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Perceptions and Reality

". . . A man hears what he wants to hear / and disregards the rest . . ." sings Paul Simon in one of his songs.

That idea hasn’t been a stranger to me since my first class in psychology, about fifty years ago. It’s not so much a matter of believing or not believing certain things as it is selective perception of things. We are all constantly interpreting events around us (and within us) according to our prior convictions, based upon prior experiences, our hopes and our fears. The expression "leap of faith" describes vividly the effort it takes to see things in a different light. Sometimes, of course, a new picture of reality grows on us bit by bit as evidence accumulates. Then it "dawns on us" that things are not what we had previously thought they were.

A sudden awareness that causes us to re-evaluate our experiences can happen, however, without our having to "leap." Many people report epiphanies that changed their views of reality. While the term "epiphany" has been used often in spiritual terms, it comes from an ancient Greek word for "appearance." We see with rather new eyes, hear with new ears, and understand differently.

The other day I had a sharp pain in my arm. It was not a new experience—I’ve been suffering with such pain for several months, and had become discouraged about ever feeling good again. But this day it was different. I was different. And the pain felt, somehow, different. It didn’t trouble me as it had before.

I wouldn’t call it an epiphany, exactly. It wasn’t that WOW sort of thing. It was just that I recognized the difference in my own response to the same old pain. I perceived it differently.

On a cold evening last December, I opened the heavy gate across our driveway in order to get my car out. Somehow, I swung it with a twist of my wrist—and was immobilized by a piercing pain in my lower arm. After a few minutes, I managed to continue getting the car out of the garage and running a minor errand. Back home again, though, I nursed my throbbing arm with an ice pack, with little relief. I took a pain reliever before retiring for the night, but got little sleep. Over several days, it let up a little, but I could not lift anything as heavy as a coffee cup. Typing at my computer was agony after five minutes.

A couple of weeks later, something similar happened again. Just as I was beginning to recover from the first incident, I was back to the beginning. This kept up, and in February I complained to my doctor. He quickly diagnosed it as carpel tunnel syndrome and told me to wear a wrist brace at night. That didn’t help. At times my whole arm ached and I became very careful in even moving it. Brushing my teeth or pulling my pants on were major, pain-filled efforts.

In March I injured the arm once more, this time seemingly in a different group of muscles in my lower arm. I searched the Internet and found, in an Orthopedic Web site, some diagrams and descriptions that seemed to match what I was experiencing. I phoned a local physical medicine clinic and made an appointment.

The doctor seemed competent enough, but he admitted that my symptoms did not match anything in his experience. He gave me some anti-inflammatory pills and ordered x-rays of my arm, shoulder and neck. Two weeks later, he told me that the x-rays had revealed nothing except that I had some arthritis in my neck, which might be pinching a nerve running down into my arm. He offered to prescribe a series of physical therapy sessions to see if they might help. I left his office totally discouraged.

That night I became obsessed with the deterioration of my body—I’m approaching my 75th birthday. My eyesight is poor, my hearing is awful, my blood pressure is increasing in spite of four different medications, and I’m completely out of shape. I could not get a jug of milk from the refrigerator with my right hand. Driving a car is difficult and painful. I wondered if this were simply the beginning of the end.

A couple of days later, I arose to discover that I was severely dizzy and weak. My blood pressure had dropped precipitously. I remembered the different medications I’d been on, and wondered if the potassium level in my body had risen dangerously. It was a weekend, and I could not ask the doctor’s office about a recent lab test that might confirm or allay my apprehensions. On top of all my pain and my uncertainty about my health, this was too much.

I decided to stop taking one of my medications. The next day my blood pressure had come back up a little. On Monday I called the office and requested a copy of the lab report. At least I was doing something.

Then I had my first session with the physical therapist. She collected a lot of data, both verbal and physical, checking the range of motion of my limbs and the strength I could muster in all directions of my arms (some measurements were indeed painful, and duly noted). I showed her the diagrams I had collected from the Internet, and she agreed tentatively with my assessment. But she told me that she’d like to try stretching the muscles with specific exercises, the idea being that through disuse they had shrunk in length, and when called upon suddenly, as I had done with the driveway gate and at the other times of acute pain, the tendons simply objected—vigorously. After that, she said, we could try strengthening my arms to avoid the situation in the future.

So simple. I had been visualizing my arms completely atrophied and useless for life, my lifestyle transformed into total dependence upon others, being racked with pain and shorn of all reason to live. I left the session feeling as though I might after all be able to live.

The next day I reached for something in the refrigerator, and felt the sudden stabbing pain as the weight of the object pulled my arm toward the floor. I recovered it with my left hand and went on doing what I had intended. I can stand a little pain, I thought. No pain, no gain. I just need more exercise. The pain subsided a little, and I managed to visualize the muscles and tendons, stretched but not damaged, already adjusting and mending themselves after the stress.

Perception is a separate thing from reality. They may or may not coincide at times, but I can’t count on how I feel about something to tell me what’s real. I may be convinced of something, and then after a period of time it seems completely different—even when the situation itself is exactly as it was before. Perhaps it was all the touching I got during the therapy session. Perhaps it was the therapist’s air of confidence. Perhaps it was the plan—a continuing program to work on the problem—instead of "Here’s a prescription. Come back in two weeks." I felt acknowledged, and my attitude changed. Faced later with the same old pain, I saw it differently. Now it’s just a nuisance, not a death sentence.

 

Donald Skiff, April 2, 2004

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