As I’ve said before, much of brain-retraining has to do with speaking to the primitive parts of the brain in ways it can’t ignore.
Being overwhelmed is very common these days. So, this tool is helpful for far more than just my fellow painiacs. I originally laid this out for someone else dealing with very different issues, and realized as I did so that it was a darn good tool and I’d have to remember it for myself. It has already been a help to me, so I hope it helps others as well.
The State of Overwhelm
I can tell when I’m in the state of Overwhelm because life is just a big old mess of decisions and problems and unresolved issues which are so toweringly massive they stop making sense. My usual ability to sort and prioritize and manage information freezes up, and my brain skids off into the ditch.
Once I’m in Overwhelm, it’s unreasonable to try to reason my way out of it in my usual way. Each thought is blocked by half a dozen issues backed up against it.
I’ve got to simplify. Not just that, but I need to SUPER-simplify — break it down into binary questions — that is, questions with only one of two possible answers. It’s the only way I can start managing the pile.
(What follows is a technique used in several disciplines. I’m avoiding jargon and simply using the words I use in conversation.)
The roadmap out of Overwhelm
When I was rebuilding my credit, the first thing to do was to figure out what I really owed, and what someone else was supposed to pay. This is a good template for dealing with Overwhelm.
First, whose job is it, really?
When I get overwhelmed, it’s hard to tell what’s my responsibility and what’s really someone else’s. It feels like this:
All the jobs are kind of muddled around in the space and there are too many jobs and not enough space.
When I draw a mental barrier between the two, things suddenly start to clear up:
Notice that, at this point, I don’t need to know who the “someone else” is; the first step is to be clear about whether it’s my job or not.
Managing my care?
Ordering tests and prescribing meds?
Testing those meds on my system, tracking their benefits and drawbacks, and updating the prescriber?
Keeping the dishes clean?
Keeping the outside steps de-iced?
(It’s my one outdoor job, and my partner does everything that I can’t and a lot that I shouldn’t, so I bundle up and take care of the steps without a whimper.)
Second, is it something volunteers can do or is it a professional job?
This is an important distinction.
When in doubt, upgrade.
Take care not to abuse the skills of your volunteers. You may know lawyers, counselors, accountants, and so forth, but that doesn’t make it right to ask for free professional services from them, except under unusual circumstances.
If those who help me out aren’t being paid (either by an agency/employer or by me), then they’re a volunteer, regardless of the skills they have.
I tread as lightly as I can on my volunteers. It’s an important long-term goal not to alienate them, but to keep them comfortable with me and happy to stick around.
The corollary is, I have high standards for my professionals, and hold them to those standards with all the clarity-with-courtesy I can manage. I have no hesitation about firing someone who consistently fails to measure up.
I put a lot of legwork into choosing my doctors. Here’s an overview of the process and links I used a few years ago: How I find my doctors
It’s certainly worth the time and effort to find good people who can do justice to your life and your needs. The question is whether you can find the slack. I hope so.
Fix the heater?
Put us up for a night until it’s fixed?
Give hugs, tea, and sympathy when I’m recently bereaved?
Train me in how to get my brain to reprocess deep pain (and the staggering scope of loss associated with it) without short-circuiting?
This is definitely not for volunteers; too much knowledge about neuropsych and too much investment of time is required.
Professional level brain & mind care
For some things, talking to a friend, doing something strenuous, or meditating a lot, is enough to allow a person to heal heart and mind. Life itself is generally a good therapist.
Some things are too complex, too deep, or too dangerous for amateurs. Despite our longstanding social taboos, people with recurring trauma (like central pain or abusive relationships) or PTSD (like survivors of war or child abuse or those who’ve been through worker’s compensation or disability applications on top of a devastating condition) are right and smart to get highly-qualified care for resolving the damage that these things do to our minds and our brains. The damage is not imaginary, and sheer force of will is not a great tool for healing it.
It CAN be healed, even the worst of it. It does NOT require chewing over the past; in fact, that’s often avoided in modern trauma counseling, because that can do to the PTSD brain roughly what our recurring pain does to CRPS brains.
Some techniques DO re-map and re-train the brain to make room for more stability, more healthiness, and move even a CRPS’d brain closer to a normal state.
Less pain! More joy! Less instability! More abilities 🙂
Some keywords for finding relevant mental health professionals: trauma-informed, PTSD, pain psychology. These are jargon terms that usually indicate the professional understands how these profound experiences affect our brains, and how that can be rewound or reworked to a better state.
Another thing you can do
It helps to vote for legislators who see the value in health care, including mental health care. Conservative estimates say that each $1 spent on care saves between $10 and $100 in downstream costs (ER visits, health costs, police activity, lost productivity, lost wages, family impact, etc.) Middle-of-the-road estimates place the savings much higher.
Something to think about, in times like these.
Find your legislators here and let them know what you think:
In the US, here’s where you find national, state, and local legislator info: www.usa.gov
This is one of several blog posts I drafted late last year and got distracted from.
This isn’t the duckiest or most amusing one to read, but it’s so important for so many that I’m posting it anyway. (My mother will probably want to give this one a miss.)
This level of fundamental-ness has a certain appeal in the depth of winter.
Fortunately for me, I don’t have too much trouble with existential questions. At a certain point, when everything I thought defined me had been blasted away, and in my mind there was not a single structure left that held a fragment of my old self, and all I saw stretching away to the mental horizon was blasted mud and broken stone and shapeless lumps and rot… I asked myself, “None of ‘me’ is left. Who am I?” And I realized that something was standing there, doing the asking.
That was my answer: I’m what is left after everything has been blasted away. I’m the immanent awareness, unable to be seen or described, simply because only less-permanent things can be seen or described.
As I think about that last sentence, I realize why objects lost their fascination for me. It was weirdly easy to get rid of gorgeous and glorious things I could no longer afford to keep. A couple of them I still miss, like my old bedstead (birdseye maple, passed down from my grandmother), but very few.
Things did get worse for awhile, and only curiosity kept me alive. (I simply had to know how the story went.) It propelled me through the work of surviving when my body had failed.
Angels appeared just before it was too late — several times; my life was a solid group effort — and eventually I fled the area and got my disability check (yes they were related) and could afford to survive. I have some photos that seem ethereal still, I look so nearly gone, smiling back from the edge of the grave, happy I don’t have to take that last step.
As usual, lately, I’ve wandered off-course.
My ability to track a tale (remember I survived the impossible because I had to see how the story went?) is enfeebled. It’s barely tottering along on one of those cumbersome canes with 4 feet, too heavy to lift and too necessary to leave behind.
I grind to a halt in my post, forgetting what I started this for, but this time, I’m letting you in on the secret. This blog is not retired, and being incapacitated has not excused me before, as a flick back would show. Or even when I was blowing bubbles.
I’m approaching this winter with the determination that it will be different than the last, which was an endurance exercise — one that went on for 9 months, as Spring never sprung and my Summer was clouded by meningitis.
So far, I’m getting more physiotherapy, more outings, and even have a weekly pain group I meet with. The higher level of activity is key; because exercise is so important for healing and supporting the brain, I have to find ways to stay active, despite the obvious drawbacks for someone with roaring sensory and cardiovascular issues to leaving the house during a New England winter.
I’m pleased with that. Yay, me!
Now for the other part.
Too much exercise is poisonous, because I have a solid case of exercise intolerance. I can safely walk less than a mile, which really irritates me. It takes that long just to warm up!
Also, drawing and sketching is back to being hard work. For awhile there, sketches flew out from under my pencil like they’d been crowded in there too long. Now, it’s stick figures with bad hair. I draw anyway now and then, because it’s better to keep trying than to give up altogether.
I don’t want to exercise too little or draw badly, but I do it anyway. Why? Because there’s always an afterwards, and I still have to work on influencing an “afterwards” I want.
Meanwhile, as my ability to juggle logistics is holding ground, my ability to juggle language is slipping.
After I was a nurse, I was a writer. Before I was a nurse, I was a writer. I started calling myself a writer before the age of 10, and started rescuing and healing animals shortly after.
I’m crashing into the stupefying question: “What am I, if I’m not a writer?” I feel like nothing without that. I feel like an intrusive blob of snot on the face of the earth, out of purpose and out of place and not very pleasant to have around.
My immanent awareness looks on as my sense of self weeps helplessly. It is what it is. I am what I am… whatever that is. That will always be true, even as everything else changes.
Meanwhile, though my strength and endurance are rather better than I’d hoped, my blood pressure and pulse are less stable. One more set of variables (or issues) to chase down, one more group of tests to orchestrate, one more set of diagnostic efforts to get through, one more possible adjustment to my regime to figure out, integrate, and absorb.
By the way, that lower abdominal pain has no treatable cause. Nothing to be done but roll it into the bundle of issues (or variables) to manage and work around. Every. Freaking. Day.
This is what it’s like for me to head into winter.
A cousin and I promised each other that we’d live forever until the day we die. That agreement still stands, but gee whiz, could this be a little less tiresomely complex??
