My preparation and self-care for surgeries and injuries

I have loads of advice for surgery and invasive procedures, so I might as well park it in one place. I used to be an RN and I’ve had this monster for over 15 years so I’ll share the key things I know, and others can add more about what they’ve tried or heard about ūüôā

NUTRITION

One leg of my Holy Trinity of Healing: Nutrition, Activity, Rest.

ANTIOXIDANTS

With nerve or mitochondrial diseases, antioxidant support is absolutely critical and vitamin C is the cheapest, most bio-available antioxidant. It’s very straightforward — it basically works by refreshing and rebooting the others. The vitamin C protocols for surgeries and procedures with CRPS are simple:

  • 500 MG per dose (more than that, and especially a fragile system will get overwhelmed and throw the whole lot away)
  • 2 to 3 doses per day (2 doses for upper limbs, 3 doses for trunk and lower limbs)
  • Start up to 2 weeks before surgery
  • Continue for 3 months (12 weeks) after surgery

Have you had your D3 levels checked? If you’re chronically ill, do so. It’s becoming clear (finally) how crucial this is and how much of it our bodies need in chronic conditions.

D3 is critical for healing, especially joint and bone healing, as well as helping our calcium stay in bones and teeth, helping our skin, and maintaining soft tissue integrity. Get that checked when you can, but if you aren’t already taking it, get started. Something is better than nothing. Raise your dose until your serum vitamin D3 is well within normal range. This is important. The test is relatively cheap and easy to get.

FURTHER NUTRITION

Speaking from decades of clinical and personal experience, I’d add that this is the time to invest in a good, food-based multivitamin and take it with breakfast and lunch every day from now to at least 3 months after your procedure. After years of home care and being a patient myself, I have found nothing — absolutely nothing! — that speeds healing and reduces complications like really good vitamins. It’s like magic. Also, some science is beginning to emerge about the value of nutrition in handling CRPS.

I get my vitamins from vitacost.com, which has wholesale prices and lightning fast shipping, or luckyvitamin.com which has one week delivery. Amazon can sometimes meet those prices, and of course they make it very easy to give them your money.

The brands I can recommend are the capsule (not tablet) forms of:

  • RAW Vitamin Code (what I use), a Garden of Life line
  • Irwin Naturals
  • Garden of Life “My Kind” may be good; it’s new and I haven’t tried it, but its sister line is great.
  • NOW is normally ok, but it’s not something I’d recommend around a procedure. They’re great for the price, but not top tier. Their multis are tablets which are noticeably harder for fussy systems to handle.

For targeted supplements (Calcium, 5-HTP, DL phenylalanine, magnesium chelates, etc.) I use and recommend (as of 5/2017) these brands:

  • Jarrow
  • Pure Formulas
  • Doctor’s Best
  • Ester-C

Several other food-based vitamins used to be great but they got bought and really dropped in quality as the parent company squeezed their profits.

Several very famous brands, which I’m not lawyered-up enough to mention, are an absolute waste of money — go to the library and check out the issue of Consumer Reports where they investigated those.

Basically… don’t buy anything you can get in a major pharmacy. When it comes to meds, I always suggest discussing meds¬†with your pharmacist, but when it comes to vitamins, the brands available to them are frauds with great advertising budgets, and they aren’t allowed to say so even if they know it.

Talk this over with a chronically ill person who is a vitamin geek, if you want more recommendations. Some health food stores have good vitamin geeks on staff. Ask around.

RECOVERY

This is based on the 12-week period that covers most procedures and most traumatic injury-healing. This is not for everyone, it’s not comprehensive, it’s just a generic brain-dump from one former RN and current chronic patient. If you’re planning to use this as a guideline, PLEASE take this into your doctor and highlight the bits that matter to you, so you can¬†get a sanity check from the person who’s actually aware of your particular case and is guiding your care.

If your doctor expects less than 12 weeks, smile politely, bless their optimism, and plan for 12 weeks of intensive self-care as the better part of wisdom.

If your doctor expects more than 12 weeks, BELIEVE YOUR DOCTOR. If they tell you to stay in bed for a year, then the survival path and the wise thing to do is to stay in bed for a year. They simply don’t want you horizontal for any longer than strictly necessary, so take them seriously and don’t¬†finesse it. Just don’t even go there. They’ll get you up the very minute it’s even vaguely safe.

Since spoonies are more likely than normal people to have a longer healing period, plan accordingly and mentally prepare a Plan B that includes yet another 25-50% of rehabilitation and recovery time. For each day in bed, figure it will take 1-3 days of activity to recover afterwards, depending on your basic fitness and cardiovascular tone.

It’s okay, don’t let the numbers scare you. I just button on my¬†pig-headedness so it faces the right way, and make myself do the long, slow slog of building back up again. It’s hard work, but the time will pass anyway, and I want to be better at the end of it.

You are not a normal patient, if you already have something like CRPS. ¬†Don’t panic; there are lots of abnormal patients out there! You’re not alone. Just plan wisely.

EARLY RECOVERY PERIOD

Early recovery is a bear, but it doesn’t last long. Some things we just have to white-knuckle our way through, one breath at a time. Early recovery may be one of them. It will pass.

At this point, a certain amount of swelling is good and helpful, because it keeps the area flushed with nourishment and growth cells.

Keep your affected body part ABOVE HEART LEVEL if at all possible, to allow the “used” fluid to drain out. Your heart should be able to¬†push the blood up that slope (dysautonomiacs and those with existing circulatory issues, watch this closely), but your body needs a gravity-assist to help it come back down. It also helps keep the pain down. Letting a healing limb hang below heart level will usually immediately increase your pain.

This is where you corral all the pillows you can get your hands on so that, during recovery, you can park that puppy up there and put your head down to lower the bar even further.

Work out a pain management policy in advance with your doctor, so you have a Plan A, B, and C for managing different levels of pain after surgery.

If you’ve had to go to the ER for pain crises before, then ask your doctor to contact¬†the ER and arrange a patient-specific set of interventions¬†for you in case you have an¬†after-hours crisis after surgery.¬†This should ideally:

  • Be time-limited to the post-surgical period,
  • Cover both pain and infection and whatever other surgery-specific complications are most likely, and
  • Indicate when/whether they should call your doctor/surgeon.)

This will save a whole lot of time and fuss, and would make me feel a lot safer about the post surgical period.

Not all ERs make it easy to do that, but you’d be amazed how much silliness a bit of surgeon’s bluster can cut through. The ER will find a way to capture and recall that information all right. They just need a little push sometimes.

Speaking as an old ER nurse, I felt a lot better about treating a chronic patient in crisis according to their specialist’s or surgeon’s requirements, than us having to figure out something so fraught on our own.¬†

Pain crisis and post-surgical emergency protocols tailored to the chronically ill patient are a huge benefit to everyone involved.

There should also be a limit on how many ER visits before your surgeon gets called in, because if you need more than one (maybe 2 on the weekend) then you really need to be seen again by the surgeon on an emergency basis, since something may be wrong with the surgery.

Bones and joints

Those of you with bone and joint trauma or surgery, please be aware that the number 1 cause of non-healing bones is… using the darn things! Here’s the lowdown on fracture (and ligament) recovery:

For the first ~3-5 days, the “callus” is forming. This is the foundation of all the healing that happens after. There is no substitute. This is when there is the most swelling, and there needs to be: there isn’t much blood flow inside bones or connective tissue, so this is the best substitute. Extra hydration (to keep things moving¬†through my tissues) and basic nourishment, featuring vitamins, antioxidants, and digestible protein, is my¬†appropriate¬†dietary focus.

For the next couple¬†weeks, “knitting” is happening. The fractured ends are reaching across the nourished gap and, strand by strand, are pulling together. There’s no hurrying this process, but it’s easy enough to disrupt it, so keep staying off it. Supplementation with bio-available calcium (food-based sources are usually the easiest for the body to get hold of and integrate) with¬†vitamin D, magnesium, and (according to some studies) boron and strontium, can be a real help with rebuilding the bone. I take phosphorus in the middle of the day, because it should not be released into my gut at the same time as calcium, because it’ll block it from being taken in. I take calcium, D, and the other bone-building supplements morning and night.

For the rest of the healing time, the bone break is turning that knitted lattice into solid bone which you will eventually be able to use normally again. I keep up the vitamin and mineral supplementation above, and, trust me, I did absolutely whatever it took to STAY OFF THAT FRACTURE until the bone had gone through its full healing cycle.

After that, it’s just rehab. That takes patience, pacing, and diligence, plus more pain that before, but normally, with the antioxidants and hydration and pacing, it does pass and the bone and muscle are all right at the end of it.

Ligaments take time. They don’t naturally have much blood supply, so they don’t heal quickly. However, with time, nutrition, diligence, and with moving enough to provide as much blood flow to surrounding tissues as your condition permits, these will normally come back in time too. Remember to go easy on that joint’s over-flexion and strain for a couple of years, because it won’t have the old elastic strength for some time.

