Saturday, May 18, 2013

Skepticism is more of a "Hmm" than a "HA!"

Cafe 116
Rawanda "Pour-Over" (coffee)
Mexican Tea Cookie
Rustic Veggie Soup

Yep, it's a frou-frou coffeehouse today.  But it's pretty good stuff.  I just felt like hanging downtown, occupying some valuable window real estate for a few hours.

So.  I posted that phrase - skepticism is more of a "Hmm" than a "HA!" - and I was very disappointed at the number of "Like"s it didn't get.  I thought I'd said something profound.  Apparently, I must elaborate.

First, there's a lot of bad science out there.  There's pseudoscience and conspiracy theories, and a lot of skewed headlines that take a legitimate study that says one thing and make it sound like it's saying another thing entirely.  There are a lot of - okay, a WHOLE LOT of - people using scientific studies or statistics to back up claims that those studies don't show.  I'll give you an example:

One of the claims that opponents of same-sex marriage make is that "studies show" that gay people are more likely to abuse children.  I looked this up.  The studies being referenced actually show the exact opposite.  In the two major surveys in question, the perpetrators were overwhelmingly male.  They were also overwhelmingly men who identified themselves as straight.  Men who identified themselves as gay were disproportionately less likely to be abusers: only 1 or 2 out of a hundred in one study, and zero in the other study.  To my recollection.  But opponents of gay marriage make their claims based on the fact that both male and female children were abused by these mostly male predators.  They are conflating the abuse of these boys with consensual adult homosexuality.  By that logic, prison rape (or just prison sex) would count as "gay sex," and we would then have to conclude that we are incarcerating gay Americans at a greatly disproportionate rate to the overall population.  Something should be done!

But the hot anti-logic du jour has to be the rampant conspiracy theorists terrorizing our political system.  That's such a hostile sounding sentence when I reread it.  Let me throw down the caveats.  First, conspiracy theorists have been around since long before the beginning of this country, and they occupy all points along the political spectrum.  And I do not categorically disdain conspiracy theorists.  They are actually kinda "my people," and I will beg apologies now for some of the dumbass things I have said, especially as a teenager.  That does not, however, mean that I only like the conspiracy theories that align with my political philosophies.  The point is that not all conspiracy theories are created equal.

The reason that I would deride birthers, for example, is that there is nothing about their claims that stands up to scrutiny.  Upon scrutiny, it is plainly clear that the originator of the myth is biased and has a history of making false claims that have been subsequently debunked.  The logic used to explain the planning of this conspiracy is highly convoluted.  And the fact that legally recognized documents have been produced throughout the lifetime of the president that have faced no question makes it an improbable claim.  The long-form birth certificate should never have had to be produced because of the ridiculousness of this myth.  I don't have a long-form birth certificate, but the DMV and Social Security Administration (and, thus, Homeland Security) were completely satisfied with my short-form birth certificate.  Why would it suddenly no longer adequately show my age and place of birth if I chose to run for office?  Oh, that's right - it is adequate, just for everyone else except this guy.

If you are too lazy to scrutinize, and if you are being told by people you trust to be honest arbiters of information (FOX News, elected officials) that the birth certificate is suspect, then it's easy to see how the myth could have been sustained for so long.  At this point, though, after all the vetting, the production of the long-form birth certificate, and the verification by a bi-partisan assortment of government officials, if you're still a birther then you have no desire to be otherwise.  You don't want the truth, you just want to have a reason to hate the guy.

And there's the difference between questioning for the sake of finding the truth and questioning for the sake of validating your opinion.  I don't have a problem questioning the official storyline, questioning common beliefs.  I find no reason to believe that this government couldn't be hiding something.  America isn't inherently impervious to corruption.  However, I don't believe it is inherently corrupt, either.  Because of the very vastness of the government, and of the many checks on authority we have built in to the system, I think it is much more unlikely to have corruption across the board.  I think we are losing many of those checks, though, and that is inherently dangerous.  For now, though, I think that corruption, where it exists, tends to be localized and limited.  Which is not to say that a handful of corrupt officials can't do far-reaching damage, just that it is not likely to be the whole system working against you.

