Living anyway

I was holding off on blogging consistently until my brain was more consistently reliable — until I had enough improvement in my mental faculties. Reason intervened, and it got through the concrete that, longstanding CRPS being what it is, that could be a very long wait. Those of you looking for solid whacks of brilliance or coherence or good judgment, consider yourselves warned. This is real life, and, whatever is left of it, it’s time to live it anyway.
Snowy lawn, apple tree, row of pines behind apple tree, snowy road visible between trees, silvery cloudy sky above trees.
And, with that said, 2015 is left in the dust.

Waiting for perfection is obviously absurd. Anything with a pulse is still imperfect. Waiting for “enough improvement” is the mental sucker-punch that hides in perfection’s shadow. It cajoles me by not being perfect, but … define “enough improvement.” — See what I mean? Mental sucker-punch!

My tea, like me, is a work in progress at the moment. I sit here letting it steep, with my patches of exposed skin singing “zippity do dah!” every time something touches them, the silver and white day rising gently through my window, my insides solidly blocking the thought of food or pills for the foreseeable future (we’ll have to negotiate that later), J coming over to hug me against his side and give a pleased giggle that we’re reallly here and really together and we made it this far, and I find a perfect moment in it.

Living anyway. That’s the point. Well done, Isy.

Happy New Year.
May your hardships be balanced by your blessings.
May your love drown your pain.
For the many of us who live unbearable lives, may you have all the courage and wit and calm to bear it and find your moments of freedom.
Whatever you’ve got to live with, live anyway, and find the peace and joy there is even in the event horizon.
My heart is with you.

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To fail myself is to fail others, and doesn’t that suck!

My desk setup is nonexistent and much of it still buried in unpacking. I wish I’d been writing some of the wonderful blog ideas that have passed through, but I didn’t. Rather than trying to reconstruct them from addled hindsight, I’ll just go on as if I had a whole nest of posts to plop this one into, and go on from here.

As my desk situation indicates, I still feel perched, rather than settled. I’m going to have to find a rental in the spring and then start looking for a miraculously good deal on a house to buy after that, so it’s hard to unpack all the way.

Moreover, California is still extending opportunistic tendrils into our wallets, task lists, and attention.

And then there are the periodic health crises: a bit of allergy exposure here, a bit of partner’s chest pain there, a sprained wrist from me overdoing, a sprained back from him overdoing… you know. Stuff.

Oh, and the holidays, with a trip and gifties to prepare, mostly for people I haven’t seen for over a decade… no pressure.

These aren’t excuses, they’re reasons. I don’t really believe in excuses; it’s largely an irrelevant concept. It’s for an injured party to decide if I’m excused, not me, so “offering an excuse” just doesn’t make sense. I have reasons, but so does everyone.

Here’s the thing I feel a need to mention my reasons for:

I’ve let my self-disciplines go. T’ai chi, qigong, meditation, reiki, relaxation exercises, stretching, even listening to chamber music — I think about them, but I don’t do them. I still have my morning routine, or at least half of it… if that… OK, yeah, my self-disciplines are pretty much out the window.

Like medication, meditation only works if you use it.

After weeks, actually months, of coping and managing with (and concealing, because that’s what chronically ill people do) my rising instability and neural chaos, I’ve finally started skidding off the cliff.

As for the effect… I’m trying to come up with a good image.

Imagine a patch of sea. I’m in a well-rigged little sailboat, noodling along in a fair wind.
view forward from deck of sailboat. Mainsail on right, jib on left, Marin headlands and Golden Gate visible between.
The oil of willpower is constantly sprinkled on the water’s surface, keeping it smooth and flat, easy to sail along on.

Underneath, the weedy patches pluck at the propeller and keel, the barnacles grow restive and start plucking back, the creatures swimming underneath get bigger and more voracious, and then they get big enough to break the surface now and then.

More oil! Keep sailing!

Those surface-breaking tiddlers get chased off by the real mondo beasts. The boat is getting sprayed by the monsters breeching.

Everything’s fine, I’m too busy to pay attention, la la la la la I’m not listening!

Also, the wind is acting up. The boom is starting to swing across at head-height.

Just a little farther now! More oil! /BOOM/ It’s OK, I’m fine, just a flesh wound!

Unbeknownst to me (since I’ve got the radio turned off, because I’m not listening), there was a string of earthquakes.

Since Banda Aceh and the meltdown at Fukijima, we’ve all learned about how earhquakes make waves. The shock of the quake trundles happily along the ocean floor until the ocean floor rises towards the shore. Then it sucks the landward water into itself and brings it all back as a tsunami.
water_tsunamiformation
If you’re afloat and listening, you move out to deep water, sail over the bump without losing stability, and you’re fine. If not… cue exciting sound track and hire George Clooney for the (possibly race- and gender-inappropriate) lead in another disaster movie.

There was a wave and I wasn’t in deep water. I didn’t handle it well; I was dysregulated and chaotic for days. Days. I was so dysregulated and chaotic I didn’t even see that that’s what I was, until it was pointed out to me — by the person who’d just gotten butt-kicked by an earthquake. That is not a fair burden to put on someone who’s already having trouble.

I have a personal meme about being good to friends. This is important for us spoonies (as chronically ill people sometimes call themselves.) My disease treats me like crap, but that isn’t a license for me to treat others like crap.

People who are protected from the true impact of this illness need to not get it at close range, or they run away (understandably) feeling as if they just got burned.

People who have this illness can understand a lot more, but are able to do much less.

I have to communicate appropriately. That’s my job in each relationship.

Basically, humans are emotionally fragile creatures and — whether I want to be judgmental about it or not — I can either respect that, keep the worst of my crap to myself, and have good relationships; or I can expect them to be as tough as me and to do so on my schedule, neglecting that they have to be as tough as themselves on their own schedule, and wind up isolated. Because I’m human too, I’m emotionally fragile enough that being isolated sucks.

I absolutely dropped my backlog of frustration and pain and rage on someone who was about the last to ever deserve it. That’s quite a breach of trust.

I stopped taking care of myself. As a result, I fkdup and hurt someone else. Now I have to own up (did that), figure it out (working on it), and do what needs to be done (re-integrate my practices) to prevent it ever happening again (and find a way to cue myself before I get bad: the missing piece.)

At that point, I’m allowed to make amends. It’s another tweak of my logic that I can’t make amends until I’m sure I won’t make the same mistake.

Being a spoonie is hard work. Part of that work is these time-intensive disciplines that seem like “oh how nice, you’re so cool, I wish I could do that” — but, as it turns out, are really not optional if I want to function.
Allie Brosch cartoon,
Why I need to do my disciplines: to stay out of this pit with Allie.

BTW, do you notice how people excuse themselves by saying, “I wish I could do that”? I listen for these words coming out of my own mouth. It’s a sure flag that I’m throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Oh, a little extra effort up front to save a whole lot of trouble later on? H’mmm…

We all screw up at times. The consequences for spoonies can be life-threatening, if the wrong relationship gets ruined. Handling these issues is part of “living anyway” in the face of profound disease. It’s harder to figure out and harder to repair the damage, because of the nature of central nervous system diseases. So, dear reader, I’ll try to stay on the right side of the line between washing dirty laundry and discussing a common issue here.

We often tell each other, “You can’t take care of others if you don’t take care of yourself.” That’s a tough one for caregiver personalities; we’d much rather take care of others than ourselves. However, it was through failing to take care of myself that I actively hurt another. That is a whole different octave of problem. I guess I’d better learn this lesson.

