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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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?

 

 

Learning about central sensitization: the power of naming, and the future of pain treatment

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Whew.

I have really enjoyed writing my more personal posts recently– I love to tell a good story, and to feel as though my past experiences have some meaning.  (And I’ve really appreciated all your kind words, comments, and shares!).

But also, wow– some of those posts were very emotional for me.  Right now I’m kind of feeling the need to come up for some air.

So let me back up for just for a minute, and talk about some of the things I’m optimistic about, in terms of the big picture in treating chronic pain.

The more we know about central sensitization and the way pain works:

It gives us the power to name things.  

This is something I’ve been thinking a lot about recently.  Sometimes, there is a healing power that comes just from being able to put a name to something; to receive a diagnosis, and know that you aren’t the only one.

As I explained in my last post, when I finally learned the term central sensitization, it helped me to feel validated, and so much less alone.

Sometimes healing can come not from completely “fixing” your condition, but from being able to make meaning out of it for yourself; constructing a coherent narrative that makes sense.

And of course, it’s much easier to make sense out of something when you actually know what it is.

Having an actual diagnosis can help us explain ourselves to others

At least, I assume it does.

As I have mentioned in past posts, the truth is that I have often struggled to articulate what’s happened to me in the people in my life.

Of course, it didn’t help that I didn’t really have an explanation that made sense for it myself, for most of the time, or that even now that I have an explanation, it’s a condition that’s still fairly unknown.

This is why I am doing my best to raise awareness and get the word out.

The more we, as a society, understand about pain, the more treatments we can develop.

There is just so much to say here.  The more I learn about pain, the more and more I realize I don’t know.  It’s really such a fascinating subject.  I try to talk about some of the highlights on my blog, just to give you a sense of how broad the subject really is.

But in a nutshell, our growing scientific understanding of pain can lead us to all sorts of new treatments, such as:

New pharmacological approaches: I’ve recently discovered Gracie Gean’s Youtube channel, and her story about receiving ketamine infusions to treat CRPS.  I totally recommend checking it out!

Brain imaging and biofeedback: I’ve written before about the work of Christopher deCharms and others at Stanford University, who use functional MRI to teach patients to mentally “turn the volume down” on their pain.

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And of course, once you understand that pain is one of your body’s protective responses– it’s actually there to keep you safe, not make you miserable– this can help you learn to work with it, not against it.

This is the premise of pain neurophysiology education, which I talk about in the “Calming Your Nervous System” section of my blog.

When I was in the midst of my struggle, I happened to find a physical therapist who had taken a PNE course with Neil Pearson, and that was the moment things really changed for me.

I learned to view my pain not as an automatic indicator that something was wrong or broken in my body, but as my body’s attempts to protect me.  And, each time something hurt, it was possible my body was overreacting, like a jumpy alarm system, or an overprotective friend.

This helped me to mentally take a step back when things began to hurt, and re-evaluate what I intellectually thought the pain was likely to mean.  And even just realizing that I had the ability to do this– that pain didn’t always have to mean something was wrong– helped me to begin to end the cycle I’d been caught in.

So, that’s all for now.

I’ve got a bunch of posts planned for the next few weeks that I’m really excited about.

I’ve also recorded a podcast interview with Matthew Villegas for The Capable Body Podcast about my experience with pain neurophysiology education.  Although I was afraid I sounded super awkward, Matt assures me the episode will be good!  It should be coming out sometime in September– I’ll be sure to let you know when it does.

Stay tuned!

 

 

What I really want you to know

I never know quite what to call the posts in which I share a video.

Every title I think of sounds either click-baity or boring.  Like for this one: “Mayo Clinic doctor explains central sensitization.”  “Awesome video on central sensitization,” etc. etc.

In this day and age… what do you call something that truly is a “must-watch?”  The term is so overused.

But I really, really want everyone to watch this.

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Have you ever held something in for so long that, when someone finally validates the way you feel, you end up crying?

That was kind of how it was for me, with this.  This video was so great it actually made me cry.

I know a lot about central sensitization, but, honestly, most of that is from my own research.  (You can check out the articles and researchers I cite in my Resources section, particularly under “Scientific Articles”).

