There’s always an afterwards

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

A non-obvious choice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This image?

big great dane looking down at a little chihuahua

Not a patch on that moment. It was wonderful.

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

The afterwards

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

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

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

I  finally got it

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

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

waves pouring around a still stack of rocks

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

Barely alive

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

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

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

But wait, this gets even funnier.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Becoming super-human, or maybe more fully human

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to reality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Catching the wave

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

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

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

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

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

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

I think it also improves my writing 🙂

Beyond the moment

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

And boy, was that a journey worth making!

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Cold Watershed

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

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

The last bullet point makes it all increasingly absurd.

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

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

Now, time to start researching in 2 different directions:

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m so scared.

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

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Fixing the old, opening doors…and 2 shameless plugs for highly competent friends

What a couple of weeks it has been!

The local police chief failed to take a police report about an identity theft for 4 weeks. This has brought my mortgage process to a screaming halt. For some reason, it takes the local PD another week to generate the hard copy (some of us can just hit Print… In California, they tore off the relevant layer of NCR paper and handed me that. This town has some weird stuff.) I can get the mortgage app back on the road late this week, maybe Friday. /Eyes roll so hard they fall out and dribble across the desk./

You won’t get that full story, because I couldn’t log in for most of it. (Probably just as well.) The mighty Wizard of Interwebbery who has kindly chosen to support my online presence for years, has triumphed over the poisonous Login Lizards who made it impossible for me to post. Steven Radecki, my hat is off to you! And since I don’t wear hats, I had to put one on specially, just to doff!

Shameless plug: When he’s not defeating Login Lizards or whacking hackers, he publishes books at Paper Angel Press  or constructs interweb-homes for lovely, tasteful, intelligent people like my readers at Practical Content. He’s a joy to work with; highly recommended!

So, finally, I can gather my thoughts here – and share an outstanding set of information I’ve learned about low-income, non-toxic housing in this time, in this country, and in this region. I know darn well I’m not the only one interested in this!

Tabulation

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been researching what goes into making a home I could live in. I had to learn a lot about building materials, ordinary building practices, alternatives, brands, and a surprising level of detail – combined with yawning gaps of ignorance – about all of that.

Here is a more colorful version of the table I sent to my Dr., laying out what it is that I react to an ordinary housing, what the reaction looks like, and how long it lasts. The columns on the right indicate how much control I have over this in different environments:

Table_WhatExposuresHurtMe

Here is my high-level, thumbnail sketch of how much it would cost to put up a building with one to one and a half stories, 600 square-foot foundation:

And, last and biggest, here is a link to the Excel spreadsheet I worked up as I was researching the costs for conventional versus non-toxic building which I could get hold of online.

PLEASE NOTE: this is for my planning purposes, not yours! This is not a responsible price guide, it’s me dumping the crap-tastic information I could find online, into another thumbnail sketch I could work from, as I talk to my builders and funders and so forth. In short, this is the third-grade homework that could one day lead to a thesis, but don’t confuse the third-grader with the graduate, okay?

BuildCosting4myNeeds

Of course it looks impressive! – and of course it makes all kinds of sense. I tend to create informational material that does all of that, whether or not it should. Please be very diligent in costing out your own projects with appropriate professional support – but feel free to make use of the search terms, brands, and concepts I’ve mentioned here.

So, here are the results of much thinking and online research. Now, time to do my due diligence: checking my figures against competent local professional experience, filling in the blanks, and otherwise holding these data to the test of reality.

Filling in the blanks

Following through with my due diligence opened up a big fat wriggling bag of boa constrictors.

Intellectually, lifting the lid and finding a muscular tangle underneath is intriguing; these days, I’m not sure I can take shock and surprise anymore! However, this is why we have friends, and why it’s worth the spoon-tastic effort of taking care of relationships. I got hold of an old friend, who’s a longtime builder, a good listener, and who always, always tells it exactly like he sees it.

I find that level of honesty very reassuring. I don’t need people to have soft squishy manners, I need not to have to guess!

As you can see from the tables above, I haven’t priced out several key elements convincingly. I had no idea how much it costs to get electricity in. From the masthead at the road, to inserting power into the house, is probably around $2000. Once inside the house, as long as I don’t have more than 100 A of electrical need, I could probably get that done for $5-8000. This adds a total of $7-$10,000. And then there’s plumbing: one kitchen and one full bath for a small place, probably $8-10,000.

