Reunion surprises

November 27, 2017

As so many people do this time of year, I recently went to my high school reunion. It was WEIRD! Of course, it was weird in the obvious ways (That person knows who I am? How could that person have forgotten me? Wow, she looks OLD! I don’t even remember him.) And then there were some chronic illness-related surprises. I thought I’d share a couple of them with you today.

First, there was my own perspective, which surprised the hell out of me. For the reunion 10 years ago, life was pretty good, if you didn’t count my complete inability to get into a healthy romantic relationship. But the rest was good. I was able to go to the reunion and talk about my good life.

Five years ago I was miserable. If you scroll through the archives for this blog, you’ll see that I was NOT doing well health-wise. That had a bit emotional impact, too. I was fighting to get disability benefits. I didn’t want them, but I needed them. Unfortunately, I was deemed “too healthy” for them. Fuck that shit. I felt horrible. I was house-bound multiple days every week. I didn’t think I had the energy for a reunion, and even if I did, what would I say? I wasn’t dating anyone, I wasn’t working, and the future felt bleak. Blah. I stayed home.

This year was different all around. First, I’m feeling well enough to attend a reunion! Ok, maybe not every day, but I rested up in advance and I managed it. I’m doing some very part time work, and when someone asked what I was doing for work, I mentioned that. There was no need to say it was part time. I talked about it like it was a full time job, because why waste time on details. This many years out of school, most of my classmates are married and have kids. I was one of the only ones who was unmarried. But I was ok with that. I mentioned to someone that I was writing a book, and when he asked about the topic, I said it was about chronic illness. I didn’t bring up my health stuff otherwise, and I didn’t dwell on it, but I also didn’t hide it.

I caught up with people and had a nice time. Because you see, I went into this reunion not trying to impress anyone. I didn’t care what they thought of me. Sure, there were a few people I wanted to reconnect with, but most I didn’t even bother to talk to because I didn’t care to find out what they’d been up to. If they asked me, then I answered, but I never worried about them judging me. For one thing, I figured most of them would be more worried about others judging them than about passing judgment. But also, what do I care what a bunch of people from high school think about me now?

My own attitude was perfect. It was freeing. And it shocked the hell out of me.

But there was another surprise. Over the years, I have become Facebook friends with a lot of former classmates. Facebook is weird. We’re not friends now, we weren’t friends then, but we’re connected and seeing things about each others’ lives. Go figure.

I write about a lot of stuff on Facebook: politics, cute dogs, crochet, my small business, and of course, chronic illness. Sometimes I share funny memes. Sometimes I share poignant blog posts. Other times it’s news articles. And occasionally, I write personal essays.

So I’m at the reunion, and this guy I wasn’t really friends with in high school, though we did share a few classes, came up to me. We’re Facebook friends now, but haven’t spoken to each other since the last reunion I attended, 10 years ago. He came up to me, looked me in the eye, and said he liked my writing about chronic pain. It got to him. Then he told me about a friend who was recently diagnosed with MS.

Of all the things I expected to happen at the reunion, that wasn’t one of them. This guy I didn’t really know told me that my writing about chronic pain had an impact on him. I was touched. And very surprised.

You see, we don’t know who will be impacted when we speak honestly about our situations. There’s a lot I don’t share on Facebook – they don’t need to know that I’m on food stamps or SSDI. They don’t need to know my embarrassing stories. But what I do share, I share honestly and from the heart.

This reunion was nothing like what I would have expected. It was fun and loud and interesting. And most surprising of all, my chronic illnesses were present, but not over-powering. That’s something that I hope to continue.

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Forgetting when pain was scary

November 13, 2017

A friend mentioned that it’s frightening to wake up in pain. I paused, not sure what she meant for a moment. Then I remembered back to when waking up in pain was scary. That feels so long ago.

Don’t get me wrong, sometimes it’s still scary. It’s just that that feeling has become rare. After all, when I’m in pain all day every day, why would it surprise me to be in pain at night?

