Body’s in Trouble and SIBO Test From Hell.

I am going to document this swiftly before the whole horror fades under the sweet joyous glow of sugar and carbohydrates. Besides the first few years of this illness, which has its own special place in the Hell Hall of Fame, the last few days preparing and preforming the SIBO test might have been the worst 50 hours of my life. There are 2 close seconds: the aftermath of a lumbar puncture, which gave me the 10 on my pain scale to which I compare all else, and a particularly harrowing bout of food poisoning, which I suffered alone on my brother’s bathroom floor for a few days, thinking I might die. But this weekend was worse than both. But let me back up.

My symptoms have been bad since coming back from California, particularly the last month. Immediately after our return, I had to contend with my period, which heightens everything a notch, including emotions. My husband went straight back to work 7 days a week to catch up with his landscaping jobs and the renewed isolation, plus being trapped indoors because of the chilly, damp weather began to take their toll very quickly.

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A week after getting back to Seattle, I got the tests done for Dr. Kaufman (the California doctor at the Open Medicine Clinic). I had 39 vials of blood taken in 2 days — the first day, we did 9 vials, but my blood sugar crashed, so the second day we went back downtown and I did the other 29 vials. I completely underestimated the toll it would take. That evening my blood pressure tanked and I didn’t feel good. It took a few days for the effects to wear off. Just in time for family to come over for my birthday brunch, which caused a bad (but short-lived) crash (I already wrote about this last month).
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Two days after that, I started to get a throat thing… one of those feelings that, in my old life, would have made me think I was getting sick. The last time I was sick — normally sick with a cold and bronchitis — was almost exactly 6 years ago. That boggles my mind. It is, of course, because I probably have immune activation, but it is maybe even more about being housebound, wearing my mask when I go to appointments in the winter and not letting sick people come into my house. So for 3 days I felt like I had strep throat, was completely couch-bound, stiff, sore, swollen and had a tight chest just like it used to feel before I got a chest infection. For 2 nights I slept over 8 hours, which should tell you right away I was being beat down by something different because I’m lucky to ever get more than 6 or 7 hours sleep. These symptoms of acute sick on top of chronic sick scared me. I have read so many stories of relapses and crashes caused by a common cold. I haven’t had any lung issues since the first year of this illness and, as a previous asthma/bronchitis/pneumonia sufferer, I am incredibly thankful that I don’t contend with those symptoms. So, I hit it with every tool in my virus tool kit, including IV fluids (so brilliant to be able to hook myself up to fluids; see my first time here) and it didn’t progress to a full-blown cold or flu.

The day I started to feel better, I did an immunoglobulin infusion. From that day on, I’ve had a headache. It has waxed and waned over the last 3 weeks, but yesterday it was in the top 4 worst headaches of my life. More on that in a minute. I’m not finished with the litany. A few days after the infusion, I stopped taking all of my vitamins, supplements and even prescriptions that aren’t essential. I needed to come off my candida treatment for 2 weeks before doing the SIBO test, so I just stopped everything. I thought this would be a good break, but in retrospect, perhaps it contributed to this past Very Bad Fortnight.

One thing I did not intend to discontinue was my hormone therapy but my doctor refused to call in my compounded progesterone prescription because I hadn’t seen her in person in 4 months, so I had to abruptly stop it in the middle of my cycle. Maybe it’s no big deal, but I’ve been taking it for years and it regulates my periods and calms my reactivity, so messing with my body and, more importantly, the difficulty dealing with my doctor caused a lot of stress (I didn’t want to see her until I had the test results back from the 39 vials of blood, so I implored her to extend my Rx, but it took her too long to answer and my period decided to come and then she only called in a few to tide me over until our appointment, but they wanted to charge me $2.50/capsule for such a small order, so I just went to see her (there was no discussion of my hormones and no changes made, so withholding the refill felt like blackmail to get a very sick person to make an appointment). Then it took 3 more days after our appointment for her to call the progesterone into the pharmacy… so I was ultimately off of it for 2 weeks. Sigh).

Speaking of my pain scale, the week before last I had a bowel spasm that was a 9. My first 9 since The Evil Calcium Headache of 2012. I have experienced a lot of bowel issues in my life — just the day before this spasm, I had experienced such vicious heart palpitations during an enema, that I thought I might collapse with vasovagal syncope — but I didn’t know this sort of pain was possible in the bowel. From an internal muscle spasm?? Seems far-fetched even now, having experienced it. It only lasted about 5 minutes, but for that eternity I couldn’t move from the bathroom floor where I had crumpled, I could barely breathe, I was making some weird, uncontrollable, primal, guttural, airless moan. If it had gone on a few minutes longer, I would have called an ambulance and probably would have agreed to morphine, even though I’m allergic to it. As soon as I was able to crawl, I did a castor oil pack and heating pad and the spasm eased up. The aftershocks and inflammation continued for days, however…

Right up until my period came and my chronic headache became a chronic migraine. The old kind that has me wincing at every noise and squinting at every light. The kind of headache that makes it difficult to move my eyes, like the extraocular muscles have swelled taught with inflammation. The kind that infects my neck and spine, so I can’t turn my head, bend over, cough, sneeze or poop without whimpering in pain. The kind that causes nightmares about loved ones getting their skulls bashed in and destroys sleep with constant throbbing wakings. The kind that causes my stomach to flip with every smell and my poor husband: “Please don’t put your foot down so heavily on the floor.” “Please don’t ever use that shaving cream again.” “Please don’t sharpen that knife or stir that pot.” “Please don’t smoke that cigar out on the porch because it sticks to your clothes.” … etc. I became very weak over the next few days, like the life-force was drained out of me. Muscles not working, hard to converse. This is a completely different feeling from my typical exhaustion or heavy muscles. This is how I imagine it feels if someone is on the ground, bleeding out.

