“Never give up. Never surrender.”
Leonidas of Sparta, Jael the wife of Heber, Alexander the Great, Queen Boudicca, Mary Magdalen, the Prophet Mohammed, Hildegaard of Bingen, Vlad the Impaler, Queen Isabel of Spain, Geronimo, Copernicus, Marie Curie, Winston Churchill, Aung Suun Kyi, Terry Pratchett, the 14th and Final Dalai Lama…
Rest and retreat, yes.
Pause for thought, please (unlike some of those listed above.)
Knowing when to acquire a sense of proportion, ideally (again, unlike some of those listed above.)
But… don’t give up. Don’t give your rightful self away.
It’s always been easy for me to be determined, but not easy to pick the right things to be determined about.
In my 20’s, I wanted to save the world.
In my 30’s, I was willing to work only on that part of it that wanted my saving.
In most of my 40’s, I was dying — sometimes by inches, sometimes by yards — and couldn’t quite save myself.
I’m 50; what a relief!
Given that trajectory, it’s no wonder that my priorities have shifted a little.
I figure that, as long as I have working pulse and respirations, I’ve got a job to do. (I suspect everyone does, but I could be wrong.) My particular job is to re-possess my physical self, and, given enough slack, help others to re-possess theirs.
Our bodies are not just machines, despite the inherent dis-inheritance proposed by Descartes (considering the body a separate entity from awareness), and the even more extreme model funded and fomented by a slightly misguided Hearst (who fell in love with interventionism, and drove the mechanical-problem-to-be-fixed model of medicine over the shifting-dysfunction-to-right-function model of medicine.)
Bodies are the media we experience life through, the means we have to respond with. Despite the relentlessly shallow concerns over appearance the media saturates our lives with, our fundamental experiences of life are not just seen. Life is an all-body experience.
Bodies are marvelously self-aware organisms on an enduring quest to care for and maintain themselves by communicating as effectively as possible within themselves, and responding as usefully as possible at every level — within the cells, between the cells, from cells to organs and back again — with the marvelously alert circuitry of the nervous system and the dazzlingly subtle chemical dance of the endocrine system drawing the whole show together.
That’s a bit more complex than just meat-sacks wrapped in hide.
I’ve been mulling the twined facts that my body is an amazingly tough, brilliantly adaptable organism, and at the same time, is an organism constantly under sieges both subtle and overwhelming. Yet it never stops trying to find a useful set of responses, it never stops signaling and listening.
It never gives up. It has never surrendered.
I admire that.
Just for grits and shins, here are a few other things that I mutter to myself over and over.
C’mon, you can do it.
Motion is lotion.
Use it or lose it.
Change or die.
That’s quite a set, when I look at it laid out like that.
Not all of them are cheerful. Sorry.
They’re all thoroughly grounded in my reality, though, and they all have had something to do with my getting this far. They are hammers and screwdrivers in my mental toolkit of radical presence, pushing back on neuroplasticity, and not settling for what this disease would leave me.
Naturally, I say these things to myself in tones of firm, loving parental authority, since it’s all about re-re-plasticizing my brain, and those are the tones it responds to.
FTR, I’m sincerely glad it responds at all. When I was in nursing school, they told us adult brains were fixed for life. I doubted that from the start, and events eventually caught up with my skepticism. Brain plasticity FTW!
Add to that a disease nobody understands without years of serious effort; unbelievable pain; weird deficits (sound volume? Vibration? Time in the shower? Crowds and excitement? How weird is it that that stuff can make us so much sicker, eh?); forgetfulness; loss of perceptions that tell us about social cues; distorted sense of touch; and above all the improbable wobbles, waxing-and-waning, and variations in every dimension… and we could have a recipe for disaster — and occasionally do.
I’ve lost a job, some hard-earned professional respect from my peers, an excellent friend in the making, and several medium-close friends whose presence I still miss, due purely to the effects of the disease.
Kinda sucks, eh?
And I’m definitely one of the lucky ones!
Over the years, I’ve developed a handful of personal guidelines. Key to every one of them is this: I’d rather be effective than right.
What does that have to do with taking care of relationships? (Yeah, kind of a trick question. I can hear many of you shout, “Everything, duh!”)
Life is not fair, this kind of illness is not fair, and there is nothing in this world that can make it fair. Being sick like this is just fundamentally wrong, a vile distortion of life and of fairness — but that doesn’t mean I no longer have a life or that I lose my own sense of fairness.
That, folks, is where the real power of “living anyway” comes in — of doing the imp-possible with character and flair. Life is not fair, but I can still be generous (when it’s reasonable), and to heck with the unfairness anyway. This disease is vile, but I can still be pleasant (most of the time), and to heck with the vileness anyway. Imp-possible WIN!
So, here is my list of personal guidelines for tending the relationships that matter:
1. Nobody shall be worse off for helping me.
Corollary: Be truly grateful, without groveling, when they do.
Reminder: This trumps short-term survival. If I let someone be worse off for helping me, things get very bad very quickly. Don’t go there, ever again.
