Halloween Update Litany

I’m going to try to write something. An update of sorts. Not necessarily because today is exactly nine years since this illness stepped into my body and started controlling the trajectory of my life, but more because it is a quiet Saturday and I can’t call any clinics and I don’t have any medical appointments. It’s Halloween, but we’re completely ignoring it this year. It’s a beautiful day, but I woke up after five hours sleep with bad brain symptoms, so I’m not up for going outside or calling a family member or washing my bed clothes, which are in dire need. And I’m just so tapped out on research right now. Endless, endless research into treatments and specialists and ways to bankrupt ourselves on nifty devices that might miraculously give a reprieve from symptoms or plateau my decline in functioning.

I often don’t write — even if I have the time and energy — because I feel like I want to express something meaningful and express it beautifully, or at least express it well. Express it in a way that others might identify with it or even be moved by it. Or, if not meaningful or moving, I’d like to be able to write something informative. But that takes more mental energy and creativity. I always find a reason not to tap into the emotions that are necessary to write deeply and thoughtfully. I stay sane with distraction, coasting along a wave of TV shows and dog cuddles, trying not to look into the depths below. I’m finding distraction harder this year.

After five years of a slow, but fairly steady increase in functioning, I’ve gone downhill. Not because my dog died or because wildfire smoke was choking us for weeks or because I can’t see my family and my one friend who kept me sane by visiting regularly. And not because of the emotional toll of the pandemic and the rage and heartbreak caused by the political strife in the world. That’s all just icing on the distress cake. The actual bulk of my cake is made of pain, exhaustion, reactions, and failing organs and bones, with thin, bitter layers of isolation and future worries between the tiers of sponge. It’s a really unpalatable cake.

When I first met my friend Jak over at Mast Cells & Collagen Behaving Badly, she had been through ME, then she was dealing with mast cell disease and her body had started to have problems from EDS (Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, a connective tissue disorder). Most people I’ve met with this illness trifecta started having mast cell reactions after ME hit them. I was the other way around. I’d been dealing with angioedema since I was teenager and I first went into anaphylaxis in 2001. ME hit a decade later. When I met Jak, I didn’t have an EDS diagnosis and, when I first got it, I ignored it and decided it wasn’t true. I remembered, though, that Jak had said, “I could have told you that. With some of your symptoms, it seems obvious.” Her pain and subluxations didn’t start in earnest until she was in her 40s and dealing with peri-menapause, so she cautioned me that EDS could raise its head in the future. No, no, I’m not hypermobile, I said and I ignored it. Well, there’s no ignoring it now.

Last year, I went back to the top EDS doctor here in Seattle and told him I hadn’t believed his diagnosis and could we start from scratch, work me up again, see if he truly thought I had EDS? He smiled (good doctor), he agreed (did another physical exam), he reiterated that I had EDS and showed me what my body is not meant to do. He also diagnosed thoracic outlet syndrome (TOS). For all my research, there are so many odd things about my body that I barely notice. It’s like whack-a-mole — I’m just trying to push down whatever the most concerning thing is on any given day. What do I care if I can’t hang my clothes up or hold my phone to my face without losing circulation through my arms and having my hands go numb? It’s really not important in the grand scheme of this illness. You adapt. So when the doctor asked me if I felt anything as he manipulated my arm, I said, “Nothing. Except there’s no blood flowing and I have pins and needles.” He smiled gently again. “That’s not nothing. That’s what I’m looking for.” It took a very long time for blood to come back into my forearm and hand after whatever he did and I had electric zaps for hours. That was a year ago and I still haven’t read about TOS or whether those symptoms are normal or what to do about them. I don’t really care right now because I’m too busy trying to whack bigger, louder moles.

