Remapping and the primitive brain; toolkit bonuses at end

Remapping and the primitive brain are key concepts that come up often for people with chronic pain — though we don’t always know it. These underlie some treatment strategies that seem, at on the surface, anything from absurd to cruel from the perspective of the stressed patient. They also underlie a couple of those chronic misunderstandings between medical people and non-medical people, which are especially painful when the non-medical person is a chronic pain patient. I hope this will go some way towards creating better communication between palliative-care doctors and chronic-pain patients.

First, I’ll go over a few fundamentals. Naturally, I’ll translate the dense stuff into Plain English.

Basic brain structure

The brain has sections which have different jobs, but communicate intensely with the others. It’s impossible to view them either as entirely separate or entirely connected; they’re simultaneously distinct, and inter-linked.

Self-Reflected-in-White-Light_c-gregadunndotcom
Go to http://www.gregadunn.com/self-reflected/self-reflected-gallery/ (opens in new tab) for the full suite of images and shopping opportunities. You’ll be so glad you did. They’re literally mind-blowing.

Providers, I’m going to oversimplify. Be warned.

The hindbrain, or medulla and cerebellum, manage the business of pulse, respirations, and the kind of moment-by-moment activities of survival we don’t even think about. The cerebellum and cerebrum take in information about our environment, check for reflex response, compare it to learned and instinctual information and decide what to do about it. The cerebral cortex is where we start thinking we’re in human territory, because this is where much of our actual thinking takes place, linked into deeper structures in order to turn into words and deeds. Our thinking brain is very much in the minority and, whether it knows it or not, conscious thinking only happens on top of a great deal of unthinking response which has already happened.

That’s the key, right there. The thinking brain is never isolated, even though we sometimes act as if it can operate alone.

Think about the meaning of the word “objective”, then think about how that can possibly apply to thoughts and perceptions channeled by a mind that’s driven by unackowledged forces at inaccessible levels. Objectivity is only an aspiration, not a rational goal, but that’s too often forgotten or ignored.

When scientists forget this, it explains a lot about conventional medicine’s blind spots, certain doctor-patient miscommunications, and many crucial limitations of scientific method.

When the rest of us forget it, we’re already reacting on the basis of the primitive brain’s unthinking push. We lose our capacity for any objectivity right when we need it most.

Remapping

The central nervous system (CNS) is “plastic”, a term in Medical Jargon which means that it morphs and changes to meet the requirements of whatever the CNS thinks is going on.

To be more precise, the CNS doesn’t change the shape of its cord, lumps, and lines, it changes the tasks (and pertinent chemistry) of sections of cord, lump, or line, when ongoing survival seems to call for it. The term for that morphing of purpose and chemistry is “remapping.”

During fetal and childhood development, the brain and spinal cord develop into certain chunks, and those chunks learn to store and pass along information and signal responses in predictable ways. Sounds, colors, sensations, Mom’s face, Dad’s scent, sibling’s voices — these all get processed in, stored for future reference and retrieval. The information finds its home in the CNS while the brain and spine build roads and rails to carry the signals on.

In Medical Jargon, this arrangement of storage and signaling is called the brain map. Unlike most other disciplines, in neurology, the map IS the territory, and mostly it works pretty well.

Therefore, a healthy brain has a normal map of the body, including how it signals normal needs and how to meet them. As the body, signals, and needs all change, the map gets re-drawn, and that’s how the brain and spinal cord get remapped.

This is appropriate in the developing years and in times of great change when we need to adapt. Brain plasticity is important and exists for good reason. However, in chronic pain, especially with central sensitization, it goes overboard.

Thanks to the remapping that happens with chronic pain, the pain signals can’t stop because the chemicals that carry the signals change, so the old pathways aren’t even accessible to them. You know how trains can’t use roads, and cars can’t use railroad tracks? It’s a bit like that. Your spinal cord/brain has blacktop where it used to have rails.

nynjtrackstreet-web

In central sensitization, it means that normal signals — excitement, touch, sound, lights — can get processed, not just as emotions (wow!) or touch (hey!) or sound (oh!) or light (ah!) signals, but as pain signals (ow!), because the brain’s remapping means the normal ways of processing feelings, sensations, etc., have been partly overwritten — sometimes completely erased. It’s all pain, showing up right there in the spine and brain; pure, gruesome pain. It doesn’t come from anywhere in particular; it’s just the essence of pure pain.

Yeah, it sucks.

This is why people with chronic pain and central sensitization get so quickly overwhelmed by things that used to be fun, like music, parties, dancing, socializing, and so on. The inputs, however delightful themselves, just get shunted into the “pain” tracks right in the central nervous system.

monopoly-chance-gotojail
Do not pass Go, do not collect $200, go straight to Pain Jail.

It’s not about not wanting to have fun! It’s about not being able to bear the unnaturally high price, which is so high the fun is usually lost.

When a normal person sees one of us at a party or other event, it would be totally appropriate for them to fall to their knees in admiration and gratitude, because our level of dedication to the events we do attend is truly special.

Not that anyone ever does, nor are they expected to … but it would be perfectly appropriate if they did 🙂

The primitive brain’s role in all this

The primitive brain is one of those terms that changes meaning depending on who’s using it. So, to be clear, I use it here to mean the parts of the brain that don’t use words a lot, and that underlie all the parts that do. Very simple.

Since pain is a survival function, it has deep roots in the primitive brain. This is kind of too bad for us, because once we understand the concept of remapping, we want to learn how to re-remap, so we can push our brains back closer to normal. The catch is, this is all rather intellectual, and pushing back on pain’s remapping means that the re-remapping needs to target a lot of primitive brain, which is primal, not intellectual. The approaches that have been developed reflect this. They’re hard to keep up with, because they don’t always appeal to our higher personality characteristics. (That is, they can be repetitious, trivial-seeming, and dull.)

Let’s take a look at the underlying concepts here, so the ways we communicate with the primitive brain make more sense.

Nonverbal cues

The primitive brain relies heavily on nonverbal cues. Take a look a few paragraphs back, where I was discussing how sensory signals turn into pain. I’ll repeat the section here:

…emotions (wow!) or touch (hey!) or sound (oh!) or light (ah!) signals, but as pain signals (ow!)…

See what I did there? For each type of signal, I made a pertinent sound, and drew attention to that sound by adding an exclamation point. I was totally talking to your primitive brain, there.

Body language

Most of us find we talk more easily with people who don’t have arms crossed or brows lowered. That’s the primitive brain noticing the lack of withdrawn or threatening cues. Body language is 90% of visible communication, just as tone is 90% of audible communication, and it’s rarely noticed by the cortex at all — it’s primitive brain stuff, and humans respond as reflexively as Pavlov’s dogs.

Color

Color (for those who can see it) sends powerful signals to the primitive brain.

Maina at sunset, with masts sticking up and reflecting down, both water and sky streaked with yellow, orange, gold, and purple clouds

Interior decorators may suggest painting the marital bedroom red, because red makes the primitive brain tend to feel passions more strongly and this can improve the sex life.

Some prisons use grey (which is depressing, and slows people down) or pink (which tends to promote calm. The nice theory is, it’s the first color we saw, as light penetrated mother’s stomach wall while we were in the womb. The mean-spirited theory is, it makes grown men feel like little girls; rather than learning to control their impulses, they get emotionally emasculated. Not corrective at all.)

Here’s a classic example of good intentions: In 1991, the administrators at my hospital decided to paint the walls of our HIV unit yellow, in a conscious effort to cheer the environment and counteract the depressing nature of early-90’s existence with HIV. They should have involved caregivers in the choice of shade… after only a year, the one they chose looked just like the serous fluid oozing from a skin ulcer. Still, they meant well.

Movement

horses-content-active

Movement is powerful. The movement we see around us and what we do, ourselves, gets plugged in very deep indeed. Movement involves the most primitive parts of our brains. Because so many of us become limited in our movement due to central pain disease, what movements we do make, and even observe, become even more important, more concentrated.

Re-remapping strategies often involve deliberate movement, combined with some other primitive signal (like seeing or feeling.) This is behind mirror therapy, my Epsom bath routine, mental practice/motor imagery (one article on the science, one explanation of how it works, one article providing charming context outside pain treatment), and other great tools for re-remapping the brain. Even coloring involves movement, and part of what calms the brain down is watching the hand move between the page and the coloring tools (lateral visual movement, not unlike EMDR.) Simple as that.

Very primitive indeed. That’s why these things can be so effective.

Putting several primitive-brain cues together: food, pills

Eating is comforting to the central nervous system for all sorts of reasons, one of which is that taking something, putting it in your mouth, and swallowing, is something we first experienced before we were even born. Also, eating good foods and taking effective medicines makes us more capable and less miserable, because of what happens afterwards to our chemistry — a powerful reinforcement of that primal reward.

