Maybe C is for Catalyst

I want to talk about how finding out what motivates you can lead to personal liberation.  To do that, I will take you back to my junior year of college.  I was something of a fresh-faced know-it-all with something to prove.  I didn’t really know what I wanted in terms of a future career.  For most of my life, since the age of 4, I was certain that I was going to be a doctor, but then I discovered the theatre.  Yeah, that old cliché.

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So, I did what many confused perfectionists do.  I went to college and hit it hard.  My entire identity became about doing well in college.  Learning, of course.  That was my priority, but I could not do poorly in anything.  I had to receives As on everything.  In my mind, I was proving my parents wrong about me.  What I didn’t have the insight into then was that I was building an identity around performance and actually fortifying the very lies that I was trying to disprove.  My worth became proportionate to my professor’s evaluations of me.  I entered college a perfectionist.  I became a superperfectionist during college.  Every mistake I made grated on me and drove me harder.  I studied all the time.  I lacked a social life, and that seemed justifiable to me.  I was building a foundation for a future career path–whatever that would be.

The results of these painstaking efforts were inclusion on the Deans’ lists of the colleges I attended, scholarships, and recognition, but I hated it.  I didn’t feel a sense of accomplishment.  What if I failed? The anxiety grew greater the higher I climbed, and my personality had become distorted.  When I look back, I see someone whom I would not like today.  I was one of those intellectual snobs who would metaphorically wear black turtlenecks and chain smoke at cafés at midnight while discussing the merits of the intellectual movement in Europe vis-à-vis the developing social pragmatism of America.

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I’m so proud.

Then art history happened.  For some ridiculous reason, a medievalist at one of my colleges pushed me in the direction of art history.  It made sense.  My great-grandfather was a landscape artist in his country of origin, and my grandmother was an artist as well.  I had the language background for it, and I met the intellectual snob criteria for graduate level courses.  Perfect.

That is when I met the Flemish Professor.  He was a brilliant man and teacher.  He made art history seem accessible and easy.  Suddenly, I could see art history as a viable career.  I took all of his courses–medieval art history.  There were, like, six.  We got to know each other.  We had a good collegiate relationship.  It was during the end of my junior year that he suggested I take his graduate course on the cathedrals of Europe.  To me, at that time, this was a coup not to mention a fascinating course of study.  It was in this class that he handed me the topic for my art history thesis.

Catalonian retables.  

If you find yourself asking what the heck a Catalonian retable is, then you’re not alone.  That was my response as well except with more colorful language.  This is a retable in case you’re wondering:

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A retable is an altarpiece.  A Catalonian retable is an altarpiece from the region of Catalonia.

This was a thesis based on research.  Well, the only access I had to Catalonian retables was through large, cumbersome books.  Two large, cumbersome books.  Both of them in German.  For some reason, the Flemish Professor thought that I spoke German because I told him that I got bored while living in France and took an introduction to German at The Goethe Institute.  I left being able to count, conjugate, and perhaps order a beer, a piece of cheese or a piece of cake.  I would confuse the two.  In other words, I would do really well at Oktoberfest.

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Ich möchte ein Stück Kuchen!!

The only other published research in the entire world at the time was one French article.  That’s it.  Two German books and one French article.  The Flemish Professor asked for a 10-page “thesis” about Catalonian retables based on this? I gave him a 13-page paper, and I used all three sources.  The only three sources on Catalonian retables in the world at the time.  That’s how obscure the topic was.  He checked off on my outline and bibliography.

Do you know what this professor gave me for a grade? Hold on…

A C.  A C!!!!! I died on the inside.  I took that paper and marched into his office.  I put it on his desk and demanded an explanation.  Something I have never done before, but I felt he owed me that particularly since he signed off on every aspect of it.  We went head to head.  The sources were incomplete he said.  There were only three I said.  In the world.  It wasn’t long enough he said.  He asked for 10 pages I said.  I gave him 13 which was a miracle.  Why didn’t I use more of the German material he asked? I don’t speak German I said.  I countered him on every criticism.  He had nothing to stand on.

“The grade stands.  There was a misunderstanding.”

