The Perfect Birth

Recently, I read this great lady’s birth story, and it inspired me to write my own. I had a natural birth, a home birth, something you hear very little about in this day and age. Some people think it’s a crazy thing to do, and can’t understand why anyone would choose this, since hospitals are so much “safer.” Me, I felt so much safer at home. Hospitals scare me. They are for sick people. Pregnancy and childbirth are not illnesses. It probably helps that I was born at home, caught by my father. Knowing my mom could do it gave me confidence that I can, too.

I want people to know that birth without medical intervention is possible. Not always. I have many friends who wanted natural childbirth, but circumstances didn’t allow it. I was blessed in this way, to not have any complications. I pray my next birth goes as well. I truly believe that it really, really helped to be in my own home surrounded by a team that completely supported me going at my own pace and reinforced the belief that my body knew exactly what to do. I also want to say that perfect does not mean effortless. It was the hardest thing I have ever done in my life. And also the most rewarding.

July 12, 2009:

My due date. I am scared and excited and so over the constant heartburn. My boyfriend, Danny insists that we buy a birthday cake to welcome the little bean. I go along with his idea, because…why not? We head to the local bakery, where he special orders a mocha cake. We stay in that night, watch a movie, and eat some cake. I go to bed late as usual, because I’m a night owl. I don’t go into labor. I didn’t expect to. It’s my first baby, and everyone is always talking about how first babies tend to come late.

July 13, 2009:

I awaken at 5 AM to cramps. I’ve been having Braxton-Hicks contractions for weeks, but this is the first pain I’ve felt. It feels like strong period cramps. I throw up and wake Danny to tell him I think I’m in early labor. I can’t get back to sleep. The cramps come every 10 minutes, last about one minute each time, and they are difficult to sit through. This pace remains steady all day. I watch a few movies, and try to keep my mind distracted. I remember my midwife’s advice, to try to go about my life normally and ignore early labor as much as possible, because it can last a long time. I don’t go for a walk. I don’t want to even leave the house. It is really difficult to ignore what’s happening, and I don’t feel in any condition to face the world. I throw up a couple more times this day. I am a puker, as my midwife says. I had morning sickness until halfway into my pregnancy, and continued to vomit sporadically throughout the remainder of it. My midwife warned me that women often throw up in early labor, and that it is important to keep myself hydrated and nourished. We call her at some point, and she urges me to eat. I eat turkey BLTs all day, because it’s the only thing I want and can stomach. When we call her again towards the end of the day, she tells me to soak in the tub and maybe drink a half of a glass of wine, so I can relax and sleep tonight, as the labor doesn’t seem to be picking up. I follow her advice and get to sleep around 11.

This first day of early labor is one of the hardest parts of labor for me. I feel like I am about to fall into a rabbit hole, and I can’t fight it, and have no idea where it is going to take me, except that it will be painful, very painful.

July 14, 2009:

I wake up at 4 in the morning to stronger contractions that are happening closer together. They are too strong to sleep. After suffering alone for a while, I wake up Danny and tell him I think it’s picking up. I sit on the yoga ball, and he works pressure points on my lower back through the contractions. It hurts. We are timing the contractions, and they are happening three to four minutes apart, lasting from 45 seconds to a minute. Sounds pretty active, right? Well, we think so, and call my midwife around 5 or 6 to let her know. I’m on the phone with her, describing what’s happening when I feel a contraction coming on. She says she’ll hold on until it’s over. I breathe through it silently, as I’ve been doing to manage the pain. When it’s over and I get back on the phone, she asks me if I had the phone on mute. I tell her no and she says, “You were kind of quiet. I didn’t hear any moaning or anything.” I tell her, yes, I was just breathing, and she replies, “You’re not in active labor yet. I know it’s hard, but try to get some more sleep and call me in a few hours.”

I am amazed and disillusioned. If this isn’t active labor, how bad is it going to get? I gather a mountain of pillows and lay in a kind of elevated child pose on top of  my bed. I keep breathing through the regular contractions. I actually manage to sleep for a few hours. Gradually, I find myself getting into a zone. I wake up for the contractions, breathe through them, and then go back to sleep until the next one. By 9 AM, I am on the floor of my room, with pillows, still in child pose, still sleeping between contractions, only now I am moaning a low hum and counting slowly through them, because they are definitely getting stronger. Danny keeps timing them, and checking on me. He suggests several times that we should call the midwife again, but now I don’t want to. I don’t want to see anyone or deal with anyone except for this. I am in it. I put him off again and again, fine to be on my own alternately sleeping and moaning through unbearable but transient pain.

