Your normal is my catatonic

On top of my careful eating and constant self-policing… I’ve cut my online time to the bone, to conserve neurotransmitters and wear and tear on my telomeres.
 
I’m moving to a sunnier flat, to improve vitamin D uptake and exposure to beneficial UV bands.
 
I’ve gotten a cat, to lower my bp and help stabilize my diurnal cycle. (They get stirred up and worried when you stay up past your bedtime. It’s the cutest form of nagging ever.)
 
I’m doing my autogenic exercises as often as I can bear to, to bring my baseline level of overdrive down and begin to approach “normal”.
 
For better or worse, I’m getting more closely in touch with what a “normal” state of relaxation really feels like — and realizing how far from “normal” it is for me.
 
If I am as close to “normally” relaxed (or “normally” tense — its the same thing) as I can get, I’m nonfunctional.
 
All I can do is lie there, bathed in the peaceful antitoxins of adequate tissue perfusion and a still mind. Getting up requires dropping that calm, because there just isn’t enough energy there.
 
I’m far, far too tired to function as a normal person. My very cells are tired — I can feel it when I let down this chemical structure of overdrive and tension. Their very organelles are tired. The vacuoles, I bet, are tired.
 
Why? I mean, weariness is all very well,  but isn’t this a little ridiculous?
 
Ridiculous it may be, but not irrational or inappropriate. Here’s why, as far as I’ve thought it through.
 
– For one thing, pain is exhausting. An hour of pain is as wearying as an hour of running, but without the cardiovascular benefit or endorphins. Quite the opposite. And it never really stops.
 
– Moving the body with degraded muscles is hard work.
 
– Making decisions and doing the business of life (rent, bills, laundry, shopping) with a brain that flickers on and off… requires a lot of repeated trips and extra effort — also tiring.
 
– Remember that list of JCAHO-rated crises I mentioned on my last post? That was a sample from the latest in a series of years, each of which was about as harrowingly difficult, in different ways. Truly, I had no idea that so many ghastly things, most far too protracted for Hollywood to use in even their most grueling work, could grind through one measly life.
 
So maybe I should give my weariness some credit. Maybe I should stop bitching about how I just can’t get things done. Now that I’m trying to ratchet my ANS responses down from the stratosphere, maybe I shouldn’t wonder that it’s becoming hellishly difficult to get off the couch most of the time.
Maybe I should stop obsessing on my characteristic need to be productive.
 
Maybe it’s finally time to stop ignoring the fact that I’m really damn TIRED, and put my attention on getting more rest.
 
That might be the most productive thing I could do.
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Changing the glass, resetting limits

I have to resurrect a set of rules I thought I’d gotten past:
 
– No internet before noon.
– No more than 2 hours daily for all internet activity: email, FaceBook, Twitter, research, posting and illustrating blogs.
– This includes surfing on the phone.
 
I will be moving upstairs to a brighter apartment that’s arranged better for two. J still plans to move in come September, so I’m grabbing the opportunity while it’s there.
 
For the past several months I’ve been learning to notice and deal constructively with signals from body and brain. Part of the reality of this is, there’s a ton of backlog to sort out.
 
This is significant, partly due to CRPS and partly to the nature of last year, which was an ongoing festival of upheaval:
 
– Got SSDI.
– Had to save life of same friend twice in three months.
– Sold my boat/home.
– Moved 3 times.
– Travelled for 6 months at a stretch.
– Started an important romantic relationship.
– Had 2 serious threats hanging over my own life.
 
It’s not good for the ANS, all this excitement.  I’m not personally opposed to eventfulness, it’s just really hard on my regulatory systems. Given similar situations, I’d probably have to do similar things, but it’s time to chill the h#11 out now.
 
I’m moving and it makes my lizard brain howl — if lizards can howl.
 
I’m moving upstairs,  not far at all. And it’ll be safer — you can’t even find it from the road. It’ll be brighter and quieter. The paint scheme is far more cheery and pleasant.
 