And then he crossed his arms and made something akin to a pouting harumphing noise.  Politics?! Was this my ego coming up against his far more established ego? What? I was incredulous.  How was I supposed to live with this? Dear God! A C in the class? I went home and had an existential crisis.  Who was I? If I got a C, then what? Maybe I really was stupid after all.  Maybe my parents were right.  Maybe I just hit the ceiling of my abilities in the academy.  Maybe I peaked.  Maybe…maybe…maybe…maybe…

This all sounds ridiculous.  I know that, but when we think about the things that set us off on any given day it isn’t so unreasonable.  I know what caused this crisis.  I started college two weeks after I escaped trafficking.  That blows my mind when I really ponder that.  I went from being a sex slave to a co-ed in two weeks.  I compartmentalized everything.  I threw myself into academics and performing, and I found out that I was good at it.  My whole world rose and set on earning high marks in everything, and it fell apart when I didn’t.  I didn’t know who I was apart from performing–performing perfectly.  From being perfect.  This core belief somehow protected me from ever having to deal with what caused me to develop that maladaptive strategy.  Underneath my consistent efforts to climb higher and be the best festered a toxic mélange of self-loathing, terror, and despair.  If I wasn’t good in the academy, then I wasn’t going to be good anywhere.  It was my last hope, or so I thought.  The Flemish Professor ripped me apart when he gave me that C.

And it was one of the best things that could have happened to me because it forced a reckoning.  I hated who I had become.  I didn’t enjoy the hoop jumping, politics, and ass-kissing that I had to do at university.  I hated the esoteric and seemingly useless topics of study.  Catalonian retables? That’s not going to cure the world of its ills.  Furthermore, I realized that I wasn’t actually studying because I liked it.  I had lost my integrity.  I had become a divided person–a dis-integrated person.  Maybe I always had been.  I didn’t even know.

Receiving that C, as small a thing as it is in the grand purpose of life, was a catalyst for immense growth.  I stopped and reconsidered my path and my purpose.  I made life changes after that class that changed the course of my life for good.  I also realized that if I was going to do something with my life that mattered to me, then it need be because I’m invested in it for reasons that resonate with my character and who I desire to be rather than proving a point to people who actually don’t care about what happens to me now or in the future.  The past should not corrupt the present nor my future.

That was two decades ago.  Ironically, that C was the best grade I ever got.

All this is to say that you may have had or are currently having experiences that ignite you in ways you never expected.  Your brain and heart may be on fire with existential despair or desolation.  You may be up against something that is breaking your brain.  Or perhaps your identity is on the line in a way that you never expected.  After dealing with recovery from profound trauma for almost three decades, I can safely estimate now that these kinds of experiences can be some of the most useful for emancipating us from ourselves and prisons of our making.  Most often, we did not create our cells, but we have a strange gift for keeping ourselves locked inside them through our self-judgment, personal and secret vows, self-loathing, need for vengeance, and constant comparisons between ourselves and others, and ourselves from the past, present, and future through these words, “I didn’t expect that my life would look like this at this age.”

There is no easy way to make a new key for an old prison, but what I have learned is that it all starts with questions.  And, the first question is usually, “What would happen if I tried ____________?”  Rethinking our present requires imagination and willingness.  It also requires giving up our fear of pain.  It will hurt emotionally and spiritually to integrate, but it hurts more to remain compartmentalized.  This I know from experience.

These are my observations as I continue to walk the road of attempting to live an integrated life.  May your entry into the forthcoming holidays bring you peace, merriment, and a deep sense of joy.

As always, keep going.

Shalom…

 

 

 

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Is Multitasking Stealing Your Thunder?

This week has been what I used to call in undergrad “Hell Week”–all the final exams were scheduled successively in a rather discouraging 1-2 punch.  It was exhausting when I was just entering my 20s living with little to no responsibilities in terms of taking care of another person.  Now?

Sweet fluffy lord…I really do wonder what my 21 year-old self ever complained about! Studying for final exams in medical school while raising teenagers, driving them to and fro, running a household, and celebrating a festival holiday? I question my life choices sometimes.  I keep telling myself that at least my classes are in English–mostly.

You don’t read my blog, however, to hear me whine.  I figured something out yesterday after I took my A&P II exam.  I noticed during the exam that I was calmer as compared to my Pathology exam.  I recalled necessary information faster, and I felt more confident.  I felt totally frenetic during my Pathology exam.  Granted, the Pathology exam was brutal.  It took me two hours to complete it, and I felt like part of my brain had been sucked out of ear during the essay section.  As far as I’m concerned, essay sections on science exams are mean.  The bullshit answer sounds like bullshit on a science exam as opposed to nonsense answers on liberal arts exams:

“Baudelaire’s depiction of the darkness inherent within the flowers represented his ultimate struggle with his own existence and that of his culture which makes sense as Sartre’s existentialist notions had resonated quite strongly with the French people generally and specifically with members of l’académie.”

I just made that up right now, and I bet I could sneak that by someone were I discussing French existentialist poetry.  That’s quality filler, man! Science filler material is a different matter altogether.  If you don’t answer the question with the correct information, it’s wrong even if you wrote out the entire periodic table from memory.  So, you really have to study and retain everything.

That’s where it got tricky for me.  I was studying, but the retention and recall were a problem.  Why? I refuse to blame it on being in my 40s.  I noticed that my retention and recall were much better during A&P than in Pathology.  Why? What made the difference?