2. My problems are my own.
Corollary: Help is precious.
Reminder: Treat those who give it accordingly.
3. No, normal people don’t understand.
Corollary: Nor should they!
Reminder: Bless those who try; they are gold.
4. It’s hard to reach out and stay in touch. Do it anyway.
Corollary: The payoff is worth many times the effort, over time.
Reminder: I feel better after hanging up than I did when I was dialing, ~90% of the time.
5. People say more than they can do, not less.
Corollary 1: Don’t believe them when they sound generous.
Corollary 2: Believe them when they state their limits.
Reminder: Be grateful for the more painful information, and courteous about the generous lies. This has led to more subsequent real help (mostly from the curmudgeons) than anything other than #1.
6. I could be wrong.
Corollary: I might not be.
Reminder: Is that what matters?
7. Every New Year, think over two things for the coming year, because these are the only resolutions that matter: i. What do I need to work on to take better care of myself? ii. What do I need to work on to take better care of my relationships?
Corollary: It’s okay to make the same resolution as many times as necessary.
Reminder: Celebrate having made another year!
I’m not kidding. I really do all that. It’s a constant practice, of course. I have to constantly check and recheck and remind myself of each thing on the list, especially if I’ve been slipping. The point of a practice, of course, is that it’s a work in progress — like life.
It takes a lot of humility to abide by these guidelines, and, believe me, humility doesn’t come naturally — I’m genetically wired for its opposite. (You should meet my folks: gifted, glorious, hilarious, adorable, and unselfconsciously smug, every one of them!)
Having said that, the value of what comes from the humility sure is worth the effort, even though it’s overwhelmingly difficult at times.
I intended to go into these guidelines in more detail (explanations, expansions, maybe a few links to science articles to back up an assertion or three), but I find I’m running out of steam and don’t want to leave this theme — again. I’ve got several drafts with a similar title, and couldn’t hammer any of them into shape for a post.
The brutal challenges we have with maintaining relationships really need to be addressed (however brief this is, it’s still something), so you might as well dig into this and comment on what you think about this, what guidelines you’ve come up with for yourself, why you think these might be valuable or not. I love it when you share your thoughts and experiences here.
There are two things I wanted to discuss, which I’ll just drop here and leave for further comments and conversation.
Taking responsibility is not the same as taking blame. This is a very powerful idea. (It’s okay to say, “I’m taking responsibility. I’m not interested in blame.” This shifts focus for everyone involved.) This is particularly important in relation to #1, 4, and 6.
Everybody has their limits. My relationships only work and grow when I respect others’ limits, whether or not they can respect mine. (I can’t do anything about them, but I can do something about me. Moreover, when I give them this slack, people tend to move through their mess and become more considerate in time.) Particularly relevant for #1, 2, 3, and 5.
There’s always an afterwards. I developed these guidelines in light of what tended to leave the most useful “afterwards”, because I intend to be around and continuing to beat the odds for a long time.
This is from one of my Isypedia-type replies to someone with a dreadful case of clostridium difficile (commonly known as c.diff) who had been told to use antibacterial soap to wash.
NB: This is not an opportunity to argue about antibacterial soap, but a sharing of experience from someone who was on the front lines of the “soap revolution” over a quarter of a century ago.
A word from an old nurse on this question, one with leaky gut, bouts of multi-system candidiasis, and assorted other gut issues, as well as c. diff …
About c. diff
C. diff is common in hospitals and is an opportunistic infection. (Doctors carry it from bed to bed on their white coats, and few of them even wash the darn things more than once a month. This is disgusting.) Once it’s in you, it hibernates, and comes out in flares periodically, usually when you’re stressed out or when your immune system is down. There’s no question of curing it, but of suppressing it and managing outbreaks.
Healthy gut flora are the first, best line of defense. They simply crowd it out and leave no room for it to grow. A normally healthy person might do fine with eating yogurt, but those of us with chronic or profound illnesses usually can’t meet their needs this way. We need the big guns because our gut flora are likely to be very weak,very few, or both.
There are some great probiotics out there. Good brands are pretty numerous. They include Jarrow, Garden of Life/RAW Vitamin Code (my personal favorite), and Ortho Molecular Products. I use the RAW Vitamin Code 5-day Intensive product for 2 weeks at a time, when I need to reboot my gut. Recently, I had candidiasis and c.diff flare up simultaneously, so I’m using the Ortho Molecular Pro Biotic 225 (tastes weird, so I mix with juice to cut the funk) for 2 weeks and then I’ll do a round of the RAW Intensive (which has a much broader spectrum of organisms, something my body really needs for maintenance — the longer a person has CRPS, the fewer gut species that person has, oddly enough) for 10 days or so.
I get these products on Amazon or at Vitacost.com, where they can usually be found at near-wholesale prices.
About the social and practical aspects of soap
Men have trouble with soap. (I’ve had to teach males of every age to wash their hands for dressing changes or eye care, so yes, I can confirm it absolutely.)
