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Archive for November, 2012|Monthly archive page

Thank You, Chronic Pain

In Chronic Pain, Creative Writing, Philosophical Musings on November 22, 2012 at 11:27 PM

Since my spell of chronic pain began last year, I’ve had to come to terms with some harsh realities.

I will likely never be able to take a fast, quick run on the treadmill without wondering if my head will explode. I will likely never be able to escape from frequent medical visits to ensure that my health is “stable.” For all I know, I may never again have another alcoholic drink, hike a steep mountain, enjoy a late night party, or go on a date.

This isn’t me trying to cast an overly pessimistic spin on a day I’m supposed to be “thankful.” In fact, my sense of gratitude for life has expanded tremendously since I was hit hard by the limitations of my condition(s) and the death of my brother last year.

Yes, living with pain sucks…but it has also thrown in me new directions I would never have entertained. It has forced me to accept my humanness, to see my abilities and limitations with an entirely new pair of eyes.

I am often awed by the impressive machinery that is the human body (its complexity and self-healing capabilities) as well as by the ubiquitously enigmatic mind. I’m continuously humbled by the expansive mysteries of this Universe and the resilience of the human species.  Yes, living with pain has taught me a lot.

That said, I’ve pondered the meaning of “thankfulness” in a world that has pain and wonder if my thoughts will resonate with anyone else.

“Pain” is itself a term that can be conceptualized and packaged in many ways, but however we choose to define it, it’s clear that we live in a world incredibly damaged by pain: the pain of war, the pain of genocide, the pain of past and present, the pain of brutal conquest, slaughter, and slavery.

I can delve deeply into the histories of colonized and destroyed societies, of broken families and cultural groups, of lonely, pain-ridden martyrs. I think, for instance, of the genocidal colonization of the Americas that reduced the populations of Indigenous peoples from 70-100 million to 12 million within the first century of colonization and conquest (the 1500s).

I think of the 50 million or more Africans who were killed or forcibly removed through the slave trade during the initial centuries of Western imperial expansion in the “discovery” age.

I think of the millions of people today who contend with air bombing, displacement, and tyranny in places such as Gaza, Afghanistan, Syria, and yes, even the ever-so-powerful “Western” nations. (The United States, for instance, has the highest GDP spending on weapons of mass destruction, one of the highest-per-capita incarceration rates in the world, as well as an economic inequality index that should make us all shake our heads in exasperation. One need only look at which residents of New York City are still battling for basic necessities in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy)

However, knowing the merciless violence perpetrated in our past is not enough: it is important to recognize how the pain of our ancestors continues to live with us today.

Many of us understand the role that racism, sexism, classism, homophobia and other systems of oppression play in our collective dehumanization.

However, what’s often not understood is how we perpetuate these oppressions in our daily practices. We are complacent when we are left thinking that these violent oppressions are part of a detached past of which we are not to blame (perhaps our less-informed ancestors, but not us). We are complacent when we imagine racism and sexism as “issues” that were overcome in the past–and if they still exist, it’s because of the ignorance of “others” for which we cannot be held liable.

Such moral detachment doesn’t help ameliorate the “issues”–really, the persistent violence–that we see in the world today. Whether we speak of the Black underclass or the “feminization of poverty,” whether we speak of inequitable access to quality education, jobs, and health care or the fight for political representation, the real “issue” we must confront is the historical reality of power–who has it and how it’s used.

“Privilege” talk is helpful only if it engages in a radical re-reading of how power operates in our day-to-day social world. And that means acknowledging those upon whose blood and sweat we’ve come to enjoy our material goods.

So, today, in recognizing that “Thanksgiving” is not a holiday that emerged from the “coming together” of grateful European colonizers and Indigenous Americans, I’ve decided to use this time to redefine the meaning of “thanksgiving.”

While I don’t adhere to a particular religion, I feel many wouldn’t argue with the essence of these basic points, which also befits the Buddhist practices of mindfulness and loving-kindness.