Well and septic are fascinatingly complex examples of geology at play. I heard about one 3rd-generation well builder who could describe, in such detail it’s as if he could see it, exactly where a ledge dropped off, where a granite seam ran, and if you moved your well 3 feet to the right, you’d have a much shorter drill depth. I also realize how breathtakingly rare that is. I don’t even know if the guy is still alive. I do know that the hard-working people who dig a well, or anything else around here, have to get paid for the digging they do, whether or not it means I get what I want.

The geology of the Connecticut River Valley is so complex and interesting that several of the world-class colleges in this area have classes dedicated to just that.

What this means to me is, putting in a new well and septic tank does have the minimum costs I cited, but the maximum costs can be horrific given the wrong geological morphology.

Checking my assumptions like a hockey star

Building is a complex gig. Although it looks like a bunch of hammerheads slamming nails and flexing their measuring tapes, there’s an astounding quantity of math, knowledge, organization, and subtlety that has to be done before, during, and after the build.

I’ve sometimes wondered if certain aspects of the building code were meant to keep costs up and access for the low-income that much harder. However, as Kris Thomson (of Kris Thomson Carpentry) reminded me, “People die for building codes.”

It relates to my apothegm, “there’s always an afterwards”: clever economies made in the design stage wind up exposing people who can’t afford better alternatives to problems that may not be survivable – from toxic exposures, to overwhelming infections, to house fires. This is where someone with Kris’s depth and breadth of intelligence and experience really stands out, for being able to make sense of something as technical as building codes in the context of their history and the social forces that have shaped them over the years.

Get him talking sometime; he’s a natural storyteller with a voracious mind.

The real, head-slamming moment came when, after an hour of listening carefully to my concerns, explaining fully every question I had, and telling me all sorts of things I never knew, this builder turned my thinking upside down with two hard data points:

    • “Building new is absolutely the most expensive thing you can do.”
    • “If you get an existing building, even if you have to strip it to the frame and make structural fixes, you have:
      1. more leeway in nearly every respect;
      2. less than half the moving parts;
      3. smaller pieces to juggle.”

Kris does make a living restoring and renewing old houses, so that’s his familiar territory. Structural work holds no fears for him. It’s good to note that he’s close to other people with horrific sensitivities, and doesn’t take these things lightly.

Old and antique houses are really common here. Europeans have been building for their heirs for well over 300 years in this region, a slice of history that deserves way more than half a sentence.

The point is, although I’m very reluctant to take on too many unknowns, if Kris says stripping and re-fleshing an old house is ultimately as safe for me as building a new one, I have to stop and consider that seriously. He’s not taking my concerns lightly; I can’t possibly take his suggestions lightly.

Revising, so to speak, an old building means that the following are already done, upgradable if they’re not currently up to code:
• Driveway
• Foundation
• Framing
• Roof
• ? Septic system (with at least one already in, even if it needs revising, subterranean features are less of a mystery)
• Electricity and phone (bringing up to code is much easier than creating new)
• Siding, probably
• Flooring, potentially gorgeous old hardwood
• ? Heating system

Once we started enumerating the advantages, I started feeling the pull… That’s a lot to not have to put in!

Having said all that, it’s still true that it’s hard to find a small house. I have to be able to project-manage a larger building (even if it’s really a smaller project)… and then find people to help me occupy it when it’s done.

That’s not a bad thing… I have discovered, over the past year, that if I don’t have other people to remind me that there is a world beyond my skin, life can get really hard to sustain. I’ve had an awful lot of housemates, despite being fundamentally introverted. Mostly, I’ve been extremely lucky.

Options: Good Properties

There are two kinds of properties that would be good to start with:

1. An abandoned project, with driveway, infrastructure, foundation, septic, etc. already in place. (So far, I find all this puts the build out of reach because the projects that get abandoned aren’t nearly as small as mine.)

2. An old house in the country, but nowhere near a floodplain, with, ideally, a solid foundation and frame, and a roof that isn’t too bad. (I probably need more cash down than I actually have to offer, but I’m thinking about that.)
I would gleefully pounce on either one, given the chance.

Flexibility is the key to turning the impossible into the imp-possible.

Next, the Money

This opening-out of possibilities doesn’t change my financial picture, which was rather bleak to begin with. I’m still a long way from having good options in my price point, and I’d be way better off if I could find someone to pool resources with.

A new possibility begins to open up: an investor.

The main difference between Saturday and today is, I can now talk about a property that could yield income.

For the money I didn’t have for a new build with room to share, I could actually rebuild/renovate a larger house that would be classy, safe, and non-toxic, and rent out half or two thirds of it. We already know there’s a roaringly under-served market for safe, non-toxic housing, so… Is there a downside?

