Threads on the loom: bereavement and CRPS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, okay then. I can do this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The car sputtered, died, rocked to a standstill.

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

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

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

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

I didn’t dare to move.

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

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

A pair of blue lasers drilled me to my seat.

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

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

Words to live by.

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

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

“You’ll figure it out, Bella.”

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

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

And I was.

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

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

It was the last letter he received in this life.

Deathiversaries.

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

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

And I really hate moving.

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

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

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

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

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

I took the loss hard.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One day, that should be a comfort.

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s the physical side of CRPS.

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

I’ll give you a minute, if you like.

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

How do you deal with an oscillating nervous system?

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

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

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

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

In case it isn’t obvious …

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

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

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

Either way, it will ease up in time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All I have to do is get there.

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Riding what you’ve got

Today’s images are a sampling from the newly-released online library of digitized images from Oxford University’s Bodleian Library, one of the oldest extant university libraries in Europe, with images from all around the world. Enjoy 🙂

I’ve written before about the recurring message from some self-described healers that I must be sick because I think wrong, my soul is awry, I want this subconsciously, or some similarly cruel and blaming trope. (Pardon my speaking so plainly, but I have always been very likely to call a “spade” either a shovel, a playing card, or an African-American, depending on what the original speaker meant.)

I went through quite a few years of believing that myself, which is one reason I feel free to call it what it is, now. I know what it is from the inside. Like the child who gets beaten, I’d like to imagine that I have some control over the situation, so I try to believe that I’m responsible for it. But believing that does not make it so.

What would happen if I told a child who gets beaten that it happens because the kid thinks wrong, or because something is awry with that child’s soul, or because he or she subconsciously wants to be brutalized and abused?

child-beating
From a board game about Dick Whitington!

I’d probably get lynched, and rightly so.

There is such a thing as random chance. There is such a thing as being in the wrong place at the wrong time. There is such a thing as bloody luck. (Insurance companies know this, and people with consistently bad luck — regardless of actual, verifiable skill — pay higher rates for certain kinds of insurance.)

I used to be a trauma and triage nurse. I heard uncountable numbers of people cry out, “Why is God punishing me like this?”
angel-scoldingman
To which I said, more than once, “You’re not being punished! Sometimes things just happen, and this time it happened to you. It’s going to happen to someone, and what makes you think you’re immune from being a member of the human race?” (Said with a nice smile, of course.)

I wasn’t always there with the pat-pat-there-there (you’d be amazed how little that helps with the heavy stuff), but I could usually be counted on for the proverbial whiff of coffee.

coffee-4men
Yes, I added the coffee cups.

Some people believe that there is a reason for everything, and if it gives them comfort, so much the better.

Me, I’m absolutely clear that reason is what we bring to life, not vice versa. The universe tends towards entropy, which is, perfect chaos; our fragile rafts of order, which we impose on our lives, are temporary structures.
boat-mancallingastern
I’ve had so many of these rafts, each of which I called my life, blasted apart with me in them, that I no longer imagine either that I have to have one to live, or that I’m incapable of building another.
women-3bathing
I can live without coherence in my life for awhile, and I can always make more out of raw materials. These days, I recognize everything as temporary. And that’s neither good nor bad, it just is. I can have feelings about it, but that doesn’t really change things, except to make me happier or sadder.

I’d rather be happier, but what I’d really rather do is get on with things and stop dithering. I’m getting better at bringing order with me, and that gives my ANS a break so I’m better equipped to handle the chaos that inevitably barges in.
boat-amidstchaos
There’s an inward sense of riding the waves, rather than trying to flatten the ocean, which epitomizes my handling of life — especially life with CRPS.
boat-ridingthewaves
Joseph Campbell put this in his usual velvety prose, sounding much more spiritual and impressive:

And so this brings us to the final formula of the Bodhisattava way, the way of the one who is grounded in eternity and moving in the field of time. The field of time is the field of sorow. “All life is sorrowful.” And it is. If you try to correct the sorrows, all you do is shift them somewhere else. [Good point! //Is.] Life is sorrowful. How do you live with that? You realize the eternal within yourself. You disengage, and yet, reengage. You — and here’s the beautiful formula — “participate with joy in the sorrows of the world.” You play the game. It hurts, but you know that you have found the place that is transcendent of injury and fulfillments. You are there, and that’s it.