The sensation of feeling better is even more compelling when being alive is unbearable at baseline.

Freud went to town over this instinctual action, but he wasn’t completely wrong.

Woman with eyes closed about to bite a cherry
Fabulously oral cherry by Jiri Ruzek.

Putting hand to mouth and swallowing is one of the most powerful primitive-brain signals we habitually engage in. (Realizing this makes me think about how I eat, fidget, and generally do hand-mouth things. I’ll be less mindless about those actions — at least for awhile — and try to give my primitive brain its due.)

This is where we get to one of the things that seems so cruel from the patient’s point of view, but makes perfect sense to the doctor seeing it from the brain’s point of view. I didn’t really get it until mulling over my recent visit, so those of you who’ve seen me saying something different before, I apologize for not having thought it through. They might not be wrong!

This was not easy to write, but for the reader, who doesn’t know what’s coming until you read it, it could be triggering. I want to insert a reminder to my fellow painiacs, for whom black-and-white thinking is very easy to fall into… Take a breath, let it out slowly, and keep in mind that there are no absolutes here, just lots of context and a few guidelines. This can be pretty tough material, but you are way, way tougher.

What we can do about this

Now that we have some idea just how powerful the primitive brain is, how easily it remaps itself once central sensitization takes hold, and how powerful the act of taking and swallowing things that make you feel better is …

Ideally, think long term

We can see why, when doctors don’t want us to ramp up our daily meds when the pain gets worse or to become too regular about taking our breakthrough meds, these things worry them. It’s too easy to program the primitive brain in pain. They see it as powerful signaling that sets the brain up for needing an outside chemical push whenever it starts acting up.

Pain patients come in all sorts, but can broadly be divided into the passive care recipients and active care participants. The latter tend to have much better prognoses and quality of life, but the nature of bitter central pain tends to suck everyone down into the former approach now and then.

Thus, the doctor has no way of knowing if the patient in front of them is currently able to be an active participant and do their disciplines first, or if they’re sufficiently overwhelmed and disabled to just reach for a pill (ow! — mmm!).

None of us is immune from mental exhaustion. However appalling their terminology may be, good docs’ instincts are founded on caring for our greater good, even when we can’t think that far ahead.

Unlike acute pain, life with chronic pain requires us to take more than one approach at the same time. (Insurance doesn’t much respect this fact, which makes it all the harder to manage!) We aren’t expected to recover, unlike those lucky so-and-so’s with ordinary acute pain, so we have to think in terms of having a life while thinking ahead to being able to live the rest of our lives in a bearable state.

This means that all of those primitive-brain approaches and re-remapping tools — eating well, keeping moving, mental rehearsal, coloring, internal arts like meditation and yoga — PLUS individually tailored pharmaceutical therapy and occasional procedures — have to be part of the picture.

Doctors can help us, but they can’t save us; we have to do as much re-remapping as possible, and contribute as little as possible to the pain’s remapping. We aren’t talking about a couple of days or even a couple of years; we have to be able to keep life as manageable as possible for however many years or decades we have left.

The painiac’s barriers to success

Considering how devastating it is to think that we’ll most likely be dealing with this all our lives, our own brain-care requires us not to think about that, because so much perfectly rational despair is waiting when we do.

It requires thinking years ahead on every aspect of our treatment. This is more than usually hard for us to do, becuase thinking too much about this aspect of our future is so counterproductive in other ways.

Nobody’s brains are set up to stay detached and rational when our nerves are running riot with pain signals and our bodies are just exhausted with it. It’s okay if this seems insanely hard, because it IS insanely hard.

This is not a normal situation! We’re rational people stuck in a complex web of relentless, irrational challenges, and we are obliged to prioritize our current survival.  Just do your best! It’s all you can do!

Personally, some days, getting out of bed and doing my tea-snack-pills routine is all I can manage, and I have to be glad of that. (Things could be worse.) I realize that, good as my disciplines (and consequently my perspective) are, they aren’t always up to the job of keeping this mile-high view. Also, I’m a brain-hurt human, and I can’t necessarily keep track of all the myriad things I’m supposed to do.

This is why I seek out and travel to such astoundingly good doctors. I need them to DO what I can’t, as well as to KNOW what I don’t.

Taking more pills and feeling better is powerful retraining. Yet… There are only so many pills in the world, only so many chemical boosts that can do any good at all.

What a set-up!

Built-in pain control and building up tools

On the other hand, remember that we have other tools available to us. For one thing, the brain/spine complex has many ways of managing pain and distress which can be leveraged by a conscious and determined owner of that system. These ways, from the descending inhibitory pathway to oxytocin, endocannabinoids, and endogenous opioids, can be consciously operated and can be nudged by what we take in and do. (Go ahead and google the heck out of those terms. I don’t have enough spoons left to dig up the best links.)

They take practice to master. Not surprisingly, developing these skills can be repetitious, trivial-seeming, and dull.

Just like building a muscle, it takes work to build — rebuild — and keep on building — the ability to counter pain in ways that use what your body has already got.

Letting the primitive brain slide into taking a pill for increased pain as Plan A or B puts the kybosh on those other methods. They wither, like unused muscles.

The pain patient is left with fewer and fewer alternatives, as the years go on.

Yeah, that REALLY sucks.

The one member of the doctor-patient team who isn’t currently losing their mind to disabling pain has the perspective to think ahead, and to realize that NOT retraining the brain to go with “pill as Plan A” is crucial to ongoing survival.

They aren’t always tactful about it, of course (!). They learned it in terms of Pavlov’s dog, and nobody likes being compared to a slobbering animal, so the usual explanation is deeply offensive. I hope they’ll figure that out and start using terms like “primitive brain” and “primal reflexes” and so forth, rather than “operant conditioning”, let alone “Pavlov’s dog.” Sigh.

This conflict of ongoing needs and current distress often winds up painting the doctor-patient team into a corner: the patient’s desperation may lead them to remap their brain to need something it can no longer make for itself, while the doc is not able to communicate real concerns effectively (between their own language gap and the patient’s neurological chaos) but winds up patronizing the patient to a standstill.

Tough situation.

Where to go from here

So, when your doc says, “Don’t pill up,” this is why. They’re worried sick that you might be reaching for pills as the easiest fix — just like most normal people do. Just as they do, when they’ve got an infection or allergies. These days, reaching for a pill to solve a medical problem is the normal thing to do. That’s why it’s a natural assumption for them to make.

I know my readers are a lot better informed and more skilled at self-care than most people. So, if you find yourself having this kind of conversation with your doctor, pause a moment, take a breath, exhale slowly, and explain:

  1. You understand the concern about screwing up your body’s reward-signaling,
  2. You’d like them to know you’ve been using your alternate methods for days/weeks/whatever, and
  3. The pills were the last ditch effort.

That’s exactly what breakthrough meds and med increases are for — last-ditch efforts when our home remedies and personal strategies can no longer meet our minimal requirements.

You may have to say this every time. (I do.) That’s okay; it shows they think of your survival before they remember their manners. These docs are seriously worried that you’ll wind up beyond the ability of modern medicine to do anything for you. (We want docs who worry for us!)

Some of us wind up there anyway, as we’re all well aware from our networks. Our best bet (though there are no guarantees) is to explore, discover, and refine the set of non-pharmaceutical management techniques that offer each of us, individually, the most manageable level of trouble/expense which give us the best results. We’re all neurologically different, so we have to develop our “toolkits” on the basis of what works for ourselves.

Developing our toolkits

To find some of the tools in my toolbox and ideas about how to customize them, check my other blog posts on self-care techniques, sleeping despite all this, and retraining the brain. Also, investigate these intelligent and thoughtful blogs from my international cohort:

  • Elle and the AutoGnome, UK, funny brilliance by a professional researcher;
  • Princess in the Tower, Australia, warm and inexpressibly kind, with not a shred of b.s.;
  • Suzanne Stewart (among others) at National Pain Report, intelligence diligently applied;
  • For the multiply allergic or drug-problematic, Taming the Beast, out of Canada, for more on home management and strategies that are as nontoxic as possible, discussed as pleasantly as possible.

These blogs all discuss strategies that are compatible — or at least not incompatible — with current science.

In the end, what tools matter to you is what tools work for you. You don’t owe anyone any explanations for those. It’s your body, your life, and you who have to face the consequences of every strategy used in your case. Might as well own it.

Other “ancillary” or “alternative” therapies

Once you include strategies and therapies outside your doctor’s bailiwick, it’s not fair to ask the doctor if they think it will help. They’re already doing what they think will help. Conventional mainstream medicine names these techniques with terms that specifically put them off to the side, because that’s where they believe these things belong, so it’s normal and appropriate for conventional practitioners to have a bit of trouble making sense of them.

For the pain patient, these strategies are likely to take more time and attention than conventional care, but only because they are so necessary to living with central disruption and pain.