And then, just like that, a depression switch was flicked in my brain. I’ve only been really depressed twice before, the worst was the winter of 2013 after I’d gone steadily downhill for 2 years and spent most of my time in my bedroom in pain. This episode wasn’t as bad as that — I am sustained by a bit more hope these days because I’ve had some staccato ups punctuate the continuous downs — but it still sucked. I’ve cried every day and had very black thoughts. The relentlessness of my symptoms have highlighted the improvements in California, making me terrified of what it means for our lives if my environment is keeping me sick. And the interesting/engulfing thing about depression is, it doesn’t matter whether you rationally know that things will be better on a different day or could be better in a different location, you still want to give up and end it all. Nope, can’t do this anymore, I’m too tired. And when that Black Cloud of Despondency starts to dissipate, like it has today (oh, thank god, please stay away), it seems ludicrous and selfish that you had those dark thoughts.

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SIBO prep meal

But let’s get to the crescendo… The last 50 hours… The prep for the SIBO test… If I was ever in doubt that my body doesn’t do well on a low-carb diet, this weekend proved it. It feels miraculous that I’m able to sit up and type right now, honestly. On top of bad physical symptoms, little sleep, no supplements and sadness, I started a 48-hour prep diet for a SIBO test ordered by Dr. Kaufman. SIBO stands for small intestinal bacterial overgrowth. I’ve done the SIBO diet and test once before and don’t remember it being very difficult (aside: my post is here and you can see that the National University of Natural Medicine has stolen my food photo for their website here, which I find highly amusing). For the prep diet, you are only allowed to eat meat, eggs, white rice and fats for 12 hours and then 15 hours of fasting, which doesn’t sound too bad except, if you are constipated (or in my case, the most constipated person I’ve ever met), you have to do the diet for 2 days before the fast. I eat all day and night — it steadies my blood sugar and maintains my weight — and, although I eat meat every day, I don’t eat a lot and I only eat about 2 or 3 eggs a week. So, this was hard. Friday night, I stopped eating at 1am. I was hoping I would wake up Tuesday morning without an appetite, which often happens in the mornings, but no luck, I was starving. I ate a scrambled egg with turkey. A little later I ate some rice and butter. Then chicken breasts. By the time my husband made some “meat broth” (no bones, cartilage, herbs or veg allowed), I was very nauseous — which is unusual, I have an iron stomach — but still hungry because I couldn’t physically choke down enough meat to fill me up and too much white rice without sufficient veg and starchy carbs causes my blood sugar to crash because of reactive hypoglycemia. The nausea was exacerbated by pain throughout my body, a pulled muscle in my back and my migraine ratcheting up. If I hadn’t prepared for this test for 2 weeks already, I would have thrown in the towel and taken steroids, acetaminophen and an antihistamine, but I had to shudder through it.

Yesterday was indescribable (but I’ll try). I woke up with my brain swollen, neck stiff and head shattered. It felt like that lumbar puncture headache: I had to be horizontal to function. And, of course, I was starving. The smell of the meat broth almost made me vomit. My arms shook as I force-fed myself an egg and turkey. Later, I ate beef stew meat and rice, but, again, not enough to fill me. I just couldn’t get it down. I spent the whole day in a weak ball on the couch. My husband had to half carry me to the loo because whenever I sat up, my limbs started shaking and I broke out in sweats. This was more than hunger on top of a migraine. I googled meningitis and encephalitis symptoms and actually considered going to the hospital. I’ve managed to stay out of the emergency room for the entirety of my illness, so I don’t consider it lightly. But, really, what could they do? IV fluids, which I can do at home; a spinal tap, which I’ll refuse; a brain CT, but I’ve had way too much radiation exposure in my life; an MRI, but I’ll refuse contrast; a blood test, which will be negative. So I stayed put. And, besides, I checked my blood sugar, blood pressure and temperature and, inexplicably, everything was stable. Actually, this made me a little more scared because I like having a reason for abnormal symptoms — something I can fix. The entire day, I kept saying to myself, “You’ve come this far, just 20 more hours… 15 more hours…” I couldn’t stomach anything after 6pm and I finally got to sleep at midnight, but woke up at 3:30am and 4am and then every hour, feeling sick and in and out of dreams about food. I got up at 7am and my head felt a bit better, but I was so emaciated and weak (I lost 3 pounds in those 2 days and I didn’t have 3 pounds to lose).

For the SIBO test, at least an hour after you wake up, you drink a lactulose solution and then take a sample of your breath every 20 minutes for 3 hours. Only 4 more hours. My kingdom for peanut butter on toast! It was torture. I was breathless and, with every movement, my heart rate skyrocketed. I’m not sure why I have to eat so much, so often, of so many foods in order to feel like my muscles and organs — even my cells — will function. It could be thyroid related: my metabolism is still revving too high. But then the icing on the cake … No, the cherry on top of the icing… The pièce de résistance of the whole month de hell: An hour after drinking the lactulose solution, my body responded how it always does to a shot of sugar without a meal chaser: my blood sugar crashed. No, no, no… We are in the 11th hour, I have been off supplements, I have gotten through the prep diet, please, body, do not fail me before I complete the test. I sat very still, tried not to expend energy, willed my pancreas and liver to do their jobs and release some glucose, but the shakes and my hammering heart… It was too much. I thought I might black out getting the phone to call my husband, my words were halting and stuttered, my vision tunneled as I tested my blood sugar. It was 57 and I was getting worse, I had no choice but to drink some apple juice. After only 3 ounces, I could feel my body stabilise. It was like those starving Naked & Afraid people who feel energy flood back into their bodies after eating a minnow (if you don’t watch that program, what are you waiting for?). I’d last about 3 hours on Naked & Afraid.

