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.

Tomorrow is International M.E. Awareness Day.

Tomorrow is International M.E. Awareness Day. There are many events happening around the world, both online and in person. You can google your area to see if there is anything going on, but what I ask is something simple:

Please make an effort this month to talk about this disease. Look for opportunities to raise awareness. Don’t worry about being a “downer” or bringing up an awkward, depressing subject. Let people know that there is an illness that stops life in its tracks and has no approved drug treatments and very little funding for research. Explain that this has nothing to do with laziness, depression, tiredness or burn-out. Explain that there are test abnormalities, but doctors aren’t taught about the (possible/probable) etiologies of this disease so most do not recognise it and certainly don’t know what to test for or how to treat it. Make it known that patients languish in their homes ~ or, more likely, a family member’s home ~ are passed from dismissive specialist to thieving charlatan and back again, use up all their resources, and usually reach a point where they are trying to just survive because it is too exhausting to research treatments and search for medical help. Warn people that ME is often accompanied by crippling neurological issues, autonomic dysfunction, new allergies and multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS), postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS), chronic migraines, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), fibromyalgia (FM), mast cell problems (MCAD), sleep dysfunction and, of course, the depression and anxiety that would be hard to avoid with a diagnosis like this. These are all debilitating conditions in their own right, so drawing awareness to them is just as valuable.

As with many awareness campaigns, ribbons are worn to show support – blue for ME/CFS, purple for FM, and green for MCS. What I like about this is, it might bring up the conversation. Most people recognise the pink ribbon representing breast cancer awareness or the yellow Livestrong wristband which supports cancer survivors, but perhaps you will encounter someone who asks, “What does the blue ribbon stand for?” And then you can launch into your educational lecture. 🙂

meribbon

A few things going on around the world:

Niagara Falls will be illuminated in blue tomorrow, May 12th, from 9:45-10:00pm EST to raise awareness to M.E. From 10:15-10:30pm EST the falls will be purple for fibromyalgia (FM) and from 11:00-11:15pm EST the falls will be green to draw attention to multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS). You can watch it on their live webcam. Or try: http://www.earthcam.com/canada/niagarafalls/

In London, there is the “All Fall Down for M.E.” protest outside the Houses of Parliament at the Old Palace Yard.

londonME

In Victoria, Australia at Melbourne University, there is an ME/CFS Educational Fun Run.

forME

Bob Miller is skydiving to promote ME research in Lodi, California.

The Irish ME/CFS Association is hosting four talks by Dr. Ros Vallings from New Zealand next week.

There are  five screenings of Voices from the Shadows across three continents in May.

Read this article by Mark at Phoenix Rising to get all the details about these events and many more.

Finally, consider writing to your local paper to raise awareness. Read this post by the ME/CFS Self-help Guru for inspiration.

Thank you to everyone in my life that has talked about this baffling illness, raising awareness one person at a time. Thanks to my father for talking to his staff about this disease and to my mother for talking to her dog park friends about it and to Z. and E. for explaining my situation to other people I know and to my husband for constantly making excuses for my absence, trying to educate others on what is going on and raging at medical professionals’ and society’s ignorance, allowing me to be angry by proxy since I don’t have the energy for it.

MEawareness

Try something different. Surrender.

After over a month it occurred to me that maybe just maybe this downturn has been caused by the break from my cpap. I guess, if I’m honest with myself, I didn’t quite believe my apnea was a problem. I sleep through my brain “waking up” 49 times an hour, but I don’t sleep through the cpap mask waking me up 20 times a night, so my subjective view of my sleep is that it is worse when I wear my cpap. What I know for sure is, my symptoms wax and wane in direct relation to how well I sleep. Although I know my ME/CFS was caused by viruses and the flu shot taking advantage of an extremely stressed and depleted body, I sometimes wonder, if I’d slept well my whole life and known about the apnea sooner, could I have avoided this illness?

When I went downhill in April, I reversed any changes I had made in the weeks before: I went back to Now Foods vitamin B2 and alpha lipoic acid, since I had recently changed brands. I stopped the Seriphos supplement, I stopped the Chinese herbs, I stopped driving anywhere, I stopped walking and doing stretches, I stopped taking baths since they raised my heart rate so much. But nothing has been working. I have to try something different. Since my health insurance is taking its sweet time approving my apnea dental device (shocker), it’s going to take well over a month to have it made. Verdict: back to the cpap. Keep your fingers crossed that this makes a difference.

My other plan is to surrender to this new low. Somebody on an ME/CFS forum recently said, “We may have lost everything in our lives, but WE HAVEN’T LOST OUR LIVES.” It stayed with me. I’ve spent 1.5 years fighting, investigating, grieving, pleading, hoping, wailing, warring… Again, time to try something different.

I’m sorry to throw quotes at you, but this, too, has stuck with me for weeks and it is my current inspiration:

Very little grows on jagged rock.
Be ground.  Be crumbled.
So wild flowers will come up
Where you are.

You have been stony for too many years.
Try something different.  Surrender.