My friend was referring to a different kind of pain. She is pregnant, and sometimes wakes up with horrendous leg cramps. Before the pregnancy, she only had pain the way most people do: if she injured herself. So this is unusual. And we humans often respond to the unusual with fear. It makes sense from a survival perspective. And pain is a bad thing – it’s telling us that something is wrong. So again, it’s natural to have a negative reaction to it.

The thing is, when you’re in pain all the time, your survival instinct learns that this isn’t a threat. You can’t be always worried that something is wrong because it will wear you out.

Occasionally I have a burst of scary pain in the middle of the night. Usually, it’s a new or uncommon pain, and that’s what makes it scary. More often, it’s my same old pains. At their usual levels, I sleep through the pain; I learned to do that when I was 17 years old and thoroughly exhausted from the sleepless nights.

When the pain gets worse, I often wake up, think “that sucks,” move to a less painful position (if possible,) and go right back to sleep. I’m aware of it, but I don’t think much of it. It’s not scary at all. Even when the pain is bad enough that I can’t get back to sleep for a while, I don’t feel fear. Annoyance, frustration, and sometimes anger for sure, but not fear.

It has been so long since pain itself has been scary, that I forget what it’s like. Now when pain scares me, it’s not the pain that I find frightening, but the unknown cause and the fear that it could last the rest of my life, as so many new pains have. Will this ever go away? Will it get worse? Will it stop me from doing things I love? Those are the fears. But when I know the cause and that it will end, there’s no fear. My body’s instinct has shut down when it comes to pain, and I wasn’t even aware of it happening.

It’s easy to see the many ways that non-chronically ill people don’t understand what we go through, but it’s also true that we don’t understand what they go through. I don’t want to diminish my friend’s experience simply because I am in pain more often and have learned to deal with it, because my pain comes with a bunch of other (arguably worse) symptoms, and because mine pain will never go away. Yes, I would rather be in her position, but that doesn’t make it easy for her. Her natural instincts are still intact, and possibly heightened because she is pregnant. She is dealing with changing hormones and a changing body. That doesn’t sound easy to me.

My point is simply that it’s easy to shrug off what others go through as being no big deal, but I still try hard to have sympathy and empathy for them, as much as possible. Just like I want others to have for me.

This conversation happened weeks ago, but it has stuck with me: the confusion I felt (people wake up feeling scared of pain?), the realization of how much my perspective has changed, my instinct to shrug off her situation, and the awareness that that would be a crappy thing to do. Writing this is my way of reminding myself to keep that awareness. Because everyone’s pain is a problem for them, and that’s something we can all relate to.


Going public is like coming out over and over

September 13, 2017

Once upon a time, no one knew I had health problems unless I told them. Ok, that’s not entirely true. There were signs. It’s just that most people didn’t pick up on that signs, or I could shrug them off as an injury or something. It was easy to lie.

Then I decided to write a book.* Now, when you Google my name, that book comes up. And it’s all about having chronic illnesses.

This has been such an interesting experience. It makes my journey public in a way it never was, because even though most people don’t Google my name, I know that they could. And that leads me to think and speak about my health in different ways.

Take last night, for example. I was giving a presentation in front of a group on a different topic entirely. Someone asked a question and I was answering it with a few examples. And then I mentioned medical stuff as a relevant example. There was was, in front of a small group, pointing at a screen, and looking completely healthy except for my knee braces. And I felt odd mentioning my health, but it was relevant. And I even said, “this is no secret – if you Google me, you’ll see the book I wrote on this topic.” And I saw some eyes move south to those knee braces.

It’s like coming out. I joined an online dating site a few months ago. I was taking a walk with a neighbor and she was asking me about it. We didn’t know each other well, but were friendly. She asked if I had met anyone and I said I’d met a couple interesting people. She asked about them, and as I mentioned the man, everything was normal. When I mentioned the woman, I saw her hesitate. I watched her brain churn as she processed that bit, and then we moved on. With other people, where there’s context, I might directly say that I’m bisexual. But no matter what, if the topic is going to come up, I need to come out over and over again, because whether I’m dating or single, no one will know I’m bi if I don’t mention it.