This is a lot of thinking for a breached boat. I can do it, though. I must. I’m still a long way from harbor.
boatsSBMarina_night

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Don’t abandon yourself

Um, I’m embarrassed here, but WordPress decided I wanted to publish this instead of keeping it as a draft, despite my (I thought) clear button-clicking. And after all this work, naturally, I’m too clobbered to figure out how to back out and fix that. So I won’t advertise this until it’s done. Meanwhile, enjoy reading the beta version, if you want…

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Don’t abandon yourself

As individuals and as a group, we have far too much experience of being abandoned by those who are supposed to care for us and those who, we believed, cared about us. Sooner or later, those of us with invisible disabilities in general, and disruptive neurological and pain diseases particularly, *really* learn who our friends and allies *truly* are — if we have any at all. It’s a brutal lesson.

On top of this, those of us who survive the initial assaults of the disease — not to mention the staggering rounds of betrayals and abandonments — tend to be rather driven. If we weren’t when we started, we sure are by the time we get through those ghastly shivarees. We can keep going by will alone, without the muscle, the memory, or the means to do so. We do it anyway.

In the long run, this is a skill that needs to be used selectively. It gets us through the pinches and punches of life, but we have to learn when to turn that off and take care of ourselves, as we wish others had taken care of us.

The trickiest lesson of all may be, how not to abandon ourselves.

It’s not that hard. It’s difficult, but it’s not hard. The trick is learning to walk fine lines, using our judgment instead of our impulses — which are a LOT more impulsive because of the neurochemistry of relentless pain.

The deck is stacked against us. But we are still in the game.

Here are some notes on the distinctions we have to learn, even when our brains can’t cooperate. The fact that we get as far as we do is astounding, when you think about it.

H/The difference between comfort and care

There are habitual comforts that belonged to our pre-disease life, and care that belongs to the present. I’ve found that care itself has become very comforting, so the work of leaving behind old comforts that suddenly came with a very high price has turned out to be well worth the years of effort. (I rarely even want pastries any more, which is just as well, considering all the problems they trigger in this body… but Epsom baths are wonderful, and berries are delicious!)

H/The difference between rest and sluggishness

There are four pillars to self-care for CRPS and, indeed, most pain diseases: activity, rest, nutrition, and distraction.

We have GOT to move. We have GOT to rest. Neither is optional. But the pain makes it hard to start moving, and once you get comfortable… oh, dear heavens, why get up when it just makes things hurt again? Initiating movement is awful at the time, but maintaining flow of blood and lymph is absolutely crucial for *ongoing* pain control and keeping the damage down.

Putting your feet up between tasks, taking it easy the day before and the day after an appointment or event, and [LINK] having good sleep habits[/] is resting. Resting is good. Resting is helpful. Resting makes you stronger.

H/The difference between doing and overdoing — and undoing

One great advantage that kids with CRPS have is parents. Parents push you when you can’t push yourself. It’s their job. I suspect that two reasons why kids have a better chance at remission is that, for one thing, they have a structured daily routine, which reduces the CNS chaos; and, for another, they have parents helping and coaching and maybe crying with them as they push through the pain to keep moving and
get their activity in, as well as their rest.

One great disadvantage that adults have is less resilience. If we overdo, our bodies go straight to Hell — go to Hell, go directly to Hell, do not pass Go, do not collect $200 (to paraphrase the game Monopoly.)

At worst, we can create a spread or an intensifying of CRPS if we push ourselves too hard, eat the wrong thing, have a procedure, break a bone. We can, by one misjudgment or accident, find ourselves far more disabled and agonized and in need than we already were. Which is unimaginable to a healthy person in the first place.

And yet, we must move… While exhibiting good judgment… With a brain that hasn’t got much judgment-juice at the best of times.

No, it’s not fair! It’s CRPS!

H/The difference between pushing and pacing

Pacing is key. Pacing is how I built up from being able to walk just 100 feet to a couple of miles. Pushing is how I got CRPS in the first place, and it’s insane to do the same thing in the hope of getting different results.

Learning how to pace, when you’re used to pushing, is relentlessly frustrating… but it *can* be done! For me, it’s usually a question of turning my stubbornness towards my own service, instead of the service of my frustration, ADD-driven fixation, or impulsiveness.

Actually, come to think of it, it’s really a question of *remembering* to do that, prioritizing accordingly, and following through on the decision. Easier said than done. This brain doesn’t have much judgment-juice, remember? It’s unspeakably weird to feel myself make the choice to stop doing whatever task I’ve gotten sucked into, realize it’s a good idea, find that I’m totally unable to make the switch, and — here’s the kicker — hear myself say in my head, “I haven’t got enough dopamine,” and simply realize I’m going to be in trouble and that’s all there is to it.

H/The difference between a bad decision, the end of life as you know it, and being dead.

Normally, only one of these is unrecoverable. Remember that. Being dead eliminates aaaaaaaaall your future options. Every last one. This is why I say, with Barrie Rosen, that *only suicide* is failure; everything else is just tactics.

Bad decisions have consequences, as we know better than most. We are often underfunded in what it takes to make those decisions, as my example in the previous section indicates. Bad decisions suck, they’re often costly, and it’s not like we can always help making them, adding a layer of humiliation that isn’t fun.

But they aren’t the end of the world. Not usually. They rarely result in our deaths. Being able to manage or mitigate the consequences and move on with a minimum of fuss is a hugely valuable skill. This brings us to our next topic.

H/The difference between being irresponsible, and forgiving yourself for a mistake.

Forgiving ourselves is key. The neurochemistry of judgment and decision-making takes heavy damage from the neurochemistry of pain *and* the particular neurological re-mapping and re-wiring of CRPS.

That’s not fair!

Would you dis someone with no legs because they couldn’t climb a mountain? No, of course not. You’d be much more likely to offer to help them get their chair up to where they can get a better view.

Between our greater likelihood of dropping a brick, so to speak, and the incredibly high price we pay for every mistake, being able to forgive ourselves is essential to keeping some perspective and keeping ourselves going.

Not forgiving ourselves actually leaves us with *less* judgment-juice (otherwise known as dopamine.) Being critical is hard work, neurologically speaking. Our brains are already overtaxed, in every possible sense of the word; do we really need to strip still more dopamine from this system and work the pain pathways even harder? Probably not, eh?

Being irresponsible boils down to surrendering your own agency. Agency, in this case, means being the active force in your own life. Whose body is it? Yours. Who is it who has this pain and all that goes with it? You. Who is responsible for learning how to manage this body? Who is it who has to find the right treatment and negotiate usefully with your providers? One guess…

Doctors spend a decade just being trained to treat this disease. We don’t have that luxury, even though we have to depend on them to get the care. Since it shows up uniquely in each one of us, we have to become our own best specialists. To quote Ojocion Ingram, a passive patient is a dead patient.

While modern conventional medicine does not take kindly to patients who drive their own care, there’s a reason for that: modern conventional medicine was not designed to create healthy patients, it was designed to create healthy profits. The system does not have your best interests at heart. It’s up to you to manage the system to serve your needs to the extent that it can… and then to find ways to stretch it a little further.

Although others may help us (and isn’t it wonderful when they do?) the final decisions are ours, for better or worse. The law still mostly respects that, if only because it shifts responsibility off the “health care” system.

H/The difference between inner wisdom and inner chaos

I recently lost a friend with CRPS who released her agency to her surgeon, for very logical reasons, but very much against her inner voice. Her voice is now silenced, and we miss her dreadfully.

This raises an interesting conundrum: with or without adequate brain-juice, we have to find ways to make decisions which can have consequences up to, and including, death. Is the logical decision the right one? Or should we listen to our inner voice, even if we can’t find logical reasons to do so? Is it inner wisdom, or yet another anxiety attack? How can we know?

I’m an old triage nurse. I used to say, always go with that inner voice. I’ve seen it be right more often than the best of doctors. There is something inside us that knows more than we can possibly perceive. Sadly, we can’t always hear it clearly, especially when our brains are hotwired and hair-triggered by the constant barrage of weirdness that CRPS creates.

