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How to relax? Tension is hell on my blood pressure

February 20, 2012


It seems nearly impossible for me to physically relax. My muscles on the left side feel like they are permanently clenched, because of the spasticity after the stroke. But those on my right side feel almost as tight. The tension in my neck, shoulder, back and even scalp never seems to abate. I can’t relax and let my muscles go limp.

I can’t even remember when I last actually could relax. It’s been this way for a long time. Once in college, when I was preparing to engage in a make-out session with a guy, he felt my shoulders and said, “What’s wrong with you? Why can’t you relax?” I said that I was relaxed (although his comment didn’t encourage the state.) It was just that my muscles were always tense. Even in the most natural locations I’ve ever been to – for instance, the cabin up in the Sussex County woods that we used to rent – I was still unable to relax . I’d sit on the front porch reading Trollope, enjoying the dulcet weather, the bird calls, the rustle of the beautiful variegated greens of the surrounding foliage, unable to hear an engine anywhere, which is nigh unto impossible in New Jersey. Yet I was still unable to relax. Instead, I’d have one eye wary for the approach of bears, and be thinking about how we would have to leave at the end of the week, and were Jack and Jake okay in that canoe on the big, deep lake.

Every aspect of my upbringing taught me to anticipate the worst-case scenario in every situation, because it so often proved to be the outcome of events. I’m about to launch into several paragraphs of piteous autobiography, so you can just skip to the last paragraphs of this post if sob stories annoy you. I was raised to expect the worst from Luck, Fate, or God. My very survival was a piece of bad luck, or a punishment from God, depending on how I was supposed to interpret it. My mother had told me from my earliest memory that the strain of my year-long illness as a one-year-old had been what had ruined her relationship with my father. The volatile,furious, and co-dependent relationship between them was a continual source of fear, tension and misery for me. As a result of it, I was  raised to flinch. My father was a hitting man, although fortunately not a beating one, when it came to annoying girl-children. It only took a few hits, or punches, or thrown items, for me to develop a flinch. I originally stood my ground as a three-year-old, but that only infuriated him the more. So I came to expect that he would throw a punch, even if only half-heartedly,  when he lost his temper.

Ernie would really try to land one on me when he suddenly became infuriated The main problem was that you could never anticipate just what might provoke him. It could be the theme music of a television show playing too loudly while he was trying to nap on a Sunday afternoon (his one nap time.) It could be a look he didn’t like at a dinner side-dish or an off-hand comment between siblings that he found antagonizing, or simply being in the room with the television when his team lost… all of these could lead to a real and strong, blow My mother was scared of his physical punishment as well, so she never intervened between Daddy and the kids. (If he had really begun pummeling one of us, which he did when I was in high school? I like to think she would have stopped him from beating us.).Anyway, as a good Roman Catholic mother, she was supposed to remain hands-off. The priest at the Church had told her that the father was the head of the household, as the Pope was the head of His Church. It was not our place to question the disciplinary decisions of the head of the household. My mother was attempting to be as good a Catholic as she could, to make up for the fact that she had used contraceptives in the early 1960, when they were first introduced.

So I became a flincher. My dad would raise his arm in a certain way, and I would flinch. He learned that fact, as well, as would therefore raise his arm just to terrify me. Half the time he seemed amused to watch the reflex, so he would usually throw a punch with no intention of hitting me. He just wanted to see me scared. It seemed to buck up his spirits.The other half of the time, though, that reflex flinch would make him more furious. “What? You think I’m going to hit you? Come back here!” he’d roar, while making a lunging motion at me. Well, what do you think achild in such a situation would do? I never wanted to find out what would happen if he caught me.  I always ran away, out the door to hide in the woods around our house until he calmed down.

The threat of a blow wasn’t the only cause for expecting the worst. My parents did fight constantly. The fights consisted of my mother making a suggestion that my father found passive-aggressive. He would begin yelling, she would burst in tears and start sobbing, and then he would get even more enraged. It was terrifying to be in bed as a young child and hear your mother crying, “No, Ernie, don’t!”, and then the sound of something breaking or being smashed. You never knew what to expect. When I was five, I was awoken by my mom just as dawn was breaking, and I and the two girls – who were only one and two – were all hustled into my uncle’s car along with her, and we were all spirited away to my grandparents’ house in Boston. (Eventually, we came back to Bedminster the following year – another story – where my mother had two more babies in the space of 12 months, and then went to bed for the next ten years.)

Besides the traditional and cliched story of a bad marriage, there were always money problems. My father owned a successful pharmacy in Far Hills, in one of the regions with the highest per-capita income in the country. He was beloved by his patrons, which were numerous. But we were always broke, because my father had no idea of how to run a business or keep accounts. The cash drawers was also being pilfered by some of his most trusted employees, because he had never developed a system of tallying out at the end of a workday. How could he tell when Bill lifted a Hamilton?