It doesn’t mean they aren’t capable of using it well, any more than women are incapable of lifting weights; they just have to put a little more effort into it, but almost all of them are capable of becoming very capable.
No, really, it’s true. They can. They just have to put a bit more work into it.
Where possible, many men would much rather have a toxin or tool to do the cleaning job for them — hence sonic cleaners and autoclaves for equipment, and benzalkonium chloride or alcohol cleaners for the skin of male responders and providers.
These aren’t as good as soap and water. Notably, alcohol cleaners, which are widely used in hospitals and do kill many germs, don’t even touch c.diff — a peculiarly hospital-based pathogen.
These products are considered good enough, and are certainly a great deal better than nothing at all.
If men (at least, US men) have to use soap, though, it seems easier for them to think about if it’s a tool-ish sort of soap — Gojo (by every mechanic’s sink, next to a fossilized bar), Lava soap (which feels like dirt and has powdered rocks in it), or antibacterial soap (which sounds medical, and therefore like a specialized tool.)
That’s a lot of needless expense. Also, and more importantly for the purposes of this blog, it’s becoming clearer that there are toxicity issues with antibacterial soaps which affect men as much as women and children.
How to clean your skin so well at home, only a surgical scrub could be better
Whatever body part you’re washing, whether it’s hands or what the medical profession delicately refers to as the “peri area” (Latinists, look away from that) and what most Americans call “the crotch”, there is a very simple way to get as clean as you can, short of a surgical prep.
Here’s the magic:
20 seconds by the clock(you’d be amazed how long that really is) with regular hand or body soap,
On your hands, from nails to wrist; Between your legs, from front to back; In both cases, right through all the crevices and any wobbly bits,
Then rinsing well afterwards,
This process will get you as clean as, or cleaner than, any amount of antibacterial soap, without the side effects. That’s what the independent science says, over and over, plain and simple.
The problem is, of course, that most people (especially men) have trouble spending that much time with soap and water.
Personally, I do a quick pass with soap to get the worst of the stinkies off, and then do a second and sometimes a third pass, front to back. I do this every time I shower, and when I’m too sick to shower but can still stand up at the sink to wash. It adds up to 20 seconds, usually closer to 30. My nurse’s nose finds my sick-body smells distressing, so I like to clean them off completely.
When I’m really not up to washing well for at least 5 days out of the week, that’s when the troubles start. Usually, diet and hygiene keeps my gut content, but I recently got a virus and then a long pain-flare and that put me down for over a week of very little proper washing — plus, of course, diminished immunity. That’s probably what led to the multiple gut flares. (They’re much better now, thank you.)
Making the right choice for you
Bottom line is this… IF you can trust yourself to really clean yourself properly, which means 20 seconds of soap (in 1, 2, or 3 increments at a time, as long as it’s 20 seconds total), then ordinary, nontoxic soap is just fine.
If you can’t trust yourself to do that, then yes, you need the extra killing effect that the antibiotic soap can have on pathogens, and will have to risk the consequences.
For triclosan and its relatives, this includes muscle wasting, dose-dependent (the more you use it, the worse it gets); for most others, it includes moodiness, suppressed immunity, more skin issues, and all the stuff that goes with endocrine disruption — possible neurological issues like pins-&-needles and faulty neuro, endocrine, and hormonal responses. (You have to watch the medical science closely to find some of those things, because they rarely make it into the mainstream press. Bad for business.)
And that, ladies and germymen, is the lowdown on how to choose soap.
I’m going through one of those periods where I’m just tired of my body hurting.
This is one of those offhand remarks that makes fellow painiacs nod understandingly, offer a kind look or emoji, and move on, but it makes normal (-ish) people with good social skills cringe and stops the conversation in its tracks.
I don’t want to make nice people cringe, and I don’t want to kill the conversation. I was recently reminded how hard it can be to avoid that while answering “how are you/what have you been doing” with any honesty. In fact, I find myself talking about most of the past 20 years in terms of not getting dead.
I think that’s a hoot, because it’s so improbable and so much against my initial setup and programming. (I have a truly dreadful hangman’s humor.)
Needless to say, most people think it just sounds grim.
My setup and programming
I’m the offspring of a diplomat and a working artist, well-traveled and extremely well-educated, Seven Sisters undergrad… until I went off-road and became something totally bourgeois and practical (a registered nurse) and, when my immune system conked out for no apparent reason, went on to become something nouveau and nerdy (a writer documenting high-end programming software.)
It was a sweet setup: good brain, strong body, great start to a useful life, good plan B when plan A failed.
Eventually, this promising start led (via surgical complications, neurological disruption, extensive worker’s comp and SSDI abuses, failures of care and denials of treatment, tediously protracted near-death experiences — a term I’m longing to refine — and years so close to utter destitution I refused to look at dumpsters because I knew I was not far from winding up in 2 or 3 of them simultaneously, like the other invisibly disabled woman of my age, build, and coloring who landed on the streets of Oakland) to my utter destruction as a professional entity.
That was definitely not in any of the scripts my life was supposed to follow!
