Active presence

I love the term “radical presence” because it feels radical to jump the barrier of overwhelming emotion to land face-to-face with the moment and be able to look straight at it regardless. However, in practical terms it’s the opposite of radical — it’s conservative in the classic sense, because it puts us back into the realm of what’s demonstrably real and solid.

Therefore, conservative presence is the same as radical presence.

What a wonderful object lesson in putting political branding aside.

However, for the sake of clarity, I think I’ll start calling it “active presence”, as it usually takes an act of will.

When I was working as a nurse, an important part of the job was teaching people what they needed to know in order to go on better: dress the wounds, improve activity, improve nutrition, manage impaired systems (immunity, pain, respiratory), take care of relevant organs (heart, liver, pancreas, kidneys, gut, brain) and so on.

I’m sorry to say I was too idealistic at first and found myself being scoldy. The word “should” showed up a lot; worse still, “shouldn’t.” Argh! Words I’d love to take back!

I finally learned the key principle of teaching & training around life skills, especially primal ones like eating/drinking/moving: people have to start from where they are, not from where anyone, including them, thinks they should (ugh) be. The ideal is not relevant, only the real.

The first step, therefore, is to find out what that reality is, no matter how egregious. Their best hope of improvement is almost always in small, manageable steps, starting right from their current reality.

This led me to my first understanding of active presence: change has to start from this eating habit, this activity level, this degree of self management. No others exist yet! Trying to pretend they do only builds castles in the air.

However, I’ve seen patients of mine go, for example, from couch potatoes with snack-stocked shops and triple-bypass heart attacks to organic-grocery-owning half-marathon runners in a couple of years, by starting with tiny stepwise improvements: cardiac rehab class, to slow walks, and on up from there.

woman walking up beach, looking totally at home in her skin.

There are no guarantees (it’s easy to joke about people with great life habits getting hit by a bus) but hydration, nutrition, fresh air, and exercise tend to pay off tremendously– usually after a clunky adjustment period, as body and mind lurch through the initial changes.

Of course, the time that new habits take is going to pass anyway. Would you rather be reaping rewards at the end of it, or find yourself back in the rut that put you into medical care?

I’ve said exactly that to many people, with honest attention. This isn’t a trick question, nor is it an occasion for smarm. It’s a key question we all have to ask ourselves periodically throughout our lives, in one way or another. Everyone has the right to contemplate and answer that question honestly, even if the real reaponse is, “I like my habits/my rut, I see the trajectory, I know where it will take me, and I accept that probable outcome with open eyes.” I’ve had people say that, in tones varying from sweet concern for my feelings to roaring defiance. It’s all okay; it’s their call. I’d ask if they’re interested in cushioning their fall or minimizing damage to others, tailor suggestions accordingly, and then call their physician to adjust expectations and ask about/offer any ideas for mitigation over improvement. (It was never a total surprise to their doctors.)

As a patient, I have made — and continue making — complex changes in order to stay as well and functional as possible. I’m persistent like that. To me, being incapacitated is intolerable. I’d rather have better options.

“When you’re alive, anything is possible. It’s being dead that seriously limits your options.”
– Jodi Taylor

Active presence puts me on ground firm enough to step off from, and actually get somewhere. I’ve been living with a strong inward nudge to simplify, focus, and hurry up, because I don’t have much time left. It may be fallacious (I hope so), my subconscious working to override my “completion anxiety” about larger works. Given the accuracy rate of these deep, strong inward messages up to now, I’d be a complete idiot to ignore it. So, I’m simplifying, focusing, putting my ego (which is where this anxiety resides) off to one side, and buckling down on building the structure of my legacy in my head. I’ll discuss that more when there’s some output.

Dying is horrible. I don’t want to do that, ever. I’ve started to, a couple of times, and I’ve seen far too many loved ones go, especially those with these diseases. No words, no words for it… That said: Being out of this relentless, grinding circus of delicately-balanced tolerability, with horrific and likely further life-limiting consequences for certain mistakes? Really looking forward to being done with it! There will come a time — at some point, for me as for anyone — which will suck, and shortly after that, I’m absolutely certain there’ll be an end to this (extremely well-managed) biological terror and the unimaginably cruel pain that drives it.

I have this stubborn inner nudge that it’s not far off for me personally. That’s definitely NOT my choice, it’s the circumstance I find myself in. Without having wanted or chosen it, I somehow find acknowledging it to be hugely freeing!

That is intensely weird, I know. Also uncomfortable and maybe bitter and sad.

But that’s what is true for me, right here and right now.

From here, and only from this point in my often tortuous reality, can I move on.

I accept that.

Here I am.

Time for the next little step. Who knows where it’ll take me in the long run?

Let’s find out.

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Chaos theory

  1. As regular readers know, I’ve had an eventful life. The past 20 years, particularly, have been a circus of bizarre improbabilities, oxymoronic paradoxes, and irreconcilable conundrums. My life reads like a dystopian comedy, if your sense of humor is sufficiently twisted.

This is why I’ve got the category “imp-possible” going in this blog. It looks merely cute, but it has a lot of layers. Imps could be little devils, or little fairies, or little children. They emphasize the power of the small. It feels like the only power left. “Imp” also suggests the power of the unexpected.

