Talk to Your Kids About What Ouija Boards Do

I was in Target looking for a birthday present.  “Does your friend like games?” I asked my daughter.   I wasn’t seeing much in the way of horse things, which the friend definitely likes.

“I think so,” she said.

The trouble with games is that you don’t know which ones the birthday girl already has at home.  I scanned the shelves looking for something new enough that it was unlikely the friend already had one.  What I saw was this:

Ouija Board for sale at Target - "Stranger Things" edition

Well. There’s a game I don’t care to discuss.  “Go find your sisters and tell them we’re heading to the craft store.”

I snapped a photo (so yes, the Ouija board pictured above was on sale at your local Bible Belt Target store on Saturday 11/18/2017), and then we left and went to the craft store and found a book about how to draw horses, done.

The Trouble with Ouija Boards

Here’s the thing your children need to know: If you ask for supernatural assistance, you may well get it.

Supernatural can be good.  You can ask your guardian angel to watch over you in particular way (“Keep me from spending too much time on Facebook, please!”).  You can ask saints to pray for you.  You can of course ask God for everything you need — something you’ve been specifically instructed to do.

But the idea that there are only good supernatural beings is foolish.

Let’s look at this from a not-specifically Christian viewpoint.  Many people who don’t belong to any particular faith still recognize that there exists some kind of spiritual world, some kind of spiritual power.  You might not be someone who can say with confidence “God is like this _____” or “When you die, this _______ is what happens.”  And yet you have been around enough that you’ve come to recognize there is more to this life than what meets the eye.

The other thing you know is that, here in the realm of what-does-meet-the-eye, both good and evil exist.  Yes, people are complicated.  Maybe you don’t have a clear idea of how to draw lines between “good” and “bad” in some of the mixed-up situations you encounter in daily life.  And yet you can definitely recognize that there are things people do that are totally, beautifully, heroically good; you also can name a few things people have done that are unmistakeably evil.

In the spiritual world there are good and evil as well.

When you pray, presumably you are asking for good spiritual assistance.  Even if you aren’t sure exactly who you are praying too, or what kind of help you can hope to receive, you are probably not wishing to have evil visited upon you.  That connection you feel with something bigger than yourself is presumably leading you to look for peace, joy, and goodness in your spiritual life.

(If you go around openly asking for evil — for assistance doing bad things, or for bad things to happen to you or to others, well . . . #1 knock it off and #2 you are proving my point.)

A Ouija board is not a tool for seeking only good.  You may have good intentions, but the reality is that when you play around with the board, what you are doing is laying out an open invitation to whatever supernatural agent wants to come your way.

If you want only good in your life, skip the board.  Ask for what you really want, don’t send out the “Hey, whatever you want to do to me is just fine, you unknown mixed bag of good and evil supernatural persons!”  Would you make that offer to total strangers on the subway?  No you wouldn’t.  Don’t make that offer to the supernatural world either.

Avoid the board.  Be choosy about the kind of spiritual connections you ask for.  Seek out the good that you (rightly) long for.  It’s okay to pray even when you aren’t good at praying or don’t have a church or don’t have all the answers.

It’s okay to pray to God that your departed loved ones be in a good and happy place.  It’s okay to tell God that you are consumed by sorrow and grief, and you are so lonely without the company of the person you loved so much.  It’s okay to beg for help in dealing with the horrible situation that has you so overwhelmed you don’t even know how to get up in the morning — but always, always, always ask explicitly for good help.

You don’t need more evil in your life.

Ditch the board.

***

Related Links

For my Christian friends, here are a few quick links that may be helpful:

FYI I’ve asked around among my reliably Catholic friends who watch Stranger Things.  The consensus is that the show does not contain nor promote occult practices.  It may or may not be something you want to be watching, but the connection between the show and the promoting of the Ouija board is spurious.  (Someone compared it to existence of Lord of the Rings Tarot cards. There is absolutely nothing in Tolkien favorable to the occult . . . but people will sell you whatever the heck you’re willing to buy.)

Advent, Christmas, and Your Child’s Vocation

It’s time for the Advent Wars to flare up again here at the Fitz castle.  I think I’ve found my solution, and it’s related to my latest at the Register and a new book out by Suzan & Eric Sammons.

