I can’t remember what was on tv. I was listening casually while I sat, writing Christmas cards on the other side of the room. I had five half-boxes left over from the years before and I was determined to have all of them written on time because I’m notoriously late with cards. I decided to start writing them on Halloween night because I could see our gate from the dining table and, when the kids arrived, I could dash outside with the bowl of chocolates before my dogs heard anything and went into cacophonous protection mode. I was hunched over, scribbling and, when I straightened, I felt this ripple go through my body. I’ll never forget that feeling. Like a ghost had walked through me. Like unearthly cold hands had reached inside my body and stroked downwards, from head to toes. A momentary shudder through my brain and nervous system that I never imagined would settle into each muscle and fiber, growing, mutating, eroding. I think of it now and wonder what was happening on a cellular level while I was nonchalantly scribbling notes.
I said, “Oh, I’ve been at this too long” and went to the armchair, curled up fetal, and fell asleep. An hour later, I awoke and knew something wasn’t right. Although it hadn’t really started yet, it felt more serious than a cold or flu. I felt unstable on a systemic level and thought it might turn into one of my syncopal episodes where I would collapse, pale and clammy, with a barely detectable blood pressure and pulse. I said to my husband, “You have to come to bed now. Something might happen and I won’t be able to make it down the stairs to get you.” Those were the days when we used to share a room. Before my illness became my bedfellow.
I spent the next four hours colder than I’ve ever been in my life. I was fully dressed, in bed with a hot water bottle, teeth chattering, shaking so violently, little moans were squeezed from my chest. I vividly remember the eternity it took me to move my hand out from under the duvet in an effort to cover one freezing ear. I thought if my hand left the relative warmth of the blankets, it might freeze solid and shatter into pieces. Oh shit, shit, shit. I’m sick. This is a doozy. I couldn’t ever remember having something like this, but it reminded me of my husband’s horrid battle with chicken pox. He was the sickest person I’d ever seen.
I drifted into sleep, curled in a tiny ball against the headboard, holding my knees, and, when I woke up, I was drenched. I couldn’t believe my body contained so much fluid. It was as if someone had poured a bucket of water on me. I could slap my stomach and make little splashes of sweat. And I was so relieved. I had assumed I would battle this virus for days, but the fever had broken after only a few hours and it would be a quick recovery. How could I imagine that I would continue to experience this almost every night for the next two years?
I spent the last of the night drifting in and out of fever dreams, waking up intermittently, sweaty and shaky. My husband snoozed peacefully beside me. At one point, my bowels cramped up and I wondered if it was just some atypical food poisoning event. In the morning, I decided I was on the mend, showered, got dressed and went to work. Because that’s what I did. You’d have to be on your death bed to call in sick and, besides, I wanted to save my days off for Christmas.
I’ve thought about that night a lot over the last three years. The moment my immune system shifted. My utter naïveté about what could happen to a body. Although I’d taken many premed classes and had quite a few health problems in my life, it really never occurred to me that I wasn’t unbreakable. Or, at least, if I broke, I knew I’d be able to be fixed. I had been diagnosed with Graves Disease a few years earlier, told it would kill me without treatment, had radioiodine ablation on my thyroid and had to avoid people for two weeks. And, during all of this, I never took a day off work. It also never crossed my mind to get a second opinion, talk to others with the same condition or change my eating and sleeping habits. I just popped the radioactive pill and got back to work. The same month, I was told I had reactivated EBV by a naturopath and was advised to cut back my work schedule from 55 hours to 20… Ha! I’m sure you can guess how that went. I never saw that doctor again. I was too busy.
I had never been intimately exposed to chronic illness, so I was completely ignorant to the toll it could take on a family. I imagined it would be hard, of course, but you can never understand without experiencing it. Everyone in my family is healthy, even my extended family. We have our demons, but they’re addictions, mental health problems, typical old age conditions. I had my first major bout of angeoedema when I was 23 and went into anaphylaxis for the first time when I was 28. My siblings are all in their 30s and 40s and haven’t had more than the occasional cold. My parents are in their 70s and both still work and are active and social.
I was a sick baby. People would famously stare at the itty bitty girl with the old man’s cough. If I’d understood what could happen to a body, if I’d been less in denial, if I’d been less concerned about proving my bullet-proof toughness, I might have looked back on my childhood and my chest infections, Grave’s disease, vasovagal syncope and all the symptoms that turned out to be mast cell activation disorder and tried to make changes to protect myself. If I’d understood what can happen to a body, I might have tried to nurture what was obviously a sensitive system, armor myself against external assaults and preserve what was still working. I could have eaten food that didn’t come from a restaurant kitchen. I could have taken a vitamin once in a while and stopped drinking all of my water out of cheap plastic bottles. I could have made sleep a priority, quit smoking and drinking sooner and not married a job that turned a run-of-the-mill control freak into a spread-too-thin obsessive perfectionist, trying to do all things, everywhere, first and best.
