I am going to document this swiftly before the whole horror fades under the sweet joyous glow of sugar and carbohydrates. Besides the first few years of this illness, which has its own special place in the Hell Hall of Fame, the last few days preparing and preforming the SIBO test might have been the worst 50 hours of my life. There are 2 close seconds: the aftermath of a lumbar puncture, which gave me the 10 on my pain scale to which I compare all else, and a particularly harrowing bout of food poisoning, which I suffered alone on my brother’s bathroom floor for a few days, thinking I might die. But this weekend was worse than both. But let me back up.
My symptoms have been bad since coming back from California, particularly the last month. Immediately after our return, I had to contend with my period, which heightens everything a notch, including emotions. My husband went straight back to work 7 days a week to catch up with his landscaping jobs and the renewed isolation, plus being trapped indoors because of the chilly, damp weather began to take their toll very quickly.
A week after getting back to Seattle, I got the tests done for Dr. Kaufman (the California doctor at the Open Medicine Clinic). I had 39 vials of blood taken in 2 days — the first day, we did 9 vials, but my blood sugar crashed, so the second day we went back downtown and I did the other 29 vials. I completely underestimated the toll it would take. That evening my blood pressure tanked and I didn’t feel good. It took a few days for the effects to wear off. Just in time for family to come over for my birthday brunch, which caused a bad (but short-lived) crash (I already wrote about this last month).
Two days after that, I started to get a throat thing… one of those feelings that, in my old life, would have made me think I was getting sick. The last time I was sick — normally sick with a cold and bronchitis — was almost exactly 6 years ago. That boggles my mind. It is, of course, because I probably have immune activation, but it is maybe even more about being housebound, wearing my mask when I go to appointments in the winter and not letting sick people come into my house. So for 3 days I felt like I had strep throat, was completely couch-bound, stiff, sore, swollen and had a tight chest just like it used to feel before I got a chest infection. For 2 nights I slept over 8 hours, which should tell you right away I was being beat down by something different because I’m lucky to ever get more than 6 or 7 hours sleep. These symptoms of acute sick on top of chronic sick scared me. I have read so many stories of relapses and crashes caused by a common cold. I haven’t had any lung issues since the first year of this illness and, as a previous asthma/bronchitis/pneumonia sufferer, I am incredibly thankful that I don’t contend with those symptoms. So, I hit it with every tool in my virus tool kit, including IV fluids (so brilliant to be able to hook myself up to fluids; see my first time here) and it didn’t progress to a full-blown cold or flu.
The day I started to feel better, I did an immunoglobulin infusion. From that day on, I’ve had a headache. It has waxed and waned over the last 3 weeks, but yesterday it was in the top 4 worst headaches of my life. More on that in a minute. I’m not finished with the litany. A few days after the infusion, I stopped taking all of my vitamins, supplements and even prescriptions that aren’t essential. I needed to come off my candida treatment for 2 weeks before doing the SIBO test, so I just stopped everything. I thought this would be a good break, but in retrospect, perhaps it contributed to this past Very Bad Fortnight.
One thing I did not intend to discontinue was my hormone therapy but my doctor refused to call in my compounded progesterone prescription because I hadn’t seen her in person in 4 months, so I had to abruptly stop it in the middle of my cycle. Maybe it’s no big deal, but I’ve been taking it for years and it regulates my periods and calms my reactivity, so messing with my body and, more importantly, the difficulty dealing with my doctor caused a lot of stress (I didn’t want to see her until I had the test results back from the 39 vials of blood, so I implored her to extend my Rx, but it took her too long to answer and my period decided to come and then she only called in a few to tide me over until our appointment, but they wanted to charge me $2.50/capsule for such a small order, so I just went to see her (there was no discussion of my hormones and no changes made, so withholding the refill felt like blackmail to get a very sick person to make an appointment). Then it took 3 more days after our appointment for her to call the progesterone into the pharmacy… so I was ultimately off of it for 2 weeks. Sigh).