My childhood friends now have their own businesses, pocket palaces, successful careers in the arts (most), policy/diplomacy/public service (some), and STEM (a few), and in raising children with little concern for whether they can feed them. I’m deeply relieved and happy for them, while realizing that my own life-path got so completely hijacked I have no idea what I’d be doing if it hadn’t been for this.
I bet I’d be complaining more, but I’d be doing more too. I wouldn’t be hurting this much for decades, if ever, and even then, only if I had terminal cancer.
Which brings us to a key point: to discriminate against the disabled is to discriminate against your future self. We’re all getting older; with more lifespan come more proofs of mortality, which include reductions of function, stamina, mobility, and even memory and reasoning.
These, folks, are disabilities, and either they will happen to you or you will be a premature death statistic. There’s no third option.
This is why, when you discriminate against the disabled, you discriminate against your future self — and all those you love.
I wish legislators had the humility to remember that. Perhaps you’ll remind them… Find yours at www.usa.gov.
Where was I? Oh yes.
How do I talk about the last 20 years, especially the last 15, with a person who hasn’t spent an appreciable part of life dancing with Death and occasionally taking the lead?
How can I convey how incredibly marvelous it is to have a minimum of 2 functional hours — consecutive hours! That’s thrilling! — nearly every single day? And yet, I used to work 10 or 12 hours at at time for preference because I loved immersing myself in the work.
In comparison to that, isn’t 2 hours pathetic? Especially because I did very demanding work, and 2 hours of noodling around in the yard or walking around downtown really doesn’t compare.
It makes me realize how long it’s been since I even thought about the razor-wire-bound memories of “how I used to be” and “what I used to do.”
I compare only as far back to 2008-2012, the pit of the pit, the nadir of my existence.
Compared to that, I’m fantastic! Being fantastic is a great thought!
Being at maybe 10% of my youthful vigor is actually amazing, because during that time, I went from being so close to dead it took 25 to 30 minutes to drag myself, fist over fist, all 6 feet from my bed to the other end of the settee, to feed the cat in the morning. I think that level of function (or nonfunction) is a percentage of my youthful vigor that’s several digits to the right of the decimal. It felt like a negative number, that’s all I can say for sure.
There’s nothing I can do about the past, only the future. That’s not pathetic, it’s just life.
Actually, I feel that way about most of this chronic-illness gig. It’s not pathetic, it’s just life.
The power of “use it or lose it” as a tool under your control
The trick to living with chronic illness is twofold:
Figure out what it takes to manage your illness without letting it take up all your focus. It does not belong in center stage, or not often anyway. Life belongs in center stage. Figure out how to make it so.
Figure out how to have a routine, some sort of rational approach to every day. It’s all too easy to lie back and let the world go by. Speaking as an old nurse, I know the immovable truth of the old adage, “use it or lose it.” Having a routine stabilizes the body’s coping mechanisms; knowing what to expect soothes the central nervous system and simplifies healing. So, make a routine; decide what happens next. Make yourself do things, alternating activity and rest. Use your body, use your mind, rest, then use different aspects of your body, different aspects of your mind, rest, and so on.
These two strategies allow me to make more room, more time, and have more attention, for joy.
Joy is not a luxury; it’s essential to proper function.
The gut, brain, immunity, everything, are worse off when there is no room for joy. Whether I can appreciate my partner, the sunshine, a lolcat, whatever, I grab each opportunity for a shot of delight. I call those bursts of joy “brain juice”, because they boost useful neurotransmitter patterns and, cumulatively, reduce my pain and improve my function.
Bit by bit, even as age creeps up and new issues arise, I find myself better and better able to make use of what I still have. In fact, over the last year, with safety and sanity finally framing my existence, I’ve regained an amazing amount of function. I’m so pleased! (Oo! More brain juice!)
I still don’t know how to explain this to a normally healthy person without sounding like something from another realm of existence.
Different is probably fine
Perhaps I am from another realm of existence.
I’m certainly from another realm of experience; longstanding profound illness is special like that.
Perhaps I simply need to get over this idea that, just because I’m back home or just because I’m talking to someone who knew me when I was an arrogant young jerk and saw beyond that to someone worth liking, I should fit in with them.
Perhaps I should have more faith in myself to be interesting and likeable enough to shine through even the CRPS. I clearly shone through the old arrogance and jerkiness, somehow.
I’m far less confident, eloquent (in person), and humorous — at least, less intentionally humorous — than I was in my 20s or 30s, but I’m a whole lot more confident, eloquent, and (occasionally intentionally) humorous than I was a few years ago.
So, I need to remember to keep my focus relevant, and not think too far back.
Emotional boundaries: My pain shouldn’t be your pain
There’s a trick to disclosing without wounding, even when what you’re disclosing is tremendously difficult. Good boundaries are key.
You may have noticed… people tend to pull away from pain. It’s an ancient reaction that happens in the most primitive parts of our central nervous systems. That means, when we’re too raw about our pain, others may pull away from us because that primitive response combines with their emotions around pain, and our pain makes them hurt emotionally.
