About Me

My photo

With a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Nonfiction degree (Goucher College, August 2014), I am looking at a new phase in my life. From 1992 to 2009, I served as Founding Executive Director of Miriam's House, a residence for homeless women living with AIDS. I left this position when Chronic Migraine Disease overtook my ability to do my job. Now I hope that a writing career will both accommodate the migraines and give me a creative, productive outlet. And soon, September 4, I will launch my Inkshares author page in a bid to hit the 1,000 pre-order goal in 90  days. The book I want to publish is "Nowhere Else I Want to Be," a memoir of ten of my years at Miriam's House.

31 August 2010

Stress Reduction, Pain and the Spirit

My post of last Friday drew quite a few views, and so I want to continue the theme.

The link at the end of this post connects to a you-tube video created last year for Miriam's House.  Photos by Tim Fretz, music by Sparx (Joan Sparks, flute and Ann Sullivan, harp).  The video was created to be a short, beautiful and meditative interlude during an otherwise busy day. 

Music and nature (even photos or paintings of nature) are proven stress reducers, used in health care settings for patient care and morale.  People in pain are limited in ability to move out into nature, and so creating accessible opportunities for our spirits to connect with nature is important.

Indeed, if you agree that the daily stress of a busy, information- and noise-filled life creates a kind of spiritual pain, then most uf us are in need of this method of stress reduction.

Before you click on the link to Garden at Miriam's House, settle in your chair, back straight, feet flat on the floor.   Or, if you are lying down, stretch out comfortably.

Now - three deep, slow breaths.

And now - ten regular breaths, counting "one" on the inhale, then "and" on the exhale ... "two" inhale, "and" exhale ...

And now - allow your muscles to relax.  If you need practice with this, here is a link for you - in the small box to the right, click on "progressive muscle relaxation".

And now - click on the link below.  May it bring you peace.

LINK  to Garden at Miriam's House.

27 August 2010

Stress and Spirit

It is important to me that I maintain a focus on the subject of this blog - chronic pain and the spiritual life: how they intersect and affect one another.  My most recent post (25August) was about Dr. Herbert Benson and his relaxation response, specifically, in regards to his new book about remembered visualization and meditation.  Briefly, today, I want to explain how I see this relating to the overall topic of my blog.

I have my brother, Bill Marsh, to thank for the idea of using photos as tools to meditation.

Try to commit to giving close attention to this photo, letting go of what you feel you should be doing right now:

Mt. Edith Cavell / Canadian Rockies

What do you  notice as you sit still and look? 

Perhaps some inner stillness rises to the surface of your attention, or your breath slows, some muscles suddenly let go of long-held tension, or you simply realize how driven you have been so far today.

Can you allow that feeling to deepen?

Moraine Lake / Canadian Rockies

Whatever you are touching right now in your spirit, however you name it, to Whom- or Whatever you attribute it, you have likely experienced a reduction, however slight, in the stress under which we all live day by day.

This space - this quieter, more still, deeper space - is what allows us to touch the Divine .... the Face of God ... the Greatness of Allah ...

Now, what Dr. Benson is saying is that our ability to reduce stress in our lives has a beneficial effect on our physical health and even can change our genetic predispositions as they are manifested in the way our brain responds to the stress of illness, daily life, or poor mental health.  As I said before, my own experience in overcoming generalized anxiety disorder attests that such changes are real.

Ice berg at the foot of Mt. Edith Cavell

You have just demonstrated to yourself that reducing stress allows you to approach the peaceful stillness of your spirit.

I would love to hear from you.  Please use the Comment section below, or email me at carold.marsh@gmail.com.

25 August 2010

Stress, Relaxation and Visualization

Yesterday I listened to the Diane Rhem Show (National Public Radio) because her guest from 11am to 12pm was Herbert Benson, the physician who, 35 years ago, wrote "The Relaxation Response"  (available on Amazon).  His new book, "Relaxation Revolution: Enhancing Your Personal Health Through the Science and Genetics of Mind Body Healing" was the subject of their discussion.

In earlier posts (27 and 30 July), I have described how I use the relaxation response and meditation as tools in pain management.  What is interesting about Dr. Benson's new book is that in it he takes the process one step further into visualization.  I do not have the book and so cannot write in depth, but found the interview interesting and potentially helpful enough that I decided to write about it today.  After I have read the book I will blog about it.

Dr. Benson has found that the effects of practicing the relaxation response can be enhanced  by a second step - visualization.  As I understood him during his interview with Ms. Rehm, it's a simple two-step process: 10 minutes evoking the relaxation response, then ten minutes visualizing by remembering (this is key) a time when you were living free of your current illness.  He emphasized that imagined visualization of the sort atheletes do - visualizing their performance in an up-coming race or event - is not what he studied: remembered visualization is essential to the process as he has developed and studied it.

Dr. Benson cited medical, scientific studies that prove the beneficial effects of this process.  And I, myself, have attested to the changes I have experienced as a result of practicing the relaxation response.  So I am in a position to believe him and to welcome his further studies.  I have long believed that our society in general and the medical establishment in particular ignore the mind-body-spirit connection.