But I’m moving, and at some level, that’s an absolute… That is, an absolute brain-fogging mess of suppressed fight-or-flight response and irrational despair. It’s seriously altering how well and how long I can think… changing the water level in my current glass, so to speak.
 
Packing my few things is not a physically imposing task,  but moving at all is a brain-crippling one, apparently.
 
I still have to maintain my care schedule, keep appointments and stay caught up (-ish) on laundry and groceries, none of which is optional.
 
When my adrenals are under stress, my brain gets quickly exhausted, especially in the morning. According to my old acupuncturist, that’s a classic diagnostic indicator. Cognition is linked to adrenal function, he says.
 
The thing to do is go with it, and not make decisions or try to parse communications until the whole system has had a chance to wake up and get moving. Thoroughly.
 
So, out of respect for my brain’s needs, I’ll be spending my mornings playing with the kitten and catching up on my bookshelves, instead of being online.
 
Oh gee, isn’t that tough 🙂
 
And when I’ve moved in and gotten the new place under control, with no intention of moving again until I’ve got a “forever home” to go to, I’ll find out just how resilient this brain really is and see what parameters make sense then.
 
Until then, the online world will go on with, at most, 2 hours a day of attention from me — for research, social networking, web page managing,  and posting & illustrating blogs.
 
We’ll manage just fine.
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Breathing

Sooner or later, it all comes back to breathing.

Without adequate breath, obviously, nothing else matters. As a sometime ER nurse and continuing asthmatic, I’m more than usually aware of that fact.

I mean something beyond that, though. Something more pervasive.

Breathing, like walking, is one of those things that I keep coming back to as an interesting study — one that’s so fundamental that I forget, in between times, exactly how deeply it changes everything else in life.

I first began meditating in my very early teens, after basic instruction from my mother:

1. Think of a simple, unemotional mental image, like a burning candle flame, and breathe.
2. As thoughts come and go, let them go (sometimes, especially at first, I had to chase them off) then…
3. Bring your attention back to the image and the breath.

The image didn’t do me much good – I think fire is a little too emotional for me – but simply being at home to my breath, and letting the haywire-ness of the day drift off into the mist… with my odd and beguiling little cat softly nestled against my leg under the covers… did me all the good in the world. Especially at 13.

The language of breath is interesting. Breath, spirit, life, and insight often share the same word or sounds in languages around the world. For instance, in English, “inspiration” means both a breath, and a sudden idea; the root word means spirit. There is no divide between these ideas.


(Life, breath, spirit, ideas… how can these be separated? How can a life worth living, let alone a bearable life, let alone a pulse, exist without all of them?)

As I said, I’ve been breathing intentionally for decades. In my 20’s, I taught my ER and ICU patients a particular form of breathing which, I’d noticed, cut their pain response, lowered their blood pressure, and improved the level of oxygen in their blood — no matter what they came in with.

In 3 breaths the difference was noticeable, and if I could persuade them to take 10, we were halfway home.

It goes like this:

1. Breathe in through your nose.

2. Draw the breath all the way down into your lower abdomen.

3. Let it out through gently pursed lips, like softly blowing out a birthday candle.

4. Repeat.

The abdominal breathing improves lung expansion. The slight backpressure on the exhalation nudges extra oxygen into the system (the importance of oxygen can’t be overstated, especially in emergencies) and sends a gentle message to the blood-pressure sensors in the neck, telling them to lower pressure.

This kind of breathing activates the “calm down” part of the central nervous system, that is, the parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system.

The extra oxygen helps clear some of the oxidative damage away.

It feels wonderful.

And it always works.

(Clinical note: for people with COPD, I did 2-3 breaths, and checked in. As with most adults with a chronic disease, they could generally be trusted to sense their limits and stop. Youngsters soon learn, though very few youngsters have COPD.)