There’s nothing in there about being above pain or beyond illness. It’s about having illness, having pain, and being there anyway, because you know there’s more to it than the illness and the pain, and the “more” is what matters in the end.

Which raises the interesting question: Is life *supposed* to be a bed of roses? Because, if it is, then most of us are getting gyped!
woman-indolenceandroses
Many people say they deserve better, but what does that have to do with anything? Most of us deserve better, but I haven’t noticed things improving with that approach. Deserving isn’t the point. I get what I get, and what I make of it is the real litmus test of my life.

Are we supposed to reach for a painless state of perfect health and earthly bliss? Are we supposed to stay stuck in our ideas of what constitutes a life worth living, and keep reaching for that, whether or not it’s ever in reach?

Is that chronic state of dissatisfaction with the lives we have, right here/right now, really the point?

Or is life supposed to be one heck of a ride, where we don’t get to choose it, but we do get to choose how we handle it?

animals-battle-rides
Did you get a horse, a camel, an elephant, or a pair of boots?

I think it’s one heck of a ride. But that’s me. And I know I’m not immune from being a member of the human race, so I take my chances — and this illness was one of them.

I’ll take this life, warts and all, and be grateful. CRPS is a spectacular pain in the neck, a huge nuisance and a vile burden to carry, but it’s not the sum of my life.

I aim to handle this ride with all the poise I can, because it’s about a lot more than one rotten disease. And I certainly have some good company on this ride.
women-riding

P.S. The international network of CRPS bloggers is posting about how we handle the holidays this month. I avoid the whole circus, as you can see, but beam benevolently on those who choose otherwise. All the gifts I had to give went out between May and November. I spend winter getting through the winter, and that’s enough to manage, thank you 🙂

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International group post: Love is portable

The point is this: love is portable. Real, solid love can handle time and distance.

I’ve been saying that for a very long time. I didn’t know, however, that even the formation of love can cover distance. It can cross the globe.

I grew up overseas. Since there wasn’t always a credible, accredited school where we lived, this meant we kids were sometimes away from the family for months at a time. I learned to handle it in a curious way …

I realized, in a deeply personal way, that the same sky covered us all, and the same world held us. If I could see the stars, I felt very strongly that my brothers and parents could see those same stars — if not today because of clouds, then perhaps tomorrow or yesterday — and knowing that we could look at the same stars was a powerful comfort to me.

Beautiful colored view of a star-forming region
Star-forming region in the Magellanic Cloud. Photo from NASA’s Hubble project.

It doesn’t have to make sense, if it works.

As an adult, I got a dreadful disease that requires more research to manage and understand than one person can do in a lifetime. It took me weeks in the Stanford medical library to realize I had something truly rare. Once I was finally diagnosed, it took me months to begin to understand the complexities of what I have.

I also got the internet and a membership in an online pain group … and eventually a blog and social media accounts.

And suddenly, I wasn’t alone.

That first group’s administrator got me through the second major test of survival. (This disease has caused quite a few.) She’s on the other side of the country.

As I’d reached out to her in desperate need, I found someone else reaching out to me in a similar fashion, and she’s a nearly equivalent distance North, in another country.

Then I met the Swede, the Briton, the Belgian, the Icelandic… then Australians, New Zealanders, Chinese, Japanese, more Britons, French, French-Canadian, Dutch, Danish, Mexican, Argentine, and on and on and on. Any country with a health system sophisticated enough to think of, and look for, rare diseases, seems to have people with CRPS.

Let’s think about that for a moment.

OK, that’s long enough. It’s depressing.

The truly international distribution of the disease is almost as penetrating as the international distribution of the internet.
The Earth's winds. Not a bad metaphor. By NASA's Goddard center.
I could go on about the obvious benefits — having someone to chat with at almost any hour is a good one; having such a wealth of perspectives on health, medical delivery, and self-care is another; being able to discuss findings in one country that aren’t yet known in another is a hottie; and, of course, there’s always someone worse off to make me feel humbly grateful for my little all; but these are pretty obvious and probably stated better elsewhere. I’m not doing too well above the neck this week and I have to keep it simple.