Let’s start over at NCR: 11 Ways to Prepare Your Boy to Be a Great Priest.  I’m pretty sure that post is now officially the most popular thing I’ve ever written.*  To clarify and provide related links, at the blorg I put together a compendium: Evangelization and Discipleship for the Boys & Girls Who Live At Your House. With that as a preface, here’s how my solution to the Advent Wars fits into my approach to fostering vocations in my kids.

There are 12 Days of Christmas, and They Don’t Start Until December 25th

The annual battle concerns when to put up the Christmas tree and how to decorate it.  The mother resides in the Advent Austerity camp.  The more closely we imitate the lodgings of St. John the Baptist the better, right?  The children, led by the Eldest Daughter, would be perfectly happy to have Rudolph on the Roof beginning November 1.  In years past children have literally sneaked the fake Christmas tree out of the attic while I was sleeping and set it up in the living room in total silence.  This might be the one thing they manage to accomplish without any bickering whatsoever, so I count my blessings and offer it up.

But this year things will be different.

This year, Suzan Sammons put into my hands a review copy of her new book The Jesse Tree: An Advent Devotion.  I like it.  There’s a chart that shows you how to get all your ornaments up during Advent, no matter how weird of a liturgical year we’re having.  The sample ornaments in the book are crazy simple.  The daily suggested reflection and prayer hits the spot without overwhelming.  It’s like this book was written by a couple Christian parents with a pile of kids.   I recommend this book.

The Jesse Tree

Also you longtime readers know me: I’m not doing no Jesse Tree.  Sheesh.  Who are we kidding?

But you know who can do a Jesse Tree?  My crafty Christmas-crazy kids, that’s who.  So the new deal is this:

  • IF children want to do the Jesse Tree . . .
  • AND the teenagers who now have drivers licenses agree to do all the craft supply shopping . . .
  • AND the teenager who tends to hog craft projects solemnly promises to let her little sisters have a fair share of the ornament-making work . . .
  • AND the 11-year-old who best succeeds at daily routines and pestering us all into responsible family behavior and who happens to be a great Junior Lector agrees to host the Jesse Tree prayer time each evening . . .

THEN parents will fund the ornament budget and let children put the tree up before Advent begins, FOR ADVENT ORNAMENTS ONLY.

That’s my solution.

How does this fit in with my vocations post at the Register?  I’m so glad you asked.

Kids need to own their faith.

There are a bazillion ways to be Catholic, and kids need to figure out for themselves which devotions and prayers and disciplines are made for the type of people that they are.  If God fills you with a passion for Pinterest projects, you should run with it.  My eldest daughter has long been certain she has a vocation to marriage, and I don’t disagree.  The homemaking side of holy day observances is part of such a vocation.  So why shouldn’t she practice it?

If I do everything for my kids, they’ll never learn how to do things themselves. That’s true of laundry, cooking, homework — and it’s true of their faith.  You have to give kids chances to practice being Catholic, all on their own.  Now that two of my kids can drive?  I totally let the kids go to whatever Sunday Mass they want, regardless of when the parents are attending.

It is really important that kids know down to their bones that the faith is something they do, not something they only do with their parents.  They have to practice showing up at church alone so that it feels normal and natural for them to wake up on a Sunday and get in the car and drive to Mass someplace.   I don’t mean you’re a bad parent if your whole family gets in the car and goes to Mass together every week.  I mean that we parents need to look for ways — and this Jesse Tree thing is an example — that happen to be good ways, given your own family life, for your kids to practice taking charge of their faith.

You’re still the parent.  They aren’t totally spun off on their own yet.  But if you see some good opportunity for a kid in your family to do a thing he or she naturally wants to do and that provides that chance to take the lead on the faith, let the kid have at it.

Related Links, Starting with Crafts:

  1. My friend Sandra pointed me towards Ginger Snap Crafts, where you can find instructions for wood slice ornaments and for snowflake ornaments among many others.  You could switch out the snowflakes for Jesse Tree symbols. The wood grain nativity set was what originally caught her eye – don’t use treated lumber if you want your preschooler to be able to build Bethlelem with it.
  2. You do know about Catholic Icing, right?

