Airports, airplanes, and neuroplasticity.

    When I wrote my last post, I told a story about how much I hate flying, and how that changed when I recently flew back East to surprise my niece and nephew. I developed my aversion to flying during 2010, when I kept flying back and forth from Denver to Pittsburgh to help support my parents during the last year of their life as they were battling the end stages of the same disease.

    During that time, I was happy to be able to be with them, and give them the help and support they needed. However, each trip took a little bit more out of me as I watched them go through the process of dying. At the Denver airport, I had no idea what awaited me at the other end. At the Pittsburgh airport, I would have major anxiety over leaving them and worry if I had passed on all of the pertinent information to the next sister on deck. It’s not like we didn’t all have cell phones on high alert as well as each other on speed dial, but I still worried endlessly. To further complicate matters, I am self employed, and the possibility of losing my business was quickly becoming a reality. No wonder why I hate flying.
    However, during my recent trip to Pittsburgh, my intense aversion to flying slowly changed over the course of a few days. Somehow, my nervous system remembered a “feel good” quality triggered by flying home for a fun visit, a party and a whirlwind of activities, much like I did before my parents became ill. This wasn’t something I experienced in a cognitive way, but more as a vague sensation of anticipation and well being. That pleasant sensation stayed with me during the weekend and was gently reinforced with each positive experience.

    The plasticity of my nervous system was able to interrupt the pattern of stress, grief, loss and worry and allow for a new pattern to emerge. Actually, the “new” pattern was one of anxiety related flying and had only been reinforced over the past two years. The synaptic connections were not as strong as the previous ones that I had related to flying, and therefore were more malleable and receptive to allow for change to occur. What I experienced was an emotional neuroplasticity. The change was gradual and subtle, but it was there.
    The point is, our nervous system is always “listening” and readily available to change and learn new patterns of feeling, sensing, thinking and moving. The science of neuroplasticity is not a highly complicated subject limited only for the neuroscientists to explore; in reality it is far more simple than that and is accessable for all of us to understand. I like to call it “the simplicity of plasticity”. Trust the intelligence of your nervous system. It knows what to do, but sometimes we just have to get out of it’s way.

Be healthy!
Cheryl Ilov, PT, GCFP

Leaving….on a jet plane…..

    I hate to fly. The entire process of going to the airport, going through security, getting on the train, waiting at the gate, and sitting immobilized in those ridiculous seats for hours on end makes me crazy. The overwhelming press of humanity unnerves me. Once you finally land, you get to anxiously wait for your bag to appear at baggage claim and hope that it didn’t inadvertently land in another city. Then you get to repeat the sequence to return home, exhausted and jet lagged.

    I suppose wouldn’t mind flying so much if I got to go somewhere fun, or have a relaxing vacation. I haven’t had a vacation in over five years. I’m probably about due for one, or at least the chance to do something fun, spontaneous, and memorable. And then last weekend I did just that. After a hurried collaboration with my sister, I made the arrangements to surprise my niece for her eleventh birthday, even if it meant getting on a plane. I figured I could deal with it for the reward of seeing my niece and nephew, and the opportunity to surprise them. Who doesn’t love surprises?

    I was excited to go, but dreaded the idea of flying. However, something funny happened on the way to the airport. I was in a good mood. The process of going through the airport wasn’t as unnerving as it usually is for me. I even winked at the TSA agent before I could stop myself. Thank goodness there were no repercussions for that little indiscretion. The flight was on time, the seats weren’t as uncomfortable as I remember, the bags were promptly at the carousel when I landed, and before I knew it I was sitting in my sister’s car.

    I didn’t get to see my niece until the next day after my sister picked her and my nephew up from summer camp. The reaction from both my niece and nephew was immensely gratifying; we all cried. I guess they love me and miss me as much as I love and miss them. Although if I had known in advance that my sister was going to record it and post it on Facebook, I probably would have fixed my hair and make up. Oh, well.

    The next day and a half was a whirlwind of fun and activities, including a big party, girl time, and serious shopping. I got to see another sister and two more nieces. I had so much fun I was still in a good mood when I went to the airport yesterday. Here I am, exhausted, jet lagged and deliriously happy. It appears that the kids weren’t the only ones who got a surprise. I’m surprised that I just can’t wait to go to the airport and get back on a plane again. I had forgotten how much fun flying could be. Isn’t it funny how things change?

Cheryl Ilov, PT, GCFP

Ski Dad. Having fun and making memories.