Organ surgery and trauma

Abdominal surgery usually requires a coughing pillow, to protect healing and allow you to cough and clear your lungs without hurting yourself. (See the part on scar management.) The nurses should set you up with one, but any small, very firm pillow — or a bathtowel folded and taped into shape — will do the job.

Post surgical care for abdominal surgery boils down to:

  • Keeping your lungs working well. If you can’t breathe well, then you can’t do well. Simple as that.
  • Keeping your drains — natural and surgical¬†— as clear as possible. (Tips: farts are good! Poop is great! Urine is the key to life!)
  • Keep moving in small, frequent bursts, so you heal faster — and to help with the previous bullet point.

And, for us painiacs, we add:

  • Managing pain, so the other stuff (breathing, excreting, moving) is more manageable in turn, and we don’t come out of it worse than when we went in.

You will be discharged with specific instructions about food, fluid, medications, antibiotics, wound care, and so on. FOLLOW THEM.

I know — antibiotics suck and it takes weeks of probiotics and soluble fiber and maybe Senakot to get our guts back in shape. However, the pathogens that can grow in there are far, far worse; finish your antibiotics and kill them dead. Then take the time to rebuild your gut.

I’d love to be able to say otherwise, but that’s the way it is these days; we as a society have to stop creating resistant organisms, and that starts with the ones we, as patients, treat in ourselves.

FIRST 6 WEEKS

The first 6 weeks is the “knitting” part, or, in joint replacement, the part where the bones bind onto the joint insert and make it part of your body.

Keep a close eye on your surgical area for signs of infection or rejection. Be sure your surgeon discusses this in advance so you’re prepared to take the right meds (might be as simple as Benadryl and Advil) at THE FIRST sign of trouble.

For these 6 weeks, the bone care and the skin/nerve care diverge.

Bones

With bone fractures or bone surgeries, NO STRAINING OR BEARING WEIGHT on that part. Do your prescribed physiotherapy if you have any, but don’t go *one ounce* over the line. Pushing it now is the surest way to screw up your healing and have a much bigger and longer-lasting problem.

Just stay completely off the darn thing, ok? Doesn’t matter what it takes.

I’m speaking as someone who crawled to the bathroom on 3 CRPSy limbs (think walking on hands and knees over live coals with hot¬†electric wires sticking out of them, no kidding), 5-6 times a day, for this entire length of time, due to a broken foot. It sucked, but I did it. It was a nightmare and I’d rather shoot myself in the head than go through it again, but I did it, because that’s what it takes to get the bone to knit.

STAY OFF IT. Seriously. Just STAY OFF IT. Figure out how to make that happen, for 6 (in some cases, 8) whole weeks. The time will pass whatever you do, but you’d rather have one less major problem at the end of it, right?

Soft Tissue and Scarring

I scar quickly. This used to be a good thing.

Most scar tissue is laid down in the first 12 weeks, and 50% of that is laid down in the first … I forget.. 2 weeks, or 4? Like I said, my healing rate is odd, so I’m not sure what the usual numbers are.

The first stage of scarring needs to happen as undisturbed as possible, so your tissues can be closed up and the integrity of skin and organs and so forth can be maintained. However, after the first stage (which is when the surgical splints come off), it’s time to start managing the scarring, so that the tissue comes back as close to normal as possible.

Scar tissue is more brittle than regular tissue, especially if left to its own devices. If scar tissue is managed correctly, 3 things will happen:

  • There will be minimal brittle scar tissue, with minimal risk of subsequent tearing and re-injury.
  • Regular tissue will grow in and restore normal function, circulation, and flexibility, leaving only a little brittle scar tissue.
  • Underlying structures, like nerves,vessels, and ligaments, will not be trapped in the scar tissue, so they can continue to function normally.

If scar tissue gets out of hand, those good things don’t happen. And then you have more problems: tearing and re-injury, stiffness and limitations, reduced function in that body part, or, as in my case, nerves and other structures getting completely tied up and trapped in scar tissue (in record time.) Any of these is a whole new set of problems with added complications waiting to pile on.

Some Occupational and Physical Therapists specialize in scar management. Stretching, gentle massage, deeper massage after a certain length of time, silicon pads, heat therapy, bead therapy — they have tons of good tricks up their sleeves.

Case study: Me

I had come out of the post-surgical splint with 4 degrees of motion in my wrist. (That’s not a typo. Check that on a protractor.) Because I was still in the acute-healing phase, the scar tissue was being laid down faster than we could manage it, and if we didn’t have substantial improvement by Week 8 after surgery, I was looking at painful splints and possibly more surgery to loosen up my wrist/forearm so I could use it¬†again.

A warm pack and pain meds, followed in half an hour by diligent massage and stretching for 10 to 20 minutes, three to five times a day, with a silicone pad on it otherwise, was my routine for over a month. I watched a lot of movies to distract from the horrible pain and keep going, because I couldn’t take narcotics — they had hospitalized me with life-threatening side effects.

That’s probably what sealed my fate with CRPS: ineffective and even toxic post-surgical pain control followed by months of brutal rehab with continuing ineffective pain control. We didn’t have a Vitamin C Protocol for hand surgery then, so I didn’t know to take additional antioxidants, the one thing shown to reduce post-surgical CRPS.

Sure wish I’d known that then! It’s so simple, so cheap, so effective!

My wrist has never totally regained all its flexibility, but it used to be freakishly flexible, so it’s technically¬†all right now.

The caution and care you take in these first six weeks will pay off HUGELY. Put your natural stubbornness and self-sufficiency (which most spoonies have a LOT of) in the service of your healing for a month and a half, ok? ūüôā

SECOND 6 WEEKS

Now, if things have callused well and knitted properly, the second half of the “12-week healing circus” gets more interesting. This is when you gently and persistently put that part of your body back in service, and remind the nerves there that their job is not¬†to be hysterical and overly dramatic, but to report only/exactly what’s really there. Seriously. It’s a bit like self hypnosis. One great technique is in the “Mental Rehearsal” heading.

Another is a dry version of the Epsom baths described here. Keep in mind that you can use a washcloth or soft cloth dunked in Epsom solution instead of taking a bath, in order to benefit from the de-programming and re-programming you can do on your body in this way.

This period is crucial because that’s when 80-90% of the healing is completed. So, this is why the vitamin protocols, physiotherapy, and medical care really focus on that period. Problems are best found early in this period, so they can be fixed, mitigated, or worked around.

It’s not short, but it is finite!

PHYSIOTHERAPY AND REHABILITATION

Do what you can to get the best rehab possible, and be as communicative and involved as you can. Remember, whether you like your rehab professionals personally is not the point; it’s simply a question of whether you can communicate with them and get the care that you need. If you can’t communicate with them despite your best efforts, change therapists. There has to be 2-way feedback — especially with the tricky cases that we always are — or else it’s not a therapeutic situation.

Retrain the Pain

There are several ways to manage how the CRPS brain mis-handles the new pain information. These are different ways of hacking into the ways that the disease grabs the part of your brain that corresponds to the part of your body that CRPS wants to climb into.

Naturally, there are no guarantees, but mental-plasticity techniques can be hugely helpful.

Mental Rehearsal
When you are using that limb in the rehab stage, mentally practice the motion first, playing it out painlessly in your mind. Imagine the whole motion going perfectly comfortably. Then do the motion.¬†If this doesn’t go well, work¬†with your physical therapist¬†on details of the technique (there are several ways to conduct the imaginary and real movements) and figure out what works best for you.¬†Persistence is key in rehab.

The point is to make the movement you mentally practice as realistic as possible, as much like the real motion as possible, and have it be painless and comfortable in your mind when you practice it. Keep doing the mental rehearsal before the movement, and refine the mental rehearsal until you can predict the shape of your movements fairly¬†exactly. This was one of the best tricks I ever learned for de-programming my body’s pain responses and getting back a TON of function.

If done wrong, it can have pretty much the opposite effect, so go carefully and find good guidance if it’s not easy for you.

Brushing
This is kind of like acting out a metaphor, and that metaphor communicates with the body-mapping parts of the brain in a way it’s hard for them to ignore.

I find it makes a big difference if I approach all this with an attitude of parental authority toward my own body. I can’t control my body completely, just as a parent can’t completely control a child, who really is a separate entity; but a parent can exert a great deal of influence, when they do so with tones of loving, generous, insistent declaration.

“This is best for you, and I know that, and what happens to you matters, so do this and we’ll go from there.”

For paraesthesias — the garbage-can term meaning “weird skin sensations”, including numbness, tingling, or allodynia — I simply stroke from a non-weird area into the weird area.

I pay attention while I’m doing that, mentally pushing the non-weirdness into the weird area, and telling the weird area to pay attention because this is what “normal” feels like and “normal” is the appropriate way to feel. Kindly persistence is key.