I mean, besides coping with landlord issues. Being a landlord is no walk in the park. I don’t imagine that I have any secret formulas for being better at that than anyone else, but I have to say, I have had many many years of learning to be patient, clear, and effective with some of the most difficult people and intransigent situations outside of the current White House.

I didn’t realize that until I said it, but the more I think about it, the more accurate I see it is!

If the agonizing work and discipline of revising an old house doesn’t scare me, and if 20 years of pain disease and 17 years of growing disability (and all the doctors, insurers, fiscal abuse, and casual cruelty that comes with it) haven’t killed me, is there any reason I should quaver or shrink from managing a multi-unit home?

I don’t take it lightly, but it doesn’t seem like that big a deal to me.

So, if anyone wants to go halvsies with me on the cost of fixing up a charming old house, just let me know! I get a safe home, you get relatively safe income. I know a couple of good real-estate lawyers in the area who could write a nice safe contract for all concerned!

Hey, have I got almost everything dialed in here, or what?

Loan Structures

I hope the two letters from my doctors will open up types of loans that would normally be closed to me; namely, construction loans and renovation loans.

  •  If I found that perfect little lot less than 45 min. from my hospital with all that prep work done and in budget, then a construction loan would be fine!
  •  If I found that perfect “cash buyers only” house less than 45 min. from my hospital and in budget, a renovation loan would be terrific!

I know that I qualify for the USDA rural loan of $90,000. Yes, folks, I’m naming figures. It’s possible that I can access about 33% of that in addition, in cash down. This is what I’ve got to work with.

Chances of success, given my financial and chemical limits, are absolutely miniscule. However, they aren’t exactly zero.

A Bigger Reality Check Than Before

Mom, you’ll definitely want to skip this. If you want something to research, maybe find me a freestanding cabin & a kind maid, somewhere safe & warm, an hour from a good hospital, something culturally interesting in the environment, with rent under $300/month?

Everyone else who’s still with me here … I have to keep trying. Fact is, either I find a safe house, or I put my papers in order and give myself about two years before I wind up drooling in a nursing home or stumbling into traffic. I have no good choices.

I do have a Plan G. Move to a cheaper place. Kansas, San Miguel de Allende, Turkey (where I was born), Portugal, Fiji, Cambodia, Croatia, New Mexico — the possibilities are endless. I’ve moved, and traveled, an awful lot. I know that:

  • It takes a year to figure out where to get what I need as easily and reliably as possible.
  • It takes two years to figure out who to trust in my area: shopkeepers, helpers, neighbors, etc.
  • It takes a minimum of 3 years to make friends, and that’s if they’re already kindred spirits… when I was healthy, and could go out and do things like normal people who want to share experiences and get acquainted. With so little functional time (3 hours daily, and dropping) that’s totally unrealistic.

Am I really up to the job of being that lonely, that vulnerable, and work that hard to meet my needs, for that long? And do I really want to leave the one place on this whole earth that really feels like home?

Of course not. If I’m up against the wall, though, I can’t say my absurdly relentless drive towards life won’t push me to it. At least I’d be warmer… It’s June and in the low 40’s F overnight, which is ridiculous. Climate change is a cuss.

I’m too weak to keep doing this half-assed, “not real safe, but not dead yet” thing for much longer. I’ve lost a lot of ground fast. I feel my resiliency is not gone, though, so I believe I could recover appreciably, given the right home environment.

I’m keenly aware that, in most times, and in most of the world as it is now, I’d have died long ago. I know I’m one of the lucky ones. I’ve mentioned some of my friends who’ve died of this disease, some at home, some in hospice, some on the table, and several because they had no safe place to live. I’m silently terrified. Absolutely terrified. But I don’t have time to dwell on that.

Achieving this goal is not the end, but a change in the game. I have larger things to do, once I’m safely homed.

• I’ve had some ideas, based partly on my journey with this housey biz so far, about how to put together an effective, ultimately self-supporting charity to make affordable housing available to the chem-sensitive, even in emergencies. The realtor, builder, and policy wonks I’ve shared it with all love it, and I think it should happen.

• A dear (and brilliant!) old friend helped me rough out an idea about how to make my health-care guidance available to more spoonies more of the time, without hurting myself further. “Your Guide to the Medical Wilderness” probably should exist.

• There are 2 publishers longing for books I’ve pitched. They’re deliciously informative books and I believe they should be written.

Yes, I’m talking about all the do-goody stuff I want to do. It’s not an act: being able to make a difference for the better in this world is what keeps me going. It’s what I am. It’s why I keep going.

I want to keep going.

I hope that what I need can come together in time. The period it took to pull my fractured brain out of its winter hibernation right as the cops fell asleep at the switch has made this even harder and time more of a problem. Well, here we are, got to work with what I have and not what I wanted or aimed for!