Logically, speaking. 

And that's all science is: the method of logic.  Some people deride science as if it's some kind of mean-spirited religion.  An institution of kill-joys.  True scientists - skeptics, in general - are only out to find the truth.  We may all like it when science validates some of our preconceived opinions, but we value the truth more, even when our beliefs are proved wrong.  And not just partial truth.  The whole truth.  And even then, we'll still add an asterisk.

The problem with a lot of unconventional or conspiratorial theories, is that there is often some amount of truth to them.  That's why I like watching those Ancient Aliens shows on the History Channel.  They often will bring up some bit of trivia that is true and that I was previously unaware of.  The problem is that they will then make conclusions that are not makeable.  The beauty and the burden of science is that science says only what it can say.  If it's good science, well-designed and focused in its scope, then it will be able to say a lot.  Mostly, it will be able to say what "isn't."  If it's weak, all it can do is offer more questions, at best, and confuse, at worst.

So, if you're still confused about what I mean by "hmm" versus "HA!" I'll try one last time to be explicit.  When someone offers an explanation, a bit of knowledge or information, a skeptic will say, "hmm," and will then analyze the proposed information logically if they want to reach a conclusion about its veracity.  A skeptic will not immediately say, "HA! See?  I was right, and you're an idiot!" if they are offered something that appeals to their biases.  Even smart people do this; it's part of our base instincts.  But it's important to guard against this reflex... read the label before you eat that chocolate bar someone has just handed you...

Unless you like the taste of sweet, sweet bullshit.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Fun with Fibromyalgia

Evo's Coffee Lounge
12oz Iced Soy Mocha

If I were taking care of my fibromyalgia condition properly, then I would not be drinking a sugary caffeinated beverage right now.  Let this not distract you from all my helpful tips, but let it remind you that it is necessary to tend to your spiritual happiness as you also tend to your physical well-being.


I find myself explaining this stuff a lot, both what fibromyalgia is, and also how I cope with it.  This shall be a lengthy one broken up into Prologue and Practical Fibromyalgia Stuff.  There's some important stuff in each part that relates to each other, good stuff about stress in general, but I put the bolds in if you want to skip a bit.  First, Prologue...

The first thing to know about fibromyalgia is that it is, in fact, real.  Let no one, not even an old and venerable family doctor, tell you that it's all in your head.  I once told my brother when he asked me that question - gently - that I didn't know if it had all started in my head, but it was definitely in my body now, and the trick was figuring out how to get it back up there.  I didn't know that it was fibromyalgia then.  I knew that I had a mysterious and severe allergy that had just preceded this intense and debilitating pain in my back.  My doctor had asked at the onset about other fibromyalgia symptoms but I had dismissed them.  Well, of course, I had pain elsewhere, but I was out of shape and I had always had aches and pains somewhere or other.  And nothing was so bad as that one spot.  So we tested for other conditions, ruled them out, and went with the theory that I was experiencing muscle spasms related to the allergy.  We went through a few kinds of pain killers and I ended up on 400mg of Celebrex every day, as well as 40mg of Zyrtec for the allergy, for the next several years.  Just so I could get through the day.

And you don't need to take my word that fibromyalgia (FS for short) is a legitimate thing just because someone as poor as me isn't going to shell out that amount of money on pills unless I absolutely have to.  There is now demonstrable evidence of FS.  According to the Mayo Clinic (I checked out their FS DVD from the library) MRIs of FS patients show that those patients' brains light up brighter and in different places to the same level of pain stimulus than the control subjects.  I also heard on one of those doctor shows that there are measurable increases in stress hormones in the spinal fluid of FS patients.  The muscles also function differently.  When you curl your arm, for example, as the "inside" muscles contract the "outside" muscles normally relax, and vice versa for the opposite motion.  Not so for FS sufferers.  All the muscles stay tense for both motions.