Every now and then, I hear Jim Carrey’s character talking to his dog Milo. This clip isn’t in English, but somehow the meaning comes through in the first minute: “Come here, Milo… Come on, there’s a good boy… You can do it… PUT SOME EFFORT INTO IT!”

PAIN REHABILITATION can take longer than 12 weeks! Keep at it

Be patient. Be diligent. Above all, don’t give up. It just takes time (months or years in some cases) but it can usually be done, and the time will pass either way so you might as well have something to show for it.

Keep working on it. Mental rehearsal, brushing, self-hypnosis, calming meditation, Epsom baths, vitamins, etc. It all helps. Keep at it.

If you don’t already have a good pain psychologist, this is the time to get that referral. Pain psychologists have special training around understanding how pain impacts the brain, and how this, in turn, affects our feelings and behavior, and what we can do about that. Most importantly, they have special training about how to use the characteristics of the brain to better our frames of mind under varying stresses. It’s pretty brilliant.

There is a ton of good science on how we can learn to use our minds to improve our lives, and pain psychologists are the ones trained in how to identify our strengths and struggles and train us as individuals in using the tools that can benefit us the best.

NUTS-AND-BOLTS PREPARATION FOR PROCEDURES AND SURGERIES

Basic activities of life have to go on… So, plan ahead, clear the decks for action, and prepare some things ahead of time so that you have less to flail about when the time comes.

FOOD

You need to be able to get a meal with minimum effort for a couple of weeks. Before surgery, stock up on easy food. For me at my surgeries, that was apples and nut butter, nitrate-free cold cuts and veggie chips, romaine lettuce and Cabot Extra Sharp cheddar — which I slice and bag up ahead of time. Trader Joe’s and good grocery stores often have pre-made wraps, soups & salads, and good¬†frozen meals. For normal people with fewer allergies, it’s probably instant soups and microwaveable food. Whatever works for you. As long as you’re taking your vitamins, packaged food may be a reasonable compromise within your limits.

Say it with me: “Do what works for you.”

Clean clothes and sheets

Also, catch up on laundry and get rid of any “stupid problems” around the house — a door that makes you fight with it, a sink stopper that doesn’t work, a rug that always catches your foot. Fix the door, pull out the broken stopper and replace it with one from the dollar store, and get rid of the rug. I hate those kinds of rugs. (Old trauma nurse, remember.)

Making a “day nest”

If you don’t already have one, set up a “day nest” at home. It’s absolutely essential to¬†get out of bed every day if possible, because it’s much better for your brain, but for awhile you won’t be up to much more. Make¬†a comfortable place to lounge and watch tv, with your body-part¬†up, some kind of toileting you can get to, and your comfort kit handy (books, comics, hot water bottle, meds, snacks, etc.) for hours at a time.

Personal hygeine (sigh)

You’ll need to waterproof that body part¬†for bathing and showering. You may need back scrubbers and other reaching aids to get clean, too. At certain times, a wet washcloth may be the best you can do, so make it easy to reach the washcloth, soap, and a manageable¬†towel.

Try to work this out ahead of time. Give yourself slack for different levels of ability: washcloth while sitting on the toilet, soaking in the bath with the body part perched on the rim, showering in a chair or stool, or standing under the running water. Remember to figure out how to clean and manage your hair.

Having this mapped out ahead of time simplifies the hygeine. For another, it’s powerfully healing to know that you’re taking good care of yourself.

The first few days are… special

I find that the first 2-3 days are too bewildering and painful to handle alone. After that, I’d¬†begun to learn how to change position, dress, and wipe myself adequately (hey, that’s important!) and the IV site had healed.

If you’re on your own normally, try to find a helpful friend to stay with (or ask them to stay with you) for the first 2-3 days. All you need is someone to remind you that there’s life outside this, to pass your meds and a tissue, and, if necessary, call an ambulance to get you to the ER. Simple enough.

Final Notes

If you’re facing surgery or invasive procedures or a major injury, you’ve got a tough gig ahead of you, but you can manage it. I’d be wetting myself with anxiety if I had to face that¬†again, but I’d do all this stuff anyway because I know it works.

Now, having said that, this is the part where I have to insert the reminder that I am not a doctor, I have not examined my readers, and I have no business making diagnoses or conducting treatments on them.

Since I’m a pretty straightforward old cuss, I’ll add that it’s your own body anyway and you have to do your own homework, follow your own inner promptings, and take responsibility for the choices you make accordingly.

May all things go well for you, especially recovery.

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The weather is flailing, and so am I

On average, it takes 2-5 days to adjust to a change in the weather. This is part of the fun and excitement of CRPS, dysautonomia, fibromyalgia, and all those lovely dysregulating diseases of pain and neurological shenanigans.

New Englanders like to say, “If you don’t like the weather, just wait a minute.” Clouds and sunshine chase each other swirlingly across the sky like teenagers at a party. Precipitation, in one form or another, is bound to happen at least twice a week.

However, up until recently, there was a pattern in the seeming chaos. October hosted the last of the 50-degree weather, December saw the first few inches of snow that really stuck, January and part of February were bloody cold, March was named Mud Month for good reason.

Bar the occasional storm front, when the barometer plunges like necklines at a¬†Red Carpet¬†party, I could live with that. Once it’s fall, it’s fall; once it’s winter, it stays winter, until it gets muddy, and eventually the glorious summer blesses us all and reminds us why we put up with the rest.

Not now.

Over the winter holiday season, the naked (???) earth finally got dusted with snow. That quickly turned to sleet and then it froze (!!!). There were a couple of warm spells which didn’t melt the packed ice, just packed it further… we spent alternate days staggering over frozen rucks and through soggy mud, to try to maintain the dirt driveway.

Sunday, it was pushing 50 (like me), and raining cats and dogs; the ice finally melted — except for a few sneaky patches that merely absorbed the color of the sand so they could lurk, invisible, and slap down the unwary walker. Then it went down to well below freezing, and I got slapped down on a sneaky patch of ice because I forgot to wear friction doohickies on my boots. Last night, guess what? It snowed! We got almost 2 inches and we might get more.

I’m begging the weather gods to let it stay.

In the last few weeks, temperatures have seesawed between 20 degrees Fahrenheit above normal to 10 degrees below normal for this time of year (when it’s supposed to be simply bloody cold and frequently snowy.) Sometimes, we see that difference happen in one day.

So, if it takes 2-5 days to adjust to a weather change, and the weather is changing every day or three, what is a poor body supposed to do? Mine is whining. It’s just curling up in the chair and whimpering gently and steadily. It’s working so hard at handling the weather changes that showers and shampoos are something that happen to other people; there is no way this blood pressure and neurological system can take that much direct stimulus. A few swipes with a washcloth, a scarf or hat over the unwashed hair — it will have to do.

I still have to snap the leash on and drag this body outside at least once a day, but it’s duty, not fun. I’m sure I’m better for it afterwards — but I still climb straight back into the squishy chair, and let my body whimper for a bit.

The meteorologists on TV refer often to “the El Ni√Īo” effect, which makes me laugh. I’m pushing 50, remember? I’ve been through a lot of El Ni√Īo years, on both coasts. This isn’t El Ni√Īo. This is a huge bloody shift in the climate, and I don’t know how long it’ll last or where it will leave us.

I just hope it finds some consistency from day to day. As long as I have a few days to adjust, I’ll be fine. All I want is time to do¬†something besides listen to my¬†cells whimper!

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Getting re-humanized by phenylalanine

After breaking my own heart just before the holidays, and then lots of traveling and the sheer delight of swimming in the ocean of love I felt with¬†my kin (lucky me!), and then coming back in once piece, and then a bumpy recovery period… my dopamine was pooped.

How do I know that? Simple. I lost touch with the usually easy-flowing sense of love for my nearest and dearest. I was not quite as interested in grabbing good moments to have some fun; I was drawn to sitting around, disaffected and lethargic. My mind was a bit fuzzy. It was pretty much impossible to control my impulses to buy things I didn’t need, but felt a need for right at the moment.

Dopamine (among other things) is used to make decisions, control impulses, get interested in things, be motivated, and feel the pull of love or other desires.

I experimented years ago with precursors to neurotransmitters, because I was having a hard time convincing doctors that addressing the neurochemical impact of the disease might lessen the neurological effects of the disease.

Line drawing of brain, including medulla, sliced near the middle so the lacunae are visible.

 

I know, crazy stuff. Such a weirdo.

mirror_neuron

I’m taking an SNRI which mostly does a good job, but I’ve been doing this long enough that I don’t want to crank up the meds as my first line of action. Meds are problematic, especially for me, so I keep them as a second or third line option, starting with less toxic options first.