Update: And here I am, 2 months later, writing again. Still waiting for drawing to come back, though.
Digesting my food is hard work now, again. Always something.
After talking with patients, doctors, and loved ones — and, as a trained observer, carefully noticing the changes in posture, expression, and tone as I’ve done so — I’ve arrived at the following conclusion. I realize it flies in the face of current accepted usage, but there are some things wrong with current accepted usage, and I don’t mind saying so.
/SeeYarP’Yes/ is not that hard to say.
No, it’s not proper to call it CRiPS unless you yourself have it. This is partly because “crips” is a term of abuse for disabled people and using the term for a particular set of disabled people won’t change that, and partly because Crips is the name of a violent organized crime group originating from Southern California. Neither is an appropriate form of address for those who have the most disruptive and intransigent pain disease known to science, and can’t perpetrate violence because of the devastation it wreaks in their own bodies.
Those who have this disease sure don’t need to be subliminally messaged with either association.
I understand that young docs are being trained to use the term in order to remind themselves that it is, in fact, a disabling disease. My view is that, if you’re smart enough to graduate from medical school, you’re smart enough to remember that disruption of the central nervous system can be pretty freaking disabling, in CRPS as in spinal injury or Alzheimer’s or anything else that disrupts the normal structure, chemistry, and behavior of the central nervous system.
The fact that the current name focuses on “pain” is a problem of nomenclature, which will change again as it often has since the year 1548 when it was first described by Ambroise Paré, father of forensic medicine and physician to the French court at the time. (Look him up — great guy. Prefigured that outstanding physician and gifted schmooze-meister Dr. Silas Weir by over 300 years.)
CRaPS, as in the game of chance, is not recommended. It sounds like a vulgar term for bowel excretions, which is — if possible — even more inappropriate. It’s certainly a “crappy” disease, but having said that, it’s time to move on and not keep reminding someone that they feel (and believe they look) like shit.
Of course your CRPS patients say they don’t mind. Check the power differential; their ability to bear to live is in your hands, doctor/loved one, so they’re highly motivated to be nice and go along with anything that doesn’t involve an immediate threat. They want you to feel good about them, so they will laugh along with you, however unreal it feels.
Have some decency — don’t call them or their disease CRiPS or CRaPS, even if they say it’s okay. They don’t need to feel any worse than they already do.
The CRPS patients can call it whatever they like, because only they know how bad it really is, and have the right — and need — to cuss it now and then.
/SeeYarP’Yes/ is not that hard to say. It’s only 4 syllables, like “pain diseases” or “really bad day.” It’s 20% shorter than the word “dehumanizing.”
This moment of intellectual — and emotional — honesty has been brought to you by a nightmare I woke up with this morning. My nightmares are a direct result of my disordered central nervous system, which can no longer process things normally and has to roil around and tear up the pavement in between the constant push-back and re-organization that takes place in my waking state.
It’s pretty crappy, not to mention crippling. But I rise above it, yet again, as I intend to do every day until the day I die. I sure appreciate anything others can do to avoid making that harder.
I’m now attending a weekly meeting of fellow pain patients in the area. It’s very good. A few things came up which I felt confident to share with the group and am now sharing with you, because the body of info is so useful… even if it’s only connected “under the hood.”
Pain care in the western New England region
Here are the local resources I can (to some degree) recommend. Those of you from other states and regions, please feel free to make recommendations in the comments! 🙂
Baystate Pain Management
There’s a Pain Management Center in Greenfield, MA, which I never knew about. It describes itself as “interventional”, meaning their focus is on procedures and injections and the like. (This means they aren’t currently doing much with the material mentioned in the Readings heading, but that may change in time.) They also provide PT and acupuncture, the latter only at the Springfield site. https://www.baystatehealth.org/services/pain-management-center
The Springfield site is the old home of a doctor I’ve mentioned before and don’t want to mention again. I noticed they don’t list staff on their current web page, but I do intend to follow up and learn a bit more about their current practitioners.
My doc, Lloyd Saberski, is intellectually conservative, and will do nothing that has a fair chance of hurting the patient. (Since I tend to be more gung-ho, I consider his approach a necessary complement to mine.)
There are a couple of other specialties (stem cell treatment and a weight-loss thingy) attached to the clinic, which is probably how they stay in business despite putting something as rare, time-intensive, & low-paying as advanced pain diagnosis at the center of the practice. I have never had the least hint of being nudged towards either of those; rather, Dr. Saberski specifically mentioned once that stem-cell treatment was still an immature modality with only a few conditions it was proven for, and that it would be totally unsuitable for me. Despite my poundage, he has never mentioned weight-loss, not even with a glance.
Readings on brain plasticity, with guidance on pushing back
I consider this the best lowdown on trauma gets put in place into the brain & body (and why this shows that Worker’s Comp and the insurance industry are specifically trying to destroy us, so don’t buy their evil story about you): “The Body Keeps the Score” by Bessel van der Kolk
It’s pretty science-y, so feel free to start with other authors like Pat Ogden or those listed below.
He’s a doc who developed central pain in himself, realized the current medicine on it was, um, let’s call it ill-informed, and eventually turned his extensive study on the subject into accessible material for the rest of us. He’s a good story-teller with an eye for the compelling detail that makes his point. He has two books out, both of them excellent, informative, and inspiring, avoiding all the usual pitfalls of physicians who like to write. He stays on topic, refers to the science, defers to the patient’s experience, and each side-trip turns out to be relevant and interesting.
I now mentally push my pain back up my spine and squish down on the pain regions in my brain every time I think of it 🙂 Week 2 — 4 more to go! Read more from him to understand what that’s about.
Credited with developing one of the most-recognized techniques (called EMDR) for accessing the neurobiology of distress and reprogramming the mind/body response to it. Some of her work is very clinical, and some of it is designed for anyone to pick up and use for themselves. Be aware that EMDR techniques tend to be multi-stage processes, and the “at home” techniques involve a little advance work to set up your mental safety-net. (I did that during my designated meditation time, which I use for any solitary mental healing work.) With that done, you have a lot of options later for catching yourself and quickly restoring your ability to cope.
An outstandingly practical person with tremendous insight and depth, she is one of the founders & leaders in the field of understanding how ghastly experiences interact with the brain, and how the individual can get consciously involved and get back in control of these systems.
Note: These last two skillful practitioners produce, not only video clips and their defining books, but also accessible articles, textbooks, narratives, and workbooks for both professionals and patients. This provides many ways to get into their information, whatever your sensory learning mode and attention span, so you can see what works for you.
A lucid speaker and explainer with many videos and a couple of books, especially (but not exclusively) for brain-science nerds. He co-authored several additional books that turn his theory into practical tools and techniques to use in real life. He focuses on hot issues for painiacs and those who love us: re-training our brains to identify and embrace the feeling of safety, developing healthy relationships in spite of twitchy brain responses, and re-developing our neurological coordination so we can get back in charge of ourselves.
Multiple access-points to get to the same root issues of healing our neurobiology
These brilliant practitioners have come up with different ways to access and engage with our natural neurobiological wiring, in order to manage our own brain and body responses better. Many of them focus on trauma recovery rather than the ongoing disruption of central pain etc, but, where that’s the case, I mentally edit for ongoing “trauma” (which ongoing pain is, strictly speaking), and I find considerable insight and useful techniques there. Great stuff. Also, if you’ve had awful things happen in your life, you may find a useful healing approach in one or more of their works.
Resources & info in this blog
I’ve been keeping a blog for ~9 years, though the earlier years got lost in a move. (Just as well; I was flailing.) Questions I could probably bore you to tears answering in person…
As I say elsewhere in this blog, it’s a bit of work to generate the first set of documents, but maintaining them is easy, and the payoff in personal poise and doctor response is tremendous.
Why is sitting in a moving car for hours so rotten?
Oh, boy, let me tell you what I’ve found about this! I think of it as 4 main issues, each of which I’ve developed ways to mitigate for my own case:
Our skin (where all those peripheral nerve sensors hang out) is hardly moving and half of it is pretty much unable to breathe, due to the mechanical pressure of our limbs against our bodies and the seat against our backs & thighs.
Hungry skin, with cellular & intestinal metabolic waste building up, no way to flush itself, with unhappy sensors, makes for serious discomfort.
I find a good song and dance & gently gyrate in my seat :))
Believe it or not, cars (especially American cars, sadly) are made of plastics that release molecules, which is called outgasing. Most plastics (including fabrics) outgas, meaning that molecules evaporate off the surface and escape into the atmosphere. These aren’t body-friendly molecules. Variously, they may interfere with endocrine (hormones) and aprocrine (sweating) activity. Many are neurotoxic, capable (depending on individual factors) of reducing impulse control, spiking irritation, and triggering emotional and physical pain. (Many of the studies around this have disappeared from the web, which somehow doesn’t surprise me. Sigh.) This lessens as cars age, but doesn’t go away as long as there is plastic, car fabric, foam, treated leather, varnish, etc, in the car.
The vehicle itself compounds all the skin stuff, and adds a constant low-dose exposure to neurotoxins.