It’s been exactly three years since this sickness shuddered through my body and I wonder if I’ll ever stop thinking about the life that I lost that day. It was like a death: of my career, of my strong body, of ignorant bliss, and of our future dreams. I think about the months leading up to it — the blatant warnings of a body in crisis that I chose to ignore. There was a nagging voice in my head that pushed me to make a will, living will and power of attorney the year prior, at the age of 36. That same voice made me insist on a quickie marriage in the back garden after my husband and I had been together 13 years. I wanted him to be able to speak for me if I happened to be incapacitated and have legal recourse and rights if I died. I did everything I needed to do for luck: old, new, borrowed, blue, coin in my shoe… We signed the papers on the patio table and, half way back to the kitchen to grab our lunch, I remembered the last thing needed to insure we didn’t jinx our new life: he carried me over our backdoor threshold. We didn’t tell anyone because we thought we’d have a proper ceremony with friends and family in the next year or two — maybe in Ireland or somewhere exotic on a beach. It was exciting to dream up plans for a wedding after so many years together. That was 44 days before my Halloween sickness.
My life feels like one of those Choose Your Own Adventure books that I adored as a kid.
Move back to Ireland after college, turn to page 63 or drive across America to Seattle, turn to page 82.
I know, I know. You want to say it might have happened anyway. But it wouldn’t have. And you want to say I’ve got to stop ruminating over the what ifs and focus on the present. But it’s the Day of the Dead, a time to remember the dear departed. So, today, three years after the specter came to stay, I will think about the woman I lost that hallowed eve.
I’ll leave you on a happy note. November 1st is not only the anniversary of the first day of my new life with chronic illness, it is also the anniversary of my first born son, Bowie, arriving in our lives. ^^
Not such a charm, after all. Every day that I’ve been in this rental, I’ve had the doors and windows wide open. It smells new, so I’ve taken precautions to air it out. After three nights, I finally mustered the energy to hang towels in the bedroom window to block the morning light and then didn’t open the window because I didn’t want the towels to fall… This coincided with a weather change and, because of the rain, I kept the other windows closed. It also coincided with my husband discovering a hornet nest under the eaves, so I started keeping the front door closed. This is all to explain what led to my perfect home away from home becoming an off-gassing cesspool.
I lay in bed, breathing the chemical fog, trying to sleep, trying to convince myself I was imagining it. The next day I told my husband, if I didn’t know better, I’d think I was coming down with a cold. My nose was all stuffed up and running at the same time, one ear was clogged, my eyes and throat were sore(er). That night, I couldn’t sleep in the bedroom. Did I reach some sort of chemical threshold? Or was this simply because the windows had been closed? After choking for an hour, I dragged everything to the couch: doubled over duvet on the bottom for my aching bones, pillow, sheets, top blanket and duvet… so much work for me, especially at 2am. An hour later, after being woken up every few seconds by rain hitting what sounded like a metal pail somewhere… Drip drip drip… Like torture every time I drifted off… I got up and put in ear plugs. At 4am, after waking up every time I moved because this couch is basically like concrete, I crawled into the bedroom, got an unwieldy camping mattress and wrestled it under the folded over bottom duvet. At 430am, I stumbled into the kitchenette and put duck tape over the blue clock lights on the oven and the microwave. At 5am, I turned off the porch lights that were keeping me awake. At 7am, I woke up from the morning sun through the window. Dear lord.
I asked the landlord about the IKEA wardrobes in the bedroom, knowing that I had bad reactions to my own IKEA wardrobe for so long and, sure enough, they are brand new a week before I got here.
So, I’ve gone a little backwards. Two nights on the couch and a week steeped in chemical off-gas, I don’t quite feel as stable. I’m exhausted, heart palpitations started yesterday and I continue to have the cold symptoms above the neck and the flu symptoms below. I’m still going home today. I’m going to keep a segregated box of stuff separate that I don’t bring into the house in case I crash and burn and need to leave again. But, man oh man, am I excited to see my boys and sleep in my own bed. Fingers crossed that I can climb back up to where I was a month ago.
