Monday, October 28, 2013

heilsu brauði þínu!

Someone asked me yesterday if I've started looking at the health care exchanges. Umm ... not yet! It will take some time to work out the first chaotic round of change, of course. Hilarious, isn't it, that the very people who did everything they could to block the law are now outraged because the roll out is a mess? To me, this is funny. Maybe I'm supposed to be outraged, too. I'm not at all surprised. Are you? How else could it be? Even Apple has to deal with bugs when it rolls out a new ios. This link is to a story from last month about how Apple maps sent drivers onto an airport runway. It's a disaster - and we're talking about Apple. Would anyone really believe the government could do this perfectly? For heaven's sake.

When things settle down a bit, I'll be looking for disaster coverage, you know - in case I have a stroke or something. I'll also want coverage for dental, vision, acupuncture, therapeutic massage and psychotherapy.

Yeah. Are you shaking your head slowly back and forth? Are you thinking I live in a dream world? I know, and yes, I am. However, insurance for health care should cover my health care - right? - which includes the above.

Once upon a time, health insurance was fairly comprehensive in some environments. Back in the 1980s when I worked for the San Francisco Symphony, the insurance covered a pair of glasses every year, dental check-ups and a hefty portion of dentistry. It covered my psychotherapy for five years! I co-paid $15 per session, every week. That therapy saved my life. It was crucial health care. I can't imagine what would have happened had I not had access to psychotherapy.

Even the Symphony insurance did not cover acupuncture, but it did pay for osteopathic treatment and homeopathy. I was allowed to choose my own doctors. It was great insurance. Those were the good old days.

What's wrong with our approach to health care runs so much deeper than the dollars and cents. Yes, we're gouged whether we pay insurance companies or our practitioners. This link is to an article about hospital charges, how ridiculous they are and how what is charged varies widely from place to place.

The system is falling to pieces. I suppose it has to. I'm hopeful that what will rise from the ashes is a much more balanced, sensible approach to good health. We're headed in that direction already. But we have a long ways to go, we surely do. In the meantime, I plan to continue my practice of aggressive self care which includes Chinese medicine - ancient and venerable, ultra modern medicine - elegant and groovy, therapeutic massage on a regular schedule, psychotherapy when I need it. A part of aggressive self care is getting out for a walk every day, allowing myself enough time to sleep, high quality food, spending time with people I love, and creative expression. You see? I'm aggressive in this arena.

And - I am so lucky to be healthy! So very very lucky. I count my blessings every day.

My advice? Back slowly away from the health care exchanges until they work out the worst of the bugs. Your liver will thank you, your heart muscle will thank you, your adrenal glands will be forever grateful. Perhaps your clenched jaw will be able to relax a bit. They'll figure it out. It will all work out, give it some time.


Saturday, October 26, 2013

Lady Sings the Blues

The Sumerians called opium poppies "the joy plant." That was in 3,400 B.C. Who knows how much earlier it was used as an intoxicant and medicine? Before the Sumerians, people didn't write things down. What we know is that since then, the use of opiates spread east and west, north and south, all around the Silk Road and eventually to the Americas.

The popularity of the joy plant is not hard to understand. It induces bliss. That's why it is so addictive. There are those who believe it doesn't actually relieve pain, but the person under its influence doesn't care, kind of like nitrous oxide. Bliss is a powerful pain reliever, it surely is.

Opiates are so pleasurable, in fact, that their use turns some people into zombies who will do anything - anything - for that high. Kill, steal, whatever it takes. It has happened often, continues to happen.

In 21st century America, there are those who still smoke opium, also plenty of people who shoot or snort heroin. There are also many people who develop an addiction by way of legally prescribed opiates: Oxycontin, Oxycodone, Percoset, Vicodan, Morphine and Codeine, to name just a few.

I'm not against pain medication, I should say. After surgery, also for people suffering from end stage diseases, these drugs are a godsend. Terminally ill people of course do not have to worry about how to get off the drug, but those who have had surgery often struggle when the time comes to taper off the opiates. The people who continue to take the drugs long after surgery are likely to suffer from full blown withdrawal when they come off the high. I've not experienced this, but from what I hear, withdrawal is a horrible experience.