Even in cold weather, I roll down all the windows every hour or so and purge the air in the car.
Our joints are not able to move much. The position, with the hips rotated slightly back, the shoulders reflexively rolled slightly forward to compensate, and not much room to do otherwise, is an unnatural position to be strapped into. It reduces ordinary motion, CSF/lymphatic flow, and nerve transmission, especially through the hips and spine. Our joints carry a lot of sensors, including those for blood pressure and balance; having them stuck in one position (while we’re breathing outgas, of course) makes the sensors unhappy, contributing to that general sense of yucky unpleasantness.
Unhealthy stasis in the joints, spine, and circulating body fluids, including CSF, lymph, and blood. This contributes to a central (brain & spine based) body-unhappiness.
When I’m driving alone, I stop every hour and, at least, stretch and move until I feel okay, or do t’ai chi/qi gong/yoga if I feel safe enough. When I’m being driven, we stop every 1-1/2 to 1-3/4 of an hour. We usually stop for 20-30 minutes, unless we’re in a real hurry, in which case it’s 15. I don’t tolerate less.
Mitigation bonus: stopping this often means I can get potty breaks, making it easier to stay hydrated and up on my electrolytes — which makes everything more bearable and significantly reduces recovery time.
For many of us, vibration is a problem. It certainly stimulates the nervous system, especially in the spine and feet, and wherever you’re touching the structure of the car.
Whether vibration itself is obnoxious or not, car vibration is irregularly irregular, having no consistent pattern whatsoever. This means my brain/body has no chance of anticipating or compensating for the rhythm of it, putting my body in a constant state of jolt. I find it exhausting, and it pushes up my dysautonomia as well as my pain.
Central stimulation in a relentlessly irregular vibrating pattern can be really harsh.
I adapted the inside of my car to reduce my exposure to seat outgas, improve airflow to my skin, and cut steering wheel and seat vibration to manageable levels. I also chose my car carefully to get maximum smoothness & good shocks in the first place.
To cut a long story short, I wound up with insufficient medication before my next pain doc appointment, and had to cobble together my full dose by using 3 smaller-dose tablets. Periodically over the last month, I’ve been peering quizzically into my bottle and wondering if all those little pills were going to last long enough.
Late last week, I finally had few enough that I could count them. (Due to perceptual issues, looking at a lot of little identical objects makes my eyes swivel, and I can’t keep track of them, even if I pull them out a few at a time. They appear to dance and swim without any help.)
Well, I had a problem. I couldn’t parse what to do about it because I didn’t know who to ask. My pain doc had been a bit more high-handed than usual at my last appointment, so I didn’t expect sympathy there, especially as it implied his math was wrong. I knew my GP would feel understandably uncomfortable prescribing a med he didn’t know well and didn’t normally use, which was normally prescribed by a high-flying specialist in a narrow discipline. That’s a lousy position to put a GP in.
So, regardless of the record heat and shocking floods elsewhere, New England has been cooler than usual, perpetually cloudy, with the Spring rain pattern (3 days and nights of constant rain, one and a half days of sun, a day or two of mostly clouds, 3 days and nights of constant rain, rinse and repeat.) This does tie in — really.
The reason it ties in is because summer gives me my recovery time, which involves sun and warmth and outdoor activity. 3 months of sun, warmth, and outdoor activity is what makes me strong enough to endure a New England winter.
It was so gloomy and chilly this summer, we dug up the money to go to California to recharge our bodies’ batteries. That didn’t go according to plan at all. As some of you know, I had viral meningitis from the day after we landed to 2 days before we left.
So, not much recovery, just a whole heaping helping of extra damage to recover from!
Then, of course, I had a relapse 10 days later, just in case I was getting too perky.
This summer has left me with a brain that’s just not up to par. So, rather than doing my usual thing of targeting the issue and parsing its components and figuring out what solution solves most of the elements, I … froze.
I started cutting the third of the 3 little pills in half, and taking two and a half, so I could buy a little time to think. Since that works out to my normal summertime dose, I didn’t question it much. It occurred to me, just as I’m writing this, that it has really crippled my ability to think, so that was not my usual problem-solving level of skill. Sigh.
I honestly can’t remember how I wound up on the phone with my doctor’s office on Friday. Wait, after 5 minutes’ cogitation, I do: I hadn’t heard from referrals my primary doc was supposed to have written 2 weeks before. Usually right on top of things, he had documented that he intended to make the referrals, but forgotten to enter the orders to do so.
The compassionate office lady asked how I was, and it wasn’t until then that I said, “Actually, I’m kind of in a bind,” and explained about the meds. To my complete lack of surprise, given how things have been going, it turns out my primary doc is on vacation this coming week. She left a note for whoever’s covering for him.
Since then, of course, I’ve been trying to work out whether I should call during the weekend, when coverage is even weirder and less accountable, or wait until Tuesday and the first day of business this week, and try to coherently answer the question of why I didn’t call sooner, and hope and plead to get my meds from someone who doesn’t know me and is working too hard to feel for one more sad case.
So … I’m froze.
Meanwhile, my feelings and my disease-driven propensity to worry paralyzingly, are all honed to a ridiculous edge. Once my pills get past the cannon-ball feeling in my stomach (almost past the half hour mark; 15 minutes to go) I’m going to do an hour of meditation, which I expect to roughly track the pattern of the meditation I did during the meningitis episode: 20 minutes of pure inward flail, breathing quietly while my mind and emotions just went off like a carton of firecrackers spilled on a brush fire; then, once that calmed down, my thoughts chased each other like frantic squirrels for another 20, not slowing appreciably until the last 2 or 3 minutes; then 10 minutes of one or two issues or ideas holding fairly still, allowing me to turn it over until it’s transformed into something peaceful by the pure attention; and then the rest, finally, gradually, moving into a pure and floating calm.
They say that one should meditate for an hour every day. If you don’t have the time for that, make it two hours. I hold this as a constant goal. Sadly for me, I can normally only push myself to sit down and shut up like that when things are so bad all I can think to do otherwise is scream.
I need to work on that.
This was going to be the year I learned to meditate and do t’ai chi pretty much daily, no matter what level of peace and calm there was in my life. I’m embarrassed that, even at my age, I still seem to need some chaos to let me bring enough pressure to bear on myself that I’ll do these key self-care activities at all.
Something to mull over in the contemplation stage of some meditation!
I’m working on a novelette about the meningitis madness of last month. Until I get it done, let me entertain you with another tale of traveling with pain.
About five years ago, I fled an intolerable situation in California and, being pretty sure I was in my last few months of life, went back to the Northeast to visit with my nearest and dearest and stay until I mended or died, whichever it turned out to be. In short, I was not at my precarious best. I’d thinned my belongings down to what would fit in a suitcase small enough for me to handle, plus a spare set of “smallclothes” and meds in my laptop bag.
I flew into JFK airport and made my way (eventually) to a New York suburb down the street — and downmarket — from Scarsdale. I thought flying across country was hard work. Leave it to New York City (and environs) to adjust that perception. Anything worth doing is worth doing BIG!
It started with getting my luggage — the carousel changed 3 times. It had my supplements and laptop power cord in it, so there was no leaving it behind, as there was no knowing where it would wind up if I abandoned it and tried to get it tomorrow — it could land in Athens stuffed with either explosives or maple candy, or in the garbage scow on the Hudson stuffed with random bits of unsuccessful mobster; the contents would be more oddly distributed still. I’ve been flying into and out of JFK since the early 1970s, and I never leave my luggage uncollected there.
Each time a new carousel number was posted next to our flight number, herds of wilde travelbeests lumbered across the linoleum plains, flowing around eyots of irrelevant carousels and travelers from other flights, who huddled against treelike pillars and carousel islands in order not to be trampled underhoof.
I limped gamely after, unwilling to leave my luggage to the mercies of the feral crowd. We ultimately wound up back at the first one, which somehow didn’t surprise me.
I managed to get my bag unhooked from the carousel lip, but no further. It was just about to throw us both into the guy next to me, when he kindly popped it out and dropped it neatly next to me, with a brisk nod. Then went back to field the hefty steamer trunk of the twitchy Givenchy skeleton behind him.
I debated taking the bus to Penn Station ($3.50) vs train-shuttle (unstated) to the shuttle-bus($1.50); figured train-shuttle would be free, as my training in UI & signage, and casual acquaintance with the law regarding same, made it absolutely clear that prices must be stated up front. No price stated, ride is free. Sweet!
Of course, every other international airport I’d been to in the past 20 years provided free transport within the airport complex. This was New York, where you’re charged even for the gum on your shoe, so I was a little wary, but I was also exhausted and poor.
Got off at the end of the train-shuttle, pulled my wheeled suitcase to the exit door, and there found a sign stating it cost $5 to exit the train-shuttle station.
Stared at sign for 2 solid minutes, flies drifting in and out of my open mouth. SO. BLEEPING. WRONG.
Briefly considered going back, but too tired. I gave up my prospect of a little “real” food in the city to get out of the shuttle track area (why did I think $5 would buy anything in NYC?), and got to the shuttle bus.