As long as these therapies don’t disrupt or interfere with your medical care, then the physician’s opinion is not relevant; your experience with that therapy is.

This brings us to a form of intellectual integrity which many well-educated people have trouble with. Ready? Here goes:

  • Others’ belief systems are not relevant to your personal experience of less pain and greater function.
  • Even if the “others” are care providers, and even if their belief systems are based on the current state of our limited and ever-changing model of science.
  • The only proof we need, here at the sharp end of reality, is what kind of good something does, and what kind of bad it doesn’t do, for the only body we’re in. 

 If it helps, doesn’t hurt, and you can access it, success! It’s in your toolkit!

Below is a short table of “alternative” therapies and modalities I’ve used with success, with annotations about what I learned about how to make the most of my benefit from them. (With apologies for the weird formatting.)

Modality Considerations Notes
Nutrition Essential. Our brains are the most susceptible organ in the body to deficits. Air, food, and water underlie everything our brains do. Immune activity in the gut is becoming a hot issue for study, as the results can be multi-system and devastating. Nutrition is the first and most important step, in my view, to managing a life with serious illness. Eliminating or reducing immune triggers, maximizing nutrition within your practical limits, and being able to absorb and process your food, are key to getting your body to work right again. As those of you who’ve checked the science know, nerves can’t work without mitochondria, and mitochondria can’t work without antioxidants. The only known preventive strategy for CRPS is vitamin C in frequent small doses for 2 weeks before surgery and 3 months after surgery or trauma. Vitamin C! So yes, nutrition is the base of everything. This also means, beware! Nutrition can interact and have side effects. Brassicas and soy can deplete the thyroid. Co-Q 10 interacts with Lexapro, a common neurochemical modulator used for central pain and depression. Check with your pharmacist.
Acupuncture The practitioner needs long experience to avoid accidental damage, plus specific training and experience with central sensitization. (I use LAc’s with over 20 years’ experience.) Patient needs realistic expectations and a pragmatic list of attainable goals: anxiety control, sleep/wake improvement, temp/sweat stabilization, digestive support, wound healing, whatever your practical concerns are. Acupuncture is extremely sophisticated. Its methodological groundwork was being laid before my European ancestors even figured out where babies came from. Because of that sophistication, experience counts, because some of what they evaluate is very subtle. Inappropriate acupuncture can make local or central pain worse, so do be mindful and pay attention to the care you’re getting.
Reiki Can be GREAT for pain. It’s more “tunable” than many practitioners realize. If you have dysautonomia or suspect any other form of central disruption/transformation/sensitization, be sure to tell them: “Use SHK, and lots of it. CKR can be bad for central nervous system disruption.” Their likely reply is, “But Reiki goes where it’s needed; it can’t hurt.” The response to that is, “Reiki gets attracted by need. However, more than a touch of CKR can be like warming hands by pouring burning fuel on them. SHK is more stabilizing, and that’s what’s effective. CKR is great for a final ‘coat’ afterwards, but not for the main treatment.” (CKR and SHK are different “flavors” or “types” of Reiki energy.) I figured this out with the assistance of other Reiki 2 practitioners and other centrally sensitized volunteers. It’s absolutely consistent, both for in-person and distance work. Level matters. A Level 1 practitioner normally needs to work on only themselves. If you have Level 1, consider working towards Level 2, as the rewards can be considerable. Level 2, 3, and Master practitioners can send transformative Reiki. Many massage therapists are also Reiki practitioners.
Therapeutic Touch ™ Came out of the nursing profession from a nurse-scientist who got some initial studies funded. Blood tests were so good it was unreal. Usually done by RNs. Usually helpful with pain, digestive problems, mobility, and wound healing. May be available in-hospital, sometimes through private practice. Sometimes massage therapists get cross-certified in TT.
Homeopathy Be prepared for some rudeness if you tell people you use this. Its principles are founded on quantum physics (something called “signal propagation”) and conventional medicine still depends on Newtonian physics, which is 600 years old; predictable, but limited. Anyway, I strongly recommend getting competent, qualified help in working out what works for you. Hypericum perforatum is widely used for nerve pain, but it can go either way for us. It used to help me significantly but now my body flips it about half the time and it makes the pain dig in, so I no longer use it. Ignatia amara can help calm that emotional storm that comes with too much stimulation, surprise, or pain. It also eases my bursts of panic. I get great results consistently. I use Arnica pills for soft tissue trauma (which, for me, is a body-wide event), and heal in 1/4 the time with about 1/6 the pain of what happens when I don’t! Many have great results from Rescue Remedy ™; for me, it just calms my mood, but for my housemate, it brings her blood pressure down from the sky and cuts her pain. We’re all different. As with Reiki, some say that “it can’t hurt”, but that isn’t correct for the centrally sensitized. Keeping logs of how you respond to each remedy is an excellent idea. Your diligence can result in a handful of outstanding remedies that help you enormously and very quickly.
Herbs These are the precursors to conventional mainstream medicine. Therefore, they’re a double-edged sword. Assume that everything interacts with something in conventional medicine (except possibly chamomile); know your interactions for what you use. Everything has side effects, although, with that said, whole herbs tend to buffer their own bad effects better than purified extracts. Freshness matters; potency varies. This means that, if you’re interested in the potentially vast bouquet of beneficial herbal support available, either start when you’re young and healthy with a great teacher (as I did) or find a very experienced practitioner with experience treating central sensitization. Expect to do a lot of homework researching brands and regions and preparations, in your own defense. The market is huge and very aggressive. You are your own guinea pig, so keep track of effects, doses, potency (which you’ll have to figure by color, scent, and taste) if you’re wildcrafting or growing your own. Be wise with your herbs, and they can reward you.

Do your due diligence

As the blunt hints in that table suggest, there is no such thing as a free ride or a guaranteed fix — not even any such thing as “It can’t hurt you!”, especially when central sensitization is part of the picture.

Given all the side effects of our meds, the mistakes by highly qualified physicians, and the errors in surgery, not to mention the rank company of practitioners like Scott Reuben who get rich by urinating in the well of science, these characteristics of not being harmless don’t  distinguish “alternative” methods from “conventional” medicine at all, from the patient’s point of view. It’s all risk, and nobody bears it as much as we do.

The obvious corollary is that there are highly qualified practitioners of these therapies too. There’s no substitute for good training and lots of experience, so look for those who’ve studied their disciplines long and hard, and remain enthusiastic about their field. These are the ones who can provide the best help and guidance.

Another handy fact is that there is a lot more information available on these therapies, at a much greater level of detail, to the determined pain patient. We don’t need medical school access or memberships costing thousands we don’t have, to access articles and reports (not to mention extensive fluff and pretty pictures) about physiotherapy, massage, TT, acupuncture, and any herb you care to name. Good resources for checking interactions with medication and devices are there with a little digging. The vocabulary and style is far more approachable. A bit of common sense and occasionally a friendly nudge from a cohort can help us screen out most of the rubbish.

After that, it’s back to trial and re-trial and lots of notes, the reality of patient-hood, which is based on empiricism out of necessity: WHATEVER WORKS FOR YOU IS WHAT MATTERS, NOT WHAT ANYONE BELIEVES “SHOULD” WORK.

As with medicine and surgery, the final sanity check and the final decision is up to you, the patient. It’s always up to you. 

May our brains and spinal cords become more stable, less reactive, and ever closer to normal!

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Freaky Fibro and the elegance of precision

As the title hints, it’s been another fascinating visit with my pain diagnostician.

His current working diagnosis is fibromyalgia, which he characterizes as being capable of throwing some hairy curve balls (my terminology, not his) including the growing litany of food sensitivities, which solves a major problem in my mind.

Thyroid disease can also trigger the symptom complex that otherwise gets tagged “fibromyalgia” (more on symptom complexes in a minute.) I mentioned that I’ve had my thyroid checked several times and last year came up with Hashimoto’s (meaning my immune system is attacking on my thyroid.) Since I developed the first symptoms of this central sensitization around 16 years ago, it seems not like a precipitating event; since “normal” thyroid activity is not the most meaningful term, I’m not sure it’s irrelevant. I guess I’ll learn more as we go on.

He’s also checking my hemoglobin A1c to check for underlying blood sugar instability. I’m always happy to check that. Also B12 (pernicious anemia etc.) and D3.

Now we come to the fascinating (and crucial) distinction between a symptom complex and a disease. Both are used as diagnoses, but they mean different things. (Yes, I’ve used the word “disease” indescriminately here, for simplicity.) Medically speaking, a disease has a cause that can be targeted, what you might call a diagnostic end-point. A symptom complex doesn’t have that level of targeted responsibility for the illness; it’s a consistent set of symptoms that cluster together often enough to get a diagnostic label, which takes some doing.

Here are the two scenarios.