My midwife calls me at 9:30, but I don’t pick up the phone until she calls again at 10:30. She needs to let her team know what to plan for the day. We let her know the labor does seem to be moving along. She listens to me through another contraction and agrees. She shows up at about noon, and checks my cervix. When she sticks her fingers in, I watch her face shift from resigned to hopeful to sure. She then tells me that I was only at 1.5 cm, but she was able to pop me open to 4 or 5 cm. She explained that often women may have scar tissue that slows the opening of the cervix, and a little bit of manual touch can help one to move past that. She told me my active labor had just begun, as I was now past 3 cm. I continue to disagree. It had been happening for hours!

From this point on, my memory is very general and a bit hazy. My explanation for this: endorphins. My good friend, Serina showed up soon after the midwife. She is an acupuncturist and masseuse, and she and Danny worked pressure points for pain through every one of my contractions. This didn’t take the pain away, not by a long shot, but it helped. I was groaning a low animal groan through the increasingly painful contractions. They were coming very regularly, and after every one, I would feel so much bliss that the pain had passed.

Let me talk for a minute about the pain. I cannot remember it on a physical level, because of the special powers of selective memory. I can tell you I have never felt anything like it before. In the pit of my core was a pain, a wrenching, a squeezing that was all-encompassing. It was amazing, this pain, and I was completely awed by it. The only saving grace of this pain, the only thing that made it bearable, was that it was transient. Also, my body found a way to deal with it. Endorphins do not numb pain, but they did put me in a trance-like space that got me through it.

My midwife Cindy checked me again, and said I was at 7 or 8 cm, moving right along. Throughout the active labor, I was sitting on a big leather chair under the window in our upstairs hallway. I seemed to not want to move from that position, nor was I able to tell anyone where I wanted to eventually birth. I could not think that far ahead. Eventually, we decided to move a futon to the floor in front of the chair, so I could birth there. Cindy’s first assistant showed up around this time, and we decided to call my sisters, who were planning to come, when it was time to start pushing.

Cindy asked me a couple of times if I was feeling the urge to push. She also said it seemed like I may be getting close because I was “a little less with them.” I suddenly did feel the urge to push, and Cindy said she would check my cervix. Just then, my water broke, onto the chuck pad and leather seat, and it was clear. The urge to push passed for a while, then, which Cindy said is normal after the water breaks.

At some point, my sisters and Cindy’s second assistant arrived. I was naked and surrounded by seven people, completely uninhibited. I could care less what anyone thought of me, which is funny, because I think this is one of the things I was most nervous about before I went into labor. I was afraid of losing control, afraid of where I would go and who i would become, and who would witness this. When the time came, I felt like the belle of the ball. All of these people were waiting on me, and I was this magically amazing birthing woman, as beautiful as I will ever be in my life.

Eventually, the urge to push came back. Cindy checked me again and found a little cervical lip. And the hardest part of labor began. Cindy tried to open my cervix while I pushed once, but my cervix tightened around her fingers, so she immediately backed off, and told me not to push anymore. I guess if you put too much pressure on the cervix before it is fully dilated, it can swell up and prevent the baby from passing. She then told me to go take a shower with Danny. In the shower, I got nauseous and threw up. Luckily, one of the assistants got there in time with a bowl! I got out of the shower and leaned on the bathroom counter.

This is when I got hit by one contraction after another, with no breaks. Complete hell. I wanted to crawl out of my body. I had a very visceral sense of being stuck between a rock and a hard place, squeezed so tight with no way out. There was no comfort, and I couldn’t do it, and it would never end. Then I was anguishing on my hands and knees on the bedroom floor. I remember Tiffany, one of the assistants, saying to me, “You’re almost there,” and I was thinking, “Screw you! I am never going to get there!” Something felt very wrong. This kind of sensation couldn’t be right.

Luckily, it was temporary, even though at the time it felt like forever.

They helped me back to the futon in the hallway, and I panted on my hands and knees to keep from pushing. Cindy kept saying she would check me again, but kept holding off. At some point, I yelled, “I’ve gotta push!” Cindy told me to let it happen if I couldn’t resist, so I did that for a couple of contractions, not actively pushing, but not resisting it either.

After what seemed like an eternity, Cindy had me roll on my back to check me again. She was happy to report that I was fully dilated and the baby’s head was RIGHT THERE! I laid partially reclined on my back, with Danny sitting behind me for support. I pushed for about 30-45 minutes; it took a while to get the hang of it. I had to learn to stop vocalizing and instead focus all of my energy down there. They propped up a mirror so I could see the head, and everyone around got really excited, and kept exclaiming about seeing him crowning, but I could care less, honestly. I just wanted him the fuck out of me.