From Advents Past:

5 Ways to Give Your Family a Peaceful Advent

Well Hello, Advent.  We Meet Again.

5 Reasons Slacker Catholics Do Advent Best – #2 Will Shock You

5 Ways We Keep Christ in Christmas at Our House

I don’t know why all the lists come in fives.

Two New Holiday Movies & a Grammar Lesson:

Dickens, Scrooge, and the Road to Redemption: A Review of “The Man Who Invented Christmas” – Reviewed by Tony Rossi

“The Star”: Hijinks and Holiness Make a Fun Christmas Story for the Family.  The handful of Catholic writers I’ve talked to who’ve seen the preview have loved it — and some of them are quite prickly about Hollywood getting hold of Bible stories.  So scout around for reviews if you’re not certain.

How to Make Your Last Name Plural This Holiday Season Because you love America and Tiny Tim and don’t want a reindeer to have to die each time you abuse an apostrophe.

Who is that Eric Sammons Guy?

It turns out he writes good books.

And did you notice how beautifully edited those two books were? I did.  It was Suzan Sammons we have to thank for that, in case you’re ever looking for a good copy-editor.

And finish to the round up . . .

The Top Three Things I’m Most Glad I Added to My Holiday Season

These have stood the test of time.  They are my go-to holiday things.  Now you look around and find your holiday things.  Happy Advent Wars!

 

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Image by Xavier Romero-Frias (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

 

 

*Correction: As of mid-morning, How to Avoid Becoming a Bitter Catholic still had the lead in total shares.  Look at them both and vote with your sharing buttons!

Miracle from Mont Sainte Odile

This is a story from the last day of the Epic Vacation, and about a subsequent miracle that happened the week after, and my cat.  It comes up now because a friend of mine could use an eyesight miracle, so if you’d kindly pause and say a St. Odile Pray for Us, I’d be most grateful. Thanks!  Now for the touring+miracle story.

 

The kids and I had planned to visit Mont Sainte Odile while we were staying out in the village on the first leg of our trip.  The monastery is not far from the concentration camp, so the obvious plan was to visit one site in the morning and one site in the afternoon.  That plan, like many of our epic plans, was thwarted by our persistent difficulty in getting out the door early each day.   We left Alsace for the first time having neglected her patron saint.

After a week in Chamonix and a few days around Paris, we returned to Alsace to stay in downtown Strasbourg.  I decided to hang onto the rental car since the marginal cost was relatively low and I wanted to keep our options open.  For the last full day of the trip, the kids voted that we take one more adventure in the countryside and go see that monastery after all.

 

Here’s the tomb of Ste. Odile, where I asked for her intercession on a variety of concerns, not least of which that I would like very much to return again to Alsace, thanks.

Here’s the ancient chapel in the monastery where my children stood before the crucifix bickering with each other.  There’s a door from here into the main chapel where we could hear holy people next door praying the Mass (we’d arrived mid-Mass and chosen not to interrupt).

In the monastery gift shop you can purchase all the usual Catholic merchandise, including pun-laden cologne:

The word “eau” means “water” and is pronounced like the letter O.  Eau d’Il means “water of He,” with the obvious spiritual connotation, and is pronounced the same way as the name Odile.   (Grammatically it’s as awkward as the Son-sun puns.) This pun on the word for water, though, is wildly entertaining to those of us who can’t resist a pun, because Ste. Odile is famous for her miraculous spring:

At this place, Odile struck the rock, and the water that gushed forth cured the blind man.  Pilgrims, halt your steps and rest there, to pray to God that he will enlighten your souls as well at this miraculous spring. 

You can purchase the miraculous (but un-blessed) water up top at the monastery where it’s offered for a suggested donation in little plastic bottles, or you can bring your own container and hike down to the spring and collect water yourself for free.

I made the hike and drunk down my water bottle so I could refill it with water from the spring, because who can resist?  The kids ended up not joining me on the hike as-planned, but the road out of the monastery passes right by the spring, and they filled up their now-empty water bottles as well.  We were totally armed for . . . whatever it is Catholics do with unblessed water from miraculous springs.

