Just Breath and Other Ways to Rewire the Pain-filled Brain

Neuroplasticity, also known as brain plasticity, or neural plasticity, is the ability of the brain to change continuously throughout an individual’s life, e.g., brain activity associated with a given function can be transferred to a different location, the proportion of grey matter can change and synapses may strengthen or weaken over time.” -Wikipedia

I believe my form of Fibromyalgia stems from a nervous system that has been chronically in overdrive (fight or flight) mode for all of my life. At 54, that living on adrenaline came to a screeching halt when I could no longer function, forcing me to leave my teaching job and to spend the next few months largely in bed.

As a firstborn to a single mom who suffered from undiagnosed Bipolar and Schizophrenia, I know life was tense and unsure right from the get-go.  After living with my single-mom and her parents for the first 6 months of my life, my mom got married to a well-meaning man who had lost his first wife to cancer.  He had a 13-year old daughter at the time of their marriage.  My mom’s emotions were intense.  During one fight, my mom punched her fist through a plate-glass window, cutting several long cuts, needing stitches.  (My mom told me the story when I asked her about the long, smooth scars she had on her right hand.)  Cal, her husband, immediately pursued divorce because he couldn’t handle the trauma and tension my mom’s explosive behavior caused.  Unfortunately, no one seemed to look into why she had these anger issues and irrational outbursts.  Instead, mom and I moved into a cute, little cottage in the same town as Cal.

From all the photos I’ve ever seen of us,
everything looks happy and wonderful.

One of the first times I remember fearing for my safety, I was with my sister. (Jean was born four years after me with a man my mom married for about two years; Joe also filed for divorce due to the violent temper my mom displayed.) She was mad about something and began throwing and smashing the dishes in our kitchen.  I can still hear her screaming.  To this day, a screaming voice causes my heart to beat rapidly.  In fact, as I’m writing this, I can feel my heart rate increase, heat rise in my face, and panic, that has been with me as long as I can remember, rise in my chest.

These episodes continued on a regular basis in contrast with the weeks she’d spend on the couch with me taking care of her and my sister and me.  I actually preferred it when she was down like this.  I could generally count that she’d be gentle and quiet. I learned to walk on eggshells, to fake being asleep to avoid confrontation, to shutter and whimper when she got angry so that she wouldn’t hit.  My sister didn’t so much, and I viewed her getting my mom’s wrath on more than a few occasions that come back vividly, causing me again, to become anxious as I think on them.

It wasn’t until I ran away my junior year that my mom did something that caused the police to incarcerate her and eventually hospitalize her. This led to her formal diagnosis and her spending the rest of her life in protective care, making me an independent minor and my sister be placed with a family from the church we had been attending at the time.

These years of living in daily trauma led to me striving-led to me working hard at achieving my goals to have a “normal” family.  I went to college-double major and Cum Laude. I  married at 21 (then finish college at 24) and started my first job full-time teaching position a week after having my daughter. My husband front-packed my five-day-old daughter in the school administrative parking lot while I was interviewing.  They gave me six-weeks off for my maternity leave before I started. I didn’t know what it meant to live without the anxious feeling in my gut and chest.  I used that adrenaline to push me to go, go, go.  And from that relentless pushing to do and be the best at whatever I did. I got many atta-girls that fed both my ego and my need to fill the hole I didn’t know I had.  I did not know of any other way to be in this world. This continued until June 2018 when the first non-stop pain formed in my calves.  (I explain the onset of Fibromyalgia in the two blogs What’s Wrong With Me? Part 1 and What’s Wrong With Me? Part 2.) 

Set On The Healing Path

Through the 10-week Fibromyalgia Pain Program at Mary Free Bed, I was introduced to how a nervous system that has been chronically on alert (fight/flight)  is then dysregulated to be too sensitive, sending pain signals were there is no injury. “Like an amplifier always turned to its highest volume,” explains Dr. Daniel Clauw. This has led me to research neuroplasticity and rewiring the brain, which has promising new research and techniques.  I am looking to rewire my brain so that my automatic nervous system can live in parasympathetic (rest/digest) mode more often than the sympathetic (fight/flight).  