Recently, I’ve learned a slightly different technique from the same psychologist I mentioned in my last post…

1. Notice my breathing. That’s all. Let everything calm down for a bit.

2. Draw the breath into my abdomen.

3. Gradually increase the size of those abdominal breaths.

4. Let the midchest join in, getting still more air in. Exhale from the top down.

5. Eventually, let air into my abdomen, then midchest, then upper chest — inhaling from the bottom up. My lungs are pretty fully expanded in the inhale now, and I still exhale from the top down.

6. I tell myself: My arms are heavy and warm. Soon, they are.

7. I tell myself: My legs are heavy and warm. Soon, they are.

8. I tell myself: My lower abdomen is warm and relaxed. The whole bowl of my pelvis becomes a sea of lovely calm. (I had no idea how much standing tension was stored there, at the bottom of the spine and where all the exits are — though it makes sense, when I think about it…)

9. Then I stop contriving my breathing, and let it just flow.

After about 15 minutes, well, life is good. Really good. Talk about activating the parasympathetic nervous system.

I’ve forgotten what else I was going to say. I want to be that peaceful and warm right now.

Oh yeah. The point is this:

Breathing well makes everything better.

It shouldn’t be that simple, but it is.

Excuse me. My limbs need to be heavy and warm… In a good way.

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The wall, redux — with demons on the side

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unconscious reactivity could be the death of me yet.

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

With apologies to Heironymous Bosch.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Speaking of which…

Marathon training update

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

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

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Need more than "Dysphoria"

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

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

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

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

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



Flip ’em!

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Can’t wait to find out.

So this is peaceful ol’ me…

…saluting all that keeps me from that.

Speaking of which…

Marathon training note

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

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

Yay cerebral blood flow! Yay exercise!

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

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Making progress

Yesterday was my first workout: walking 0.8 miles around the block. I live on the side of a pretty steep hill, so that’s not completely trivial.

On the steepest part, I wanted to stop, but my old athletic training kicked in: do anything *but* stop, because it’s worth it to get the hill behind you. So I moved forward less than one foot-length at a time, giving the sick feeling in my chest enough ease to pass. (At least I know it’s not a heart attack. One of the wonders of chronic CRPS is, your physical experience of life has changed so much that words don’t exist to explain it. But I know for sure it wasn’t a heart attack.)

Today was my second: the same distance, but noticeably better – on the steepest part, I could maintain something close to a walk, and I never got that sick feeling in my chest.

Wonderful progress!

Today was also my first lesson in biofeedback. I thought I was hot stuff, because I can knock 10 to 12 points off my blood pressure at will. Today, though, we measured galvanic skin response. It’s much more subtle, and a lot harder to finesse. I got compelling evidence that the physiologic back pressure of this disease is pretty much as bad as I’ve ever said it was. I won’t go into that, because it’s depressing.

I’ve been thinking about a blog entry on breathing, the simplest and most profound of our daily actions. I have to absorb today’s lessons first… I really see why I haven’t been able to put it together yet, even though it’s been on my mind for weeks. Breathing, like living, is so fundamentally simple that I have to think it through very carefully before I try to put it to words.

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Back in the saddle again

The grip of the last round of the Yucks started to break right after posting my last. I hate it when I have to go that far to get past a bad spot, but hey, I’ll do whatever it takes to keep heading in the right direction.

Dignity is optional. Progress is not. Words I live by.

My new kitten has changed apparent gender twice, and is back to being a boy kitty — not that it matters in any practical way. I was looking for a name as elegant, good-natured and playful as he/she/it, while treating an upper respiratory infection that made that left eye look like a mouse:

My cat’s mouse

But then, with returning health and strength, his natural energy and violence reasserted itself. He has exactly two gears:
1. Unconscious (or nearly so)
2. Full-tilt, greedy, grasping, and spikily impulsive (as the scratch-marks around my blinked eyelashes attest)

So I’ve named him Siddhartha, in the hope that something will rub off.

Siddhi playing hide-n-seek.
(“Siddi” is an Arabic address used towards a respectable gentleman.
Another fine malapropism from the chronically punny.)