So here’s what’s happening. I had that terrible reaction to Cromolyn, but it continued for a few more nights than I would have expected. I’ve never felt so sick and urgently needed to change everything in case something — anything — was contributing to this downfall. I was suddenly willing to take no meds or supplements, eat nothing, go bankrupt, leave the dogs, do anything to survive. I don’t know how to explain it. It didn’t feel like typical ME payback. It wasn’t my blood pressure or blood sugar or temperature, it wasn’t pain, it wasn’t my muscles… it was a feeling of system-wide poisoning. I realised it started the day after we got back from the coast (a dream come true, which I will blog about at another time), so I had to get out of my home, too, in case it was the cause. I wasn’t willing to stay one more night and risk being in the midst of whatever was poisoning me. It was that bad. It took me about one minute to make the decision. For two reasons: 1. If the house or the dogs were somehow making me sick, I had to leave immediately. 2. At the very least, I’m allergic to the dogs and getting away from them would help me heal and have one less assault on my immune system. Plus, Husband and I have talked about my staying somewhere else ad nauseum and always thought the first test would be in Seattle somewhere, it was just something that we hadn’t had the gumption to tackle yet.
My friend Erik, who has recovered through extreme mold avoidance,
bullied encouraged me to not bring anything from my home — not my clothes, not a toothbrush, credit card, phone — in case mycotoxins were contributing/causing my illness and/or relapse. After arguing why I needed my own pillow, my sleep apnea oral appliance, my special food etc., I realised… No I don’t. My urine mycotoxin tests were high out of range. Eliminate all possible variables. Take nothing. Once I wrapped my head around it, it seemed like an obvious leap. I was leaving anyway, so why not go whole hog?
I found an AirBnB rental nearby that was able to have me check in last night. It’s not cheap, but it’s cheaper than a hotel and incredibly nice. It’s a brand new studio on top of a garage. New enough that I’m risking using their washer and dryer, but not so new that I’m overly concerned with all the Ikea cabinetry and new sofa and bed. It’s only available until Thursday, but it buys me some time to gain some strength and figure out what to do.
Husband, the selfless angel supporter, bought me a super-cheap tablet, so I could have email access, food, a few toiletries and a cheap outfit (leggings, sweatshirt). I stripped on the doorstep of the rental, left my clothes in a bag there and went straight in and showered. I have an emergency kit outside the door: epipens, benadryl, inhaler, blood sugar tester, glucose tabs, my phone and thyroid hormones.
Last night was rough. The sheets here are washed in smelly detergent which makes me sneeze and keeps me up at night (I know normal people don’t believe this, but, yes, the smell wakes me up over and over and makes me feel like I’m choking), so I’m going to wash the sheets and duvet cover today. Their pillows are for giants — prop your head at a 90 degree angle — so, I went pillowless and my neck is killing me today. I couldn’t get to sleep until after 2am and then I woke up constantly, of course — I have no cpap, no mouth guard for grinding, no ear plugs, no eye shades, no melatonin, no magnesium, no dogs — but it was better than it has been.
I spent the whole morning cooking, but I’m still starving and worried about losing more weight. I have no meat and no broth — my staples. I’m scared to eat chocolate and chips in case they’re contributing to how awful I feel, and it feels like breaking a heroin addiction. It’s a ton of work, washing, chopping, cooking, cleaning for myself, plus showering standing up…
Thank you so much for your generosity and support, family. I’m so grateful to not have had to run to the streets or, worse, had no option to leave and no husband to help. I’m not sure what my next step is. Go from rental to rental until I know whether I can return to the house? Or sell everything and get out? I don’t know. I’m scared to test anything right now. The reactions/symptoms I was having were too deadly.
Love you all so much. Especially you, dear husband. You give so much every day. I am so sorry this is ruining your life and dreams as well as mine. We have had such a rough time, but I will fight for us and our little family with everything I have. Every ounce of energy and every penny.
I’m not doing well. I spent all of yesterday on my feet and moving, which is crazy, obviously, but I’ve been so much stronger recently and I don’t have my typical payback muscle pain, so I’m not recognising the warning.
Last night was horrific. Drenching sweats, heart palpitations, hard to breathe, shaking, feverish without the fever, terrible head, this is all stuff I haven’t felt since the first year and a half I was sick. I’m worried that it is viruses rearing up, like Dr. Chia describes, and a catastrophic (what if permanent??) crash and I didn’t heed the warnings and stay still because I didn’t have my typical crippling pain and stiffness. I’m worried that I brought this on myself because I got cocky and stopped my preemptive rests. I’m worried that I just made myself much worse with so much activity.
Yesterday, I had a major breakdown. I’m horrified that I may have made myself much, much worse by not getting in bed and staying there, not moving. But I can’t tell you the level of hardship this puts on Husband — and myself! To shoulder the guilt and to have no sense of control over your life. Preparing my own food and taking care of myself may be making me worse right now, but it helps me feel less like a burden. But I’m very, very scared that this is simply ME and, in trying to help myself, I’m walking right into a much more disabled state.