I’ve been focusing on this for the past 8 months: yoga, breathwork, meditation, EFT (tapping), resting, getting in nature, cardio exercise, naps, allowing myself to do only what seems doable at the moment… Many family members and friends had assumed that leaving the stressors of the classroom would be the fix. Sadly, no, this cannot calm down a lifetime of living with constant fear in my gut.  However, I am finding good resources and better understanding.  I do believe I’m making headway (although not as fast as I would like-tough to quelch that go-go part of me). 

On our drive home after our week spent in the woods at Pictured Rocks, scrolling through my Facebook feed, up came a post from Fedupwithfatigue.com: Rewiring the Brain to Get out of Pain-The Moskowitz ApproachAs I read, it illuminated the reason beyond just the cardio sending good endorphins throughout my body as to why my mind and body felt so much better with walking in the woods and as to why it lasted beyond just a few hours.  During my walks, I used the skills for meditation I had learned: paying specific attention to what I saw, heard, smelled, and felt. I breathed purposefully-two counts in and four counts out (feeding the parasympathetic system more than the sympathetic), and working on maintaining a tall posture (not the slumped one that has been my natural stance for as long as I can remember), holding in my stomach muscles to support my back and strengthen my core.

I then downloaded the book by Dr. Norman Doidge suggested in the article: The Brain’s Ways of Healing which “Doidge compares learning to reprogram the brain to learning a musical instrument – or more aptly, perhaps, learning a new language. The practice is most difficult at first but gets easier over time.”

Rewiring My Brain

A few things that I’m doing seem to be helping me rewire my overactive autonomic nervous system: yoga, breath-work, and walking in the woods with purposeful attention.  

  • Yoga is a meditation in movement.  When I did yoga back before trying to purposefully quiet my noisy brain, I used it for cardio and strength training.  I did not see it as meditation.  I did, however, learn to breathe through my nose and at times would focus on my breath by silently counting in, 2, 3, 4, 5; out, 2, 3, 4, 5. Now, I purposefully focus on my breath for the whole practice.  When my mind wanders (which is often), as soon as I realize it, I work to bring my focus back on the in and out of my breath, linking it to the full movement and feeling it as it flows in and out from my belly to my chest. 
  • The breathwork practices that I’ve been doing are two different types. (There are several types): Clarity Breath Work and SOMA Breathwork.  While each is a bit different from one another, both use focused, measured breathing over an extended period of time 20-60 minutes. I’m enjoying both and find myself energized, content, and pain-free for an extended amount of time. It seems to be extending longer and longer the more I do it. 
  • Meditative walking in the woods is new to me.  I did it purposefully while in the woods by myself near Beaver Lake.  This is something that I want to continue and use. I will use my breathing and meditation techniques while walking in nature. 
I would also like to develop the visualization that Dr. Michael H. Moskowitz used (which tends to be harder for me) and try the sound therapy (iLs that Doidge discusses at length in chapters 7 & 8 of his book).  I have participated in one sound bath session and hope to be in another coming up soon at the yoga studio I attend. 

My efforts are producing good results.  I’m off of all prescription drugs for Fibromyalgia symptoms and using very little over the counter pain medications.  I’m finding I’m lasting from morning to night.  I’m more positive and more energetic.  I’m beginning to make plans, knowing I’ll be able to make them. And as Doidge explained, it’s getting easier to practice calming my noisy brain the more I do it.

Have you heard of rewiring the brain? Are you actively using this for healing? I’d love to hear what you’re doing and any results you’re finding.

Thank you for visiting my blog today. 
I am committing to posting once a week on Fridays.  
However, as you know, my new normal means that sometimes 
I have to listen to my body and am not able to follow through 
as planned. 
Thank you for your understanding.

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Lessons Learned in Mother Nature: Managing my Fibro Symptoms

This photo was taken at Pictured Rocks at
Lower Hurrican Campground.

My husband and I agreed to be volunteer chaperons for a week of rustic camping at Pictured Rocks sometime last year.  I really had thought I’d have this Fibromyalgia beat by then-Ha! Ha! My daughter ran a program called Parks in Focus that gets 14 teens into the wilderness through the use of photography.  My husband and I have always been outdoorsy, so a free trip to the UP of Michigan sounded like a great deal.

The weekend before the trip had been a really rough one.  I was still dealing with what was to be the last throws of Cymbalta withdrawal: a weird headache and nausea, besides the pain being more intense, insomnia, and at times a deep sadness.  My resolve to stay off of Cymbalta for at least two months past withdrawal was waning fast. The night before, Kelley said that he could go and I could stay home, but I just didn’t want to be left behind.  So, I got up, really out of it, and plopped my bum in the car ready for the six-hour drive to Pictured Rocks National Shoreline, thinking that I wasn’t going to be much help and worrying that I would actually be a burden.