Finally, I felt a sharp pain, as his head popped out, and tore me just a tiny bit. From there, it was smooth sailing. Cindy turned him so his shoulders slid out easily, and suddenly he was in my arms!

It was all worth it immediately. I fell in love with his little face, and could not stop saying, “He’s so cute!” I had been a little bit afraid to meet this little being growing inside of me. I’d never been comfortable with newborns, and was afraid I would feel weird with him, and that he would be blue and cone-headed and ugly. It was kind of like a little alien growing inside me. But that all changed the moment I saw him, completely. I was surprised that he was pink and his head was a normal shape and he was perfect. Complete bliss, as I have never felt before, oceans of love engulfed me.

And they have never left.

The placenta came out painlessly with the next contraction. Once this was complete, Cindy relaxed, and stated with satisfaction, “The perfect birth!” After I held our baby skin to skin and got him to latch on for a bit, they had me hand him off to Danny so they could sew up my small tear. They brought me food, which I ate ravenously, with the hunger of a starving animal. I had eaten very little all day (maybe some yogurt and ice chips basically), and if you’ve paid attention, had slept very little for days. I was famished and exhausted like never before.

My mom and stepdad came over after I was sewn up and showered. We weighed the baby, and then celebrated with champagne and the rest of the birthday mocha cake. Gradually, everyone left, and Danny and I were alone in the house with this tiny little being. And then the real adventure began…

Gavin, 3 days old

Gavin, 3 days old

 

A Little Thing Called Hope

http://ciderandfaun.blogspot.com/2011/02/hope-grace.html

“The very least you can do in your life is to figure out what you hope for. And the most you can do is live inside that hope.”
–Barbara Kingsolver

It’s been two months since I wrote, friends, and I’m not sure where to begin. My last post was about the death of my mother, which is an event that I continue to process. I feel a lot of relief that the hard part, the end of her life, the suffering is over. And I feel sad that she’s gone, whenever I realize it, because I seem to realize it again and again. I think on the one hand, I just don’t want to believe it. But on the other hand, she had been gone a long time already. The person I knew as my mom was taken by Alzheimer’s long before she died. Now, I am free to remember her as she was before. And I do feel her presence, all the time. My last thought here: the dying is so much harder than the death itself.

There are some other things happening in my life as well. Yes, my life, that continues onward, hopefully for a long, long time. The biggest news….I am pregnant! I am at almost 15 weeks now, and this is probably the main reason I haven’t been writing, because I have been sick and tired and tired and sick. Besides working and parenting, I just want to read or watch movies, anything to comfort me and take my mind off feeling like shit. So far, the prenatal appointments have been good. Strong heartbeat, low chance of genetic problems according to the first screening and NT scan. It has been such a scary ride for me due to my past miscarriage and subsequent partial molar pregnancy. I rented a Doppler so I can reassure myself at home between doctor appointments. I have used it twice so far, and have heard a heart rate of 150 both times.

The other big news has to do with my partner. Danny has a condition called retinitis pigmentosa. This condition affects his vision. He has always been night blind, and when I say this, I mean he is truly blind if he does not have good lighting. It also affects peripheral vision. People with RP get tunnel vision that gradually gets more and more narrow, depending on that person’s progression. For Danny, it has always been a struggle, as he needs a guide at night. He can never drive or go out alone after dark. In the winter months, he has to work short days in order to make it home before dark. He has been lucky for a long time, because his vision has seemed to be relatively stable rather than getting progressively worse. However in the last few years, his eyes have been shifting, but we mainly attributed this to him being in his 40’s and needing reading glasses. Then, in the last few months, he started getting blurred vision that’s been making it hard for him to function at work. Uh-oh.

This is the life of my little family for the last few months. In June, Danny started feeling the shift in his vision. It freaked him out, but he did not tell me what was going on for a couple of months! He thought maybe his eyes were tired, or he needed a new prescription, but nothing was helping. In July, I found out I was pregnant. It was such a surprise, because we hadn’t started trying yet. My mom was on her deathbed, and we were gun-shy after the last pregnancy losses. One week later, my mom died. There was the grief that hit like a tidal wave and the burial and the memorial and the gradually worsening morning sickness. Danny stepped up as the main care provider for our 4-year-old son.

About a month ago, Danny finally shared with me what was going on with his vision. We started researching, and found that people have actually been treating his very condition since the ’80’s with something called micro-acupuncture. They stick needles into one’s hands and the soles on one’s feet. I felt like kicking us for not learning about this sooner. A crazy synchronicity: Danny has always been into astrology. Years and years ago, his astrologer told him that traditional chinese medicine would help him with his eyes. Acupuncture comes from traditional chinese medicine, so go figure!