~ Rumi

Fish or Get Out of the Boat

I’m not up for writing, honestly, but I want to track a few things from the last few weeks. The Monday before last I had a follow up with the Good Doctor after 9 weeks. Let me just tell you, I love this doctor. I wish she were an expert in M.E., but she is the closest ally I have in this fight and I feel so confident in her hands. At least that was my feeling leaving her office. Now, looking back, I can’t remember much of what we talked about or decided. I told her I was a different person than I was the last time I saw her (New Year’s Eve). I want to remember that because I feel like hell today and I need to know that there has been progress. On New Year’s Eve I was just starting to feel better after the very low low of December. On Christmas Eve, while the men were in the kitchen, I told my sister that if things didn’t change, I couldn’t imagine going on. I was in such extreme pain and stiffness, that it was difficult to go through the motions of life, let alone find joy in the moments. As I’ve mentioned before, the muscle and back pain were horrid, but the headaches, coupled with the EXTREME noise and light sensitivity, were the main culprits. Well, cut to this last appointment with the Good Doctor and I have had over two months with hardly any headaches and much less pain, overall. What changed? I don’t know. Here are my theories:

December 1st: started Berberine
December 4th: started drinking only filtered water
December 11th: started drinking tart cherry juice concentrate every night
December 17th: stopped the birth control pill
Late December: stopped taking pain killers
January 5th: started vitamin B2 and selenium
January 6th: started cooking (once in a while) with coconut oil

I started feeling a little better on December 26th, but pain continued to lift through January. Sleep was better, too. I have been putting my faith in the tart cherry juice, but, honestly, I think it has more to do with eliminating the pill and pain killers.

Unfortunately, my sleep started to go downhill again and continues to decline. I fall asleep without any problem, I stay in bed 10 to 12 hours, sometimes I don’t remember waking up at all (although, most nights I remember 12 to 15 awakenings), but I hardly ever have proper, calm sleep cycles. I I feel like I am going insane. I was so thrilled the last few weeks that, although my nights were tortured, my days were staying okay. Until this past weekend. Today, I am so tired. I ache all over. I am back to moving like the Tin Man. I don’t recognise myself in the mirror. I think, for the first time in my life, I look older than I am.

The Good Doc’s plan for me is to try valerian for sleep and then move on to Chinese herbs and/or an antidepressant. She is the only doctor I’ve ever seen that uses psychotropic drugs as a last resort. She said, “Cymbalta is great for depression, but you’re not depressed.” I’m not. I’m not sad or hopeless. My mood is actually pretty good (as long as the bad pain stays away). She said, “It can help with sleep, but can cause insomnia, too, and it has a host of side effects that might set you back. So, let’s eliminate all other options first.” Love.

She also said I can try adding legumes back into my diet. I’m going to wait until after my period to eliminate any confounding variables caused from PMS… but, I might not even add them back at all. I have been on this diet for so long, I feel like I should keep it consistent while I try the Chinese herbs and sleep drug.

That Monday I also saw the sleep clinic tech to get a new cpap mask. It’s the most impressively designed mask that I’ve come across yet (Respironics Wisp), but it makes no difference, I’m still awake hundreds of times each night (literally hundreds ~ the sleep study showed I was waking up 48 times an hour). Last Friday, I went to see the rheumatologist I saw a year ago (literally ~ the doc pointed out I was there on the same date in 2012). The first thing he said was, “Why are you here? Chronic fatigue syndrome is an infectious disease.” My brain was so fried, I honestly couldn’t come up with any reason why I was there. I couldn’t for the life of me think what a rheumatologist does. I had gone to acupuncture beforehand and the Master had done a session that was meant to make me very tired so I could sleep well that night. It didn’t help me sleep that night, but it certainly caused me to be half-comatose in the hours after the appointment ~ I was slurring my words driving from acupuncture to the hospital and, after melting for an hour in the waiting room, I was far from the articulate, cogent, well-informed patient I pride myself on being… And the rheumy was a fast talker ~ a New York native, I think, based on the accent ~ and I was the last appointment of the week, so all-in-all, it wasn’t going the way I had planned. I think I said something like, “I’m not sleeping and I think it’s the fibromyalgia-type constant awakenings and I wanted to talk to someone who knew something about this.” He told me about the sleep study that Dr. Moldofsky conducted many years ago (I’ve now heard about this study from every single doctor I’ve talked with about sleep. It must be on every medical school exam) and then he said, “Try amitriptyline. You have to try something. I have patients that would rather limp in pain their whole lives than have knee or hip surgery. That’s fine, but you narrow the horizons of your life.” I know that is exactly how I would be: limping is a certainty; surgery is an unknown and full of risks. The doctor said, “As my father used to say, [for days I’ve been trying to remember the adage he used: fish or get out of the boat, catch something or reel it in, cast or go ashore… something like this].” I replied, “My Dad would probably say, shit or get off the pot.” And that was the end of our appointment.

So, the week’s round-up: After three nights, valerian is making no difference and I’m seriously considering turning to amitriptyline or cymbalta. My period is four days late. My skin is like braille. I’m swollen, tired and achy. BUT, for a few weeks there, I thought I was definitely making progress and that has given me much renewed hope for the future. I can do this. I shall overcome. Plus, every day without a headache is a good day. Pure gratitude!

First colour in the garden. Spring fever. :)

First colour in the garden. Spring fever. 🙂