If I don’t have brain symptoms (which is the true limiting factor to my writing this year) and I start to post something about my illness, about my days, about my lack of coping skills, I invariably think, “You aren’t bedridden, how can you complain? You are able to feed and bathe yourself, are you really going to bitch about how difficult your life is?” Because that’s what I want to do more often than not. Complain. Vent. Rage against the world. And perhaps make some tiny bit of sense out of this existence and give myself some breathing room.
I’ve been so bottled up, I have tears threatening to spill over every day. So, I am going to write about today and preface it with this: To my friends that can’t get out of bed or watch TV or eat whatever they want… to those of you that haven’t left the house in years and don’t have some of the things that keep me sane like my dogs and my husband (I probably should have led with the husband there), I think about you. I shudder to think about you. You inspire and humble me with your resilience and I wish I could change things.
I want to write about the small, but significant choices I made today. It’s a short story and the end of it is I went to bed and sobbed into my pillow because my therapist said I should. He said crying is a primal emotion that serves a purpose and I should let it out, so I did. I don’t know if it helped. I feel the same as I did before, only with swollen eyes, but I appreciate that he gave me permission, for lack of a better word. He’s always telling me, “Get out of your head, stop trying to rationalise everything, stop trying to make an action plan for everything, stop the black and white thinking.” But if I’m not analyzing, organising, planning, executing, succeeding and then second-guessing everything I did, then who am I? That’s a rhetorical question.
I can’t remember the last time I went in a grocery store. Many, many months ago with my husband, I think. Maybe even last year. It’s a big deal, it takes planning and guts. We had a 10% off promo that needed to be used today and the store was a 4-minute drive. They have a deli and I decided that driving there and buying deli food would be less energy than trying to cook something. After all these years, I still marvel that these are the sorts of choices we (those of us with energy deficits) have to make. Driving, if my brain is operational, does not use up a lot of my energy, but washing, chopping, standing at the stove, stirring, whatevering… It’s exhausting. So: drive, park, the deli is right inside the door, get food, come home. Scary when I’m having a difficult health month, but easier, I decided, than the alternative and, if I’m not pushing myself too hard and crashing, then who am I? Again, rhetorical.
I’ve been beaten down recently by a 5-day migraine and bad sleep for months, wondering how to keep going through the motions of survival. In a nutshell, I’m pretty raw and small things feel harrowing. I talked to myself the whole way to the store: “You’re fine, you’ve got this, you won’t pay for this. Red light means stop.” I parked in a handicapped parking spot (with my permanent handicapped parking permit displayed) and shuffled to the elevator that goes up to the store. There’s a small stairwell, too, but I’ve never climbed it in the 4 or 5 times I’ve been at that building. I hear someone yelling across the parking lot. YELLING. Not nice yells. A woman near me says to me, “She’s saying she doesn’t think you’re disabled.” I replied quietly, “Oh, I am” and she gave me a kind look as she started up the stairs and nodded at the elevator as if to say, I can see that. But, also, look at my face! Can’t you see it? How can they not? But they can’t. Maybe in Seattle in November everyone is grey-skinned, sunken-eyed and haunted-looking to a certain extent.
I thought that was the end of it, but the woman in her car was still hollering. She’d stopped on her way out, blocking people, so intent on getting an answer that she’d rolled down her passenger side window and was shouting, “DISABLED? DISABLED? ARE YOU? HELLO? ARE YOU DISABLED?” It was aggressive and accusatory, not inquisitive or, god forbid, compassionate. I had already nodded yes at her, but she continued on. I mouthed, “I am,” but she couldn’t see or it wasn’t good enough. I started to feel very weak because I can’t sacrifice the energy to go talk to her, I can’t sacrifice the energy to project my voice, people were staring now and I felt defensive and emotional and the heat was burning up my chest and, before I knew it, I roared YEEESS! and immediately felt dizzy, immediately had a sore throat. Legitimately — a sore throat that’s still here tonight. We people with ME don’t roar. And, oh, how I miss it. How I miss being enraged and having a good old screaming match, replete with stomping off and door slamming. I used to be really good at that.
The woman shouted back: GOOD! and drove away. It echoed around the closed underground lot and made me feel very small.
I tried to tell myself her heart was in the right place, that she was looking out for disabled people and that I’m glad there are ballsy watchdogs like her in this world… but it didn’t stop the resentment from welling up. She caused this embarrassment, this upset, she caused me to yell when my voice is so weak. And she’ll be fine, she won’t pay for this interaction because she wouldn’t have initiated it if that was a concern. I started silently blubbering in the elevator. I walked to the deli weeping, I ordered the food while sniveling, I wiped away tears while paying. And I bought a pint of chocolate hazelnut fudge ice cream because fuck that lady.
