Learning to stand: t’ai chi, qi gong, and unscrambling the CNS

About 15 years ago, I studied shaolin kung fu with Ted Mancuso at the Academy of Martial Arts in Santa Cruz. I was outrageously lucky to wind up there. I had too much spiritual feeling to tolerate the gym-type martial arts classes normally found in the US, but not nearly enough discipline to make the most of my time at the Academy.

However, I did learn a few things, including how to block a punch in such a way that my opponent’s spinal reflexes were disabled for my return punch. That was cool.
circulation-allbody-Anna_Fischer-Dückelmann_1856–1917
Being short, blonde, female, well-traveled, and — above all — a sometime Emergency nurse, all my illusions about bad things only happening to bad people were long since destroyed. It’s a great big world out there, and anything can happen to anybody.

So there I was, in my self-satisfied early 30’s, at a top-flight martial arts training school. The fact that the teacher (or “sifu”) had started in qi gong somehow totally eluded me. I was infatuated with the grandmother of martial arts, shaolin kung fu, and really had eyes for nothing else.

Smiling sparrers from Shaolinsuomi at Wikimedia.
Smiling sparrers from Shaolinsuomi at Wikimedia.

I briefly flirted with t’ai chi, but decided it would be too hard on my knees… Knees are important, but shoddily made. I had cruddy cartilage (what was left of it) under my kneecaps. I thought that was painful (how cute!) and was afraid of making it worse before my time (another joke, in retrospect.) I got physical therapy for that problem, and learned that my legs had been aligning poorly at least since I was 11.

Retraining my legs to activate different muscles, ones I could hardly feel (and no wonder), was daunting at first.

I remarked to Sifu Ted, in tones of reflective melancholy overlaying a certain smugness, “I’m re-learning how to walk.”

That was supposed to be the opening line of a short discourse on rebuilding something so fundamental, literally repatterning one of the most reflexive early lessons in life, going right back to the beginning and restructuring an utterly basic activity … yeah. Cute.
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But, before I could get started, he said, in a tone of unrehearsed frankness overlaying a certain frustration, “I’m always relearning how to walk.”

My verbal hot-air balloon deflated on a laugh, before it ever left the ground.

He said, “It’s true.”

I nodded, and went away to think that over for a decade or so.

I thought of Ted when I realized that combining energy discipline and body work was the best rubric for managing my CRPS. I’m back at his school now, studying — you guessed it — qi gong and t’ai chi.

Um… No, it’s not too hard on my knees.

T’ai chi is second to nothing I’ve tried for correcting posture, the way Ted’s Academy teaches it. While each body is unique, there are certain things that have to happen in order for the movement to work. To do good t’ai chi is to line your body up properly. My low back is slowly opening and lengthening again, and my feet are remembering how to find the ground.

Qi gong is another dimension beyond that. I’m sweating over re-learning how to stand. When I find the words, which may take awhile, I’ll write about it more. To start with, I’ll just say that I had no idea how much I get in my own way — and I’m not that bad, for a Westerner. I started qi gong 20 years ago, but now I’m starting all over again.

I thought it was trippy to go back to when I was 11, and un-learn from there. Now I’m realizing I have to go back to when I was 1.
Faience_beer_stein_with_ball_scene_on_brown_background_web
But I’m looking forward to knowing how to walk.

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T’ai chi and emotional pain

When I’m out in the world, my reflex is to shove grief into a bundle and push it aside, and try to act as if I don’t feel it.

It’s always surprising how much energy that actually takes. When I’m doing anything else that takes much effort, it’s nearly impossible. It makes me forgetful and clumsy, just like a pain flare.

When I was at t’ai chi class yesterday, shoving and pushing one way with my mind while I was shoving and pushing another way with my body was so exhausting that I was wringing wet with sweat. Then I remembered something I’d tried briefly before, and decided to try it for the rest of the class.

I mentally drew the grief into my whole body. The grief turned to sadness and stretched out into every muscle fiber, every moving part. And I did t’ai chi with a body that was swarming with sadness.

It was, above all, peaceful.

I certainly wasn’t as tired. The sweat vanished as if by magic. I don’t even remember it drying on me.