Practically speaking, though, most doctors are not going to scan your brain to make a diagnosis.  They're going to rely on your reported history, check that you have pain at at least 11 of 18 trigger points throughout your body, and ask about an assortment of side conditions - insomnia (basically standard), depression, IBS, TMJ, hypersensitivity to light or sound, sinus problems, and many more.  About a dozen or so conditions, I think.  And then, they're going to run a bunch of tests for other conditions, like lupus or rheumatoid arthritis, to rule them out.  If those show up negative, your doc may prescribe one of the newer fibromyalgia drugs, and/or any variety of pain killers, and hope you're not an addict.

Here's the next thing to remember about fibromyalgia.  The medical establishment is not sure what or why it is.  They're not even exactly sure how those FS drugs are supposed to work on the condition.  They have some ideas, they've made a lot of progress, found a lot of correlations, but they're still not sure.  The prevailing theory is that the nerves of FS sufferers are overactive (over-reactive, might be a better way to phrase it), for some reason.  There is another theory, though, that the problem is at the receiving end of the signal - in your head.

I read a book in the local author section by a Dr. Dryland (for your reference).  The way he described it, FS is caused by chronic stress - either physical or mental, your brain doesn't differentiate.  What happens is that your brain, responding to a fight or flight situation, will (among other things) pump out a lot of dopamine, which will restrict the amount of signals from your nerve endings that reach your brain.  This way you can ignore your sprained ankle while you run away from the lion that's chasing you.  The problem is that, in our modern society, the lion can be an evil boss or a crazy girlfriend or your checkbook, and you don't have the chance to get away, hide out in a cave, and recover.  You are constantly, for a variety of reasons, in a state of fight-or-flight.  Our bodies were not designed for this.

National Geographic put out a great documentary on stress - I highly recommend you Netflix it.  It describes a multitude of ways in which chronic stress damages our health, mentally and physically.  Dryland asserts that, for FS patients, the ability of the body to make dopamine is essentially worn out so that, as the stress continues, the brain can no longer filter out all the stimulus coming to it.  Think of it as having your amp dialed up to 11 all the time.  So, then, what used to be uncomfortable and could be ignored now hurts, and your body responds to protect you from this obvious injury.  Your body tenses up around the "injury" to protect it as it heals, and because you don't have adequate opportunity to recover, the protective tension becomes a persistent pain of its own.  And your body responds... and you can see how this perpetuates the problem.

This theory of FS as a stress-based condition fits best with my own experiences with fibromyalgia.  I should also be clear, both theories recognize that there is a stress connection with FS.  In all the literature I've read on it, it is noted that there is almost always a stress trigger that kicks off the onset of fibromyalgia.  And that trigger could be a bad break-up (as was in the mix in my case) or a localized physical injury that persists until you no longer just hurt in your right knee, but now ache everywhere. 

There is also likely to be some underlying stress that has been weakening your system until that one big stress comes along and kicks it off.  In fact, they found such a high correlation between fibromyalgia and early childhood trauma that some people assumed that anyone who had FS had been abused as a child.  That's an unfortunate stigma that is still being shaken off.  But any kind of PTSD could do it.  I've speculated that, because of the prevalence of PTSD among our veterans, fibromyalgia could be rampant and going unrecognized or undiagnosed.  It's in the nature of a soldier to ignore pain, after all.

The good news, though, is that whether the cause is in the sender (the nerves) or the receiver (the brain), there is a lot that can be done to reduce the pain FS sufferers experience without the drugs.  So, here's the practical stuff I've picked up over the years...

Practical Stress Reduction Tips for Sufferers...
(add a chocolate muffin to that list of what I'm not supposed to be doing... it's hot, it was looking on the verge of being all melty...)

