Medications: too little science, too much art

February 24, 2020

What dose should I take? That has never had a clear answer for me.

As a kid in severe pain, the doctors told me to take 3 ibuprofen. They said they wanted me to take 4, but held back because of my size. I was probably around 14 years old then, and under 100 pounds. The thing is, size isn’t the only way to dose a medication. Oops.

As an adult, something slowly became clear: I need small doses of everything. I’m still not a huge person, but I’m certainly well over 100 pounds, and I react strongly to everything.

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A typical starting dose of melatonin is 1-3 mg. I take 75 mcg! I have empty pill capsules which I use to split capsules that, even at their lowest dose, are too strong for me. I open them up and carefully pour the contents into the empty capsules, dividing each pill into 2 or 3 doses. It’s a pain in the butt, but necessary.

Now I’m taking a compounded hycrocortisone (HC). Since it’s a compound, it’s easy to get any dose I need. You know what isn’t easy? Knowing which dose I need!

A book I trust insists that women should start at 25 mg. Patient groups I trust also say to start at 25-30 mg. My doctor says that 15 mg is the right dose. I started at 15 mg and quickly ramped up to 25 mg. I felt much better. After several months, though, I suddenly gained a lot of weight all at once. My doctor felt it was due to the HC and wants me to lower the dose. Given the way I gained the weight (the timing and location) I have to admit that he’s probably right. I had a few other symptoms, too, which could be related. Still, I was hesitant. I felt good, after all. And while for some medications, blood or other tests will give answers as to a medication’s efficacy and impact, HC messes with adrenal tests and makes the results unreliable. Dosing is based only on symptoms. Oy!

If only there was some way to know what the right dose is!

I decided to lower my dose a bit at least. I went down to 22.5 mg. In less than a week I got my period for the first time in months. I don’t think that was a coincidence. There’s been no change in my weight, but I know from experience that steroidal weight gain is a bitch to reverse, so I’m not expecting it to magically disappear on its own.

I’ve had some other good effects, though. I seem to be sleeping better, and I’m waking up feeling more alert and less fatigued. Hmm. That’s appealing.

The question now is: what do I do next? Do I lower the dose a bit more? Hold it at 22.5 mg because it’s working? Change the timing of the pills? I wish I knew!

Unfortunately, there’s no choice but to experiment. This week I will lower my dose again, down to 20 mg, and see what happens. It might be great. I might feel even better. On the other hand, I could feel a whole lot worse. Unfortunately, there’s absolutely no way to know in advance. I just have to try it.


The help I didn’t know I needed

January 29, 2020

The last week and a half have been really rough. But I’m trying to learn from it.

First there was a minor injury. I’m still not sure how it happened, I just know the pain was intense and different than what I typically experience. That lead to a visit to the doctor followed by an MRI later that day. I was out of the house, in pain, rushing around, for 8 hours. Not surprisingly, between that rough day and the pain, that lead to increased adrenal fatigue.

Here’s where I made my mistake: I didn’t take an extra dose of my adrenal medication on that day when I was in the most intense pain. I didn’t take it on the day of the doctor visit and MRI, either. Nor did I take it in the days following. I kept thinking that if I got some rest, I would be ok. I was wrong. Finally, I took that extra dose two days ago and I am finally feeling like my old self again. I’m still in a lot of pain, but at least the fatigue isn’t dragging me down to the point where I can barely function. I am once again able to answer emails, run small errands, and write this blog post.

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So now it’s time to learn from my mistake. You see, I thought about taking that pill last week, but I dismissed the idea. The fatigue gave me brain fog, and I couldn’t think clearly enough to realize that it was what I needed most. I told myself that I would be ok with some rest even though I should have known from past experience that it wouldn’t suffice.

Meanwhile, I saw my mother twice that week. The second time she commented on how much better I looked. I know I didn’t look that good, so I must have looked truly horrible the first time. Friends who don’t usually check on me were texting daily to ask how I was feeling. Other people knew I was struggling, even if I didn’t see it myself.

So this morning I sent a text message to a few select people: my parents, several friends who are my chosen family, and a couple of other close friends. These are the people I feel are most likely to know when I’m suffering from adrenal fatigue. It started with, “Hey folks, I want to ask a favor.” I went on to explain my mistake in not taking my adrenal medication sooner and why it happened: fatigue leading to brain fog which affects my judgement. Then I continued, “So the favor is simply, when I say that I am struggling with adrenal fatigue, please remind me to consider taking some extra of the medication.”

Ideally, I would make myself a note and leave it someplace that I would see it, but the truth is, when I feel this bad, I won’t see the note. Or I will see it and ignore it. I spent two days doing little except watch tv. I could barely get dressed. In that state, I can’t trust myself to be the only one to look out for me. That is why I ended the message with, “At the end of the day, of course this is my responsibility. But since you are the folks I am most likely to talk to about ongoing symptoms, I wanted to reach out because sometimes I need a bit of help. Thanks for being awesome and supportive in general!”

I think this is something we can, and possibly should, all do. It is especially important for those of us who live alone, or who live with others who are not supportive. Find one or more people in your life who you can trust, and simply ask them to remind you to do a couple of specific things when they see you struggling. Maybe you want to give them a short list, and ask them to send it to you. Maybe, like me, you only want to ask them to remind you of one thing. This isn’t the kind of thing you will ask of everyone you know, but of just a select few who know you well, who support you, and whom you trust.

Part of self-care is asking for help. Today, I took that step. What about you?


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.


Acknowledging the pressure

July 23, 2019

“You’re feeling a lot of pressure.” When my therapist said those words, everything clicked into place. Yes! That’s what I was feeling and unable to acknowledge for myself, much less express to her, but she figured it out. And suddenly, it all made sense.

It’s hard enough to feel ill all of the time, but I also feel responsible for how I address my illnesses. I go to 5 different doctors and get 6 different opinions. I do my own research and figure out a course of action, but no doctor will order the tests I want or the prescription that I feel will help. I try to sort through all of the possibilities, the research, the unknowns, the assumptions, the inconclusive data. I talk to experts and I ask questions of other patients. I look at as many resources as I can. But at the end of the day, it’s up to me, and me alone, to decide what to do.

That’s a lot of pressure!

I want to feel better. I want to feel as well as possible. I don’t know what that is. Would that mean I was well enough to walk 3 miles? To finally get and care for the dog I’ve always wanted? To attend a wedding without having to leave early? To go out 3 nights in a row without becoming so ill that I can’t function for days afterwards? What is a reasonable goal? I don’t know. No one knows. But still, I aim to feel better, whatever that might be.

And as I aim to feel better, I must make myriad decisions. It’s scary and overwhelming. I have a bit one coming up in a day and a half and yes, I am overwhelmed and scared. I have a lot of research to do between now and then. I worry that my doctor might not agree with the approach I want to take or vice versa. I could be wrong. I won’t know until I try this new medication. This is my health, my one and only body, my life. If I get this wrong, there are no do-overs. The result would be damage that is likely irreversible. On the other hand, doing nothing will also result in irreversible damage, which means I have to do something. And I am the only person who can ultimately decide what that something will be.

So yeah, that’s a shit-ton of pressure. And I hate it. At least now I recognize it for what it is. I am learning to sit with my feelings. Still, the pressure is intense and it’s real. This is my life that I’m deciding about. I hope I make choices that improve it.


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