Threads on the loom: bereavement and CRPS

When I was 4, we moved to New Jersey from Turkey, as my parents thought their kids should get a feel for their native land. Our new backfence neighbors were a large and lovely family from Virginia, so I learned to spell “dog” both with and without a “w” by the time I was six.

The youngest daughter got me going on poetry. We read A. A. Milne and Louis Untermeyer in between dips in the kiddie pool. Her Mom, Mrs P, gave me drawing lessons when I was about 9.

My Mom was very maternal in her genuine enthusiasm for all my art. (I found that frustrating, because I knew it could be better and had no idea how to make it so.)

Mrs P did not have that problem with me… Her key edicts make reasonable rules for living: For one thing, I should not draw the whole scene until I was capable enough (don’t let things overwhelm you.) I had to pick the parts that were most important or that caught my eye, keep it simple, and do it right – or else there’d be erasing, and, if you erase too much, the surface gets harder to work on. (Isn’t that the truth.)

She was also good for the reality check. She quickly eliminated my grade-school habit of drawing red apples and brown trees, but made me look at a real apple and draw that; hold my colored pencils up to the tree and see which colors really matched.

See what’s really there, not what I expect or what I’ve been told things should look like.

The biggest note of approval I ever got from her was, “not bad.” By the time I was 6 weeks in, I was able to collect a “not bad” or two almost every lesson, which pleased me no end.

CRPS took away the link between brain and hand that let me make art, but one thing really stuck with me …

Why settle for good or even great, when you could aim for making it absolutely right?

“Good” and “great” are about others’ opinions, but “absolutely right” is something ageless that stands on its own.

Later that year, our parents sat us down to have a family meeting. Dad had been offered a job in Cairo, Egypt. He wanted to know what we thought about moving to Egypt in a few months. Mom and Dad discussed pros (long list) and cons (short list.) Older Brother asked about schooling (very good) and the social scene (unknown, but probably interesting.) Younger Brother piped up with characteristic curiosity and adaptability.

It seemed like a done deal, but I was wrong. Dad looked at me and said, “What do you think, Isy?” I must have looked surprised. He said, “You have a good sense of people. I don’t want to finalize this decision until I hear what you think it’ll do to us, either way.”

Should I be nice? My first instinct was to be nice, to stick up for the shabby underdog (in this case, New Jersey), to do what I thought was expected of me … but it stuck in my craw. Perhaps Mrs P’s lessons on seeing things as they really are had sunk in.
I said, quite honestly, that New Jersey was not being good for any of us (except maybe Younger Brother) and that Egypt would be new and interesting. We all liked new and interesting. So, as far as I could see, it was hard to see a downside to going, and hard to see an upside to staying.

So we went. And I got an early lesson in the value of calling it like I see it.

Our vacations were dreamlike, because we were close to some of the most striking sights in the world:

  • El Alamein and the remains of fallen soldiers from 5 continents;
  • The Red Sea, when it was still the most outstandingly varied and brilliant source of sea life on Earth (it’s still good in spots, as that video shows);
  • The southwest coast of Turkey when Bodrum (formerly known as Halicarnassus) was still a fishing town and their medieval castle the tallest building in it;
  • And, of course, the remains of roughly 8,000 years of Egyptian history from before the Old Kingdom, down through all those Rameses, Greek absorption, Roman annexation, Medieval flowering and Mameluk co-optation, the French and British tradeoffs, modernization as the royal family fell and the secular dictatorship accepted Nazi help to fend off the British return, the flowering of art and writing as the world wars faded and the newly mobile masses could collect like runoff from the tortured continent to the north. The Ancient history is only the beginning…

During the day, I learned about path-finding, history, and sea life, and in the evenings my mother read to us from local literature such as the Odyssey, the Iliad, My Family and Other Animals, even A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (the sharpest satire on jingoism and culture shock ever written.)

My parents had a gift for making the most of teachable moments.

The move turned out to be an excellent choice for all of us: Older Brother became a track star on the international circuit, I found a crop of kindred spirits, Younger Brother’s precocious historicity kept growing, Mom became a successful working photographer (and, as it happened, a role model of working womanhood for every intelligent female friend I had), and Dad got paid to help people – then towns – then governments get better and better at handling their money and improving their chances for a sustainable future.

The day I drafted this is the 38th anniversary of that move.

Dad was great at practical stuff. He genuinely liked humans, despite being such a historian. He often said that people are like table wine. Each one is a blend of different strains: good and bad, clever and foolish, creative and not, good with money and profligate, nice and otherwise… and each person’s blend is a little bit different. If you can accept each of them as the blend they are, and not try to change them – into a different blend, or even into beer, for instance – then you could really come to appreciate the variety that this world has to offer.

People are what they are. Accepting that makes for better connections.

The first time he taught me to drive was when we were on vacation in France, which was cheaper to get to than the US. We had rented a historical farmhouse that was about to become a gîte (at which point the price would go up), so we got all the benefits – a fireplace Younger Brother could stand up in, window sills two feet thick to sit on, a lush yard going down to a creek at the bottom with a moat up one side of the yard, a line of stately chestnut trees, twittering birds, fresh eggs and raw milk from the neighbor – for considerably less than we should have paid.

The rental car looked like it came straight out of a matchbox, but it was a real, rattly little French Renault. Dad sat in the passenger seat and directed me to the driver’s seat. He told me about the brake, the gas and clutch, the gear shift, the friction point, and how it all came together. I got the friction point coordinated and tested it a few times.

Then he said, “Okay, here we go.” I checked the friction point again and then stopped. He said, “No, I want you to go. Go ahead and drive across the yard.”

Oh, okay then. I can do this.

I grabbed the wheel tightly, engaged the gear, and eased past the friction point.

The car snorted briefly, pawed the ground, took the bit firmly between its teeth, and off it went. Or so it seemed to me.

