Internal Medicine: The Necessity of Art (Part II)

 

Art in her many forms are necessary for the human spirit to prevail. The transcendence of survival, fear and necessity, even when all are depicted, is the very act of overcoming the hopelessness of mortality, humanity’s primal fear.

 

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Details “Jerusalem” by Sohei Nishino: Exhibition at SFMOMA

 

Of the many medicines of this world, art heals. The embrace of art can purge toxins from the body and psyche, lifting off the weight of darkness, the heaviness of loss and the anxiety of despair. It gives us space in the world, whether self-defined, or etched into the mind’s eye through the gaze.

 

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Detail of “Traumanauts” carting of the dead: OMCA’s Black Panthers’ Exhibit

 

Just as witnessing pain and violence leave marks that we dutifully label trauma, art illuminates the surface and reveals the interior in unique ways that are impossible to measure, yet fully possesses unmistakable corrective powers.

 

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“Not Guilty” the post-verdict reunion: Abraham Solomon, 1859: The Getty
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Registries and Other Post-Modern Curiosities

I’m curious what would happen if we create a registry for Muslims we also create a registry for all White Supremacists involved with terrorist organizations like the historic Klu Klux Klan, an organization that has terrorized Black Americans for centuries, and, not just in the South.

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Ancestral Observers: A Tableau

(Ancestors include Harriet Tubman, Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass)

Here’s a photograph of the hooded Klu Klux Klan marching down a main boulevard in Oakland, California circa 1950 from the current OMCA All the Power to the People: Black Panthers at 50 Exhibit:

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Evolving Forms of Entertainment

Thank G-d for television, Netflix, cable, video games and movie theaters. Remember when lynching Black Americans was a form of entertainment? During the days of Jim Crow law, after Emancipation, our government allowed White Americans to kill black people with impunity. Some of them even mailed photographs with family members and friends gathered around the defiled bodies, subverting decency, undermining justice and using the federal mail system to send evidence of their crimes. To be fair, some White Americans were also lynched outside of the formal judicial process, but those murders seldom involved the nudity and corporal mutilation that were common singularities of their Black counterparts.

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Lynching-photos postcards from the book Without Sanctuary

Don’t take my word for it. Learn American History. We have a complex story that needs to be examined, discussed and remembered. Otherwise, we may just repeat the same mistakes.

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                                Thank you for remembering, James Allen, Hilton Als,                                  Congressman John Lewis    and   Leon F. Litwack

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Centuries in the Making: The Legacies of New Orleans, A Retrospective

Skirting the mighty Mississippi River, a formidable body of water that enabled the trafficking of millions of Africans to her rich fertile soils, New Orleans is a city of traumatic memory, iconic history and idyllic diversity. A treasure trove of American Culture, rooted in Spanish, French, African and Native American traditions, the city compresses a rich diversity of language, food and identity demarcations into its communities. New Orleans is the ultimate Jambalaya, which over the centuries has had vast and consequential shifts of political power on a geographic territory of 350 square miles. From a large enclave of German settlers who farmed the land, and early generations of British and Irish settlers to the numerous enslaved African men and women, who generated the greatest wealth the New World has ever seen, NOLA is cosmopolitan to the core.

Sanctioned by the Catholic Church’s Pope Nicholas V, slavery gave license to white men to enslave any so-called pagans, and the ensuing trade proved prosperous to the entire world, but especially America, who continues to be a global economic leader; the slave trade gave birth to the most historically damaging and painful episode of dehumanization civilization has ever known. Like any birth, our nation’s is bloody, ugly and beautiful, simultaneously.

In the Treme, a jewel of African-American heritage and culture, and the pride of many local inhabitants, the many sides of the conflict have played out in the lives of the people impacted by the slave trade. With Spanish and French Colonial heritage, the large number of Catholics in the area, people of every color, is explained. St. Augustine, a popular tourist destination because the congregation of free blacks sponsored pews so that enslaved blacks could sit and worship, and where forgotten souls of Africans who perished under slavery’s iron fists have a memorial resting place in the courtyard aptly named, The Tomb of the Unknown Slave, made it one of the most integrated congregations in the city, but today seems haunted by the weight of years.

Around the corner from the shrine is Sister Delille Street, a street named after a black, creole woman famous for purchasing her own freedom and working tirelessly to help the sick and infirm, and who also just happened to own slaves. A short distance from the church, to the elation of thousands, is Louis Armstrong Park, which celebrates the immeasurable contributions of African Americans to the creation of a myriad of musical legacies and wherein sits the legendary Congo Square. New Orleans is not to be taken lightly. Its history is seeped into every corner if one has the eyes to see it.