And every time, I wonder how the other person will react. Will they be accepting? Will they be jerks? Will they ask the same old tired questions?

Just like mention my health problems. Every time, it’s necessary to specify what I’m talking about. Every time, I wonder how they will react. Will they be accepting? Will they be jerks? Will they ask the same old tired questions?

Sometimes I want to wear a sign on my head, or print business cards to hand out: YES, I HAVE CHRONIC ILLNESSES AND NO, THE DETAILS ARE NOT YOUR BUSINESS. Except that now, with the book, some of the details are out there. So they could be your business. Still, it doesn’t mean I want to talk about it all the damn time.

But you see, there’s also the part we don’t usually think about: it’s freeing! Every time I start to question whether or not to mention something, I remember, it’s out there anyway, so why not talk about it? Is it ok to share this? Might as well. Is this a secret? Apparently, not any more.

Again, it’s like coming out. I don’t have to watch my pronouns anymore. I can just speak about past loves and lovers like anyone else would. Sure, I have to use my judgement for safety. Yes, some people will be jerks, but there aren’t any secrets.

That isn’t to say I don’t have limitations. I still write things on this blog, for example, that I wouldn’t say publicly. There’s definitely something to be said for having a pseudonym. Still, to be able to speak publicly and not question myself constantly is HUGE!

It also means more people in my life know about my health issues. I’m more open about it on Facebook because, after all, they see me promoting my book. There’s no question about it at all anymore.

Coming out about orientation, health, or anything else is a personal choice. This isn’t something I would have done even just a few years ago. I am so glad I have. For me, right now, this was definitely the right move. If it’s not right for you, though, that’s cool, too. You have to do what works for you.

Have you been public about your health stuff? How has that gone for you? I’d love to hear about it in the comments!

*It’s frustrating that I can’t tell you what the book is. I want to so badly, but that would defeat the purpose of having a pseudonym here.


Have you called your senator today?

June 29, 2017

HELP!

In the chronic illness community, there seem to be two groups of people:

  • People in the U.S. who are terrified of losing their healthcare or of it becoming completely unaffordable.
  • People outside the U.S. who are wondering what the hell is wrong with us.

These are some scary times.

If you don’t know what’s going on, here’s the basic summary. Our political system has become incredibly divisive. It’s been divisive for a long time, but there are no longer congresspeople working with folks from the other party. Politicians go out of their way to hurt the other part just for the sake of hurting them. Even if politicians from different parties agree with each other in private, they won’t do it in public.

When Obama became president, the Republicans vowed to do whatever it took to prevent him from being reelected. But he was reelected. Still, they could destroy everything he had accomplished. For 7 years they talked about repealed the healthcare plan he put into place. They talked big. And then the day came when they had to actually do what they’d said.

So now here we are with a Republican-majority congress and a Republican president. They have no excuse for not repealing Obama’s healthcare plan. The thing is, they suddenly realized that wasn’t so easy to do. People like it! They use it and rely on it! They need it.

But after talking big, the Republicans can’t just say, “Oops, turns out we can’t come up with something better that will make our richest supporters happy, so we’ll just keep what we’ve got.” No, they have to get rid of it. And the plans they have been coming up with instead are cruel.

Yes, cruel. That’s no exaggeration. The House’s plan would cause 23 million people to lose health insurance. The Senate’s plan would cause 22 million people to lose health insurance. Preexisting conditions could cause your rates to skyrocket. A “preexisting condition” could be anything from cancer to lupus to migraines to pregnancy.

The Senate’s plan would remove access to free birth control, abortions, and maternity coverage. That’s right. So you won’t have any monetary help avoiding pregnancy, ending a pregnancy, or getting medical treatment during a pregnancy, never mind actually giving birth to a baby. Cruel.

Both plans cut billions – yes, BILLIONS – of dollars from Medicaid. Medicaid is the government-run healthcare program for the poor and disabled. You know, the folks who most need the help.

As for “regular” folks with jobs and steady incomes, they’re safe, right? Not really. Predictions are that their premiums, deductibles, and co-pays will go up, even while the covered services (like contraception, abortion, and maternity care) are reduced.

