On trauma in central nervous system sensitization* & dysautonomia

I’ve been mulling this for years and occasionally blog it on a case-by-case basis:

Handling bereavement (with digressions): http://livinganyway.com/wp/2014/03/08/threads-on-the-loom-bereavement-and-crps/

An anxiety toolkit I came up with for myself: http://livinganyway.com/wp/2016/01/27/handling-anxiety-and-its-obnoxious-little-friends/

On a surprisingly useful tool which really does help (despite my complaining): http://livinganyway.com/wp/2013/07/16/relentless/

Fortunately for all of us, the blogger at Elle and the Autognome has done a good job of laying out the basics and providing a starting-point for figuring out how to manage it in individual cases — because we’re all different, and we have to figure out what works in our particular bodies. So, rather than waiting for me to get it together on this topic, I’m going to punt to her.

Click here to read her friendly, burbling, yet deeply intelligent post: https://elleandtheautognome.wordpress.com/2017/02/25/trauma-in-a-faulty-nervous-system/

* For the record, “central nervous system sensitization” is a collective term for the diseases characterized by CNS up-regulation of essential neural signals, notably pain but also a whole garbage-can of signaling misbehavior that goes with that. These diseases include CRPS, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, multiple sclerosis, lupus. chronic Lyme, and so on.

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Start with, “Never give up. Never surrender.”

“Never give up. Never surrender.”
-attributable to:
Leonidas of Sparta, Jael the wife of Heber, Alexander the Great, Queen Boudicca, Mary Magdalen, the Prophet Mohammed, Hildegaard of Bingen, Vlad the Impaler, Queen Isabel of Spain, Geronimo, Copernicus, Marie Curie, Winston Churchill, Aung Suun Kyi, Terry Pratchett, the 14th and Final Dalai Lama…

Rest and retreat, yes.

Pause for thought, please (unlike some of those listed above.)

Knowing when to acquire a sense of proportion, ideally (again, unlike some of those listed above.)

But… don’t give up. Don’t give your rightful self away.

It’s always been easy for me to be determined, but not easy to pick the right things to be determined about.

  • In my 20’s, I wanted to save the world.
  • In my 30’s, I was willing to work only on that part of it that wanted my saving.
  • In most of my 40’s, I was dying — sometimes by inches, sometimes by yards — and couldn’t quite save myself.
  • I’m 50; what a relief!

Given that trajectory, it’s no wonder that my priorities have shifted a little.

I figure that, as long as I have working pulse and respirations, I’ve got a job to do. (I suspect everyone does, but I could be wrong.) My particular job is to re-possess my physical self, and, given enough slack, help others to re-possess theirs.

me-fingers-peace

Our bodies are not just machines, despite the inherent dis-inheritance proposed by Descartes (considering the body a separate entity from awareness), and the even more extreme model funded and fomented by a slightly misguided Hearst (who fell in love with interventionism, and drove the mechanical-problem-to-be-fixed model of medicine over the shifting-dysfunction-to-right-function model of medicine.)

old_school_surgeon

Bodies are the media we experience life through, the means we have to respond with. Despite the relentlessly shallow concerns over appearance the media saturates our lives with, our fundamental experiences of life are not just seen. Life is an all-body experience.

Still looking for attribution info for this glorious image.
Still looking for attribution info for this glorious image.

Bodies are marvelously self-aware organisms on an enduring quest to care for and maintain themselves by communicating as effectively as possible within themselves, and responding as usefully as possible at every level — within the cells, between the cells, from cells to organs and back again — with the marvelously alert circuitry of the nervous system and the dazzlingly subtle chemical dance of the endocrine system drawing the whole show together.

That’s a bit more complex than just meat-sacks wrapped in hide.

circulation-allbody-Anna_Fischer-Dückelmann_1856–1917

I’ve been mulling the twined facts that my body is an amazingly tough, brilliantly adaptable organism, and at the same time, is an organism constantly under sieges both subtle and overwhelming. Yet it never stops trying to find a useful set of responses, it never stops signaling and listening.

It never gives up. It has never surrendered.

I admire that.

More mantras

Just for grits and shins, here are a few other things that I mutter to myself over and over.

  • C’mon, you can do it.
  • Motion is lotion.
  • Use it or lose it.
  • Change or die.

That’s quite a set, when I look at it laid out like that.

Not all of them are cheerful. Sorry.

They’re all thoroughly grounded in my reality, though, and they all have had something to do with my getting this far. They are hammers and screwdrivers in my mental toolkit of radical presence, pushing back on neuroplasticity, and not settling for what this disease would leave me.