With five children ten and under, the family was financially draining. Our household was perpetually broke. Luckily, the girls and I went to a Catholic school, which meant we got to wear uniforms, which are much less expensive than constantly-changing styles in street clothes. We also ate much earlier than our father, who got home from the pharmacy after 9 PM, and so could be fed economically. The dinners for the kids were primarily fried baloney, and elbow macaroni with butter. Sometimes there were canned green beans or fish sticks or oven-roasted, grayish hamburgers without buns. We knew we had no money, because my mother constantly talked about it. It contributed to her constant depression. Creditors would call our home, and, from about the age of 11, she would have me talk to them  (That was the age at which her post-natal hypothyroidism got the best of her, I now realize.) There were several “We’re going to lose the house!” mortgage scares, which I got much more involved in sorting out once I hit 15 and she had her first breakdown (right before my spinal fusion.)

My own physical problems as I was growing up also made me tense. As a result of the length of time that I’d had the tube in my trachea as an infant – a year – my throat hurt almost all the time. It felt as if the inside of it had been scarped off. This sensation got even worse when I ran, jumped or did anything that required fast breathing. Running outside on the playground when it was cold made me feel as if the inside of my throat was being torn out, literally. But once again, that’s not a disability that anyone can see, especially not a classroom of second-graders who want their team to win at kickball. I couldn’t run well, because I always ended up doubled over and coughing.  Every time teams were chosen, I was always one of the liability choices Even recess, which was supposed to be play-time! When you get to relax and have fun! was a trial. I was much happier walking with my friend Patricia, looking at the creek behind the school, or sitting on the stone steps of the church next to the school, talking about books.

What’s the point of telling this long, pathetic story? My upbringing raised a physically tense child, and I am a physically tense adult. For about thirty years, it wasn’t a problem – or so I believed. But then I developed acollagen-based auto-immune-disease, got uncontrollable high blood pressure, and had a stroke. It is imperative for me to control my blood pressure, because I want to survive to get the non-profit organized and let the world know about CPS. I can’t do that if I get sicker or keel over.

So I must relax. But I can’t relax ,because I, too, have financial problems and health problems and a myriad of tasks that I haven’t taken care of. I know that  this inability to physically relax my muscles is a large part of my high blood pressure.

My bp has been very “labile” this week, which is the word that the medical establishment uses to describe blood pressure that is all over the map on a daily basis. Mine went from 187/114 to 89/60 yesterday. I can always tell when my diastolic is high: that’s the second number of the pair, that’s supposed to measure how hard your heart is working. The “tell” is the sensation of coldness and tingling that is drawn down the left side of my face, something I’ve mentioned before. It is definitely the mark of high diastolic, because I measured it last week when this sensation was pronounced and had a reading of 136/112. Now the 136 – the systolic number – was great. But the diastolic should be between 70 and 80.Over 100 is considered a real problem.

One more thing to worry about – another stroke from blood pressure I can’t control! So I’ve been working on finding a non-pharmaceutical way to relax. Massages help a bit, but they have to be vigorous, long and repeated frequently. We have a massage table, and Jack has actually taken a course in massage therapy. (His sister Sandy got her certification in massage.) But it’s a pain to set up the table, and Jack is usually so tired in the evening that all he wants is a scotch, his easy chair and the remote.  Hot baths? As long as I can stay in the tub, I feel relaxed – but I keep on thinking about having to get out of the tub, which is nearly impossible for me, as we haven’t been able to install grab bars. I’ve been listening to hypnosis tapes that walk you through relaxing scenarios. They all start”Imagine yourself in a spot where you were very relaxed…” and, for the love of God, I can’t think of one.I have to make one up. I’ve been doing Reiki exercises that teach you to control your breathing to induce relaxation.  “Put your hands, one on the opposite side of your upper chest. Imagine that there are balloons inside your chest, and you are going to inflate them by breathing in deeply..” The balloons on the left side of my chest never seem to inflate – it’s that damn spasticity.

One method I’ve been using the past few days may seem ridiculous, but has been working. I listen to some of the music labelled “neo-psychedila;” my favorite artists are the Chemical Brothers. I put on some of their tunes and watch a very trippy music visualizer named G-Force. The visuals that the programs produces remind me of a combination of the universe-traveling that Dave (Kier Dullea) experienced in the “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite” Sequence in 2001:A Space Odyssey and the traditional mandala . Staring into the center of the mandala, without letting your attention wander, is one of the traditional methods of meditating. G-Force is designed along the same principle as the “Beyond Jupiter” and the mandala – structures emanating from a central point. Anyway, I’ve found that if I stare at this visualizer while listening to music with a trip-hop beat that I can actually lower my blood pressure. It’s not a huge amount, but it’s enough to make the cold stripe go away for a while. Perhaps it’s just a lazy person’s way of meditating.

If anybody has any other suggestions for lowering blood pressure, please let me know. I am losing weight (albeit slowly because of my drugs), I exercise when it’s safe, I meditate, I get enough sleep, I have cut almost all sodium out of my diet. The things I haven’t been able to do are reduce stress, and stop pain.  I’d at least like to cut out the stress of fearing another stroke from my high blood pressure.

[3:54 pm]  Now it is an hour later – an hour with 2 pieces of Dove semi-sweet, and five minutes of staring at a swirl screen while Swoon played, and my BP was 128/82 at the end of it. But that “cold finger stripe” down my face was still there.

That means that it is a CPS-related development. It doesn’t indicate anything about my BP at all.

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