Once back in town we emptied the car, cleaned it out, filled it up, returned it to the rental place, and went home to pack-up for our departure the next day.

Now it is absolutely ridiculous to plan to bring bottles of water in your checked luggage home from Europe.  It’s a recipe for wet laundry.  But our Catholic instincts were way too strong here, and so I carefully put our bottles of spring water inside large ziplocks and packed them amid a suitcase of clothes that wouldn’t get ruined if there was a leak, and which would absorb any leaked water so that no one else’s luggage got wet.  Miracle #1: Our water made it home intact.

So we get home and unpack and I’ve got these old used plastic water bottles containing un-blessed water from the miraculous spring.  I have a decorative bottle my grandmother gave me that was sitting empty, so I filled that bottle and corked it and set it out on the mantel, Catholic memento achievement unlocked.  There was, however, more water than would fit in the decorative bottle.  What to do with it?

I put it in the pets’ water bowl out in the yard.

Now for the big miracle.

This kitten is one of the pets.  Martin the Cat came to us as a stray, and when he arrived he had runny, gunky eyes.  Efforts by the vet over the past several years to treat his eyes have been ineffective.  We eventually decided that since he wasn’t in any obvious pain, he was just going to be a cat with an untreatable eye problem and there was nothing more to be done.  He’s a great little neighborhood cat, underappreciated at my house but who does the rounds providing companionship to several of our lonely neighbors who would not be able to take on a cat of their own, but who appreciate his daily visits.

Here’s the miracle: About a week after I put out the St. Odile water for the pets, I noticed Martin the Cat’s eyes were completely cleared up.  They haven’t gotten runny since then.

Natural vs. Supernatural

Is it possible Martin’s eyes just happened to have spontaneously cleared up that particular week, and St. Odile had nothing to do with it?  Sure.  It’s not like I poured water over his eyes and watched  an instantaneous  transformation.  What I do know though is that he had this eye problem that didn’t respond to any conventional treatment, and after drinking water from a spring whose water had cured a blind man, and a spring under the patronage of a saint whose symbol is a book with two eyes on it, after drinking that water, the cat was cured.

That’s all I know.

If the week after getting one of his rounds of eye drops from the vet my cat had been cured, I’d assume it was the vet’s treatment that had done the job. So I give St. Odile the same benefit of the doubt I’d give the veterinarian.

Video: The monastery bells ringing to announce the start of mid-afternoon prayer.   All through Alsace and beyond, church bells like this would ring for five minutes or so, straight, to summon the faithful to Mass.  The Epic Vacation category contains all the posts related to our vacation.  Some of them are pure tourist-info, and others are more commentary and stuff.

Review: Why I Am Catholic by Brandon Vogt

Brandon Vogt’s Why I Am Catholic (And You Should Be Too) is a reader-friendly resource for ordinary pewsitters taking their first look at the “Why be Catholic??” question.  After sharing his own memoir, Brandon runs through the common objections to and proofs of the Catholic faith.  This book fills a gap in the literature.  Many apologetics books tackle one or a few topics in depth.  This resource is for the average layperson who is brand new to the question of explaining and defending the faith.

Who would like this book?

I recommend it for two groups of people.  The first is parishes who have completed a study such as Return, and now would like to act on the need to know about our faith so we can explain it.  By doing this quick intro to apologetics, readers can get an overview of the different types of evidence for the faith that we have.  Think of it as the tasting menu.  Readers can then go on to choose to study one or more subjects in greater depth.

The second group is ordinary Catholics who are looking for a way to work through their challenges and difficulties with the faith.  It can be hard for someone to articulate why they are struggling if they don’t have the language that they need.  In the hands of a skilled facilitator, this book would make a great launching pad for honest discussions on the road towards deeper belief.

The Thinking-Man’s Faith Isn’t Only For Academics

I think Return is the one must-read book for Catholics who care about their parishes and their families.  It lays out the 101 on evangelization in plain language that any Catholic can understand and apply.  Why I Am Catholic is a natural follow-up.  So much work has been done over the past thirty years in laying the groundwork of the New Evangelization.  These books are the fruit of that work.  They are tools any parish can use to mobilize regular people for the work of the Gospel.