Naturally, I say these things to myself in tones of firm, loving parental authority, since it’s all about re-re-plasticizing my brain, and those are the tones it responds to.

Sketch of brain, with bits falling off and popping out, and a bandaid over the worst

FTR, I’m sincerely glad it responds at all. When I was in nursing school, they told us adult brains were fixed for life. I doubted that from the start, and events eventually caught up with my skepticism. Brain plasticity FTW!

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Isy’s guidelines for taking care of relationships when it’s imp-possible to have them

Relationships can be so fraught!

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

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

Kinda sucks, eh?

And I’m definitely one of the lucky ones!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I take good care of my brain. I work hard at learning more all the time about how to support and foster it in spite of this tedious collage of illnesses. Neurology interests me — always has. Now that it’s so personal an issue, it’s positively compelling. Neurology’s very complex, and hooks into everything — fascinatingly fractal, in the way it repeats the same physiological “phrases” to very different effect in different parts of the body in response to different changes.

I’ve been wrestling with my gut this past year or so. Lately, it looks and feels like someone’s taking a bicycle pump to it and bringing it up a little more every day. When it interferes with your breathing, that’s a lot of bloat!

I’ve found the gastrointestinal (GI) system to be a bit of a trial. It’s very complex, and hooks into everything. There’s no getting away from the endless iterations of its main roles of sensing, transforming, processing, and discarding: at the intracellular level, intercellular level, endocrine level, organ level, and so on.

Some observant part of my brain notes that the same characteristics I find appealing in neurology, are the same ones I find appalling in gastroenterology.

And the gut has so much STUFF in it…

  • The liver parked under the ribs at one side, the spleen at the other, holding half your blood at any one time, right across the top of your abdomen;
  • The endless loops of squirming intestine, stretching and shifting within their blobby webs of mesentery, shoving along several pounds of food residue at any one time along its length;
  • Lymphatic nodes linked in constellations in the shining webs of mesentery and glistening loops of intestine, ready to respond instantly to allergens or pathogens or anything else in your GI tract that could make your body revolt;
  • Major vessels, the abdominal aorta and the vena cava, coursing alongside the spine, apparently apart from the mess, but branching out so thoroughly and so minutely into the organs and the mesentery that the smartest rats in science couldn’t make it through that maze;
  • The tenth cranial nerve, forming an intimate and instant link between your brain and your gut, linking your brain directly to the largest grouping of nerves outside your brain, the nerves that surround and penetrate your organs and your gut, embedded in and supported by that amazing net of connective and fatty tissue, the mesentery;
  • And let’s not even go into the endocrine system, responding minutely — at the level of individual molecules at times — to the constituents in your food, the way you feel about them, what you need them for right then, what else you’re sensing at the time, and even what time of day or year or month it is… then hooking the info back out through the nervous system, cardiovascular system, lymphatic system, and of course the gastrointestinal system.

I was sitting in my Epsom bath today, mulling this over after the battery in my e-book died. I had done the squishing of my legs and arms with the washcloth, and ran it over my neck and back and sides too, but had a terrible time making myself touch my abdomen. It felt just awful. It also felt like it was somewhat detached from me, like it was floating a couple of inches off my back and spine, simply hovering, slightly displaced, in front of the rest of my physical self. Touching it was deeply upsetting in some way, triggering a wordless revulsion.

This is not an unusual experience for CRPSers. We often feel as if the affected parts of our bodies are almost separate from us, or like they belong to someone else, and touching them is — even apart from the allodynia — a crankiness-inducing, unpleasant experience. It’s a perceptual trick the brain plays, probably part of its general effort to manage more ghastliness than it’s really set up to deal with.

One reason I do the Epsom baths (and the stretching, and the activity, and the relaxation meditations, and the aikido/tai chi/qigong, etc.) is to stay on good terms with my body. That whole self-alienation thing is just too wrong, to me — my life is always best when I’m in my skin, so to speak, whether or not my circumstances suck.

Also, to be fair, my body has done nothing wrong; it just got some of the shortest darn straws out there, and it’s doing its mighty best to manage that. It doesn’t deserve my loathing at all. So, I work to keep on good terms with it.

This is probably one reason why I’m still often functional, frequently productive, and can still walk a mile without sitting down to rest on a good day — even after 15 years with this disease on little or no medication (here’s why no CNS depressants like narcotics, here’s why minimal other meds.)

Anyway, there I was in the bath, watching my belly inflate and almost float away, even though I was Epsom bathing (which usually calms my systems down), and realizing I was finding it unbearable to touch the darn thing, even though it was practically in front of me.