An hour and a half after the hypoglycemic crash, I got diarrhea. For someone who hasn’t moved her bowels in over 2 years without an enema, this is a big deal — body’s in trouble. I finished the SIBO test and wrote a note that I had to drink apple juice and all I can do is pray that they can glean something from my samples. As soon as I blew my last breath sample, I drank a huge mug of proper Irish tea with milk and ate a piece of banana bread. I moaned with every sip and bite. Potable, edible life. Then I ate a seed bar, some nuts, some melon. And then half an acorn squash and half a head of steamed cabbage. And an oatmeal raisin cookie. Now I’m sitting at the table for the first time in about 10 days feeling very grateful for no shakes, my normal-level pain, the food in my belly and the energy available to write this. I don’t even care that my churning, bloated, gassy bowel probably means I have SIBO and will have to take antibiotics. All I know is I will never do this test again.

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Believe it or not, an update!

I have so much to write about, so much to catch people up on and document, but the longer I go without posting, the harder it feels to break the dry spell. Each month, I think, “Write that in a blog post, you’ll want to remember that,” but I never feel like I can “waste” the time. Especially in the last 6 months. If you’re friends with me on Facebook, you know that I have lost all available energy for months to fighting horrific healthcare battles. Energy that could have been put towards conversations with loved ones, time playing with my dogs, reading or writing…

So here’s a recap: From November, 2015 to around August, 2016 I was slowly getting stronger from my immunoglobulin infusions. I estimated that they brought me up from about 15% of normal functioning to about 20%. That 33% increase was miraculous. It didn’t exactly change the way I lived my life (I still had the same symptoms, was still mostly housebound, still had to manage energy carefully), but it changed my control — things became predictable, which reduced fear and let me branch out. Payback was shorter, not as scary, I could do more and knew I wouldn’t make myself permanently worse. That last point was life-changing for me. For 4 years, it felt like anything I did made me worse, I was desperate to hold on to the functioning I had and couldn’t take many chances without being forced down a notch — and I was always so scared that the new lower notch would be forever.

So, last year we went to the Washington coast for 5 days and I didn’t feel terrible. I had two friends visit me at my house and we talked for hours and I was okay. My family came to Seattle for their annual vacation (2 brothers, sister, mother, spouses and 7 nieces and nephews) and I was able to go to their rental house 4 days in a row for extended visits. This was the turning point, though, I think. I left it all on the stage those 4 days with my family. Friends with chronic illness, you know what I mean — it’s such a difficult act to appear normal and, from what I’m told, I gave a great performance that long weekend. Each day I came home and literally crawled on all fours to my bed. I lost 3 pounds in 4 days because between each visit all I could do is lie in bed and hope for a enough recovery to try it again. There wasn’t a moment that the payback wasn’t worth the incredible time I spent with my family. I’ll have to write a whole blog post on it one day. My nieces and nephews are everything you want kids to be — sweet, kind, honest, inquisitive, funny. No bratty-ness, no meltdowns, no selfishness. My brothers are doing something right.

Right after that visit, in August of last year, I started to nosedive. I had an increase in migraines, sore throats, exhaustion, muscle pain, unstable blood pressure. I was trying out (very expensive) hyperbaric oxygen treatments at the time and thought they were either causing or exacerbating my symptoms, so I stopped those, but continued to go downhill. In November, I started the descent into health insurance hell that lasted about 4 months. I’m not going to get into it right now. There’s too much to tell and it’ll make me shake and cry angry tears as I type, which I’m not up for. Suffice it to say it is an evil, vindictive, nonsensical, black hole of a system and nobody has accurate information about anything when it comes to healthcare for people under 65 on disability. And, even if they do have the knowledge, it seems the vast majority of health-related representatives (or is it all humans? I’m guessing it is) are inept, lazy, selfish and genuinely couldn’t care less about helping someone in need. My friend Michael had one of these phone calls where he wound up saying, “How do you sleep at night?” to the representative who was outright lying to him. Essentially, that’s how I spent 4 months — all available energy every day dedicated to battling my brain symptoms so I could continue to micromanage every person who held my health in their hands, taking copious notes and making enemies, as I waded through the morass of phone transfers, misinformation, hours of stuttering hold muzak, false promises about call backs and looming deadlines… While thinking, how do they live with themselves? Not to mention incompetent, petulant doctors that I need so I can’t I leave them.

When my mother came to visit after Christmas, she said it might have been the sickest she had ever seen me. I wasn’t even close to the sickest I’ve been, but it still says something about the severity of my crash (to be fair, I had allowed myself to have one of those total meltdown, let-it-all-out, “I’m so sick of being sick” sob-fests in front of her — the kind that I usually rein in because they can make me more reactive and wipe me out — which can’t be easy for a mother to witness). My strength started to get marginally better in February. I think it might have been helped by an increase in my thyroid medication, but it was kind of a double-edged sword because I also became horribly hyperthyroid for about 3 weeks before I realised what was happening. I had also stopped going to my weekly appointments (physical therapy, myofacial, counselling etc.) and had stopped my immunoglobulin infusions because I lost insurance to cover them, so perhaps the break from obligations and weekly medications helped me gain strength.