All of his front nails are trimmed now…

In health care, we call this “desensitization”

As for my own care, I’m up to 2/3 of my reiki time and 2/3 of my basic qi gong routine, and hope to get some t’ai chi in today as well. This is tremendous progress.

Vegetables are once again a chief component of my diet, thanks in no small part to an enormous bag of frozen “Normandy style” blend from Costco and our local dollar store, which sells cheap organic produce out of cardboard boxes.

I actually did laundry yesterday.  Today, I hope to take a shower and — gasp — wash my hair!

 

I realize only a minority of you will find that truly inspiring, but the rest can have a good laugh… and then think for a minute 🙂

For me, life with CRPS is indeed a matter of tiny triumphs and great goals. For the record, I’m still bound and determined to advance the search for a cure, and yes, I’ve gotten slightly more concrete in my ideas about that… More to come in time.

And now, just for the deliciously hokey yodeling at the end…

Links list:
Here is a recap and explication of the links used in this post:

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Posture matters, across species

For the past forty-mumble years, and for some time to come, my experience of life is shaped by the particular body I’m in. The reciprocal nature of the mind-body experience fills more books than I’d ever want to read, and that’s saying something, so let’s cut past that idea of, “Wow, the mind can influence the body and the body can influence the mind, but neither has sole control of the steering wheel” and look at the subtle, but strangely clear, ways that it plays out – at least in me.

I lived in a dog-friendly marina. – Trust me, this is relevant.

It’s not just about the scenery.
I found that, even before I knew the neighborhood dogs, I could tell which ones belonged on the dock by their posture as they stood, sat, walked, and moved.



I saw dogs in every degree of getting along — or not.

I saw the active posture of dogs who were used to plenty of food and care…



and dogs who clearly weren’t.



This was interesting to me as I was coming out of a period of being thugged on by every force outside myself that had a duty to care for me. Being, not only neglected, but frequently tormented and abused in response to most of my efforts towards survival and care, left me very nervous indeed.

Not good for the brain. Or anything else.

I was having trouble with my posture, and – limited by impaired kinesthesia (the sense we have of where our body is in space) – I was working out exactly what the trick points were.

– My low back was in a tight sway, sticking my stomach and butt out egregiously. I lost over an inch of height to that sway in my back.

– I recently realized that, when I fall back in this posture, my abdominal muscles are braced outward. I’m not slack in the belly; the muscles are braced for an incoming blow!

– My neck was hunched against my shoulders. This was funny because I did used to have a bit of a weightlifter’s neck, short and thick; but that was many years ago… when I lifted weights.

– My tailbone was curled in tight, which I only realized after my physiotherapist at the time taught me to straighten it out as a way of releasing tension on the nerve “sleeve.”

– The points of my shoulders were rotated inward. I attributed this to an effort to ease the nerve opening through my shoulders, but that doesn’t actually make sense.

All of these things reduced effective nerve flow to my limbs, shortened the wrong muscles, limited blood flow to where I needed it most, and reduced my capacity for physical exercise.

And you can see how happy it makes me!

Since activity is key to managing CRPS and keeping the autonomic nervous system under some kind of regulation, this is actually a huge problem.

Good posture is not about vanity, it’s about feeling better, being stronger, hurting less, and surviving tolerably well.

Watching all those dogs running around and deciding whether to let others sniff their butts,

You’re not imagining things: the pit bull is missing a leg.

I realized exactly what my posture looked like: a dog in a hostile area, not wanting to fight, but protecting its spine while bracing for blows. Always ready to snap into action. Never knowing when things will go sour, but pretty sure they soon will.

That’s what those years had brought me to. It was a reasonable response, but not useful.

This is what’s really going on when I fall back into that posture.

I’ve managed to explain this “braced dog” image to my current physiotherapist, who’s wonderfully willing to work with my rather original views. He comes up with ways to tell my body how to stand/sit/move like a calm, alert animal, instead of one that’s braced for the next fight… 

I can’t do anything about the 3 extra cup sizes
this endocrine dysregulation caused, but
my back and shoulders hurt less anyway.