My leg pain has gotten much worse. I can’t stand in the kitchen to cook as long as I could before and, anytime I do, I have to wear compression stockings and a back brace, but still need to go to the couch and lie down with my feet up after a short while, groaning with the effort. My neck and back have gotten worse. Something in my thoracic spine keeps going out and my lower back and tailbone have a constant steady ache. My neck always feels unstable, so I move it very gingerly, but it also always feels like rebar, so I try not to immobilize it. I pull a different shoulder or neck muscle seemingly every day, usually from thrashing around in bed (unfortunately, not in a fun way, not when I’m conscious). I’m currently ignoring a jaw ache and maybe a cracked tooth from clamping in my sleep and the fact that my eyes never stop burning and are sore when I move them. My left patella keeps shifting out of place and it’s agony when it happens, so I’ve been doing a deep-dive into knee braces and kinesiology taping. I broke my wrist and finger this summer when Penny lunged at an off-leash dog and snapped my hand behind my mobility scooter seat. I’m still wearing a cast or a brace a full three months later and my right hand, which picked up the slack when I couldn’t use my left, has developed instability in the wrist and a subluxing thumb. When my endocrinologist heard about my fractures, she said we needed an appointment asap because she is very concerned that my osteoporosis has progressed. She’ll probably suggest I take more drugs. šŸ™„

And really none of this is that important because it all pales in comparison to my bowel hell. Bowhell.

Warning: lots of talk about poop and toilets ahead. Enemas barely work anymore. To have a bowel movement, I have to use a liter of water and massage my abdomen for sometimes hours each day. And “massage” sounds delicate. It’s not. I often worry I’m going to rupture something with my squeezing. With my broken wrist and finger, I couldn’t manage to press my abdomen properly for weeks and my bowels suffered. I couldn’t evacuate effectively, which meant I couldn’t eat enough and I didn’t sleep properly. Everything has a cascade effect.

Compounding my bathroom issues is how difficult it is to sit on a toilet. I lose circulation in my legs very quickly (even with a Squatty Potty) and it is incredibly painful on my neck and back. My doctor asked me when my neck was the most painful and I realised it is sitting on the toilet because I have no support for my spine and nothing to lean back on. I’ve resorted to using a hard neck brace (only sometimes — sometimes it makes it worse) and putting a chair in front of me to lean my forehead against, but, even so, after I’m done, I have to lie flat on the floor and, if I have the energy, use heat, traction and ice to help the spinal pain. I was never conscious of just how much I need to support my neck until two years ago when my mother was visiting and I’d made enough improvements energy-wise to go to the opera. Wow, three hours sitting in a short-backed chair was excruciating. I was almost in tears. I was dizzy, my heart rate was high, my legs were losing circulation (I’m short, so I was using my backpack as a foot stool) and I could not hold my head up.

So, sitting is an ordeal. And shitting is an ordeal.

I have a long history of vasovagal collapse from abdominal pain. In my twenties, it happened with the onset of my period because of severe dysmenorrhea. Shockingly, when I got sick, my cramps virtually disappeared. But they’re baaacck! And my period often likes to come three times in one month, so this cramping and inflammation, coupled with random pelvic floor spasms, coupled with colon pain has been a lot. Last June, I sat up in bed one morning and some deep part of my lower abdomen spasmed and I immediately went into a vasovagal episode. My heart rate went so low, that I was having trouble breathing. My blood pressure dropped, too, but the main problem was the bradycardia. I was shaking all over and trying not to black out, but after about 20 minutes, I had to call the paramedics. Before they even got here, the pain abruptly ended and, instantly, my heart rate came up and I could breathe again. (I told them not to come inside because of covid and I gave myself IV fluids at home. I’ve dealt with this before, emergency rooms really can’t help.)