This disease has stripped me of many of my friends, my careers (both of them: nursing and software), almost all of my hobbies, most of my strength and stamina, and pretty much every illusion about life and humans that I ever had.

Life can be bleak when it’s this lean. There has to be more to live for than usual, not less, when every day is another stab at the same tedious, repetitious, miserable slog that would make me say to Sysiphus, “Quit your whining, kiddo. Trust me, you’ve got it easy.”
Sysiphus looking miserable as he pushes a rock up hill... with poor body mechanics.
But every connection that I make with my CRPS cohorts makes me stronger. And — how do I say this without sounding mushy or daft — these aren’t superficial connections. I would gladly stop a bullet for my friends, not that that’s likely to happen … but then, it’s easy to find something worth dying for. The trick is finding what, or who, is worth living for.

Any hour of day or night, I can log on and find a soul-sibling somewhere in this world, beyond first-languages and politics, beyond gender and race, beyond anything that might have mattered once.

I don’t have time to ask permission to use names before posting, so my own ethics force me to skip personalization, but the fact is, ladies and gentlemen, you light up my world.
Earth seen from the moon. Earth is gibbous.

When I get discouraged or disgruntled about this tedious, repetitious, miserable slog, and I can’t remember the self-care routines that can help me with it, instead I remember my friends: this one’s Celtic ferocity; that one’s wry wit; the painful eloquence of one; the utter gentle kindness of another; the ghastly spelling over the radiant sweetness of yet another; the shining fragile beauty and boundless courage of, well, all of them …

Every piece I write has to meet multiple tests of integrity before it gets posted: factually accurate, logically defensible, ethically sound, emotionally true (but as the rambling nature of this one indicates, brilliance is NOT a criterion, or I’d be posting a whole lot less.)

That list of criteria has a lot to do with who I think of when I write. It’s this absolutely global, polyglot, brilliant, loving, well and widely informed set of people. Each one of us has our strengths and our weak points, but collectively, we are astounding. Utterly astounding.

I have to live up to that, and be translatable … and it’s an honor and a challenge, every time.

CRPS has taken much, but the internet, mother wit, and a quorum of luck has given me infinitely more. I’m a better being and a better writer because I share the world with people like this … and I’m aware enough to know it.

I have plenty to live for. Screw the slog. Sysiphus, move over and I’ll show you how it’s done.
girl on a flat beach kicking a ball high

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Being clear about being grateful

We visited our favorite hot springs last week. There’s a hot pool that’s very hot indeed. When I alternate between that and the cold pool, preferably dipping several times, it becomes quite a fabulous experience.

Stone angel with hands clasped in prayer, standing on a pillar, sun like a glorious halo
Halleluiah!

Whether it’s the lymph getting going properly for a change, or toxins (the few that are left) getting sucked out of my system, or my autonomic system finally getting a clue and just taking a break, or possibly all that and something more, I have no idea. But it can be really good.

gleeful woman grinning, sitting in a sailboat cockpit, sunny water behind her
REALLY good!

I did my dips and bounced gently on the balls of my feet in the hot pool, overflowing with something like gratitude. I’m no fool (I just take an off-road approach to life) … offering gratitude works, even with a conception of spirituality based more on quantum physics than religious dogma.

Things go better when I’m classy enough to express whatever gratitude I feel.

However, it has to be “true enough to write,” my ultimate litmus test of sincerity. (That really is my key phrase when I’m thinking about truth, writing, or both.)

George_Goodwin_Kilburne_Writing_a_letter_home_1875There’s no fooling the All, because I’m part of it and I know the truth, even when I don’t want to.

Letting my head fall back into the welcoming warmth, I thought a moment, letting the feeling swirl through me like water.

Grateful for my life?
I have to be honest (though it may mean I have an inferior soul or something) … I’d love to be. I think that somehow I ought to be. But really, when you get right down to it… too many caveats.

Grateful for this day?
Well, y’know, there was too much of the day left that could go wrong. Experience has been too strong a teacher to make me grateful for something before it’s in the bag.

Grateful for this moment?
Ah yes, there we go.

I felt my spine let go of the last knot.