As the current American president’s so-called “tax cut” comes home, the US Disability Income management agency, Social Security, has decided to trim costs in anticipation of their lost income: they’re cutting my pay, on the grounds that the Worker’s Compensation element of US health care paid me off for being hurt. Separately, they handed over a bunch of health insurance money so Medicare wouldn’t have to pay for my work-related treatment.

Social Security confused the two, and then added zeros to the left of the decimal, divided it by 12, multiplied that by the square root of Guatemala (I’m making this up, just like they did), slapped a bonus on it, and decided I make OVER $5,000 PER MONTH and they’re going to count 80% of that and dock my pay by ~$160 per month…

I’m allowed to make over $5,000/month? Where? How? Sign me up! But wait… huh?? You think I actually have $5,000/month???

Yeah, I’m confused too. (The payout was good, but not that good: I got a sturdy, 10-yr-old car and a year’s worth of rent in a clean, dry cottage out of it.)

That $160 is what allows me to keep my pain-cream-making gear & off-season clothes in storage *and* pay for my writing course at the 50% discount I negotiated with the teacher (I’m doing that course instead of buying books & music for a few months.) I’m not sure any of that counts as extra these days.

They said this would be (future conditional tense) reflected in my pay as of December 2019 (whaaaaat???)…

Either they’re as confused as the rest of us, they’re in even harder denial about which year this is, or they’re setting up to make the pay cut retroactive in case they decide that that’s in their best interests. Also, Social Security being who they are and the current US administration being who they are, this feels like the first move against our lifeline, not the only move.

… I’m sitting here speechless again. Happens every time I think about it.

This is on top of the brutal horrors of approaching winter (relentless agony, burning brain, incapacitating fog), no bathtub (CRPS’s disruptive surface effects creep up my legs and over my back and make my shoulders, hips, and right arm into bloated purple sausages wrapped in electrified barbed wire, with no way to push back), encroaching mold (which multiplies everything, including mast-cell hyperreactivity/disabling allergies, heart dysrhythmias, gut problems, and it adds respiratory diseases to the mix), and gastroparesis so bad that every other day I have to do a big ol’ — you don’t want to know. Trust me. Even I can’t make it funny.

My psychotherapist is savvy, sweet, and has that merciless faith in her client that the best of them wield like surgeon’s tools (yes, this is relevant, hang on through the curve)… I fell apart completely in our virtual visit and whispered in stricken tones, “I don’t know if I’ll make it this time.”

After acknowledging the depth and legitimacy of my feelings and recognizing my prior successes against staggering odds (she does know her job!) she encouraged me to see the breadth of creative possibility embedded behind, “I don’t know.”

I blinked, because that sounded pretty darned merciless, even for a top-flight psychotherapist. (Keep in mind that surgeon’s tools include, not just scalpels and silk, but electric saws and the sprung barbs known, deceptively, as towel clips.) She wouldn’t give up, though.

I agreed to accept that as a working hypothesis.

On reflection, that thought began to feel more like pre-2019 Isy, before my heart got ripped out and stomped on a little too hard by a few too many, and my system fell apart so badly in the storm of it. It began to feel more like the Isy who, 13 years ago at the start of the Hell Years, looked around at the absolute rubble & blasted mess of everything I thought defined my life, and realized someone was still there doing the looking, so there was still an “I” and I wasn’t done yet. It felt more like the Isy who made the term “imp-possible” a regular category. I didn’t know where that would lead me, but…

I didn’t know how to finish that sentence yet.

This morning, while listening to an audiobook that’s a romantic comedy about overthinky nerds (still relevant; hang on through one more curve), I used the toilet successfully for the first time in months, without having to resort to the apparatus hanging nearby for the thing I’ve had to do that I won’t tell you about. (It involves soap & warm water, nothing too ghastly.)

I use audiobooks to keep my brain from overheating. It gives me just enough to focus on that I don’t drive my thoughts off a cliff, and it’s not so intrusive or demanding that I can’t do ordinary tasks at the same time.

This one had gotten to a part where the author discusses basic chaos theory: chaotic systems (and I defy any biologist to come up with a more chaotic system than a dysautonomic human body with longstanding central pain syndromes) … where was I? Right. Chaotic systems tend to get more and more chaotic until a sort of tipping-point is reached and they reorganize at a higher level of criticality.

What the heck does that actually mean, anyway?? What do they mean by a higher level of criticality?

Partly, it means that a lower level of energy is required to maintain that state of chaos, even though it’s still a higher level of chaos.

And that (I thought, as I looked up at the equipment I was going without at last) meant that I could do more coping with less effort.

Once you’ve prioritized your needs hard enough and developed your adaptations effectively enough, it gets a whole lot harder to throw you off your game.

I can work with that.

The next level of chaos is here. I have no idea how it’ll unfold. That said, I’ve already reorganized at a higher level of criticality.

I’ll meet it somehow. I don’t know how. I’m still here doing the looking, so I’m not done yet.

In honor & memory of Ruth Bader Ginsberg.

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Living anyway, up at the sharp end

Ladies, gentlemen, and others, we can do this.

The tracks have been laid. All we need to do is acknowledge them, and accept where they can lead us.