I thought, “Neurology is not that hard for me. Why is gastroenterology so impenetrable? Why am I making so little headway on figuring out this stomach stuff, and dealing with so many setbacks? Why do I get these little tailspins of terror about it? What’s going on in… the second largest collection of nerves outside my brain?” I said, as the lightbulb over my head turned on.

I thought, “I’ve been having a lot of trouble with gastroenterology. But I can usually do neurology.”

And the word for the neurology of the gut, ladies and gentlemen, is neurogastroenterology. (Break it down: neuro meaning nerves, gastro meaning stomach, entero meaning inestines, ology meaning study of. Now you have it.)

I’m pretty sure I can do that. I can sure take a stab at it.

First lesson: review the vagus, a.k.a. Cranial Nerve X. It’s a doozy.

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The third toughest job

While I’ve been absent from the blogosphere, I’ve been pushing the rock of life further uphill. I’m cautiously optimisitc about getting it to the top and watching at least this particular tedious weight roll off in a new direction, eventually.

Being safe, having survival assured, and being surrounded by loving and trustworthy people was the biggest part of it. For the tools that I can control, it was just what your grandma probably advocated: eating good food, drinking good water, and getting fresh air with a bit more exercise than I really wanted to go for.

Food:
With neuro disease, our bodies need more nutrition than our diets can possibly provide (especially when our guts don’t want any), but our supplements go down a lot better and get absorbed much more usefully if we eat well. I used lots of wild blueberries (dense little packets of brain-repairing anthocyanin antioxidants, yum!), a variety of hard cheeses (2-year-old cheddar, 15 month manchego, and 1 yr English goat cheddar, in my case) for the brain-boosting natural phenylalanine, and fresh leafy veg as close to every single day as the two of us could manage, because they are so good for everything.

Water:
We have artesian well water. It. Is. Outstanding.

Air & Activity:
I asked J to nudge me into getting some exercise every day, if I didn’t get onto it myself. That’s easy for him, because he too likes to get out and get into the open air. On bad days, I hold his arm and go anyway. On really bad days, I go slowly. But I get out, walk on the burning coals under my feet, and keep walking out until my feet stop spasming, then walk back. Sometimes that’s over a mile, but the thing is, I find that if I walk long enough, with enough breaks and the right footwear, I can knock back the pain and spasms — not to mention the frame of mind that tends to go with them — well enough to brighten up the whole day.

So.. I can think! Amazingly often!

I wrote a BUDGET last week!!!

It wasn’t entirely in the right direction, but I figured out how to stay (just barely) in the black. BRAINWORK FTW!

So, with that incredibly awkward seque, here’s the hot issue.

It’s a topic that is all too pressing a reality for people who’ve had their butts handed to them by a disability that affected their ability to work, and then destroyed their means of making a living:

Credit repair.

That’s right, ladies and gentlebeings, I am tackling the third toughest issue (right after 1. survival and 2. getting responsible doctors): 3. working through the PTSD, ADD, anxiety, brain fog, and intermittent dyscalculia which this brain disease and its financial consequences have caused, in order to get my credit rating back in the black.

I have barely been able to look at a spreadsheet for years, due to the numbers dancing around like a hallucination. Dada via Josephine Baker. Just unmanageable. But I can look at one almost every day now, and it’s amazing how easy it can be to push those numbers around intentionally!

I’m glad to be able to take this up. More on it later, with numbers to call and strategies to take for rational results.

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Battle for the Brain

It’s been a crazy winter, even for New England. Those of you with pain syndromes know what that means: changeful weather means unstable pain neurology which means more pain and less brain.

I’m so much more stable here in other ways that I found it frustrating to be soooooo daffy. I wanted to tuck that daffiness back behind the dam I can usually hide it behind, and use the creative and practical components of my mind to drive what I show in public.

I revised my supplements a few times, and finally found a routine that does seem to stabilize things a bit better, although it’s kind of hard to tell (it’s like inspecting a crystal with the lens inside, or possibly the other way around.) I’ve stopped fiddling, and will let the test of time tell me how this regime really does.

Also, we’ve had 2 or 3 strains of flu (so far) dancing through the household. The second one was nice, because the really awful part lasted about 5 days and it had an incubation period of about 6-7, and we got it one by one; as soon as 1 person got really sick there were 2 people to take care of him or her. In one case, this meant miso and ginger soup; in another, raw garlic in mashed potatoes; in a third, goldenseal and vitamin C; in all cases, loads of homemade chicken soup and buckets of fluids.

I’m not sick of homemade chicken soup, as every pot is different, but I am *so over* herbal tea, broth, diluted juice… everything. I had a big mug of plain hot water yesterday because at least I’m not sick of it.

