A simple 3-step program for bearing the unbearable

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

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

There are just three things we have to do:

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

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

  1. Keep breathing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s actually a good sign.

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

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

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

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First, keep breathing

I say that a lot.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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On treatments and at-home management strategies for CRPS

Quick brain dump here. There have been a lot of questions lately about treatment options. THIS LIST IS NOT EXHAUSTIVE. It’s barely an overview. It’s just a note I worote in answer to someone who asked about prolotherapy, where a sugar or basic solution is injected into a painful area and the harmless irritation causes just the right kind of healing bloodflow for some people. Here is my answer…

Prolotherapy is one of those things that works great when it works at all. It’s definitely individual-dependent. The tissue irritation, so helpful to those who don’t have spastic vessels, can do a number on us. But not everyone.

If your CRPS is more peripherally maintained, then it might help, assuming the irritation does what it’s supposed to and the tissue response doesn’t trigger autonomic dysfunction, with circulatory weirdness and the whole color/swelling/pain circus that comes with it.

If your CRPS is more centrally maintained, which is kind of a hallmark of the ongoing disease, then I don’t see how treating the area with anything, let alone an irritant, would be any good. It does nothing for the central part of the nervous system.

I consider myself lucky that the usual pain meds nearly killed me, and I had to go the diet modification/supplementation route almost right away. Eliminating things that irritate my central nervous system, and supplementing with things that help repair damaged nerves and fragile tissues, was absolutely essential. If I hadn’t done that, I wouldn’t have lived long enough to do anything else.

At the risk of starting a shooting war here, the MCS (multiple chemical sensitivities) and neuro research hounds I’m close to, indicate that the most common neuro allergens in the diet are gluten (wheat, rye, barley, spelt, triticale, “natural flavorings”; oats have a similar molecule, so YMMV), corn (especially corn fractions like HFCS and “natural flavorings”), fresh dairy (which an incompetent gut like mine breaks down into a molecule a lot like gluten), MSG (often wheat derived), phosphoric acid (found in most dark sodas), and benzene (anything with the syllable “benz” in it — read labels, or better yet, don’t eat things that come in packages, which usually have BHA or BHT added to the packaging.)

Common neuro allergens in the environment include petrochemical products (photo chemicals, printing chemicals, gasoline, many cleaning products) and most chemical scents, most notoriously the line called Axe, which may trigger psychotic breaks in vulnerable people, according to disturbing reports.

A couple of techniques do address central sensitization:

– Calmare, which is a subtle, varied, electric signal that rescrambles the pain impulses and has given many CRPSers outstanding relief.

– Ketamine, which is an anesthetic that sort of reboots the brain. It must be administered by a competent physician well-trained in ketamine administration for CRPS, as it’s still a dangerous drug, but with right matching of patient to protocol, it can work wonders.

– Spinal cord stimulators. These are surgically placed and can be highly problematic, but if they’re the right thing for you, they can give you your life back to a large degree. There are electrodes shoved right into your spine, so if your pain is mediated mostly in the brain, not so good. If it’s still at or below the spinal root, excellent.

As for supplementation, which you don’t need doctors to do … Good, health-food-store supplements are essential. Don’t waste your money on the plastic pills at the pharmacy (check Consumer Reports to find out just how bad they are.) Your body is burning through nutrients desperately fast all the time. It can’t keep up. We need a healthy diet so as not to bring in more problems, but we can’t possibly meet our needs that way any more, with all the pain and the other cellular and metabolic insults of CRPS.

The nerve cells and muscle cells are the biggest suppliers and the biggest consumers of antioxidants. As muscle cells degenerate and nerve cells take a beating, they need more and more but can produce less and less. The math catches up to us after awhile and then it takes time for the supplementation to penetrate enough of the starved tissue around the gut to work its way to our CNS — but, from my experience, it was well worth it! The time was going to pass anyway, and I was better at the end of it.

Neuro-oriented antioxidants include SAMe (a type of methionine, primal antioxidant used inside the mitochondrial cell), N-acetyl cysteine (NAC), and co-q 10.

Vitamins A, D, E, K, and moderate amounts of C are important, especially the D3 — much bone loss and the concomitant pain could likely be avoided if we all had our D levels checked and then supplemented accordingly.
(I’ve been told that C can become pro-oxidative in a sickly environment, so I have to look into that.)
B vitamins are absolutely crucial to neuro and other cellular repair, so a good B complex is important.

Magnesium, whether as lotions, Epsom baths/rubs, or supplements, is essential. It’s simply huge for cutting spasms, which underlie so much of the nagging side of the pain, and supporting basic cellular functions as an electrolyte.

There are supplements that can provide precursors to neurotransmitters, and I find they roughly double the effectiveness of my SSRI and SNRI, keeping me in the low-middle range of doses instead of me getting overdosed to near dying as I once was. Phenylalanine is a precursor for dopamine and norepinephrine, and the d,l form has been found to be genuinely helpful in reducing nerve pain for many. It also helps me stay less confused (dopamine, perhaps.) 5-HTP is widely known as a serotonin precursor, as is tryptophan. Both can help with sleep, too. I do better with 5-HTP.

There are a lot of brands, and there’s a lot of behind-the-scenes business ugliness behind the brands as the whole “natural everything” movement creates the possibility of money. I’ve watched the circus for awhile, and at this point, there are just a few brands I can recommend as still being good, consistent, and generally digestible:

Jarrow (great antioxidants)
NOW (inexpensive and very good; I always get my 5-htp from them)
RAW Vitamin Code (a Garden of Life line of food-based products, excellent; I take only half the recommended dose of the multis, and boy do they help)
Twinlabs (my second choice for multis and neurotransmitter supplements; widely available)
Solgar (pricier than Twinlabs, but much the same; widely available)
My fallback brand is Life Extension, which is still excellent.

I get mine for wholesale at vitacost.com (fast delivery, but don’t carry Jarrow), luckyvitamin.com, or occasionally for a bit more at Amazon if the others are out of what I need.

It’s a hideously complex disease, and in cases like ours where conventional medicine has almost completely failed, we have to take charge of that complexity and redesign our lives in order to have something worth living.

We really do have to change or die, and it is a surprisingly hard choice at times.

Further comments and suggestions on treatments and management would be most welcome.

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The Bean Dip Response, companion to the Spoon Theory

Those of us with crazy-bad illnesses appreciate the stroke of genius from Christine Miserandino, who originated the Spoon Theory to explain what it takes to get through the day.

For the most part, though, we shouldn’t have to explain much. Wouldn’t it be nice if everyone could get that memo?

To that end, here is a great article by family therapist and parent counselor Joanne Ketch on parenting boundaries, using the Bean Dip Response: http://www.joanneketch.com/ParentingChoiceBoundaries.en.html

With her permission and kind support, I’ve revised her article to reflect the realities of the chronically or severely ill. Please feel free to print out/pass on, with credit to her embedded as it is in this text.