  My Dad sure could ski. He discovered skiing when he was in his late thirties. He always loved the cold and snow, so dancing on the slopes was a natural fit for him. He taught me and my sisters how to ski when I was nine years old. As a member of the National Ski Patrol, his entire family could ski free. Pretty handy, since he had four kids at the time. Number five was still just a hope, a promise, and a twinkle in his eye.

    We went skiing as a family. My Mom hated the cold and the snow as much as my Dad loved it, but my Dad helped her battle the cold by introducing her to hot spiced wine. She would come along, rub our feet and warm our clothes by the huge fireplace by the picture window when we came in for a break. She also had an enormous bag of food for us as well. We occasionally invited friends to go along with us, and several times my parents even arranged to take busloads of kids up to the slopes for the day. Goodness, they were brave! I have dozens of funny stories from those trips.

    My older sisters didn’t take to the slopes quite like I did, and pretty soon gave it up. Eventually my Mom stopped coming along as well. There were a lot of times it was just me and my Dad heading to the slopes. I loved having time alone with him, and I certainly enjoyed the quiet in the car without the chatter of the rest of the family. I also loved the peaceful solitude of skiing alone while my Dad performed his duties of the Ski Patrol. But before long, the car was full again, and this time I was skiing with my younger sisters. Mom was back in her spot at the fireplace, warming toes and handing out sandwiches.

    After I graduated college, I moved to Colorado where the ski season can last from October to June. For thirty years my Dad and I explored the ski resorts of Colorado, but our favorite spot was Copper Mountain Resort. Sometimes we had a small entourage of friends and family. Some years it was just me, my Dad and my husband. It didn’t matter who was with us or where we went; we always had a fantastic time, and always came back with a lot of great memories as well as incredibly funny stories. My favorite is the “year of the butterscotch schnapps”, but I’ll save that for another time. All I will say is thank goodness there was a shuttle bus to take us back to our condo.

    I quit skiing after my Dad stopped coming out, but I picked it back up again when my youngest sister brought her two kids out to ski. It was a family affair all over again, creating lasting memories and having a wonderful time together. My father gave us all so much more than the gift of skiing. He gave us the gift of life long memories, stories, and a family tradition than is being passed on to another generation.

   I just know my Dad is dancing down the slopes of Heaven. And every day the conditions are fantastic. In the lodge, sitting by the fireplace with a book and a glass of hot spiced wine, is my mother, patiently waiting for my father to come inside.

Be healthy!
Cheryl Ilov, PT, GCFP

Sew what???

    It’s hard to believe that I once was a pretty good seamstress. As a teenager, one of my sisters and I made all of our own clothes. And they were beautiful. Our clothes were not home made, they were hand made. There is a difference. Not only did we make our own clothes, but we made them for the entire family. From play clothes, school clothes, Sunday clothes and formal wear, we made them all. We even made our Mom’s maternity clothes when she was expecting our youngest sister, but that’s another story in itself.  

    My mother helped us with our sewing. She wasn’t a seamstress, but she was meticulous about the handwork, finishing, and all of the details that would otherwise slow us down. Between the three of us, we had a regular conveyor belt going in our dining room. In a matter of hours we could turn a few pieces of cloth into several outfits ready to wear the next day. Trips to the fabric store was a lark. It was great fun for us, but we often left the salesclerks exhausted by the time we left the store.

    I continued to sew after I left home, but it just wasn’t nearly as much fun, or as fast. Eventually I stopped sewing altogether, even though I kept my machine. I haven’t used it for over thirty years, but at least I remember where I put it. Recently I thought about my machine when I met with one of my colleagues. She had beautiful fabric covers for her foam rollers and pads. I asked her where she got them and she said those three magic words, “I made them.”

   Hmmm….that got me thinking. Maybe I could pull out the old Singer and see if I still had it in me. After all, how hard could a few straight seams be for someone who used to make her own prom gowns? Still, I felt a little intimidated and overwhelmed. How would I know what to do? I can’t even remember the last time I was in a fabric store. Maybe I could just stop in Joann’s and take a look around.

    Once I got to Joann’s I almost turned around and left, but I accidentally made eye contact with one of the employees, who felt compelled to point me in the right direction. I found a beautiful soft fleece that I thought would work. So far so good, until I got to the cutting table. The young lady wanted to know how much fabric I needed. Since I didn’t have a clue, I made up a number, and ten yards sounded about right. It seemed like a lot, but what did I know?

