A dear friend is embroiled in one of those ghastly legal tangles where the vultures are rigged to win. I’m the key defense witness. This comes up later.
This whole winter, I’ve been basking — simply basking! — in the sheer delight of being safe, sheltered, warm, loved, and with as little chaos as anyone with a recent move, a complex illness, and widely scattered relationships can get. Occasionally, I’ve wondered if I’m allowed to be in such a situation, and strained my ears for the sound of the other shoe dropping… Then I do a reality check, tune in with my lovely partner and my lovely housemate/hostess, and it appears that no, it’s okay, things are right, and this is what’s right now.
My nod to the fairly relentless self-management that got me through the past decade has been an occasional effort at meditiation, a minute or three of qi gong, a few moves of t’ai chi now and then, or the occasional mood-check.
In short, diddly-squat.
In December, I lost it with a dear friend.[LINK] I did more mood-checks for awhile, a bit more meditation, maybe ten whole minutes of t’ai chi every other day for a couple weeks.
I was heartbroken at the mess I’d contributed to, but couldn’t dig up the motivation to really “do the Do”, to restart my hard-won disciplines.
Dear heavens, it was soooooo good to rest, just relax for a change, enjoy the sensation of not looking over my shoulder and not being constantly *forced* to calm sometimes-legitimate terror or possibly-reasonable panic.
It was winter. I was safe. I let my disciplines sleep.
Meanwhile, the brakes on my car[LINK] were acting up, or rather, occasionally failing to. $2,000 later, that was supposed to be fixed.
Gradually, I noticed that J was telling me, more and more often, to lower my voice: “I’m right here!” Huh. I didn’t think I was talking that loudly…
As I relaxed, other humans became more interesting and I started striking up conversations with strangers, as I used to do. They didn’t respond as well as they used to. Odd…
On social media, I found myself being snippy where I used to be sweetly witty or wryly amusing to make the same point. I backed off of my online time, because if I can’t manage myself well, I’d better not interact with anybody else who might be feeling frail. “Do no further harm” has been wired into me from way back. It’s the most basic courtesy.
I took the car back for a second brake job a few weeks ago, only $150 this time, and that seems to have taken care of the problem. So my cynicism about car dealerships remains unimpaired, thank you.
Meanwhile, there were some tellingly unpleasant procedures[LINK] which illuminated a fact I’m still failing to accept: CRPS has moved into my viscera — it has leaped out of the musculoskeletal bounds and gotten right into my core. I used to say my case was “all-body”, but that was because of the gastroparesis and subtle endocrine weirdness, which I figured was simply faulty autonomic signaling. It has definitely become much more.
I could feel every line of my intestines and the springy squashiness of my organs as the ultrasound tech noodled around on my abdomen, and the less said about the gynecological exam the better. It’s real. It’s a bed of coals in there. This finally sank right through my skull over the past few days.
Damn damn damn damn damn damn damn damn damn damn damn damn damn damn damn. With extra damn.
So, now we’re up to this week.
I spoke with the lawyer involved with the vulture case mentioned above. I went off on a tear about the duplicity and injustice involved. He finally broke through by howling my name in exactly the tone my mother used when I was getting out of hand. Once I was quiet (and abashed), he said very sweetly, “If you’re going to go on like that, you might as well hit your friend over the head with a two by four.”
Two things happened. I realized that my self-regulation was much worse than I had ever imagined; and I spent the day in a state of total exhaustion and emotional fragility, the classic signs of a massive adrenal-dump.
SIMPLY GETTING WOUND UP IS BAD FOR ME. The mere state of emotional excitement is poison to my system.
I used to know that.
I used to know when the emotional excitement was coming, and could head it off.
Nope. Caught me completely by surprise.
So, I’ve been processing all this for a few days to a few weeks now. I’m coming to some conclusions, and have a few remaining questions.
I’m pretty sure the spread into my viscera had a lot to do with the merry-go-round of the past few years.
The spread in my brain may be related, in fact it must be; however, I’m pretty sure that re-incorporating my habits of self-care and diligence can get back quite a lot of the gentle precision, sweet tact, and pleasant diplomacy I was once capable of.