1.  SLEEP!  You knew it was going to be the top of the list.  It is the hardest and the most important piece of your pain puzzle.  I was told by one of my physical therapists that six hours of good sleep is the absolute minimum your body needs to do its everyday repair work.  Six goooood hours.  If you have the insurance or the credit line to cover it, I highly recommend doing a sleep study.  You may be getting more than six hours now (and your body might naturally want more than that for optimum function) but if you don't feel rested and refreshed and less achy when you get up, then there is probably some kind of undiagnosed sleep problem that is keeping your body from getting that deep sleep it needs to do that vital repair work.

2.  Exercise.  This is also vital and very, very difficult.  From what I've read, there is little to no damage to the actual muscles of an FS sufferer beyond the regular damage of under-use.  (You know, even "FS sufferer" is kind of cumbersome, so I think I'm going to start using "fibromyalgier" if you don't mind...  You don't?  Why, thank you!)  The important thing to remember is to start extremely slow and gentle.  But persistently.  There are days I think I can do a mile or two, no problem, but end up knowing I've gone too far less than halfway out.  And once I've hurt myself by overdoing it, it takes me much, much longer to recover.  A simple knot in my calf can last weeks or longer, while the average person could work it out in a few days.  So, just start with five minutes of walking every day.  Then go up a minute each successive day.  The main issue is consistency. 

It's also worth the money to see a physical therapist, even if you can only do an initial consultation, because you've probably developed problems you are unaware of just by trying to compensate for the pain.  It's also very common to have your pain shift around as you start working out one place or other.  So, if you can't get regular visits, see if you can call in once in a while as things come up, and schedule a follow-up or two after several weeks so that you can adapt your exercises to your evolving needs.

Here's another side-note for those of you fibromyalgiers with hyper-mobile joints (i.e., the double-jointed)...  There is a high correlation between FS and hypermobility, possibly because you may not realize that you are extra-stretchy all throughout your body and it is very easy to over-stretch your muscles simply because your ligaments will allow you to go farther than your muscles ought to.  Think of it like having porcelain muscles and rag-doll joints. This makes a physical therapy plan extra important for you because you need more stability for your skeleton and are more likely to have your body over-correct itself as you begin P.T.  (This problem is compounded when/if you get pregnant because your body releases a hormone to make your ligaments extra stretchier, fyi).

Oh, and exercise helps reduce your stress, boosts your mood, and helps you sleep.

3.  Shrink your head...  Or get someone to do it for you.  Chances are there's some kind of unresolved something going on that needs to be properly addressed.  Sometimes you just weren't screwed up enough to warrant professional help so you missed out on all these wonderful coping techniques that we "special" people got to be introduced to.  In either case, it probably couldn't hurt to talk to someone (a little, or a lot), either to process some long over-due baggage, or just to get some good stress management tips.

4.  Diet.  A well-balanced diet is duh important for overall body function, helps your mood, and helps you sleep.  But two more important things.  First, chronic stress has damaged your gut.  There was a study with rats that showed that even low levels of constant stress, but especially severe acute stress, will erode the lining of your intestines.  This whacks you out in ways I can't even begin to describe.  The important take-away is that it screws up how you process and produce stress hormones, which you can see is counter-productive for your goal of stress reduction.  It's also probably causing a multitude of those uncomfortable secondary conditions, like IBS and lactose intolerance, and in my case, an allergic reaction to lactose intolerance.  So in addition to not stressing out your system anymore with crap food, you should look into "reseeding" the good flora in your gut.  I started with simple acidophilus pills and I was able to reverse my allergic reaction.  I am no longer head to toe hives all day, every day, though I still take a couple dairy pills if I'm eating ice cream.  If I were in optimum health, perhaps I wouldn't need that.

The second dietary note is that certain foods are going to make your pain worse simply because they have an inherent inflammatory effect.  Sugar (whole natural sugars, like in fruit, are fine), caffeine, excite those nerve endings in anybody, but it's like pouring lemon juice on a paper cut if you have FS.  Also, dairy and gluten (mostly from our modern, hybridized, processed wheat), are stressful to your gut, so you should try to avoid and minimize them, particularly in a single sitting.