I studied in absolute quiet for my A&P final when everyone was at school for that exam, and I was studying over the weekend for my Pathology exam when too much was going on.  I couldn’t find any peace.  In other words, I was multitasking, and current research shows that our brains are not designed for it:

“Research conducted at Stanford University found that multitasking is less productive than doing a single thing at a time. The researchers found that people who are regularly bombarded with several streams of electronic information cannot pay attention, recall information or switch from one job to another as well as those who complete one task at a time.

A special skill?

But what if some people have a special gift for multitasking? The Stanford researchers compared groups of people based on their tendency to multitask and their belief that it helps their performance. They found that heavy multitaskers — those who multitask a lot and feel that it boosts their performance — were actually worse at multitasking than those who like to do a single thing at a time. The frequent multitaskers performed worse because they had more trouble organizing their thoughts and filtering out irrelevant information, and they were slower at switching from one task to another.

Ouch.

Multitasking reduces your efficiency and performance because your brain can only focus on one thing at a time. When you try to do two things at once, your brain lacks the capacity to perform both tasks successfully.

Multitasking lowers IQ

Research also shows that, in addition to slowing you down, multitasking lowers your IQ. A study at the University of London found that participants who multitasked during cognitive tasks experienced IQ score declines that were similar to what they’d expect if they had smoked marijuana or stayed up all night. IQ drops of 15 points for multitasking men lowered their scores to the average range of an 8-year-old child.” (Why Smart People Don’t Multitask)

Yeah, I would say that a possibly 8 year-old version of myself tried to take that Pathology final exam after multitasking all weekend.  That’s why it was so difficult as opposed to yesterday’s Anatomy & Physiology exam which was challenging but doable.

I don’t have my scores back from my Pathology exam.  I can’t tell you if there was a differential between my performances, but I do know how I did on my A&P  final exam (the teacher likes to grade them on the spot–in front of you).  I owned that exam.  So there, brain!

All this is to say that we are far more successful when we focus on one thing at a time.  Sometimes we can’t.  I couldn’t last weekend, and it might very well show up in my final grade.  Worse than that, however, is that I may not have retained all the necessary information that I want and need.  There isn’t a damn thing I can do about it except go back and review what didn’t take.  The American lifestyle of “doing it all” is corrosive to our brain matter and neuronal connections.  If we make small changes accompanied with lifestyle changes and commit to focusing on one thing at a time, then we will actually be able to be more effective and, ironically, more productive.  It’s counterintuitive, but it’s proving to be true.

It is something to think about and perhaps aim for as we continue onward.

It’s Upon Us!

Happy Hanukkah from my house to yours.  Clearly, she’s so excited.  And awkward.

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This was the good shot.

This was the other one.

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May your days be merry and bright.

And all that.

With love and peace, MJ

Beware the Sugar Train

A new grocery store opened just a few miles from my house, and, let me tell you, it feels like God designed this store just for me.  It has a huge produce section.  HUGE.  I felt rather like this when I stood in the middle of it resisting the urge to extend my arms and twirl around.woman-surrounded-by-fruit.jpg

The choice of non-dairy milks was vast and varied.  The plant-based protein selection was excellent.  There were even vats of locally produced honey on tap to fill my very own honey bear! Whut?! 

And then there was the selection of gluten-free products.  For the celiac vegetarian, this grocery store is the Valhalla of food acquirement.  I was home.  But, that’s not what caused me to squeal like a little girl with sand in her underwear.  It was the gluten-free holiday cookies.  Little Christmas trees with green frosting and honest-to-goodness gingerbread cookies! Soft and chewy gingerbread cookies! I’m a sucker for holiday cookies.  I love them, but no one seems to make them for celiacs–until now.

My daughter and I saw them in the bakery section and stopped.  We stared.  We stared at each other.  We did a double-take.  Were they real? Did they really say ‘gluten-free’? Truly? We bought them.  Okaaaay.  We bought a few.  We finished shopping and ran over to Starbucks which was ever so conveniently across the street.  We ordered almond milk lattes and shamelessly tore into them like ravenous Kindergartners.

What happens to two people who rarely eat sugary desserts when they decide to consume far too much processed sugar in under five seconds?

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Something like this

It feels glorious.  Oh, it tastes like the most wonderful, marvelous, delightful thing you’ve ever come upon.  We were like Augustus Gloop swimming in Willie Wonka’s chocolate river! The butter spread.  The sugar melted.  The flavor rose.  It’s times like that when I usually wonder why I broke up with sugar.  What’s the harm? Thpppppt…how could I disdain such a lovely thing when it makes me feel like flying?

“I’m queen of the world!