Speaking of my pain scale, the week before last I had a bowel spasm that was a 9. My first 9 since The Evil Calcium Headache of 2012. I have experienced a lot of bowel issues in my life — just the day before this spasm, I had experienced such vicious heart palpitations during an enema, that I thought I might collapse with vasovagal syncope — but I didn’t know this sort of pain was possible in the bowel. From an internal muscle spasm?? Seems far-fetched even now, having experienced it. It only lasted about 5 minutes, but for that eternity I couldn’t move from the bathroom floor where I had crumpled, I could barely breathe, I was making some weird, uncontrollable, primal, guttural, airless moan. If it had gone on a few minutes longer, I would have called an ambulance and probably would have agreed to morphine, even though I’m allergic to it. As soon as I was able to crawl, I did a castor oil pack and heating pad and the spasm eased up. The aftershocks and inflammation continued for days, however…
Right up until my period came and my chronic headache became a chronic migraine. The old kind that has me wincing at every noise and squinting at every light. The kind of headache that makes it difficult to move my eyes, like the extraocular muscles have swelled taught with inflammation. The kind that infects my neck and spine, so I can’t turn my head, bend over, cough, sneeze or poop without whimpering in pain. The kind that causes nightmares about loved ones getting their skulls bashed in and destroys sleep with constant throbbing wakings. The kind that causes my stomach to flip with every smell and my poor husband: “Please don’t put your foot down so heavily on the floor.” “Please don’t ever use that shaving cream again.” “Please don’t sharpen that knife or stir that pot.” “Please don’t smoke that cigar out on the porch because it sticks to your clothes.” … etc. I became very weak over the next few days, like the life-force was drained out of me. Muscles not working, hard to converse. This is a completely different feeling from my typical exhaustion or heavy muscles. This is how I imagine it feels if someone is on the ground, bleeding out.
And then, just like that, a depression switch was flicked in my brain. I’ve only been really depressed twice before, the worst was the winter of 2013 after I’d gone steadily downhill for 2 years and spent most of my time in my bedroom in pain. This episode wasn’t as bad as that — I am sustained by a bit more hope these days because I’ve had some staccato ups punctuate the continuous downs — but it still sucked. I’ve cried every day and had very black thoughts. The relentlessness of my symptoms have highlighted the improvements in California, making me terrified of what it means for our lives if my environment is keeping me sick. And the interesting/engulfing thing about depression is, it doesn’t matter whether you rationally know that things will be better on a different day or could be better in a different location, you still want to give up and end it all. Nope, can’t do this anymore, I’m too tired. And when that Black Cloud of Despondency starts to dissipate, like it has today (oh, thank god, please stay away), it seems ludicrous and selfish that you had those dark thoughts.
But let’s get to the crescendo… The last 50 hours… The prep for the SIBO test… If I was ever in doubt that my body doesn’t do well on a low-carb diet, this weekend proved it. It feels miraculous that I’m able to sit up and type right now, honestly. On top of bad physical symptoms, little sleep, no supplements and sadness, I started a 48-hour prep diet for a SIBO test ordered by Dr. Kaufman. SIBO stands for small intestinal bacterial overgrowth. I’ve done the SIBO diet and test once before and don’t remember it being very difficult (aside: my post is here and you can see that the National University of Natural Medicine has stolen my food photo for their website here, which I find highly amusing). For the prep diet, you are only allowed to eat meat, eggs, white rice and fats for 12 hours and then 15 hours of fasting, which doesn’t sound too bad except, if you are constipated (or in my case, the most constipated person I’ve ever met), you have to do the diet for 2 days before the fast. I eat all day and night — it steadies my blood sugar and maintains my weight — and, although I eat meat every day, I don’t eat a lot and I only eat about 2 or 3 eggs a week. So, this was hard. Friday night, I stopped eating at 1am. I was hoping I would wake up Tuesday morning without an appetite, which often happens in the mornings, but no luck, I was starving. I ate a scrambled egg with turkey. A little later I ate some rice and butter. Then chicken breasts. By the time my husband made some “meat broth” (no bones, cartilage, herbs or veg allowed), I was very nauseous — which is unusual, I have an iron stomach — but still hungry because I couldn’t physically choke down enough meat to fill me up and too much white rice without sufficient veg and starchy carbs causes my blood sugar to crash because of reactive hypoglycemia. The nausea was exacerbated by pain throughout my body, a pulled muscle in my back and my migraine ratcheting up. If I hadn’t prepared for this test for 2 weeks already, I would have thrown in the towel and taken steroids, acetaminophen and an antihistamine, but I had to shudder through it.