Here’s my version…

Health Management Choices – Boundaries

A long time ago, as a developing patient educator, I found many chronic patients uncomfortable and frustrated with unsolicited advice – or inadvertently soliciting advice and then feeling uncomfortable with the discussion that followed.

Eventually, I read this great article on boundaries that eventually become known as “The Bean Dip Response”, “Pass the Bean Dip”, or even used as a verb: “bean dip” someone.

I rewrote the article from the perspective of a chronically ill, alternative-using or drug-disabled patient (one who can’t use common meds for the condition because of uselessness or devastating side-effects) – but the principles are transferrable to any constellation of health management choices.

The Bean Dip Response is best used when you don’t need to defend or don’t wish to engage with a person over a health management choice. If you are discussing issues with a person and you welcome their feedback, the Bean Dip Response is not needed.

I’ve found that chronic patients may confuse boundaries while trying to convince someone of the rightness of their choices. The best thing is to assert your boundary, rather than defend your choice. Your choice needs no defense.

Health management choices should be on a “need to know” basis. Most people don’t “need to know”. Since medical information is highly confidential, it’s NOT incumbent on you to explain yourself to those who don’t need to know. Those who need to know are essentially you, your doctors/providers, and your designated decision-maker for when you can’t make your own decisions.

If anyone else asks, "How are you sleeping?"
Answer: Great! Thanks for asking! Want some bean dip?

"Are you sure you should get picked up every time your legs flare?"
Answer: “Yes! Thank you! Want some bean dip?"

"When do you plan to wean off those meds?"
Answer: "When it's time. Thanks! Want some bean dip?"

"You should use my aunt's hairdresser's physiotherapist's product. It cleared up her [symptom du jour] in two weeks."
Answer: "That's great! I'm happy for her. Want some bean dip?"

Now, with some people you will need to set firm boundaries. The offer of bean dip won’t be sufficient to redirect them [I can’t imagine why not. -ed.] They either don’t respond to gentle redirection or they have emotion tied to the issue and a desire to “go there” more deeply. You may be able to anticipate this – if it’s a pattern of intrusion, for example, which you’ve seen in other circumstances.

In such a case, a stronger “Bean Dip” response may be needed. In these cases, the redirect will need to be backed up with action (like hanging up, leaving the room, or even unfriending them).

Remember, boundaries are not about forcing another person to comply. You cannot “do” that. Boundaries are about what YOU will do or not do. You are the person you own. You don’t own them and they don’t own you.

Practice kind but firm responses: "I know you love me and want to help. I am so glad. My health choices have been researched and made. I won't discuss it again.”

Don’t confuse setting boundaries with trying to convince someone of the rightness of your choices. It’s a common (and understandable) desire to present the same information that led you to your choices. The problem with that in dealing with a person who has boundary issues is that engaging with content invites discussion. (Also, different people’s minds work in different ways, so your train of thought may make no sense at all to them. Wasted effort all around.)

Chronic patients often struggle with this.

The boundary is that no one else has an inherent right to tell you how to take care of yourself.

You set boundaries by doing the above: acknowledging what they said and redirecting.

Where the chronically ill may invite problems is by citing authors, studies and sites to “defend” themselves. Each time you do so, you create more time for discussion and rebuttal and send the message that your decisions are up for debate.

Don’t defend your choices beyond generalities, and then only once or twice. “My doctor is in support of my choices. Want some bean dip?” Or maybe, “Well, this is my decision. Want some bean dip?”

If necessary, look them in the eye and say simply, “I want us to have a good relationship. I want to enjoy my time with you. I’ll take care of me, so that we both can make the most of our time together. Let’s not discuss this anymore. If you bring it up again, I will have to ask you to leave.”

Finally, an important corollary to the “Bean Dip Response” is reciprocity. Once again, the content of your choices should not dictate the interaction.

You may be totally, and correctly, convinced that you should be able to determine your own activity, medication, and supplementation regime; never be left to “cry it out”; and should be allowed to follow your own weaning path, if any.

But, if you post those opinions on Facebook (or communicate them in other ways), you invite (and therefore solicit) feedback and advice. Post accordingly and respond to comments with that in mind. You need to give the “other side” the same respect that you expect to receive.

Credit for original: Joanne Ketch, MA, LPC, LMFTa, LCDC
http://www.joanneketch.com/ParentingChoiceBoundaries.en.html

For those of us who are chronically ill, there are people we DO need to explain ourselves to. However, these are mostly highly educated people with specialist training, and that makes it a short list indeed.

Our loved ones may believe they want to understand, but, as my mother finally admitted, “I don’t think I really do want to understand what you’re going through. I couldn’t stand to know how much pain you’re in and how rotten you feel all the time. It would drive me crazy, knowing that.”

But, hoo boy, does she ever respect my boundaries! That’s worth the world. It makes everything open and clear between us, and our current relationship reflects that.

When someone confesses their limits to me, I take it as a gift. They have told me how to protect our relationship and how to move forward with it. I appreciate that. With that subject opened, we can move on to discuss how, or if, they can connect with me in a way that works for us both. This is priceless information. I’m glad my mother had the courage to open that can of worms, because then it got very manageable very quickly.

For an ever-changing kaleidescope of visual delight, check out my Mom’s photography from all around the world at http://jldtifft.com/

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Living without hope – tasks and aftereffects

I lived without hope for years. Years. It was weird to look around one day and realize I had no hope, and that I hadn’t had any for awhile. I didn’t think I was going to see another Christmas… for at least 5 Christmases.
ChristmasTree_NOT
When the few friends who were willing to be honest asked me what I hoped for or what I had ambitions for, I had to tell them that I had no hope and I had no dreams of the future.

They really had trouble with that.

Some just did that weird, head-shaking, “I didn’t just hear that” thing and changed the subject. A few asked if I was suicidal. I had been, and I drifted in and out of degrees of thinking about how to make it painless and permanent if I did kill myself, but I was… surviving.

Actually, I was working really hard on surviving. Hope had been sucking me dry, making me see things that weren’t there, putting my energy into some future I could only imagine, but couldn’t see a way to reach.

If I hadn’t been willing to drop everything, including hope, in order to just focus on the business of living with this horrific reality, I think I wouldn’t have survived. I had no extra energy, and hope was too demanding.

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

When I came out of that time, very very slowly, it dawned on me that I had been fighting for so long for my own life that, for the first time in my entire conscious existence, I felt no need to apologize for the space I took up, the effort and attention I required from the world, or, in fact, for anything.

As I told my Mom at the time, “I’ve fought for others’ lives pretty often, and when you’re coding someone, they’re your whole world for the time that you’re coding them.
CPR
“If you fight for someone’s life over any length of time, you come to care about them as well as for them, even if you have nothing else in common. Well, I’ve spent years fighting for my own life, and it’s impossible to fight that long for someone without really coming to care about them. I really love myself, in a solid way, with no caveats, and nobody and nothing can shake that.”

So, I don’t associate hopelessness with futurelessness or lifelessness, as most people seem to do. I have every faith in our ability to face life without hope, because sometimes it’s just dead weight. Sometimes, it distracts us from what’s real.

