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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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:
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? 🙂
We’ve always had a real Christmas tree; decorating it and wrapping presents to place under it has been half the joy of Christmas for me. A few weeks ago, I bought an Amazon Local deal: $20 for $40 to spend at a nearby Christmas tree lot and then I realised… we probably shouldn’t get a real tree this year. I am reacting to everything lately and I’ve been bothered by the small tree in my meditation room and the soil it sits in. Last Christmas was the lowest point in my ME journey so far and I’ve gone downhill since the summer, so I really don’t want to aggravate things by having a smelly, potentially moldy tree in the house for a month (most asthma and allergy sites I looked at recommended against a real tree). I even asked in my MCAD group and the vast majority of those that answered get a fake tree.
So, we bought a fat 7.5′-tall artificial tree from my friend for $150. He said it was used once and kept in a back bedroom all year. My husband opened it up and we let it sit and air out on the porch for 5 days and then he moved furniture and broke his back bringing it inside, setting it up, and tweaking every branch and twig for an hour to make it full and beautiful. When I came through my vapour barrier from upstairs, before I’d even looked into the room and seen it was up, I knew the tree was there. It was like walking into a wall of smell. I couldn’t identify the smell. It wasn’t a plastic smell and it didn’t smell like dust or manufacturing stench, but it was a very large smell. I’d go into the kitchen to get something to eat and, as I walked back into the sitting room, I would stop short as I hit that fetor again. Over and over, the heaviness of it took me by surprise. My throat was burning, I got headachy… Normal issues for me, yes, but I felt like it was the tree. Or, at least, having those symptoms while being enveloped in that smell, correlated them in my brain. To add insult to injury, it is a really high quality, pre-lighted tree and the lights are SO INCREDIBLY BRIGHT in our small room, that it hurts both of our eyes and leaves spots in front of our vision. I thought bright lights were a selling point, but not in my world, of course. Central immune system sensitization is like an evil super power.
My husband, stony-faced, took it back outside while I apologised profusely for my fucked up body and my inability to do any of the heavy lifting. The guilt can be all-consuming.
I spent the next three hours shopping online for hypoallergenic artificial trees or green/healthy trees to no avail. Then I went on Ebay to look for metal trees and found these two for $100:
Scentless (hopefully), washable… I started to get hopeful again that there could be something pretty to hang our ornaments on and create a festive feeling. I emailed them to my husband, bothered him at work to take off his rain gear (he’s a landscaper in Seattle) and look at the links (he hated the scroll one, but thought we might be able to do something with the spiral one)…
But then I found these metal trees on a different site:
Twice as much, but maybe a good investment? I texted my husband again. There are no gold spiral ones left and only 2 black ones! We have to hurry to make a decision! Then I realised that they didn’t even guarantee Christmas delivery. So, best case scenario, we’d get it a few days before Christmas, which just doesn’t seem worth it when the whole pretty and festive lead-up to the day is what I enjoy (plus, it takes me weeks to decorate a tree with my energy level — a few ornaments a day) and, worst case scenario, it’d arrive after Christmas and be useless to us this year… and then probably go on sale in January.
I told my husband forget it, we’re shit out of luck.
Theeenn… I checked my emails. Somehow, while shopping for trees on my phone in my bed at 1am last night, my finger had hit “one click ordering” on Amazon (a really evil option that doesn’t bring you to a different screen to look at your shopping cart or confirm your selection, it just orders it — in “one click”) and we have an artificial “pencil” tree coming in the mail. I emailed the sellers because it said it hadn’t been sent yet: “Accidental order! Please cancel!” They answered that it couldn’t be cancelled and we’d have to pay to return it. To add insult to injury again, it’s not even on Amazon Prime and won’t get here until December 20th. And, of course, it’ll probably smell. And it’s made in China. So, we’re out $320 and our porch will be crowded with fake trees and, even if I manage to sell them on Craig’s List, my husband will be the one who has to deal with moving the trees, meeting the buyers etc. I honestly feel like I could take this all in stride, have fun getting creative and see the lighter side of this, except I’m just so guilty that my husband has to do all the work!
