This is the anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. I had the dizzying experience of being part of an online re-enactment. (I know, it sounds crazy, but it worked!)
People got so caught up in the re-enactment that there was real heartache over the screams of the doomed and the bitter anguish over lives we couldn’t save, and watching the lights go out one by one. The idea of “bearing witness” was tossed around, but without form, as it often is. I thought it needed clarifying.
Therefore, I wrote the following, in the aftermath. I didn’t trivialize the pain, because who knows what horrors others will face in their lives afterwards. (I can’t even imagine what I’ve been through so far, let alone guess what’s next, and I’m pretty sure I was there.) So, I treated the heartache as perfectly valid — chances are, sooner or later it will be, and we can all use a little clarity at those times.
What I wrote resonated so strongly with so many different people that I thought I should put it here, too. (All these posts are printable, shareable, and linkable, so don’t be shy about sharing.) Hope it helps.
A word to those new to mortality in action…
I was a nurse, starting in HIV care 27 years ago, then Emergency/Casualty, then home care. Then I lost 9 loved ones in 18 months. Then I developed a subtly brutal disease that destroys the body from the inside out, for which the treatments are occasionally fatal.
I have watched a lot of people die.
(pausing for breath, and for the color to come back into the world)
[Okay, moving on.]
There are two ways to cope. One is to shut down and depersonalize, which is increasingly common. As a temporary measure, it’s fine — gives you time to get it together. The humane thing to do, though, is move on from there.
Another is to look closely at where your skin ends and another’s begins, and let them have their experience while you notice that it sucks for them — and you keep breathing.
This is what is meant by bearing witness.
Separating Self from Other allows us to be present while another faces the worst moments of their life.
Knowing that it’s not you dying, or writhing, or what have you, frees you up to stand outside that hell and throw the glowing line of awareness to the one inside it.
That is bearing witness.
I won’t discuss my illness here (check out livinganway.com if you want to see the sunny side; rsds.org if you don’t) but I often wind up in an unbearable state of being. I’m an old hand at looking back at life from the slopes of Hell.
While (keep this in mind) there is nothing anyone can do about my being in an unbearable state, there is only one thing that reminds me there is something beyond it, and all I have to do is get there.
That one thing is a loving look, or kind word, or one of my partner’s frankly feeble acknowledgements of recognizing that my body might as well be burning alive. It’s so small from the outside — but it lights up my world.
It’s a thread of golden light that holds me to life. Just a thread of golden light. But it’s enough.
Bearing witness is not about changing the outcome.
Bearing witness is simply the only possible redemption of these terrible moments.
Redemption is not about undoing anything. It does not change the outward reality.
It changes the unbearable inward blackness just enough that the person who is looking back at you from the slopes of Hell, can find the extraordinary inward strength to keep going until it’s over — one way or another.
You who are well and safe have no idea how important that is, but please, let me assure you that it’s a gift beyond reckoning to do that for another.
Bearing witness to those screams, those unspeakably harrowing last moments — whatever they are — you can’t see their faces change, because their reality is just as bleak right now — but, inside them, they found their steel; they found their peace.
For all those on the Titanic and all those who look back from the slopes of any other Hell, let me say, thank you. You make all the difference.
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.
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.
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.
Guess what? Everything’s up in the air, except me. But don’t worry, it’ll work out.
And that, folks, is how you know I’m back in the saddle. I’m not naturally a nervous person, but the years of system and systematic abuse on top of the fried central nervous system left me very nervous indeed. Every uncertainty was like a set of razor-wire boleadoras, ready to spin out and knock me over and tear me up.
Ghastly image, but very apt, as some of you know from your own experiences!
Of course, this slice of recovery is just well begun, not done. I’m simply able to reflect on possible futures without melting down reflexively. I’ll still have bad moments, bad days… and they will pass.
After all, there’s always an afterwards.
So, I’m 51 today, and I can honestly say I didn’t expect to see this day. You’d think my 50th would have been more reflective, but no, this one is.