I’ve been averaging about 3 to 4 hours sleep every night this week. Today I need to figure out where I’m going tomorrow. Now that I’ve started this, I can’t go home yet. I’m far, far too sick to be anywhere that isn’t pristine, pet-less, easy to maneuver around… My system (immune, nervous, lymphatic, methylation) is too precarious to detox any assaults. Husband had to remove the scented garbage bags from the rental yesterday.
Worst of all — honestly, it feels worse than anything — is the sudden removal from my dogs’ lives. I can’t even type that without crying. They are my guardians and have become so sensitised to my every breath, noise and movement. The codependence isn’t too healthy, but they’ve kept me company and kept me sane all these years. At least with human children, you can try explaining. I just keep imagining their confusion, knowing they run into my room every morning to cuddle. We have a routine. They will be neglected because husband and I are tapped out and that, more than anything , breaks my heart.
Very sick. Some things are better from not being home, reinforcing our choice to do this. Please trust me. Love you all.xo
My current rental didn’t work out (literally have slept an hour or two here and there for the last three nights) because it is so loud. The entire room shakes when vans/lorries/trucks go by and the person next door gets up at 4am and stomps around in what sounds like tap shoes on wooden floors next to the head of my bed. So, Z is coming from Vashon this morning to move me.
I know I need to rest more than anything. Trying to listen to my body is very difficult recently. The return of acute immune system-shifting symptoms has been terrifying and horrifically hard on my body. You’re all correct — I did too much that first day and made myself worse. But that wasn’t because I was isolated and alone or being heedless — I’ve truly been able to do all those things the past few months. I’ve been strong! So, I just misjudged the sudden drop off in my abilities and, like I said, didn’t have my typical warning signs to stop. It was a bad mistake. And so was working 50-hour weeks for 6.5 months after I got sick. And so was joining an exercise class and taking massive amounts of vitamin B12 all the other ridiculous things I’ve done that have made me worse over the years. It’s very hard to rest if you’re not physically maimed. Really. It goes against everything in my nature and I will always fail at it, it seems.
I think the hard part came when I spiralled further down after that first day and husband had to leave work to help me. And that was a double-blow because it came on the heals of his taking a week off of work for the coast trip. But, I’d never been in such a poor state. I may regret that he had to abandon a few days of work and we’re losing so much money (I already do!), but who cares about jobs and money when you’re writing an “if I die” email? Only hour-to-hour survival has been on my mind this week.
There are no words to describe the gratitude I feel that I have a family who cares, that there are people worrying about me and wanting to help. I never, ever take that for granted for a minute. I lost a lot of people the last few years and many people deal with this illness with nobody on their side, so I know how lucky I am that you care and want to help. So, thank you, THANK YOU for your thoughtful responses, empathy and for wanting to keep me safe. That, more than anything, is my overwhelming emotion: thankfulness that I’m not alone in this fight.
My current rental has mold in the washing machine, in the evenings the whole place smells like secondhand cigarette smoke from the landlords next door (I literally got wheezy — imagine all those years of working in the smokiest of smokey bars!) and the blankets on the bed smell so bad that I asked if I could get them laundered and the man said he had never had them washed before!! This all made me want to get the hell out, so I felt like I needed to give up and go home … I’m so tired… And Husband actually persuaded me to stay away (here or somewhere else). He wants more time to de-dog-ify the upstairs of our house, move out the furniture, bring the carpet to the cleaners etc. He thinks I should give this experiment a longer trial… I’d like to stay away until my night sickness and sweats totally abate because they are such an indicator of how bad I’m doing and then see how I do at home.
This new rental is great besides the moldy washing machine (again), but, interestingly, I have a stuffy nose and the electric shivers in my leg came back the first day here — both for the first time since leaving home 10 days ago. Also, I have a new and different drugged feeling here and joint pain has not eased up. But, I’m still planning to stay a week and the good news is my sweats/shivers/shakes stopped (!!!) after 12 harrowing nights and I got some relief from the complete bowel freeze of the last week. I reintroduced a few things from my house (food, apnea device, supplements) with no adverse effects. Actually, the malarial nights went away 2 days after starting to wear my apnea device again, but they also started while I was wearing it, so there is no correlation.
Yesterday morning, my ND sent out an intern to do a house call to take blood and do a hydrotherapy “constitutional” in my own bed. I don’t care what you think about naturopaths, there are no MDs making free house calls and spending an hour, so I want to win the lotto and pour money into this clinic.
