Seeing things clearly, without that added layer of judgement on top

I struggled with what to say on my blog this week, but I finally landed upon this idea as the thing that resonated with me at the current moment.

Something I’ve been realizing, more and more every day, is how much time I’ve spent judging myself for the problems I’ve had.  Not actively trying to solve them… just judging.

On some level I didn’t trust myself.  After all all of my difficulties in getting diagnosed and treated… at some point, I developed the belief that whatever health issues I was having, no one would really be able to help me.  My issues would probably always be too complex for any one person to truly understand.

From there, it became a self-fulfilling prophecy that played out from one issue to another.  Compartment syndrome, central sensitization, sacroiliac joint dysfunction.   I didn’t really believe there were answers out there, so I didn’t try that hard to look.  I gave up before the fight was over (until things got so bad that I finally didn’t).

Now I realize that, just because other people doubted me, I didn’t have to doubt myself.  And maybe, just maybe, I didn’t have to wait for things to get so bad before I took action.

In a way, my issues are too complex for any one person to understand, other than me.   I did have to step up, do my own research, and keep track of so many things myself.  But now I see that that’s a reflection on our health care system, not on me.

Everyone is rushed; insurance companies don’t pay for long enough visits, let enough adequate treatments.  (I personally feel that most of these efforts to reduce costs on the front end ultimately end up driving up costs on the back end, as people develop more serious conditions that could have been monitored or treated before they became more serious.  But I digress).

There was never any real reason for me to lose faith in myself.  My problems were real, and they had real answers.  (And you know what?  Even if they were in my head, mental health concerns deserve to be addressed too).

It’s like that quote from Eleanor Roosevelt:

“No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”

For so long I gave so much of my power away… why?

There are so many bigger things happening in the world.  Why am I wasting time judging myself and holding back, when I could actually be contributing to something larger than myself?

For anyone who’s been struggling to make sense of what’s been going on in the world, I stumbled upon another amazing quote today, that was just exactly what I needed:

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I love this, so much.  Do justly.  Love mercy,  Walk humbly.  Nowhere in there does it say “second-guess yourself for trying to heal and then do nothing.”

I’m done trying to see things through the lens of “perfect” or how things “should be.”  I want to see things clearly (both in terms of the way I see others, and myself).

Judging yourself is really just a waste of time.

I want to have compassion for others, and maybe, for the first time in my life, also for myself.  I guess right now I’m learning what that means.

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This post isn’t supposed to be about just me (although it kind of seems like it, now that I read it over).  It’s actually supposed to be about getting “me” out of the way.  To stop getting caught up in a cycle where I judge myself instead of doing things, for myself or for others.

If you’re reading this, I hope you know what I mean, and that maybe this post was helpful to you, too.

What’s in my chronic pain toolkit?

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As I try to get braver about sharing this blog with the people in my everyday life (it’s been relatively secret up until now), I want to be sure I’m clear about the fact that there are absolutely still days when I’m in pain.

The purpose of my blog is not to tell you I’ve got it all figured out, or that there’s a truly easy solution.  I know that pain, on some level, is always going to be a part of my life.

The reason I write is to share with you what I’ve learned– and what I’m still learning.

One of the most important lessons for me has been that pain isn’t a sign that you’re crazy.  It’s actually your body’s way of trying to protect you.  Unfortunately it’s not a perfect system, and when pain gets out of control, its effects can be devastating– whether you’re experiencing pain from central sensitization or another cause, such as an illness, injury, or disease.

This is why I am such a vocal advocate for pain neurophysiology education (PNE).  This type of chronic pain treatment taught me to see my pain not as an enemy, but as one of my body’s protective mechanisms.  It was almost like an overprotective friend.

This shift in perspective made all the difference for me in going forward–  I learned that, just as my pain has an “up” dial, it also has a “down” dial that I had some control over.

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However, I have other things in my pain toolkit, as well.

One of the things  I really swear by (which I’m sure most of you know by now!) is aquatic exercise.  Being in the water lets me get my heart rate up like nothing else, without having to worry about the risk of injury.

I have certain stretches that make up part of my daily routine.

I’ve learned to trust my love of music, finding that taking the time to listen to music I love  actually helps drive away my pain.

I’ve learned that if I stay hydrated, that makes a big difference in my pain, as well.

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I’ve learned that actually, many of the joints in my body are hypermobile, not just my sacroiliac joints.  And this is another reason why so many parts of my body hurt.  So I have to be careful with my joints– my knees, my elbows, fingers, and wrists, in particular.   I have to keep my muscles strong and pay attention to the way I do things as I go about my day.