The leaderboard read, “Penn Station.”
I asked the driver when the bus came that would take me to Grand Central. He said, “This bus goes to Penn Station.”
I asked again when the bus came for Grand Central Station, and the bus driver again said, “This bus goes to Penn Station.”
I said, “I understand that. I’m wondering when the bus is that goes to Grand Central.”
“This bus goes to Penn Station, lady.”
It finally dawned on me, as he was about to close the door in my face, to ask if there WAS a bus to Grand Central from the airport.
“Nope. This is the only shuttle into the city.”
“Nope. You have to get from Penn to Grand Central yourself.[I interjected, in shocked squawk, “STILL?” He nodded.] You can take a bus or the subway, but with your luggage, you’ll want to take a cab.”
I hitched up my jaw and hauled self and luggage in. He almost waited until I was seated to take off.
A teenager tripped over my suitcase on the wide, spacious, brightly-lit shuttle-bus. My suitcase came up to mid-thigh and was HOT PINK. Somehow, he walked right into it and went down with it — wrenching my wrist and elbow of course. After looking around blearily, initially wanting to blame someone other than his own clumsy butt, he very sweetly picked up all 38 pounds that encompassed every object I owned other than the clothes I had on, which was more than I could do, and put the handle back in my hand. I re-wrapped it with the scarf I used to cut the vibration and, with an added loop around my forearm, provide some stability against my weak grip. But, in case of other spaced-out passengers, the loop didn’t go back on until I was off the bus… at Penn Station.
Because it’s NYC, where a good conflict should never be resolved but should be handed down for posterity, they have NEVER IN THE PAST CENTURY figured out how to link up the northbound train station with the southbound train station, despite the fact that the trains are the lifeblood of the city and, on top of that, millions of customers travel from south of NYC (Baltimore, Washington DC, and points south) to north of NYC (from White Plains to Buffalo, all of New England, and Canada) every. freaking. year.
The JFK shuttle comes into the southbound train station, Penn. I needed to leave from the northbound train station, Grand Central. It was up to me, as it has been up to every single individual traveler in the past 100 years, to figure out how to get from provincial-sounding Penn to the arrogantly misnamed Grand Central. Let’s review my choices:
A cab was out of reach, especially as I’d just blown $5 on a ride that should have been free.
The subway meant more confusion, bumping, and stairs (the elevators and escalators are always out of order or being fought or pee’d on, sometimes both at once) than I could even think about without screaming.
The bus required finding secret, unmarked bus stops where they WILL ignore you if you’re off by a few feet and, I’m not kidding, either one or two transfers for one of the most essential routes in the city. There was no direct bus between the two major terminals of this train-dependent conurbation.
I can’t make this stuff up!
I decided to haul myself and my hot-pink suitcase the X blocks of crappy city sidewalks to Grand Central. “It’s not that far” — famous last words. “I’ve done it before” — 20-odd years ago, pre-injury.
I checked the map, got a sighting on the sun, went one block to read the street sign and check my direction, turned left, and marched off — for about 5 steps.
There were many adjustments to work out: soft tethering scarf, arm used (eventually, both), length of stride, and what to focus on — the directions, the pedestrians who mostly swerved nicely, the truly awful surfaces I had to traverse. The surfaces won in the end, out of sheer necessity. The occasional bozos, who thought I could steer better than their unladen selves, bounced off of either me or my sharp-edged case, spitting vile things without drawing breath. I kept on, pushing through the yawing wobbles the collisions caused as I pitched and heaved steadily onward.
Dear heavens, it was arduous.
Halfway there, dripping soot-laden sweat and hauling my grimy, now ashy-rose suitcase which had accumulated about 15 pounds of pollution by then, I found myself heading towards a cluster of burly cops standing between a parked cruiser half in the road with its butt half blocking the driveway, and the loading dock behind.
They gave me that dry, supercilious stare that city cops learn in the Academy. It says, “For our comfort and convenience, we’re deciding whether or not to kill you right now. Don’t try to make our day.”
I thought about that for a moment, trudging along with my case baulking at the bad paving, yanking my swollen wrists around like a fighting tarpon. I glanced at the path around the cruiser, involving 2 curbs, bad patching, and a pothole; quite apart from the random, fast, and dangerous traffic in the street. Definitely worse than the sidewalk.
I realized what I looked like: a grubby, chubby, oversocialized, White middle-aged female, evidently too poor for a cab. Very low on the food chain.
I realized I didn’t care.
I flashed back to the Jaguar my friends used to call me.
It was a youthfully arrogant and vigorous period of my life, when an off-duty cop in a bar in Manhattan wanted me to tie him up and beat him black and blue, because he’d really enjoy that. (I refused ever so courteously — which went curiously with the well-worn motorcycle jacket and wash-and-wear lack-of-hairstyle — and walked away, eyebrows twisting at the sheer novelty of the experience.)
I refused to walk around into the street. It was insane and vile to expect it, when I could clearly hardly put one foot in front of the other and was towing my life with battered arms.
No. Not playing that game.
One tactic of successful women:
If the game is rigged against you, change the rules.
This clot of cops got the twin-engined, diamond-drill stare from under my beetling brows, the burning power of pure womanly disgust and exasperation doing the work of 5 bodyguards and a million dollars.
New York’s Finest peeled back from my path like an amateur drill team, stumbling slightly and eyes wide.
Yeah. That was more like it.
I heard their startled and admiring voices behind me. I almost smiled. I wondered what they’d say if I turned around and demanded a lift. It was almost worth the effort, but turning back was unbearable, even for that entertainment — so I kept on.
NYC cops weren’t so racist then; it might have worked even if I weren’t White. The good old days.
Stumbled into Grand Central, at last.
After dropping my sweat-sodden self onto a bench until my breathing evened out, I got up on pure willpower (my legs certainly didn’t have much to do with it) and wobbled up to the ticket window (One of those funny alcoves on the right.)
Despite the unmitigated chaos and relentless interference of my cross-City odyssey until now, I had the pleasure of getting good instructions, delivered clearly; the right ticket to my destination; explicit directions to exactly the right track and the right train; and which cars to avoid — “The drunks use that one, and it’s never clean.”
I fell into the seat nearest the door, then slid to another when someone dumped a heavy bag which fell over onto me, edge first of course. I let the bag lie and he eventually picked it up.
A lovely young woman, the quintessence of perfectly-formed and perfectly-presented modern American beauty, got on in one of the suburbs, sat down across from me, and gave my weary, grubby, chubby, middle-aged self the sweetest and most open smile. I did my best to repay such sweetness from out of the blue with the best smile I could dredge up in return, and a nice word.
I got off at the Scarsdale stop and there was a slight pause in my progress as I resisted the boisterous flow of commuters scenting their stables. Clutching the rail that had kept me from being swept under, I saw a car door open. In a few steps, I fell off of the train station and into the arms of my old friend.
I asked her later why such a beautiful, clean, discreetly made-up, perfectly turned out young woman would greet such a gargoyle’s appearance with such sweetness. My friend replied, “I’m not sure how to tell you this, but it’s envy. You can afford to let yourself go [finger-quotes.] She can’t. She wishes she could be like you.”
It finally penetrated what a trap the relentless and expensive looks-slavery of upscale New York is for women. My lifelong sarcastic envy of “Barbie dolls”, not to mention “Givenchy skeletons”, died on the spot and I was glad I’d added the nice word. Anyone who could envy me at that point was in really bad shape.
The cross-country flight was originally going to be the funny story I told to amuse my hostess — delay, changed gate, dashing around in a wheelchair, turbulence, sick babies, nervous lady with long arms and huge rings taking up the aisle and risking the eyesight of those nearby — but it really paled next to the story of the last few miles. She laughed and applauded and then, once I was fed and pilled and washed, tucked me into a soft bed with endless pillows. I slept better than I had in months, safe and still and comfortable at last.
I haven’t tried to cross New York City since, except when I can afford a cab all the way from the airport to Grand Central. Life is too short for that much work and physical battery… and the NYC cops have changed.
The same thinking that underlies racism, sexism, and classism underlies the thinking that says, “Hey, let’s get rid of health care coverage for those who aren’t federal politicians, well-employed, or wealthy.”
The bottom line is treating people as things, and money as the thing of most value.
All humans have something to give, which is only freed up when the basic needs of survival are met; money is a means of exchange but is, itself, neither food nor drink nor fuel nor care. It only gets us any of these things if everyone buys into it as a medium of exchange. That piece of paper has no intrinsic value.
Rational policy is based on the understanding that humans give and receive value, while money represents a part of that value. Corollary is, money must move around to gain value; letting it pile up in drifts and hold still is bad long-term policy, as Reagan’s advisors can now see.
“Trickle-down” assumed that rich people would spend. Rich people don’t spend. They save and invest. Thus, their money moves as little as possible, in order to keep more money coming back to them, where it stagnates further. The real economy (wages, employment, individual bankruptcies, COL, savings, home-ownership, etc.) is nearly dead in the water, but the stock exchange is doing better than ever; that’s how bad the disconnect is now.