Of course, I’m grateful to have access to these articles, and of course, to the scientists who wrote them.  (Not to mention the education that allows me to understand them– big shout out to my neuroscience professor!).

But when it comes to understanding central sensitization as a scientific concept, there have been many times when I’ve felt pretty alone.

Maybe I shouldn’t feel this way, because, largely, I’ve found the answers I need– my life is so much better since I discovered pain neurophysiology education and the work of Neil Pearson (thank you again, Neil!).

But what I’m talking about is the emotional aftermath of what I went through in all the years before; all the time I spent feeling misunderstood.  All the conflicts and arguments with friends and family over the “weird” symptoms no one could understand… I have sometimes felt very, very alone in trying to articulate exactly what’s happened to me.

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That’s a big part of why this video blew me out of the water.

Here, Dr. Christopher Sletten, who runs the Pain Rehabilitation Center at the Mayo Clinic in Florida, describes, in patient-friendly language, exactly how central sensitization can happen, and the myriad ways it can affect a person.

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On my blog, I talk mainly about pain.  That’s been my main symptom, and in some ways it’s the clearest and easiest to write about.

But central sensitization can cause all sorts of bodily sensations to become amplified.

As Dr. Sletten explains, it can make lights seem brighter, and sounds seem louder.  It can make you dizzy.  It can cause digestive upset.

It can really affect all of the sensory input that is meant to help you protect your body and guide you through the world.

And this, of course, will make you look crazy to those who don’t understand.  It can even make you look crazy to yourself.

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So I love, love, LOVED the part around the 7:20 mark where Dr. Sletten asks, “So how much of this is psychological?  NONE.”  Bam.

“The emotions are a symptom, not a cause.”  YES.

How I wish the people in my life had believed this, all the times I tried to explain it to them ten years ago.

I knew I wasn’t crazy; knew it wasn’t all “in my head.”  But I could never find the right words to convey my reality; to convince people who’d already made up their minds.

It doesn’t mean they didn’t care.  But there’s a difference between knowing you’re cared about, and feeling truly believed and understood.  There’s quite a big difference, actually, and it can hurt to never get that second part from the people you love.  To know they’re tolerating your “craziness,” instead of seeing you for who you really are.

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I wasn’t really planning on writing such a personal post today.  I seriously LOVE the science behind this stuff, so I was planning to take some notes on important concepts and get more into the nitty-gritty.

But I guess this is the part of my story that I needed to tell today.  More of the nitty gritty will have to come later on.

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The one sciencey thought I wanted to leave you with right now is that this video provides some great insight into how central sensitization can lead to what are called central sensitivity syndromes.

After all, it’s not just pain.  It’s never just any one thing.  It’s the fact that the sensory information that’s supposed to give your brain cues as to how to respond to your environment is coming in way too “loud.”

This can create all sorts of different symptoms and sensations in different people.  It can lead to chronic pain; some people call it fibromyalgia.  It can cause phantom limb pain; it can cause Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS).

It can cause lead to diagnoses whose names imply more of a specific focus: chronic pelvic pain.  Temporo-mandibular joint disorder.  Irritable bowel syndrome; other digestive issues.

But they all fall under this umbrella term: central sensitivity syndromes.   Despite having seemingly very different symptoms on the surface, all of these conditions can share a common cause, at the level of the nervous system.

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So that’s all for now.  I hope you get as much out of this video as I did.  (And if you do, I hope you spread it around– I seriously want everyone in the world to watch it!).

As always, if you have any thoughts or questions for me, you can leave a comment below or email me!

 

 

Reasons why I write

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Every once in a while, I freak out.  Why in the world am I putting all this personal stuff about my life online?

I woke up this morning feeling like I needed to update my blogging “Mission Statement.”  I wasn’t sure if I was going to share it or not, but now I feel like it belongs here.  So, here are the reasons why I write:

To share what I’ve learned.

To prepare for my future career and crystallize my thoughts.

I’ve had to learn so much and go pretty in-depth on certain topics just to heal myself.  Now, I think it’s pretty clear what my future specialties will be as a PT, and I want to make sure I remember exactly where I’m coming from and what motivates me.