So, in keeping with this revelation, I’m going to acknowledge that I’ve completed my alotted time for being on the computer and get up to go do some morning activity. Then I’ll put my feet up for a bit and lunch on brain-supporting food. After a digestion break of an hour or two, I’ll do something physical in the afternoon, including 20 minutes of t’ai chi or qi gong. After that, an hour of work, which today will consist of loading my classical collection onto my tablet. This evening, I’ll spend an hour listening to classical music, then meditate, then apply my lotions for pain and muscle spasms before bed.
There are no bloody shortcuts. None. It’s just work, and it doesn’t stop.
I’m still supremely glad to be safe and warm and loved. I just have to wrap my thick head around the fact that it doesn’t mean I’m off the hook for taking care of myself.
I’m an old ER nurse so please, trust me when I say that nobody gets a guarantee with this life. Nobody really knows what’s next, and indeed, everything CAN change in an instant. Even for the healthiest. (This is why the legislation torturing the elderly and disabled makes me livid. People who favor that legislation are poisoning their own future. Everyone who lives long enough will become disabled.)
The point is this: it ain’t over until it’s over. If you’re still breathing, you still have a life, you still have choices. If you’re still alive, you have some influence over the next moment, and the one after that, and the one after that. Only you can decide where to put your focus, for each breath of this life that is left to you.
Being aware in the midst of the hell is what capable spoonies do, and we find a bit of heaven in it whenever we can. Yes this sucks like nothing we could have imagined, and I have a crazy imagination; but I still KNOW that there is a lot more to my life than this pain, this weakness, this utter destruction of everything I thought made up my life.
Turns out that was all peripherals. When the structures of my life were utterly destroyed, I looked around at the blasted rubble that was all that remained of my old ideas of my work, my abilities, and myself. I wondered who I was.
And I realized I was the point of awareness that was doing the asking. I also realized that, without those assumptions holding me down, and despite the agony and unbearable loss, somehow I was free, I could be more simply and purely myself.
So now I’m on groups for this brutal disease, wanting to give comfort, but knowing the only really true thing I can say is, there is comfort to be had, but it’s up to us to make room for it in our lives, to push right past the pain and fog and grief to look for the rest of what this world still has to offer.
There is excitement and peace and ease and delight in this life, but we have to find ways to make room for it, to find time to notice it, even in the ongoing roar of this pain. Over time and with practice, we get better and better at the peace and the joy and the loving connections, and .. it’s not that the pain is any less, because the rocketing nausea these past few days tells me otherwise, but it doesn’t matter as much, because more important things have taken its place in the core of our lives.
Easier said than done, but it’s basically a matter of practice. It doesn’t come naturally, and nor should it, because anyone who responds to getting a leg ripped off with, “Oh, what a lovely flower!” is probably not going to survive to raise offspring.
Being frantic in the face of horrible pain is a good survival mechanism — as long as the pain subsides when it should. For those of us who live with that kind of pain, we have to learn to re-program that core survival response (!!!) and be more mindful about how we deal with life.
Find excuses to celebrate. Finished the dishes? Celebrate! Heard from a good friend? Celebrate! Is it Tuesday? Good enough reason — celebrate! It sounds trivial, but it works. It makes your brain stronger, bit by bit. Each success prepares you for more.
In the Years from Hell, when I didn’t think I’d live out the year for a number of years, I was utterly wrung out with misery, and I refused to accept constant grimness. It was intolerable, literally intolerable; if I left my thoughts to dwell in it, I’d have had to finish myself off.
I turned my attention to whatever was not misery, and sucked the juice from it.
I noticed every sparkle of light on the water, every flicker of color in the tiny wildflowers in the grass, the way trees spread and shake their branches, the caress of the air on a fine morning, the particular blend of colors in every sunrise or sunset I was up for, the way the sky and sea reflected each other in every weather.
I got to learn the habits of the birds, from the imposing night herons to the unearthly blue herons, rare goldfinches, raucous terns, fat geese, chatty ravens, and the everlasting seagulls. I noticed the weird little shrimp living in the greenery below the waterline on the docks. When I could, I got up on shore at sunrise around the equinoxes to see the incredible light-show as the San Francisco windows were lit up by the first liquid rays of the sun, a dappled bank of golden glory marching up the hill across the Bay.
I was like a seagull for joy, pouncing on every bit of it indiscriminately. Time enough for the grey grims when there was nothing else to find. I leaped on every chance to find some beauty, some moment to get lost in.