I could say, without hesitation and with perfect integrity, that I was definitely grateful for this moment. Completely, unwaveringly glad to have it. I was truly thankful for that heavenly bit of space-time I’d found myself in.

Crab_Nebula-crop
Heavenly, beautiful… grateful for it

The moment stretched and smiled and wrapped me in blissful arms. It made me stronger and more content, and I faced the bumps and mild insults of the rest of the day with fairly unruffled peace.

It turned out to be a good day. A day to be grateful for.

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Persistence, chronic illness, mortality, and other perky subjects

I’m recovering from packing and moving to my homestead. [I’m sorry to say that I don’t have internet yet, and the library’s uplink is slo-o-o-o-ow. Images will be filled in once that’s corrected. In the meantime, you get to see how I flag where the images will go.]
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The cat is ecstatic. He’s getting muscular, too. He’s bigger than most of the cats I’ve ever had, and he’s only 8 or 9 months old. J is falling in love with his saucy sweetness — they’re a well-matched pair.

It took a week just to be able to think in a straight line again. I’m still very slow, but improving. Breakfast is my best meal, so I try to make it a good one — my stomach is not nearly as happy as the cat about all this.

Yesterday, as an aid to recovery, J and I went to the nearby hot springs for steaming and soaking.
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We usually get nicely parboiled in a couple of hours, but I got horrifically dizzy going from the hot pool to the cold. Usually it feels terrific (one reason I keep going back) but I think I stayed in too long — 2 whole minutes… When I was able to see, I noticed that my skin was bright red; I touched it, and it was as hot as if I had a fever.

That’s the hyper-reactive response we get with a twitchy autonomic nervous system (ANS.) This is why we don’t ice our injuries with most forms of CRPS.

All my skin’s blood vessels spasmed with the cold, then the spasming set off an alarm in my wackadoodle ANS, and my ANS ordered all those peripheral vessels to open wa-a-a-y up.

What does that do? Sucks all the blood out of my brain and out into my skin, that’s what. Result: dizziness to a frightening degree. J helped me get out of the pool without drowning, and got me safely benched.
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I realize I tend to overestimate my capacities, but that really was a first for me.

Periodically — and with increasing frequency — I get FED the heck UP with having these diseases — CRPS, FM, MCS, POTS, GERD … I’d have to be a British peer with medals and degrees to have that many letters after my name, in any other context.

These diseases are not recreational. They don’t just pop in, have a good time, and then take off.

They’ve moved in. They’re here for the long haul, or at least that’s what they seem to think. They take the concept of “persistence” to a whole new level.

It reminds me of something… H’mm. Oh yes.

In February 1999, I got a phone call at 4:10 am from my stepmother, telling me my father was dead. I still remember the way the word “no” kept echoing off the walls, until I realized it was me who had cried it out. I won’t describe the next few weeks, except that there was a lot to do (he had died in Egypt) and I learned a lot about the people in my family (interesting, not worrisome.)

After a few months, when the acute grieving was more or less behind me and I could drive safely and notice the birds and sunshine in a more normal way, I found myself unconsciously expecting him to be alive again. As if dying of a double heart attack face down in the water was like a curable cancer, horrific but eventually over. Then I’d catch myself, and that awful “no” would stab through me again.

There was a part of me that just could not get the permanence of death.

I haven’t spoken to anyone who has had this same experience. It may be so peculiarly daft that it could only happen to a wing-nut like me.

Death, take a holiday? Only in a Terry Pratchett novel.
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Over the next couple of years, I had plenty of opportunity to come to terms with the persistence of death, as I was bereaved of friends and extended family about once every other month. None of them came back.

I don’t recommend it.

And this is where Walt and Pogo come stumbling in from the past:
[IMG: “don’t take life so serious, son, it ain’t nohow permanent.”]

It’s impossible to have a rotten, devastating condition and not face my own mortality once in awhile, if only because the blank spot that bereavement leaves in the world sometimes seems better than this mess. And it’s a persistent mess, too.

The real question is, is it just as persistent as death? Will there really be no end to this? The poetic injustice is, that question might not be answered until my ashes melt into the sea.

There are good times and strong times and, of course, I’m almost constantly panning for those nuggets of gold, so don’t worry.