I realized I’ve been blogging for 8 years, maybe 9. The first year and a half were justly lost in a Google flail, in the early part of the Pit Years. They were online journals, not blogs; the point of blogging is not to rip my skin off for reader amusement or “inspiration porn”, but to trace one path through the thickets we all have to travel, and trade ideas that help others find their own paths, or at least make them more bearable. (Tip of the hat to the friend of my youth who had the integrity to tell me she didn’t want to read my diary.) I’m more grateful for my readers, in all your kindness and struggles and brilliance and care, than words can ever say.
51 is starting with a bang, or rather continuing the same bangishness that has characterized this year so far.
I’ve found out I don’t currently have gall bladder disease, detectable spleen or pancreatic disease, or any form of cancer growing in my gut, just some “mild” gastritis. This leaves the question of what’s causing the rather extensive GI issues open for further inquiry. I’m going to see if I have mycotoxicity, which is looking very probable indeed, going on reactions and the fact that even the weirdest symptoms on that list are mine; going to find out if my body is able to respond well to a massage intensive (twice weekly for some months) or not; going to finish the final house repairs (as soon as the weather warms up long enough to let us not only recover from the cold but then get past the setting-up); and going to find out where we’ll go next, when the lovely house we’re living in sells. (My credit will age out of the worst black mark next year, so getting a house loan is simply a matter of time, with ongoing diligence. Not to mention knowing where to land.)
I’ve been reflecting on J’s unique mix of gentleness, brusqueness, flexibility, and intransigence, and realized how much he helps me in nearly every phase of his personality. (To misquote a capable yenta I knew, the holes in his head fit the bumps in mine, and vice versa.) I wondered how much further I could have come if he’d been there when I first got sick, or before I got sick. What great work I could have done.
Then I remembered, oh yeah, my ego was very much in the way — as that egotistical sentence pretty well indicates (what about your partner’s work, eh, Isy?) We would have loathed each other on sight, as both of us were cocky little jerks back then. It took losing everything that I thought defined “me” and “my life” to realize what really matters in a person — and in life.
I learned that love isn’t my driving force, it’s the anodyne that makes living bearable; curiosity is the characteristic that drove me out of the grave. I never would have guessed at the pure slingshot force of it.
So, though I don’t think I’ll see another 51 years, I can see that I might be wrong about that too. I’ll start heading that way now. I’ve got good company, outstanding friends (some of whom I’m related to), and interesting things to do. Onward.
May the future be worth the trouble of getting to it!
My pain diagnostic specialist is elegantly opinionated. Fortunately, he acts out the distinction between being opinionated and being rude about it.
We talked over a few things today. He’s still researching my past exposures to uranium, which he has a hard time believing wouldn’t have lasting effects.
He spent a lot of time combing through the idea that evidence-based medicine (in the sense that doctors use the term, not the sense that insurers do, where it means “how can we treat this as cheaply and barbarically as possible”) is really the best and least scary thing out there. Because, data.
I mentioned Dr. Scott Reuben at this point, and he owned that the scientist-practitioner does have to practice with integrity for the science to be meaningful.
He went on to say that the miracle cases that wind up in the literature leave physicians panting to find the next patient who shows up looking just like that case, so they can try the miracle. Doesn’t happen much, and so, there winds up being a paucity of data on rare cases (like mine) that meets the criteria of medical science as he sees it should be.
In the end, as always happens in conversation with a physician who has intellectual integrity, we found ourselves in the cleft stick of modern science:
While statistical probabilities indicate the best chances of success for groups overall, it has two glaring weaknesses, even in ideal circumstances: statistics depend on copious data, which aren’t always obtainable; and statistics mean nothing in the case of the individual.
Thousands of individuals are studied in order to come up with meaningful statistics. Of those individuals studied, how many respond to the treatment at the level of the group’s statistical probability? How many patients in real life will respond at that level? Pfft. All the statistics do is tell you how much of a crap-shoot a given treatment really is; it doesn’t tell you how well or badly it will do for you.
Last Friday, I saw my allergist/naturopathic MD at Northampton Integrative Wellness. He’s exploring mold toxicity, which sure hits all the hot issues I deal with. It doesn’t meet Dr. Saberski’s mental criteria, as I suspected, but that’s okay — I don’t need Dr. Saberski to follow up on it. I need someone like the docs at Integrative Wellness, who have the relevant background and tools, to follow up on it.