This spring my husband, dogs and I drove to California for an appointment with Dr. Kaufman at the Open Medicine Clinic and we stayed 6 weeks for a holiday and to test how I felt in a different climate. I will write about those big events in another post. What I really came on here to document is how I’m doing now. I want to keep track of what I can manage and how bad the payback is when I indulge in social time. Last November I went out to brunch (out!) with 4 old friends (you can imagine what it meant to me to be invited). I’m pretty sure I appeared normal throughout the 2-hour meal, but payback was vicious. My calendar notes say: “very bad today, body totally shut down, in bed, shaking, crashing, crying, guts feel swollen and full of bricks, heart, muscles, eyes burning.” It lasted days. In early February, my brother was at our house for 7 hours. I spent his visit relaxed on the couch in my pjs, but we talked and laughed like normal people, animatedly, and I didn’t rest once (unheard of a few years ago). I went to bed that night flying high, so happy from our conversation, so grateful to feel fine… And then, 3 hours later, woke up in the middle of the night feeling poisoned, shaking all over. My calendar says: “severe payback, swollen throat, can barely swallow, hard to breathe, every muscle in pain, bad stiff neck and headache, shooting pain in bowels, nose stuffy and runny.” The worst of it only lasted about one and a half days.

Yesterday, we had family over for brunch to celebrate my birthday. Although the whole shindig lasted 3.5 hours, there were only about 2 hours during which everyone was here — 4 adults and a child, not that many people. My friend Z said I looked great, she was so excited by how different it was from other years. She said, “I know you’ll pay, but today was normal.” This is everything I could hope for, BUT… the big but… But, it was hard. I can power through now, I have the ability to put on an excellent performance. If my neurological symptoms stay away, I can do quite a bit physically (although standing for a long time still causes excruciating pain). So, yesterday I showered, dressed, got out plates and cutlery, made some waffles and chatted with my family. That’s about all I did before things got difficult. There’s this weird thing that happens when you’re ill, but you’re putting on the normal act: You lose time. Or at least I do. Do any of you? For example, I remember everything about the first hour yesterday — when I was chatting with my husband and sister-in-law. Then our friends and their daughter arrived and things are a little fuzzier. I remember the conversations, but they’re not in sharp focus. Then my sister and her dog arrived, right around the time I wanted to make the waffles and apparently that’s when my mind went into … not quite “survival” mode, but “keep it together” mode: I was talking to 2 people in the kitchen while trying to focus on cooking and, although I made good waffles and I’m sure I said the appropriate things at the appropriate times during the conversations, I cant remember any of it clearly and couldn’t tell you what we talked about. Same thing while we ate — I clearly remember how delicious the food was (of course I do), but recalling things that were said is akin to trying to remember conversations I had while drunk, it’s murky, and it worries me that I was rude or unresponsive — to my favourite people, who made the effort to visit us, no less.

When I was saying goodbye to them, I could barely see. My vision was tunneled, I had a wicked headache and my brain was a buzzing scream, but being the fastidious person I am, I couldn’t not load the dishwasher. This tipped me over the edge. I was staggering around the kitchen, using immense effort to coordinate my muscles and concentrate enough to lift and place dishes. My eyes weren’t tracking properly, my heart rate was running high and my legs were burning terribly, but I just wanted to come to an end point… Stupendously stupid stupidity. I slid to the kitchen floor, panting, crying, literally unable to walk out of the room. I slurred: “Nothing is worth this. I was trying so hard to be normal, but no social time is worth this.” My husband said, “Why don’t you just be honest?” and I said, “Because THIS is honest.” On the floor, weeping is honest. He helped me to the couch, I was having a hard time sitting up, it was just utter energy depletion, muscles unable to work. I immediately fell asleep in a sort of emergency power-down. I started to feel a bit better about 5 hours later and today I’m okay besides another bad headache and stiff neck. That’s the difference now — when it hits, it hits hard and scares the bejeesus out of me, but it doesn’t last long. So I take it back, it was worth it. I ate decadent food in the warm sun in our beautiful garden with some of my favourite people on the planet (and to Z’s credit, she tried to stop me from over-exerting myself over and over and I bullheadedly kept telling her, “No, I want to do this! I’m fine!”). But of course it was worth it and I’ll keep trying to make this life have more life in it and repeat to myself during the scary times: this, too, shall pass.

Hyperthyroidism

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After dealing with thyroid disease for almost 9 years, I finally, for the first time, can definitively identify the symptoms that are coming from being hyperthyroid. When they found the goiters on my thyroid and diagnosed me with Graves Disease, I didn’t know my very overactive thyroid was doing anything to my body. Unlike these stories you hear (like Dr. Amy Myers‘s), I was not telling an unbelieving doctor that there was something wrong with me. Quite the opposite. I had multiple doctors see my test results and look at me, perplexed: “You haven’t been shaking, anxious, losing weight? Have you been losing hair or had temperature problems?” Nope, nope, nope. I had been hyperthyroid for so long that I just thought of myself as someone who had thin hair and could eat a lot. Everything else I chalked up to my high-stress job: I was “type A”, I didn’t sleep well because I had a lot on my mind. I wasn’t anxious, I was BUSY. Give me the radioactive iodine already and let me get back to work!