From that day forward, every day for six weeks, I was in an acute bowel pain crisis. I couldn’t seem to eat anything that didn’t contribute to the pain across my transverse colon, I lost weight, I wept each evening, I slept poorly, my attention was never not on this organ that was constantly yelling at me that something was wrong. I wound up getting a CT scan (a big deal during covid and when I’ve had so much radiation in my life) and blood tests because I thought: what if this is life-threatening? I was spooked by a fellow EDSer’s emergency surgery for a ruptured bowel and resulting colostomy bag, but I was even more concerned about the possibility of an elemental liquid diet or a feeding tube. I’ve gone to great lengths to keep a varied diet, not only because food is my one joy besides dogs, but also because I know so many people who never got foods back after strict and prolonged eliminations. And feeding tubes — I never want tubes of any sort stuck in my body, too many complications. It’s the reason I’m still doing weekly peripheral IVs after five years, rather than getting a port or PICC (I don’t know anyone else who has come close to tapping veins for this length of time).

The CT scan showed nothing except my big lunch and tampon (a mortifying radiology report: unremarkable, TAMPON, unremarkable, unremarkable, COPIOUS AMOUNT OF INGESTED MATERIAL IN STOMACH, unremarkable etc…) and the acute bowel pain eventually faded back to my regular constant ache with periodic stabbing knives and electric zaps. But it sure got my attention.

I started Motegrity, a selective serotonin type 4 (5-HT4) receptor agonist, which cost $265 for one box (bought online from Canada because my insurance balked) and then caused possibly the worst medication reaction I’ve ever had. I started Linzess, which cost $350 for one bottle and either causes nothing to happen or a full day of sharts. I’m still taking Iberogast, Miralax, BPC-157, SBI Protect, Thorne SF722, oregano oil, berberine, magnesium, digestive enzymes, betaine HCl, and probiotics… all for my bowels. I’m about to try Mestinon, LDN and Cromolyn again (okay, I take it back, the latter was actually the worst medication reaction I’ve ever had — and I’m going to try it again, which has to show my level of desperation); these are all medications that can help motility. Plus, I have a Xifaxan prescription at the ready (which I’ve already taken twice) when I’ve exhausted all of these options.

It’s a next level problem. What I mean is, there were four years in the beginning of this chronic illness when I was “just” dealing with ME and MCAS — when I could still poop! When it was “just” muscle pain, but my joints were fine and my bones felt sturdy. Unbelievably, there were years when I didn’t have brain symptoms. I had the low-level kind of brain fog that made you forget things or not be able to find words, but, in the beginning, I didn’t have the buzzing brain and eye pressure, slurring and screaming tinnitus that makes bed the only possibility, even if my body is feeling strong. These new additions take illness management to the next level.

I’m on my third gastrointestinal doctor. The first said: Miralax, papaya, probiotics. Huh? Did you even hear the part about dead colon? On a return visit, she said: Daily enemas for life. Are you fucking joking? I asked her when she would recommend a colonoscopy (back before I realised it would need anesthesia in my case). When you have bloody diarrhea, she said. Right. Okay.

The second GI doctor said: Colonoscopy and endoscopy. On a return visit, she said: COLONOSCOPY AND ENDOSCOPY. She would not talk about any other tests or interventions. I don’t want to go through that. I don’t think those procedures will show anything and, with my medication reactions, there are legitimate risks to full anesthesia, not to mention the clean out having risks because of my hypotension and hypoglycemia. I thought (and still think) that it was prudent to exhaust less invasive options first.

These two doctors were young women at the University of Washington, one touted as The Motility Expert and the other as being EDS-knowledgeable. I mention this because I would assume I would be most comfortable or have the best experience with them instead of the third GI doctor, who is an old man that made a slightly misogynist comment right out of the gates and doesn’t make much eye contact. But he has been the only one to think outside the box and marginally help me. He ran tests that nobody has ever run since I’ve been sick (I’d never had a stool sample done or celiac test!) and spent 40 minutes discussing my mast cell history before even broaching the subject of my bowels. He dismissed a colonoscopy and it felt like he’d lifted a 100-pound weight from my shoulders because I was crippled with guilt after rescheduling the procedures over and over for a year and a half.

