An unexpected cause of pain: being short

May 19, 2018

Of all the things in life that can cause pain, you would never think of being short as one of them, would you? I’m not talking about being short due to some genetic condition or illness. I just mean, you know, short.

My mother is 5’2″. My father’s mother was 5’3″ before she shrunk in her later years. I was expected to be at least my mother’s height, but then scoliosis caused me to stop getting taller as my spine compressed a bit, and I ended up only being 5’1″. Ok, almost. Hey, my driver’s license says 5’1″ and I’m sticking with it!

Two weeks ago I was diagnosed with arthritis in the joint of the big toe on my right foot. Since that toe is essential for walking, and now it’s painful, this isn’t good. And I’m only in my 30s, so I need it to work for a long time to come. This sucks.

There’s a long list of things my doctor says I can no longer do: run, jump, sprint, stand on my toes, wear high heels….. hold on! Back up! Not stand on my toes?!?

The rest of those are no problem at all, but I stand on my toes All. The. Time!

In these past 2 weeks, and in the 2 months of pain leading up to the diagnosis, I realized that I stand on my toes even more than I had thought. I do this for things that you would never guess (unless you’re a fellow short person.) Some of it isn’t too surprising: reaching items on the top shelf in the grocery store. Looking through a clothes rack that’s too high (why do stores put them so high up?!) But then there are the things you wouldn’t guess, like reaching the shelves in my kitchen cabinets and getting things off a shelf in my closet.

And then there are the things that have been shocking my doctors and friends as I mention them. Things like sitting on a bus or subway, where I’m not “standing” on my toes, but my toes are in that same position just so that they can touch the floor. Ditto sitting on a toilet. This is true at home, where I keep a step stool next to the toilet to rest my feet on. I began doing that years ago for comfort, so that I could actually sit without leaning far forward to put my feet down, during the hours that I would be on the toilet dealing with diarrhea and nausea (thank goodness that’s mostly improved!) It’s so much worse on public toilets, which tend to be higher. When I drive, I mostly press the pedals with my toes. After all, it’s hard to get my foot flat on the pedal, thanks to my short legs.

Then there are chairs and couches. When I was couch shopping, I had to try a lot of couches before I found one where my knees could bend. Most are so deep, my knees don’t reach to the end of the couch. But even so, my feet don’t entirely touch the floor unless I put a pillow behind my back, which isn’t the most comfortable thing. Without that, I have three options: put my feet on the coffee table, tuck my legs up on the couch under me, or have only my toes on the floor. The first I can only do for so long, so I usually do the second, which leads to neck and back pain.

When I had surgery on my other foot a few years ago, I spent several months in casts. I wore a sneaker on my other foot with a lift on it, so that my hips wouldn’t be misaligned. Part way into my recovery, I noticed something shocking: my neck and back pain were gone! I think it was for a few reasons:

First, I was sitting upright. I wasn’t leaning to the side or putting my feet up under me or next to my body. I couldn’t. I was mostly sitting with my feet up on the coffee table, to keep the injured foot elevated. Sometimes I sat upright, and with the extra few inches I had, my feet could now rest on the floor!

I also found that not having to reach up so far to get things out of kitchen cabinets made a big difference for my neck. It’s simply a matter of degree. We all reach up, but I had to reach up more, often over my head, and I guess those movements all added up.

On top of that, when I washed dishes, instead of hunching my shoulders as I reached up over the edge of the sink, then down into it, I was now simply reaching straight down. Wow!

Finally, I wasn’t driving. At all. I was recently driving a much taller friend, and she commented that my shoulders don’t go back against the seat when I drive. Well of course they don’t! How could they? I would need to have the steering wheel practically in my face in order to put my shoulders back. My physical therapist told me to use a lumbar support. I mentioned it would be annoying to adjust it every time I leaned forward and it slipped out of place. She said I shouldn’t be leaning forward. But she’s an average height. So doesn’t realize that I have to lean forward just a bit to reach the radio, heat, and air conditioning controls, not to mention seeing all sorts of awkward angles when I make turns or park.