To make a long story short, we have traveled across the country to work with one of the handful of people who offers this treatment. We chose the man who has been doing it for the longest, and has trained several others. It is a shitload of cash, but we figure if it helps, it’s priceless. On the first day, Danny underwent vision tests for acuity and visual field. Then he had two days of treatment, with five sessions each day. Today was day 3. He had to do the vision tests again this morning to see if he is a responder to this treatment. With no improvement he would be sent home. To our elation, there was improvement! So, we will be here for two weeks to continue the intensive treatment.

It’s not a cure, but it can get him some acuity and peripheral vision back, and halt the progression of the RP. Danny is noticing the changes. Colors are looking brighter and everything is looking sharper. Hopefully, he will be able to continue driving and working on a computer, so he can keep his job. This is a miracle for us. Western doctors will simply tell you that there is no cure, you will eventually most likely be (at least legally) blind, and it is a good idea to learn Braille.

The town we were initially going to come stay in for this treatment was called Mt. Hope. The doctor moved to a new town down the road this week, but the vacation rental we found is on, can you guess, Hope Court. Sometimes, hope is a really hard thing to have, when you have been struck with the cruel limitations that are so very real in this life. I’m not saying I don’t have faith. Even when life hands me a bitter pill, I try to understand the lesson, and I am usually able to somewhat sweeten the bitterness with acceptance. At least, so far. One never knows what catastrophe may be around the corner.

But that’s the thing: one never knows what beautiful spirit-fulfilling blessing may be around the corner either. One just never knows. Right now, I am daring myself to hope. We are daring ourselves to hope. Our tears are out of gratitude rather than despair. I am not of a Christian faith, but as you know if you follow my blog, I am a spiritual person. Maybe it is that we are currently in the South, where there is a church on every corner I swear, and probably it is because we are seeing the possibility of the miracle of answered prayers in our lives right now, but I find myself wanting to run to the nearest hillside and yell out at the top of my lungs, “Praise the Lord!!!”

 

 

The Body Fails Us

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First your mind, then your body. Bit by bit, painfully gradually, faculty by faculty lost forever. I watched as everything faded until you were a mere shell of your body, limited to laying in bed, being spoon-fed, washed and changed by a husband who adored you until the very end.

I remember not long ago, you sang, “Da-da-doo-da-da,” with a smile on your face, playing a creepy crawly finger game with my three year old son, your grandson. He laughed, delighted in it, loving it. Loving you. We all do.

That’s why, three weeks ago, we decided to let you go. It was your request, before the disease hit, back when you worked at the old folks home, feeding people who no longer wanted to be fed. “If I ever get to a point where I can’t feed myself, don’t feed me,” you told us emphatically. We did feed you, for a long time, until we faced the fact that you weren’t going to get any better.

You had already lost most muscle tone, were constantly curled up in a fetal position. Retraction, the hospice visitors called it. Battling ongoing seeping wounds—bedsores, fever sores, not-getting-better sores.

For three painful weeks, we took turns sitting vigil with you, holding hands, rubbing your head, reading, talking to you. I told you how much I love you, how you gave me the greatest gift of all—life. I hope you heard. I hope you understood.

They started chopping the towering eucalyptus trees in the green space surrounding your back yard, making way for development. You sank deeper and deeper towards death.

“She’s going down with the trees,” my sister said.

Your husband leaked tears day in and out, falling into pieces and grabbing on for an anchor as he washed your hair, your body. Some days he felt too guilty to eat, wanted to join you in your fast.

As you faded into dreamland, a skeleton emerged, a husk that once housed your luminous warmth. The displaced birds crowded your back yard fence. A hawk visited one day, cawing and cawing for home.

Your cousin went on a shamanic journey and found you. “Get me out of here,” you demanded of her.

Yesterday you went.

Today we bathed you, anointed you in oils, and covered you with rose petals. We stood in a circle around the vacuum of your body and wept.

“Mommy, mommy,” I want to curl into a ball, and scream. Devastation of the severance of that primal bond. The first connection to this world—gone.

You are in a better place now. That is a cliché for a reason, because  it’s true. Your suffering is over. No more debilitated mind, no more failing body. Your spirit was displaced, flying in circles while your body anguished. Now you are home, in a place that can never be chopped down.

There is no tree. There is no nest. There is no body. There is no you.

Yet you are all around us.

The Afterlife

 Back when I was in my early twenties and did crazy things like eat psychedelic mushrooms, I once had a vision. I found myself on a rock in a secret place deep under the ocean. Around me sat all of my female ancestors, welcoming me with great joy. They were all lounging about on the rock, with no cares, very happy, and completely peaceful. It was light and warm and expansive there. I remember feeling like I had walked into a spa, this atmosphere of profound relaxation, and…immense relief.