The most recent relentless global pandemic was HIV. (Note: We still don’t have a safe & effective vaccine for it.) It changed all our lives forever, in ways that most people no longer notice.

My first nursing job was on a unit that specialized in HIV, in 1991. The treatments were new, the extensive effects of the disease still poorly understood, and everything was still very much in flux. Sound familiar?

We were pretty sure how it was transmitted — hence the dawn of Universal Precautions, where old nurses had to learn new tricks, like putting on latex gloves and a mask while running to a code blue. My class learned it alongside our other skills, so we usually found ourselves promoted to leading operations until the “dinosaurs”, who otherwise knew what they were doing, got kitted up.

What I learned from my patients then was that, in facing such a horrifying illness, basics matter:
– good nutrition,
– good information,
– adequate activity,
– relentless adaptability,
– cheerful determination,
– true friends, and
– emotional integrity — the only ballast burly enough to keep a person upright through wave after wave of bereavement and harrowing loss.

Obviously, those lessons tailored my response to my own ghastly illnesses. The more science discovers, the more sense it all makes.

“Emotional integrity? Huh?”
This is closely related to “radical presence” and “radical acceptance”, useful terms in trauma therapy.

This sense of the world spinning out of control, all bets are off, legitimate fear and uncertainty, not sure how we’ll survive, the horror of realizing that we can never go back to our pre-Covid-19 reality? That’s all traumatic, in the psychological sense. It’s legitimately frightening and disruptive of life.

This pandemic is a profound, global, traumatic event, and not everyone is handling it well — some leaders especially.

When dreadful things happen, we want to fly, fight, or freeze.

Flight:
Pandemics can travel with — or to — you, so, as Europe learned during the Black Death, running tends to make things worse all over.

Fight:
Pandemics don’t have faces. They can’t be punched or shot. Doesn’t work.

Try telling that to the weird extremists screaming for their imaginary right to kill and die without even trying.

Ah, denial. It’s so predictable, and it does not help.

The opposite of denial is emotional integrity.

This is the knife that cut through the fog after my Dad died; the sharp anguish somehow opened up my eyes to the silvered beauty of morning mist on the trees, and the bottomless comfort of being around my brothers — the only people to be similarly wounded by the loss, and whose sense of humor is as quirkily angled as mine.

There was no point pretending he wasn’t dead. Nothing would bring him back.

There’s no point pretending that Covid-19 and all that goes with it isn’t happening. Nothing will undo its intrusion or the consequences of our leadership and our collective actions.

It’s okay, and healthy, to let go of the fact now & then and focus on something equally real but maybe more fun, or at least more pressing. Doesn’t change the new reality that awaits the return of your involvement in dealing with it.

The weird and counterintuitive point is this:

Starting from “This is what’s real, and it truly sucks” opens up the barn door and lets out all the good feelings too.

Suddenly the air smells better, my real friends matter more, priorities simplify, internal muddles settle down… Although I become more keenly aware of the grief and loss and pain, it’s also natural to be more aware of the things that help me bear it. It worked then and it has worked through all the 21 years (, 3 months and 21 days) since then, in which I’ve lost far, far more than I ever imagined was possible. (Long-term spoonies and the much-bereaved, you get it. Like many, I’m both.)

You know how the sun keeps coming out and the world keeps turning even though you’ve just had a loss that leaves you almost prostrate? There’s a reason. Open up and let it in. It’ll wash through and leave you stronger.

Emotional integrity is learning how to stand and face the feelings, look straight at them, acknowledge them, name them, assert what they are. Then release yourself into the wider view that incorporates and surpasses them. Grief is complex anyway, so it makes sense, when you face it, to expand awareness enough to accept feelings that don’t suck, too. It’s weirdly freeing.

Sounds odd, but it works. 5 thousand years of meditative development and ~50 years of neurological and psychological science all show this. Powerful tool; simple, though not always easy, to use.

I write this to remind myself, because I’m struggling.

I’ve lost another friend to suicide (not impulsive; she was truly done with her life), on top of the Covid-19 reality and the slaughter of my homing dreams and the shockingly multifarious personal devastations of 2019. Oh, and worsening disease with spreading & intensifying CRPS and either worsening neurovascular dysfunction or maybe a vascular manifestation of EDS, which recently killed a most excellent friend who was my angel of survivorship.

So yeah, tough times. Absolutely craptastic in so many ways. (But it could certainly be worse. I finally reside somewhere safe & kind, and I’m truly grateful.)

But still, I live. Still, I walk. Still, I love. More than ever. Still… I must find a way to go forward.

I don’t have to feel good. It’s a tiresome fact of my life that I almost never do. (The last time was a little over 2 years ago, in a successfully pain-killing vitamin C and Epsom bath after the right meds, my lover peeking in and giggling, and the songbirds going nuts outside.)

I just have to continue to feel — and remember not to close the door too hard or too long on grief and pain, because then I lose joy and wonder as well.

We can do this. We can all learn to do this. I mean that in pure sincerity.

It’s worth the effort of learning to do so at will, and not wait for the rare gifts of unavoidable joy to bring back a bit of life. I think we have to go out and get it, thorns and all.

Of course it hurts. Is that the point? There’s so much more to life than just all this terrible pain. I know that, even when I don’t feel it.

