What isolation is teaching me about my health

August 20, 2020

While a lot of folks are venturing out into the world again, I am mostly staying in my apartment. During the hot days of summer I generally stay indoors anyway, since the humidity and heat trigger my symptoms. This year, with no other indoor places as an alternative, I am at home. And I am surprised at the impact it is having (and not having) on my health.

It became clear over the years that too much activity would lead to more fatigue, more pain, more gastrointestinal symptoms, and more random symptoms, but I could never be sure what constituted “too much” activity. I knew that resting helped, but how much rest was needed? More than that, I never knew if an increase in symptoms was from “too much” activity or from something else.

Then there was the food angle. If I had diarrhea, for example, was it from something I ate, “too much” activity, the weather, or something else? Even if I ate my own food, when I was out of the house I would wonder if I could have gotten gluten cross-contamination somehow. What if I ate food made by someone else? Would that be safe?

With so many variables eliminated, it is fascinating to see what remains. Aside from a couple of carefully chosen convenience foods (mmm, gluten-free frozen pizza!) I have eaten an item made by someone else only once in the past 5+ months: a birthday cake. My mother made it, and I trust her to make sure it is gluten-free, corn-free, and free of any cross-contamination. I have not eaten at a restaurant or even gotten takeout. My avoidance of takeout is partly from Covid concerns, partly from convenience (there aren’t many places near me with food I can eat anyway), and largely because I am enjoying the safety of eating my own food. Yes, I’m tired of constantly cooking and constantly washing dishes, but I love the confidence that my food is safe.

Of course, it’s not all easy peasy. Twice I was about to eat frozen vegetables when I realized they weren’t my usual brand (the downside of having someone else do my grocery shopping.) I checked the bag and each time, there was a risk of cross-contamination. Yikes! I am so thankful that I caught them both in time.

For the most part I have felt pretty good. That tells me a lot about the impact of activity level on my health. I was especially aware of this through mid-June. I had almost no pain aside from the predictable pain that came from not attending physical therapy. Then the weather shifted. I am so incredibly thankful to live in an apartment with central air conditioning. None of my previous apartments had it, and when I moved several years ago, I made it a priority. I am especially grateful for that now that I am in isolation. In previous summers, when my window units weren’t sufficient, I would sit at the library, exercise by walking around a craft store, or spend several days at my parents’ house, enjoying their company and their air conditioning. With none of those as acceptable options now, I am stuck at home. Still, even with the door closed and the air conditioning on, the weather seems to be impacting me. And when I do venture out to check the mail or take a short walk, I feel it even more.

I am glad that, as I wrote last month, I am less heat intolerant now than I used to be. Still, “less than before” still doesn’t mean I can handle it well. For two weeks I barely left my apartment. It wasn’t good for me physically or emotionally, but the alternative seemed worse. Even while staying indoors I had increased fatigue (perhaps from the lack of outdoor movement? but probably not), increased joint pain (ditto? but probably not), increased inflammation, and increased gastrointestinal symptoms. The inflammation is bad. My knees are so swollen that my knee braces barely fit. My physical therapist (the one person I get within 10 feet of) put her hands on my neck and shoulders and instantly said that she felt the inflammation. This is not good.

Two weeks ago I received test results: I am hypothyroid. Again. I have had to adjust my medication many times over the years, sometimes in the summer and sometimes in the winter. However, this time I can rule out a lot of factors that could be impacting my thyroid. After all, not a lot else is going on!

Yesterday I felt lousy. I had diarrhea followed by fatigue. It was easy to cancel my “plans” for the rest of the day, which consisted of writing a blog post here, taking a walk, doing my physical therapy, and doing some organizing around the apartment. Instead, I watched tv and crocheted. It was relaxing and it helped. Normally I might have thought I had done “too much” that day, or wondered about something that I ate outside of my home. Instead, I could narrow the culprit down to two things: the weather and what I ate. I had eaten ice cream after lunch, which is usually fine, but I’ve had a lot of dairy lately and maybe it was just too much. And right before lunch I had felt hot on my way home from my walk. The humidity was bothering me, which is never a good sign. And then I ate immediately after I got home because I had a therapy appointment online that I needed to be ready for. Oops. I’m pretty sure those two things combined were the problem. It was good to at least have a reasonable guess as to the cause of the problem, and then to be able to easily rest afterwards.