I have faith in us, hope or no hope. I have absolute faith in our ability to move through the stages of this unbelievable circus we call life, and make them work for OURSELVES in the end.

Faith isn’t the same as hope, because it relies on something that’s present now, not on something that might be possible in the future. I have faith in our doughtiness, an old-fashioned word combining the meanings of nerve, grit, and determination. Boy, do CRPSers have all of that!

In the end, hope is a luxury we can’t always afford. Hoping and dreaming — putting our energy into things that don’t exist — can be a real sink. That is, maintaining hope and dreams can, themselves, take more energy than we can afford.

It sounds counterintuitive to someone who’s never been there, because most people think of hopes and dreams as what pulls us forward.

If hopes or dreams pull you forward, that’s good; if they don’t, reconsider, and maybe refocus.

Refocusing on the sheer present business of finding a way to survive with things as they are right now is not wasted time, it’s not suicidality, and it’s not even an act of despair. It’s profoundly rational, profoundly functional, and even when it’s profoundly difficult, it’s still profoundly worthwhile.

From my own experience, I have to say it’s a strange state of mind to live in, but it’s surprisingly worry-free. False worries fall away as fast as false comforts do. Once I accepted the state of life with no hope, there was no room for b.s., either in my world or in my relationships.

Life simplified itself; all I had to do was keep up — or rather, pare down. That was weird too, because I used to find stuff comforting.

In that utterly simple state, though, it wasn’t comforting. It was just stuff.

Having emotional energy invested in something so … stufflike … was absurd. Talk about false comfort!

So, before long, all I had was what I needed; nothing more, and not much less.
teapot-eaglehaslanded
In time, everything changes, even the amount of energy we can spare. I can tell you exactly when I rediscovered the luxury of hope, because I blogged about it here. It was nothing more than the first whisper, because that was all I could support, but it was unmistakeable.

Since then, I’ve also rediscovered flippancy, ambition, and even toilet humor. (My sense of irony never left, which makes me think it’s essential. H’mm…)

But a few things still remain, deep currents in the otherwise twinkly surface of my character:

  • stuff is good only if it’s useful and there’s room for it;
  • nobody, but nobody, decides when I die but me; and
  • I love myself. I may be grubby, nerdy, daffy, clever, ill-yet-unconquered — but I love myself absolutely, without vanity, and without caveats.

If it took living without hope, then I’m better for having done it.

Aphorism for the day: Don’t be afraid of what life brings you. You never know what’s on the other side. It’s just a matter of getting there.

me-fingers-peace

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Treating CRPS enough to have a life

Someone asked a question on social media that led to my doing a brain-dump on the basic format of current treatment for CRPS. This will take on a more formal form, but right now, for quick reference, here it is.

Like many others, this person has narcotics as a primary form of pain control. Increasing the dose increases function, but past a certain point, is that a good idea?

And, more importantly, the biggest question was, what does it really take to be able to have a life again?

 

Common-sense note on narcotics

Firstly, it is GREAT to have something that works. I know plenty about narcotics from a physiological and neurological and even a gastrointestinal standpoint, so I know the arguments for and against — but, when all is said and done, it’s great to have the option and it’s great to have something that works for you.

Keep what works! Unless and until you really can replace it with something better. (Clinicians, in their overbearing way, can be pretty cold about this.)

In the end, if you need to increase the dose, then increase the dose, but given how our bodies adapt and the disease shifts over time, it might be good to keep higher narcotic doses in your back pocket for breakthrough pain and flares, and see about the other meds that treat nerve pain specifically, support (in some cases) your neurology so you can function better and be more stable, and leave some slack in your body’s narcotics “budget” for other times.

Doctors should be able to support the idea that you should be able to have a life, and happy to help you figure it out. Good pain specialists have this as a specific goal which they try to help us reach as much as possible for as long as possible.

Read tamingthebeast.ca or elsewhere on this blog for loads of tips on nutrition, homeopathics, herbs, and other at-home strategies. This is just about the stuff your doc can do for you.

I mentally break these into 6 categories, 3 of oral meds and 3 of other, more interventional stuff:

MEDS

  • Neurochemical support: Mostly antidepressant-category meds, from tricyclics to SSRIs to SNRIs. SNRIs have the significant bonus of potentially stabilizing a faulty ANS.
  • Transmission shifters: Mostly anti-seizure meds, Lyrica and Neurontin. Ketamine certainly shifts nerve signal transmission, and the protocols for giving it are getting better and more specific. Technically it’s an NMDA receptor antagonist, but it affects opiate and MAO receptors too.
  • Calcium “wranglers”: Calcium channel blockers, bisphosphonates.

Basic principles of medication

  • Remember, all meds have side effects. There is no free ride; sorry!
  • Most of our meds can affect judgment, memory, and perception. Ask a relative, housemate or friend to check your brainpower and personality, to see if there are effects you’re not aware of.
  • Avoid polypharmacy, or too many meds, because it’s a great way to create a neurochemical mess. I stop at 3 different ongoing meds, since I can’t tell what’s causing problems if I take more. I also have 3 as-needed meds, which I rarely use, unless the side-effects of the pain/nausea/wheezing are worse than the side-effects of the meds.
  • Last but not least, med is spelled M.E.D. which means Minimum Effective Dose. Both adjectives are equally important. It must be effective, or why are you taking it? It must be the smallest dose that really works well, because otherwise you’re dealing with the same issues mentioned in the previous points, and they get a lot worse with overmedication.

Keep in communication with your doctors about your meds. If they’re savvy, they’ll work with you to optimize your medication profile for best functioning with fewest problems.

INTERVENTIONS

  • Injections and implants: spinal root blocks, prolotherapy, spinal cord stimulators, botox injections, spinal baclofen infusions, implanted drug dispensers.
  • Zaps and rads: TENS (electric counter-stim blocks the nerve pain), TCM (electro-magnetically stimulates and remaps certain parts of our brain that support the disease), Calmare (a more complex electrical technology that retrains the pain signal so it eventually doesn’t restart.)
  • Retraining, rebraining: Multi-Disciplinary Functional Restoration/Rehab is the gold standard for treatment. Most of these programs, but not all, require participants to be narcotic-free. The puritanism I can do without, frankly, but the whole-person approach, and the enormous mental toolkit you come away with, is absolutely life-changing.PT, OT, counseling, and learning about relevant subjects from pain mechanisms to nutritional effects on pain and function to communicating effectively with those around you so everyone can do more with less effort, is simply tremendous. It used to be a shoo-in for US citizens because it got people back to work so effectively, but in the industry overall it’s more profitable to keep us sick, so now it’s harder (but still possible) to get that paid for.You have to have determination and some mental flexibility to get admitted into a program, because it’s hard work, but if you find a program that agrees with you, then it could be the single biggest change in your life.

Every time something goes under your skin, your body has a shocky/inflammatory response. It may not be noticeable, but if it is, be ready to manage it.