    I got home and stared at the heavy pile of pretty blue fabric. Now what? Oh, yes, I should wash it. Easy enough. While the fabric was in the laundry, I pulled out my sewing machine. For someone who used to be responsible for life support equipment, I sure was perplexed by a simple sewing machine. The Singer and I spent a few minutes eye balling each other until I finally took charge. It took several attempts, but I finally threaded the machine. I think I even did it correctly until I realized I forgot about the bobbin. How do I wind a bobbin? I thought about calling my sister for help, but I put on my big girl pants and figured it out on my own.

    Before I knew it, I was cutting fabric, pinning seams together and being serenaded by the familiar (but long forgotten) whirrr of my sewing machine. I felt the satisfaction of completing each project as well as the frustration of making silly mistakes and pulling out the seam ripper to start over again. Eventually, I had soft, beautiful covers for all of my rollers and some of my pads, even though I still have a few more to make.

    Honestly, it felt good to get back in the saddle again, or at least at the pedal of my Singer. I guess it’s a lot like riding a bike….once you do it, you never forget. Now that I got a little bit of self confidence back, I am happy to report that I can walk into Joann’s without breaking out in a cold sweat. When my clients ask me where I got my pretty covers, I modestly tell them, “I made them.” I am wondering what other simple projects I can do, because I really did have fun. But the truth is, it’s just not the same without my Mom and my sister beside me.     

Be healthy!
Cheryl Ilov, PT, GCFP

The Gateway to Storyland….

    When I was a little girl, my favorite book of all times was “The Gateway to Storyland.” It was full of wonderful (and frightening) stories that captured my heart and my imagination. The book was one of the many presents that Santa Claus gave me and my sisters for Christmas when I was two years old. I loved that book. Of course, my favorite story was “The Sugar Plum Tree.” I can still recite that poem by heart, which I think is pretty remarkable, since most of the time I can’t remember what I had for breakfast or if I locked the front door. I still have the book, and it is the most treasured possession that I have from my childhood. I have kept it in a special place in a dresser drawer for years.

    A few days ago, I was reminded of the story book when I saw a rabbit in my garden eating my lettuce. I immediately thought about Peter Rabbit, but had forgotten the details of his little misadventure. I went to get my book and refresh my memory. It wasn’t there. I stared at the empty space where my book was supposed to be. I must have put it in a different drawer. I went through all of the dresser drawers. No luck. I felt the beginnings of a panic attack coming on. Where was my book? I calmed myself down and went through all of the drawers again. Nothing. Maybe it was in the closet. Nope. Then I remembered that I had been de-cluttering over the past year and I had put the book in another spot. I just couldn’t remember where.

    I went downstairs and rummaged through the bookcase. Not there. Where in the world could I have put it? And then a horrible thought crossed my mind. Could I have accidentally given my precious book  away during one of my de-cluttering frenzies? I fought back tears as I thought about my book being gone forever. Certainly, I could look up the stories on wickipedia. I might even be able to find another copy somewhere. But it wouldn’t be the same. Santa Claus himself  had neatly written our names in the book as well as the year he gave it to us. I frantically tore through the house looking for that book, but it was nowhere to be found.

    Sweaty and exhausted, I had to accept the fact that my book was gone. Maybe I did give it away and it found a new home where it was loved and appreciated. Probably not; the book was in such terrible shape that it probably ended up in a trash pile. Thinking about my book being tossed aside like an old shoe was the final straw that brought me to tears. I took a few minutes to pull myself together and then  meticulously began searching again. One anxiety filled hour later, I found my beloved book downstairs neatly tucked away between my anatomy and physiology textbooks. Good grief, what was I thinking when I put it there?

    I was so relieved that I hugged the tattered book to my chest. I was so exhausted that couldn’t look at the stories and the enticing illustrations, but I did return it to it’s place of honor in the top drawer of my dresser where I could see it every day. I admired my beautiful book as I tenderly laid it back in it’s place. The front cover is cracked, the back cover is missing, and the spine is held together with masking tape that my mother put there sometime in the 1970’s. But to my eyes, it is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen, and the most compelling piece of literary genius I have ever experienced. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. And, no, you can’t tell a book by it’s cover.

    But you can go back to a magical place where gifted storytellers use the imagination and curiosity of a child to teach important life’s lessons. To where a big bad wolf cannot blow your house down, as long as you build it with strong, sturdy walls. And where a little red hen bakes bread, but it takes a lot of work and effort. And somewhere in a harbor there is a magic tree that grows candy and is guarded by a chocolate cat and a gingerbread dog.  The truth is, those stories and memories are so deep within my memory and my heart that I’ll never forget them. But I sure am glad I found my book.  Finally, just in case you are wondering, “The Gateway to Storyland” is still my favorite book of all times!

Be healthy!
Cheryl Ilov, PT, GCFP