All along the road that has been the fibromyalgia years, ‘brain fog’ (an appropriately wooly term used to describe a myriad of ‘brain symptoms’) has been such a significant part of what I have been experiencing…and, in fact, its one of the most consistently talked about aspects of fibromyalgia on forums and websites. Yet it has generally been underplayed…by me and by them…as some sort of unfortunate side effect of all the ‘other stuff’ going on with fibromyalgia, which is generally described as ‘widespread body pain’ and relatively little to do with the brain at all. What if we are stepping around the elephant in the room and our understanding of fibromyalgia’s brain symptoms is entirely pivotal to everything that is going on here?
And here’s a thought; what if fibromyalgia and any one of a long list of other chronic illnesses weren’t a sign of something ‘going wrong’ but actually a sign of something ‘going right’ at last?
Its an idea I’ve played with for a long time but a book I’ve just read has really made me start to think so. I had seen Jill Bolte Taylor‘s Ted Talk some time ago and it made me prick up my ears but my first trip through her best selling book, “My Stroke of Insight“, triggered such a sequence of lightbulb moments for me that I could hardly keep up with my own dot-joining and the compulsion to underline whole sections of her detailed account of how she watched her left brain shut down as the result of a stroke.
The interesting thing about JBT is that she is a Harvard-trained and published neoroanatomist…which means she observed the, extraordinarily fascinating, process of a stroke taking place as a brain scientist ‘sat’ in the front-row seat of her own mind.
Fibromyalgia and stroke – similar territory?
Her description of the relish with which she observed her own brain shutting down triggered so much awareness of how, no less, have I watched (with some fascination) my own process of coming apart – alright, I’m not a scientist but I’ve always been hugely analytical and more than a bit obsessed with how things work, fit together and relate to one another. You may look at me now and see ‘artistic-type’ but I was the school A grader in sciences just as much as I was in the arts, always very equally balanced between left and right hemispheres in my approach to life and verging on ambidextrous. In fact, if anything, my left brain – the side that deals with organization and critical thinking – tended to run the show….not in a particularly scientific way as I’ve always preferred the colourful and creative right-sided approach to life, but in the sense I’ve always been one of nature’s over-thinkers; someone who goes into all of the minutest small print of life beyond the point of enjoyment and with more than a touch of the obsessive compulsive about me.
At the time fibromyalgia came along ten years ago, my brain circuits were thoroughly overloaded by a tidal wave of circumstantial stresses, heightened emotions and far (far) too much data to handle in every aspect of my life; in short, they were ripe for a full melt-down.
I realise now that this meltdown could just as easily have manifested as a stroke or a nervous breakdown, or one of the numerous of other ways the human being reclaims homeostasis for itself through what can become a long and weary process of breaking down, hitting rock-bottom then re-wiring itself, and which can also include the ‘method’ of vacating the human body altogether. Of course, I appreciate that it doesn’t always manage to rewire itself back to full-function either and that a stroke can have a devastating effect upon someone’s life, but sometimes you get to hear a story like this one where the person, most certainly, benefited from what happened to them and this is another aspect that I feel I have in common.
My experience wasn’t the all-in-one cataclysmic event of a stroke, it was a long running series of small events…continuing…that mean I can feel relatively fine most of the time, and even really good these days, and then undergo the kind of crash where I suddenly fall into a state of ‘brain fog’ and of chronic fatigue. When this occurs, its a case of having to halt everything, without argument, and surrender to a state of suspension that feels like floating in an expansive sea of awareness that is not entirely unpleasant but one in which language and logic defeat me, everyday sensations such as noise and light overwhelm me and the whole convoluted, opinionated and well-defined personality plus sharp rationale that I have come to know as ‘me’ for over forty years seem to quietly leave the building. Quite simply, I am forced to withdraw from almost all that life as a physical human being is about for a few hours, maybe a day (it used to be much longer) except for eating and…interestingly…experiencing pain most acutely and minutely, as though every tiniest sub-conscious body-process has become newly revealed to my avidly watching super-conscious mind sat in its own ‘front row seat’.
When this kind of experience becomes a regular part of your life, you tend to feel that you are entirely alone ‘in it’, as indeed you are, and while fibromyalgia forums and numerous books list a state of ‘brain fog’ (often used to lump together all of the myriad symptoms above rather than discussing them in any detail), far more study and discussion time seems to go into the ‘widespread pain’ that comes with the territory. For the first time, and surprisingly given I was reading a book about a stroke, JBT’s account made me feel like someone else was describing what I have been through, albeit – in my case – in a far less dramatic or life threatened way; but with enough cross-over territory to push the door of understanding open a little wider.
I could quote extensively from JBT’s account and these would describe, word-for-word, many of the experiences I have been through – that’s how close they get! Instead, I urge you to read her book as it is not a complicated or heavy-going read (far from it) and there is so much in there for anyone who even suspects they have been through anything similar. In summary, the experiences we have in common come down to feeling depleted, sensorily bombard, withdrawn, language and spatially challenged, unable to cope with people or situations that ‘energy drain’; on the up side, blissfully disengaged from so much emotional baggage and the old preoccupations of an over-busy life, newly attracted to right brain pursuits and largely unaffected by the judgements of others, able to ‘hear’ what the body most needs and to watch emotions as they pass through with detached curiosity and to perceive a potential for appreciation and joy in almost everything. I will go into more of my own experiences below but these are some of the obvious cross-over areas.
As such this book has, I feel, far broader relevance than just to those vested in gaining a better understanding of strokes; we all have a brain and there are many conditions that cross over when it comes to experiencing sensations that we label ‘out of the ordinary’ in relation to how we experience the world (and, besides, what we consider to be ‘ordinary’ is not necessarily all there is to life). If any of this sounds familiar territory or piques your curiosity in terms of the ‘good news’ this amounts to – for those with fibromyalgia in particular but, really, affecting everyone – I urge you to read on and, better still, to read JBT’s book and certainly watch her Ted Talk.
By comparing my own experiences with what JBT describes (and that includes a marked and sudden switch-over to a right-hemisphere ‘occupation’ following what happened to me) , it seems to me that fibromyalgia – as I have experienced it – has presented like a long-running series of mini strokes (often referred to as an Transient Ischemic Attack) though I am not actually saying that these episode really have been strokes but, rather, fascinatingly similar to strokes in the way they seem to cause half of my brain to bail out. These have never completely disengaged my speech or logical processing, my ability to perceive spatial relationships or rendered me unable to take care of myself or do ‘normal’ things out in the world (though they affect all these things profoundly); they have certainly never come close to being life-threatening but there is a great deal of cross-over territory and that’s what I want to share here; as well as (something else in common with what JBT shares) the numerous gifts this has given me.