The car charged off the gravel, kicking it up behind. It careened over the lush yard, carrying us past (fortunately) the huge stone house. It rocked and bounced off of molehills, scoring crazy tracks through the soft green earth.

I noticed my Dad was yelling, but he never yelled, so that was confusing. I didn’t understand a word of it, anyway.

Completely out of its metallic mind, the car charged past the trees, heading straight for the neatly-dug moat.

I was helpless to stop it. My own involvement had escaped my awareness completely. I simply hung onto the steering wheel for dear life, eyes wider than ever, completely absent to the fact that MY FOOT WAS ON THE GAS.

All at once, Dad finally got his full-grown leg around the gear shift and kicked my foot off the gas pedal and stamped on the brake in one astoundingly swift move.

The car sputtered, died, rocked to a standstill.

Its front wheels were on the lip of the moat. Below us, three feet of water and unimaginable depths of sticky mud glittered silently.

Little clods of earth trickled out from under the front tires and dropped in, stirring tiny clouds as each one descended through the water and into the mud.

All was quiet. Even the birds were too shocked to peep.

I sat there, frozen, hands locked on the wheel. I was alive. And dry. It was shocking.

I didn’t dare to move.

I heard Dad take a breath, and then take another. I felt, even with my head still turned away, two completely different speeches considered, then thrown away before he even made a sound.

I turned to see what he’d finally settle on, and whether it would finally involve a pair of hands wrapped around my throat – something I’d never seen him do yet, but you never knew, especially after a performance like that.

A pair of blue lasers drilled me to my seat.

Very quietly, very clearly, very firmly, he said, pronouncing each word distinctly:

“When what you’re doing doesn’t work… Try. Something. Different.”

Words to live by.

It was years until I was anywhere as green as Bordeaux. I lived along the Mohawk Trail in my 20’s. My excellent friend Paul was the hub of a wide circle of friends who, even if we couldn’t always stand each other individually, felt strangely as if we were still part of the same tribe: Paul’s tribe – or, as we called it at the time (such was his gift for invisible influence) The Tribe.

Paul was a master of appreciating people just as they were – even if that was not necessarily what the person in question wanted to be. He was the first to say, in assured tones,

“You’ll figure it out, Bella.”

He wasn’t kidding, either. He had complete faith in me, in spite of the evidence. I don’t know why. It sure helped, though.
My Dad died in early February 1999 while swimming in Egypt. I still remember the way the word “No” echoed off the walls of my little room at 4:08 am, when I got the call. The second flight on my 3-legged trip back East was overbooked, and I was going to get bumped.

I went up to the desk with my untucked button-down shirt, uncombed hair, and my own pair of blue lasers. Very quietly, very clearly, very firmly, I said, pronouncing each word distinctly, “My father is dead. I’m going back to bury him. I will be. On. That. Plane.”

And I was.

On January 23rd the following year, Paul decided to sleep late, and never woke up. On the plane to his funeral, I wrote to the father of one of my oldest friends from Egypt days, who had end-stage cancer. It started something like this:

“I’m on my way to a dear friend’s memorial, and I’m keenly aware that life is short and time is passing. Even though I don’t know you well, because you were my friend’s father rather than my friend directly, you matter to me. I want to let you know how important you’ve been throughout my life.” And then I told him about the ways his life had intersected mine over the years, brightening it along the way.

It was the last letter he received in this life.

Deathiversaries.

That’s my word for those days that sneak up on the calendar, dropping shards of stabbing tears out of a clear blue sky, breaking my knees for a moment as the agony of the unfillable absence hits me anew.

Now, not to strain the violins further, but the period that encompassed the deaths of my father, Paul, and my friend’s father also encompassed several other bereavements, a crippling stroke of my grandmother’s, the heartbreaking failure of my almost-marriage, the end of my nursing career due to illness, being too sickly-weak to make it to the mailbox and back for months, starting a new tech career from nothing but raw talent and pure luck, and moving.

And I really hate moving.

That was all in 18 months. I was a different person at the end of it. I’m sorry to say that it was someone who could face the devastation of CRPS with a lot more poise, but it still sucks.

Last Monday, January 20th, my old neighbor and teacher Mrs P died in her sleep. I haven’t seen her in 38 years (minus a week) but something as sharp and bright as faceted crystal slid out of my world.

My kitten Ari was a comfort to me, flinging himself firmly onto my body, as if to shove his strength and warmth into me.

He was enormous in every way: 10 pounds at 10 months and all of it lanky muscle, enormous love, enormous cheer, enormous charm, enormous athleticism, enormous independence, enormous courage, enormous confidence, enormous sense of humor … he was enormously unusual, even for a cat. He was an enormous invitation to life, just by the way he lived it.

Four nights after that, Ari disappeared. The following morning he was found on the road, dead and cold. Our Lovely Neighbors got us through, from finding his body to explaining to J to telling me. (I’m weaker now. It’s the buckling knees I remember.)
Partner J dug a perfect meter-deep grave, bedded it 6” deep in sprigs of fresh California bay while I blew sage smoke in, and I carried my kitten down to his final spot in the sun, at the bend in the path where he played with our dog and the Lovely Neighbors’ numerous cats.

I took the loss hard.

I’m an old hand at grieving. I can walk through the stages and the process in my sleep, although my body handles it worse all the time.

  1. The initial devastation and shock.
  2. The tasks:
    1. communicating the news,
    2. planning the funerary rites,
    3. preparing the final rest,
    4. performing the rites one needs to lay the deceased, as well as life with the deceased, to rest,
    5. cleaning up their things,
    6. comforting each other,
    7. getting something to eat,
    8. reminding everyone to be extra careful and remember to drink lots of water, which we tend to forget nevertheless.
  3. The reactions:
    • Noticing the way sunshine lands on my skin and birds sing in the trees but it seems to come from a world that’s not quite the one I’m in.
    • The way I have casual surges of wishful thinking: wouldn’t a bullet in the brain be nice about now? This isn’t suicidality (I promise), it’s my mind’s way of signaling that it’s overwhelmed by horrible feelings that it can’t do anything about, and it’s tired and doesn’t know what to do.
    • Re-learn the daily habits that this person (of however many feet) used to be involved in. That’s so dislocating. I don’t need to eyeball a certain corner of the bed before moving my feet now. I’m not even awake when I do that. It’s so horribly weird to wake up by realizing I don’t have to look.