So who benefits? The rich will get huge tax breaks. Insurance companies will also save money.

Um…. Yeah, I’m usually speechless at this point. For about a minute. Then I start yelling again.

Remember, these bills are hugely unpopular. But they can still pass. Because the Republicans would rather do something unpopular than nothing at all.

As for me, I currently have two different health insurances. My primary insurance covers 80% of each bill and the secondary insurance – Medicaid – covers the other 20%. If any of these bills pass, I will likely be able to keep the primary insurance, but there will be limits placed on it, so it won’t cover as much as it does right now. There aren’t any details yet. I don’t know if it will still cover the CPAP-type machine that I need for my sleep apnea, the many doctors’ visits, the blood tests, or the MRIs.  I would lose the secondary insurance. I might or might have access to other secondary insurances that I could pay for myself. Right now, those cost about $250 per month – money I don’t have available. But that’s right now, and those prices will go up under these new Republican plans. How would I pay for it?

Shit.

This is bad. Horrible. Catastrophic.

Cruel.

So what can you do? I’m so glad you asked! Here’s what you can do:

  • If you are in the U.S., call your Senators! Tell them to vote against these bills! Tell them you want to keep the Affordable Care Act just the way it is. If you can’t call, send an email. Their contact information is right here: https://www.senate.gov/senators/contact/
  • If you are in the U.S., call other Senators! There are many who are on the fence, and we need them with us on this!
  • No matter where you are, ask your friends in the U.S. to call their Senators!
  • Post about this on social media. We need awareness! Too many people don’t realize what’s happening or how it might affect them. And that’s a problem. On the other hand, if the 22 MILLION – that’s 22,000,000 people! – all called their Senators, and each got a friend and/or family member to call also, there’s no way the Senators would vote for this. They wouldn’t want to risk losing the next election, after all.
  • [Edited to add on 7/5/17:] Attend any town halls that you can and make your voice heard! These town halls have a HUGE impact, not only in the media, but on the senators themselves. If they get a lot of feedback at these town halls, they might very well switch their votes to be against this heinous bill.

I’m sure my Facebook friends would be sick of my myriad posts on this subject if so many of them weren’t also concerned. Many are in much worse situations than me. Some are just as disabled, but will lose ALL of their health insurance coverage if this passes, and they don’t have any savings to manage without it.

Remember, 22 million people will lose health insurance if these bills pass. But how many of those 22 million will survive? Because people will die. That is a fact. And while I have no doubt that history will prove me right on this matter, I don’t want to be right. I want to be alive. How about you?

What are you waiting for? If you feel up to it, take 5 minutes RIGHT NOW to call your Senators, call other Senators, ask your family and friends to call Senators, and post on social media. Because unless we take action, millions of people will lose access to healthcare.


There’s no such thing as a quick swim anymore

June 26, 2017
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I wouldn’t mind being able to do this!

When I moved to a new apartment a few months back, a lot of friends were excited for me that I now had a pool. They were a lot more excited than I was.

I lived in a building in a pool once before. It was about 15 years ago. I was living in sunny Los Angeles, where pools are more common, and I was in much better health. I swam regularly during the months when I had less work (and more time.) It was lovely!

But this is not that. This is different. My new friends in the building often invite me for a quick swim. They have no idea what that really means for me.

  • Driving to the pool seems silly, but it’s 1/3 mile away, which is sometimes too far to walk, especially in the summer air.
  • If it’s too cool, no one wants to swim.
  • If it’s too hot, I can’t be outside, even in the pool.
  • If it’s too humid, I can’t be outside, even in the pool.
  • I must bring a lot of water and snacks, even for a “quick” swim, to stay hydrated and keep my strength up.
  • I will be in a lot of pain afterwards.
  • I will be in a lot of pain the next day.
  • I will be exhausted the next day.
  • I might have to cancel all of my plans for the next day so that I can rest and recover.
  • I won’t be able to cook that night, so I need to have leftovers available for dinner.
  • Obviously I can’t swim if I have plans later in the day, because I’ll need to rest.
  • I need to take extra meds if I’m going to swim, which means I have to know about swimming far enough in advance to take the meds.