I knew in this moment that this was the afterlife. I knew I would be welcomed here when it came time for me to die. In fact, around this same time period, my grandmother died, and I dreamed that I ran into her at an actual spa, and she was vibrant and joyful and free.

I don’t subscribe to any particular religion. I don’t believe in a fixed idea of heaven or hell. I do believe anything is possible, and that there is some truth and some falsehood to every religion. I have also come across people in my life who feel so familiar, and so much like immediate family, that I tend to believe in past lives.

The only thing that I am sure of though, is that I don’t know. I believe that whatever happens after we die is so amazing that it is simply beyond our comprehension. I do not believe it is possible for us to truly understand what happens after death while we are still in our physical bodies, because we have no context to place it within.

Even this vision is diminished when I try to put it into words. I do like to believe that it’s real, though. I like to believe that my mom, who will shortly pass, will land here, welcomed by her ancestors, nourished by this circle of women, and rewarded for all of her hard work here on Earth.

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How to Change Habits

good-habits-bad-habits

I’ve got quite a few habits I’d like to change, and it’s been on my mind a lot lately. From daily actions I take that harm me more than help me, to automatic thoughts that limits me in major ways, I have plenty of room to grow and change in positive ways. My inspired quest right now is exactly this: how do we change habits in a lasting way? Here’s my brainstorm so far:

1. Mindfulness meditation. This works especially for unconscious, compulsive actions or automatic thinking habits. We keep engaging in habits that don’t serve us because we are not thinking. It’s routine. It’s what we know and find comfortable. It’s a pathway that has been carved in our brain that is of least resistance, much like a river that cuts a pathway through rock and earth will not flow any other way unless a dam is built and a new pathway is carved. This takes a lot of work! Mindfulness meditation can help us wake up from the trance of habitual thinking and action. With practice, we can start to notice the moment we make the decision to act on a habit, or the moment a thought arises that does not serve us. If you want to know more about mindfulness meditation, ask me. It will inspire me to get off on my butt and write!

2. Monitor and change behaviors. This includes several steps.

  • Choose the habit you want to change, and state the habit you want to create positively. For example, instead of, “I am not going to eat crappy food,” you would say, “I am only going to eat healthy foods.” This is important, because your brain follows your thoughts, so if you state what you are NOT going to do, your mind will be more likely to fixate on the forbidden than to focus on the positive change.
  • Commit to creating this new habit. There’s no room for half-assed goals here. You need to make a decision, and it needs to be definite.
  • Consider accountability partners.
  • Break down the practical steps you need to take to actualize the change into your daily life, and make these steps measurable goals. Create a schedule to support these changes. For instance, if my goal is that I want to exercise more, I need to decide how much more, and what I need to do to make my schedule accommodate this. I will then have a definite plan, and it is more likely to become routine. Guess what? Routines become habit!
  • Track your progress. Keep a note of it in your scheduler. Check in with it every day. Feel good when you see yourself doing it more and more.
  • Reward yourself as you meet your goals, that is, if changing the habit and meeting the goals is not reward enough itself!

3. Take it deeper. Sometimes a purely behavioral approach doesn’t work. This is generally because we did not truly commit or because we have deeper work to do around the habit we wish to change. Here are some ideas that you may find fruitful:

  • Examine resistance. A lot of times when we try to change habits, resistance comes up. Looking at this resistance may give you some clues to the deeper issues that may be present.
  • Look at the underlying needs. People engage in bad habits to fill needs that are not being filled in other ways. Ask yourself what is the need you are meeting in engaging in something that you see as unhealthy. Find another way to meet that need.
  • Be compassionate and allow yourself to cheat at times. Rigidity can create a narrow black and white view that makes change impossible. Create some space for yourself to make mistakes. Let yourself breathe, relax, and refocus.
  • Go deeper still. Changing habits can bring core issues to light. Spend some time exploring these issues if you feel they are ripe for healing. Journal. Talk with a friend or counselor. Dream on it. Take time to truly tune into yourself. You are so worth it!

I’ve got a list of 9 new habits I want to create. Now I just need to choose one and take some of my own advice. What about you, readers? Do you have any useful strategies for changing habits that you can share?

No More Time to Bide Time

I have exceptionally good news: I just passed my second licensing exam. which means that I am now a licensed clinical social worker! 

