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.

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.

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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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Amy Cuddy on Personal Power, Posture, & Body Language

Here is an amazing talk, given by social psychologist Amy Cuddy, on how the way we feel about ourselves can affect our physical experience of our bodies.   I first stumbled upon it a few years ago, and every time I watch it, I find it’s still relevant to my own life.

Dr. Cuddy’s main argument is that our sense of self directly influences both our body language and our internal biochemistry.   When we feel powerful, we tend to carry our bodies in a way that signals to others that we are in-control and confident.  We stand up tall; we make eye contact.

Conversely, when we don’t feel powerful– when instead, we are experiencing self-doubt– we try to shrink.  We hunch forward, cross our arms, and look down at the floor.

Dr. Cuddy explains that these non-verbal cues send powerful messages to others about how we are feeling, and can directly influence the judgements they make about us.

While that probably won’t come as much of a surprise to most of my readers, what’s really surprising is that, as Dr. Cuddy explains, our own body language can also have a direct affect on how we see ourselves.

Basically, when we hunch over, trying to make ourselves small, our brains recognizes that we are feeling powerless, and our internal chemical state then matches that feeling.  (To get into the nitty-gritty, this means that our brains release more of the stress hormone cortisol).

Conversely, when we take on what Dr. Cuddy refers to as a “power pose,” our brains (male and female) release more testosterone– the “power” hormone.

So, Dr. Cuddy explains, we can actually directly affect our brain chemistry with our own body language.   If we are feeling scared and powerless, we can give ourselves a confidence boost by taking on a power pose.  By assuming the body language of someone who is confident and strong, we send the signal to our brain that it should create an internal chemical state to match that body language.

Of course, it isn’t a magic bullet– nothing ever is– but I’ve tried this out myself, many times, and I do find that “power posing” can have an effect.

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While Dr. Cuddy’s talk is aimed at a general audience, I find an additional layer of relevance within it to my own experience with chronic pain.

Many of the same physical cues we exhibit when we are feeling fearful are also a response to pain and illness.  When I am in pain, or feeling nauseous due to my digestive issues, what do I do?  I hunch over; I round my shoulders forward.  Every classic marker of bad posture becomes exaggerated when I don’t feel well.

Although for me the cycle of “powerless” body language starts as a response to not feeling well. I have to wonder if it becomes part of a self-perpetuating cycle.  I don’t feel well, so I hunch over, which in turn sends the signal to my brain that I’m not feeling great about myself or my abilities.  In general, I tend to feel pretty good about myself, and confident in my ability to accomplish things, but when I am in a lot of pain, that all (temporarily) goes out the window.

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Since first discovering Dr. Cuddy’s talk, I pay way more attention to my posture.  Am I standing up straight, or am I hunching over?  And, if my posture isn’t great– am I in pain?  Or is something in this situation making me uncomfortable?

It’s kind of like the chicken and the egg– there are a lot of factors that can influence our experience of pain, and our posture; how we carry our bodies, what our alignment is like.

But paying attention to our own feelings of power vs. powerlessness can be one piece of the puzzle.   Even if our hunched-over, low-power poses are caused by physical factors such as muscle weakness/spending too much time slumped over our desks/being out of shape/being in pain, there’s no reason why paying attention to our own sense of power can’t contribute to our healing.

Now, when I’m in the locker room at the gym, I stop and check out my posture in the mirror before heading out to exercise.  Am I standing up tall, or and am I slumped?

And I just take a minute to check in with myself, and my goals.  Why am I here right now?  What are my goals; what is motivating me?

I find that just remembering to pause and re-center myself can make a big difference.  I might have a lot of issues going on with my back that I haven’t quite sorted out yet, but not having a sense of confidence doesn’t have to be one of them.

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P.S. For my other absolute favorite TED talk– Kelly McGonigal on Stress and Chasing Meaning, click here!

Little things

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These days,  I’m all about the little things.

Last Sunday, I went with my friend Romina to her father’s house in Rhode Island.  I would say that we were going to visit, but we were actually short on time, and Romina just needed to drop some things off.

But we ended up having a great time.  I had never gotten to know Rhode Island that well, and didn’t realize how beautiful it was, with all of its waterways and estuaries.  We drove through Providence and the surrounding towns, and I soaked in the beauty of all we passed.

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As I mentioned in my last post, travel wasn’t really a huge part of my life for the past 10+ years.  Since I developed compartment syndrome at 17, there always seemed to be one reason or another why I couldn’t be on my feet for long periods of time.  And what’s the point of travel, if you can’t walk around?  Better to wait and save my money until I could really enjoy it (or so I thought).