Sometimes I was disappointed: sometimes the weather soured; sometimes a friend wasn’t answering the phone; sometimes a dash of color was a piece of garbage, not a flower. (I still pick up random garbage when I’m out.)
Working to find bits of joy was probably the most important tool in getting me through, because I could use it every day and it didn’t depend on anyone else to work. Fortunately, things did eventually change, and I was there to rise with that tide.
I trained myself well. To this day, I find myself stopping and staring when I see sunlight or moonlight shining on water.
It’s the most beautiful thing in the world to me. It saved my life day after day for years, so that probably makes sense, eh?
Be greedy; work at finding beauty and joy. It’s good for you. If nothing else, it pierces the veil of pain and frustration and it reminds you that there is a larger world, one worth getting to. Your old reality may be gone, but there are aspects of the new reality worth cherishing. I hope you all find the beauties that make you stop everything, just so you can get lost in them and soak up the joy.
A friend I’ll call A died of suicide last night. It’s easy to say of people that they are rare and radiant souls once they’re gone, but A is the sort of person who was generally agreed to be a rare and radiant soul even when she was alive. Pretty angelic, really.
Suicide is a tough gig for all concerned, but being suicidal is living hell. I’m going to try to present some information in an accessible way, but this is an emotional time (it’s also deathiversary season for some of the biggest losses in my life, and there have been more deaths than usual this winter) … I’m very upset and very angry. It’s liable to show. Anyway, here goes…
Most of the time (not all the time), the deed that causes self-death is impulsive, which is the point of the 3-day hold in psychiatric hospitals: get them over that bump, then their coping skills come back, and then they find a way forward.
In cases like A’s, some survivors want to know why our loved one didn’t reach out, didn’t let us know ahead of time. Some want to know why this person “didn’t love us enough to stay.”
That’s a common feeling after suicide. These are all very common responses. Thing is, they miss the causative point.
Here’s the thing:
Stop being so selfish!
It’s NOT ABOUT YOU. This is a tough one to swallow because you’re the one left alive and hurting, but it’s something to be faced in order to understand how this could happen.
It’s about being in so much pain that continuing is intolerable and there is no way this person can find to make it stop. Can you even imagine that? If not, then who are you to judge? If you can, then why are you blaming the victim?
Do you think she didn’t try hard enough, or know enough to battle this more effectively?
Actually, that’s a fair question. Some people don’t know enough, and need the chance to breathe, reboot, and find another way forward. (Most people who attempt suicide fall into this category.) It’s not an unreasonable thing to ask, so let’s look into that.
Some things can’t be fixed
My lovely friend A was a sophisticated, educated, well-informed consumer of, and professional in, the health care industry and effective alternative therapies. She really knew her way around.
I have a pain disease that, if I have to be truthful, hurts more every year. I’ve had over 15 years to ramp up to my present level of unthinkable, brain-blistering agony — and to find ways to manage it along the way. I can kid my mind most of the time that the pain is hardly there. I’m not likely to kill myself any time this year, though I might get flattened by a bus in a fit of absent-mindedness due to masking too much pain… you never know. (I’ll keep wearing bright colors and getting assistance around town, so don’t worry unduly, Mom!)
My friend A had a painful condition evolve recently that wouldn’t budge despite much work, and a surgery with… interesting characteristics. I sure don’t need to spell that out for those of you who’ve had, cared for, or performed surgeries. One of her main nerve branches was involved, which tells you the rest. It was risky, tough, and fraught. She knew that. Surgery was the only way to avoid the dreadful situation she faced if she didn’t have it.
By the time she made her last tragic decision, A could easily have been in a level of pain comparable to what I live with, but she did not have 15 years to ramp up. Most of that mountain of agony landed on her inside of a few weeks.
She knew what was going on in her body and worked for years to correct it without surgery.
She knew what the surgery might result in and she tried it anyway.
She knew her options.
She knew what to do to mitigate risk and optimize healing.
It’s likely that she did everything that could possibly be done.
It’s likely that there was too much pain and no way to escape it.
Sometimes, some things can’t be fixed.
I respect her choice. I hate it, it makes me miserable, but given the circumstances, I respect her choice as I respect her right to make it.
I don’t blame A. I wish that things had been different for her.