The first considerable gift delivered by these episodes of brain fog, in my experience, is the effect they have of pulling the mind sharply back from the cliff-edge of hyper-analytical, fear-based overwhelm that can often feel like a reality where you are strapped into the hard bucket seat of a racing car, to then land you into what I have tended to view as an ‘observer seat’ in which, with the body all but shut down for that day, week or month, there is no alternative but to make yourself as comfortable as possible, settle down and ‘watch the show’. Like a saving grace, they swoop in and take you off to somewhere else entirely, for an enforced recovery period that is not that bad really…except for its total unsuitability to ‘fit in’ to the structures, demands and responsibilities of a busy left-orientated lifestyle. As such, I have had to restructure my life entirely or, rather, dismantle as much structure as possible while still functioning as a human being who is a parent, wife and business owner, to allow ‘space’ for these episodes to occur as randomly as they do.
When brain fog happens, my perspective of life suddenly becomes so much bigger, expanding from the preoccupations of everyday life that once made up a picture that (I now realise) was barely the size of the screen on my smartphone, to quickly surpass the widest imaginable cinema screen, and just keeps growing and growing. The world as I knew it, with all its petty hang-ups, seems minuscule by comparison and, from this expanded perspective, I gain an all-new freedom from emotional pain and the welcome peace of experiencing how I am, in fact, connected with everything; there really is no conflict of interest. I also feel completely halted in my ability to function as a ‘normal’ human being with a busy and complicated life – so, abruptly, I have to stop.
So why does left brain shutdown result in chronic pain?
What I have described is consistent with the chronic fatigue that accompanies fibromyalgia, as the body (for its own good) is forced to halt everything and just give in to a more expansive state but why is this accompanied by so much pain that most people affected list this as the primary experience they are having? I confess to having remained somewhat mystified as to why – if episodes of brain fog occur as a result of the left hemisphere shutting down and hold the potential to deliver such exquisite peace – this then results in more pain; indeed a far greater experience of pain than sufferers of fibromyalgia can easily describe or than can be adequately explained by doctors studying this and other chronic pain syndromes. If the left brain ducks out of the picture and leaves you afloat in a right hemispheric sea of much broader awareness than the petty concerns of the human body then the human propensity to experience pain would, surely, switch down a notch or two.
It was with huge interest, therefore, that I read JBT describe the intense pain she experienced after her left brain shut down and a conversation I have since had with a friend who also went through a left-sided stroke confirmed that she, too, recalls the most intense body pain of her life during that time.
I continued to struggle to reconcile this until I began to consider that it might be a reflection of the wider consciousness that we are, beyond our physical form, expressing its own ‘non-compute’ response, or even delighted curiosity, at the sheer physicality of the human body. The body itself, after all, does not score each sensation; it sends the message about a sensation to the brain and asks the brain to do the classification-part for it by relaying back whether that sensation is worthy of a reaction or can be ignored. If that brain is no longer equipped to assess the information received, to ‘score’ and bring it into perspective using all the left brain criteria of labels (naming the pain and endeavoring to explain the reason for it) and comparisons (this pain is serious, that one is just trivial and can be ignored) gathered through all the past experiences we have ever had, the likelihood is that all sensations are received democratically and with equal curiosity. What is more, each and every sensation is experienced anew – literally as though for the first time – and, in comparison with what our broader consciousness knows of itself as a non-physical entity, each sensation feels like a considerable misalignment with the total absence of sensation that it is used to as its benchmark. In short, our most expansive self has no point of reference about the physical side of things, without access to the left brain and the catalogue of data it has spent the whole of human evolution compiling.
Without access to this database, every sensation that comes into the brain’s awareness is just as significant (or not) as the next one; which firmly places the onus of ‘how to react’ upon the unifying consciousness that makes up the being whose awareness this is; they get to drive the over-riding theme of the day – so, is it going to be fear or love? If fear is the over-riding preoccupation of that person then all signals of sensation will be treated as a potential alarm of distress, even while the right brain remains blissfully detached and curious. In other words, a potential trigger is successfully activated as a ‘maybe’ kind of threat – and this is the kind of message that gets taken seriously by the amygdala (often referred to as the most primitive part of the brain) which is located in both hemispheres of the brain and which, when its button is pressed, typically responds with a fear reaction; unless some kind of intervention occurs to override this – which can only come from the consciousness that we are (which is so much more than our brain) stepping in and taking back the reins. More readily, we tend to get stuck in a patterns of reaction that no-longer serves us; that just ‘happen’ unconsciously even without any thought process going into them and these patterns build momentum over time – until they are running us more than we are running them. A life of stress and fear-reactions can do this to a person.
Yet, even if we are stuck in these patterns of over-reaction at the brain-level, why the very ‘real’ physical symptoms of fibromylagia, and of the myofascial pain syndrome that often accompanies it? Well, if the reactions being made by a right-dominant brain, to perfectly ordinary and non-threatening or minor body sensations are, potentially, out of proportion to what is occurring, the endless alarms being raised will inevitably trigger the corresponding over-reaction at the source of the sensation, where it is treated as though ‘something serious’ may be happening. What this all boils down to is a system that cares about one thing at it core: “Am I safe, or am I under threat?” If there is any doubt, the reaction sent back to the body is likely to err on the safe side rather than ignore the stumulus. At this stage, the body’s automatic ‘mitigate and repair’ systems spring into action in exactly the same way as they would if a serious problem existed.
Its true that, when I am undergoing a flare, every slightest sensory thing can feel like a physical pain – for instance, I’ve recently noticed how I can’t bear to have my fingernails too long or the scent of newly applied perfume at these times – so how much more so do the considerable stresses and strains of muscles and nerve-endings, the endless processing of the digestive system, the extremes of heat and cold, feel like torture during an episode of fibromyalgia? If each and every message of discomfort is being treated like a potential alarm by a right-dominant control centre, then the body is being returned signals to react – quite literally – all of the time until it starts to feel utterly overwhelmed. This gives rise to all the demonstrable physical symptoms of fibromyalgia (tender points, skin rashes, irritable digestive system, etc.): many of which can be lumped under the heading of ‘inflammation’ which, in most simplistic terms, is a body gone haywire with over-reaction. This sets in motion a catch-twenty-two where inflamed and triggered cells return further messages of discontented sensation back to the brain which, again, treats them as signals of gravest alarm…and so on and so forth; hence the word ‘chronic’ used to describe a physiology caught up in a what so many regard as an inescapable loop.
If immersing in the right brain perspective is like floating in a state of pure awareness, and a practice of awareness (as can be developed through, for instance, mediation or yoga) is meant to enable you to detect that part of yourself that can observe pain happening and yet not engage with it, you would think that the fact of so much ‘awareness of pain’ would not present such a very great problem. And, yes, if you could sustain such a state of pure awareness every minute of your day, that would probably be the case but I suspect that part of the issue of fibromyalgia is that the periods of left-brain surrender are intermittent and, really, there is a constant swing back and forth between the two perspectives without finding a happy landing place.