Yesterday was indescribable (but I’ll try). I woke up with my brain swollen, neck stiff and head shattered. It felt like that lumbar puncture headache: I had to be horizontal to function. And, of course, I was starving. The smell of the meat broth almost made me vomit. My arms shook as I force-fed myself an egg and turkey. Later, I ate beef stew meat and rice, but, again, not enough to fill me. I just couldn’t get it down. I spent the whole day in a weak ball on the couch. My husband had to half carry me to the loo because whenever I sat up, my limbs started shaking and I broke out in sweats. This was more than hunger on top of a migraine. I googled meningitis and encephalitis symptoms and actually considered going to the hospital. I’ve managed to stay out of the emergency room for the entirety of my illness, so I don’t consider it lightly. But, really, what could they do? IV fluids, which I can do at home; a spinal tap, which I’ll refuse; a brain CT, but I’ve had way too much radiation exposure in my life; an MRI, but I’ll refuse contrast; a blood test, which will be negative. So I stayed put. And, besides, I checked my blood sugar, blood pressure and temperature and, inexplicably, everything was stable. Actually, this made me a little more scared because I like having a reason for abnormal symptoms — something I can fix. The entire day, I kept saying to myself, “You’ve come this far, just 20 more hours… 15 more hours…” I couldn’t stomach anything after 6pm and I finally got to sleep at midnight, but woke up at 3:30am and 4am and then every hour, feeling sick and in and out of dreams about food. I got up at 7am and my head felt a bit better, but I was so emaciated and weak (I lost 3 pounds in those 2 days and I didn’t have 3 pounds to lose).
For the SIBO test, at least an hour after you wake up, you drink a lactulose solution and then take a sample of your breath every 20 minutes for 3 hours. Only 4 more hours. My kingdom for peanut butter on toast! It was torture. I was breathless and, with every movement, my heart rate skyrocketed. I’m not sure why I have to eat so much, so often, of so many foods in order to feel like my muscles and organs — even my cells — will function. It could be thyroid related: my metabolism is still revving too high. But then the icing on the cake … No, the cherry on top of the icing… The pièce de résistance of the whole month de hell: An hour after drinking the lactulose solution, my body responded how it always does to a shot of sugar without a meal chaser: my blood sugar crashed. No, no, no… We are in the 11th hour, I have been off supplements, I have gotten through the prep diet, please, body, do not fail me before I complete the test. I sat very still, tried not to expend energy, willed my pancreas and liver to do their jobs and release some glucose, but the shakes and my hammering heart… It was too much. I thought I might black out getting the phone to call my husband, my words were halting and stuttered, my vision tunneled as I tested my blood sugar. It was 57 and I was getting worse, I had no choice but to drink some apple juice. After only 3 ounces, I could feel my body stabilise. It was like those starving Naked & Afraid people who feel energy flood back into their bodies after eating a minnow (if you don’t watch that program, what are you waiting for?). I’d last about 3 hours on Naked & Afraid.
An hour and a half after the hypoglycemic crash, I got diarrhea. For someone who hasn’t moved her bowels in over 2 years without an enema, this is a big deal — body’s in trouble. I finished the SIBO test and wrote a note that I had to drink apple juice and all I can do is pray that they can glean something from my samples. As soon as I blew my last breath sample, I drank a huge mug of proper Irish tea with milk and ate a piece of banana bread. I moaned with every sip and bite. Potable, edible life. Then I ate a seed bar, some nuts, some melon. And then half an acorn squash and half a head of steamed cabbage. And an oatmeal raisin cookie. Now I’m sitting at the table for the first time in about 10 days feeling very grateful for no shakes, my normal-level pain, the food in my belly and the energy available to write this. I don’t even care that my churning, bloated, gassy bowel probably means I have SIBO and will have to take antibiotics. All I know is I will never do this test again.
After dealing with thyroid disease for almost 9 years, I finally, for the first time, can definitively identify the symptoms that are coming from being hyperthyroid. When they found the goiters on my thyroid and diagnosed me with Graves Disease, I didn’t know my very overactive thyroid was doing anything to my body. Unlike these stories you hear (like Dr. Amy Myers‘s), I was not telling an unbelieving doctor that there was something wrong with me. Quite the opposite. I had multiple doctors see my test results and look at me, perplexed: “You haven’t been shaking, anxious, losing weight? Have you been losing hair or had temperature problems?” Nope, nope, nope. I had been hyperthyroid for so long that I just thought of myself as someone who had thin hair and could eat a lot. Everything else I chalked up to my high-stress job: I was “type A”, I didn’t sleep well because I had a lot on my mind. I wasn’t anxious, I was BUSY. Give me the radioactive iodine already and let me get back to work!