If you get an invasive procedure, like implants or injections, then use one of the vitamin C protocols to help ward off flares and exacerbations: 500 mg 2 to 3 times daily, for 1 to 2 weeks before the procedure and 2 to 3 months afterwards.

Now what?

Talk over these different options with your doctor, if you haven’t already — increasing your current meds, using supplemental med support, trying technologies and interventions, risks and benefits.

Also, sadly, it’s important to discuss the realities of funding and insurance coverage, so that you can develop contingency plans to follow in case your hoped-for option doesn’t get approved right away.

Always leave yourself a way forward — that’s a good strategy 🙂

There is a lot that can be done, and most of us cobble together a few different things that work a bit so that, together, they add up to enough to let us … have a life 🙂

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Move slowly, stay happy… except when pushing one and a half to two inches straight down on the lower half of the sternum

We went to a great farmer’s market, where J got me a ceviche tostada that had to be tasted to be believed. I got a flat of outstanding organic peaches to dry for the winter. All this is much easier said than done, because today, for some reason, is pretty harsh as pain days go.

J wanted to know, in his brusque-backwards way, what I intend to do about it.

I replied that I’d probably trim his hair, then lie down for a bit, then watch a silly show, then come help with the wood — which means, bringing cold drinks and looking on admiringly.

I said, “Managing pain days is basically a matter of, move slowly and stay happy — to the extent that that’s possible.”

He liked that. He added jovially, “Used to be more like, move quick so I can get away from people — then I could stay happy,” he said, veteran of a socially hideous region.

We both laughed.

matchgrins-horsenwoman_decamps-pauline_4blog

Moments later, we saw people beside the road, one lying down. I saw CPR.

CPR

I barked, “Pull over NOW!” J knows my voice, and he’d never heard that tone before. He did. Instantly.

A first responder was doing chest compressions, and getting tired. CPR is incredibly hard work; if Mr. Universe did CPR, he’d tire even quicker.

I got down and planted my less-injured hand on the responder’s stacked palms and between us, we made a strong enough compression to create a pulse in the patient’s leg. This is what you want to do: create an artificial pulse, to sustain the vital organs until the heart itself can be restarted.

The runner had felt chest pains 5 minutes before, according to his workout partner. Then he went over. Just like that.

I won’t go into messy details, but by the time the helicopter was landing and I’d brushed myself off to come home again, I was aware of how strange it was to do this outside the ER, to snap into lifesaving mode from a standing start, and to find myself — without the mental shield of my work-badge and trusty stethoscope — turning away from a still-blue figure and not knowing if he’d make it.

J said of the man behind us, in his elliptical way, “He didn’t look like a jerk.”

I said quietly, “No. He had a really nice face.”

I’m sure he had good medical care. He worked out to keep fit, and had the muscle tone to show for it. He had a bit of chest pain 5 minutes before, then keeled over.

It’s not fair.

I took my clothes off carefully, keeping the dirt off me and turning them inside-out before dropping them in the laundry. I washed my hands and arms to above the elbows. I used to do that on coming home from work, every time. But I’m not able to work, and those weren’t scrubs.

I have some additional prayers to make now, and a body of my own to manage.

I have to move slowly, and stay happy, to the extent that that’s possible. There’s nothing else that could possibly help, because I’m no longer in the ER. I’m a 13-year veteran of the worst pain disease known to medicine, and I helped do CPR today.

I wrote this in the hope of coming to some conclusion that would make it easier to move on from this shell-shocked state of mental mumbling. I haven’t, yet… but let me add one thing.

This man had every chance, once he went down. CPR was started within a minute. The ambulance arrived within 5. He should be getting definitive care within 15 or 20 minutes of hitting the dirt. This is how it’s supposed to go.

In honor of this man who was given every chance, and in honor of my father who never had any, please learn CPR.

Even if your bones are too frail, as mine are, you can still provide the extra push that’s needed.

Even if you can’t risk infection from someone else’s fluids, you can still check for a pulse while others do the dirty work.

Even if all you can do is puff your chair a little closer, you can still direct the able-bodied, because it really helps to have a cool head looking over the whole scene.

Please learn CPR. You’d be amazed at what you can do with it. Those of us with disabilities get too much of the message that boils down to “can’t”, but when it comes to working to save a life, if you know the protocol and what to look for well enough, then there’s usually a “can” that you can go for.

I gave the police my name and number, and I hope to find out if our guy made it. (NB: Details were changed to protect his privacy… but I’m sure prayers and meditations and good thoughts will get through just the same.) I’ll post a comment to let you know.

In the meantime, here are a few links.

My ANS is going to be vibrating for awhile. I’ll start with lemon balm and see what else I can remember to do.

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T’ai chi and emotional pain

When I’m out in the world, my reflex is to shove grief into a bundle and push it aside, and try to act as if I don’t feel it.

It’s always surprising how much energy that actually takes. When I’m doing anything else that takes much effort, it’s nearly impossible. It makes me forgetful and clumsy, just like a pain flare.

When I was at t’ai chi class yesterday, shoving and pushing one way with my mind while I was shoving and pushing another way with my body was so exhausting that I was wringing wet with sweat. Then I remembered something I’d tried briefly before, and decided to try it for the rest of the class.

I mentally drew the grief into my whole body. The grief turned to sadness and stretched out into every muscle fiber, every moving part. And I did t’ai chi with a body that was swarming with sadness.

It was, above all, peaceful.

I certainly wasn’t as tired. The sweat vanished as if by magic. I don’t even remember it drying on me.

The important thing is, I wasn’t expressing sadness in any deliberate way. I didn’t move more slowly, or try for any effect. I moved more deliberately and with better focus, because I was integrated. My body was filled with sadness, and I moved that body through the t’ai chi form.

The point of t’ai chi is to clear things up, straighten out what needs straightening, and separate muddled body parts and muddled energies into their proper alignments. Therefore, the sadness got a heck of a massage, and by the end of class, it was like it had been processed into something more wholesome. There wasn’t nearly as much sadness, as such. There was a lot more peace. There was a sense of strength I can’t put a name to.

I must add, as a footnote, that it’s been a long time since my feelings were capable of unshadowed joy. I have learned to cultivate a certain shallowness of mind at times, so I can be insulated from the deeps and be simply happy in the moment.

Therefore, when I say that I was happy as I left class, understand that it was a deep happiness. The shadows were very much a part of it, but that was fine. They were in the right place.

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Threads on the loom: bereavement and CRPS

When I was 4, we moved to New Jersey from Turkey, as my parents thought their kids should get a feel for their native land. Our new backfence neighbors were a large and lovely family from Virginia, so I learned to spell “dog” both with and without a “w” by the time I was six.

The youngest daughter got me going on poetry. We read A. A. Milne and Louis Untermeyer in between dips in the kiddie pool. Her Mom, Mrs P, gave me drawing lessons when I was about 9.

My Mom was very maternal in her genuine enthusiasm for all my art. (I found that frustrating, because I knew it could be better and had no idea how to make it so.)