And I remind my too-nervous nervous system that a calm dog can snap into a fight about as fast, but tends to find far fewer of them.

In the meantime, relaxed animals have a lot more fun.

Postscript on self-imaging

Nearly every time I see pictures of someone in regard to posture or movement explanations, it’s someone really fit.

Now, really. Is that who needs to know?

Much as I loathe looking at myself from the outside, using my own image here is preferable to the implicit lie of using others’ figures. So here I am, warts (so to speak) and all.

/shrug/ Could be worse.
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Pushing back on neuroplasticity

I got the Sydney norovirus right before it hit the news. I’m recovering, but slowly; the persistent low-grade nausea is annoying — and worrisome. I don’t want my body to get the idea that this is the new normal…

Brain plasticity is a major culprit in CRPS and its maintenance —
  • from the first refusal to cut pain signals off…
  • to the growth of the brain cortex area that monitors that body part, so it can handle more pain signals and provide less space for normal body areas…
  • to the deeper remapping and rewiring that alters cognition, disrupts memory formation, screws up autonomic signalling, knocks endocrine and digestive function out of whack…
  • and so forth.




It’s important to stay on top of the brain, so to speak.

 
Thanks to the brilliant pioneering work of Dr. V. S. Ramachandran, we now know that mirror therapy and reducing-lens therapy can remap the brain’s perception of injured body parts to something closer to normal. That was a huge help with the pain, when I had CRPS in limited areas.
 
The reality-shattering concept behind mirror therapy is, basically, that conditioning can work in reverse: rather than allowing ourselves to be the passive objects of what our brain becomes accustomed to doing, we can push back against the brain’s alterations using our natural mechanisms of perception and intent. (The basis of Dr. Ramachandran’s discovery is that perception alone can provide the altering input. Intent gives it more focus, force and direction.)
 
The relationship between body, intention, and brain is interactive, multi-dimensional, and interdependent. 

Having said that, it’s not completely reciprocal, nor is it ever under perfect control — unlike a good trapeze act.

 
If we could will ourselves better, then, given the extraordinary focus and determination of my fellow CRPSers, I know for a fact that we would have done so already. I never had met anyone with as much determination as me, until I met my core group of CRPS friends. If will alone were the answer, we’d have it!
 
CPRS is complex indeed.
 
Anyway… back to what we CAN do.
 
Communicating with the brain, in language it can’t ignore
 
The basic principle of RE-re-mapping the brain is this: describing to the brain, in language it can’t ignore (combining sensory perception and intent), what it should be doing.
 
In my Epsom bath article, I described rubbing a washcloth over body parts that have distorted perceptions and telling them silently, over and over again, “It’s just a washcloth. Feel just a washcloth.”
 
Where there is normal perception, or even nearly-normal perception, I stroke from the normal area to the abnormal area — never, ever in reverse! the brain understands the concept of “spread” — and tell my brain and body, with absolute focus, “This is what normal feels like. Feel normal HERE now. This is normal. Feel it here now. That is the correct feeling. It’s just a washcloth. Feel a washcloth.”
 
Not a burning sheet of sandpaper twice the size of my leg. Not a blunt sense of almost nothing, somewhere else.
 
A washcloth, right here.
 
When I’m doing this, I don’t even think about what the abnormal feelings are like; I came up with those metaphors just now, sifting through my memory. I shut the incorrect perceptions out of my mind and dismiss them, over and over, as obviously false information.
 
I have to take a break sometimes when the pain is bad and just breathe, but I don’t think about it, I focus on the point: learning to perceive what’s really there.
 
Vision, tactile input, kinesthesia (meaning that, as my hand and arm moves over the body part, my brain’s mechanisms triangulate on where things really are and its picture of my body gets corrected), and the focus of intent, are all part of the exercise.
 
This combination of factors is what makes it so effective. The multisensory inputs, the constant messaging of proper information, eventually overrides the false information.
 
