Our Old Man Riley

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Like Lassie, our Riley communicates quite skillfully with a range of different barks. A few months ago, he came to me at the dining table with his stern, urgent bark. I looked around for Penny, knowing he was tattling on his sister. He used to do this with Bowie, too. “Is she downstairs getting into treats?” I asked him. That’s where I’d found her one day, head buried in a Greenies bag. As I went down the stairs, Riley’s barks got more insistent: Mama, wrong way. I looked back up the stairs at him. He stamped his feet with intent, faced the back door, barked more urgently. He might as well have pointed. I went back up, looked outside, and there was Penny on the porch, standing amidst scattered recycling, snout-deep in an empty dog food can.

He has another bark for person at the gate and another for stinging insect in the house and for dinner is late and for I’m too arthritic to play with these dogs, so I’m just going to yell at them for an hour.

Riley is the house manager. He likes to lie in the open front door, where he can keep an eye on the street, the garden and inside the house, too. In the winter, when I insist on a closed door, he’ll lie on the porch outside, but only if he can see me through the window. If I go out of sight, he’ll nose his way inside to make sure I’m okay, first looking upstairs, then the basement, staying with me until I am back by the window so he can return to the porch and continue his vigil.

He gets up in the morning with my husband, the early bird, sees him off to work and then, by 9am, he comes carefully clicking through the dark bedroom to rouse me for breakfast. I listen to his slow ricochet off of walls and furniture corners, as he navigates to the far side of the room, where his nose finds my face. At night, he puts my husband to bed, too, and then re-emerges a few hours later to escort me upstairs.

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He protects his siblings, protesting loudly if anyone picks up Penny’s paws for clipping or cleaning or threatens her with a coat. He shoves his way in between us, offers up himself, instead. Take me. He did the same thing with Bowie, yelling at me if I tried to brush Bowie’s teeth or perform a rectal grass extraction. Except when Bowie was dying – Riley didn’t make a peep as I changed doggy diapers and forced endless pills down Bowie’s throat.

Riley is my self-appointed emotional support animal. When I’m talking to someone, he lies beside me on the couch, one paw on my arm, and if he hears emotion of any kind — annoyance, laughter, sadness — he’ll repeatedly claw at me. Stay cool, Mama. If I become more animated or raise my voice, he will clamber on top of me, put his weight on me, shield me, distract me. And, if all else fails, he turns into the court jester in the middle of the living room, the dancing frog from those cartoons: Look over here! See what I’m doing? 🎶 Hello, my baby…🎶

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Yesterday was his 11th adoptiversary. My husband ran into a woman at the park who said Rally (his name at the time) needed a foster family. We took him in and, after 3 other forever-homes fell through and we were gutted each time he left, we copped on that he was meant to be ours. We were meant to be his. He’s about 12 or 13 years old now. He came to us emaciated, with half a tail, already arthritic, even as a kid. He almost died from giardia, swelled up from wasp stings, lost a toe and a bunch of teeth – and none of it ever slowed him down.

But this year, he’s suddenly old. Cataract-y eyes, rickety bones, staring at walls… And I’m thinking of what it’ll be like to not have him taking naps with me or lying outside my shower… How quiet it’ll be with no warnings of stranger danger or bad insects or Penny mischief. I’m reminding him more than ever how much he’s loved, how, even with the endless lint rolling and daily hoovering, we have cherished every hour of the last 4,016 days with him. And how incredibly fortunate we are to be the ones who get to accompany him through however many days remain.

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The future might be the past…

I’m going through a rough(er) patch. My body is scaring me because I can’t find any cause for recent episodes. One of the good things these past few years, is that I can usually pinpoint a reason for reactions and downturns. Even after the last horrific night I suffered with apparently no reason (it was last November, during my Dad’s very short visit and I couldn’t blame it on overdoing it because I didn’t), I started spotting late the next day and–light bulb!–it was my period coming a week early (I can have terrible reactions on the day before or the first day of menstruation).