My testosterone, estrogens, DHEA, TSH, free T3 and free T4 are all out of range low. Sometimes I honestly think this whole illness is caused by my thyroid being dead. Grave’s disease is evil and most people who have gone through radioiodine ablation are on MUCH higher doses of hormones.
Fingers crossed this makes me feel a little better. X
Ah, 6th rental is a charm. I kind of want to live here. The only downside is the bed is rock hard. I am so boney, have no muscle and have to deal with the fibromyalgia pain, so I really need plush bedding to not wake up in terrible pain. I’m force feeding myself. I get up, cook, eat, rest, cook, eat, rest, cook, eat, TV, sleep.
The first morning here, I woke up without a headache for the first time in a week, which confirms to me that something in the other rental was affecting me (and it started before I reintroduced Coconut Bliss ice cream and chocolate, so, thankfully, I have no good reason to continue to deprive myself of my sugar addiction ;)). I still have an achy headache, but it feels like it’s from a stiff neck and TMJ issues as opposed to a reaction to something. I increased my thyroid hormone and started a few supplements and low-dose Zyrtec. Feeling more stable.
I’m having a hard time writing and reading because I’ve had such a horrific relapse, but I thought I’d reblog my friend Jak’s latest post because it describes pretty well exactly how my body is feeling right now. I’ll update soon when the muscle pain and blinding headaches ease up.
Originally posted on Mast Cells & Collagen Behaving Badly:
OK, what the fuck happened?! Last weekend I felt great: painted the side of my shed and drove myself 30 miles to the city for a mooch round the shops, then woke up Monday morning with my period and feeling like I’d been hit by a 2 ton truck. Didn’t think much of it, as my period always makes me as rough as a badger’s bum for a few days, but it’s now over and I feel worse than ever.
I am definitely ME-ish. I feel like every cell in my body is operating on 30% power and I ache all over like I’m coming down with the raging flu. My brain is cloudy with fog and there is a numb, pounding patch right between my eyes. I’m exhausted, feel dopily drugged yet can’t sleep. I’m nauseous and my throat is sore.
My mast cells are also playing up. …
View original 434 more words
Three days ago, after having Cromolyn Sodium in my cupboard for 19 weeks, I finally decided I was stable enough to add a new drug. Cromolyn was originally used as an inhaled anti-iflammatory to treat allergic- and exercise-induced asthma. The oral version of Cromolyn has been used more recently to treat mastocytosis and mast cell disorders. It is a liquid that comes in ampules and is mixed into water. The doctor who prescribed it for me is the same one that diagnosed me with MCAS, but he didn’t seem to know much about Cromolyn. The pharmacy knew nothing. I had to go online and ask the people in my mast cell Facebook group for details and then call the pharmacist and explain exactly what the drug was. I am so thankful for the knowledge of these groups and Cromolyn seemed to help far more people than it harmed. It also seemed pretty innocuous — I only talked to a few people who had major side effects and they were things I don’t typically experience, like itching and nausea.
Of course, there’s always a part of me that is looking for the magic pill. Imagine I started this drug and my mast cells calmed down and symptoms I didn’t even realise were caused by them disappeared! … But, it still took me almost 5 months to convince myself to take it. It wasn’t until my bowels went into hibernation that I decided to take the plunge. A few weeks ago, motility stopped, gastroparesis reared its ugly, bloated head and everything ceased functioning in my intestines. No movement, not even a fart, and mega doses of magnesium and vitamin C weren’t doing anything. Cromolyn can help these internal inflammation symptoms and I had high hopes.
The dose I was meant to take was eight ampules in a day — two 4 times a day. The doctor never mentioned to work up slowly and some people in my online group were able to start at full dose. I wanted to be careful because we’re talking about my ridiculously hyper-sensitive body, after all, but I was pretty confident that I’d be fine. So, the first day, I took 1/3 of an ampule in the morning. The next day, I took 2/3 of an ampule in the morning. All seemed fine, so, that night before bed, I took 3/4 of an ampule. At 5 in the morning, I woke up sick sick sick. So sick. Sicker than I’ve been in years, maybe. Sick like my original sickness. Malarial. Encephalo-. Shaking all over, chilled, sweating feverishly, head pounding, stiff neck, muscles cramping, throat constricted, barely able to lift my arm or walk to the bathroom. Oh god, the FEAR. I’d rather die than go back to this. I felt like an ex-con in a movie choosing death-by-cop rather than go back to jail. My mind was like a panicked, caged animal, looking for a way out, falling in and out of fever dreams where I was screaming for my mother over and over again. I’d rather the “nightly flu” that I used to get. I’d rather the ME monster that slams me down with massive, pummeling hands, but I now know will release me eventually if I hold very still for a while. I think I’d even rather be back in December, 2013, when I called on all of you angels to get me through what I thought might be permanent bedboundness.