Also, is the left-brain really ‘offline’ or has it just backed off into deputy position, its functioning still there but partially immobilized, its access to its own ‘files’ compromised? Even when there is no brain fog, I am often shocked by the realisation that I don’t actually ‘know’ my own pin or phone number; all I really hang onto is the rhythm or the pattern of the numbers (right brain territory) but if you asked me to recall the numbers out of order, to a different rhythm than how I normally think them or even to confirm ‘is there a 7 in there?’, I’d be beaten every time. That’s because, once the brain has processed the same thing in the same way a number of times, it feels it no longer needs to hold onto the rationale below the surface anymore; the presence of a particular pattern is seen as enough to justify the reaction that is generated. Fear is like that; if a nudge from right brain has raised an alarm enough times, the response generated becomes ingrained. If right brain delivers ‘hey, we may have a problem here; I don’t know for sure but just maybe…’, then even the most half-hearted response from left brain, on a day when it is feeling off-par, is likely to be an over-reaction, an assumption of ‘worst case scenario’ – especially if that’s the way its processing normally goes. This tendency for an alarmist reaction to occur is then reflected in countless ‘unconscious’ responses to outside and body-related stimuli. None of this is helped by the mounting fear of escalating health problems and the sheer amount of fear about our own bodies ‘going wrong’ that is perpetuated by our culture. We have been culturally conditioned into extreme fear reactions – to everything – for generation after generation so these are not going to dissolve over-night.
This would explain how my own efforts to expand awareness only every got me so far – yes, the introduction of meditation (well known as a means of ‘switching off the left brain’) and even my painting practice have helped me to disassociate myself from episodes of pain; to witness it happening but not be the pain, but the frustration has always been the fact that the pain still hangs around relentlessly, however much I work on not paying it too much attention. Yet to ignore pain is only to build up the sensation that there is a large obstacle in the room that you are endlessly walking around while studiously ignoring it – it doesn’t make it go away. Increasingly, I have come to suspect that the difference is made, not by learning to live with it in this pseudo-tolerant kind of way, but by being so fully aware of it that its perfectly alright, that all is well and there is nothing that needs to be done. I confess to this being work in progress but it already feels like the ‘all is well’ approach is allowing in a chink of light. I suspect that the more I convince myself of this being the case, at a deep level, as a default setting – knowing that nothing is broken (instead of perpetuating the fear perspective that ‘something is always going wrong’) – the less need there will be to put the left brain on ice and rely on the right brain for functions that it performs better in full collaboration with its natural team mate, in a hands-on partnership that amounts to the ‘whole brain’ functioning that we are (so very superbly) equipped for as human beings. It is this combination of ‘awareness’ with what has been labelled the ‘acceptance of pain‘ (rather than ‘putting up with’ pain) paradigm, as a two-pronged approach to fibromyalgia, that presents the most likely key to its door. In other words, attitude is everything!
Important to remember that whatever is happening in the overwhelmed body is happening at the sub-conscious level – until its not! That is, until that person chooses to make it conscious again (as I have been endeavouring to do) and so take their control back by choosing a new perspective, a different interpretation of what is going on. The fact that my experience of pain has reduced considerably over the years, though it is not gone, tells me that I have traveled a good long way along this road and am heading in the right direction.
Rebooting the brain…and then your life
Because, getting back to my original point, wasn’t it a chronic case of life-style imbalance that triggered off my encounter with fibromyalgia in the first place; and hasn’t the journey it has taken me on, steadily, rebalanced not only my brain function but also my life and so, in that sense, been a great thing? Just as JBT has claimed a fuller, more conscious, more collaboratory relationship between the two ‘sides’ of her brain as a result of her stroke – and, so, her life has followed suit to the point that she feels grateful for the experience it provided. By dismantling the way the brain processes the onslaught of stimuli that is the human experience and rebuilding it all again, with the the conscious self ‘on board’, it seems to me that these kinds of circumstance are some kind of reboot that holds the potential to make things better than they ever were before; but, also, that this is more likely to occur if we participate fully and with curiosity, being prepared to take from the experience all that it is trying to show to us.
Clearly, JBT’s book had opened a doorway of enquiry for me and, to go into it further, I needed to look closely at the way brain function has played such a key part in my experience of fibromyalgia in the form of the periods of brain fog that are such a key characteristic of it.
As luck would have it, I was experiencing an acute episode of this the day before I started writing this post and in the same week as reading JBT’s book and, having been a while since I had been floored to such an extent, this gave me the opportunity to look into the experience even more than usual. What I am about to share isn’t meant to be a little shop of horrors but is necessary if I am going to be able to flag up the similarities between what I have experienced, through fibromyalgia, and what JBT describes in her account of her stroke – which all boils down to a sudden ‘bail out’ of left brain functioning.
As is typical of these events, on the day of my brain fog I woke particularly early from what felt like poor-quality and overactive sleep and then drifted in and out of a deep-flowing theta state, straddled between sleep and wakefulness, for almost three hours, receiving what I regard as a number of ‘downloads’ of broader understanding upon a number of themes relating to my life, exactly as I experience in meditation. This part wasn’t, in fact, unpleasant but integration with ‘real life’ creates a challenge (though sometimes I feel I have to get up, urgently, to write down some of my realisations in case they slip away…). When I made myself get up, which my body was in resistance to, I was in extreme pain and as soon as I had completed any tasks that were unavoidable that day, I surrendered to the chronic fatigue and signals that my mind wanted to drift back into its dreamlike theta state which, by then, was coming in on powerful waves that were not to be argued with. Daylight seemed too bright; I longed to curl up in a corner and be left alone. As is typical, any resistance to this made me feel like I had a killer headache coming on, like the worst kind of migraine (often, such a headache takes a grip for many hours), my coordination felt compromised, my body heavy and ‘electric’, my eyesight blurred. Everything was telling me to ‘stop’.
I then spent the day laying down, mostly with eyes closed, briefly surfacing into windows of lucidity only to dive back down again into what felt like extraordinarily deep flowing water. Attempts at reading delivered words that often presented like garbled squiggles on the page and meaning that eluded me so utterly that I gave up fairly quickly, plus the effort of it felt exhausting. Limbs were heavy; so heavy it was hard to imagine how I ever manage to move them around. I could hear my family laughing and talking around me but couldn’t bring myself to engage with them at all; I wanted my deep solitude more than I wanted to feel part of anything, I felt emotionally detached like I was watching life from another dimension. The pain I was in continued to be profound all day, accompanied by desperate thirst, also an acute sensitivity to light and intolerance to noise, including quietest conversation and, especially, questions or excitement. The head tones that feel like I am party to every minutest electrical signal coming at me from the universe and then coursing around the electric complexity of my nervous system, plus the whir and grind of every goblet of blood or fluid passing through each and every tiniest cell wall or artery, switched on as the accompanying cacophony of my inner world. Sound and light became an affront to my over-stimulated nerves; voices were, at best indecipherable or, at worse, had me scrunching up my face at the intense aggravation of them, especially cutlery. A gentle hug delivered intense pain around my shoulders and even the sensation-point where my head touched the feather pillow felt like like an unbearably shrill sound, which sounds like a muddled description yet, its true, the labels for different sensory data become interchangeable during these episodes (this seems to relate to my synaesthesia). Encouraged by JBT’s assertion that the body’s intense craving to succumb to sleep is not at all wrong at these times (as I have often suggested to myself!), I gave into it completely and ‘lost’ most of the day.