When my husband called 911 on the first day of my last period (both my MD and ND said that my body had gone into shock), it was the first time I’d had such a bad collapse with vitals bottoming out since 2010 — since before I was sick! Then, 5 days later, I got a tingly tongue and lip during IVIG and then a hive on the base of my throat. I realise it was a tiny reaction compared to what so many mast cell patients go through (a week later, a friend of mine went into full-blown anaphylaxis during her IVIG infusion and then somehow got the guts to try again the next day with the same batch –that put my experience into perspective), but the thing is, except for one small hive when I tried Xanax in 2013, I hadn’t had any hives since being in full-blown anaphylaxis 17 years ago! And that place–a hive in the suprasternal notch– was always the position for a systemic red alert, for something I ingested, as opposed to benign contact dermatitis.

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Then Saturday evening, my tongue swelled up for the first time in 7 months for no reason that I can figure out. I had tongue swelling a few times last year, but I could always explain it (dental work, sauna, vancomycin). Even more concerning, it’s still swollen now, 45 hours later and that’s very unusual. I took Benadryl the last 2 nights, squirting it onto the affected area of my tongue, as I’ve been told to do (this is also unusual for me–I am extremely judicious with Benadryl, only taking it when absolutely necessary) and the swelling still hasn’t resolved. I can’t remember another time it lasted this long — maybe, again, 17 years ago during anaphylaxis.

Then yesterday afternoon, I was hit with vertigo after spending too much time on my feet, preparing food. Vertigo is rare for me and is a big red flag. It’s very different from dizziness and I don’t think it has anything to do with blood pressure. I went to bed for a while, hoping it would resolve, but, when I got up, I was still slamming into walls, as if I were walking the hallway on a lurching boat. The last 2 times I experienced vertigo were 5 months ago during–shocker–my period and a year ago on the morning we were leaving for California, after killing myself the day before to finish packing. I thought it might be something to do with my neck, which always has issues, so I used heat, then my cervical traction device, then an ice pack. I think it helped; the vertigo had mostly abated by the time I went to bed.

But…

A few hours after I went to sleep, I woke up with horrible shakes and chills and drenching sweats. My BP was low (but low-normal for me: 80/50), HR was a little high, temperature was 96 degrees, and O2 was 95%. It was 7 terrible hours that felt viral, like when I first got sick, but was probably mast cells, what with the swollen tongue and all. I finally got up to do that thing that other chronically ill people might understand: put on clothes in case I had to go to the hospital. On a normal day, I might sit around in my dressing gown with unbrushed hair all day, but when there could be a chance I’m going to the hospital, I try to make sure I’m not naked. I also make sure I’m not wearing anything I care about — I’ve lost clothes in the hospital before.

Strangely, I had almost an identical episode on this exact day last year. Here’s a screenshot from my calendar:

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After the most stable autumn and winter I’ve had since being sick, this downturn–this piling on of relatively rare, red-flag symptoms–scares me. My sleep has gone to hell in the last few weeks, which compounds everything by stealing energy and increasing pain. Plus, I’m exacerbating things by holding tight to my “best winter yet” narrative and by fighting so hard to maintain the level of functioning I’ve had this past year, rather than pulling way back and resting aggressively.

My ND says the naturopathic philosophy is that you will go back through previous stages of health and experience earlier symptoms as you travel the healing journey back to where you once were. I’ve latched onto this theory to anchor myself and dispel some fear. The resurgence of all these old symptoms means there has been a shift in my system — but maybe it’s a positive shift, even though it doesn’t feel that way. I’ve gained weight since starting IVIG, over 8% of my norm, which is not insignificant, especially on someone as small as I am. I’m at my heaviest since being sick and, although I’m not overweight, I’ve lost muscle tone the last 7 years and I don’t have the physical ability to burn fat and build muscle, so I hope this trajectory doesn’t continue. My doctor thought this, also, pointed towards a shift in my body: maybe I’ve started absorbing nutrients better. Acne is coming back a little, too. Maybe my hair will grow back! Or the next thing will be that I’ll catch a cold for the first time in 8 years… (And because I really don’t want this to happen, no matter what it might indicate about a calming immune system: knock on wood, toba, toba, spit over shoulder: patuey.)

