Heart Center.

I have an appointment with my GP tomorrow. It’s at 9:30am, which is about 2 hours earlier than I usually schedule appointments so that I am a functioning human being. I don’t even know if it’s worth it to see her. I basically made the appointment because I haven’t seen her in 6.5 months. I am a different person now. Last time I saw her, I still didn’t quite understand how the medical system works. I still sort of thought that doctors would search and help and communicate and dig until they figured out what was wrong with a patient. I still didn’t realise how specialists operate. Even after the first infectious disease doctor said, “You don’t have an active infection” and then, in no uncertain terms, gave me a permanent goodbye. Even after the second infectious disease doctor said, “You have chronic fatigue syndrome and, from here on out, you should work on treating the symptoms.” In other words, See ya! Even when the chronic fatigue expert spent ten minutes with me after I waited 8 months for an appointment and sent me on my way with directions to exercise read a book about pain, and try Cymbalta. It wasn’t until my second visit to the rheumatologist, that it finally clicked. He had treated me so well at my first appointment. I will never forget he said, “There is something wrong with you. It is not your job to figure it out, it’s ours.” It felt validating and I almost wept. Someone would finally take the burden of this search off my shoulders and figure out why I felt like I’m dying… But that’s not the way it works. When I went to see him again a year later, the first thing he said was, “Why are you here? Chronic fatigue syndrome is an infectious disease.” Ah. Click. Finally I see. Dr. House is only on a tv show, stupid! Specialists spend 15 minutes max listening to your story, run the standard tests, and you’re done. If the tests are negative, you will never hear from them again. And, even if the tests are positive ~ like the time they found two toxic goiters on my thyroid and had to kill the whole lot with radioiodine and I had to figure out from a pamphlet and a bunch of inquiries that were shuffled from one person to another how to get my synthetic hormones and whether I should have follow-up visits with someone ~ sometimes you won’t hear from them then, either.

I had a yearly check-up with my GP 9 days before I was hit by ME. I distinctly remember saying to her that day, “My biggest problem is my neck” ~ meaning the degenerative disc problems in my cervical spine that have plagued me since my early 30s. We talked a lot about my job. I was having difficulty sitting at a desk all day after years of being on my feet. She thought, because of the stress involved, that it might not be the job for me. I remember her saying exactly that: “Are you sure this is the right job for you?” I shrugged and thought, Maybe not. But I still love it. In some ways, I think that sentiment has coloured the treatment I received once I came down with ME. I think a lot of us (my doctor, my boss, my family, and I) thought my problem was caused by job-related stress and lack of sleep.

That is another way I am a different person now than when I saw her 6+ months ago. Now, my awareness of my body and physical sensations are extremely fine-tuned. It is laughable to me (and tragically sad) that, in my confusion during that first year, I was almost persuaded that my sickness could have been caused by 1) bowel problems, 2) vasovagal reactions, 3) stress and anxiety, 4) my pain killers, 5) my birth control pills. When you are scared and in foreign territory, you want to latch on to ANY explanation that is said in a rational way from an expert authority. I suddenly understand how false confessions are coerced out of murder suspects. Maybe you’re right, Dr. E, maybe it’s just IBS. Phew! Even though I had had my share of health problems in my life, I was completely naive about how this medical journey would unfold itself. It is tragically sad and not so laughable that I didn’t trust myself 100%. I was SO SICK. My bowels? Stress? No, not this. Sleeping normally, then swimming in sweat. Running a little cold, then incapacitated by bone-wracking chills. Steady, then dizzy. Confident, then fearful. Strong, then shaky, then weak. Memory like a steel trap, then uncertainty about all details. Aches in my neck, then deep body-wide pain. Occasional headache, then 24-hours-a-day migraine for months. Able to bound up and down stairs, then legs not working. Energy, then none. Working, then housebound. Well… then sick. Don’t doubt yourselves, ever.

So, why am I even going back to my GP? I want to talk about my application for disability. She has known me for years and she should know that, even though I mostly saw her when I had chest infections, I have always been an upbeat, energetic person and ME caused an abrupt and permanent change. I must stay unemotional. The day last year that a few tears dropped in her office sealed my fate as someone that needed therapy and an antidepressant. My chart note says “Stress reaction, emotional.” I did what she said and started seeing a therapist, but 15 months of weekly visits later and nothing has changed. Nothing except I’ve spent 50 minutes each week crying about how I don’t know how to accept this new life and I don’t know how to stay hopeful and calm when my symptoms flare. Which is always.

I’ve cried more in the last year than I have in the 39 years before. I get overwhelmed sometimes with the surety that my husband will reach a breaking point and leave me. Or that I will somehow have to find the strength to leave him so he can have a life and I can be freed from the unrelenting guilt that I carry. The other night, my husband said, “I’m not going anywhere. I love you deeply.” I sobbed: “But you didn’t fall in love with this.” I spat out the word “this”. I said it with a grimace of distaste, as if I were talking about a maggot-infested, rabid rat that was sitting on my chest. And I actually flinched at the knowledge that the revulsion was about myself. I try to stop my brain from doing this. I try to remind myself that I still have value, even sick. But it’s hard now that I have very little interaction with the outside world. I can tell myself a thousand times that I am not the disease and my self is not sick ~ my core is still the same ~ but I don’t really believe it. I sure feel sick at the core. Or, at least, that there are many, many layers of sick surrounding that central self, which is still the me I know and love. But, if those layers rule the body, who really cares what’s in the center? If it can’t express itself or figure out a way to thrive, what’s the point? How do I enrich the world when I rarely laugh, can’t talk for more than an hour each day, have nothing interesting to say…? And how oh how do I find joy in my own life when everything I enjoy takes energy that I simply don’t have? I have to find joyful activities that can be done lying down with my eyes closed, day after day?

Anyway, my husband pointed to my heart and said, “I fell in love with what’s in there and that hasn’t changed.”

I thought, Yeah, it has. But, I admit, I felt another renewed resolve to fight. If not for myself, then for my husband and the person with whom he fell in love.

sarah and dave 5