Mrs P did not have that problem with me… Her key edicts make reasonable rules for living: For one thing, I should not draw the whole scene until I was capable enough (don’t let things overwhelm you.) I had to pick the parts that were most important or that caught my eye, keep it simple, and do it right – or else there’d be erasing, and, if you erase too much, the surface gets harder to work on. (Isn’t that the truth.)

She was also good for the reality check. She quickly eliminated my grade-school habit of drawing red apples and brown trees, but made me look at a real apple and draw that; hold my colored pencils up to the tree and see which colors really matched.

See what’s really there, not what I expect or what I’ve been told things should look like.

The biggest note of approval I ever got from her was, “not bad.” By the time I was 6 weeks in, I was able to collect a “not bad” or two almost every lesson, which pleased me no end.

CRPS took away the link between brain and hand that let me make art, but one thing really stuck with me …

Why settle for good or even great, when you could aim for making it absolutely right?

“Good” and “great” are about others’ opinions, but “absolutely right” is something ageless that stands on its own.

Later that year, our parents sat us down to have a family meeting. Dad had been offered a job in Cairo, Egypt. He wanted to know what we thought about moving to Egypt in a few months. Mom and Dad discussed pros (long list) and cons (short list.) Older Brother asked about schooling (very good) and the social scene (unknown, but probably interesting.) Younger Brother piped up with characteristic curiosity and adaptability.

It seemed like a done deal, but I was wrong. Dad looked at me and said, “What do you think, Isy?” I must have looked surprised. He said, “You have a good sense of people. I don’t want to finalize this decision until I hear what you think it’ll do to us, either way.”

Should I be nice? My first instinct was to be nice, to stick up for the shabby underdog (in this case, New Jersey), to do what I thought was expected of me … but it stuck in my craw. Perhaps Mrs P’s lessons on seeing things as they really are had sunk in.
I said, quite honestly, that New Jersey was not being good for any of us (except maybe Younger Brother) and that Egypt would be new and interesting. We all liked new and interesting. So, as far as I could see, it was hard to see a downside to going, and hard to see an upside to staying.

So we went. And I got an early lesson in the value of calling it like I see it.

Our vacations were dreamlike, because we were close to some of the most striking sights in the world:

  • El Alamein and the remains of fallen soldiers from 5 continents;
  • The Red Sea, when it was still the most outstandingly varied and brilliant source of sea life on Earth (it’s still good in spots, as that video shows);
  • The southwest coast of Turkey when Bodrum (formerly known as Halicarnassus) was still a fishing town and their medieval castle the tallest building in it;
  • And, of course, the remains of roughly 8,000 years of Egyptian history from before the Old Kingdom, down through all those Rameses, Greek absorption, Roman annexation, Medieval flowering and Mameluk co-optation, the French and British tradeoffs, modernization as the royal family fell and the secular dictatorship accepted Nazi help to fend off the British return, the flowering of art and writing as the world wars faded and the newly mobile masses could collect like runoff from the tortured continent to the north. The Ancient history is only the beginning…

During the day, I learned about path-finding, history, and sea life, and in the evenings my mother read to us from local literature such as the Odyssey, the Iliad, My Family and Other Animals, even A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (the sharpest satire on jingoism and culture shock ever written.)

My parents had a gift for making the most of teachable moments.

The move turned out to be an excellent choice for all of us: Older Brother became a track star on the international circuit, I found a crop of kindred spirits, Younger Brother’s precocious historicity kept growing, Mom became a successful working photographer (and, as it happened, a role model of working womanhood for every intelligent female friend I had), and Dad got paid to help people – then towns – then governments get better and better at handling their money and improving their chances for a sustainable future.

The day I drafted this is the 38th anniversary of that move.

Dad was great at practical stuff. He genuinely liked humans, despite being such a historian. He often said that people are like table wine. Each one is a blend of different strains: good and bad, clever and foolish, creative and not, good with money and profligate, nice and otherwise… and each person’s blend is a little bit different. If you can accept each of them as the blend they are, and not try to change them – into a different blend, or even into beer, for instance – then you could really come to appreciate the variety that this world has to offer.

People are what they are. Accepting that makes for better connections.

The first time he taught me to drive was when we were on vacation in France, which was cheaper to get to than the US. We had rented a historical farmhouse that was about to become a gîte (at which point the price would go up), so we got all the benefits – a fireplace Younger Brother could stand up in, window sills two feet thick to sit on, a lush yard going down to a creek at the bottom with a moat up one side of the yard, a line of stately chestnut trees, twittering birds, fresh eggs and raw milk from the neighbor – for considerably less than we should have paid.

The rental car looked like it came straight out of a matchbox, but it was a real, rattly little French Renault. Dad sat in the passenger seat and directed me to the driver’s seat. He told me about the brake, the gas and clutch, the gear shift, the friction point, and how it all came together. I got the friction point coordinated and tested it a few times.

Then he said, “Okay, here we go.” I checked the friction point again and then stopped. He said, “No, I want you to go. Go ahead and drive across the yard.”

Oh, okay then. I can do this.

I grabbed the wheel tightly, engaged the gear, and eased past the friction point.

The car snorted briefly, pawed the ground, took the bit firmly between its teeth, and off it went. Or so it seemed to me.

The car charged off the gravel, kicking it up behind. It careened over the lush yard, carrying us past (fortunately) the huge stone house. It rocked and bounced off of molehills, scoring crazy tracks through the soft green earth.

I noticed my Dad was yelling, but he never yelled, so that was confusing. I didn’t understand a word of it, anyway.

Completely out of its metallic mind, the car charged past the trees, heading straight for the neatly-dug moat.

I was helpless to stop it. My own involvement had escaped my awareness completely. I simply hung onto the steering wheel for dear life, eyes wider than ever, completely absent to the fact that MY FOOT WAS ON THE GAS.

All at once, Dad finally got his full-grown leg around the gear shift and kicked my foot off the gas pedal and stamped on the brake in one astoundingly swift move.

The car sputtered, died, rocked to a standstill.

Its front wheels were on the lip of the moat. Below us, three feet of water and unimaginable depths of sticky mud glittered silently.

Little clods of earth trickled out from under the front tires and dropped in, stirring tiny clouds as each one descended through the water and into the mud.

All was quiet. Even the birds were too shocked to peep.

I sat there, frozen, hands locked on the wheel. I was alive. And dry. It was shocking.

I didn’t dare to move.

I heard Dad take a breath, and then take another. I felt, even with my head still turned away, two completely different speeches considered, then thrown away before he even made a sound.

I turned to see what he’d finally settle on, and whether it would finally involve a pair of hands wrapped around my throat – something I’d never seen him do yet, but you never knew, especially after a performance like that.

A pair of blue lasers drilled me to my seat.

Very quietly, very clearly, very firmly, he said, pronouncing each word distinctly:

“When what you’re doing doesn’t work… Try. Something. Different.”

Words to live by.

It was years until I was anywhere as green as Bordeaux. I lived along the Mohawk Trail in my 20’s. My excellent friend Paul was the hub of a wide circle of friends who, even if we couldn’t always stand each other individually, felt strangely as if we were still part of the same tribe: Paul’s tribe – or, as we called it at the time (such was his gift for invisible influence) The Tribe.