With wages lower than a worm’s belly and the formerly-thriving middle class nearly all gone, most human energy is consumed by the struggle for survival. We have, in fact, enough resources and infrastructure that the only people who need to work are those who really want to (that would still be far more than half of us; stop seeing your exhaustion as laziness.)
Given the chance to survive, humans give back. It’s simply what we do. As some cities and a few countries have discovered, with housing, food, and care assured, creativity and productivity blossom. Value grows. Stability grows with it. So does the economy, by the way. Not in leaps and bounds, but at a steady, calm, non-bubbly, sustainable rate.
Weird idea, eh? I mean, who wants stability, right?
I’ll give you a moment to pull yourself together…
Keeping people feeling cheated, disenfranchised, and looking for someone to blame other than those who hold the scales, is a great way to kill that kind of success. Racism, sexism in all its forms, and classism are the key tools used to divide and conquer us.
By request, I’m pasting in a stream-of-consciousness post I made elsewhere about racism. It relates to “living anyway” because, as with having a horrible disease, having and not having race/gender privilege does NOT have to poison my life, destroy my chances for freedom-within-my-limits, or negate my right to find true joy.
I know you know this about me, but in light of the horrors of the week, I just want to lay this out there, in order to be absolutely clear. Ready? here’s some Isy intensity. (Is-ensity?) …
I abhor racism. I abhor it in myself above all, and every day I try to educate/inform/reflect/analyze/remove a little more from my own mind and heart. I screw up sometimes, and the guilt for every screwup never leaves me. (True. OTT, but true.)
None of us are free until all of us are free. That’s not polemic, it’s basic psychology. The thinking that pulls us apart is irrational and hostile to our individual and collective well-being. Take a course; take two; you’ll see. It takes real work to get through the mental blocks to understand that fully, and classes provide the guidance and support to make that task feasible. It’s worth it.
I take an anti-ism/liberation course or pick up an enlightening book once or twice a year at least, sometimes more if I need it. The reason is this: I shower every day or two, because if I don’t, the stink builds up; same thing happens to the mind of a White woman living in this grubby world. Gotta clean up my thinking, because it’ll inevitably get mucked up by living in my skin in this larger reality.
As long as Native Americans of all ages are systematically robbed and murdered and left uncounted, I’m hollering for justice;
As long as Black people are shot down like amusement-park targets, I’m a co-conspirator in Black liberation;
As long as Latinos are thrown out like trash, I’m a gringa curandera for the soul of this nation;
As long as Asians, from the Subcontinent or the mainland or any of the islands, are silenced, entombed in unmarked graves, and their history erased from these shores, I’m an impassioned teacher of history;
As long as … go on, try to think of a race this country HASN’T systematically trashed. Even Whites — cf. indenture, which has changed its name but not its condition since the founding of this country.
Think the rich are free? Imagine the underlying terror of knowing that 99% of the population would gladly end you and destroy all you cherish. (A bit like the rest of us feel about the forces they keep in play, but still.)
Want to know more? Use primary sources. Nothing is more telling, or compelling, than the words and images of those who were there. Want to know what the data are? Go to the proximal sources — ignore the pundits. Racism, and its toxic twins classism and sexism (including gender isms; graduate class on that coming shortly), poison all didactic thinking to some degree. Look at primary sources, and digest them yourself. It’s worth it.
None of us are immune from the effects of racism. Even loads of money only cushions you, as long as you can access its benefits; it doesn’t make you safer outside your circle. Speaking as someone who changed socioeconomic class dramatically, and rather quickly, I’m strongly aware of the value of having social ethics that don’t lock me to an income bracket or neighborhood.
Nobody, but nobody, is free, until all of us are free.
Hatred is no way to run a country, let alone a life.
With the kind consent of the friend mentioned, I post the following exercise in “radical presence”, or staying sane in spite of the craziness…
Bubbles of thoughts are rising through the viscidity of my mind, drifting from side to side, now tending one way, now tending another.
Feels like a relapse of that FUO (Fever of Unkown Origin, although there’re more vulgar interpretations of that acronym too) that looked and acted like viral meningitis. This time, I have a thermometer so there’s something I can document. It’s less than a few weeks after the first case, so this is not good.
So far, though, no vomiting!
While recovering (barely) from the first bout of this, I met with one of my excellent friends, the one who’s going to make decisions for me if I can’t make them myself. We first met during one of the most effective times in my life.
She spent much of the recent visit picking up after me, getting the tea I forgot, making sure everyone got fed — the ideal hostess, really. Too bad that was my job. I was a good small-party hostess at one time.
For obvious reasons, given her impending status as my health care proxy, I need her to be able to tell me how I’m really doing. There was a time when full anesthesia and industrial forceps were required to make anything that wasn’t kindly and flattering come out of her. She’d almost rather lose a limb than lose her manners.
So, testing the waters, I asked if she found me a bit daffier and more disorganized than I used to be.
I’m so proud of her. She gave me a somewhat verbose “kind of” … then gave me an eyeball-to-eyeball gaze of love and torture, which I’m pretty sure meant, “It shreds my being to see you like this, but somehow I have to breathe and keep going, and I promise you I will, no matter how hard.”
Such a friend can’t be described, only experienced if you’re insanely lucky.
I rarely look back. There’s no future in it. However, the memories I usually keep firmly in the rear-view mirror haunted me for days, as bright as if they were klieg-lit.
Teaching her to run effectively under the redwoods. She was a quick study, all right. I was getting sick, so the fact that she could lap me in less than a year is probably not something I should feel too bad about.
Trying very hard to talk her out of medical school, which I was pretty sure would embitter her extraordinary sweetness and distort her self-effacing diligence. In the end, it gave her mind and heart a stronger shape.
Researching and working together on user interface guidelines, which made most senior engineers effectively beg our blessing on their designs — as they should!
What it was like to ask my quiet, courteous friend a music question, and have her snap upright, point snappily to a chair, and snap, “Sit.” Then give lively, passionate, 20- to 40-minute illustrated lectures on music theory that enrich my life even now. (I did much the same thing for her health questions.)
On a related but more self-oriented tangent, remembering what it was like to keep over 230 threads of information going simultaneously in my head, switching threads from meeting to meeting and file to file. I tracked the early course of this disease by when the number of thought-threads went down. I was “laid off” when I could only maintain about 90 different threads in active memory. I was crushed by that figure.
Remembering what it was like to run through the redwood glen at dawn, the scenery and birds staging a daily spectacular just for me.
The last walk I took on the mountain tops, when every bit of exercise just made things worse, but I had to say goodbye to the wild open spaces.
The curling breezes change direction again.
The wasps are too quiet. I turn my head to follow them and warn them away, and the world seems to slip off its stand then right itself again, and the quiet singing in my ears rises to a sharp chord then slithers down again.
Having a frying brain is like living in a hallucination at times.
This post is a little diaristic, but it serves a purpose beyond easing the pressure in my head. You’ll see.
The hundreds of little mercies that keep me going cluster around. The air here is delicious. The trees are fluffing their leaves in the curling breezes. J is quietly rattling around inside, scared in his ignorance of my illness and memories of losses, but keeping a good face on and making sure that I hydrate. The birds are mulling the possibility of rain, but it will hold off a few hours. The sun strokes my head with a long hand.
I breathe, and the world settles down.
A few days ago, I had a wonderful insight about the way that many bits of my past are getting referenced in the present somehow, and how, rather than highlighting my staggering losses, they fit together in a way that draws me onward.
That’s all I can remember, though. I think most of the ideas poured out of me last night as I sweated with the fever I forgot to document.
Drifting first one way, then another.
Must remember to inhale when getting up. It’s the only way to keep my head from wanting to explode, and clutching it doesn’t really help.
Normally, a good idea like the past-reaching-forward-and-propelling-the-present would come back to me with sufficient prompts. Not the way things work anymore. Once it’s gone, that’s it, it’s gone. I’ve learned that the hard way, over years and years.
However, do I need to remember the examples and details? Or do I just need to remember that feeling of a rising tide lifting my weary, worried ass?
Just because I don’t understand how it all fits together, does it stop being real?
Medicine is real, neurology is real, and I defy absolutely anyone to say, hand over heart, that they really, REALLY understand those. Yet, they are real just the same.
I’ll allow myself to be carried onward by the memory of the idea, even if I can’t remember why it made sense.
For now, it’s time for more lie-down and seltzer.
Small moves. Just like steering a sailboat. Small moves get you where you need to go, without steering wrong. Now, seltzer. Later, rest. Then, we shall see.
Remapping and the primitive brain are key concepts that come up often for people with chronic pain — though we don’t always know it. These underlie some treatment strategies that seem, at on the surface, anything from absurd to cruel from the perspective of the stressed patient. They also underlie a couple of those chronic misunderstandings between medical people and non-medical people, which are especially painful when the non-medical person is a chronic pain patient. I hope this will go some way towards creating better communication between palliative-care doctors and chronic-pain patients.