I felt poisoned. There’s no other way to describe it. I took my temperature: 98.4 degrees. My blood pressure was 80/55 (normal for me). My blood sugar was 80. Not much I could do but wait it out. I lay in bed the whole day yesterday, meditating, deep breathing away the fear of permanent relapse to an acceptable distance. I have a painful burn on my hand that is taking a while to heal and I kept falling into dreams where the burn was causing sepsis. That’s what it felt like — a systemic infection — I’d wake up panting and quiet my mind. I’m good at doing that during waking hours, but, in my dreams… I’m always silently screaming.
I feel a bit better today, but still didn’t sleep. I haven’t had a headache in a long time, believe it or not, and the pain is brutal. My muscles are aching and I feel swollen. The fear has dissipated to frustration. I’m frustrated with myself for trying another drug. I was doing so well. I had a lot of firsts the last few weeks (I’ll post about that later, but here’s a teaser: first time in a store, first road trip, first time on a beach in two years!) and then I couldn’t leave well enough alone and trust that my body was slowly, but surely, helping itself. I’m frustrated with myself for not going slower. I could have ramped up the dose over a full month, but I’m always so impatient. I’m frustrated that I’ve lost the potential help of Cromolyn. That was probably the worst reaction I’ve ever had apart from anaphylaxis, so I’ll never touch it again. I’m not even willing to try again going much slower, so I’ll never know if it could have helped. And that makes me frustrated because it was so hard to get it and it’s incredibly expensive and it’s such a waste. I have a friend who can take it off my hands, but, if I ever wanted to try it again, I’m out of luck because I don’t have insurance to cover it anymore.
And, in contrast to how I feel now, I realise how well I was doing. I was managing to do things every day — stand in the kitchen and cook for an hour, have conversations easier, wash and dry my hair without a thought. This weekend we have one last stab at summer — two days of high 70s and low 80s — and I was going to surprise our friends Z and J by going to their house on Vashon Island for the first time in years. I felt strong enough to do it and that was not even an option 6 months ago. Instead, I’ll barely be moving this weekend. But at least I’ll barely be moving in the garden, in the sun.
It’s 7am on a Sunday and, in a fit of irked defiance, I made myself a cup of fully caffeinated Barry’s tea with milk — real, whole, pasteurized cow milk — and sugar. I’m shaking like a leaf now and don’t know if the sudden addition of dairy to my diet will have any effect, but, oh, make no mistake, there is nothing in the world like a proper cup of tea and I needed that comfort.
I went to sleep last night at 12:30am and awoke at 4:30am with my heart pounding from a stressful dream and I never went back to sleep. This isn’t uncommon — one of the sleep issues I’ve had since being ill is waking up at the end of every REM cycle. My sleep doctor couldn’t find any reason for it (apnea events, restless leg etc.) and it means that I remember multiple dreams every night. Unfortunately, they are all too often nightmares — tortured events that almost always revolve around my illness: I am being chased by murderers, but I am too sick to get away. My dogs are in peril and I’m too weak to save them. I’m homeless and being accosted by faceless strangers on the street and I have no energy to fight and no voice to argue. No voice is a recurring theme — the inability to yell for help, the inability to defend myself.
This morning, the breathless, heart-pounding awakening was caused by a dream about a friend who accused me of something I didn’t do 17 years ago. I won’t get into details because it is buried just enough to not engulf me in a tsunami of emotion and, when I finally deal with it, it will have to be parsed out in careful digestible bits, probably with my therapist. But, I think it is time to confront it. She was a friend I loved very much and with whom I had years of history. She is actually one of my facebook contacts because I don’t like letting anyone go, but my stomach turns every time I see her interacting with my old circle of friends, a combination of bitterness, jealously, embarrassment and mourning for the loss of that closeness and confidence in childhood loyalty. The situation actually changed the course of my life because, in the wake of it, I postponed a move back to Ireland and wound up meeting my husband soon thereafter.
Although I never believed it before, it occurred to me recently that maybe all this dealing with the past bullshit has some merit. In 2012, my counselor at the time tried to broach the subject of anger or hurt that I might be harbouring from my past and I shut it down. Emotionally, I felt fine until this horrific illness and all I’ve needed and wanted was help dealing with the abrupt loss of life as I knew it. Who cares about my parents’ divorce when I’m trying not to die every day and I want to die every night? But I’ve come through the acute stage of ME and have accepted where I am. My fear is justifiably about the future and the present feels pretty… matte. But the damn past has started gurgling up in my dreams. Last week I drempt that my old boss instructed me to open a bunch of restaurants in quick succession and I was too sick and ineffectual to do it. I woke up in a cold sweat of anxious panic and blunt anger at a job that always asked too much. There are demons in there.