The wonder of nature
brought us all together.

The energy of 14 teens from 11-14 years of age (5 boys and 9 girls) was palpable.  When we stopped for lunch at Mackinaw City, I was beginning to get my legs under me.  One of the campers, an alumni of 14 and lead camper, remembered me from a trip we did with his group to Ludington State park a couple of years before.  He came up and hugged me and called me Abuela.  He named my husband Abuelo.  Our role as adopted grandparents was formed.

We arrived just before the thunderstorm that night. That meant we had to all hustle to get out tents up and the camp secured.  Dinner had to wait.  As I lay in our tent, on our new Coleman Queen-sized camping cot, I felt tentative that I could enjoy this week and be of help to the group.

After dinner that first night, my husband and I did a short walk from our campsite to Lake Superior.  It felt good to listen to the waves slap the sandy shore and the rush of Hurricane River flowing into the lake.  There were no real other sounds.  The air was fresh and the lighting of the sun through the dissipating clouds soft. It was then that I took some much needed deep breaths and did a few half-sun salutations and yoga stretches.  I could feel my mind, my body, and my soul let down.

I should have tried for a better shot,
 but trust me, I was feeling great here:)

The next four days were crammed with meal prep and cleanup, amazing outdoor adventures, beautiful sites, and happy faces. At Seney National Wildlife Preserve, while the kids were doing a pond study session lead by park rangers, Kelley and I went for a stroll through the ponds.  Then, at lunchtime, I pulled off to the side of the pavillon on the grass and did some yoga, meditation, and stretches.  I felt so much better than I had the past several weeks since completely going off of Cymbalta. Even more amazing was the fact that I was using very little in the way of over-the-counter pain reliever for the first time in several months.

The loons were calling and 
monarchs flitting around. 

That night I didn’t feel the greatest.  I’ve been having times of pain that aren’t exactly pain.  It’s a deep electrical-type aching, much like getting your funnybone hit.  It’s mainly been on my left side from under my left arm, up into the armpit, into the shoulder, down the arm to the fingers and up into the neck, causing a nausea-filled headache.  I did take two Zzzquil that night and ended up sleeping fairly well.  (I did have to get up to go pee.  However, with me having Interstitial Cystitis for many years now, we came prepared with our own travel potty: Reliance Fold-and-Go.) The new camping cot really was a perfect bed away from home.

The next day was to be the big hike.  We drove to Chapel Rock parking area.  The campers all had their cameras and were ready for a 6-mile hike.  The weather was threatening to rain in the later afternoon, so we knew we had to get going early that morning.  After the ranger’s presentation about human interaction in nature, we began.  Kelley and I both used a walking stick.  He actually was in more pain than I was because of doing a major brick path laying project at home for the past couple of weeks.  The kids were kind and let us both walk at our own pace.  At about the three-mile mark, I was really feeling good, physically, emotionally, and mentally. 

Abuelo and Abuela-
taken by one of our “grandcampers”.

Chapel Rock- a metaphor for living 
FULLY no matter the obstacles.

At lunchtime, I did get hit with a wave of that weird-electric-nausea headache.  I laid down on the ground and did some stretches and ate a peanut butter and jam tortilla roll-up and drank some water.  (One note: we drank a lot of just water on this trip.  More than I normally do at home.) I revived just in time to head back.  I also took the lead of the line.  My daughter had irritated her ankle and was needing to take a slower pace, so Kelley stayed with her. As the threatening thunderclaps were heard off in the distance, the kids and I began a quick hike back with no stops for photos or nature ogling. I have to admit I felt strong when a camper said, “Abuela, you are faster than the rest of us!” That night, I felt energetic and clear-minded. I went into a sound sleep without aches and pains.