Then the misnamed “stages” of grief, which are really nodes, which can be visited in any order.

  • The anguish, where life without that person has to be faced.
  • The anger, like, why couldn’t that little cuss cross under the bridge as usual, instead of testing one more damned limit and crossing over?
  • The bargaining, although I stopped bargaining years ago. I don’t seem to do that now. Too many unanswered prayers wept and bled into silence.
  • The sweet memories that stab like a ray of sun in my eyes, bringing tears that gradually wane over time, until those memories bring mostly sunshine.
  • Finding a new pattern beginning to emerge in my life, one that encompasses that absence without filling it, but making it less of an obstacle over time. They call that “acceptance”, but I think that’s a bit of a misnomer. I’d call it adapting.

I’ve only realized how very deep and interconnected life is by losing parts of mine. In that 18-month period of multiple losses, I found myself mulling the image of a complex weave on a loom, where each person and each influence in my life was a thread.

Some threads were solid and stable, some were wildly colorful, some thick with burrs, some wove in and out of the pattern, some were knotty and strange, some were pure gold.

When a major thread, or a lot of threads of any size, were ripped off the loom, then the fabric was distorted and there was a visible gap in it for a long time. I could weave on, but that band of the fabric was weaker – sometimes for years, sometimes for a lifetime. It takes a very long time to rebuild from the loss of enough warp threads.

It takes time to work new threads into the weave of life, and longer still to see which ones work in the overall pattern, and which ones fall out on their own – or need to be pulled out, for the damage they do to the rest.

Some people and influences are part of the warp, as they’re meant to stay in the weave for its length and are made to be strong. Career, close family, good friends, matters of identity – these are all warp threads which usually shape and color our lives all along its length. Each one has its own color and texture and breadth, which varies from person to person, and each contributes a depth of color and texture to the weaving that nothing else can provide.

In life, unlike fabric, the warp threads are highly individual.

When one of those gets ripped out, the whole weave … well … warps.

Some people and influences are weft threads, and are easier to change out. Doctors are usually weft threads, although the need for medical care is a warp thread for some of us. Jobs are weft, while careers are usually warp.

I lost a number of warp threads in that 18-month period. Between the end of January and the second week of February, the closest bereavements hit, year after year. The weave of my life has warped, over and over, in the armpit of winter.

I shift my stance from relying unthinkingly on having a lot of strength inside and out, to being mindful and precise about where to put my diminishing attention and energy.

I’ve learned to be more and more aware of good times, genuine love, beautiful days, radiant people, perfect moments, delicious food …

When I look back, I have far fewer regrets when I really noticed good things at the time.

I didn’t expect to have that kitten in the first place.
Even in this season of bereavement, I didn’t expect to lose him so soon.

But when he was here, keeping me permanently in a mild state of befuddlement because he was so much larger than life but still so very young, I sure noticed.

One day, that should be a comfort.

Meanwhile, as CRPS continues to change the game on me, I’m trying to learn to handle bereavement-amidst-deathiversaries with this new and different body-system.

My autonomic system is normally in a state that maps most closely to that of someone who’s being continually beaten with a live cattle prod, but years of practice have taught me when to ignore it and how to manage the results somewhat.

It gets better and worse from time to time. Stress, uncertainty, poor diet, missed meds, solar flares (believe it or not), and injuries, all crank up the volume on my oscillating central nervous system.

Bereavement is stressful, unpredictable, and contributes to poor diet, missed meds, and injuries. (Possibly solar flares for all I know.) Deathiversaries are a hardwired physical memory of bereavements. Having both at once is like being hit from both sides at once. Double oscillations that don’t cancel each other out, but feed into each other and magnify their effects.

All right… What’s an oscillating nervous system like?

Right now, the skin on my face is so raw that my partner’s nice springy beard feels sharper than a cheese-grater. My left lower leg wants to turn into a lump of Dacron, impenetrable and basically useless. My wrists and forearms, well, the less said the better, but I have to hold my mug with both hands to avoid wearing what’s in it. I went outside in soft shoes today (I usually wear hiking shoes) and the friendly little stones in the yard slowed me down considerably, as each one wanted to get way too personal with my foot-bones.

That’s the physical side of CRPS.

Because of the brain changes that make that stuff happen, there’s a parallel process that happens on the emotional side. Imagine the same degree of relentless rawness and unquenchable pain inside the heart and mind, and you’ll have some idea what it’s like.

I’ll give you a minute, if you like.

I don’t mean to whine, it’s just a fact of life with this disease. It takes a lot of managing, because my mental state wants to default to, well… how distressing and upsetting it is to be beaten continually with a live cattle prod.

How do you deal with an oscillating nervous system?

When your world is being purged, it’s important to replenish and nourish. This means extra antioxidants, extra meditation/biofeedback, extra hugs, and – if possible – someone else to clean the house and help with laundry and cooking.

One must eat, clean, and cope, and if it takes help, then I ask for help.

Herbal lemon balm extract helps cut the flared nerve pain. Chamomile and lavender tea, maybe with tulsi, helps me get to sleep. Some people do well with vervain or ashwaganda.

Homeopathics like ignatia amara and hypericum ease other parts of my nervous system responses. Also, I use an essential oil blend from Young Living called Valor, to reduce the hotwired panic reflex and hyper-alertness.

In case it isn’t obvious …

I don’t care what academics say, I only care what works for me. Empiricism is the only form of science that matters in the individual case.

I keep busy in order to keep my mind from exploding over the surfeit of losses and memories of losses, while CRPS takes the brakes off of all the feelings – physical and emotional alike.