A few weeks ago, I started getting very stressed out about my upcoming trip to California. So much to plan, rentals to find, plane tickets to buy, packing lists to make, food to prepare and freeze, prescriptions to fill. And for the doctor I’ll be seeing, I have to write my history, years of tests to sort, scan and email, release of records forms to ten different clinics… Of course I was feeling overwhelmed–especially with finding places to stay since every day that I didn’t make a decision, more options would disappear. My sleep had (has) gone to hell, I’m waking up with a sore jaw from grinding and my teeth feel unstable. I keep telling my husband, “There’s too much to do. I can’t breath, my heart is racing, I feel like I’m going to have a stress-heart attack.” I lie down to rest and my mind … my god, it just races and my body feels full of electricity. I give up, come downstairs and speed talk at my husband. The other night he asked me, “How do you have so much energy right now, you didn’t sleep at all?” And I said, “It’s not energy, it’s adrenaline, it’s stress. Once the trip is sorted, this will stop.” That was my explanation.

I lost a little bit of weight and thought it was because I cut back on eating so many nuts. But I’m eating more in general: one minute I’m complaining about how full and uncomfortable I am and, five minutes later, I’m back in the kitchen looking for snacks. I said to my friend, “I’m stress-eating.” That was my excuse. I said to my Mom, “My hair has started to fall out again and it never even grew back from before.” In my mind, I was blaming the hair loss on weight loss, even though I’m only down a few pounds. That makes no sense! Such a small amount of weight loss hasn’t caused hair loss, your thyroid has caused both, you myopic fool.

A week or two before I started to notice all of this, I had increased my thyroid medication from 100ug to 125ug a day. I’ve changed my dose so many times over the years, I don’t give it a second thought. I certainly don’t monitor my body’s reactions because I am an expert at ignoring the signs, even when they’re not subtle. Just like when I was a workaholic and feeling these same physical symptoms, but thought they were just from job pressure.

When the penny dropped (I was recently told that Americans don’t know that idiom — it means you put two and two together or the light bulb went off), that all of it is overactive thyroid, I was so excited, so soothed. And it was suddenly so very obvious. This is textbook. I’m not an anxious person, I never have been. My neuroses are canted more towards rumination and second-guessing. It’s a fine line, but this tight, breathless, buzzing, heart-hammering feeling in my chest is not normal and is awful. Such a sad thing to realise that, even after all this time, with my body yelling its head off, I blindly make excuses. I could be standing here, cold and jittery, with a handful of hair in one hand and my third sandwich in the other, saying, “Gosh, this trip planning is stressful.” It reminds me of that scene in The Man With Two Brains when he’s looking at the portrait of his dead wife and asks her to give him a sign if his new girlfriend is bad news. After the ghost turns the room upside down, Steve Martin says, “Just any kind of sign. I’ll keep on the lookout for it. Meanwhile, I’ll just put you in the closet.” I’ve been putting my body in the closet. I’m so happy to finally know without a doubt exactly what my hyperthyroid symptoms feel like and even happier to know I can fix it.

2016 Beach memories: Pictures worth 20,000 words.

Two years ago, I spent a few arduous days in L.A. with my mother and husband so I could have an appointment with Dr. Chia. Last year, we spent a few days on the Washington coast while I was very sick. We picked the closest coastal town to our house, so it was the shortest drive and my husband did all the work — I just had to get myself in and out of the car. I did it for the dogs, to see their joy on the beach, to try to make up for two and a half years of no adventures and lessened activity… but I was not in good shape.

This year, though… This year we took TWO TRIPS TO THE COAST. Again, all I had to do was pack (no easy feat — it takes me days) and get myself in the car. My angel husband, with good spirits, loads everything in and out and in and out of the car, including my mobility scooter, all my food, bedding, towels etc. I even brought my air purifier. I love being so low-maintenance.

Last June, was our longest trip since I got sick. We stayed in the same place in the same coastal town as we had in 2015, but I was feeling better than I had in years so, on the day we were meant to leave to go back to Seattle, we found a different rental and extended our visit for an extra two days. This new house was right on the beach and had a balcony. I had no idea the difference it would make to my experience. The first rental was further inland and had a fenced-in yard and trees enclosing the garden. It never occurred to me that a view might be nice — might even be soul-enlivening — I was just happy to see four different walls. But the simple act of gazing at an expanse of nature, even from inside a house, is everything when you’ve been housebound for a prolonged period. That first night, when I saw the vast black sky punctured with millions of bright stars, I started weeping. When was the last time I really saw the stars? I will never forget that moment. And the next day, sitting on the balcony, watching the waves… It didn’t even matter if I was feeling too ill to get to the beach. The funny thing was, I experienced none of that Oh-I-feel-so-much-better-near-the-ocean “locations effect” that so many people with ME report. If anything, I was taken down a notch by the wind, the marine smell, bonfire smoke at night, trying to manage my temperature fluctuations etc. Plus, there were, of course, a few difficulties for my sensitive system (a house on stilts that shook so violently, I couldn’t sleep, overwhelming bleach smell in the bathroom, strongly chlorinated tap water, too many stairs), but it was definitely worth it.

Over four months ago, I wrote a Love letter to my sons as a preamble to the big post I intended to write about the coast trip and then, of course, never got around to writing it. I’m struggling at the moment (this post has taken me a week to put together), so I’m going to let the photos do the talking.

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Half the house packed in the car, ready to go.

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ROAD TRIP!

This was the first night we arrived. A beautiful crescent moon welcomed us to the coast.

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Some days were overcast…

… with dramatic evenings.

Some days were glorious…

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…with breathtaking sunsets (taken from the balcony).