First, I’ll go over a few fundamentals. Naturally, I’ll translate the dense stuff into Plain English.
Basic brain structure
The brain has sections which have different jobs, but communicate intensely with the others. It’s impossible to view them either as entirely separate or entirely connected; they’re simultaneously distinct, and inter-linked.
Providers, I’m going to oversimplify. Be warned.
The hindbrain, or medulla and cerebellum, manage the business of pulse, respirations, and the kind of moment-by-moment activities of survival we don’t even think about. The cerebellum and cerebrum take in information about our environment, check for reflex response, compare it to learned and instinctual information and decide what to do about it. The cerebral cortex is where we start thinking we’re in human territory, because this is where much of our actual thinking takes place, linked into deeper structures in order to turn into words and deeds. Our thinking brain is very much in the minority and, whether it knows it or not, conscious thinking only happens on top of a great deal of unthinking response which has already happened.
That’s the key, right there. The thinking brain is never isolated, even though we sometimes act as if it can operate alone.
Think about the meaning of the word “objective”, then think about how that can possibly apply to thoughts and perceptions channeled by a mind that’s driven by unackowledged forces at inaccessible levels. Objectivity is only an aspiration, not a rational goal, but that’s too often forgotten or ignored.
When scientists forget this, it explains a lot about conventional medicine’s blind spots, certain doctor-patient miscommunications, and many crucial limitations of scientific method.
When the rest of us forget it, we’re already reacting on the basis of the primitive brain’s unthinking push. We lose our capacity for any objectivity right when we need it most.
The central nervous system (CNS) is “plastic”, a term in Medical Jargon which means that it morphs and changes to meet the requirements of whatever the CNS thinks is going on.
To be more precise, the CNS doesn’t change the shape of its cord, lumps, and lines, it changes the tasks (and pertinent chemistry) of sections of cord, lump, or line, when ongoing survival seems to call for it. The term for that morphing of purpose and chemistry is “remapping.”
During fetal and childhood development, the brain and spinal cord develop into certain chunks, and those chunks learn to store and pass along information and signal responses in predictable ways. Sounds, colors, sensations, Mom’s face, Dad’s scent, sibling’s voices — these all get processed in, stored for future reference and retrieval. The information finds its home in the CNS while the brain and spine build roads and rails to carry the signals on.
In Medical Jargon, this arrangement of storage and signaling is called the brain map. Unlike most other disciplines, in neurology, the map IS the territory, and mostly it works pretty well.
Therefore, a healthy brain has a normal map of the body, including how it signals normal needs and how to meet them. As the body, signals, and needs all change, the map gets re-drawn, and that’s how the brain and spinal cord get remapped.
This is appropriate in the developing years and in times of great change when we need to adapt. Brain plasticity is important and exists for good reason. However, in chronic pain, especially with central sensitization, it goes overboard.
Thanks to the remapping that happens with chronic pain, the pain signals can’t stop because the chemicals that carry the signals change, so the old pathways aren’t even accessible to them. You know how trains can’t use roads, and cars can’t use railroad tracks? It’s a bit like that. Your spinal cord/brain has blacktop where it used to have rails.
In central sensitization, it means that normal signals — excitement, touch, sound, lights — can get processed, not just as emotions (wow!) or touch (hey!) or sound (oh!) or light (ah!) signals, but as pain signals (ow!), because the brain’s remapping means the normal ways of processing feelings, sensations, etc., have been partly overwritten — sometimes completely erased. It’s all pain, showing up right there in the spine and brain; pure, gruesome pain. It doesn’t come from anywhere in particular; it’s just the essence of pure pain.
Yeah, it sucks.
This is why people with chronic pain and central sensitization get so quickly overwhelmed by things that used to be fun, like music, parties, dancing, socializing, and so on. The inputs, however delightful themselves, just get shunted into the “pain” tracks right in the central nervous system.
It’s not about not wanting to have fun! It’s about not being able to bear the unnaturally high price, which is so high the fun is usually lost.
When a normal person sees one of us at a party or other event, it would be totally appropriate for them to fall to their knees in admiration and gratitude, because our level of dedication to the events we do attend is truly special.
Not that anyone ever does, nor are they expected to … but it would be perfectly appropriate if they did 🙂
The primitive brain’s role in all this
The primitive brain is one of those terms that changes meaning depending on who’s using it. So, to be clear, I use it here to mean the parts of the brain that don’t use words a lot, and that underlie all the parts that do. Very simple.
Since pain is a survival function, it has deep roots in the primitive brain. This is kind of too bad for us, because once we understand the concept of remapping, we want to learn how to re-remap, so we can push our brains back closer to normal. The catch is, this is all rather intellectual, and pushing back on pain’s remapping means that the re-remapping needs to target a lot of primitive brain, which is primal, not intellectual. The approaches that have been developed reflect this. They’re hard to keep up with, because they don’t always appeal to our higher personality characteristics. (That is, they can be repetitious, trivial-seeming, and dull.)
Let’s take a look at the underlying concepts here, so the ways we communicate with the primitive brain make more sense.
The primitive brain relies heavily on nonverbal cues. Take a look a few paragraphs back, where I was discussing how sensory signals turn into pain. I’ll repeat the section here:
…emotions (wow!) or touch (hey!) or sound (oh!) or light (ah!) signals, but as pain signals (ow!)…
See what I did there? For each type of signal, I made a pertinent sound, and drew attention to that sound by adding an exclamation point. I was totally talking to your primitive brain, there.
Most of us find we talk more easily with people who don’t have arms crossed or brows lowered. That’s the primitive brain noticing the lack of withdrawn or threatening cues. Body language is 90% of visible communication, just as tone is 90% of audible communication, and it’s rarely noticed by the cortex at all — it’s primitive brain stuff, and humans respond as reflexively as Pavlov’s dogs.
Color (for those who can see it) sends powerful signals to the primitive brain.
Interior decorators may suggest painting the marital bedroom red, because red makes the primitive brain tend to feel passions more strongly and this can improve the sex life.
Some prisons use grey (which is depressing, and slows people down) or pink (which tends to promote calm. The nice theory is, it’s the first color we saw, as light penetrated mother’s stomach wall while we were in the womb. The mean-spirited theory is, it makes grown men feel like little girls; rather than learning to control their impulses, they get emotionally emasculated. Not corrective at all.)
Here’s a classic example of good intentions: In 1991, the administrators at my hospital decided to paint the walls of our HIV unit yellow, in a conscious effort to cheer the environment and counteract the depressing nature of early-90’s existence with HIV. They should have involved caregivers in the choice of shade… after only a year, the one they chose looked just like the serous fluid oozing from a skin ulcer. Still, they meant well.
Movement is powerful. The movement we see around us and what we do, ourselves, gets plugged in very deep indeed. Movement involves the most primitive parts of our brains. Because so many of us become limited in our movement due to central pain disease, what movements we do make, and even observe, become even more important, more concentrated.
Very primitive indeed. That’s why these things can be so effective.
Putting several primitive-brain cues together: food, pills
Eating is comforting to the central nervous system for all sorts of reasons, one of which is that taking something, putting it in your mouth, and swallowing, is something we first experienced before we were even born. Also, eating good foods and taking effective medicines makes us more capable and less miserable, because of what happens afterwards to our chemistry — a powerful reinforcement of that primal reward.
The sensation of feeling better is even more compelling when being alive is unbearable at baseline.
Freud went to town over this instinctual action, but he wasn’t completely wrong.
Putting hand to mouth and swallowing is one of the most powerful primitive-brain signals we habitually engage in. (Realizing this makes me think about how I eat, fidget, and generally do hand-mouth things. I’ll be less mindless about those actions — at least for awhile — and try to give my primitive brain its due.)
This is where we get to one of the things that seems so cruel from the patient’s point of view, but makes perfect sense to the doctor seeing it from the brain’s point of view. I didn’t really get it until mulling over my recent visit, so those of you who’ve seen me saying something different before, I apologize for not having thought it through. They might not be wrong!
This was not easy to write, but for the reader, who doesn’t know what’s coming until you read it, it could be triggering. I want to insert a reminder to my fellow painiacs, for whom black-and-white thinking is very easy to fall into… Take a breath, let it out slowly, and keep in mind that there are no absolutes here, just lots of context and a few guidelines. This can be pretty tough material, but you are way, way tougher.
What we can do about this
Now that we have some idea just how powerful the primitive brain is, how easily it remaps itself once central sensitization takes hold, and how powerful the act of taking and swallowing things that make you feel better is …
Ideally, think long term
We can see why, when doctors don’t want us to ramp up our daily meds when the pain gets worse or to become too regular about taking our breakthrough meds, these things worry them. It’s too easy to program the primitive brain in pain. They see it as powerful signaling that sets the brain up for needing an outside chemical push whenever it starts acting up.
Pain patients come in all sorts, but can broadly be divided into the passive care recipients and active care participants. The latter tend to have much better prognoses and quality of life, but the nature of bitter central pain tends to suck everyone down into the former approach now and then.