I don’t believe the traditional (insurance-based) physical therapy model is the best.

Honestly, in an ideal world, I wouldn’t have had to learn all this stuff.  Sure, I’m interested in it, but I also had to learn to take things into my own hands.

Even the times I found someone to really help me, it was never quite enough.  They were always under pressure from insurance companies, or company they worked for, to get results and demonstrate that I was progressing by certain markable bench lines each week.

In real life things are not always that clear, especially when you are dealing with a chronic condition.  People have setbacks– it doesn’t necessarily mean that their treatment isn’t helping.  It’s just the way things go.  External factors occur in our lives; our individual health fluctuates.

I recognize there are gaps in our current system, and I see how those gaps have failed me.  

I am putting this information out there so other people don’t have to spend the same amount of time looking for it that I did.

There is no good reason why things took me this long.  Honestly.  It took me years –and appointments with more medical professionals than I care to recall right now– to find the answers I needed, both for chronic pain and my SI joints.

There was no real reason, other than the first few doctors/PT’s I saw didn’t know what they didn’t know, so to speak.  So they left me with the impression nothing more could be done, when that was far from the case.

So now, I put my answers out there, for anyone who is desperately Googling the same things I used to.  

I don’t want it to take you that long.  It’s the best way for me to fight against that sense of pointlessness; to think that at least, maybe my experience can spare someone else what I went through.

I want to turn my experiences into something good.  

For a while, I tried to block out the enormity of my experience, and not acknowledge the big picture of how much things sucked at times.  It was the only way I could get through it at the time; to tell myself things weren’t that bad, to block some of it out.  To ignore how much I was missing out on.

But now that I’m a little bit older and wiser, my outlook has changed.  I try to accept what’s happened, and even try to find the good in it; the lessons learned.

There is good in it.

Luckily, through all of this, I discovered I truly do love learning about the human body.  I had never really thought of myself as much of a science person when I was younger.  In school, I gravitated towards the humanities and social sciences because I felt so passionately about social issues (and I still do).  And when you’re that age, I think you sometimes feel pressure to put yourself into a certain category.  I was a “humanities” person– I didn’t know I could also be a science person.

Educating myself– and others– on the science of the human body allows me to see how far I’ve come.

I haven’t written much about this yet, but when I was younger I put my body through the ringer.  I had an eating disorder and I exercised way too much.  Refusing to listen to my body caused me to develop the injuries that set off this spiral of chronic pain.  So it’s fulfilling for me now– almost meditative– to learn about the body from a scientific perspective, and to help other people find their way to a healthier life.

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So I write:

To gather and clarify my thoughts;

To record the useful information I’ve already learned;

To share things that you might find helpful, some of which took me years to find;

and to let others know that, despite all of what I’ve been through, it’s actually possible to come out on the other side.

I hope what I write is helpful for you.

Links to Inspire.

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When I was in San Francisco last fall, I did a ton of reading that I meant to share with you all.

Then, somehow, I got caught up in the ebb and flow of daily life back here in Boston and these links went on the back burner.

However, one of my goals for 2017 is to start taking more notice of pieces of writing that really catch my eye; that draw me back to revisit them them a day, or a week, or a month later.

I love when people are able to tell their stories– the things that are the most personal, or even the most painful.  There is just something amazing about telling your truth to the world– about getting the right words together, getting up the courage, and just putting it out there.

So here are a few of pieces of writing that really drew me in, and inspired me to get back to work on my own blog.  (Some of these are not super recent.  I mean what I say about amazing writing being able to draw me back months later!).

In no particular order:

Para Las Fridas: When healing our body is not an option, we can still heal from the inside

Anonymously Autistic: Washing away the alter ego and I’m not normal and that’s okay

Embracing Authenticity: Failure should not be feared because it is necessary to learn and grow and I will now strive for progress, not perfection

The Invisible Warrior: Dear Warrior: A letter to all my friends with CRPS

Life in Slow Motion Blog: 10 Ways to Flood the Pain Map to Reduce Chronic Pain and When pushing forward leads to falling backwards

Fire in Her Loins: One Girl’s Quest to Cure Her Chronic Pelvic Pain

I have more for you guys, but that’s all for now!  Enjoy!