  • Expressing gratitude should not be a once-a-year practice. We should make “thanksgiving” a daily practice, which we can display by consistent kindness to others and  recognizing that not everyone shares our privileges (e.g. having a place to live, living without fear of murderous attacks of war, etc.) Their pain is our pain is the Universe’s pain.
  • Coming together with our friends and family should not necessitate a special holiday. If we’re given the time off, we should make use of it, and if it’s a “good excuse” to meet with friends and family, do so.
  • If we’re in the spirit of “giving thanks,” we should thank the people whose land we stole, the people whose labor power enabled us to have food in our refrigerators and on our plates, the animals whose lives we had to slaughter to fatten our bellies.

May peace and love reign in our hearts. May ignorance and greed not cloud our eyes to the world around us. May we overcome the pain of our past without inflicting pain on others in the present. May we have courage to live with our eyes open, and our minds and bodies ready for the revolution. 

Hasta la victoria, siempre. 

Thanksgiving and the Native American Holocaust

In Decolonization, Educational Justice, Geography/ Spatial Justice, History, Identity Politics, Racial Politics, The Revolution on November 20, 2012 at 4:00 AM

I recently started reading a revolutionary classic that revamped the world’s popular understanding of U.S. history: Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. Published in 1980, the book  was meant to tell the story of the United States from the perspective of the disenfranchised, from the people whose blood and toil created the governments, institutions, and physical structures that we often equate with “progress.” I wonder why it took me so long to start this book, but I was drawn to it recently because of our impending holiday.

Given my recent life experiences, I am all for an explicit expression of gratitude. But I am of the opinion that giving “thanks” should be a quotidian practice, something that is interwoven into our daily habits the way brushing our teeth and saying “good morning” to our neighbors and co-workers have become innocuously habituated. With respect to the importance of “giving thanks,” I am completed supportive of it… but one must ask why a special day is needed for this practice. In a world of violent material inequalities and war-related savagery (consider the U.S.-supported air strikes against non-militants in Gaza and Afghanistan), doesn’t the necessity of a day of giving thanks not reek of First World cultural elitism and token appreciation? How would the majority of our planet’s residents feel about the excessive cultural commodification imbued in this country’s “holiday,” with its short-term gathering of air-mile-flying passive aggressive family members who then disperse to continue their mindless practices of material consumption (for instance, consider the meaning of Black Friday)?

Chief Seattle

A statue of Chief Seattle, an indigenous leader for whom the largest Northwestern city is named.

This, however, is only a minor aside to the more egregious point: the failure of (North) Americans to recognize how our presence in this land was founded upon the displacement and genocide of millions of First Nation (Native American) peoples. As Zinn writes in his book, the purpose of raising awareness about the Native American Holocaust is not to simply accuse, judge, and condemn the incredible misery and bloodshed perpetrated by European colonizers. Understanding our true history is about making sense of how we got here, living in a globe of vast inequalities, and how many of us blindly benefit  from a legacy of genocide and destruction.  As one writer puts it, “celebrating Thanksgiving is as if Germany had a day of celebration for the Holocaust. Thanksgiving is the American Holocaust.”

The “quiet acceptance of conquest and murder in the name of progress” is a practice that must end–but not simply for the purpose of extracting a history lesson that we can then use to claim we’ve “come far.” Such a dismissive disposition towards the atrocities committed on American land simply fail to understand the workings of legacy and the continual violence perpetrated against First Nations today. Rather than showcasing a worthless “overemphasis” on the past, rejecting the “quiet acceptance” of genocide is a practice in mindfulness: that is, using our awareness to understand how the pain of our past perpetuates through the sufferings of today. Though it may seem like a mere exercise in understanding social history, it also about recognizing our true humanity–to recognize our abilities to hate and murder but also to transcend these evils to create peace, love, and harmony. 

To be clear, I am not suggesting that people give up Thanksgiving as a hopelessly evil, imperialist project. Instead, we can reinvent Thanksgiving as a time for transformative healing, a time to spread mindfulness and genuine gratitude in a manner that does not contribute to the continual silencing of “shameful” histories.

At the end of the day, we are all agents capable of transforming the world. If we take understanding our history seriously (as we should), it can become a brutal process that requires the courage to accept our faults and misunderstandings. It can be difficult to accept how our privileges are based on the brutal oppression of others (past or present). However, this process is one we must all collectively share, for decolonizing our hearts and minds is not simply about our egos. It is about creating the world of loving kindness we all need.