The other day I met up with a friend. We took a walk, sat and chatted, walked some more, and went home. We kept our distance and wore masks. We were safe. But part way through the visit I felt ill, and I know 100% it was from the heat. On a cooler day I had met up with my parents. We didn’t walk as much and just sat. I felt fine afterwards, just tired. I’m not used to even small amounts of socializing any more. The difference was definitely the weather.

So what’s my point? My point is that I am getting a better understanding of how the many different variables of a “typical” day impact my life. I can figure out what makes me feel ill, and what doesn’t have an impact or even makes me feel better. The goal for me will be to use this information when, one day, I am able to go out and do things again. I will need to find a balance. Avoiding symptoms 100% is obviously not possible; if I can’t do it now, then I’ll probably never be able to do it. I also don’t want to cut off the rest of my life in order to sit at home and hide from my symptoms. Still, my hope is that I will get a better sense of where the balance lays, so that I will be able to focus more on the things that are worth the increased pain and other symptoms, and avoid the ones that aren’t.

I have also learned how big of a difference telehealth makes for me, and will advocate for its continuation. Several of my doctors have already said that they plan to continue with it, so I will need my insurance to cover it. Not having to drive for an hour to sit in a waiting room before finally seeing my doctor for a 15 minute conversation that involves no physical examination is waste of everyone’s resources, and I will be glad to see that end. I want to reserve my appointment-related energy for the appointments where attending in person actually matters.

With isolation far from over, I know that I will learn many more lessons. These are an excellent start, though, and I am glad that there will be at least one positive thing to come out of all of this for me.

What about you? How has your health been during isolation? Are you learning anything new or clarifying previous assumptions? Please share!


Why I think more folks with chronic illness should blog

July 26, 2020

Several days ago this blog had an anniversary: 9 years! It’s hard to believe that I have been writing about chronic illness issues for 9 years and people have been reading it. In those 9 years I have written 769 posts. WOW! And in those 9 years I have learned a lot about the benefits of blogging about chronic illnesses.

I have learned that this is an excellent outlet. On this site I have written about my fears and learned that I was not the only one with those fears. I have written about my pain, fatigue, and other symptoms and have learned that I was not the only one dealing with those symptoms. I have written about medical trauma, embarrassment, harassment, and more. Again, I learned that others experienced those same things. I have also written about supportive friends, caring family, great doctors, and others, and found joy in others’ stories of similar experiences. This has not only helped with the loneliness and isolation that I, like so many others with chronic illness, experience, but it was also extremely validating.

I didn’t know many people with chronic illnesses when I started this blog. Slowly, I got to know my regular commenters. I now get excited when I see a comment from Lorna, Cordelia’s Mom, Tamara, Karen J, and others who I feel I have come to know in some small way. Making connections is hard, especially for those in a community where so many are not able to connect due to the very issue that makes them search out connection in the first place. Blogging gave me a way to reach out to people around the world and have people reach back, all without leaving our homes.

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So often we are left on our own to figure things out. Doctors aren’t helpful, or the help we need is outside their area of expertise. I have written about so many things that I struggled with and I received a lot of good advice from folks who have actual lived experience. You gave me tips on transporting a wheelchair, getting a bidet to help with my sore butt after too much wiping (thankfully that’s no longer an issue now that my food problems have been sorted out!), dealing with inconsiderate strangers, and more. Blogging has brought me so much useful information. Thank you for that!

Most surprising to me were the therapeutic benefits of blogging. Living with chronic illness is hard. I was able to vent when I needed to vent, without judgment or burdening a friend. I said things that I probably wouldn’t have told another person. I was used to hiding so much, and suddenly I had an outlet. It was like a public diary at times. Making this blog anonymous gave me a freedom that I had never experienced and I was able to open up. At first I just opened up a little, but to my shock, those most difficult, most private posts were the ones that people most appreciated. I got so many comments from folks saying that they wished more people would discuss those topics. That encouraged me to write about them a bit more. And then more.