I’ve learned that the meds need something to work on. Selective reuptake inhibitors basically affect the molecules that already exist; they can’t make new molecules of serotonin, or norepinephrine, or whatever; they can only push the ones that already exist to work harder.

I like to make sure my reuptake inhibitors have something to work on, rather than just squeezing the last of the juice out of what few molecules are there. I still trust my body to make the neurotransmitters if they have the raw materials, so I listen to my cravings and supplement accordingly, giving them the raw materials to make more neurotransmitters.

Craving starch and fat and sugar is a good indicator that I need more serotonin, so I add 5-HTP to give myself a solid, measured dose of serotonin precursor. Craving sugar and having protein quench the urge, is usually a good hint that I need more dopamine, so I take some nice clean d,l phenylalanine.

Wide-eyed kitten staring at a roast chicken on table in front of its face

(Your mileage may vary, of course, but it turned out there was good, straightforward science behind these two simple self-checks.)

These are only two out of dozens of neurotransmitters, but they interrelate and often morph into each other sooner or later. So far, I’ve had good results with focusing on these two as the lynchpins¬†of my neurochemical management.

Here’s a metaphor that parallels the relationship between neurotransmitter meds and neurotransmitter precursors. You can crank up the volume all you want, but if there’s nothing in the CD/MP3 player, most of what you’ll get is just noise. Precursors are the music media. Meds can be the volume control.

I stopped taking d,l phenylalanine a couple months ago because I was doing great and really wanted to reduce the number of capsules I have to choke down. For awhile, I thought things were fine, but I’m not sure they actually were… I made some very silly decisions.

Phenylalanine, found in processed (smoked or dried) meats and well-aged cheese, as well as in certain artificially-sweetened drinks, is a key precursor for the dopamine/norepinephrine set of neurotransmitters. It has been found to suppress pain at the spinal root, too.¬†It’s used by some vets to help advanced arthritic pain in dogs.

Line drawing of spine in a human frame.
The spinal root comes out between the vertebrae. Most pain nerves in the body lead to a spinal root, and the spinal root goes into the spinal cord. The spinal cord is part of your central nervous system and goes straight to your brain. This explains a lot about CRPS, and other things.

My early experiments, when my neuro situation was getting bad, showed that 4 packets a day of that phenylalanine-rich artificial sweetener helped my mood and my pain noticeably. This persuaded my (slightly bemused) doctor to try me on SNRIs. Once I got onto the right SNRI, I’m happy to say I could get off the crazy chemical-sweetener version of the molecule. Suddenly the artificial sweetener stopped tasting good!

Anyway, to make a long story short (“Too late!”), I keep d,l phenylalanine on hand in case I need it for pain or brain. I started taking it a few days ago, in the morning, and I’m finally starting — starting! — to feel more human again. I started at a low-moderate dose, and gave¬†it a few days to work its way in before reassessing.

I understand that many people shy away from these precursor supplements because medical conservatives don’t trust their patients to pay attention and notice what makes things better or what makes things worse. That’s often reasonable… when I was working as a nurse, 90% of my patients probably couldn’t tell if their feet were on fire without looking first. Most people are really dissociated from our bodies.

Moreover, pain patients have every reason to be! When you spend most of your time in some degree of agony, it takes nerve, practice, and stubbornness to check in on yourself and make note of what you find, in order to screen out or screen in things that might be harming and helping. I have to say, I have found it well worth the effort, overall.

Also, surprisingly, it makes the pain less oppressive to look it straight in the eye once in awhile and say, “I see you. I see exactly what, and where, you are. You don’t fool me. You are not my life. You are not my body or brain. You’re just something that gets in the way, and I can usually work around you to some degree.”

Now, here is the “caveat” part.

It is possible to over-crank your meds by cranking up the precursors; it is possible to generate too much serotonin or too much dopamine by taking too much in the way of purified precursors, and your meds will keep squeezing the most out of that excess. So yes, you need to be careful and pay attention if you’re going to try this. Don’t jump in blindly. Take some time to study up.

This is where your own research and self-awareness becomes pivotal. What will that look like? How will you handle it?

My first experience of serotonin syndrome came from an iatrogenic overdose of an SSRI. That was bad. But hey, I sure know what it feels like now! I back off on the precursor or med when I feel the slightest drift that way.

Personally, I normally cut back on the meds first, because they contribute more to the fogginess and confusion that makes life so sucky sometimes. This is how I handle it, because I am comfortable doing things like filing or nipping a bit off my pills to cut the dose down, and I know my body well enough to notice the effects.

Using these supplements appropriately — with all this awareness and empirical experiments on myself and so forth — has reduced the side effects from my meds while giving me much better pain control and a much pleasanter quality of life. That’s a huge benefit. Huge. Definitely worth the effort.

If you’re interested in doing this… be sure to research the possibilities; understand what the sources, benefits, and drawbacks can be; and learn to track your symptoms. When you feel comfortable trusting your mind to your knowledge and record-keeping skills, then experiment carefully to see what works for you.

I’m not going to patronize my readers by telling them not to take responsibility for their bodies and their knowledge base, but I’ll gladly remind you — as I’ve recently reminded myself — to keep paying attention. Whatever mistakes you make are as much yours to deal with, as your successes are yours to celebrate. I wish you all success.

Naturally, it’s a good idea to start small and work up until you notice an effect. These things rarely work instantly, so give it a few days in your system until you bump the dose up.

Just as with meds, go with M.E.D.: Minimum Effective Dose.

If you don’t know your body pretty well, it can be hard to figure out what deficiency or excess you’re dealing with. Most online definitions of these syndromes or toxicities discuss the extreme and life-threatening levels of toxicity, which are not helpful to those of us who are working out our supplementation and medication levels.

When I had serotonin syndrome, I simply didn’t care if I had anything to eat or if my laundry — or my body — got washed. Nothing mattered. The peace was outstanding, but the situation was not compatible with long-term survival. I didn’t have tachycardia, myoclonus, or tremors, and I only noticed my reactions were twitchy when my doctor did the knee-hammer thing.

This non-disastrous level of reaction matters, because this is where we have the chance to tune our levels and make our lives better instead of worse.

I took years to get to know my body’s reactions, knowing the time would pass anyway and I might as well be wiser for it. So I learned to be mindful and careful, pay attention to myself and my body’s signals, and do my¬†homework on the foods and nutritional supplements I wanted to try. Everything has to make sense to me before I try it.

I don’t much care if a bunch of overpaid idiots agree. I care what works for me.

Currently, I’m on 500 mg a day and am noticing an improvement, although it’s a rather slow one. I now have a theory that my body can cache something in the chain between phenylalanine and dopamine, and the important thing to do is not to let that cache get too depleted. Once I’m back up to par, I may not need it all the time, but I need it often enough to keep my “backstock” up to par. Progress!

I’m going to go from once daily to twice daily on this phenylalanine, and once I get back to a tolerable baseline, go back down to once daily and stick to that at least through the winter. Then I’ll reassess, yet again, as I normally do every 6 months or so, and consider going down to every other day or so.

One thing you’ll discover in your research is why I use the d,l form of phenylalanine. Go on, check it out ūüôā

Re-assessing meds and supplements a couple of times a year is just part of life now. Things change and I want to keep up! I can usually find an intelligent pharmacist to talk things over with, and those decades of tracking what happens to my body and mind serve me well when it’s time to fiddle my supplements, so I can take as little as possible for the best effect.

It would be all too easy to take dozens of supplements, because this set of diseases wears so hard on the body’s systems, from the intracellular organelles to the organs themselves — not to mention the nerves and circulation connecting it all. But that has its own pitfalls, in addition to the staggering expense. I stick to what works for me, and try to stay current on the theory of other things so I can give meaningful suggestions when people ask. Other people’s bodies are different from mine, and what works for one may be no good to another; we all have to be our own, not mad scientists, but sane ones… an interesting challenge at the best of times.

Wishing you the best of the new year. I hope it’s good to you.

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Pacing, from the outside for a change

Now that I’m writing more, I find (again) that I don’t always know if I’m writing a blog post or journal entry until after the fact. (When I’m in practice, I always know ahead of time.) Naturally, the blog posts go here, and the journal entries don’t, so this is only visible at my end. However, I’m getting more journaling done, and that’s definitely good for my brain!

My partner J is learning to pace himself. He’s bit older than I am, is a bit hyperactive, and has had outrageously good health all his life. The onset of, um, late middle age is coming as a rather shocking surprise to someone whose body seemed to hold its position from 25 to 55 … and then it only took a decade or so for him to have some peace and wisdom around the fact that it’s time to act with more peace and wisdom.

Of course, in his case, he first had to find a place where acting with peace and wisdom was a survival path, rather than an invitation to younger predators.

Etching of elephant in distance, man taking aim at elephant with rifle, another man preparing to stab the man with rifle.
Life in J’s old neighborhood. Img from Wikimedia Commons.

