Our Old Man Riley

15542453_10153907788587811_702334011919916306_n.jpg

Like Lassie, our Riley communicates quite skillfully with a range of different barks. A few months ago, he came to me at the dining table with his stern, urgent bark. I looked around for Penny, knowing he was tattling on his sister. He used to do this with Bowie, too. “Is she downstairs getting into treats?” I asked him. That’s where I’d found her one day, head buried in a Greenies bag. As I went down the stairs, Riley’s barks got more insistent: Mama, wrong way. I looked back up the stairs at him. He stamped his feet with intent, faced the back door, barked more urgently. He might as well have pointed. I went back up, looked outside, and there was Penny on the porch, standing amidst scattered recycling, snout-deep in an empty dog food can.

He has another bark for person at the gate and another for stinging insect in the house and for dinner is late and for I’m too arthritic to play with these dogs, so I’m just going to yell at them for an hour.

Riley is the house manager. He likes to lie in the open front door, where he can keep an eye on the street, the garden and inside the house, too. In the winter, when I insist on a closed door, he’ll lie on the porch outside, but only if he can see me through the window. If I go out of sight, he’ll nose his way inside to make sure I’m okay, first looking upstairs, then the basement, staying with me until I am back by the window so he can return to the porch and continue his vigil.

He gets up in the morning with my husband, the early bird, sees him off to work and then, by 9am, he comes carefully clicking through the dark bedroom to rouse me for breakfast. I listen to his slow ricochet off of walls and furniture corners, as he navigates to the far side of the room, where his nose finds my face. At night, he puts my husband to bed, too, and then re-emerges a few hours later to escort me upstairs.

1576262988885.jpg

He protects his siblings, protesting loudly if anyone picks up Penny’s paws for clipping or cleaning or threatens her with a coat. He shoves his way in between us, offers up himself, instead. Take me. He did the same thing with Bowie, yelling at me if I tried to brush Bowie’s teeth or perform a rectal grass extraction. Except when Bowie was dying – Riley didn’t make a peep as I changed doggy diapers and forced endless pills down Bowie’s throat.

Riley is my self-appointed emotional support animal. When I’m talking to someone, he lies beside me on the couch, one paw on my arm, and if he hears emotion of any kind — annoyance, laughter, sadness — he’ll repeatedly claw at me. Stay cool, Mama. If I become more animated or raise my voice, he will clamber on top of me, put his weight on me, shield me, distract me. And, if all else fails, he turns into the court jester in the middle of the living room, the dancing frog from those cartoons: Look over here! See what I’m doing? 🎶 Hello, my baby…🎶

2972_81534097810_1674077_n

Yesterday was his 11th adoptiversary. My husband ran into a woman at the park who said Rally (his name at the time) needed a foster family. We took him in and, after 3 other forever-homes fell through and we were gutted each time he left, we copped on that he was meant to be ours. We were meant to be his. He’s about 12 or 13 years old now. He came to us emaciated, with half a tail, already arthritic, even as a kid. He almost died from giardia, swelled up from wasp stings, lost a toe and a bunch of teeth – and none of it ever slowed him down.

But this year, he’s suddenly old. Cataract-y eyes, rickety bones, staring at walls… And I’m thinking of what it’ll be like to not have him taking naps with me or lying outside my shower… How quiet it’ll be with no warnings of stranger danger or bad insects or Penny mischief. I’m reminding him more than ever how much he’s loved, how, even with the endless lint rolling and daily hoovering, we have cherished every hour of the last 4,016 days with him. And how incredibly fortunate we are to be the ones who get to accompany him through however many days remain.

11224625_10153081795987811_7067653937732635758_n.jpg

Long Overdue Update

I think it’s time to write an update. I haven’t wanted to neglect my blog — in fact, I wake up daily thinking about things I’d like to document and share — but I’ve somehow been very busy for what feels like years. My energy is still so limited and, with each incremental increase in functioning, I want to take some of the burden off my husband by cooking my own food, getting myself to appointments or taking care of our dog. It leaves no space for writing. I hesitate to say “no time for writing” because, even as a sick person — even as the person in question — I think, “you have nothing but time!” But I don’t, my window of functionality is still so small. There were months in the past when I worked 70 hours a week and I somehow still had the time to accomplish more than I do now — because my internal engine worked efficiently and my tank held much more gas and was easily refilled overnight. I can imagine my healthy friends reading this and wondering how someone with no job, no kids and no social engagements can possibly feel like they don’t have time to write an update. Maybe, if I manage to complete this blog post, it’ll be clearer.

