Bonfire of the Vanities

I haven’t had the balls to write too much about this because it is all tied up in feelings of self-worth, obsessive perfectionism and long-dormant insecurities. This illness has taken a ruthless toll on my body and the changes on the outside have, surprisingly, been some of the hardest to accept. I say surprisingly because, if you are housebound and never see anybody, who cares what you look like? But the visible manifestations of youthful vitality disappearing have really saddened me and hit it home that I’m a different person now- in every respect. Even if I came out of this tomorrow, I am changed physically as well as spiritually.

I always looked, felt and, undoubtedly, acted younger than my age. About a year after becoming sick, that abruptly changed. Obviously, I don’t have a spring in my step anymore and I’m not as chirpy, lighthearted and energetic as I was, but my looks have also changed and it was a blow to my ego. I stopped cutting and dyeing my hair and its texture changed — it is dry and fluffy, rather than smooth and shiny. It becomes greasy very quickly. The hair loss on the top and sides of my head makes me feel old and sickly. My eyes are no longer bright; the whites are a dull grey and I’ve lost eyebrows and eyelashes that were already sparse. Last year, I saw an ophthalmologist for the first time with a list of grievances: gritty eyes, dry eyes, vibrating eyes, styes, blurry vision, floaters, difficulty focusing, difficulty reading… It was a long appointment and he did a battery of tests. My vision, remarkably, is still 20/20. I thought, considering I rarely focus beyond my four walls, that it would have deteriorated. But, the health of my eyes was a different story. He told me to hold a warm cloth over my lids for a few minutes every day to open the pores and treat blepharitis and, also, to use preservative-free dry eye drops four times a day (I was very impressed with his “preservative-free” recommendation based on my reactions to drugs. I’m happy to know they exist since I was using Bausch & Lomb eye wash and it would leave red track marks down my cheeks). He also found that my eyes had two different pressures, which he said was not normal and made me a glaucoma suspect. I return next month to have a check-up.

Dilated pupils to see the optic nerve.

Dilated pupils to see the optic nerve.

I went off the birth control pill 16 months ago and, immediately afterwards, my skin began to break out. But this was no normal acne. I’ve dealt with skin issues my whole life, but I was familiar with them and I knew where spots would pop up (chin, nose), why they were there (hormones, smoking, picking), and how long they would last. For the past year, I’ve had acne along my hairline and jawline. My forehead, which was always pristine, became rough and braille-like. This really took a toll on my self-esteem. Even if I could have visitors, I didn’t want anyone to see me. I went from feeling not pretty to feeling downright ugly.

My visit to the dermatologist has given me renewed hope and a plan of attack. She wanted me to take antibiotics, but I refused based on my gut dysbiosis. She wanted to try a drug that is used to lower blood pressure, but also has the side effect of clearing skin, but I can’t because my low BP is a constant challenge. She wanted to use some sulfa Rx, but I’m possibly allergic. So, I have a glycolic acid face wash, a new moisturizer, Finacea in the morning and clindamycin in the evening. It is already making a difference. The braille turned out to be eczema, which I’ve never had in my life, but Desonide cream cleared it up in 4 days. I can’t tell you how nice it is to have my smooth forehead back. I keep petting it (which will probably cause more spots).

New this year is weight loss. I spent my teen years wanting to be tall and thin, worrying about my body, and now I weigh less than I did when I was 15. It’s partly to do with my elimination diet – nuts and oats might have been the bulk of my calories – but I am eating as much as I can every day. I lather on the butter and rely too much on Terra chips for added calories.

I started experiencing what I now know is called gastroparesis. My food sits high in my stomach and doesn’t digest. I want to eat more, but physically can’t. The food I do eat, I don’t think is being absorbed properly because I’m eating more than enough for a 5 foot-nothing, mostly-bedbound lady. Muscle wasting is now more evident. I have chicken legs. One of my greatest wishes would be to bulk up my legs. I never thought I’d say that. I want muscular thighs. I want my calves back. I want to have faith in my strength like I did my whole life. My height never made me feel like I was weaker than anyone else. I tried bench-pressing with my brothers, I was good at arm wrestling, I hoisted kegs of beer around at work and ran up and down stairs with heavy plates and large trays of food and cocktails, held over my head. I was proud of my strength and now feel like every movement might injure me. My chicken legs won’t reliably carry me and my muscles feel taut and brittle.

The good news is digestive enzymes and HCl are helping me to move food on down so I can eat more. I don’t necessarily want to add fat on top of bone, so my goal is to continue to absorb nutrients and increase activity.