And then this happens…

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Suddenly, you don’t feel quite so awesome anymore.  You feel strangely awful.  And, it doesn’t happen all at once.  First, you just feel mildly ill.  Then, it becomes a bit…meaner.

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Out of the blue you’re lying on the floor in bad make-up, disheveled, potentially topless, wondering where the day went.  Or something like that.

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That is exactly why I stopped eating sugar.  I won’t lie though.  The ride down sure tastes good.  Beware though.  They look sweet, but they’re evil…

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Deceptive little bastards

A Timely Ending

Jack the New Therapist aka the FNG will be no longer.  It has become a failed collaboration.  That is what my reasonable self says.  My snarky self is pointing at this:

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The Resting Bored Face

Jack has one of the worst Resting Bored Faces I’ve come across.  There are three places you never want to see an RBF: 1) on a date 2) while you’re speaking publicly 3) on the face of your therapist while you’re sharing something.  He doesn’t mirror or even change his facial expression very much.  He is extremely low affect.  He rarely smiles.  It is strange.  He is putting the clinical in clinical psychologist.

It’s more than that though.  He won’t actually therapize.  He just expects me to sit and talk ad nauseum, and I hate doing that.  That is too client-centered for my taste.  He rarely asks questions.  When he does he says, “Do you mind if I ask a question?” Sweet fancy Moses, please ask a question!! If I mention a past traumatic event, he looks visibly jarred by it.  He then says, “I’m just really angry that you experienced that.  That shouldn’t have happened to you.”

I’m way beyond that now.  Of course, that should not have happened to me.  What I need is some kind of insight into resolving remaining emotional dissonance, and I now see that he can’t offer that.  He can’t get past the nature of my past traumatic experiences.  He’s hunting for something.  An explanation for something. It feels as if he doesn’t believe me on some level.  I present how I present, and he continually refers to studies that show that I should be a mess.  So, the questions that he has managed to ask are not meant to help me.  They have been probing questions.

  • Do I trust that my male therapist won’t be sexually inappropriate with me if studies show that our first experience with a man–our father–becomes our template? (Yes, he actually asked me that.)
  • How am I able to form solid relationships with men or women since both my parents were abusive? How has that even been a possibility for me since studies show…?
  • How am I able to experience any kind of sexual intimacy with a partner after being sexually brutalized since studies show…”

Do you see a theme here? This wasn’t therapy.  This was some kind of inquisition, and I don’t say that in cynical way.  The Spanish Inquisition was an inquiry into whether or not a Jew who converted to Christianity was, in fact, an honest convert.  This felt like an inquiry into whether or not I was “fronting”.  Was I really stable? Was I really recovered or effectively recovering? After all, studies show that you can’t fully heal after trafficking, childhood sexual abuse, and longterm exposure to traumatic environments in childhood and adulthood.  Studies show that you struggle, your hippocampus shrinks, and you remain fragile in some way for the rest of your life.  Well, I never liked those studies.  Excuse my language, but fuck’ em.  I don’t want a smaller hippocampus or a lifelong struggle.  He wants me to provide evidence that how I appear in his office is true in my life.

No.  I don’t have to do that nor should I have to in a therapist’s office.  For all his training, he should have known better.  There are healthy ways to gauge the state of a client.

All that aside, I think this experience has answered my question: Do I still need intensive therapy?

I don’t think I do right now.  I’ve been at this since March 2015.  My favored therapist saw me through the dissolution of my marriage, the fallout, and the processing of the trauma associated with domestic violence.  He saw me through the process of “getting my shit together”.  He was one of the best therapists I’ve ever worked with.  Perhaps it was good that he moved out-of-state.  It allowed me to assess myself and see that I didn’t need the Hot Seat anymore.  After everything that has happened since mid-2015, that’s a weighty realization as I head into 2018.

And this is where I must say that the unimaginable is possible.  I don’t want to sound “inspiration porn-y”, but I do want to be honest.  I could not have imagined my life in January 2015.  I knew that I was miserable and despairing.  I knew that I was getting sicker and sicker.  I knew that I no longer loved my husband.  I was starting to figure out that he was abusive.  I knew that I was living a life that I hated.  I wanted so much more for myself and my daughters, but I didn’t know how to get there.  It all felt out of reach for me and them.  Impossible.  How do you start over in mid-life?

One step at a time taken with great anxiety, however, and my life changed little by little.  Your life does not change overnight.  It changes with sometimes very small steps made by you.  And, truthfully, it all depends on how much you want it.  How badly do you want to be free of what is keeping you from something better? For a while, you have to be single-minded.  Tenacious and relentless.  You must get used to the idea of uncertainty which human beings tend to disdain.  More than that, you must dislike your present circumstances more than you dislike not knowing what will happen.  Once that tips, it becomes a lot easier to make big changes.  The outcome becomes less important to you than making the necessary changes even if those necessary changes are ripping out the foundations of your life.