The American Holocaust of Native Americans

For a concise 101 introduction to the genocide of Native people, you can see this 30 minute documentary with tell-tale interviews.

The Story of Leonard Peltier, a Native American (AIM) activist

I highly recommend learning–and educating students about–this Native activist and current political prisoner. Peltier is a Lakota who was highly active with the anti-colonial, anti-imperial resistance of the American Indian Movement (AIM). As with many revolutionary groups active in the late 1960s/early ’70s, AIM made crucial connections with Black Panthers and other groups fighting for liberation. Unfortunately, as with others persecuted by the FBI’s COINTEL program, Peltier was scapegoated and imprisoned on charges of murder for which he is still (after nearly 40 years) imprisoned.

Cartographies of an Ongoing Colonization

**For an interactive map that showcases how Native land was stolen over the centuries, see: A Map of Destruction **


A map of First Nation reservations, from the U.S. Department of the Interior’s National Parks Service. Contrary to the views of dominant amerikkan society, First Nations still hold sovereignty over many lands, albeit considerably (and tragically) less than what they’re entitled to. And contrary to public opinion, indigenous Americans are still persecuted by the government today.


Colonization is characterized by the stealing of land from a sovereign nation. Can you see what is left of indigenous-owned lands in the heart of empire (continental united states)? And can you see what lands remain to indigenous Palestinians?


Rendered cartography of pre-columbian First Nation / Native American civilizations

Desperate Times, Desperate Treatments

In Chronic Pain, Class Politics, Crip Politics / Disability Politics, Health Justice, Identity Politics, Multiple Sclerosis, Neuroscience on November 18, 2012 at 11:30 PM

Pills, pills, and more pills…

A web of issues has kept me from writing in the past few weeks, and the entire experience has had me think deeply about how seemingly intractable concerns self-perpetuate.

I’ve been dealing with chronic fatigue and pain for quite some time now, but a vicious circle has solidified that makes my health issues seem substantially worse: irregular hours at work, a lack of family support or community, an overall lack of inspiration…

I’ve also been dealing with intractable, difficult-to-treat neuropathic pain that results from damaged nerve cells.

Typically, pain is associated with signals sent along specialized nerve fibers—nociceptors—whenever you experience something like a stubbed toe. In the case of neuropathic pain, however, it can be the very nerve fibers that communicate pain to our central nervous system that are themselves damaged. The pain signaling process that typically alerts us to harmful stimuli is suddenly miscommunicating, with nociceptors firing in the presence of usually non-painful stimuli (allodynia) or firing spontaneously or at higher intensity (hyperalgesia).

In my case, the damage wrought by successive MS-related relapses last fall created multiple lesions in my brain and spinal cord, with many localized in the midbrain (the part of the brain that controls autonomic nervous activity, such as breathing, temperature regulation, and motor coordination).

My last MRI indicated at least twenty different lesions—area of the brain where demyelination led to disruption in nerve signaling, possibly even the destruction of entire neurons.

My symptoms include abnormal sensations (dysesthesias), like throbbing or “electric shocks” in my hands or lower back. However, the issue that’s been disrupting my life the most has been the never-ending throbbing at the back of my head—precisely in the midbrain region, where the cervical spinal cord meets with the brain.


The pons and the corpus collosum were among two areas where lesions were spotted in my most recent MRIs

That my case is emblematic of the strange symptoms MS can cause is clear: this is nothing like a migraine or typical pain that I’ve experienced before in my life.

In my case, it isn’t exactly an “acute” pain sensation either—it’s more like a dull, but heavy, throbbing that refuses to go away. Over-the-counters (like Advil, Motrin, and Aleve) have no effect.

Typically, the treatment regimen for neuropathic pain includes anti-seizure medications (like gabapentin and pregabalin) or tricyclic antidepressants (like amitriptyline and nortriptyline)—both of which I’ve already tried. The downside with these medications is that they exacerbate a symptom I was already having before the demyelination period I had last year—chronic fatigue.

Having learned more about the pharmaceutical industry, the history of the medical establishment in the United States, and the medical-industrial complex (MIC) overall, I find the idea of depending on many pharmaceuticals for my daily living to be revolting.