This is the diamond-hard point of “living anyway.” I never said it was easy. What I have said, often, is: there’s a future worth having — we just have to live long enough to get to it.

L’chaim: here’s to living… long enough.

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A 3-point reality check in the armpit of winter

I’ve got a sweet, safe little spot all to myself now. I can’t talk about it much but the gratitude and relief is STUPENDOUS. It took over a month to begin to come home to the fact that I get to come home now.

Last week, I didn’t spend much time upright. Months of overdrafts on my body’s account were called in: colossal spoon-deficit.

If I’d had the energy to feel much, I would have been alarmed. I just couldn’t. I couldn’t anything: think, choose, feel, read, watch, be.

Pale mass of bubbles from underwater

Just drifted through the hours, mostly lying down, listening to audiobooks I’d read (or had read to me; thanks, Mom!) at least a dozen times before. Drifting in and out of the stories. Falling asleep early, waking late. Weird, spacey surges of energy got the kitchen cleaned a couple of times, and enough whole food cooked (can’t afford premade) to keep me fed for another 2 or 3 days.

The laundry pile and state of the floors don’t bear thinking about. I’ve started cleaning the floor, one square yard at a time, and so far that’s one square yard. Yay!

Last week, I was incredibly seduced by the idea of giving up the considerable ongoing effort of living. Oh, the peace, the comfort, the over-ness…

Eventually, I made an agreement with myself to simply wait until summer. That’s all. Anything else I did would be pure bonus. Even knowing I’ve got dreadfully important things to do, I had to be ready to put them aside to get this internal agreement to work.

Reasons

Of course, part of this is the wacky human version of hibernation, an unsatisfying slowdown without the restfulness or calm feelings that make it pleasant.

Cold dark winters are brutal. I never stop thinking about 2 things: deep warm baths and warm places to go in the winter. There’s no tub here and I’m not doing any more packing for awhile, though.

Compounded by longtime central pain, dysautonomia now with heart effects, bereavement, and recent protracted survival-stress, it’s really no darned wonder that letting this ride stop appealed to me!

I made promises which I take seriously, and there’s no question of my hurting myself. That’s just not going to happen.

I only wanted so badly to stop pushing back all the time, stop doing the relentless self-disciplines around every life activity — eating, sleeping, moving around, taking care of self and pet and home, making it to all those appointments, staying on top of my tasks, tracking the endless cyclogram* of signs & symptoms & exposures & feelings & barometric changes & solar weather & functional levels… you get the picture.

Stylized image of woman asleep with enormous red and black dress billowing around and supporting her. White snow falls from a deep blue sky

What chores await

I want the business from my failed homing efforts cleaned up and moved on as soon as possible, so I can stop paying rent on a useless space. Going back to it is a desperately nauseating thought. The place nearly killed me, I realize in retrospect.

At least one of my friends realized that at the time. Sigh.

Line drawing of woman flat on floor, with woozles coming out of her head
Image mine. Creative Commons share-alike attribution license, credit livinganyway.com.

I’m used to pushing past feelings, of course — “CRPS R US!” — but this stage of illness makes an issue out of being too dizzy or vomity to drive safely. (The vomiting is really intense and leaves me no control of my arms and legs… or anything, actually.)

I toy with the idea of a tree falling on the thing hard enough to trigger an insurance writeoff… happy thought! Well, actually, I’m not fussy; anything that totals it and doesn’t harm anyone would be fine with me.

Dreaming is free. Meanwhile, I’m working on healing as hard as I can. This is one of several weighty and important things to manage, and I know a few of you know how much that’s like trying to run with no legs.

But I’m getting better

This morning, I could actually taste the raw sugar in my tea. That’s kind of amazing. I didn’t realize I’d simply stopped being able to taste sweetness. It’s these little things that give me some rational hope.

This first day that I’ve been well enough to get out, I loaded up on blue fruit and low-FODMAP carbs.

Hubris, meet Reality-check

I’m sitting down to give these palpitations a chance to calm down before heading home. If I’m up to it, I’ll get some digestible protein; if not, I’ll go home and get back to horizontal.

Something about that statement seemed odd. H’mmm…

I know what to do when a statement seems odd: do a simple 3-step reality check!

Isy’s 3-step reality check**:
1. Review what I just said.
2. Take a moment to notice the totality of how my body feels, right now.
3. Think back over past 24 hours and look for other symptoms.

That took 5 seconds for the first 2 steps and another 6 for the third. It gets very efficient with practice.

I said to myself, “Self… Palpitations and breathlessness now, and seeing spots last night & this morning? You’re going home to lie the heck down, pal! No argument!” (The spots relate to blood flow, in my case, so heart symptoms have been acting up in a non-chest way.)

Can’t argue with that.

…Well, I could, but it’d be wilfully stupid and I disapprove of wilful stupidity — not just in politicians, but also in myself. So I’d better get stable enough to drive and then go home and lie down.

1 hr later…
I did.

Cats are masters of pa:ng 🙂

Footnotes
*A cyclogram is a way of charting multiple changing elements in a single system, using a circular graph. It can be useful for seeing overlaps, backtracks, correlations, and other patterns among the different elements. Whether it’s better than an oblong line-graph is a matter of taste, but I find the sense of spinning-ness very apt here!