I remember how I used to open with the idea that my pain is my pain and others don’t need to imagine it or take it on.
This approach of “it’s not your pain, so let it go” frees many people up to re-engage from a rational distance which works for both of us. It’s important to give others the distance they need, because then they don’t feel a need to pull back further to protect themselves, and can stay in contact. They don’t feel driven to pull away from all that pain.
Each of us, well or ill, has to carry our own load, and really isn’t equipped to take on others’ loads as well. I try to remember that and respect the loads of others. It usually works out well.
Come to think of it, it’s essential to relationship maintenance.
Taking it on vs. bearing witness
When I was a nurse, I dealt with harrowing human experiences all the time. I could handle it with real care, and go back next day and do it all again, because I was clear that my load was my load and their load was their load, and the most healing and empowering thing to do for another person is to bear witness to their struggle without trying to take over. The one with the struggle is the one best qualified to find their best solutions; having that implicit faith in them, I found, is tremendously powerful.
For those of us in dreadful situations, we don’t get to choose the reaction others have to our struggles. All we can do is try to back-lead, essentially, guiding them tactfully to a more comfortable position.
Allowing well-intended people to bear witness in a safe way is a natural outlet for the sympathy and compassion evoked in decent people. Letting them get sucked into the awfulness doesn’t help anyone.
Put that way, it’s a lot more clear to me. It’s another form of radical presence/radical acceptance, a mental tool which boils down to, “Things may suck right now, but here I am, it is what it is, and this will pass.” Try it — you’ll be amazed how much mental energy it frees up.
The approach for discussing my illness with others may go more like, “It sucked then and it sucks now, but the worst suckage is behind me, it gave me great opportunities for growth and I took ’em. At this point, I’m better at looking ahead than looking behind, and hey, I’ve got interesting projects going…”
So, first I should clarify the needful boundary between my personal load and the rest of the world, and then I can discuss all this with some detachment from the gluey-ness of remembered distress, unbelievable losses, and intransigent pain, and best of all I can point the conversation towards something much more positive.
I’m still not sure exactly how to do that, but I’ll practice.
I’m definitely better at looking ahead!
Well, I don’t know about you, but I feel a lot better about this already. I’m grateful for your company as I figure out my rubric for yet another tricky twist of the Rubik’s cube of life.
Here’s my Doctor Appointment Optimization strategy. This is especially important for new diagnoses, new doctors, and any significant change or comcern you have.
– Between now and your appointment, keep a pad handy and note down anything you want to find out when you see the doc.
– A day or two before the appointment, set up your documentation. Lay those questions out so you have room to write the answers (in printout or on a notepad, whatever works for you.) Also, if it’s relevant or might be helpful, make a current Snapshot to show the doctor. Make copies of whatever science articles or studies you want to share.
– If it’s a first appointment with a new doc, also print out your current Timeline and previous Snapshots so he or she can absorb your info more accurately and easily. Put them where you can be sure they’ll go with you to the appointment. (Consider faxing them ahead of time, with a cover note asking to have them put in your chart. The doc can then review them ahead of your visit. There are benefits either way.)
– Let the doctor lead the appointment, because they find it easier to be forthcoming, but let them know you have a list to check against before leaving. They like that balance as a rule, because they want your need for info taken care of, but need to feel free to do things their way too.
– It’s your appointment. It’s their job to do you, and your case, full justice. Ask, and keep asking, until you feel you understand the answers.
– Write everything down, because the brain flips a switch when you leave the office and it’s amazing what you can forget.
– Get as many relevant printouts as possible before leaving.
– This is key, an enormous time saver in the long run: Go over your notes and handouts once you’re out of the office but before you pull out of the lot. Just take 5-10 minutes to sit down and go over everything, complete unfinished sentences, tie things together, fill in details you didn’t capture right away.
– When you get home, put your stack by your chair, get something to drink/eat, recharge your brain.
– Pick up your stack, pull out your computer or a pad, and put everything you’ve learned and acquired into a plan of action.
What are the most important things you got out of today?
What is the next thing to learn?
What is the next thing to do?
Are your next tasks and appointments on your calendar yet? (If not, do that. The ‘overwhelm’ tends to short circuit common sense. It’s pretty normal, so you might as well plan accordingly.)
– Once your calendar is updated, your to-do list is laid out, and you know the keywords you’ll need for further research, you’ve digested the appointment pretty well. So, get out your Timeline (which of course you have, or, if you’re new to having a chronic condition, you’re about to start) and fill in a new row.
The point of the pre-departure review is twofold:
1. It gives your brain exposure to the info outside the office, after that switch flicks in your brain, but before the info in all its rich detail gets dumped from your short-term memory.
2. With that second exposure helping secure the wealth of detail, it signals your brain to start working on creating networks between the new info and older info. This not only helps put your own situation in perspective and improves your base of knowledge, but it sets off a cascade of subconscious activity of a very helpful kind, destressing the situation and helping you get on top of your condition.