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I’ve learned to tell when certain muscles in my body are becoming tight, and whether it’s an issue I can probably fix with stretching, or if I need to go back to my one and only trusted massage therapist.

It took me a long time to find someone who was able to use the techniques that were right for my body, and didn’t put too much stress on my hypermobile joints.  Now that I’ve found her, I appreciate her so much (thank you Lynn!).

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And I have, at times, taken pain medication (Tylenol and Advil never could cut it for me).   I have written briefly about the time I took tramadol for back pain.  Contrary to so many of the articles you’ll read, it a) genuinely helped me, and b) I stopped it when I needed to.  I did not become addicted.

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So my blog is about learning all that you can do to control your pain.  It’s also about learning to live with the knowledge that, despite your best efforts, you won’t always be able to control it.

You must develop your personal chronic pain “tool kit,” but you should also be prepared for the possibility that the pain may return, at times.  Because it can.  Despite what you know, when it comes back, it can wash over you like a wave, making it hard to remember what’s even in your toolkit.

But at those times, if you’ve already assembled your toolkit, if you’ve already taken the time to figure out what goes in it, you can remember it again; you can come back.  You won’t be lost; you won’t slide back to zero.  You’ve dealt with this once, and you can deal with it again.

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I read the most amazing article recently by author and vulnerability researcher Brene Brown.   It’s about staying true to yourself and charting your own way as an individual.

My favorite sentence, however, just happens to perfectly sums up what I’m trying to say about my experience with chronic pain:

“I’m an experienced mapmaker, but I can be as much of a lost and stumbling traveler as anyone else.”

So the reason I write here is to share my map with you.  I think that, at this point, I’m a pretty experienced mapmaker as well.  But it doesn’t mean I never get lost.

But I have my pain toolkit.   I’ve assembled it and I know it will always be there.  Sometimes, when I’m doing well, I begin to forget the memory of the pain.  But, if and when it returns, I know I can always circle back to the things I learned.

So I’m not trying to tell you that my life is perfect now– far from it.

I just think some of the things I’ve learned might help you, too.

Healing our bodies, and the things that ripple across generations

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A little over a year ago, I started a second blog to focus on what I’d come to think of as this weird hip problem I’d had for years that no one seemed to understand (sacroiliac joint dysfunction).

Among friends, I usually tried not to talk about it too much, because I didn’t think anyone else would want to hear about it.  Sometimes I wondered if it was all in my head, since so many of the doctors and physical therapists I’d seen didn’t seem to know what I was talking about.  I was embarrassed to tell people about it, since only my chiropractor seemed to believe it was a real problem (and you know how skeptical I am about most things alternative health).

I started My Sacroiliac Joint Saga one warm day in May.  I’d had an absolutely awful day, and was just about reaching my breaking point with this problem and thinking I might need surgery.  I didn’t really think anyone would want to read what I wrote, but I left it set to “public” just in case.

But a funny thing happened.  Once I actually gave myself permission to focus on the issue, instead of judging myself for it, I found I had a lot more time to problem solve.

I used the mental energy I’d once devoted to questioning myself instead to research the problem from every possible angle.  Not everything I read was helpful to me, but by giving my full energy to the problem, instead of wondering if I was crazy, I ended up finding the answers I needed.

And it turned out there were people out there who were familiar with this problem– patients who had experienced it themselves, and doctors and PT’s who treated patients with it, and were even contributing to research on the problem.  I just hadn’t had the luck to come across any of them.  Looking back, I think the reason why is that I stopped searching too soon.

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Last spring, I wrote a post called “Inner Limits,” about how I was coming to realize my past with an eating disorder was haunting me more than I knew.

Internally, I had set certain limits for myself on how much time or energy I was willing to spend focusing on fixing a “problem” with my body, and so I held myself back.  I did my exercises, I went to the chiropractor once or twice a week, I maybe read one or two articles a month on it, but that was it.  Other than that, my main focus was sticking to my routine, as if pretending I didn’t have a problem could somehow limit the effect it had on my life.

But really, as I wrote in the post, there was more I could do.  I could do more exercises; I could do more stretches.  I could spend an hour a day researching, if I really wanted to.  I had the time… for some reason, I just wasn’t.  Because I was afraid to devote my full attention to it.

Funny, right?  Here I’d been working on this blog about my journey with central sensitization, and how much it took me to find answers for it, and how for so long I’d felt misunderstood when I had a legitimate medical issue.   One of the main messages of Sunlight in Winter has always been “Believe in yourself.  Your pain is real and you deserve help.”