The kids commented that I was 
handling the walk better than they were! 😉

The next day, while the kids went on a canoe trip across Beaver Lake with the Ranger, Kelley and I hiked the groups’ lunches to the beach we’d meet them later that morning.  That morning, I had woken up with my usual stiff-sore legs and arms, but I was able to get the rust out through the early walk. Kelley and I got separated after I realized I had left my walking stick at our resting spot from a while back.  He went on because we were worried that we’d be late meeting the group for lunch.  Our communication for where to meet up was a bit off, leading me to add on an additional mile to my overall walk.  Towards the end of that 5-mile walk, I could feel I was hitting the end of my energy level. I focused on consciously noticing what I saw around me, the smells of pine and lake, the sounds of waves rolling in and tweets of the birds, and the taste of the wintergreen leaf I chewed. I also focused on slowly breathing in and out. Those ways of being present have really helped me appreciate and FULLY take in these precious moments. 

Luckily, we were all ready to go home and take a nap.  Sleeping in the open air really is refreshing.  By dinner time, I was back up and rejuvenated.  That night, sitting on the beach of Lake Superior, watching as the sunset, I really felt like there was hope that I could live my life, on my terms, without the help of pharmaceuticals.

A Change of Path

On the drive home yesterday, I found an article about Rewiring the Brain (brain plasticity).  Dr. Norman Doidge, the author of The Brain’s Way of Healing and The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science, talks about how walking, specifically, can help to rewire the brain and fix what is broken.  Through the Fibromyalgia Chronic Pain program at Mary Free Bed, I had already bought into the idea that I was dealing with a broken brain that is overprotectively sending out pain messages.  I certainly have made progress through their guidance.  However, going off of Cymbalta definitely challenged my coping skills.  I feel that walking (especially in nature) is a healing thing for me.  I could feel the change. I am now going to do further research in this area.  I highly recommend listening to this talk: The Brain’s Way of Healing and reading these articles: Walk Your Way to Better Brain Health and  How Walking in Nature Changes the Brain.
5 days, no shower or bath, 
yet really feeling good.

What brings you peace? What brings you joy? What renews your body and soul?

I am committing to posting once a week on Fridays.  
However, as you know, my new normal means that sometimes 
I have to listen to my body and am not able to follow through 
as planned. 
Thank you for your understanding.

Fibromyalgia Forced Me to Look Inward

Fibromyalgia has given me a gift.  It has pushed me to reflect, evolve, and break up a solid foundation of untruths I’ve lived by.  Trauma happens to all of us, at least that is what I’m finding as I share my story.  We all have things we need to work through.  Some do it sooner than others.

Childhood Trauma is being found to be linked to the development of Fibromyalgia. “’I think what we’re starting to appreciate is that when you have traumatic experiences as a young person, it rewires you. And the way in which you interpret physical symptoms is changed forever,’ said Steve Passik, PhD, a psychologist and Vice President of Research and Advocacy for  MillenniumHealth.” 

One way I have always gone through life is by playing the “mother figure”.  From a very young age, I remember peers and elders saying things like “Katie is the mom of this group” and “you’re an old soul”.  I remember being 10 years old, my mom cemented to the couch again.  I didn’t know why.  Six years later, she would be committed to Kalamazoo Psychiatric Hospital (and spend the rest of her life in the State’s care) for Schizophrenia and Bipolar disorder.  

Cultivating a Caretaker Persona

When she was on the couch for days on end, I would “cook” meals, do the dishes, rub her feet and scratch her back.  My younger sister and I would stay out of her sight as much as possible.  When she was manic, it was a crapshoot.  She could be a lot of fun, bringing us to get ice cream or buying us things we liked.  However, she could also be violent.  Not so much physically to us, although there was some of that, what she’d do a lot screaming and breaking of things.  It was scary.  

As an elementary student, I’d befriend those I saw as outsiders.  I’d see it my role to help them.  In 5th grade, one of my friends was Joey.  He had six or so siblings.  He’d come to school dirty and wearing raggedy clothes and shoes with holes.  I made sure to protect him at recess (bullies saw his petite frame as easy pickings) and brought from home anything I thought he could use.  My home life was not much above his financially, but my mom did obtain decent clothes (generally garage sales and donations) for my sister and me, so I felt I could help him, too.

This mother-figure that made sure to take care of those around me continued into college, my marriage and family, and into my profession as a teacher (both to my students and colleagues). 

I’ve begun to realize that this role has served me.  Yes, I did it to help others, but I also received what I wanted.  Maybe it was a distraction from dealing with my own wounds, helping someone with theirs. Maybe it was to get the love and appreciation from the one I helped.  Maybe it was to get the praises of those around me.  Maybe it was to be needed.  Probably, it was all of these.  Still, it led to me ignoring my own needs- physically and emotionally. I would regularly get through a day of teaching, realizing that I had not had anything to eat or drink all day.