The primitive parts of our brain that monitor risk and reward, hazards and fears, aversion and attraction, are all potentially infected with the disruption and misfiring that CRPS causes. It’s a central disease, so the pain it creates in the body can be reflected and echoed and magnified by the upheaval it creates in the brain. This can make it very hard to know what’s really going on, especially for the person most closely involved.

This is why coloring, meditation/contemplation, relaxation techniques, and inner arts like yoga and qi gong are so useful. They smooth out the chaotic ripples set off by the disease, so we can hear our inner voices a bit more clearly. Sadly, they’re still seen as something absurd (coloring? Really??), out of reach, exotic, or personally irrelevant. My doctors almost never mention them, and if they do, it’s usually clear that it’s something they don’t do themselves — it’s for the patients. And, as every practitioner knows, patients are just a little less than fully human.

That’s one thing I learned from working as a nurse at 6 teaching hospitals. Patients are consistently seen as less than fully human. The training in that regard goes very deep. Knowing that may make it easier to understand why things are the way they are in the modern health care system.

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Managing with one foot

CRPS tends to demineralize the bones, creating a sort of Swiss-cheese-looking osteoporosis. I’ve held that at bay so far, and I believe it relates to jumping on the vitamin D bandwagon long before I saw it in the news — I followed a tip from a friend without CRPS, who found that it kept her teeth from chipping. Well, I know why teeth chip — demineralization. So I started on the D3 at the first sign of soft teeth, years ago.

The other main thing to hold back osteoporosis is weight-bearing exercise.

I am absolutely certain that the old nursing/physiotherapy trope, “Use it or lose it,” is nearly always true.

Mind you, there are no guarantees.

Another trope: absolutist statements are always flawed.

Preferring to stack the oddds in my favor, I’ve stayed active and weightbearing despite considerable slumps, occasional backslides, and the occasional wish to throw myself off a bridge rather than mobilize.

So here I am with a broken foot, bone pain for the very first time since I got CRPS, and camping in our trailer as a diversion and a coping measure for being in between homes right now. (And that’s another looooong story.)

The second week post-fracture was interesting, as I figured out how to stay mobile. In this third week, I’ve learned that I should probably spend more time sitting down with my leg up.

Lay-people keep asking where my cast is. Casting slows healing. I have CRPS, which means my healing is already slowed considerably. Do I really need to slow it further? Hard to see an upside to that.

The point of casting is immobilization, and there are other, safer, saner ways to do that. Jamming a hard surface against a soft and variably swelling one doesn’t strike me as the best way to stabilize a small but essential bone. There’s nothing quite as rational as just leaving the darn thing COMPLETELY ALONE. Especially when even the touch of the sheet is unbearable … because, oh yeah, I’ve got CRPS.

The single biggest cause of nonhealing bones is overuse. Even I, type A-ish as I might sometimes be, can’t think of anything stupider and more wooly-headed than putting any weight or stress on a broken foot. Those are small bones with the most fundamental job in the whole skeleton. When they go wrong, it’s not good!

At first, I didn’t even put a sock on it — just a light lady’s scarf at times (a gift from a healer friend), gently wrapped around to keep the breeze off — or, as I thought of it, the burning blast from hell.
mismatched_sox
Recently, I graduated to a loose, bright red fleece sleeve with the end stapled shut (breeze…) Now that the swelling is down enough, I can wear the “walking” (no, that’s not a sensible suggestion) shoe…
Red fleece sleeve slid over foot and lower leg. Walking shoe on.
… to minimize the effects of the occasional little bumps and jostles the foot gets as I dart around on my stunning little knee-walker.
scooterfreesme
I can’t use the knee-walker in the trailer, too close to the car, on rough terrain, or when the bruising on my shin gets too bad. So the moves I developed in my first week are getting more refined.

Major problem… Despite an eating pattern averaging 1,450 kcal a day of steamed greens, lean protein, and highest-quality fats, I weigh 200 pounds (90 kg.) So,

  • every time I lever myself up from the floor on one foot .. that’s 200 pounds going through one knee bent double, on a frame designed for less than 150.
  • Every time I hop, even in my scoop-bottomed sneakers, that’s 200# — plus velocity — landing on that leg each time.
  • I do my best to control my velocity and distribute the load through the whole spring-structure of the leg, but … 200 pounds. I thought my Achilles tendon was going to pop off my heel yesterday.
  • Every time I brace myself with my hands on a rail or counter as I swing or scoot along, that’s 3 digits of poundage on my CRPS’d carpal tunnels.
  • And then there’s getting in or out of the trailer I’m living in, with its two and a half foot rise… makes me feel faint to think of it.

It’s kind of unreal that my body has held it together for so long. But hey, like I’ve said, a lot of us find that we are capable of far more than the science might think.

The t’ai chi is invaluable. It’s all about the curves. Everything, in the end, is embodied in the swooping lines of the taiji symbol.
Yin_yang-sm
I can get a lot more leverage than should be humanly possible out of a curving or looping wave of my hand — a Roll-sideways rather than Roll-back, for my fellow t’ai chi-kans.

I propel myself from the ground up onto my foot by sending energy down from my back in a spiral into the floor, and letting that “imaginary” spring push me up. Go Dragon!

I settle onto the toilet while keeping one foot aloft by using a really cool sort of 3-D scissor-swoop with my two arms — Part Wild Horse’s Mane, but with less tilting and more curve.

The pain is, well, beyond words, so let’s pass on. The level of dependency is, for me, even worse. The hardest part of all, though, was giving up chocolate. It interferes with calcium absorption. I did say about not slowing healing, right?
choco-giving-it-up
I’m grateful beyond words for the t’ai chi moves. They save me, in a very physical, literal sense.

While we may find, in impossible situations, that we are a little superhuman, it isn’t good that we have to do these things. It isn’t healthy. In fact, it’s all rather ghastly from the first-person standpoint, however much it seems to inspire outsiders. In short, it sucks. And we suck it up. Then move on.

Swoopingly, if we know how.
I think I’m halfway to Bagua Zhang by now.

But it’s all related.

I wish I were an animator. I have these ideas in mind of a cartoon character who wiggles where I do, and not only could I make the character bounce and thud and stagger and scoot like I do, but I could animate wa-wa-ing waves and oscillating ropes of pain in morphing colors for each move. It’s really rather elegant, as well as side-splittingly funny in a greusome way. At the same time, extremely informative. Extremely.

Hmmm.. I guess I’ll download and learn some suitable animation software. In between the fractures, fallouts, fall-throughs, snafus, and the dribbling detritus of a slightly ridiculous life.

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First, keep breathing

I say that a lot.

The first thing our bodies do when we get a burst of pain or other shock is, clench. Hard to breathe effectively when clenched and, oddly, it’s hard to do anything else — except let the anxiety-mad sympathetic nervous system run riot.

For normal people, the exercise I’m about to describe is a calming exercise, but for the chronically ill and chronically hurting, it’s more like an elementary coping exercise.

That feeling of being frozen? It’s shock. It’s normal to go there, but don’t dwell in it.

Ways to help yourself through it are largely little physical shifts that send a message back up to your brain that it’s time to process now.

Notice where your shoulders are. Just notice. Notice how your neck feels. No judgment or “I should”s, just notice. Notice how you’re sitting or standing. Notice how your hips are rotated in relation to your posture. Just observe these things.

Now exhale all the way. Not to the point of straining or coughing, just comfortably emptied out. Let your lungs spring open naturally and — this is key — open your teeth as you inhale.

Now, when you breathe out, purse your lips softly, as if puffing out a match. That does two things: keeps your jaw unlocked and nudges a little extra oxygen into your lungs.