But, as I lie here, shaky, with my swollen tongue, chronicling these last few weeks (minus the osteoporosis diagnosis and extremely elevated post-antibiotics SIBO test results, both of which I’ll have to write about at a different time), none of it feels like a positive shift and I worry about what I should eat so as not to add to mast cell reactivity and whether I should stay in bed and lie still, even though longed-for Seattle sun is streaming through the windows and I’d love to make some breakfast and sit at my table watching Riley lounge in the grass, soaking up the rays, and the hummingbirds diving around our feeders.

First 911 call since being sick.

We had to call an ambulance this morning for — are you ready for this unbelievable fact? — THE FIRST TIME SINCE I’VE BEEN SICK (absolutely sick and disabled by M.E.; I was fully functional with MCAS for a decade beforehand). And I need the help of all you big brains to figure out the mechanism behind what happened. This is a long post because I want to track exactly what happened. I appreciate your reading this and your thoughts.

My main question is: What can cause sudden bradycardia and loss of consciousness, but not significant hypotension (nor hypertension)? Here’s the back story:

I have a history of anaphylaxis and it almost always happened during my period, usually on the first day, usually after drinking alcohol. I also have a history of collapsing at the start of menstruation, this happened many more times than the full-blown anaphylaxis and often seemed to be triggered by a bowel movement in the morning. The collapsing we’ve called vasovagal syncope, the theory being: vagus nerve triggered by bowel pressure + very reactive day = collapse. I sometimes lost consciousness, but I always was immobile, grey pallor, yellow lips, glazed-over, unfocused eyes, covered in sweat, heavy breathing, hypotensive, bradycardic. What was NOT typical of vasovagal syncope, according to doctors, was that my body didn’t bounce back: my HR did not rise to compensate for the low BP and my BP didn’t come up once I was supine. It usually resulted in ambulance trips to the ER for fluids and at least once I got IV morphine for severe dysmenorhhea (I can’t have any morphine-derived meds anymore).

These were my main health issues before M.E., I felt normal otherwise and pretty much blew them off. Incredibly, they haven’t happened since becoming sick in 2011. My dysmenorhhea actually got much better. Since being sick, I’ve often had bad mast cell reactions and worsening of ME symptoms on the first day of my period, but no collapsing with my husband terrified, calling 911. I thought it was because I’m more conscientious about hydrating and salt-loading.

I was spotting yesterday. My period came on in earnest in the middle of the night, but what disturbed my sleep repeatedly was a viral feeling of sick chills every time I changed positions. Chills and shakes enough to wake me. Then the period cramps started, much, much worse than normal, incredibly painful on the left side. The only thing I could think was maybe it was a ruptured ovarian cyst. I was moaning and crying out with the cyclical cramps, trying to find a position that eased it, my dog Riley clawing at me and burrowing under my body to help. My husband got me a hot water bottle, 2 acetaminophen and a benadryl. Then I took a turn for the worse: I was shaking badly, became nauseous, very weak, drenched in sweat (all the symptoms listed above). We took my vitals: BP was 86/49 (low, but normal for me), temperature was 97 (low, but normal for me), oxygen 96, but my HR was 48 — very abnormal for me. I’m usually 68ish at rest.

My husband got me apple juice in case I was hypoglycemic (it was too much of an emergency situation to check my blood sugar), salt water for my blood pressure, and started to call 911, but I said no. What could they do? Besides charge us thousands of dollars that we don’t have. I’d taken the 2 medications I could take, I could give myself fluids at home with my safe saline, and I didn’t want the two of us sitting around in a building full of flu and measles for hours on end, waiting for blood work and a vaginal ultrasound that would show nothing. But I kept getting worse and knew I was about to lose consciousness (even though I was still in bed and hadn’t even tried to stand up). I was starting to be unresponsive, so my husband called the paramedics.