This leaves me to manage the resulting inward chaos with whatever poise I can fake, because I know that a certain part of it is grief but a certain part of it is simply brain damage.

Either way, it will ease up in time.

So I keep busy, take my supplements, comfort the dog (whose heartsick look would make a stone weep), try not to draw attention to my partner’s look of not knowing what hit him, and wait …

Mostly, I wait for the balm of time, because it doesn’t change the loss, but it helps me learn to live with it.

Also, it moves the deathiversaries into my rearview mirror for another year. Until then, I’ll hold the love and leave the pain as much as I can.

Lastly, I wait for the fierce oscillations of my nervous system, humming and shaking like a five-foot-high tuning fork, to decrease and diminish and eventually …
quiet down …
to … a …
stop.

There is always an afterwards. Survival is simply a matter of getting to it.

Managing CRPS under this kind of duress is not magic, it’s persistence.

I keep breathing and let the awful moments pass. I’m old enough, both as a person and a CRPSer, to know that there are better ones ahead.

All I have to do is get there.

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Expletives can be good

I’ve always been a wee bit daffy, so the additional daffiness of pain-brain, combined with the clumsiness of my brain’s shoddy un-mapping, re-mapping, or possibly dis-mapping of my body and physical environment, leaves my daily life simply packed with faux pas and prat-falls of one kind or another.

Mr. Keaton, clearly making a decision in a moment of pain-brain.

These used to upset me considerably, and I’d try to re-normalize the situation as fast as possible out of the combined distress of embarrassment and fear about the brain-invading nature of this disease.

This morning, I turned away from the counter too fast and knocked over the oil-filled heater. Instead of dissolving in humiliation and anxiety, I pursed my lips, finished what I was doing, and pulled up the heater when I had a hand free.

My sweetie J, as usual, said (without the asterisks), “You f***ed up,” with a unique combination of resignation and relish. (Nobody says, “You f***ed up,” like he does. It’s a gift.)

The more trivial the faux pas or prat-fall, the more pronounced those syllables are. “You f***ed up” becomes more emphatic, the more meaningless the mistake.

It never fails to put things in perspective.

Something I’m going to write about, once I figure out how, is The Flinch — the way that years of isolation, vulnerability, and abuse left me twitching in fear with the least expression of displeasure or annoyance in those around me.

Last summer, my excellent hostess L, who has a magical combination of boundless compassion and ‘no b.s. thank you’, was the first to let me know that I’d become a nervous nellie extraordinaire, and helped me start to retrain myself.

When I moved in with J in October, he let me know, after a couple of weeks of me jumping and flinching and asking permission to use my own damn home, that The Flinch was back and needed to take a lo-o-o-ong vacation.

“You f****ed up” is part of his droll approach to that inescapable fact of life, frustration. It’s part of his gift for surviving with his golden personality intact. He says things like that to defuse feelings before they even start to pile up.

I grew up in New England. Do I need to say more? We don’t defuse … what, feelings? We are very intellectual in the way we admit that we even have any. The first few times he told me, “You f****ed up,” I stared at him in shock.
me, looking absurdly shocked
I’m used to it now. I laugh, or agree “I f****ed up,” or turn it around and say, “Yeah, you sure did.”

I can’t do any of that and flinch.

Long ago, I observed that a good partner was one who handed you the way back to yourself when you got lost in the confusion of life. Simply telling me it’s no big deal is not that helpful — I know in my head that it’s no big deal, but the feelings in this over-torqued, dis-mapped brain all charge ahead nevertheless.

J’s way of showing me, by making the bigness of the deal ridiculous, stops that routine in its tracks.

I f***ed up. So what? I’ve got a fresh pot of tea waiting on the other side of that radiator. And that’s what matters! 🙂
teapot-eaglehaslanded

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Painting my limbic system blue

I’m not used to having TV. I grew up in Egypt, at a time when you only needed to take off one shoe to count all the TV channels in New Jersey. Didn’t even have to put down your real-sugar-sweetened soda to count the channels in Cairo — none of which were in English.

arabic-tv
This delightfully expressive image is from wn.com

J is a more normal American, so between his restoration of normality, and my sense of novelty, we’re delighted to have TV again. His ear for BS is too keen to make sitcoms bearable, so we default to true crime, amateur survivalist, and judge shows, where people really are that idiotic and don’t have to pretend.

A couple of days ago, we stumbled across a show about felons on the lam. I think that was on one channel or another from noon to bedtime, except for the news. It was strangely entertaining, seeing how people fool themselves into believing the false lives they create.

For the past two nights, I’ve woken up in the wee hours from dreams of having done something I knew wasn’t quite right, then it turned out the feds really didn’t like, learning that they were displeased, then discovering they were after me (a mortal issue, since I wouldn’t survive a week in prison), then finding myself hiding and running and trying terribly hard to be clever enough to survive in my decidedly impaired mental state.

This morning, I woke up feeling, quite vividly, as if my limbic system — that set of tiny, nervous parts clustered deep in the primitive brain — was huge, red, and pulsing with overstimulation.
brain_limbicsystem-inflated
I’m no fool. I know how to deal with imaginary brain inflation.

I wrapped a band around it, colored the whole thing a pleasing blue, and gently and persistently cooled and prodded it down to a more reasonable size.
brain_limbicsystem-deflated
I also massaged the point between my eyebrows that my old acupuncturist used to needle when I was too jumpy to let her stick sharp objects into me.
acupuncture-yintang-institutyinyang
When I was calm enough to do my brain exercise that stabilizes my ANS somewhat, I worked it like a plowhorse.

Once I had done that, I was actually capable of noticing how tense my system feels, and could mentally reach the lever that makes that inner spring gently unwind.

Then J brought me a nice fresh cup of hot tea in bed.

mug-drwho-steam
…Oh, heaven!

Then I read this out to him, and he laughed out loud.

Now, it’s a good day.