When you breathe in, after that first open-mouth inhale, breathe in through your nostrils if you can. If you can’t, put your tongue tip on the roof of your mouth and breathe around your tongue. Either way, it opens the back of your throat slightly so you can…

Imagine the breath sliding down your spine and into the bowl of your pelvis. This helps your body do an end-run around the clenched-torso breathing we get into when we freeze. Just let the good air wash into your spine and slosh into the bowl of your pelvis.

Then let it out through gently pursed lips, and in through opened throat, then down, and back out, and so on.

Do ten cycles. It’ll be a different and better world after. Notice how your shoulders and neck soften, and your hips unwind. Colors are a little brighter. Feelings are closer, but less overwhelming.

You can do this. I have faith in you. You are life warriors and we handle it. It’s our gift to be this strong and still be this alive.

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Ted’s Talks #2: “Relaxed” in Chinese

Ted Mancuso is famous for his enthusiastic Renaissance mind and the kinds of explanations it leads to. If that kind of thing doesn’t drive you up a tree, it’s enormously rewarding, because it can pay off for years.

It may not be immediately obvious how Chinese calligraphy, the evolution of the yin/yang symbol, James Joyce’s “The Dubliners”, a great general who died 2 thousand years ago, and the spinal root of a nerve, all relate to each other — let alone to the logic of a single move in t’ai chi.
puzzles_Chinese_Burr_305_imgbyMeronim
For him, they do.

Moreover, when he explains it, it makes perfect sense.
puzzles_Chinese_SixPartWoodKnot_Andreas.Roever
Compared to his ferally free discursiveness, my mind is almost tame. It helps me relax into training, because I don’t have to struggle with my own lateral-mindedness and force it into literal-mindedness — I can just say what I think and get instant yes/no/kinda, from a teacher who gets it. As I said to his wife once, “I LOVE that man.”

There’s a lot to think about in t’ai chi chuan, the way it’s taught at Ted’s academy. For that reason — and here I apologize to my fellow ADD-ers — this is a long piece, because I have to circle through a few related ideas to get to the point in a meaningful way.

One thing that’s becoming very clear to me is that, ideally, there is no such thing as an inattentive moment or an inactive body part. Even a part that’s held still, is still alive, still alert, still awake to the world and present in the mind.

Ideally.

Introducing Peng (however you spell it)

The concept of “peng” leads us closer to understanding this. If your native language is a Chinese language or French, your pronunciation is fine or nearly fine. If it’s not, you’re in trouble.

The word is pronounced with a very hard P and an English A that clearly came from the upper crust in the south of England. Its pronunciation is closest to “bong” in English, but, as a resident of a medical-marijuana state, I can’t write “bong” without inviting confusion, and as a longtime pain patient, I can’t write “pang” for much the same reason.

So, hard P, haughty A, and in here I’ll spell it pæng.

Pæng is often explained as a defensive or guarding force, but that’s an oversimplification. Ideally, pæng never leaves, except when displaced by a more specifically directed action.

Pæng makes directed action a lot faster, too, because of the way it creates potential space in any direction, which is then easy for you to fill. Much more efficient than the usual wind-up we usually find ourselves doing before initiating a directed action.
(This Marx Brothers compilation is hypnotic, to the point of being kinda creepy. If you’re triggered by casual violence, skip it.)

Pæng is the force you use to define the space you inhabit. Since you’re always in your own space, it makes sense to maintain pæng. Pæng is the ground state of each limb “at rest” (a relative term.)

Ideally.

This is what we work towards, anyway.

A relevant discussion of expertise

I’ve noticed, for much of my life, how the true experts in any movement (martial arts, dancing, rock climbing, surgery) don’t get in their own way. This is a lot easier said than done.

There’s a reason why true excellence is generally pegged at 10 years of experience. I figure it takes a couple of years to learn what’s supposed to happen, and then it takes most of the rest of the time to unlearn the reflexes that get in the way of achieving that. That’s my theory. Unlearning is that hard.

We lack faith in ourselves, at a subtle level, and it creates the interferences of hesitation, fidgets, and engaging the wrong efforts, then having to disengage them and reassess, then go forward again, in a sort of ongoing, half-unconscious dance towards accomplishing the goal.

Ted says that people come to his classes hoping to come in as they are and go straight on to excellence, and have to come to terms with the need to back up to roughly when they learned to walk/run really well and go on from there.
tai-chi-path

It’s part of his particular genius that he doesn’t try to get each person to unlearn their ways, he simply creates what he calls a shadow posture, and I call a parallel posture (though we mean the same thing), so that class time and practice time are spent in this new and evolving structure that creates the foundation for excellence to be built on. It’s up to you whether you go into that space the rest of the time, but it’s pretty hard to resist, because it’s delightful.

That very delightfulness is unnerving. I’ve had to integrate a lot to be able to accept something so alien to my experience of the last 14… no, actually, 40-odd years. It’s just so foreign, so antipathetic to what I have known for so long. Fortunately, I have ways of dealing with that…

My style of learning something profound goes like this:

  1. I charge in for a bit, throwing myself at it like spaghetti at the wall.
  2. Then, when my body-mind has reached a saturation point of new information and everything inside is sitting up and screaming, “WTH??”, I sit back for awhile to rethink and mull the new ideas involved in these skills.
  3. I feel and learn how they filter down and across and through every applicable aspect of life, and I have to semi-consciously work to let those old assumptions shift, evolve, and change.
  4. Then, when my mind has reached a saturation point of digested information, I can move back into activity, usually with a significant bump up to a new level.

Winter is a good time to digest, and with the waxing days I’m getting impatient and ready to bump up. I’m thorough, and I give full credit to my subconscious processes and the importance of mental digestion. When it comes to my learning style, I’m fairly relaxed…

We’re not relaxed in our tasks until we’re expert. I wonder if we can accelerate towards expertness by learning to relax in our tasks. There’s an empowering thought.

Expert surgeons have far better outcomes, partly because their lack of irrelevant motion means that they leave less trauma behind. Their scalpels don’t make any pointless cuts, their hands don’t jostle any irrelevant flesh, there simply isn’t anything done under the skin that isn’t directed towards the goal. There is not a wasted motion, and not a wasted moment.

They don’t dither; they do, and they do it decisively and cleanly. If something turns out a bit different from what they expect, they go with it — no holding back, no denial, just accept, redirect, and move on. They don’t interfere with themselves, and thus they don’t interfere with the work.

The truly expert surgeon, a few of which I’ve been privileged to see, is a breathing artwork of purposeful action and focused intent.

Martial arts is a bit more accessible to most people, so let me show you a popular and priceless example of an expert martial artist next to a couple of wonderful actors who can’t help getting in their own way. Here is the famous fight scene between Darth Maul and the two heroic Jedi, Qui Gon and a young Obi-Wan Kenobi:
All rights to this film belong to 20th Century Fox, in case someone forgets.

I included the whole fight scene. (You’re welcome, Marie P. and Steven R.) If you’re impatient, skip to the last 2 minutes. You’ll notice that the only reason the bad guy lost was a moment of inattention. He moves with effortless elegance, decisiveness, and power, while the Jedi are fighting their own bodies with every move, hulking their shoulders and flexing like mad. It looks exhausting! It took a lot of Lucasfilm to spin the contest out past the first minute, the imbalance of skill is so great.

Darth Maul is relaxed. It makes him effective. Qui Gon and Obi-Wan are not. They’re braced and clunky, utterly without pæng.

All right, given that this force (as it were) of pæng both protects space and creates space, what the heck is it, exactly?

Very simple. Not easy, but simple.

Pæng is the yielding resistance of a tree branch or a length of spring steel, or, for that matter, of a good dancer’s arms.

