Update… Aborted. Again.

I’ve been trying to write an update for so long. It’s been 5 months since my last one. There’s been so much that I wanted to document, that it started to feel like a Herculean task to catch up and my symptoms have been such a rollercoaster, that I never seem to find an opportunity. When I have some respite, I cook, bathe, deal with insurance and appointments, tackle laundry, play with my dogs, sort through finances etc. Aaannd… I just hit a wall. Just like that. As I typed, I could feel my brain clogging up. I picture all the little ATP molecules grimacing, gasping and dragging their feet like the characters at the end of Stephen King’s story, The Long Walk, dragging themselves along until collapse is inevitable. It’s a shocking feeling. Mentally, I was really clear for about an hour this morning. Felt like I could write. Dreamed up grand plans for my day (make granola! call a family member! blog post!). I answered a few emails, talked to my husband a bit and then wrote this… And it’s gone.

My neurological symptoms are horrific. “Brain fog” is the best of it. I’d take lack of concentration, not being able to find words, memory problems any day over what I’ve been experiencing this year. It feels like physically–physiologically–my brain grinds to a halt. My eyelids get heavy, my vision gets blurry, my ears roar, I start slurring. As I’m writing this, it’s getting worse and there’s no pushing through. My body feels okay, my stiffness, weakness and pain levels are manageable this morning, but I can’t push through this neuro stuff. Even if my body feels capable of going to the park, my brain insists on being in bed with ear plugs and eye shades. I can’t even watch dull tv or listen to a meditation. It’s incredibly frustrating and quite alarming. And, in a clinical way, I am fascinated by the trajectory of my symptoms over the past four years.

Year 1 was horrific viral, malarial, drenching sweat, nighttime hell and constant chills. That ended for the most part in Year 2 and became predominately “nightly flu” and pain, pain and more pain. Year 3 was the best of times and the worst of times: a bedbound, suicidal winter (when I finally got the permanent ME/CFS sore throat) turned into a much more stable spring and summer after my pain eased up. Year 4 started in a deep, reactive crash and became the year of crippling neurological symptoms. Year 5 (which started at the beginning of this month) so far is all over the place. My main focus is to work on the symptoms that have been with me throughout all of these years: sleep dysfunction, headaches, hypotension and infections. Plus, social contact would be good.

I have to power down now. The long-awaited update will come soon, I hope. I have so much to say.

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June Update

It’s been a while since I’ve had the energy to write an update. As usual, I have a lot to document in terms of doctors and tests, but, overall, not much to report on my life and illness. My mother was here from Ireland this past week and that was, by far, the highlight of the last 4 months. 6 days seemed like 6 hours, though, and I’m left feeling a bit barren after her departure, like there are tumbleweeds blowing around inside my chest and hollow silence echoing against the inside of my skull.

I’m still housebound besides healthcare appointments and the odd dog walk on the scooter. I do think I’m marginally better than this time last year, though, which is heartening considering the horrendous ordeal of last autumn. Mostly, I think this because I’m walking more steps than I have since 2012. I regularly hit 2,000 on my pedometer, which does wonders for my mental well-being to think there is forward momentum. However, the flip-side is I have had more severe muscle pain and out-of-character joint aches. I am stiff in the morning and try to make myself put on compression stockings and a back brace if I’m going to stand in the kitchen for any length of time. I know I should scale back movement because, when I do, the muscle pain is better, but I’m really grasping onto that measurable progress for dear life.

There are other slight improvements. My sleep is still better than it was the first 3 years I was sick (although, I still don’t get much and it is plagued with fitfulness, nightmares and pain). My headaches, although they have resurfaced somewhat in the last month, were gone for a few months earlier this year, which is utterly life-changing. My resting face goes from this :twisted: to this :? .

There are still, always, a lot of daily debilitating symptoms. For 3 full weeks after my birthday outing, I was not doing well. My flu symptoms came back and that always alarms me — chills, sore throat, extremely heavy muscles, pain. I also had a few bouts of the worst vertigo I’ve experienced since my tilt table test payback. One night it came on so quickly and viciously, I fell over and hit the floor on my way to the loo from bed. I was moaning out loud from the queasy out-of-bodiness, which is unlike me, and I was reminded again of Laura Hillenbrand and how unrelenting vertigo could possibly be the worst imaginable symptom.

