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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.

21 November 2010

Motivation for Change: Envisioning and Allowing to Be

The two previous posts have been about being motivated to change.  With chronic pain, there is a temptation to lock oneself into a way of coping that feels safe or that fits one's self-image. The person who is locked into victim mode and staying ill in mind and spirit as well as in body is not that much different from the person who keeps going in denial, not acting the victim yet ending up fatigued, impatient, angry: intolerant and intolerable. 

I know.  I have been locked in both of these modes, and of course there are others - I just use those two for illustration purposes.  For this post, the relevance of this insight is that even the motivation to change - in itself a very positive and pro-active decision - can become locked into that grasping, I-want-it mode that drains positive energy and obscures clear motivation. 

For example: the moment I feel a bit better or have a day with low pain and some energy, I tend to rush into my activities with an almost giddy glee that is understandable yet counter-productive.  It just feels so good to feel good!  An hour or so later, when my head is pounding and exhaustion is mounting, I realize that needing so desperately to get things done because I am (finally!) feeling better is simply a poor choice, however natural a response it may seem.

This is where the envisioning expands to encompass allowing.  It's a great thing to let go of a locked-in need, but not so helpful to then jump into yet another locked-in need to Be Productive or to Feel Responsible.  When the motivation for change also encompasses allowing the change to unfold without grasping or manipulating it, then the resulting change is organic, free of needs and addictions.  Organic change that is free of preconceptions and expectations is liberating and energetic in a way that my plans that follow my addictive needs never are.

It's not about censuring myself, or being mad and upset because I am once again prone on the couch with a throbbing head.  It's about realizing there is another way to be in the desire for change: one moment at a time, steadily and with clear mind assessing the possibilities and then going into action.  Perhaps that action will seem, in retrospect, a good choice, perhaps it will not.  No matter: if that action has arisen out of a peaceful, not a needful, center, then retrospective assessment will also be peaceful.  And that allows for further organic change that is aligned with quiet wisdom, which is so much more productive and compassionate than a clutching change that circles endlessly around unconscious needs.

Compassion.  That is the concept to explore, along with its relation to being in chronic pain, in my next post.

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

14 November 2010

Motivation for Change: Envision Another Way to Be

The 12-Step program calls it "sick and tired of being sick and tired."  Many recovering drug and alcohol addicts have told me that they could not make the choice for sobriety until things got so bad in their lives that they were motivated to change by their disgust with themselves or with how awful they felt.  This happens at a different point for everyone - your rock bottom may be my half-way down - but when you get there, you know it.

To me, part of the genius of the 12-Step program is how applicable it is to other situations in life aside from the alcohol (and then drugs) for which it was created.  There exist such programs now for codependence, anger, shopping, etc.  I used the 12-Step program to aid in my recovery from flaming codependence, and am now using its principles - along with other methods - to help me with my chronic pain.

Wait.  How does having chronic pain equate with being a drug addict or alcoholic?  How does living with three or four migraines per week remind me of codependence and the need for recovery? 

It's not so much about a one-to-one comparison between getting migraines and being codependent, it's about how the spirit of the 12-Steps helps me cope with a situation over which I feel powerless.  There are two main ways that this happens, one of which I have blogged about before (see Befriending Pain: Part 3, 21 September), and the second of which is the topic of this post.

ONE - It helps to bring me out of victim status.  TWO - It helps me envision another way to be.


There are many ways to respond to chronic pain, and I have probably hit on all of them at one time or another: feeling victimized; depression; denial; pushing through until I am really sick; giving up and going to bed for a few days; pretending everything is all right; pretending everything is awful.  Bouncing around emotionally is not conducive to the inner peace that attracts me and that I desire for myself, so there came a time when I realized I was tired of the chaos I was either creating or allowing to happen inside me. 

I have called upon a variety of support systems such as faith, spirituality, yoga, accupuncture, medication, meditation, prayer and relaxation, many of which I have blogged about and each of which has helped me in its own way.  What makes the 12-Steps particularly relevant to this post is that from the peace that my spirituality, its practices, the accupuncture and yoga afforded me, the 12-Steps then allowed for the vision of another kind of change.

For chronic pain, that change has to do with leaving behind the emotional roller coaster (although I do think it necessary to take a few rides on it before being willing to change), claiming an inner peace that is wonderfully present whether one is in pain or having a good day, and learning to stop allowing one's own pain to cause pain to others (in the form of impatience and anger, emotions that are all too prevalent with chronic pain).