Vanity always seems worthless and trivial, but, in the face of chronic illness, it seems almost sinful. Tall? Thin? Nice clothes? Pretty hair? Perfect skin? All I want is strong bones, muscles and cellular energy. Who cares about the rest? Well, I still do, but it’s a work in progress. M.E. holds a mirror up and exposes your bare bones… burns away the affectation and demands you be okay with the foundation and framework, without the superficies and facade. Be okay with the soul, alone. There is a bigger lesson here for me to learn.

Addendum to last post… Plus, missing my brothers.

Medical professional addendum:

5. I forgot to mention another doctor I saw- a great dermatologist (I’ve seen a few in my life and she is the best and hardest to get in to see with appointments more than three months out). I had a few questions:

What are these scaly circles on my fingers and palms that move around (please don’t say they’re warts please don’t say they’re ringworm please don’t say they’re contagious please don’t say they’re VIRAL!)? Answer: A type of eczema. No big deal. Keep your hands moisturized.

What is up with acne in bizarre places like hairline and under my jaw? It’s very typical “female adult-onset acne”. Those are exactly the places we see it show up. It’s hormonal and most definitely from coming off the birth control pill. Use 1% clindamycin lotion indefinitely (that was her second choice since the Good Doc won’t let me take oral antibiotics).

What is this Braille skin? It’s a precursor to acne. No! These harmless-looking bumps? Yes.

Why do I have brand new vertical ridges on my fingernails and is there anything I can do about my hair falling out? I have patients take biotin for both of those issues: 5,000mcg/day.

As I was leaving, ME/CFS came up while I was talking to the dermatologist’s assistant. She said, “Oh, my brother has that.” I had never known anyone with this disease, so my eyes widened (I actually teared up a little).
“I’m so sorry,” I said. “I wouldn’t wish this on anyone. It’s devastating.”
She said, “Yeah, he’s a dancer, so…”
“Oh no! So, he can’t dance. That’s horrible. Do you know how he’s handling it?”
She said, “I don’t really know. He’s pretty private.” And then, as if to explain her lack of knowledge, she added: “He’s my half-brother.”

I thought about what ME/CFS would be like if you were a career dancer. Just another level of horror. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but I think I said something like, “This disease is very isolating. I hope he has support.” I wanted to leave her thinking about it. I hoped that she would call him, move mountains to help him. From earlier in the appointment, I knew she’d just returned from Hawaii and I wondered if her brother knew she had been vacationing and I wondered if he let himself wallow in grief and jealousy as I sometimes do.

My brothers recently went on a fishing trip with my father and I love to think about the three of them together, but I ache to have been there, too. Just in the same room… My brother, the pilot, had a layover in Dublin last week and had dinner with my aunt and cousins and drinks with my best friend, E., and her boyfriend… It was exciting for me. Almost like I was in Dublin with E. Almost like I was in Dublin with my brother. I grinned from ear to ear looking at the photo they sent, while gritting my teeth against tears of desire. To be with E. and M., to be with my brother, to be able to fly, to be in Dublin, to be able to have a drink… Layers upon layers of loss. My brother also just had a brand new baby boy and I wonder how old my new nephew will be before I meet him. I wonder if my nieces and nephews will remember me or will I be “sick Aunt Elizabeth” that they just hear about for years. I always miss my brothers, but it has been overwhelming lately and is compounded by the knowledge that my sister is moving away from here soon. The atmosphere and camaraderie when we are all together is something special. I’m not going to get into it now because I’m premenstrual and risk a total meltdown.

Gratitude for siblings. xoxoxoxox

all the logic and language and loss

I was hoping to start feeling better again before I wrote anything, but this downturn is lasting longer than I thought it would. It’s not horrific. I’m not confined to the bed or couch, but, I’m not walking in the garden or doing my stretches ~ my two forms of activity. I’m basically just shuffling around the house, very Tin Man. Easter was the beginning of the slump, with symptoms aggravated by a teeth cleaning last week. I had been putting it off for a few months, thinking it was not a smart expenditure of energy, but, when I was having my good week, I made an appointment.

I looked online beforehand, but I couldn’t find any firsthand accounts of the ramifications of teeth cleanings on people with ME. Unfortunately, I can’t really give an accurate account because I compounded the effects by ~ I know, I’m an idiot ~ driving myself downtown to the appointment and chatting way too much to the hygienist because I wanted to fill her in on my situation (I’ve been going to the same dental clinic for over a decade).