Yet anyone suggesting that you can find non-pharmaceutical outlets for curing even the worst conditions (some even make this claim for terminal cancer) likely hasn’t experienced it for herself.

I was gravitated towards yoga and meditation shortly after my symptoms appeared—and yes, these practices are tremendously helpful in alleviating and managing the stress that my health condition causes. I would recommend them to anyone, and had I practiced these before my condition worsened, I likely wouldn’t be here writing about how I’m managing my neuropathic pain.

But I still find myself needing Western medicine and its drugs to get by—and trust me when I say I’ve tried getting by without it.

Among the experiments: I’ve tried changes in my diet (becoming a pescatarian, then a vegetarian, then a pescatarian who avoids dairy products), played with various herbs and exercise routines, tried acupuncture and homeopathy, and yet…

There, the throbbing remains like a stubborn, unwanted guest in your bedroom. This is the world of neuropathic pain: even the best treatments only have a chance of efficacy.

I remember coming across one study that suggested that even our best pharmaceuticals have around a 30% success rate for even partial relief, and there’s even less evidence for ‘alternative’ treatments like acupuncture and meditation (though this, of course, is due to the MIC’s disinterest in free or low-cost, but potentially effective, treatments).

Like many people who are desperate about pain relief, I feel like I’ve tried it all…

Yet, there’s always something new out there you can try, some new treatment, or combination of drugs, or a new doctor or paradigm that might resolve it all. There’s always the possibility that if you give this treatment just a little more time it might actually work. The mottos seem to be: try this, try it with this other thing, try giving it more time, try, try, try…

People with chronic pain can be especially susceptible to snake oil salesmen precisely because we’ve already been let down by our other health care providers. Like others, my path down this road of chronic pain has been filled with moments of despair, desperation, loneliness, and incredible confusion.

My latest attempts are exemplary of the sort of things that people with confusing and difficult-to-treat ailments do. In addition to the Lyrica (pregabalin) and Klonopin I take every night (which only blunts the pain enough to let me sleep), I’ve been having as many as two acupuncture treatments a week and taking what must seem like an alchemist’s prescription: Valerian, Lion’s Mane Mushroom, Milk Thistle, and other herbs alongside Vitamin D and Omega 3 supplements (all taken inconsistently and depending on the day).


My new portable TENS machine

Recently, I bought myself a transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) machine, which works (more or less) by sticking electrodes near the site of pain and transmitting electrical currents.

It’s inconclusive science, but the idea is based on what is popularly recognized in neuroscience as the gate control theory of pain (by Melzack & Wall, 1965). Roughly put, the electrical currents from the TENS machine send signals to sensory neurons that then inhibit the activity of pain-signaling nociceptors. I’ve only tried it a few times thus far, but I’ve yet to notice anything substantial.

However, I’ve noticed that my particular, subtler pain doesn’t display immediate relief to anything, even the pharmaceuticals—so I’m left wondering if it’s just a matter of time.

What was possibly my most desperate attempt to find relief happened last weekend, when I made a long trip into central New Jersey to meet with an energy healer. (To be fair, although it’s clear that his machine is meant to deal with energy healing, he never promoted himself as such.)

I’ve kept my heart and mind open to various possibilities (having gone beyond my neuroscientific training in college to reading about homeopathy, Traditional Chinese Medicine, and Ayurvedic medicine), but this was by far the most extreme in challenging the Western allopathic model.

I learned about the healer through my acupuncturist, who claimed to have gotten good results from working with him; I decided that, given how stubborn my head-throbbing was (even to consistent acupuncture), it was at least worth a shot.

When I went to see the energy healer I was caught a bit off-guard by how small the ‘body scan’ machine was. Perhaps I was expecting something straight out of a science-fiction movie, but the machine seemed too compact to be able to reveal issues in my energy channels.

However, as he explained to me over the course of the few hours we had together, the body scan was created by scientists in Germany who worked off the science of meridian points and energy channels (the basis of acupuncture) to create a device that works the way a lie detector machine does—using galvanic skin responses.

This portable ‘body scan’ had electrical detectors that were strapped around my index fingers, my forehead, and my left calf—which, the healer explained, would measure my body up against thousands of different potential toxins to find the source of any energy imbalances.