I find that viruses affect my brain. They have for as long as I can remember. One of the first signs of viral illness, for me, is getting cranky and forgetful all of a sudden. With all these brain issues I have now, it just turns the volume of pain, reactivity, and goofiness up to 11.

Into this brew of brainlessness, add one more element of confusion: my most expensive brain prescription, Savella, looks exactly like my cheap antihistamine, generic Zyrtec; I take them both twice daily.

You can see this coming, can’t you…

I found out a week ago that I’ve been double-dosing on Savella and underdosing on Zyrtec. (No wonder my asthma has been acting up.) That, more than the virus and sinus activity, would explain the intense dizzy spells, disembodied feelings, uncharacteristic irritability, and eerie emotional detachment from my nearest and dearest. (No medication is harmless. Now you know what an overdose of SNRI does to me.) It was a relief to know what really caused all that, but it still sucked to go through it.

So, thanks to the daffy-dam getting burst by those bugs, I blew my brain out of the water (and also blew about $150!) AND set myself and my housemates up for a few weeks of needless unpleasantness. I’m still recovering, but well enough to think coherently about it, so that’s a huge improvement.

To my morning pre-pill routine of apple (malic acid) and sunflower butter (digestible folate, minerals and anti-inflammatory oil), I now have ~1/2 cup of defrosted Boreal blueberries (intense brain food with anthocyanins and antioxidants for recovery) topped with grated aged cheddar (intense brain food with dopamine precursors and saturated fats for those nerves) during and after pills. My pills go down better, and bit by bit the fog seems to be clearing.

Now that I might be able to think my way past a soggy Kleenex, it’s time to get that “activity” thing going again… if I can remember how. There is absolutely no substitute for activity, because it balances the autonomic system, improves neurochemical stores and their behavior, and can even reduce pain, with *no negative side effects* — as long as you don’t get hurt or over-do.

I had a dream last night of dealing with broken gym equipment, and of absolutely longing for good t’ai chi instruction. Until I find it, I’ll work with what I’ve got: my class notes and a couple DVDs from my old Academy. It’ll get me started, and then we shall see.

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Fixing the brakes

Interesting week here.

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

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

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

In short, diddly-squat.

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

Diddly-squat doubleplusgood.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, now we’re up to this week.

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

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

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

I used to know that.

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

Nope. Caught me completely by surprise.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Make room for joy, especially when it isn’t easy

I’m an old ER nurse so please, trust me when I say that nobody gets a guarantee with this life. Nobody really knows what’s next, and indeed, everything CAN change in an instant. Even for the healthiest. (This is why the legislation torturing the elderly and disabled makes me livid. People who favor that legislation are poisoning their own future. Everyone who lives long enough will become disabled.)

The point is this: it ain’t over until it’s over. If you’re still breathing, you still have a life, you still have choices. If you’re still alive, you have some influence over the next moment, and the one after that, and the one after that. Only you can decide where to put your focus, for each breath of this life that is left to you.

Being aware in the midst of the hell is what capable spoonies do, and we find a bit of heaven in it whenever we can. Yes this sucks like nothing we could have imagined, and I have a crazy imagination; but I still KNOW that there is a lot more to my life than this pain, this weakness, this utter destruction of everything I thought made up my life.

Turns out that was all peripherals. When the structures of my life were utterly destroyed, I looked around at the blasted rubble that was all that remained of my old ideas of my work, my abilities, and myself. I wondered who I was.

And I realized I was the point of awareness that was doing the asking. I also realized that, without those assumptions holding me down, and despite the agony and unbearable loss, somehow I was free, I could be more simply and purely myself.

So now I’m on groups for this brutal disease, wanting to give comfort, but knowing the only really true thing I can say is, there is comfort to be had, but it’s up to us to make room for it in our lives, to push right past the pain and fog and grief to look for the rest of what this world still has to offer.

There is excitement and peace and ease and delight in this life, but we have to find ways to make room for it, to find time to notice it, even in the ongoing roar of this pain. Over time and with practice, we get better and better at the peace and the joy and the loving connections, and .. it’s not that the pain is any less, because the rocketing nausea these past few days tells me otherwise, but it doesn’t matter as much, because more important things have taken its place in the core of our lives.

Easier said than done, but it’s basically a matter of practice. It doesn’t come naturally, and nor should it, because anyone who responds to getting a leg ripped off with, “Oh, what a lovely flower!” is probably not going to survive to raise offspring.

"Lovely flower, ladies!"
“Lovely flower, ladies!”

Being frantic in the face of horrible pain is a good survival mechanism — as long as the pain subsides when it should. For those of us who live with that kind of pain, we have to learn to re-program that core survival response (!!!) and be more mindful about how we deal with life.