On the one hand, you’ve got someone with a lot of pain, funky guts, sensory reactivity, and normal labs. The doctor (we hope) rules out any other possible cause, and decides the diagnosis is, say, Fibromyalgia. This is a symptom complex, because it’s described in terms of what it does to the person, not in terms of specific pathogens or organs as the causative thingy. (I’m tired; thingy will do.)

On the other, you’ve got someone with a lot of pain, funky guts, sensory reactivity, and thyroid labs that are out of whack. Further examination of the thyroid discovers specific thyroid abnormalities which can be treated. With treatment, the symptoms subside or even disappear. The diagnosis is the disease of hypothyroidism, with a diagnostic end-point in an organ (as in this case) or pathogen.

CRPS/RSD, Fibromyalgia, and some other hideous conditions are symptom complexes. This is used by some as a reason not to “believe in” those conditions, because they aren’t “real.” This is intellectually dishonest, but it does no good to tell them that; assuming that a lack of diagnostic end-point equals lack of ill-health is blatantly absurd, but this is a reality we must contend with. It’s a drawback of having such a flexible language as English, where the same word can mean different things from one context to the next: in Plain English, disease and illness are interchangeable, but in Medical Jargon, they’re definitely different: disease means specific diagnostic end-point, illness tends to suggest a pathogen, and condition is the catch-all term — but is used more for things that really aren’t diseases or illnesses. Another example on a hot issue: in medicine, narcotic refers specifically to opioid analgesics; in law enforcement, it’s a MUCH wider term, encompassing any substance that legislators have decided is not legal. In courts, the meaning of the term has to change depending on who’s involved, which has to be weird.

No wonder there’s confusion around anything medical. What a setup, eh?

This brings us to the physician ethical structure this doc works with, and where it fits into this patient’s worldview. You can almost hear me purring comfortably from here.

He speaks of himself as a Palliative Care specialist. Most people think of Hospice when they hear palliative care, but it’s wider and simpler than that. It means this physician has chosen a field defined by the fact that his patients will probably never recover. That’s what palliative care means: keeping the patient as comfortable and functional as possible, for the rest of their (probably, but not necessarily, truncated) lives.

Yeah, pretty darn special. How many of you who see pain docs hear them use the term “palliative care” naturally and fluidly, without wincing and scuttling on? It’s a little thing that means a lot. It makes me realize I’m seeing a doctor who CAN be there for the long haul, if need be. Someone who would NOT throw me off with the very natural cringe of frustration and failure most docs feel when they can’t save you, or when you’re in the final downhill slide and they can’t face you dying. He can take that strain without failing me. That’s rare indeed.

Palliative care is the very heart of chronic pain care, and I couldn’t face that myself until today.

So now I just have to die before he retires…

Kidding, Mom!

I’d like to go over his approach more, but the fog is descending; it was an early morning and I’m paying for it as usual. I’ve got lots of notes, though. It’s great food for thought, so, with luck, I’ll come back to it.

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Fifty One

Guess what? Everything’s up in the air, except me. But don’t worry, it’ll work out.

And that, folks, is how you know I’m back in the saddle. I’m not naturally a nervous person, but the years of system and systematic abuse on top of the fried central nervous system left me very nervous indeed. Every uncertainty was like a set of razor-wire boleadoras, ready to spin out and knock me over and tear me up.

line print of gaucho from the 1800s riding a horse after ostriches, swinging 3 stones tied together, a set of boleadores, to tangle the ostrich in.

Ghastly image, but very apt, as some of you know from your own experiences!

Of course, this slice of recovery is just well begun, not done. I’m simply able to reflect on possible futures without melting down reflexively. I’ll still have bad moments, bad days… and they will pass.

After all, there’s always an afterwards.

So, I’m 51 today, and I can honestly say I didn’t expect to see this day. You’d think my 50th would have been more reflective, but no, this one is.

I realized I’ve been blogging for 8 years, maybe 9. The first year and a half were justly lost in a Google flail, in the early part of the Pit Years. They were online journals, not blogs; the point of blogging is not to rip my skin off for reader amusement or “inspiration porn”, but to trace one path through the thickets we all have to travel, and trade ideas that help others find their own paths, or at least make them more bearable. (Tip of the hat to the friend of my youth who had the integrity to tell me she didn’t want to read my diary.) I’m more grateful for my readers, in all your kindness and struggles and brilliance and care, than words can ever say.

51 is starting with a bang, or rather continuing the same bangishness that has characterized this year so far.

I’ve found out I don’t currently have gall bladder disease, detectable spleen or pancreatic disease, or any form of cancer growing in my gut, just some “mild” gastritis. This leaves the question of what’s causing the rather extensive GI issues open for further inquiry. I’m going to see if I have mycotoxicity, which is looking very probable indeed, going on reactions and the fact that even the weirdest symptoms on that list are mine; going to find out if my body is able to respond well to a massage intensive (twice weekly for some months) or not; going to finish the final house repairs (as soon as the weather warms up long enough to let us not only recover from the cold but then get past the setting-up); and going to find out where we’ll go next, when the lovely house we’re living in sells. (My credit will age out of the worst black mark next year, so getting a house loan is simply a matter of time, with ongoing diligence. Not to mention knowing where to land.)

I’ve been reflecting on J’s unique mix of gentleness, brusqueness, flexibility, and intransigence, and realized how much he helps me in nearly every phase of his personality. (To misquote a capable yenta I knew, the holes in his head fit the bumps in mine, and vice versa.) I wondered how much further I could have come if he’d been there when I first got sick, or before I got sick. What great work I could have done.

Then I remembered, oh yeah, my ego was very much in the way — as that egotistical sentence pretty well indicates (what about your partner’s work, eh, Isy?) We would have loathed each other on sight, as both of us were cocky little jerks back then. It took losing everything that I thought defined “me” and “my life” to realize what really matters in a person — and in life.

I learned that love isn’t my driving force, it’s the anodyne that makes living bearable; curiosity is the characteristic that drove me out of the grave. I never would have guessed at the pure slingshot force of it.

So, though I don’t think I’ll see another 51 years, I can see that I might be wrong about that too. I’ll start heading that way now. I’ve got good company, outstanding friends (some of whom I’m related to), and interesting things to do. Onward.

May the future be worth the trouble of getting to it!

Panoramic view of Road Town harbor in the tropics
H’mm… that looks good!
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Different doctors FTW

My pain diagnostic specialist is elegantly opinionated. Fortunately, he acts out the distinction between being opinionated and being rude about it.

We talked over a few things today. He’s still researching my past exposures to uranium, which he has a hard time believing wouldn’t have lasting effects.

He spent a lot of time combing through the idea that evidence-based medicine (in the sense that doctors use the term, not the sense that insurers do, where it means “how can we treat this as cheaply and barbarically as possible”) is really the best and least scary thing out there. Because, data.

I mentioned Dr. Scott Reuben at this point, and he owned that the scientist-practitioner does have to practice with integrity for the science to be meaningful.

He went on to say that the miracle cases that wind up in the literature leave physicians panting to find the next patient who shows up looking just like that case, so they can try the miracle. Doesn’t happen much, and so, there winds up being a paucity of data on rare cases (like mine) that meets the criteria of medical science as he sees it should be.

In the end, as always happens in conversation with a physician who has intellectual integrity, we found ourselves in the cleft stick of modern science:

While statistical probabilities indicate the best chances of success for groups overall, it has two glaring weaknesses, even in ideal circumstances: statistics depend on copious data, which aren’t always obtainable; and statistics mean nothing in the case of the individual.

Thousands of individuals are studied in order to come up with meaningful statistics. Of those individuals studied, how many respond to the treatment at the level of the group’s statistical probability? How many patients in real life will respond at that level? Pfft. All the statistics do is tell you how much of a crap-shoot a given treatment really is; it doesn’t tell you how well or badly it will do for you.

Last Friday, I saw my allergist/naturopathic MD at Northampton Integrative Wellness. He’s exploring mold toxicity, which sure hits all the hot issues I deal with. It doesn’t meet Dr. Saberski’s mental criteria, as I suspected, but that’s okay — I don’t need Dr. Saberski to follow up on it. I need someone like the docs at Integrative Wellness, who have the relevant background and tools, to follow up on it.

Because of my own experiences, I don’t necessarily assume that a well-educated, well-respected, well-published physician necessarily has a lot of intellectual integrity. However, I’ve come to the conclusion, through our conversations and his decisions along the way, that Dr. Saberski’s entire being (at work) is oriented on intellectual integrity.

We may not view things the same way, and he may not be thrilled at everything I do, but the fact is, he shouldn’t have to be. He’s delighted with my good results when I get them, and if this mold toxicity thing pans out and the treatment goes well, he’ll be truly elated for me — and will keep my chart on file, just in case I come back later.