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Rock stars

As many physicians have noted, treating chronic pain is peculiarly frustrating. Therefore, treating a pain condition as subtle, complex and intransigent as CRPS must be heartbreaking — though it’s never as bad as having it.

Don’t get me wrong
If you say hello and I take a ride
Upon a sea where the mystic moon
Is playing havoc with the tide

Most of us live in countries where there are practical limits on who we can see for care. Since there are few CRPS experts to start with, this tends to put us in tight spots.

So, meeting a new doctor, as many of us have said privately, is a bit like being a bride in an arranged marriage in a backward society*: you have no idea how you’ll get along, but this person is not only going to have a significant role in defining your life for the foreseeable future, but can torture and even kill you without any fear of the law.

14 year old bride with lowered head and sad, helpless expression, standing next to an elderly man who peers at her as if she were a new car he was looking over.

It sounds dramatic, but that’s the bottom line. Think about it for a minute…

For one thing, nobody likes being in so vulnerable a position. For another, we’ve all paid the price for some practitioner’s ignorance or intransigence, somewhere along the way. The fears are not theoretical; they’re real and appropriate.

Suddenly the thunder showers everywhere
Who can explain the thunder and rain
But there’s something in the air

Add to that the fact that chronic CRPS tends to hot-wire the fight-or-flight mechanism, and you have to realize that the doctor is facing a situation that requires about a million times more tact and respect than they ever learned in medical school.

Don’t get me wrong
If I’m acting so distracted

And then there’s me.

I used to be an RN, so I can use med-speak fluently and, more to the point, I’ve got the background to understand the scientific material I read when it’s time to explore a new facet of this condition.

I was dealing with a full-bore case of ADD due to the mechanical and chemical damage of chronic CRPS. At the time, I wasn’t sure what to make of my psychiatrist, Dr. Todd Hutton. He’s so quiet that I simply couldn’t get a bead on how much attention he was really paying to what I was saying.

I was beginning to suspect that he was at least awake, which is a huge bonus in my book… But I had to have my duckies in a row, just in case.

Don’t get me wrong
If I split like light refracted
I’m only off to wander
Across a moonlit mile

Everything about CRPS goes off in different directions, so studying it is like working with refractions.

I studied up on the nature of the brain oddities that characterize ADD.
candleburn-1
Figured out where they overlap with the brain damage caused by chronic CRPS.
Sketch of brain, with bits falling off and popping out, and a bandaid over the worst
Then it was the neurochemistry.

candleburn-2

I have the neurochemistry of CRPS pretty well nailed, and found that, again, the overlaps with ADD were astounding.

How much of that awful, crippling fog we call “pain brain” is a treatable form of acquired ADD?

Do we really have to live like that?

I might be great tomorrow
But hopeless yesterday

I’m not so sure any more.

Then I looked at treatment modalities for ADD.

candleburn-3

The cognitive-behavioral stuff — like structuring your day, having contingency plans, staying in charge of your emotions, and creating ways to check yourself and to take care of yourself when things go wahooni-shaped — are pretty much identical, though CRPS adds a lot of material about pacing, communicating about functional and pain levels, and managing physical limits.

The pharmaceutical stuff has some interesting overlaps, too.

candleburn-4

Aside from narcotic pain control (which isn’t much good to many of us), treatment for CRPS neurochemistry tends to focus on serotonin, norepinephrine (noradrenaline), and dopamine; treatment for ADD neurochemistry tends to focus on epinephrine (adrenaline) and dopamine.

More overlap, or is that just a coincidence? Hah! No such thing, when we’re treating the brain.

So, after traversing my “moonlit (or candlelit) mile” of research, I showed up at the psychiatrist’s office with the following info:

  •  It’s probably related to the CRPS. (Nod.)
  •  It’s probably treatable. (Slightly qualified nod.)
  •  I can’t have Adderall, et alia, because my heart is dicky enough as it is. (Firm nod.)
  •  I could face Ritalin, et alia, but I’m already on Savella, which also boosts dopamine. (He shrugged and said, “Same molecule, different location.”)

After a bit more backing and forthing, he said, “How about Provigil?”

I’d seen a friend get hooked on it, so I didn’t leap out of my seat, but we talked it over. His reasoning was faultless. (Something I almost never say.)

More than awake, he was really engaged with my case. So I took the leap of faith and said I’d try it.

Trapeze_artists_trimmed

He said he’d supply me with samples of Nuvigil (a longer-acting form) since the maker no longer supplies samples of Provigil. (Pharma companies only provide samples of what they still have under patent. They’re in it for the money, remember…)

Don’t get me wrong

If I come and go like fashion

I had the singular pleasure of going in for my follow-up, dressed professionally for a change, and reporting that:

+ I had enough energy to get outside and move around nearly every day. This means laundry gets done, there’s proper food in the house, and I can get some of that so-necessary exercise.

+ I had enough focus to put together a settlement offer, which the insurance company accepted. (WOOT!)

+ I could change focus at need.

+ I was driving better, thinking strategically and more able to pay attention to what was going on around me at high speed.

+ I could sleep better, because I’d been properly awake and engaged during the day. (OMG!)

– My anxiety was no worse, but when it did kick in, it was harder to get it to chill. That was one drawback, but not a major one.

– Nuvigil tends to build up in my system, until suddenly I can’t sleep at all. It took about 5 days to clear it after that. So now I take half a tablet (that is, about 75 mg) every other day. That works quite well.

+ It’s not perfect — it’s not like being well — but I’m so much closer to being myself that I can actually think about what to wear again. (I used to be kind of a fashion plate, in the intersection of classic, practical, and colorful, with a dash of steampunk.)

 

I told him, “Love and the relationships I have make life bearable. But being able to think, and be productive, and learn things, and get some work done, THAT’s what makes my life worth living. This is giving me my life back. I’m really grateful.”

If I hadn’t grown up in New England (land of the unspoken), I might have missed the slight lengthening of his spine, the slight lifting of his head, the slight brightening of his face, the tiniest lift of a smile.

