A Pain in the Neck

Something I’m really passionate about, besides mental health is physical health. I’m very much wrapped up in the whole mind body connection. I’ve mentioned it before so I won’t beat a dead horse but in a nutshell, if your body is healthy, your mind is healthy and vice versa.

To this end, I consider physical fitness to be a pivotal aspect of my mental health wellness. There is no magical bullet to managing mental health. For me, it’s a combination of living with my adorable four furbabies (cats), engaging with things I enjoy such as music, my favorite TV shows, reading nonfiction, kickboxing, and anything else that gets me moving and outside. Additionally, healthy eating, getting good sleep, drinking plenty of water, therapy and medication join this combination of helping me manage things.

Physical fitness isn’t just important to me because it keeps me healthy, it’s also an outlet for me, the same way writing is an outlet, but in a different way. Kickboxing helps me get my frustrations out. I go two maybe sometimes three times a week and work with a trainer. We always end the sessions with a sort of grand finale speed routine. And I just imagine whatever challenge I’ve encountered in the days since my last session standing before me in the form of the bag and i just put my strength into it and beat it out.

Besides the health and de-stressing benefits of physical fitness, it also helps me to manage something else: my chronic pain. When I was nine, I was a tomboy. Okay, it’s fair to say, I’ve always been a tomboy and I still am. However, as a kid, I did a lot of risky things, without much thought for my safety. I had one sibling and due to the nature of our home and education situation, they were my only friend and playmate. My mother didn’t like some of the things I engaged in as far as play but I don’t regret it at all. If I had chosen to “play safe” because I’m “a girl” who needs to learn to be “a lady” my sibling would have been lonely, with no one to play with. And we developed a bond because of all the time spent together that to this day, despite the many challenges we’ve endured has maintained and even grown stronger.

Anyway, one day just a week before Super Bowl weekend (I remember this because I loved the Super Bowl, not for the sports, but for the party my parents always went to every year and all the food and goodies I’d get to eat), I was climbing a tree. Since it was winter, it’s harder to tell which tree branches are alive or dead. My dad always told me, no matter what you’re doing if you’re climbing a tree, always stay as close to the trunk as possible. I always heeded that advice, except for this one time. There was a couple who lived at the end of our road in a big house on the corner. They were an eccentric pair compared to the people who had lived in the area for years. It was a semi-rural area, lots of trees, houses spread apart, quiet roads, a place I really loved growing up in. The reason they were viewed as eccentric was because their house was on a corner where our quiet road connected to a busier road that connected the capital (we lived just outside the capital) to a neighboring city. Their house didn’t have curtains on the windows. And these weren’t your average house windows with two panes. These were enormous Indian windows that faced the busy road. You could see everything going on inside from a mile away (it felt like that).

Now, don’t get me wrong. I don’t think they should have had curtains or that they should not. I think whatever they chose to do is certainly within the purview of their own preferences. However, the neighborhood was a very private and conservative one. No one had windows not covered and no one left curtains open after dark. So, some neighbors thought this strange. They were from a different state and city where I assume the way they lived was probably more common. They walked around in the winter time in what looked like wet suits but what I know now were just really fancy thermal wear. They never wore big puffy winter coats or snow gear. They were very fashionable and minimalist. I had not really been exposed to this. So, the first time I saw them walking outside in the winter, I was fascinated. Since it was winter, I could see them clearly through the trees, coming down the road by our house. And in a dumb twist of fate, I forgot I wasn’t on the ground at that moment and as they moved along, I also moved to follow them and get a better view.

Crash! The branch I was standing on decided it had enough and gave up the ghost. Down I went, falling about a story and a half. I fell on my right leg and right hand. The fall severely injured the whole right side of my body, from my neck, all the way down to my ankle. I have chronic knee, back, and joint problems in my arm and leg. The couple heard me scream, which I did briefly upon impact and came rushing through the short stretch of woods between our yard and the road. I still remember, they came over and then the husband picked me up and carried me to the house. My mother heard my scream too and came running out. They brought me in the house and laid me on the sofa where the wife then assessed me. Turned out, she was a nurse and told my terrified mother that nothing was broken which was everything short of miraculous. She did advise if I started to have a certain set of issues (my memory fails me here) that I should be brought to the hospital. However, my parents didn’t have health insurance and certainly couldn’t afford it. I didn’t develop any concerning complications but I also was never assessed in a true medical setting.