Meanwhile, I’m looking into camping solutions for the summer. I love camping. I need nature like others need wifi; I’ve figured out how to smooth out many of the hardships; and I’m serious like a heart attack about saving the last of my resources for making a home. It’s a terrifying prospect, of course — in fact, homelessness terrifies me speechless, even if it is a great excuse to camp.

Fingers, and tent pegs, crossed.

I keep thinking I should revise this, but my eyes are reloading from cache and my brain is done.

Take care of each other; life is too short to be mean. <3

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Interim choices

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

Which looks something like this:

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

Okay, bluntly, that’s:

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

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

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

…Breeeeeathe…

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

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

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

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

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

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3rd panel of triptych: The action of deciding

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Layers of decision-ing:
Conscious vs. Unconscious

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

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

Bases for decisions: Information — & Certainty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

everyone over 50

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

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

We RISK possible sequelae. We FACE possible consequences.

Too much decision-ing:
What About Control Issues?

In the category of bottomless dopamine sinks…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Decisions 2 – housing

Making a major decision, for someone with so little margin for error as a ragged, underfunded, spoony crip like me, means being able to answer all of these questions usefully:

  • What are ordinary needs and requirements, in this situation?
  • What are my particular needs and requirements they create?
  • What’s involved in an adequate trade-off?
  • What does success look like?
  • Are there any choices that meet my needs?
    If so…
  • What are the usual pitfalls?
  • What are my particular pitfalls?
  • How do I avoid or mitigate those?
  • How do I make this decision happen?
  • Red light signals and how to respond.
  • Yellow light signals and how to respond.
  • Gotchas and how to handle them.

So here I am, bringing my laborious and slow-motion decision-making process to finding a home I can afford and survive. Definitely a major decision.

This could be fun. Or gruesome. I’ll find out.

Let’s take a look at this through the decision-making stages I discussed in the previous article.

Developing good info about the problem to be solved

Housing is a crucial human need, especially beyond the 35th parallels.

Hang on, I need to come back. Everything went white for a minute there. (PTSD about facing homelessness and surviving criminally unsafe living situations? Who, me? Yup.)

The need has been around as long as we have, so the laws and practices are pretty predictable.

There are two normal fiscal options: renting and buying. There is one additional option available to residents of Vermont: buy the house from the state, which keeps the land but gives you the right to use the part your house is standing on.

There are three normal physical options: freestanding home, adjoined units (apartments, condos, townhomes/row-houses, etc.), or portable housing (mobile homes and travel trailers.)

Nonstandard options include buying an RV (made and insulated entirely with Isy-toxic materials) and living with a level of mobility and uncertainty I can’t even contemplate any more; or buying a boat (a.k.a. a mold factory) and living on that, which I can no longer afford in any way. I have to eschew them both.

Adult co-housing is a nonstandard option that has some appeal. A group of adults get together, develop a set of guidelines that (through a real-estate attorney) turn into a contract, find and buy a place together, and arrange themselves on the property according to their contract.

I’ve seen that go very well and I’ve seen that go very poorly, and quite a lot in the middle. It’s partly a matter of chemistry, but mostly a matter of writing a good, clear, solid contract and everyone agreeing to play by the rules and being able to live and let live.

All I need is a group of adults who are not only willing and wanting to do that, but have no toxic habits (like painting or baking), are willing to live gluten-free (except for cold food brought in from outside) and are willing and able to give up wifi and live off of hard-wired internet access only — no Bluetooth — and, most annoyingly, respect hard limits on how much time the cable box is on. Radiation off that thing gives me unconquerable insomnia in the other room from 30 feet away.

Let’s look at how the remaining options fit into the questions I need to answer.

What are ordinary needs and requirements, in this situation (home-hunting)?

Safe, dry, warm, with working doors/windows/plumbing/electrics; close enough to where the person needs to be.

Also, it has to be affordable.

What are my particular needs, and the requirements they create?

  • Mold free living, in this green land of upland lakes, swamps, and ubiquitous streams.
  • No petroleum-based volatile organic compounds — a category which includes regular paint, all low-cost and most mid-range flooring, and every conceivable kind of carpet.
  • Significant air pollution. For me, this centers around internal combustion engines, chemical processing, and fossil fuels. (For others, it’s woodsmoke that smells like doom.)
  • Loud noises and the vibrations that come with them. (You know how the nearest bully used to sneak up behind you, and then smack their palms over both your ears at once? Remember that feeling that your head just exploded, and hot shards jinked down your spine? Kind of like that, times about 1000. A vacuum cleaner suddenly turning on can knock me down. I used to live near railroad tracks; not an option now.)
  • Radiation of many kinds. This rules out being near power stations, overhead wires, hands-free phone technology (Bluetooth or cordless house phones) and (this is really limiting:) modern wireless signals, which feel like a blunt spear piercing me just below my xyphoid process and spinning barbed tails through my trunk while injecting molten metal up my spine and into my brain.