So, today I’m starting with an email — or at least the contemplation of an email — to my old friend. Maybe I don’t need to go into the extended rant that always surfaces during those half-awake moments when I start to compose the letter. Maybe I just need to find my voice and say, for the record, I didn’t do it.
Okay, okay, stop begging, I’ll tell you about my appointment with Dr. Chia. I can’t believe this took me so long to write, but I’ve been plugging away a little bit, day by day. I can save you some time and tell you straight away that it was not worth the trip. I don’t really feel like I learned anything new or found access to treatments I couldn’t have tried without him. That doesn’t mean I regret the trip, it just means, if someone else in my position asked my advice, I would say, “Save your money and your energy.” The journey, for me, became the challenge early on. I wanted to know if I could do it. I wanted to test my boundaries, I wanted to see if I could leave these four walls and find out just how bad the payback would be. It was also about testing a different location, spending time with my mother and giving my husband a break. So, I had a lot of different fuels feeding the engine, if you know what I mean and, without even one, I might not have made the trip. In the end, because I left early and Dr. Chia didn’t really give me anything, it was purely the challenge. And I’ve decided that is enough. It bolstered my confidence and reinforced how resilient I am — we are.
Here’s what I thought about Dr. Chia before seeing him: I knew his son was sick with ME and recovered. I knew that Dr. Chia believes that enteroviruses are the root cause of this illness and that he has conducted studies that supported his theory, but the rest of the ME research community hasn’t taken up that torch and done bigger, better studies to replicate. I thought he would offer Equilibrant, his Chinese herb formula with which many people have had some success, and he might consider antivirals. My main impetus for seeing him was to get the testing that none of the other 40 doctors I’ve seen has done and also to see whether he thought I was a candidate for antivirals. Of course, I forgot to ask him about antivirals because I forget everything when I’m in a doctor’s office.
My appointment was at 4:15pm on a Friday, so I was worried about rush hour and LA craziness, but Google maps was accurate and it only took us half an hour to get there. His office is in a nondescript brick building in a sort of strip mall in Torrance, CA. I’m a big fan of Stephen King and liked that the office was in an area named after the possessed protagonist of The Shining. ;) The waiting room was barren. We (my mother and I) waited about 20 minutes and then went in and had the normal nurse stuff done. I noticed she wrote on my file that I was there about “chronic fatigue” and I mentioned that it was actually ME ~ or even write “CFS”. She said, “Well, it doesn’t matter because he only sees patients with your condition.” Sigh.
We waited probably about another 15 minutes for Dr. Chia and, when he came in, he was off like a rocket. He did not stop talking for an hour and 15 minutes. After about 10 minutes, he said I could record him, thank god, because I didn’t remember to ask and I have no memory of anything he said in those first few minutes. Dr. Chia was kind and pleasant. Not in any way intimidating or arrogant. I guess I would call him dogmatic without the ego. He seems slightly frustrated that nobody else realises enteroviruses are the root cause of so many chronic illnesses and told us many stories of other patients and studies that support his contention.
A few weeks before my appointment, I sent him a letter, a chronology of my health history and a list of my symptoms. He said that was extremely helpful and asked me very little in person about my illness, instead, he just ran down the list and discussed how my immune system had collapsed. I couldn’t help thinking none of this needed to be done in person since I was basically just a set of ears, but I know the law says I had to be there in the flesh. He also did a quick physical exam and neurological work up.
Here were his main points about my history:
- As an infant, my immune system shifted into Th2 dominance with pneumonia and ear infections and asthma, which is an inflammatory disease. Instead of just fighting off infections with an increase in the Th1 branch of the immune system and then resetting back to equilibrium, mine shifted into Th2 and has been continually off kilter my whole life as it got hit by different viruses (bronchitis, ill while traveling in Central America, viral gastroenteritis from lake in Virginia etc. etc.). He gave an example of people who encounter the polio virus: just like the lake in Virginia, only a few out of hundreds exposed to polio will become crippled and the difference is the amount of gammaglobulin I (and others) have and my compromised immune system. He said enteroviruses are the second most common infection after the common cold and that viruses are often transmitted through water. He gave the example of Joseph Melnick at Baylor University who studied viruses that live in water from sewage contamination and spread to humans through shellfish, showers, colds and swimming. He also said the Russians wrote a paper that concluded the most common risk factors for contracting meningitis are swimming (30%), camping (20%), contact with sick people, and drinking well water.