It’s just that anyone vile enough to stick a gun in my ribs and say, “Your money or your life,” is going to have to hold me up with both arms, I’ll be laughing so hard.

Nice work, Clint, but I think me and my cohorts could top this delivery…

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The Red Pen Technique (dramatic music, please)

This is probably the simplest, most powerful tool for getting your complex care back into the realm of sanity.

It’s easier said than done, but it’s worth it. More valuable than words can say.

It’s a fairly simple 3-step process:

  1.  Get copies of your medical records.
  2.  Prepare: understand the records, get a colored pen, and stock up on post-its.
  3.  Mark it like you own it.

Here’s the step-by-step rundown of this process, with insider insights, tips and suggestions. (I apologize in advance for the clunky formatting. I’ll work on it.)

1. Get copies of your medical records

[Updated 3/2018 to reflect current trend towards soft copy documentation.]

In the US, you are LEGALLY ENTITLED to all the information in your medical chart. (Worker’s Compensation is a special case; you can still get copies through your lawyer or sometimes directly from the doctor, but don’t talk to the insurer about any of that.)

To get copies,

A. Call the hospital, clinic, or office and ask for the Medical Records department.

B. Ask what their process is for obtaining copies of your medical records. Most MR departments are honest, understaffed, and extremely literal-minded. Be clear, frank, and polite-but-not-wimpy; that seems to work well with the MR mindset.

i. Some will let you come into the office and make your own photocopies. They may charge you for the copies. Some may have soft copy they can send you on a CD or provide a secure way to download.

ii. Some don’t allow non-staff into the department and will make the copies for you (and it’s best to provide them with a list of what you want, so they don’t provide you with the usual thin, doctor-oriented version. More on that later.) They will probably charge you for pulling the record, making the copies, reassembling the chart, and packaging your copies up for you. They might fax them to you, but, if they don’t require you to come in personally and show ID, then the chart copy is usually mailed or FedExed. Soft copy may be free or cheap. Ask about the cost for each method, and if they don’t offer the method you want, ask if they can provide it anyway.

iii. Some will give you the runaround. In that case, be polite but firm, and let them know that you have a legal right to the information in your chart, so let’s figure out how to get it to you. (Never buy into a power struggle with petty power weilders. Just refocus on the goal — like with toddlers.)

iv. If you had films of any kind (X-ray, MRI, CT scan, ultrasound), ask how to get those films. You usually get them directly from the Radiology or Sonography department rather than Medical Records. They’re most likely to drop a CD in the mail for you. You’ll need software that can view DICOM images — do an internet search to find the best current free application for reading DICOM files.

The radiology departments no longer use film. They used to recycle it every 2 years, so the only way to keep those records was to get the physical films and hang onto them despite promises they’d demand to return them. That didn’t mean you were any better or that the film was irrelevant in two years!

C. Follow the instructions they give you for getting those copies. Be sure to request copies of the following:

i. Doctor’s notes, both narrative notes and forms.

ia. Consults’/Specialists’ notes. (Yes, they need to be specifically requested in some facilities.)

ii. Medication orders. This is what was supposed to be given.

iii. Medication Administration Record (MAR.) This is what was actually given.

iv. Nurse’s notes, both narrative notes and forms. (These days, some places only have forms.) These should include Nursing Diagnoses (which gives a good idea of just how worried or confused they were about you) and daily tracking of what care was needed and provided.

v. Vital signs and intake/output sheets. (Includes fingerstick blood sugars when used.) This is usually background information, but every now and then there’s a nasty surprise. There is no substitute for the clarity and simplicity of this info.

vi. Results of tests. These include labs taken from your blood, urine, stool, saliva, tissue samples, or whatever else they examined. It can include psych tests, behavioral tests, and any other test.

vii. Readings. This refers to what a trained specialist concluded from looking at your films, ultrasound, EEGs, EMGs, EKGs, and so on. It’s usually a couple of paragraphs.

viii. Rehab notes: narrative notes, test results, and forms. This is what your PT, OT, and other rehab specialists saw.

ix. Discharge planning notes. Discharge planning is supposed to start as soon as you’re admitted. These notes will tell you what they knew or assumed about your context and abilities. Very useful info between the lines.

x. List of charges. This is what they’re telling the insurance company they did for you and how much it cost. This should include pharmacy charges as well as “floor” charges. Another place to find both corroborations and surprises.

xi. If they say, “Would you also like [something else in the chart]?” The right answer is usually, “Why yes, thank you, that would be helpful.” Sometimes they offer it because they’re so detail-oriented, but sometimes they offer it because it fits into the pattern of the care you received. Feel free to ask why they suggested it or what it relates to.

