June Update

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Two More One Offs

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Doctors, for me, are like one-night stands, only not at night and not fun. I meet them to scratch an itch, to see if maybe this person, with their unique knowledge and background might offer me something different… Trying not to have expectations, but, always, this dim hope flickering in the back of my mind that maybe this will be The One.

I didn’t see the neuro-opthalmalogist for 16 months after I was first given his name. I knew it was a silly referral and would be a waste of time, but I kept having niggling thoughts: What if they find something? You have neurological symptoms, after all. What if the problems with your eyes shouldn’t be dismissed just because there are bigger problems? What if this is thyroid eye disease? You won’t have good insurance forever. Maybe there was a reason you were referred to this doctor. Maybe it’s meant to be. Leave no stone unturned.

So, I finally made the appointment and waited 3 months to be seen.

I was in the clinic for 2 full hours. He was with me for 9 full minutes and spoke 5 full sentences. He thinks I have dry eyes.

Although I’ve been given the yellow ophthalmology eye drops twice before, this time I had a reaction to them, my throat and sinuses swelled up while I blew and coughed neon yellow all over a paper towel.

The doctor had never heard of that happening.
Of course not.
The doctor thinks, if I’m having a reaction, I should go to the emergency room.
Of course he does.

6 full hours later, I still can’t see properly from the drops they used to dilate my pupils and I feel like I was hit by a truck for no good reason.

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3 months waiting for an appointment with the fancy gastroenterologist at the University of Washington Medical Center Digestive Diseases Clinic, an hour waiting in the exam room and another hour telling my sordid bowel history and what was the recommendation?

… Wait for it…

Eat prunes and papayas and take Miralax.

Are you kidding me? Another one bites the dust.

Will someone please stop me from continuing this relentless search?

I should just stop and smell the flowers, instead.

New in the garden. Finally!

New in the garden. Finally!

Mast Cell Madness.

I’m officially terrified by my mast cells because Christmas heralded another sick, sick few days. Almost as sick as Thanksgiving, so I’d have to say the 2nd sickest night of my life. However, this time, it all started with my tongue swelling up, which gave me more insight into the mechanism behind it.

I sometimes wonder if all my health issues stem from mast cell activation syndrome. I can tell the difference between ME symptoms and mast cell reactions, but, still, there’s this little seed in my brain that says, what if they’re at the root of EVERYTHING and I should be spending my time finding a doctor with MCAD expertise on this side of the country (it doesn’t seem to exist in Seattle)? I don’t do this because I am generally stable. On a day-to-day basis, I’m not having reactions — unless, of course, many of my chronic symptoms have mast cell degranulation at their core and I just don’t realise it.

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My health issues started with full-blown anaphylaxis, out of the blue, 9 days after my 28th birthday. Doctors were hopeless and gave no advice back then, not even daily preventative antihistamines. The common denominator was alcohol (but not every time I drank, so it was confusing), so, after the last trip to the emergency room in Dublin, where I almost died, I finally quit drinking and haven’t touched a drop in 13 years.

Before that, I had swelling in my eyes and hands and a severe edema episode once or twice that I didn’t really think much about. I linked it to Asian food, so stopped eating that and MSG and didn’t look any further into it. This was eventually diagnosed as autoimmune urticaria and angioedema and I was told to take Zyrtec, but didn’t want to medicate daily for an intermittent condition.

I’ve always had trouble with my periods — crippling dysmenorrhea — but they got progressively worse until I collapsed with syncope and shock 13 days after my 32nd birthday and was taken off in the ambulance. For 6 years, no doctor gave me any advice until, finally, an OBGYN told me to dump salt on my tongue. This doesn’t stop the collapses, but it certainly helps. These episodes continue to happen randomly to this day, always on the first day of my period and are, without a doubt, mast cell mediated, presumably low-grade anaphylaxis (very low blood pressure and pulse, bowel problems, syncope, shortness of breath).

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I have a spot in my throat that has itched for years. It was actually the thing that lead to diagnosis of my toxic thyroid goiters and Grave’s Disease because I mentioned the itch to some random doctor who palpated my throat. I’ve now realised it signals reactivity in my body at a very low level. It’s almost always there, but, when it’s not or when it’s very bad, I pay attention.