If this looks a lot like great study skills, there’s a reason 🙂 Chronic conditions require study so you can make better decisions on the basis of better understanding. This is definitely, fully, 5-star, hayull-yes, one of those things where the upfront additional effort (which honestly is pretty trivial) pays off a million times over downstream… in easier life changes, less trouble over choices, fewer complications, more time to spend on having your real life.
Speaking from way too much experience, it’s worth it!
May all your appointments go well and all your doctors be excellent.
I take good care of my brain. I work hard at learning more all the time about how to support and foster it in spite of this tedious collage of illnesses. Neurology interests me — always has. Now that it’s so personal an issue, it’s positively compelling. Neurology’s very complex, and hooks into everything — fascinatingly fractal, in the way it repeats the same physiological “phrases” to very different effect in different parts of the body in response to different changes.
I’ve been wrestling with my gut this past year or so. Lately, it looks and feels like someone’s taking a bicycle pump to it and bringing it up a little more every day. When it interferes with your breathing, that’s a lot of bloat!
I’ve found the gastrointestinal (GI) system to be a bit of a trial. It’s very complex, and hooks into everything. There’s no getting away from the endless iterations of its main roles of sensing, transforming, processing, and discarding: at the intracellular level, intercellular level, endocrine level, organ level, and so on.
Some observant part of my brain notes that the same characteristics I find appealing in neurology, are the same ones I find appalling in gastroenterology.
And the gut has so much STUFF in it…
The liver parked under the ribs at one side, the spleen at the other, holding half your blood at any one time, right across the top of your abdomen;
The endless loops of squirming intestine, stretching and shifting within their blobby webs of mesentery, shoving along several pounds of food residue at any one time along its length;
Lymphatic nodes linked in constellations in the shining webs of mesentery and glistening loops of intestine, ready to respond instantly to allergens or pathogens or anything else in your GI tract that could make your body revolt;
Major vessels, the abdominal aorta and the vena cava, coursing alongside the spine, apparently apart from the mess, but branching out so thoroughly and so minutely into the organs and the mesentery that the smartest rats in science couldn’t make it through that maze;
The tenth cranial nerve, forming an intimate and instant link between your brain and your gut, linking your brain directly to the largest grouping of nerves outside your brain, the nerves that surround and penetrate your organs and your gut, embedded in and supported by that amazing net of connective and fatty tissue, the mesentery;
And let’s not even go into the endocrine system, responding minutely — at the level of individual molecules at times — to the constituents in your food, the way you feel about them, what you need them for right then, what else you’re sensing at the time, and even what time of day or year or month it is… then hooking the info back out through the nervous system, cardiovascular system, lymphatic system, and of course the gastrointestinal system.
I was sitting in my Epsom bath today, mulling this over after the battery in my e-book died. I had done the squishing of my legs and arms with the washcloth, and ran it over my neck and back and sides too, but had a terrible time making myself touch my abdomen. It felt just awful. It also felt like it was somewhat detached from me, like it was floating a couple of inches off my back and spine, simply hovering, slightly displaced, in front of the rest of my physical self. Touching it was deeply upsetting in some way, triggering a wordless revulsion.
This is not an unusual experience for CRPSers. We often feel as if the affected parts of our bodies are almost separate from us, or like they belong to someone else, and touching them is — even apart from the allodynia — a crankiness-inducing, unpleasant experience. It’s a perceptual trick the brain plays, probably part of its general effort to manage more ghastliness than it’s really set up to deal with.
One reason I do the Epsom baths (and the stretching, and the activity, and the relaxation meditations, and the aikido/tai chi/qigong, etc.) is to stay on good terms with my body. That whole self-alienation thing is just too wrong, to me — my life is always best when I’m in my skin, so to speak, whether or not my circumstances suck.
Also, to be fair, my body has done nothing wrong; it just got some of the shortest darn straws out there, and it’s doing its mighty best to manage that. It doesn’t deserve my loathing at all. So, I work to keep on good terms with it.
This is probably one reason why I’m still often functional, frequently productive, and can still walk a mile without sitting down to rest on a good day — even after 15 years with this disease on little or no medication (here’s why no CNS depressants like narcotics, here’s why minimal other meds.)
Anyway, there I was in the bath, watching my belly inflate and almost float away, even though I was Epsom bathing (which usually calms my systems down), and realizing I was finding it unbearable to touch the darn thing, even though it was practically in front of me.
I thought, “Neurology is not that hard for me. Why is gastroenterology so impenetrable? Why am I making so little headway on figuring out this stomach stuff, and dealing with so many setbacks? Why do I get these little tailspins of terror about it? What’s going on in… the second largest collection of nerves outside my brain?” I said, as the lightbulb over my head turned on.
I thought, “I’ve been having a lot of trouble with gastroenterology. But I can usually do neurology.”
And the word for the neurology of the gut, ladies and gentlemen, is neurogastroenterology. (Break it down: neuro meaning nerves, gastro meaning stomach, entero meaning inestines, ology meaning study of. Now you have it.)
I’m pretty sure I can do that. I can sure take a stab at it.