However, as I entered my late 20’s, my thinking started to change.  I realized that the perfect day when I’d be able to walk as much as I wanted might never come.  Why was I missing out on things, waiting for everything to be perfect, instead of enjoying what was possible right now?

I know this is going to sound like such a cliche, but it’s cliche for a good reason: I started to focus less on what I couldn’t do, and more on what I could do.

I can’t go on a six-hour walking tour through the rolling hills of San Francisco right now.  But I can tag along with Romina, on what would otherwise be a routine errand for her, and turn it into a really fun afternoon.

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I read an article a few years ago which really had an effect on me.  It was actually an article on how to be good to the environment and minimize your carbon footprint.  It pointed out something that of course is going to sound so obvious now:

If you have one errand to run, try to think of other things you can do on that same route.  Don’t make separate trips and go back and forth, when, with a little bit of planning, you can just make the first trip slightly longer and get more done. 

I know, this sounds so obvious– you probably didn’t need me to tell you.

But for me, as someone who really cares about the environment, it really got me thinking about what else is around me as I go about my daily life.  I started to study Google maps before every trip, wondering what cool scenic thing I might be driving by.   If I have the time– even a few extra minutes– why not try to see something cool?

I started out doing this for environmental reasons (not to mention to save money on gas) but over time, I came to realize that my whole perspective had changed.  Somehow, by getting in the habit of trying to make the most out of every trip, I had started to become more conscious of the unexpected little things around me.

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I mean, this is how we are when we’re on on vacation, right?  We try to see everything; to soak it in.  Everything is new.

But what I have learned, in my study of maps, is that we can have more of a vacation-mindset in our every day life.  It’s a matter of perspective.

You have to take the time to look, consciously.  No one is going to take you by the hand and force you to see the beauty in the world.  You have to remind yourself to keep your eyes open.

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I don’t mean to sound as though I am against travel– not at all.

I just know that before my health problems, I used to think about travel the way I think most people probably do: what is my preferred destination?  What do I want to see more than anything else, and how can I maximize my enjoyment of that destination?

But that way of thinking– let’s call it the “enjoyment-maximization mindset”– is what made it so devastating to me when I couldn’t walk, and made me not want to travel until things could be perfect.

Now, I am in more of what I would call an “appreciation mindset,” where I consciously remind myself to look up and see what is around me.  This is another cliche, but it’s honestly not about the end destination: it’s about the journey.

Just because I’m driving to a doctor’s office down an unsightly highway full of strip malls does not mean that, two miles off the main road, there won’t be a gorgeous scenic overlook or historical park.

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Even if you can’t travel far, or see things on foot, you can still discover new things all the time.  But it does take a conscious effort to break out of old ways of thinking, and decide what matters to you, even if your adventures are not in the same form other people’s would take.

Now, I say yes to so many invitations I would have turned down in the past.  These days, when my friends go camping, I actually go too.  (Car-camping, of course–backpacking would still be too much of a stretch).

In the past, I never would have said yes to camping.  What would be the point?  I would have thought.  I can’t actually go hiking with them during the daytime, so why would I want to go and be by myself all day?

But that was my old way of viewing things: of waiting until I could experience things the same way everyone else does.

Now I go, and I do as much with the group as I can.  We generally go to the White Mountains in New Hampshire, and what I never realized until I got there is that even the car ride can be fun, because it’s so beautiful.  There are things to stop and see all up and down the major roads.

Now, when my friends leave in the morning to go hiking at whatever mountain they’ve chosen that day,  I drop them off, and then go sightseeing for a few hours until it’s time to pick them up again.

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Of course, this plan wouldn’t work without the right people.  I’m really loading this post up with cliches, but hey– it’s not just what you do; it’s who you’re with.  Anything can be fun with the right person.

I am grateful to the people I’ve found in my own life, who are able to appreciate the little things with me.  To friends who give me their car for the day so I’m not stuck at the campground.  To a friend like Romina, who can make a tour of her hometown so much fun.  (And of course, to her father and his wife, who sent us home with about 30 pounds of food Sunday night).

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Peruvian-American fusion.

It’s all about figuring out what matters to you, and makes you happy.   And remembering to seek it out, even if it’s in a different form than what you once would have expected.

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Photos of Providence:

Lessons from an amazing weekend

I had a crazy, fun-filled weekend. The kind of weekend I haven’t had in at least five years. 4634683686_d575b661b5_o

Five years ago, my friends and I went to a “tango night” at a local restaurant.  It was an amazing evening.  The teachers were professional dancers, and a lot of the other students were from other countries.  There was such a fun, friendly, open vibe to the night.