Find excuses to celebrate. Finished the dishes? Celebrate! Heard from a good friend? Celebrate! Is it Tuesday? Good enough reason — celebrate! It sounds trivial, but it works. It makes your brain stronger, bit by bit. Each success prepares you for more.

In the Years from Hell, when I didn’t think I’d live out the year for a number of years, I was utterly wrung out with misery, and I refused to accept constant grimness. It was intolerable, literally intolerable; if I left my thoughts to dwell in it, I’d have had to finish myself off.
me-fingers-2up
I turned my attention to whatever was not misery, and sucked the juice from it.

I noticed every sparkle of light on the water, every flicker of color in the tiny wildflowers in the grass, the way trees spread and shake their branches, the caress of the air on a fine morning, the particular blend of colors in every sunrise or sunset I was up for, the way the sky and sea reflected each other in every weather.
clouds_water_calmBay_web
Maina at sunset, with masts sticking up and reflecting down, both water and sky streaked with yellow, orange, gold, and purple clouds
I got to learn the habits of the birds, from the imposing night herons to the unearthly blue herons, rare goldfinches, raucous terns, fat geese, chatty ravens, and the everlasting seagulls. I noticed the weird little shrimp living in the greenery below the waterline on the docks. When I could, I got up on shore at sunrise around the equinoxes to see the incredible light-show as the San Francisco windows were lit up by the first liquid rays of the sun, a dappled bank of golden glory marching up the hill across the Bay.

I was like a seagull for joy, pouncing on every bit of it indiscriminately. Time enough for the grey grims when there was nothing else to find. I leaped on every chance to find some beauty, some moment to get lost in.
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Sometimes I was disappointed: sometimes the weather soured; sometimes a friend wasn’t answering the phone; sometimes a dash of color was a piece of garbage, not a flower. (I still pick up random garbage when I’m out.)

Working to find bits of joy was probably the most important tool in getting me through, because I could use it every day and it didn’t depend on anyone else to work. Fortunately, things did eventually change, and I was there to rise with that tide.

I trained myself well. To this day, I find myself stopping and staring when I see sunlight or moonlight shining on water.
full moon clearing clouds over illuminated Bay Bridge, all reflected in the black water
It’s the most beautiful thing in the world to me. It saved my life day after day for years, so that probably makes sense, eh?

Be greedy; work at finding beauty and joy. It’s good for you. If nothing else, it pierces the veil of pain and frustration and it reminds you that there is a larger world, one worth getting to. Your old reality may be gone, but there are aspects of the new reality worth cherishing. I hope you all find the beauties that make you stop everything, just so you can get lost in them and soak up the joy.
glee

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The right toothpaste turns out to be my own

Updated to reflect much experimentation and the final recipe, Dec 16, 2016

We forget that tooth pain is nerve pain. There are big fat nerves going right up into every one of those 30-odd things in your head.

Cross sections of teeth intl

I have sensitive teeth, related to the fact that I have CRPS, which does its very best to thin the bony tissue out until it’s like a lacework pattern crocheted by the famous one-armed wallpaper-hanger.

So, basically, my head is set up for lots and lots of nerve pain.
poison_skull
Have you noticed that there are no brands of toothpaste for sensitive teeth that are anything other than mint-flavored? Moreover, the toothpaste focus groups apparently like a strong minty taste, because that makes them feel like it’s working. Heaven forbid they just lick their teeth to find out, I guess.

The vocal but persistent minority that does NOT like a strong minty taste apparently just isn’t profitable enough to serve.

Those of us who find it obnoxious or uncomfortable, or who are sufficiently chemically sensitive that the mint actually causes a chemical burn? Tom’s of Maine provides a couple of marginally less-caustic alternatives, but none for sensitive teeth.

That’s right, folks. Chemical burns to go with your sensitive teeth. Isn’t that clever?

So, my dental routine has sucked for years. First, brushing requires tension in my wrist tendons for a couple of minutes. Second, it jars my joints every time I switch direction, which happens a lot. Thirdly, I’M GIVING MYSELF CHEMICAL BURNS THROUGHOUT MY MOUTH. There’s something very wrong with that. Fourthly, in the nature of a cherry on the sundae, toothpaste doesn’t actually seem to get my teeth clean. It scores lines in the muck, but it doesn’t actually clear it away.

The routine I developed, which I could only do every few days, was this:
1. Damp washcloth to wipe off the muck, front and back, top and bottom. Only way to clear it off.
2. Floss with a flossing sword, hoicking more muck out from between the choppers.
3. Brush with the least-burning sensitive-teeth toothpaste I could find, the Walgreens brand.