Please remember the compassion that was at the core of her spiritual and professional life, and return it to her as well as you can. She may need your compassion more than ever, because the end of her life was so awful, and she worked and fought so hard to make it.
She loved you. She loved us all, in her endless outpouring of loving-kindness and intelligence and determination. Please, try to give some of that back to her, now when it’s no longer easy.
Of course you’re angry to lose wonderful people to suicide. Want to do something about that?
Vote for universal health care, so people like A can get timely care and prevent minor issues from becoming major ones and then becoming deadly nightmares. Because this should not have happened in the first place.
Lobby for universal housing and emergency accommodations in every state, so people like my brilliant friend Cross don’t have to choose between being murdered by a caregiver or taking their own lives, because NO OTHER OPTIONS EXIST.
Get your elected representatives to re-fund, and stop de-funding, mental health services and social safety nets, so my gifted friend Ethan didn’t have to shoot himself in the head to make the PTSD nightmares stop. Every dollar spent on these programs saves between 10 and 800 dollars in the costs of cleaning up the failures resulting from their absence. Our economy cannot afford that kind of constant, suppurating loss.
YOUR VOTING RECORD AFFECTS THE SURVIVAL OF THOSE YOU LOVE.
Don’t step into the voting box in the hope of choosing your next drinking buddy; the POTUS will never drop in at your neighborhood dive. Try to remember you’re voting for your next Chief Executive. This needs to be someone who’s smart enough and wise enough to do the job of leading a huge country that’s in serious trouble.
If you feel that, against reason and compassion, against economics and decency, you really have to vote against these policies or vote in those who oppose them, then don’t EVER complain to me about losing people you love to suicide, or maltreated illness, or poverty, or homelessness. These deaths are optional 99.9% of the time, and I have absolutely had enough of them!
This worm has turned
I used to be vigorously opposed to suicide. I spent too many hours coding people who had no choice about whether they lived or died, so that the occasional attempted suicides I treated in the ER just made the bile rise in my throat. Those idiots were bloody well going to live whether they liked it or not, and if they reached consciousness, they were getting a short and fiery talking-to from a short and fiery RN.
One day, I confided my thoughts to a longtime trauma counselor. She stopped me dead when she said, with great pain and exquisite kindness, “They do that because they can’t think of any other way to stop the pain.”
I tried to imagine so much pain and so much trapped-ness… and I couldn’t hate them any more.
And then, years later, I developed CRPS… then fibromyalgia… then dysautonomia… and, this week, I’m getting screened for a couple of cancers.
Those of you who follow this blog know that I spent a few years clinging to life by a thread. The pain, disability, and relentless, pounding losses and brutality of the world on the suddenly-disabled, on top of an ongoing roster of bereavements around me, very nearly finished me.
I was suicidal for some of that, only I was not going to screw it up; if I did it, I was going to do it properly. So there were no attempts, there was a thorough exploration of the idea. (At the very bottom of my personal root under the final level of Hell, I found … curiosity. I could not rest until I found out how this story went. Not only would I miss my funeral by several days, I’d never find out if we got a cure in my natural lifetime, if I ever figured out how to blog, what exactly CRPS is, who I had yet to meet, or anything. That was more unbearable than pain for me: unsatisfied narrative curiosity. I can’t explain it, I can only report it. I’m still working out how to crash my funeral.)
The point is, I’m pretty familiar with the landscape of endless pain.
I understand, with diamond-sharp clarity, that there is a point where a person simply shouldn’t have to put up with any more.
I know, as I never did in the innocence of my ER days, that there is such a thing as No More Options.
The word “unbearable” is no longer just an adjective; it has real meaning. Some things should not be borne, and that’s bad enough, but some things really cannot be borne. What then? Do we turn our backs and shrug, feeling we’ve done our jobs?
Those who’ve survived the suicide of someone you loved, you have my absolutely heartfelt sympathy. It’s awful, peculiarly and specially awful. There’s nothing like it.
If you’re really outraged, turn your anger onto a suitable target: the systemic failure that made that cherished person’s life unlivable.
That would honor them, in a remarkably constructive way.
I’m off to make sure I’m registered to vote tomorrow. I don’t want to sit this one out. I’m torn up and miserable, and I want to honor the memory of A and all my dear departed angels.
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.
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.