There’s more, of course, but this gives folks a good idea of why swimming for me isn’t the relaxing, care-free, spontaneous, fun activity that it is for my neighbors. There are many things in our lives that get ridiculously more complicated, painful, and exhausting once chronic illness enters the picture, like grocery shopping. The big difference is that swimming is completely optional. Sure, skipping the pool hurts my social life a bit. But it helps my LIFE life a lot!

I’m not saying I won’t go swimming at all this summer. Only that the logistics have to be just right. I need to know the right people will be there so I’ll have, I need to be feeling good that day and not have other plans in the next day and a half, the weather has to be just right.

It’s not easy. But then, few things are when chronic illness is involved. So yes, I will be the “spoil sport” who skips the pool. I can live with that. Because I’ll live better for it.


Why first person I turn to is Dr. Me

April 24, 2017

It feels like everyone with chronic illnesses has their own story of medical mismanagement. That leads to everyone having their feelings about doctors and the medical establishment. For me, it lead to a combination of distrust and dismissiveness. Which is why it wasn’t until I had a bad reaction that I realized I should have run things by my doctor. But it just simply had never occurred to me to talk to him about it.

My own story of medical mismanagement has to do with crappy insurance, insular establishments, poor practitioners, and a lack of communication. In hindsight, I still can hardly believe that in 11 years of symptoms, my doctor only sent me to a rheumatologist ONCE, and that was only to rule out lupus. The next time I saw a rheumatologist was by my own design, and I was diagnosed within a few weeks.

As it turns out, the test he used to diagnose me had been run several times before, with results that weren’t high enough for a diagnosis, but that were high enough that they should have been flagged. But no one told me about it, and my primary care physician didn’t keep track of it. So the ball was dropped.

Over and over the ball was dropped. It was dropped when I went to my doctor asking to be tested for lactose intolerance. He told me there was no such test (a lie!) and to keep a food journal. Then he showed the journal to a nutritionist (supposedly) and said that it showed I wasn’t lactose intolerant. That was it. No followup. No tests. No referral to a specialist. A few years later I was “diagnosed” with IBS. I remained sick. I was often underweight. I the pain, nausea, and diarrhea were getting worse. 12 years after the lack of a lactose intolerance test, I told my current doctor that I wanted to be tested for Celiac. She said there was no point, that I clearly didn’t have it, and the tests weren’t accurate anyway. She offered no other suggestions, tests, or specialist referrals. So I went gluten free on my own and saw results within a few weeks. 6 months later, with the help of my new naturopath, I made more changes to my diet. Finally, after 20 years of nausea and other digestive symptoms, I was “cured.”

I could tell you dozens of stories like this, but the stories themselves aren’t the point. The point is that I found little use for primary care physicians. They rarely treated my symptoms properly. The rarely gave me the right referrals without a lot of nagging from me. They were supposed to coordinate my care but never did. So what was the point of them? I kept them because insurance required it, that’s all.

Recently I was having a normal day, when I was hit by a wave of nausea. Then my pulse spiked. I felt like my heart was going to beat out of my chest. I took my pulse many times. At one point it was 114. That’s not good. After 45 minutes or so, it hit me: I was having a hyperthyroid incident! A minor hyperthyroid incident is scary. A major one can kill you. So yeah, it’s good to take these things seriously. I immediately called my doctor, arranged to take the blood test the next day (since the office and the lab were about to close in 10 minutes) and lowered my medication.

When my doctor, and later other doctors, asked what caused the hyperthyroid incident, I was able to give them a short list of likely reasons. They agreed with my assessment. And the question kept coming up: why hadn’t I told my doctor about the change I’d made to my adrenal supplement dose?

The answer: because I never thought of it.

I knew I would have to lower my thyroid dose to account for the new adrenal dose. I had planned to do that the next week. My body just responded to the change faster than I had expected. My naturopath was working with me on this, and she hadn’t expected such a quick response either.