Hair loss hasn’t stopped, but is better than last year. Or the short, choppy cut disguises it more. My eyes are their usual nightmare of blurriness and sore extraocular muscles, even though I am regimented about (gently) scrubbing the lashes and using preservative-free tears throughout the day. Tinnitus and skin are still bad, my neck is still banjaxed. I am still spending about 14-17 hours in bed each day. I guess that’s a bit better than last year.

Finally, there is no real change in my worst symptom: Brain Drain. Which doesn’t describe it. I’ve been trying to articulate this symptom for years — to doctors, to my husband, my mother. It’s not brain fog. What I call brain fog feels tired and cloudy, causes effort to recall and calculate things. My Buzzy Brain is like Stephen King’s The Long Walk: if you can imagine being made to walk until you physically drop, but then transfer that body feeling to the brain. The same way muscle exhaustion is physical, my brain exhaustion feels physical. My brain can’t take one more step to do anything. Can’t read, write, speak, hear. It comes on gradually, so I usually find myself wading through the quicksand of a conversation or article, slurring or rereading the same thing over and over. I get testy, dizzy, weighted down by head pain and then realise, Oh, duh, time to go to bed and stop everything. Not being able to push through the brain problems (just finish this sentence, this tv show, this meal) is much more depressing than not being able to push through the physical limitations. Take my body, just, please, leave my mind.

The outcome of this is nothing ever gets done. I never finish tasks and months slip by. I also never seem to get going on any plan of attack to conquer the myriad of abnormal test findings: candida, low immunoglobulins, high cholesterol, reactivations of viruses, methylation problems, high mycotoxins. There’s always a bigger fire to put out — the poisoned nocturnal reactions, the crashing blood pressure, the death of my bowel — before I can carefully address less acute problems, while tip-toeing through the minefield of menstruation mast cell instability. Although, given my track record, maybe the best treatment for my body is no invasive treatment at all, just lots of pacing, meditation, good food and the pursuit of laughter.

The few things on which I am actively working are my hormone deficiencies and my tanked thyroid (as per usual). Since last September, I have now quintupled my levothyroxine (T4) and tripled my liothyronine (T3) and nothing has changed. I’m spending an absolute fortune on compounded meds, hoping my body will absorb them better than the generic, affordable ones, but, so far, no dice. I will update soon about my new, wonderful endocrinologist and her thoughts (as well as my other doctor visits).

So, almost 3 years and 8 months sick and that’s where I’m at. If I could find relief from the social isolation and financial instability, there could be some sort of life here.

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But, as it stands, I take my joy from the incredibly beautiful spring we’ve had here in Seattle and every opportunity to lie outside in the garden oasis my husband has created and see my dogs run in the park.

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Throwback for ME Awareness

To acknowledge the last day of M.E. Awareness Month, I am reposting an excerpt from my diary from three years ago. I had only been sick for four or five months, I had no idea what was going on and felt for sure it would kill me.

Muscles pumped full of lead ~ No. Heavier. Plutonium. Filled with liquid hot metal until they might burst. Heavier than anyone can imagine, aching, ready to strain, buckle, seize up. Ready to sprain with the slightest stretch, no tone, no strength. Climbing stairs is climbing Mount Everest. Slurred words, room spinning, head aching, chest tightening, heart leaping, entire body shaking, vibrating. Chills. Bone-chills. Shivering, unable to talk, nose going to fall off, can’t breathe, feet going to fall off, ice water running up and down my spine, head fogged over with frost, scalp taut, ears infected with cold, ice water spine, ice water spine.