I was flushing badly for years, thinking I had developed bizarre self-consciousness, but the self-consciousness was actually a result from flushing and having people point it out! When I was diagnosed with Grave’s, I thought it was a symptom of that, but it never went away after ablation.

Of course, in retrospect, there have always been issues I have dealt with, which may or may not originate with mast cells: thyroid problems and Raynaud’s can be a result of mast cell disorders. Also, constipation, headaches, low blood pressure, and temperature sensitivity (all of which got much worse in recent years). Finally, many of my ME symptoms could also be from MCAS: fatigue, joint and tissue pain, eye pain, vision problems, vertigo, episodes of low body temperature, scent/odour/chemical sensitivity, sinus problems, cognitive impairment, hair loss, decreased bone density (I have osteopenia, on the cusp of osteoporosis), shortness of breath, medication reactions, malabsorption, and tinnitus. See a list of signs and symptoms here.

It would be wonderful to be able to manage and control any of these issues, but none of them scares me like the nights I’ve had recently, not even full-blown anaphylaxis. I’ve tried so hard to figure out my triggers, but they are moving targets. Tongue swelling and angioedema are obvious, as is the very specific breathing difficulty you get with anaphylaxis (it is nothing like asthma or wheezing from an infection). I don’t get daily hives and itching like many people. My reactions now are all about the histamine bucket and completely dependent on where I am in my cycle and what is happening in my life. I may be able to eat anything one week and then suspect that those same foods are giving me sinus trouble, insomnia and a jaw ache a different week. My chronic daily headaches, tinnitus, brain fog and exhaustion could be from food choices, but I’ve never been able to pin down any causation. My diet is very low-histamine compared to normal people and how it used to be, but I still allow myself chocolate, coconut, store-bought chips, beef, almost all fruit, including dried and many things that others avoid. Could these things be contributing to my problems? Yes, but, without a definite correlation, I don’t want to eliminate foods. Once you’ve experienced anaphylaxis, “reactions” like a runny nose, constipation or aching hands are quite ignorable. The only thing that consistently caused a reaction was alcohol and my periods. And, now I can say with certainty, holidays and events, no matter how careful I am.

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I prepared for Christmas over the course of a month and a half, slowly bought presents and wrapped them, slowly wrote some Christmas cards, slowly got the spare room ready for my sister, slowly did laundry — over the course of weeks! Didn’t overexert myself at all. There was no excitement, no activities. My sister and her small dog came over, we watched tv and opened presents. I had rested multiple times throughout the day and the only not normal thing I ate was half a tiny piece of fresh King salmon, which had been brought in off the docks that same morning and, I was told, caught the day before.

My tongue started to swell up after dinner. By the late evening, I had gotten upset for really no good reason (which has historically happened with my mast cell reactions) and was flushing. I had a bad reaction to about 15mg of Benadryl a week or two prior, so I was scared to take a decent dose on this night. I bit a dye-free capsule and put a drop on my swollen tongue and went to bed. At 2am, I awoke with the same evil that I experienced on Thanksgiving and the night after starting Cromolyn (before going to the AirBnb rentals back in September — it was a few days before my period that time, too). I was shaking so badly, I couldn’t lift the water glass, I was drenched in sweat and had weird runaway chills coursing through my body. I crawled on my hands and knees to the bathroom, which scared the shit out of me because, through all the worst of ME, that’s only happened once before. I fell into harrowing nightmares and woke up gasping for breath over and over, feeling poisoned and infected. I dreamt that I was sick and dying and my husband wasn’t paying attention or taking it seriously. I dreamt that I was sick and dying and my mother laughed at me (this isn’t remotely based in truth, this is my terrified mind not knowing how or where to get help). I dreamt that my dog’s neck was broken and I was carrying him to get help, but I was sick and dying and couldn’t do it. And, finally, I dreamt that I was lying on the floor begging my husband over and over: “Please kill me. Please kill me. Please kill me.” I woke up sobbing and so wrung out.