For once in my life, a doctor of mine got to feel like a rock star.

It might be unbelievable
But let’s not say so long
It might just be fantastic

I got into the car and drove away on a shiny September afternoon in Pasadena.

On the radio, Chrissie Hynde was belting out,

Don’t get me wrong
If I’m looking kind of dazzled

And it put the seal on everything.

For a moment, I tried to stifle the beaming joy that shot through me. Then sanity intervened.

glee

What I wanted to do was pull over, slap on a headset, and dance on the glittering lawn in front of City Hall, arms wide and the sun sparkling through my starry lashes.

I wasn’t sure the police would understand, though.

Instead, I danced in my car, grinning fit to split my head, bouncing my red SUV to the Pretenders.

Drawing smiles even in LA traffic.

Sometimes, the only right thing to do is dance.

Big grinning woman in spectacular Hawaiian ceremonial dress dancing with her arms
Photo: Joanna Poe in Honolulu

 

Here’s the whole song. At first, I thought the visual story, with its false leads, dead ends, and triumphant ending, was distracting — then I thought about it for a second… 🙂

* Common sense note: obviously, not all societies that practice arranged marriage are backward. I know too many couples who have an excellent partnership and tons of love between them, who were picked out for each other by their nearest and dearest. It’s not arranged marriage that’s the problem, but those situations where there’s a lack of choice and utter helplessness of one partner. That’s what’s backward.

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Is losing our minds to “pain brain” optional?

64% of CRPSers experience significant cognitive decline. Speaking as a member of that majority, I think that sucks. Most people with chronic pain find that they experience the following:

– Confusion: it’s harder to keep track of things like we used to.

– Forgetfulness: forget the car keys? We’re capable of forgetting the car. It’s more than a touch of early onset Oldtimer’s.

– Distractability: I got up in the middle of a sentence when my meditation exercise was playing. I forgot what I was doing netween one syllable and the next and I could NOT make myself lie down again.

– Locked focus: once I do get into something, it can be impossible to tear myself away, even if I need to move or stretch or calm a racing heart. It’s *weird.*

– Memory: Forgetting the car? Sometimes I forget my birthplace. There are random, shifting holes in my long-term memory that I can’t do anything about, except waffle and flannel until the subject changes. Learning anything new that isn’t related to CRPS or writing (which my brain seems to have anchored with industrial grade mooring chains, so far) is pretty much doomed.

– Intense, driving feelings: catch me on a bad pain day and discover a new word for female dog, and it’s not because I want to be like that, but my internal brakes are off and everything feels like the emotional equivalent of flashing neon.

– Oversimplifying/black-and-white thinking: this was one of the first issues we addressed in my functional restoration class all those years ago. Without constant checking, chronic pain makes everything MUCH more intense, and maintaining middle gears is a constant job.

– Poor sleep. Trouble waking up. No duh.

 

Now, just for grins, let’s look at the list of symptoms for AD/HD:

– Difficulty tracking complex ideas/confusion

– Forgetfulness.

– Distractability.

– Locked focus.

– Memory issues.

– Intense, driving feelings.

– Oversimplifying/black-and-white thinking.

– Poor sleep. Trouble waking up. Hel-lo!

 

Is it just me, or is there a wee bit of overlap here?

 

Classically, ADD (or ADHD, or AD(optionalH)D) is not considered an aquired disease. However, I noticed that the parts of the brain that ARE distorted in ADD are some of the same parts of the brain that GET distorted in CRPS — and perhaps in other types of chronic pain.

 

We aren’t making these symptons up. We struggle mightily to keep our symptoms under some kind of control, but the worse this particular family of symptoms gets, the closer it gets to impossible to keep it under control.

 

Fortunately, ADD (et alia) has been treated successfully for years. The meds used overlap with meds used for neuropathic pain, depression and dysautonomia (because it’s all about regulated nerve signaling); the techniques overlap with the techniques for handling CRPS, dysautonomia and chronic pain (see my last two posts); and the therapy follow-up ties into the fact that ongoing counselling is part of the gold standard of treatment for CRPS, and darn well should be for chronic pain.

 

This is solvable. Let’s get our brains back, because life is too short for this to be allowed to continue.

 

When I get my scientific studies lined up, I’ll rewrite this for my bioscience blog. Feel free to take it to your doctor.

 

We can do this.

 

Meanwhile, borrow a couple of books like “you mean I’m not lazy, stupid or crazy?” and “delivered from distraction”, and see if it doesn’t take a load off your mind to recognize that there IS a way forward.

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Imaginative experience and rebuilding the brain

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“Again.” Twitch.

 

“Again.” Kick.

 

One of the great moments in medicine.

 

Upon discharge, he walked out of the hospital.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trapeze_artists_1890

But it’s not impossible.

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

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

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

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

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

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Your normal is my catatonic

On top of my careful eating and constant self-policing… I’ve cut my online time to the bone, to conserve neurotransmitters and wear and tear on my telomeres.
 
I’m moving to a sunnier flat, to improve vitamin D uptake and exposure to beneficial UV bands.
 
I’ve gotten a cat, to lower my bp and help stabilize my diurnal cycle. (They get stirred up and worried when you stay up past your bedtime. It’s the cutest form of nagging ever.)
 
I’m doing my autogenic exercises as often as I can bear to, to bring my baseline level of overdrive down and begin to approach “normal”.
 
For better or worse, I’m getting more closely in touch with what a “normal” state of relaxation really feels like — and realizing how far from “normal” it is for me.
 
If I am as close to “normally” relaxed (or “normally” tense — its the same thing) as I can get, I’m nonfunctional.
 
All I can do is lie there, bathed in the peaceful antitoxins of adequate tissue perfusion and a still mind. Getting up requires dropping that calm, because there just isn’t enough energy there.
 