Learning I’d Been Living a Lie

This realization comes through writing.  Often my hand flows without me knowing what’s going to come out.  It’s as if an invisible spirit has taken my fingers over and I sit and watch as the words fly out.  Often what I write is very close to the first draft’s version.  When I read it, I come to understand a new insight about myself.  There was little to no forethought about what gushed out. Many times I cry as I read it to myself-the knowing becomes so raw. 

Below is a poem that brought me an understanding of one of the falsehoods I had lived by.  

Sitting by the Fire on a Starry Night

By Katie Clark

I am looking for the light.  What sparks? What ignites?  
Too long have I hidden in the dark; fanning your fire.
I too need to burn; burn bright and strong.
I too need to know that who I am counts.
That just me, not what I’ve done for you,
Actually has meaning and worth.
It’s not your fault.  I wanted with all my heart to give you my-
But now, I will sit here, staring up at the stars calling out from the blackness.  Striking my flint against the steel of my thigh. 
My sparks fly out onto the carefully cultivated tinder. 
The sparks glimmer and glow orange, going out before I can give it breath. 
I strike again, showers of promise shine down on the awaiting fodder. 
I don’t hesitate.
I blow gently, timidly at first, hoping that my fire will burn strong and vibrant.  
You come and sit next to me,
reminding me of all the oxygen I gave to you to hold. 
You pass it back to me.
I blow with a giddiness that encircles those embers and brings it to flame. 
“I will get you sticks,” you say. 
I’ve only brought logs, and they’re not ready to ignite.  
Your offering brings my fire alight and bright. 
“Now,” you nudge, “add your first log. I think it’s strong enough.”

It Was Complicated

The relationship I had with my mom was complicated at best.  I was so angry, disgusted, and ashamed with her nearly all my life.  Yet, I respected her, loved her deeply, and thought she was amazing.  After her suicide in May 1991 when I was 27 years old, 5 months after my son was born, I went through many stages of emotion: anger, judgment, love, inconsolable grief, forgiveness, and shame.  This poem poured out of me after listening to a speaker talk of forgiveness.  

By Katie Clark
You defied them.
They said you were mentally ill.
You said you had hypoglycemia-
drinking raw eggs like Rocky.
They put you in a hospital.
Outwitting your opponent
with your 120 IQ.
They put you in a home 
and told you not to smoke.
You went to your best friend’s house
and bummed a carton of cigarettes.
They let you get your own studio apartment.
You said, screw this,
I don’t live because you say.
So you, let  the blood run out
Soaking into the shag carpet.

A Desperate Obsession

About three months after my diagnosis with Fibromyalgia, I began to massage myself, relentlessly.  The more I massaged, the more I needed to and more places that seemed to need it.  My massaging was not gentle.  I would poke and press as hard as I could take directly onto an aching muscle: calves, thighs, feet, thumbs, neck, chest, shoulders, upper arms, lower arms, armpits…This began to happen when I was reading, sitting as a passenger as my husband drove, when I was out for drinks with friends, while I was teaching….It began to be an obsession.  Again, after some reading about Complex Trauma (childhood exposure to multiple traumatic events—often of an invasive, interpersonal nature—and the wide-ranging, long-term effects of this exposure), I sat down to write and this came out.  

Kneading Need
By Katie Clark

Sitting across from him, I watch his question mark gaze
follow my own fingers kneading my arm like bread dough.
Deep within the fibers of my body is an aching-
the famished maw of need.
In the shower, I see purple and brown
finger painted bruises on my calves,
thighs, forearms…chest from
kneading the angry gnawing
with no respite.
From foot to skull, silent shouts seep.
Bone to muscle to flesh-
exposing the desperate deprivation,
demanding to be satisfied.
How funny it is coming to love her-
pain and all.
To understand that she is just asking
for what she has needed all along.

Fibromyalgia has forced me to look inward.  I’m grateful in many ways.  I am coming to know myself.  I plan to live FULLY as myself from this time on.  

What have you learned about yourself as you deal with chronic illness or issues life has brought you? What benefits have you reaped as you wade through these obstacles?

Thank you for visiting my blog today. 
I am committing to posting once a week on Fridays.  
However, as you know, my new normal means that sometimes 
I have to listen to my body and am not able to follow through 
as planned. 
Thank you for your understanding.