You push one part of the branch, and the whole bough may sway, but its balance is undisturbed. You push your good dance partner’s hand, but that doesn’t just move her hand — her whole frame absorbs and responds to your push with a graceful springy motion and she rotates, balanced over her own feet, as far as your push goes (backwards and in high heels, most likely. Be impressed.)

That is the force called pæng.

Let’s return to the tree branch for a moment. It allows us to extend the analogy without special training.

Take a good look at an oak, maple, or a eucalyptus tree. Look at a branch from its tip to the root of the tree. You can always follow a single, sinuous line from tip to root.

eucalyptus tree with lines showing the shape of each branch's support.
It’s the same tree, mirrored across. The lines are drawn in on the right-hand image.

That tree holds the branch up from root to tip, without any muscles at all. It lifts it from underneath its feet, up its trunk, and floats it out into space from there. This is how the force flows. Not muscular at all, but very, very strong. It’s pure physics.

The tree also holds the branch outward with curves that act as support structures (like the curvilinear welts in plastic packaging, to keep the package from being flattened), in order to make the most of the space.

Mmm... I wonder if they're gluten free?
Mmm… I wonder if they’re gluten free?

Bounce a branch lightly. Observe the change in the movement. It bounces more near the point of impact, and as the springiness absorbs the motion, it moves less the closer it gets to the spine. I mean trunk. Did I say spine? I meant trunk. Of the tree. In this case.

This calm-but-alive springiness, this resistance without strain, lifting up from the root through the trunk, opening without pushing, pressing without squeezing, all at the same time, is pæng: the whole branch, from trunk to leaftip, is awake all the time, ready to play with the wind all the time, ready to soak up the raindrops all the time, connected through the trunk or stem to its root all the time. Every touch on the way is received and understood, and responded to naturally. It is always alive with this springy yet relaxed, rooted yet responsive energy.

In humans, pæng can be modulated. This is part of the martial aspect of t’ai chi: intensify pæng to ward off an attack or prepare for one, shift pæng to draw the opponent, release pæng to snap into an attack, but always, always have pæng as your ground state. It gives you a safe, structured space to work from.

Ideally. That’w what we work towards.

Now that we’ve mulled the nature of pæng, we’re a bit closer to understanding what Ted and the t’ai chi chuan classics mean when they use the word “relaxed.” In our extreme-adoring Northern/Western Hemisphere culture, “relaxed” is the opposite of “tensed”, or even “stressed.” A certain floppiness comes to mind, even a resistance to being vertical.
Tense:

   []
   |
   |
   |
   L

Relaxed (Western style):


   8)________|

A “relaxed” body, in this sense, is not ready to move — far from it. It probably wants another drink!

The ancient Chinese traditions cultivate the middle way, not extremes.

As it happens, this is an excellent approach for many people with central nervous system dysfunctions, because our disrupted systems are hardwired to charge wildly between extremes. The more we strengthen our access to the middle ground, the more stable our central nervous systems become, and the better we can get.

Simple. Not easy.

With this in mind, we have to repurpose the word “relaxed” so it’s not a synonym for “floppy”, but a distinctly different term that describes the useful middle ground between “floppy” and “tense.”

   Tense: []    Relaxed: 0     Floppy:
          |            ( | )
          |             }|{
          |             / \
          L            /   \            8)_________|

It’s easy to see, even in these keyboard-figures, which level of energy makes it easiest to move in a useful way, doesn’t it?

How do you want your surgeon to be, heaven forbid you ever need one? How do you want to move when you dance?

Darth Maul seems quite a bit different now, doesn’t he? Actually, he does remind me of a couple of doctors I’ve worked with…

Shortly after I drafted this, Ted saw me struggling through a leg-intensive exercise. He said, with sympathy, “I see why you find these leg exercises so exhausting. Your leg muscles are fighting with each other in every direction.”

I went away and thought it over.
Sketch of brain, with bits falling off and popping out, and a bandaid over the worst
Well, of course they were fighting each other in every direction. This was the setup:

  1. When I was 10, I got the silly idea that I should have an adult arch to my foot, so I began to supinate.
  2. That led to my thigh muscles developing lopsidedly, and since I played varsity soccer in high school and ran in my 20’s, they developed lopsidedly a fair bit.
  3. That led to my kneecaps tracking wrong, and me losing the cartilage under my kneecaps. (I used to think that hurt. Cute!) Ted steered me away from his t’ai chi class in the 1990’s because I was so nervous about my knee pain (really cute!)… so I took his shaolin kung fu class instead.

So, over 15 years later… I’m far too frail for serious kung fu and Ted has become a breathtakingly subtle teacher of t’ai chi; I’ve gone through several rounds of posture training (round 1, round 2, round 3); and, now that the pieces are finally coming together (big clue: if it bears weight, it affects your posture), I’ve been working like mad to rectify my knees.

They still pull to the outside, from the habits laid in by my childhood efforts to lift my arch, and my knees hurt like blazes when they bend. To manage that, I practiced pulling them to the inside, but not directly — kind of rolling my lower thigh muscles inside and upward at the same time… While my habitual muscle pattern pulls outward and up.

Weren’t we just watching Liam Neeson and Ewan Macgregor do something very similar (if a lot more cutely)? Muscles fighting each other in every direction, literally at every turn?
jedifighting
The fighting was simply wrong. …And I don’t mean in the movie.

That’s no way for a body to behave, fighting itself. I don’t want my body to fight itself.

I didn’t see that changing the fighting would work, because there would still be fighting.

Finally, I straightened up. I said to myself, in tones of firm parental authority, “Knee, do it right. I’m not having you fight about it. I’m going to relax — unwind every muscle and make them stand down and wait for orders. You’re going to do it right the first time, because nothing is interfering and nothing is asleep. It is … relaxed.” Pæng.

I lifted my leg and put my foot down. It felt different.

I bent my knee. It was fine, absolutely fine.

I tried the exercise. The thing was completely painless, and floatingly easy.

Buyer beware — it’s a process. For me, the issues are simple, although annoyingly tricky to work with:

  • My levels of tension and awareness, not to mention relaxation and attention (those are 4 completely different concepts, you’ll notice), change so much from day to day.
  • I still have nearly 40 years of walking habits that I’m building an alternative to.
  • I still have to take lip from my knees now and then, which slows me down for recovery, and I have to mentally go down there and tell everyone to stop arguing and let me mend.

It’s a process. However, it’s well begun. It’s all about relaxing, in this special sense of pæng.

Cats are masters of pæng  :)
Cats are masters of pæng 🙂

It’s like this stuff works …
Who knew?
Who knew?

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Oh look! I’ve adapted!

I used to be punctual, meaning, 3-10 minutes early. I used to be relentlessly diligent. I used to be cast-iron reliable. (I worked hard to acquire those skills, after drifting through my first couple of decades with my energy and attention set to “simmer.”)

These were so much a part of my identity that, after a memorable lunch with 12 engineers and one writer (me), they passed me the bill to calculate. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, but I scolded them and passed it back. CRPS had already set in and numbers tended to cartwheel in front of my eyes, but I didn’t tell them that.

My care providers know they have to call me to confirm the day before an appointment, because even with the calendar in my phone and on the wall, and now with a weekly dry-erase scheduler on the fridge, I need the added sensory input to make sure the other 3 are correct and, above all, to give my brain one more hook to the info.

Reliable, remember? I’ve still got a lot of identity tied up in being reliable, and it takes a LOT more work, but it’s important enough to me to do, and ask for a little practical assistance with.

Today, I looked at the clock when I woke up and thought, “Hour and a half to appointment time. OK.”

As I set up my tea, I thought, “I’ll let J sleep. He’d only have half an hour to get ready and I don’t want to spoil his morning.”