By the time they got there (3 emergency response vehicles, 6 EMTs!), I’d come back from the edge a bit and was able to talk. They were concerned with my low BP, but I assured them it was normal for me. They did a cursory check of my heart and were concerned about the bradycardia, but said they didn’t see any rhythm issues. They tried to persuade me to go to the hospital, but I said no and signed a waiver. They didn’t want to speculate beyond dehydration (they pointed out that people aren’t realising how dehydrated they are in the current very dry Seattle Snowpocalypse) and possibly needing tests of my reproductive organs. She said, “It’s alarming to lose consciousness while lying down, it’s alarming how low your blood pressure is and it’s alarming that your heart rate isn’t responding to your low blood pressure.” <– That’s what I want to brainstorm.

It was definitely caused by the first day of my period, as usual, but what is the physiological mechanism? What might typically cause sudden bradycardia? What can cause a low HR + low BP (if you take the paramedic’s position)? Or what can cause a low HR + normal BP (if you consider my BP is normally low)? How does a reaction to my period explain this? Could it be 100% pain-induced? If it’s a mast cell reaction, I would expect a high HR and an abnormal BP. Why would I pass out when I’d been lying down the last 9 hours? Why would I pass out with my BP around my normal? Can a low HR cause loss of consciousness without BP dropping significantly? Is this cardiac syncope? Could I have cardiac syncope without knowing I have heart issues? Or autoimmune autonomic dysfunction? Or, once again, adrenal insufficiency? Does losing consciousness usually make breathing labored?

By the time the paramedics left, I was very shaky, but I knew I wouldn’t pass out and my husband helped me get up and hook up my own fluids. I went to bed freezing, with 2 hot water bottles, all my clothes on, under covers in a warm room and it took hours to stop being chilled to the bone (why was I freezing?). When I woke up, finally warm, my HR was 76 — almost 30 bpm higher! I’m still shaky, have a very bad headache, and my heart is jumpy with some palpitations, but completely different from the half-dead, exsanguinated feeling of the bradycardia.

Any ideas are appreciated. I have a routine follow-up appointment with my GP on Tuesday and I’d like to ask her for any tests that might be important. Cardiac work up?

Lastly, I want to mention that it’s REALLY hard not to believe in retaliatory chronic illness gods — yesterday I started writing my first blog update in almost 5 months, it is incredibly positive (“my baseline is higher! I’m able to do more!” etc.) and I stopped myself from writing my usual “gods, cover your ears” and “knock on wood, toba toba” because I’m stable, I’m not as fearful of being knocked down, it’s superstitious nonsense… and then this happens… the first time in 8 years… It just seems a little coincidental. And makes me sad.

Long Overdue Update

I think it’s time to write an update. I haven’t wanted to neglect my blog — in fact, I wake up daily thinking about things I’d like to document and share — but I’ve somehow been very busy for what feels like years. My energy is still so limited and, with each incremental increase in functioning, I want to take some of the burden off my husband by cooking my own food, getting myself to appointments or taking care of our dog. It leaves no space for writing. I hesitate to say “no time for writing” because, even as a sick person — even as the person in question — I think, “you have nothing but time!” But I don’t, my window of functionality is still so small. There were months in the past when I worked 70 hours a week and I somehow still had the time to accomplish more than I do now — because my internal engine worked efficiently and my tank held much more gas and was easily refilled overnight. I can imagine my healthy friends reading this and wondering how someone with no job, no kids and no social engagements can possibly feel like they don’t have time to write an update. Maybe, if I manage to complete this blog post, it’ll be clearer.