A Returning

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“I have been away.

I have often thought of how to begin this blog again after a long hiatus and then more time would pass and there it stood waiting for me to speak, write, and reach out.

The reason for my silence is the same reason for beginning this blog. Living with chronic illness permeates everything we do. It is the scaffolding of which we build each day. It determines our daily plans, what we take on, and what we leave unfinished. As I dedicated each day to doctor’s appointments, physical therapy, medication changes, and rebuilding my life after a health storm, this unfinished blog provided comfort knowing that it was a place for me to return.

As the months passed, I was forced into long stretches of bed rest, breaking from work, my passions, the world, and my voice. This is the cycle, after all, of the chronically ill. It is a sequence of retreat and victory, of silence and stories, and of mining the telos of one’s spirit.  What incites us to account our narrative to others relegates us to silence in other moments in a life lived with chronic illness.

I have to admit that at first my silence was “put upon” me. I was so engulfed in pain, fatigue, and just getting through one hour after another that I had no desire to communicate about the latest health trial. Yet, resignation turned towards choice, as I again reimagined and redesigned a future. It is a truth we face when dealing with an incurable disease that we must rewrite our future story after it is continually malformed by our bodies.

The poet Carmen Tafolla wrote: “I was the fourth ship. Behind Niña, Pinta, Santa María, Lost at sea while watching a seagull, Following the wind and sunset skies, While the others set their charts.” This post is dedicated to the future, to the reciting of a livable future, and to exploring the why in a life filled with medical chaos.

Illness is an invasion of identity. Since living through surgeries, a nine medication regimen, and too many medical procedures, I have searched for an explanation, a pathway, and a satisfactory answer to why. Why did this happen? Why me? I have done everything from pretending that the illness part of my life is nonexistent to studying the mechanisms and pathologies of the body; nonetheless, illness continues to lead its assault.

To live with a chronic degenerative disease one must constantly engage in meaning-making. Why? It is because illness is unremitting and untrustworthy. A medical crisis can topple all that you have worked towards in a mere blink.

Therefore, we are professionals at reconstruction and rebooting our future.  Often times, it is a future tinted by professional and personal sadness. Professional goals wane under the weight of the body often causing an individual to lose their job or relinquish ambitions. Illness demands a personal reimagining of what family looks like sometimes forcing an individual to move in with a family member who subsumes a caregiver role or surrendering the dream of having a family and experiencing parenthood.

Illness fractures identity and makes us feel less complete because completion is continuously interrupted.  I believe searching for the “why me” is not out of anger, jealousy, or pity but out of the attempt to take all these futures interrupted and find fulfillment in a life that no longer looks like the life originally intended.

Chronic illness mandates that the individual who lives with it coat themselves in an extra layer of depth because it is a permanent state and the human mind has forever raised questions about immutability.

I spent the last year in renovation.  It’s frightening; isn’t it?  There’s a trauma processing that must be completed in order to move forward in life.

When I was first diagnosed with endometriosis and a chronic pain condition due to a spinal injury, I had no idea nor was it explained to me that I was going to have to go through a continual cycle of insecurity. I was oblivious to the fact that I was going to have to live my life in a temperamental space.

It is of my opinion that chronic illness patients do not fit easily into the usual experience of loss because our loss is not consistent.  The future is unpredictable and so our stories are discontinued and resumed and this process repeats infinitely.

Thus we are forced to mourn each time and rebuild our futures anew holding our breath again that the house will not collapse with us inside. Our narratives remain disjointed and so without any desire for it we gain a level of complexity that is difficult to communicate and share with others even those we love the most.

I don’t know if there is a way to rid ourselves of this anarchy that illness brings. What I am still learning is that inside this chaos we must pledge to coming out of the other side of it. We must promise to find our voice again.

I have been away but now I am returning.  Each one of us can say that.

Although it may appear like a small triumph, I am proud of my return and I am proud of yours too.”