It’s not easy to find providers who can pay attention to the people in front of them and think their way out of a wet paper bag at the best of times, especially in the increasingly money-oriented and depersonalized model of care that grows and spreads out from the US like a bad rash.
When you’re looking for a specialist in a rare disease like CRPS, it’s even more interesting.
Sources for lists of providers
The online info-and-education site, RSDS.org, can send you a list of providers if you write to them and ask: http://rsds.org/finding-a-crps-specialist/. More usefully, though, they also provide a list of links to medical-specialist licensing board sites, where you can find specialists in your region.
I checked these out.
American Board of Pain Medicine
Enter your city, state/province, and country in the fields provided; choose your target category (Anaesthesiology, Physical Medicine & Rehab, Neurology, Psychiatry, etc.) to find someone board-certified in that specialty; and click Find. http://imis.abpm.org/abpmimis/abpm/directory.aspx
Of course, if your insurance provider has a specific list of providers they’re willing to pay for, you may have to start with the list they give you. That simplifies the process initially.
Using online reviews rationally
Having found a list of specialists, I strongly recommend reading lots of reviews to find the one who suits you the best.
That will be different for different people, of course, because we have different bodies and we each have found that certain kinds of things work best for us; doctors, likewise, have different brains and are inclined to use a distinctive set of treatments, believing that that is what’s best.
So, if possible, we probably want to find a doctor whose approach and treatments bear some resemblance to our own.
In addition to that, I recommend finding someone with over a decade of practice. There is no substitute for experience. It’s the only way that judgment — that subtle sense that takes in a lot of info subconsciously to arrive faster at a better result — can develop.
Excellence takes time. Extensive research on excellence indicates that 10 years is the functional minimum to develop it.
Personally, I tend to go for 25-30 years. I know that I require a collegial relationship with my doctor, and it takes an unusual degree of poise for most specialists to handle that gracefully. Also, I really need to be treated by someone who knows more than I do, and the longer I have this, the rarer that is….
Once I get a list of specialists, it’s pretty easy to screen out the majority on the first pass, on the basis of inexperience or irrelevant experience. Some of these review sites, like ratemds.com and healthgrades.com, show the education, experience, rewards, and publication highlights for each physician. (All of this is public info.) These data make a great screening tool.
I only need to do in-depth review reading for less than a dozen doctors, usually. I don’t feel comfortable with less than 4 review sites for each doc I take seriously. Each site has its own slant, so I prefer to triangulate on each provider’s patient relationships from different sites.
Caveat emptor: It’s important to look at review sites with my brain plugged in and working. We know that some reviews are posted malevolently, and that everyone — including doctors — has a bad day. We also know that everyone — including doctors — has got their blind spots. That’s fine. I’m looking for PATTERNS, not exceptional instances.
For instance, one memorable doc treated beautiful people very well, and everyone else very dismissively. When his attention was engaged (which, for him, was about looks), he was intelligent, appropriate, and did outstanding work; these are valuable traits. Therefore, I’d recommend him (with an explanation), to friends who meet the age/BMI criteria in his sweet spot, because good care is good care — but I’d emphatically warn against him to the rest!
Last time, I wound up choosing a doctor who had a super high proportion of “he listens to me” remarks, had over 30 years of practice, had started in psychiatry (which indicated a more human-oriented and less problem-oriented approach, I thought), and did charity work for pain in his own time. That turned out extremely well. I wish I could get him to move across the country now, because I hate having to start the search all over again.
Now that I’ve got all my links in one place, it’ll be a lot easier.
Recap of my process
1. Create a list of potential providers:
Choose an appropriate specialty, such as..
anaesthesiology (training is oriented towards meds and procedures)
physical medicine and rehab (training is oriented toward physiotherapy and mental discipline)
psychiatry (training is oriented toward neurochemistry and life habits)
Choose an appropriate level of experience,with 10 years as my recommended minimum.
Make a comprehensive list of possibilities in your commute distance, using one of the board-certification bodies above or the list your insurance company provides you with.
2. Narrow it down to what makes sense:
First, quick pass through the list: screen for appropriate specialty (you’d be amazed at what winds up in those lists) and experience.
Second pass through the list: Start looking at online reviews. Cross out those who do a great job of pissing off their patients. Again, you’d be amazed… Every single doc gets a certain number of “he treated me like crap! I’ve never been so insulted in my life!” remarks, so I don’t notice a few of those, but when they predominate, out that doctor goes.