Currently, I would say that the hardest part of the past two-and-half years has been learning to live with uncertainty.  It hasn’t been the loss of a marriage.  I had a bad marriage.  The grief associated with the loss of a dream or an idea hit me harder.  The trauma that occurred within that marriage was very painful to process.  The things that he said to me infested me in ways I didn’t know until they came creeping out when I was alone at night.  That was very difficult, and I have cried harder and longer over the past two years than I think I have in my entire life.

And yet I can say now that it was a deep cleansing.  Sexual violence can leave us feeling defiled in a very particular way.  I was sexually brutalized for days in a drug-induced haze when I was in the trafficking environment.  When I left that place, I felt utterly shattered and desecrated to my core, but it didn’t feel personal.  Human traffickers are criminals.  They are doing what they do–the job they have chosen.  In that way, it was easier for me to heal.  While I experienced shame, it was somehow easier to deal with because, while I felt for years that it was my fault, it didn’t land or fester in certain areas of my identity.

After the sexual violence in my marriage occurred, I was brought low into a place of utter desolation.  My husband raped me.  More than once.  And then he blamed me for it.  He tore my hip apart.  He herniated the muscles supporting my pelvic floor.  I required two corrective surgeries–one requiring months of rehabilitation in which I had to learn how to walk again and the other requiring a stay in the hospital and weeks of no driving, no lifting, and sitting on pillows.  It was humiliating.

I will probably not discuss the nature of the domestic violence in my former marriage again, and I do so now with a reason.  What I have realized now that I have some distance is that it feels harder to overcome trauma endured from a friend.  From an intimate.  Brené Brown suggests in her latest book that it is harder to hate someone close up.  To counter popular and anonymous hatred, we should then move in.  What if that hatred comes from someone close to you? From someone who promised to love you? The opposite of love isn’t what most people assume.  It isn’t throwing candelabras and screaming while stomping around and launching invective.  No, that’s not hatred.  That’s rage.  Hatred in an intimate relationship is complete disengagement to the point of treating the former beloved as if they do not exist, and, when the beloved continually seeks out some form of validation that they do indeed matter, lashing out in violence to make the point that they do not and will not.

This is the opposite of love, and it is extraordinarily difficult to heal from.  Why? This kind of treatment erodes your ability to retain hope and trust.  As much as I wanted to believe that someone I loved wouldn’t do to me what my ex-husband did, I could not.  When someone said, “But, I love you,” my mind would simply counter with, “That is what he said.”  If your partner could hurt you so profoundly while saying he loves you afterwards, then how will you ever know what is true again? It is this uncertainty that has nearly undone me.  It is this uncertainty that has done the most damage to my ability to trust myself again and my ability to make good judgment calls.

What is to be done about it? How does one heal from it? For real? How? Well, this is what I have done and continue to do:

  • If it is not true, then do not believe it.  Or, at least acknowledge that you intellectually do not buy into it even if you emotionally agree with it.  Beginning to separate the two is the beginning of the healing process.  It also helps you begin to discern what’s driving your responses.
  • If you aren’t sure whether it’s true or not, then ask someone, like a therapist or close friend, to help you figure it out.  Trauma weaves a strange web, and sometimes when something causes a flare-up or exacerbates PTSD symptoms, you just can’t discern what’s true anymore.  Call someone who knows you so that you don’t fall down the rabbit hole.
  • It is okay if your emotions are not catching up with what you know cognitively.  It takes time to bridge the gap (this is called dissonance).  An example from my own life is this thought: “I am disposable.”  Cognitively, I know that this is false.  Emotionally, it feels so true sometimes.  How do I merge the emotional belief and the cognition so that the dissonance is resolved? This is where EMDR comes in.  This is why seeing a therapist who specializes in trauma and EMDR is so vital.  When it flares up, I have to make a choice, and sometimes I can’t.  I must ride the wave of pain that always passes.
  • Build a squad of people who are good to you.  Those people should see you as you are far beyond what has happened to you–your identity is not tied into your trauma. More than that, who you are is in no way reflective of how your former abusers saw you.  That goes a long way into bridging dissonance.
  • Take a look at what you are letting into your imagination.  When you leave an abuser and an abusive environment, you get to choose what comes into your mind and imagination.  You finally have say.  What will you read? What movies and shows will you watch? What forms of entertainment will you consume? What music will you listen to? How will you rebuild your brain? This matters.  Will it be dark and mournful or hopeful and beautiful? Empowering? Or angry? Passive? Active? What helps you feel better? This is a time to begin to think about your tastes, your likes and dislikes, who you were, and who you are becoming.
  • Take some time to try to imagine your future life and do something in the present that your future self will thank you for.  This might sound cheesy, but this actually helped me make the final decision to go back to graduate school.  When I took into account the time that it would take me to complete my graduate degree I winced.  But, then I realized that the time would pass anyway, and I imagined my future self thinking, “I’m so glad that I did this.”  I knew that I wouldn’t regret my decision.
  • We must all banish the idea of “arriving”.  There will never come a time when life will be easier.  We will never be happier when X happens.  I promise.  I once thought that I would be happier when I lost the “baby weight”.  I did.  I wasn’t.  I then thought that my life would be perfect once I finally had meaningful sex with a man who really loved me.  I did.  I won’t lie about that one.  That was a marker of my life vastly improving, but I was still me.  I still struggled with finances, thought patterns and habits that I disliked, and my disdain for that one tooth I don’t like.  And, I’m still an introvert.