Another important point is that the presence of stress in our lives is, to some extent, either causing or exacerbating our symptoms.  My migraines are worse when I am upset or angry, and I have learned that an emotionally explosive reaction can actually start a migraine.  Dr. Benson spoke of other illnesses, such as Parkinson's, Alzheimer's and diabetes, the symptoms of which are worsened by the way stress affects us physically.

What I recall Dr. Benson saying (this is a layperson's interpretation) is that if you have a memory of feeling well and can call it up while relaxed and quiet, you can effect changes in your brain:
* Neuro pathways are created in response to pain, and brain function habituates to them.  A good example  of this is the phenomonon of the "phantom limb" - the sensation of pain or feeling in a limb that has been amputated.
* You can create new neuro pathways by visualizing a time when you were not ill or in pain, thus training your brain to function differently.
* Stress enters in as a constant reality in our lives, and as embodied in the way we respond to it.  The adrenalin and other chemicals released automatically in response to stress (which can be a sudden, loud noise, a difficult conversation, pain, a change in routine, etc) provoke the "flight or fight" response that is automatic.  What does not have to be automatic is how we handle the fact of stress in our lives. 
* This two-step process is only effective to the extent that stress is a part of our symptoms.  Dr. Benson is NOT saying that all we have to do is visualize being well and we will be healed.  What he is saying is to the extent that stress and our response to it is making our illness or symptoms worse, we can change that effect by using this process.

Again, the disclaimer - I am not pretending to be an expert in this subject having listened to a one-hour radio program.  For now, I am reporting from my memory of the interview, and will go into more depth and detail after reading the book.

It strikes me that mental health is positively affected also, and Dr. Benson spoke of the depression that accompanies chronic illness.  But I am certain that relaxation and meditation made a huge difference for me in changing a genetic disposition to anxiety and mild depression: along with medication, of which I am now taking a greatly reduced dose (and that mainly because it controls one of the migraine symptoms), the daily practice of quieting my mind and body for prayer and meditation had an enormously positive effect on my chronic anxiety.  Having listened to Dr. Benson yesterday, I now see that these practices worked to change the neuro pathways in my brain, with the result that my habitual response to stress is diametrically different than what it was my whole adult life.

More on this later!

I would love to hear from you.  Click on COMMENT , below, or email me at carold.marsh@gmail.com.

09 August 2010

On Vacation

I’m on Vacation! I’ll be back to blogging on August 23, 2010.

In the meanwhile, here is an archive of posts by category:

Managing Pain* 30 July
* 27 July

Presence to God* 27 July
* 21 July
* 19 July
* 16 July

Letting Go and Letting God* 14 July
* 12 July

Miriam’s House Stories* 2 August
* 21 July
* 12 July
* 7 July
Thank you for checking in!

I’d love to hear from you: please use the Comment link below, or email me at carold.marsh@gmail.com

05 August 2010

5August: Gratitude



The Silver Lining to the Migraine Cloud

Painful Poetry: Haiku

During the week of 19 July, I blogged about “So Where IS God in all This?” My 2August post discussed how impossible it is for me to get to gratitude when I am in pain. Yet if I truly find the Divine in all things, then there surely is a way to connect with God through the migraines.

There is, it just doesn’t happen while I am in pain. It happens in other ways, and at other times, some cultivated, some simply by Grace.

For example, I am grateful for what the pain and the inconvenience of migraines has taught me:

* I have noted before (12July post) that a migraine stretches my nerves tight, making me impatient and abrupt. Given that patience is already not one of my stellar qualities, migraine or no, I’ve needed to learn a different way of being, or else I alienate those around me and isolate myself further. Learning to be patient while having a migraine has had an improving effect on my ability to be patient at other times.

* When I have no pain in my head, I am so grateful for that and for many small things of life that I would otherwise take for granted.

* I have also noted before (3August post) that practicing meditation, breathing and deep relaxation has changed my regular prayer practice immensely. It is much easier, now, to get to the deep quiet and peace that I crave, and for which I am grateful to the migraines.

* I am powerless over these migraines to the extent that my neurologist and I have found no medication that will help prevent them. I do have a PRN medication that alleviates the pain of most migraines, for which I am grateful. But it does not work 100% of the time, nor does it completely eliminate the pain in my head, nor have any effect on the strange fatigue and minor depression that accompany a migraine – except, ironically that fatigue and depression are side effects of this medication. So, what is there to be grateful for in this?
If you know the 12-Step Program, you know that the concept of powerlessness is at its heart. The lessons of powerlessness over the migraines seep out into other parts of my life, and I have noticed in myself a calmer, broader acceptance of circumstances and of my own and others’ behavior. That is truly a blessing.

So the upshot of this is that, although I cannot be grateful for the actual migraines, it is clear to me that there are aspects of my life that have changed for the better as a direct result of them.

This is how I find God and gratitude in the chronic pain of migraines.

I would love to hear from you. Click on Comment, below, or email me at carold.marsh@gmail.com


Original, if Awkward, Attempts to Find Humor in Pain

A Pain Haiku

Tearing shards of pain -
We'll just watch my head explode.
Pick up the pieces.