We’re all in this together

April 30, 2014

We were discussing the possible side effects of a tetnus shot, and she said I could take some Advil for the soreness I’d probably have in my arm. I said that I’ve had chronic pain since I was a kid, so this wouldn’t be so bad for me by comparison. She seemed truly sympathetic. We continued to chat as she gave me the shot, and I said something about how what I have is sort of like fibromyalgia. I saw the glint of recognition in her eyes. I thought she must see a lot of fibro patients, but then she told me: her sister just told her yesterday that she was diagnosed with fibromyalgia.

I didn’t know this woman. Come to think of it, I never got her name. But we spoke openly and honestly. I told her that the hardest thing for many of us isn’t the symptoms. Those are horrible, yes, but even worse can be when we’re doubted. Doctors think we’re just looking for medicine or attention. Relatives think we’re pretending or exaggerating. She told me about her rocky relationship with her sister, but how she still wants to be there for her. She told me that her sister had complained of symptoms for years, but she never took them too seriously. I told her that being supportive is the best thing she can do. There’s no cure for fibro right now, but there might be ways to help mitigate the symptoms. I mentioned having people around to help and maybe changing her diet, and how she would need support for all of it. I told her about going through the five stages of grief.

I worried that I might have overstepped what’s considered a boundary between two strangers. I apologized for saying too much. She stopped me and thanked me. “I’m so glad I met you.” She said it more than once before I left.

The entire exchange lasted only minutes, but I think I might have helped both this woman and her sister. At least, I hope I did. And when she seemed surprised that this total stranger was trying so hard to help, I told her how hard it can be, especially when someone is first diagnosed. I said that I wished I’d had someone who’d gone through it to help me, so now I always try to help others. After all, we autoimmune folks need to support each other. We need to be there for each other.

Sliding backwards

April 28, 2014

Sometimes I feel like Sisyphus. I keep trying so hard to get better, and I keep having setbacks. And yet, I know I’m one of the lucky ones.

I’m one of the lucky ones because I’ve seen improvement overall.

So I’m frustrated and grateful, scared and excited, angry and glad, whipping back and forth between different emotions as my physical health changes. I’m so glad I was able to go to a family party yesterday and still feel ok afterwards, but I’m frustrated that I don’t feel up to going out to dinner with friends tonight. I’m glad that I’ll probably feel up to going to a doctor appointment tomorrow, but frustrated that I probably won’t feel up to doing laundry afterwards. I see a bright future, but I wonder if I’ll ever reach it. It’s like the carrot being dangled in front of me. Family, friends, my naturopath… they all say that one day I’ll grab that carrot, but no one says that it will still be crunchy and delicious. Maybe by then it will have gone bad. Instead of working and socializing and living a so-called normal life, I’ll only be able to work a bit and then be too sick to socialize. Maybe I’ll never really be able to date again. Maybe my dream of being able to actually give a solid RSVP to an event is nothing but that: a dream.

Two weeks ago I was feeling pretty good. I had been seeing a lot of improvement since starting a CPAP machine. I was on a new medication. Things were looking up! I was feeling better than I had in ages and I thought it would continue. The pattern was clear: 3-4 days of feeling great, 1-2 days of feeling crappy, and another day of feeling so-so. It wasn’t perfect, but it was a great sign that things would continue to improve. And then that pattern ended. I don’t know why. Technically, nothing changed. I thought I was in transition towards a better stage of health but maybe that wasn’t it, afterall.

I am trying to focus on the positive. I feel so much better than I did two years ago. I feel better than I did even 6 months ago. And I guess that’s the difference between me and Sisyphus: so far, I haven’t had to start over in this most recent journey. I slide backwards, but not completely. That means that the next time I improve, I’m starting from a higher point. It’s not perfect, but I’m grateful for it.

So right now, as the dark clouds are rolling in and my seasonal affective disorder is kicking up, as my body aches and the fatigue is ever-present, as I wonder if I’ll ever reach that carrot of a future, I’m trying very hard to see the last few years for what they’ve been, and be glad that, at least right now, I seem to be done with them.


Wondering how to give solicited medical advice

April 25, 2014

There’s a big difference between giving solicited and unsolicited medical advice. I think I’ve got a handle on giving unsolicited advice, but now a friend is asking for help and I’m not sure how to respond.

When you’re consumed with health issues, it’s easy to see them everywhere you look. I spend so much time and effort on getting enough sleep, eating the right foods, getting enough exercise, avoiding bad foods, etc., that it drives me up the wall to see people with more choices doing unhealthy things. The thing is, if the person doesn’t ask for advice, then offering it can be off-putting. They may be insulted or simply choose to ignore me. They probably aren’t ready to hear the message anyway. So I respond by posting tips to Facebook, where my family and friends can choose to read them or not. I’ll make comments that aren’t directed at them, just to get them thinking, like “Isn’t it terrible to think how many hormones people get from the animals they eat? I wish the FDA would do something about that.” I don’t badger anyone. This has been working out pretty well so far.