Paul was a master of appreciating people just as they were – even if that was not necessarily what the person in question wanted to be. He was the first to say, in assured tones,

“You’ll figure it out, Bella.”

He wasn’t kidding, either. He had complete faith in me, in spite of the evidence. I don’t know why. It sure helped, though.
My Dad died in early February 1999 while swimming in Egypt. I still remember the way the word “No” echoed off the walls of my little room at 4:08 am, when I got the call. The second flight on my 3-legged trip back East was overbooked, and I was going to get bumped.

I went up to the desk with my untucked button-down shirt, uncombed hair, and my own pair of blue lasers. Very quietly, very clearly, very firmly, I said, pronouncing each word distinctly, “My father is dead. I’m going back to bury him. I will be. On. That. Plane.”

And I was.

On January 23rd the following year, Paul decided to sleep late, and never woke up. On the plane to his funeral, I wrote to the father of one of my oldest friends from Egypt days, who had end-stage cancer. It started something like this:

“I’m on my way to a dear friend’s memorial, and I’m keenly aware that life is short and time is passing. Even though I don’t know you well, because you were my friend’s father rather than my friend directly, you matter to me. I want to let you know how important you’ve been throughout my life.” And then I told him about the ways his life had intersected mine over the years, brightening it along the way.

It was the last letter he received in this life.

Deathiversaries.

That’s my word for those days that sneak up on the calendar, dropping shards of stabbing tears out of a clear blue sky, breaking my knees for a moment as the agony of the unfillable absence hits me anew.

Now, not to strain the violins further, but the period that encompassed the deaths of my father, Paul, and my friend’s father also encompassed several other bereavements, a crippling stroke of my grandmother’s, the heartbreaking failure of my almost-marriage, the end of my nursing career due to illness, being too sickly-weak to make it to the mailbox and back for months, starting a new tech career from nothing but raw talent and pure luck, and moving.

And I really hate moving.

That was all in 18 months. I was a different person at the end of it. I’m sorry to say that it was someone who could face the devastation of CRPS with a lot more poise, but it still sucks.

Last Monday, January 20th, my old neighbor and teacher Mrs P died in her sleep. I haven’t seen her in 38 years (minus a week) but something as sharp and bright as faceted crystal slid out of my world.

My kitten Ari was a comfort to me, flinging himself firmly onto my body, as if to shove his strength and warmth into me.

He was enormous in every way: 10 pounds at 10 months and all of it lanky muscle, enormous love, enormous cheer, enormous charm, enormous athleticism, enormous independence, enormous courage, enormous confidence, enormous sense of humor … he was enormously unusual, even for a cat. He was an enormous invitation to life, just by the way he lived it.

Four nights after that, Ari disappeared. The following morning he was found on the road, dead and cold. Our Lovely Neighbors got us through, from finding his body to explaining to J to telling me. (I’m weaker now. It’s the buckling knees I remember.)
Partner J dug a perfect meter-deep grave, bedded it 6” deep in sprigs of fresh California bay while I blew sage smoke in, and I carried my kitten down to his final spot in the sun, at the bend in the path where he played with our dog and the Lovely Neighbors’ numerous cats.

I took the loss hard.

I’m an old hand at grieving. I can walk through the stages and the process in my sleep, although my body handles it worse all the time.

  1. The initial devastation and shock.
  2. The tasks:
    1. communicating the news,
    2. planning the funerary rites,
    3. preparing the final rest,
    4. performing the rites one needs to lay the deceased, as well as life with the deceased, to rest,
    5. cleaning up their things,
    6. comforting each other,
    7. getting something to eat,
    8. reminding everyone to be extra careful and remember to drink lots of water, which we tend to forget nevertheless.
  3. The reactions:
    • Noticing the way sunshine lands on my skin and birds sing in the trees but it seems to come from a world that’s not quite the one I’m in.
    • The way I have casual surges of wishful thinking: wouldn’t a bullet in the brain be nice about now? This isn’t suicidality (I promise), it’s my mind’s way of signaling that it’s overwhelmed by horrible feelings that it can’t do anything about, and it’s tired and doesn’t know what to do.
    • Re-learn the daily habits that this person (of however many feet) used to be involved in. That’s so dislocating. I don’t need to eyeball a certain corner of the bed before moving my feet now. I’m not even awake when I do that. It’s so horribly weird to wake up by realizing I don’t have to look.

Then the misnamed “stages” of grief, which are really nodes, which can be visited in any order.

  • The anguish, where life without that person has to be faced.
  • The anger, like, why couldn’t that little cuss cross under the bridge as usual, instead of testing one more damned limit and crossing over?
  • The bargaining, although I stopped bargaining years ago. I don’t seem to do that now. Too many unanswered prayers wept and bled into silence.
  • The sweet memories that stab like a ray of sun in my eyes, bringing tears that gradually wane over time, until those memories bring mostly sunshine.
  • Finding a new pattern beginning to emerge in my life, one that encompasses that absence without filling it, but making it less of an obstacle over time. They call that “acceptance”, but I think that’s a bit of a misnomer. I’d call it adapting.

I’ve only realized how very deep and interconnected life is by losing parts of mine. In that 18-month period of multiple losses, I found myself mulling the image of a complex weave on a loom, where each person and each influence in my life was a thread.

Some threads were solid and stable, some were wildly colorful, some thick with burrs, some wove in and out of the pattern, some were knotty and strange, some were pure gold.

When a major thread, or a lot of threads of any size, were ripped off the loom, then the fabric was distorted and there was a visible gap in it for a long time. I could weave on, but that band of the fabric was weaker – sometimes for years, sometimes for a lifetime. It takes a very long time to rebuild from the loss of enough warp threads.

It takes time to work new threads into the weave of life, and longer still to see which ones work in the overall pattern, and which ones fall out on their own – or need to be pulled out, for the damage they do to the rest.

Some people and influences are part of the warp, as they’re meant to stay in the weave for its length and are made to be strong. Career, close family, good friends, matters of identity – these are all warp threads which usually shape and color our lives all along its length. Each one has its own color and texture and breadth, which varies from person to person, and each contributes a depth of color and texture to the weaving that nothing else can provide.

In life, unlike fabric, the warp threads are highly individual.

When one of those gets ripped out, the whole weave … well … warps.

Some people and influences are weft threads, and are easier to change out. Doctors are usually weft threads, although the need for medical care is a warp thread for some of us. Jobs are weft, while careers are usually warp.

I lost a number of warp threads in that 18-month period. Between the end of January and the second week of February, the closest bereavements hit, year after year. The weave of my life has warped, over and over, in the armpit of winter.

I shift my stance from relying unthinkingly on having a lot of strength inside and out, to being mindful and precise about where to put my diminishing attention and energy.

I’ve learned to be more and more aware of good times, genuine love, beautiful days, radiant people, perfect moments, delicious food …

When I look back, I have far fewer regrets when I really noticed good things at the time.