Better withdrawal, though, than continued use. I've known people who became so addicted they were powerless to stop using. I was married to someone with a severe addiction to pain pills. I didn't know about it - that was long ago when I was far more naive. He was never quite present when he was using. He was detached, foggy, smiling at a joke only he could understand. His body was present, but not his soul. He would lock himself in a room and listen to music, sometimes not coming out for a day or two except to use the bathroom. I can't remember what form of denial I used to explain this to myself. Needless to say, the marriage did not survive. How could it?

Too, I've had clients who became slaves to opiates. Some were able to get off the drugs, thank god, others couldn't. I don't know what happened to those people because I don't work with addicts who are using. It's not difficult to spot the symptoms, the drowsiness, the vague, foggy lack of presence. It is extremely creepy!

I don't judge those who become addicted, I do not. Humans all around the world have used opiates for thousands of years. I smoked opium just once, sometime during the decade of my 20s. It made me throw up, then I nodded out and had horrible nightmares. It took days to recover my usual energy. I never touched the stuff again.

I'm lucky I didn't like it. Also lucky that I've not had to take prescription grade opiates.

It was long ago that someone or someones forged a relationship with the opium poppy, so long ago that no one can trace it. In my opinion, it is a very dangerous, unhelpful relationship, one of the many things we humans do that is no good for us. And yet, we're just trying to get through the days of our lives as painlessly and happily as we can. Who can blame us for wanting to be happy? If there is a pill or a powder that makes us happy, of course many of us will assume that's a good thing.

If you find yourself on the receiving end of a prescription for opiate pain medication, tread carefully, will you? Get off the stuff as soon as you can, please? These are the days of our lives. It's best to participate in life, though life can be fraught, though life can be painful, yes? I say yes. Shalom.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Seek light

For those of us who live north of the equator, the days are growing shorter. Here in the American midatlantic, the rate of change at this time of year is alarming, at least to the brainstem. Light is necessary for our survival. "Our" includes all living beings on this beautiful, ever wobbling (hence seasonal) planet.

We humans have pathologized our need for light, of course. We love to pathologize everything in my society. Our name for the lethargy, depression and hopelessness that some people feel keenly during winter is Seasonal Affective Disorder. SAD. Someone clever made up that name.

I have a quarrel with the idea that this is a disorder. My belief is that almost everyone reacts to the shift of the seasons. Having no reaction at all to the change in light is more of a disorder than the other way around. I've never met anyone who was completely oblivious to the change, though I've known many who practice ignoring how they're feeling - about the change of season and other things as well.

Some react powerfully enough to need help getting through the long, dark winter. Here is a link to a page on the Mayo Clinic site about light boxes. The people I know who use them say they really help.

The need for light extends beyond mere survival, you know. Light is also necessary for joy, hope and inspiration. Those who live in darkness don't have access to these things. I'm thinking about bats. I adore them, they are noble animals, but do they radiate joy? Do they seem inspired? If so, I have never been able to connect with the light in them. Have you? I sense calmness, focus, determination, and vivaciousness, but not joy.

But light comes in many forms, visible and invisible. Bats might tune in to a type of light I know nothing about. I hope that's true.

What I do know is that people who live in darkness become dull and lifeless after awhile. Their eyes become dull, their hair and teeth, too. Their moods flatten. Their spirits get droopy. It's a sad thing to see. 

Here in Washington DC, there's daylight all year round, just less of it in the winter. Many people rise before Brother Sun, arrive at the office just as it's getting light, then spend the entire day indoors. Brother Sun sets before they go home. Other people work nights, spend their days sleeping. In summer they will still encounter daylight at some point, but maybe not in winter. Some among us dislike the cold weather, hence stay indoors a lot in winter. Through no fault of their own, in winter many people are deprived of the life giving, inspiring, joyous wonders of daylight. Even an overcast sky provides plenty of healthy light. 

Please make sure to spend time outdoors every day, no matter the weather or season. Plain daylight is as important for your health and well being as good food, good sleep and exercise. In winter it might be more complicated to include daylight in your agenda, but it is well worth it. Daylight in winter should be a priority.