This society is simply not designed for short people. A short friend told me about the joys of traveling to India, where the average height is lower than it is here in the United States. She said that she marveled at her ability to put her feet on the floor of the bus when she sat, and to reach items on shelves. It sounds marvelous!

Unfortunately, I live in a society designed for taller people. Until recently, I only thought of this as an inconvenience. I ask strangers to get things off of shelves in stores for me. I keep a step stool in every room of my house so I can reach items. I don’t use the top shelves in my kitchen cabinets because, even with the step stools, I can’t reach them. I can’t carry suitcases, tote bags, and other items, the way taller people do, because I can’t let my arms hang down; the items would drag on the floor. Instead, I need to raise these items up to clear the ground, and that’s hard and sometimes impossible.

Ok, I live with those inconveniences.

But now I have realized the pain it has caused me. And I resent that. Not that I can change it, but I resent it.

At home I will try to wear shoes with lifts, which is absurd, because I should be able to walk barefoot in my own home if that’s what I want to do. But there are no solutions to driving, sitting, and the myriad other ways that our society is causing me additional pain, simply because I am short.

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Trying to manage when it feels unmanageable

May 7, 2018

Somehow I used to work 45+ hours per week, cook, clean, do errands and chores, and have a social life. How?

Now I feel more overwhelmed than I did then, and I do a lot less. In some ways. In other ways, I suppose I do a lot more, but it’s hard to remember that. Our culture is so wrapped up in “jobs” and “what do you do for work?” and “you must have a lot of free time without a job” that it’s easy to feel like a failure for being overwhelmed without the 9 to 5.

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I think that my mental and emotional tolerance for these kinds of things is way lower than it used to be. But I also know that I do a lot. Dealing with pills and physical therapy exercises take up time. So do meal planning, clothes planning, and all of the other planning around my health issues. Meditation, reading up on symptoms and treatments, and writing this blog also take up time. Then there are the many, many medical appointments. And that’s all before we talk about actual acute symptom management. Not to mention, the extra hours I need to spend in bed and resting on the couch. Put that all together, and that’s my full time job.

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Then there’s my work. It’s not a 9 to 5, but it’s all I can manage. Sometimes, it’s more than I can manage. I sell craft items I make. Or at least, I try to. I have an online coaching business. I just tried to start another online business, but it was too much, and now I’m in the process of shutting it down. I do dog sitting. Not every day, but a little is better than none. It has the advantage of giving me canine company. Right now, this beautiful dog is snoring next to me!

There’s also non-work work. I do a little bit of volunteering for a support group that I’m in. I speak to friends, friends of friends, and friends of friends of friends about health issues and try to assist the best that I can.

On top of all of that, I have typical adult stuff: laundry (which I should actually be doing right now,) grocery shopping, cooking, dishes, cleaning, other errands. This week I finally got a haircut, which was about 3 weeks overdue. I wanted to do it sooner, but between feeling sick, being busy, and simply feeling overwhelmed, I wasn’t able to do it.

I have personal projects. I am currently writing a book about living with chronic illness. I am trying to clean out the clutter in my closets. I’d like to experiment with some new recipes. I want to spend more time reading.

On top of all of that, as if it weren’t already enough, I’d like to socialize more. Over a year ago I left the city and moved out to the suburbs. I want to make more friends out here. I want to spend more time with my old friends. I want to date. After a recent breakup I finally feel ready to date again, but I have no time or bandwidth for it.

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It’s true that I’m less efficient than I used to be. Let me sit in front of the computer to work for an hour, and I will accomplish less than I could have accomplished in an hour 10 years ago. Some of that is illness-related. Some of that is being out of practice. But I am working for that hour and I do get shit done.

It’s just that there’s always more to do than I can manage. And something’s gotta give.

Which is why I am not dating. Which is why I am closing one of the businesses I started. Which is why I don’t socialize nearly as much as I’d like to. Which is why I don’t have much fun in my life these days. Which is why I am stressed out and overwhelmed and feeling like a failure. Sure, I know that I am not a failure. It’s just that sometimes it’s hard to remember that. To really believe it. All I can do is keep remembering how much I do, and strive to eventually get to a place where I’m less overwhelmed.