I find it HUGELY relaxing to have such a resolute scientific conservative with such ferociously diligent, relentlessly inquisitive intelligence, which is completely balanced on intellectual integrity, on my case.

All I have to do in relation to the standard science is let him do his job! I do not have to educate this one — quite the reverse! I savor our conversations and make extensive notes, because he always has something to teach me. (Today’s exciting topics: what makes me NOT look like CRPS; the Flexner Report in history; how anesthesiologists, who have the diagnostic training of a spaniel, wound up running pain clinics — another stupid consequence of US insurance companies; and how the nociceptors and immune signaling in the skin are all entangled into being one thing. Woot! Fun stuff 🙂 )

That, frankly, has been unheard of for most of my time with this illness, whatever it turns out to be. I’m well and truly rid of the fearful weight of using my rare full-brain times to try to stay one step ahead of the risk to my survival and management that every doctor visit can be.

I can use my full- and even three-quarters brain time to study up on the stuff he can’t be interested in. For one thing, the vocabulary and writing style is usually less klunky and demanding. For another, that is supposed to be my job.

Patients should figure out what they can do for themselves without making things worse, so I’m happy to do that.

Now, I’m going to find out more about mold toxicity, methods and treatments, plus what data do exist on what to expect from those treatments and what they do in the body. According to my current info, the main researchers are Shoemaker on one hand, and Nathan and Brewer on the other. My allergy/naturo doc is leaving, so I’ll have to start with another one at the same practice. This means I’d better prepare, so I can move the conversation forward a little faster than usual. That means being able to speak her language in regard to what we’re looking into.

I find it’s best to impress doctors right off and for the first several visits, and then, if I’m having a bad day another time, they have a meaningful bar to measure against, and they don’t lose respect for me or dump me into that “just another whacky pain patient” mental garbage-can. I work hard to make visits as useful as possible, as regular readers know.

I’m also getting ready to do another massage intensive. Looking forward to that! It’s pretty uncomfortable for a couple weeks (arnica pills 6c and 30c, and Advil Liqui-Gels, are essential pre- and post-massage medication), but the payoff could be so spectacular. I’m tired of the downward slide and intend to crank up the functional level one way or another.

Winter bit me pretty hard. It’s time to start biting back.

"Visis mu! I care for you, so let me hand you this wildly inappropriate thing, because I’m too rushed to think things all the way through!"
“Visis mu! I care for you, so let me hand you this wildly inappropriate thing, because I’m too rushed to think things all the way through!”
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Isy’s guidelines for taking care of relationships when it’s imp-possible to have them

Relationships can be so fraught!

Add to that a disease nobody understands without years of serious effort; unbelievable pain; weird deficits (sound volume? Vibration? Time in the shower? Crowds and excitement? How weird is it that that stuff can make us so much sicker, eh?); forgetfulness; loss of perceptions that tell us about social cues; distorted sense of touch; and above all the improbable wobbles, waxing-and-waning, and variations in every dimension… and we could have a recipe for disaster — and occasionally do.

I’ve lost a job, some hard-earned professional respect from my peers, an excellent friend in the making, and several medium-close friends whose presence I still miss, due purely to the effects of the disease.

Kinda sucks, eh?

And I’m definitely one of the lucky ones!

Over the years, I’ve developed a handful of personal guidelines. Key to every one of them is this: I’d rather be effective than right.

What does that have to do with taking care of relationships? (Yeah, kind of a trick question. I can hear many of you shout, “Everything, duh!”)

Life is not fair, this kind of illness is not fair, and there is nothing in this world that can make it fair. Being sick like this is just fundamentally wrong, a vile distortion of life and of fairness — but that doesn’t mean I no longer have a life or that I lose my own sense of fairness.

That, folks, is where the real power of “living anyway” comes in — of doing the imp-possible with character and flair. Life is not fair, but I can still be generous (when it’s reasonable), and to heck with the unfairness anyway. This disease is vile, but I can still be pleasant (most of the time), and to heck with the vileness anyway. Imp-possible WIN!

So, here is my list of personal guidelines for tending the relationships that matter:

1. Nobody shall be worse off for helping me.
Corollary: Be truly grateful, without groveling, when they do.
Reminder: This trumps short-term survival. If I let someone be worse off for helping me, things get very bad very quickly. Don’t go there, ever again.

2. My problems are my own.
Corollary: Help is precious.
Reminder: Treat those who give it accordingly.

3. No, normal people don’t understand.
Corollary: Nor should they!
Reminder: Bless those who try; they are gold.

4. It’s hard to reach out and stay in touch. Do it anyway.
Corollary: The payoff is worth many times the effort, over time.
Reminder: I feel better after hanging up than I did when I was dialing, ~90% of the time.

5. People say more than they can do, not less.
Corollary 1: Don’t believe them when they sound generous.
Corollary 2: Believe them when they state their limits.
Reminder: Be grateful for the more painful information, and courteous about the generous lies. This has led to more subsequent real help (mostly from the curmudgeons) than anything other than #1.

6. I could be wrong.
Corollary: I might not be.
Reminder: Is that what matters?

7. Every New Year, think over two things for the coming year, because these are the only resolutions that matter:
     i.  What do I need to work on to take better care of myself?
     ii. What do I need to work on to take better care of my relationships?
Corollary: It’s okay to make the same resolution as many times as necessary.
Reminder: Celebrate having made another year!

I’m not kidding. I really do all that. It’s a constant practice, of course. I have to constantly check and recheck and remind myself of each thing on the list, especially if I’ve been slipping. The point of a practice, of course, is that it’s a work in progress — like life.

It takes a lot of humility to abide by these guidelines, and, believe me, humility doesn’t come naturally — I’m genetically wired for its opposite. (You should meet my folks: gifted, glorious, hilarious, adorable, and unselfconsciously smug, every one of them!)

Having said that, the value of what comes from the humility sure is worth the effort, even though it’s overwhelmingly difficult at times.

I intended to go into these guidelines in more detail (explanations, expansions, maybe a few links to science articles to back up an assertion or three), but I find I’m running out of steam and don’t want to leave this theme — again. I’ve got several drafts with a similar title, and couldn’t hammer any of them into shape for a post.

The brutal challenges we have with maintaining relationships really need to be addressed (however brief this is, it’s still something), so you might as well dig into this and comment on what you think about this, what guidelines you’ve come up with for yourself, why you think these might be valuable or not. I love it when you share your thoughts and experiences here.

There are two things I wanted to discuss, which I’ll just drop here and leave for further comments and conversation.

  1. Taking responsibility is not the same as taking blame. This is a very powerful idea. (It’s okay to say, “I’m taking responsibility. I’m not interested in blame.” This shifts focus for everyone involved.) This is particularly important in relation to #1, 4, and 6.
  2. Everybody has their limits. My relationships only work and grow when I respect others’ limits, whether or not they can respect mine. (I can’t do anything about them, but I can do something about me. Moreover, when I give them this slack, people tend to move through their mess and become more considerate in time.) Particularly relevant for  #1, 2, 3, and 5.
  3. There’s always an afterwards. I developed these guidelines in light of what tended to leave the most useful “afterwards”, because I intend to be around and continuing to beat the odds for a long time.
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Cleaning up the question of antibacterial soap

This is from one of my Isypedia-type replies to someone with a dreadful case of clostridium difficile (commonly known as c.diff) who had been told to use antibacterial soap to wash.

NB: This is not an opportunity to argue about antibacterial soap, but a sharing of experience from someone who was on the front lines of the “soap revolution” over a quarter of a century ago.

///

A word from an old nurse on this question, one with leaky gut, bouts of multi-system candidiasis, and assorted other gut issues, as well as c. diff …

About c. diff

C. diff is common in hospitals and is an opportunistic infection. (Doctors carry it from bed to bed on their white coats, and few of them even wash the darn things more than once a month. This is disgusting.) Once it’s in you, it hibernates, and comes out in flares periodically, usually when you’re stressed out or when your immune system is down. There’s no question of curing it, but of suppressing it and managing outbreaks.

Healthy gut flora are the first, best line of defense. They simply crowd it out and leave no room for it to grow. A normally healthy person might do fine with eating yogurt, but those of us with chronic or profound illnesses usually can’t meet their needs this way. We need the big guns because our gut flora are likely to be very weak,very few, or both.

There are some great probiotics out there. Good brands are pretty numerous. They include Jarrow, Garden of Life/RAW Vitamin Code (my personal favorite), and Ortho Molecular Products. I use the RAW Vitamin Code 5-day Intensive product for 2 weeks at a time, when I need to reboot my gut. Recently, I had candidiasis and c.diff flare up simultaneously, so I’m using the Ortho Molecular Pro Biotic 225 (tastes weird, so I mix with juice to cut the funk) for 2 weeks and then I’ll do a round of the RAW Intensive (which has a much broader spectrum of organisms, something my body really needs for maintenance — the longer a person has CRPS, the fewer gut species that person has, oddly enough) for 10 days or so.

