Body’s in Trouble and SIBO Test From Hell.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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SIBO prep meal

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

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

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

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

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Return of the Frog Queen

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Madison, WI

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

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CD bliss, 1996

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

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Kristin Hersh

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

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

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my own private Idaho, 1995

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

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

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Jeremy Enigk

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Message to the doubters (warning: strong language).

Throw back Thursday. 3 years ago I was having an okay, if emotional, day. I met with my bosses to let them know I couldn’t go back to work, browsed a few shops next door for cards and then went to the dog park with my boys. I remember what I was wearing that day and the last photo I took that last time I went to the park: I was backlit by the sun, my shadow on the pebbles in the water as my dogs splashed around. I was listening to Radiohead and was so grateful for the warmth that day, so grateful for the energy to do these things. Since that day I have been housebound. It crippled me. It knocked me down so far, I never quite got up again. I haven’t met friends again, browsed shops or gone to the dog park alone again…

Rereading this blog post below makes me so sad. I really couldn’t believe that something this life-altering could happen to a person without any explanation or good medical advice. I couldn’t fathom living one more day, let alone a lifetime, with the pain and sickness. I wanted to die and, even though I disguised it with anger in this post, I got a lot of concerned messages from my family and back-peddled quickly, so they wouldn’t worry: “I’m okay. I’m okay. I’m a fighter…”

But the truth is, as much as I wanted to live, I didn’t want to live like that. Every day over the next 16 months of relentless symptoms I thought I couldn’t go on and I’d rather die. The only thing that got me through was my mother and a few friends who were able to hear my desperation. Many people couldn’t hear it, it was too painful for them. But a few listened and didn’t say, “No, that’s not an option. Stop talking that way.” A few understood and reassured me that it was a totally rational response to my situation. And *for me* that made all the difference: To talk about it, to know I wouldn’t be alone with those thoughts or, if the time came, alone with that end game. “It’s an option, but not an option right now,” my friend Z. said. “Put it in your back pocket and keep it there. You need to try everything before you take it out and look at it again.” She saved me that day.

September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. Reach out. Whether you are suffering or you suspect someone is, please reach out.

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Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart

I’m happy to be alive today. I’m happy to not be in a hospital today. I’m happy to have the will to pull myself upright after about 24 hours of being horizontal and get this off my chest.

To anyone who thinks myalgic encephalomyelitis doesn’t exist because the TESTS don’t show anything wrong or some asshole somewhere couldn’t figure out what to call the thing that was happening to histrionic overworked ladies who couldn’t handle the pressures of modern society and decided it should be coined chronic fatigue syndrome, which would for evermore stigmatize the patients…. Fuck you.

Until you have what I have and until you go through what I go through, how dare you pass judgement or think you know better. What I have is killing me. It is ruining all quality of life and taking my family down with it. I’m not tired, I’m not in pain, I’m not…

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Not a cheery post.

I wish I had the ability to write because I have so much I don’t want to forget. I’ve taken quite a nosedive this last month and I’m feeling pretty hopeless and sad. I have many new symptoms and I’m still trying to contend with the old.

Most recently, my jaw has been injured by my apnea oral device. It feels partially dislocated in the mornings and the pain is truly excruciating– from my lower jaw all the way up to my skull above my right temple. Talking is painful, eating is painful. I’m fearful that I will cause permanent damage (or have already). This is in no way trivial. One of the only things I’ve been able to identify that helps my illness is the CPAP and oral device, when I can actually sleep while using them. I’ve tried to go back to the CPAP to give my jaw a break, but it wakes me up incessantly throughout the night and makes me feel worse than if I didn’t sleep at all. Sleep is the key to my healing. There’s nothing that will take me down quicker than lack of sleep or poor sleep and the apnea is no joke. My only option is to wear the CPAP and take a medication to knock me out. This… I don’t know, I can’t even articulate how despairing this makes me feel. I can’t tolerate any drugs. There’s not one I have tried for sleep that doesn’t either cause an allergic reaction or make me feel much worse. Having to deal with the CPAP–the washing every day, the tight strap around my already-injured neck, the rash and acne on my face, the blowing my gut up with air, the endless awakenings–I am so upset about having to go back to this. Plus, trialling sleep meds when my sleep had gotten better! I don’t want to be on more prescriptions and I can’t afford to be. So, because of my jaw, a cascade of pain, energy-depletion and lack of sleep. And I think I might have to see a new doctor about my TMJ, which I need like I need a hole in my head. Or a new jaw injury.