And for you, dear reader, I want you to know that you’re not alone. In the chronic illness world, we often seem to have 2 modes: doing a lot that never seems to be enough and feeling overwhelmed and stressed out; or doing very little “productive” stuff while we rest and take care of our health and feel guilty about not doing enough.  But we shouldn’t feel guilty. We are doing the best we can to take care of ourselves. Some folks are even taking care of families as well. It’s hard. Fucking hard. And we deserve praise and congratulations for everything we work so hard to do, even when it’s not as much as what we want to do. So give yourself a figurative pat on the back. And then go do something FUN and don’t feel guilty about it. You deserve it.

Note: I have written many times about being on benefits, so some of you are probably wondering why I’m busting my butt with multiple jobs. That is because when I add up social security, food stamps (SNAP), and fuel assistance, I still fall far short of what I need to pay my expenses. I live in affordable housing and my rent is currently over 90% of my social security income. Then I need to pay for utilities, car insurance, gas, car maintenance, medical treatments that aren’t covered by insurance, and maybe once a month I might even go out for a cheap meal. On top of all of that, I am nervous about the future state of benefits in this country, and don’t want to rely on them. I would much rather earn my own way and be independent of them. For now my goal is to earn enough to support myself with benefits. Down the road I would like to get off of them, though I know that’s a rare and difficult thing to accomplish.


Watching dawn

April 19, 2018

The first time it happened, I was baffled. Waking up during the night isn’t so unusual, but staying awake for hours before falling asleep again is beyond odd.

It happened a bunch of times, but finally I got into a good sleep pattern. Between my CPAP for sleep apnea, various supplements, good bedtime routines, etc., I was doing ok as far as sleep went. Not fantastic, but ok.

Until a couple weeks ago. At least 5 times in the last 2 weeks I have woken up during the night and stayed awake for a while. Sometimes I have thoughts swirling in my head. Sometimes I feel like I can’t breath with my CPAP on. Sometimes I’m in pain. But always, I’m awake. Too awake.

This morning, not for the first time, I saw dawn break. I’m not a morning person, and I have only ever voluntarily seen dawn 3 times in my life: once because I knew it would be beautiful to see dawn over the Atlantic ocean where I was staying and so I woke up super early to see it, once on an airplane where the time difference made it easy, and once when some friends and I stayed up all night talking and laughing and watching movies (ah, youth) only to discover as we finally turned out the lights that it was actually getting light outside already. That’s it. The rest of the times have been far from voluntary.

Like this morning.

Last night went something like this:

  • Wake up.
  • Realize something isn’t right.
  • Look at the clock.
  • Look at the readout on my CPAP and realize I only wore the mask for an hour even though I had slept for 3.
  • Put on CPAP mask.
  • Try to shut off the thoughts running through my head. I’m not stressed out, just too awake to stop thinking.
  • Try to sleep.
  • Finally give up on sleep.
  • Go to the bathroom.
  • Drink water.
  • Try to sleep.
  • Can’t sleep.
  • Read a book for a while.
  • See that it’s getting light out.
  • Feel sleepy.
  • Notice that it’s 6am.
  • Debate staying awake for the day at this point.
  • Remember that I have only slept for about 3 hours, and only 1 hour with the CPAP.
  • Put on the mask and go back to sleep.
  • Wake up to a loud noise and feel tired and irritated. Why didn’t I shut off the alarm when I was awake during the night?
  • Snooze the alarm.
  • Sleep for a few more minutes, then give up and stay awake. At least I got to sleep for another 2 hours.

That was bad. Even worse was trying to focus today. I didn’t get out of bed until 10am. I was awake, but dragging. When I got up, the world had started the day without me. People kept texting me. I responded, until I just couldn’t manage it anymore. A friend was trying to figure out where we should meet up the next day, but I couldn’t handle making decisions. It was hard to focus. Wait, did I say that already? Everything was a bit tough to grasp. Everything was exhausting.