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The beach is exhausting. 😀

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The couple next door got married on the dune in front of our house. I wound up talking to them the day we left because I wanted to send them the photos I took and, in a bizarre coincidence, it turned out the bride had been suffering with a similar illness as mine, had tried many of the same treatments, knew all the same doctors. We both got tears in our eyes. It was a surprisingly beautiful thing to talk to someone so freely *in person, not on the internet*, without having to explain anything.

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The flag on the left is where they were wed.

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We had no plans to go again this year, but our best friends wound up renting the house next door to the one we had in June, so, at the beginning of this month and at the very last minute, we decided to join them. I’ve gotten worse the past few months, so I knew I wouldn’t be able to participate as much as I would like to (the first night they all played cards and had drinks, while I was in the other house, resting. The second night they had a bonfire on the beach, while I was inside, resting), but there were wonderful moments of normalcy: Z. chatting with me over morning tea, without the time-pressure of a planned visit; my dogs’ excitement when they saw Aunt Z. and Uncle J. on the beach — missed members of our extended pack; watching their family fly kites on the beach; colouring with sweet Anna while she talked my ear off more than she ever has before; eating dinner at a table with a group of friends, with conversation, laughing and music playing in the background (<~ this most of all: just hanging out amid all the normal sounds, feeling part of a group); and the social time my husband got, just hanging with friends he hasn’t seen properly in years.

The only downside was my dogs are showing their age much more now than they were even four months earlier. I couldn’t use my scooter as much as last time because they simply didn’t have the stamina to walk distances and were both limping after our first short excursion. The last — and warmest — day, Bowie didn’t even get out of the car for more than a minute. He was pooped. And Riley just sat next to me like a sentry, wondering why I was lying on the sand. I fear it really might have been the last hurrah on the beach, which makes me even happier that I pushed myself to go and create new memories.

The boys were thrilled to be back!

Our best friends frolicking. 🙂

Bowie and sweet Anna flying a kite.

One day was dark and brooding and that night it stormed with 50 mph winds.

Another day was sunny and clear.

 

Small steps with payback… But new memories and happy dogs are everything.

Brain symptoms and sleep.

I wanted to clarify something from my last post. I got a few messages which made me realise that when I said, “This year, my worst symptoms by far are from the shoulders up”, people thought I meant the over-analytical, perfectionist tendencies I have, which cause me to ruminate on details and not be content with anything. It makes sense, since that is what I was discussing for the majority of the post, but that’s not what I meant. In no way do I consider those tendencies — my personality — to be symptoms. It might make things a little easier if I weren’t always craving change and could accept life as it is, but I love that part of me that never feels settled, it’s the part that longs to keep learning, better myself, change the world. With a different body, who knows what I’d be allowed to accomplish.

When I wrote about my worst symptom, I was referring to my Buzzy Brain. I’ve tried to describe it on here before and I’ve discussed it with doctors, but I’ve still never talked to anyone who seems to experience the exact same thing. I’ve started to wonder if it isn’t some sort of optical migraine or silent seizure or atypical narcolepsy. It comes on very quickly and it’s not brain fog, not even close. Moments of mental acuity, accurate recall and speedy connections — the confidence that I can master any information like I had in the past — are quite rare; my mind is usually pretty fuzzy, foggy. The Buzzy Brain is entirely different. It doesn’t make thinking difficult, it literally stops my functioning, both physical and mental. It starts with a physiological buzzing feeling in my brain, as though, if you could look under a microscope at the cells and synapses, you would be able to see the disability. I get testy, my forehead can feel numb, my eyes droop, I slur, my tinnitus roars, everything is impossible: walking, answering a question, watching TV… and there is no pushing through it. I can’t even relax in a dark room, listening to an audiobook. It is my great limiter because, even on days when my body and muscles feel capable of activity, if I have the Buzzy Brain, nothing can happen. The odd thing is, it is reset by even a very short nap. I can meditate in silent solitude, lying still for hours, and nothing will change, but, if I fall asleep for even 10 minutes, I get some relief. Maybe not total relief and maybe only for an hour, but enough to function. It is exactly like turning off a phone and plugging it in briefly just to get a little more battery life.

Of course this begs the question: is it 100% sleep-related? Could I eliminate this symptom if I had consistently good sleep quality over the course of months, years? I’ve had 5 sleep studies with no real answers. The first one in 2012 (long before I had my Buzzy Brain symptoms) showed my brain was waking up 49 times an hour. They diagnosed me with sleep apnea and gave me a CPAP.

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After the most recent one last June, my sleep doctor told me I didn’t have to wear the CPAP or my oral appliance anymore because obstructive sleep apnea wasn’t my problem. I was overjoyed because the CPAP keeps me awake all night and the oral appliance causes terrible jaw pain and TMJ issues. But, I know I feel better when I can manage to sleep while wearing one of them, so there’s something there. It was explained to me that as my tongue relaxes and my airway is just slightly blocked, my brain wakes up (not enough blockage for my oxygen to drop and not enough wakeage to be fully conscious) and that’s what it feels like, subjectively: that I’ve never really slept properly. This is part of nervous system dysfunction — the brain always being on high alert, never “allowing” deep sleep. So, although I may not need the CPAP for air flow, I feel better with it keeping my airway open so my brain isn’t triggered. But I can’t wear it, so what to do…?

When I saw my ND a few weeks ago, she said she wanted me getting 10-12 hours of sleep in every 24 hour period. I was incredulous. It’s impossible, that’s literally twice what I get now. She looked at me hard: “Then you’re not going to get better.” I told her I was wiped out after my hyperbaric oxygen chamber appointments and she said she wanted me to sleep 3-4 hours after each session. On top of 8-10 hours at night. This is truly ludicrous. I struggle terribly to get 6 hours sleep and I very rarely nap during the day. Plus, I hate bed. Hate it. I can’t see it as a place of healing, it represents life passing me by and sickness. My doctor said: “Would you rather force bed now and not be sick later or stay as you are forever?”