And yet here, the same patterns were playing out with my sacroiliac joints.  Deep down, despite what I’d already been through, part of me was still afraid that if I fixated too much on my body, and trying to “change” it, it would trigger the same level of obsession that drove my years of starvation and overexercising.  So I held myself back.

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I haven’t written much about my family history on this blog, and I probably won’t say more than this anytime soon.  But in the past few years, I’ve come to realize that some of these thought patterns of self-doubt didn’t start with me.  Often we learn them from somewhere– usually, consciously or not, from our families.  These patterns can be passed down, and I think they very much were in my case.  There were things that happened in my family long before I was even born, that sent out ripples across generations.

I realize now that I have been on a long road– not just with my health, but with learning to believe in myself; to trust myself.  There were events that occurred in my family, long before I existed, that have affected my life and my ability to believe in myself.

Now that I’m aware of how the past has been affecting me, I’m learning to see things differently; to create my own future and way of seeing things that’s healthy, and works for me.

I won’t always be able control what my body does (I’m sure anyone reading this blog can relate to that!).  But I can control the way I see myself, and I don’t have to let health issues affect my self-perception.  Just because a doctor can’t give me an answer for something, it doesn’t mean the problem is in my head.  It doesn’t mean my problem isn’t real.  I can’t make a problem worse by “dwelling” on it when what I’m actually doing is researching and trying to find answers.

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I don’t believe that everything happens for a reason.  I believe that, most of the time, the best thing we can do is to try to make meaning out of something for ourselves, whatever that turns out to be.

I don’t know if all my health issues happened for a reason, but now that I look back, I  know this common thread was there all along.  Compartment syndrome, central sensitization, sacroiliac joint dysfunction.

All of these problems were real; all of them were hard to get diagnosed, and hard to find the right treatment.  But for each problem (and I know I’m fortunate in this) there were eventually answers out there.

I know this is not true for everyone who writes under the “Spoonie” banner, but for me, my major health issues have all turned to be manageable.  There were answers out there, and I probably would have found them sooner if I had taken myself more seriously, and believed in the possibility of finding answers.  Or, I should say, the possibility of being understood.

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Over the past weekend, My Sacroiliac Joint Saga hit 10,000 total page views.  I still can’t believe this blog I started a year ago as a somewhat embarrassing side project has grown to this extent, and helped so many people.  (And I know this because of all your kind comments and messages– thank you!).

And, aside from page views, 2016 Me still can hardly believe how fortunate I’ve been to finally find answers to this problem.  When I was at my breaking point that day in May, getting better wasn’t something I could really even picture.

So let this be a reminder to me, and to you if you’re reading this, to never let our health issues change the way we see ourselves.

We are so much more powerful than we realize… we just have to be able to see it in ourselves.

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Being okay with uncertainty

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When I first started this blog, I was angry.  I never wrote about it, because I didn’t want to bring people down, but I was sick and tired of trying to explain my health issues to the people in my life, and feeling like they didn’t believe me.

Maybe you can’t see the anger, because you aren’t me.  But when I look back and read my earlier posts, I see the it in between the lines, in the way I wrote.  How sure I wanted to be of things; how determined I was to prove that things were, in fact, the way I understood them to be.

The funny thing is that now that I’ve taken more and more science classes, my perspective has changed.  The more I know, the more there is I realize I don’t know.  And the more I’m actually okay with that.

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For example, one of the things I’ve written about from time to time is how researchers are beginning to use brain imaging to study chronic pain, and even to develop new treatments for it.  This is, of course, super promising research, and I’m really excited about it.

However, one of the first posts I wrote about it, I’ve since had to significantly edit.  That original post was about how I hoped that, someday, doctors would be able to use brain imaging to “test” people for pain hypersensitivity, and prove that they had central sensitization.  This, I imagined, could be used to validate patients’ disability claims, or prove that they weren’t faking it.

The more and more classes I’ve taken– and I’ve had some really great professors, who went into the ethics of research– I’ve come to realize why using brain imaging as some sort of test wouldn’t be ethical.  The body is too complex; our testing too imperfect, to allow it to be used to potentially deny someone treatment.  People with legitimate pain could still fall through the cracks.  That’s why these brain scans should probably only be used for research and developing treatment.

That’s just one example of how my perspective has changed– knowing that we may never have a definitive way of proving who is in pain or not.  I’m more comfortable with uncertainty now, because I’ve learned so much more.

I have a much better sense of where we stand now with scientific research and where we are going.  I’ve also made a lot of changes in terms of the people I choose to have in my life.