From the shameful inheritance of slavery, a fierce resistance and tenacity is steeped in the people. Long-suffering under torture and from fractured psyches, the descendants Africans have birthed a relentless ingenuity, musical elation, spiritual triumph and American Culture at its best. Yet, the roots of slavery extend far into the Deep South and deeper still into the hearts of Americans today, 150 after the Civil War and over 60 years since the start of the Civil Rights Movements with its modern day manifestation in the Black Lives Matter Movement; we are a nation profoundly conflicted over our own history, grappling with a conscience that cannot rest easy, that is too effortlessly transmuted into hatred and violence. Over the loss and memory of chattel slavery, too many speak too softly or not at all. None of this is as readily felt as in places like New Orleans, where the legacy of slavery manifests as its closest descendant: Institutionalized Systemic Racism. Insidious, overt and entrenched, the legacy of slavery can best be witnessed in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans. Historically populated by a 98% black community, the Ninth Ward is still in a state of devastation 11 years after Hurricane Katrina. As the swamp and river reclaim the land, it’s our duty to remember that many of the displaced inhabitants wish to return to their homes. As witness to our collective amnesia, I dedicate this post to the residents of the Ninth Ward.

Manifesto of Pain: Winding Down a Season of Trauma

I was wondering why I had one outbreak after another for five weeks. I couldn’t seem to stop them. Every time I thought I was well, a new rash developed. As a result, I wasn’t sleeping properly because of the constant pain I was experiencing. Another interesting detail I noticed, and could not initially interpret, was the odor of my body. I found it acrid, even after a shower. I believe that cortisol and adrenaline were to blame. Like an injured animal, I was in high-stress alert. Stress was prolonging my shingles, causing me more pain. Here’s what I now understand:

Real pain needs real medicine.

It is time to take a look at the body’s Central Nervous System (CNS). Our bodies have a dual nervous system, the CNS and the PNS or Peripheral Nervous System. The Chickenpox virus lives in the spinal cord, the CNS. The rash itself attacks along the PNS on the body and skin. Neuralgia, associated with shingles is a consequence of nerve damage on the PNS. The PNS system contains the nerve cells that travel to the CNS. Nerve cells, unfortunately have a kind of binary functionality; they’re either on for off. After weeks of being on, nerve cells may no longer know how to shut off. In a sense, they atrophy in an “on” position, which is why a very common side effect of shingles is the chronic pain caused by nerve damage, known as neuralgia. Some unfortunate souls experience neuralgia for upwards of six months post-shingles! Poor dears.

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It was only while talking to a friend of mine who lives with chronic pain that I understood that my pain had not been addressed by my medical provider. Even though the doctor herself told me to expect pain, she never prescribed a pain medication beyond Motrin, and even with Motrin, I was not prescribed the maximum dose available. My gynecologist gives me a higher dose of Motrin for menstrual cramps. At any rate, after trying to “bite through a nail” for another week, I crawled back to the doctor, balled myself up on the examination table, and wept openly. I managed to finally get the lowest dose of Vicodine available. It didn’t help much, but I stopped sweating. My offensive B.O.? Gone by morning! Also, the doctor doubled my dose a day later. I finally slept the entire night. The next day, I had a smile on a face. I knew my body could finally begin the healing process.

 

I’m fascinated that while in my doctor’s office, writhing in pain, she was trying to give me antibiotics. Surely I had something else, she thought. This was not a normal shingles outbreak. Well, what if one’s skin is brown and one has had about four consecutive outbreaks in a five-week period? How will that look? Through my pain I had the presence of mind to reject the antibiotics, which were in part responsible for my weakened immune system, leading to my original outbreak. At home, while awake in the early morning hours, I looked at pictures of shingles rash. They, in fact, looked exactly like what I had, only on brown skin, no big surprises. But, was my skin color playing a leading role in my treatment? I think so. An additional powerful realization of how lucky I really am, knowing things were bad for me, was seeing that I’ve had a relatively mild case of shingles. My heart goes out to people who are suffering with severe cases. That pain must be unforgiving. I pray that those people had proper opiate pain medicine. I’m convinced that untreated pain will prolong shingles. This is a compounded travesty. Let no one who reads this allow anyone you know to go without the appropriate pain medicine during shingles.

 

I have had some comforts, one of which is laugh therapy—did you even know that there’s such a thing as Humor Therapy? Well there you have it. We all need a good friend, or ten, to make us laugh, let us cry and miss us when we’re down and out. One friend in particular has seen me through this crisis with sheer exuberance. Somehow, just at the moment when we are both about to cry, Robyn will say something that brings tears of laughter to my face, sending me running to the bathroom to void my bladder and avoid an accident. I don’t know how we manage it, but this unexpected joy has brought me back from the brink of darkness numerous times over the past five weeks. I know it has been the same for her. Even when we are laughing at ourselves, we look through a lens of compassion, understanding and childishness, touching the innocence in ourselves. We get silly people! And, it heals us deep down where the hurt curls itself up. Laughter is one of the few ways I know to naturally get high, elevate your mood, and stay in your body.