Such experiences make up the most intense of days (thankfully, now the rarity); others that are more typical leave me straddled in an in-between state that includes some, but not necessarily all, of the following characteristics. Because they are a milder version of brain fog, I prefer to be ‘doing something’ at these times and so engage deeply and intensely with my creative pursuits. Pain is sometimes presenting everywhere in my environment at these times of what feels like super-sensory awareness but the seeming importance of ‘doing something’ makes me even more stubborn and intense about whatever activity I have decided to focus on as my anchor to life, so that there is an edge of obsession to whatever I am doing which can trigger an ongoing cycle of exhaustion. Often, that urgency to ‘do’ takes the form of feeling I have to write down all the sweeping realisations that are pouring into my mind faster than I can hold onto them.
On such days, I experience blurred eyesight that becomes most noticeable when I lift my gaze from whatever close-work I am doing and, when I am out walking, I find I have to direct my gaze downwards to cope with the intensity of the light and to think about where I put my feet since spatial awareness often feels compromised. There is an awareness of all the body minutiae that is normally ‘below the surface’ and, a trait I now recognise as going back to episodes when I was an child, a sensation that I can only describe as being able to ‘feel’ (or be acutely aware of) the whole mass of my own brain as sponginess, pressure and oscillation, though the brain is absent of nerve receptors. This heightened awareness also includes that of electrical impulses and energy coming in to my body from outside; from electrical equipment and phone signals, pulsing upwards from the earth and down from the universe; particularly at times of full moon and solar flare. The internal head tones that I am almost never without become particularly loud during brain fog while ‘normal’ outside-of-body sounds may come at me as though heard through the walls of a goldfish tank.
Sensory surprises need to be avoided as they can send unchecked shock waves reverberating through my entire system and leave me in recovery for a long time afterwards; it is particularly important that I be allowed to wake up very slowly, preferably without an alarm sound, to allow very gradual acclimatization to my surroundings. Strong smells, bright lights, loud noises all present as massively exaggerated versions of themselves and can be literally painful. Supermarkets and big, crowded, noisy, brightly lit, open spaces full of stimuli are to be avoided at all costs on the most affected days as they can be severely disorientating and overwhelming. I find television and talk radio hard to be anywhere near, even certain music bothers me, and I leave the telephone to ring (plus, I all but stopped using the telephone for social chatter when fibromyalgia came along as I find it one of the most energetically draining things). I often sing while I paint and yet any sudden requirement to talk, for instance to someone at the door, often delivers a froggy-hoarseness or a struggle to find the words to convey meaning. Similarly, I notice I can be as articulate as I like writing words down in creative patterns at these times but that communication through speech sometimes leaves me dumbfounded, struggling for coherence and feeling stupid (a trait I have had all my life and put down to ‘chronic shyness’ but, now, I wonder if it all started as this).
Short-term memory goes to pieces and the most basic tasks can become challenging or exhausting. Decision-making, even about the trivial, can present the worst of challenges as the appropriate skill-set (logic, comparison skills and a strong sense of track-record) that would enable me to choose one thing over another often eludes me.
Anger or snappishness, impatience, heightened emotions or extremely anxious behaviour energy-drain and thus alienate me so completely that I withdraw from the source of it, sometimes permanently if it is a character trait of that person as it can feel like a total sabotage of my recovery. In any case, hard experience has taught me that social contact is undesirable when I am experiencing a flare, for multiple reasons ranging from the challenges of articulating and reasoning to the effect it has of feeling like my energy is being siphoned off by the problems and expectations of another. I have come to notice (as JBT describes) that some people give energy and others take it away and so I tend to stick to the company of those who are completely reliable during these times or, as she so brilliantly describes it, to require that those I spend time with “take responsibility” for the kind of energy they bring to me. Even light-hearted chit-chat can feel energy draining as it takes a surprising amount of left-brain presence to follow the social niceties that are expected in conversation and I often fall into the pit-hole of fearing I have been too blunt or outspoken during these episodes. Besides, frankly, I am no fun to be with at these times as my usually chipper personality becomes a dulled-down version of itself and my voice becomes extraordinarily flat, however hard I try to inject some expression. I can feel bizarrely separate from everyone, even those I love, as though watching from the sidelines and cannot engage in (or relate to) their drama. I prefer to disappear off into my own world and, when I am holding a creative thread in this state, the slightest distraction can break my concentration in a way that makes me lose my thread so that family members have (generally) learned to give me space when I have that look of being in the zone.
Other traits that I have observed are that brain fog is more likely to be severe during times of female hormone overload and during the ‘darker’ months so that the transition into autumn becomes like one long-rolling episode of brain fog; often straight after a ‘good’ summer (as is happening now).
In short, its like operating without easy access to the skill-set that the left brain brings to the whole picture of human functioning and, over time through its absence, you come to reappraise all that the left brain brings to the whole picture of life.
When fibromyalgia first ‘happened’ to me, I experienced many such days – some ‘intense’ and some ‘milder’; on many of them, hardly rousing from what felt like a continuous doze, my head turned towards the back of the sofa to shield my eyes from the bright daylight that sought me out even through closed eyelids. When these episodes started they were, of course, terribly alarming but the repeat of them acclimatised me to them somewhat, though I did feel like my ‘normal’ life was slipping away from me, bit by bit. These days, extreme brain fog episodes are, thankfully, the rarity and I live mostly straddled between ‘mild brain fog’ and ‘much better’ days. For the many wonderful months of this summer and last, brain fog was almost non-existent and I do find it ebbs and flows on a seasonal basis.
It would have been very easy to have surrendered to it, to sleep when it all became too much and then, on the days days when I could cope with any stimulus at all, to put on the banality of daytime television and lose myself in mindless distraction but something told me, very early on, that pandering to an urge for ‘easiest’ stimuli was exactly wrong for me and that even the silence that left me immersed in my own experience was preferable to what that offered. Instead, the most succumbed of times came to feel like meditation and I went deeply into myself in a way that, I now see, was my self-repair facility switching on. Then I discovered painting, which was like a half-way house between going completely into myself whilst still ‘doing something’ and thus enabled me to coax a predominantly right-sided perspective back into the ‘real’ world, where it was gradually reintroduced to the left side as my painting took off and practical decisions or circumstantial judgement calls had to be made in order to progress in an occupation that I loved; in short, I became motivated to re-acquaint the two sides of my own head!