- Doctors repeatedly prescribed antibiotics for viruses and worsened my situation. The dark circles under my eyes are typical of this.
- With Th2 dominance, comes allergies.
- Night sweats are a classic sign of Th2 dominance ~ along with pain and sore throats, they are my immune system trying to fight off the viruses. But, “viruses are like weeds” and replicate exponentially. He said post-exertional malaise happens because activity causes viruses in the muscles to become metabolically active and replicate, causing pain. “The more activity you do, the more viruses replicate.”
- Tonsillectomies are very common in ME because the body is fighting off the viruses and causing chronic sore throats (my early teenage years).
- Vaccinations commonly cause ME and relapses (I took every vaccination I could get my hands on because I thought they were protecting me and didn’t realise they’re not for everyone).
- He suspects a brain stem issue because of vasovagal syncope history, neck problems and dysautonomia symptoms.
- He said that he has seen cases of ME caused by invasive dental work alone, so he thinks my history predisposed me, but having acute bronchitis, viral gastroenteritis, lots of dental work and then the flu shot all in the space of 3 months definitively tipped my immune system to ME. He said, “The flu vaccination is what did you in.”
- My tender abdomen he said was my terminal ilium and that was typical with enteroviruses living in the wall of the small intestine.
He said I might have contracted new infectious illnesses in the past 3 years, but, whereas healthy people fight off viruses locally (i.e: facial symptoms with a cold), I fight it off systemically and all my ME symptoms flare. My mother and I heard loud and clear that contracting another virus would be incredibly dangerous for my recovery and my future health.
- He said that there was a sewage leak into the lake at Incline Village in 1984, before the initial ME/CFS outbreak and that everyone got sick in the summer when they jumped in the lake. He said he is the only person in the US working on enterovirus research and he has found the virus in the blood and stomach lining of patients and has also done studies (injecting mice with enteroviruses and those that were initially immune deficient died). He said the CDC will soon be reproducing his work, he hopes.
Blood test results:
- My T-lymphocytes are okay. CD4 is a little low.
- Echoviruses, chlamydia pneumoniae, CMV, Creatine Kinase, IgA and CRP are all negative or within range.
- Coxsackie B 4 and 5 are high. Type 4 is very high.
- IgG (gammaglobulin) is low. All 4 subclasses. These are the most important antibodies to neutralise enteroviruses and maintain a healthy immune system.
- HHV 6 IgG antibodies are very high.
- He mentioned interferon, but said it is a very difficult treatment and short-lived.
- He mentioned Epivir, an HIV drug that helps about 30% of the time, but didn’t want me to consider it now.
- He told me to watch out for lakes, rivers, shellfish and not to drink the LA tap water.
- He said I could try sublingual vitamin B12, coQ10, magnesium and vitamin D (all of which I take except B12).
- The most important treatment he thought I needed was 5 – 15 grams of intravenous gammaglobulin to replace what I don’t have and modulate my immune system. He kept reiterating how much sicker I would be if I caught another virus, so he thought I should get IVIG twice a year and again whenever I travel anywhere (although, he said I probably shouldn’t travel). He wanted me to see an immunologist to get it, but it’s very expensive and the immunologist would want to inject me with a pneumonia vaccine to determine whether IVIG was necessary by my immune response two weeks later (I find this all very frustrating and wish that Dr. Chia could just give me a requisition form to take to a Seattle hospital so I don’t have to go through the rigmaroll of finding another specialist to determine that I need a treatment that this specialist says I need! It’s also frustrating because I won’t let a vaccine near me for the rest of my life and some random immunologist probably won’t take Dr. Chia’s word for it). If I can’t get IVIG, he said I should get 2 mililiters of intramuscular gammaglobulin, which will last for a few months.
- He also gave me Equilibrant, his own proprietary blend of vitamins, minerals and herbs, and told us the story of his son’s recovery once he was taking 9 pills a day. He wants me to start on ¼ pill for a month, then move up to ½ for another month. I should expect an increase in my symptoms for 7-10 days. My problem with Equilibrant is that it has a bunch of fillers and crap in it: Dextrose, titanium dioxide, Yellow #5, Blue #2, Carnuba Wax etc. I still think I’ll try it, but I haven’t gotten the nerve up yet.
Honestly, the best thing he said to me during this whole appointment was, “You’ll get there.” He said since I’m so much better now than I was last year, my body is recovering and I just have to try to avoid getting another virus. After hearing Dr. Peterson say that he has never had a patient recover, it was nice to hear Dr. Chia say that I would get there…. I know “there” will not be where I was pre-ME, but I’ll take pretty much any there over here.