 

 

I don’t have all the answers or even fully understand this episode in my life, yet. What I do know is that talking to friends has helped. They have led me to alternative care. Their advice has translated into self-advocacy. Friends have driven me to the doctor’s office. Friends have let me cry when I couldn’t hold back the tears any longer. Friends have made me laugh my head off. Mostly, I don’t feel alone in my suffering. This has changed everything. I know I can’t rush ahead blindly. I must be mindful and manage my stress, avoiding extremes. I get to start over. Tea, anyone?

 

Gleanings from a Shingles Bell-Jar

This week marks my fourth week battling Shingles. It is now officially a saga. What can I do now that the pain has moved beyond what Motrin can control? I am beside myself with pain—literally; I’m like an alien unto myself, watching myself wriggling beneath a glass. I don’t recognize this body anymore. This new level of pain, discomfort and sensation is almost more traumatic than Shingles itself.

After two weeks, I felt that I had sufficiently recovered to claim that I had overcome my ordeal, surviving all the worse that Shingles has to offer. That is when my second outbreak began. All of the healed areas were once again under siege. A new level of sensation has taken hold; torture owns my body. Itching, biting, and walking creatures move along the flesh of my chest and march beneath my arm at will. This can’t be real, I tell myself, but it is. My face muscles convulse; my eyelids—the tops and bottoms on both sides—twitch and pulse. My fingers go numb, and a star of pain ignites in the center of my back, exploding into emptiness. I cancel plans. Buckle down for another term. My sadness, resignation and grief at my emotional and physical distress are overwhelming.

When this all started, with my usual optimism, I decided that everything would work out fine because it was the beginning of my spring break, and at least, I could stay home and convalesce, and perhaps with some luck, party the last weekend before school. This is the story I told myself. This is the presence of mind I embraced. What a ridiculous fantasy. I urged my partner to go on vacation without me because there was no way I could do anything, go anywhere or see anyone. I have had to remain inside and sit with my pain. I maxed out on Motrin, going to the edge of the daily dose, reeling with pain at the end of the it; watching the seconds tick by waiting for the next capsule. I even tried to dull the pain with alcohol, but the beast will not be lulled by bottled trifles. I must ride this wave. I have no choice. I have to go on.

This is the new trauma of this illness.

The pain overwhelms me and my body coils in on itself like an angry snake. As I catch my breath, my eyes drown in tears. I can’t believe that I’m here—still—again! I’m not sleeping, because the pain is more intense at night. My teeth feel like they will crack from clenching of my jaw against the pain, and my head throbs with the pressure. I don’t understand what’s happening, but my body temperature drops, giving me chills and covering my body in thick sweat; the pain rises in waves all through the night. I wake depressed, but I put on a brave face. After all, I am a warrior. I am a survivor. I can handle this.

I cannot.

I am flooded with heaviness and the weighty tenderness of a body deprived of rest and fed on a sleepless night of torment. I begin to sob in agony. I am home alone; I can weep with abandon and no one will hear me. This is the problem. I am so alone with my pain. Depression has moved in and is finding the ground fertile. I miss my friends. I miss hugging people. I miss running around with the beautiful children in my life. I miss the amorous touch of my lover. I am an alien in this body. I reach out to friends—over the phone. Please make me laugh or forget. It is little consolation. I yearn to be well again, whole and pain-free.

This is trauma, emotional and physical trauma yet it does not compare to other traumas. To me, Shingles is a stern teacher. I must forgive her. Even if I don’t like the lesson, mastery is required. The imposed isolation and the loss of the vibrancy with which I customarily live are more than enough to crush me. I don’t have much to give, because just putting on a shirt feels like an accomplishment. But what I have learned is that people are precious. I don’t think I’ve ever taken this for granted, but now it’s even clearer. I can’t wait to hug people without flinching. Screaming babies will be no obstacle to quality time. I’m looking forward to spending more time with people. I know I’m not the only one affected by this disease. As a community, our lives have been altered.

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On my way back and down from the crest of the curve, I am aware of how steep and sharp the descent is, no less perilous than any other journey of the human spirit. I hope to understand more about myself as I emerge from this dark night of pain. Like one of Millet’s peasants, out of sheer desperation, I am gleaning the earth for sustenance. I plumb my soul in search of the Edissa I’m becoming, holding my hand up to the glass in an awkward greeting. I see me there, and wonder, Who will be left from this fire? Will I know her?