My dad had me do forty squats everyday to help keep my ankle and other joints strong and limber. He said if I didn’t, it could heal up tight and cause problems later on. It was very painful and for a while I had a lot of difficulty walking. But in the end, I healed up nicely, better than before even. The cruel irony is that around the time I turned sixteen, I started having problems. I had thought I got lucky, sustained a serious injury, healed up and that was the end. No. Fate had other plans. By the time I was sixteen, I started having pains in the previously injured joints. There were times it was so bad that if I sat for too long it was almost impossible to get up without excruciating pain. I would need help. Additionally, if I stood for too long and then tried to lay down, it was almost impossible to stretch out for a few minutes. I’d have to wait until my back settled enough to stretch out. In general, my leg and hand especially were always in pain.

When I was about to go off to college at nineteen, my mother took me to see a doctor to try to figure out what was wrong. Even with a second opinion, they told me I was healthy and nothing was wrong, there was possibly just some weakness in that side of my body. They ruled out a ton of diseases through blood tests. One doctor did hint there could be some rheumatoid arthritis going on since one of my test results came back outside the normal range but the difference was so negligible they couldn’t definitely provide a diagnosis. It’s sort of like going one mile over the speed limit. A cop generally won’t pull you over for that, even though in a lot of states, you are technically speeding, because it’s a small difference compared to going ten or fifteen miles over the speed limit.

My mother was frustrated we couldn’t find an answer. We gave up and off I went to college in Arizona. I loved the dry heat and it really helped the pain. I came back after almost two years and lived at home for another year or so before heading back to college but this time in Vermont. The cold didn’t help but I was a lot more physically active in college the second time around. The physical fitness really helped me manage the pain. People noticed me limping but by that point, I’d been dealing with it for some time so I barely even noticed. I tried again in college the second time to see if doctors could figure it out but it was another dead end. They even took x-rays and told me they didn’t see any abnormalities. They also told me that even if I had fractured anything that it wouldn’t show up in an x-ray, which I now know is false. It’s not dead positive in all cases but it’s definitely not always not possible.

Regardless, over the years, I’ve managed to control the pain with exercise and healthy eating. Now, I’m generally always in pain but if someone asks me if I am, I have to think about it before saying yes, even though I subconsciously know the answer is yes. I do notice the pain more when I’m cold or sick or tired. The most concerning development however is that the pain isn’t just on the right side of my body anymore. Over the last four years it has slowly spread to the rest of my body. My left leg and arm don’t bother me the way my right leg and arm do but I do notice pains on the left side where I never had it before.

Recently, I learned from my current doctor that I could have osteoporosis that may have developed as a result of the previous bone trauma. This concerns me but it is what it is. I just have to stay strong and health and manage as best I can. Being chronically in pain definitely affects my mental health and that’s why I focus so much on strength.

I never thought I would wind up with chronic pain but that’s life. Things always happen to us that we don’t plan for or expect. We take it in stride and do our best. We could let it get us down and some of us do. But we get back up and keep on going. I won’t let anything slow me down, even if I’m in pain because things could be worse. I could have lost mobility, so I’m thankful that despite the challenges I have, I’m still able to walk and run. As long as I have that, I feel like anything is possible. I feel like I can endure and persevere.

One last note to this excessively long post that I got carried away writing, is how my chronic pain has challenged my perspective. I was talking to a supervisor at work who suffers from chronic migraines and she said something about how frustrated she gets when staff call her to say they can’t come to work because of a headache. She wants to tell them how she still comes to work even when suffering from a migraine but she doesn’t. It reminded me of how a particular staff had told me she couldn’t work with a client because she didn’t want to hurt her back, even though the client is probably fifty pounds soaking wet and we use equipment to move them, not our sheer might. I couldn’t help feeling annoyed because I wanted to tell her how I still work and have worked many jobs that required me to be on my feet for hours at a time despite my chronic pain which made me want to drop dead at the end of the day. When I hear people who don’t have chronic pain make excuses about things they don’t do because it’s too hard. I can’t about how I manage to kickbox twice a week and still run despite my challenges.