I used to think that it didn’t much matter where I lived, that people were people and that things would work out much the same nonetheless. Boy, have I ever changed my mind about that. Some places are nice to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there.

Back here in the North Beast, the cold snap has us both moving slowly. We’re about 2/3 done with sanding the driveway, and will take a couple days to rest until the next push on that task. It’s good to sit here in the living room all cozy and peaceful, because he’s now comfortable with doing things in episodes.

Pacing is a tough thing to learn, but it’s nice once you get it. It’s easier on those around you, too. Who knew? I never thought of that before, until I was one of those hanging around a person who paced himself successfully.

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

We are warm, safe, housed, fed, loved, and cherished. For all the years that none of that was true for either of us, well, we never knew this was up ahead. We had to stay alive long enough to get to this point. It wasn’t easy. I’m glad we did.

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To fail myself is to fail others, and doesn’t that suck!

My desk setup is nonexistent and much of it still buried in unpacking. I wish I’d been writing some of the wonderful blog ideas that have passed through, but I didn’t. Rather than trying to reconstruct them from addled hindsight, I’ll just go on as if I had a whole nest of posts to plop this one into, and go on from here.

As my desk situation indicates, I still feel perched, rather than settled. I’m going to have to find a rental in the spring and then start looking for a miraculously good deal on a house to buy after that, so it’s hard to unpack all the way.

Moreover, California is still extending opportunistic tendrils into our wallets, task lists, and attention.

And then there are the periodic health crises: a bit of allergy exposure here, a bit of partner’s chest pain there, a sprained wrist from me overdoing, a sprained back from him overdoing… you know. Stuff.

Oh, and the holidays, with a trip and gifties to prepare, mostly for people I haven’t seen for over a decade… no pressure.

These aren’t excuses, they’re reasons. I don’t really believe in excuses; it’s largely an irrelevant concept. It’s for an injured party to decide if I’m excused, not me, so “offering an excuse” just doesn’t make sense. I have reasons, but so does everyone.

Here’s the thing I feel a need to mention my reasons for:

I’ve let my self-disciplines go. T’ai chi, qigong, meditation, reiki, relaxation exercises, stretching, even listening to chamber music — I think about them, but I don’t do them. I still have my morning routine, or at least half of it… if that… OK, yeah, my self-disciplines are pretty much out the window.

Like medication, meditation only works if you use it.

After weeks, actually months, of coping and managing with (and concealing, because that’s what chronically ill people do) my rising instability and neural chaos, I’ve finally started skidding off the cliff.

As for the effect… I’m trying to come up with a good image.

Imagine a patch of sea. I’m in a well-rigged little sailboat, noodling along in a fair wind.
view forward from deck of sailboat. Mainsail on right, jib on left, Marin headlands and Golden Gate visible between.
The oil of willpower is constantly sprinkled on the water’s surface, keeping it smooth and flat, easy to sail along on.

Underneath, the weedy patches pluck at the propeller and keel, the barnacles grow restive and start plucking back, the creatures swimming underneath get bigger and more voracious, and then they get big enough to break the surface now and then.

More oil! Keep sailing!

Those surface-breaking tiddlers get chased off by the real mondo beasts. The boat is getting sprayed by the monsters breeching.

Everything’s fine, I’m too busy to pay attention, la la la la la I’m not listening!

Also, the wind is acting up. The boom is starting to swing across at head-height.

Just a little farther now! More oil! /BOOM/ It’s OK, I’m fine, just a flesh wound!

Unbeknownst to me (since I’ve got the radio turned off, because I’m not listening), there was a string of earthquakes.

Since Banda Aceh and the meltdown at Fukijima, we’ve all learned about how earhquakes make waves. The shock of the quake trundles happily along the ocean floor until the ocean floor rises towards the shore. Then it sucks the landward water into itself and brings it all back as a tsunami.
water_tsunamiformation
If you’re afloat and listening, you move out to deep water, sail over the bump without losing stability, and you’re fine. If not… cue exciting sound track and hire George Clooney for the (possibly race- and gender-inappropriate) lead in another disaster movie.

There was a wave and I wasn’t in deep water. I didn’t handle it well; I was dysregulated and chaotic for days. Days. I was so dysregulated and chaotic I didn’t even see that that’s what I was, until it was pointed out to me — by the person who’d just gotten butt-kicked by an earthquake. That is not a fair burden to put on someone who’s already having trouble.

I have a personal meme about being good to friends. This is important for us spoonies (as chronically ill people sometimes call themselves.) My disease treats me like crap, but that isn’t a license for me to treat others like crap.

People who are protected from the true impact of this illness need to not get it at close range, or they run away (understandably) feeling as if they just got burned.

People who have this illness can understand a lot more, but are able to do much less.

I have to communicate appropriately. That’s my job in each relationship.

Basically, humans are emotionally fragile creatures and — whether I want to be judgmental about it or not — I can either respect that, keep the worst of my crap to myself, and have good relationships; or I can expect them to be as tough as me and to do so on my schedule, neglecting that they have to be as tough as themselves on their own schedule, and wind up isolated. Because I’m human too, I’m emotionally fragile enough that being isolated sucks.

I absolutely dropped my backlog of frustration and pain and rage on someone who was about the last to ever deserve it. That’s quite a breach of trust.

I stopped taking care of myself. As a result, I fkdup and hurt someone else. Now I have to own up (did that), figure it out (working on it), and do what needs to be done (re-integrate my practices) to prevent it ever happening again (and find a way to cue myself before I get bad: the missing piece.)

At that point, I’m allowed to make amends. It’s another tweak of my logic that I can’t make amends until I’m sure I won’t make the same mistake.

Being a spoonie is hard work. Part of that work is these time-intensive disciplines that seem like “oh how nice, you’re so cool, I wish I could do that” — but, as it turns out, are really not optional if I want to function.
Allie Brosch cartoon,
Why I need to do my disciplines: to stay out of this pit with Allie.

BTW, do you notice how people excuse themselves by saying, “I wish I could do that”? I listen for these words coming out of my own mouth. It’s a sure flag that I’m throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Oh, a little extra effort up front to save a whole lot of trouble later on? H’mmm…

We all screw up at times. The consequences for spoonies can be life-threatening, if the wrong relationship gets ruined. Handling these issues is part of “living anyway” in the face of profound disease. It’s harder to figure out and harder to repair the damage, because of the nature of central nervous system diseases. So, dear reader, I’ll try to stay on the right side of the line between washing dirty laundry and discussing a common issue here.

We often tell each other, “You can’t take care of others if you don’t take care of yourself.” That’s a tough one for caregiver personalities; we’d much rather take care of others than ourselves. However, it was through failing to take care of myself that I actively hurt another. That is a whole different octave of problem. I guess I’d better learn this lesson.

This is a lot of thinking for a breached boat. I can do it, though. I must. I’m still a long way from harbor.
boatsSBMarina_night

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Don’t abandon yourself

Um, I’m embarrassed here, but WordPress decided I wanted to publish this instead of keeping it as a draft, despite my (I thought) clear button-clicking. And after all this work, naturally, I’m too clobbered to figure out how to back out and fix that. So I won’t advertise this until it’s done. Meanwhile, enjoy reading the beta version, if you want…

// markup
// consider splitting into 2 or 3
// sanity check
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Don’t abandon yourself

As individuals and as a group, we have far too much experience of being abandoned by those who are supposed to care for us and those who, we believed, cared about us. Sooner or later, those of us with invisible disabilities in general, and disruptive neurological and pain diseases particularly, *really* learn who our friends and allies *truly* are — if we have any at all. It’s a brutal lesson.

On top of this, those of us who survive the initial assaults of the disease — not to mention the staggering rounds of betrayals and abandonments — tend to be rather driven. If we weren’t when we started, we sure are by the time we get through those ghastly shivarees. We can keep going by will alone, without the muscle, the memory, or the means to do so. We do it anyway.

In the long run, this is a skill that needs to be used selectively. It gets us through the pinches and punches of life, but we have to learn when to turn that off and take care of ourselves, as we wish others had taken care of us.

The trickiest lesson of all may be, how not to abandon ourselves.

It’s not that hard. It’s difficult, but it’s not hard. The trick is learning to walk fine lines, using our judgment instead of our impulses — which are a LOT more impulsive because of the neurochemistry of relentless pain.

The deck is stacked against us. But we are still in the game.

Here are some notes on the distinctions we have to learn, even when our brains can’t cooperate. The fact that we get as far as we do is astounding, when you think about it.

H/The difference between comfort and care

There are habitual comforts that belonged to our pre-disease life, and care that belongs to the present. I’ve found that care itself has become very comforting, so the work of leaving behind old comforts that suddenly came with a very high price has turned out to be well worth the years of effort. (I rarely even want pastries any more, which is just as well, considering all the problems they trigger in this body… but Epsom baths are wonderful, and berries are delicious!)