I get these products on Amazon or at Vitacost.com, where they can usually be found at near-wholesale prices.

About the social and practical aspects of soap

Men have trouble with soap. (I’ve had to teach males of every age to wash their hands for dressing changes or eye care, so yes, I can confirm it absolutely.)

It doesn’t mean they aren’t capable of using it well, any more than women are incapable of lifting weights; they just have to put a little more effort into it, but almost all of them are capable of becoming very capable.

No, really, it’s true. They can. They just have to put a bit more work into it.

Where possible, many men would much rather have a toxin or tool to do the cleaning job for them — hence sonic cleaners and autoclaves for equipment, and benzalkonium chloride or alcohol cleaners for the skin of male responders and providers.

These aren’t as good as soap and water. Notably, alcohol cleaners, which are widely used in hospitals and do kill many germs, don’t even touch c.diff — a peculiarly hospital-based pathogen.

These products are considered good enough, and are certainly a great deal better than nothing at all.

If men (at least, US men) have to use soap, though, it seems easier for them to think about if it’s a tool-ish sort of soap — Gojo (by every mechanic’s sink, next to a fossilized bar), Lava soap (which feels like dirt and has powdered rocks in it), or antibacterial soap (which sounds medical, and therefore like a specialized tool.)

That’s a lot of needless expense. Also, and more importantly for the purposes of this blog, it’s becoming clearer that there are toxicity issues with antibacterial soaps which affect men as much as women and children.

How to clean your skin so well at home, only a surgical scrub could be better

Whatever body part you’re washing, whether it’s hands or what the medical profession delicately refers to as the “peri area” (Latinists, look away from that) and what most Americans call “the crotch”, there is a very simple way to get as clean as you can, short of a surgical prep.

Here’s the magic:

  1. 20 seconds by the clock (you’d be amazed how long that really is) with regular hand or body soap,
  2. On your hands, from nails to wrist; Between your legs, from front to back; In both cases, right through all the crevices and any wobbly bits,
  3. Then rinsing well afterwards,

This process will get you as clean as, or cleaner than, any amount of antibacterial soap, without the side effects. That’s what the independent science says, over and over, plain and simple.

The problem is, of course, that most people (especially men) have trouble spending that much time with soap and water.

Personally, I do a quick pass with soap to get the worst of the stinkies off, and then do a second and sometimes a third pass, front to back. I do this every time I shower, and when I’m too sick to shower but can still stand up at the sink to wash. It adds up to 20 seconds, usually closer to 30. My nurse’s nose finds my sick-body smells distressing, so I like to clean them off completely.

When I’m really not up to washing well for at least 5 days out of the week, that’s when the troubles start. Usually, diet and hygiene keeps my gut content, but I recently got a virus and then a long pain-flare and that put me down for over a week of very little proper washing — plus, of course, diminished immunity. That’s probably what led to the multiple gut flares. (They’re much better now, thank you.)

Making the right choice for you

Bottom line is this… IF you can trust yourself to really clean yourself properly, which means 20 seconds of soap (in 1, 2, or 3 increments at a time, as long as it’s 20 seconds total), then ordinary, nontoxic soap is just fine.

If you can’t trust yourself to do that, then yes, you need the extra killing effect that the antibiotic soap can have on pathogens, and will have to risk the consequences.

For triclosan and its relatives, this includes muscle wasting, dose-dependent (the more you use it, the worse it gets); for most others, it includes moodiness, suppressed immunity, more skin issues, and all the stuff that goes with endocrine disruption — possible neurological issues like pins-&-needles and faulty neuro,  endocrine, and hormonal responses. (You have to watch the medical science closely to find some of those things, because they rarely make it into the mainstream press. Bad for business.)

And that, ladies and germymen, is the lowdown on how to choose soap.

Hope it helps!

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Talking about CRPS with boundaries, perspective, and joy

I’m going through one of those periods where I’m just tired of my body hurting.

This is one of those offhand remarks that makes fellow painiacs nod understandingly, offer a kind look or emoji, and move on, but it makes normal (-ish) people with good social skills cringe and stops the conversation in its tracks.

I don’t want to make nice people cringe, and I don’t want to kill the conversation. I was recently reminded how hard it can be to avoid that while answering “how are you/what have you been doing” with any honesty. In fact, I find myself talking about most of the past 20 years in terms of not getting dead.

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 think that’s a hoot, because it’s so improbable and so much against my initial setup and programming. (I have a truly dreadful hangman’s humor.)

Needless to say, most people think it just sounds grim.

My setup and programming

I’m the offspring of a diplomat and a working artist, well-traveled and extremely well-educated, Seven Sisters undergrad… until I went off-road and became something totally bourgeois and practical (a registered nurse) and, when my immune system conked out for no apparent reason, went on to become something nouveau and nerdy (a writer documenting high-end programming software.)

It was a sweet setup: good brain, strong body, great start to a useful life, good plan B when plan A failed.

Eventually, this promising start led (via surgical complications, neurological disruption, extensive worker’s comp and SSDI abuses, failures of care and denials of treatment, tediously protracted near-death experiences — a term I’m longing to refine — and years so close to utter destitution I refused to look at dumpsters because I knew I was not far from winding up in 2 or 3 of them simultaneously, like the other invisibly disabled woman of my age, build, and coloring who landed on the streets of Oakland) to my utter destruction as a professional entity.

Lead-grey statue of dark angels swooping down from the sky

That was definitely not in any of the scripts my life was supposed to follow!

My childhood friends now have their own businesses, pocket palaces, successful careers in the arts (most), policy/diplomacy/public service (some), and STEM (a few), and in raising children with little concern for whether they can feed them. I’m deeply relieved and happy for them, while realizing that my own life-path got so completely hijacked I have no idea what I’d be doing if it hadn’t been for this.

I bet I’d be complaining more, but I’d be doing more too. I wouldn’t be hurting this much for decades, if ever, and even then, only if I had terminal cancer.

Image from the Australian RSD syndrome support group, Oz RSD Forum
Terminal cancer can be a 50.
Image from the Australian RSD syndrome support group, Oz RSD Forum

Which brings us to a key point: to discriminate against the disabled is to discriminate against your future self. We’re all getting older; with more lifespan come more proofs of mortality, which include reductions of function, stamina, mobility, and even memory and reasoning.

These, folks, are disabilities, and either they will happen to you or you will be a premature death statistic. There’s no third option.

This is why, when you discriminate against the disabled, you discriminate against your future self — and all those you love.

I wish legislators had the humility to remember that. Perhaps you’ll remind them… Find yours at www.usa.gov.

Where was I? Oh yes.

Pathetic? No.

How do I talk about the last 20 years, especially the last 15, with a person who hasn’t spent an appreciable part of life dancing with Death and occasionally taking the lead?

Old-timey line drawing of a skeleton with fiddle and snake dancing absurdly with a woman trying to look away.
She looks more embarrassed than anything. Makes sense to me.. From openclipart.org.

How can I convey how incredibly marvelous it is to have a minimum of 2 functional hours — consecutive hours! That’s thrilling! — nearly every single day? And yet, I used to work 10 or 12 hours at at time for preference because I loved immersing myself in the work.

In comparison to that, isn’t 2 hours pathetic? Especially because I did very demanding work, and 2 hours of noodling around in the yard or walking around downtown really doesn’t compare.

It makes me realize how long it’s been since I even thought about the razor-wire-bound memories of “how I used to be” and “what I used to do.”

I compare only as far back to 2008-2012, the pit of the pit, the nadir of my existence.

Detail of a Bosch painting. Whiskery demon holding and reaching for a misereable man.
Bosch knew.

Compared to that, I’m fantastic! Being fantastic is a great thought!

Being at maybe 10% of my youthful vigor is actually amazing, because during that time, I went from being so close to dead it took 25 to 30 minutes to drag myself, fist over fist, all 6 feet from my bed to the other end of the settee, to feed the cat in the morning. I think that level of function (or nonfunction) is a percentage of my youthful vigor that’s several digits to the right of the decimal. It felt like a negative number, that’s all I can say for sure.

There’s nothing I can do about the past, only the future. That’s not pathetic, it’s just life.

Actually, I feel that way about most of this chronic-illness gig. It’s not pathetic, it’s just life.

The power of “use it or lose it” as a tool under your control

The trick to living with chronic illness is twofold:

  •  Figure out what it takes to manage your illness without letting it take up all your focus. It does not belong in center stage, or not often anyway. Life belongs in center stage. Figure out how to make it so.
  •  Figure out how to have a routine, some sort of rational approach to every day. It’s all too easy to lie back and let the world go by. Speaking as an old nurse, I know the immovable truth of the old adage, “use it or lose it.” Having a routine stabilizes the body’s coping mechanisms; knowing what to expect soothes the central nervous system and simplifies healing. So, make a routine; decide what happens next. Make yourself do things, alternating activity and rest. Use your body, use your mind, rest, then use different aspects of your body, different aspects of your mind, rest, and so on.