As I washed and dressed, I thought, “Excellent, time to read a little while I have my tea, fruit and morning pillage.” Can’t just call them pills. Definitely pillage. I hope to lay waste to CRPS as it tries to lay waste to me, so that could go either way.

En route to my appointment, I found a whopping case of vehicular atherosclerosis — a traffic jam, in a country stretch of highway. Very odd. The clock read 9:50, and I realized I was going to be late gor my appointment.

Diligently, I picked up my phone and made an illegal call to notify Dr. Resneck that I’d be late.

She said, in slightly worried tones, “But… your appointment isn’t until 11.”

Not missing a beat, I said, “Excellent! I’ll pull over and read for an hour. That’ll be nice!”

In response to the still-shocky silence, I added, “Well, an hour early is better than an hour late, isn’t it! See you soon!” And hung up.

I realized that my brain had simply done an ER-worthy triage — is anyone hurt? Anything made worse? No? Fine! — and moved straight on to a good Plan B. I’m reading Jodi Taylor, and St Mary’s is about to be incinerated and I’m dying to know what happens. And yes, I’ve read it before, though not for awhile.

If I were a clinician caring for me, I’d note this incident down and give a worried little sigh. It’s not good, just not very good.

But I have learned, in this brutal school of my life with this ratfink stinker of a disease, that I CAN’T WORRY ABOUT THESE THINGS. From the standpoint of the person doing this, I am really pleased with my handling of it.

Anyone hurt? Anything worse because of my mistake? No? Fine! Now let’s advance some other agenda I’ve got! Because as long as the first two questions come up negative, IT’S OKAY. I am not a failure, oddly enough. I’m just not. I get a free hour, and that’s pure bonus!

Off to read my book. Enjoy the rest of your day, and remember that blessings can come in heavy disguise.

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Ted’s Talks #1: know yourself best

A fellow martial arts teacher/competition judge once barked at Ted Mancuso, “None of your students move like you!”

Ted blinked, barked back “Good!” and walked away, shaking his head.

He refuses to model a move more than the essential minimum, and is no great fan of the mirror, either. However, he will coach the most clueless student with bottomless patience, week after week, as long as they don’t give up.

His model of teaching is based on the (all too rare) assumption that each of us should be the person most aware of, and most in charge of, our own bodies.

… I know, right?

If you follow the logic through, this implies that the correct structure for moving through, say, Fair/Jade Lady Weaves Shuttle (which is an upward block snappily followed by a nose break, which tells you something about those names)… as I was saying, the most effective and correct structure for that move is going to vary from one body to the next. The correct structure for HIS configuration of bones, ligaments, muscles, and chemistry is not going to be the most correct (or even passable) structure for MY configuration, or yours, or anyone else’s.

Ted doesn’t just say that, he bases his whole approach on it, from start to finish. His crogglingly refined sense of how to read that on others is probably another article, or rather book. Gifted pedagogue, yes.

In the long years of wrestling to take back control of my body from CRPS and all its ghastly little friends, I’ve taken PT for months, done intensive massage therapy ditto, and been overdosed on nearly every class of drug used to treat it — except the ones I flatly refused.

This inward/martial training with Ted is the first one that not only requires physical self-awareness, but actually helps me learn that awareness from the inside out, rather than passively requiring me to learn it from the outside in.

Once I gave permission for him to go to town on my structure, it would be tempting to say that he’s become merciless. That would be totally wrong, in both senses. He lives in an ocean consisting of equal proportions of mercy, humor, precision, and a degree of awareness of others that seems uncanny until you reflect that he’s been working on that since I could walk. So, yeah, he’s got that healer’s mercy that means he’ll do what’s right for you even if it sucks right now.

I’m now on the second round of fighting with my low back and hips for control of my spine, and it really sucks right now.

I am tired of trying to unlearn 40-odd years worth of faulty structure from the inside; it hurts, and more pain is tediously wearing.

So I found a massage therapist who suits my needs, and went to line up a series of sessions.

First available time?

3 weeks out.

… I know, right?

I came for a hot tub and chiropractic adjustment (which I believe is within spec for Ted’s style, given the intransigence of bony tissue and the ubiquity of hot water) and sat there letting my knotted thoughts and knotted muscles melt… until I smacked my forehead and started to laugh.

Why is my low spine putting up such a fight? Why has it kept falling back into the same darn reef-knots, despite the PT and massage and Round 1 of this struggle last year and so on?

Right.

It’s obvious, now that I think about it. There are no shortcuts! I have to learn how to identify, unravel, and rebuild those structures from the inside out. That’s the whole point. That’s why I undertook this training. This is exactly how it’s supposed to happen, aches and all.

This is me, having another laugh at my own expense, releasing one last sigh, and figuring out how to do this from the inside.

I love that teacher. I don’t exactly like him a lot right now, but that’s okay.

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Frozen

I was mulling a post called, “The Pulse,” about how my life tends to go in surges, and when I work with that, things go better, but when I try too hard to flatten life out to a steady level, everything goes badly.

Some people try to flatten the ocean. That's above my paygrade. I just try to ride the waves. Photo Brocken Inaglory/Wikipedia.
Some people try to flatten the ocean. That’s above my paygrade. I just try to ride the waves. Photo Brocken Inaglory/Wikipedia.

It’s about the pulse — push when I have the momentum to push, pause when the momentum fades, sink when even standing still feels like a sucking drain; push, pause, sink, push, pause, sink, and so forth.

If you’ve ever held a stethoscope to the sound of a beating heart, you have an idea what that sounds like.

It’s like pacing, a familiar concept to the chronically ill, but on a larger timescale.

Winter always involves some withdrawal, some sinking. This makes lots of sense to my acupuncturists and martial arts teachers. The traditional Chinese medical model assumes that we’re embedded in a larger reality, with weather and climate and timely changes, a key idea which conventional medicine doesn’t acknowledge very well.

I used to be able to push enough, even in winter, that the annual sinking wasn’t that obvious, given that most of those around me were in winter too. However, since my mid-30’s, a lot of people I’ve loved, liked, and depended on have died in the chilly armpit of the year. Deathiversaries, as I’ve noted, tend to have an effect on me, especially when they pile up like… well… bodies.

Perhaps I should move south of the equator. Then it’ll be warm at this time of year, at least for me, if not for my lovely ghosts.

Photo in the public domain, with thanks to the photographer Nello Rolleri
Photo in the public domain, with thanks to the photographer Nello Rolleri

Late last year, two honorary brothers, one of my dear CRPS friends and a young friend whose life I actually saved at one time, both died. Now, at least two of my honorary sisters are at the end of their lives, one of CRPS and the other who’s working on her 6th cancer.

I’m not whining. It’s not about me, it’s definitely about them. I’m not dying.

It’s just that it’s hard to remember that, sometimes.
Angels_lossy_notsonice
Helpless as I am to hold back the grim reaper’s scythe, there are sometimes things I can do to soften the end of others’ lives. My first nursing job was on an HIV/AIDS unit in 1991, so this is a well-established idea for me.

This year, though, 24 years on, some invisible line has been crossed, or some invisible straw has landed on this camel’s back. I cannot move. (It’s kind of wild that I can write, finally.)

I am paralyzed, generally anesthetized, frozen. There is no pulse, no pause, no sinking, not a microgram of push.

My mind currently looks something like this.  Photo  Chris Stubbs/Wikimedia.
My mind currently looks something like this. Photo Chris Stubbs/Wikimedia.

Four days of work, pushing so hard it sucks my breath away, and I now have a psychotherapy appointment with a 30-year veteran of helping the chronically ill and deeply traumatized. Plus one blog post.