D. When you get your chart copy, either scan it into your hard drive before you do anything else, or make 2 more copies and put the original (clearly labeled) somewhere safe.

Some people consider this step optional. I won’t argue with someone else’s working style or legal situation; you’re the one best-qualified to decide how protective to be of your chart copy.

I have everything on my hard drive. I have dealt with a hospital, a federal agency and an insurance company that forgot, mislaid, misread, or destroyed part or all of my chart. I don’t trust any institution to get it right any more.

2. Prepare

When your original copy of your chart is as safe as you want it to be, take a copy to mark up. This is where the real fun begins.

A. Read the whole thing over once. Try not to get bogged down — this quick run-through will help you familiarize yourself with the lingo and the special way of thinking that’s used in the health care field. It will also give you an overall idea of what you’re working with and will shine a light on the most obvious gaps — in your knowledge or vocabulary, or in theirs. Put flags in the strangest, most egregious or excitiing parts, so you can refer to them quickly. Use post-its to comment on the page.

B. Whether or not your first read-through is quick, your second read-through will be a LOT more informative. Pick out and investigate the obvious holes in your own knowledge, looking up words and concepts that aren’t clear, or checking your assumptions about what they meant.

C. (You can start doing this in 2.B., but you’ll be better-equipped if you wait until you’ve got your vocabulary and assumptions squared away.)

GRAB A COLORED PEN. Mwahahahahahahaaaa!

Red, green, dark  pink, and medium purple are all great, because they stand out so well from the black and grey of the copy. Use a color you enjoy commenting with, in a pen that feels good to write with.

No black. No grey. Blue if you must, but it’s a very “normal” color and easy to overlook.

3. Mark it like you own it

Now that you’re prepared, are familiar with the chart, have the hot spots flagged, and know the vocabulary, you’re ready to TAKE BACK YOUR CARE.

A. Go through the chart with your colored pen.

B. Mark everything that is wrong, misleading, or unclear. (Feel free to color-code, if that works for you.)

C. Comment on:

i.  what the real deal was,

ii. what was wrong with what they wrote,

iii. your own observations,

iv. any evidence or witnesses,

v. and — this is usually relevant! — where else in the chart this error, confusion or lie is brought into question. (This is why you get the nurse’s notes. They tend to be accurate, front-line reportage of what happened at the bedside.)

Generally, you can keep emotions out of it. The facts WILL tell the story, and the reader’s own emotions will fill in the blanks.  If you can do this, then you will wind up with a much more powerful piece of documentation than if you’d given into the natural urge to editorialize. Sometimes, if I’m just too mad, I editorialize (and use expletives and call names) on separate paper, then, when I’m calmer and my thoughts are clearer, I go back and write in a calmer note.

D. Write (or tabulate, or draw; whatever works for you to nail your understanding) a summary of issues with the chart.

i. Pick out major issues, overarching issues, and the points where things really should have gone differently. (If you’re writing, use headings — that impresses the heck out of people.)

ii. Summarize the whole thing in a paragraph or two at the end.

4. Now what?

It’s up to  you. You have documentation that is worth presenting in court. (Yes, believe it or not, you can talk until you’re blue in the face and be only tolerated, but if you really want to persuade highly-educated people, then put it in print — with annotations. They will believe exactly the same thing in print, that they’ll be incredulous of when you speak.)

Regardless of what happens next, you will have a whole new approach to medical care. Your perspective on the whole business will change as a result of doing this exercise. You will be much more collegial with your doctors — much less the supplicant praying for something beyond your control. You will speak about your care with more clarity and authority, and your care providers will respond to that, usually with more forthcoming-ness and respect.