So, because of the progression of bowhell symptoms and structural issues the last few years, I have been pursuing MRIs and neurosurgical consultations. A cine CSF (cerebral spinal fluid) flow study showed a lack of CSF in my hind brain, caused by low-lying cerebellar tonsils (LLCT). My neurosurgeon (who is experienced in dealing with EDS/MCAS/ME patients) also suspected craniocervical instability (CCI), but couldn’t recommend surgery from my MRI measurements and symptoms without first performing more tests (invasive cervical traction (ICT), where they lift up your skull with a pulley system to see if there is an improvement in symptoms, and intracranial pressure monitoring (ICP ), which is a bolt in the skull that holds a probe that measures pressure in your head while concurrently preforming a lumbar puncture). I decided not to do either of those because, as you might have guessed, I don’t like rocking the boat (with, say, a new soap, let alone invasive tests that involve holes in my skull) (oh, and travel across the country) (and covid). But I have wondered if the blocked CSF flow is contributing to or entirely causing my brain symptoms. That’s a big deal. I used to feel smart and effective.

But the biggest deal of all came from the neurosurgeon looking at my pelvic MRI defecography from five years ago (which I didn’t even send to him because I was only consulting him about my neck; he must have gotten it from my specialist, who was the referring physician).

“You have a large bowel,” he said.

“I’m not surprised.”

“And what have you been told about your enormous bladder?”

“My what?” He has a thick Italian accent straight out of central casting and I didn’t know there was anything abnormal about my bladder.

“Your enormous bladder. Your ENORMOUS BLADDER!”

He had to repeat it four times before I could understand what he was saying. It was pretty comical. Nobody had ever mentioned my bladder. He recommended a renal ultrasound to rule out hydronephrosis, urodynamic testing for neurogenic bladder, and a lumbar MRI to look for tethered cord. I’m sure you’ll be shocked to know, I ignored it all… until I watched online presentations by Petra Klinge, probably the top tethered cord specialist in the country, and a Q&A with Dr. Klinge and Jeffrey Greenfield where they mentioned that, although bladder symptoms are the hallmark of pediatric tethered cord, in adults it’s often bowel problems, usually constipation. Ah.

I sent my lumbar MRI (both prone and supine) to my neurosurgeon and he diagnosed “tethered cord, classic variant,” which is notoriously hard to see. In other words, as my complex disease specialist emphasized to me repeatedly, it is rare for this neurosurgeon to diagnose tethered cord before CCI from a lumbar MRI. This is the case even though they have both actively been trying to identify it early since so many of their patients have to return for a second “detethering” surgery after undergoing craniocervical fusion.

“Elizabeth, why aren’t you on a plane to New York for SFT [sectioning of the filum terminale]?” my specialist asked me.

Friends, I DON’T WANT SURGERY. EVER. No surgery, but ESPECIALLY NOT SPINAL SURGERY.

I will leave you there. We have much to discuss. This is now my focus. I need to do everything I can to manage these symptoms and to halt their progression. Meds, exercises, physical therapy, prolotherapy, I don’t know what. Right now, my plan is to plan. I’m not willing to see any healthcare practitioners in person, so it’s tricky, but it’ll be a winter of research and putting some ducks in a row.

I also have to start preparing for a what might be an inevitable surgical eventuality. I need a pain management protocol with bigger guns than paracetamol, I need to strengthen my core and my bones, I need to find muscle relaxants to which I don’t react, I need to get my blood pressure up and control my MCAS as much as possible. I need to save money. No more ignoring.

Happy Samhain, everyone. And my 9th “sickiversary” — not a happy day, but one that should be acknowledged, nonetheless.

UPDATED Emergency and Surgery Protocol for MCAS and ME

The links at the bottom of this page are for my protocols that were updated March 29th, 2020. My protocols are for me and my doctors. I am not a health professional and I recommend you do not use any of my advice or guidelines without consulting your doctor. *See full disclaimer below.* My protocol is an accumulation of months of research into precautions that should be considered by people with mast cell disorders (MCAD) and myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME/cfs), as well as some guidelines for patients with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome (EDS) and craniocervical instability (CCI). It includes information and materials from ME websites, such as me-pedia.org, mast cell resources, such as tmsforacure.org, my doctors and specialist, as well as other patients.