These last few years, I have put great effort into trying to be an easier human to be around, trying to act like my old self for my husband and when I see people — you know, trying to be one of those “it’s great the way she stays positive and keeps fighting while dealing with such suffering” kind of people. But when you only post the good moments on Facebook and you draw from deep reserves while talking to people to appear perky and mildly engaging, it can cause… confusion, for lack of a better word. Even my closest friends and family obviously can’t see on the outside of me what I assume must be alarmingly salient and sometimes I get concerned that maybe, deep down, they think I’m just living the good life while my husband slogs away at his very physically-demanding job. They have made comments that make me think I’ve never done a good job of explaining this disease and, in fact, sometimes their loving and well-meaning encouragement sounds like they think I need the courage to get out into the world.

There are certain things that take courage in my life– they are all mast cell threats. It takes courage for me to go to places where there are no easily-accessible emergency rooms, like Vashon Island, where our friends live, or in an airplane. It takes courage to try a new medication, knowing I could have a reaction. My experiences with full-blown anaphylaxis and nocturnal mast cell meltdowns have made me fearful of a lot in life — not only of things I’ve reacted to, but typical triggers that have never caused me problems because I always wonder if they’re filling my “bucket” and the reaction is looming behind a blind bend in the road. For example, I may think I can eat just about anything and I love hot weather, but most mast cell patients can’t and don’t. So, maybe a few family members come over on the 4th of July and my period is due (“events” can cause reactions for me, as does menstruation). I’m basking in the sun and I’ve eaten a banana, some cheese, some chocolate that day (typical foods that cause reactions for others). Then the fireworks start and my dogs go into paroxysms of panic, which causes me distress (emotions can degranulate mast cells) and, just like that, the bucket overflows and my tongue swells up and I’m in for a very scary, sleepless night. I think it’s just from hormones and excitement, but maybe without the sunbathing or the chocolate, it wouldn’t have happened, who knows? I’ve been blindsided by this sort of thing too often and it seems, no matter how much time goes by, there will always be a tad bit of trepidation lurking in the back of my mind when navigating the minefield of mast cell degranulation.

So, some things do take courage, yes, but living, doing, experiencing, independence — all the things that ME/cfs took from me — they take no courage at all, they just need a functioning body. My greatest desire is to be traveling or socialising or hiking with my dog. If I was suddenly healed tomorrow, all of your phones would be ringing off their hooks and I’d be asking to crash on your couches as I hopped from Seattle to Oregon to California to Wisconsin to Tennessee to New York to Connecticut to Ireland to England to Germany and hugged you all close and talked your ears off for months on end. If anything, I need to be urged to pull back and conserve my energy because I am my own worst enemy, suffering payback on a daily basis from some reckless endeavor like cutting a thick-skinned squash or shaving my legs. Yesterday, I took Riley and my sister-in-law’s dog on a walk, using my mobility scooter. When I used to take Bowie out, it took very little strength and energy: He could be off-leash, I’d sit on the scooter and watch him eat grass or motor beside him as he ambled along. But these two pups are runners, pullers, criss-crossers and leash-tanglers. Not only did our hour walk sap the majority of my energy yesterday, today I am in pain from head to coccyx from using muscles that I usually don’t. But it brings me such joy, of course, so I’ll do it again.

For about four months this year — mid-April to mid-August — I was probably better than I’ve been since getting sick. But, when my Mum visited last March she said it was the sickest she’d ever seen me. It wasn’t — I think she has forgotten some of the horrors of the early years — but that illustrates just how changeable my health can be in a 6-month period. In general, if I keep my activity steady, I can predict how my days will go. That doesn’t mean I can control how severe my symptoms are, it just means that the worse I get, the less I do each day and vice versa and, if I’m careful, this will usually even out to a higher or lower baseline. In the beginning of my chronic illness, the freefall didn’t slow until I stopped working, then stopped going out of the house and eventually spent most of my time in bed. Slowly, slowly thereafter, my days became more predictable and then, even slower than that, my limits expanded, millimeter by millimeter.