Depending on the issues involved (and whether your case is already part of a legal process, such as Worker’s Comp), you can:

  •  Send a (color?) copy to  your attorney. You can always do this. It’s guaranteed to get some attention, and your attorney is liable to  respond well to the nonverbal message that this is important enough to you to go to all this effort. That’s a big deal. Most clients of attorneys are kind of helpless. You set yourself apart with this.
  •  Take it with you to your next visit with a key physician — the worst offender, or his boss, or the one who’s on your side and can help you figure out how to proceed most effectively. Be prepared to let the “good guy” take a copy, and consider bringing a copy for the “bad guy” since you don’t want to let your copy out of your hands there.
  •  Arrange a meeting with the facility’s adminstrators to address the hot issues. Take it with you (or scan copies and show it from your laptop — lots of tech assumptions there) and let them know, kindly and clearly, what you want them to do about it. Administrators tend to be goal-oriented, so give them a goal. Tip: If they have legal counsel present, it’s good if you do, too. In any case, it’s not a bad idea to bring a couple of respectable-looking friends (“my assistants/associates/posse”) who have faith in you, for moral support — and so you’re not all alone on your side of the table.
  •  Send a color copy to your local paper, your congresscritter, the medical board for your state, or the Department of Health, with a cover letter explaining your concerns and what you would like to see change. This could raise some attention, all right. (If your case is currently in a legal process, it may be illegal to do this. Ask your lawyer.)

If you’ve never done this before, you’re in for a transformative experience. Even if you do nothing further with it, your situation will feel very different, and you’ll find yourself facing future care with a stronger, clearer, more in-charge attitude.

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Imaginative experience and rebuilding the brain

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“Again.” Twitch.

 

“Again.” Kick.

 

One of the great moments in medicine.

 

Upon discharge, he walked out of the hospital.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trapeze_artists_1890

But it’s not impossible.

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

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

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

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

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

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Marathon update

For weeks, I could hardly move outside without injury. It was maddening. I completely ran out of arnica pills, my best tool for keeping soft-tissue injuries from turning into flares or spreads of CRPS.

At the same time, I couldn’t make myself do the meditation exercises I’d been assigned, where I’m supposed to let some strange man tell me what to relax. Getting anything but my appointments done has been nearly impossible.

Today, I walked half a mile, half of it uphill, and most of that at around 15 degrees’ slope — really. And so far, I’m just fine. It seems  a bit miraculous, after the past few weeks.

For the past few days, I’ve also been wrestling with my dead… and at the risk of appearing to complain, I’d probably better explain that.

I’ve been interested in re-remapping my brain to a more useful cartography (so to speak) for years; that’s what holds the most promise of moving CRPS aside and leaving more room for life.

Sheer gall, determination and bloody-mindedness can only get me so far. Pretty damn far, but I think I’ve hit the limit. I need to move beyond, because frankly, life is barely worth it and I won’t stand for that.

To gain enough mastery over my brain that I can really push it into a different shape means getting my conscious mind and subconscious mind to play well together. Sooner or later, THAT means coming to terms with a few things I’ve shoved under the floorboards. Then I can put them in their proper place, and make a reliable path around them. It’s no good trying to build new paths in a brain that’s booby-trapped.

It’s impossible to discuss these losses and bereavements and horrors without sounding pathetic or whiny, so I won’t. Tell you what, though, I’ve stopped editing them out, when they’re relevant.

Something’s come loose. It’s true. It does seem to be working.

I’ve finally gotten myself scheduled into my meditation exercises, PT, and cleaning up… and I’ve walked half a mile today, much of it really steep… and I seem to be fine.

Every marathoner knows… you really run it from the inside.

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The wall, redux — with demons on the side

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unconscious reactivity could be the death of me yet.

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

With apologies to Heironymous Bosch.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Speaking of which…

Marathon training update

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

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

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Need more than "Dysphoria"

There’s an impressive clinical word for “feeling yucky” — it’s “dysphoria.” It’s literally the opposite of “euphoria.”
One of these people is Dysphoric and one is Euphoric. Guess… 🙂

The trouble is, there are so very many ways to feel yucky, or dysphoric, especially with a disease like CRPS, but only one word to describe it all. Our experience of life no longer maps to that of a normal person, but language can’t describe what we experience. However elegant it sounds, “dysphoria” is inadequate.