But, it behooves me to say that everyone deals with pain and trauma differently. Even if I think I manage to accomplish a lot despite my chronic pain, I shouldn’t compare myself to others. I should look at the things they struggle with as less than my own struggles. One person’s mountain may be Everest and to them, though difficult, surmountable. Another person’s mountain may be Sutter Buttes and to them feel impossible to conquer. For reference, Sutter Buttes is 2,122 feet (647 meters) at the summit, about a mile and a half climb compared to Everest which is 29,029 feet (8,848 meters) at its summit, about a 22 mile climb.

So, I try to remember this. Everyone’s challenge is there own. I should compare myself to others nor should I judge others in their struggles. Just because I think the challenges I’ve overcome are nothing doesn’t mean the same person would feel the same and this is a good reminder for me on a daily basis. We are all stronger than we know. It’s all about attitude.

Be well.

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Sometimes Silence is Loud

Saying nothing sometimes says the most.

Emily Dickinson, 1874.

In 2014, I wound up in the hospital, first the emergency room, an overnight stay in the Purple Unit (their code for units where people who were a danger to themselves or others were held before being moved to a higher skilled facility for such people, then by ambulance to a behavioral health facility where I spent 48 hours in what looked like a large waiting room with reclining sofa like chairs, then finally to a locked unit at the same facility.

In the Purple Unit at the first hospital I went to, I remember several unique events. One was a man who was talking, constantly and unintelligibly. A nurse or maybe it was an aide was sitting with him, helping to calm him down. He alternated between crying and talking and sometimes yelling out. He wasn’t violent and barely moved from his chair. I remember her saying sympathetically that his mind was “running a mile a minute”.

Then, there was a woman who actually was in a separate room on the side where at one point they had her restrained. As the night got later she had calmed down and they permitted her to move around a bit. She kept coming out and using the phone on the wall. At first, I paid no attention to it but after a while, I realized, she was calling home. I thought she was calling her husband but he actually came in at one point and she was still on the phone. She kept calling and calling and I eventually realized she was calling home, leaving messages for herself. She spoke as if she was talking to herself and she was someone else. It was chilling and actually somewhat heartbreaking now that I look back because at the end of the first phone call I actually paid attention to, she said, “I love you, you’re going to be okay, take care, God.”

Wow, looking back, I get chills just thinking about that. She was obviously experiencing some kind of disassociation or psychosis. At the time, I found it scary, having never encountered anyone like that before. But with time and also with the amount of exposure I’ve had with mental and behavioral health deviations through my experience working in psych units, nursing homes and hospitals, I’ve grown less frightened and much more sympathetic and understanding. It makes me sad for these people because I know that often those who are not sufferers may look on them as crazy or dangerous. Some of them can be, without treatment or proper support but if we just relegate them to crazy, where do we go from there? Just lock them up and forget about them? Of course, today there is much more and better support for people struggling like this compared to years ago when people were subjected to such questionable corrective surgeries as lobotomies and basically imprisonment where they were locked away or chained up or restrained in inhumane matters.

But I digress, naturally. I’m not here to go into details about my hospitalization, that’s for another day.

I do want to share an experience I had that I still think about to this day and I don’t think I will forget as long as I live.

When I was in 48 hour observation, there was a woman sitting a few chairs behind me. She kept to herself and seemed very withdrawn. At some point, she just broke down crying and this went on for what seemed like an eternity. Everyone was looking at her wondering if she was okay. Well, not everyone. Some people were too out of it. We were all on a cocktail of drugs. Some of the ones I was taking I had a hard time waking up, whereas before I was always such a light sleeper. It was later determined the dose was too high because once I was asleep I was all but unconscious.

Anyway, one of the other patients actually asked the nurse if the crying woman was okay and if there was anything that could be done for her. The nurse said there wasn’t. I don’t remember the nurses in this observation unit with fondness. The room was large, the entrance at one corner, the nurses station in the opposing corner and between the nurses station and entrance was the med room and window where everyone had to come up when their name was called and get their meds and then the on site doctors office where we were called every few hours to assess our condition. My thought is that this unit was to determine stability and also placement because the facility had several different units, one for recovering alcoholics, one for recovering drug addicts and one for patients who were suicidal, at least those are the ones I’m aware of.