That morning, my period came 5 days early. You better believe, if I had known my period was going to arrive Christmas Day, I might have cancelled Christmas. Or at least postponed present opening for a day. And definitely not eaten even the freshest salmon.

In the past, my anaphylaxis episodes went like this:
My friend A’s birthday party.
My friend C’s birthday party.
Oktoberfest.
Easter party.
C used to joke that I was allergic to fun. I can’t believe he was right. I collapsed and had the paramedics called twice while my mother was staying with us and, also, when my best friend was here from Ireland — both were “events”. I started to get paranoid that, psychologically, I was somehow causing my system to crash when there were visitors. But, every single one of these times, I had my period. There were only a few anaphylactic episodes that I can remember when it wasn’t the first day of my menstrual cycle. EVENT + MENSTRUATION = MAST CELL MELTDOWN. But I think I only really and truly started to believe this 100% on Christmas.

So, Christmas day is a total haze. I crawled downstairs a few times to eat and try to put on a good face, but I don’t remember much and dozed most of the day. Like Thanksgiving and September, however, I bounced back quicker than I could have ever anticipated. That night I kept marveling, “How am I speaking? How am I sitting up? How am I alive?” When it’s bad, you honestly want to die. When it ebbs, the human spirit kicks back in shockingly quickly and you just get on with it, until the next time when you are surprised anew at just how bad the bad is. I didn’t even really modify my diet. I continued to eat my almond butter, coconut ice cream and drink bone broth and tea (all high-ish histamine). If anything, I felt more, Oh fuck it, how much worse could it be? At this stage, I’m much more scared of menstruation and engaging in any sort of event — even one in my house, in my pajamas, with only a single guest.

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I am currently putting together an informational kit (in a bag that was donated to me by a member of one of my groups), so my husband has something to grab in the event of an emergency. My dilemma is that I’ve managed to avoid drugs all this time (never had to use my EpiPen), so I have no way to premedicate for things like plane flights, dental work or necessary procedures like a CT scan or colonoscopy (which my doctor has wanted me to get for years, but I refuse because I’m worried about reactions). I have no safe protocol. 13 years ago, I got IV diphenhydromine for anaphylaxis, now I react to 15mg of Benadryl! 5 years ago, I had IV morphine for dysmennorhea, now my breathing shuts down with a crumb of hydrocodone or codeine. What would happen in a real emergency? If I need surgery? Knock on wood, toba toba, ptooey, ptooey. Once I have everything compiled, I will post it here.

Having said all that, I’m really in quite a good place, feeling happy and hopeful about the new year. Maybe because I realise that these reactions are mast cell degranulations and not ME relapses and that takes some of the fear away. Somehow dying from anaphylaxis is less scary than becoming permanently bedbound with ME. Perhaps only people with both illnesses will understand that. So, here’s what I did New Year’s Eve:

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As well as resilience, forgiveness, positivity and optimism, I’d also like to request that 2015 doles out truckloads of health, wealth and happiness to all of us. That’s all. That’s not too much to ask, right? 🙂

Another Day In The Life

This illness takes away every bit of independence and control. My day today was ludicrous and stressful. In my mind, it is filmed in high-speed to the Benny Hill Show music.

I made three back-to-back appointments (ophthalmologist, therapy and blood draw), which is obviously foolhardy, but, if my husband is going to come home to ferry me around, I want to maximise the time. However, I didn’t want the day to be longer than it needed to be because it takes such a toll on me, so I tried to schedule the appointments as close together as possible. The ophthalmologist’s office assured me 3 separate times (because I rescheduled 3 times and asked each time) that a 2:20pm appointment would have me out by 3pm because the doctor is exceedingly timely and expeditious. I google mapped the distances between clinics and called LabCorp to ask about parking and the name of the building and what floor they were on so I was completely prepared and wouldn’t be wasting time wandering.