When I went to leave the parking garage, I realised I hadn’t gotten my parking ticket stamped, but there was no way I could walk back to the elevator and into the store. Another example of the small, but soul-eroding kind of choices we have to make. I was so beyond my safe energy expenditure that I worried about not making it home. It was too far to go back and I had to save my steps to get in my house. So, I paid for parking and it negated the 10% off promo that inspired me to venture out in the first place.
When I was putting the things into the fridge, I did it sitting on the floor and when I stood up, I bashed my head so hard on the corner of the counter, that it drove me back to the floor, my vision whited out and stars burst and birds chirped around me. The migraine, which I’d just quelled yesterday with my infusion medications, burst back onto the scene, shooting cyclical stabbing pain through my left eye. That was it. I took my therapist’s advice and went to bed to sob into my pillow.
I do feel a bit better now, so maybe it did help. Or maybe it’s because I’m writing for the first time in over 5 months. Or maybe it’s the chocolate hazelnut ice cream.
I have so much to write about, so much to catch people up on and document, but the longer I go without posting, the harder it feels to break the dry spell. Each month, I think, “Write that in a blog post, you’ll want to remember that,” but I never feel like I can “waste” the time. Especially in the last 6 months. If you’re friends with me on Facebook, you know that I have lost all available energy for months to fighting horrific healthcare battles. Energy that could have been put towards conversations with loved ones, time playing with my dogs, reading or writing…
So here’s a recap: From November, 2015 to around August, 2016 I was slowly getting stronger from my immunoglobulin infusions. I estimated that they brought me up from about 15% of normal functioning to about 20%. That 33% increase was miraculous. It didn’t exactly change the way I lived my life (I still had the same symptoms, was still mostly housebound, still had to manage energy carefully), but it changed my control — things became predictable, which reduced fear and let me branch out. Payback was shorter, not as scary, I could do more and knew I wouldn’t make myself permanently worse. That last point was life-changing for me. For 4 years, it felt like anything I did made me worse, I was desperate to hold on to the functioning I had and couldn’t take many chances without being forced down a notch — and I was always so scared that the new lower notch would be forever.
So, last year we went to the Washington coast for 5 days and I didn’t feel terrible. I had two friends visit me at my house and we talked for hours and I was okay. My family came to Seattle for their annual vacation (2 brothers, sister, mother, spouses and 7 nieces and nephews) and I was able to go to their rental house 4 days in a row for extended visits. This was the turning point, though, I think. I left it all on the stage those 4 days with my family. Friends with chronic illness, you know what I mean — it’s such a difficult act to appear normal and, from what I’m told, I gave a great performance that long weekend. Each day I came home and literally crawled on all fours to my bed. I lost 3 pounds in 4 days because between each visit all I could do is lie in bed and hope for a enough recovery to try it again. There wasn’t a moment that the payback wasn’t worth the incredible time I spent with my family. I’ll have to write a whole blog post on it one day. My nieces and nephews are everything you want kids to be — sweet, kind, honest, inquisitive, funny. No bratty-ness, no meltdowns, no selfishness. My brothers are doing something right.
Right after that visit, in August of last year, I started to nosedive. I had an increase in migraines, sore throats, exhaustion, muscle pain, unstable blood pressure. I was trying out (very expensive) hyperbaric oxygen treatments at the time and thought they were either causing or exacerbating my symptoms, so I stopped those, but continued to go downhill. In November, I started the descent into health insurance hell that lasted about 4 months. I’m not going to get into it right now. There’s too much to tell and it’ll make me shake and cry angry tears as I type, which I’m not up for. Suffice it to say it is an evil, vindictive, nonsensical, black hole of a system and nobody has accurate information about anything when it comes to healthcare for people under 65 on disability. And, even if they do have the knowledge, it seems the vast majority of health-related representatives (or is it all humans? I’m guessing it is) are inept, lazy, selfish and genuinely couldn’t care less about helping someone in need. My friend Michael had one of these phone calls where he wound up saying, “How do you sleep at night?” to the representative who was outright lying to him. Essentially, that’s how I spent 4 months — all available energy every day dedicated to battling my brain symptoms so I could continue to micromanage every person who held my health in their hands, taking copious notes and making enemies, as I waded through the morass of phone transfers, misinformation, hours of stuttering hold muzak, false promises about call backs and looming deadlines… While thinking, how do they live with themselves? Not to mention incompetent, petulant doctors that I need so I can’t I leave them.
