Hope for a great sea-change

One of the things I never realized about chronic illness is that it is easier to drive than it is to take a shower. If you see someone driving their car to an appointment, you might think they’re doing okay, but that person may have needed help to wash their hair that morning. And, by “morning”, I mean afternoon because it probably took a number of hours to get from waking to bathing.

I can drive myself to nearby appointments and I can talk for the whole time I’m there – half an hour sitting up with a doctor, an hour lying down with the physical therapist – but, if someone witnessed this, would they understand that I couldn’t write a blog post that day, I had to put on clothes in increments over the course of an hour, I had to rest in a dark, silent room immediately before and after the appointment, and, if I had slept poorly, I would have canceled?

My husband has been washing my hair lately. I sit on my seat and he leans awkwardly into the shower while I rest my forearms on my knees and hang my head. He also helps me dry my hair. I sit on the toilet in much the same position as I did in the shower and he stands above me with the hair dryer.

My sister comes over to help me with laundry. It’s been a long time since I’ve expended the energy needed to fold or hang clothes, so there are wrinkled piles of clean, dirty and not-clean-but-not-dirty-enough-to-be-washed items in various rooms. I never thought my husband would be scrubbing my scalp while I sit naked and motionless or my sister would be sorting my underwear while I am supine, watching.

It seems like a new low, especially in light of the fact that I’ve been housebound for a year, I’m walking under 1000 steps a day and it takes about 15 minutes of activity to wear me out. But I don’t think it is a low. I feel hopeful; overall I may feel healthier than a year ago. I’m more debilitated now, but less ILL. More chronic, less flailing, flaring, uncontrollable. A year ago, I was freezing all the time during the day and drenched in night sweats whenever I slept. I was in constant pain and felt fluish every day. I was still going to the dog park and grocery shopping, but I was scared and overwhelmed. Maybe most of the improvements have been mental– now, when the viral symptoms descend, I don’t panic. I understand that this could be lifelong and any progress will always be at a snail’s pace. I understand there may not be progress at all, it may only get worse. I know now there will be spans of no pain and I just need to take one day at a time. In fact, every single night when I go to bed, I am excited at the prospect of another chance in the morning– at the knowledge that a new day may bring a better day.

My husband says, it was a long road down, so it’ll probably be at least as long back up. I try to relax into the ride, do all I can to unburden my organs and facilitate healing. When my inner workaholic and constant student starts to writhe inside this straight jacket, I soothe her: You are working. You are writing, reading, learning about yourself and opening your eyes to suffering. I remind myself that I don’t have to talk to people that annoy me, drive during rush hour, meet deadlines or bow to bosses. When my night owl howls, I tell it nothing fun happens between 9pm and 2am. You’re not missing anything, go to sleep. I try to believe it. I remind myself that I never have to hear an alarm clock. I ease into bed with a solid routine and, when I wake, I lounge for hours. This is healthy, don’t resent it. When cabin fever and loneliness threaten to make my mind come apart at the seams, I pretend I am monastic. I am on a retreat. I am cleansing, enjoying solace. This is a temporary stillness. It is needed. Revel in it. I get to enjoy the garden and the sun. I get to spend every day with my dogs, even if it is lying flat on my back. I promise myself: The world will be there when your body is able to meet it again.

Maybe this low is where the slide stops and it’s all uphill from here. Listen carefully: “Believe in miracle and cures and healing wells.”

So hope for a great sea-change
On the far side of revenge.
Believe that further shore
Is reachable from here.
Believe in miracle
And cures and healing wells.

Call miracle self-healing:
The utter, self-revealing
Double-take of feeling.
If there’s fire on the mountain
Or lightning and storm
And a god speaks from the sky

That means someone is hearing
The outcry and the birth-cry
Of new life at its term.

Seamus Heaney,
The Cure at Troy
R.I.P.

Update: Symptoms and Doctor Appointments

Where to start? I am so behind on chronicling my life. You’d think it would be a one-liner (“Stayed home this month again, felt crappy, tried to keep spirits up.”), but there are so many subtleties to symptoms that I keep meaning to mention and so many tiny tweaks to treatments. There are so many interesting articles and blog posts that I want to comment on here and so many reasons to be hopeful and frustrated at current medical endeavors. I’ve written 100 blogs in my head this year that I thought were important and interesting ~ maybe even entertaining ~ but they never made it to the page and I’ve forgotten much of what I wanted to say. So, today, just an update.