But, first on the schedule this morning, our cleaning lady (a luxury we obviously can’t afford, but we decided we needed once in a while to alleviate the burden on my husband) was meant to arrive at 9am. That’s very early for me, so I had scheduled the day yesterday to do nothing but organise the house in short bursts (because you actually have to tidy the house for the cleaning lady): putting away clothes and paperwork, moving blankets, yoga mats and dog beds etc. with rests in between. It takes an extraordinary amount of energy for me to do this, mainly because it involves walking things from one room to the next and up and down stairs.

Our cleaning lady is scared of the dogs, so I locked them in my bedroom with me this morning and listened to them whine to get out for an hour and a half before I texted her. I got no answer until noon, when she said she would be here at 1:30pm. She wasn’t. And my husband wasn’t home by 2 to take me to my appointments, so I stood by the door, having eaten, showered, dressed and meditated, holding my handbag, unsure of what to do. He arrived shortly after, not too late, just late enough that I was anxious. We got the dogs’ leashes on (because we had to take them with us because we couldn’t leave them home with the cleaning lady) and I hid the key for her so she could get in while we were gone.

We drove like a bat out of hell, but traffic was worse than normal. Not terrible, just bad enough to make me anxious. I got there on time, but I was still sitting in the waiting room 35 minutes later, so I had to reschedule. They said I could come back after therapy at 4pm, but the blood draw was at 4:15, so I had to reschedule that, too– to 5pm, their latest slot.

On the short drive to the therapist’s office, I was starving, as usual, so I quickly ate an apple and a bunch of plantain chips. Then I had to stand in line at reception for a full 10 minutes (exhausting) and then sat in the waiting room for another 10 minutes, wishing I had taken my time eating rather than inhaling without chewing. By the time my therapist came to get me, it was 3:15pm — not too late, just late enough to make me anxious about the appointment going over time and thus causing me to be late for my rescheduled ophthalmology visit.

I was close to tears from watching the time tick by, the stress of the day, rushing around, not being able to drive myself, being let down by cleaning lady, husband, receptionist, late doctor #1 and #2, having to schedule these appointments in the first place, having to schedule them close together because I can’t handle long outings, having to reschedule 2 out of 3 of them, trusting the ophthalmologist clinic that said 40 minutes would be enough time when I know better… so, I spent 3/4 of my therapy session ranting about the day and how frustrating it is to have no independence… and then ranting about how the day’s events were impinging on my precious therapy time! I have shrinking to do, dammit.

Of course, therapy ran late, so we drove like a bat out of hell again to the ophthalmologist, got there at 4:10 aaannnd… at 4:50pm, I was still waiting in the waiting room. Of course. So I had to call the lab and completely cancel the blood draw. What a farce!

The good news is, the different pressures in my eyes seem to have resolved, so I’m no longer considered a glaucoma suspect. The doctor wants me to try Restasis for the next 6+ months, plus steroid eye drops to address the ongoing dry eye/blepharitis/lid muscle spasms/styes/grittiness/goopiness/floaters/blury vision. Yay, more prescriptions and protocols!

Through all of this, my long-suffering husband and dogs waited in the car, but, the other good news is, he took them to the park while I was in therapy and we got to come home to a beautiful, clean home.

And then I got to do this:

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Aaaahhhhh…. take me away…. 🙂

Bonfire of the Vanities

I haven’t had the balls to write too much about this because it is all tied up in feelings of self-worth, obsessive perfectionism and long-dormant insecurities. This illness has taken a ruthless toll on my body and the changes on the outside have, surprisingly, been some of the hardest to accept. I say surprisingly because, if you are housebound and never see anybody, who cares what you look like? But the visible manifestations of youthful vitality disappearing have really saddened me and hit it home that I’m a different person now- in every respect. Even if I came out of this tomorrow, I am changed physically as well as spiritually.