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I started writing an emergency protocol back in 2015 when my mast cell reactions were scaring me with their unpredictability. I wanted something comprehensive, in writing, for anesthesia teams in the case of a planned surgery, but also something that my husband could hand to paramedics or emergency room doctors, if I couldn’t speak for myself. It was a massive undertaking because I tracked down every link and reference I could find about medication and surgery precautions for patients with mast cell diseases and ME. I wanted to gather all the information that was pertinent toĀ me — my particular case —Ā and edit it down to something manageable. I put together something passable and then moved it to the back burner for the last 4 years.

Last week I saw a new GI doctor who was emphatic that I get a colonoscopy and endoscopy at the same time and with anesthesia. I have been completely enema-dependent for years and, honestly, it’s exhausting. My previous GI doctor told me it was due to anatomical abnormalities (an MRI found pelvic floor dysfunction with cystocele, rectocele, sigmoidocele) and that I’d likely need enemas for the rest of my life, but it feels like the issues are getting worse and the new doctor didn’t want to throw medications at the problem without knowing exactly what she’s dealing with.

I cannot imagine voluntarily going under anesthesia. All of my worst reactions in the past 7 years have been to medications and my fear of trying new ones —Ā especiallyĀ intravenous medications — is so pronounced that I vowed only to agree to anesthesia if I was in a life-threatening situation (or couldn’t speak for myself). How could I be lying on a gurney with a peripheral IV, knowing they are about to inject multiple anesthetic drugs and not jump up and run out of the room? I wouldn’t be able to advocate for myself… I could die for a colonoscopy! So, I left the appointment with a sense of doom that only deepened when I started to feel a new ache in my lower abdomen. It got progressively worse over 3 days, the ache turned to pain and, what I thought of as run-of-the-mill bowel inflammation started to seem like something else. Gallstones? Bladder infection? I got out my emergency protocol notes and spent about 20 hours over the next few days rewriting everything, feeling like I might be working against the clock if this was something like appendicitis. Then I woke up last Sunday to such severe lower abdominal pain that I couldn’t move, could barely breathe or speak. I was shaking all over, in a cold sweat, nauseous and felt like I was on the brink of passing out. My husband wanted to call an ambulance, but I said no, hoping it was some sort of spasm that would pass. And it did… but not entirely. The ache and twinging remained for a few more days. It’s gone now and I think it was my dastardly bowels, after all, but it was bad and it scared me. It’s like the gods heard me say, “no way am I getting a colonoscopy” and decided to stab and twist their Elizabeth voodoo doll to make sure I got the point that there’s a problem I can’t continue to ignore.

The upshot of all this is, I finished the emergency protocol and I wanted to share it here, in case it could be useful to anyone else. There are a few important points about it, though:

  1. When I started, it was for personal use and I didn’t keep track of references. IĀ will go back and gather all the links and add them to this article, but I have no idea how long it will take me and I wanted to share this sooner, rather than later. If you see your own information here without credit, please understand I will add a link to your article/blog/website! Please feel free to leave a comment.
  2. This protocol concentrates heavily on mast cell precautions because MCAS has caused my life-threatening reactions such as anaphylaxis and profound hypotension. It does not mention ME or CFS, although I researched and included ME resources, such as Dr. Lapp’s recommendations (Appendix E of the Primer for Clinical Practicioners) and Dr. Cheney’s anesthesia letter.
  3. I have an EDS diagnosis (Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome — a connective tissue disorder), which can cause serious surgical complications. There are a lot of guidelines out there for EDS patients and I have only researched some of them. It wasn’t until recently that I started to take this diagnosis more seriously and I still haven’t had the gumption to jump deeply down the research rabbit hole, but, once I do, I will be updating my surgery protocol with any additional EDS precautions that are pertinent to my situation.
  4. It bears repeating: This is not medical advice of any kind. This is my personal protocol, for my personal situation. You may be more or less reactive than I am, you may have normal or high blood pressure or you may be far more disabled and need many more accommodations… But, I hope it can be of use as a jumping-off point. Please consult with your doctor.
  5. The links below are printable pdf files, which are formatted properly, but if you need any of them in a different format so that you can copy and paste certain parts into your own protocol, don’t hesitate to leave a comment or email me at akaemilo@gmail.com, and I will send you a Word doc or Google doc version.