The important thing is, I wasn’t expressing sadness in any deliberate way. I didn’t move more slowly, or try for any effect. I moved more deliberately and with better focus, because I was integrated. My body was filled with sadness, and I moved that body through the t’ai chi form.

The point of t’ai chi is to clear things up, straighten out what needs straightening, and separate muddled body parts and muddled energies into their proper alignments. Therefore, the sadness got a heck of a massage, and by the end of class, it was like it had been processed into something more wholesome. There wasn’t nearly as much sadness, as such. There was a lot more peace. There was a sense of strength I can’t put a name to.

I must add, as a footnote, that it’s been a long time since my feelings were capable of unshadowed joy. I have learned to cultivate a certain shallowness of mind at times, so I can be insulated from the deeps and be simply happy in the moment.

Therefore, when I say that I was happy as I left class, understand that it was a deep happiness. The shadows were very much a part of it, but that was fine. They were in the right place.

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Threads on the loom: bereavement and CRPS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, okay then. I can do this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The car sputtered, died, rocked to a standstill.

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

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

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

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

I didn’t dare to move.

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

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

A pair of blue lasers drilled me to my seat.

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

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

Words to live by.

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

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

“You’ll figure it out, Bella.”

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

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

And I was.

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

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

It was the last letter he received in this life.

Deathiversaries.

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

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

And I really hate moving.

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

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

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

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

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

I took the loss hard.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One day, that should be a comfort.

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s the physical side of CRPS.

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

I’ll give you a minute, if you like.

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

How do you deal with an oscillating nervous system?

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

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

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

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

In case it isn’t obvious …

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

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

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

Either way, it will ease up in time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All I have to do is get there.

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Riding what you’ve got

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

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

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

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

child-beating
From a board game about Dick Whitington!

I’d probably get lynched, and rightly so.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Expletives can be good

I’ve always been a wee bit daffy, so the additional daffiness of pain-brain, combined with the clumsiness of my brain’s shoddy un-mapping, re-mapping, or possibly dis-mapping of my body and physical environment, leaves my daily life simply packed with faux pas and prat-falls of one kind or another.

Mr. Keaton, clearly making a decision in a moment of pain-brain.

These used to upset me considerably, and I’d try to re-normalize the situation as fast as possible out of the combined distress of embarrassment and fear about the brain-invading nature of this disease.

This morning, I turned away from the counter too fast and knocked over the oil-filled heater. Instead of dissolving in humiliation and anxiety, I pursed my lips, finished what I was doing, and pulled up the heater when I had a hand free.

My sweetie J, as usual, said (without the asterisks), “You f***ed up,” with a unique combination of resignation and relish. (Nobody says, “You f***ed up,” like he does. It’s a gift.)

The more trivial the faux pas or prat-fall, the more pronounced those syllables are. “You f***ed up” becomes more emphatic, the more meaningless the mistake.

It never fails to put things in perspective.

Something I’m going to write about, once I figure out how, is The Flinch — the way that years of isolation, vulnerability, and abuse left me twitching in fear with the least expression of displeasure or annoyance in those around me.

Last summer, my excellent hostess L, who has a magical combination of boundless compassion and ‘no b.s. thank you’, was the first to let me know that I’d become a nervous nellie extraordinaire, and helped me start to retrain myself.

When I moved in with J in October, he let me know, after a couple of weeks of me jumping and flinching and asking permission to use my own damn home, that The Flinch was back and needed to take a lo-o-o-ong vacation.

“You f****ed up” is part of his droll approach to that inescapable fact of life, frustration. It’s part of his gift for surviving with his golden personality intact. He says things like that to defuse feelings before they even start to pile up.

I grew up in New England. Do I need to say more? We don’t defuse … what, feelings? We are very intellectual in the way we admit that we even have any. The first few times he told me, “You f****ed up,” I stared at him in shock.
me, looking absurdly shocked
I’m used to it now. I laugh, or agree “I f****ed up,” or turn it around and say, “Yeah, you sure did.”

I can’t do any of that and flinch.

Long ago, I observed that a good partner was one who handed you the way back to yourself when you got lost in the confusion of life. Simply telling me it’s no big deal is not that helpful — I know in my head that it’s no big deal, but the feelings in this over-torqued, dis-mapped brain all charge ahead nevertheless.