Because of my own experiences, I don’t necessarily assume that a well-educated, well-respected, well-published physician necessarily has a lot of intellectual integrity. However, I’ve come to the conclusion, through our conversations and his decisions along the way, that Dr. Saberski’s entire being (at work) is oriented on intellectual integrity.
We may not view things the same way, and he may not be thrilled at everything I do, but the fact is, he shouldn’t have to be. He’s delighted with my good results when I get them, and if this mold toxicity thing pans out and the treatment goes well, he’ll be truly elated for me — and will keep my chart on file, just in case I come back later.
I find it HUGELY relaxing to have such a resolute scientific conservative with such ferociously diligent, relentlessly inquisitive intelligence, which is completely balanced on intellectual integrity, on my case.
All I have to do in relation to the standard science is let him do his job! I do not have to educate this one — quite the reverse! I savor our conversations and make extensive notes, because he always has something to teach me. (Today’s exciting topics: what makes me NOT look like CRPS; the Flexner Report in history; how anesthesiologists, who have the diagnostic training of a spaniel, wound up running pain clinics — another stupid consequence of US insurance companies; and how the nociceptors and immune signaling in the skin are all entangled into being one thing. Woot! Fun stuff 🙂 )
That, frankly, has been unheard of for most of my time with this illness, whatever it turns out to be. I’m well and truly rid of the fearful weight of using my rare full-brain times to try to stay one step ahead of the risk to my survival and management that every doctor visit can be.
I can use my full- and even three-quarters brain time to study up on the stuff he can’t be interested in. For one thing, the vocabulary and writing style is usually less klunky and demanding. For another, that is supposed to be my job.
Patients should figure out what they can do for themselves without making things worse, so I’m happy to do that.
Now, I’m going to find out more about mold toxicity, methods and treatments, plus what data do exist on what to expect from those treatments and what they do in the body. According to my current info, the main researchers are Shoemaker on one hand, and Nathan and Brewer on the other. My allergy/naturo doc is leaving, so I’ll have to start with another one at the same practice. This means I’d better prepare, so I can move the conversation forward a little faster than usual. That means being able to speak her language in regard to what we’re looking into.
I find it’s best to impress doctors right off and for the first several visits, and then, if I’m having a bad day another time, they have a meaningful bar to measure against, and they don’t lose respect for me or dump me into that “just another whacky pain patient” mental garbage-can. I work hard to make visits as useful as possible, as regular readers know.
I’m also getting ready to do another massage intensive. Looking forward to that! It’s pretty uncomfortable for a couple weeks (arnica pills 6c and 30c, and Advil Liqui-Gels, are essential pre- and post-massage medication), but the payoff could be so spectacular. I’m tired of the downward slide and intend to crank up the functional level one way or another.
Winter bit me pretty hard. It’s time to start biting back.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This is from one of my Isypedia-type replies to someone with a dreadful case of clostridium difficile (commonly known as c.diff) who had been told to use antibacterial soap to wash.
NB: This is not an opportunity to argue about antibacterial soap, but a sharing of experience from someone who was on the front lines of the “soap revolution” over a quarter of a century ago.
A word from an old nurse on this question, one with leaky gut, bouts of multi-system candidiasis, and assorted other gut issues, as well as c. diff …
About c. diff
C. diff is common in hospitals and is an opportunistic infection. (Doctors carry it from bed to bed on their white coats, and few of them even wash the darn things more than once a month. This is disgusting.) Once it’s in you, it hibernates, and comes out in flares periodically, usually when you’re stressed out or when your immune system is down. There’s no question of curing it, but of suppressing it and managing outbreaks.
Healthy gut flora are the first, best line of defense. They simply crowd it out and leave no room for it to grow. A normally healthy person might do fine with eating yogurt, but those of us with chronic or profound illnesses usually can’t meet their needs this way. We need the big guns because our gut flora are likely to be very weak,very few, or both.