So much fun.

Believe it or not, after hearing part or all of this list, I’ve had people ask me, “How do you know that you need to avoid all that?” It’s not the words, it’s the tone. The implication is that all of this is somehow the product of a fevered imagination. If only it were!

I notice my responses, which are not subtle from the inside; I work out what particular exposure caused that response; and, intentionally or not, I get multiple exposures to each of these things because they’re everywhere, so I can test out the theory that a particular exposure causes a particular response.

It takes a special kind of person to go to the extraordinary effort to research substances that affect fragile systems and how, and claim to be that ill and be required to make all those compromises and spend all that money to avoid those materials, and give up so much because of it, without actually having their survival depend on it. That particular mental disorder is extremely rare — a lot rarer than invisible illnesses. Anyway, it’s one thing I definitely don’t have.

Examining the options

Rent or buy?

Good question. Let’s look at those from my point of view.

Renting

Rent tends to cost, month per month, about twice what home ownership does around here, even with all the taxes and fees figured in. Boggles my mind, but there it is. (Homeownership has loads of hidden expenses, but rarely do they double the cost month after month.)

Rentals are supposed to get repainted every two years or between each tenant, whichever is longer. That really sucks for me, because even low VOC paint makes me sick, goofy, nauseous, edgy, and unhappy for weeks.

The majority of rental units have carpeting, mostly cheap carpeting consisting mostly of petroleum derivatives, aggressively outgassing toxins all their lives while harboring mold and less savory things beyond the reach of steam cleaners.

Rental units in my price range are in high density housing (meaning there’s normally pollution, Wi-Fi, and noise completely beyond my control), and every single one that I’ve looked at has a mold issue – a solid, interlaminar set of colonies, usually in the kitchen and bathroom, often in the bedrooms, and if they’re in the bedrooms, they’re in the living rooms as well.

So much wrong.

In any case, unless I can find low income, high density living with non-toxic interior furnishings, nontoxic finishes, hardwood floors, no mold, good air, no pollution and no street noise (which would be fantastic for all concerned!), where all my neighbors have no power tools, dulcet voices, and no interest in using their cell phones every hour of every day (yeah, right), then… I probably have to think in terms of a freestanding house.

From the practical standpoint of having people to say hi to and help shoveling the stairs and the like, I would love to have close neighbors! It’s just that I need not to put myself in a position to be poisoned and tortured by regular people simply living their lives.

Buying

What with one thing and another, I realized a year and a half ago that I would have to focus on a freestanding house – despite all the upfront cost and work involved in that. It’s kind of like jumping off the deep end, an especially apt metaphor for a lifelong skin-diver, deep-water sailor, and former live-aboard “grotty yachtie” like me.

I’ve always had a pretty good instinct for real estate, which annoyed my father more than once – he kept ignoring my advice. The prices here only bobbled, they didn’t bubble; the overall trend has been gradually, consistently, steadily upward for a century or more.

This IS a region where it’s a good investment.

Buying requires good credit, but after LINK some work and time, that’s not a problem.

First-time homebuyers and low-income home buyers have special government programs that make it possible for them to get loans from banks by insuring those loans with the feds. Of course, the federal government has to be working for that to happen. (That could happen any month now. Maybe within a year?)

All I want is a clean, dry, safe-for-me 600-800 square-foot house on a couple acres of buffer zone for ~$135k inclusive, somewhere in the area of Easthampton to Heath to Montague to North Hadley, on a paved quiet road.

This is a reasonable price for a reasonable proposition. However, in two years of looking, it hasn’t turned up.