**Step 1 keeps me on track. I had two professions where everything depended on my getting things right, but I’m not perfect (despite best efforts!) so I got into the habit, very early on, of mental review and double-checking myself.
Step 2 is nearly magical in its effect. I stole it from the stress- and uncontrolled-pain-management skillset. It’s key to getting on top of any mind-clouding moment. Try it out, it’s magnificent!
Noticing the body response is a tremendously powerful step to getting back in charge. Once we can notice the physical self in an overcharged state, we can learn to steer it to a better physical state — breathe better, stand or sit better, lift the neck, release the shoulders — and wow! Suddenly it’s not about being so overwhelmed, it’s about a single moment (in a whole life) which we’re managing and moving more gracefully through. Great tool. Gets better and better with practice.
Step 3 I add for health issues, because chronic conditions need more context so we can figure out what’s going on. I started doing that for patients 30 years ago, so there’s a special rolodex in my brain for recent symptoms. When that rolodex went missing during the Hell Years, I noted symptoms & signs in my journal, which lived by my berth on the boat, always in reach. Over time (time which was passing anyway) that ability gradually got rebuilt.
Tracking matters. It really matters.

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Angel wings & tactical things

This morning, I woke up feeling like a butcher knife was lodged in my heart, the memory of barking and snarling voices ringing in my ears. No surprise there; it’s to be expected.

My first coherent thought was, “This needs to be better.” I think that about a lot of things, but this one is mine to deal with.

I pulled one of my tools out of my mental toolkit, and flicked my eyes from ceiling to floor, ceiling to floor. (I’m a side-sleeper.) When I felt an urge to close my eyes, I did. When I opened them again, the butcher knife had shrunk to the size of a stiletto, maybe a medium-sized knitting-needle.

This magic technique is one way of using “bilateral stimulation.” Bilateral stimulation is a way of using neuro-anatomy to manage neuro-chemistry, using your brain signals to heal your mind. There’s loads of material on it in the field of trauma psychology.

Basically, the way our brain processes “sidedness” (the fact that we have a left, a right, a front, and a back) is even deeper than the way it processes strong, primitive emotions, like fight-or-flight-or-freeze. Those emotions tend to disrupt the brain’s normal processing of memory, thought, and decision-making, which can be useful when mastodons are stomping over your village — what you need to do is move faster than you’ve ever done in your life, and not camp on their migratory route in the future.

Most decisions we have to make are not on that order. Even when we live with a brain that keeps wanting to go there, it’s still rarely useful. So, it’s wise to have a few tools that can keep it in check when it’s working “after hours”, so to speak.

One way to do that, which works for most ordinary stressors, is meditation. It gives me practice in creating a still space inside, where I can survey my surroundings, assess things, and choose the best way forward, from this non-triggered space. The “success” of individual meditation sessions is irrelevant to this skill, because it comes naturally as a result of persistently going back to meditation and working on it over and over. Like with many things regarding central nervous system care, persistence is key.

When my skills are toppled over by what goes on around me (cf. my last post! A perfect example of losing it and coming back again), these other tools come out of my “bag of tricks.”

Glancing from one side to another is easy, portable, and requires only some vision and muscular control of your eyes. Pick a spot about 45-60 degrees ahead of you on your left, and a corresponding spot on your right. Flick your glance from one to the other, and back again, not too fast, not too slow. The right speed varies from person to person and time to time. Feel out the point where your system naturally drops to a median, attentive level. It doesn’t feel dramatic or unnatural; I experience it as a sort of a natural pause, as if it’s waiting calmly for something reasonable. Getting someone properly trained in EMDR to teach you what this feels like is really helpful, but you might be able to find it yourself.

There’s a bit more to it: real EMDR training starts with finding, and programming into that deep layer, a “safe place” to go to in your mind; establishing a certain connection with what some call “your wise self”, so you can re-assess your situation and re-evaluate your responses without the triggering; and learning what happens to you, in particular, during the process, so you can self-treat with fewer problems and more success.

Other techniques of bilateral stimulation include the “butterfly hug.” Cross your arms so your hands rest on your opposite collarbones, and tap one side, then the other side. This feels very comforting. It’s not my go-to, because the nerves going through my elbows don’t like bending up that much.

Thigh tapping is widely taught in disaster- and war-related trauma recovery. It can be done sitting, standing, or lying down. Simply tap your legs, first one side, then the other, with the hand on that side. Left hand left leg, Right hhand right leg, back adn forth. The signal demands attention from the brain, which pulls itelf off of panic duty and gets back to processing information and sorting memories in a healthier way.

My physical therapist recently taught me the cross-body crawl. I can do this standing, sitting, or lying down on my back. Reach over with one hand and bring up the opposite knee, then switch sides, back and forth.

This does several things: it provides bilateral stimulation, which calms the panicky system down. It tones the core muscles, especially done while walking! It reminds the brain where the limbs are, which is kind of a huge deal with CRPS, which tends to muddle our brain’s map of our bodies. The cross-body crawl tops my current list of things I wish I wouldn’t do in public, because people look at me funny, but I’m going to do it anyway, because it’s so helpful to me.