That’s about to change. Here are some words I’m adding to the lexicon, a short selection of the most common and most describable (because some are indescribable) of the dysphoric states I move in and out of…

Dysphoria Sunnysidedown
The particular kind of yucky I feel when I get up before I’m ready. It takes about an hour, usually, to avoid D-Sunnysidedown.

Otherwise, I get tremulous, nauseous, my heart races (but quietly), and I’m aware of a particular kind of fragile ghastliness in a minor key. If I really get up too fast, I fall over — muscles quit. This adds up to Dysphoria Sunnysidedown.



Flip ’em!

Dysphoria Darkofnoon
This is a natural consequence of D-Sunnysidedown and usually happens later the same day, but occasionally happens by itself. Darkofnoon involves feeling peculiarly ragged (as if my adrenals had been in overdrive for hours, which is accurate if I arose too fast), forgetful, physically weak, slightly shaky, and of course nauseous. Sometimes dizzy spells.

There’s a more solid kind of ghastliness, more in a dominant chord. Dysphoria Darkofnoon usually happens when the day is brightest, between 11 am and 3 or 4 pm.

Lying down periodically helps me get through the day, but I’m not likely to be quite right until a good night’s sleep and a proper start to the next morning.


Dysphoria Hate2Bme
Stunning levels of distraction, with a dense pale-grey cloud wound around and through my mind and perceptions, dissolving what it doesn’t hide.

It insulates me from such trivial issues as major appointments, where I put the keys, and the state of traffic lights. I can tell where my body is in space, but not how it feels. Likely to injure myself, risking further spread.

It would be tolerable if there weren’t any consequences or anyone leaning nervously away while looking at me with worried pity. When I’m experiencing Dysphoria Hate2Bme, the humiliation and underlying fear are the most dysphoric elements, though there is something intrisically unpleasant and destructive-feeling about the dense grey cloud.

Dysphoria Mitoshriek
This happens when I’ve overtaxed my body, though sometimes it happens by itself. I think of it as the mitochondria in my muscle and nerve cells all setting up a synchronized shriek of anguish as they fall over in a dead faint. (I don’t know how they scream while fainting, but they seem to manage it.)

It feels like my soft tissue threatens to dissolve when I try to get up or do anything. There’s a sort of wholesale, pitiable unpleasantness in mind, body and soul with the least physical effort.

My muscles react with a sort of “You’re kidding, right?” when I try to use them, and if I push through in order to get something done, it’s done by pure determination and then I’m out of commission for a couple of days. I pay hard for pushing back against Dysphoria Mitoshriek.

For all I know, my mitochondria have nothing to do with it, but mito self-care seems to help: tons of antioxidants, lots of vegetables, and as much horizontality as I can stand. I can tell when it’s time to start moving — about 3/4 of a day after I start really wanting to.

One thing that is no worry at all: I don’t ever have to worry about being too lazy.


Your faithful writer at 2 yrs old. I refused help; I was going to
cross that dry riverbed all by myself, come Hell or high water.
Photo: JLD Tifft, used by kind permission 🙂

Bodies and minds, like engines, were made to go, and I’m most at home when I’m going in mine.

After the intense inward training of living as usefully and zestfully as possible despite CRPS, can you imagine what it would be like to have all this determination and energy unleashed on the world if I were finally well again, and could focus on, remember, and do things on a vaguely regular basis?

Can’t wait to find out.

So this is peaceful ol’ me…

…saluting all that keeps me from that.

Speaking of which…

Marathon training note

I’m stable with walking 1.5 miles at a time, and recover fast enough to do more later that day. Will aim for 1.8 later this week, after recovering from this trip.

Despite spasms and cramps etc., I made it all the way home in 1 day yesterday, instead of splitting the drive into 2 days as I usually must. This amazes me. My eyes didn’t cross and my mind didn’t splay into a messy 10-pointed star, both of which usually happen after 4-5 hours of driving with hourly breaks. So, there are some key neurological pieces that are definitely doing better.

Yay cerebral blood flow! Yay exercise!

It might be smart to take today off and stick to PT exercises and tai chi. No more bloody relapses. But boy, I sure am heartened!

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