H/The difference between rest and sluggishness

There are four pillars to self-care for CRPS and, indeed, most pain diseases: activity, rest, nutrition, and distraction.

We have GOT to move. We have GOT to rest. Neither is optional. But the pain makes it hard to start moving, and once you get comfortable… oh, dear heavens, why get up when it just makes things hurt again? Initiating movement is awful at the time, but maintaining flow of blood and lymph is absolutely crucial for *ongoing* pain control and keeping the damage down.

Putting your feet up between tasks, taking it easy the day before and the day after an appointment or event, and [LINK] having good sleep habits[/] is resting. Resting is good. Resting is helpful. Resting makes you stronger.

H/The difference between doing and overdoing — and undoing

One great advantage that kids with CRPS have is parents. Parents push you when you can’t push yourself. It’s their job. I suspect that two reasons why kids have a better chance at remission is that, for one thing, they have a structured daily routine, which reduces the CNS chaos; and, for another, they have parents helping and coaching and maybe crying with them as they push through the pain to keep moving and
get their activity in, as well as their rest.

One great disadvantage that adults have is less resilience. If we overdo, our bodies go straight to Hell — go to Hell, go directly to Hell, do not pass Go, do not collect $200 (to paraphrase the game Monopoly.)

At worst, we can create a spread or an intensifying of CRPS if we push ourselves too hard, eat the wrong thing, have a procedure, break a bone. We can, by one misjudgment or accident, find ourselves far more disabled and agonized and in need than we already were. Which is unimaginable to a healthy person in the first place.

And yet, we must move… While exhibiting good judgment… With a brain that hasn’t got much judgment-juice at the best of times.

No, it’s not fair! It’s CRPS!

H/The difference between pushing and pacing

Pacing is key. Pacing is how I built up from being able to walk just 100 feet to a couple of miles. Pushing is how I got CRPS in the first place, and it’s insane to do the same thing in the hope of getting different results.

Learning how to pace, when you’re used to pushing, is relentlessly frustrating… but it *can* be done! For me, it’s usually a question of turning my stubbornness towards my own service, instead of the service of my frustration, ADD-driven fixation, or impulsiveness.

Actually, come to think of it, it’s really a question of *remembering* to do that, prioritizing accordingly, and following through on the decision. Easier said than done. This brain doesn’t have much judgment-juice, remember? It’s unspeakably weird to feel myself make the choice to stop doing whatever task I’ve gotten sucked into, realize it’s a good idea, find that I’m totally unable to make the switch, and — here’s the kicker — hear myself say in my head, “I haven’t got enough dopamine,” and simply realize I’m going to be in trouble and that’s all there is to it.

H/The difference between a bad decision, the end of life as you know it, and being dead.

Normally, only one of these is unrecoverable. Remember that. Being dead eliminates aaaaaaaaall your future options. Every last one. This is why I say, with Barrie Rosen, that *only suicide* is failure; everything else is just tactics.

Bad decisions have consequences, as we know better than most. We are often underfunded in what it takes to make those decisions, as my example in the previous section indicates. Bad decisions suck, they’re often costly, and it’s not like we can always help making them, adding a layer of humiliation that isn’t fun.

But they aren’t the end of the world. Not usually. They rarely result in our deaths. Being able to manage or mitigate the consequences and move on with a minimum of fuss is a hugely valuable skill. This brings us to our next topic.

H/The difference between being irresponsible, and forgiving yourself for a mistake.

Forgiving ourselves is key. The neurochemistry of judgment and decision-making takes heavy damage from the neurochemistry of pain *and* the particular neurological re-mapping and re-wiring of CRPS.

That’s not fair!

Would you dis someone with no legs because they couldn’t climb a mountain? No, of course not. You’d be much more likely to offer to help them get their chair up to where they can get a better view.

Between our greater likelihood of dropping a brick, so to speak, and the incredibly high price we pay for every mistake, being able to forgive ourselves is essential to keeping some perspective and keeping ourselves going.

Not forgiving ourselves actually leaves us with *less* judgment-juice (otherwise known as dopamine.) Being critical is hard work, neurologically speaking. Our brains are already overtaxed, in every possible sense of the word; do we really need to strip still more dopamine from this system and work the pain pathways even harder? Probably not, eh?

Being irresponsible boils down to surrendering your own agency. Agency, in this case, means being the active force in your own life. Whose body is it? Yours. Who is it who has this pain and all that goes with it? You. Who is responsible for learning how to manage this body? Who is it who has to find the right treatment and negotiate usefully with your providers? One guess…

Doctors spend a decade just being trained to treat this disease. We don’t have that luxury, even though we have to depend on them to get the care. Since it shows up uniquely in each one of us, we have to become our own best specialists. To quote Ojocion Ingram, a passive patient is a dead patient.

While modern conventional medicine does not take kindly to patients who drive their own care, there’s a reason for that: modern conventional medicine was not designed to create healthy patients, it was designed to create healthy profits. The system does not have your best interests at heart. It’s up to you to manage the system to serve your needs to the extent that it can… and then to find ways to stretch it a little further.

Although others may help us (and isn’t it wonderful when they do?) the final decisions are ours, for better or worse. The law still mostly respects that, if only because it shifts responsibility off the “health care” system.

H/The difference between inner wisdom and inner chaos

I recently lost a friend with CRPS who released her agency to her surgeon, for very logical reasons, but very much against her inner voice. Her voice is now silenced, and we miss her dreadfully.

This raises an interesting conundrum: with or without adequate brain-juice, we have to find ways to make decisions which can have consequences up to, and including, death. Is the logical decision the right one? Or should we listen to our inner voice, even if we can’t find logical reasons to do so? Is it inner wisdom, or yet another anxiety attack? How can we know?

I’m an old triage nurse. I used to say, always go with that inner voice. I’ve seen it be right more often than the best of doctors. There is something inside us that knows more than we can possibly perceive. Sadly, we can’t always hear it clearly, especially when our brains are hotwired and hair-triggered by the constant barrage of weirdness that CRPS creates.

The primitive parts of our brain that monitor risk and reward, hazards and fears, aversion and attraction, are all potentially infected with the disruption and misfiring that CRPS causes. It’s a central disease, so the pain it creates in the body can be reflected and echoed and magnified by the upheaval it creates in the brain. This can make it very hard to know what’s really going on, especially for the person most closely involved.

This is why coloring, meditation/contemplation, relaxation techniques, and inner arts like yoga and qi gong are so useful. They smooth out the chaotic ripples set off by the disease, so we can hear our inner voices a bit more clearly. Sadly, they’re still seen as something absurd (coloring? Really??), out of reach, exotic, or personally irrelevant. My doctors almost never mention them, and if they do, it’s usually clear that it’s something they don’t do themselves — it’s for the patients. And, as every practitioner knows, patients are just a little less than fully human.

That’s one thing I learned from working as a nurse at 6 teaching hospitals. Patients are consistently seen as less than fully human. The training in that regard goes very deep. Knowing that may make it easier to understand why things are the way they are in the modern health care system.

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A simple 3-step program for bearing the unbearable

It’s been an interesting summer. It’s good to be safe and well. And that’s all I want to say about it right now. On to more interesting things.

Those of us who have to bear the unbearable eventually learn that there’s no trick to it, no shortcuts, no secret wisdom. I’m sorry to say it, but there isn’t. It’s very simple — not easy, but simple.

There are just three things we have to do:

1. Keep breathing.
2. Put one foot in front of the other.
3. Keep going through the motions until we adapt to the New Normal.

That seems a bit telegraphic. Let me expand on these a little:

  1. Keep breathing.

    If we don’t do that, we’ve got nothing. Literally. Keep breathing. In fact, the better we breathe, the better we cope. (There’s a ton of science on this, if you care about that.) For those who need reminding how, try this:

    1. Ease your lower back, if you can. Gently drop your shoulders, which are probably up near your ears.
       
    2. Breathe in through your nose, if you can; if you can’t, stick your tongue out loosely between your open jaws and breathe through your mouth. (This opens the back of your throat — and releases clenched teeth.) Imagine the breath going down in front of your spine and into the bowl of your pelvis. This helps draw it in deeper, which is key to calming and strengthening your system.
       
    3. Breathe out naturally, or by gently exhaling through pursed lips — like blowing out a little candle. The pursed-lips one is great for tense moments and higher pain.

    Breathing well disrupts the “anxious/fight/flight” loop in the nervous system. It’s amazing. So simple, can’t beat the price, and no bad side-effects!

  2. Put one foot in front of the other.
     
    This means doing the work of survival:

    1. Do what it takes to get fresh air, water, food, clothing, and shelter, plus a phone and internet access. (In this isolated and far-flung age, phone and internet are essential elements of survival.) The safer and more effective, the better, but we can’t always be choosy.
       