I’m also able to focus on nutrition, physically the biggest player in the healing game. I made a green soup last night — Not Chik’n brand bouillon with all the green things I could find in the store that weren’t cabbage relatives (because they push down on my thyroid), and yesterday that was parsley, leeks, mature spinach, celery, and dandelion greens, plus carrots to smooth it all out. I cooked the rather harsh-smelling leeks in butter until the smell sweetened, then dumped everything but the spinach in and simmered for awhile, letting the minerals leach out into the broth. Then I cooked the spinach on top more briefly (so it wouldn’t get bitter) and threw it all in the blender.

As my friend said, “It’s like a chlorophyll bath.”

Meanwhile, as long as I persist in my meditative practice, the work on finding a home charges ahead. It’s a lasting puzzle to the linear part of my mind why an hour spent on meditation makes the other 3-4 functional hours I can squeeze out of the day ten times more effective. I’m gaspingly glad that it does, because it’s a heck of a job to find a safe place for this body.

This cascade of events has carved into my very bones the understanding that it’s meditation that will save me in the end. It’s the axis of my mundi, strange as that may seem to those who’ve witnessed any of my eventful life.

I feel the wings of angels stirring my hair now, and I can’t worry, only take the leap and trust that I’ll fly, rather than fall.

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There’s always an afterwards

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

A non-obvious choice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This image?

big great dane looking down at a little chihuahua

Not a patch on that moment. It was wonderful.

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

The afterwards

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

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

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

I  finally got it

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

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

waves pouring around a still stack of rocks

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

Barely alive

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

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

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

But wait, this gets even funnier.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Becoming super-human, or maybe more fully human

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to reality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Catching the wave

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

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

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

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

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

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

I think it also improves my writing 🙂

Beyond the moment

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

And boy, was that a journey worth making!

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What I did with my summer

I’m aware that I disappeared for awhile. Obsessively focusing on housing and breakup, everything else sorta disappeared.  Here’s what that period looked like, framed around the 3 dimensions of life I always update my doctors on — physical, mental/cognitive, and emotional changes:

June

Physically: holding together with bubble gum and baling wire. Somehow didn’t injure myself with packing, storage, and less and less help with errands.
Mentally: dear gods and little piglets, did I ever get a lot done! Dealing with my own move, identifying resources for nontoxic and used building components, dealing with an identity theft, getting a new provider on board (acupuncture), looking at homes, finally getting an old friend out of a deadly situation and somewhere safe, and still keeping my appointments.
Emotionally: J used his last Saturday here helping a friend. He left late enough on a Monday that we could have a bit of morning together and say a proper goodbye. Best moment we’ve had in a long time. And so, my partner of seven years removed his hugely-wounded self to the other side of the continent, so he couldn’t hurt me anymore.

July

Physically: living in one mold factory, driving in another, and working in a third. Discovered that Borax, vinegar, and hydrogen peroxide are very unkind to auto interiors and soft furnishings. Discovered concromium, and hosed almost everything down with it – twice. Much improvement.
Mentally: bought a house (mobile home in a sweet park, actually – who knew!)
Emotionally: saw a beloved friend from my youth. Woot! After five friends, one by one, sat me down and told me how was going to be, I promised to include my friends in the work of making my home safe for me. Horrifically, one of my dearest and most dependable friends dropped dead. See Taming the Beast for some of her outstanding work on nontoxic self care, mast cell disease (weird allergies), and central-pain management.

August

Old amber-screen lettering showing *TILT* like on old pinball machines

Physically: much stronger than this time last year, but still have exercise intolerance, so have to go carefully. Tried to lower meds to summer pattern, but whoops! Bad idea. Definitely not getting the usual warm weather recovery; so, having a chemically and biologically safe home is more important than ever.
Mentally: flailing, burned out and not willing to admit it. Housemate/hostess pulled my head out of my butt and got me back to pacing, alternating activity and rest. Figured out how to organize the work on my home.
Emotionally: it’s extremely reassuring to be 5 min. from the highways, 10 min. from the store, 15 min. from the hospital, 20 min. from nearly half my regional friends, and have a bunch of sweet-natured busybody neighbors making sure I’m all right. Started opening up my social world, now that I’m here.

Summary

It’s been one hell of a summer.

When I look inside, I see myself as entirely raw, a walking mass of weeping wounds. Naturally, this doesn’t normally show, because I’m a responsible painiac and I’ve had 20 years of experience in choosing what to show, what to focus on in public.

Despite so much wounding, healing is possible. In fact, it’s imperative. It’s what I do.

For better or worse, here I am, still alive and kicking. With staunch old friends, something resembling a plan in place, and one new friend who touches on my past in interesting ways and opens up my sense of an unexplored future, I’m looking ahead again – not as a duty, the job of the living; but because it could be really fun, and how much fun I have is largely up to me.

head shot of blonde woman grinning 3/4 face

I’m outrageously lucky. Yeah, multiple crap-tastic diseases, too little income, too much loss and pain; yada yada, that’s life sometimes. In these harrowing times, kindness, love, and care define my world, and that’s so very wonderful.

Life’s short. Take care of yourselves and each other – and do have fun. It makes you stronger 🙂

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All. That. Love.

Straight into Coping Mode.