Then, fever heat. Body on fire. Feet going to explode from the pooled blood, eyes burning, brain swollen. Spine and neck blistered with white-hot embers, waiting for bed to burst into flames. And the sweats come. Sweat running down my chest, pooling in my belly button. Sweat behind my knees, my lower back, above my top lip, in rivulets down the sides of my nose, my hair and the base of my skull drenched. And I’m shaking, reaching for water. I don’t want to die. My palms are sweating and my throat is sore and I’m so thirsty, but can barely drink. I have to go to the bathroom, but don’t think I can make it. I have crawled to the bathroom with concrete blocks tied to my arms and legs, while someone is spinning the room around me and zapping me with electrical current and blowing a dense fog ~ more like a smoke ~ into my ears and up my nose and down my throat, so I can’t breathe and I can’t think.

It feels like what I imagine encephalitis must feel like. Meningitis. Botulism. Typhoid. Consumption. It feels malarial, paralytic, neurotoxic. I just keep thinking, I don’t want to die.

Two hours ago, I was chatting on the phone to my mother. I was throwing a ball for my dogs. Without warning, I have to go to bed. It’s like a huge finger is pressing down on me and all I can do is go to the ground. If I try to get up, the whole hand holds me down. Huge hands holding me down so that every movement takes more energy and effort than it ever should or ever has before. I watch someone run up stairs on tv and my eyes tear up with desire and jealousy. All I want is to be able to stand for a while, laugh without noticing because it’s not a rare occurrence, talk with friends without my throat turning into sandpaper and my back seizing up and having to go straight to bed from the exertion. All I want is to sleep. Deeply. Without nightmares. And sit without pain, walk without breathlessness, feel light again, like those hands aren’t holding me down, like I could skip or twirl. All I want is strength, stamina, health. To live life without the fear of repercussions. To live life. To not die.

Poisoning Myself.

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Three days ago, after having Cromolyn Sodium in my cupboard for 19 weeks, I finally decided I was stable enough to add a new drug. Cromolyn was originally used as an inhaled anti-iflammatory to treat allergic- and exercise-induced asthma. The oral version of Cromolyn has been used more recently to treat mastocytosis and mast cell disorders. It is a liquid that comes in ampules and is mixed into water. The doctor who prescribed it for me is the same one that diagnosed me with MCAS, but he didn’t seem to know much about Cromolyn. The pharmacy knew nothing. I had to go online and ask the people in my mast cell Facebook group for details and then call the pharmacist and explain exactly what the drug was. I am so thankful for the knowledge of these groups and Cromolyn seemed to help far more people than it harmed. It also seemed pretty innocuous — I only talked to a few people who had major side effects and they were things I don’t typically experience, like itching and nausea.

Of course, there’s always a part of me that is looking for the magic pill. Imagine I started this drug and my mast cells calmed down and symptoms I didn’t even realise were caused by them disappeared! … But, it still took me almost 5 months to convince myself to take it. It wasn’t until my bowels went into hibernation that I decided to take the plunge. A few weeks ago, motility stopped, gastroparesis reared its ugly, bloated head and everything ceased functioning in my intestines. No movement, not even a fart, and mega doses of magnesium and vitamin C weren’t doing anything. Cromolyn can help these internal inflammation symptoms and I had high hopes.

The dose I was meant to take was eight ampules in a day — two 4 times a day. The doctor never mentioned to work up slowly and some people in my online group were able to start at full dose. I wanted to be careful because we’re talking about my ridiculously hyper-sensitive body, after all, but I was pretty confident that I’d be fine. So, the first day, I took 1/3 of an ampule in the morning. The next day, I took 2/3 of an ampule in the morning. All seemed fine, so, that night before bed, I took 3/4 of an ampule. At 5 in the morning, I woke up sick sick sick. So sick. Sicker than I’ve been in years, maybe. Sick like my original sickness. Malarial. Encephalo-. Shaking all over, chilled, sweating feverishly, head pounding, stiff neck, muscles cramping, throat constricted, barely able to lift my arm or walk to the bathroom. Oh god, the FEAR. I’d rather die than go back to this. I felt like an ex-con in a movie choosing death-by-cop rather than go back to jail. My mind was like a panicked, caged animal, looking for a way out, falling in and out of fever dreams where I was screaming for my mother over and over again. I’d rather the “nightly flu” that I used to get. I’d rather the ME monster that slams me down with massive, pummeling hands, but I now know will release me eventually if I hold very still for a while. I think I’d even rather be back in December, 2013, when I called on all of you angels to get me through what I thought might be permanent bedboundness.