First lesson: review the vagus, a.k.a. Cranial Nerve X. It’s a doozy.
While I’ve been absent from the blogosphere, I’ve been pushing the rock of life further uphill. I’m cautiously optimisitc about getting it to the top and watching at least this particular tedious weight roll off in a new direction, eventually.
Being safe, having survival assured, and being surrounded by loving and trustworthy people was the biggest part of it. For the tools that I can control, it was just what your grandma probably advocated: eating good food, drinking good water, and getting fresh air with a bit more exercise than I really wanted to go for.
With neuro disease, our bodies need more nutrition than our diets can possibly provide (especially when our guts don’t want any), but our supplements go down a lot better and get absorbed much more usefully if we eat well. I used lots of wild blueberries (dense little packets of brain-repairing anthocyanin antioxidants, yum!), a variety of hard cheeses (2-year-old cheddar, 15 month manchego, and 1 yr English goat cheddar, in my case) for the brain-boosting natural phenylalanine, and fresh leafy veg as close to every single day as the two of us could manage, because they are so good for everything.
We have artesian well water. It. Is. Outstanding.
Air & Activity:
I asked J to nudge me into getting some exercise every day, if I didn’t get onto it myself. That’s easy for him, because he too likes to get out and get into the open air. On bad days, I hold his arm and go anyway. On really bad days, I go slowly. But I get out, walk on the burning coals under my feet, and keep walking out until my feet stop spasming, then walk back. Sometimes that’s over a mile, but the thing is, I find that if I walk long enough, with enough breaks and the right footwear, I can knock back the pain and spasms — not to mention the frame of mind that tends to go with them — well enough to brighten up the whole day.
So.. I can think! Amazingly often!
I wrote a BUDGET last week!!!
It wasn’t entirely in the right direction, but I figured out how to stay (just barely) in the black. BRAINWORK FTW!
So, with that incredibly awkward seque, here’s the hot issue.
It’s a topic that is all too pressing a reality for people who’ve had their butts handed to them by a disability that affected their ability to work, and then destroyed their means of making a living:
That’s right, ladies and gentlebeings, I am tackling the third toughest issue (right after 1. survival and 2. getting responsible doctors): 3. working through the PTSD, ADD, anxiety, brain fog, and intermittent dyscalculia which this brain disease and its financial consequences have caused, in order to get my credit rating back in the black.
I have barely been able to look at a spreadsheet for years, due to the numbers dancing around like a hallucination. Dada via Josephine Baker. Just unmanageable. But I can look at one almost every day now, and it’s amazing how easy it can be to push those numbers around intentionally!
I’m glad to be able to take this up. More on it later, with numbers to call and strategies to take for rational results.
I’d been in a really bitter, increasing pain jag for days, and though a dose of Norco and dramamine gave me one good night Wednesday night, the pain started ramping up again once the meds wore off on Thursday morning.
That was bad. Very bad.
The Norco usually breaks the cycle. I definitely did not want my body thinking it was normal and appropriate to keep cranking up the pain.
I worked in the yard Thursday late morning (John keeping me from overdoing on any one thing, because I couldn’t track well enough to notice), because I just had to move through the pain to keep it from making me lock up.
Then I took a disco nap, dressed up minimally, and went to see Boz Scaggs at the Calvin Theatre in Northampton, which we’ve been looking forward to for a month.
Side note… I haven’t been inside the Calvin for 30 years, and it looks it around the gingerbreading, but apart from the art-nouveau panels it was in great shape.
The opening artist was a solo acoustic set by Jeff LeBlanc, who has had some success but not that much; an unfair position to be in, because he has the creamiest tenor I’ve ever heard in the rock/folk-rock realm, a pleasing and rather classy onstage personality, and a delightful way of framing and playing his material. He has matured just since recording this:
I mean, John Mayer can just shut up and move over. Beautiful.
The Boz show was outstanding.
He used to go in for pyrotechnics and flash, I’m told, but this show was just pure, perfect musicianship. His 7-member band fattened up the sound in the smoothest, tightest way — every note perfect, every beat perfect, and the band grinning and digging into the show like they were as happy as we were.
Bonus: I finally understand what musical stage lighting is supposed to do. I’ve seen a few shows and, apart from the spotlight, the shifting colors and intensities just seemed to be either distracting or hokey. The lighting actually worked this time, and I only noticed because there was one single slightly missed cue, and then I noticed how flawlessly it had been guiding my attention and floating with the music until then. I could see everyone, but each musician was distinct, and the soloists glowed. Every moment was beautiful. Who knew?
I was absolutely jamming. Every song was just a whisker better than the last (perfect) song, and everyone was having a fabulous time. I was lost in it, elated. I was rocking in that ecstatic state that a great performance can put you in… and suddenly, I swear I felt my brain move: my left front inferior pareital portion and my right lower temporal lobe and some bits elsewhere gave a squirm, a shift, and then clunked into a more comfortable position.
Then I realized I was in no pain. No pain! I mean, NO FREAKING PAIN AT ALL!