Slowly at first, but with increasing pace, the normal sensation spreads over into the abnormal area. Every time. Not always completely or perfectly, but often both.
 
So far, I’ve reclaimed normal sensation in my back and most of my left leg, and I’ve kept the sensation and function in my arms at a level almost incompatible with the decade that I’ve had this disease.
 
Considering how bad things have gotten when I let this slide, the value of this exercise is clear to me.
 
Pruning your neurons intelligently
 
Learned responses are due to the basic learning mechanism in the brain:
  1. neurons hook up, and a connection (or association) is made;
  2. if the connection gets used (or the association is allowed to stand), more neurons hook up to make it stronger;
  3. once enough neurons have hooked up, the connection becomes like a good road;
  4. and the thing about good roads is, they get used, even if they’re used for something odd.
It’s important to manage the roads in your brain, especially when you have a neuro-plasticity disease like CRPS:
  • Make sure the roads in your brain are useful to you.
  • Do that by pruning the connections you don’t want.
  • Prune those connections by letting the associations die.
  • Let a connection die by deciding to think about, or do, something else, whenever it comes up.
    Consistently. Persistently. Relentlessly.
  • And keep making that decision every time it comes up.

It works by a negative, which is not how we are taught to do things: turn away from the response, shut out the perception, ignore the link. That’s how you prune an unhealthy connection.

It takes time, but it works. The time will pass anyway, so your brain might as well be better off at the end of it…

Masters of distraction
 
We CRPSers are masters of distraction — not to mention the kind of persistence that this pruning takes. We can learn to be diligent about applying it to sensory associations we don’t want. This is where ADD, used selectively, becomes truly — oh look! Yellow feet!
 
… Wait, what was the connection I was about to make? I’ve forgotten.
 
See? It works!
 
The joy of having a bit of ADD and being a meditator is, you really can choose when and how to let out the ADD — as long as you do it often enough. It’s a great tool, and I’m grateful for it.
 
Pruning specific sensory and functional associations
 
I’ve had recurring nausea for months now. It’s related to upticks in stress, of which I’ve had more than an elegant sufficiency in the past year.
 
Then there was this tummy bug…
 
It’s day 5 and I haven’t vomited in 3 days but I’m still nauseous. While this bug is supposed to leave one nauseous for quite some time afterwards, I really don’t want my brain getting the idea that sending nausea signals is going to be the new normal. I’m not going to let the nausea become habitual. So I’m pruning those connections.
 
I can’t will nausea away, as it comes from quite deep in the brain from a primitive place. And, unlike pain, distraction doesn’t help much for long.
 
So I’m balancing the use of ginger (short acting, “hot i’ the mouth”, sugary) and anti-nausea meds (long-acting, makes me slower in brain and gut) to shut down the nausea for a good part of each day. 
 
This means I’m not nauseous for a good part of the time. This helps retrain my brain away from constant nausea by letting the relentless association, and the neurons that make it, die off. I’m going to keep after it over the expected week of recovery still to come.
Only constructive connections, please.
That’s one example. It doesn’t take much thought or mental discipline, just persistence.
 
My lovely friend X has a recent example of something different, an obviously inappropriate new association being made.
 
She multitasks, making full use of her functional time. When she was eating, then turned aside to the plastic phone or plastic computer to respond to someone, then turned back, her food suddenly tasted and smelled like plastic.
 
That is a very errant association indeed. Prune it!
 
She is now putting aside the laptop and turning off the phone while she eats, so the association doesn’t develop further. Moreover — and she may have just enough ADD to pull this off — she hopes to be able to switch her attention immediately when the plastic taste pops back into her — Look! Yellow feet!
Egrets make great distraction, especially in funny socks.
It takes time to let those connecting neurons die, but if you get on it quickly, as X did, it can turn around pretty well and pretty quickly.
 
The Principle of Primal Exclusivity
 
This is simpler than it sounds. It’s the opposite of pruning.  
 