***

The above post was written by my friend C. over at her blog Para Las Fridas.  I have re-posted it here with her permission because it is quite honestly one of the most amazing accounts of life with chronic illness I have ever read.  From the moment I first read it, I was struck by the way C. managed to put into words aspects of my own experience that I had been afraid to face, much less articulate to myself.

Like the feeling of having lost time, of living according to a completely different calendar than everyone else.  Of knowing I’ve disappeared from the world, for months and years at a time, while life has marched on unrelentingly for everyone else.

The feeling of resurfacing, of returning, without knowing if it’s an illusion, or for how long I’ll be allowed to stay before disappearing again.

The feeling that I’ve become an expert at remaking my identity: after each disappearance and returning, constructing meaning again as best I can, assembling the pieces that make sense, filling in the gaps in a way I hope no one else notices.

C.’s words give me the courage to come on my blog and tell my own story, when I’m afraid it’s been too long, or no one will be able to relate.

I am not the only one who feels this way; I am not the only one who has disappeared and returned.

***

You can check out the rest of C.’s writing at Para Las Fridas!  It is simply incredible.

I also wrote this post outlining some of posts C.’s site that meant the most to me.

Lastly, you can also see what C.’s up to on Twitter.

Because the world needs you

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For the first time in, oh, slightly over ten years, my health issues are not seriously obscuring my ability to deal with life.

Mostly through learning about the body, and getting stronger, but also adjusting the way I do things, and my expectations… I’ve come so, so far from the places I once was.

I was telling a friend, a week before the election here, that I was beginning to feel my ability to pay attention to politics and the world at large return to me.

For so long, my health problems forced my gaze to become myopic.  Suddenly, it seemed like 95% of my energy and will to live, really, was going towards simply getting through one day to the next.  Putting one foot in front of the other– even walking from one room to another became a huge task.

My mind was clouded by thoughts of pain.  Forget about work, grad school– I couldn’t think straight.  Sometimes I was in so much pain it was all I could do not to scream.  The daily annoyances of trying to do even the most basic of tasks when my body couldn’t function piled up like a brick wall, blocking my attention from anything else.

So I stopped paying attention.  I checked out, and did what I needed to do to overcome the cards I’d been dealt within my own life.

About month ago, I finally felt something finally click into place again.  I guess it was pretty easy, right before the election and all of the emotions it stirred up for everyone, to begin to feel passionate again.  But I felt the old me come back– the me that couldn’t tune it out, didn’t want to tune it out.

And then I opened my eyes again, to find the whole world seems to be on fire.

This post isn’t supposed to be about me.  I want to tell you all of the things I’m thinking, now I’m tuned in again.  But quite frankly, I’m not sure I’m ready to deal with angry Internet commenters on here.

I’m not sure where to start, but I need to do something.

I guess I’ll begin by sharing a few thoughts:

First, I will remind myself about how we all can play a role in helping each other, in creating a better world.  That there are many ways to contribute.

And that there is simply, utterly, no time in judging ourselves for the problems that we do have.

I struggled for a long time with the fact that my health problems were not “that bad.”  That other people had it worse.  Even my former-favorite doctor said the same thing to me once: “I see other people with worse problems, you know.”

For so long, I felt guilty, selfish.  I had all the time in the world to devote to my health.  I had a roof over my head, a family that supported me.  Was it all in my head– was I  making a big deal out of nothing?

Years later, now that I stand on the other side of the abyss, having finally found answers I needed, I can tell you unequivocally that way of thinking is stupid.

Yes, other people have “worse” problems than I had.  But if there’s anything I’ve learned in all of my studies of the body, it’s that sometimes, even if one little thing goes wrong, it can have far-reaching effects.

The problem is there; pretending it isn’t takes away energy that could be going to actually solve it.

And if it is a “small” problem, isn’t that all the more reason we should be taking steps to solve it and get it out of the way?

When I look back, I know that if I had managed to redirect half of the energy I spent judging myself towards doing my own research and getting second and third opinions, I probably would have gotten to the point I’m at now a lot sooner.  The point where I am able to pay attention to the world at large, and hopefully do something to make it a little bit better.