But I’ll show you what has turned up:

Century floodplain houses

How do you spell “moldfest”? It’s actually called “Sick Building Syndrome”, but either way, there’s a reason these places are cheap and still on the market.
[The century floodplain houses]

Foreclosures
First-time homebuyer loans will not cover these, nor should they. Foreclosures are the ultimate black-box proposition — you have no idea what’s in there, but a few observations and questions have taught me to interpret clues. I won’t bother you with photos, because these have since gone off the market and I’m not researching foreclosures any further:

  • Great little house in a gorgeous spot… with a cracked foundation — I mean a busted-right-open-and-let-the-critters-in foundation.
  • Current tenant dropped not one, but two trees across the driveway. Is that a hint? I was curiously disinclined to investigate.
  • The house has stood empty for over a year, and because of that, any characteristics that weren’t up to modern code are no longer grandfathered, but have to be corrected before moving in. This seems to add 30-120% to the effective price, and in one case I looked at, would have cost 3 times the purchase price just to turn it into a code-compliant property.
  • Extensive plumbing work is often required: in one case, the well went bad; in another, the septic system was toast; in many foreclosures, the sinks and toilets are smashed apart to discourage squatters — and add enormously to the repairs required of pipes, flooring, and walls affected, not to mention the porcelain.

[Several examples of what’s in my price range, with wry commentary]

[The total reno, with the great bones] I love this. I would LOVE to get my hands on this. Sadly, I’m now a formerly handy person. Holding the tools required, let alone breathing the dust and fumes involved, are sot even to be thought of. Breaks my heart, darn it! This would have been so much fun!

My needs and wants are very reasonable, but apparently, a place that embodies them doesn’t already exist.

It’s horrifying to contemplate, but I have to think about building my own. There are so many issues, both physical and fiscal, that it simply boggles the mind. Just to start with, how is a first time, low income home buyer going to qualify for a building loan, even where there is so much documentation regarding these special needs?

I’ve spoken at length with builders specializing in non-toxic homes, one company’s owners giving me what amounted to a three-hour workshop in materials, gotchas, and things to know and watch out for in regard to renovation and building. It doesn’t have to be much costlier, but it requires an enormous amount of project management on my part to keep costs down by researching and sourcing used or overstock fixtures and fittings, hardwood flooring, non-toxic and natural finishes (some of which I worked out how to use on my boat), and so forth.

I’ve come up with a couple of novel ways to simplify plumbing and electrics, which are in compliance with the current building codes. (The electrician and builders I’ve mentioned it to are intrigued and plan to keep my ideas in mind for the future. I find that encouraging.) That’s one way I’ve brought down some projected costs, although it depends on my being able to do certain physical work.

I’ve also researched the toxins, materials, labor, permitting, and costs involved in prefab vs. stick built (traditional) vs. log building here.

What I’ve learned about heating methods (toxicity, mold, fuels, weaknesses, etc.) would bore you to tears. I just have two words: steam heat.

While I have always imagined/dreamed of living in a hexagonal stick built house with lots of windows and two small wings, it turns out my family have always imagined I’d wind up in a little log cabin. It looks like they might be right.

What’s involved in an adequate trade-off?

I have to know where I can be flexible. This wiggle-room could make the difference between having a rational home and spinning off the face of the earth. (Two people who couldn’t find a home in time were found frozen to death yesterday. I’m trying not to think about that.)

There’s a little bit of slack in my needs, but not much.

Radiation (from heavy electrics, heavy electronics, cell phone towers too close, and wi-fi) is a no go.

VOCs that can be washed off, treated with pine and baking soda, or aired out in a few days would be fine.

Treatable mold would be fine, but, unfortunately, by the time it shows, there’s usually a well-established root system inside the wall and mitigation becomes the sort of iterative, messy, relentless, and ultimately unresolved nightmare that usually takes three scream queens and gallons of artificial blood to get across on the silver screen; respiratory struggles, immune failure and mental impairment aren’t nearly as dramatic on the outside as they are on the inside.

What does success look like?

I could be really flippant and say that success looks like an added hundred thousand dollars free and clear in my mortgage account. That would definitely put me in a price bracket that would allow me to have my log cabin, with the right fittings and finishes, in a safe clean area, with everything I need and nothing I don’t. Plus…

I used to dream of having a big enough property to put additional cabins on, and provide safe non-toxic living for friends who like small spaces, and maybe some glamping spots for the summer. I’ve already got 2 friends who’d love to sign that lease as of yesterday, and 3 more who’d love to think about it, and that all turned up in 2 conversations. There is clearly a market for safe, small, inexpensive housing, and it would be a good, benevolent, and sound investment. However, the start-up costs (more buildings, more slabs, more plumbing, more septic, etc.) are unthinkable for me. I just don’t have that.

This is where being poor is super frustrating. (Yes, I really do think this way … I’m more frustrated that I can’t help others than I am that finding a place for my own self is so hard.) I could so easily provide safe and sane housing for people who, like me, are fighting their environments all the time, and who would, if they could, much rather be using their energy to contribute to the world. And helping pay my mortgage. There is no downside.

There is no money for it, either.

Okay, onward.

What does success look like?