 

Cover art courtesy of https://whycatholicbook.com/get-book.

Not So Bewuthered

What started last week and has been keeping me busy and happy is my literature class on The Hobbit.  It’ll run six weeks, and the students range from devoted fans taking the class purely for fun to poor, downtrodden middle-schoolers being forced to drudge through worthwhile art and write about it for actual English lit and composition credit.  Homework assignments vary per the student (at the parents’ direction), which promises to make grading much more interesting and the class less of a slog for everybody.

I’m not a Tolkien expert, I’m a writer, so that’s how we’re looking at the book.  I do think one of the most important parts of studying literature is making sure that the kids understand what the heck they’re reading.  So before each reading assignment we go through two sets of vocabulary.  The first set is Landscape of Middle Earth, because if you don’t know what laburnums are, how can you possibly visualize them?  Wikimedia is my fast friend in finding images for the tour.

The other set of vocabulary is non-landscape words that the kids are unlikely to know, or for which they might not know the intended meaning in context.  (The fender on a fireplace rather than one on a car, or a porter that you drink, not one that you hire.)

In looking up vocabulary, I’ve noticed Tolkien is assumed to have created a few words that he didn’t invent, or didn’t quite.  A few that get attention:

Flummoxed – bewildered, confounded, confused.  Not a Tolkien-built word: Merriam Webster notes its appearance in The Pickwick Papers.

Confusticate – (slang) – to confuse, perplex, bewilder.  Notes on the presumed origin (American) are here and here.  Where the word came from is not very clear, but it’s quite clear it wasn’t Tolkien’s invention.

Bebother – to bring trouble upon (someone).  Wicktionary has citations from 1896 and 1908.

Bebother follows the same pattern as bewilder, as in the famous description of Bilbo as being “bewildered and bewuthered.”

Bewuther, the fan pages tell us, is a fabricated word that means the same thing as bewilder.  I disagree.

Look up the word wuther:

verb (used without object), British Dialect. 1. (of wind) to blow fiercely. http://www.dictionary.com/browse/wuthering

1846; variant of dial. and Scots whither, Middle English (Scots) quhediren; compare Old Norse hvitha squall of wind

Someone who was, say, a professor of Anglo-Saxon literature, would know the word wuther.  Such a person would also know how to use the prefix “be-” to build related words, such as bewilder, bedraggle, bespoke, bespeak, become, bemuse, and so forth.

Bewilder, if we look at its etymology, has a sense of someone going astray or getting lost.  Think of it as being led into the emotional wild-lands.

We should infer, using the logic that Tolkien knows what English words mean and that he builds English constructions accordingly, that bewuther means something slightly different than bewilder.  It means to be wuthered – to be blown about.

→ Bewuthered is to be blown about, in a figurative sense in this case.

One can therefore be both bewildered and bewuthered, but one is not necessarily both at the same time.  You might be thoroughly bewuthered and yet entirely sure of where you’ve landed, for example — not bewildered at all, just well-tossed and reeling a bit from the blow.

Or, if you take my literature class, hopefully you end up neither.  In addition to going over tricky words before the reading, we’ll do a plot summary at the start of class each week to make sure the kids understood the reading.  There’s no sense talking about writing techniques and stunning poetry until you know who did what, when, where and how.   After that?  Bring it on.

 

My partner in crime came up with a project for the fankids, writing their names on stones in runes.  It was pretty cool.  This artwork courtesy of Wikimedia, Public Domain.

Memento Mori

While All Hallow’s Eve is no day to be dabbling in the demonic (no day ever is), it’s as fine a time as any for pondering one’s mortality.  A little artwork for the season:

Danse Macabre from the Domincian cemetery in Bern
:

File:Manuel, Kauw; Bartholomäus May.jpg

Stained glass from the Bern cathedral, photo by Andreas Praefcke CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons:

File:Bern Münster Totentanzfenster detail2.jpg

Fresco: The Triumph of Death, on the external wall of the church of Disciplini, photo by Paolo da Reggio via Wikimedia, CC 2.5:

File:Triumph death clusone.jpg

And for those who have been pondering the blog silence of late (including a few overdue book reviews, sorry there): It’s due to a distinct lack of death in these parts.  Camping, volleyball, children studying music, adults studying the Bible, children and adults putting on an All Saints Play, a writer posing as a literature teacher beginning this Friday, friends visiting from out of town, friends visiting from in town, a Quiz Bowl around the corner — life is good.

