In his book “The Body Knows the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma”, psychiatrist Dr. Bessel van der Kolk writes, “Language gives us the power to change ourselves and others by communicating our experiences, helping us define what we know, and finding a common sense of meaning.”

Observing the ways I describe my experiences with focal dystonia has highlighted the arc of my retraining process. Observing the language of my story has changed the story itself.

There have been a few ideas, or maybe, problems with language, that have slowed my retraining process. Primarily, the idea that focal dystonia is focal. Once I started to better self-sense I realized my dystonic patterns are whole body, not focal to one finger on one hand and only when I played the flute.

Thankfully, there are also a few ideas that have significantly helped my retraining. The idea that muscles habituate to use may be part of the reason I dealt with focal dystonia in the first place, but it has also been a way out of the habitual dystonic patterns. I once used so much effort to play (by gripping the keys and playing technical passages at the same time) that those muscles habituated to those patterns of use. The clenching associated with playing eventually became the dystonic clenching. Now that I can play at my “dropping point” (see A Trip to Lowe’s, or, the 800 lb. Flute) my muscles have habituated to new freer patterns of use. 

And lastly, like a mantra, repeating the words “use appropriate effort” has been transformative for me. Appropriate effort in every moment, not just with my instrument in my hands.

Title from Louis Brandeis



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