These last few years, I have put great effort into trying to be an easier human to be around, trying to act like my old self for my husband and when I see people — you know, trying to be one of those “it’s great the way she stays positive and keeps fighting while dealing with such suffering” kind of people. But when you only post the good moments on Facebook and you draw from deep reserves while talking to people to appear perky and mildly engaging, it can cause… confusion, for lack of a better word. Even my closest friends and family obviously can’t see on the outside of me what I assume must be alarmingly salient and sometimes I get concerned that maybe, deep down, they think I’m just living the good life while my husband slogs away at his very physically-demanding job. They have made comments that make me think I’ve never done a good job of explaining this disease and, in fact, sometimes their loving and well-meaning encouragement sounds like they think I need the courage to get out into the world.

There are certain things that take courage in my life– they are all mast cell threats. It takes courage for me to go to places where there are no easily-accessible emergency rooms, like Vashon Island, where our friends live, or in an airplane. It takes courage to try a new medication, knowing I could have a reaction. My experiences with full-blown anaphylaxis and nocturnal mast cell meltdowns have made me fearful of a lot in life — not only of things I’ve reacted to, but typical triggers that have never caused me problems because I always wonder if they’re filling my “bucket” and the reaction is looming behind a blind bend in the road. For example, I may think I can eat just about anything and I love hot weather, but most mast cell patients can’t and don’t. So, maybe a few family members come over on the 4th of July and my period is due (“events” can cause reactions for me, as does menstruation). I’m basking in the sun and I’ve eaten a banana, some cheese, some chocolate that day (typical foods that cause reactions for others). Then the fireworks start and my dogs go into paroxysms of panic, which causes me distress (emotions can degranulate mast cells) and, just like that, the bucket overflows and my tongue swells up and I’m in for a very scary, sleepless night. I think it’s just from hormones and excitement, but maybe without the sunbathing or the chocolate, it wouldn’t have happened, who knows? I’ve been blindsided by this sort of thing too often and it seems, no matter how much time goes by, there will always be a tad bit of trepidation lurking in the back of my mind when navigating the minefield of mast cell degranulation.

So, some things do take courage, yes, but living, doing, experiencing, independence — all the things that ME/cfs took from me — they take no courage at all, they just need a functioning body. My greatest desire is to be traveling or socialising or hiking with my dog. If I was suddenly healed tomorrow, all of your phones would be ringing off their hooks and I’d be asking to crash on your couches as I hopped from Seattle to Oregon to California to Wisconsin to Tennessee to New York to Connecticut to Ireland to England to Germany and hugged you all close and talked your ears off for months on end. If anything, I need to be urged to pull back and conserve my energy because I am my own worst enemy, suffering payback on a daily basis from some reckless endeavor like cutting a thick-skinned squash or shaving my legs. Yesterday, I took Riley and my sister-in-law’s dog on a walk, using my mobility scooter. When I used to take Bowie out, it took very little strength and energy: He could be off-leash, I’d sit on the scooter and watch him eat grass or motor beside him as he ambled along. But these two pups are runners, pullers, criss-crossers and leash-tanglers. Not only did our hour walk sap the majority of my energy yesterday, today I am in pain from head to coccyx from using muscles that I usually don’t. But it brings me such joy, of course, so I’ll do it again.

For about four months this year — mid-April to mid-August — I was probably better than I’ve been since getting sick. But, when my Mum visited last March she said it was the sickest she’d ever seen me. It wasn’t — I think she has forgotten some of the horrors of the early years — but that illustrates just how changeable my health can be in a 6-month period. In general, if I keep my activity steady, I can predict how my days will go. That doesn’t mean I can control how severe my symptoms are, it just means that the worse I get, the less I do each day and vice versa and, if I’m careful, this will usually even out to a higher or lower baseline. In the beginning of my chronic illness, the freefall didn’t slow until I stopped working, then stopped going out of the house and eventually spent most of my time in bed. Slowly, slowly thereafter, my days became more predictable and then, even slower than that, my limits expanded, millimeter by millimeter.