There is another benefit: a kind of constructive energy that helps me to learn how to use the resources I have in new ways.  For example, I cannot hold down a job, given the upredictable and debilitating nature of the migraines, but I can take a couple hours at a time to write a post or work on other writing.  Working only a couple of hours at a time might seem lame, or even giving up, but when the alternatives are pushing through until I am thoroughly sick or lying around until I am thoroughly depressed, a couple hours at a time is a wonderful solution.

So, I am helped to see the possibilities for not only coping with the pain in better ways and for building better relationships with others, but for a life that does encompass constructive work and accomplishment.  This is not about quantity at all, which, in a city that idolizes long, long work days and amount of power, is kind of a radical statement.  Which is another benefit of all this: I have learned that two hours of peacefully focused work is no poor substitute for 12-hour days: it is just right for me.

05 November 2010

Motivation for Change: The Role of Pain

This is my first post since October 10, making it the longest interval yet between posts.  I have been busy with another project and, more importantly, have been emotionally fatigued.  To be brief, life has presented its share of sorrows to me lately: two persons dear to me have undergone radical surgeries - one for a life-threatening disease; a close friend has been laid off her job of 12 years; the economy has forced serious changes in the lives of many people I love.

All of this got me thinking about how emotional pain affects physical pain and how the combination of the two can motivate change in the way we approach our lives.  This is shaping up as a 2-post subject, so today's post will be about emotional pain and physical pain together, the next post about motivation for change.

We all know that stress affects our bodies, but take a look at this link to the American Institute of Stress: a page listing 50 physical symptoms of stress and a diagram of the parts of the body affected by it.  (It is interesting information unless you are a hypochondriac, in which case I don't encourage clicking the link.)  The page makes the point that stress affects different people in different ways, and so in that way is a highly subjective and personal phenomenon.

In the stressors of my life these past few months has been no physical stress aside from the chronic migraines: the new stressors have caused emotional pain.  So when I had one of those terrible headaches I call "crashers" on Sunday, then continual migraines from Monday to this morning, I realized that the stress of the past five months had finally taken its toll.  Or, at least, finally taken a toll that got my attention.  Which realization took me by surprise, as not even the stress last January of leaving the job and organization I loved was reflected so painfully in the migraines.  So, what is different?

1. Powerlessness: There has been little I can do to alleviate the suffering - mental and physical - of persons who mean an awful lot to me.  The decision to leave Miriam's House, as painful as it possibly could be, was still my decision and my decisive action.  I hated doing it, but the resolution was in my power, even though I was powerless over the migraines themselves.  Aside from helping out for a week and knitting needed comforting things, I have found that the current stressors feel out of control.

2. Expectations: I had expected by now - after ten months of rest, acupuncture, trying new medications, etc. - the migraines would have abated to the point that I could at least look for part-time work.  I let that expectation create a future for me that now turns from happy expectation to stressful upset because it has not come about.
I am not beating myself up about this - why add the pain of guilt and self-incrimination to the list? - but I do have a desire for honest self-awareness and -reflection.  It is so much more constructive to allow ourselves to be informed by our realizations of our human-ness rather than indulging in grandiose ideas that we should be perfect or, at least, should not still be having to learn new lessons.  Or, more accurately, old lessons learned again in a slightly different circumstance.

Without the denial and/or fear of blame, the honest reflection opens up doors to understanding and, ultimately, healing change.  Were I to refuse to look at how my powerlessness and expectations set me up for a physical reaction because I supposedly have learned that lesson already, I would be stuck not only with the migraines but with the paralysis of denial.

There's ego in it, also, naturally.  I had a hard time beginning this post because I realized that I'd recently forgotten practices and bits of wisdom I myself wrote about in this blog.  How embarrassing to have to write a blog in which I reveal that I lost track of the philosophy of staying in the moment, of using my yoga to help relieve both physical and emotional stress, and of realizing when to let go?

Oh, well, my secret is out.  A big surprise to no one but myself, surely.

So, here we are: emotional stress and pain enhance and affect physical pain.  And it is easy to get lost in the midst of the hurting, difficult days.  It happens that life can overwhelm our ability to make wise choices, even to stick to the wise ones we know worked for us before.  Ironically - or thankfully - our bodies have a way of showing us what we are trying not to know, so that the added pain finally becomes enough of a burden that we simply have to stop, take a look and reflect.

It is at this point that motivation for change can happen, and that will be the topic of my next post.

I would love to hear from you.  Please click on the Commnet box, below, or contact me at carold.marsh@gmail.com.