The Blessing of Incompetent Theologians

Darwin Catholic has a long response to Melinda Selmys’s also-long concerns about the moral theology behind the Church’s teaching on contraception.  Ferret out the details if you like, I’m not headed into long explanations of he-said-they-said where the documents behind Humanae Vitae are concerned.  Read the final product, it’s readable common sense that covers all you really need to know.

Here’s what I do want to say, though, about the opinions of theologians: Theologians are sometimes wrong.

The charism of infalliability is extremely limited.  Basically it keeps the pope from royally screwing up when it especially matters most, and that’s about it.*

I like to think my theology is sound.  I know for a fact that I fail spectacularly at many other tasks that ought to be wildly simple.  I could really do with a secretary, a housekeeper, and a more vigorous conscience, thanks.  That others have faults therefore comes as no surprise.  So when you encounter something that seems like dubious reasoning even though it comes from someone who ought to know better . . . maybe it is, in fact, bad reasoning.

It is entirely consistent with history, doctrine, and a charitable disposition to consider the possibility an otherwise reputable theologian might, on some or many points, be haplessly incompetent.

It happens.  Don’t stake your salvation on the smartness of mankind.

File:Hy soect de byle.jpg

Artwork courtesy of Wikimedia.

 

*Yes, infallibility also applies to the bishops teaching in union with the pope . . . which just brings us back to the important bit, which is that the Holy Spirit protects the pope from the very most disastrous errors.

Funniest Parish Rumor Ever

This morning after Bible study one of the ladies asks me, “What are your degrees in?”

It’s a good question, and one I occasionally have to clarify.   I studied economics and I have a degree in economics are two different things; in my case the former is true but not the latter.  Every now and then an author blurb goes to print without my clearing it, and I cringe at the odd inaccuracies.

So I answered, “I have a BA in international studies, with a not-quite-a-minor in economics.  My master’s degree is in business administration, with the bulk of my coursework in accounting with a little bit of finance.”  Again, I don’t have an accounting degree, though I did graduate with enough upper-level courses to work professionally in accounting.  But I’m not a CPA, which people ask me whenever they hear I studied accounting.

“Oh,” the lady at Bible study says.  “So do you have a PhD in theology?”

Pardon me?  “No.”

“Oh.  Someone said you had a PhD in theology.”

No.  No no no.  “Nope.  Business.  Master’s degree in business, no PhD in anything.”

“Sometimes Father Whippersnapper seems to defer to you during Bible study.”

“That’s because he has a graduate degree in theology, which I do not, but I am more experienced with arguments among non-academics bickering on the internet.”

***

As parish grapevine experiences go, it was more amusing than horrifying, so it worked out.

–> I got to share a little bit of mine and my husband’s conversion stories (answer to the follow-up question of “How come you seem to know so much?”), and I conceded I do write a bit of Catholic non-fiction

More better: I got a few minutes of living vicariously through one of the other Bible study ladies, who overheard the conversation and shared with me about her experience in internal audit and fraud detection, which is one of the coolest things accountants get to do and I’d be totally looking into that if I were looking for an accounting job.

It was a good day.  And to my credit, I read just far enough into Love and Responsibility to know, as any good Junior Moral Theologian who happens to be married should know, the answers to these sex questions over at the Aggie Catholic blog,* which topics I alluded to in the rough cut of my most recent NCRegister post, now up: “What Do Priests Know About Marriage?”  My very smart editor removed the explicit references (which the Aggie post answers succinctly, so you’re set if you have those questions) to keep it PG rated.

*I do not write for the Aggie Catholic blog.  I have been to Texas three times, though, so it’s practically the same, for parish rumor-mill purposes.