 

Click here for the long version of the protocol, geared towards the patient: Elizabeth Milo Full-Length Emergency and Surgery Protocol

Click here for 1.5-page short version of the protocol, geared towards doctors: Elizabeth Milo AbbreviatedĀ Emergency and Surgery Protocol

Click here for anaphylaxis protocol: Elizabeth Milo MEDICAL EMERGENCY RESPONSE PLAN for Mast Cell Activation and Anaphylaxis

Click here for my personal medication chart, based on an original from The Mastocytosis Society: Elizabeth Milo Safe Medication Guidelines

 

Here is The Mastocytosis Society Emergency Room Protocol.

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*HEALTH DISCLAIMER*

This blog is my own personal journey. The information and other content provided in this blog, or in any linked materials should not be construed as medical advice, nor are they intended to replace a one-on-one relationship with a qualified health care professional. NO information on this site should be used to diagnose, treat, prevent or cure any disease or condition.

If you or any other person has a medical concern, you should consult with your health care provider or seek other professional medical treatment. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this blog or in any linked materials. If you think you may have a medical emergency, call your doctor or emergency services immediately.

Believe it or not, an update!

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 controlĀ — 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 nobodyĀ has accurate information about anythingĀ when it comes to healthcare for people under 65 on disability. And, even if they doĀ 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 needĀ so I can’t IĀ 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 (unheardĀ 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 excruciatingĀ 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 notĀ 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 toĀ liftĀ and placeĀ 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:Ā this, too, shall pass.

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.

LastĀ June, was our longest trip since I got sick. We stayed inĀ the same place in the same coastal town as we hadĀ 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, weĀ found a different rental and extended our visit for an extra two days. This new houseĀ was right on the beach and had a balcony. I had no idea the difference it would make to my experience. The first rentalĀ 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 gazingĀ 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.Ā When was the last time IĀ 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 thatĀ 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,Ā 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.Ā 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.

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

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ROAD TRIP!

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

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Some days were overcast…

… with dramatic evenings.

Some days were glorious…

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…with breathtaking sunsets (taken from the balcony).

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The beach is exhausting. šŸ˜€

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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.

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The flag on the left is where they were wed.

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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 andĀ 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;Ā watching their family fly kites on the beach; colouring with sweet AnnaĀ 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 (<~ thisĀ 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. šŸ™‚

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.

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After more than 10 months, I got away from the house. Every time I look at the grey in my dogsā€™ 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 Iā€™ve encountered in the flesh or online — I fear heā€™s more like a small great dane and they typically live 6 to 8 yearsā€¦ So, Iā€™m bracing myself. Truth be told, Iā€™ve been bracing myself for their ends-of-life since they were kids.

Riley was originallyĀ found emaciated to the point that he couldnā€™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 didnā€™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 donā€™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, thatā€™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 werenā€™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 Iā€™m always conscious and grateful for their presence.

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I will never forget the first time I took a mobility scooter to the cemetery for a ā€œwalkā€ with Bowie (at the time, I didnā€™t trust Riley to stay close off-leash, so he went to doggy daycare instead). We had been visitingĀ 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 dogsā€™ 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 Iā€™m flabbergasted or frustrated by my acute sense of smell, I think what the world must be like for a dog whose noseĀ 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 dogā€™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 canā€™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, weā€™ve made it to the seaside. This time was different, though. This time I was stronger, I wasnā€™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 thatā€™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, itā€™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 Iā€™m totally present with my husband and easily walking the beach with my sons. I’ll get there one day.

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