This blog gave me the chance to practice that openness. As I became more comfortable writing about my symptoms, fears, and diagnoses on this anonymous blog, I began to slowly talk about those things in person also. Bit by bit it became easier, and now I am a fairly outspoken advocate. I highly doubt that would have happened without this blog.

Blogging isn’t for everyone. I have more recently done some work under my real name. Under my real name I write, speak on podcasts, and have even done a few videos. They are all so different, and I can see why each is both loved and hated by various people. I’m a talker, and I prefer talking in general, but when it comes to my chronic illnesses, I definitely prefer writing. That just works for me. I also prefer reading blogs instead of listening to podcasts or watching videos. But each has its benefits.

Maybe something else works for you. Despite the title of this post, I don’t think that blogging is necessarily best for everyone. But I do think that many folks with chronic illnesses can benefit by having some sort of blog, social media channel, YouTube vlog, or other way of sharing.

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And beyond each person’s individual benefit, I believe that the community as a whole benefits when we write and talk about our chronic illnesses. Our community is marginalized. We feel isolated. Too many people pretend that chronic illness doesn’t exist or isn’t important. Government programs do not support us, laws do not protect us. We face discrimination and worse. Communicating with each other and with the world will help. It will help the individuals who are also feeling marginalized and it will help society in general.

So if you have ever considered starting a blog, a podcast, a YouTube channel, or anything else, why not start today? You can start for free with very little time commitment. If you’re not sure where to begin, please reach out to me (msrants@gmail.com) and I’ll be glad to help you!

Thank you for 9 wonderful years. I look forward to continuing to write and communicate with you!


Advice between chronic illness folks

October 16, 2019

I don’t know about you, but it took me a looooong time to figure out how to handle flares. The truth is, I’m still learning. But over time, thankfully, I have found some things that help. Sometimes I take the learning process for granted; after all, I have had symptoms for almost 30 years now. A phone call a few nights ago changed that.

A friend was in the middle of a flare, and having a rough time. They were dealing with both the horrible physical symptoms as well as the emotional fallout of having to miss a much-anticipated event that night. There was also the all-too-common self-recrimination, wondering what they did to cause this. Maybe they should have done less the previous week when they felt so good. Maybe they should have rested more. Maybe maybe maybe.

I’m the queen of “what ifs” so I really get that. I do that to myself all the time, as much as I try not to. I’m getting better, but it’s still a struggle. This time, though, it was someone else who was struggling, so I was able to step outside of my own issues and help them.

My friend was only diagnosed last year, which really isn’t that long ago. It takes a long time to learn how to handle chronic illness. I wish I had had someone to guide me, but unfortunately, there was no one in my life at the time with that kind of experience. Now, I am glad I can be that person for others.

First, I talked my friend out of the emotional spiral. Sometimes our bodies are going to flare, and there’s nothing we can do about it. Maybe they did overdo it, but there was no way to know in advance. And maybe they didn’t overdo it, and there’s no way to know that, either. Maybe they could have done less last week, and they still would have had the flare, right? The weather was terrible; not only are we going through a seasonal change, but it was a very stormy day. There’s a good chance the weather was at fault more than anything, and what can anyone possibly do about that? Besides, once you’re in a flare, blaming yourself won’t help at all. And as much as we think we can figure out the cause and prevent the next flare, we can’t. Ok, sometimes we can, but to think we can do that every time is just unrealistic. That would imply there’s a way to prevent ever having a flare again, and we know that isn’t true. We only wish it were.

Once my friend was feeling a bit better emotionally, we talked about how to handle the current situation. I suggested some fun tv shows to watch, etc. But here’s where we get to the part I most want to share with you. Without thinking much of it, I mentioned some things I do that my friend thought was brilliant and it got me thinking, maybe not everyone does this? So let’s share our tips!