The up-side of everything I had experienced as a result of what, on the face of it, was a dreadful health challenge was that I felt far more instinctive, more inspired and creative and even more naturally gifted at being able to join apparently random dots of thoughts and see how the whole bigger picture of everything fits together than ever before. Suddenly, there seemed to be synchronicity everywhere and, once experienced, this is a way of looking at the world that stays with you forever in a way that delivers the gift of meaning and reconciliation to an otherwise fragmented world.
I also felt like I got to observe how emotions flooded through me with a whole new fascination and detachment and this gave me a great appreciation of the many pathways that led to joy, which I started to experience with far more regularity; in fact, I began to feel blissed-out a great deal of the time (quite independently of whatever body-symptoms were being presented to me) and really appreciative of everything and everyone – you could call it an overwhelming experience of love.
A craving for ever more mind-bending complexity grew in me; a longing to explore my world in deeper and ever more probing ways. When I read, which I started to do once again during the ever lengthening periods between flare-ups (though, at times, I found it preferable to approach books via audio recordings rather than ‘squiggles’ on a page), I didn’t go for ‘easy’ material but selected some of the most mind-stretching I could get my hands on, even if I sometimes had to reread whole sections to get their meaning, and then I turned to writing, finding that my sheer love of the interplay of words kept me stretched and stimulated in a way that made me feel much more integrated. As I look back, I see how I tempted and teased my right brain back into communion with the left through this love of words and the shared territory between my left brain ‘language bank’ and the wealth of pictures and ideas in my right hemisphere that simply longed for the physical expression that all those words offered.
What I now understand is how all this was my instinctive effort to keep my left brain alive; it was me making overtures towards a left brain I had, apparently, pulled some of the wires out of during an intense crisis point and starting to reconnect them again, appreciating all the many gifts the left-perspective offered me, as though from scratch. I had come to appreciate how, without the tool kit it provided, I would remain floating away in an experience I was unable to communicate to anybody and that held no appeal whatsoever. It was like discovering the joy of becoming a human being all over again.
When I look back across the fibromyalgia years, what I see is a how my right and left hemispheres have been going through a long series of estrangements and even the occasional divorce; times when the right brain wants nothing more to do with the left and gives it its marching orders…only it is always welcomed back eventually, which is just as soon as this time-out has resulted in a softening of the differences and, so, a workable truce. These truces have become stronger over time and have lasted for considerably longer periods as my health has gradually recovered (or, should I say, my health has gradually recovered in line with the frequency of these truces occurring). Things have steadily gone back towards ‘normal’ and stay somewhere close to that, most of the time, with these flare-ups happening less and less often and for considerably shorter spells of time and yet, on some level, I’ve known all along that ‘recovery’ wasn’t ever going to take me back to where I started and that things would never be quite the same again.
Because, very much overnight, I had gone from an astonishingly over-stimulated, complicated, hyper-vigilant way of living to being someone who went for walks, slept, meditated, read, wrote and painted. Not that far beneath all the pain and worry about whatever was going on with my body, I was utterly relishing this surrender to the right brain perspective and liked it very much indeed. It had altered my lifestyle for the better and nothing was going to force me back to where I had come from; I could never un-know what I now knew from the bigger perspective, including all the inner peace that I now knew was there and readily accessible, whatever the outside world happened to be ‘doing’. Pretty-much everything had changed; my priorities were different, my skill-set and potential looked different, I was a very different person indeed in ways that some of the people who thought they knew me ‘before’ found hard to handle. Most (though not yet all) of the things that had occupied and largely worried my over-active mind seemed entirely unimportant now, from this pulled-back observer seat that had become an integrated part of my life. I no longer felt confined within the neat boundaries of my physical body; my sense of self had puffed itself up to become as gigantian as the universe, incorporating everything in it, without all the hard lines of separation that had once seemed to indicate the ‘end’ of me and the ‘start’ of something or somebody else. While bringing that knowing into the practical applications of life was still to present some challenges (and, honestly, still does), I could never un-know that again.
What did this mean? I hardly knew for the longest time, my view of what had happened to me still felt extremely distorted. Also, like an airbag that had prematurely gone off, I worried that I might not be able to repackage all that I had become into the dashboard of me. Such thinking demonstrated there was still this tendency to regard what had happened to me as a problem to be solved and something that had ‘gone terribly wrong’; the underlying niggle being “will I ever fit in, to anything, ever again?” As I revisited this hesitation over whether to stay where I was or try to rejoin the world (though really not certain I ever could) through hearing much the same hesitation described through JBT’s eyes, I was brought to a realisation of the full potential of ‘going back’ into the world..and of bringing my new perspective with me, to achieve a whole new level of balance that had never been achieved, by me, before.
How it began to present to me was that what I had undergone was a very necessary, evolutionary, consciousness reset and that this is what is happening in the case of so many of the ‘problematic’ chronic conditions that have swept across the world’s population over the last few decades. The current left-brain dominance of our world is unprecedented and at an all new height after thousands of years of ‘the way life is’ being spun in an entirely lopsided way, but never more so since religion, science, industrialisation, money and the computer took over the very patterns of our lives. We have lost ourselves in the fog, forgetting who we really are as balanced human beings; most people honestly believe that what they see around them in the form of their busy lives centred on survival is really ‘all there is’ to everything and have no real idea what they are capable of. Achieving that full potential relies upon a reconciliation of all that we are; both sides of that reality as played out by the two hemispheres of our brain. The early Egyptians and many of the earliest civilisations of our world (whose sophistication remains largely underestimated by modern historians) understood the need for balance and harmony between the divine feminine and the divine masculine that the very design of our brain replicates so beautifully and yet this isn’t how our world is operated any more; and we have let go of our innate spirituality, which is simply our natural-born knowing that the physical world happening all around us is only the tip of the iceberg of everything, an outward mirror of our current preoccupations and no true estimate (as it stands) of the unlimited beings that we really are.
Our right brain knows this and has been trying to remind us for the longest time – resorting to drastic measures when necessary, it now seems. When the chronically over-stimulated human being reaches a threshold where the stress and separation (dog-eat-dog mentality) of the modern viewpoint can no longer be sustained – or no longer fits with all that it knows we are in connection with everything – the brain itself intervenes in the most ingenious way, redressing that balance by forcing the kind of break-down that puts the unhealthy, out-of-balance aspect of the mind ‘on ice’ for long enough for a transformation to occur. That is, a transformation is made possible if the person experiencing this breakdown is ready to accept it, not as a tragedy but, as an opportunity; another point of view shared with JBT who most definitely saw ‘opportunity’ in what life presented to her.
