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!!!”

 

 

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.

The Bare Necessities

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It is so wild that I am sitting down to write my first post about my pledge to practice yoga/meditation on a regular basis, and as I look at my blog to see how long I have been doing this, I see that I made this pledge exactly one month ago today. How cosmic is that?

So, the last time I wrote about this, I was high from the San Francisco Salsa Rueda Festival, and I talked about movement as meditation. Since then, I have barely amazingly managed to keep up with my regular practice, and I have come up with some basic guidelines for myself.

1. Dancing does not count. I love to dance, and yes, it is a meditation, but if I count this as part of my regular yoga/meditation practice, I will never do yoga. And I will never sit and meditate. I will just dance, and I already do that so it doesn’t really count.

2. I need to be alone. This is time for me to check in with me, myself, and I. I can sit and stretch and twist all I want when I am around other people, but this is not me checking in with myself. It is merely me extending and exercising my muscles while socializing.

3. Listening to my hypnosis sessions does count, as long as I don’t fall asleep five minutes into it. I got one hypnosis CD for test anxiety, and another for Bruxism (teeth-grinding, which I have learned I do with a vengeance). They have been helping me a lot. I have a lot of anxiety in my life right now, and this is a way for me to stay on top of it. I am learning “to be relaxed more than I ever have before (actual quote from hypnosis CD).”

4. Hatha yoga is very different from sitting meditation, and I need both. Ideally, I would be spending 15 minutes minimum nightly just sitting in meditation, but I need to stretch my body to de-stress. I need more time to devote to both practices, and meditation is getting the short end of the shaft right now, because my body demands to unwind. And that is okay, for now, until I get through this very packed and crazy part of my life (I sense someone snickering and thinking, “The crazy times never end, you fool…”)!

5. My practice is about nurturing myself, not about self-discipline. My life is way too disciplined right now. I am studying for my LCSW exam, and let me tell you, this test is a motherfucker! Serious insomnia inducing, teeth-grinding insanity. And I am not a nervous test-taker. I am also juggling a job where I constantly hear horror stories and try to help people find light in dark places. And then there’s parenting my almost 4-year-old boy who seems to be getting hit by a massive wave of testosterone. My sweet little mama’s boy is now fluctuating between screaming at me, hitting, outright defiance, and extreme clinginess. Patience has been a true necessity that I have sometimes been short on lately. There are plenty of other stressors I could list, but they are either in the past, in the future, or in the not so central present, so i will not get into them, because thinking about them is making me chew my fingernails. The point is, I need quiet time, to give myself what I really need.

I am learning more about what I really need, because filling these needs feels really essential right now. I think I am listening to my deeper needs more than I ever have in my life. Simple things, like: get to sleep at a reasonable hour; cut back on the caffeine, alcohol, and sugar; eat healthy foods and take vitamins; communicate assertively instead of holding things in; don’t spend my precious energy sweating the small stuff; be grateful; and relieve stress with physical activity (including sex!!!).

I already knew all this stuff. These were the “shoulds” that were always in the back of my mind. But somehow, they are becoming the “wants” and the “musts” at the forefront of my mind. Challenging times bring us back to our foundation. I am digging deep and making mine strong.

Hold Me Accountable to Myself, Please

Meditation

Meditation (Photo credit: atsukosmith)

I’ve been running like the white rabbit in Alice in Wonderland lately. Between studying for my LCSW exam, parenting, working, and keeping up with my social life, I haven’t been allowing myself time to write. More importantly, I haven’t been allowing myself time to take care of myself.

When I don’t take care of me, I tend to get grumpy and melancholic, and I find myself talking to myself in a whiny voice a lot of the time. I get into this victim, “poor me” mindstate, and I forget about how incredibly blessed I am.

When I take just a little bit of time to take care of myself, everything shifts. When I stop and think about everything I have to be grateful for, my whole perspective changes, and suddenly life seems to be so worth it; I don’t want to miss even one moment feeling sorry for myself.

I’ve decided to challenge myself. For the next three months, I am going to spend a minimum of 15 minutes a day meditating and/or doing yoga. I can skip days, but I need to make the time up within a week. This means I need to do a minimum of one hour and forty-five minutes of meditation and/or yoga weekly.

Breaking this down even more, I know I will engage in these practices at least twice weekly, because I simply won’t do this much time in one day. And another great point, if I start my meditation and/or yoga practice on any given evening, it is very, very rare that I spend only 15 minutes. See, the hard part is starting. The challenge is getting myself away from the infinite amount of distractions and bringing myself here, to this present moment. Once I am here, I don’t want to leave.

Tonight, for example, I spent 45 minutes. I did some simple leg stretches, then started working on some swan stretches (not using proper yogic names, I know).

I noticed a weird stitch in my lower back, so I started working on some movement I learned years (& years) ago in a class with a yoga teacher who incorporated continuum movement. Basically, this means I got into hands and knees position, and wiggled and swayed my spine and hips whichever way felt right. This is so simple, yet so powerful, because it gets your body out of its stuck places, out of its habits, and opens it up in new, delicious ways.

Then I did some hip shoulder stretching, lifting my arm up (elbow next to head) and wedging my hand underneath whichever shoulder was stretching, and massaging myself this way, underneath the weight of my body. Complete bliss, and…ahhh.

I then did some sitting meditation (after a brief break from comforting my screaming 3-year-old, who woke up feeling too hot or too stuffy-nosed or whatever). I tried this Happiness Meditation, by Thich Nhat Hanh:

“Breathing in I calm my body.

Breathing out I smile.

Dwelling in the present moment,

I know this is a wonderful moment.”

I fucking love meditating. And when I don’t do it, I forget, and I think of it as work. But the really great thing is that the effort you put into and progress you make with meditation and yoga does not go away. When you come back, there you are, right where you left off. The wisdom you learn, you learn so deeply, and you naturally apply it to every aspect of your life.

Tonight with the meditation, I remembered something in a book I am reading about how one day for Brahma (the Hindu creator of the world) is 4 billion years for us humans. And I started to think of every second, and how teeny tiny that would be in this perspective. And then, I thought of some insects, who live to be just a few days old, and how maybe for them, in their experience, they have these incredibly long lives with a vast amount of experiences.

Gazing into the infinite also always brings up existential angst for me, but the smiling and the constant coming back to the present moment really helps with that. And the realizing that I need not fear loss and death, because, really I have nothing. I am a part of this cosmic dance, and I am in relation to other people, and I like to believe, or at least hope for, reincarnation, or something after death, in which I am still connected to my loved ones.

So, please, readers, help me on this journey. Hold me accountable to this practice. And join me, if you’d like. I would like, very much.