I know I will have more bad days. I don’t want them, but they are inevitable. So I prepare for them. Just like I have bandaids at home for the inevitable future cut or scrape, and acetaminophen for the inevitable future headache or fever, I also keep things around for future flares. Here’s a short list:

  • Fun, lighthearted movies saved on my Netflix and Amazon Prime accounts, plus a few old dvds.
  • Easy to watch tv series saved on Netflix and Amazon Prime.
  • Chocolate and other comfort food.
  • Frozen leftovers of healthy meals I have previously made.
  • Low-energy hobbies on hand. For me, this is currently knitting and crochet, which I enjoy on all but my worst days. I also like to read and listen to audiobooks when I feel up to it.

These work for me, but you will have your own items. On top of this, several years back I read a tip on Chronic Babe to make a list of things to do during a flare, since we can’t always remember these things when we’re dealing with tough symptoms. One problem I have found is that when I feel especially bad, I don’t even think to look at the list! So I recommended that my friend make a list, and tell several close friends and family members about it – anyone who they might talk to during a flare. That way, their friends and family can remind them to check their flare list, where they will find a list of things to do and ways to think.

My current list has fewer items like the ones above, which have become second nature at this point, and more items around my thought process, mostly recommended by my therapist. These help me to stop blaming myself or assuming things will get exponentially worse. I keep the list in the Google Keep app on my phone, so it’s always handy. Even if I don’t have the energy or am in too much pain to cross the room to my desk, I always have my phone on me. That’s key – keep your list where you can easily find it when you need it. Keeping it at the bottom of a heavy box on a high shelf is definitely not the most useful place for it!

It sucks, but we all know that we will have bad days, so we might as well prepare for them when we’re feeling ok. What do you to to prepare for the bad days? Do you have a flare list? What’s on it? Please share in the comments, because I’m certain you will have ideas that I and others haven’t thought of, and we all need to learn from each other!


Would it be different if I weren’t a woman?

August 21, 2019

I started a new medication. My doctor and I had discussed beforehand that the dose I wanted based on my research was higher than what he suggested. We agreed I would start at his level, then go up only if needed.

For the first two days I felt absolutely horrible. I increased the dose and felt less bad. I increased more and felt better. So I stayed at the higher dose for a bit. It still wasn’t having the effect I had hoped for, but I needed more time, and the higher dose meant my prescription would run out early. I messaged my doctor to get a new prescription.

My doctor said he didn’t remember discussing the higher dose and thought I should be on a lower one. We went back and forth several times in email. I was anxious: challenging doctors can be problematic. I don’t want to be considered a “difficult” patient. I want my doctor to like me so he’ll help me more. Many doctors dislike being questions. Many people dislike being questioned in general, of course, but doctors often have big egos, and are treated like they know it all.

As I talked to my therapist about my anxiety, I discovered two interesting things. First, she helped me connect my anxiety to the way some medical practitioners had treated me in the past. It all made sense when she connected the dots. In fact, it seemed obvious, but I hadn’t seen it.

Second, as I spoke, I said that this wouldn’t be a problem if I were a man. I didn’t even realize I was thinking that; it just popped out of my mouth. And the instant it did, I knew it was true. I had an imagine of the conversation I’d had with my doctor in his office when he prescribed this medication. I thought about how I presented my own research and his reaction to that. He wasn’t entirely dismissive, but he didn’t really consider it, either. And I felt that if I were a man, he would have actually listened to me and considered the merits of what I presented.

Am I right? Who knows. I can’t test this. But here’s what I do know: it is documented that women and men are treated differently by medical professionals. You can read about it here and here, among other places. Sometimes I wonder if this entire journey would be different if I were a man. I’m not saying men have it easy. They are often maligned for “giving in” to symptoms, and they are discouraged from expressing and dealing with the complicated emotions that come from living with chronic illness. Still, I wonder. Would I be taken more seriously? Would I get of the tests I request, less resistance to the treatments I want to try? Would a doctor still have refused to give me a medication in my late 20s because it would cause infertility, even though I told her I was willing to risk it?

Obviously, I have it easier in many ways, too. I am cisgender, petite, white, and well-spoken. That gets me farther in a lot of situations, including medical settings. I am bisexual, but most doctors don’t know that, just as most don’t know that I am Jewish. Still, this question about gender weighs on me.

I am curious, what experiences have you had in medical settings that you think may have been different if you presented as a different gender? I’d love to hear about them.


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