Instead of thinking of a problem as “small,” maybe we should be thinking of it as “more likely to be solvable.”

Life is too short, and too precious, and there is too much time going on, to judge yourself for an experience you didn’t ask for.  It is what it is– take time the time, do you what you need to do to find a solution, because you need to move on.

Because other people have problems worse than you.

Because the world needs you.

San Francisco, Revisited

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It’s so interesting for me to go back to San Francisco.

As you may remember, I spent a few weeks in SF back in June, following a good friend’s wedding in Napa Valley.

I actually just wrapped up another trip out there. I spent most of September in SF, staying with a friend and trying to investigate whether I’d eventually want to move there for work and/or grad school.

***

The city of San Francisco is symbolic for me, for a number of reasons.

Back in 2005, one of my friends from high school (CA) and I had planned to travel to the Bay Area and visit our friend Karen, who was attending Stanford University at the time.

Our trip was actually planned for the same time of year– September.

However, I’d just had my surgery for compartment syndrome that spring, and at the last minute, I freaked out and canceled my plane ticket. After all I’d heard about San Francisco’s hills, I just didn’t think my legs were ready, and I didn’t want to take a chance. So CA flew out by herself, and I stayed behind to mend.

I was 19 at the time, and although I didn’t know it yet, I actually had somewhat of a long road ahead of me. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I didn’t travel at all in the first half of my 20’s, and it was only in the second half that I started to ease back into it with local trips, such as camping in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.

As most of you probably know, I developed my problems with central sensitization (CS) around that same time, shortly after my leg surgery. I definitely don’t think the surgery caused the CS, but as something that the body perceives as a “trauma,” it may have been one of the precipitating events.

I’ll talk more about why I developed CS in the future, but for now, what I want you to know is that for the next five years, I didn’t travel at all. The second five years, I got back into it slowly, but only local trips, and not by myself.

So now, at 31, after everything I’ve been through: compartment syndrome surgery, discovering pain neurophysiology education, struggling to heal my sacroiliac joints…. it feels almost like I’m living in a dream world. To be able to travel to San Francisco and walk around to my heart’s content– it’s like I was transported to a parallel universe.

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Here was the moment when it really hit me, how far I’d come:

I was walking from my friend’s house to the gym, and I ended up walking up some really huge hills. Like, gigantic hills– the kind you think of, when you think San Francisco.

And I was just doing it. I wasn’t sightseeing– I hadn’t set out to “walk the hills.” I was just trying to get from one place to another, like anyone. Like a local.

And it was okay.

I mean, if anything, I got a little bit of a wake-up call about maybe needing to do more cardio. But after all the years I’ve spent only being able to work out in a pool, it was such an amazing feeling to be moving through the world, as fast as I wanted, feeling my heart pumping. I was free.

It was a feeling I’d forgotten– to truly push my cardiovascular system to its limits with each footstep, out in the wind, out in the sunshine. For the past few years, I only got to experience that feeling within the safe, weightless environment of the pool.  While I am so grateful for my pool workouts, my trek on this day brought back a form of muscle memory. With the thud of each footstep, I was awake. I was back.

The thing is, this isn’t really meant to be a post about physical accomplishment. Instead, it’s about my unexpectedly “Returning” to an aspect of life that I was prepared to live without.

I had made peace with not being able to move the way I wanted. Not being able to travel, and more or less being stuck in place, taught me to try to always notice the beautiful little things around me. I’m not saying I succeeded all the time, but it was a skill that I worked at, and I got better at it.

I had to learn to savor the little things– the colors of the leaves in fall, the glitter of sunlight filtering through the trees, the taste of really good coffee– because it was the only way to make up for the things I’d lost.

Over time, it started to come more naturally. Maybe I was just getting into a better place in my life, emotionally. Maybe I was just growing up. Or maybe it was all of these factors.

But the point is, it happened. I learned to live without running, without traveling, without feeling free in a geographical sense, because I realized there were more important ways to feel free.

Now that that kind of freedom has come back to me, it’s like an unexpected bonus. And I view it gratefully.

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