where i stand

So, how do you feel?!

This is the question I get the most now. The source, I’ve concluded, is concern, interest, confusion – or perhaps even a combination of all three.

Unfortunately, the answer isn’t simple. Not one of the new behaviors I’m implementing boasts immediate results. I have, however, already noticed some movement in the right direction. My mental clarity and sleep improved almost immediately once I stopped taking meds. I’ve also seen a nice jump in my social life, stamina, and overall happiness. Interestingly enough, the last three changes aren’t due to a dramatic decrease in my level of discomfort. I hate to so blatantly take credit, but those changes come from me.

I now know* that I was protecting numbing myself from painful experiences, both physical and emotional. I was also flooding my brain with chemicals that completely messed with its pleasure center [or nucleus accumbens, for anyone who prefers that terminology]. While I was somewhat successful in achieving my raison d’être, I inadvertently shut myself off from positive experiences and emotions, as well. So now, armed with this knowledge, I push myself to reverse these unfortunate side effects. I’ve set a slew of goals to keep myself from falling back into bad habits. I do this not because I already feel better, but because I know it’s the only way I’m going to feel better. And guess what…it has actually made a difference already.

You see, I had everything backward. I kept waiting for something to happen to me. I viewed myself as a powerless victim. Eventually, I became frustrated enough about how my life looked, and I wanted to change course. That’s a big piece of the puzzle right there – just wanting it badly enough. Because, if I’m being perfectly honest, this way of living is much harder! But I keep at it mostly because I know how big the payoff will be, and a little bit because I know there is no other option.

So, back to the original question. On average, my discomfort is markedly lower than it was before I went to Silver Hill. For the next year, I’ll continue watching my pain trend downward as I get stronger, become more mindful, hone my knowledge of modalities aside from taking pills, and better understand my pain triggers and how to pace myself. On my best days I get glimpses of this life with less pain. I meditate and actually feel my breath easing my discomfort. I notice strides I’m making in physical therapy, and I feel like I’m finally standing taller and walking straighter. On the bad days, though, I feel just as I did before I left. Incidentally, on those days I let my good behaviors sort of fall to the wayside. My food intake goes down, I barely get through one or two exercises, and I laugh at the idea of mindfulness. When I need my skills the most I abandon them.

Clearly, there’s a lot I’m still learning, not just about these behaviors but about myself and what I need.  And while I wish I could say straight away that I’m all better, I’m already so far ahead of where I was at the beginning of the year. And for now, I’m thinking that that’s enough.

Ugh, okay, this is really sappy. Sorry, everyone. Bye!

 


 

*Thank you, Silver Hill Hospital!

attention over avoidance

Avoiding is, without a doubt, my favorite coping mechanism. I’m not sure if it grew out of trying to ignore my physical pain, or for other reasons I’ve yet to identify, but it’s a tool I employ often. While being able to push physical discomfort to the back burner may sound like a skill, it backfires more than it is useful. This is particularly true now as I try to learn whether a behavior helps or hinders my perception of pain.

Here’s an example of how ignoring your pain* can backfire : Let’s say that I start feeling uncomfortable during an activity, like having coffee with a friend. The first sign that something is going wrong is usually a sharp pain right in the front of one or both of my hips. Before long the pain wraps around my back, and then, if I continue to ignore it, radiates down my legs through my knees. Next come the numbness / pins and needles. In the time it takes for my body to go through these checkpoints my mind goes through its own processes. I get anxious and my heart rate goes up as I stress and wonder how I’m going to deal and how quickly I can get home. [These emotional responses only escalate pain, by the way.]

If I was practicing mindfulness I would be able to notice the earliest warning signs of each symptom, and then would feel completely comfortable / confident implementing whatever tool I needed at that moment. Perhaps some breathwork, a brief meditation, or simply changing my body’s position would be enough.

Instead, I usually push all thoughts of pain aside. I don’t want to deal, so I simply won’t. The problem with this approach [well, one of the many problems] is that once I get in my car to go home, the coffee date that was helping distract me from my discomfort is over. As I drive I think about how I can get out of any other plans I have that day while my anxiety climbs higher. I then spend the rest of the day holed up alone in my house, feeling guilty for canceling plans. I lie on the floor and do nothing, and my inactivity makes my pain even worse, as does my disappointment in myself for being unproductive.

So that’s pretty much a best case scenario. It’s one that I find myself in fairly often, and one of the first things I’m trying to change. I’m not yet confident enough in my meditation skills to feel like I can get myself out of this situation once the process begins, nor do I feel I could even identify the initial warning signs. But, I know with absolute certainty that a combination of mindfulness, meditation, and a bit of exercise is enough to pull me out of even the worst pain flair, so that’s the first step, right? The second step is practicing both meditation and mindfulness while making my way through book after book on the topics, attending local classes, and basically second-guessing everything I ever thought I knew about myself. Not much work to do here…

This whole “commitment to getting better” thing is definitely a process. Taking my meds may have been the easier path, yet this one is way more fun.


 

*And I don’t mean pretending to ignore your pain like that person who walks around grimacing and making pain noises yet responds “I’m fine” when people ask if they’re okay. I mean actually ignoring your pain, as in deliberately not thinking about it.

my new “normal”

I hit a lot of roadblocks this week, and I’m pretty sure that I’m responsible for each one. Let’s start with my unrealistic expectation of trying to maintain everything I was doing at Silver Hill while also keeping up with a house, a job, and my insatiable need to please others. The “Silver Hill behaviors” include daily physical therapy, meditation, maintaining an anti-inflammatory diet, and sleeping at least seven hours a night. And don’t forget about doing something that will enhance my spiritual life, my social life, and my need to make money and maintain my home.

Yes, my list is long and full of a lot of behaviors that are new and a bit unnatural right now. Nevertheless, I placed this expectation on myself and, unsurprisingly, fell short. Let’s explore how shall we?

  • Diet : I’ve consumed too much sugar this past week and I’ve allowed my caffeine intake to creep upwards. I’ve also eaten meals that lack the foods I know my body needs [i.e. raw almond butter on a gluten-free bagel is not lunch]. And I ate Chick-Fil-A the other day so…
  • Sleep : My sleep quality [and quantity] is trending downwards. To combat my tiredness I’ve allowed myself extra caffeine, but I’m confident that this variable is now the culprit for my unrestful nights. I need to resist the urge to replace an earlier bedtime with an extra cup of coffee.
  • Exercise : I have pacing issues when I’m working out, and my physical therapy is no exception. I worked on this a lot with my team at Silver Hill, particularly the physical therapist, but I’m far from mastering the skill. I’m currently bouncing somewhere between “too tired to work out” and feeling so good I have to eventually force myself to stop.
  • Meditation : I have meditated a grand total of one time in the past two weeks, yet this is something I should be doing daily.
  • Spirituality : Big fat zero on this one.

One of my many goals is to create an existence where my pain is a reality but not a lifestyle. I want to accept it but not focus on it. For this to happen, the behaviors for which I’m struggling to find time are going to have to become my new normal. My meditation practice needs to be as automatic as brushing my teeth. My bedtime won’t be a point of negotiation but rather an assumption. I’m hoping that by establishing these healthy patterns my focus on any physical discomfort will shift to the back burner. That may seem illogical, especially if I’m describing it as poorly as I feel I am, but I’m going all in.

So…that’s my little plan. Easy, right?