Besides managing my activity, I think the only other thing that has contributed to my improvements are immunoglobulin infusions, which I’ve been doing for three years. But, like I said, I was much sicker last winter while still doing infusions, so you can always assume that those two steps forward will be followed by one step back. Just as long as there is a net profit at the end of the year, I’m content. Not happy or at peace, but I’ll take it.

Anyway, on to the actual update. But I’m wiped now, so to be continued…

A LOVE LETTER TO MY FRIENDS… By Lindsay

See this here? <– It’s a blog post I wrote in November, 2012 which my friend Lindsay liked. Lindsay writes Musings of a Dysautonomiac and I don’t even know how she found my blog. That was in its infancy, when I was just venting to the universe because I didn’t know what else to do with myself, before I even knew what dysautonomia was. That’s 5 years of her friendship and, like so many others I’ve met through this blog and its associated Facebook account, I treasure our relationship. I rely on her/their humour, honesty and nonjudgmental support. She wrote a love letter to her friends and expressed everything I feel better than I could have, so I’m sharing it here. And, in case you’re too lazy to click on the link, I will copy it below.

A LOVE LETTER TO MY FRIENDS…

Growing up, most of my friends were boys. I was into riding bikes and playing video games, and most other girls were not. As I entered my teens and 20’s my closest friends were female, but the majority of my friends were still males. Generally, I always felt that I got along better with men.

While that’s probably true, as I entered my 30’s I began to realize that I get along best with kind, brilliant, funny, drama-free women. In short, You.

Yes, you, reading this. YOU. (Apologies to the, like, 4 men who read this blog. I think you’re swell, too).

I have lost friends since I first became sick. Some were “party” friends, who didn’t have much use for me after I stopped going out as often, and some were needy friends who didn’t like that I now had problems of my own to solve. Some were just friends, and I don’t know why. I usually lose a “friend” or two everytime I post something about postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS), dysautonomia, mast cell (MCAD), or chronic illness in general, on Facebook, which I do about twice a year. Apparently I’m not allowed to post occasionally about a lifelong life-altering illness, but am expected to “like” the 5 posts about a friend’s kid who has the flu.

I have gained friends, too, through support groups and this blog. Some live in my city, and others live in other states and countries spread throughout the world, friends who I have never, and unfortunately due to our illnesses probably will never meet in person. There’s a kinship in mutual suffering; we fight different battles in the same war. I save every email I have received through this blog. That perfect strangers share their fears, their vulnerabilities, their hopes, and their stories with me is incredibly humbling. We are unlikely friends, brought together by circumstance, but held together by compassion and understanding.

A friend recently got married, and while we were discussing the wedding plans over a drink, she asked what she could do to make it easier for me to attend. At that wedding, friends sat and stared at the ocean for over an hour with me, as I was moving pretty slow after three migraine days that week. For my birthday last week, chronically ill friends whom I have never met sent birthday messages. And not just “hey, happy birthday” messages, but touching messages that remind me that, although we have never been face to face, I have still been seen.

Chronic illness is hard on friendships. As a whole, we aren’t the most reliable bunch. We get sick and miss important events, even after promising we’d be there. Due to brain fog, we may forget important details you have told us. We probably aren’t going to join you for a hike, or a late night party, or skydiving, or standing in line at the grocery store. You’ll have to help us, from time to time. We may not make the best bridesmaids, godmothers to your kids, or workout partners. Somedays, we may not even make that great of a friend.

But I promise you this: we will never take you for granted. Because we know what it’s like to be left behind.

Friends, thank you for letting me share my life with you here. For letting me be this confused, existential mess, and for responding with softness and acceptance and dirty jokes and “we’ll figure this out togethers”. For remaining my friend through it all, or for sending me an email through this blog and planting the seeds of friendship.

I will continue to strive to be worthy of your friendship.

“In the end, all you have are memories, and usually the ones you have with friends are the ones you treasure most.” – Notes from the Universe

Smell ya later.
Linds

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

goiters

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.