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  • Lastly, be kind to yourself.  Be very, very, very kind to yourself.  This is probably the hardest thing to do out of everything.  It might, however, be the most important.

We are in the holiday season now.  If there were any time of year to show yourself patience and kindness, then it’s now.  With that, I wish you, my readers, the deepest peace and restfulness that you are probably wishing everyone else through your holiday greetings and well-wishes.  May it truly be so for each of you.

Shalom…

What the Heck is Qi?

I am nearing the end of my first year in traditional Chinese medical school.  To say that I have learned a lot is almost an unforgivable understatement.  Someone asked me yesterday if I feel more confident in my understanding of how the human body works since I’m about to take Anatomy & Physiology III and Surface Anatomy is behind me.  No.  I feel less confident.  Granted, I now know where the parts are, and, sure, I know what a foramen is; but, it is now quite clear to me that I know far too little compared to what there is to know.  I now completely understand why there are medical specialties.  There is too much to know and master.

So, to cope with my feelings of inadequacy, I amuse myself at school by laughing every time I hear the word ‘trochanter’ because it either sounds like part of a horse or a verb.

“I hurt myself trochantering.” OR “The trochanter on that horse is magnificent.” OR “He’s got a far greater trochanter that you’ll ever have!”

My jokes aside, I am also somewhat ashamed to be a Westerner from time to time the more I learn about the Chinese medical paradigm.  There is so much misinformation in the West about what it is.  People believe that it is superstition, folk medicine, or some ancient tradition that the Chinese people refuse to give up and replace with modern medicine.  Then they use words like ‘Qi’ and cite something they heard in the news about villagers killing endangered animals for their penises to prove their point.

I can’t eradicate ethnocentrism and ignorance in one blog post, but I can explain one thing: Qi.  What is Qi (pronounced chee)?

The first thing to clear up is that the use of the word Qi in Taoism is not the Qi of TCM.  These are two very different concepts.  One is a philosophical and almost religious concept while the other is a bodily and/or physical concept.  To help illustrate this, I’ll use a Western concept that many readers will understand.

The second verse of the first book of Genesis says, “Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God (or breath) was hovering over the waters.”.  The Hebrew word for ‘spirit’ is ‘ruach’ which also means ‘breath’.  Qi means ‘breath’, too.  The ‘breath’ or ‘spirit’ of God is referred to many times in the Bible.  When you go to the doctor, however, and you are asked to take deep breaths so that the physician can listen to your ‘breath’, do you believe that the doctor is listening to your spirit? No.  I don’t know one person who confuses their spirit, God’s spirit or breath as it were, with the physical act of breathing or the exhalation of CO2 and inhalation of O2.  We are able to completely separate the two concepts and nary confuse them.

This is precisely the same when one speaks of Qi in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).  We are not confusing the Qi of Taoist thought or philosophy which compares quite closely with the Biblical statement made in Acts 17:28 “We live and move and have our being in Him.”  To the Taoist, we live and move and have our being in Qi–the original breath or source.  This is not, however, the Qi we discuss in medical school or Chinese medical practice.

So, what is this medical Qi then? There are many, many types of Qi.