It looks manageably small, manageably affordable (or self-supporting — hello, cabins!), safe, clean, healthy, nontoxic, and warm.

I have a lot to do, and a lifespan truncated by probably 25-30 years. I’m genetically wired for my 90s, if I don’t smoke, which I don’t. So I’d better hustle!

In order to do my work (write my books, produce my pain-mitigating products, do live trainings on handling chronic pain and disability at home and at work, etc.) I need a home that doesn’t make things worse; Time alone will do that. It doesn’t need any more help from my living environment.

My success path is very, very narrow. I’m still not sure how to get there, but I have a few more interviews with specialist professionals ahead of me.

Are there any choices that meet my needs?

According to two years of market research, there is nothing already built that meets my needs in my price range.

I might have to make it myself, whether I like it or not, whether it’s easy (which it was never going to be) or not, whether there is any standard path to get me there, or whether I have to forge ahead and work the steps out one by one, going purely by what works for me – as I did with CRPS for so long, before clinical practice caught up with what I was doing.

I’m a very reasonable person. I’m just in a very unreasonable situation.

…Again.

I’m almost used to it. Sigh.

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Decisions, decisions, decisions (this is a triptych)

WordPress has utterly changed their writing UI. Apparently, they felt the need to reinvent text entry… (um… Why???)

I usually hold off on publishing a post until I’ve got the formatting tidied up and the images in. I can’t even figure out how to do that yet. So I’m posting a couple of ragged, really funny-looking articles, because it’s better than not posting at all, and there is SO much to keep up with I don’t want to keep falling behind here.

Back to our regularly scheduled programming…

As I’ve said before, making decisions amidst pain-brain and the neurowackiness of CRPS is not the easiest thing to do.

It takes more effort and time than it used to, but the years have led me to certain strategies that help me make good decisions pretty consistently, even though doing so is such an up-hill task.
[Sysiphus image]

1: Good info about the problem.
The idea of “good info” is key. For health and practical matters, I need my info to be coherent, consistent, reliable, and reasonable. Above all, I need it to reflect reality — in other words, to be true.

Opinions are not info, except when they are.

“Hey, thanks for that totally meaningless sentence, Isy! That’s not confusing at all!”

But seriously — a professional opinion, about something that’s pertinent, does matter. That opinion goes into the data pool.

Personal opinions, which are usually accompanied by logical fallacies[LINK], are not data (except to sociologists and comedians) and will never be useful to me. I can provide my own, if I want them. I’ve got loads of opinions, but they go up on the shelf when I’m culling information.

I need facts, data, professional (or highly-skilled amateur) quality input.

At this point, I’m not always as diligent about that as I think I should be. A large part of this early stage of inquiry is getting a sense of the social and cultural clues. I find it almost impossible to immerse myself in a subject without letting in some of the noise around it. /shrug/ Not perfect yet.

1a: Enough good info

After mulling things for a bit, I find that the lower-quality info annoys me instead of pulling me in, and I seek out more higher-quality info with a better basis in experience or science or whatever the best measure of the field is.

I’m building a mental map of the field, and where I see blank spaces, I try to fill them in with information.

  1. Good information about my options.
    This is where it gets interesting. Because of my significant non-standard needs, which are not so much a matter of taste as of survival (key point there!), I have to put extra time, diligence, and effort into developing a good list of options, because by the time I’ve done a reality check to evaluate my options against my diseases and disabilities, the REAL options available to ME tend to be few — even where most people would have a lot to choose from.

This is one of those occasions where the limits I live with just hit me in the face, and I have to figure out how to deal with a reality most people can’t even wrap their heads around as anything other than a bizarre whimsy or a sign of questionable judgment.

That hurts.

Moving right along here…

  1. Time to digest it

[use nav. tree image to illustrate how I absorb info, so it can be used as needed in any context.]

Reality check #1 — floating trial balloons
This is when I can sound half-cocked, because the decisions are floating around in my brain in about 5 dimensions and don’t readily lend themselves to explanatory words. Action words, yes, but not explanatory ones. So,it sounds like I’m going off half-cocked, when what I’m doing is trying on a decision for size.

My focus is oriented towards implementing my current decision, and of course at the time I always think it’s the Real Plan. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t focus as hard and pay as close attention to what goes on when my decisions meet the outer reality.

At this point, I’ve got the basic decision made, and I’m roughing out how to make it happen.

Because I have a peculiar set of circumstances (in every possible respect, it seems), my decisions are rarely off-the-shelf solutions. Every solution is customized. They have to be, or I suffer, lose brains, and die horribly. Or, at least, things don’t go well. YMMV — my mileage varies all the time.

