Ouch, My Back

If you google this tagline, you get all sorts of hits. Memes, funny and not so funny videos; articles by MDs, osteopaths, PTs – and there’s even a moving company in Canada with that name, whom I must applaud for really, really excellent branding. Medical information aside, there is also a great deal to learn about correlations between our psyche and chronic pain. Duh, you say? Well good for you if you knew this already. You might want to skip this post, for it might bore you.

I can personally attest to two types of pain. One is the pain that is my subconscious‘ code for overwhelm. It has manifested, over the course of my life, in headaches and migraines, and more recently, in frequently occurring back pains. Now, pain is not great for clear thinking, nor is stress, so it’s a bit of a tall order to be all detached and say to yourself: Oh, you’re just drowning in too many things all at once, you’re just feeling unable to cope. You’re experiencing pain, but is it really pain? Take a break and look after yourself. In that moment, I’m oftentimes just reacting. And my knee-jerk reaction is reaching for medication.

Second hand, pain was a huge part of my childhood, as the daughter of a rheumatoid arthritis patient. My dad developed RA when I was about 7, when we lived in Romania still, and what the first treatments were, I have no idea. I remember the conversation regarding the emigration to Germany was about reuniting with family, living in a democracy, being able to travel. But it was also, to a large degree, about the hope to be healed, because of better medical conditions in the promised land, which, sadly, did not come true.

At the time, as far as I know, the psychological aspects of his condition were not part of the therapy. They treated the flares with cortisone and the pain with opioids. The rest was a dire prognosis for a life of constant debilitating pain. It’s not surprising he lost the will to live, and passed away merely 5 years after we moved.

One thing I recently read is that there is research indicating suppressed rage manifesting as chronic pain. Interesting. Internalized anger, directed at yourself, hurting your body because of being unable to express that you’re mad? Wow.

My father’s family history was, as with many of his generation, determined by WW II. His formerly quite wealthy family was disowned after the war, reason enough alone to feel rage. Then, both his siblings were taken to Russian labor camps, which they did not survive, and I can’t even imagine the survivor’s guilt he must have felt. Could this explain his developing RA? Subconsciously punishing yourself for being alive by making your existence as painful as possible? It’s possible. Add to that the silent rage caused by being forced out of your family home, left with no possessions to speak of, very little perspective, trapped in a totalitarian country where you needed to keep your head down if you didn’t want to end up in prison … Stands to reason all that needed an outlet.

My own back pains are, of course, on a completely different pain level. They started with some discomfort during my second pregnancy and got worse over the last 10 years, to the point of my being unable to sit in a chair for longer periods of time, sometimes. When I get like that, I work in a nest, be it on the couch, in bed, or the hammock. Warmth is key.

If I take the time to think about it, I can literally feel my back seize up when I’m stressing over something, when an assignment or an appointment makes me anxious, when there’s just too many things, one on top of the other … When I’m caught up in the situation, however, I sometimes lose perspective, and I forget. It’s easy to let the pain get the better of me and just react. And my knee-jerk reaction is reaching for a pill box, because of how I grew up, I think. But interestingly, whenever I do manage to read the room and realize my overwhelm, I can get a handle on it by not treating the pain, but trying to do something about the reason.

That said, I mean absolutely no disrespect for anybody who suffers from a painful medical condition. I’m not belittling any of that, God forbid. This is just my own personal journey, and may not be valid for anybody else. In case it is for you, I’ll try to describe my emergency plan. Maybe it works for you, maybe you come up with your own strategy. The working theory is that the pain is not the problem but a signal from my psyche to look after myself, pronto.

When in pain, I ask myself:

  1. When did the pain start / what triggered it?
  2. Is it a symptom for stress?

If the answer to these questions points to overwhelm rather than having thrown out my back, I try the following:

  1. Carefully prioritize my to do list, and cross off things that don’t absolutely need to happen
  2. Ask someone to help out and/or bow out of things
  3. Take a break and relax: lie down and close my eyes; run a bath; take a walk with the dog; do some yoga or breathing routine; sleep

I question whether it’s really a painkiller I need, or if it’s relief. If the honest answer is the latter, this is the tricky part. Admitting to needing a break, or help, takes courage in a society that has little patience with inability to cope. A change of mindset is needed! In business lingo, acknowledging my pain as a symptom for psychological distress and working with that is actually a smart business decision. I’ll be 100% more efficient if I take a break to regroup, and continue refreshed later, or the next day.

I’m happy to say that it can actually work like that, if I manage to not be swallowed by the pain. This is not to say that a painkiller can’t help. Maybe it’s easier to think clearly when you’ve taken the edge off with an ibuprofen or whatever your meds of choice are.