I didn’t expect to have that kitten in the first place.
Even in this season of bereavement, I didn’t expect to lose him so soon.

But when he was here, keeping me permanently in a mild state of befuddlement because he was so much larger than life but still so very young, I sure noticed.

One day, that should be a comfort.

Meanwhile, as CRPS continues to change the game on me, I’m trying to learn to handle bereavement-amidst-deathiversaries with this new and different body-system.

My autonomic system is normally in a state that maps most closely to that of someone who’s being continually beaten with a live cattle prod, but years of practice have taught me when to ignore it and how to manage the results somewhat.

It gets better and worse from time to time. Stress, uncertainty, poor diet, missed meds, solar flares (believe it or not), and injuries, all crank up the volume on my oscillating central nervous system.

Bereavement is stressful, unpredictable, and contributes to poor diet, missed meds, and injuries. (Possibly solar flares for all I know.) Deathiversaries are a hardwired physical memory of bereavements. Having both at once is like being hit from both sides at once. Double oscillations that don’t cancel each other out, but feed into each other and magnify their effects.

All right… What’s an oscillating nervous system like?

Right now, the skin on my face is so raw that my partner’s nice springy beard feels sharper than a cheese-grater. My left lower leg wants to turn into a lump of Dacron, impenetrable and basically useless. My wrists and forearms, well, the less said the better, but I have to hold my mug with both hands to avoid wearing what’s in it. I went outside in soft shoes today (I usually wear hiking shoes) and the friendly little stones in the yard slowed me down considerably, as each one wanted to get way too personal with my foot-bones.

That’s the physical side of CRPS.

Because of the brain changes that make that stuff happen, there’s a parallel process that happens on the emotional side. Imagine the same degree of relentless rawness and unquenchable pain inside the heart and mind, and you’ll have some idea what it’s like.

I’ll give you a minute, if you like.

I don’t mean to whine, it’s just a fact of life with this disease. It takes a lot of managing, because my mental state wants to default to, well… how distressing and upsetting it is to be beaten continually with a live cattle prod.

How do you deal with an oscillating nervous system?

When your world is being purged, it’s important to replenish and nourish. This means extra antioxidants, extra meditation/biofeedback, extra hugs, and – if possible – someone else to clean the house and help with laundry and cooking.

One must eat, clean, and cope, and if it takes help, then I ask for help.

Herbal lemon balm extract helps cut the flared nerve pain. Chamomile and lavender tea, maybe with tulsi, helps me get to sleep. Some people do well with vervain or ashwaganda.

Homeopathics like ignatia amara and hypericum ease other parts of my nervous system responses. Also, I use an essential oil blend from Young Living called Valor, to reduce the hotwired panic reflex and hyper-alertness.

In case it isn’t obvious …

I don’t care what academics say, I only care what works for me. Empiricism is the only form of science that matters in the individual case.

I keep busy in order to keep my mind from exploding over the surfeit of losses and memories of losses, while CRPS takes the brakes off of all the feelings – physical and emotional alike.

This leaves me to manage the resulting inward chaos with whatever poise I can fake, because I know that a certain part of it is grief but a certain part of it is simply brain damage.

Either way, it will ease up in time.

So I keep busy, take my supplements, comfort the dog (whose heartsick look would make a stone weep), try not to draw attention to my partner’s look of not knowing what hit him, and wait …

Mostly, I wait for the balm of time, because it doesn’t change the loss, but it helps me learn to live with it.

Also, it moves the deathiversaries into my rearview mirror for another year. Until then, I’ll hold the love and leave the pain as much as I can.

Lastly, I wait for the fierce oscillations of my nervous system, humming and shaking like a five-foot-high tuning fork, to decrease and diminish and eventually …
quiet down …
to … a …
stop.

There is always an afterwards. Survival is simply a matter of getting to it.

Managing CRPS under this kind of duress is not magic, it’s persistence.

I keep breathing and let the awful moments pass. I’m old enough, both as a person and a CRPSer, to know that there are better ones ahead.

All I have to do is get there.

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Documentation — Long time? Timeline!

I collected health info on others for years. I’m what clinicians call “a good historian” — and in the health context, it means someone who can tell you exactly what happened to them and when it happened, and they turn out to be right.

This is fine… as long as I can keep track, and as long as the story is short enough for someone else to remember after a single telling.

cartoon of surgeon hiding a saw behind his back.
They aren’t always paying attention.

This isn’t going to remain true for any case over a couple of years in the making, and certainly not for a case that even started out with multiple diagnoses: volar ganglion, tendonitis, and repetitive strain.

When I noticed that a doctor’s eyes were glazing 5 minutes into my recital of events, I knew I had to do this differently.

I started keeping a timeline. It was a nuisance to set up, because I got injured at work, and U.S. law doesn’t necessarily allow me to get copies of my records under those circumstances.

So I drafted my first timeline from memory, journal entries, and my datebook, and asked my doctor’s staff, as sweetly as possible, to please check the dates for me. They loved the timeline and were happy to do so.

As you can see, this is before I had a lawyer, and reflected my personal tendency towards information overload:

First 2 pages of first timeline
Click to link to the 3-page PDF.

As you can see, I decided to keep my timeline in a table. I found that to be the most natural way for me to organize the layers of information in a readable way. But then, I had just finished hand-coding and debugging about 21 pages of HTML tables in raw markup. Tables were easy for me!

To some people, a table of text just looks like word salad.

 

I can understand that.

 

There are other ways to organize information: brain maps, fishbone diagrams, bullet lists with nested lists, even labeled images linked together. Search any of those terms, or even terms like “information architecture” or “flow charts”, to look for ideas.

I took a later version of this to my first QME (QME=Qualified Medical Examiner, a consultant called upon when a U.S. insurance company disputes care in an injured-worker case.) Bless his stern and rock-bound heart, he gave me excellent advice. Here it is, as close to his wording as I remember:

  • “Leave out the insurance stuff. It’s not my department. It’s distracting, annoying, and clutters up the timeline for me.”
    (I was not offended, because I’ve worked with a lot of hotshot doctors. I fully expected the brusqueness and just listened to the words for information. That information was pure gold.)
  • “In fact, thin this out a lot. I want facts, data, not suppositions or what you read. I want to know exactly what happened to you and what your doctors said or did. Everything else is filler. I’m a doctor, so doctors’ ideas are what I care about.”
    (That was frank! And an excellent statement of inherent bias, which I really appreciated knowing up-front.)
  • “Take out the personal impact? No! No. I want that in there. It tells me how this really affects your life, and I should know that.”
    (He was almost human when he looked at me then. It was a cool moment.)
  • “But I DO want the personal impact to be visually distinctive, so I can screen it out when I’m looking for the medical part alone.”
    (That’s fair.)
  • “I’d also like to be able to find your work status more easily. This is a worker’s compensation case, after all.”
    (Good point.)

That man should advise more designers. He’s retired from his medical career now, and I hope he’s enjoying himself immensely.