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Artwork: Young Nun at Prayer by Sergei Gribkov.  I’m not a nun either, in case anyone is asking.

PS: Parents, this is a grown-up blog.  I teach children in regular life, but on the internet I cover adult topics.

2 Things You, Your Friends, and Your Family Need to Know About Dysautonomia

It is the time of year when I get flooded with reminders about Dysautonomia Awareness Month.  I’m aware, thanks.  I’m not a big fan of colored ribbon empathy-signalling for any disease, so we can skip that.  I’m going to save the “How’s it going, Jen?” post for another time, too.  Let’s skip this year straight to the info that is useful for anyone headed to the doctor about those weird symptoms.

Refresher: What is Dysautonomia?

You can skip this part if you already know.

Your autonomic nervous system is the part of your body that makes things work without you having to think about it.  Your heart beats, your innards digest, your temperature regulates, and your blood pressure presses, even if you completely ignore them.

Autonomic dysfunction, or dysautonomia, is when that system doesn’t work right.   When your blood pressure fails to compensate when you stand up.  When your stomach declines to empty.  When your heart decides to beat to the rhythm of its own drummer.

It’s complicated (we’ll get into that again in the next section) because of course you might have problems with these symptoms due to some other disorder.  It’s double-complicated because you can have autonomic dysfunction as a complication of an ordinary disease (like diabetes), a horrendously complicated disease (like certain inherited mitochondrial disorders), or just cause.

So “dysautonomia” is a bit of an umbrella.  It’s like saying “I have stomach problems” or “lady troubles” except more scientific sounding.  But just like you need to know that your digestive and reproductive tracts sometimes require medical attention, it is important to know that your autonomic nervous system is a part of your body that can malfunction.

What happens when you don’t know about this is what I’m writing about today.

Problem 1: Don’t Be So Nervous!

If you’ve ever felt your heart race, your stomach churn, or your hands sweat when you were nervous, you’ve felt your autonomic nervous system doing one of its things.

This creates a tricky dilemma: Say you go to the doctor because you are short of breath, and all the tests show your heart and lungs are just fine.  Are you just really anxious?

Maybe you are.  You’ll probably get referred for a psychological evaluation.  What you need to know is that many forms of dysautonomia have surface similarities to the physical side of anxiety disorders.   How do you know the difference?  For one thing, anxiety disorders involve being anxious.

So here’s the layman’s differential diagnosis:

If your stomach churns every time you walk past your boss’s office, regardless of the time of day or what you’ve eaten or how much sleep you got or whether your boss is wearing way too much cologne or not — if there is no physical reason for your boss’s office to make you ill — and you feel fabulous otherwise, it’s probably anxiety.

But if your stomach sometimes churns while you’re chilling out watching your favorite movie, or relaxing with your family on a vacation you genuinely enjoy (don’t lie), or on the day when you and your boss whom you love are on a roll achieving great stuff . . . that doesn’t sound like anxiety.   It is highly unlikely you are secretly anxious and have no idea.    The physical symptoms of anxiety tend to correlate with anxiety.  The physical symptoms of dysautonomia are not dependent on your emotional state.

Some minor complications to remember:

  • You can be a person with a known anxiety disorder, but also have a dysautonomia.  There’s no numerical limit on how many diseases you are allowed to have.
  • You can be a person with dysautonomia who develops anxiety symptoms related to the stress your illness causes.   People with cancer or typhus or foot-and-mouth disease sometimes get anxious about their condition, so if you worry about your life sometimes, you’re not exactly a pioneer there.

Therefore do some reality checking.  If you get faint with prolonged standing, that’s probably dysautonomia.  If you get faint at the sight of blood, that’s probably anxiety.  If you get faint under both instances, it’s probably two different problems that have similar symptoms.

(Or maybe you have a pathological fear of standing, and also a latex allergy you’re unaware of, because you think it’s just fear of needles.  But it’s more likely you have POTS than a pathological fear of standing, despite the thirty-seven physicians who looked you straight in the face and told you to get a hobby, because it never occurred to them to do a tilt-table test.  Tell me about your childhood . . . did you have to stand a lot?  How did that make you feel?  Did your mother do a lot of standing around you? . . . )

Problem 2: You Just Need to Exercise!