Image of the Spectravision Body Scanner the ‘energy healer’ used. I wonder how much one of these is worth.

We spent a good deal of time talking about numerology and astrology (for which I admit much ignorance) before the machine finished its scan. What showed up on the electronic screen was a list of toxins and issues correlated with the most imbalance—and much of it surprised me. Inexplicably, ‘gamma rays’ came at the top of the list. Right below it was ‘Headaches’ and some slots below that was “Alkaline Phosphatase” (an enzyme particularly concentrated in the liver).

The healer then asked me to hold onto a copper cylinder while he asked me a couple of questions (or gave me a number of prompts) that would measure my body’s sensitivity to the correlating issue. For instance, he would ask me what my name was, and the machine would be able to detect whether or not the response I gave was true. He then asked me a number of times to think about my health concerns and anxieties, and we found that the biggest ‘triggers’ were ‘anxiety’ and ‘worrying.’ Not much of a surprise there.

But the body scan also listed ‘cervicogenic pain’ at the top of another list relating to bodily issues, and listed ‘passion’ at the top of a list relating to emotions. It just seemed to hit the nail on the head there as far as accuracy. Was this for real? Was I dreaming this? I still can’t say for sure what I think—or how I feel—but I went along with his prompts as we continued to “solve” the mystery behind my ailments. What was possibly the most surprising component of that session came when we tried to find the health condition that was troubling me.

The body scan rejected ‘multiple sclerosis’ as an accurate diagnosis. Instead, it gave me this lesser-known autoimmune disease, ‘primary biliary cirrhosis,’ as the veritable diagnosis. (I later read about it and learned it was a condition marked by destruction of the bile ducts within the liver. That a liver enzyme and a liver condition appeared twice in this machine’s scan gave me incredible pause.)

I remember going home that night utterly confused. From the healer’s perspective, what I needed to do (in accordance with my astrological signs) was follow my heart, follow my passions and my instincts, and learn to love myself. That was the prescription.

How the hell would I go back home, wanting to manage my chronic pain, with information I already knew?

Any number of books I’ve read would have given me the same advice. I know, for instance, that meditating frequently will help me deal with stress more effectively. But meditation is at least a practice I can manage. Following my heart and learning to love myself? That’s a little too amorphous for me to work with.

What boggles my mind the most is the fact that I still can’t refute the efficacy of anything I’ve tried.

Maybe, just maybe, the healer was right and the ‘cure’ is to ‘follow my heart’ (whatever that means). Maybe, just maybe, the solution is to quit my job and do as much yoga and meditation as possible. Maybe shocking my brain every day will help, and maybe taking more of the pregabalin in conjunction with the other treatments will work.

Needless to say, it’s hard to eliminate anything from the list of possible treatments, and I’m left managing my day to day in a nebulous world of ‘maybes.’

Is this the best I’m going to get? Is there yet another solution lurking in the corners I haven’t tried? Do I keep looking or work on acceptance—or both? Perhaps this is just the way it’s going to be—at least for now.

Surviving Sandy, Tempestuous Thoughts

In Chronic Pain, Class Politics, Crip Politics / Disability Politics, Identity Politics, Multiple Sclerosis, Philosophical Musings on November 4, 2012 at 4:23 AM

Like many other New Yorkers, the past week was wrought with hardships and aggravations. I am extremely grateful to be alive, to not have suffered incredible structural damage, and to still be here to describe the experience.

That said, my focus on self-healing, meditation, and peaceful centeredness was completely swept away with the downed electrical wires that kept me without heat and power for five days. In spite of the fact that this experience afforded me an invaluable opportunity to dismiss my material possessions, to cast off unnecessary, mind-numbing distractions (vices), and keep in tune with the beauty of the world-as-it-is, I was too frazzled by stresses that surfaced like bubbles in a boiling kettle.

For one thing, I couldn’t get myself to write, being so accustomed to using a keyboard.

Secondly, the lack of heat made it uncomfortable for me to meditate, and with the exception of a single night, I fell asleep nurtured by the natural warmth of candlelight.