A friend suggested I call a doctor, but who? I saw my sleep doctor recently. There’s nothing more to be done. I have a complicated condition that’s hard to treat, and they’re doing the best they can. There’s a medication that could help. One. And it’s in a class of drugs that I’m allergic to. I take supplements that help, but not consistently. Medical marijuana helps, but I don’t want to use that every single night. So I just have to try and stick it out. It sucks.

Now it’s night again, and almost time for bed. Tomorrow night I’m going to a show that I have been looking forward to for months. I have the ticket. I have plans to go with a friend. So please please please I just need to sleep through the night with my CPAP mask on all night long. Please. If I do that, I know I’ll be able to function.

If only I had a choice.


It takes skill to injury yourself the way I do

March 27, 2018

The other day I woke up to find that I had wrenched my shoulder in my sleep. It felt like it was partially dislocated. Sometimes it felt fine, and then I’d try to put on a shirt or reach for something and there’d be searing pain. I didn’t fall. I didn’t pick up something heavy. I slept wrong.

Everyone hurts themselves from time to time. A stubbed toe or a paper cut are the hazards of daily life. No big deal. But then there’s this other level that shows up when your body is out of whack. Being out of whack makes me more prone to these kinds of injuries, and sometimes they make no sense.

Like the time I wiggled my toes and injured a tendon. That was a month ago. It still hurts.

I’m skilled, I tell you. Totally skilled. I mean, it’s not the average person who could give themselves a long term toe tendon injury, with daily pain, just by wiggling their toes!

And do I go to the doctor for any of these injuries? No. Of course not. Because I’d be going All. The. Time!

Don’t get me wrong. I do take big things seriously. When I dropped a chef’s knife on my foot a couple years ago, I went to the emergency room for stitches, and later had surgery.

But no, I don’t see a doctor for every injury. Just like I don’t see a doctor for every new gastrointestinal symptom or new pain or new type of fatigue. What’s the point?

So I’m waiting these out, hoping they’ll eventually go away on their own. They often do. Like the time I finally went to the doctor for the unmistakable nerve pain, to be told I had a pinched nerve and should go to physical therapy. I didn’t have time. I asked if not going would cause long term damage. She said no. So I didn’t go. Eventually it fixed itself. If it hadn’t, I’d have gone.

So many of us have far too many medical issues already, so we try to ignore the little ones. But it sure would be easier to ignore them if we weren’t so skilled at creating new ones constantly!


Self care goes a long way

March 21, 2018

I have to try harder. All the time. It feels like nothing I do is ever going to be enough. Sometimes it’s my body limiting me. Sometimes it’s fear. Sometimes it’s emotions. But I always feel like I need to do more.

That’s why it’s so hard to slow down.

On the days that I’m in too much pain to walk, I’m forced to stay off my feet. When my energy is low, I’m forced to be at home. But I still try to wash dishes or read or do something useful. But who defines what’s “useful”? Sometimes, the most useful thing is to take care of myself.

A few weeks ago I was very stressed out. I have had years to get used to taking care of myself physically, but taking care of myself emotionally was much harder. Because I had to focus on my feelings. I couldn’t do anything tangible to take care of myself. Physically I felt like I should be doing more, but I knew I needed to deal with my emotions.

So I did. For a few days I wrote in a journal, watched movies that I knew would trigger the feelings I was avoiding, and stopped myself from the automatic distraction mode I’m so used to engaging in. Slowly, it worked. I dealt with my feelings. It’s still an ongoing process, but I feel like myself again, and things are better.

It’s easy to always feel like we’re never doing enough. Especially for those of us who are too sick to work full time and do the other things that society expects. But we need to remember that self-care is important, too. Yes, we need to have balance. Dishes must be washed, clothes must be cleaned, groceries must be bought. But we also need to take care of ourselves on every level.

This isn’t new to me, but it’s an ongoing lesson that I am constantly striving to learn. I think that many of us are.