I’ve tried a lot of sleep medications and supplements and they’ve all had intolerable side effects, made me feel worse than the lack of sleep does or done nothing at all. I’m still not falling asleep until after 3am most nights. I know what everyone says about better sleep quality before midnight, but some of the best hours of my day are between 10pm and 2am, so I’m resistant to change. But I could go to sleep earlier, if I wanted to — my problem is not getting to sleep, it’s staying asleep and this is a harder issue to medicate. I thrash around in pain and nightmares for 5 hours, fight against encroaching consciousness for another hour or two and then my mind takes off at light speed and there is no going back. I feel quite helpless to change this and my doctor’s words are haunting me a bit now. Good quality sleep — or even just more hours of poor sleep — could be the ticket to healing.

I’ve gone significantly backwards the past few months, so I’m trying to convince myself that this autumn and winter will not exacerbate the downturn, but will be the perfect opportunity for hibernation and repair. So far, it’s not working. I see nothing positive about losing my garden oasis and the healing sun. I do have three new sleep medications to try, but… I don’t hold out hope. If anyone has any leads on a good pillow that doesn’t cause neck pain or ways to prolong sleep or force naps, please let me know.

Communication Breakdown

There was a point in my climb up the career ladder that I started talking about “the email problem.” At the time, most of my job was spent “in the field” — opening restaurants, traveling from store to store, hiring, training and meeting with employees. As my shifts were mostly on the floor, observing restaurant operations, the email problem grew and grew and I would spend all of my “downtime” trying to catch up. I never sat in front of a TV or ate a meal without my laptop, I stopped reading books. Eventually, I was in an office full-time and I still could not get on top of the computer work, even being at a desk all day. This was before I had a blog and blog comments to answer or Facebook messenger or WhatsApp. This was before I knew that Facebook groups existed, before I had cultivated friendships with 100% online communication. And this was before I got sick and wanted to ingest every bit of information that might help me. I have saved, bookmarked and sent hundreds of articles, educational videos and podcasts to myself, in different places, on different devices. I have 50K+ emails that I want to deal with, but I’ve compartmentalized them into some dark room in my mind so I can function. It’s now an “information problem” or a “communication problem.” It’s unmanageable. But I do it to myself.

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My personal gmail accoount.

I’ve always had a methodical way about how I tackle life. I like to do things in order, finish them and file them away. When I haven’t dealt with something, it becomes a small weight in my mind and, though I may look as if it’s not bothering me, it is. They are. They’re heavy. My husband is the complete opposite. He can’t understand why the ripening tomatillos and our over-burdened plum tree stress me out. He has no problem with piles of disorganised paperwork and chaotic junk drawers all over the house. If he doesn’t answer emails, it doesn’t weigh on him. Come to think of it, that’s another thing that drops little lead pellets in my brain: messages that I’ve sent that don’t get replies. They don’t weigh as much as emails I haven’t answered, but they still take up room at the back of my mind. I like discourse: unfinished conversations nag at me, even if those “conversations” are links I send my husband in a PM. A month later, I’ll say, “Did you see that video? You never mentioned it.” God, my skull is full of thousands of ball bearings. No wonder my neck always hurts.

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I often wonder how I would handle this illness if I were more like my husband. He is a content person. That sentence sums up our greatest difference. He is content with our home, with his routine, with his simple diet. He is content with his body, with his habits (good and bad), with his legacy, or lack thereof. The truth is, the only things my husband wants to change are things that I tell him need to be changed for my happiness.  I have never been content with anything, ever, never. My need to experience… it’s like a rabid, ravenous hunger. New places, new people, new information. It’s like a constant electric current that makes contentment the least accessible state of being imaginable. When I’m at home, I want to be on the road or on a plane. When I’m traveling, I long for my garden haven. I ruminate on the past and worry about the impact I will have made on the world when I’m gone. I’m critical of my body and chastise myself for my bad habits. I want to watch every movie and TV show, I worry about all of the wonderful music I am missing, I collect hundreds of books that I never read. I WANT ALL THE FOOD.

More and more, I realise that this fundamental trait is the reason I don’t sleep. Every night, I put it off to do/read/watch one more thing. Every morning, I can’t wait to get up and tackle things, even if that “tackling” is lying on my back in a dark room, looking at my phone. It doesn’t matter if I wake at 6am or 11am, as soon as I am conscious, my brain is like a bullet train. A bullet train that can repeatedly dichotomize and travel down dozens of branching tracks with the same enthusiasm… but they all fall off the a cliff after a very short journey. Because that’s the real problem. This year, my worst symptoms by far are from the shoulders up. There’s still a lot going on in my body as a whole, but the truly limiting factor is my brain. I don’t have enough hours of neurological clarity to manage 1/10th… no, 1/50th, maybe less… of what I want to and what I used to. That is now my true disability.

Recently, I’ve had a few people ask how I am because I haven’t written much lately. The short answer is I’m okay. There’s so much I want to write about, I simply stopped writing. Mostly because I know if I hit that cognitive wall while writing, I won’t be able to manage anything else, like preparing food. Also, when I gained some ground, it quickly got filled with doing more chores for myself to alleviate my husband and tackling my to-do list. I read all messages and emails (for the most part), even if I am remiss in replying. I promise you, all contact touches me deeply and adds fuel to my tank. It is never not appreciated on a very conscious level. So, bear with me and, if you can tune into your psychic abilities, you’ll hear me sending my love to each of you and we’ll never feel out of touch.