I thought the drive would be straightforward and I didn’t want to ask my husband to take the day off work. Big mistake. Again. The problems started while I was walking from the elevators to the dental office. My heart rate was over 120 bpm and I had to stop walking repeatedly. This was a short hallway and I felt ridiculous stopping every two steps to wait for my heart to calm down. I wasn’t nervous about the appointment, so I think it was because I was carrying my purse… That’s my theory. The cleaning itself was fine. I asked her to be very gentle and skip the floss. The worst part was coming back upright after being tipped fully head-down in the chair for so long. But I recovered quickly from the momentary vertigo and went home.

That night I was curled in a ball on the kitchen floor, crying, feeling like I was dying, dogs swarming around me, wondering what was wrong. I told my husband, “Never let me drive downtown again, no matter how strong I say I’m feeling.” I tried to figure out the reason: Was it because I drove too far again? Or because my heart was running full steam? Or because I talked too much? Or the after-effects of the position I was in ~ akin to a tilt-table test? Or the actual cleaning ~ the release of bacteria, the micro-abrasions? I’m always trying to tease apart cause and effect, but there are too many confounding variables and logic doesn’t lend itself to this disease. Logically, with more rest and more sleep, with a better diet and fewer toxins, with less stress and more mindful awareness, I should be feeling better than I ever have. But my temperance is obviously outweighed by the marauding lifestyle of my viral invaders and the intemperate rage of my immune system.

Happily, my hygienist said she thought it would be fine to push my next cleaning out a year since I am taking such good care of my teeth. There is nothing like a chronic illness to get you to floss every day and never go without your mouth guard ~ I don’t want any preventable problems complicating my current situation.

I didn’t feel as bad the next day, but then my period came. This is now my fourth almost-painless period since coming off the pill in December and, believe you me, I am rejoicing every minute of fearless, crampless menstruation. I spent SO many years dreading the monthly… planning my life around it… so, this positive change in my body does not go unnoticed. However, the ME/CFS symptoms definitely flare up each month ~ the usual uterine pain has just walked around to my lower back. And my coccyx: the absolute southern-most point of my spine is killing me. That baffles me.

Since getting my period, I have had a headache. I haven’t had a headache in so long ~ especially one that goes to sleep with me and is still there when I wake. I’m not happy with this bedfellow ~ I was hoping, since the husband and dogs have been relegated to different beds, I would only be sleeping with the dust mites that could survive my weekly washing ~ so, again, I’m trying to analyse the cause: Is the headache from my period? The new Seriphos supplement? The new licorice tea? Pollen allergies? Neck tension? Bad sleep? But, all other symptoms have increased, too: I’ve had more of the usual inflamed, painful, stiff muscles. The hot/cold issues. Feeling like I’m coming down with something… sore throat … you all know the deal. And I had two nights of slight night sweats. This struck the fear of god into me. Besides the muscle issues and heavy dragging exhaustion, these are symptoms that had left me. Yesterday, I started begging aloud: Please don’t let it come back, PLEASEPLEASEPLEASE...

For a few months I have been watching the texture of my skin change. It’s bumpy ~ different than anything I’ve experienced in 40 years. I was convinced it was my extremely high-fat diet, so I ignored it. Who cares? I have bigger fish to fry. But it’s getting steadily more alarming and during these last few weeks of hormonal fluctuations, it has bloomed into an acne-braille mash-up that, when coupled with the lack of muscle tone, weight gain, sleep-deprived eyes, thin hair showing a year’s worth of grown out roots (with so much grey!), has me recoiling from mirrors. I told my doctor that I felt like that scene in The Exorcist where the skin on the girl’s stomach spells out “help me“. It was like the needle slid across the record… The Good Doctor and her trainee internist looked at me with heads cocked and eyebrows furrowed and I could hear the clock’s second hand ticking around… “Oh, nevermind,” I said. “I just mean my body is trying to tell me something.” My point was, there has to be a logical explanation. My body is pushing  from the inside out into every pore and I should be able to read its message. I should, after all these years, know its language.

So creepy... So sorry.

So creepy… So sorry.

A few happy notes to help get that image out of your head: our Cherry Blossom tree is in full bloom, raining salubrious pink petals all over the garden. My sleep is ever so slightly better. I’m starting Chinese herbs next week and will probably add back legumes to my diet after that. I managed to organise all of our finances for tax time. My husband’s sleep apnea is nothing to worry about. A bird just hopped by my window with a tuft of what was obviously my dog’s golden hair held in its beak and I’m thrilled to think, after how much he has terrorised them, that his fur will do a little community service in a nest somewhere. My friend Z. and her beautiful baby girl came to visit yesterday. My family is healthy. And Game of Thrones has started.

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