I remember just wishing the woman would stop crying. Despite the challenges associated with my own hospitalization, I hadn’t cried once. But I also remember immediately feeling bad for wishing that. I thought, maybe she’s scared, maybe she feels worthless or like a failure or that no one cares. So, finally, I walked over to her. I had no idea what to say so I actually didn’t say anything. I felt as if, I had no idea what she was going through and therefore I also felt, anything I did say might come across as trite or unhelpful. So, I just stood next to her and put my hand on her shoulder. I sort of patted her shoulder a little and moved my hand to her a back a little back and forth. After a while, she calmed down a bit and then told me she was okay. I still didn’t know what to say so I was silent. I don’t remember if I nodded or not but I returned to my chair.

I didn’t talk to her again after that. Shortly after, some very official looking hospital staff came and took her away. Slowly but surely, people would be collected as their observation came to an end. I was taken away to my assigned unit shortly after as well. The first time I went to eat a meal, was when I saw her again. She didn’t go to the same unit I went to. Meals were in a separate building. Those who had leave privileges could leave the unit, with other patients accompanied by hospital staff to eat meals or participate in activities. When I saw her again, I thought she looked better. I didn’t know what to say to her so I didn’t say anything but while I was getting my food, she came up to me and she just said, “thank you” and hugged me.

I’m feeling a bit emotional writing about that. That was all she said. I told her she was welcome. We never really spoke again after that except when we saw each other at meals, we would say hello. After a while, I didn’t see her anymore. I like to hope that she was able to leave, hopefully with the out patient support she needed to aid in her recovery. To this day, I don’t know what she was struggling with. I don’t know what unit she went to. I just know I will never forget it. It was probably the most powerful lesson to me that sometimes, words aren’t necessary, sometimes words don’t help. Sometimes, in the moment, the best thing you can do is say nothing but through your actions you can still demonstrate your sympathy, your sorrow at seeing another person suffer, your desire to comfort them.

As long as I live, I will never forget that. I look back on it and the memory is somewhat sad and painful but also beautiful. We are all human. We all bleed. We all cry. We all laugh. We all need each other.

Be well.

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It's You. All right? It's You.

You are all the things that are wrong with you.
It's not the alcohol, or the drugs, or any of the shitty things that happened to you in your career, or when you were a kid.
It's you.
All right? It's you.
Fuck, man.
What else is there to say? 

"It's You". Bojack Horseman. Writ.  Raphael Bob-Waksberg. Tornante Television, 2016. Netflix.

While this is on my mind… Who am I kidding? This has been on my mind for a long time.

My childhood was less than perfect. In 2014, I wound up in the hospital, because I made an attempt on my life. I’ll get into that another time. During group therapy, there was a question about what our childhoods had been like. We were on a locked unit and that specific unit was for people who were either a danger to themselves or others, mainly themselves. They took our shoelaces, ties, belts, combs, razors, even hair ties. In fact, we only had one change of clothes, the one we had on and the rest of our things were in little lockers behind the nurses station which was secured from the patients as well.

Anyway, when it came my turn to answer, the therapist made a comment when I finished. “That sounds like it was a battlefield”. My mind was blown. In fact I mulled over it for a few days. I had never thought of it that way. My parents fought a lot. There was a lot of yelling, banging, crying. I don’t even know what they fought about most of the time. I tried not to listen, tried to go someplace where I couldn’t hear it. But my dad when angry is like thunder. You can’t escape it, even if you’re deaf. You’ll hear it or feel it either way.

But this isn’t about bashing my parents. Despite the turmoil between them when I was growing up, they have remained strong. They will be celebrating twenty-seven years married next week. Part of the contributor to the constant discord between them was the fact that they themselves were still trying to work through their own traumas. One parent grew up in an emotionally abusive and negligent household, the other in an emotionally, physically and mentally abusive household. For a long time, after I left home at nineteen, I was bitter and angry at them. But in the past few years, after a lot of reflection and also therapy, I’ve grown to develop compassion and understanding for my parents.