I’m far, far too tired to function as a normal person. My very cells are tired — I can feel it when I let down this chemical structure of overdrive and tension. Their very organelles are tired. The vacuoles, I bet, are tired.
 
Why? I mean, weariness is all very well,  but isn’t this a little ridiculous?
 
Ridiculous it may be, but not irrational or inappropriate. Here’s why, as far as I’ve thought it through.
 
– For one thing, pain is exhausting. An hour of pain is as wearying as an hour of running, but without the cardiovascular benefit or endorphins. Quite the opposite. And it never really stops.
 
– Moving the body with degraded muscles is hard work.
 
– Making decisions and doing the business of life (rent, bills, laundry, shopping) with a brain that flickers on and off… requires a lot of repeated trips and extra effort — also tiring.
 
– Remember that list of JCAHO-rated crises I mentioned on my last post? That was a sample from the latest in a series of years, each of which was about as harrowingly difficult, in different ways. Truly, I had no idea that so many ghastly things, most far too protracted for Hollywood to use in even their most grueling work, could grind through one measly life.
 
So maybe I should give my weariness some credit. Maybe I should stop bitching about how I just can’t get things done. Now that I’m trying to ratchet my ANS responses down from the stratosphere, maybe I shouldn’t wonder that it’s becoming hellishly difficult to get off the couch most of the time.
Maybe I should stop obsessing on my characteristic need to be productive.
 
Maybe it’s finally time to stop ignoring the fact that I’m really damn TIRED, and put my attention on getting more rest.
 
That might be the most productive thing I could do.
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Changing the glass, resetting limits

I have to resurrect a set of rules I thought I’d gotten past:
 
– No internet before noon.
– No more than 2 hours daily for all internet activity: email, FaceBook, Twitter, research, posting and illustrating blogs.
– This includes surfing on the phone.
 
I will be moving upstairs to a brighter apartment that’s arranged better for two. J still plans to move in come September, so I’m grabbing the opportunity while it’s there.
 
For the past several months I’ve been learning to notice and deal constructively with signals from body and brain. Part of the reality of this is, there’s a ton of backlog to sort out.
 
This is significant, partly due to CRPS and partly to the nature of last year, which was an ongoing festival of upheaval:
 
– Got SSDI.
– Had to save life of same friend twice in three months.
– Sold my boat/home.
– Moved 3 times.
– Travelled for 6 months at a stretch.
– Started an important romantic relationship.
– Had 2 serious threats hanging over my own life.
 
It’s not good for the ANS, all this excitement.  I’m not personally opposed to eventfulness, it’s just really hard on my regulatory systems. Given similar situations, I’d probably have to do similar things, but it’s time to chill the h#11 out now.
 
I’m moving and it makes my lizard brain howl — if lizards can howl.
 
I’m moving upstairs,  not far at all. And it’ll be safer — you can’t even find it from the road. It’ll be brighter and quieter. The paint scheme is far more cheery and pleasant.
 
But I’m moving, and at some level, that’s an absolute… That is, an absolute brain-fogging mess of suppressed fight-or-flight response and irrational despair. It’s seriously altering how well and how long I can think… changing the water level in my current glass, so to speak.
 
Packing my few things is not a physically imposing task,  but moving at all is a brain-crippling one, apparently.
 
I still have to maintain my care schedule, keep appointments and stay caught up (-ish) on laundry and groceries, none of which is optional.
 
When my adrenals are under stress, my brain gets quickly exhausted, especially in the morning. According to my old acupuncturist, that’s a classic diagnostic indicator. Cognition is linked to adrenal function, he says.
 
The thing to do is go with it, and not make decisions or try to parse communications until the whole system has had a chance to wake up and get moving. Thoroughly.
 
So, out of respect for my brain’s needs, I’ll be spending my mornings playing with the kitten and catching up on my bookshelves, instead of being online.
 
Oh gee, isn’t that tough 🙂
 
And when I’ve moved in and gotten the new place under control, with no intention of moving again until I’ve got a “forever home” to go to, I’ll find out just how resilient this brain really is and see what parameters make sense then.
 
Until then, the online world will go on with, at most, 2 hours a day of attention from me — for research, social networking, web page managing,  and posting & illustrating blogs.
 
We’ll manage just fine.
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The wall, redux — with demons on the side

Sooner or later, deep and chronic illness (like, oh, let’s take an example at random, CRPS) will bring you face-to-face with your worst demons. It’s only a question of when, and precisely how.

When I came to adulthood, I realized that I felt a powerful need to earn my right to take up space and breathe the air. You’d think I’d be a cringing slave with that underlying attitude, but I wasn’t. I felt I deserved good pay, reasonable work/life conditions, and common courtesy, because that was fair; I just didn’t deserve to live.

Once I could no longer work, but had to fight like mad to live, this was a bit stressful. Like many, I almost didn’t make it. But then, as the very deepest trough began fading into memory, I noticed that something remarkable had happened.

Rewind about 10 years… I was a nurse for eight years, which put me in a critical relationship to others at critical points in their lives. I might have dealt with 10 patients in an hour, but, in the moment that I was dealing with each person, that was the most important person in my life. I may have coded hundreds of people, but every life I fought for, I fought for with all I had.

There were no caveats or conditions: if you were my patient, you had my absolute attention every moment I was with you.

I think this healer outranks me, but you can see
how focused he is on his patient. It’s like that.

I found that it’s impossible for me to work hard for someone’s survival, and not come to care about them – no matter who or what they are.

Fast forward to where we started, after the deepest trough, around early 2010… I had spent several years increasingly incapacitated, used up all my money, all my favors, all my savings, and lost a lot of friends – some of them to the Grim Reaper.

I won’t go into the brutal and abusive bureaucracy of California EDD or Oakland Social Security offices, because if you haven’t been through it, you wouldn’t believe me. That bad. Worse, even.

I woke up one spring day, with a strange sense of dawning inside. It took an hour or two to wake up, and to realize that I’d been fighting so hard, for so long, for my own survival, that I had become important to myself.