I can’t do a thing for anyone else until I can move and breathe again. This thought alone is like a blanket of razors, since the condition of my friends isn’t going to wait for me to get my act together, but still — it doesn’t break the ice.

There are some things that are too much to expect a reasonable person to bear, and anyone with a hellacious disease already has one of those things on their plate. Those who are in the last stage of life have another. Those who are bereaved … you get the idea.

I’m posting this, not to write my diary in public, but because I know I’m not alone. Those of you who can barely move enough to shift the cursor, be assured that I know you’re not alone, either. Somehow, we will get through this. We will melt the ice, with help if we can get it. There is always an afterwards.

There’s one thing that offers this frozen veteran of grief the kind of scathing consolation that’s all I can expect these days: when my time comes to shuffle off this mortal coil, then, if there’s anything left of me to notice or care (as I strongly suspect the more subtle yet intransigent laws of physics require), I will be in the very best company.

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Of Mice, Medicine, and Malefactors

Older Brother and his wife, Aunt Krusty, sent me a fabulous little doohicky from a medieval town they visited. It’s a brooch of a common design element used in the Middle Ages: a tabby cat with two tails and fabulous eyebrows offering a mouse, with the legend, “visis mu” — “here’s the mouse.”

Pewter pin of tabby cat as described in text.
Close inspection shows both letter “s”s to be upside down. I’ve known a few artisans, and they like making people twist their heads around. Besides, that’s relevant. You’ll see why.

The enclosed card contains the usual wonderfully vague, semi-academic wording saying that animals with two tails (no mention of fabulous eyebrows) are signifiers of evil forces at work, but beyond that, nobody really knows what this means.

I thought some academics kept cats…?

My lovely polyglot friend Sylvie does. Sylvie is a CRPS compatriot who lost a frightening percentage of weight late last year, from which she’s still recovering. Her cat Nala has become a serial killer of the entire species Rodentia, bringing her grisly accomplishments to lay at Sylvie’s feet — or couch, or pillow — with startling frequency. Naturally, they aren’t always quite dead.

Pinto cat biting into white mouse on a lawn.
Not Nala, but a kindred spirit. Photo Tomasz Sienicki @ Wikimedia Commons.

Cats don’t have thumbs, so they don’t really get it about cooking and cupboards. All Nala knows is that Sylvie obviously needs to work on her hunting skills, but in the meantime, Nala can at least help her fatten up.

Also, cats tend to gatomorphize, just as those of us who are close to them tend to anthropomorphize. Nala has no idea that mice, gophers, shrews, and moles do Sylvie no good at all; that, on the contrary, they’re upsetting, messy, and potentially infectious. Nala thinks they’re good, and Nala cares for Sylvie, so they must be good for Sylvie.

She honestly believes that, with all her furry, loving little heart. “Visis mu! Have this great mouse!” So the slaughter continues.

Sylvie’s garden blooms, but her house is an abattoir at times. This is not a bad metaphor for explaining one of the more difficult aspects of being under a doctor’s care.

Most doctors really mean well. Becoming a physician takes an enormous amount of work, which requires great commitment to complete. It’s a hard job with ridiculous hours, especially for the first few years.

That doesn’t mean they’re all bright or gifted or even humane. It just means they believe in the value of medicine and surgery, enough to spend a decade or more learning to do it.

Line drawing of doctor going over an x-ray with patients.
There is much care and dedication among many doctors.

Doctors are intensely, let’s say, socialized to stay within the parameters of accepted practice. It keeps them out of trouble, although it may also keep them from true excellence at times.

Mostly, they love those parameters. They love having guidelines. They are truly, madly, deeply convinced of the value of the meds and procedures that they’re trained in. It doesn’t help that, if they put a foot wrong outside of those parameters and things don’t go well, they can lose everything. They are heavily incented, so to speak, to stay inside whatever they understand their parameters to be.

And, of course, the peer pressure is enormous.
And, of course, the peer pressure is enormous.

Now, this is tough for CRPS patients. There is so much variation from one CRPSer to the next, that there are NO established treatment parameters that meet the medical gold standard of being consistent, repeatable and reliable over a majority of patients.

None. Nada. Zilch. There is not one thing that consistently works well for most of us — at least nothing that comes from a bottle or an operating room. Activity, rest, hydration and nutrition all seem to be key, but even their benefits are hugely variable, and you rarely hear about them from physicians.

For a while, it was thought that COX-2 inhibitors combined with membrane stabilizers, came close to being a semi-magical bullet. (Gabapentin/ Neurontin, pregabalin/Lyrica, and so on, are known to most patients as anti-seizure meds, but many healthcare providers call them membrane stabilizers.)

Then it turned out that the Dr. Scott Reuben, the physician who popularized that treatment, was making the numbers up (here, reported to his colleagues and here, reported to science fans.)

Old poster of a show called, "Pinocchio, the tale of a marionette"
He was so busy being a puppet of the drug companies paying him, that he forgot what it means to be real.

COX-2 inhibitors were given a general thumbs-down over cardiac effects (which many people with chronic CRPS have enough trouble with anyway) and, as peri-surgical meds, did not live up to Reuben’s promise that subsequent chronic pain would be less.

Ironically, it had already been established that 500 mg of vitamin C two or three times daily for 3 months after surgery does have significant demonstrated benefit, reducing the incidence of CRPS – the most intractable and severe form of chronic pain – by 35-80%, depending on the extremity, extent of injury, and probably the degree of compliance. Moreover, vitamin C is very cheap, as well as very effective. (See extensive links list below.)

The anti-seizure meds, unfortunately for pain patients, did not get removed from first-line treatment.

By then, unfortunately, whole nations (Great Britain and the Netherlands, take a bow) had adopted Reuben’s corrupt recommendations for first-line treatment. It takes a lot more effort to undo that level of adoption than it does to hoodwink an entire sub-economy of peer reviewers and medical specialists, apparently.

The arrogantly reputable journals that accepted his work, and subsequently published other work which was based unquestioningly on his false results, are still trying to live it down. What’s interesting is that other doctors couldn’t replicate his results, so he was the only one publishing these great data… yet journals and physicians continued to publish and follow his recommendations. I do hope the journals revised their “peer-review” process to include more actual, I don’t know, reviewing, perhaps by peers.

Old cartoon of Pinocchio sitting on a pile of books, with a book open on his lap.
It took a lot of people to permit and perpetuate Reuben’s false reports. They are not innocent.

It could take decades to undo much of his damage, and meanwhile, the advancement of treatment has been down the wrong track for years, while other more appropriate avenues of treatment have been ignored or even forgotten.

So, millions of CRPS patients are being first-lined with truly obnoxious meds with iffy benefits and ghastly side-effects, rather than being examined as individuals, and assessed as to whether:

  • neurotransmitter support, most provably with antidepressants, would be more appropriate, given disease-related onset of affective symptoms (antidepressants), sleep problems (tricyclics), or dysautonomia (SNRI);
  • a short, hard attack of narcotics and aggressive PT would answer in the case of a hardy, active, or young person;
  • a proprietary or tech-based treatment, like TCMI or Calmare, are indicated for those who show active neuroplasticity or respond well to electrical stim; or
  • this person is a good candidate for ketamine protocols of one kind or another, some of which are no more toxic than membrane stabilizers.
  • it might be reasonable to try a more experimental approach which has demonstrated significant promise, notably magnesium infusions, immune globulin therapy, or temporary immune suppression.

Oops… Doctors, as a group, forgot to look at the patients in their excitement to have a designated treatment protocol. “Visis mu! Take this mouse – it’s government approved!

If you've worked with government agencies, you know why they're laughing.
If you’ve worked with government agencies, you know why they’re laughing.