  1. Digest results and lessons learned
    Just what it says. This is a semi-conscious process that I can feel happening, but doesn’t lend itself well to description. It’s more of the tree-and-grass activity, adjusting and tuning my ideas and understanding all the way down and all the way across and all the way up the related chains of ideas. It takes a lot longer than it used to, but it does happen if I’m patient and let it be.

In time, what I don’t know becomes obvious to me, and what I need to unload just goes.

If, at this point, I’ve got a workable choice, I’m done. Time for the next task.

If not, time to re-assess and re-evaluate.

  1. Seek out more and better info
    At this point, I’m past online research alone; I need to talk to experts. This involves phone calls and meetings and interviews. The face-time may not be free. The mobility may not be easy. I may have to spend more time on the phone than my brain is, er, quite happy with.

This one-to-one contact is a super-effective way for me to get more info out of people than they’re aware that they’re sharing, so if I can afford it — physically and fiscally — I’ll do it.

Naturally, being me (and wanting to get the most out of everyone’s time), I prepare for these conversations. I want to make sure I:

  • Have the vocabulary. I’m not at all afraid to ask for corrections, but it’s essential to have a working vocabulary of the subject and the major professionals involved. An hour or four over a few days of web-reading usually provides enough context for me to get going with.
  • Can show an intelligent interest in them and the subject. They need to know I’m taking them seriously in order for them to take me seriously. An extra 15 minutes on their web site, learning about the people and history behind the industry or company, pays off hugely.
  • Have a clear, specific answer to the question, “What can I do for you?” I need to know what it will look like when I have the answers I’m looking for. That means I need to have a pretty good idea what my questions should be. This is rarely as easy as it sounds. All those orbiting words and ideas have to be beaten into some kind of shape so the question marks bursting out of my head have meaningful sentences in front of them.
  • Have note-taking or recording equipment appropriate to the format of the meeting and my physical and attentional abilities at the time. I need notes. As medical professionals get drilled into our heads, “If it isn’t documented, it didn’t happen.” Plus, I want to make sure I get the data right. The ideas I can process; it’s the facts and figures and new terms I need to preserve.
  • Correct contact info for those I want to talk with. (It’s the little things…)

Since the bulk of my online research has already happened, the online part of this “more and better info” search is largely backward-referring:

  • Reviewing the websites I found most helpful
  • Chasing down data or info that seemed less important then, but deserves attention now
  • Filling in holes I didn’t notice or didn’t care about before, but want to clear up now
  • Going through my Evernote directory, if it’s a subject that needs one, and making sure I have enough info in it that I could go back and reconstruct my reasoning just from my information pool.

The discussions and “interviews” with friends and trusted contacts are important (especially in relation to whether an option matches my needs) but much more casual. A significant exchange can happen in 15 seconds at the deli counter or between gossip and talk about the weather. I can “download” a huge amount of info in these brief, solid exchanges with people who know me well.

Therefore, after a certain (large) amount of data-gathering, thinking, and processing, it’s essential for me to do sanity-checks and get assessments from friends and contacts I trust in that context.

  1. Reality check #2 — feasible plan, with fallbacks
    This is where the adhesive meets the tacky surface. There’s a lot more weight and momentum behind a plan that falls into place after all that thinking and working and studying up and experimenting, and it shows.

At this point, I should know what a successful outcome involves, what the major pitfalls — both generally, and for me particularly — could be and how to avoid or mitigate them, and what the likeliest way to implement the decision successfully should be. I should also have a good idea what “yellow light” and “red light” signals to look for, and what to do if they happen. I should have a good idea what the first round of “gotchas” might be and what to do to avoid them or deal with them. (Later “gotchas” are less likely to be out of the blue, and can be figured out more easily.)

To think it used to be so easy, and lightning quick, before I got sick.

I remember wondering, almost a decade ago, how I could possibly make sound decisions when there was so much that was so uncertain in my mind. The time passed, I kept working on it, and the decisions involved in making a process for decisions evolved into something repeatable and reliable. Phew!

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Mental toolkit for overwhelming times

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

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

The State of Overwhelm

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

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

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

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

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

The roadmap out of Overwhelm

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

First, whose job is it, really?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Managing my care?

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

Ordering tests and prescribing meds?

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

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

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

Keeping the dishes clean?

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

Keeping the outside steps de-iced?

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

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

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

This is an important distinction.

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

When in doubt, upgrade.

Volunteers

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

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

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

Professionals

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

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

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

Examples

Fix the heater?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Professional level brain & mind care

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another thing you can do

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

Something to think about, in times like these.

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

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

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

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CRPS terminology, under the nervous grin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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