J’s way of showing me, by making the bigness of the deal ridiculous, stops that routine in its tracks.

I f***ed up. So what? I’ve got a fresh pot of tea waiting on the other side of that radiator. And that’s what matters! 🙂
teapot-eaglehaslanded

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International group post: Love is portable

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And suddenly, I wasn’t alone.

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

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

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

Let’s think about that for a moment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Being clear about being grateful

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I felt my spine let go of the last knot.

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

Crab_Nebula-crop
Heavenly, beautiful… grateful for it

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

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

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Persistence, chronic illness, mortality, and other perky subjects

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I don’t recommend it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Rock stars

As many physicians have noted, treating chronic pain is peculiarly frustrating. Therefore, treating a pain condition as subtle, complex and intransigent as CRPS must be heartbreaking — though it’s never as bad as having it.

Don’t get me wrong
If you say hello and I take a ride
Upon a sea where the mystic moon
Is playing havoc with the tide

Most of us live in countries where there are practical limits on who we can see for care. Since there are few CRPS experts to start with, this tends to put us in tight spots.

So, meeting a new doctor, as many of us have said privately, is a bit like being a bride in an arranged marriage in a backward society*: you have no idea how you’ll get along, but this person is not only going to have a significant role in defining your life for the foreseeable future, but can torture and even kill you without any fear of the law.

14 year old bride with lowered head and sad, helpless expression, standing next to an elderly man who peers at her as if she were a new car he was looking over.

It sounds dramatic, but that’s the bottom line. Think about it for a minute…

For one thing, nobody likes being in so vulnerable a position. For another, we’ve all paid the price for some practitioner’s ignorance or intransigence, somewhere along the way. The fears are not theoretical; they’re real and appropriate.

Suddenly the thunder showers everywhere
Who can explain the thunder and rain
But there’s something in the air

Add to that the fact that chronic CRPS tends to hot-wire the fight-or-flight mechanism, and you have to realize that the doctor is facing a situation that requires about a million times more tact and respect than they ever learned in medical school.

Don’t get me wrong
If I’m acting so distracted

And then there’s me.

I used to be an RN, so I can use med-speak fluently and, more to the point, I’ve got the background to understand the scientific material I read when it’s time to explore a new facet of this condition.

I was dealing with a full-bore case of ADD due to the mechanical and chemical damage of chronic CRPS. At the time, I wasn’t sure what to make of my psychiatrist, Dr. Todd Hutton. He’s so quiet that I simply couldn’t get a bead on how much attention he was really paying to what I was saying.

I was beginning to suspect that he was at least awake, which is a huge bonus in my book… But I had to have my duckies in a row, just in case.

Don’t get me wrong
If I split like light refracted
I’m only off to wander
Across a moonlit mile

Everything about CRPS goes off in different directions, so studying it is like working with refractions.

I studied up on the nature of the brain oddities that characterize ADD.
candleburn-1
Figured out where they overlap with the brain damage caused by chronic CRPS.
Sketch of brain, with bits falling off and popping out, and a bandaid over the worst
Then it was the neurochemistry.

candleburn-2

I have the neurochemistry of CRPS pretty well nailed, and found that, again, the overlaps with ADD were astounding.

How much of that awful, crippling fog we call “pain brain” is a treatable form of acquired ADD?

Do we really have to live like that?

I might be great tomorrow
But hopeless yesterday

I’m not so sure any more.

Then I looked at treatment modalities for ADD.

candleburn-3

The cognitive-behavioral stuff — like structuring your day, having contingency plans, staying in charge of your emotions, and creating ways to check yourself and to take care of yourself when things go wahooni-shaped — are pretty much identical, though CRPS adds a lot of material about pacing, communicating about functional and pain levels, and managing physical limits.

The pharmaceutical stuff has some interesting overlaps, too.

candleburn-4

Aside from narcotic pain control (which isn’t much good to many of us), treatment for CRPS neurochemistry tends to focus on serotonin, norepinephrine (noradrenaline), and dopamine; treatment for ADD neurochemistry tends to focus on epinephrine (adrenaline) and dopamine.