But the doctors doing the offering really think this is a great idea. That’s what the guidelines say, after all, and they are evidence-based – except that that evidence was cooked.

While anti-seizure meds do work very well for some, starting with them reflexively is not reasonable: the cost-benefit profile is worse than most of the other potential first-line alternatives, due to high rates of side effects and comparatively unimpressive rates of usefulness.

Using them as a first-line treatment delays more effective, lower-cost treatment for many people in horrific pain, and, between the delay and the cognitive and neurologic side effects of this class of drugs, causes greater impairment (with higher associated costs) in far too many. It should be a second or even third line treatment, if you go by the evidence that has remained credible – taking a back seat to less fraught (not perfect, but still less problematic) therapeutic agents and interventions.

But the docs who lean on it really think it’s great.

sketch of excessively happy doctor running with a hypodermic needle
“Visis mu! Visis mu! Look – it’s a great mouse!”

Reminds me of my previous pain doctor, a competent technician with a bedside manner directly related to the patient’s appearance. He has a good reputation in his area – which tells you what a lot of rubbishy practitioners there were in the area.

He wanted to shove into the neck of my spinal column a couple of widgets which were the size of Starbucks drinking straws – you know, those really fat ones that you could suck a steak through, if it’s tender enough. Two of those, jammed into a six-inch length of a space that didn’t have enough room for one, and which – as we now know – was already inflamed in much the same way that the spinal cord of someone with a spinal cord injury is inflamed.

He liked it because shoving surgical hardware into other people’s bodies is what he does best, and these widgets have embedded electrodes which could zap the pain signal at the spinal root of my arms and he thought it would work really well and I had the right psych profile for it and this was the greatest thing since sliced bread.

"Visis mu! Visis mu! This is a truly excellent mouse which I am shoving smugly up your spine!"
“Visis mu! Visis mu! This is a truly excellent mouse which I am shoving smugly up your spine!”

It was a nice idea, and, again, this particular thing works spectacularly well for some people. For me, not so much. In fact, it was a disaster. It was truly worse than the CRPS pain, which takes some doing. The equipment trial still gives me spasms due to the mere memory of the staggering physical trauma it entailed.

Truly, each of us is unique.

Once he realized that I couldn’t accept his mouse, his whole manner changed. Just like a sulky cat, nursing his disappointment seemed a lot more important to him than finding something that would help me.

How could I be so callow and blind that I couldn’t appreciate this great mouse he wanted to give me? There’s just no helping some people! His neglect and disaffection was so damaging I had to fire him and move on to the excellent Dr. Richeimer at USC Pain Center, 4 hours’ drive away and worth the two-night stay in the armpit of LA.

Another dear friend, the angelically kind M, has roughly 3 dozen anaphylactic reactions a year. She is so hyper-reactive to so many things that driving past a town with the wind in the wrong direction could be the death of her. 3 dozen anaphylactic reactions a year, and she’s in her fifties now. Yes, amazing.

She saw a young cardiologist, who did what young cardiologists do: he threw upon her a huge, bloody gopher, covered in prickles and gore. “Your heart is dicky! This could kill you in a year! Visis mu, I can save you! Isn’t this exciting?”

Sepia-toned photo of a very dead, gutted gopher.
I processed this image out of respect for X’s exquisite sensibilities.

Personally, I think the appropriate thing to do is to pick that gopher up and shove it down his throat, but when a patient does it, it’s assault and battery with a biohazardous weapon.

The cardiologist, naturally, is doing exactly what he was trained to do and is wildly excited to have such a thrilling case and such interesting news. She, who already faces death on a weekly basis, should clearly get wound up about this because it might kill her if she doesn’t.

Gopher poking head out of hole, looking grumpy, with long claws and nasty teeth.
“Visis mu! This is a glorious mou — er, gopher! Check out those charming teeth, those tiny claws, that helpful expression! Awesome!

A brickbat? A muzzle? What do you think? Words simply fail. All I can think of is applying to him the kind of cat that has nine tails. It’s not a good way to model compassion, let alone tact, however.

As for me, I have to pick a primary doc for myself. My old one retired from private practice, and I miss him, because I could just walk in and look at him and he’d know.

I’m just thrilled at the prospect of training someone new, who will be a generalist treating the peripheral issues of someone with an incredibly peripheral-intensive disease. There will to be many rounds of “visis mu”, as he comes up to speed. And, since it’s all well-intended, I have to find a way to accept one or two mice as graciously as possible. One can only recoil so often before they decide they can’t treat you.

"Visis mu! I care for you, so let me do this wildly inappropriate thing, because I’m too rushed to think things all the way through!"
“Visis mu! I care for you, so let me do this wildly inappropriate thing, because I’m too rushed to think things all the way through!”

They mean well. They really do.

I never have figured out what to do when a cat, with every evidence of caring attention, brings me a mouse. I try to be nice about it, and that’s the best I can do.

Obit
Sadly, Sylvie’s furry little caregiver, Nala, departed this earth for the Happy Hunting Grounds. By a series of flukes, Sylvie wound up with a rescue cat, Filou (meaning roughly “brat” or “mischief-maker”), who has taken over her care with great enthusiasm — and much less bloodshed.

Links

Grouped by subject.

Sylvie’s blog on “neuroalgodystrophie”, mostly French but some bilingual French/English: http://sylvieghyselscrpsdrc.wordpress.com/

I’m shielding my friend M for safety reasons, but I can point you to a blog on managing immune suppression and chronic pain with few drugs and much natural care: http://www.tamingthebeast.ca/

Scott Reuben’s villainy, as reported to colleagues in Anesthesiology News:
http://www.anesthesiologynews.com/ViewArticle.aspx?d_id=21&a_id=12868
And in Scientific American: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/a-medical-madoff-anesthestesiologist-faked-data/

Vitamin C after surgery or trauma, value established before Reuben’s fall:
From 1999, in The Lancet: http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(99)03059-7/abstract
From 2002, in Belgian orthopedic periodical: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12584978
From 2007, in the Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery: http://jbjs.org/content/89/7/1424.long

CRPS at the top of the McGill Pain Index:
https://elleandtheautognome.wordpress.com/2012/09/05/mcgill-pain-index-crps-and-fibromyalgia/

UK treatment protocols for GPs treating CRPS: https://www.rcplondon.ac.uk/sites/default/files/documents/complex-regional-pain-full-guideline.pdf

Netherlands treatment protocols for treating CRPS: http://www.posttraumatischedystrofie.nl/pdf/CRPS_I_Guidelines_patient_version.pdf

Relatively useful treatments for CRPS:
Most suggestions are pulled from the current IASP recommendations for diagnosis and treatment of CRPS or the pivotal work of Dr. R. J. Schwartzman, Dr. van Rijn, and Dr. Breuhl (part of the team that developed the IASP guidelines), with updates from recent science available on PubMed.

Dr. Robert J. Schwartzman’s seminal works..
Outstanding primer on CRPS and what it can do in Systemic Complications of Complex Regional Pain Syndrome
Neuropsychological deficits associated with Complex Regional Pain Syndrome

Dr. van Rijn’s Spreading of complex regional pain syndrome: not a random process

IASP current recommendations: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/pme.12033/full#pme12033-sec-0023
Simplified diagnostic tool using IASP criteria: http://biowizardry.info/wp/2014/12/the-hidden-simplicity-of-diagnosing-complex-regional-pain-syndrome/

The authors have their blind spots and biases, of course, so researching any therapies that sound interesting is a good use of time.

The National Library of Medicine at the National Institutes of Health (U.S.) is an outstanding clearinghouse of articles from peer-reviewed scientific journals: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/?term=complex+regional+pain+syndrome
Just add the term of the treatment you’re interested in to the MeSH term, “complex regional pain syndrome”, to maximize useful hits.

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