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?

 

the other side

In case you don’t know me / follow me on social media / have read any of my blog posts until this moment, I spent the last month in the Chronic Pain Treatment and Recovery Center at Silver Hill Hospital in New Canaan, Connecticut. It was over a year ago that my brother and sister-in-law floated the idea that an inpatient treatment center might be the answer, a way to finally get a handle on my pain. It sounded cool at the time, but ridiculously impractical, not to mention expensive. But those were just excuses not to go. The real reasons were simple : I was scared to surrender my medications, the things I knew were hurting me the most but I wasn’t sure I could live without, and I didn’t think that my quality of life or happiness mattered anymore.

When the possibility of more surgeries came up as we discussed “the next step” I realized how profoundly I opposed the idea. It was as if I was experiencing déjà vu for the dozenth time, and I was unwilling to play along. Add that to my [then] looming thirtieth birthday and a 50% increase in my daily Oxycodone dose, and I’d officially had it. I was stuck in a pattern of repeating past mistakes, and doing so with no hope that things would be any different this time around. So, off I went to Silver Hill at what I thought was the end of my rope.

My desperation worked to my advantage for the first time in my recollection, as I was ready for the program before it even started. I decided weeks in advance that I was going there to work, and that is exactly what I did. I spent mornings doing physical therapy and aquatherapy, and afternoons in an informal classroom setting learning everything from what happens to our brains as a result of longterm opioid use to the biology behind meditation and why it’s actually a viable option for pain control. I learned tai chi, a laundry list of ways to improve my sleep, and the emotional components and processes that are contributing to my individual pain perception. I learned answers to questions I never asked, or never thought to ask, yet each piece of information was [and will continue to be] invaluable to not only manage my pain but also live a better life. I’m stronger and have more endurance than I’ve had in years, and I’m doing all of this without the help of one single medication.

With that, welcome to [still]moving, a blog that celebrates the “less traditional” but more accurately ancient ways of treating chronic illness. Since my new pain management plan is rooted in meditation [still] and exercise [moving] this blog will be, as well. And, if you choose to join me on this journey, I guarantee that I will continue to display my pitfalls and embarrassing blunders as much, if not more, than ever. I did not transform over this past month to a holier-than-thou-juice-drinking-vegan who only wears clothes made from sustainably-grown organic wheat…although that doesn’t sound too bad!

But I’m through with playing the victim, and I’m ready to actually take control of my health. So, if you’re looking for a blog that goes through all the procedures and surgeries and medications associated with a particular disease or condition, this isn’t the place for you. But, if you’re looking for real, attainable ways to deal with the lousy hand you’ve been dealt, you might find some helpful nuggets of information.

Or if you’re one of my family members / friends just using this blog to check up on me and make sure I’m maintaining my new skills and not letting old habits get the best of me, that works, too. Either way, I’m happy to have you.