The stress of dealing with stress

March 12, 2018

When the doctor told me I needed to avoid stress because of my autoimmune disease, I laughed to myself. If it was that easy, wouldn’t everyone do it?

But over the years I learned how to stress out less. I’m still Type A. I’m still controlling, But I managed it. I get stressed out in more reasonable ways. It doesn’t feel as extreme as it used to, or last very long. I almost never lose sleep.

Until this month.

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The last few weeks have been really rough. I have been struggling a lot. And finally yesterday, I just felt so frustrated by it all. I wasn’t sure what to do. I called a friend who also has chronic illness, because I felt stuck. I wanted to stay home and rest and be alone. But I had already done that several times in the last week and it didn’t help. So was it fair to cancel plans with a new friend?

She helped me realize that I did need to stay home and take care of myself. And that while spending a day watching tv and crocheting will help me when I’m physically exhausted, it’s not enough for my current anxiety and stress. Emotional issues require a different approach.

She suggested a journaling exercise: write for 10 minutes without stopping. Make it a stream-of-consciousness writing exercise, and do it for 4 days. The key is not to write about *what* is causing me stress but to write about *how* it makes me feel. That’s harder. I’m not good at that.

But the minute we hung up the phone, I set my timing and got started.

Within a few minutes I was crying. It was wonderful! You see, my problem is that I have gotten so good at compartmentalizing my feelings when I need to, that I’m doing it even when I shouldn’t. Like right now. For the past week I have felt like I needed to cry, but I couldn’t. I knew it would help me feel better, but I couldn’t do it. I tried cutting onions. I shed some tears, but it wasn’t a real cry. I watched a sad movie. Again, I shed tears, but it wasn’t the sobfest that I really needed. It wasn’t enough.

But the journaling exercise got me to cry. Then I got in the shower and cried more. Seriously cried. It didn’t last long, but I had tears streaming down my face and snot running out of my nose and it felt good. Cleansing.

I need to cry more. Maybe today’s journaling will help. Maybe not. But it’s worth a try.

We’re taught not to cry. Crying is bad. Not crying shows strength. I am proud of the fact that I almost never cry. I feel embarrassed when I do cry. But why? It’s a natural expression of emotions. What’s wrong with that?

My health issues also bring up a lot of negative feelings. I usually deal with them by setting them aside while they’re raw, then dealing with them a bit later when they aren’t quite as strong. That works for me.

The problem is that it stopped working. At least in this case. A few weeks ago my girlfriend and I broke up. We weren’t together long, which was part of the problem: it made me feel like I didn’t have the right to be upset. But I was. This relationship was different. I thought it would last a long time. So did she. The breakup itself isn’t the point of the story, though; the point is that I didn’t mourn. We broke up at night, and I called my mom and cried. The next day I had a medical appointment in the morning. On the drive there I wanted to cry but I stopped myself, because I didn’t want to be an emotional wreck during the appointment. I didn’t want to be distracted. By the time I got home, I was too tired to deal with my emotions. The next day I had another appointment. Again, in the car I almost cried, but I stopped myself.

And then that was it. I never really cried. I just went on with my life. I didn’t talk about it much with friends. What was the point? The breakup was no one’s fault. I wasn’t mad at her. I missed her, but talking wouldn’t help, right? The thing is, pushing aside my feelings just meant that I felt fine at the time, and now it’s caught up with me. Now I’m stressed out and anxious.

But it took yesterday for me to figure that out. I thought I was stressed about other things. I knew my response to them was way out of proportion, though. I wasn’t sleeping well. I was anxious a lot. I was overwhelmed. I was yelling at people. What was wrong with me?

What was wrong was that I wasn’t dealing with things. I was pushing them aside.

And as if that wasn’t enough, I have autoimmune disease. Thankfully, I didn’t get sick! But it was definitely a strain on my adrenals, and I had to increase the dose of adrenal supplement that I was trying to decrease. There has definitely been a physical toll.