My next timeline, for my next QME, was much leaner and it distinguished between three key types of info: straight medical information, work status, and personal impact.

timeline-beta
Click for the full PDF.

Did you notice how the hand images I wrote about before are referenced right in the timeline? This is a great way to build your case. The pictures kick the message of your disease progress and your needs right through concrete.

Incidentally, this uses mutually-reinforcing teaching principles: multiple sensory inputs, plus multiple paths to the same info, equals excellent retention. Your doctors will really be able to remember what your case looked like and what happened along the way, what worked and what didn’t.

Dr. F was pleased to see the table and thought it was basically a good idea, but looking at it through 78-year-old eyes was a different experience. He gave me his own feedback, speaking as someone who had gone through more medical records and had more problematic vision than anyone who’d looked at it yet:

  • “Yes, it’s nice that you picked out the work status, but I want to be able to see surgeries, x-rays, the really important stuff, just as easily. No, even more easily.”

I picked those out in bold and flagged them in the left column:

timeline-gamma
Click for a closer look at the PDF.

Before long, I learned to condense multiple entries so I could use one row for several visits that were about one issue, or where there wasn’t much change:
timeline-condensed
Then I saw a doctor who had more human sensibilities. He said,

  • “Why not use colors? I want to see surgeries and tests in different colors.”

I asked, “Do you want the different kinds of tests in different colors, so you can distinguish Xrays from MRIs from nerve studies at a glance?”

  • “No, no, that’s too much. I can read EMG versus MRI; I don’t want too many colors. I want the surgeries to really stand out, though. Put them in red.
  • “And I want to see the legal pivot-points, too, because that affects your case.”

Easy enough.

timeline-colors
Click for pretty colors. subtly used, in the PDF.

Then the first page grew legs. Someone along the line said,

  • “One more thing. I’d really like to see your allergies and medical-surgical history immediately. If you could put that up front on this, that would give me the most critical medical information right off.”

That was a real forehead-smacker for me…

I used to be a triage nurse. I used to collect certain information on every patient I saw, regardless of age, sex, race, or what they came in with.

TRIAGE INFORMATION:
– Name, date of birth.
– Any medical diagnoses.
– Any surgery, with dates.
– Current medications and doses (if they recall), and what they take it for. (This fills in a lot of holes on the medical and surgical stuff — you’d be surprised what people forget. “Oh yeah, my heart stopped last month.” Good to know!)
– Allergies — and what the reaction is (because there’s a world of difference between something that gives you a stomachache and one that stops your breathing, and we need to know this if it winds up in the air or, heaven forbid, the IV line.)

This is basic. This is absolutely basic. It’s essential information that should be immediately surfaced on every patient’s chart. How could I take for granted that it would be easy to find in my medical record? The whole point of needing the timeline is that, after a couple of years, my medical record was a mess!

Also, after years of popping from one specialist/QME/consultant to another, I got tired of having to dig out the same demographic and billing information every time they had to generate a new chart.

I had a brainstorm: make the first page into a billing/demographic sheet, add the triage information, and start the table on its own page after that.

It all goes together on the medical chart anyway, and one of the unsung truths of medical care is this: make life easier for the desk staff, and they will make life easier for you.

timeline-coverpage
Click to see how I organized this info. PDF format.

After all this time, I can put my whole history with this disease into one single document that totals 10 pages.

  1. The first sheet has my contact, billing, and demographic info.
  2. The second has my more-extensive medical/surgical history, medications and yet more allergies, and priority notes, highlighting my CNS sensitivity and emphasizing that cognition matters most.
  3. The rest tells all the key points of 14, yes, 14 YEARS of injury and disease, in only seven and a half pages.

Here is the final result:
timeline-current
Every doctor, with one exception, who has seen this, has cooed — literally, cooed — with delight. They ask if they can keep it (I tell them to put it in my chart, so they can always find it. “Ooo, great!” they say.)

This one doctor looked at it, laughed rather sardonically, and said, “You spend way too much time on this.”

Clinical note: For the record, that is not an acceptable response. What clinician makes progress by dissing patients on the first visit? Right. None. The thing to do here is ASK; in this case, ASK how much time this patient put into creating the documentation. The answer certainly surprised this one.

I set him straight, in my sweetest tone of voice. I said, “After the initial setup, it requires only a couple of minutes of maintenance every few months. That’s it. Moreover, you’re forgetting that I used to be an RN and a software documentation writer; this information is easy for me to understand and easy for me to organize. If I CAN’T do this [gesturing to the document in his hand], you need to check for a pulse.”

He never sassed me again.

However, most of what I told him is true for all of us.

We are the subject-matter experts on our own bodies. Never forget this and never let anyone tell you otherwise, because they are wrong. You ARE the subject matter expert on your own life. Nobody else really knows how you feel or what you’ve been through.

 

It’s in your power to communicate that clearly enough to work with. It’s just a matter of figuring out how.

Once you get a timeline set up and put in the key events so far, it takes very little to maintain. I update mine before every key doctor visit — when I see a new one or when I need to see a QME or, of course, when I think a doc is losing the plot.

It takes me less than half an hour to update contact info, meds, and current entries, and I do that once or twice a year now. That’s a great effort/benefit trade-off!

Moreover, keeping a timeline has life-changing benefits besides simplifying explanations to my doctors. Every long-term patient can see how utterly transformative these changes can be:

  • The doctors take me and my case absolutely seriously from the get-go (or else it’s obvious right off that this person is never going to, and I need to move on. That saves time!) It stops arguments and attitudes before they even start. It makes me almost human in any good physician’s eyes, and that’s nearly a miracle, because, generally, they can’t emotionally afford to think of their pain patients as human. (This explains a lot.)
  • My medical records are a lot more accurate, because the providers writing them have this great cheat-sheet right there to help them stay on track and keep their facts straight. This has saved me more grief, bad treatments, misapplied care, getting meds I’m allergic to, and chasing red-herring issues with the insurance company, than I could ever count.
  • I can keep my limited brain-space free for handling the appointment and looking ahead, instead of trying to wrestle my complex history into shape. This makes my visits a lot more valuable to all concerned.

I consider my timelines to be worth roughly 1,000 times their weight in plutonium. A little bit of effort has paid off thousands of times over, and made it immeasurably easier to keep this messy, protracted, brutally complex case on track for nearly one and a half decades.

Now that’s a good trick!

clip-art-dancing-755667

Timeline Tips:

  • Put your name and the date on every page.
  • Put triage information (in second blockquote above) at the top.
  • Highlight surgeries and invasive procedures in bold and red.
  • Highlight tests and noninvasive procedures in a different color or style.
  • Highlight life impact, but keep it separate from medical info.
  • Attach the relevant doctor’s name to each procedure, diagnosis, or consultation.
  • Track adverse events.

Remember, this and all my blog work is under a Creative Commons Share-Alike Attribution license: do anything you want with it, as long as you don’t keep others from using it. I’d love it if you’d credit me with my work, but don’t let that slow you down.

Use it. Share it. Spread it around.

Bien approveche — may it do you good 🙂

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