Thus, the doctor has no way of knowing if the patient in front of them is currently able to be an active participant and do their disciplines first, or if they’re sufficiently overwhelmed and disabled to just reach for a pill (ow! — mmm!).
None of us is immune from mental exhaustion. However appalling their terminology may be, good docs’ instincts are founded on caring for our greater good, even when we can’t think that far ahead.
Unlike acute pain, life with chronic pain requires us to take more than one approach at the same time. (Insurance doesn’t much respect this fact, which makes it all the harder to manage!) We aren’t expected to recover, unlike those lucky so-and-so’s with ordinary acute pain, so we have to think in terms of having a life while thinking ahead to being able to live the rest of our lives in a bearable state.
This means that all of those primitive-brain approaches and re-remapping tools — eating well, keeping moving, mental rehearsal, coloring, internal arts like meditation and yoga — PLUS individually tailored pharmaceutical therapy and occasional procedures — have to be part of the picture.
Doctors can help us, but they can’t save us; we have to do as much re-remapping as possible, and contribute as little as possible to the pain’s remapping. We aren’t talking about a couple of days or even a couple of years; we have to be able to keep life as manageable as possible for however many years or decades we have left.
The painiac’s barriers to success
Considering how devastating it is to think that we’ll most likely be dealing with this all our lives, our own brain-care requires us not to think about that, because so much perfectly rational despair is waiting when we do.
It requires thinking years ahead on every aspect of our treatment. This is more than usually hard for us to do, becuase thinking too much about this aspect of our future is so counterproductive in other ways.
Nobody’s brains are set up to stay detached and rational when our nerves are running riot with pain signals and our bodies are just exhausted with it. It’s okay if this seems insanely hard, because it IS insanely hard.
This is not a normal situation! We’re rational people stuck in a complex web of relentless, irrational challenges, and we are obliged to prioritize our current survival. Just do your best! It’s all you can do!
Personally, some days, getting out of bed and doing my tea-snack-pills routine is all I can manage, and I have to be glad of that. (Things could be worse.) I realize that, good as my disciplines (and consequently my perspective) are, they aren’t always up to the job of keeping this mile-high view. Also, I’m a brain-hurt human, and I can’t necessarily keep track of all the myriad things I’m supposed to do.
This is why I seek out and travel to such astoundingly good doctors. I need them to DO what I can’t, as well as to KNOW what I don’t.
Taking more pills and feeling better is powerful retraining. Yet… There are only so many pills in the world, only so many chemical boosts that can do any good at all.
What a set-up!
Built-in pain control and building up tools
On the other hand, remember that we have other tools available to us. For one thing, the brain/spine complex has many ways of managing pain and distress which can be leveraged by a conscious and determined owner of that system. These ways, from the descending inhibitory pathway to oxytocin, endocannabinoids, and endogenous opioids, can be consciously operated and can be nudged by what we take in and do. (Go ahead and google the heck out of those terms. I don’t have enough spoons left to dig up the best links.)
They take practice to master. Not surprisingly, developing these skills can be repetitious, trivial-seeming, and dull.
Just like building a muscle, it takes work to build — rebuild — and keep on building — the ability to counter pain in ways that use what your body has already got.
Letting the primitive brain slide into taking a pill for increased pain as Plan A or B puts the kybosh on those other methods. They wither, like unused muscles.
The pain patient is left with fewer and fewer alternatives, as the years go on.
Yeah, that REALLY sucks.
The one member of the doctor-patient team who isn’t currently losing their mind to disabling pain has the perspective to think ahead, and to realize that NOT retraining the brain to go with “pill as Plan A” is crucial to ongoing survival.
They aren’t always tactful about it, of course (!). They learned it in terms of Pavlov’s dog, and nobody likes being compared to a slobbering animal, so the usual explanation is deeply offensive. I hope they’ll figure that out and start using terms like “primitive brain” and “primal reflexes” and so forth, rather than “operant conditioning”, let alone “Pavlov’s dog.” Sigh.
This conflict of ongoing needs and current distress often winds up painting the doctor-patient team into a corner: the patient’s desperation may lead them to remap their brain to need something it can no longer make for itself, while the doc is not able to communicate real concerns effectively (between their own language gap and the patient’s neurological chaos) but winds up patronizing the patient to a standstill.
Where to go from here
So, when your doc says, “Don’t pill up,” this is why. They’re worried sick that you might be reaching for pills as the easiest fix — just like most normal people do. Just as they do, when they’ve got an infection or allergies. These days, reaching for a pill to solve a medical problem is the normal thing to do. That’s why it’s a natural assumption for them to make.
I know my readers are a lot better informed and more skilled at self-care than most people. So, if you find yourself having this kind of conversation with your doctor, pause a moment, take a breath, exhale slowly, and explain:
You understand the concern about screwing up your body’s reward-signaling,
You’d like them to know you’ve been using your alternate methods for days/weeks/whatever, and
The pills were the last ditch effort.
That’s exactly what breakthrough meds and med increases are for — last-ditch efforts when our home remedies and personal strategies can no longer meet our minimal requirements.
You may have to say this every time. (I do.) That’s okay; it shows they think of your survival before they remember their manners. These docs are seriously worried that you’ll wind up beyond the ability of modern medicine to do anything for you. (We want docs who worry for us!)
Some of us wind up there anyway, as we’re all well aware from our networks. Our best bet (though there are no guarantees) is to explore, discover, and refine the set of non-pharmaceutical management techniques that offer each of us, individually, the most manageable level of trouble/expense which give us the best results. We’re all neurologically different, so we have to develop our “toolkits” on the basis of what works for ourselves.
Suzanne Stewart (among others) at National Pain Report, intelligence diligently applied;
For the multiply allergic or drug-problematic, Taming the Beast, out of Canada, for more on home management and strategies that are as nontoxic as possible, discussed as pleasantly as possible.
These blogs all discuss strategies that are compatible — or at least not incompatible — with current science.
In the end, what tools matter to you is what tools work for you. You don’t owe anyone any explanations for those. It’s your body, your life, and you who have to face the consequences of every strategy used in your case. Might as well own it.
Other “ancillary” or “alternative” therapies
Once you include strategies and therapies outside your doctor’s bailiwick, it’s not fair to ask the doctor if they think it will help. They’re already doing what they think will help. Conventional mainstream medicine names these techniques with terms that specifically put them off to the side, because that’s where they believe these things belong, so it’s normal and appropriate for conventional practitioners to have a bit of trouble making sense of them.
For the pain patient, these strategies are likely to take more time and attention than conventional care, but only because they are so necessary to living with central disruption and pain.
As long as these therapies don’t disrupt or interfere with your medical care, then the physician’s opinion is not relevant; your experience with that therapy is.
This brings us to a form of intellectual integrity which many well-educated people have trouble with. Ready? Here goes:
Others’ belief systems are not relevant to your personal experience of less pain and greater function.
Even if the “others” are care providers, and even if their belief systems are based on the current state of our limited and ever-changing model of science.
The only proof we need, here at the sharp end of reality, is what kind of good something does, and what kind of bad it doesn’t do, for the only body we’re in.
If it helps, doesn’t hurt, and you can access it, success! It’s in your toolkit!
Below is a short table of “alternative” therapies and modalities I’ve used with success, with annotations about what I learned about how to make the most of my benefit from them. (With apologies for the weird formatting.)
Essential. Our brains are the most susceptible organ in the body to deficits. Air, food, and water underlie everything our brains do. Immune activity in the gut is becoming a hot issue for study, as the results can be multi-system and devastating. Nutrition is the first and most important step, in my view, to managing a life with serious illness. Eliminating or reducing immune triggers, maximizing nutrition within your practical limits, and being able to absorb and process your food, are key to getting your body to work right again.
As those of you who’ve checked the science know, nerves can’t work without mitochondria, and mitochondria can’t work without antioxidants. The only known preventive strategy for CRPS is vitamin C in frequent small doses for 2 weeks before surgery and 3 months after surgery or trauma. Vitamin C! So yes, nutrition is the base of everything. This also means, beware! Nutrition can interact and have side effects. Brassicas and soy can deplete the thyroid. Co-Q 10 interacts with Lexapro, a common neurochemical modulator used for central pain and depression. Check with your pharmacist.
The practitioner needs long experience to avoid accidental damage, plus specific training and experience with central sensitization. (I use LAc’s with over 20 years’ experience.) Patient needs realistic expectations and a pragmatic list of attainable goals: anxiety control, sleep/wake improvement, temp/sweat stabilization, digestive support, wound healing, whatever your practical concerns are.
Acupuncture is extremely sophisticated. Its methodological groundwork was being laid before my European ancestors even figured out where babies came from. Because of that sophistication, experience counts, because some of what they evaluate is very subtle. Inappropriate acupuncture can make local or central pain worse, so do be mindful and pay attention to the care you’re getting.