A few weeks ago, I started getting very stressed out about my upcoming trip to California. So much to plan, rentals to find, plane tickets to buy, packing lists to make, food to prepare and freeze, prescriptions to fill. And for the doctor I’ll be seeing, I have to write my history, years of tests to sort, scan and email, release of records forms to ten different clinics… Of course I was feeling overwhelmed–especially with finding places to stay since every day that I didn’t make a decision, more options would disappear. My sleep had (has) gone to hell, I’m waking up with a sore jaw from grinding and my teeth feel unstable. I keep telling my husband, “There’s too much to do. I can’t breath, my heart is racing, I feel like I’m going to have a stress-heart attack.” I lie down to rest and my mind … my god, it just races and my body feels full of electricity. I give up, come downstairs and speed talk at my husband. The other night he asked me, “How do you have so much energy right now, you didn’t sleep at all?” And I said, “It’s not energy, it’s adrenaline, it’s stress. Once the trip is sorted, this will stop.” That was my explanation.
I lost a little bit of weight and thought it was because I cut back on eating so many nuts. But I’m eating more in general: one minute I’m complaining about how full and uncomfortable I am and, five minutes later, I’m back in the kitchen looking for snacks. I said to my friend, “I’m stress-eating.” That was my excuse. I said to my Mom, “My hair has started to fall out again and it never even grew back from before.” In my mind, I was blaming the hair loss on weight loss, even though I’m only down a few pounds. That makes no sense! Such a small amount of weight loss hasn’t caused hair loss, your thyroid has caused both, you myopic fool.
A week or two before I started to notice all of this, I had increased my thyroid medication from 100ug to 125ug a day. I’ve changed my dose so many times over the years, I don’t give it a second thought. I certainly don’t monitor my body’s reactions because I am an expert at ignoring the signs, even when they’re not subtle. Just like when I was a workaholic and feeling these same physical symptoms, but thought they were just from job pressure.
When the penny dropped (I was recently told that Americans don’t know that idiom — it means you put two and two together or the light bulb went off), that all of it is overactive thyroid, I was so excited, so soothed. And it was suddenly so very obvious. This is textbook. I’m not an anxious person, I never have been. My neuroses are canted more towards rumination and second-guessing. It’s a fine line, but this tight, breathless, buzzing, heart-hammering feeling in my chest is not normal and is awful. Such a sad thing to realise that, even after all this time, with my body yelling its head off, I blindly make excuses. I could be standing here, cold and jittery, with a handful of hair in one hand and my third sandwich in the other, saying, “Gosh, this trip planning is stressful.”
It reminds me of that scene in The Man With Two Brains when he’s looking at the portrait of his dead wife and asks her to give him a sign if his new girlfriend is bad news. After the ghost turns the room upside down, Steve Martin says, “Just any kind of sign. I’ll keep on the lookout for it. Meanwhile, I’ll just put you in the closet.”
I’ve been putting my body in the closet. I’m so happy to finally know without a doubt exactly what my hyperthyroid symptoms feel like and even happier to know I can fix it.
Two years ago, I spent a few arduous days in L.A. with my mother and husband so I could have an appointment with Dr. Chia. Last year, we spent a few days on the Washington coast while I was very sick. We picked the closest coastal town to our house, so it was the shortest drive and my husband did all the work — I just had to get myself in and out of the car. I did it for the dogs, to see their joy on the beach, to try to make up for two and a half years of no adventures and lessened activity… but I was not in good shape.
This year, though… This year we took TWO TRIPS TO THE COAST. Again, all I had to do was pack (no easy feat — it takes me days) and get myself in the car. My angel husband, with good spirits, loads everything in and out and in and out of the car, including my mobility scooter, all my food, bedding, towels etc. I even brought my air purifier. I love being so low-maintenance.