In addition to daylight, you'll fare better over the winter if you allow yourself the beauty and inspiration of candlelight and - if possible - the light of a briskly burning fire. Glowing jack-o-lanterns, Christmas lights and the like are also ways we bring ourselves cheer during fall and winter. I'm all for whatever kinds of light help us remember that spring will come again.

We are creatures of flesh and blood who do not fare well without light. We need light! Over winter, make it a priority to seek light, yes? I say yes. Daylight, candle light, holiday lights, firelight. 

Let there be light. Shalom.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Off course

Though we strive to be balanced, moderate and mindful - or, should say - some of us do, the truth is that, by and large, as a species we are anything but. We are often, (not always), passionate, impulsive and given to fits of very different kinds of moods. I think most humans could be diagnosed as bi-polar, though most of us keep the ends of our emotional/metabolic spectrums within a manageable range or learn to hide our excesses from others. But we all have our ups and downs, every single one of us, no matter how mild they appear from the outside looking in. It's nothing to be ashamed of.

At one end of the human spectrum are the behaviors that could be classified as benders. I'm not just talking about overdoing intoxicants for a period of time. People go on work benders, exercise benders. When people fall in love, initially, that condition is definitely a bender. I've been thinking about the mass shootings that seem part of life in the U.S. these days, unfortunately. Those people, the shooters, reach some kind of bender tipping point at which time they buy guns and go on a rampage. Suicide is a bender. The Tour de France? Bender.

I could go on, but I'm sure you get the idea.

On the other end of the spectrum is what I usually call shutdown. In certain cases I think of it as locked down, or even locked down and rusted shut, as a friend describes it. Included in the condition of shutdown is depression. All sleep difficulties - whether a person sleeps too much, avoiding wakefulness, or at the other extreme, when a person can not sleep, therefore can not integrate and process through sleep and dreams, and can not rest, that person is suffering from shutdown.

People in shutdown are dull. Their hair is dull, their eyes are dull, their skin is dull. There is not a lot of life force around them. They suffer from chronic ailments that never improve or get worse. They are unfocused, unmotivated. They languish in jobs they dislike, relationships that are offline or chronically dysfunctional. Their routines become entrenched. They watch a lot of television. In severe shutdown, over time, humans become blank. Do you know what I'm talking about?

I believe it's normal for us to touch these extremes sometimes - briefly, please. Go ahead, go on a bender, but not forever, not until you crash and burn. Go on a bendette. Touch the extreme, then come back to center. Likewise, sink into shutdown if you will, but don't linger too long in the muck of that extreme. Come back to center. As long as we don't stay too long at the extremes, the movement back and forth allows us the full range of human expression. It also helps us organize around the process of returning to a place of balance. The ebb and flow of emotion is an essential part of being human. We need the ebb and flow, as long as we turn back towards center before it becomes destructive.

There are many disciplines that map a course from the extremes of benders and shutdown back to a place of balance. Meditation, yoga, the martial arts are three I mention often because classes and instructions are widely available. But there are many ways to learn to come into your center from whatever outlying regions you've traveled to.

If you don't meditate, please begin right away. Take a class, join a group in your community, or just set a timer and sit down for twenty minutes. Just sit down. Here's a link to sitting meditation instructions, beautifully written by Jack Kornfield who was my first teacher. 

I live in Washington DC, just a few blocks from the Capitol. Our lawmakers are on a bender of power struggling which has resulted in a government shutdown. They have somehow gotten so bent out of shape that they've merged the two ends of the spectrum I described above. Congress is suffering from an ourobouros of imbalance. It's a crisis of extremes with no balance of any kind in sight.

I wonder how many members of Congress meditate. Some of them do yoga, some engage in the martial arts. How I wish someone would sit them down together in the rotunda of the Capitol and guide them through several sessions of mindfulness meditation, lovingkindness meditation, and the Inner Smile meditation.

A congressional daylong meditation retreat would break the impasse. Can you imagine? Sadly, that's the last thing anyone is going to suggest. It's a damn shame.

May the pattern and impasse be broken. May they move forwards with compassion and clarity. I'm not holding my breath, but may it be so. Shalom.