More overlap, or is that just a coincidence? Hah! No such thing, when we’re treating the brain.

So, after traversing my “moonlit (or candlelit) mile” of research, I showed up at the psychiatrist’s office with the following info:

  •  It’s probably related to the CRPS. (Nod.)
  •  It’s probably treatable. (Slightly qualified nod.)
  •  I can’t have Adderall, et alia, because my heart is dicky enough as it is. (Firm nod.)
  •  I could face Ritalin, et alia, but I’m already on Savella, which also boosts dopamine. (He shrugged and said, “Same molecule, different location.”)

After a bit more backing and forthing, he said, “How about Provigil?”

I’d seen a friend get hooked on it, so I didn’t leap out of my seat, but we talked it over. His reasoning was faultless. (Something I almost never say.)

More than awake, he was really engaged with my case. So I took the leap of faith and said I’d try it.

Trapeze_artists_trimmed

He said he’d supply me with samples of Nuvigil (a longer-acting form) since the maker no longer supplies samples of Provigil. (Pharma companies only provide samples of what they still have under patent. They’re in it for the money, remember…)

Don’t get me wrong

If I come and go like fashion

I had the singular pleasure of going in for my follow-up, dressed professionally for a change, and reporting that:

+ I had enough energy to get outside and move around nearly every day. This means laundry gets done, there’s proper food in the house, and I can get some of that so-necessary exercise.

+ I had enough focus to put together a settlement offer, which the insurance company accepted. (WOOT!)

+ I could change focus at need.

+ I was driving better, thinking strategically and more able to pay attention to what was going on around me at high speed.

+ I could sleep better, because I’d been properly awake and engaged during the day. (OMG!)

– My anxiety was no worse, but when it did kick in, it was harder to get it to chill. That was one drawback, but not a major one.

– Nuvigil tends to build up in my system, until suddenly I can’t sleep at all. It took about 5 days to clear it after that. So now I take half a tablet (that is, about 75 mg) every other day. That works quite well.

+ It’s not perfect — it’s not like being well — but I’m so much closer to being myself that I can actually think about what to wear again. (I used to be kind of a fashion plate, in the intersection of classic, practical, and colorful, with a dash of steampunk.)

 

I told him, “Love and the relationships I have make life bearable. But being able to think, and be productive, and learn things, and get some work done, THAT’s what makes my life worth living. This is giving me my life back. I’m really grateful.”

If I hadn’t grown up in New England (land of the unspoken), I might have missed the slight lengthening of his spine, the slight lifting of his head, the slight brightening of his face, the tiniest lift of a smile.

For once in my life, a doctor of mine got to feel like a rock star.

It might be unbelievable
But let’s not say so long
It might just be fantastic

I got into the car and drove away on a shiny September afternoon in Pasadena.

On the radio, Chrissie Hynde was belting out,

Don’t get me wrong
If I’m looking kind of dazzled

And it put the seal on everything.

For a moment, I tried to stifle the beaming joy that shot through me. Then sanity intervened.

glee

What I wanted to do was pull over, slap on a headset, and dance on the glittering lawn in front of City Hall, arms wide and the sun sparkling through my starry lashes.

I wasn’t sure the police would understand, though.

Instead, I danced in my car, grinning fit to split my head, bouncing my red SUV to the Pretenders.

Drawing smiles even in LA traffic.

Sometimes, the only right thing to do is dance.

Big grinning woman in spectacular Hawaiian ceremonial dress dancing with her arms
Photo: Joanna Poe in Honolulu

 

Here’s the whole song. At first, I thought the visual story, with its false leads, dead ends, and triumphant ending, was distracting — then I thought about it for a second… 🙂

* Common sense note: obviously, not all societies that practice arranged marriage are backward. I know too many couples who have an excellent partnership and tons of love between them, who were picked out for each other by their nearest and dearest. It’s not arranged marriage that’s the problem, but those situations where there’s a lack of choice and utter helplessness of one partner. That’s what’s backward.