My gut problems have gotten worse, if that was possible. I’m permanently inflamed and don’t digest well, even with HCL and enzymes. I now have to do an enema every other day or so. Another thing for which I have to find time and energy. And the more downhill I go, the more I fear a day in the future when my husband has to help with this. Don’t even read that. It’s too gross and unbearable to think about. The only plus side of this situation is I’m very thankful for the detox help that enemas provide. Much better than being constipated.

Sleep, pain, headaches and exhaustion have been worse this last month. I’ve had no appetite, but have actually gained weight. The muscle pain and stiffness more than anything upsets me. I can’t go back to the pain I had in 2012; it was all-encompassing. It stops me from moving as much, talking as much or being in any way a pleasant person to be around. I can really topple quickly.

I started seeing a pelvic floor physical therapist who helped me more in the first appointment than the fancy GI specialist did with two appointments and two invasive tests. Of course, I’m only allowed twenty-five PT/OT/MT visits per year and I’ve already used twenty-two. And with Medicare, I’ll have zero. The thought of being without my strain-counterstrain PT is very disheartening. I haven’t seen him in a month and I know this is contributing to my worsening pain. He’s $150/hour without insurance.

I kind of scrapped everything I was doing with diet in order to try to fix my gut issues which started on the Autoimmune Protocol (AIP) last year, but nothing has helped. Which, of course, makes me want to consider eliminating foods all over again. Gut isn’t better and I’m going downhill, so maybe the new additions caused it? Or maybe the new probiotics. Or the Florinef. Or the emotional time I’ve had recently. Or the ups and downs of the weather. Or or or…

Almost every single day, I have an awful interaction with someone in the healthcare field. It is brutal and demoralizing. I just hung up in tears after talking to a clinic’s billing person who argued every point I made. Anger wrecks me and people just don’t want to help, so I’m reduced to weeping. I said to her, “Am I asking something out of the norm? You seem very annoyed.” They charge $150 for a half hour phone appointment, $300 for 45 minutes, so what choice do I have than to go in to see doctors and have to deal with insurance and billing?

Yesterday, I was almost in tears because my endocrinologist’s nurse was incredibly rude for the umpteenth time and for no good reason. Because I’m trying to figure out if the doctor can give me info over the phone rather than in person, because I’m trying to figure out how I’m going to get from the office to the lab for a blood draw when it is in a different building on the hospital campus, because I need to research growth hormone stimulation tests before I agree to it, because I didn’t want contrast with my MRI and they made a mistake and put the wrong order in…. These people are in charge of my care, I need them, but they battle every question. Endless phone calls about two things: money and protecting myself.

Well, this has been a cheery post. I kind of hope nobody reads this rant, but I’m going to publish it anyway.

June JuJu

I have had a bad backslide this month. It started with headaches in the first week of June, then bowel inflammation and bloating, then weakness, exhaustion and a constant buzzy/numb head… On the 10th, I had one day of terrible pain in all my joints: hips, shoulders, hands, wrists. On the 11th, I had a histamine reaction with my throat spot getting very itchy for the first time in ages, coupled with the internal fire that I call flushing. On the 13th, I had unusally bad blood pooling and swollen hands and feet. On the 14th, I woke up with the worst muscle pain I have had in probably over a year… full-body, every movement hurt, muscles I forgot existed… and it sent me into the emotional doldrums: I can’t do this anymore. What’s it all for? I can’t live like this. My whole life was useless. I never had a family, I never made a difference in the world, I worked and studied and worried for nothing because it was all for nothing and useless and life is meaningless blah blah blah… That was brought on by seeing an old friend’s holiday photos of beautiful people gallivanting in the sun with their beautiful children and their happy, youthful I-haven’t-aged-a-bit-in-the-last-23-years smiles. One should never look at Facebook when they are bedbound in extreme pain and it’s summer.