But when someone asks for advice, those rules go out the window. I’m back to wondering, how much is too much? If I give her too much information, will it scare her off? And can I trust my own perspective? I want to warn her that many doctors won’t run the right thyroid tests or prescribe the best medications. I know this is true. I’ve experienced it. I’ve read books about it. But if I tell her this now, before she’s found a doctor, will I be saving her from years of problems or will I be unnecessarily passing my own bias on to her?

I know that my friend needs help. She emailed me her blood test results and her symptoms yesterday. I will be honest that I can offer some good advice on some areas, but I don’t know anything about others. That’s fine. She knows that, and it won’t lower my credibility in her eyes. And she knows I’m not a doctor and won’t hold me liable for anything I suggest, so there’s no worry there. But I do see problems with her test results and her symptoms. She’s turning to me because she’s not getting great medical care. I want to help her. I just need to figure out the best way to do that.

How do you help friends who ask you for medical advice? Do you give advice or not? How much detail do you give? Do you warn them about the horrors of dealing with the medical community, or do you hold back on that? What else do you think I should consider?


Watching the Boston Marathon with a chronic illness

April 21, 2014

It’s hard to explain to people who’ve never lived here, but the Boston Marathon is a BIG DEAL. Sure, everyone knows about last year’s bombing, so they know we want to support our runners more than ever this year, but it was a really BIG DEAL before that, too.

When I was a kid, many years we’d stand along the route and cheer on the runners. I knew they were doing something BIG, but I didn’t understand how BIG it was until I got a bit older. As an adult, I cheered on the strangers and often people I knew, too. I haven’t gone every year, especially since I didn’t always live in Boston, but I’ve gone most years that I’ve been in town.

Last year I skipped the marathon because I just didn’t have the energy. I was sad to miss it, but I didn’t feel like I had a choice. It was just too much. And so I was at my parents’ house when I got a phone call from a relative who wanted to talk about the bombing that we hadn’t even heard about yet. We spent hours glued to the tv, calling and texting everyone we knew who might be at the finish line.

But this year is different. I’m by no means “healthy,” or even back to where I was just a few years ago. Still, I think I could manage to watch for just a little bit. The thing is, I can’t be sure, and so I didn’t make plans with friends to go watch it, and going alone is boring, but I might do it anyway. There are new security restrictions because of last year, so I’m thinking about how I could avoid bringing a backpack. My meds fit in my purse, I can carry water bottles in a plastic bag, maybe I can bring lunch in disposable containers…. I’m planning and plotting, trying to figure out how it could work. I need to protect myself from the sun, stay warm, drink lots of water, and eat a healthy lunch. And I need to make sure I don’t expend too much energy in getting to and from the spot I’ll watch from (whereever that may be.)

So this year, like so many others in the past, I’m hoping to watch at least a bit of the Boston Marathon. I just hope I can do it without wearing myself down too much.

Places that gluten hides

April 18, 2014

The other day I wrote about how thanks to gluten’s many hiding places, I continued to consume it even after I thought I was gluten-free. There are many places online to find gluten’s hiding places, but it’s hard to come up with a list that makes sense for me. Some things from those lists are relevant and some aren’t, so I decided to make my own list.

Use this list however you want. I’m making it for my own reference, but I hope it helps others. If you don’t have a gluten intolerance but you sometimes cook for someone who does, please be sure to consider this list. And please please please comment with anything you think should be added! Thanks!

Some unexpected places that gluten hides (gluten-free versions can often be found if you look for them)

  • soy sauce
  • lemon juice from concentrate
  • lipstick
  • chapstick
  • sunscreen
  • chocolate
  • salad dressing
  • sauces
  • broths and bullions
  • hand lotion
  • medications, both prescription and non-prescription
  • cooking spray
  • dish detergent
  • liquor
  • oats and oatmeal unless they’re specifically marked gluten-free
  • toasters and toaster ovens where gluten breads were toasted
  • wooden cutting boards and utensils that used gluten
  • oil in restaurants that has been used to fry gluten items
  • rubber dish gloves

Some other terms for gluten (from a handout my nutritionist gave me and an informational email from a body lotion company)

  • atta (chapatti flour)
  • barley (flakes, flour, pearl) or any ingredients containing the genus species name Hordeum Distichon
  • beer, ale, lager
  • breading and bread stuffing
  • brewers yeast
  • bulger
  • communion wafers
  • couscous
  • croutons
  • dinkel
  • durum
  • einkorn
  • emmer
  • farina
  • farro or faro
  • fu
  • graham flour
  • hydrolyzed wheat protein
  • kamut
  • malt, malt extract, malt syrup, malt flavoring
  • malt vinegar
  • malted milk
  • matzoh, matzoh meal
  • modified wheat starch
  • oatmeal, oat bran, oats (but it’s possible to get gluten-free oats) or any ingredients containing the genus species name Avena Sativa
  • pastas
  • rye bread and flour or any ingredients containing the genus species name Secale Cereale
  • seitan
  • semolina
  • spelt
  • triticale
  • wheat or any ingredients containing the genus species name Triticum Vulgare
  • wheat bran
  • wheat flour
  • wheat germ
  • wheat starch

What other places have you found gluten unexpectedly? What other names does it hide under?