  1. Pre-Heaven Qi or Congenital Qi: this is what forms the basis of your constitution.
  2. Acquired Qi: this is the Qi that is formed from your lungs and digestive system.  You can improve this Qi throughout your life largely by what you eat.  You can also hurt your Acquired Qi and body by your dietary habits.
  3. Gu Qi (Water and Grain Qi): Food and Water Qi–the Qi or energy that you acquire by your dietary habits.  This Qi is refined and sent to the lungs also from the spleen and stomach.
  4. Da Qi (Air Qi): Air taken in by the lungs to form Zong Qi
  5. Yuan Qi (Source Qi): this Qi serves the material and functional basis for life activities in the body.  It is stored in the kidneys.
  6. Qing Qi (Clear Qi): Refined Qi sent to the lungs from digestive system
  7. Zong Qi (Gathering Qi): Formed by union of Gu Qi and Qing Qi.  Governs breath of lungs and pulsation of heart and circulates movement of Ying Qi and Wei Qi
  8. Wei Qi (Defensive/Protective Qi): Formed by Qing Qi and flows both inside and outside of the channels between the skin and fascia.  It protects body, regulates temperature, governs opening and closing of pores, moistens skin, muscles, and hair, and is distributed superficially during the day and deep during the night.
  9. Ying Qi (Nutritive Qi): Formed by Qing Qi) Formed by Qing Qi and contributes to formation of blood.  It is retained  within walls of the channels and flows throughout the complete channel system nourishing the tissues of the body.
  10. Zhen Qi (True Qi): A combination of Yuan Qi, Zong Qi, Ying Qi, and Wei Qi . This is a a collective name for the functional bases of life activities.
  11. Jing Qi (Essential Qi): Blood, Qi, Fluids or Essence specifically acquired essence, internal organ (zang-fu) essence, and congenital essence.

This is just a list of the Qi that functions in the body.  This is not a list of pathogenic Qi–that which disrupts homeostasis and causes pathogenic changes and disease processes in the body.

There is no superstition involved.  There are no demons as some people have suggested.  No, Qi is not the name of a god, and I’m not worshiping it.  TCM is a different approach.  A different medical model.  And, it is highly effective and healing, but it’s different from what we as Westerners know.

Hopefully, this quick primer on Qi has shed some light on what it is and maybe piqued your curiosity.

By the way, emotions are viewed as internal pathogens in TCM when they disrupt homeostasis, and their activity and effect on the body and well-being are taken quite seriously.

Well, I’m going to study now.  Pathology class in two hours…

 

Easing into The Season

For my non-American readers, Thursday was Thanksgiving here in the States.  It is a big deal.  It marks the beginning of The Holidays–a season of high stress, joy, high consumerism on display, dread, meaningful religious observations, turmoil, GERD, Mariah Carey on loop, and so much more.  I sound cynical.  I’m not.  It’s the truth though.  As soon as Thanksgiving hits, people start grabbing the Tums off the racks, eating too much to cope, maxing out their credit cards in order to buy gifts to make all their family and friends happy, and figuring out ways to avoid family conflict.  It is a rough time of year for almost everyone I know.  And now that there is political polarization to the extreme in America, one wonders if tapas and finger foods should replace foods requiring forks and knives.

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“Well, I’m sorry! I didn’t know that he could make a shiv out of a stick of butter! I tried, okay!”

I have panic attacks every Thanksgiving.  For real.  For the past seven years, they have hit me hard.  They start around 10:30 in the morning, and, every year, I don’t seem to know what they are.

“What is happening to me?”

The first time it happened, I took a Xanax at 11 AM.  I passed out on the kitchen floor and woke up around 1 PM.  So, that would be a ‘no’ to the Xanax then.  The second year, I took half a Xanax thinking it was a dosage problem.  The same thing happened except at least I was on a couch. Throw the Xanax away.

To me, anxiety is like being nauseated mentally.  It is a plague.  I am anxious to some degree almost all the time.  My mind is perpetually on edge.  It has been this way since the domestic violence started in my former marriage.  I have not fully calmed down from that.  The last episode of domestic violence was over three years ago, but I am still hypervigilant at times.  I know that this will subside.  I was anxious for years after I escaped the trafficking environment.  I was easily kicked into “survival mode” by any number of triggers.  The sound of a car backfiring was a trigger.  It sounded like a gun shot.  If someone yelled at me, held eye contact too long, deliberately tried to intimidate me, or touched me in a way that I perceived as threatening, I froze.

What about Thanksgiving sets me off? I’m not sure.  I tried to solve it on Thursday when I realized that there was a pattern.  Here are some things that I did observe.  Maybe you will find it helpful.

Thanksgiving has always been a day that I work my ass off.  I really like entertaining and cooking for everyone, but, historically, my ex-husband would never help me.  For him, it was his day off.  He would go in the bedroom and play games on his laptop while putting his feet up.  He would ignore his children and me.  I felt like his servant, and that feeling started to degrade and erode me.  It permeated the entire relationship and culminated in the sexual violence that put me in an operating room–twice.