I have a pretty good handle, all things considered, on managing my physical symptoms. I have had decades to figure that out. But when it comes to emotions, I have to unlearn years of bad habits. I have to learn how to stop hiding from my feelings and to let myself feel them. I have to ignore the daily messaging from society that says crying is bad, being sad is bad. It’s ok to not be the happy, cheerful poster-lady of chronic illness. It’s ok to be sad, stressed, anxious, or whatever else. I just have to stop hiding from it.

So that’s my lesson for this week. It’s taken me far too long to learn it. Before long I’m sure I’ll be learning some other lesson. But for now I am focusing on this one. Because I’m still sad, and I’m still learning.

Now it’s time to go do my stream-of-consciousness journaling again. Hopefully I’ll cry.


The things we do for our health

February 26, 2018

As I sat on the bathroom floor scooping poop into a plastic cup with a wooden stick 2 hours ago, I thought about how some people can go their entire lives without ever having to do this. Lucky them. I’m not so lucky.

I really really really didn’t want to do a stool test, but much more than that, I really really really couldn’t stand to keep having these episodes. I can handle the gas, the bloating, the constipation, and the diarrhea. I don’t love them, but I can handle them. But I can’t handle the nausea. It just does me in emotionally.

I have had these kinds of episodes since my teens. When I removed gluten and corn from my diet in my early 30s, they became much less frequent. Instead of 2-4 times a week they were *only* 2-4 times per month. Still, that’s far too often. The symptoms changed, too. Some got worse and some got better. And over time, I accepted it, to a certain degree. At least it was less often, right?

The thing is, the nausea, the fatigue, the rest of the symptoms all come on together. I never know when it will happen. Is it my diet? One night I feel fine and another I’m a mess, even when I ate the same thing both times. Maybe it’s something else? I have tried diets, so it’s time for the next step.

Someone suggested this particular test to me. I asked my doctor and was shocked to learn that insurance will actually cover the cost (a rarity for many of the tests I ask for.) His office gave me the kit, and I put it off.

First I needed to do an adrenal test – the fatigue was a more concerning symptom. Mentally and emotionally, I could only handle doing one at a time. It took a few weeks before I could schedule that test, since I had to change some things about my medications to prepare for it.

I gave myself a week, then decided to do the stool test. I read the instructions and learned I had to be off probiotics for 2 weeks before the test. I stopped taking probiotics. 2 weeks later, I was sick. I waited. I finally felt better but my schedule was a bit busy. I knew I needed to be home and not rushed for this. My schedule cleared and I went to take the test. I read the instructions again and saw that I had to be off another of my supplements for 2 days. I went off those. I felt sick again. Then if I did the test, I would finish on a Saturday, and it has to be mailed Monday-Friday, within 24 hours of finishing. I waited a couple more days.

FINALLY it was time! I was nervous and not wanting to do it, but I did it. Because I had to. Because I need answers. Because each time I have one of those episodes, I start to wonder if I would be better off dead. The only times I feel at all suicidal are doing those episodes. I don’t know why. They last for hours that feel like weeks, but never more than a few hours. The pain can be so much worse and last for so much longer, but it never makes me feel that way. These episodes have to stop.

So I did the test. It was a 3 day test. For 3 nights I had stress dreams about the test. The first day I realized it wasn’t fun, but not nearly as bad as I’d expected. But still, I had the dreams. They woke me up at 5:15am today. I want to believe it was worth it.

I finished the test just a couple hours ago. The samples are sitting in my refrigerator (carefully packaged, of course) and ready to be mailed when go out this afternoon. And then I wait. And wait. And wait. It will only take a few weeks to get the results, but it will feel like so much longer.

After many months of procrastination, then another 6 weeks of mostly legitimate delays after I received the kit, I finally feel SO CLOSE to potentially having some answers. I don’t want to hear I have parasites or infections to deal with, but those might be better than a lifetime of these episodes that make me literally want to die, that I can’t predict, and that continue to get worse over time.

So yes, I scooped my own poop into plastic containers multiple times. That’s something most people never even consider doing. But maybe, hopefully, it was worth it.

 


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