Edit: Four months after this was originally published, I’m now adding a new hidden source of gluten that I had missed before: kissing! Watch out for kissing someone who just ate or drank gluten-containing foods or liquids, or who might be wearing gluten-containing chapstick or lipstick.

Edit 2 (12/19/14): After all this time, I’m still finding more hiding places for gluten. Check out this list of dental considerations, including floss and the powder on your dentist’s gloves.

Edit 3 (12/23/2014): Oh boy, here’s another list of places gluten hides. There are so damn many!

Edit 4 (10/26/17): This is a fantastic list of places gluten hides, and it even included a couple of things I didn’t know. I thought that by now I knew them all, so this both amazed and worried me. Still, better to know than to not know!

Edit 5 (7/14/18): Gluten hides in a lot of non-foods that are still super-important to check. Here are ingredients to watch out for in lipsticks (and links to gluten-free lipsticks, which I’m finding very helpful today!) Here‘s a list of ingredients to watch for in hair products like shampoos and conditioners.

So much for “gluten-free”

April 13, 2014

Back in February 2012 I thought I was going to stop eating gluten. As it turns out, what I did was stop intentionally eating gluten. I was still consuming it, though.

In my first year being gluten-free I avoided the obvious sources, like breads and pastas made with wheat flour. I also went online to figure out some of the less obvious sources of gluten to avoid, like soy sauce, lipstick, chocolate, salad dressing, and chicken broth. I found gluten-free versions of all of these, and I thought I was doing pretty well.

Then in the second year, I was horrified to realize how many other sources I hadn’t considered, like sunscreen, hand lotion, cough syrup, lemon juice, cooking spray, vitamins, and dish detergent. Oops!

Now I’m at the start of my third year, and I’m still learning. There are so many areas to consider. Yesterday I reviewed relatives’ recipes they were using for a big family dinner. Hours later it occurred to me: I hadn’t asked about cooking spray. And it’s a good thing I asked, because one person was going to use a type that I couldn’t have. She’s kindly using butter instead.

There are a lot of sources online that list areas to watch out for, but some are incomplete and it’s hard to remember them all. I have a list of food allergies in a Google Drive document so that I can share it with friends when they want to cook for me. I think I’ll make a list of hidden gluten sources on there, too. That way, I won’t have to worry about forgetting to mention something – I can just look at the list!

Where have you found gluten that you hadn’t expected? How have you kept track of all the places it hides?

Speaking the CI language

April 11, 2014

I remember the first day of my last job. Everyone was throwing around acronyms I’d never heard before, and I had trouble just following the basic line of the conversation. I asked around for a list of these acronyms, but there wasn’t one. I immediately started creating a list of my own. When someone new was hired the next year, I gave them a copy of my oh-so-valuable list.

Every group has their own language. Whether you’re discussing race, illness, sexual orientation, gender identity, ethnicity, sex, a job type, a career type, an industry, or anything else, you use certain vocabulary that the general population won’t understand. You have your own terms and abbreviations. Sometimes they’re obvious and you’re aware of them. But sometimes they’re less obvious.

I often forget about the CI (chronic illness) language. Sure, my CI friends know that PT means “physical therapy,” or sometimes “patient,” but the rest of the English-speaking world doesn’t always make that association. We know what a spoonie is. We throw around SSDI (social security disability insurance) and LTD (long term disability insurance) as if everyone knows those acronyms. We talk about medications, insurances, different types of pain, and legal issues in our own vernacular.

It doesn’t happen overnight. You don’t wake up one day knowing these terms and phrases. But bit by bit, it’s easy to pick them up. Within the hypothyroid community I assume everyone knows about TSH, T3, Anti-TPO, and the other thyroid hormones and antibodies. It’s just assumed. At first I was confused, but now those terms are just as familiar as “dogs and cats.” We experience something unique to us, and it’s so useful to have the vocabulary to discuss it with others.

This struck me today. I was in a room of CI folks, with one non-CI person, and we were trying to explain how our lives have been changed to that one person. I noticed people using words that he didn’t understand, and I caught myself trying to change my terminology to be more mainstream. Later, when it was just us CI folks again, it was so great to speak however we wanted and to really understand each other. There’s something really awesome about that. It felt easy and familiar. It helps us to bond.

The language isn’t perfect, but it helps us to understand one another, and that’s what’s important. So the next time you have the chance, I highly recommend that you visit a patient group or check out the patient communities on social media (personally I’m involved on Facebook as me and on Twitter as @CIRants) to learn the phrases they use. Then enjoy it! There’s something great about being able to communicate with others in our group in our own way and we need to make the most of it.

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