These two strategies allow me to make more room, more time, and have more attention, for joy.

Joy is not a luxury; it’s essential to proper function.

The gut, brain, immunity, everything, are worse off when there is no room for joy. Whether I can appreciate my partner, the sunshine, a lolcat, whatever, I grab each opportunity for a shot of delight. I call those bursts of joy “brain juice”, because they boost useful neurotransmitter patterns and, cumulatively, reduce my pain and improve my function.

Bit by bit, even as age creeps up and new issues arise, I find myself better and better able to make use of what I still have. In fact, over the last year, with safety and sanity finally framing my existence, I’ve regained an amazing amount of function. I’m so pleased! (Oo! More brain juice!)

I still don’t know how to explain this to a normally healthy person without sounding like something from another realm of existence.

Different is probably fine

Perhaps I am from another realm of existence.

I’m certainly from another realm of experience; longstanding profound illness is special like that.

Perhaps I simply need to get over this idea that, just because I’m back home or just because I’m talking to someone who knew me when I was an arrogant young jerk and saw beyond that to someone worth liking, I should fit in with them.

Perhaps I should have more faith in myself to be interesting and likeable enough to shine through even the CRPS. I clearly shone through the old arrogance and jerkiness, somehow.

I’m far less confident, eloquent (in person), and humorous — at least, less intentionally humorous — than I was in my 20s or 30s, but I’m a whole lot more confident, eloquent, and (occasionally intentionally) humorous than I was a few years ago.

So, I need to remember to keep my focus relevant, and not think too far back.

Emotional boundaries: My pain shouldn’t be your pain

There’s a trick to disclosing without wounding, even when what you’re disclosing is tremendously difficult. Good boundaries are key.

You may have noticed… people tend to pull away from pain. It’s an ancient reaction that happens in the most primitive parts of our central nervous systems. That means, when we’re too raw about our pain, others may pull away from us because that primitive response combines with their emotions around pain, and our pain makes them hurt emotionally.

I remember how I used to open with the idea that my pain is my pain and others don’t need to imagine it or take it on.

Sysiphus looking miserable as he pushes a rock up hill... with poor body mechanics.
We each have our own load. I’ll keep mine; it’s my job.

This approach of “it’s not your pain, so let it go” frees many people up to re-engage from a rational distance which works for both of us. It’s important to give others the distance they need, because then they don’t feel a need to pull back further to protect themselves, and can stay in contact. They don’t feel driven to pull away from all that pain.

Each of us, well or ill, has to carry our own load, and really isn’t equipped to take on others’ loads as well. I try to remember that and respect the loads of others. It usually works out well.

Come to think of it, it’s essential to relationship maintenance.

Taking it on vs. bearing witness

When I was a nurse, I dealt with harrowing human experiences all the time. I could handle it with real care, and go back next day and do it all again, because I was clear that my load was my load and their load was their load, and the most healing and empowering thing to do for another person is to bear witness to their struggle without trying to take over. The one with the struggle is the one best qualified to find their best solutions; having that implicit faith in them, I found, is tremendously powerful.

For those of us in dreadful situations, we don’t get to choose the reaction others have to our struggles. All we can do is try to back-lead, essentially, guiding them tactfully to a more comfortable position.

Allowing well-intended people to bear witness in a safe way is a natural outlet for the sympathy and compassion evoked in decent people. Letting them get sucked into the awfulness doesn’t help anyone.

Put that way, it’s a lot more clear to me. It’s another form of radical presence/radical acceptance, a mental tool which boils down to, “Things may suck right now, but here I am, it is what it is, and this will pass.” Try it — you’ll be amazed how much mental energy it frees up.

The approach for discussing my illness with others may go more like, “It sucked then and it sucks now, but the worst suckage is behind me, it gave me great opportunities for growth and I took ’em. At this point, I’m better at looking ahead than looking behind, and hey, I’ve got interesting projects going…”

So, first I should clarify the needful boundary between my personal load and the rest of the world, and then I can discuss all this with some detachment from the gluey-ness of remembered distress, unbelievable losses, and intransigent pain, and best of all I can point the conversation towards something much more positive.

I’m still not sure exactly how to do that, but I’ll practice.

I’m definitely better at looking ahead!

view forward from deck of sailboat. Mainsail on right, jib on left, Marin headlands and Golden Gate visible between.
Image mine, share-alike attribution (livinganyway.com) license, C.2015 🙂

Well, I don’t know about you, but I feel a lot better about this already. I’m grateful for your company as I figure out my rubric for yet another tricky twist of the Rubik’s cube of life.

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Doctor appointment optimization

Here’s my Doctor Appointment Optimization strategy. This is especially important for new diagnoses, new doctors, and any significant change or comcern you have.

– Between now and your appointment, keep a pad handy and note down anything you want to find out when you see the doc.

– A day or two before the appointment, set up your documentation. Lay those questions out so you have room to write the answers (in printout or on a notepad, whatever works for you.) Also, if it’s relevant or might be helpful, make a current Snapshot to show the doctor. Make copies of whatever science articles or studies you want to share.

– If it’s a first appointment with a new doc, also print out your current Timeline and previous Snapshots so he or she can absorb your info more accurately and easily. Put them where you can be sure they’ll go with you to the appointment. (Consider faxing them ahead of time, with a cover note asking to have them put in your chart. The doc can then review them ahead of your visit. There are benefits either way.)

– Let the doctor lead the appointment, because they find it easier to be forthcoming, but let them know you have a list to check against before leaving. They like that balance as a rule, because they want your need for info taken care of, but need to feel free to do things their way too.

– It’s your appointment. It’s their job to do you, and your case, full justice. Ask, and keep asking, until you feel you understand the answers.

– Write everything down, because the brain flips a switch when you leave the office and it’s amazing what you can forget.

– Get as many relevant printouts as possible before leaving.

– This is key, an enormous time saver in the long run: Go over your notes and handouts once you’re out of the office but before you pull out of the lot. Just take 5-10 minutes to sit down and go over everything, complete unfinished sentences, tie things together, fill in details you didn’t capture right away.

– When you get home, put your stack by your chair, get something to drink/eat, recharge your brain.

– Pick up your stack, pull out your computer or a pad, and put everything you’ve learned and acquired into a plan of action.
What are the most important things you got out of today?
What is the next thing to learn?
What is the next thing to do?
Are your next tasks and appointments on your calendar yet? (If not, do that. The ‘overwhelm’ tends to short circuit common sense. It’s pretty normal, so you might as well plan accordingly.)

– Once your calendar is updated, your to-do list is laid out, and you know the keywords you’ll need for further research, you’ve digested the appointment pretty well. So, get out your Timeline (which of course you have, or, if you’re new to having a chronic condition, you’re about to start) and fill in a new row.

The point of the pre-departure review is twofold:
1. It gives your brain exposure to the info outside the office, after that switch flicks in your brain, but before the info in all its rich detail gets dumped from your short-term memory.
2. With that second exposure helping secure the wealth of detail, it signals your brain to start working on creating networks between the new info and older info. This not only helps put your own situation in perspective and improves your base of knowledge, but it sets off a cascade of subconscious activity of a very helpful kind, destressing the situation and helping you get on top of your condition.

If this looks a lot like great study skills, there’s a reason 🙂 Chronic conditions require study so you can make better decisions on the basis of better understanding. This is definitely, fully, 5-star, hayull-yes, one of those things where the upfront additional effort (which honestly is pretty trivial) pays off a million times over downstream… in easier life changes, less trouble over choices, fewer complications, more time to spend on having your real life.

Speaking from way too much experience, it’s worth it!

May all your appointments go well and all your doctors be excellent.

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What does it take to seize a difficult life in both hands?

This disease, like time and life, dips and dances but tends to go in one direction. As long as it doesn’t outrun my ability to adapt and amuse, I can put up with that. After all, we’re all born with a one-way ticket, and sooner or later we have to get off the ride. Not all of us get a chance to prepare for our exit, or even get much warning as to what it will be like.

In my first nursing job, on an HIV unit in the very early 90’s, I had a Mexican soap opera star as a patient. He was lovely, in every way.

Head shots of Penelope Cruz and William Levy
If you can, picture a cross between these two. That was this guy. And really sweet, too.

This was his first hospitalization with the disease and he hadn’t found his particular polestar, the thought/idea/perspective that would keep him determined and alive for however long he had. He was a lot of work emotionally, needing much encouragement to keep trying new treatments (and they were very new back then) and to keep eating even when he didn’t feel like it and so forth. He had been in for a long time — over a week.