This wasn’t the first time I had changed that supplement. But I had never discussed it with my doctor.

The funny thing is, for the first time in my life, I have a PCP I like, respect, and trust. But I didn’t tell him.

Because decades of dislike, disrespect, and distrust had trained me not to.

I should have told him. I know that in hindsight. And I hope that next time I will. But who knows? I have very good reasons to be so dismissive of PCPs. No one argues with that (except my doctors, of course.) Maybe one day, if I have enough good experiences, I’ll learn to trust them. Maybe.

In the meantime, I continue to default to my own opinion, at least in areas I have researched (like my thyroid and adrenals.) It has served me pretty well so far.

After all, I chose to lower my thyroid dose after that incident. I hadn’t had the blood test yet. I didn’t know for sure what had happened.

Then the test results came back. I was very hyperthyroid. My doctor’s office told me to lower my dose immediately. But that was days later. The delay could have been dangers.

I had made the call myself, and it was exactly the right decision. Because Dr. Me knows my body better than any other doctor ever will.


When even medical professionals don’t get it

March 30, 2017

There are the medical people I know in my personal life: a distant cousin, an aunt’s in-laws, friends of friends. Sometimes it’s just a random person I meet to hears about my health issues and lets me know they work in the medical field.

Some of these people are awesome: understanding, supportive, helpful. And some make me want to scream by thinking they can offer me advice. People I barely know, or maybe don’t know at all, tell me what I should do for my health. Or worse, they don’t understand that I really am sick.

But then there are the worse ones: the medical folks I see for my own treatments who Just. Don’t. Get it.

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Usually I walk away. If they don’t understand, then I don’t want to waste my time. But this latest one is a tougher situation.

It’s my physical therapist. For one thing, she means well but she’s scatter-brained. She asked me if I’d tried a particular yoga pose. I said no, I was told not to do yoga. She was surprised. I pointed out that she told me not to do yoga just a few weeks ago. Things like that. When I walk in, she has no recollection of what we did last time, even though I know she writes notes after every visit.

She also does a good job overall. And there’s no one else to see. It took years for me to find her! I searched for ages for someone to do this particular type of treatment (easy) that my insurance would cover (almost impossible.) One of my insurances covers her and she’s giving me a break on the other. I really appreciate that. She’s been so kind about it. And she does a good job.

But then she wants me to exercise more, to make sure I build up a good sweat. I try and explain how adrenal fatigue works, how that could be dangerous. She wants me to talk to my other doctors to make sure I’m really not supposed to be doing it. You know, in case we hadn’t already had this conversation 80 bazillion times. In case I misunderstood. In case I don’t know my own body! So frustrating!

And then yesterday she grabbed my wrist for the millionth time. I know this is just a typical maneuver. I know she does this automatically because she’s done it so many times before with countless other patients. But she’s a physical therapist and she needs to take each patient’s needs into account and I don’t know how many more times I can tell her not to do this before I completely lose my shit.

Because I’ve been clear. I’ve said it hurts. I’ve explained that I have a long history of pain there. I’ve said that it upsets me. Yesterday I calmly talked about it after the appointment. I explained the emotional trauma a bit. She tried to say there was no need to explain, but I figured hearing it might help her to fucking remember! 

I don’t usually swear on this site, even though I do in real life. Not a lot, but enough. I can hold back when I think it will offend people. Usually. But not today, because this is SO UPSETTING to me!

I have 25 years of pain in my wrists. It was my first symptom. But that’s not the reason it upsets me so much. No, it’s because of how I was treated. Doctors did horrible things to that wrist and to me. I had to start off my explanation by saying, “I don’t have PTSD but….” Because while it’s not PTSD, I do have a panic response. I told her that there is no one in this world I trust to touch my wrist, and that’s true. There are some people I trust to touch near it, and some don’t make me panic as much, but I don’t trust anyone. Not even my mother, my best friends, my past lovers. And certainly not medical professionals!

So we’ll see if she listens. If not, I might have to take more drastic action. But for now, we’ll see.

I try to be patient but she’s a medical professional. She should know better.


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