That’s going to happen twice a week at most, not twice a day. It’s a lot of fine-motor maneuvering and, of course, the CHEMICAL BURNS THROUGHOUT MY MOUTH make it hard to look forward to. I can’t eat or drink anything for at least an hour, not without slamming the cup down as I’m sharply reminded why that was a bad idea.

This is a stupid problem to have. It should not be hard to have a non-burning toothpaste which will get the muck off my teeth and protect them afterwards!

Then a friend of mine (a fellow spoonie with a different set of spectacular health challenges) mentioned that she had been using calcium carbonate to brush her teeth, and they were suddenly whiter and stronger and better.

Then the pieces started coming together in my head. I put the calcium carbonate (yes, it’s chalk, in case you were going to look it up) together with some other things I knew about handling oral hygiene in the non-conventional, post-industrial world, and made my own toothpaste.

With one brushing, half as long as my old brushings, my teeth got COMPLETELY CLEAN. I might be hallucinating, but they seem a half a shade lighter after 1 day and 3 (that’s right, 3) brushings.

I’m keeping the potassium-nitrate toothpaste nearby in case this doesn’t work out within a week for sensitivity, but this is a real pleasure to use! It’s tasty, it doesn’t hurt, the jarring isn’t as bad on my wrists and I don’t have to do it as long, so I can actually brush my teeth a couple of times a day and it hardly takes any spoons at all!

This was so worth it 🙂

ADDENDUM/CORRECTION: So, the original recipe for toothpaste was outstanding for a few more days (when my teeth got visibly whiter and felt fabulous!) but the pain came back, absolutely unbearable. I couldn’t eat solids at all. I suspected that the calcium carbonate, which is extremely absorbent, basically sucked the potassium nitrate out of my teeth and may even have trapped the clove oil so it couldn’t do its job. I used commercial sensitive-teeth toothpaste for a few days until it stopped, went back to the homemade toothpaste to build up my teeth, and went back to the commercial stuff every so often as needed, until my home-made tooth PASTE turned into tooth SOLID. The calcium simply did what calcium carbonate does: it absorbed all the water and solidified. It is spectacularly good at absorbing liquid.

After lots of, um, learning experiences, I came to terms with the fact that the only tooth care I can manage to make for myself is not going to be a paste.

I’m not interested in adding glycerine and strange oozy substances to my dentifrice. It’s tedious, mucky, and provides no benefit I care about.

I grew up watching my dad clean his teeth with tooth powder, and he had the best teeth in the house, so it doesn’t seem odd to me at all.

I shake about a half teaspoon into my palm, dab it up with a wet toothbrush that’s as soft as I can find, and my teeth are cleaner and whiter, with less effort, than ever before.

I’m pleased.

Here is my..

Toothpowder recipe for sensitive tissues:

  • ~1/3  powdered xylitol, a specific non-caloric sweetener.
  • ~2/3 powdered calcium carbonate.

 

If you like, add to each cup of powder mix:

  • 20 drops essential oil of sweet orange (to boost the cleaning and de-mucking)
  • 20 drops essential oil of clove (to ease nerve pain)

 

+Why xylitol? Because it loosens the muck. It disrupts the biofilm made by all the different bacteria getting together on your teeth, by dissolving the glue that holds them together. (This is why your dentist likes you to have xylitol candy if you must have candy.) I recommend the xylitol made from hardwood, because the corn-derivation has gotten so that almost anything derived from corn makes my pain spike. Sad but true.  I get mine from http://store.xylitolusa.com/xylitol/.

Forward-looking statement (e.g., dream castle)

In the fullness of time, I hope to have a little cottage industry making this stuff up and selling it on to those who need it but can’t put it together or can’t get the stuff in bulk. Fingers crossed..

 

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Fragile Egg Syndrome

Chronic pain patients are often called Difficult Patients, when the casual cruelty and reflexive contempt of medicine and the ignorance of other people grates too hard against our increasingly impaired ability to compensate and deal with it as calmly and “rationally” as we used to.

I’m less and less certain that casual cruelty and reflexive contempt are rational to deal with. Really, the *rational* thing to do is draw the line when professionals behave badly, no matter what the profession.

I’m increasingly certain that those who provide care, and have gone to all that effort to be trained and licensed to do so, should probably take on the burden of acting with more kindness and courtesy than those who pursue less intensive interactions with the wounded, disabled, and ill. Not less courtesy. More.

The rational thing for the professional to do then is to reckon that requirement into the cost — because respectful and courteous patient interaction saves money and improves outcomes, but more/higher administrator salaries do not. The data on that are very clear… though strangely hard to dig out on the second point.