When you’re doing something really basic (or primal), like eating or drinking or sleeping or running or sex, keep your attention basically on that activity. It helps keep your brain straightened out about those things.
 
You really don’t want them getting bollixed up, because rewiring primal functions takes more work to undo.
 
That’s one reason why insomniac advice is about having a calming bedtime routine and sticking to it: it’s retraining the brain around a primal activity. The brain needs absolutely consistent signals over a period of time, to retrain successfully.
 
Incidentally, sex (alone or together) is the only activity that (ideally) engages both sides of the autonomic nervous system: arousal is mediated by the sympathetic nervous system, and orgasm by the parasympathetic nervous system. It provides a balancing mechanism I can’t think of occurring in any other sphere of life. Done properly, it could be the perfect autonomic tuning tool…
 
And with that happy thought, I’ll leave you to wash your hands against this norovirus and do whatever seems best.
 

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In a house of flu

My darling host V got this year’s brutal tummy flu two nights ago. His daughter, L, and I jumped right on it. A couple gallons of mixed fluids and someTamiflu later, he’s looking better than ever, and is quietly enjoying the privilege of lying around in his jammies and having two women dancing affectionate attendance on him.

Yesterday, I got a little more white grape juice and pedialyte than I thought he’d need, just in case we needed to jump-start someone ele’s treatment. Looks like it was just about enough, though.

Over last night, L and I hammered 3 doses each of oscillococcinum, which we usually find very effective in warding off the flu. I’m used to respiratory flus. We shall see.


Today, L wiped all the knobs and surfaces with alcohol and washed all the towels and linens in hot water. Growing up, she had two rounds of rheumatic fever and her mother had adult polio, and the entire family got chicken pox at the same time; she knows what to do “when there’s sickness in the house,” to use her timeless phrase.

I stood back and made encouraging noises, and wished — for the very first time, every time — that I was able to be just a bit more use.

With the autonomic nausea I’ve been fighting off and on for weeks now, it’s hard to say if I’m actually getting flu-y or if the autonomia is kicking up. As I finished picking up the kitchen, though, my insides let me know that they are considering the value of reverse gear. Nothing substantial, just a warning…

That’s the autonomic transmission, on the right…

Intestinal flu wreaks havoc on the autonomic system:

  • Turns the GI system inside out, which boosts inflammation, disturbs blood sugar, and wastes fluids;
  • Whacks out the electrolytes, which alters nerve transmission and pretty much every other cellular process, generally spiking a pain flare and roasting the higher cognitive functions;
  • Dries out the body, which puts what’s left of the fluid-dependent brain and CNS in the toilet — along with everything you’ve eaten for the last day.

A healthy body has metabolic margins to absorb this with considerably more grace. It’s still bad, mind you — really rotten, in fact. Pre-injury, tummy flus always made me wish I was dead.

In a body with dysautonomia and CRPS, it’s a ghastly festival of burning, of mindless agony, and a sheer dreadfulness to existence that words can’t touch.

So I’m considering a quick Epsom salt bath to preload my system with that lovely electrolyte, I’m getting up a blog post with these wonderfully dinner-appropriate details (hah!), and hoping that L — who, as she has often said, did have her flu shot this year — will be well enough tomorrow to run to the store for more pedialyte and white grape juice.

Everything comes to an end, even the flu. The awareness that there is always an “afterwards” is always with me now. It’s a good thing to keep in mind, because the reflex is to get lost in the now, when it’s overwhelming. But there is always an afterwards.

I’m not worried, I’m not anticipating, I’m not buying into the nerves. My mind always runs contingency plans, but that’s natural for me. (If I can’t come up with a plan B and a plan C, check for a pulse.)

So it’s time to catch up on a few things, push extra fluids, coach my body into the tub and back out again, and take things as they come. The low energy just means I have more time to watch DVDs; the wonky tum just means I don’t have to think as often about what to eat.

But seriously… take every opportunity to be happy; it makes you stronger. 🙂

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