Remember: always lift with your legs (not your back)!

SignAtLivingstone

(Maybe they should add “No heavy lifting” at the bottom of that sign,  eh?) It happened on Day 10 of our African safari, leaving me in excruciating pain for the last five days of my vacation. There I was, preparing to check out of the David Livingstone Safari Lodge Spa in Livingstone, Zambia,  before moving on to Mfuwe Lodge in the South Luangwa National Park. If you’ve traveled as part of a group, you know the drill: place your luggage near your door (outside or inside) for the porters to collect. My backpack was all ready and sitting on a chair. I picked it up, twisted to the left, and bent over to place the backpack on the floor. Pop! (Yes, I actually heard – and felt – a pop.) There went one of the discs in my back. Those of you who’ve suffered a herniated disc (aka bulging disc) know the pain, right? Wow. Never experienced that before.

I somehow made it through the day and the short airplane ride to Mfuwe, and even through the night, but only with the last of the painkillers that were supposed to be for my migraines. (I wouldn’t be able to lay on my back or on my left side for the next several weeks.) At first, though, I didn’t think it was too bad and went through a whole day of bumpy jeep rides that just made it worse. By the next morning, I couldn’t bear it any more and inquired with the lodge staff about acquiring more pain killers. Good news: there were volunteer doctors who serviced the area lodges; bad news: it would cost $200 for the “house” call (because the doctor must actually examine you in person). I balked at that, but realized if I was going to enjoy any more bumpy safari jeeps, I’d need more pills. So there went $200 of my spending money.

The doc’s name was Janet (yep – another Janet!) and if I remember right, she was also from California. She and her husband were on a six-month rotation where a medical charity pays for the trip to Africa in exchange for the doctors providing care to the local villagers and also to tourists. She diagnosed a herniated lumbar 4-5 disc (an MRI after I got home changed that to lumbar 2-3). And she gave me pain killers! Yippee. I can say that I most definitely would not have survived those very long plane rides back home to California without them.

VervetMonkeyBut before you begin to think this is all about the pills, no, this is about the most wonderful service provided by the staff at Mfuwe Lodge. While the rest of the group went off on a jeep ride, I tried to find a comfortable spot out in the common area just in case more elephants came wandering through. The staff got me water and some crackers to snack on so the pain killers wouldn’t upset my stomach. And then…the Vervet Monkeys who had free run of  the lodge got very interested in my crackers.  They tried to steal my crackers.

ManWithSlingshotI was positive I had his name written down in my trip notes, but I can’t find it. But here he is, my hero! He got out his slingshot and nobly defended me and my crackers. And he was a good shot too! I feel terrible that I can’t find his name – but I did give him a thank you hug before we checked out.

And before I forget, many thanks to Mike and his wife Pat, fellow members of my tour group, who gave me Pat’s orthopedic seat cushion to make my trip home more bearable.

 

 

Advertisements

Pin the Tail on the Migraine

ImageA few weeks ago I wrote about my experiences as a chronic migraine sufferer, and how I decided to turn to alternative medicine – acupuncture – for relief. Fellow migraine sufferers will understand when I say I simply couldn’t live that way anymore, alternately beat down by pain or zombified by pain killers. December and January, for me, were pretty much a blur. I accomplished few, if any, of my goals as a writer or a photographer.  Change had to be made.

I’m happy to report that my acupuncture treatments are making quite a difference in my life. Thanks to Dr. W. Jumbe Allen of the Acupuncture and Health Center I am feeling more like myself again. I feel like I have a brain! (One that isn’t betraying me.) The ratio of days filled with the all too familiar pain, and those without, has reversed.

No, I’m not quite yet the old me. The imaginative side of my mind hasn’t fully returned. Those little sparks of ideas which should be growing into short stories or scripts still smolder, but won’t yet ignite the creative action I need in order to regain the writerly momentum I had a year ago.

But I’m not complaining. I feel so much better, both mentally and physically. I’m exercising again. I’m more productive at my day job. I can concentrate. And my mood has certainly improved. If I do need to take my prescription medication, I only need one pill, not the full dose of four (which left me pretty much useless the next day). I no longer curl up in front of the t.v. at the end of the day, defeated by my inability to get a real night’s sleep. For several weeks, I’d been unable to fall asleep in my own bed and instead slept in a chair. No more.

So I look forward to more acupuncture sessions…well, not necessarily those first seconds when the needles are being inserted. Yes, that hurts. But you get used to it, and to the new sensations running through your head every time. Like last week, when it felt as if the pain had turned into rain (a dry rain) running down the right side of my face. ImageOr, during a previous session, when I could feel the pain worming its way along my right eyebrow and down the side of my nose, seeking a refuge from the needles chasing it away. Or the strange swirling pressure around my right ear which reminded me somehow of the maelstrom scene near the end of Pirates of the Caribbean 3: At World’s End. I wonder if Dr. Allen could hear me humming the theme music?

Needles and Pins

ImageI never before pictured myself as a pincushion, but there I was on my back, with tiny, thin needles in my feet, hands, and left ear. And a couple in my left leg.