I’ve got to look those parts up and see what they relate to. I may be overthinking it, of course.
Fast forward past a couple post-show hours of “wow” and a happy thunk into the pillows; waking up to a beautiful dawn and feeling, in the words of Tony the Tiger, grrrRRRRREAT.
Still have allodynia, where a breeze feels a bit like a hot iron sliding over my skin. Still feeling a bit fragile, like my body might tear at the seams if I try too hard. Still not pushing it (which means I gotta get off this keyboard.) But my baseline pain is back down, well below the event horizon of functionality, and I can sit and stand and move and there is NO FIRE. NOR FIRE AT ALL.
Those coals banked in my feet and hands and knees and every single bone of my spine and so on and so forth are just gone.
This is a good day, folks.
Next on the agenda, after finding our own home and getting the outstanding business nailed down: Music lessons. I don’t know in what, but all those scientific studies about the different ways the brain benefits from hearing and playing good music are suddenly making a boatload of very personal sense. Victory! Thank you, Boz & co. 🙂
This disease, like time and life, dips and dances but tends to go in one direction. As long as it doesn’t outrun my ability to adapt and amuse, I can put up with that. After all, we’re all born with a one-way ticket, and sooner or later we have to get off the ride. Not all of us get a chance to prepare for our exit, or even get much warning as to what it will be like.
In my first nursing job, on an HIV unit in the very early 90’s, I had a Mexican soap opera star as a patient. He was lovely, in every way.
This was his first hospitalization with the disease and he hadn’t found his particular polestar, the thought/idea/perspective that would keep him determined and alive for however long he had. He was a lot of work emotionally, needing much encouragement to keep trying new treatments (and they were very new back then) and to keep eating even when he didn’t feel like it and so forth. He had been in for a long time — over a week.
One day, while I was setting out some medications for a complex patient who needed his meds punctually, and didn’t have time or attention to spare, the soap star came mooching up to my med cart in his hospital gowns (one in front, one in back) and huge, lustrous eyes.
With what attention I had to spare, I thought, “go away, come back later” as hard as I could. Didn’t work that time.
He said, as he’d said before, in the same miserable tone as always, “I’m going to die.”
Up until this occasion, I’d stop what I was doing and gave him a full minute of attention and cheer him up a bit.
I didn’t have a minute right then. I had maybe two seconds. “Everyone’s going to die,” I said, barely pausing in my dosing and calculations.
Long silence next to me. I kept doing my job. (Keep in mind that nurses are paid to dish meds, not counsel and encourage struggling patients. That’s all that the staffing patterns allow.)
Then, in that delicious accent, a voice like the rising sun announced, “You’re right! Everyone’s going to die!”
I heard him drift back to his room, muttering in wonderment, “Everyone’s going to die… it’s not just me,” and I smiled to myself. I wasn’t usually rude to patients, but it sounded like it was exactly what he needed.
My other patient got his meds on time. So did the rest. At dinner that evening, my soap star sat up and devoured every bite, beaming and bouyant as we had never seen him. I began to see what all of Mexico had fallen in love with. He was discharged next day, full of fight and life again.
Somehow, that brutal realization — that everyone dies, that being doomed to death isn’t special — was what he needed to break the spell of misery that his diagnosis had put him under. He had staggered in a broken boy, and he walked out a free man.
I don’t understand it either, but it sure worked for him.
Perhaps I do understand, at least a little. My experience with that revelation goes a bit further back, though.
I had a book of rhymes when I was little. Most were delightful, but there was an old one about a sick little girl that contained the lines,
“Doctor, doctor, must I die?”
“Yes you must, and so must I.”
I went through a jagged 6 months when I got to grips with the meaning of that (plus, I thought it was a rotten thing to say to a sick little girl.) My mother got tired of assuring me I had never been nearly sick enough to worry about it and, on further questioning, assuring me that she and Dad wouldn’t pop off for a long time yet, and I’d be an adult and able to handle it.
Later, I vaguely remember looking around at a sunlit day, seeing my brothers and friends playing in the sun, the leaves of my favorite tree fluttering in the breeze, and knowing everyone would die one day…
…but not yet.
Now, we were all alive and together.
Better grab it! Yes!
A smile pushed up through my whole body, and I went out to play.
I think that’s when I first began to understand the difference between being a spectator of life and being a part of it. That realization was rooted in knowing that it’ll end one day, and I didn’t want to miss out on whatever it had to offer in the meantime.
Perhaps that’s what my remark to my patient did for him; but, being older, he could process it in 6 seconds, rather than 6 months. Everyone dies; but right now, I’m alive!
I could be wrong, but I think my insistence on being a part of life is a big piece of my adaptability, not only to this wretched bouquet of stinker diseases, but to everything.
What do you think? I’m curious if there’s a link between knowing death and survival, between a lust for life and adaptability. I’m not talking about Norman Cousins’s ideas of exceptionalism, but of an ordinary, grubby-handed greed to be in this thing called life, warts and all. What does it take to reach that?
This might be the question that shapes our future ideas about adaptation and resiliency.
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.