Besides managing my activity, I think the only other thing that has contributed to my improvements are immunoglobulin infusions, which I’ve been doing for three years. But, like I said, I was much sicker last winter while still doing infusions, so you can always assume that those two steps forward will be followed by one step back. Just as long as there is a net profit at the end of the year, I’m content. Not happy or at peace, but I’ll take it.

Anyway, on to the actual update. But I’m wiped now, so to be continued…

2016 Beach memories: Pictures worth 20,000 words.

Two years ago, I spent a few arduous days in L.A. with my mother and husband so I could have an appointment with Dr. Chia. Last year, we spent a few days on the Washington coast while I was very sick. We picked the closest coastal town to our house, so it was the shortest drive and my husband did all the work — I just had to get myself in and out of the car. I did it for the dogs, to see their joy on the beach, to try to make up for two and a half years of no adventures and lessened activity… but I was not in good shape.

This year, though… This year we took TWO TRIPS TO THE COAST. Again, all I had to do was pack (no easy feat — it takes me days) and get myself in the car. My angel husband, with good spirits, loads everything in and out and in and out of the car, including my mobility scooter, all my food, bedding, towels etc. I even brought my air purifier. I love being so low-maintenance.

Last June, was our longest trip since I got sick. We stayed in the same place in the same coastal town as we had in 2015, but I was feeling better than I had in years so, on the day we were meant to leave to go back to Seattle, we found a different rental and extended our visit for an extra two days. This new house was right on the beach and had a balcony. I had no idea the difference it would make to my experience. The first rental was further inland and had a fenced-in yard and trees enclosing the garden. It never occurred to me that a view might be nice — might even be soul-enlivening — I was just happy to see four different walls. But the simple act of gazing at an expanse of nature, even from inside a house, is everything when you’ve been housebound for a prolonged period. That first night, when I saw the vast black sky punctured with millions of bright stars, I started weeping. When was the last time I really saw the stars? I will never forget that moment. And the next day, sitting on the balcony, watching the waves… It didn’t even matter if I was feeling too ill to get to the beach. The funny thing was, I experienced none of that Oh-I-feel-so-much-better-near-the-ocean “locations effect” that so many people with ME report. If anything, I was taken down a notch by the wind, the marine smell, bonfire smoke at night, trying to manage my temperature fluctuations etc. Plus, there were, of course, a few difficulties for my sensitive system (a house on stilts that shook so violently, I couldn’t sleep, overwhelming bleach smell in the bathroom, strongly chlorinated tap water, too many stairs), but it was definitely worth it.

Over four months ago, I wrote a Love letter to my sons as a preamble to the big post I intended to write about the coast trip and then, of course, never got around to writing it. I’m struggling at the moment (this post has taken me a week to put together), so I’m going to let the photos do the talking.

13339617_1712212469019387_1196003812106624263_n

Half the house packed in the car, ready to go.

13308411_10153436767197811_1752156738079163842_o

ROAD TRIP!

This was the first night we arrived. A beautiful crescent moon welcomed us to the coast.

img_20160601_215911

Some days were overcast…

… with dramatic evenings.

Some days were glorious…

13323445_1712883152285652_5442403702363479005_o

…with breathtaking sunsets (taken from the balcony).

img_20160603_202644

The beach is exhausting. 😀

img_20160604_171035

The couple next door got married on the dune in front of our house. I wound up talking to them the day we left because I wanted to send them the photos I took and, in a bizarre coincidence, it turned out the bride had been suffering with a similar illness as mine, had tried many of the same treatments, knew all the same doctors. We both got tears in our eyes. It was a surprisingly beautiful thing to talk to someone so freely *in person, not on the internet*, without having to explain anything.

img_20160605_081756

The flag on the left is where they were wed.

———————————————

We had no plans to go again this year, but our best friends wound up renting the house next door to the one we had in June, so, at the beginning of this month and at the very last minute, we decided to join them. I’ve gotten worse the past few months, so I knew I wouldn’t be able to participate as much as I would like to (the first night they all played cards and had drinks, while I was in the other house, resting. The second night they had a bonfire on the beach, while I was inside, resting), but there were wonderful moments of normalcy: Z. chatting with me over morning tea, without the time-pressure of a planned visit; my dogs’ excitement when they saw Aunt Z. and Uncle J. on the beach — missed members of our extended pack; watching their family fly kites on the beach; colouring with sweet Anna while she talked my ear off more than she ever has before; eating dinner at a table with a group of friends, with conversation, laughing and music playing in the background (<~ this most of all: just hanging out amid all the normal sounds, feeling part of a group); and the social time my husband got, just hanging with friends he hasn’t seen properly in years.