If you’ve never tried acupuncture, it’s hard to describe the sensation of those little needles going in, but they don’t hurt. Except for the ones in my ear, and I gradually got used to those. What was weird – and painful – for me were the sensations inside my head as the acupuncturist chased the pain from one spot inside my brain to another with each needle insertion. Not that I’ve never before had headaches which moved around, but to feel them do so decisively at the behest of an outside influence is just, well, weird. Finally, the pain seemed trapped on the upper right side as the acupuncturist inserted one last needle and left the room, letting my body adjust and to heal.

The pain wasn’t finished of course. It had itself a merry little dance from the right side of my brain to the left, and back, settling into a strange-feeling patch of pressure around my right ear, and then back over to the left, before – perhaps with nowhere else to go – it slipped away, leaving my brain finally free. A stupendous feeling.

That may not seem like such a big deal to someone who suffers from only an occasional headache, but to a migraine sufferer or someone with chronic headaches or cluster headaches, having a pain-free brain sometimes feels like a miracle. Especially for me lately. These past few months have seen maybe five pain-free days each month, leaving me in a perpetual fog. Know what it’s like to feel as if your brain is wearing a wet fuzzy sock? I do. It’s especially frustrating for a writer like myself, with my ability to concentrate, to create, rapidly diminishing under the onslaught of pain and medication. This had become the norm for me. My brain had come to expect the pain, to look for it. Image

But I cannot let myself succumb to this new normal. Not only do I need to function in daily life, I also need to write. And that’s become increasingly harder as the months crawl by. (Hell, I haven’t even been able to muster enough motivation to read a book.) So I’ve decided to try something different, an alternative medicine which some people are skeptical about, but which others I know have had success in dealing with chronic pain and other issues. I’ve only had one treatment so far, and it’s not an instant cure, but I’m willing to try. I want to try. I want the old me back.

The pain won’t give up the fight easily. I can already feel it trying to worm its way back through my brain, trying to take over my life once again. But I can fight back. And I’m looking forward to a good fight!Image

Slices of Migraine Pie..and weird dreams

The neighbors fighting; doors slamming; cursing at 1:00 a.m.

“Meoowwl” The cat howling way across the room for no apparent reason at 2:38 a.m. (Note to self: yelling at the cat to shut up does not make him shut up.)

“Fwap, fwap, fwap” The sound of a car with a flat tire driving down the street at 4:56 a.m.

The grinding and banging of the garbage truck at 5:35 a.m.

Its urgent mission now over, the distinctive engine sound of a fire truck returning to its station a few minutes later.

If you’ve been awake during the night, willingly or unwillingly, these might be some of the sounds intruding upon you. When you’ve got a migraine, and you’re waiting for the medication to take effect, they can be heightened to mere annoyances preventing your mind…your brain…from relaxing, or to the point of severe pain. Migraine sufferers will know what I’m talking about. Others will think “but it’s just a headache.”

It’s not just a headache. Migraines can be debilitating, interfering with your ability to live a normal life. But they can also be oddly…revealing. As your brain navigates its way through the twists and turns it feels like it’s doing, your thoughts alight – usually briefly – on the ordinary problems of the day or, if you’re a writer like me, upon ideas and story plots. Or maybe the pain (or is it the meds?) sends your mind twirling around in a bizarre series of dream images that will become mere flickers of memory the next day.

Do you remember your dreams? I usually don’t, but every so often one or the other will be so vivid, or repeat a theme dreamt before, that it outlasts the pain, the medication, or a much appreciated good night’s sleep.

About a week ago in the middle of a migraine came such an image. It was brief. I think. I don’t remember the details, but I do know that I was in a house. Again. It was my house, yet not my house.

It’s a recurring theme in my dreams (although not usually during migraines): The House. Or so I like to call it. I can’t say how many times this theme has cropped up, nor is it a regular – predictable – event, but it’s happened several times over the years, starting quite some time ago. Out of curiosity, I have searched online on some of those dream interpretation websites, for a meaning behind this dream, but of course, those sites are contradictory and not entirely useful.

All I really know is that I find myself in The House (sometimes it starts out as an apartment) and that The House continually expands. I discover new doors, new rooms. Sometimes it’s rooms off the kitchen, sometimes it’s extra bedrooms. And sometimes, like the last time I can most vividly remember this dream (maybe a couple years ago?) it’s hidden rooms off the basement.

I’m never afraid in the dream. It’s more like a journey of discovery and I’m thrilled to step into a new room I didn’t know I had. It’s sometimes exciting, sometimes wondrous. And, gee, I didn’t know I owned so many books! Yes, the last House included – down in that ever-expanding basement – a huge library. The kind of library you might see in fantasy movies where the library shelves climb the walls so high it’s dizzying to look up at all those tomes. I don’t know the names of any of the books on my library shelves. I recall not stepping that far into the room – only sensing how deep it was. Instead, my attention was drawn onward and outward.

The House finally did end (the first time I can remember an actual ending to The House in any of the dreams). But I guess it didn’t really end. In the last room was an open rear wall…and a beach. Yes, my basement opened onto a beach. It was a pale sand beach, kind of foggy. I could hear waves crashing onto shore somewhere close by.

I don’t remember stepping out onto the beach. I just remember thinking “wow!” And that’s all. The dream ended there.

Some days I still wonder what those dreams mean. But maybe it’s not important. Or maybe it’s just really simple. Suddenly I have this urge to go to Hawaii, or Tahiti, or Key West, or the Maldives….