From letter to my doctor

Dear Dr. S,

Big stress here: my partner and caretaker went off the rails and has broken up with me. (I’m staying with a friend while he packs and leaves.)

My best response to stress is to work. Being unable to focus mentally, that was outdoor work: small scale yard work. Thursday, an amount of labor that would normally be marginally too much but recoverable, resulted in me vomitting and becoming prostrate for 2 hours and set back in my physical capacity, through the present. Fortunately I did get to that afternoon’s neurological PT appointment.

I also had a showstopping muscle spasm in my left neck/shoulder. I thought the yard work would work that out, but it probably contributed to my collapse.

Physical care:
– PT course has been extended.
– Massage weekly instead of every other week, maybe more, per opinion of LMT when I see her.
– Hot tub spa time. My sense of heat perception is blunted, so will do this with friends for safety.

Savella:
– Optimum dose of Savella stabilizes my GI activity with no or trivial additional nausea. Due to that n/v, I felt it best to back off on Savella, despite the increased instability in life & my neurologic behavior.
– Went from 50+12.5 to 50mg Savella BID, as of Thursday evening.
– Nausea has reduced and ability to eat is returning, not yet to normal but gradually getting closer. Able to keep blood glucose functionally adequate. I attribute >90% of this to stress, while not exacerbating n/v with increased sensitivity to Savella GI side effects.

Zoloft & psychiatry:
– In the lead-up to my ex’s meltdown, I’d increased Zoloft (in consultation with my mental health provider and prescribing PMD) from 50+12.5 mg to 50+25 mg. That remains the same.
– I’m in the queue to see a medication psychiatrist in a couple of months.

Spasms:
– Mg chelate up from PRN to 500 mg BID from Thursday until this morning; however, prodromal twitches starting again, so will continue it BID for now, retest every few days, and keep Carafate on hand if gastritis starts up again.
– Avoiding CNS depressants d/t affect fragility: no antispasmodic p.o.

Pain:
– I’d recently experimented with curcuminoid supplementation, and found that 300 mg of the 95% extract BID (which is 1.3-2x the recommended dose) plus at least 2gm of unextracted turmeric, provides best cost/benefit tradeoff.
– I find that, with the lower Savella, being an hour late with this raises pain levels distinctly, as there’s less pain control on board. So it’s now part of the routine.

CNS care:
– Working hard on emotional regulation, reiki (which really helps me with stabilization), and maintaining activity at a sustainable but persistent level.
– Less diligent about my sleep/wake schedule, which would be an exercise in frustration.
– More diligent about everything else (pill punctuality, mindfulness & “radical presence” practices, taking care of relationships, pacing & activity, diet, toxic exposures.)

All things pass. There will be a New Normal one day.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll figure out how to get my continuing physical & logistical support needs met.

If you don’t mind, I’ll add this letter of mine to my livinganyway.com blog. It’s where I discuss how to handle (excuse my French:) the shittiness of life events atop the shittiness of central-pain conditions.

Hope your summer’s going well.

All the best,
Isabel

Reality bites

So here’s what is really going on…

Notes from paradise

3 days on, I’m realizing that one of the few certainties I once had was that J and I would be together, and if I wound up single it’d be because he died before I did. He loved me so much. SO. MUCH. He bragged about me to his boss as little as 2 weeks before he broke with me. He really wanted a life with me, and affirmed it over and over again, over the years.

He saw my weakness and strength, brilliance and idiocy, beauty and horror, and loved me wholly, just the same. He saw when I needed more help and when, instead, I needed motivation to work harder; quietly, seamlessly, without any fuss, he adjusted his actions and my environment accordingly.

When we were together, we had everything we needed. It was so much fun and so pleasant to be in each other’s company that the world around us sparkled and everyone we met lit up. We were “the elves of [Our] Road,” spreading joy and taking care of things wherever we went.

Our relationship was rather tempestuous from the outside: two strong characters are always going to have some intensity together, and an addict in amateur recovery with a spoonie in pain adds more than a little spice to the mix. Ten percent of it was pretty hard. The lion’s share of the other 90% was delightful. Because we’re both introverts, 90% was also pretty private.

He loved me very nearly as thoroughly as I loved him.

All that love…

Mental breakdown

And now,
After watching everything around his old home turf burn to the ground, raising the level of poison and desperation in an already toxic and desperate area to unfathomable levels…
After sinking into a surly isolation unthinkable until now…
After having to wait 2-1/2 weeks between signing up for couples counseling and actually getting it, which might be the kicker…

He has taken to the idea that he’s homesick and “I have to go back every 5 years”, having left only 3 years ago and visited this past June; and that I, of all people, “amazing” and “brilliant” me, am worth using but not worth being with.

All that love!

Dual diagnosis

This is exactly what untreated mental illness coupled with untreated alcoholism looks like:

  • Love is irrelevant.
  • Joy loses meaning.
  • The diseased story he tells himself is FAR more important than the real world in all its richness and possibility.
  • His own power to shape his life seems fantastical to him — absurd.
  • His power to devastate and destroy seems to give some weird, uncharacteristic satisfaction. I call this “emotional cannibalism.”
  • He acts like mindless prey stuck in the claws of his illness, not like a living human being with good options.

Worst of all, love is simply irrelevant.

All. That. Love.

Irrelevant.