Can be GREAT for pain. It’s more “tunable” than many practitioners realize. If you have dysautonomia or suspect any other form of central disruption/transformation/sensitization, be sure to tell them: “Use SHK, and lots of it. CKR can be bad for central nervous system disruption.” Their likely reply is, “But Reiki goes where it’s needed; it can’t hurt.” The response to that is, “Reiki gets attracted by need. However, more than a touch of CKR can be like warming hands by pouring burning fuel on them. SHK is more stabilizing, and that’s what’s effective. CKR is great for a final ‘coat’ afterwards, but not for the main treatment.” (CKR and SHK are different “flavors” or “types” of Reiki energy.) I figured this out with the assistance of other Reiki 2 practitioners and other centrally sensitized volunteers. It’s absolutely consistent, both for in-person and distance work.
Level matters. A Level 1 practitioner normally needs to work on only themselves. If you have Level 1, consider working towards Level 2, as the rewards can be considerable. Level 2, 3, and Master practitioners can send transformative Reiki. Many massage therapists are also Reiki practitioners.
Therapeutic Touch ™
Came out of the nursing profession from a nurse-scientist who got some initial studies funded. Blood tests were so good it was unreal. Usually done by RNs. Usually helpful with pain, digestive problems, mobility, and wound healing.
May be available in-hospital, sometimes through private practice. Sometimes massage therapists get cross-certified in TT.
Be prepared for some rudeness if you tell people you use this. Its principles are founded on quantum physics (something called “signal propagation”) and conventional medicine still depends on Newtonian physics, which is 600 years old; predictable, but limited. Anyway, I strongly recommend getting competent, qualified help in working out what works for you. Hypericum perforatum is widely used for nerve pain, but it can go either way for us. It used to help me significantly but now my body flips it about half the time and it makes the pain dig in, so I no longer use it. Ignatia amara can help calm that emotional storm that comes with too much stimulation, surprise, or pain. It also eases my bursts of panic. I get great results consistently. I use Arnica pills for soft tissue trauma (which, for me, is a body-wide event), and heal in 1/4 the time with about 1/6 the pain of what happens when I don’t! Many have great results from Rescue Remedy ™; for me, it just calms my mood, but for my housemate, it brings her blood pressure down from the sky and cuts her pain. We’re all different.
As with Reiki, some say that “it can’t hurt”, but that isn’t correct for the centrally sensitized. Keeping logs of how you respond to each remedy is an excellent idea. Your diligence can result in a handful of outstanding remedies that help you enormously and very quickly.
These are the precursors to conventional mainstream medicine. Therefore, they’re a double-edged sword. Assume that everything interacts with something in conventional medicine (except possibly chamomile); know your interactions for what you use. Everything has side effects, although, with that said, whole herbs tend to buffer their own bad effects better than purified extracts. Freshness matters; potency varies. This means that, if you’re interested in the potentially vast bouquet of beneficial herbal support available, either start when you’re young and healthy with a great teacher (as I did) or find a very experienced practitioner with experience treating central sensitization.
Expect to do a lot of homework researching brands and regions and preparations, in your own defense. The market is huge and very aggressive. You are your own guinea pig, so keep track of effects, doses, potency (which you’ll have to figure by color, scent, and taste) if you’re wildcrafting or growing your own. Be wise with your herbs, and they can reward you.
Do your due diligence
As the blunt hints in that table suggest, there is no such thing as a free ride or a guaranteed fix — not even any such thing as “It can’t hurt you!”, especially when central sensitization is part of the picture.
Given all the side effects of our meds, the mistakes by highly qualified physicians, and the errors in surgery, not to mention the rank company of practitioners like Scott Reuben who get rich by urinating in the well of science, these characteristics of not being harmless don’t distinguish “alternative” methods from “conventional” medicine at all, from the patient’s point of view. It’s all risk, and nobody bears it as much as we do.
The obvious corollary is that there are highly qualified practitioners of these therapies too. There’s no substitute for good training and lots of experience, so look for those who’ve studied their disciplines long and hard, and remain enthusiastic about their field. These are the ones who can provide the best help and guidance.
Another handy fact is that there is a lot more information available on these therapies, at a much greater level of detail, to the determined pain patient. We don’t need medical school access or memberships costing thousands we don’t have, to access articles and reports (not to mention extensive fluff and pretty pictures) about physiotherapy, massage, TT, acupuncture, and any herb you care to name. Good resources for checking interactions with medication and devices are there with a little digging. The vocabulary and style is far more approachable. A bit of common sense and occasionally a friendly nudge from a cohort can help us screen out most of the rubbish.
After that, it’s back to trial and re-trial and lots of notes, the reality of patient-hood, which is based on empiricism out of necessity: WHATEVER WORKS FOR YOU IS WHAT MATTERS, NOT WHAT ANYONE BELIEVES “SHOULD” WORK.
As with medicine and surgery, the final sanity check and the final decision is up to you, the patient. It’s always up to you.
May our brains and spinal cords become more stable, less reactive, and ever closer to normal!
As the title hints, it’s been another fascinating visit with my pain diagnostician.
His current working diagnosis is fibromyalgia, which he characterizes as being capable of throwing some hairy curve balls (my terminology, not his) including the growing litany of food sensitivities, which solves a major problem in my mind.
Thyroid disease can also trigger the symptom complex that otherwise gets tagged “fibromyalgia” (more on symptom complexes in a minute.) I mentioned that I’ve had my thyroid checked several times and last year came up with Hashimoto’s (meaning my immune system is attacking on my thyroid.) Since I developed the first symptoms of this central sensitization around 16 years ago, it seems not like a precipitating event; since “normal” thyroid activity is not the most meaningful term, I’m not sure it’s irrelevant. I guess I’ll learn more as we go on.
He’s also checking my hemoglobin A1c to check for underlying blood sugar instability. I’m always happy to check that. Also B12 (pernicious anemia etc.) and D3.
Now we come to the fascinating (and crucial) distinction between a symptom complex and a disease. Both are used as diagnoses, but they mean different things. (Yes, I’ve used the word “disease” indescriminately here, for simplicity.) Medically speaking, a disease has a cause that can be targeted, what you might call a diagnostic end-point. A symptom complex doesn’t have that level of targeted responsibility for the illness; it’s a consistent set of symptoms that cluster together often enough to get a diagnostic label, which takes some doing.
Here are the two scenarios.
On the one hand, you’ve got someone with a lot of pain, funky guts, sensory reactivity, and normal labs. The doctor (we hope) rules out any other possible cause, and decides the diagnosis is, say, Fibromyalgia. This is a symptom complex, because it’s described in terms of what it does to the person, not in terms of specific pathogens or organs as the causative thingy. (I’m tired; thingy will do.)
On the other, you’ve got someone with a lot of pain, funky guts, sensory reactivity, and thyroid labs that are out of whack. Further examination of the thyroid discovers specific thyroid abnormalities which can be treated. With treatment, the symptoms subside or even disappear. The diagnosis is the disease of hypothyroidism, with a diagnostic end-point in an organ (as in this case) or pathogen.
CRPS/RSD, Fibromyalgia, and some other hideous conditions are symptom complexes. This is used by some as a reason not to “believe in” those conditions, because they aren’t “real.” This is intellectually dishonest, but it does no good to tell them that; assuming that a lack of diagnostic end-point equals lack of ill-health is blatantly absurd, but this is a reality we must contend with. It’s a drawback of having such a flexible language as English, where the same word can mean different things from one context to the next: in Plain English, disease and illness are interchangeable, but in Medical Jargon, they’re definitely different: disease means specific diagnostic end-point, illness tends to suggest a pathogen, and condition is the catch-all term — but is used more for things that really aren’t diseases or illnesses. Another example on a hot issue: in medicine, narcotic refers specifically to opioid analgesics; in law enforcement, it’s a MUCH wider term, encompassing any substance that legislators have decided is not legal. In courts, the meaning of the term has to change depending on who’s involved, which has to be weird.
No wonder there’s confusion around anything medical. What a setup, eh?
This brings us to the physician ethical structure this doc works with, and where it fits into this patient’s worldview. You can almost hear me purring comfortably from here.
He speaks of himself as a Palliative Care specialist. Most people think of Hospice when they hear palliative care, but it’s wider and simpler than that. It means this physician has chosen a field defined by the fact that his patients will probably never recover. That’s what palliative care means: keeping the patient as comfortable and functional as possible, for the rest of their (probably, but not necessarily, truncated) lives.
Yeah, pretty darn special. How many of you who see pain docs hear them use the term “palliative care” naturally and fluidly, without wincing and scuttling on? It’s a little thing that means a lot. It makes me realize I’m seeing a doctor who CAN be there for the long haul, if need be. Someone who would NOT throw me off with the very natural cringe of frustration and failure most docs feel when they can’t save you, or when you’re in the final downhill slide and they can’t face you dying. He can take that strain without failing me. That’s rare indeed.
Palliative care is the very heart of chronic pain care, and I couldn’t face that myself until today.
So now I just have to die before he retires…
I’d like to go over his approach more, but the fog is descending; it was an early morning and I’m paying for it as usual. I’ve got lots of notes, though. It’s great food for thought, so, with luck, I’ll come back to it.