When my mother came to visit after Christmas, she said it might have been the sickest she had ever seen me. I wasn’t even close to the sickest I’ve been, but it still says something about the severity of my crash (to be fair, I had allowed myself to have one of those total meltdown, let-it-all-out, “I’m so sick of being sick” sob-fests in front of her — the kind that I usually rein in because they can make me more reactive and wipe me out — which can’t be easy for a mother to witness). My strength started to get marginally better in February. I think it might have been helped by an increase in my thyroid medication, but it was kind of a double-edged sword because I also became horribly hyperthyroid for about 3 weeks before I realised what was happening. I had also stopped going to my weekly appointments (physical therapy, myofacial, counselling etc.) and had stopped my immunoglobulin infusions because I lost insurance to cover them, so perhaps the break from obligations and weekly medications helped me gain strength.
This spring my husband, dogs and I drove to California for an appointment with Dr. Kaufman at the Open Medicine Clinic and we stayed 6 weeks for a holiday and to test how I felt in a different climate. I will write about those big events in another post. What I really came on here to document is how I’m doing now. I want to keep track of what I can manage and how bad the payback is when I indulge in social time. Last November I went out to brunch (out!) with 4 old friends (you can imagine what it meant to me to be invited). I’m pretty sure I appeared normal throughout the 2-hour meal, but payback was vicious. My calendar notes say: “very bad today, body totally shut down, in bed, shaking, crashing, crying, guts feel swollen and full of bricks, heart, muscles, eyes burning.” It lasted days. In early February, my brother was at our house for 7 hours. I spent his visit relaxed on the couch in my pjs, but we talked and laughed like normal people, animatedly, and I didn’t rest once (unheard of a few years ago). I went to bed that night flying high, so happy from our conversation, so grateful to feel fine… And then, 3 hours later, woke up in the middle of the night feeling poisoned, shaking all over. My calendar says: “severe payback, swollen throat, can barely swallow, hard to breathe, every muscle in pain, bad stiff neck and headache, shooting pain in bowels, nose stuffy and runny.” The worst of it only lasted about one and a half days.
Yesterday, we had family over for brunch to celebrate my birthday. Although the whole shindig lasted 3.5 hours, there were only about 2 hours during which everyone was here — 4 adults and a child, not that many people. My friend Z said I looked great, she was so excited by how different it was from other years. She said, “I know you’ll pay, but today was normal.” This is everything I could hope for, BUT… the big but… But, it was hard. I can power through now, I have the ability to put on an excellent performance. If my neurological symptoms stay away, I can do quite a bit physically (although standing for a long time still causes excruciating pain). So, yesterday I showered, dressed, got out plates and cutlery, made some waffles and chatted with my family. That’s about all I did before things got difficult. There’s this weird thing that happens when you’re ill, but you’re putting on the normal act: You lose time. Or at least I do. Do any of you? For example, I remember everything about the first hour yesterday — when I was chatting with my husband and sister-in-law. Then our friends and their daughter arrived and things are a little fuzzier. I remember the conversations, but they’re not in sharp focus. Then my sister and her dog arrived, right around the time I wanted to make the waffles and apparently that’s when my mind went into … not quite “survival” mode, but “keep it together” mode: I was talking to 2 people in the kitchen while trying to focus on cooking and, although I made good waffles and I’m sure I said the appropriate things at the appropriate times during the conversations, I cant remember any of it clearly and couldn’t tell you what we talked about. Same thing while we ate — I clearly remember how delicious the food was (of course I do), but recalling things that were said is akin to trying to remember conversations I had while drunk, it’s murky, and it worries me that I was rude or unresponsive — to my favourite people, who made the effort to visit us, no less.
When I was saying goodbye to them, I could barely see. My vision was tunneled, I had a wicked headache and my brain was a buzzing scream, but being the fastidious person I am, I couldn’t not load the dishwasher. This tipped me over the edge. I was staggering around the kitchen, using immense effort to coordinate my muscles and concentrate enough to lift and place dishes. My eyes weren’t tracking properly, my heart rate was running high and my legs were burning terribly, but I just wanted to come to an end point… Stupendously stupid stupidity. I slid to the kitchen floor, panting, crying, literally unable to walk out of the room. I slurred: “Nothing is worth this. I was trying so hard to be normal, but no social time is worth this.” My husband said, “Why don’t you just be honest?” and I said, “Because THIS is honest.” On the floor, weeping is honest. He helped me to the couch, I was having a hard time sitting up, it was just utter energy depletion, muscles unable to work. I immediately fell asleep in a sort of emergency power-down. I started to feel a bit better about 5 hours later and today I’m okay besides another bad headache and stiff neck. That’s the difference now — when it hits, it hits hard and scares the bejeesus out of me, but it doesn’t last long. So I take it back, it was worth it. I ate decadent food in the warm sun in our beautiful garden with some of my favourite people on the planet (and to Z’s credit, she tried to stop me from over-exerting myself over and over and I bullheadedly kept telling her, “No, I want to do this! I’m fine!”). But of course it was worth it and I’ll keep trying to make this life have more life in it and repeat to myself during the scary times: this, too, shall pass.
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.
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.
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.
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.