Almost all the traumatic experiences I had growing up in my father and mother’s homes were centered around my accepting “my place” as an object, and that objectification felt eerily similar to how I felt in my marriage.  My father spent his energy trying to convince me that I was not a person but merely property–his property.  I was to express my acceptance of this at all times by calling ‘sir’ and obeying him at all times.  I could never do that.  I obeyed him because I was afraid of him, but I argued with him about calling him ‘sir’.  In Texas and the rest of the South, we call our elders, strangers, and people outside the family ‘ma’am’ and ‘sir’ out of respect, but I simply could not understand why I should call my own father ‘sir’.  It made no sense to me.  So, I refused.  This enraged my father.  What did my defiance cause? Well, I endured hours of military-like torture–the sort that Navy SEALs endure in an attempt to break me.  I, however, got to keep myself.  I never called him ‘sir’, and this might be why I survived intact.  My ridiculously stubborn nature saved my innate personality.  I always told my mother that it would serve me one day!

My mother’s house was different.  She ran a military-like household as well in terms of order and cleanliness.  She was obsessed–literally–with cleanliness.  She lined things up, dusted weekly, and vacuumed in straight lines.  If I moved a tchotchke out of place, she would notice–and have a fit.  If I didn’t vacuum the carpet in perfect lines, she would notice.  God forbid I leave a footprint! I would have to vacuum the carpet all over again.  I had to organize my closet by color and season.  Oh, and no wire hangers.  My mother and Joan Crawford were one and the same person.

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My underwear and sock drawers had to be perfectly arranged.  If they were not, she would dump out their contents on the floor and insist I arrange them all over again.  She would go through all my drawers every Saturday in order to find my personal journal.  Sometimes she should would read it out loud to me and mock the contents.  I had to hide every personal item from her.  I was not allowed privacy–ever.  She would bounce quarters off my bed to make sure it was perfectly made, and she would run her fingers on the surfaces of all my furniture looking for dust while I stood against the wall watching her inspect everything.  She reveled in her own power over me.  I was not a person to her.  I was an extension of her or nothing at all depending upon her needs.

She began this process when I was old enough to clean–around 7 years-old.

This isn’t an uplifting read.  Why recount it? Well, in my experience, when we have strong emotional experiences that increase to panic when there is nothing in the present to panic about, then we are panicking over something in the past; and, there is a cue in the present that is activating our “survival” mode.  I recount this to offer up an example of what could possibly activate that “survival” mode.

I grew up, as so many people do, being treated as less than a whole person.  Thanksgiving also marked the beginning of the worst time of year in my family as my mother was prone to suicide attempts during the holiday season.  Some of the worst violence I witnessed was during the holidays.  I was also often forced to see my father during the holidays which bred inordinate terror in me.  I have resolved most of my feelings around that past trauma, but recall that recent trauma can often kick up old trauma.  This is why new traumas re-traumatize.  That which is settled and adaptively processed gets re-activated with new traumas.  I was brutalized in my marriage.  There was no way that I wasn’t going to have to face down old abuse again.  It would all have to be looked at again because this is what brains do.  They make connections: “Oh, this looks just like that.”

What do you get then? Panic attacks that come out of nowhere coupled with fear and dread.  Emotional flashbacks.  They are confusing.  Annoying.  Inconvenient.  What is the strategy?

First: They will pass.  Know this.  They will pass.

  • The fastest way to get through them is to talk to a person who loves you.  Seriously.  Talk to a person who loves you.  Love has a way of helping you discharge fear, and discharging fear is the fastest way to ease panic.
  • Engage your parasympathetic nervous system (PNS).  Remember it like this: “Rest and digest”.  You have to slow down your breathing and bring your digestive system online.  Most people instinctively know this which is why emotional eating is so common.  Eating counteracts the fight-or-flight response (sympathetic nervous system-SNS) because it brings your digestive system online.  I suggest drinking a non-caffeinated beverage like a mint tea.  Mints are cooling herbs.  It cools and eases the stomach.  Believe it or not, it helps. (Look for a spearmint tea if you have hormone problems.  Spearmint clears up estrogen-related skin issues–chin acne– on the face and helps the intestines clear excess estrogen)
  • Smell some lavender and frankincense essential oils.  Engaging your senses is part of how you engage your PNS, and frankincense actually does quite a bit in the body.
  • Exercise.  Go for a walk.  Move.  80% of your neurons (not your neural connections) are in your cerebellum.  The cerebellum is the part of the brain that governs movement. If 80% of your neurons are devoted to movement, then it must be really important to move.  So, move when you are anxious or panicky.

The holidays can be a wonderfully meaningful time of year.  There is a lot about them that I absolutely love this being one of them:

They can also be one of the most painful times of the year for people for myriad reasons, and sometimes we don’t even know why.  But, we feel it.  From Thanksgiving to mid-January.  It doesn’t have to be this way regardless of your history.  There are ways to enjoy this time of year even when your sympathetic nervous system is on high alert.  We don’t have to wait until we’ve got all our “issues” resolved to enjoy this time of year.