The only downside was my dogs are showing their age much more now than they were even four months earlier. I couldn’t use my scooter as much as last time because they simply didn’t have the stamina to walk distances and were both limping after our first short excursion. The last — and warmest — day, Bowie didn’t even get out of the car for more than a minute. He was pooped. And Riley just sat next to me like a sentry, wondering why I was lying on the sand. I fear it really might have been the last hurrah on the beach, which makes me even happier that I pushed myself to go and create new memories.

The boys were thrilled to be back!

Our best friends frolicking. 🙂

Bowie and sweet Anna flying a kite.

One day was dark and brooding and that night it stormed with 50 mph winds.

Another day was sunny and clear.

 

Small steps with payback… But new memories and happy dogs are everything.

Love letter to my sons.

IMG_20160603_191259

After more than 10 months, I got away from the house. Every time I look at the grey in my dogs’ muzzles, I have a panic about time slipping by and the knowledge that Bowie is hurtling towards end of life. He is 9 and Rhodesian ridgebacks typically live 10 to 12 years. Bowie is big — the tallest ridgeback I’ve encountered in the flesh or online — I fear he’s more like a small great dane and they typically live 6 to 8 years… So, I’m bracing myself. Truth be told, I’ve been bracing myself for their ends-of-life since they were kids.

Riley was originally found emaciated to the point that he couldn’t stand up and had already been in two foster homes before coming to us. We were meant to be a foster home, too, but, after he was placed with two more families that didn’t work out (and my emotional meltdown with each goodbye), we knew he was meant to be ours. And, wow, was he meant to be ours. I don’t think any other pack would have worked so perfectly. He almost died from some gastrointestinal awfulness soon after we adopted him. I watched him lie on his side, dead-eyed, weakly vomiting blood while the vet told me he thought he might not make it. Not long after that, Bowie hurt his back at the park and I lifted his 110lbs into the car with some sort of super-human mother strength and raced to the emergency vet. I was healthy then, but, still, that’s more than I weigh.
[NB: Of course I called the clinic to verify his weight at that visit.]
[NB: Of course I made sure they weren’t busy before I bothered them with that question.]

So, losing them has been at the forefront of my mind for most of their lives. It may sound morbid, but it makes me appreciate every day that they’re here and I never take a moment for granted. I will miss this hair one day, I think as I pull it out of every meal I eat. I will miss his drool one day, I say as I almost brain myself slipping in the saliva pool on the kitchen floor. I spend an inordinate amount of time cuddling them, memorising every curve and bump of their bodies, making sure I’m always conscious and grateful for their presence.

IMG_20160603_183552

I will never forget the first time I took a mobility scooter to the cemetery for a “walk” with Bowie (at the time, I didn’t trust Riley to stay close off-leash, so he went to doggy daycare instead). We had been visiting the cemetery since Bowie was a puppy, but it had been a year since I was housebound and that first year was the longest and sickest of my illness. He lept like a puppy when we got there and I wept as I watched him. I think it was as important for him to see me out as it was for me to be out. Last year, both of my dogs’ mobility declined sharply. Riley is arthritic and Bowie is an old, creaky man. My number 2 wish (after getting better) is to fill their time with as much fun as possible. If I could, I would take them someplace different every day, wear them out, introduce them to novel smells and new friends (every time I’m flabbergasted or frustrated by my acute sense of smell, I think what the world must be like for a dog whose nose is tens of thousands of times as sensitive as a human’s. While a dog’s brain is only 1/10 the size of a human brain, the part that controls smell is 40 times larger. Can you fathom that even slightly? Whenever I see someone yanking on a dog’s leash, I think, imagine what he is smelling down there! Give him a minute!).

My dogs are my kids, my caretakers, my comedy, my inspiration, my reason for pushing myself, my main source of joy.