Thirdly, the stress of a disrupted schedule, the inability to clamp onto any work, the limited ability to travel, and the fact that I was stuck in my pseudo-suburban neighborhood with just my family for company pushed me to the limits of my patience.

I reflected largely on the intricate spatial inequalities wrought by Hurricane Sandy (living in a mixed-income, home-owning neighborhood, right north of a richer, whiter neighborhood–Howard Beach–by Jamaica Bay). I thought about who was most affected, who had the means to escape.

Fallen trees and wrecked cars were a common site throughout South Queens in Sandy’s aftermath

But what most affected me was something closer to home–feeling trapped in a space without a community, without the presence of friends I could warmly trust and confide in, share moments with while commiserating.

Even more dangerous were the irritations I experienced spending–forcibly–time with my parents as we negotiated ways to cope with the lack of electricity and heat. While there were “productive” moments, moments of dialogue and strategizing, all in all, I felt as if I was falling into an old space again. A swirl of facts, thoughts, vague dreams kept reverberating in the halls of my mind:

I’m 24… It’s been two years since I’ve returned from college…I’m still living with my parents because my health condition makes moving out too costly… I’m stuck in a job that has made me compromise so much of my integral values, and has made me dislike the things I once enjoyed… My relentless, chronic pain continues unresolved, crippling me before I ever had a chance to craft a life for myself… Where I had hope a year ago, now I’m moving about in quicksand with nothing to keep me inspired… My hopes of becoming a self-fulfilled activist and educator have been destroyed by a callous joke by the Universe…My hopes of finding love and community have been cut at the root by my heinous disease… My dreams and aspirations have have been blown away like boardwalks by the Jersey Shore… 

The thoughts kept filling the spaces of my mind the way Sandy surged through basements. I partly feel guilty because I know my situation does not represent the worst–nothing comparable to the lives lost and homes ruined forever.

Yet I was forced to face the demons of this past year: in my own way, though I was not meditating on stillness nor meditating in the present, I was meditating on the emotions, fears, and anxieties that surfaced–seemingly spontaneously–once I lost the comfort of material distractions.

I had moments where I wanted to chastise myself. I could have used the time to do real meditation, concentrating my attention on the beauty of the world before me, my life-existent… But I couldn’t. I’d close my eyes and…there it was. A vortex of indescribable loneliness. The past and the future inter-crossed like two fronts colliding to birth a tornado. I was caught in the middle, and try as much I wanted to, I couldn’t detach myself.

This past week, surviving Sandy didn’t mean surviving a wrecked home or  surviving damages to my body and health. (The wreckage is disheartening, but the efforts people are taking to survive, move on, and help others is inspirational) Sandy was memorable, not because of the lost electricity and heat, but because of how it challenged me to experience the spaces and movements and the pace of time with open eyes.

It was, instead, an experience living through mental and emotional chaos–a disruption of the day-to-day that challenged me to stay grounded…and be centered.

I can’t say I passed the test of Buddhist dharma. (Which is what? Keeping my cool? Maintaining perpetual loving-kindness?) On second thought, maybe the notion of this being a ‘test’ is a fabrication of my mind. As are the fears, anxieties, and chaotic mental intrusions that challenged me this last week.

I end this post with some sound words from Thich Nhat Hanh, Zen poet, teacher, and political thinker. In an essay about embracing the inner child within, he proceeds to talk about the pain that we confront when we allow our knots of suffering (i.e. our basement) to surface. He writes:

“When we dismantle the barrier between the basement and the living room, blocks of pain will come up and we will have to suffer a bit. Our inner child may have a lot of fear and anger stored up from being down in the basement for so long. There is no way to avoid it.

That is why the practice of mindfulness is so important. If mindfulness is not there, it is very unpleasant to have these seeds come up. But if we know how to generate the energy of mindfulness, it’s very healing to invite them up every day and embrace them…

Every time you have your internal formations a bath of mindfulness, the blocks of pain in you become lighter. So give your anger, your despair, your fear, a bath of mindfulness every day…”

Rather than doping, distracting, anesthetizing ourselves from a world that is fraught with savage inequalities and violence, perhaps the take-home message is to have courage in confronting the problems that plague us. To have courage to walk straight into the storm.

And to be mindful every step of the way.

Kristin Richardson Jordan

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