I felt poisoned. There’s no other way to describe it. I took my temperature: 98.4 degrees. My blood pressure was 80/55 (normal for me). My blood sugar was 80. Not much I could do but wait it out. I lay in bed the whole day yesterday, meditating, deep breathing away the fear of permanent relapse to an acceptable distance. I have a painful burn on my hand that is taking a while to heal and I kept falling into dreams where the burn was causing sepsis. That’s what it felt like — a systemic infection — I’d wake up panting and quiet my mind. I’m good at doing that during waking hours, but, in my dreams… I’m always silently screaming.

I feel a bit better today, but still didn’t sleep. I haven’t had a headache in a long time, believe it or not, and the pain is brutal. My muscles are aching and I feel swollen. The fear has dissipated to frustration. I’m frustrated with myself for trying another drug. I was doing so well. I had a lot of firsts the last few weeks (I’ll post about that later, but here’s a teaser: first time in a store, first road trip, first time on a beach in two years!) and then I couldn’t leave well enough alone and trust that my body was slowly, but surely, helping itself. I’m frustrated with myself for not going slower. I could have ramped up the dose over a full month, but I’m always so impatient. I’m frustrated that I’ve lost the potential help of Cromolyn. That was probably the worst reaction I’ve ever had apart from anaphylaxis, so I’ll never touch it again. I’m not even willing to try again going much slower, so I’ll never know if it could have helped. And that makes me frustrated because it was so hard to get it and it’s incredibly expensive and it’s such a waste. I have a friend who can take it off my hands, but, if I ever wanted to try it again, I’m out of luck because I don’t have insurance to cover it anymore.

And, in contrast to how I feel now, I realise how well I was doing. I was managing to do things every day — stand in the kitchen and cook for an hour, have conversations easier, wash and dry my hair without a thought. This weekend we have one last stab at summer — two days of high 70s and low 80s — and I was going to surprise our friends Z and J by going to their house on Vashon Island for the first time in years. I felt strong enough to do it and that was not even an option 6 months ago. Instead, I’ll barely be moving this weekend. But at least I’ll barely be moving in the garden, in the sun.

My Visit to Dr. Chia

Okay, okay, stop begging, I’ll tell you about my appointment with Dr. Chia. I can’t believe this took me so long to write, but I’ve been plugging away a little bit, day by day. I can save you some time and tell you straight away that it was not worth the trip. I don’t really feel like I learned anything new or found access to treatments I couldn’t have tried without him. That doesn’t mean I regret the trip, it just means, if someone else in my position asked my advice, I would say, “Save your money and your energy.” The journey, for me, became the challenge early on. I wanted to know if I could do it. I wanted to test my boundaries, I wanted to see if I could leave these four walls and find out just how bad the payback would be. It was also about testing a different location, spending time with my mother and giving my husband a break. So, I had a lot of different fuels feeding the engine, if you know what I mean and, without even one, I might not have made the trip. In the end, because I left early and Dr. Chia didn’t really give me anything, it was purely the challenge. And I’ve decided that is enough. It bolstered my confidence and reinforced how resilient I am — we are.

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With my mother outside Dr. Chia’s office.

Here’s what I thought about Dr. Chia before seeing him: I knew his son was sick with ME and recovered. I knew that Dr. Chia believes that enteroviruses are the root cause of this illness and that he has conducted studies that supported his theory, but the rest of the ME research community hasn’t taken up that torch and done bigger, better studies to replicate. I thought he would offer Equilibrant, his Chinese herb formula with which many people have had some success, and he might consider antivirals. My main impetus for seeing him was to get the testing that none of the other 40 doctors I’ve seen has done and also to see whether he thought I was a candidate for antivirals. Of course, I forgot to ask him about antivirals because I forget everything when I’m in a doctor’s office.

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My mother holding the massive binder of test results that we carted down to California and then never opened.