My new plan is this. I’m sure my landscaper hubby has a tall ladder:
Addendum: Just as I was about to hit publish on this blog post, my husband called me and said, “I’m in Home Depot. The artificial trees are all $300+ and most have fake scented pine cones. I’m standing in front of the tomato cages. They’re 5′ tall and cost $3.97.” Hahaha! Hell yes! I had sent him this photo as a joke:
We both laughed at the fact that we are going to have a wire tree that cost $3.97 and now I think this will actually be really ridiculous and fun. Happy Christmas! 🙂
Three days ago, after having Cromolyn Sodium in my cupboard for 19 weeks, I finally decided I was stable enough to add a new drug. Cromolyn was originally used as an inhaled anti-iflammatory to treat allergic- and exercise-induced asthma. The oral version of Cromolyn has been used more recently to treat mastocytosis and mast cell disorders. It is a liquid that comes in ampules and is mixed into water. The doctor who prescribed it for me is the same one that diagnosed me with MCAS, but he didn’t seem to know much about Cromolyn. The pharmacy knew nothing. I had to go online and ask the people in my mast cell Facebook group for details and then call the pharmacist and explain exactly what the drug was. I am so thankful for the knowledge of these groups and Cromolyn seemed to help far more people than it harmed. It also seemed pretty innocuous — I only talked to a few people who had major side effects and they were things I don’t typically experience, like itching and nausea.
Of course, there’s always a part of me that is looking for the magic pill. Imagine I started this drug and my mast cells calmed down and symptoms I didn’t even realise were caused by them disappeared! … But, it still took me almost 5 months to convince myself to take it. It wasn’t until my bowels went into hibernation that I decided to take the plunge. A few weeks ago, motility stopped, gastroparesis reared its ugly, bloated head and everything ceased functioning in my intestines. No movement, not even a fart, and mega doses of magnesium and vitamin C weren’t doing anything. Cromolyn can help these internal inflammation symptoms and I had high hopes.
The dose I was meant to take was eight ampules in a day — two 4 times a day. The doctor never mentioned to work up slowly and some people in my online group were able to start at full dose. I wanted to be careful because we’re talking about my ridiculously hyper-sensitive body, after all, but I was pretty confident that I’d be fine. So, the first day, I took 1/3 of an ampule in the morning. The next day, I took 2/3 of an ampule in the morning. All seemed fine, so, that night before bed, I took 3/4 of an ampule. At 5 in the morning, I woke up sick sick sick. So sick. Sicker than I’ve been in years, maybe. Sick like my original sickness. Malarial. Encephalo-. Shaking all over, chilled, sweating feverishly, head pounding, stiff neck, muscles cramping, throat constricted, barely able to lift my arm or walk to the bathroom. Oh god, the FEAR. I’d rather die than go back to this. I felt like an ex-con in a movie choosing death-by-cop rather than go back to jail. My mind was like a panicked, caged animal, looking for a way out, falling in and out of fever dreams where I was screaming for my mother over and over again. I’d rather the “nightly flu” that I used to get. I’d rather the ME monster that slams me down with massive, pummeling hands, but I now know will release me eventually if I hold very still for a while. I think I’d even rather be back in December, 2013, when I called on all of you angels to get me through what I thought might be permanent bedboundness.
I felt poisoned. There’s no other way to describe it. I took my temperature: 98.4 degrees. My blood pressure was 80/55 (normal for me). My blood sugar was 80. Not much I could do but wait it out. I lay in bed the whole day yesterday, meditating, deep breathing away the fear of permanent relapse to an acceptable distance. I have a painful burn on my hand that is taking a while to heal and I kept falling into dreams where the burn was causing sepsis. That’s what it felt like — a systemic infection — I’d wake up panting and quiet my mind. I’m good at doing that during waking hours, but, in my dreams… I’m always silently screaming.
I feel a bit better today, but still didn’t sleep. I haven’t had a headache in a long time, believe it or not, and the pain is brutal. My muscles are aching and I feel swollen. The fear has dissipated to frustration. I’m frustrated with myself for trying another drug. I was doing so well. I had a lot of firsts the last few weeks (I’ll post about that later, but here’s a teaser: first time in a store, first road trip, first time on a beach in two years!) and then I couldn’t leave well enough alone and trust that my body was slowly, but surely, helping itself. I’m frustrated with myself for not going slower. I could have ramped up the dose over a full month, but I’m always so impatient. I’m frustrated that I’ve lost the potential help of Cromolyn. That was probably the worst reaction I’ve ever had apart from anaphylaxis, so I’ll never touch it again. I’m not even willing to try again going much slower, so I’ll never know if it could have helped. And that makes me frustrated because it was so hard to get it and it’s incredibly expensive and it’s such a waste. I have a friend who can take it off my hands, but, if I ever wanted to try it again, I’m out of luck because I don’t have insurance to cover it anymore.
And, in contrast to how I feel now, I realise how well I was doing. I was managing to do things every day — stand in the kitchen and cook for an hour, have conversations easier, wash and dry my hair without a thought. This weekend we have one last stab at summer — two days of high 70s and low 80s — and I was going to surprise our friends Z and J by going to their house on Vashon Island for the first time in years. I felt strong enough to do it and that was not even an option 6 months ago. Instead, I’ll barely be moving this weekend. But at least I’ll barely be moving in the garden, in the sun.