Be careful with your milk alternatives, though.  There are a lot of genetically modified (and unlabeled) ingredients and additives and artificial sweeteners (carrageenan was thought to be the new wonder alternative so it's in everything, but it's looking like it's not so great, either... better than flippin' aspertame, though).  Also, there are now warnings against giving a lot of soy milk to young kids, especially boys, because it appears to be interfering with hormone function.  Or something.  Anyway, you generally don't have to avoid anything like the plague, just minimize and diversify.  Look up diets that are specifically anti-inflammatory.  And go as organic as you can afford.  Our doc stresses organic for the animal-based foods, and for those top most contaminated fruits and veggies, like apples, strawberries, and spinach.

I gave up sugar while working in a chocolate shop.  It can be done, and the results were dramatic.  I had been going through a period of severe stress and I had been taking more and more pain killers than was recommended as my pain increased.  I was relying on 9 (or more) naproxen sodium (Aleve) every day.  Yes, it was that bad.  The maximum dose is supposed to be 3.  And it wasn't enough to knock it out.  But at the same time I reached a kind of resolution to my major stressor, I cut out the sugar (quality checking the sample tray), and in less than a month I was down to two or three naproxen a day.  And then I pregnant, but that's a whole other chapter in the fibromyalgia fun-book.

5.  Magnesium and other pills.  It's worth checking your vitamin and mineral levels, if possible, as part of your diagnostic process, to see if there are any deficiencies.  And while I didn't turn up a deficiency in magnesium, I did find it very beneficial to take it as a supplement anyway.  It is very popular among fibromyalgiers because it is a natural relaxant, so it helps with the pain and with your sleep.  However, even with supplements, you should be consulting your doctor, or other knowledgeable practitioner (pharmacist, nutritionist).  Even these natural supplements can interact with other medications and with each other.  For example, calcium and magnesium kind of work against each other (calcium helps your muscles contract, as magnesium helps them relax), and vitamin D helps you process and produce calcium.  All this was tricky for me to figure out, and it took a lot of trial and error and self-awareness to find where I need to be.  I found that I needed to take at least double the magnesium as calcium, and that amount changed when I added the D (which I am deficient in).  Most FS books I've read recommend starting with 300mg of magnesium, and adjusting from there as needed.

Other supplements I take for the pain include vitamin E, fish oil, and turmeric (anti-inflammatory) if I have the money and can get the brand I like.  That last one has been inconsistent for me and I have found the benefit mostly in the higher dose and mostly a particular brand that included ginger, which may have affected its overall effectiveness.  For me, at least.  The bottom line is I can't afford to spend money on anything that isn't doing what it needs to do, and I drop things and reintroduce them periodically to make sure they are worth the cost and effort.

For mood, I take a B-complex, as well as a kind of methylfolate thingy (through my doctor's office, related to another deficiency they tested me for), and taurine (an amino acid), which hugely helped me transition off Zoloft many years ago.

I take a few other things - Vitamin C is a great booster for just about everything - but those are the core supplements that help for me.  Oh, and I take some melatonin and (generic) Tylenol PM to help me sleep.

It's also important to focus on getting as much of these things naturally through your food, and to adjust your supplementing accordingly.  This is what I suck at the most, but try to keep it in mind anyway.

6.  Drugs.  At some point, the pain needs to stop.  You need that interruption for long enough to break the pain cycle and allow the healing process to begin.  I can't tell you if any of the FS drugs are effective because I never took them.  The important thing is that you try to focus on pain killers as a temporary intervention, but take what you need (don't exceed the recommended dosage) when you need to take it.

... So that's what works for me.  When I'm good and do all that...  I'm happy to get even more specific for anyone that would like to know more... like exact doses of pills, different exercises I've done, or how I had my second baby with no drugs... during the labor anyway...  first question afterwards was, "can I have drugs now?"...  For anyone else, though, I'm sure this is more than enough for now. 