One day, while I was setting out some medications for a complex patient who needed his meds punctually, and didn’t have time or attention to spare, the soap star came mooching up to my med cart in his hospital gowns (one in front, one in back) and huge, lustrous eyes.

With what attention I had to spare, I thought, “go away, come back later” as hard as I could. Didn’t work that time.

He said, as he’d said before, in the same miserable tone as always, “I’m going to die.”

Sysiphus looking miserable as he pushes a rock up hill... with poor body mechanics.
“It’s a big weight.”

Up until this occasion, I’d stop what I was doing and gave him a full minute of attention and cheer him up a bit.

I didn’t have a minute right then. I had maybe two seconds. “Everyone’s going to die,” I said, barely pausing in my dosing and calculations.

girl on a flat beach kicking a ball high
“Maybe it’s only this big.”

Long silence next to me. I kept doing my job. (Keep in mind that nurses are paid to dish meds, not counsel and encourage struggling patients. That’s all that the staffing patterns allow.)

Then, in that delicious accent, a voice like the rising sun announced, “You’re right! Everyone’s going to die!”
Stone angel with hands clasped in prayer, standing on a pillar, sun like a glorious halo
I heard him drift back to his room, muttering in wonderment, “Everyone’s going to die… it’s not just me,” and I smiled to myself. I wasn’t usually rude to patients, but it sounded like it was exactly what he needed.

My other patient got his meds on time. So did the rest. At dinner that evening, my soap star sat up and devoured every bite, beaming and bouyant as we had never seen him. I began to see what all of Mexico had fallen in love with. He was discharged next day, full of fight and life again.

Somehow, that brutal realization — that everyone dies, that being doomed to death isn’t special — was what he needed to break the spell of misery that his diagnosis had put him under. He had staggered in a broken boy, and he walked out a free man.
Man_walking_EMuybridge
I don’t understand it either, but it sure worked for him.

Perhaps I do understand, at least a little. My experience with that revelation goes a bit further back, though.

I had a book of rhymes when I was little. Most were delightful,  but there was an old one about a sick little girl that contained the lines,

“Doctor, doctor, must I die?”
“Yes you must, and so must I.”

old engraving of a doll-like child lying down, a grim-looking woman in robes looking down unfeelingly on it, a child skeleton hanging from a pole. So hokey and grim it's funny.
Makes you feel all warm and fuzzy, eh?

I went through a jagged 6 months when I got to grips with the meaning of that (plus, I thought it was a rotten thing to say to a sick little girl.) My mother got tired of assuring me I had never been nearly sick enough to worry about it and, on further questioning, assuring me that she and Dad wouldn’t pop off for a long time yet, and I’d be an adult and able to handle it.

Later, I vaguely remember looking around at a sunlit day, seeing my brothers and friends playing in the sun, the leaves of my favorite tree fluttering in the breeze, and knowing everyone would die one day…
Old Chinese painting of 4 children, in voluminous clothes, kicking a ball around.

…but not yet.

Now, we were all alive and together.

Better grab it! Yes!

A smile pushed up through my whole body, and I went out to play.
glee
I think that’s when I first began to understand the difference between being a spectator of life and being a part of it. That realization was rooted in knowing that it’ll end one day, and I didn’t want to miss out on whatever it had to offer in the meantime.

Perhaps that’s what my remark to my patient did for him; but, being older, he could process it in 6 seconds, rather than 6 months. Everyone dies; but right now, I’m alive!

Cats are masters of pa:ng :)
for lifelong celebrations!

I could be wrong, but I think my insistence on being a part of life is a big piece of my adaptability, not only to this wretched bouquet of stinker diseases, but to everything.

What do you think? I’m curious if there’s a link between knowing death and survival, between a lust for life and adaptability. I’m not talking about Norman Cousins’s ideas of exceptionalism, but of an ordinary, grubby-handed greed to be in this thing called life, warts and all. What does it take to reach that?

This might be the question that shapes our future ideas about adaptation and resiliency.

I’d be fascinated to hear from others on this.

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Fixing the brakes

Interesting week here.

A dear friend is embroiled in one of those ghastly legal tangles where the vultures are rigged to win. I’m the key defense witness. This comes up later.

This whole winter, I’ve been basking — simply basking! — in the sheer delight of being safe, sheltered, warm, loved, and with as little chaos as anyone with a recent move, a complex illness, and widely scattered relationships can get. Occasionally, I’ve wondered if I’m allowed to be in such a situation, and strained my ears for the sound of the other shoe dropping… Then I do a reality check, tune in with my lovely partner and my lovely housemate/hostess, and it appears that no, it’s okay, things are right, and this is what’s right now.

My nod to the fairly relentless self-management that got me through the past decade has been an occasional effort at meditiation, a minute or three of qi gong, a few moves of t’ai chi now and then, or the occasional mood-check.

In short, diddly-squat.

In December, I lost it with a dear friend.[LINK] I did more mood-checks for awhile, a bit more meditation, maybe ten whole minutes of t’ai chi every other day for a couple weeks.

Diddly-squat doubleplusgood.

I was heartbroken at the mess I’d contributed to, but couldn’t dig up the motivation to really “do the Do”, to restart my hard-won disciplines.

Dear heavens, it was soooooo good to rest, just relax for a change, enjoy the sensation of not looking over my shoulder and not being constantly *forced* to calm sometimes-legitimate terror or possibly-reasonable panic.

It was winter. I was safe. I let my disciplines sleep.

Meanwhile, the brakes on my car[LINK] were acting up, or rather, occasionally failing to. $2,000 later, that was supposed to be fixed.

Gradually, I noticed that J was telling me, more and more often, to lower my voice: “I’m right here!” Huh. I didn’t think I was talking that loudly…

As I relaxed, other humans became more interesting and I started striking up conversations with strangers, as I used to do. They didn’t respond as well as they used to. Odd…

On social media, I found myself being snippy where I used to be sweetly witty or wryly amusing to make the same point. I backed off of my online time, because if I can’t manage myself well, I’d better not interact with anybody else who might be feeling frail. “Do no further harm” has been wired into me from way back. It’s the most basic courtesy.

I took the car back for a second brake job a few weeks ago, only $150 this time, and that seems to have taken care of the problem. So my cynicism about car dealerships remains unimpaired, thank you.

Meanwhile, there were some tellingly unpleasant procedures[LINK] which illuminated a fact I’m still failing to accept: CRPS has moved into my viscera — it has leaped out of the musculoskeletal bounds and gotten right into my core. I used to say my case was “all-body”, but that was because of the gastroparesis and subtle endocrine weirdness, which I figured was simply faulty autonomic signaling. It has definitely become much more.

I could feel every line of my intestines and the springy squashiness of my organs as the ultrasound tech noodled around on my abdomen, and the less said about the gynecological exam the better. It’s real. It’s a bed of coals in there. This finally sank right through my skull over the past few days.

Damn damn damn damn damn damn damn damn damn damn damn damn damn damn damn. With extra damn.

So, now we’re up to this week.

I spoke with the lawyer involved with the vulture case mentioned above. I went off on a tear about the duplicity and injustice involved. He finally broke through by howling my name in exactly the tone my mother used when I was getting out of hand. Once I was quiet (and abashed), he said very sweetly, “If you’re going to go on like that, you might as well hit your friend over the head with a two by four.”

Two things happened. I realized that my self-regulation was much worse than I had ever imagined; and I spent the day in a state of total exhaustion and emotional fragility, the classic signs of a massive adrenal-dump.

SIMPLY GETTING WOUND UP IS BAD FOR ME. The mere state of emotional excitement is poison to my system.

I used to know that.

I used to know when the emotional excitement was coming, and could head it off.

Nope. Caught me completely by surprise.

So, I’ve been processing all this for a few days to a few weeks now. I’m coming to some conclusions, and have a few remaining questions.

I’m pretty sure the spread into my viscera had a lot to do with the merry-go-round of the past few years.

The spread in my brain may be related, in fact it must be; however, I’m pretty sure that re-incorporating my habits of self-care and diligence can get back quite a lot of the gentle precision, sweet tact, and pleasant diplomacy I was once capable of.

So, in keeping with this revelation, I’m going to acknowledge that I’ve completed my alotted time for being on the computer and get up to go do some morning activity. Then I’ll put my feet up for a bit and lunch on brain-supporting food. After a digestion break of an hour or two, I’ll do something physical in the afternoon, including 20 minutes of t’ai chi or qi gong. After that, an hour of work, which today will consist of loading my classical collection onto my tablet. This evening, I’ll spend an hour listening to classical music, then meditate, then apply my lotions for pain and muscle spasms before bed.

There are no bloody shortcuts. None. It’s just work, and it doesn’t stop.

I’m still supremely glad to be safe and warm and loved. I just have to wrap my thick head around the fact that it doesn’t mean I’m off the hook for taking care of myself.

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