With a laugh, I realised at this stage that there had been a massive clue, underwritten by me, just staring me in the face all along, nudging me to realise that these pockets of left brain disengagement had never been a ‘problem’ but, actually, the most invaluable windows of insight that I could ever have gifted to myself. JBT had experienced her insight in one almighty ‘stroke’, mine had come to me through many many ‘windows’ of opportunity delivered in the form of these multiple episodes of brain fog. This sizeable hint had been there for years, in the form of my long-running urge to paint windows; very ‘solid and tangible’ windows with ephemeral light pouring through – like a long-running series of metaphors where both window and light formed the basis of the ‘whole picture’ I was painting (or, the whole picture of me). With deepest gratitude to JBT for the courage of her journey and her determination to share her incredible amount of insight, indeed her very ‘angle-in’ to the topic via a title suggesting her stroke was actually a gift, I realised that I have been stepping around my very own series or gifts, or windows of insight, for quite some time now. With this latest window of opportunity thrown fully open, I began to make some serious headway.
Whole brain functioning – the way we were designed to be
Within a few days of this breakthrough, I was invited to a presentation at my daughter’s school, put on by a company that specialises in coaching students in all the optimum ways that the brain learns and retains information, based on extensive research into how the most successful academic performers worldwide tend to organise their study.
As I sat through this presentation, watching these innovative methods being delivered and noticing how many parents around me seemed genuinely surprised at some of the information they were hearing, I noticed how decidedly unsurprised I was and this taught me something important about myself. Thirty years ago, long before innovative companies like this one had been dreamed of (and certainly before the young man delivering the presentation was born), I was already utilising almost all of the methods outlined in this hour-long summary of over fifty hours of coaching. Instinctively, I had capitalised on the multiple ways that the brain gathers information, utilising both hemispheres as a team; that is, incorporating data presented my means of visual, auditory and kinaesthetic methods, for instance, which creates multiple neural pathways (rather than relying on only one way in and one way out, which may well ‘give way’ or ‘jam up’ under exam stress). Without being coached by anyone, I had used every method of taking information in that was at my disposal; in short, I am one of the type of people, as studied by this company, who naturally use the whole of their brain!
This way of using the brain always struck me as being the way we were designed to function, as a species, so how come we have unlearned it and are having to pay someone to teach it to our kids?
These ‘obvious’ study methods certainly served me well as a young adult, delivering a sense of a far more complete picture, gathered through multiple sources and across many intersecting subjects, that was far more resilient under pressure, or if the questions were mixed up, than if I had just learned by rote. To me, this seemed entirely obvious, in fact I don’t recall receiving one single piece of advice from my school, ever, about ‘how to revise’. I still recall my surprise, years later, when I heard that ‘mind maps’ actually had a name and were somebody’s else’s idea as I thought they were just one of my many foibles. Innately, I just seemed to know that learning thoroughly, deeply, efficiently and wholly, required full cooperation between left and right sides of the brain, building multiple pathways to the information I would want to be able to access and release, at a moment’s notice, once I saw those exam questions.
I also seemed to innately grasp that less was definitely more; that best practice involved honing the vast amount of information I had to take in to key ‘trigger points’, to which I would attach sensory trigger releases (visual and other sensory reminders), that corresponded to nodes in the brain which would literally spew the information I needed once I delivered the password, like an open sesame kind-of nudge. In other words, recollecting the appropriate sensory cue could act like the code to a safe that would then open and release a whole lot more information than I could have held at the surface of my mind. Its an approach to experience that I’ve continued to observe in ‘real’ life (and have discussed in other other posts), as I’ve remained fascinated by the propensity for certain pieces of music or for taste and smells, for instance, to release memory ‘like you are actually back there’ (this, again, relates to my synaesthesia). It seems to me, I came into this world innately equipped to play the right and left side of my brain together, like two hands working in harmony on a piano keyboard, and the only (somewhat crucial) aspect of this study model I didn’t fully grasp at that time was the importance of building up these inter-relationships between data and sensory cues over a far longer period of time than I gave myself (as something of a last-minute student) and so I allowed a certain amount of time pressure to sneak back into the process.
Why ‘crash’ happens: innately balanced people in an out-of-balance world
So, if I ‘came in’ with this innate ability to work the two sides of my brain together in such beautiful harmony that the academic years were, relatively speaking, a doddle, where did it all go wrong in the adult years and why was my left brain ready for a long sabbatical by the time I was 35?
My right-sided attitude to ‘time’ offers a big clue to this as I’ve always struggled with the concept of it in a way that doesn’t fit easily with a modern world that marches relentlessly to its tune. A propensity to want to ignore the linearity of time and step out of its pressures, to ignore strict timetabling and avoid deadlines as if they were simply not there does not work well with the world of work and, looking back, I now see how this conflict felt like a screw that was being tightened and tightened…to bursting point…from the moment I accepted my first paid job and stepped into the considerable time-pressures of adult life. On top of that, its not hard to see how the modern world is an ever-increasing explosion of left brain over-stimulus: an onslaught of definitions and labels, interpretations and comparisons, language and numbers that suggest meaning, so much information and stimulation coming out of electronic gizmos, so many people with different agendas…and incredible amounts of culturally conditioned fear-based processing coming at you like a head on tsunami from a shockingly early age.
Faced with such a tidal wave of data, the innate ability of the brain to process this information into manageable chunks, by honing it down to certain key points of ‘what’s important’ and attaching sensory memory cues to anything that ‘might be needed later’, quickly becomes a nightmare task with inadequate pause between bursts of sensory data coming at you to engage the right sided perspective on what feels most important to hold onto. Like a neurocircuit bombarded with pain messages, the human mind that is bombarded by work pressures, finance fears and current affairs that are invariably spun to sound like we are on the brink of destruction feels far too ‘under attack’ to process information efficiently and collaboratively, using both sides of the brain as they were designed to be used, and so gets to the point where it labels everything ‘bad’ just to be sure nothing ‘threatening’ is overlooked. Yes, it tries to continue this helpful collaboration between left and right hemispheres but, really, the left gets into a groove of labeling everything ‘bad’ and the right’s only contribution is to hang a sensory reference point onto all the endless experiences coming at it, ostensibly to ‘help’ recall it later.
As such, the overwhelmed brain becomes like the ultimate hoarder, stuffing every minutest piece of data into the storage cupboards of our cells and attaching sensory cues to all of it. Drawing on the delightful world of colour and sound, music and scent, the whole gamut of sensation that is the playground of the right hemisphere, it label-tags everything you have ever experienced in the catalogue of all catalogues…until all you are left with, for a life, is a torture chamber of a world where every song and season, every nuance of the light, view and tone of voice is like a potential release button for all of the many layers of memories attached to it, many of them grounded in feelings of overwhelm, lack, hyper-analysis and outright fear. In such a person – typically the most right-brained, connections making, sensitive kind of a person – it is as though they reach a threshold where they have simply run out of good-feeling sensory labels to apply to their left brain data; everything has become associated with fear and overwhelm and the only option left is to scrub it all and start again – crash!
