingly irritating & necessary phone, no underlying love to smooth the steps out or to rest in the soothing of, between efforts. With winter coming on, there is SO much to do. He has come over a couple of times to help with that. How do I say thank you without weeping?

I noticed when we first met, before we were ever lovers, that my pain and brain fog dropped when he was within about 16 feet of me. Once we were partnered, that symptom-suppression held pretty much all the time.

So now, I’m doing all this with an additional physical burden of pain and, dear heavens, so much brain fog.

It’s a process. It’s a two-steps-forward-one-step-back process… and, frankly, those are pretty boring to read about.

So yeah, it sucks. And I don’t get to stop working on it. Spoonies rarely get breaks, and never get vacation time, from being sick.

Onward.

I got a cat. She’s just over a year old, and came to me not knowing how to eat. (The irony is so thick you could cut it with a knife.) The first couple days, her hip bones kept getting sharper. A mini dog came over and showed her how it’s done. That was the first big bump forward. Her hip bones are marginally less sharp now.
She’s beginning to learn that that “I waaaaant!” feeling means she’s hungry. I don’t know how she lost track of that instinctive message, but she would sidle up to her bowl and then skitter away with a little flash of anxiety.

Drama is emotionally seductive and magnetic, especially to the young. So, that exciting pattern needed interrupting. I took up her food for hours, so there was nothing to sidle up to and skitter away from. At first, I held her bowl down to reassure her, but as she gets more settled and secure, I leave her to it once she gets started, and stay quiet so as not to distract her. I spent the usual cat-lady hours finding food she liked. (She’s definitely my cat: she likes real food, not Friskies.)

She’s quite a beauty — flared cheekbones, cute little nose, huge eyes with heavy liner, a charming overbite. A bit like Geena Davis, but with whiskers instead of dimples.

I’m taking her out with me everywhere. She gets along with everyone, having met eight cats, three dogs, two squirrels, and any number of people, with roughly equal aplomb. She’s turning into a service pet; already, my increasingly sluggish reflexes (which have given me some scares while driving) are slightly less bad. Wand-toys FTW!

Time to get on with wrestling the requirements for another day into a set of hurdles I can probably clear.

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A week on, slightly shocky but keeping calm

Those of you who’ve been, been with, or treated addicts won’t be surprised to know that J’s story changed 3 times in a week, but I didn’t fall for it. He has not tried to come back, did not go to the deadly place, and is taking care of himself rather better than might be expected.

The fact that he’s not imminently in danger is a huge relief, actually. I can handle breakups — I just can’t handle mortality.

I looked back at my previous post and got a huge laugh out of the fact that I opened with one sentence regarding a life-shattering event and went straight into the nerdiest possible fugue about meds, care, and therapies that are affected by it. I’m not sure of the distinction between nerd, dork, and geek, but I’m pretty sure I’m all three, and that’s okay with me. The doc I sent that letter to is the brainiest of those, whichever that may be.

The feelings washing through me are as varied as you might expect. There are some ways I feel freed up — I finally got to rearrange the living room furniture, and it’s a vast improvement. Nobody to get all tense and cranky about moving his sofa location. I look back no the ways I’d just stopped making room for myself because it was easier than arguing. The last year and a half was a downward trend, the last year pretty bumpy, the last few months really rough, and the last few weeks we were together were frankly awful.

That, I don’t miss.

What I miss is that where he was, was home. I’m homeless in one sense, because he’s homeless in the literal sense. (He sure enjoys the camping, though.) I rarely had to scold him for anything because he could hear me yelling at him in my head; he’d give me the same pissy look my cat used to give me when he was scolded, and make the adjustment I wished he’d make, with no more than 5 soft words exchanged. He literally read my freaking mind.

I don’t know what he’ll do when the weather changes. Not my circus now. He’s facing the consequences of his own decisions, and one is that he has fewer, and at this point less attractive, options.

I found a person who knows how to get me signed up for things like help with the dishes and laundry and vacuuming, rides to my medical appointments, and other logisstical needs. The shuddering absence of J has left me with arms so overused and attention so wrung out that I had trouble driving safely home today. I actually missed a turn on a road I’ve taken uncountable times. Not reassuring, that. Fortunately, it was easy to correct.

As I explained to my passenger: I can pay attention to the road and obstacles around me, and I can control the vehcile I’m driving, and do both confidently; the rest, like where to turn, is a bit iffy.

The physical consequences crash on, no matter how calm I can keep my mind most of the time. The tearing, strengthless feelings in my hand tendons is pretty scary. My ashtma is acting up, a consstant background pull. I guess I’d better raise my antihistamine dosage, and make an appointment with my rheumatologist to look into that.

The emotions ebb and flow: bouts of anger, so seductive but I refuse to cling to them … I let them roll through and roll away; irritation; lovely memories; wry humor; noticing things he’d like; gaping wounds of loss; grief; the endless wordless cry of a mature heart that’s broken, like a descant that never stops. I let them roll through. I’m an old hand at loss. The trick is not to hide from them, and not to cling to them. Look at them, one by one or five by five as they come, and see them for what they are. Then let them go. Not easy, but so worth it.

Task focused is good. I have things on my schedule and things I have to do. I pay attention to the next task. It really helps. It’s okay to stay out of emotional space, something I didn’t used to know. It’s absolutely okay not to go prodding that open wound. I can work around it.

I was cooking up a frozen Indian dinner on the stove, anything further being beyond me and microwave dinners being disgusting to me (except rice-pasta mac and cheese, for some reason.) I sat there, stirring it gently, and taking a step back to look at the whole picture.

Aspects of my life are better. There’s no arguing, for one thing. I’m seeing my friends more.

Aspects of my life are harder. I have more creative impulses but less ability to do anything with them. The logistics of getting through the week are awful.

On the whole, my life is definitely worse without J in it. His jobs can be done by others, but the whole blooming warmth and joy and peace that he brought with him, until he gave into the “stinkin’ thinkin'” of addictive-mind, is gone, except in memory.

Having said that — having looked squarely at that — I let it go.

I remember the time I decided to give up on repeating my mistakes. It was at my first nursing job, on the HIV unit. I realized, imperfect person in a tough high-stakes job that I was, that I was probably going to make mistakes. I made an agreement with myself not to repeat them, but to pay attention and learn, and when I screwed up, to figure out how to avoid doing that particular thing again.

I waited too long for him to do what he needed to do to get better. He’s not going to do that unless and until he decides, and — here’s the not repeating mistakes part — he has no place here unless and until he has well begun that arduous journey.

Whether he takes it or not is not up to me.

Not my circus any more.

Time to have that dinner and watch a silly movie.

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