I always looked, felt and, undoubtedly, acted younger than my age. About a year after becoming sick, that abruptly changed. Obviously, I don’t have a spring in my step anymore and I’m not as chirpy, lighthearted and energetic as I was, but my looks have also changed and it was a blow to my ego. I stopped cutting and dyeing my hair and its texture changed — it is dry and fluffy, rather than smooth and shiny. It becomes greasy very quickly. The hair loss on the top and sides of my head makes me feel old and sickly. My eyes are no longer bright; the whites are a dull grey and I’ve lost eyebrows and eyelashes that were already sparse. Last year, I saw an ophthalmologist for the first time with a list of grievances: gritty eyes, dry eyes, vibrating eyes, styes, blurry vision, floaters, difficulty focusing, difficulty reading… It was a long appointment and he did a battery of tests. My vision, remarkably, is still 20/20. I thought, considering I rarely focus beyond my four walls, that it would have deteriorated. But, the health of my eyes was a different story. He told me to hold a warm cloth over my lids for a few minutes every day to open the pores and treat blepharitis and, also, to use preservative-free dry eye drops four times a day (I was very impressed with his “preservative-free” recommendation based on my reactions to drugs. I’m happy to know they exist since I was using Bausch & Lomb eye wash and it would leave red track marks down my cheeks). He also found that my eyes had two different pressures, which he said was not normal and made me a glaucoma suspect. I return next month to have a check-up.

Dilated pupils to see the optic nerve.

Dilated pupils to see the optic nerve.

I went off the birth control pill 16 months ago and, immediately afterwards, my skin began to break out. But this was no normal acne. I’ve dealt with skin issues my whole life, but I was familiar with them and I knew where spots would pop up (chin, nose), why they were there (hormones, smoking, picking), and how long they would last. For the past year, I’ve had acne along my hairline and jawline. My forehead, which was always pristine, became rough and braille-like. This really took a toll on my self-esteem. Even if I could have visitors, I didn’t want anyone to see me. I went from feeling not pretty to feeling downright ugly.

My visit to the dermatologist has given me renewed hope and a plan of attack. She wanted me to take antibiotics, but I refused based on my gut dysbiosis. She wanted to try a drug that is used to lower blood pressure, but also has the side effect of clearing skin, but I can’t because my low BP is a constant challenge. She wanted to use some sulfa Rx, but I’m possibly allergic. So, I have a glycolic acid face wash, a new moisturizer, Finacea in the morning and clindamycin in the evening. It is already making a difference. The braille turned out to be eczema, which I’ve never had in my life, but Desonide cream cleared it up in 4 days. I can’t tell you how nice it is to have my smooth forehead back. I keep petting it (which will probably cause more spots).

New this year is weight loss. I spent my teen years wanting to be tall and thin, worrying about my body, and now I weigh less than I did when I was 15. It’s partly to do with my elimination diet – nuts and oats might have been the bulk of my calories – but I am eating as much as I can every day. I lather on the butter and rely too much on Terra chips for added calories.

I started experiencing what I now know is called gastroparesis. My food sits high in my stomach and doesn’t digest. I want to eat more, but physically can’t. The food I do eat, I don’t think is being absorbed properly because I’m eating more than enough for a 5 foot-nothing, mostly-bedbound lady. Muscle wasting is now more evident. I have chicken legs. One of my greatest wishes would be to bulk up my legs. I never thought I’d say that. I want muscular thighs. I want my calves back. I want to have faith in my strength like I did my whole life. My height never made me feel like I was weaker than anyone else. I tried bench-pressing with my brothers, I was good at arm wrestling, I hoisted kegs of beer around at work and ran up and down stairs with heavy plates and large trays of food and cocktails, held over my head. I was proud of my strength and now feel like every movement might injure me. My chicken legs won’t reliably carry me and my muscles feel taut and brittle.

The good news is digestive enzymes and HCl are helping me to move food on down so I can eat more. I don’t necessarily want to add fat on top of bone, so my goal is to continue to absorb nutrients and increase activity.

Vanity always seems worthless and trivial, but, in the face of chronic illness, it seems almost sinful. Tall? Thin? Nice clothes? Pretty hair? Perfect skin? All I want is strong bones, muscles and cellular energy. Who cares about the rest? Well, I still do, but it’s a work in progress. M.E. holds a mirror up and exposes your bare bones… burns away the affectation and demands you be okay with the foundation and framework, without the superficies and facade. Be okay with the soul, alone. There is a bigger lesson here for me to learn.