Title Credit

Return of the Frog Queen

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Madison, WI

I was living in this house when I was 21 years old. My roommate from college took this photo a few days ago when he was visiting Madison, Wisconsin and posted it on Facebook. I was slapped in the face with so many memories: lying in the dark back room in the summer, the only room with air conditioning, listening to music; drinking Mickeys and playing Tetris wars; breaking plates and smashing the Atari in a collective rock ‘n’ roll meltdown; smoking cigarettes all night on that tip-top balcony outside my bedroom, having conversations I thought I’d never forget. I lived there with 5 or 6 men — boys, really, we were just kids — I think I scored the best room because I was the only girl. That school year (1994 to 1995) and the few years afterwards were the most emotional of my life. I can’t really think of a better word to describe them. It was the loneliest and saddest time of my life before this chronic illness, but also the most memorable, the most adventurous, the most creative years I’ve experienced. And all of it is inextricably entangled with music. I’d once made a sign for my Mother’s kitchen wall that said (it was multi-colored like this): NEVER BE WITHOUT MUSIC and I never was. I have an obscenely bad memory, but everything I remember from those years has a soundtrack. I think maybe the only reason I remember any of it is because there was music playing during each scene, searing them into my mind. 1995 was also the only time I experienced depression before becoming housebound and I truly, un-dramatically, credit certain bands with saving my life.

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CD bliss, 1996

I’ve tried to listen to music a few times over the last four years, but it’s been difficult. First, because I was just too sick and was always striving for the closest thing I could get to silence. Background sounds are still difficult on a too-much-stimuli level, but as my headaches got better, I started to dabble in a song here and there and discovered that, even if I could handle the noise, the emotions unleashed were too much, like a tsunami against which I’d have to quickly close the floodgates for fear of drowning. Memories of sad times making me sad for who I was, memories of good times making me sad for what I’ve lost, regrets about past situations, gratitude for past experiences and abilities — all of it makes my chest start to heave and my breath catches in my throat and I go, “Oh, no way, not going there” and quickly switch to watching happy elephant videos. What I’d give to luxuriate in my old albums, in the memories they bring up and in hours of sobbing! And it would be a luxury — it would be cathartic and fun on some level to reminisce, but the indulgence would be far outweighed by the payback. My life is about equilibrium now; I try not to rock the boat. Plus, it’s really not as fun to go down Emotional Music Memory Lane without a bottle of whiskey.

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Kristin Hersh

Having said that, 15 months ago, my brother in Connecticut told me that one of my favourite singers, Kristin Hersh, was going to be in Seattle. I thought it was kind of funny (and kind of sad) that my brother on the other side of the country had to tell me what was happening down the road, but I never look at local listings because it’s a bit torturous to see what I’m missing. I decided to go. It was a solo show in a small, mellow venue where you could sit down and eat while watching. Seemed like the perfect way to test the live music waters. And it went well. It was utterly surreal to be in a public place, especially at night. I felt like one of those animals allowed to walk outside on grass after spending their lives in metal cages. I was unsteady, gripping my husband’s arm, looking uncertainly at the steps, the ceiling and lights, eyes darting around at the crowd uncomfortably, hoping not to be seen in case one of them noticed the outsider and stood up, pointed at me and screeched like that scene in the old Invasion of the Body Snatchers. It was a wonderful night, the hardest part was gulping down the sneaker-wave of tears when she opened with probably my favourite of her solo songs. Again, that unreliable floodgate. It was the music, yes, but so much more. I was out at a show — out at anything, actually — for the first time in two and a half years. I was normal. Or, at least, doing a good job of feigning it.

Tonight, I’m trying again. Jeremy Enigk is playing a show in Seattle and my sister has connections, so she’s going to set me up in the VIP or ADA section. I’m so excited. I had seen Kristin Hersh live probably half a dozen times before, so last year’s venture was noteworthy, but not a bucket list item. But tonight… Enigk’s band Sunny Day Real Estate’s first album Diary was part of the constant soundtrack in that Madison house 22 years ago, so it’s fitting that that photo showed up on Facebook a day before I found out about this show. I took it as a sign. I doubt I would love that album as much if I were introduced to it now, but back then there wasn’t much like it and these guys were college students around my age. And … THAT VOICE. It ripped my angsty heart out.

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my own private Idaho, 1995

I wound up fleeing the midwest in 1995. I drove alone across the country to Seattle (actually, to Bainbridge Island) during what would turn out to be one of the best four days of my life. No company, no mobile phones or internet back then, just me, a camera and my music. A year later, still lost in so many ways, I found Enigk’s solo album, Return of the Frog Queen, and, again, the timing was right and it became one of those keep-me-alive CDs.

So… tonight. I’m going to my second live show in almost four years and this time I have months of improvements under my belt. I haven’t slept well and I have a pretty bad headache (which is rare these days), but I’m not going to stay home to “be safe.” I may not know anything that he plays — I may not even like anything that he plays, that album is twenty years old, after all — but I’ve never seen him live, don’t even really know what he looks like and, if his voice can still do that heart-tug, stomach-clench wail, I might even let myself swim in the emotions for a change.
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LIVE UPDATE: He’s playing some songs I know, I really like the stuff I don’t know and his voice can still hit the sweet spot. I’m floating (not drowning).

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Jeremy Enigk

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