So, this is all a big preamble (pre-ramble, more like) to the story of our recent road trip to the coast (in a future post) and why it was so important to me. I can’t fly with my dogs to India or Africa or even to different parks very often, but once a year for the last 3 years, we’ve made it to the seaside. This time was different, though. This time I was stronger, I wasn’t as crushed by poisoned pain and my husband and I were happier, not desperately grappling for handfuls of different memories within the blind freefall of sudden severe illness survival. Because that’s what it has felt like: an initial period of confusion, fear and searching, followed by 3+ light-speed years of gasping for air and kicking like mad to keep our heads above water, learning how to navigate this life. And in all that time, it’s felt like we both had faces bowed down in grimaces of pain or duty, grief or worry, eyes meeting fleetingly, but blinded by our separate burdens. So, I remember those previous journeys to the ocean as a bit desperate, slightly lonely and only partially successful. But this time was different. Not easy, not perfect, but more like real life. Like a life where I’m totally present with my husband and easily walking the beach with my sons. I’ll get there one day.

IMG_20160601_130740-1

My Career in Healthcare.

IMG_20160407_121949-1

My view this morning… and all too often.

Recently, I was imploring my husband to find opportunities for couple-time in his schedule, get me out of the house so we could do “fun” things, spend time as a family… I wanted to drive around and look at the extravagant Christmas house lights over the holidays or see the Christmas ships; I wanted to visit Snoqualmie Falls, especially while it was raining so hard and the water would be high and dramatic; I wanted to drive north to look at flocks of snow geese; Seattle Symphony–anything! These things never happen and my husband said, “But every week your energy is maxed out with doctor appointments.” This is true, but this is calculated behaviour so I don’t go stir-crazy or get depressed. I can manage about 3 things a week and I’ve been scheduling about that many appointments every week for years. Hydrotherapy, strain-counterstrain, myofacial release, pelvic floor PT, acupunture, mental therapy, dietician, as well as specialist appointments, follow-up doctor visits, blood draws and testing. When I don’t have something scheduled, my attitude goes down very quickly. I think I might quite literally go insane if I shuffle around the house in baggy pjs for too long, alone, talking to the dogs, cooking meals for one, keeping myself occupied with paperwork, illness research, watching tv– especially in the winter when I can’t at least shuffle into the garden.

I tried to take a week off once and I caved by Thursday and made a massage appointment for the next day. I was crawling the walls, feeling ineffectual, lonely, angry. I wonder how anyone without a spouse or support system survives, or patients who are completely housebound or bedbound or neglected in institutions (not to mention much more horrific situations of war, solitary confinement, POWs…). It’s the isolation more than the confined physical space, I guess. My appointments give me “somewhere to hang my hat” as my grandfather used to say — a reason to get dressed, a place to go and have a conversation. My “rehab specialist” asked me if therapy was helping and I said, “I get dressed and I get to talk to someone.” He’s obviously done a lot more than that for me (for example, helped me find the best doctors and get disability), but my point was clear. Shared experiences are much more important than I realised. Like the outcast monkey that would just hang out on the edges of the enemy monkey territory even though he could be torn to shreds at any moment because the drive for company and community is that strong (I saw it on NatGeo, it made me weep).

My physical therapist and I talk about books, movies, music, tv shows, politics and I get to lie supine and motionless while he gently fixes my pain. How could I give that up? But I would–to do things with my husband. So, that’s what I told him–my husband–and he seemed confused, asked: “You can just stop those appointments? You don’t need them?” It never occurred to me that he didn’t know I scheduled these things to save my sanity, to save me from offing myself. Isn’t that obvious? Of course I don’t need to go to them! I wouldn’t cancel my immunoglobulin infusions, but all other commitments would be trumped by the importance of quality time with people I love. Husband and dogs first, friends next (actually, friend, since only one visits. Love you, Z!), healthcare visits last. That’s how I schedule my weeks. If I think there might be the weather to go to the cemetery with my boys on a day that my husband can do it, I will cancel everything else. I’ve exhausted the search for The Doctor Who Will Fix Me. I’m happy with my GP, endo and body people. I’ve seen the best neurologists. I don’t really think I would benefit from an immunologist, allergist or rheumotolgist. Maybe one day in the future I will see an ME/CFS specialist, but, for now, I’m going to focus on other things. So, my goal for this year is to encourage my husband to work a little less and redirect some of our energy into more joyous experiences. I can’t be very spontaneous, but I can schedule an “appointment” to drive out of town or an hour in a coffee shop or even play a game at home.