Third pass through the list: I look at 3-4 sites containing online reviews for the surprisingly short list of names I’ve got left. Some reviews are cut-and-pasted across sites, so I count those only once. This is where a pattern of personalities and approaches comes across.
Final triangulation: These impressions are easy enough to check by looking at the doctor’s web presence — activities they’re involved in, published work, what they do in their spare time (I find doing disease-related charities more compelling than golf club or Rotarian memberships, for instance), and I’m quickly down to 1 or 2 practitioners.
From there it’s a very simple choice.
3. Pick one.
If it’s a hard choice, I’ll call the office and ask to talk to the nurse. The staff a doctor hires have an awful lot to do with my experience there, so, by the time I know the doc has met my other criteria, incompetent or stupid staff is a perfectly reasonable deal-breaker.
I’m willing and able to travel quite a distance for a good provider, and this makes it a lot easier for me to find one. I’m deeply indebted to my partner for being so willing and happy to do so much driving on my behalf. It makes an enormous difference, and I’m suitably grateful.
I hope you all can find the right doctor where you need one. There is simply no substitute for good and appropriate care.
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…
// consider splitting into 2 or 3
// sanity check
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.
It’s been an interesting summer. It’s good to be safe and well. And that’s all I want to say about it right now. On to more interesting things.
Those of us who have to bear the unbearable eventually learn that there’s no trick to it, no shortcuts, no secret wisdom. I’m sorry to say it, but there isn’t. It’s very simple — not easy, but simple.
There are just three things we have to do:
1. Keep breathing.
2. Put one foot in front of the other.
3. Keep going through the motions until we adapt to the New Normal.
That seems a bit telegraphic. Let me expand on these a little:
If we don’t do that, we’ve got nothing. Literally. Keep breathing. In fact, the better we breathe, the better we cope. (There’s a ton of science on this, if you care about that.) For those who need reminding how, try this:
Ease your lower back, if you can. Gently drop your shoulders, which are probably up near your ears.
Breathe in through your nose, if you can; if you can’t, stick your tongue out loosely between your open jaws and breathe through your mouth. (This opens the back of your throat — and releases clenched teeth.) Imagine the breath going down in front of your spine and into the bowl of your pelvis. This helps draw it in deeper, which is key to calming and strengthening your system.
Breathe out naturally, or by gently exhaling through pursed lips — like blowing out a little candle. The pursed-lips one is great for tense moments and higher pain.
Breathing well disrupts the “anxious/fight/flight” loop in the nervous system. It’s amazing. So simple, can’t beat the price, and no bad side-effects!
Put one foot in front of the other.
This means doing the work of survival:
Do what it takes to get fresh air, water, food, clothing, and shelter, plus a phone and internet access. (In this isolated and far-flung age, phone and internet are essential elements of survival.) The safer and more effective, the better, but we can’t always be choosy.
Keep our bills paid, if we can. If we can’t, find out how to get assistance with them. (This is one task where we need the phone and internet.)
Put the minimum effective effort into maintaining our relationships. (More phone and internet.) We need to know who won’t fade away at the first real sign of trouble. We can’t expect much, though — a sad fact of life. Just stay in touch and see what happens.
One way or another, we do find out who our real friends are.
Keep going through the motions until we adapt to the New Normal.
What that involves varies for each of us; you’ll know it when you see it starting to happen. Things you’ll probably notice include:
The work of survival shifts from “minimum survival” to meeting slightly higher expectations.
New relationships have begun to form, and old bonds to re-form, around the new realities.
The inevitable grief over what we’ve lost (abilities, opportunities, friends, and so on) begins to separate from the general mash of misery.
That’s actually a good sign.
When grief becomes distinct, it makes room for other things — relief, moments of joy, feelings of love, appreciation for what we now have.
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.
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…
… to minimize the effects of the occasional little bumps and jostles the foot gets as I dart around on my stunning little knee-walker.
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.
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.
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?
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.