I no longer felt I needed to earn the right to live.

Ever since that time, I’ve never had a serious case of any kind of block – writer’s block, self-care block, learning block, anything – that lasted more than a couple days, unless it was explicitly disease-related.

Then, with this move to a strange area, with no connections, near a city I almost loathe… To get real care, for the first time in years, from seven highly skilled and capable professionals…

I hit a wall. Not just a block, but a huge, massive, precision-crafted, towering, deeply bedded, gateless wall.

Since writing “Frustration at the wall“, I’ve been faking it in the hope of making it. That’s a lot of weeks to keep running up against the same damn wall!

I finally started talking about it – I’m a writer; I’m a woman; I process by words; let’s move on – and began to get unscrambled. Then I had the deeply disconcerting pleasure of having my brain picked apart, cleaned with a dental pick, and neatly reassembled by the deliciously incisive Dr. Faye Weinstein. 

I can’t help thinking that the following is going to strike a few chords with some of my lovely readers…

I am, as she said with characteristic precision, “a helpful, compulsively self-reliant minimizer.” Really, why should I trust these people, who wield the power of Gods over what happens to me?

There’s a deep part of me that says “blow that, let’s go hide instead” and off I go, hiding behind advising on Facebook and diving into books and catching up on others’ crises; my condition is not that bad, so my care is not really that important, and it’s not like these people care more for me than their own crap anyway, so I’m on my own really.

My distraction activity is all very worthy, so I needn’t justify it. But, well, so much for the many new things I need to do to put together my own health…

Unconscious reactivity could be the death of me yet.

I said this illness would raise all your demons, even the ones you’ve hammered a stake through the hearts of. It turns out that the squat and fetid cranks who propped up my old conviction that I “don’t deserve to live” are still there, farting wetly and hawking loogies.

With apologies to Heironymous Bosch.

The demons of our earliest perils can shape our responses to major change forever. The trick is to see them for what they are, face them honestly, and put them back where they belong: in the past.

(Easier said… I think a booger just landed in my hair. At least, I hope it was a booger.)

To add to that, with years of excruciating work behind me and more ahead, my old motto of “change or die” doesn’t carry the same weight: Yes, part of me wants to lie down and die. The frantic, aching, endless weariness is beyond description.

But change is more interesting. A lot more interesting. And I only get to do this life once.

Conscious curiosity could be the birth of me yet. With luck.

With a better sense of what I’m doing, I’m preparing to turn and, with tactful and gentle persistence, come to terms with those monsters.

I might as well. I’m going to be here awhile.

Speaking of which…

Marathon training update

After one day to recover from the trip south, I was able to pull off my .8 mile route up and down this hill, and recover enough a few hours later to unpack the car (that’s a lot of steps!) and get some things done. Today was a lot of appointments, which involved walking at least a mile on city surfaces.

On Thursday or Friday, I hope to increase my hill walking to 1.1 or 1.2 miles. We shall see. No more overdoing.

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Marathoning, murder, and masses

Who the hell would bomb a marathon? The shock and fury make my eyes hot and narrow.

Second thought: what a way to go – accomplishment, adrenaline, euphoria, and a quick blast.

Yesterday, ironically, I realized I was fully recovered from overdoing. That only took 11 days… I took careful walks around the park while recovering, so as not to lose much ground.

Leading myself along, and minding my posture.
Today I roughly doubled my walking distance and I’m back up to ~18 min. On a flat.

I’m grateful.

I grew up in Egypt, a Middle Eastern country. We were there in the relatively tranquil days of the late 1970s: Sadat was secure in power, a secularist who stood no nonsense and could be bought – excuse me, persuaded – into a peace treaty that ended several thousand years of war. (For the meantime.)

Islam was a thoughtful, neighborly religion. Guests were treated like the loveliest royalty. A blonde 13-year-old girl with a forward figure could (at least, did) walk the streets in daylight fearing nothing more than vile remarks and, in a crowd, a vile grope.

That was the key to life in a tourist country: avoid the crowds.
 
When terrorist attacks happened, and they were rare then, they happened in crowds. My family was constitutionally adventurous and put off by mob thinking, quite apart from the (really tiny) chance of bombs, so we just did what came naturally and took off on our own.
 
We saw crowds the way a sailor sees sandbars: a lot of work, and not much fun to get stuck with.

Moreover, I’ve always been an introvert in the Myers-Briggs sense, meaning that I recharge in solitude and that I find society in large doses simply exhausting.

Now, with CRPS, this distaste for crowds has become a deep aversion. The physical dynamic of being in crowds is unbearable: when people bump me unexpectedly, it’s horrific; the noise overwhelms my sensory brain, which, let’s face it, is overworked already; and, of course, my hotwired autonomic nervous system is ready with the fight or flight response… with nowhere to go that isn’t in the crowd.

Breathe. Breathe. Breathe.

I was reading Angela N. Hunt’s book about living while training for a first marathon, and her description of the starting crowd was appalling. For me, it would be like being inside a tiny electric fence, cattle jostling around against the outside, bashing and zapping me mindlessly and endlessly.

Not do-able. Not even think-able.

But that’s just a problem, and problems are meant to be solved.

There are several possible solutions: invoke the ADA and start in my own class behind the crowd; rustle up about five good buddies — preferably large, sturdy types — to run around me for the first half, and be a better fence until the crowd thins enough;

run a different marathon course over open country, with only a handful of others; or abandon the whole thing.

I can hear some strenuous votes for the last option. In the wake of the Boston marathon bombing, I’ll ignore them. Completely.

I will go on. If distance is not an insuperable barrier, then neither is willful fear. I’m a woman, weakened, disabled, and rather poor; I have enough to be afraid of. I don’t let it stop me. Why should this? I’ll wear the names of the dead, if it helps. I won’t let it stop me.

I will go on. I’ll find a way to avoid the crowds, in some creative and tasteful fashion.

I will go on.

“Watch me go.”

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