My appointment was at 4:15pm on a Friday, so I was worried about rush hour and LA craziness, but Google maps was accurate and it only took us half an hour to get there. His office is in a nondescript brick building in a sort of strip mall in Torrance, CA. I’m a big fan of Stephen King and liked that the office was in an area named after the possessed protagonist of The Shining. 😉 The waiting room was barren. We (my mother and I) waited about 20 minutes and then went in and had the normal nurse stuff done. I noticed she wrote on my file that I was there about “chronic fatigue” and I mentioned that it was actually ME ~ or even write “CFS”. She said, “Well, it doesn’t matter because he only sees patients with your condition.” Sigh.

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We waited probably about another 15 minutes for Dr. Chia and, when he came in, he was off like a rocket. He did not stop talking for an hour and 15 minutes. After about 10 minutes, he said I could record him, thank god, because I didn’t remember to ask and I have no memory of anything he said in those first few minutes. Dr. Chia was kind and pleasant. Not in any way intimidating or arrogant. I guess I would call him dogmatic without the ego. He seems slightly frustrated that nobody else realises enteroviruses are the root cause of so many chronic illnesses and told us many stories of other patients and studies that support his contention.

A few weeks before my appointment, I sent him a letter, a chronology of my health history and a list of my symptoms. He said that was extremely helpful and asked me very little in person about my illness, instead, he just ran down the list and discussed how my immune system had collapsed. I couldn’t help thinking none of this needed to be done in person since I was basically just a set of ears, but I know the law says I had to be there in the flesh. He also did a quick physical exam and neurological work up.

Here were his main points about my history:

  • As an infant, my immune system shifted into Th2 dominance with pneumonia and ear infections and asthma, which is an inflammatory disease. Instead of just fighting off infections with an increase in the Th1 branch of the immune system and then resetting back to equilibrium, mine shifted into Th2 and has been continually off kilter my whole life as it got hit by different viruses (bronchitis, ill while traveling in Central America, viral gastroenteritis from lake in Virginia etc. etc.). He gave an example of people who encounter the polio virus: just like the lake in Virginia, only a few out of hundreds exposed to polio will become crippled and the difference is the amount of gammaglobulin I (and others) have and my compromised immune system. He said enteroviruses are the second most common infection after the common cold and that viruses are often transmitted through water. He gave the example of Joseph Melnick at Baylor University who studied viruses that live in water from sewage contamination and spread to humans through shellfish, showers, colds and swimming. He also said the Russians wrote a paper that concluded the most common risk factors for contracting meningitis are swimming (30%), camping (20%), contact with sick people, and drinking well water.
  • Doctors repeatedly prescribed antibiotics for viruses and worsened my situation. The dark circles under my eyes are typical of this.
  • With Th2 dominance, comes allergies.
  • Night sweats are a classic sign of Th2 dominance ~ along with pain and sore throats, they are my immune system trying to fight off the viruses. But, “viruses are like weeds” and replicate exponentially. He said post-exertional malaise happens because activity causes viruses in the muscles to become metabolically active and replicate, causing pain. “The more activity you do, the more viruses replicate.”
  • Tonsillectomies are very common in ME because the body is fighting off the viruses and causing chronic sore throats (my early teenage years).
  • Vaccinations commonly cause ME and relapses (I took every vaccination I could get my hands on because I thought they were protecting me and didn’t realise they’re not for everyone).
  • He suspects a brain stem issue because of vasovagal syncope history, neck problems and dysautonomia symptoms.
  • He said that he has seen cases of ME caused by invasive dental work alone, so he thinks my history predisposed me, but having acute bronchitis, viral gastroenteritis, lots of dental work and then the flu shot all in the space of 3 months definitively tipped my immune system to ME. He said, “The flu vaccination is what did you in.”
  • My tender abdomen he said was my terminal ilium and that was typical with enteroviruses living in the wall of the small intestine.
    He said I might have contracted new infectious illnesses in the past 3 years, but, whereas healthy people fight off viruses locally (i.e: facial symptoms with a cold), I fight it off systemically and all my ME symptoms flare. My mother and I heard loud and clear that contracting another virus would be incredibly dangerous for my recovery and my future health.
  • He said that there was a sewage leak into the lake at Incline Village in 1984, before the initial ME/CFS outbreak and that everyone got sick in the summer when they jumped in the lake. He said he is the only person in the US working on enterovirus research and he has found the virus in the blood and stomach lining of patients and has also done studies (injecting mice with enteroviruses and those that were initially immune deficient died). He said the CDC will soon be reproducing his work, he hopes.