There are some great probiotics out there. Good brands are pretty numerous. They include Jarrow, Garden of Life/RAW Vitamin Code (my personal favorite), and Ortho Molecular Products. I use the RAW Vitamin Code 5-day Intensive product for 2 weeks at a time, when I need to reboot my gut. Recently, I had candidiasis and c.diff flare up simultaneously, so I’m using the Ortho Molecular Pro Biotic 225 (tastes weird, so I mix with juice to cut the funk) for 2 weeks and then I’ll do a round of the RAW Intensive (which has a much broader spectrum of organisms, something my body really needs for maintenance — the longer a person has CRPS, the fewer gut species that person has, oddly enough) for 10 days or so.
I get these products on Amazon or at Vitacost.com, where they can usually be found at near-wholesale prices.
About the social and practical aspects of soap
Men have trouble with soap. (I’ve had to teach males of every age to wash their hands for dressing changes or eye care, so yes, I can confirm it absolutely.)
It doesn’t mean they aren’t capable of using it well, any more than women are incapable of lifting weights; they just have to put a little more effort into it, but almost all of them are capable of becoming very capable.
No, really, it’s true. They can. They just have to put a bit more work into it.
Where possible, many men would much rather have a toxin or tool to do the cleaning job for them — hence sonic cleaners and autoclaves for equipment, and benzalkonium chloride or alcohol cleaners for the skin of male responders and providers.
These aren’t as good as soap and water. Notably, alcohol cleaners, which are widely used in hospitals and do kill many germs, don’t even touch c.diff — a peculiarly hospital-based pathogen.
These products are considered good enough, and are certainly a great deal better than nothing at all.
If men (at least, US men) have to use soap, though, it seems easier for them to think about if it’s a tool-ish sort of soap — Gojo (by every mechanic’s sink, next to a fossilized bar), Lava soap (which feels like dirt and has powdered rocks in it), or antibacterial soap (which sounds medical, and therefore like a specialized tool.)
That’s a lot of needless expense. Also, and more importantly for the purposes of this blog, it’s becoming clearer that there are toxicity issues with antibacterial soaps which affect men as much as women and children.
How to clean your skin so well at home, only a surgical scrub could be better
Whatever body part you’re washing, whether it’s hands or what the medical profession delicately refers to as the “peri area” (Latinists, look away from that) and what most Americans call “the crotch”, there is a very simple way to get as clean as you can, short of a surgical prep.
Here’s the magic:
20 seconds by the clock(you’d be amazed how long that really is) with regular hand or body soap,
On your hands, from nails to wrist; Between your legs, from front to back; In both cases, right through all the crevices and any wobbly bits,
Then rinsing well afterwards,
This process will get you as clean as, or cleaner than, any amount of antibacterial soap, without the side effects. That’s what the independent science says, over and over, plain and simple.
The problem is, of course, that most people (especially men) have trouble spending that much time with soap and water.
Personally, I do a quick pass with soap to get the worst of the stinkies off, and then do a second and sometimes a third pass, front to back. I do this every time I shower, and when I’m too sick to shower but can still stand up at the sink to wash. It adds up to 20 seconds, usually closer to 30. My nurse’s nose finds my sick-body smells distressing, so I like to clean them off completely.
When I’m really not up to washing well for at least 5 days out of the week, that’s when the troubles start. Usually, diet and hygiene keeps my gut content, but I recently got a virus and then a long pain-flare and that put me down for over a week of very little proper washing — plus, of course, diminished immunity. That’s probably what led to the multiple gut flares. (They’re much better now, thank you.)
Making the right choice for you
Bottom line is this… IF you can trust yourself to really clean yourself properly, which means 20 seconds of soap (in 1, 2, or 3 increments at a time, as long as it’s 20 seconds total), then ordinary, nontoxic soap is just fine.
If you can’t trust yourself to do that, then yes, you need the extra killing effect that the antibiotic soap can have on pathogens, and will have to risk the consequences.
For triclosan and its relatives, this includes muscle wasting, dose-dependent (the more you use it, the worse it gets); for most others, it includes moodiness, suppressed immunity, more skin issues, and all the stuff that goes with endocrine disruption — possible neurological issues like pins-&-needles and faulty neuro, endocrine, and hormonal responses. (You have to watch the medical science closely to find some of those things, because they rarely make it into the mainstream press. Bad for business.)
And that, ladies and germymen, is the lowdown on how to choose soap.