This means I can immediately get a raise in my current job, but what it really means is that I can gradually LEAVE my current job and move into private practice. This is a huge deal, because I have been working towards this since forever ago. There was the undergraduate degree, then the graduate degree, then the 3200 supervised hours to collect, then the pre-licensure coursework, then the mountain of paperwork to apply as a candidate for the tests, then the months of intensive studying and the ocean of anxiety that I almost drowned in while prepping for the first test, then a repeat for the second test. Needless to say, I am giving myself a huge pat on the back right now.

Being done with this process though, brings me back to another part of my life that I have been studiously avoiding for, say, the last nine months. That part would be the question of trying for another child.

As soon as I gave birth to my son, I decided I wanted to do it again. I loved the birthing process, the unbelievably soft skin of my newborn and the surprising fierceness of my immediate love for him. Each time I have ever asked my now almost 4-year-old son if he’d like a little brother or sister, his answer is an enthusiastic yes. My husband, a little less enthusiastic, but he’s willing to give it a go.

If you have been following my blog for a while, you know about the miscarriages I experienced last year, as well as the partial molar pregnancy that shook me to my core. After all this, I wondered if I had the courage to try to get pregnant again. After mulling it over for a while, I decided to focus on getting this licensing process out of the way, and then try one more time.

The time is here to try. I am standing at the edge of a precipice, and I am suddenly unsure about taking the next step. Fear and grief blind me from seeing the answer when I ask myself and God if another child is in the cards for me. I am so afraid to try again and I am terrified to hope for this. Forget believing in it. 

And then I take a step back and loosen my white-knuckled grip. And maybe I am starting to get some perspective here. The thing is, what this all comes down to is lack of control. I can attempt to get pregnant. I can take care of my body and do all those things one can do to encourage fertility, but that’s it. Beyond that, it’s fate, God’s will, or a roll of the dice; whichever you believe in. I can only do what I can do, and then it is out of my hands. And I need to be OK with that. I just need to be okay. 

To be all right with grief. To know I may get pregnant and fall in love with the teeny life inside of me, and then it may stop growing. And this might happen right around the time my mom decides to go, because my mom now has hospice in her life, so it won’t be long now.  So one way or another, grief is going to get me.

I think I might be okay, because the thing is that the wheel turns and we eventually lose everything in life. That is the human experience, to believe in the illusion that anything is ours to have to lose in the first place.

Here I am at the precipice. And the time is now or never. I think I can be courageous now. I can stand with my hands open and empty. Gaze into the infinite. Breathe…and take that last step into the abyss. 

Inspirational blogger award

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 I have been nominated for the Very Inspirational blogger award. Mrs. Nelson’s Math Tutoring and The State of Motherhood are the equally inspiring bloggers who nominated me. Thank you, ladies. It feels so wonderful for my work to be acknowledged by others’ whose writing I respect.

The Rules

1. Thank the person who nominated you.
2. Add The One Lovely Blog Award / The Very Inspiring Blogger Award to your post.
3. Share 7 things about yourself.
4. Pass the award on to 10 nominees.
5. Include this set of rules.
6. Inform your nominees by posting a comment on their blogs.

7 Things About Myself:

  1.  I am a high school dropout with a Master’s degree. On my way to being an LCSW. But I would never tell the kids I work with about that!
  2. I was conceived on a small west coastal town, and then transplanted to the Midwest while in utero. I am now back in that small west coastal town. It is the place that has always felt more like HOME. My hippy family didn’t quite “fit in” in the Midwest.
  3. I traveled alone through Latin America in my mid-twenties. I grew a lot during these travels, particularly in my ability to be comfortable wherever I am. I also learned Spanish, which is incredibly useful career-wise.
  4. I am a bit of a hedonist. I love to revel in the world of the senses.
  5. My greatest strength is my authenticity.
  6. My greatest weakness is my sense of direction. Really, I think I am direction-blind.
  7. I strive to live in a state of gratitude. Every moment.

My Inspiration:

  1. One Thousand Single Days
  2. Lindsay Leaps
  3. Breathe Believe Begin
  4. Feelings Faced
  5. Drdebraw
  6. Forcing Myself Happy
  7. Mummy Flying Solo
  8. Only Here Only Now
  9. Mindful Balance Blog
  10. The Life Monk

 

A Conversation with the Voices in my Head

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Let me introduce you to my new friend.

Went to a yoga class last week. It was awesome, the first one I’ve been to in forever. It also happened to be at the end of a three day juice fast AKA get-off-the-caffeine cleanse. More on that later. It was at the end of class, when we lay down in Sivassana, or Corpse pose, flat on our backs with our eyes closed, that the voice started talking to me.

“It’s no use, you’ll never relax,” the voice taunted. I looked and I saw him, there in my head. A little man, a bit like a gnome, a miniature tweaked out stress freak. Greenish wrinkly skin that accentuated every bone in his wiry body, big bugged out wicked-looking glowing eyes.