Blood test results:

  • My T-lymphocytes are okay. CD4 is a little low.
  • Echoviruses, chlamydia pneumoniae, CMV, Creatine Kinase, IgA and CRP are all negative or within range.
  • Coxsackie B 4 and 5 are high. Type 4 is very high.
  • IgG (gammaglobulin) is low. All 4 subclasses. These are the most important antibodies to neutralise enteroviruses and maintain a healthy immune system.
  • HHV 6 IgG antibodies are very high.

Treatments:

  • He mentioned interferon, but said it is a very difficult treatment and short-lived.
  • He mentioned Epivir, an HIV drug that helps about 30% of the time, but didn’t want me to consider it now.
  • He told me to watch out for lakes, rivers, shellfish and not to drink the LA tap water.
  • He said I could try sublingual vitamin B12, coQ10, magnesium and vitamin D (all of which I take except B12).
  • The most important treatment he thought I needed was 5 – 15 grams of intravenous gammaglobulin to replace what I don’t have and modulate my immune system. He kept reiterating how much sicker I would be if I caught another virus, so he thought I should get IVIG twice a year and again whenever I travel anywhere (although, he said I probably shouldn’t travel). He wanted me to see an immunologist to get it, but it’s very expensive and the immunologist would want to inject me with a pneumonia vaccine to determine whether IVIG was necessary by my immune response two weeks later (I find this all very frustrating and wish that Dr. Chia could just give me a requisition form to take to a Seattle hospital so I don’t have to go through the rigmaroll of finding another specialist to determine that I need a treatment that this specialist says I need! It’s also frustrating because I won’t let a vaccine near me for the rest of my life and some random immunologist probably won’t take Dr. Chia’s word for it). If I can’t get IVIG, he said I should get 2 mililiters of intramuscular gammaglobulin, which will last for a few months.
  • He also gave me Equilibrant, his own proprietary blend of vitamins, minerals and herbs, and told us the story of his son’s recovery once he was taking 9 pills a day. He wants me to start on ¼ pill for a month, then move up to ½ for another month. I should expect an increase in my symptoms for 7-10 days. My problem with Equilibrant is that it has a bunch of fillers and crap in it: Dextrose, titanium dioxide, Yellow #5, Blue #2, Carnuba Wax etc. I still think I’ll try it, but I haven’t gotten the nerve up yet.

Honestly, the best thing he said to me during this whole appointment was, “You’ll get there.” He said since I’m so much better now than I was last year, my body is recovering and I just have to try to avoid getting another virus. After hearing Dr. Peterson say that he has never had a patient recover, it was nice to hear Dr. Chia say that I would get there…. I know “there” will not be where I was pre-ME, but I’ll take pretty much any there over here.

30 Things About My Invisible Illness You May Not Know

Well, I’m a few days late (and more than a few dollars short). I’ve been working on this post for a week while not feeling well, but I’m determined to finish. Invisible Illness Awareness Week was last week and, in an effort to raise awareness, invisibleillnessweek.com has put together the “30 Things About My Illness” questionnaire below. The website offers support to patients and caregivers through articles, podcasts, illness lists and links to associations and resources. You should check it out!

30 THINGS ABOUT MY ILLNESS:

1. The illness I live with is:

Myalgic Encephalomyelitis. I have other conditions, such as mast cell activation disorder, thyroid disease, dysautonomia, hypoglycemia, IBS, dysmenorrhea, and chronic intractable migraines but these are speed bumps in relation to the Mount Everest that is ME. Undoubtedly, all these problems are connected in some way.

2. I was diagnosed with it in the year:

I was diagnosed about one year ago.

3. But I had symptoms since:

ME hit me one night like a freight train around 11pm on Halloween night, 2011. One hour I was fine, the next hour I was in the grips of what I thought was a very bad virus. Chills and drenching sweats lasted all night and… the rest is history.