I sometimes mull the mindframe I had when I was working as a nurse, which was deeply compassionate without being cuddly or fluffy. I was well aware that only one person was paid to be in that room and adjusted my expectations accordingly. But still, I think of the casual disregard of others’ humanity that defines so much of health-professional behavior, and wonder at the culture that reflects. It’s not that we have to do degrading things like shove needles and hoses into people, it’s that we won’t let them wear real clothes or secure their electronics or even eat real food, when they’re in our hands. We no longer even warm the gel.

Anyway.

CRPS patients are a special category of chronic pain patients: we may be dealing with a level of pain consistently rated as higher and more intense, not to mention more constant, than anything else — including childbirth, most cancer, having fingers ripped off — with the sole exception of terminal cancer pain, which is at the top of the McGill Pain Index. It’s horrible but true that terminal cancer pain doesn’t last as long.

Colorful rendition of the McGill Pain Index, with many painful conditions listed, including Sprain near the bottom in the low teens, Chronic Back Pain in the middle, and CRPS up at 42-43.
Image thanks to Elle and the Auto Gnome

So, we are a distinct, and distinctive, subgroup of the Chronic Pain Patient set.

On top of that, of course, the brain remapping and the neurochemical disruption of longstanding CRPS means that our central nervous systems are absolutely hair-triggered for terror reactions, which transmute into all sorts of other things when our intellect has to wrestle with the terror… because screaming and fleeing blindly into traffic shedding broken bits of furniture and wallboard is, somehow, neither socially acceptable nor particularly useful.

My old pain doc, Dr. Richeimer at USC Keck Pain Center, has a wonderful term for those whom lesser physicians call Difficult Patients:

Fragile Eggs.

Isn’t that perfect? Easily broken, and when broken, extremely messy and hard to clean up after. Treat gently. Treat extremely gently. Understand that you may have a mess on your hands anyway. Keep your cool, adapt on the fly as the egg rolls around, and stay gentle. There’s really no other way to handle it.

(Like many others, I love that man.)

So here’s the thing.

At the end of a crappy week (thick with grief), I had a Pap test (painful, intrusive procedure which is easy to do badly) scheduled to check for cancer (which is frightening) because I had a blood test come up funny that can be a sign of gynecological cancer (so there’s grounding for the fear.) I know as well as anyone that these things mustn’t be delayed, but I waited an extra week in order to schedule a long appointment so that the test could be done in a rational, CRPS-friendly manner.

Silly me. Turns out a “long appointment” is 15 minutes. That’s not a typo. FIFTEEN MINUTES is a “long” appointment.

I really haven’t been keeping up with the downward slide of the health care field below the level of the best-of-the-best I’ve had out West. I’m speechless.

Did you know it takes 5-7 minutes just to say hello and catch up on the case with a complex patient? Do you know what it’s like to have a speculum inserted into a body that is one long scream of pain already, and the tiny, cheap, but essential steps it takes to make that a wise thing to do? Did you know that good practice for intrusive procedures, especially for those with PTSD around their bodies (which includes most women, frankly) is to meet the patient while they’re still clothed and have them undress for the invasion-fandango after they’ve had a chance to be human, and not just one long scream?

I know, it’s crazy to think that patients are human. Forget I said that. I don’t know what I was thinking! Pfft…

I told the office twit who roomed me and informed me that it was a 15-minute vist that a Pap smear on a CRPS body was not going to happen in 15 minutes. Twice. She set up the torture implements, which did not include Lidocaine gel or a warmer, in the cool office, and told me to get completely undressed and climb into the gown she laid on the exam table.

She didn’t mention that my provider, the one decent and rational entity in that department, was running very late. I had to find that out for myself.

Sitting in the cold room, staring at the torture tray laid out directly in front of me, still fully dressed because I could not succumb to being led like a lamb to slaughter, I tried to calm myself, to get my brain out of the state of being hijacked by terror at the casual cruelty of being tortured into spreading this hideous disease into my viscera, and helpless rage at this high-handed and disrespectful way of being treated.

I tried to reflect that, clearly, a lot of women who came to this office for care put up with it and, knowing New Englanders, never even thought of complaining because that would be a sign of weakness.

I tried to tell myself that my provider would surely rinse the speculum in hot water before using it, but that thought was booted immediately. I know from prior experience as a healthy person that a plastic speculum does not hold the warmth, but it does hold drops of water as they cool off quickly, and the temperature of that object does not affect the temperature of the 60-degree gel they put on it.

So, viciously cold thing going into my CRPS-y body’s core. Then that pinching, twisting jolt as it snaps open in mucous membranes which are wired straight into my central nervous system as well as my visceral cavity. During a weather- and trauma-induced flare.

There’s just no way that can go well.

