Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The mind is a muscle

A moment of reflection on this, the shortest day of the year. One of the things I'm quickly learning by doing this blog is that my mind is like a muscle. I need to practice and exercise it if I want to strengthen it. We already know this. It's why we go to school. But I'm talking something much more basic: ripping my awareness away from all that is bad and that scares me and focusing instead on what I have and what I can do. This is more difficult than it sounds. We're programmed to watch for the tiger. If something scares us, we'll stop and fixate on it until we determine we either have to run, or we can go back to what we were doing. It's primal. And when you can't run from it (like a health problem), you can't fix it (like a health problem), it's going to kill you (like a health problem), well that's a m*therf***ing TIGER. AHHHHHHHHH! That's an easy way to justify pulling the covers over my head and never leaving the bed!! But that's not living.

It's difficult to rip my gaze from the tiger. When a symptom comes up, I'll have a panic attack because it's a reminder of how sick I am, overall. Then I'll slip into a pit of self-pity as I mourn my loss of health and wallow in how miserable I feel physically. I can get stuck there. It's never going to get better. It's only going to get worse. These symptoms will come more often until it's all I know and it will consuuuuuuuuuuuuuume me.... This is not an unrealistic thought pattern. I had 4.5 years swallowed up by a soul-destroying migraine that followed that pattern. It's a story that's familiar and believable to me. And it's a great reason to want to give up. But thinking like that does me no good, even if the story is true.

So instead, I gently but sternly tell myself to get my act together. Clean up whatever mess my health collapse created and then go rest because I need and deserve recovery time. And then, as I rest, I do comforting and nurturing talk to myself: "Bad things happen. It's okay. You did very well for what you had to go through. Yes, I know you don't like this. I don't like this either. We're doing what we can to make it better. We're going to the doctor. We're taking our medication. We knew this might happen. We can get through this anyway. Even as you lay here broken, you are strong and powerful. Remember your spirit. Remember what you can give to others. Remember that when you feel better, you will do better."

When I have a health collapse, it can feel like the world is ending. Sometimes, that's actually true. So it's not unreasonable for me to freak out. But I try to limit how much I freak out because, though freaking out feels right, it's not very constructive either. Hey! You're about to die! Alarm! Alarm! Alarm! I only need that alarm to go off once. But my body will continue to throw up that alarm until the physical need is addressed. Sometimes, that physical need can't be addressed, like nerve damage. Hey! The nerves are dying! Pain! Pain! Pain! I can't do anything about my nerves dying. But my body's going to scream about it anyway. It does me no good to join in the chorus. The tune is old and I'm tired of it.

Yes, I'm sick. Yes, I'm losing my eyesight. Yes, I'm losing my ability to control my hands. Yes, the tiger is here. "Rip away your gaze. The tiger is not going away. You are going to get mauled. Expect it. Prepare as much as you can, but know that you will fall short. That's okay. This isn't about winning. This is about staving off the inevitable. Anything you can do despite these circumstances is a win. Be cautious, and just hang in there as long as you can."

I exercise looking at the constructive and the positive. I exercise being a person who conveys a message of strength against all odds. I exercise not getting excited, even though the moment may call for it. I exercise not reacting to my first emotion. I exercise looking at what I can still do. I exercise finding my options. I exercise looking for the funny or the bright side. I do this with grim determination, because it's what helps.

It's hard work to maintain a positive attitude. There's a lot to be upset about. Upset is easy. Calm is difficult. I get a spike of migraine pain, and suddenly, my day is thrown into turmoil. I need to alter my plans, NOW. But, oh! I need to go shopping! But, oh! That will make my head worse! But, oh! I need food and caffeinated beverages to treat the migraine and we're out of everything! Yeah, I can drive myself nuts if I'm not careful.

I need to switch my state of mind. I need to find my calm and hold on to it. That takes practice. Slowing down and thinking things through is difficult when there's alarm bells going off. The tiger is coming for me, and I need to relax, not tense up. It's okay. We have medication. We'll start at Advil and Phenergan and then move up to the big guns if need be. We get a 30 minute window at least, so the medication can kick in. Take the first round, then relax. We have nothing to worry about until the 30 minutes is up. Then we will take the next indicated step. This can be managed. You've done it before. You know what to do. We can get through this. Yes, the tiger is here. It will hurt. But not forever. You're okay. Relax into the pain. It will pass soon enough.

That's work! Slowing down when I'm scared? My body is telling me to run! Relax into the pain? Are you crazy, Lady? There's nothing relaxing about pain! Calming down when someone is screaming at me? That's when I need to arm myself for battle!

Let me tell you something. Feelings aren't facts. Just because a situation may feel a certain way, and it may feel right to act a certain way, doesn't make it true!!! It's a difficult thing to rip ourselves away from, our feelings. But they aren't always good for us. I will acknowledge my feelings. I don't stuff them or deny them or act like they don't exist. I look at them and go, Yeah... that's a reasonable response. But is it the response I want to take in this situation? Does it serve me to behave this way? Is there a better way for me to reach my goals? How do I want to behave here? It reminds me of the line from the MGMT song, "Kids": Control yourself. Take only what you need from it.

I will not be able to do these things unless I practice them. I need to practice my calm in every interaction I have so that in my moments of crisis, I can handle myself. Every time I feel upset, I need to relax, slow down, and think things through. I practice this, not out of obligation, but because I want to be a better person. No one expects me to do this. I'm doing it for myself so I can hold myself in esteem. This is hard stuff. And as a culture, we celebrate drama. It's all over our TVs, in our books and movies... it sells. But I can't be like that. I have to practice reservation and caution because that's what keeps me safe and able. Just like I need to work out the muscles of my body to keep me safe and able, so do I need to work the muscles of my mind. And tomorrow, I will be stronger for it.
“The man with the clear head is the man who frees himself from those fantastic “ideas” and looks life in the face, realizes that everything in it is problematic, and feels himself lost. And this is the simple truth — that to live is to feel oneself lost — he who accepts it has already begun to find himself, to be on firm ground.”
- Ortega y Gasset


  1. Feelings aren't FACTS!!! We have so many choices! Thanks so much for writing. Do you have psychology background?

    I read your bio and am humbled by what you've had and are continuing to endure. It makes my troubles at work seem even more bearable or maybe even surmountable!!

    You're on my prayer list...

  2. Thank you for your prayers!!

    Much of what I learned about psychology I learned as a consumer! lol But I do like to read a *lot* and I got an early start in Alanon (19). I should start compiling a book list for all y'all.

    I used to work on Window's 95 phone support. It was *stressful*. There was one guy in our graduating class who was also an EMT. He though doing phone support was fun while the rest of us were ripping our hair out. He'd shrug, smile, and put it into perspective: "Nobody's dying."