Fun times!

Saturday, May 4, 2013

The darling buds of May...

Rogue Valley Roasting Co.
Big Iced Hibiscus Tea
Banana Bread

If you know and love me then you should come visit me.  Right now.  If you have only a lukewarm interest in me, personally, but had enough free time to kill to read this blog, then you should use me as an excuse to get to southern Oregon.  It is epically gorgeous right now.  It helps if you're into lush green parks and quaint (if somewhat overpriced) crafty, kitschy small-business-y stores.  And Shakespeare.  He's kinda big here.  In all honesty, I have yet to go to a single play, but I enjoy all the Shakespeare puns around town (Puck's Donuts, As-You-Store-It, and the new Oberon's Tavern).  I also admit to buying a giant eraser with the words, "Out damn spot!" printed on it.  I kinda had to.

There is also a little Artisans Market thingy on the weekends that I wandered through today.  It is so inspiring to see things, you know - made.  The first stall had lovely hippy skirts and dresses, and I thought, I could do this.  Then the different types of jewelry makers... I could braid hemp chokers... I could work with metal wire and pretty stones and crap like that...  Oo, fabric again - pillows!  Hats!  Braided rugs!  Pithy fridge magnets made out of metal bottle caps!  A guy singing and playing guitar - I could... well, I could sing... while I sat at my little booth and made... whatever.  Handmade journals.  Purses.  Useful things.  I was so full of ideas and confidence for three whole blocks.

Then I got maudlin.  Craft faire stuff.  That's what I want to invest myself in?

If you haven't guessed, I'm in one of those "what the hell am I doing?" kind of mental states.  What do I want to do? to be?  Where do I want to be?  Should we stay in Ashland?  If not here - where?

Since I did not go straight back to work this time, after O-boy, I've been trying to reconcile myself with this non-employed state.  I have thought about just trying to focus on being totally engaged with the boys, and getting a little "off time" on the weekend.  But that has felt wasteful and unstructured and unproductive.  The problem is that there is so much "week" that I can't take care of that it has to be done on the weekend.  But I feel bad if I'm not doing something beyond the tasks of just staying alive.  So I started this bloggy thingy, trying to cultivate some writing habit.  Mixed success so far.  I'm not really satisfied with how things are going, to be honest.  But I feel like I have to stay with it, mostly for the sake of staying with it.

But to what end?  I feel like I have things to say, arguments to make, for the "greater good" or something grandiose like that.  But I mostly feel like I'm soapboxing the walls.  Who cares what I have to say?  What difference will it make?  I look at the world and I cannot let it stand as it is.  To watch the (expletives and adjectives deleted) people running things into the ground, to the detriment of all, it makes my stomach burn.  But to put myself out there feels like I've just stepped out of the bathroom with my emotional skirt stuffed into my emotional undies.

I like Ben Fold's retort, "Do it anyway!"  But do what?

Despite our fragile financial state, I've decided that it's a waste to continue to seek out a job that doesn't advance whatever ultimate goals I have.  But I'm still not quite sure what it is I ultimately want to do.  Before I die.  I'm trying to remind myself of that to - in a healthy way.  I'm going to do whatever I'm going to do and then I'm going to kick off.  The future world will go on without me and then it, too, will fade, or explode.  The current thinking of the great thinkers is that the universe will expand and cool and grow dark and still... and that'll be it for everything and everyone who may have been around at some point ever.

So who cares?  Why get stressed about anything?  Why stick around, especially if you have no afterlife in mind to scare you or to give you peace in thoughts of a perpetual life beyond a frozen universe?

Well, that's your existential quandary to square yourself with.  For my part, I have chosen to live.  And I shall respect the rest of those who have chosen the same.  So if we're here, we're gonna do this whole life thing, then we need to make it liveable for each other.  For "rough winds do shake the darling buds..."  But it is May.  The universe may die in winter, but the sun has just pushed ahead of the clouds, and the world is beautiful.  Right now.