Almost every case of fibromyalgia that I’ve ever heard of began with a trauma event, a causal moment of heightened experience that acted like a start button for the cascading issues of a neurological circuit board gone haywire. I would actually say that the causal event is more like a ‘straw that breaks the camel’s back’ in a lifetime of trying to process too much in a world of abject over-stimulation the likes of which humanity has never experienced before and coming at us from all fronts, not least from our employers and the media. I suspect that this meltdown tends to occur at the maximum strain point of a lifetime in which that individual has probably worked tirelessly, for many years, to process a great deal of stimuli through both side of their brains in an incredibly balanced way (because innate balance is, very likely, the particular gift that they brought into the world) and then, through their over-diligence at cataloguing everything in ways that are meaningful to both hemispheres, they effectively short-circuit their own system. Ironically, my feeling is that a person coming in with a left brain dominance, or even a right brain one, might not be quite so vulnerable to the particular kind of breakdown that fibromylagia is and that it is their innate ‘balance’ that threw them out of balance, in the end.
In other words, I suspect that underlying the huge – and growing – wave of people succumbing to this kind of chronic illness is not the fact that these people have ‘something wrong’ with their wiring; rather, that their reactions to life are the measure of a world gone seriously out of balance!
A balanced brain is still considered a rarity although women are more prone to having one than men (so, is it a coincidence that more women than men develop fibromyalgia?) and a very well-known example is Einstein, whose joined-up grasp of the universe earned him the label ‘genius’. Yet I still find myself tripping upon such balance being described as a ‘problem’ that makes that individual prone to ‘mental dysfunction’ due to the complex processing – back and forth – across two hemispheres that is deemed to over-complicate matters. If this is so, why are education consultants now honing these skills and teaching them to our kids as ‘better learning practice’? My thinking is that, just as so much traversing of information across both sides of the brain opens it up to an increased risk of something going wrong, it also presents a vastly expanded field of opportunity for new connections and depths of understanding to be perceived (hence Einstein), the combined effect being to zoom us out of our limited human perspective to a viewing point that offers all new scope for the expansion of our current paradigms.
In such a disjointed world as ours, the innately well-balanced individual, who looses their footing in life, becomes the spirit-levels of themselves, their body shouting out the misalignment that is not theirs but the top heaviness of the world that we all live in. But, here’s the gift in it, as we break down and then realign ourselves, rebalancing our way back to health, we forge a new way of being that helps to realign the priorities of the whole planet as we share our experiences and demonstrate a new way, with different priorities that focus on the possibility of living in harmony and joy rather than perpetual stress. In other words, our bodies get to model a different way of being, as a species.
So begins a period of recalibration, or readjustment back to a holistic perspective that we once had as a species but somehow lost and which (when it is played out in the human body) necessitates that – in the short term – the right brain be allowed to become more dominant than it is used to and the left asked to take a step back. As the two learn to negotiate a new kind of harmony with each other, brain-fogginess ensues but this is not necessarily the problem it seems…if we allow that it is an evolutionary step, a healing, that is taking place. If we can approach the situation with patience and compassion, and without raising any additional alarm bells to those that already seem to be going off in the cells of our body that are used to the ‘old way’, as this adjustment is made, then we get to ride the transition with relative ease. Again, see how this could be a template for the way we relearn how to coexist as the inhabitants of a planet.
A phrase bandied around a great deal in relation to fibromyalgia is ‘central sensitization’ which, reduced down to basics, amounts to a body system where the reactions occurring in the person’s experience are no longer directly related, or in proportion, to any stimuli they are being subjected to ‘at the time’. They have, in effect (and this is my interpretation), become so tangled up in the sensory memory cues of previous events stored in their brain that a full, multi-layered reaction to the combined recollection of multiple memories on a similar theme occurs as soon as the that sensory trigger is released; resulting in what feels like they are experiencing all occasions of that particular kind of pain, all states of overwhelm or of panic, across all time, in one almighty over-reaction. The body’s typical response at these times (usually, articles talk only in terms of physical pain but this can include heightened emotions and a generalised feeling of all-encompassing overwhelm) is to trigger an intensity of experience and, ultimately, a state of emergency that results in a shut down of most of its ‘normal’ functioning. In other words, it claims for itself a kind-of suspension state that acts like a temporary buffer or protective cocoon that can feel like swimming in a right hemispheric sea with the left brain put on ice.
So, what if, by reverse logic, the healing of such a person amounts to the healing of all occasions of pain, trauma, misalignment, perceived separation and of fear across all time – what then? How would such a grand healing serve us as a planet?
Just as it is a close collaboration between both hemispheres that ‘got’ the individual there – to a point of complete overwhelm – in the first place (making them feel a misfit with the ‘outside’ world) it is, ultimately, a close collaboration between the two that must get them back out again. As JBT describes, it was only through the steady yet determined ‘bringing back online’ of her left brain that she was able to recover, though a small part of her longed to continue to swim in the ambient waters of right-sided expansiveness; and no less so do I… some of the time, when surrender to a place of non-judgement and such peace seems far more appealing than coming back into ‘more’ of life especially when life is, invariably, full of potential triggers.
Yet these multiple ‘times out’ have enabled me to realise just how much I love and appreciate life and how the right-sided experience of it becomes so much more in partnership with all the ingenious tools that the left hemisphere puts at its disposal. I would not be writing this post now if the two were not working in perfect harmony. The reinvention of my life that this temporary breakdown in my health has afforded me, this last decade, means that pretty much the only ‘triggers’ left are the almost constant physical pain that I am in; and that can only get better (is getting better) as greater collaboration with…and integration of… my broader self within this physical vehicle is brought about. This is my ‘work in progress’.
Choosing your own left brain
As with the recovery from any illness, there comes a point when priorities have to be considered and the desire to continue on in life, within the lives of other family members and along the life route you have drafted out, comes up for serious consideration and, at that point, a great deal of fear can come up about, potentially, going back into the state you were in at the beginning of the health crash, when things became too much for you to bear.
This is an area that JBT covers in detail and which gave rise to so much appreciation of how far I have travelled, already, along a route on which a return to ‘how things used to be’ is no longer necessary or even tenable because I have expanded too much to fit back into that box. It is perfectly possible to return to effective day-to-day use of the left side of the brain without having to reselect all of its unique ‘skill set’…and that includes things like ‘unkindness’, judgement’, ‘lack’, ‘competitiveness’, ‘over-analysis’, ‘criticism’, ‘impatience’ and yes ‘fear’. None of these qualities contributed anything to my experience of life and only kept me feeling separate and anxious. I could choose my left brain and its skill-set without choosing to reinstate these qualities; something I came to see this ever more clearly as the mists began to lift for longer and longer periods, and this ‘getting to choose’ aspect is yet another territory that JBT and I meet upon. Yes, this can take some practice but, with her help, I was reminded of the incredible neuroplasticity of our brain and how new pathways of behaviour are created just by walking along them; and leaving the ones you no longer choose to travel along to weed-over and disappear off the map!