    2. Keep our bills paid, if we can. If we can’t, find out how to get assistance with them. (This is one task where we need the phone and internet.)
       
    3. Put the minimum effective effort into maintaining our relationships. (More phone and internet.) We need to know who won’t fade away at the first real sign of trouble. We can’t expect much, though — a sad fact of life. Just stay in touch and see what happens.

      One way or another, we do find out who our real friends are.

  3. Keep going through the motions until we adapt to the New Normal.

    What that involves varies for each of us; you’ll know it when you see it starting to happen. Things you’ll probably notice include:

    • The work of survival shifts from “minimum survival” to meeting slightly higher expectations.
       
    • New relationships have begun to form, and old bonds to re-form, around the new realities.
       
    • The inevitable grief over what we’ve lost (abilities, opportunities, friends, and so on) begins to separate from the general mash of misery.

That’s actually a good sign.

When grief becomes distinct, it makes room for other things — relief, moments of joy, feelings of love, appreciation for what we now have.

If we keep breathing well, we can notice those other things better, and get closer to that quality of “radical acceptance” (which can work with or without hope) that makes even hellacious lives so much richer.

When in doubt, breathe. Then just go through the steps.

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Managing with one foot

CRPS tends to demineralize the bones, creating a sort of Swiss-cheese-looking osteoporosis. I’ve held that at bay so far, and I believe it relates to jumping on the vitamin D bandwagon long before I saw it in the news — I followed a tip from a friend without CRPS, who found that it kept her teeth from chipping. Well, I know why teeth chip — demineralization. So I started on the D3 at the first sign of soft teeth, years ago.

The other main thing to hold back osteoporosis is weight-bearing exercise.

I am absolutely certain that the old nursing/physiotherapy trope, “Use it or lose it,” is nearly always true.

Mind you, there are no guarantees.

Another trope: absolutist statements are always flawed.

Preferring to stack the oddds in my favor, I’ve stayed active and weightbearing despite considerable slumps, occasional backslides, and the occasional wish to throw myself off a bridge rather than mobilize.

So here I am with a broken foot, bone pain for the very first time since I got CRPS, and camping in our trailer as a diversion and a coping measure for being in between homes right now. (And that’s another looooong story.)

The second week post-fracture was interesting, as I figured out how to stay mobile. In this third week, I’ve learned that I should probably spend more time sitting down with my leg up.

Lay-people keep asking where my cast is. Casting slows healing. I have CRPS, which means my healing is already slowed considerably. Do I really need to slow it further? Hard to see an upside to that.

The point of casting is immobilization, and there are other, safer, saner ways to do that. Jamming a hard surface against a soft and variably swelling one doesn’t strike me as the best way to stabilize a small but essential bone. There’s nothing quite as rational as just leaving the darn thing COMPLETELY ALONE. Especially when even the touch of the sheet is unbearable … because, oh yeah, I’ve got CRPS.

The single biggest cause of nonhealing bones is overuse. Even I, type A-ish as I might sometimes be, can’t think of anything stupider and more wooly-headed than putting any weight or stress on a broken foot. Those are small bones with the most fundamental job in the whole skeleton. When they go wrong, it’s not good!

At first, I didn’t even put a sock on it — just a light lady’s scarf at times (a gift from a healer friend), gently wrapped around to keep the breeze off — or, as I thought of it, the burning blast from hell.
mismatched_sox
Recently, I graduated to a loose, bright red fleece sleeve with the end stapled shut (breeze…) Now that the swelling is down enough, I can wear the “walking” (no, that’s not a sensible suggestion) shoe…
Red fleece sleeve slid over foot and lower leg. Walking shoe on.
… to minimize the effects of the occasional little bumps and jostles the foot gets as I dart around on my stunning little knee-walker.
scooterfreesme
I can’t use the knee-walker in the trailer, too close to the car, on rough terrain, or when the bruising on my shin gets too bad. So the moves I developed in my first week are getting more refined.

Major problem… Despite an eating pattern averaging 1,450 kcal a day of steamed greens, lean protein, and highest-quality fats, I weigh 200 pounds (90 kg.) So,

  • every time I lever myself up from the floor on one foot .. that’s 200 pounds going through one knee bent double, on a frame designed for less than 150.
  • Every time I hop, even in my scoop-bottomed sneakers, that’s 200# — plus velocity — landing on that leg each time.
  • I do my best to control my velocity and distribute the load through the whole spring-structure of the leg, but … 200 pounds. I thought my Achilles tendon was going to pop off my heel yesterday.
  • Every time I brace myself with my hands on a rail or counter as I swing or scoot along, that’s 3 digits of poundage on my CRPS’d carpal tunnels.
  • And then there’s getting in or out of the trailer I’m living in, with its two and a half foot rise… makes me feel faint to think of it.

It’s kind of unreal that my body has held it together for so long. But hey, like I’ve said, a lot of us find that we are capable of far more than the science might think.

The t’ai chi is invaluable. It’s all about the curves. Everything, in the end, is embodied in the swooping lines of the taiji symbol.
Yin_yang-sm
I can get a lot more leverage than should be humanly possible out of a curving or looping wave of my hand — a Roll-sideways rather than Roll-back, for my fellow t’ai chi-kans.

I propel myself from the ground up onto my foot by sending energy down from my back in a spiral into the floor, and letting that “imaginary” spring push me up. Go Dragon!

I settle onto the toilet while keeping one foot aloft by using a really cool sort of 3-D scissor-swoop with my two arms — Part Wild Horse’s Mane, but with less tilting and more curve.

The pain is, well, beyond words, so let’s pass on. The level of dependency is, for me, even worse. The hardest part of all, though, was giving up chocolate. It interferes with calcium absorption. I did say about not slowing healing, right?
choco-giving-it-up
I’m grateful beyond words for the t’ai chi moves. They save me, in a very physical, literal sense.

While we may find, in impossible situations, that we are a little superhuman, it isn’t good that we have to do these things. It isn’t healthy. In fact, it’s all rather ghastly from the first-person standpoint, however much it seems to inspire outsiders. In short, it sucks. And we suck it up. Then move on.

Swoopingly, if we know how.
I think I’m halfway to Bagua Zhang by now.

But it’s all related.

I wish I were an animator. I have these ideas in mind of a cartoon character who wiggles where I do, and not only could I make the character bounce and thud and stagger and scoot like I do, but I could animate wa-wa-ing waves and oscillating ropes of pain in morphing colors for each move. It’s really rather elegant, as well as side-splittingly funny in a greusome way. At the same time, extremely informative. Extremely.

Hmmm.. I guess I’ll download and learn some suitable animation software. In between the fractures, fallouts, fall-throughs, snafus, and the dribbling detritus of a slightly ridiculous life.

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Autobiographita

I heard from a lovely friend of my youth, who wanted to know what I’ve been doing since Egypt. I tried to tell her. I realized that, embedded in my nutshell autobiography, were a lot of clues about why I blog and why I approach CRPS and its ghastly little friends with this sort of incisive determination seasoned with a laugh, a sort of functional contempt — an attitude of, “not going to let such a nasty little mindless rat-fink take any more of my life than required.” It goes way back. So here’s a little background…

I was born in Ankara, Turkey, though I nearly wasn’t born at all. My mother started bleeding well into her pregnancy. The protocol at the time was to get care from the Army base near Ankara. The Army doctor told her, “The baby’s dead. Come back on Monday and we’ll have it out.” Which, if it were true, would have killed my mother… but she didn’t think the baby was dead.

She asked around and found a Turkish doctor (her Turkish was pretty good) and he said, “The baby’s not dead, but you’re going to bed and will stay there until it’s born.” (She spent her time reading, smoking, and knitting, so I have something to blame for the asthma. I think it was all that knitting. The sweater made its way all the way down three children intact, so it was some very good knitting, but still… )

block image of a toddler's read sweater
A few months later, the wonderful Turkish doctor strolled into my mother’s hospital room, threw open the blinds, and said in Turkish, “A new day, a new baby!”
children-Versailles_petit_appartement_de_la_reine_web
As we left Turkey 3 years later, me toddling along with my little stuffie in one hand and my mother’s hand in the other, my older brother charging ahead of my Dad who was carrying the bags, and my younger brother a babe in arms, my mom was stopped on our way to the gate. It was the nurse from the Army hospital. She said, ever so kindly, “Oh Mrs. Aweigh, I remembered that you’d lost a baby. I’ve thought of you often, and I just wanted to know that you’re all right, now.”

My mother was very touched, but she had a plane to catch. She looked at me, looked at the nurse, looked at me, looked at the nurse, and said, as nicely¬†as she could manage, “I’m fine, thank you,” then caught up with the rest of her family.

We survived 7 years Stateside, and left for Egypt in January of 1976. I consider that to be my humanization, as I never felt at home in New Jersey. That could come off as a cheap shot, but it’s the simple truth. I was all wrong there.