Symptoms

First, the good news: my throat hasn’t been very sore in a while (if I don’t talk too much); my pain (below the neck) is minimal (if I don’t move too much); my dizziness is better (if I don’t stand up too much); my mood is ok (if I don’t think too much); 🙂  Haha, writing that was actually cracking me up! But, seriously, the underlying perma-symptoms of ME are stable and predictable if I don’t change my life up too much: exhaustion, achiness, tremors, horrid skin, blurry vision, stiffness, and fluishness are all manageable and (my) normal. The reality is, I feel unwell all day every day. Sometimes it makes me feel like I’m okay, I’m going to be fine and sometimes it makes me feel like I don’t want to die, I’m scared, I can’t do this anymore. My most pressing concerns lately have been, of course, the headache, terrible sleep, horrific bloating and constipation, and my free fall into less and less mobility and activity with higher and higher heart rate. Also, my brain torpor frightens me to the point that I can’t talk about it.

Thankfully, my brain pain train morphed from the high-speed TGV** to a kiddy carnival choo-choo. It still comes chugging through my skull in the afternoons and after I stare at a screen for too long, but, for the past 4 days or so, it is not torturing me. I stopped taking my Chinese herbs for a week; I don’t know if that is what caused or helped my headache, but I started them again yesterday (back down to 1/day) and we’ll see what happens.

3 weeks ago, in a place of desperation and panic about my disappearing sleep and unrelenting headache, I rummaged in my “Drugs I Don’t Take Drawer” and found gabapentin. The first night I took about 50mg (half a pill) and immediately my sleep was better. I still woke up a lot and it was unrefreshing as ever, but I slept for 8-9 hours rather than 6. That slice of heaven lasted a little over a week and now I’m back to the same terrible sleep, exacerbated by a very rare Seattle heat wave with no air conditioning. I added melatonin and went up to 150mg of gabapentin, but no relief (unless the gabapentin is the reason my headache is a better). I was prescribed trazodone for sleep, but haven’t gotten the nerve up to take it yet. I had planned to increase my dose of gabapentin first and then add doxylamine succinate and then swap the doxylamine for trazodone, if needed. Maybe I should just swap the gabapentin for trazodone since, just like last year, the gabapentin has caused awful constipation.

Let’s talk about that a bit. Within 48 hours of my first dose, things just stopped moving. It’s reached critical mass. I take a stool softener, I put soluble fiber in my tea, I drink raspberry leaf tea (thanks to a tip from Jess over at My Journey Thru ME, who wrote a great post on IBS), I take 400mg of magnesium before bed and I have been taking Miralax every single night. I’m still in bad shape, very uncomfortable, and worried that this is more dangerous than it would be in a healthy person because of my gut dysbiosis. The Good Doctor said, “You have to keep things moving because your bowels are in bad shape.” I think I’ll actually have to stop gabapentin to get back to normal.

My scariest symptom lately is my inability to do any activity without my heart rate skyrocketing. I’ve been sitting on the bathroom floor, washing my cpap equipment every week for the last 8 months. It’s never been an issue. Yesterday, my heart rate kept revving up to 110+ bpm while I sat in that same position, doing the same slow, careful scrubbing I’ve always done. This keeps happening. Taking pictures in the garden, reaching up to pick berries, talking a little too animatedly, putting sun cream on, adjusting a blanket, petting the dogs… Normally, if I were sitting down, these activities wouldn’t cause problems. Now, even sitting or lying, I feel that telltale sign (which initially registers as breathlessness, not as tachycardia), look at my HR monitor and am surprised every time: Oh, what was I thinking jiggling my foot while talking at the same time? How dare I wash my hands so vigorously. I should know better!

I can’t help thinking it is a direct result of deconditioning. It could be a direct result of illness ~ I know this is common is so many of us ~ but, the less I move, the less I’m able to move and that scares the shit out of me. So, every day I wonder: Should I push myself to “exercise” more so my body maintains some strength and life force? Or is that exactly what got me here and I should do less, less, less? This is one of the many contradictory evils of this disease: The less activity you are able to do, the more you panic and want to try doing more.