I sighed. “You again,” and I felt my body tense up, fighting gravity, resisting the gentle lull of letting go.

Then I remembered something I read once by the Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh. I can’t find the exact quote, but the basic idea is to invite your challenging feelings in for a cup of tea, figuratively speaking. Welcome them into your home and embrace them.

“Come on in,” I said, “Have some tea,” and I whipped up an imaginary magical sedating elixir.

He stood motionless, eyeing me suspiciously.

I held his eye contact steadily, consciously working to see past his appalling presentation, because I know he has something of value to offer me. He has to. “You know, you don’t have to be so stressed out,” I said. “I know it’s your job and all, but you don’t have to do it.”

“Lady,” he said, shaking his head, “You gotta stop sending me mixed messages.” And he took a sip of tea. “Yum.” He exhaled and relaxed. I relaxed.

I reflected on that. There is something in my subconscious mind that believes I need to be stressed out, that I need to try so hard all the damn time. And that part of me calls this tweaker to do the job, and he makes my life hell.

The other part is the caffeine habit. I find myself having such an attachment to caffeine, such an impulse to consume it all the time. I sometimes believe I need it to function, that I can’t just let myself get through a wave of tiredness, relax and rest into it. The caffeine summons this little green mean machine, as well. He comes and fills me with energy, which is great. But then, when it’s time to wind down and rest, he’s still there, contracting my muscles and chasing my thoughts around in circles.

Always on. Always up. Always energized.

Exhale. I gave the stressball a refresher on his tea. “You’re right,” I said. “I do need to work that out.”

He drank more tea. I relaxed more deeply. “This is nice,” he said, reclining on my chaise lounge. “I could get used to this.”

My body melted further into the floor. And I remembered that the bliss of relaxation is so much more deliciously fulfilling than the high of adrenaline.

I decided on my new mantra: EFFORTLESSNESS

I poured a cup of the tea for myself and drank deeply. Slow inhale. Long exhale. “It is nice. I could get used to it, too.” I turned to the green man and smiled. He smiled back, a slow lazy smile.

I closed my eyes and all thoughts disappeared.

Awesome photo credit: http://www.tumblr.com/tagged/central%20africa

7 Ways to Heal from Stress and PTSD

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the damaging effects of chronic, overwhelming stress. Today, I will follow this up with some ways I learned to heal from these conditions. This all came from a very informative PTSD training with John Preston, Psy.D.

1. Hold and be held. Particularly with babies, tactile stimulation does wonders. In one study, a control group held babies for two hours a day while an experimental group held babies for four hours a day. After six weeks, the babies in the experimental group cried 43% less. This applies cross-culturally. Babies who are held more are least likely to develop PTSD or hypercortisolemia. While the first year is so critical for lifelong brain development, I don’t think human touch ever becomes less essential. Sure, maybe we don’t need four hours a day, but hugs, cuddles, and massages go a long way.

2. Medication. I am not one to believe in going straight for the magic pill, but there are several medications that can be helpful if you are feeling very overwhelmed or out of control. Several types of medication can activate Brain-Derived Neurotropic Factor (BDNF), which strengthens neural pathways and can protect the brain from damage by extreme stress. All antidepressants activate BDNF (this is their one common denominator). Others that can be used for this purpose are Lithium, Depakote, Tegratol, Lamictal, and Seroquel. And guess what? Omega-3 fatty acids are also neural-protective. If you think you may need medication, of course talk with your doctor or psychiatrist.

3. Movement. Exercise also activates the neural pathway protector BDNF. It increases seratonin levels as well. Much of the feeling of PTSD is that of being “frozen.” Movement of any kind can immediately snap one out of that feeling.

4. Make choices that increase safety and structure in your daily life. In events of trauma and abuse/neglect, a common theme is powerlessness. Looking at brain chemistry, BDNF decreases when an individual experiences perceived powerlessness. Of course, it is not possible to always be in control of one’s circumstances, but it is possible to make choices that increases the chances of safety. It is also possible to have a regular schedule that increases predictability in your daily life. This will help. If this point interests you, look into the Seeking Safety program.

5. Mindfulness-based stress reduction. I love this one. It is a form of meditation and  consists of simple exercises one can do  to increase one’s mindfulness, which strengthens the brain and increases one’s ability to have control over where attention is placed. There is a lot of good science out there showing that this stuff really works.

6. Facing fears. The act of facing fears actually increases the frontal lobe’s ability to dampen down anxiety. It also gives one a restored sense of self-efficacy and control. When I am at my best, I try to face one fear every day. it is amazingly uplifting.