Last June, was our longest trip since I got sick. We stayed in the same place in the same coastal town as we had in 2015, but I was feeling better than I had in years so, on the day we were meant to leave to go back to Seattle, we found a different rental and extended our visit for an extra two days. This new house was right on the beach and had a balcony. I had no idea the difference it would make to my experience. The first rental was further inland and had a fenced-in yard and trees enclosing the garden. It never occurred to me that a view might be nice — might even be soul-enlivening — I was just happy to see four different walls. But the simple act of gazing at an expanse of nature, even from inside a house, is everything when you’ve been housebound for a prolonged period. That first night, when I saw the vast black sky punctured with millions of bright stars, I started weeping. When was the last time I really saw the stars? I will never forget that moment. And the next day, sitting on the balcony, watching the waves… It didn’t even matter if I was feeling too ill to get to the beach. The funny thing was, I experienced none of that Oh-I-feel-so-much-better-near-the-ocean “locations effect” that so many people with ME report. If anything, I was taken down a notch by the wind, the marine smell, bonfire smoke at night, trying to manage my temperature fluctuations etc. Plus, there were, of course, a few difficulties for my sensitive system (a house on stilts that shook so violently, I couldn’t sleep, overwhelming bleach smell in the bathroom, strongly chlorinated tap water, too many stairs), but it was definitely worth it.
Over four months ago, I wrote a Love letter to my sons as a preamble to the big post I intended to write about the coast trip and then, of course, never got around to writing it. I’m struggling at the moment (this post has taken me a week to put together), so I’m going to let the photos do the talking.
We had no plans to go again this year, but our best friends wound up renting the house next door to the one we had in June, so, at the beginning of this month and at the very last minute, we decided to join them. I’ve gotten worse the past few months, so I knew I wouldn’t be able to participate as much as I would like to (the first night they all played cards and had drinks, while I was in the other house, resting. The second night they had a bonfire on the beach, while I was inside, resting), but there were wonderful moments of normalcy: Z. chatting with me over morning tea, without the time-pressure of a planned visit; my dogs’ excitement when they saw Aunt Z. and Uncle J. on the beach — missed members of our extended pack; watching their family fly kites on the beach; colouring with sweet Anna while she talked my ear off more than she ever has before; eating dinner at a table with a group of friends, with conversation, laughing and music playing in the background (<~ this most of all: just hanging out amid all the normal sounds, feeling part of a group); and the social time my husband got, just hanging with friends he hasn’t seen properly in years.
The only downside was my dogs are showing their age much more now than they were even four months earlier. I couldn’t use my scooter as much as last time because they simply didn’t have the stamina to walk distances and were both limping after our first short excursion. The last — and warmest — day, Bowie didn’t even get out of the car for more than a minute. He was pooped. And Riley just sat next to me like a sentry, wondering why I was lying on the sand. I fear it really might have been the last hurrah on the beach, which makes me even happier that I pushed myself to go and create new memories.
Posted on Facebook:
Today is International Awareness Day for Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME/CFS) and this is my small effort to educate and contribute to a larger understanding of this disease. Like I said last year, there’s not much point in continuously sharing information within the patient community, since we know the hardships all too well, so I’m asking my healthy friends to take a minute to learn a bit more about this debilitating neuroimmune condition. Only with awareness can the tides change.
Like many illnesses, there is a large range of disability. Some people can hold jobs, while the severe end of the spectrum is horrific incapacitation*. Unlike other illnesses, however, there is virtually no budget for research (male pattern baldness has 6 times the funds devoted to discovering treatments, according to Dr. Klimas).
In my own case, I have made a lot of improvement since starting immunoglobulin infusions 7 months ago. Facebook reminds me that this time last year I was bedbound, in pain, with flu-like symptoms, which still happens, but with much less frequency. Things are more stable, payback isn’t as vicious. I still use a mobility scooter in the dog park, but I have more than doubled my daily steps and I’m able to do more. Today I went to the bank. 🙂
How you can help:
On May 26th, MEAction has organised the #MillionsMissing project, which will take place in multiple cities across the world, with a coordinated campaign of demonstrations and demands. Learn how you can support it here.
Sign this petition to increase funding to find a cure.
There is very little funding for research for treatments, so, if you have the inclination and means, donations are sorely needed:
In the U.S:
Tell Congress to Increase Funding for ME Research.
Send your congressional rep Llewellyn King’s article on The Hill’s “Congress Blog”.
Buy a “Congressional pack“.