I have also (again, like JBT) learned the powerful healing tools that are the language skills contributed by the left brain because, by using words to state intention and articulate instruction, I am able to drive the very reactions I am getting. Just the simple statement of the phrase ‘all is well’ carries the most incredible power to defuse a moment of stress and create a different outcome, most especially in the cells of the body; breaking the perpetual loop of over-reactions. Taken even wider, the healing that has come from writing a blog like this is beyond measure and I recommend it, as a process, to everyone – whether they wish to share their words with anyone else or just keep a private journal.
So what do you do about the pain; about all the things that feel like they are going wrong in fibromyalgia? Well yes, you mitigate by taking exceptionally good care of your body and you do what is called for in the moment to make it feel better. I keep mobile, every day, however I am feeling. I visualise myself feeling well (never underestimate the power of the mind to make visualisation reality) and I set intentions to feel great. I take natural anti-inflammatories such as curcumin and qercetin bromelain which help to bring all the many over-reactions in the body back under better control and hold the state of no-pain for longer so that this has time to become the new ‘norm’. I also take the best care of my body that I have ever taken in my life – great food, informed nutrition, lots of rest, total stress avoidance, a great deal of love and appreciation – whilst keeping that ‘all is well’ phrase running like a mantra through my head. It is the experience of, probably, everyone with fibromyalgia to have spent years, possibly decades, chasing after this symptom and that remedy (trying to label it, to nail it as ‘the core problem’ that must be solved)…only to find that, as soon as that avenue has been explored to near exhaustion, another ‘issue’ flags itself up. My recent instinct has been to try something different; as a result of which I now believe its no coincidence that the longest periods of wellness I have experienced have coincided with the longest spells of forgetting all about the ‘symptoms’ and just getting on with my life!
Running alongside that progress, there has been a steady movement back towards reconciliation with the left brain; I see that clearly now, as I appreciate how relatively rare those long episodes of brain fog have become and how re-engaged I have become with physical life over the past year or so…if very much on my own terms. I have sorted through my own ‘inner-stuff’ in much the same way as you might clear out the contents of a cupboard, deciding (through feelings of resonance rather than left-brained analysis) what I wish to keep and what I have no further use for; and the net result is a whole lot more space and a considerably more conscious, self-chosen, way of being that is absent of the all-consuming fears of the life I knew before. Once you have spent time in the inner-sanctum of the most expansive part of the mind, it is impossible not to bring back with you the deep knowing that, whilst you cannot control the events going on around you, you retain absolute control over the way you react to them and that there is peace to be found in every moment.
Meanwhile, the expanded awareness I now have of so many things once taken for granted, which includes all those many reactions that used to run on automatic pilot, has taught me so much including how I get to choose different this time around. What this all comes down to is taking responsibility for my own experiences, realising nothing ever happens to me, I am not the victim of circumstance, a realisation that has been key to my steady recovery and continues to be crucial to my mindset as I take this even further. I get to choose which kinds of thoughts to engage in and how to react to whatever presents in this life; that is so very key and has been the cornerstone of much of what I write about in this space as I have learned to unwrap the gifts within so many experiences, yes even the least obviously ‘positive’ ones by left brain criteria – including chronic illness.
In short, I have opted to hang onto that ‘observer seat’ (for, yes, even without going into brain fog, I can now observe emotions flood through me without investing deeply in them) as my preference over the uncomfortable old racing car bucket that I used to be strapped to. This is the practice of mindfulness that so many people go after in the belief that its application could transform their life and yet, for me, it was almost as though I fell into by accident at the start, though I now choose it as my preference. This and so many other ways that I have improved my experience of life amount to the right brain asserting its influence in ways that I choose to let it, particularly across areas of life that I used to hand over to left brain almost without question. Importantly, I now know the inner peace that I found waiting for me in my right brain can always continue to be my ‘home’ and is there waiting for me as soon as I bring my thoughts back to the present moment. I also know that, whatever presents, ‘all is well’.
Reconciliation – a return to wholeness
What JBT’s book has made me appreciate is that, not only is there a reconciliation in the making but that I want such a reconciliation to take place; that, while I am here in human form, an easy collaboration between both sides of my brain is not only necessary, it is entirely desirable – essential, even, if I am to get any closer to my potential. I acknowledge (and appreciate) my love of mental stimulation and the supremely important role it plays in my life; I also reserve the right to choose what kind of mental stimulation I wish to be party to. I also love to quiet the mind, to meditate and sink into expansiveness and, yes, I am considering yoga as part of my physical rehabilitation…but right now (following a decade tucked away from the world), I have the most fascinating, and exciting, impulse bubbling up in me that tells me I want to dance!
Will I ever forget all that I experienced when my left brain was put on ice from time to time, or will I ever forget how to be that bigger version of me or how to go to that wonderfully expansive and limitless place where, during those episodes, I was able to slip off to? No, not any more than JBT will ever go back to being the person she was before the stroke of insight that altered everything for her; there is no going back but I also suspect that integration of both perspectives will only get easier from now on, just so long as I make time for it and listen to the clues in my body that are there to tell me when to pull back from the fray and take that broader view; when I remember to pre-empt my body’s need to do this by writing pull-back time into my lifestyle rather than leaving it to my body to ‘crash’ as the ultimate signal that its overdue.
Final comment: I am not, in any way, suggesting that what I have gone through – or what any person with fibromyalgia goes through – is the same thing, physiologically, as a stoke. What I am suggesting is that there is sufficient territory in common for this to be of interest to anyone rooting around in the subject and that they both amount to something akin to a ‘system reboot’. It may be that the cross over area I’ve touched upon is even wider than that and overlaps with other territory that people find bewildering, for instance Alzheimer’s, vascular dementia, autism, Asperger’s, migraines, ADHD, even chronic shyness and introversion…(the list goes on) but I’ll leave that for others to speculate upon as its just not my area of experience. Am I an expert about fibromyalgia? Well, having lived with it – from the inside – for a decade (I believe) makes me so, even while I don’t even pretend to couch my observations in the language of a science textbook. Maybe its time for us to get real like that; to talk in the language of those who live with these conditions and discover the common areas of human experience they share. Maybe its time for us to expand our research until it grows outside of the boundaries of the convenient, yet limiting, ‘left brain’ labels we have given to all of these conditions, which only encourage us to study them in isolation, to stick to conclusions long ago drawn without questioning them – and in a typically ‘left brain way’ – forgetting to examine the much bigger picture where everything is, ultimately, connected.
Jill Bolte Taylor’s extraordinary book ‘My Stroke of Insight’ is high on my recommended reads – for anyone – and has certainly catalysed my own deeper and far-more connected understanding of what have been some extremely bewildering circumstances to live through and so I offer these personal observations in case they help catalyse anyone else’s journey towards greater clarity.