So from where I stand now, the idea of not being able to “prove” myself is no longer one of my biggest fears.

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Something I’m learning is that you can learn a lot about people by looking at what they choose to emphasize.

For example, I once had a roommate who’d been bullied for being overweight as a child.  Of course, as an adult, this person was obsessed with clothes and makeup, and never left the house, even to make a quick run to the store, without making sure she’d done her full beauty routine.

And maybe it was the same with me– in my anger, I needed to formulate some sort of certainty about central sensitization and chronic pain, because it gave me a sense of the stability that I was lacking.   Maybe that’s why the idea of a “test” appealed to me– it offered what I wished I could provide to the people in my own life: unequivocal proof.

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Of course, I still believe in learning about central sensitization.  No question; that is what has most empowered me.  Knowing what the problem is, and naming it: to me, that’s the first step on the road to healing.

What I’m really remarking on is the paradox: the more I know, the more I am okay with what I don’t know.

I no longer need to prove anything, so not having all the answers doesn’t scare me anymore.

 

Maybe my weaknesses aren’t weaknesses. Maybe they are strengths.

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When I first started this blog back in 2012, I kept it largely a secret from the people in my life.

I wanted to help people struggling with the same things I’d been through, but I was afraid of the consequences of putting so much personal information online.

After all, wasn’t putting a long list of all my health issues, and detailing my sometimes-inability to get through work or school just giving potential future employers a reason to not hire me?

But as time has gone by, I’m starting to see things differently.

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Now, this post isn’t meant to be just about me.  I’m not trying to come on here and just brag about how great I am.

But the more I write, and read other blogs, and interact with other people sharing their own stories, the more I realize just how much courage it can take to really face the cards you’re dealt, and try to make the best of a rough situation.

And that maybe, just maybe, other people will be able to see that about you.

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I stumbled upon a J.K. Rowling quote recently that I really loved:

“It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”

We are more than the sum of what our bodies can or can’t do.  I believe we all come into this life with certain lessons to learn and challenges to face, and physical limitations are one way in which we do that.

However, we can’t always count on others to immediately understand, or know what we are going through.

Which has led me to wonder…

What if we told our stories more, not less?

Will a future employer really look at my blog and count up the number of times I said I wasn’t feeling well?  Or will they look and see that I love to write, and that I’m doing my best to explain scientific concepts to a general audience, in the hopes that it might help others?

Will they really go through and count the number of years it’s taken me to get through all of my grad school prerequisites?  (Well, probably).  But, if they read through some of my posts, they should be able to see that, on the subject of chronic pain, I’ve basically already been to grad school.

A different kind of grad school, maybe, but I think you can certainly call what I’ve been through “Advanced Study.”

I speak from experience… I practice what I preach.

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I’ve been trying to get more comfortable with putting photos of myself up online… here’s a nice dark blurry one!

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I’ve had a number of misunderstandings recently with people I care about.  The misunderstanding arose because I thought they already knew my perspective and what I was going through, and then it turned out they didn’t.

It’s led me to the realization: how can I expect people to know if I don’t tell them?

Maybe keeping quiet and assuming people will be able to read between the lines isn’t the right thing.  I generally try not to complain… but I’m starting to realize that maybe I’ve taken it too far, into not actually sharing my reality with others (funny, because I CERTAINLY share it online!).

My new goal, going forward, is going to be to speak my truth, honestly and compassionately.  And if chronic pain is part of my truth, then I will not filter it out. If people are truly going to understand me and where I’m coming from, maybe they actually need to know.

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Part of what’s helped me get to this point is that I’ve recently discovered so many great writers/bloggers/poets, who have put into words not just what I’m feeling, but a place, emotionally, where I feel I ought to be going, if that makes sense.  I didn’t know it was my goal, or what lay ahead, but when I saw someone else put it into words, I recognized it.  My next lesson; my next place.

I had so many quotes I wanted to share with you in this post, however I’ve settled on this one from the amazing writer/poet Bianca Sparacino.  I discovered this quote from her a few months ago and it’s had a profound impact on me ever since:

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I want my communication to be clear, focused, and kind.  I want my words to reflect the truth.

Those of us struggling with chronic pain don’t want to complain.  We don’t want to overwhelm others with negativity.   However, we also need to remember that the people in our lives are not mind-readers.

If you really want to share your story with people, you can’t edit parts out.  It might be a temporary solution, but it only lasts for so long, before your longing to be understood will re-surface.

So instead of telling the truth by accident, or when we feel we have no other choice, why not just… say it?