Years before that, I had dealt with thyroid goiters, anaphylaxis and vasovagal syncope, but they were just blips in my otherwise healthy, normal life. ME changed that.

4. The biggest adjustment I’ve had to make is:

I could say losing my career, my social life, traveling, my income, the future I envisioned… But, really, the hardest adjustment has been a life with minimal energy expenditure: the loss of walking, running, talking exuberantly, emoting, gesticulating… I hate this still life.

5. Most people assume:

Most people assume I’m being antisocial. Most people assume that I worked too much, hit a wall and walked away and am just uncommunicative. Only my family and closest few friends know the extent of what happened to me.

6. The hardest part about mornings are:

The distressing, sinking realisation that I’ve woken up too early (and won’t go back to sleep) and had a bad night. Feeling dizzy before I’ve even opened my eyes. Being greeted with a headache and neck pain before I’ve even sat up.

7. My favorite medical TV show is:

House!! And any real life medical show like Trauma: Life in the ER. I’ve loved that stuff my whole life. They used to show real operations, graphic and unedited, on some show in Ireland when I was young and I loved watching. I’m not squeamish; I always thought I’d be working in an ER.

8. A gadget I couldn’t live without is:

My smart phone. It’s my lightweight connection to the rest of the world: news, blogs, emails, texts, photos, videos and calls. Plus, it has all my meditation CDs on it.

9. The hardest part about nights are:

For the first year I was sick, nights were lonely, terrifying, desperate, viral horror shows. There are not adequate words to describe what my nights were like. Now, the hardest part is the fear that I will not sleep well and will wake the next morning feeling worse.

10. Each day I take __ pills & vitamins.

I usually take about 26 supplements a day (double that for the number of actual pills). Currently, I’m on a vitamin and supplement hiatus, so I am only taking probiotics, magnesium, melatonin, Zyrtec, nasal spray, topical antibiotic cream, and a few times a week, when I have a headache or can’t sleep, I take Tylenol, Unisom, and Tizanidine.

11. Regarding alternative treatments I:

I have tried most of it: acupuncture, massage, craniosacral therapy, reiki, energy healers, meditation, breathing exercises, diet, stretches, Chinese herbs, supplements blah blah blagh. I don’t know what constitutes “alternative”, but I would do anything to get better.

12. If I had to choose between an invisible illness or visible I would choose:

I have a half-written blog post called “Visible Illness” because I look sick ~ or, at least, I look different than I used to ~ and I have caught myself feeling jealous of the “healthy”-looking ME patients I have seen online. However, my illness is invisible in the sense that nobody can see just how bad it is by looking at me ~ especially during the first year, when I pushed through everything to go to work.

Which would I prefer? Neither. Illness is evil and, ultimately, nobody can ever comprehend a sick person’s suffering, regardless of how bad they look on the outside.

13. Regarding working and career:

I never stop dreaming about my next career. I have a different idea every day. I miss working, I miss having responsibility and helping people, I miss being good at something, I miss having the security of an income.

14. People would be surprised to know:

Those that haven’t seen me in a while would be surprised to see that I have gone from an energetic, talkative, happy, demonstrative, busy person to someone who moves very little and doesn’t leave the house. Those close to me might be surprised to know just how black my blackness was this past year and how often I thought about suicide (it took all my guts to write that word. It’s shameful and scary, but true).

15. The hardest thing to accept about my new reality has been:

That I can’t exert energy. That’s it. It rules all else. I can’t find a new job, I can’t make plans for a different life than the one I had imagined, I can’t socialise or cook food or deal with banks or disability or do anything to adapt and move on. I only feel ok if I am flat on my back, not moving. But I keep trying to make progress and those endeavors always cause me to be in pain. And I’m intolerant to painkillers. So it’s a continual try-to-gain-ground-get-knocked-down cycle.

16. Something I never thought I could do with my illness that I did was:

Admit it – admit I was a sick person. Also, there was a time when I wondered if I’d ever laugh again. When the headaches ease up, laughter returns. It’s glorious.

17. The commercials about my illness:

There are none, but there are commercials about fibromyalgia and, of course, they show women able to move freely if they take Lyrica. Imagine the only symptom being achiness! Imagine a pill taking care of it! Sign me up!