The evening started out with a free tango lesson, and then afterwards, the dance floor opened up to anyone who wanted to come and dance.  Some truly amazing dancers showed up.  I was in my element, starting to picture myself traveling through Argentina.

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But as the night went, on my knees started to hurt. At first, I tried to ignore the pain, but it got worse and worse until eventually, I had to sit down and watch everyone else for the last two hours.

“We’ll go back,” my friends and I all said at the end of the night. I thought I’d fix my knee problems, and organize another group outing in a few months.

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Of course, it never ended up happening.  People got busy; the friend who organized it the first time moved away.

And I ended up spending the next five years having trouble walking.  My knee problems got a lot worse before they got better, and the months I spent limping and carrying my weight unevenly led me to develop the SI joint issues I still have today.  Basically, it’s been five years since I could stand, or walk, or dance without so much as a thought.

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Yet somehow, this weekend, everything clicked. I didn’t plan it– I just got caught up in the flow of things, and went where my friends went.

I guess all my strengthening exercises are starting to really pay off, because somehow, I went out dancing Friday and Saturday night. Friday night, I was in one of those loud, crowded bars I normally hate, but the band was actually amazing, and I found myself out on the dance floor with the group.

And then Saturday? Well, it wasn’t tango, but some friends went to a salsa night. I didn’t make it in time for the lesson, but I did make it out onto the dance floor afterwards. I wouldn’t say I wowed anyone with my salsa skills, but I also didn’t need to sit down once the entire night.

But here’s what really shocked me: I was back to where, physically, I had left off five years ago. But nothing about it felt monumental or life-changing.

What was life-changing? Everything it took for me to be okay, in the past five years, when I couldn’t have a weekend like this. All of the restraint it took; all of the patience I was forced to cultivate.

Don’t get me wrong– I haven’t stayed at home for five years, I’ve gone out– but it was never without compromise, never without having to constantly be aware of the nearest chair.

I’ve had to make peace with the fact that I’d be sitting by myself when an amazing song came on and everyone else wanted to be on the dance floor. I’ve had to perfect the art of looking calm, confident, and busy doing things on my cell phone.

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I’ve been through so much pain, frustration, and effort with my SI joint, I can’t even tell you. As much time as I’ve spent actually exercising, I’ve spent about three times as much time trying to learn about the problem. Researching the joint, consulting different doctors, chiropractors, and PT’s. Learning what movements not to do, which has been just as important as finding the right exercises.

That’s the thing– and I think anyone with chronic pain and health issues knows this– mind over matter doesn’t work. And actually, it’s counterproductive to push yourself into doing something that isn’t good for you.

You have to listen to your body: fine-tune your balancing act of when to push and when to rest. You have to become still.

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Something that’s helped me immeasurably is learning how to meditate. I actually don’t meditate every day, but learning how to be in the moment in that way has really spilled over into my daily life.

For me, meditation is like an experiment. You take everything that’s bothering you– whether it’s physical pain, or emotional, or stress and anxiety– and you just tell yourself, “Yes, this is all happening… but what if I was okay, anyway?” The problems are all still there, but just for a few minutes, you stop trying to fight them. They exist, but you see that underneath it all, you actually are okay.

Even after I’d only had this experience a few times, I felt as though it began to change the way I saw the world. I just felt calmer; more at peace. Somehow, it started to feel easier for me to notice the good in the world.

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There are different ways to grow as a person. You can go on a journey through the world– you can travel, meet people, and see fascinating things.

But you can also journey inside of yourself, and that can transform your perspective just as much.

I have had to learn how to find peace in the moment. I haven’t had the option of going out and losing myself in the way people describe when they talk about travel. I’ve never backpacked through Europe… I’ve never even backpacked through the White Mountains, like just about everyone else I know.

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But I have been transformed, no doubt.

It’s tempting for me to try to compare myself to other people, to suggest that maybe I have actually learned more by being forced to stay still, compared to people who have been able to leave their problems behind by going out and doing things. But that would be wrong– I don’t know what journeys people are on, or what they are learning.

But I can compare myself to my past self, and say that the things it takes to make me happy now are very different than the things I used to think I needed to be happy.

That night that I was forced to sit down at Tango Night, I thought I was losing a piece of myself that I wouldn’t get back until I could come back and dance again.

Now I see that I didn’t lose anything at all.  In fact, I gained something.

And that is a lesson I’m grateful to have learned.

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Credits for the photos in this post:

 

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