A few weeks ago, I had the follow up with the rheumatologist I saw in January. The one who came highly recommended by multiple doctors I’ve seen. The one who spent over an hour and half with me at our initial appointment. The one who wrote the most thorough and accurate notes on my history and even sent them to me. The one who ordered spine x-rays, a DEXA bone scan, blood work for inflammatory bowel disease and who did a quick ultrasound of my shoulders. The one who knew about the pretty much unknown mast cell activation disorders and even knew most of the tests to order. The one who wrote a book called, “You Don’t Look Sick.” … So, you’d think he’d get it.
At one point, he asked, “Why are you in bed so much?”
I wasn’t sure how to answer. This was my second appointment in a row; I’d previously spent a useless hour with my therapist, not having anything to talk about and feeling out of place. Maybe my brain was ticking over even slower than I had realised.
“Because I’m sick…”
I thought he understood my illness because of the thorough chart notes, but I’d have to reread them. Maybe he didn’t understand the key part about ME and post-exertional malaise (second worst description of anything, ever, after chronic fatigue syndrome). Maybe he didn’t quite get that my battery dies very quickly and, if I push through, I’m in a world of hell and the battery never quite fully goes back to where it once was.
He said (and this is a direct quote), “If your hope for the future depends on getting disability, you’re not going to get out of bed.”
And then my brain blew up.
I know many, many people have dealt with this sort of thing before — this blatant skepticism about their illness — but I hadn’t. Nobody had ever questioned me to my face. I didn’t really hear anything else he said after that because I did a white-out with fury. This manifested itself with me bursting into tears, unfortunately. I told him I wanted to make it clear that I wasn’t in bed to try to get disability. He said something along the lines of: “It may not be that you’re a malingerer [I remember that word clearly], but that you subconsciously are staying in bed because you need the money.”
I was raging. After waiting two years to apply for disability in the desperate hope that I could go back to work… after going from a happy, high-functioning person to practically an invalid… it was too much to think this might cross somebody’s mind. Why would I want to give up my whole life to get 1/10 of the money I used to make? I cried the whole way home. I kept thinking about it and crying the whole evening. Granted, I was premenstrual, but my anger can’t come out in yelling and stomping anymore, so it just bubbled out in tears. Would he have said that if my husband were with me? Would he have said that if I were bedbound with cancer?
There was slight vindication when he told me I had to try increasing my steps and I told him I have: from 500 in January to 1500 now.
Then he said I had to try “bicycle yoga”, lying down and I said, “I do! I try to do yoga poses and gentle stretches whenever possible.”
Then he said, “You need to come in here with a list of your current symptoms, your meds, your questions and concerns.” I waited for him to finish drawing an example of the page he wanted me to write and then I told him: “I did — it’s on the back of that sheet of paper.”
“Oh, I didn’t look at that,” he said. “A+.”
Amazingly, after this conversation, he told me my clinical diagnosis was mast cell activation syndrome (MCAS) and prescribed Cromolyn.
I smoldered for a week and then went to see my therapist who works in the same clinic and has known Dr. O for 37 years. I let loose on him. I railed for a full 45 minutes and was completely supported and validated. He said he’d seen it happen before and that, typically, when Dr. O is called out on his behaviour, he is blind to what he did and remorseful. He read me the notes that Dr. O had written and they were great — he wrote that he wanted to treat me for MCAS and also continue to look at inflammatory conditions, that I wasn’t depressed… There wasn’t a mention of ME in the notes and that’s how I wanted it. I went to him in the first place for his diagnostic talents, to have someone search for other possible answers. So, I’ve decided to give him another chance. My therapy session completely calmed my outraged soul and I’ve let it go. I think I will write Dr. O a letter when I feel up to it, explaining professionally why he was bone-headed and offensive. I’m actually looking forward to seeing him again, so I can be the calm, assertive person I normally am with doctors.
So, about MCAS: I haven’t dealt with scary symptoms (anaphylaxis, tongue swelling) in years and I react terribly to most medications, so I’m hesitant to start treating with mast cell stabilizers, histamine blockers or other anti-inflammatory drugs besides Prednisone. However, I wonder how many of my daily symptoms could be caused by mast cell problems (GI issues, bowel swelling, headaches, fatigue, brain fog, sinuses, pain etc.), so I’m also excited to have this diagnosis and the treatment options available. There’s also a teeny tiny part of me that whispers, What if your only problem is MCAS? What if mast cell problems caused everything from anaphylaxis until now? I don’t believe that — of course it’s multifactorial and involves many different pathways: immune, neurological, endocrine, gastrointestinal, vascular — but, there’s still a seed of excitement that something might make a difference.