7. Exposure therapy. This can be useful for people who have been traumatized and feel strong enough to face their trauma. It is one of the most common therapies used for PTSD. Research has shown that exposure therapy strengthens the Arterial Cingulate (AC) and expands neural pathways between the AC and amygdala (remember the top-down control dampening down the anxiety/arousal I talked about last time?). Being able to look at the traumatic event while calm and centered in the present gives one the ability to handle stressful situations more effectively. It also minimizes the effect of the trauma. However, this needs to be executed carefully. An individual needs to learn emotional management skills before he/she begins this work in order to avoid re-traumatization.

Did you know stress can cause brain damage?

ImageI went to a training on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) recently. I did learn quite a bit about how to treat PTSD, but the presenter’s information about the effects of chronic and/or severe stress was what really struck me and stuck with me. So, I am going to blather a bit, and it may be somewhat technical, but I need to get this down on the page in order to internalize the info a bit more, if you know what I mean. Hopefully, some of you will find it interesting and learn from it as well.

Many of us have probably heard of the stress-related hormone cortisol. I myself have heard a lot about how it causes belly fat. What I didn’t know was that chronically high levels of cortisol can cause a condition called Hypercortisolemia. Quite a mouthful, right? Here’s the thing: there are two very important structures in the brain that help us to regulate our emotions (the Arterial Cingulate, or AC, and the Hippocampus). These structures are packed with cortisol receptors, and if they care constantly being bombarded with cortisol, they become damaged and unable to do their job properly. This is hypercortisolemia.

I am talking lifelong effects, especially when this occurs in young, developing brains.

Impacts of hypercortisolemia:

1) The Artertial Cingulate (AC) has top down control over the amygdala. You know that reptilian part of your brain that gets triggered in the present because something reminds you of painful memories from the past, even when you know things have changed, but you’re still tripping? That’s the amygdala working. It never forgets, but isn’t always rational. So basically the AC is the structure that tells the amygdala, “Calm down, relax, that was then, this is now.” If the AC is damaged, the amygdala is hyperactive (oh, please, god, no), and anxiety goes up.

2) The risk of depression goes up from a 15% chance (general population) to a whopping 58% chance. Not fun.

3) Some of the other clinical outcomes include severe personality disorders (especially borderline, for you other psych nerds out there), attachment problems, vulnerability to PTSD, and chronic PTSD.

Obviously this is serious. Take a big breath of relief, because most people will not get this condition. It is not generally caused by your run of the mill everyday stress.

Causes/ Risk Factors of Hypercortisolemia:

1) Ongoing trauma or chronic stress

2) Prenatal conditions: Cortisol can cross the placental barrier and damage a developing brain. Depressed or chronically stressed pregnant women need to have their cortisol levels screened and take anti-depressants if they are high.

3) Severe neglect

Now I am going to go on a bit of a tangent and talk a little bit about severe neglect, as the effects are quite tragic. Some of the behavioral symptoms of severe neglect include hypersensitivity (reacting more strongly to stress and taking longer to calm down), self-mutilation, and aggression.

Another symptom of severe neglect is alcohol abuse. Even in studies with primates, all of the monkeys were given alcohol, and it was the neglected monkeys who drank regularly and excessively.

Individuals who have experienced severe neglect also are more likely to have lifelong attachment problems. Studies on primates also show that neglected monkeys are not accepted, as they do not know how to read social cues. Neglected monkeys will have no mates. If they are inseminated, they will not take care of their babies (as a side note, this makes me kind of want to hurt whatever researchers felt the need to so deeply damage these poor monkeys).

Severe neglect can also cause lifelong neurobiological changes. Cortisol goes up (increased anxiety, depression, and lack of deep sleep). Seratonin goes down (more irritability, anxiety, impulsivity). Oxytocin goes down (causing problems with developing healthy attachments).

Another uplifting animal study: Infant rats were separated from their mothers for six hours a day very early in life. Another group was also separated, but continued to receive tactile stimulation. The control group was left to bond with their mommies. After a bit of all this, these amazing researchers threw all of the rats in a tub of water. Guess what? Those rats that stayed with their mommies and those rats that continued to receive tactile stimulation both fought for their little rat lives for TWICE as long.

Obviously, it is the very young brain that is most at risk here. However, experiencing trauma also happens to quite a lot of us, more than I like to believe is true.

Take home message? Take care of your baby. Get checked out if you are pregnant and tend toward depression or have a lot of stress in your life right now (but don’t stress!). If you do go through something traumatic, ask for help if you are feeling you are not getting over it after a month or so.

I am going to wrap up this highly uplifting post right now, but I will be back with some ways that you can deal with and heal this fun stuff.