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There’s always an afterwards

When I was a nurse, I could see when death was creeping up on someone. I saw gray fluttering around the person’s edges, especially around the head and upper body. As they recovered, the fluttering grew narrower and disappeared; as they lost ground, it grew wider, sometimes growing too wide to see.

Rear view of sturdy stone angel inside a lovel stone church

When that happened, I made sure I could find the code cart, because we were going to need it.

I worked and fought like hell to shrink that fluttering, to get each person closer to life.

Not every life can be saved. There’s a dislocating moment when, after working with several others to try to revive someone, it sinks in upon all of you – neaerly simultaneously – that it’s a lost cause, and then the doctor calls the code.

Everyone steps back for a moment, same expression on their faces: eyebrows up, eyes on the erstwhile patient, mouth slightly open, every brain running through the scenario and looking for something left undone (never has been, on my teams)… pausing in the shock of rebooting.

When I was coding someone, that person was the most important thing in my world, and all of my training and experience and physical capacity was tightly woven into my determination to get them back. When I had to stop coding them, all of that intense focus, activity, and energy had to come to a screeching halt, be re-assimilated back into my reserve, and clear the way for the next set of tasks. Not a trivial job.

Multiply  that by the number of professionals in the room, and you see why there’s always a breathless pause, even in the most practiced ER.

Then we get back to work, but it’s the work of cleaning up, restocking supplies and meds, prepping the body for the morgue/organ harvesting, and clearing the way for the next incident — a gunshot wound, a bloody nose, a beaten child, a drama queen or king; could be anything.

This explains a lot about ER staff: whatever happens, however we feel about it, we have to clear it away, clean up, restock, and be ready for the most trivial or the most harrowing issues to come in that door next — with little or no warning. Then deal with that, sometimes by brutal means (which you’d understand if you ever saw a chest tube placed or helped set bones for someone who’s been beaten.) Then go home, get food down and go to sleep, and be ready to  come in the next day and do it all over again. Day after day after week after year.

Imagine what that takes.

No wonder they often seem a bit detached, a bit harsh, a bit clueless about the human impact of what they do. They have to come back to that every working day, and try to stay above the madness.

Bosch_painting_of_Hell_(582x800)

The very day I realized I’d forgotten the human impact, was the day I knew I had to change careers. No wonder my immune system was failing. The effort to protect myself was killing me.

My dad’s death was unexpected, and happened overseas. It happened shortly after I knew I’d have to change careers, and shortly before I gave notice and surrendered my RN licensure.

I don’t think I’ll talk about it much, except to pass on the best advice I ever got about survival:

Take every opportunity to be happy, because it makes you stronger for the other times.

Less than a year later, one of my dearest friends died suddenly, back East… After that, I lost someone I loved every month or two, for just over a year… and somewhere in the middle of that, my relationship fell apart.

Hellish, tragic and harrowing as that period of time was, it turned out to be training wheels for being disabled with CRPS and all that comes with that.

It’s no wonder I have some of the symptoms of someone in an abusive relationship. I am; it’s called Life.

me-fingers-2up
And that’s what I say about it.

I’ve seen the grey fluttering around myself more often than I’d care to say. I’ve wrestled with the desperate temptation to end this brutal, chaotic nonsense for myself.

Angels_lossy_notsonice

My own intransigence saves me; no stupid disease gets to win. The very thought is intolerable. Not gonna let it happen.

US Navy: Marines of the embarked 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit practice hand-to-hand combat
I identify with both. They’re working their butts off and there’s no telling who’ll win… but neither one will cry uncle.

I’ve had to tell myself, sometimes every few seconds, “Keep breathing. This will pass. There is an afterwards. Just stay alive long enough to see it. There is an afterwards. Let’s find out what it’ll be like. Keep breathing. This will pass.”

Verbatim.

And, eventually, times like this morning come, which thaw those unspeakable memories on the warm stove of peace…

Gentle air from a misty morning caresses my mouth. Happy morning voices trickle in from the neighbors. My tea tastes just right. The birds are screaming their fool heads off in the greenery. My feline ray  of sunshine can’t stop moving for the sheer glee of being alive.

Ari-squirming

It’s simple, but it’s perfect.

I find myself glancing back at the shadows behind me, giving them a nod.

I was right. There is always an afterwards.

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