18. Something I really miss doing since I was diagnosed is:

See this post. Dancing with my dogs on the beach, eating whatever I want, staying up late, talking nonstop, getting excited, getting angry, having a career, dreaming up future plans, driving myself places, traveling, having financial security… See the recurring theme?

19. It was really hard to have to give up:

I want to say everything in #18, but I’ll change it up and say getting dressed and feeling pretty. I miss a great pair of jeans and make-me-feel-tall boots and thinking my eyes look bright and generally feeling attractive.

20. A new hobby I have taken up since my diagnosis is:

Meditation. I couldn’t live without it now.

21. If I could have one day of feeling normal again I would:

Only one day? So not enough time to go to Europe? Can I plan this day in advance and get my loved ones to come to me? Ok, I’ll assume that’s a yes. Then I would get everyone I love to Seattle in advance and on The Day we would hike, talk, laugh, play games, eat a lot, get rip-roaring drunk, never have to rest and then sleep soundly, deeply, peacefully ~ without a cpap and with my husband and dogs.

22. My illness has taught me:

How under-equipped society is to help the disabled, sick and elderly. It is astounding and harrowing to realise how difficult and time-consuming it is to drive, park, get to a doctor’s office, get home help, get financial help ~ everything! And, when you’re sick, everything costs more, so what happens when you can’t work? I worry about old age all the time.

23. One thing people say that gets under my skin is:

When people say nothing. When friends don’t want to “burden” me with their own problems or don’t contact me because they don’t want to “impose” or don’t text me because I haven’t responded in days/weeks and they think the ball’s in my court or that they don’t want to keep “bothering” me. It is incredibly comforting when someone asks questions about my illness or vents to me about their hardships or gossips about work or continues to let me know they are thinking about me. Once in a while, I would love my husband (and family) to take a break from being the strong caregiver and wallow in a bit of mutual mourning: “This is so fucking unfair! We had dreams and plans! We had only just stopped living paycheck to paycheck! You were so alive and I am turned inside out to see your life force disappearing…” Maybe it’s selfish, but, someone else screaming at the sky would make me feel a little less alone.

24. But I love it when people:

Remind me that, even in this diminished capacity, I am still vital and worthy of being a friend.

25. My favorite motto, scripture, quote that gets me through tough times is:

“As long as you are breathing, there is more right with you than wrong with you.” ~ Jon Kabat-Zinn

Also, my mother once told me she had read that if you have one pain-free day, there is the possibility of being permanently pain-free. I think about this all the time on days like today: Just because I’m having a bad day today, it doesn’t mean I will always have bad days. There will be days again without headaches. There will be days when I can move more freely.

26. When someone is diagnosed I’d like to tell them:

You will improve. That was the first line of an email someone wrote to me and I didn’t read any further, I just closed the computer and wept. I needed to know that life could and would be bearable one day.

Also, I caution anyone recently diagnosed to not read all the horror stories about ME. It is good to raise awareness about the severity of this disease,  but, after doing tireless research for months, my fear drowned out what my body was whispering. Stop pushing yourself, rest, listen to your body and believe you will improve. 

27. Something that has surprised me about living with an illness is:

How many of us there are ~ in every country, of every age, ethnicity and socioeconomic standing. I am amazed and grateful for how many of us are online, sharing advice and giving support to each other. Sometimes, you lot are all that gets me through.

28. The nicest thing someone did for me when I wasn’t feeling well was:

Not leave me. My husband, family and a few friends have wrapped themselves around me ~ physically and virtually ~ and given me the security that I have SWAT team back-up in this war.

29. I’m involved with Invisible Illness Week because:

I’m quoting Linds: “I think it’s a great way to bring much needed awareness to the struggles others endure. The illness is invisible, not the person.”

30. The fact that you read this list makes me feel:

Honoured. Or honored, depending on where you learned to spell. 🙂

Also check out my other blamily members’ answers to this questionnaire: Jess, Marie, Christine, Luminescence, Trisha… Who have I missed? Let me know if you posted this questionnaire to your blog and I will link it here.

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