Medical professionals

I’ve had a some new appointments in the past few months:

1. An amazingly wonderful physical therapist whom I have been seeing each week. He is not really a PT; I don’t know the name for what he does. I lie on his plinth (I learned this name when I said to him, “That pain made me come off the bed. Sorry ~ ‘table’.” And he said, “Actually, ‘plinth’.”) and he finds the rotten-apple spots in my muscles and then eliminates them by restoring the circulation with magic fingers. I don’t have to move and there is very little energy expenditure (besides our tendency to talk nonstop about music, movies, books, and food. We never talk about my illness except for the initial update on my current problem areas. I probably chat more “normally” to him than anyone else in my life and always leave smiling ~ that, in itself, is worth every penny and drop of ATP). This treatment is the number one first time I have had a very obvious FIX to a problem. He worked on my lower spine pain and coccyx burning and, that evening, IT WAS GONE. And it stayed gone! He’s a magic man.

2. Stupidly, obtusely, naively, I went to see a cardiologist about my BP and HR issues, plus the fact that bowel rumbling triggers a sort of vasovagal heart flutter and lung tightening. I’m sure most of you people with ME know what’s coming. This doctor said, “I see a lot of you girls with low blood pressure and syncope problems and you all have one thing in common: low body weight. You need to gain some weight. Eat more protein and salt. I know everyone is concerned about being thin and looking good, but it’ll help. Start walking more and lifting 5 or 10lb weights and come back in 6 months.”

As carefully and stoically and graciously as I could, I said, “I am 5 foot tall. This is the heaviest I have been since college. [Here he interjected: “Right. And I bet you feel better.”] No, I don’t feel better, you moron. If I gain weight, it’ll just be fat because I can’t move very much. I don’t care what I look like because I’m just trying not to die I don’t ever get dressed or leave the house, you condescending bastard. I can’t imagine using 10lb weights because I wouldn’t be able to leave the bed for weeks can barely lift my arms, but I’ll try increasing my steps. See you never.” He’d be happy to know that I have since gained another 5lbs from the gabapentin and, shockingly, I don’t feel any different except I am even more uncomfortable in my body than I was last month (and, no, Dr. Iseealotofyougirls, I don’t mean uncomfortable with how I look, I mean it is not comfortable to lose most of your muscle tone and gain 12lbs of fat in its place!)

3. The saga of the oral appliance (OA) for sleep apnea. Here’s the wrap up: I saw the orthodontist in April, waited over a month before being told I had to see a sleep specialist again for insurance to approve the OA, and then waited over ANOTHER month before being called in to fit the OA (a 2 hour appointment!). I slept with it in for 5 hours and woke up in extreme pain. Yes, it had the obvious repercussions, such as temporarily changing my bite and making my TMJ sore, but the big problem was pain stabbing into my top and bottom right canines. It felt like they had been drilled into without anesthetic. So, back to the orthodontist for another fitting, which ended in a decision to send the appliance back to the lab for tweaking. Milo’s Law: if it can go wrong, it will go wrong for me. It’ll be another 3 weeks before it comes back from the lab.

4. On a good note, after I saw my GP, she sent me a letter saying she was shocked by my decline and panicked to find something to help me and sorry the medical community is failing me and honored that I allowed her to take this journey with me. I wish I could reprint the letter here because it could restore some faith in medical professionals, but I want to be respectful of her privacy. She is leaving for her annual 2-month break, but is seeing me next week on her last day and is willing to run some new tests (finally!). I’ve researched nonstop for the last month, trying to decide what tests to request, but I’ve ended up more confused than when I started. I need to email her tomorrow with my list. If anyone has any advice, please let me know. I can always talk to her about additional tests at the appointment. Here are my thoughts:

  • Mycoplasma tests
  • Cytokine profile
  • NK cell function test
  • Hormones (ACTH, LH, HGH, testosterone, insulin like growth factor(?))
  • RNase L Panel
  • Immunoglobulin
  • Lactic acid
  • folate
  • DHEA sulphate
  • Heavy metals
  • Amino Acid
  • IgG (?)
  • potassium, copper and …?

For disability (but really don’t want to do):

  • Neuropsychological Testing
  • VO2 Max (although it would be a 1-day stress test done by somebody who doesn’t know about ME)
  • tilt table test

 

Daily gratitude:
I am grateful for the few friends I have.
I am grateful for the few hours I sleep.
I am grateful for the little energy I have.
I am grateful for the still life I lead.

** I’m sure there are faster trains now, but, back in the 90s, I took the TGV all over Europe and its speed made a lasting impression. I still say “tay gjay vay”, pronouncing the letters in French, which is how I learned it.