I sat there for half an hour, trying not to stare at the torture implements although they were unavoidable in that tiny space, feeling my brain run circles around itself, trying not to scream, feeling my capacity for verbalization and rationality bleed away in the chill.

I realized that, although I wanted to connect with my provider and use the time profitably at least in discussing these problems and finding out my ultrasound results, I couldn’t sit there any longer. I needed forward momentum if I was going to come out of this intact.

So I spent the next 8 minutes writing my provider a letter, left it on top of the Patient Update document I had brought in (which mentioned my prior interactions with the staff, ALL of which had been record-setting-ly stupid and unproductive), and I left.

I did NOT run screaming into traffic. I didn’t break anything on my way out. I politely commanded the twit to copy my letter “now please”, stood over her while she did it, laid the paperwork I’d created for my provider in a neat pile on her table, and kept my copy for my records.

Then I quietly walked out, smiling politely at my provider as I passed her in the hallway heading towards the nurse’s desk.

I made very little mess, for a fragile egg.

I got my documentation, but forgot my purse. There’s something very Isy about that. (I’ll go collect it next business day, and hopefully that will be the last time I have to see them.)

So, this weekend, I have to do 2 things: find a gynecologist equipped to handle complex patients, and put together my own gyn exam kit — with a suitable implement, lidocaine gel, and heating pads.

Sometimes, BYO* is the only way to go.

I may be a fragile egg at times, but I don’t like it and I don’t intend to live there. I can’t control the industry, but I can control what I walk into the room with.

♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦
*Note for non-native English readers: BYO is for Bring Your Own. BYO is derived from BYOB, which means Bring Your Own Beer/Booze, normally used in regard to parties (obviously!) BYO moved into common usage on its own as a handy verbal shortcut; it’s still informal, but not nearly as informal as BYOB 🙂

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UPDATE from early March

I got my own speculum, the Pederson type (which is a bit narrower); found food-grade silicon sealant (which smells strongly of vinegar, but nothing more toxic) and applied it over all the contact surfaces and where the edges meet; and prepared a bottle of pain-reducing Emu oil with a bit of nerve-pain-reducing Clove essential oil added.

I called the largest and oldest gynecological practice in the area, and asked for the doctor with the lightest touch. I was a bit disturbed when a large, fit, square-jawed, brush-cut fellow walked in, but he turned out to be an angel. He was happy to use my speculum, poured quantities of my pain-reducing oil over that and his hands, and gave me a break halfway through the procedure to sit up, get my pain/panic response under control, and pull myself into reality and out of the shocky place.

I’m sorry to say that the Pap test itself was a lot like having burning coals shoveled into me and pushed around, so yeah, there is definitely some nervous system remapping that has already happened to my insides. (It used to be an unpleasant little scratching sensation, and no more.)

This doctor wisely asked for a copy of the funky test, which was my serum DHEAS level. I went to my other doctor’s and got copies and ran them over myself. I took a look…

The doctor who’s substituting for my allergy/immunity doctor who ordered this test dropped a very serious brick. THE TEST HE REFERRED TO WAS JUST FINE. I do NOT have an abnormal DHEAS value. It’s a whole lot more normal than the rest of me!

I wrote the gynecologist a note on the back to that effect, and let him know that he did the lightest, best possible job under the circumstances and that I’m grateful. He looked absolutely white and shocky by the time he left the room, so I think it was a pretty horrible experience for him too, and I don’t want to scare him off of treating other pain patients.

I got a Pap test out of the way and learned something important about the state of my disease. I’m being more diligent about my multivitamins and SAMe, the methionine-based antioxidant I use as my main antioxidant supplementation besides vitamins. I’m researching the least nutty, most promising pain centers near me, at Yale and Brown Universities (Dr. Pradeep Chopra is at Brown, so that’s probably first on the list) and this week I’ll be making appointments.

I guess every setback is really a redirection or a kick in the pants for me. I may have CRPS in my viscera (which would explain a few things) but I needed to get my act together about getting a pain doc anyway. My DHEA test was normal, phew, but I’ve been harshly reminded to double-check everything the doctor says. I’m seeing my usual doc at that practice soon, and I’m going to ask him to double-check DHEAS results to see if any patient has been left uninformed and unfollowed-up.

I took a few days after the Pap test to simply refuse to think about it, because I did NOT want THOSE pathways to go any deeper into my impressionable brain! Took it easy, watched and read silly things, ran errands with J, took loads of vitamins and drank plenty of water… then started researching the pain doctors.

This is my policy… strategic withdrawal if necessary, yes; pause, rest, reboot, definitely; but in the end, “Never give up! Never surrender!”

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