Why Do You Doubt Your Senses?

My favorite movie is Jim Henson’s Muppets Christmas Carol.  It’s a hilarious movie with humor that’s suitable for children while also being deep enough for adults to enjoy equally.  As a family tradition, it hardly feels like Christmas without watching this movie together.

doubt your senses scroogeOne of my favorite parts of the movie occurs while Scrooge is sitting in his living room in the dark by a meager fire eating a snack.  Suddenly, Jacob and Robert Marley appear as ghosts wrapped in chains (believe it or not, I used to hide my eyes when they appeared – I was a weanie when it came to being scared by movies!…actually, I still am…).  Scrooge didn’t want to believe they were real, however.

Jacob Marley: Why do you doubt your senses?
Ebenezer Scrooge: Because a little thing can effect them. A slight disorder of the stomach can make them cheat. You may be a bit of undigested beef, a blob of mustard, a crumb of cheese. Yes. There’s more gravy than of grave about you.
Robert Marley: More gravy than of grave?
Jacob Marley: What a terrible pun. Where did you get those jokes?

Well, I feel a bit like Scrooge these days.  I have many reasons to doubt my senses.

For example, two weeks ago I was taking a shower and I thought it odd that the water spraying on my legs felt like hot knives going through me – each drop brought a searing hot pain.  When I tried to put my feet down on the shower floor (I use a shower bench so I can sit while showering), that too was “burning”.  Oddly enough, it was the first time I’d ever really questioned whether what I was feeling was real or not.  I don’t know why it took me so long to even question.

“My legs feel like they are getting burned by the water, but my arms and the rest of my body tell me the water is just warm enough to be comfortable!”  I bent down and touched the water on the floor of the shower.  Rather than being searing hot, it actually felt cool to the touch in my hands.  “Huh!” I said in disbelief, gingerly testing the water again with the heel of my right foot.  I jerked away – it “burned” again.  I tested a few more times, but my legs and hands always told different stories.

To my relief, I took a shower the evening of the day I had the first sympathetic lumbar nerve block.  For the first time in a very very long time, my legs decided warm wasn’t searing hot, and cold wasn’t dry-ice cold (the tiles on the floor outside of the shower).  Sadly, the positive changes of the nerve block only lasted a few hours, and by the next day my legs and hands again disagreed vehemently about temperatures.

Last night, I was standing to wash my dishes in the kitchen.  This task is much easier done standing, but I cannot stand for more than 5-15 minutes before the burning becomes unbearable.  My leg was a bit swollen but it wasn’t huge, yet even a little swelling in my leg makes the burning pains increase and causes it to feel like my whole leg up to my knee is going to spontaneously combust and explode.  All of a sudden, WHAM, it felt like my left heel on my foot had split open to the bone.  I staggered but caught myself and sat down in my wheelchair behind me, trying not to pass out from the incredible pain.

I knew there was NO reason for my heal to split open – my skin isn’t that weak, and my leg wasn’t that swollen; I was just washing dishes, for Pete’s sake!  I thought for a minute.  “REALLY?!!!  Are you SERIOUS?!!!”  I was annoyed.  “Should I take off my Darco boot and sock to look at it?  I’m afraid to look at it.  What if my heel really did bust open somehow?”  I held my leg on my lap, breathing through the pain.  “No.  If I look at it, I’m telling my brain something is wrong.  I mean, something IS wrong, but I know using reason and logic that my heel could NOT have just busted open or there would be a lot of blood right now.”  Another wave of pain hit, and I grit my teeth.  I kept going back and forth in my mind about whether or not I should check out my heel to see if there was a mysterious injury that matched the amount of pain I was experiencing.

A rush of anger came over me, anger directed at my left leg.  “THIS IS NOT REAL!!!!” my mind yelled at my leg.  “I am not going to give you the satisfaction of me taking off my shoe to stare at you because I know you’re not injured.  GROW UP why don’t you?  You’re just going to have to get over yourself because I’m moving on.”

And that’s what I did – I stayed in my wheelchair (no desire to walk on THAT, after all), but I tried to breathe through the pain and keep working on the dishes.

45 minutes passed, and as suddenly as the heel-splitting pain began, it ceased.  I heaved a sigh of relief with a twinge of uncertainty, knowing it could return at any moment it chose, without my permission.  Slowly, I had the sense that I’d won a battle.  Though I’d internally cussed my leg out and bullied it (not the attitude I want to take, ultimately), I had resisted the temptation to verify what I felt visually by checking my leg.  I told myself “This isn’t reality” and I moved on.  This is a good step up for me; it reflects a change in thinking, realizing that my legs, like others parts of my body, often are sending faulty signals that I need to ignore or work around.

I’m not new to ignoring and/or working around pain and faulty signals.  Because of severe visceral hypersensitivity and Small Intestine Bacterial Overgrowth, when bacteria ferment food in my intestines, my pain signals fly over the moon.  For several years I really thought I was dying a slow death; that’s what my body told me.  I do think I was dying, honestly, until I started the Specific Carbohydrate Diet which has given me a lot of relief from gut symptoms and has generally improved my health significantly.  I had to dissociate from my intestines and continue on with life as much as possible – I had to tell myself the pain wasn’t going to kill me.  Yes, the pain is REAL.  Yet I tell myself, “I know you feel like someone is stabbing knives into your intestines and there’s an alien eating your organs right now, but there is no knife in you and no alien either.”  So I validated the pain (otherwise I risked losing my sanity questioning whether it’s all in my head), then applied what I knew to be true – no knives, no aliens (it helps too that I don’t believe aliens actually exist).  🙂

paul-noth-i-want-to-see-other-hallucinations-new-yorker-cartoonI also had to take a similar approach with the years of hallucinations I suffered.  They were violent, angry and horrifying.  Stronger at night but often still active during the day.  It required lots of self-talk to convince myself that these hallucinations were not real, but eventually I learned to identify what was a hallucination and what was reality, at least most of the time.  Thank God I very rarely hallucinate anymore, since I started the Specific Carbohydrate Diet!  I now know that most of my hallucinations were tied to the physical symptoms I was having – tinnitus in my left ear became the sound of bugs buzzing in my head; paresthesias in my legs became bugs and worms crawling on me; pain in my intestines became aliens living in my gut; itching in my scalp became flies biting me; and my ability to hear high and low pitches far away brought hyper-awareness of police and emergency sirens, paranoia, and people trying to break into my house to attack me.  My mind took these physical symptoms, while I was very sick, and added a visual, tactile, auditory, and even olfactory reality to them.  My senses betrayed me in every possible way.  If I believed them, I would truly have lost my mind.  Yet I continued to live and press on each day because I put these sensations and sensory stories in their place.  It was exhausting work, but utterly necessary for survival.

Over the years I’ve had some difficulty with relationships.  I’ve had to tell myself, “What this person is saying really hurts me, but they do actually care about me and love me; they just don’t know how to express it in a way that is helpful to me.”  So I took what felt obvious to my emotional self – “this person is trying to hurt me” – and I applied what I knew to be true in my rational self – “this person isn’t actually TRYING to hurt me, they are trying to Love me, but they don’t know how to do it very well” – and act on what I knew to be true rather than what I felt was true emotionally.  This has saved some very important relationships in my life which had been almost totally destroyed before I learned these skills.

I am able to take the skills I’ve developed from fighting chronic pain, mental health issues, and even difficulties in relationships and apply them to this new situation.

Doubting our senses can be a healthy exercise which can reveal truth about ourselves, others, and the world around us.




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