Pain fascinates me, can you tell? If you’re still here, thank you for reading, and I would really like to know about your own perspective on this. Can you relate to anything I wrote?

I’m leaving you with a calming, beautiful image today, that makes me draw a deep breath. Be well, and thank you for reading.

Reasons for Loving the Fall

The colors are probably my favorite. The light on a sunny fall day can take red, orange and yellow to the next level; and on rainy days, a small bouquet of seasonal flowers can brighten an entire room.

Another thing I like is the crisp fall weather. Not a big fan of the heat anymore, I actually breathe a sigh of relief when I can finally pull on a sweater again in the mornings to go walk the pup, after the summer is over. The rain doesn’t bother me much, because once it stops, the leaves look even more beautiful :-).

Knitwear is definitely a third reason for liking the fall. Be it scarves, knit hats or sweaters, not to mention hand made socks – I really love the hell out of a good knit :-).

And finally, there’s the seasonal fall foods: pumpkins, apples, pears, quince, plums, grapes, blackberries – and of course it’s also wild mushroom season. When I’m in the country, I always carry a mushroom knife and small bag when leaving the house, and I rarely come home from walking Charlie without a handful of those oddly fascinating and never less than delicious woodland creatures.

Wild mushrooms can give a flavor boost to just about any savory dish, and for a few weeks every year, they’re part of the menu almost every day, in this house. I add them to soups, stews, pasta dishes, risotto, stir-fries, chicken, scrambled eggs or simply as a yummy topping for pizza, grilled cheese or a sandwich.

The last image is what we had for dinner the other day.

Hokkaido, Chanterelles and Rice for Two

Half a small Hokkaido pumpkin, cubed (1 cm)

1 large shallot, cubed

3 handfuls Chanterelle mushrooms, cut in bits sized pieces

200 g rice, cooked with a little salt

Olive oil, knob of butter

5 sage leaves, cut into thin strips

Put on the pot of rice, then prep the vegetables and sage. Heat the oil in a large pan and add Hokkaido, mushrooms and the cubed shallot. Season with salt and pepper, put on a lid and let cook for about 10-15 minutes, stirring occasionally. You want a bit of texture, but not too much. Make sure you don’t overcook the pumpkin. The mixture should be moist enough from the water in the mushrooms and shallot. Add the sage and butter or, if you’d rather cook vegan, a bit more olive oil. When the rice is done, add to the vegetables, stir, check your seasoning, and enjoy!

Usually, the fall truly begins for me when we pack up our stuff and come out to the cottage for two weeks. We don’t always have time off, but the school kids do, and there’s always fun things to do out here – feeding the horses on the nearby field, mushroom picking, riding lessons, pumpkin carving, baking challenges, and having freshly smoked fish at the eatery on the lakefront. It’s not a fancy place, but the view is truly spectacular. A wonderful place for a sundowner. When I sit on the pier and gaze out at the water, soaking up the last rays of sunshine, it’s easy to feel like everything is alright with the world.

This year, both my husband and I do have work, but at a reasonable work-life ratio. Which is a good thing, because next week, there are two memorable events coming up. Our 20 years wedding anniversary, and our daughter’s birthday, both life-changing events that deserve commemorating. Let them have cake, right?

After a few way too busy weeks, I’ve picked up my knitting again. I made a pair of socks for my friend C., and a pair of pink, diagonally ribbed socks for myself. When finishing my own private re-run of Friends over the weekend, I got as far as the heel of the second sock, so I’ll be done with that pair soon.

As for my sweater project, started with a lot of motivation in August, and abandoned it when work got the better of me. I did bring it with me to the cottage, but haven’t really been in the right mindset, for it needs attention, and I haven’t got a lot of that left right now; my brain is officially fried after a wild ride of about 500 pages in a matter of weeks. I do NOT recommend this.

The other day, my friend I. asked me for an estimate of how many pairs of socks I had ever made. It’s not easy to say, as I didn’t knit a lot after the first couple enthusiastic years of learning. Not sure if I knit at all during my 10 years of advertising. I really only became serious about crafts when I moved to Berlin in 2000, and I only began documenting my projects about 10 years ago when Apple gave me the great gift of inventing the iPhone. I know people feel the real revolution was the iPod, but for me, it’s definitely the having an uncomplicated, decent camera on me at all times that made all the difference… Back to the math. I probably made an average of 10 pairs per year, the last 20 years, maybe 250 pairs all in all – man, that’s a lot of socks! I can show you a few from the last couple of years:

Hopefully, I’ll be able to work on my sweater some more. It’s gotten chilly, and we’ve lit the woodburner:

And that’s why I love the fall :-). How about you? What season is your favorite? Any interesting crafts projects in your future … let me know. And thank you for reading!