I have had a lot of in depth conversations with my mother since leaving home and she sometimes apologizes for the ways she failed me when I was growing up. I should clarify that there are some things that I think could have been better but I don’t like to think of it as ways I was failed. I often describe it to my mom as them building a house. Their parents told them, here, build a house, here’s a hammer and a ruler, you’ll need to find the rest of the tools yourself. Whereas, my parents tried their hardest, despite the difficulties and now, I’m being told, here, build a house, here’s a toolbox, wood, cement and a backhoe. Sure, maybe all the required tools aren’t here. I just like to think I’m starting out with more tools than my parents did. No generation is perfect. This is the world, ugly, not perfect, frustrating, but among that there’s still beauty, still joy, still goodness.

Don’t think I’m overly positive about this. I’m not. I’m a realist. I understand there’s negativity but there’s also positivity. There are things that happened to me as a kid that were not okay. When my mother talks about some of the things she’s aware of and apologizes for it, I don’t say it’s okay, because it wasn’t. But I do try to be understanding and show compassion because there’s nothing to be gained from anger and bitterness.

Which leads me to my next point. I spent a long time being bitter and angry about my childhood. I used the traumas I endured, the things that happened that I didn’t enjoy as an excuse to act poorly, in general and sometimes to people in my life. I used my childhood as an excuse to be unkind. As Beatrice Horseman said, “No one’s ever nice to me, why should I be nice?” That might as well have been my motto. I used my childhood to explain away my bad behavior, like abusing alcohol, not getting help for my depression and bipolar, not trying at improving my life. A former boyfriend even told me one day, you can’t use your past as an excuse to act badly in the now. I was furious when he told me that. For a long time, I thought, he doesn’t know, he has no idea what I’ve been through, he just doesn’t understand. Years later, I look back and realize, he was right.

This doesn’t mean I should just forget about everything or pretend it was all okay or that I’m not sad about some of the things that went on. But it doesn’t mean that because I suffered that others should suffer from how I treat them. I’ve become a strong proponent of this: NO ONE DESERVES TO BE MISTREATED BY ME, NO MATTER WHAT I’VE BEEN THROUGH. And I live by that. I don’t bring my problems to work. I don’t walk around with a chip on my shoulder. I don’t act like a victim. That’s not to say I’ve arrived. I used to be like that. I used to walk around, little woe is me! But that wasn’t right. And despite how I tried to convince myself that my bad attitude vindicated me, I was miserable. I quickly realized that it wasn’t fair to mistreat others just because I felt I had been mistreated. Those people weren’t responsible for my childhood.

I’m a very matter of fact person. I do sometimes share with people I trust the bad things that have happened to me. But I’ve learned to do so without acting like a victim or couching it in such a way that attempts to elicit sympathy. The simple reason is that I don’t want sympathy. I’m not a poor, little person who deserves kid glove treatment just because of what I’ve experienced. There are people out there who had worst childhoods than me. I can be thankful for the things that didn’t happen to me.

Now, I want to emphasize one fact. This is not to say that a person should feel that because others had it worst that their experiences are therefore less valid. This is simply not true. Speaking of validation, one of the worst things a person can say to another person about their traumas or struggles is, hey, someone else has it worse. Sure, that sometimes works when a person isn’t being grateful for what they have. Such as a friend who complains about their car all the time even though there’s people who don’t have cars. But I don’t think telling a little child, there’s starving people in Africa, when they won’t eat something on their plate is very effective depending on their age mostly because they may not be able to appreciate the fact in general simply because they just may not have the life experience to grasp it.

I digress. When it comes to trauma and mental health, a person should think of it in the context of themselves. They shouldn’t compare themselves to others. Everyone’s struggle is different. We should all try to support each while not losing sight of ourselves. We can’t blame our bad behavior or self destructive behaviors on our past. Of course, our pasts affect us. But hopefully, the negative experiences we have in life don’t cripple us, instead hopefully they give us deeper insight into ourselves and we come back stronger than ever. I will end with this. Someone on a true crime episode once said, in response to a defendant who had raped and murdered a woman and then explained his behavior by referencing his messed up childhood (it was messed up, a lot of sexual and physical abuse from his father), that he didn’t deserve the childhood he had but that there were plenty of people with messed up childhoods who didn’t grow up to rape and murder people. And to me, that’s powerfully true. I may have had a difficult childhood but as an adult, at the end of the day, I’m responsible for me, my actions and my words. I can’t blame alcohol, my childhood or even my mental health struggles. It’s me. It’s all me.

Be well.

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