On the 15th, I realised the deadline for Social Security to receive my disability paperwork (work history and function report) was the next day and I panicked. I’d read the letter wrong and thought I had another week. It should have taken a week to do, but I had to cram it into 24 hours. They write on the form that it should take about an hour to fill out, which is hysterical. It took me about 10 solid hours. I had to research the jobs I had and how much I was paid back to 1997! I had to describe every position I held. I had to estimate things like how many hours a day I stooped, bent, knelt, sat, walked etc. For each position! Seriously? How many hours a day I bent?? For fuck’s sake. For all my restaurant jobs, it was fairly easy: I walked all day, every day. But, they wanted to know things like how many hours a day and days a week I worked. Well, some weeks it was 3 shifts, 10 hours a day and some days it was 14 hours a day and 7 days a week (when we were opening restaurants). I was that person who was writing in tiny letters in the margins, giving explanations and qualifiers that will never be read. They’d ask something like, “What did you do all day in this job?” and give me one line to answer. What didn’t I do all day? That would have been easier to answer. As COO, I did everything. They wanted to know how heavy objects were that I lifted: “What was the heaviest object you lifted? How much did the objects that you lifted most of the day weigh?” I wound up texting my friend from my old job: “How heavy do you think 3 of those dinner plates loaded with food were?” We were blessed with the heaviest plates in the industry and the heaviest food. Tex-Mex doesn’t leave any blank room on the plate.

For the function report, they asked the same questions different ways for 12 pages. Maybe they wouldn’t be the same answers with other illnesses, but with this one they are: “How has your social life been affected?” “How have your cooking habits changed?” “What household chores can you do?” “How have your hobbies and past times changed?” “What can’t you do now that you used to be able to do?” Over and over: I can’t do any of it anymore. All of it has changed. I was excited when I got to the question about dressing myself: Yes! Yes, I can do that!

So, the 15th and 16th turned into the familiar nightmarish feeling of deadlines and all-nighters. Oh, how many times did I leave all my assignments and studying to the last minute in college. It was my M.O. Always was, even in secondary school. I stayed up all night studying for my leaving cert (the final exam at the end of high school in Ireland) maths exam and then took a nap in the early hours of the morning and slept through it! (Side note to any young ones reading this: I thought the world was going to end. I was a perfectionist even then and, when they wouldn’t let me retake my exam, I thought my future was lost… I’d never get into the colleges I wanted to attend… it would be a black scar on my record for evermore… But, guess what, it made no difference in my life. You’ll be ok, no matter what the outcome of the leaving or the SATs or any of it. Life is much, much more.)

I put ear plugs in and sat secluded for hours upon hours trying to fill out the paperwork. My brain wasn’t working and I had to get my husband to help (“What symptoms do I have, honey?” “What hobbies do — did — I like to do?”). My hand was cramping and my vision was pretty much gone, so I went to bed and finished it the next day in a complete stupour of pain and nausea and bricked-ness. The SSA said that it was okay that it was late. I called 3 times to verify that and they kept saying it’ll be fine, so fingers crossed I didn’t screw myself.

On the 17th, I awoke in the middle of the night with an evil migraine, which is still lingering today. I have been chilled and achy and wired the last few days, trying to figure out if it is something I ate that caused the joint pain, muscle pain and migraine — is it because of all the histamine foods I have been adding in? — or is it just the unrelenting disease and the stress and overworked brain? Last night, I couldn’t get to sleep until 1am and I awoke at 5am with my heart galloping from a nightmare. I’ve been wide awake with my brain on fire ever since. Can’t deep breathe or meditate, can’t concentrate or be productive, can’t jump out of bed and tackle the day. Just have to lie here, my body a bee hive of activity and my eyes barely able to focus.

Chronic illness gods, I’m sorry I mentioned that something was working. How dare I?! Please give me some respite. I’ll be good.

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.

General Update

I feel like it has been a while since I gave a proper update. This may be a bit disjointed as I hit the important points from the past few months.

  • 19 months sick. 1 year unemployed. 9 months on elimination diet. 8 months housebound.
  • The week before Easter, I had the best 4 days since becoming housebound. Starting April 1st, I went downhill and got no respite from the crash for over a month. Each day, I hoped for a new beginning. Each day felt as bad or worse than the day before. I was spending days in bed and, very quickly, my mood tanked. It is very hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel when you get no relief day after day. I am usually quite good at articulating what I’m feeling ~ what is worse, what would help ~ but, there was a point in late April, where I was lying alone in my room and all I could think was. “Help me.” I didn’t know who to call or what I would say. I didn’t know if I could speak ~ I had been crying for days and was at a point of hopelessness that made me mute. I managed to text E. who gave me a little pep talk and made me feel less alone. That’s all anyone can do. Things started to ease up the second week of May. I’m not back to my normal crappy baseline yet (no walking around the garden, no stretches), but my body feels a bit better and my brain feels like I’m a different person: As usual, as soon as I get some space from the symptoms, I bounce right back to someone who can talk and laugh and see a future.
  • Which brings me to what caused that crash: I think I got so much worse because I stopped wearing the cpap. I really didn’t believe it was doing anything except annoying me. The mask was waking me at night, the necessity of washing all the cpap parts was exhausting, the tape over my mouth wasn’t doing my skin any favours… But, it finally dawned on me that I got worse about a week after I stopped using it. And then I started to feel better exactly one week after I started using it again. So, I’m a believer. I may be aware of the cpap mask waking me, but I am not aware of the apnea awakenings and those are the ones that are really affecting my health.
  • Which brings me to my sleep: I am still having a rough time. I intend on writing a post detailing all the information and tips I have gleaned from various sources on how to improve sleep without prescription drugs, so stay tuned for that. For now, suffice it to say I have tried EVERYTHING. As I have mentioned before, I am addicted to reading the New York Times on my phone in bed before I go to sleep ~ but I wear amber-lensed, blue light-blocking glasses after the sun goes down so I am supposedly protected from the way the screen affects my brain. Well, my birthday night, instead of reading the NY Times, I spent far too long looking at Facebook and answering all the wonderful happy birthday posts. I forgot to wear my amber glasses and wound up staying awake until 6am, tossing and turning.
Zeo graph: These lines should be SHORT when I'm sleeping. The "W" at the top means "Wake".