Cairo was a dream come true, only I never could have imagined being somewhere so rich — rich in history, rich in culture, rich in the textures of language, rich in feeling. I had finally come home.

I also discovered healing, taking in whatever sick or injured animals came my way and figuring out how to help them — kittens, pups, birds both wild and tame… I’d have gotten a donkey, if the neighbors would have let me.

Very young white donkey grazing cutely under palm trees.
This little colt is nearly as cute as the one I had my heart set on.

I was a dependent, however, and we weren’t allowed to stay in one place for more than two “tours”, totaling four and a half years. My folks went to Bangladesh, and my older brother and I went to high school in Massachusetts.

I was in rural Western Massachusetts, a slice of heaven on earth, especially if you grew up in a desert.

I wound up starting at a Seven Sisters college there. Left the ivory tower when school was interfering with my education (thus neatly acquiring the black sheepskin from my disreputable older brother, who had meanwhile cleaned up his act and gone to law school.)

I became a registered nurse after surviving a sailing trip from Cape Cod to the US Virgin Islands, taking the deep-water route outside Bermuda. The captain was a drug-addicted control freak and sexually inappropriate — none of which became apparent until we were signed on and nearly underweigh. (Now, I’d run anyway, and let her lawyers try and find me. I was younger then.)

She had been an ivory tower classmate of mine, an older student who had been locked up for most of her youth for being gay. She probably was perfectly sane to start with, but after being thrown off by parents and socialized in a nut house, nobody stands a chance. However, she was in her 30’s and living as an adult, so it was not ok.

Side note: queer people are somehow expected to be better than straight people, but that’s just unfair. People are people. Some straight people are really decent. Some queer people are really awful. And vice versa! Just let everyone be human, okay? Rant over.

Due to the intolerable hostility and tension aboard the boat, the nicest member of the crew developed a stomach ulcer, which hemmorhaged… so I started my first IV on the high seas and we had a day-long wait for the helicopter to air lift her. Why? Because the drug-addicted captain had plotted us as being about 80 miles landward of our actual position.

That bleeding ulcer saved us all!

We got safely to anchor in Tortola a few days later.
Panoramic view of Road Town harbor in the tropics
After a screaming row with the captain at 1 am over something irrelevant and stupid (not danger, not losing the dinghy, not being hit on, not being verbally abused day in and day out, but something totally stupid and irrelevant), I was kicked off the boat in a foreign country, with $5 and a tube of toothpaste in my pocket — which¬†exploded as I lay sleeping on a picnic table at Pusser’s Landing, halving my resources and adding a mess.

My dad was posted to Jamaica at the time. I was allowed back on the boat to get my things and call him and arrange for my extrication. Nothing happened on weekends on the Islands in the late 1980’s, so I wound up being the house-guest of a truly kind and decent Island couple, who took in penniless waifs and strays simply in order to make the world a better place.¬†I’m everlastingly grateful to Marina and Samuel. May all good things come to them.

After that, nursing school was a stroll.

I supported myself by tutoring in the school and splitting and hauling cordwood in the forest. However, between the time I started and the time I graduated, the economy in Massachusetts crashed, so I headed to Washington DC, where my State Department-associated family members and friends roosted.

My first nursing job was on an HIV unit, until it closed when visitors realized that most people there had, my goodness, HIV. (Sigh…) My second job was at DC General Emergency Dept, the only public hospital in one of the roughest cities in the country at the time. I learned a LOT.

I found my way back to rural Massachusetts, once I had the resume to get a good job in a lean market. I had first learned about herbs and energy healing there, and treated my illnesses and injuries with no health insurance from the time I left¬†college through nearly all of my nursing career. (How ironic is it that it was so hard to get health insurance when I was a nurse?) I also took care of a couple of “incurable” things that patients of mine had, and cured them. I became a good empiricist. Home care nurses HAVE to get results, because there’s no backup.

Scientific-method science is very sound when it’s properly applied, but money and access distorts it too easily. Empirical-method science is the only kind that can actually tell you what works in the case of the individual.
While I prefer to understand how things work, I really only care WHETHER they work in a given case. I’m also well aware that, in medicine, at every point in history, we always think we know a lot — but, 10 or 20 or 100 years later, we look like idiots.

My favorite Star Trek clip of all time sums it up well:

A few years later, as the economy softened again and all but the worst jobs dried up, I allowed myself to be drawn to California by a nice face — which ditched me once we arrived. Not so nice.

I worked as a nurse and made my home in Central California until my immune system gave out, for no discernible reason. Shortly after the immune system pooped, my dad died, preventably (CPR would have clearly saved him, but he was in Egypt and swimming alone) and that was the final straw. Well, the penultimate straw…. Afterwards, my lungs shut down and my doctor was out of ideas. I’m pretty sure that acupuncture saved my life, because nothing else worked.
Acupuncture_chart_300px
Once I was well enough to do some career research and put together a portfolio, I was hired to document programming software, starting with¬†an internship on the basis of the raw talent my supervisor saw in my work. I was quickly hired out of the internship. They had an onsite gym, and one of the loveliest running trails through the redwoods was right on my way to work, so I got into outstanding shape …

…And then the repetitive stress injuries hit.

A couple of surgeries later, with odd¬†complications, I developed a horrific central AND peripheral nervous system disorder called Complex Regional Pain Syndrome, or CRPS. It took from 2001 to 2005 to get diagnosed, then fighting until 2012 to get disability dole (SSDI) and get worker’s compensation insurance off my back. (Call it another 3 near-death experiences. They so badly wanted me to just die, it was stunning to see what they’d do to try to effect that, short of hiring a hit man.) This gave me a lot of insight into the approaching-3rd-world status of US health care and its social administration.

The U.S. spends twice as much on care as other "civilized" countries, and turns out the worst outcomes of all. Tell me how an insurance-driven, corporate-owned system is efficient and economical, again? Because that's not what the data show.
The U.S. spends twice as much on care as other “civilized” countries, and turns out the worst outcomes of all. Tell me how an insurance-driven, corporate-owned system is efficient and economical, again? Because that’s not what the data show. This link takes you to the full story.

The nursing background and the information-architecture and explanatory experience have formed my current career, the (currently unpaid, but highly useful) job of explicating CRPS, its mechanisms and management, and how I adapt my world to function, in spite one of the most invisibly crippling diseases known to science.

I’ve been trying to think how to turn the plot arc of this life¬†into a nice, suitable-for-polite-company little anecdote, but I broke my foot in my one non-affected limb last Friday (I am laughing with heartfelt irony as I write this) and am hugely motivated¬†to simplify. For me, simplicity is most congruent with honesty and straightforwardness — less to remember. So I¬†just spat it out.

This might explain a few things, among them my fascination with health and medical science, my very wide view of healing (belief is irrelevant; what matters is if it works for you), and why I have zero to negative patience for the arrogantly overeducated — they’ve nearly killed me a few too many times. Right from the start!

"Visis mu! Visis mu! This is a truly excellent mouse which I am shoving smugly up your spine!"

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First, keep breathing

I say that a lot.

The first thing our bodies do when we get a burst of pain or other shock is, clench. Hard to breathe effectively when clenched and, oddly, it’s hard to do anything else — except let the anxiety-mad sympathetic nervous system run riot.

For normal people, the exercise I’m about to describe is a calming exercise, but for the chronically ill and chronically hurting, it’s more like an elementary coping exercise.

That feeling of being frozen? It’s shock. It’s normal to go there, but don’t dwell in it.

Ways to help yourself through it are largely little physical shifts that send a message back up to your brain that it’s time to process now.

Notice where your shoulders are. Just notice. Notice how your neck feels. No judgment or “I should”s, just notice. Notice how you’re sitting or standing. Notice how your hips are rotated in relation to your posture. Just observe these things.

Now exhale all the way. Not to the point of straining or coughing, just comfortably emptied out. Let your lungs spring open naturally and — this is key — open your teeth as you inhale.

Now, when you breathe out, purse your lips softly, as if puffing out a match. That does two things: keeps your jaw unlocked and nudges a little extra oxygen into your lungs.

When you breathe in, after that first open-mouth inhale, breathe in through your nostrils if you can. If you can’t, put your tongue tip on the roof of your mouth and breathe around your tongue. Either way, it opens the back of your throat slightly so you can…

Imagine the breath sliding down your spine and into the bowl of your pelvis. This helps your body do an end-run around the clenched-torso breathing we get into when we freeze. Just let the good air wash into your spine and slosh into the bowl of your pelvis.

Then let it out through gently pursed lips, and in through opened throat, then down, and back out, and so on.

Do ten cycles. It’ll be a different and better world after. Notice how your shoulders and neck soften, and your hips unwind. Colors are a little brighter. Feelings are closer, but less overwhelming.

You can do this. I have faith in you. You are life warriors and we handle it. It’s our gift to be this strong and still be this alive.

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