Your body works better if you use it regularly and well.  Lots of people are overweight and out of shape, and when they make the decision to eat sensibly and get out for a walk every day, they find they feel much better.

What you need to know is that some forms of dysautonomia can present like you just need to get more exercise, but actually they are a disease process that inhibits your ability to exercise.

In my case, my diagnosis of IST (Inappropriate Sinus Tachycardia) hinged on the fact that my treadmill testing looked like a basic model “she needs to work out more” case, except that I didn’t actually need to work out more.

I presented with shortness of breath on exertion, but every test came back normal.   If I had been overweight, I would never have been diagnosed, period.

The only clue we had that I had a tachycardia and not a fitness problem was that (a) my symptoms came on too suddenly to be deconditioning and (b) I wasn’t fat enough.  I “passed” all tests with three different specialists, because I was healthier than any of their usual heart-attack or COPD patients.  Because of my underlying fitness level and experience as an athlete, I had the ability to push myself on a treadmill despite feeling horrible, so I’d score in an “acceptable” range.  (Even if I was gasping for air in order to do it — they didn’t chart that.  Just the number.  Hmmn.)  It took a really fat doctor who knew his own numbers and who liked to geek out on technicalities to pick up that something wasn’t right in what he was seeing.

So here is my firm advice: If you are tired and intolerant of exercise, and you try taking the usual steps to improve your health but it seems like it’s just impossible, or like you just can’t do it and you keep falling off the wagon, dig deeper.  There are a number of endocrine disorders that can cause this problem, there are some dysautonomias that can cause this problem, and there are who knows how many other things as well.

You’ll have to go through all the other first-line tests looking for obvious stuff  (if you have a pulmonary embolism, you need to know that ASAP, so rule it out, please). But if that all that comes back normal and you are still pretty sure there’s something wrong, start looking at dysautonomia as a possibility.

“Failure as a human being” is not a medical diagnosis.  Find a doctor who doesn’t shove you off, and keep looking until you figure out what’s wrong for real.  After you’ve addressed the underlying health problems that are sabotaging your efforts, you’ll find that the triad of healthy diet, exercise, and stress management actually starts to work for you.

And that’s why you should be aware of dysautonomia, and some of the other ribbons in the rainbow as well.

Follow-up Reading: Here’s a post from a health care professional who didn’t believe in dysautonomia until  it happened to her.

 

File:Munkácsy Alvó kisgyermek.jpg

Artwork: Mihály Munkácsy [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

 

Linking Around on the How to Solve the Gun Problem

Over at the blorg today: Death and Dread – Links & Comments.

Ever since I answered the irresistible call to join the Conspiracy, I’ve been floundering a bit over at Patheos.  What I seem to have settled on is writing my general Catholic stuff here (of course) and over there writing the things that no one else at Patheos is likely to be saying.  Which means I keep wanting to rename my blog there Token Redneck.  I’m not gonna, but you can call it that when no one’s looking.

Key points from today’s post:

A difficulty Americans face is that our laws have to take into account the actual way that Americans act.  . . .

. . . You can be certain that the stronger the rhetoric in favor of gun control, the stronger the turnout will be for candidates who oppose it.  Hence we have Trump.  (See how he spoke to his base and didn’t mention guns in his Las Vegas talk?  He knows who elected him.) . . .

. . . You don’t have to think these people are right.  You do have to understand that these people live in this nation, they vote, and they already own the guns.  Wishing them away will not fix anything.  Writing legislation as if these people aren’t there or don’t count will only exacerbate the problem.

Trust me.  I’m from Gunlandia.  I know.

File:St. Michael ob Rauchenödt Flügelaltar 01.jpg

Artwork: Photo by Uoaei1 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

This picture is not exactly related to the topic of the post, other than that of course I talk about the battle with evil, so there’s that.  I just liked the picture.  To get the full effect, click on the detailed image.

Useful tip: To see what I’ve been writing at the blorg, check the sidebar of this blog (jenniferfitz.com).   Scroll down a little, you’ll see I’ve got the feed of my Patheos posts right there waiting for you.  Easy peasy.