Zeo graph: These lines should be SHORT when I’m sleeping. The “W” at the top means “Wake”.

This is very unusual for me ~ I always fall asleep right away, it’s the waking up throughout the night that is my problem. So, for the last two nights, I made a strict rule of no phone or computer screen of any kind after 8pm and no tv after 9:30pm. My sleep was instantly better. Look at last night:

Proper sleep waves.

Proper sleep waves.

So, like the cpap, I believe I really underestimated what the phone or ipad light does to my brain. The room is black, but when I close my eyes I see lights, colours, moving lines, exploding stars. Basically, if I open my eyes it is darker than if I close my eyes. Someone on Phoenix Rising surmised that I was experiencing hypnagogia, stuck between wake and sleep. Either that or staring at my phone really, REALLY messes with my brain.

  • Which brings me to the supplements I am currently taking for sleep (and all the others, too, plus prescriptions). Here is my daily regimen:

2x Probiotic
2x tsp fiber
100mg Colace
Chinese Herbs (Lightning Pearls, currently 3/day)

2,000mg Acetyl L carnitine (1,000mg 2/day)
1,200mg Alpha Lipoic Acid (400mg 3/day)
4,000mg Borage Oil (960mg GLA) (2,000mg 2/day)
10,000iu Vitamin A
4,000iu Vitamin D3
2,000mg Fish oil (1,000mg EPA, 50mg DHA)
Vitamin B-complex (Thorne #12)
100mg CoQ10
400mg Magnesium glycinate
200mcg Selenium
400mg Riboflavin/B2
5,000mcg Biotin
15mg Zinc sometimes
500mg Vitamin C sometimes

Valerian sometimes
1mg Melatonin
100mg Phosphatidylserine
Tart cherry juice concentrate

5ml Zyrtec
Thyroid hormones
(T3 and T4)
Pantanase nasal spray
Clindamycin topical lotion
Miralax as needed
Albuterol inhaler as needed

  • The magnesium (for muscles), melatonin (for sleep onset), valerian (for relaxation), tart cherry juice (for pain and melatonin) and phosphatidylserine (to decrease nighttime cortisol) are specifically for sleep (I tried the Seriphos ~which is phosphorylated serine~ for a few weeks, but it seemed to keep me awake. The Good Doctor switched me to the new one). The other new additions to my protocol are biotin (the dermatologist told me to take this for the vertical ridges in my fingernails and hair loss) and the Chinese herbs. I stopped these for a week while I was feeling really terrible and thought I might be getting a cold, but it never materalised, so I started them again, increasing the dose much more slowly than I had originally.
  • My diet is still the same (no gluten, grains, dairy, legumes, tomatoes, potatoes, or eggs), but I think I am going to add rice any day now… I’ve just been waiting until I have a more predictable day-to-day baseline so I don’t blame crippling muscle pain (which happened on the 17th for one day only from head to toe for no apparent reason) or the disappearance of sleep or an extreme headache on a rice cake.

I want to write about my recent doctor visits and some of the amazing presents I got for my birthday, but not today. Just know that I am flying high with all the love and generosity that was showered on me. I keep saying it, but one more time: I am one lucky lady. I have the most compassionate and caring family and friends imaginable. I thought I always knew that, but I am truly humbled today. NOTHING matters but loved ones! In the end, they’re all we have.