I heard from a lovely friend of my youth, who wanted to know what I’ve been doing since Egypt. I tried to tell her. I realized that, embedded in my nutshell autobiography, were a lot of clues about why I blog and why I approach CRPS and its ghastly little friends with this sort of incisive determination seasoned with a laugh, a sort of functional contempt — an attitude of, “not going to let such a nasty little mindless rat-fink take any more of my life than required.” It goes way back. So here’s a little background…
I was born in Ankara, Turkey, though I nearly wasn’t born at all. My mother started bleeding well into her pregnancy. The protocol at the time was to get care from the Army base near Ankara. The Army doctor told her, “The baby’s dead. Come back on Monday and we’ll have it out.” Which, if it were true, would have killed my mother… but she didn’t think the baby was dead.
She asked around and found a Turkish doctor (her Turkish was pretty good) and he said, “The baby’s not dead, but you’re going to bed and will stay there until it’s born.” (She spent her time reading, smoking, and knitting, so I have something to blame for the asthma. I think it was all that knitting. The sweater made its way all the way down three children intact, so it was some very good knitting, but still… )
A few months later, the wonderful Turkish doctor strolled into my mother’s hospital room, threw open the blinds, and said in Turkish, “A new day, a new baby!”
As we left Turkey 3 years later, me toddling along with my little stuffie in one hand and my mother’s hand in the other, my older brother charging ahead of my Dad who was carrying the bags, and my younger brother a babe in arms, my mom was stopped on our way to the gate. It was the nurse from the Army hospital. She said, ever so kindly, “Oh Mrs. Aweigh, I remembered that you’d lost a baby. I’ve thought of you often, and I just wanted to know that you’re all right, now.”
My mother was very touched, but she had a plane to catch. She looked at me, looked at the nurse, looked at me, looked at the nurse, and said, as nicely as she could manage, “I’m fine, thank you,” then caught up with the rest of her family.
We survived 7 years Stateside, and left for Egypt in January of 1976. I consider that to be my humanization, as I never felt at home in New Jersey. That could come off as a cheap shot, but it’s the simple truth. I was all wrong there.
Cairo was a dream come true, only I never could have imagined being somewhere so rich — rich in history, rich in culture, rich in the textures of language, rich in feeling. I had finally come home.
I also discovered healing, taking in whatever sick or injured animals came my way and figuring out how to help them — kittens, pups, birds both wild and tame… I’d have gotten a donkey, if the neighbors would have let me.
I was a dependent, however, and we weren’t allowed to stay in one place for more than two “tours”, totaling four and a half years. My folks went to Bangladesh, and my older brother and I went to high school in Massachusetts.
I was in rural Western Massachusetts, a slice of heaven on earth, especially if you grew up in a desert.
I wound up starting at a Seven Sisters college there. Left the ivory tower when school was interfering with my education (thus neatly acquiring the black sheepskin from my disreputable older brother, who had meanwhile cleaned up his act and gone to law school.)
I became a registered nurse after surviving a sailing trip from Cape Cod to the US Virgin Islands, taking the deep-water route outside Bermuda. The captain was a drug-addicted control freak and sexually inappropriate — none of which became apparent until we were signed on and nearly underweigh. (Now, I’d run anyway, and let her lawyers try and find me. I was younger then.)
She had been an ivory tower classmate of mine, an older student who had been locked up for most of her youth for being gay. She probably was perfectly sane to start with, but after being thrown off by parents and socialized in a nut house, nobody stands a chance. However, she was in her 30’s and living as an adult, so it was not ok.
Side note: queer people are somehow expected to be better than straight people, but that’s just unfair. People are people. Some straight people are really decent. Some queer people are really awful. And vice versa! Just let everyone be human, okay? Rant over.
Due to the intolerable hostility and tension aboard the boat, the nicest member of the crew developed a stomach ulcer, which hemmorhaged… so I started my first IV on the high seas and we had a day-long wait for the helicopter to air lift her. Why? Because the drug-addicted captain had plotted us as being about 80 miles landward of our actual position.
That bleeding ulcer saved us all!
We got safely to anchor in Tortola a few days later.
After a screaming row with the captain at 1 am over something irrelevant and stupid (not danger, not losing the dinghy, not being hit on, not being verbally abused day in and day out, but something totally stupid and irrelevant), I was kicked off the boat in a foreign country, with $5 and a tube of toothpaste in my pocket — which exploded as I lay sleeping on a picnic table at Pusser’s Landing, halving my resources and adding a mess.