All that joy?

Unthinkable.

All that subtlety of observation and care?

Dead, decapitated, done.

Looking for reasons in unreason

We humans try to figure out what’s going on, to look for reasons, patterns, something to make sense of things. Unfortunately, mental illness — by definition — creates irrational states of being, and addiction is inherently not sensible.

My Magic Healer-Man is even more surprising in his departure than he was in thundering into my life, throwing some of his healing into my hands as he took so much of my healing into his. After all, if we can’t save ourselves, we might be able to save each other — as many of the seriously ill and disabled are well aware.

It was an amazing partnership, in many ways.

All.

That.

Love.

Making choices

In the end, though, we have to take charge of our own healing, even when we’re short on the dopamine necessary to make choices with. When we’re miserable, we have to decide whether misery or healing will drive us.

I tend to do whatever it takes to get better. I could be (much) more diligent, especially when things are going well.

By and large, though, misery is unacceptable to me. Life is too short. (Until recently, that was one place where J and I thought exactly alike.)

But then, I’m not a man. Testosterone is neurotoxic, strictly speaking — a fact that’s hard to find in the literature, and then only when cloaked in caveats and euphemisms. A lifetime of it doesn’t seem to be a great set-up for dealing with the changes in the last quarter of life. … Yet, many do manage it with wisdom and skill.

Look! That was me trying to find a reason, even a demonstrably daft one! Or is it an excuse? Didn’t work, anyway.

We choose what to be influenced by, out of the options and resources available to us. He had great options and outstanding resources here.

I think what I’m struggling most with is the fact that, abruptly, he chose chaos, violence (I know where he’s going), and desperation over love, work, and healing. I do not understand that.

Over and over, my broken heart cries out,

ALL!

THAT!

LOVE!

Some things, there are no answers for. They can only be endured.

I’ll make adjustments, time will pass, and one day I’ll wake up to a New Normal, in which there will be some measure of joy. Hard to imagine, but that’s the way things work.

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Bearing witness — what it is, what it isn’t

I’m a history nerd. I love the stuff.

This is the anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. I had the dizzying experience of being part of an online re-enactment. (I know, it sounds crazy, but it worked!)

People got so caught up in the re-enactment that there was real heartache over the screams of the doomed and the bitter anguish over lives we couldn’t save, and watching the lights go out one by one. The idea of “bearing witness” was tossed around, but without form, as it often is. I thought it needed clarifying.

Therefore, I wrote the following, in the aftermath. I didn’t trivialize the pain, because who knows what horrors others will face in their lives afterwards. (I can’t even imagine what I’ve been through so far, let alone guess what’s next, and I’m pretty sure I was there.) So, I treated the heartache as perfectly valid — chances are, sooner or later it will be, and we can all use a little clarity at those times.

What I wrote resonated so strongly with so many different people that I thought I should put it here, too. (All these posts are printable, shareable, and linkable, so don’t be shy about sharing.) Hope it helps.

A word to those new to mortality in action…

I was a nurse, starting in HIV care 27 years ago, then Emergency/Casualty, then home care. Then I lost 9 loved ones in 18 months. Then I developed a subtly brutal disease that destroys the body from the inside out, for which the treatments are occasionally fatal.

I have watched a lot of people die.
(pausing for breath, and for the color to come back into the world)
[Okay, moving on.]

There are two ways to cope. One is to shut down and depersonalize, which is increasingly common. As a temporary measure, it’s fine — gives you time to get it together. The humane thing to do, though, is move on from there.

Another is to look closely at where your skin ends and another’s begins, and let them have their experience while you notice that it sucks for them — and you keep breathing.

This is what is meant by bearing witness.

Separating Self from Other allows us to be present while another faces the worst moments of their life.

Knowing that it’s not you dying, or writhing, or what have you, frees you up to stand outside that hell and throw the glowing line of awareness to the one inside it.

That is bearing witness.

I won’t discuss my illness here (check out livinganway.com if you want to see the sunny side; rsds.org if you don’t) but I often wind up in an unbearable state of being. I’m an old hand at looking back at life from the slopes of Hell.

While (keep this in mind) there is nothing anyone can do about my being in an unbearable state, there is only one thing that reminds me there is something beyond it, and all I have to do is get there.

That one thing is a loving look, or kind word, or one of my partner’s frankly feeble acknowledgements of recognizing that my body might as well be burning alive. It’s so small from the outside — but it lights up my world.

It’s a thread of golden light that holds me to life. Just a thread of golden light. But it’s enough.

Bearing witness is not about changing the outcome.

Bearing witness is simply the only possible redemption of these terrible moments.

Redemption is not about undoing anything. It does not change the outward reality.

It changes the unbearable inward blackness just enough that the person who is looking back at you from the slopes of Hell, can find the extraordinary inward strength to keep going until it’s over — one way or another.

You who are well and safe have no idea how important that is, but please, let me assure you that it’s a gift beyond reckoning to do that for another.

Bearing witness to those screams, those unspeakably harrowing last moments — whatever they are — you can’t see their faces change, because their reality is just as bleak right now — but, inside them, they found their steel; they found their peace.

For all those on the Titanic and all those who look back from the slopes of any other Hell, let me say, thank you. You make all the difference.

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