My dad was posted to Jamaica at the time. I was allowed back on the boat to get my things and call him and arrange for my extrication. Nothing happened on weekends on the Islands in the late 1980’s, so I wound up being the house-guest of a truly kind and decent Island couple, who took in penniless waifs and strays simply in order to make the world a better place. I’m everlastingly grateful to Marina and Samuel. May all good things come to them.
After that, nursing school was a stroll.
I supported myself by tutoring in the school and splitting and hauling cordwood in the forest. However, between the time I started and the time I graduated, the economy in Massachusetts crashed, so I headed to Washington DC, where my State Department-associated family members and friends roosted.
My first nursing job was on an HIV unit, until it closed when visitors realized that most people there had, my goodness, HIV. (Sigh…) My second job was at DC General Emergency Dept, the only public hospital in one of the roughest cities in the country at the time. I learned a LOT.
I found my way back to rural Massachusetts, once I had the resume to get a good job in a lean market. I had first learned about herbs and energy healing there, and treated my illnesses and injuries with no health insurance from the time I left college through nearly all of my nursing career. (How ironic is it that it was so hard to get health insurance when I was a nurse?) I also took care of a couple of “incurable” things that patients of mine had, and cured them. I became a good empiricist. Home care nurses HAVE to get results, because there’s no backup.
Scientific-method science is very sound when it’s properly applied, but money and access distorts it too easily. Empirical-method science is the only kind that can actually tell you what works in the case of the individual.
While I prefer to understand how things work, I really only care WHETHER they work in a given case. I’m also well aware that, in medicine, at every point in history, we always think we know a lot — but, 10 or 20 or 100 years later, we look like idiots.
My favorite Star Trek clip of all time sums it up well:
A few years later, as the economy softened again and all but the worst jobs dried up, I allowed myself to be drawn to California by a nice face — which ditched me once we arrived. Not so nice.
I worked as a nurse and made my home in Central California until my immune system gave out, for no discernible reason. Shortly after the immune system pooped, my dad died, preventably (CPR would have clearly saved him, but he was in Egypt and swimming alone) and that was the final straw. Well, the penultimate straw…. Afterwards, my lungs shut down and my doctor was out of ideas. I’m pretty sure that acupuncture saved my life, because nothing else worked.
Once I was well enough to do some career research and put together a portfolio, I was hired to document programming software, starting with an internship on the basis of the raw talent my supervisor saw in my work. I was quickly hired out of the internship. They had an onsite gym, and one of the loveliest running trails through the redwoods was right on my way to work, so I got into outstanding shape …
…And then the repetitive stress injuries hit.
A couple of surgeries later, with odd complications, I developed a horrific central AND peripheral nervous system disorder called Complex Regional Pain Syndrome, or CRPS. It took from 2001 to 2005 to get diagnosed, then fighting until 2012 to get disability dole (SSDI) and get worker’s compensation insurance off my back. (Call it another 3 near-death experiences. They so badly wanted me to just die, it was stunning to see what they’d do to try to effect that, short of hiring a hit man.) This gave me a lot of insight into the approaching-3rd-world status of US health care and its social administration.
The nursing background and the information-architecture and explanatory experience have formed my current career, the (currently unpaid, but highly useful) job of explicating CRPS, its mechanisms and management, and how I adapt my world to function, in spite one of the most invisibly crippling diseases known to science.
I’ve been trying to think how to turn the plot arc of this life into a nice, suitable-for-polite-company little anecdote, but I broke my foot in my one non-affected limb last Friday (I am laughing with heartfelt irony as I write this) and am hugely motivated to simplify. For me, simplicity is most congruent with honesty and straightforwardness — less to remember. So I just spat it out.
This might explain a few things, among them my fascination with health and medical science, my very wide view of healing (belief is irrelevant; what matters is if it works for you), and why I have zero to negative patience for the arrogantly overeducated — they’ve nearly killed me a few too many times. Right from the start!
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.
For him, they do.
Moreover, when he explains it, it makes perfect sense.
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.
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.)
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.
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:
I charge in for a bit, throwing myself at it like spaghetti at the wall.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Relaxed (Western style):
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.”
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.
Well, of course they were fighting each other in every direction. This was the setup:
When I was 10, I got the silly idea that I should have an adult arch to my foot, so I began to supinate.
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.
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?
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.