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!


Reminded that my body can feel good

July 12, 2019

It’s not that I intentionally try to think of my body in negative ways, it just happens. My day is focused on which pills to take, how to moderate my activity enough to not cause fatigue, but so much that I don’t get enough exercise, how to sit and stand to lesson musculoskeletal pain, and being super careful about my diet. That’s before I research symptoms, diagnoses, and treatments. I am frequently aware of aches and pains, fatigue, nausea, and other symptoms. I don’t look for problems with my body, but I think about them constantly anyway.

And then this week I was aware of good sensations, and it made me realize just how much I think about the bad stuff. The good stuff came in two forms. First, there was physical therapy. That often makes me feel good, and I appreciate it every time. Still, it doesn’t make me aware of the juxtaposition as much as I was this week. The other thing that happened was that I had sex. I hadn’t had sex in a while, and when I did, it was just a fun night with a former boyfriend who I fool around with whenever he’s in town. This time, he was in town for a week, and while we didn’t have sex every day, we still had quite a good time. He’s very understanding about my health issues. One night he was in the mood and I didn’t feel up to it. No big deal. Another night, I felt really sick, and he simply held my hand until I felt well enough to go to sleep. He knows what will hurt me and avoids those things. Having that level of trust and understanding makes all the difference for me. It allows me to simply enjoy myself.

Now let’s face it, even healthy people often feel more positively aware of their bodies after good sex, so that isn’t unusual. It’s just that I became aware of the fact that the good feelings were displacing the bad ones. In the afterglow of a particularly good orgasm, I was too focused on the good feelings to notice any pain or fatigue. I knew those would likely hit me later, but for a while, they were held at bay. This wasn’t new. In fact, there were a few times when I was dating this same guy that I specifically said I wanted to have sex because I was in a ton of pain and I knew sex would help, thanks to the lovely brain chemicals that are released. Unfortunately, my dating life is pretty much nonexistent, so that hasn’t been an option for me lately.

When I went back to physical therapy at the end of the week, I paid more attention to how good I felt afterwards. She had spent a particularly long time working on my knees, and I noticed how different they felt now that they were full extended (something that doesn’t yet happen without her assistance.) I felt the lack of knots in my neck. My body was relaxed and, while not pain-free, definitely pain-lite.

Most days I won’t be at physical therapy or enjoying sex, and I won’t have those moments with few symptoms. But this was a good reminder that when I do occasionally notice my body feeling good, I need to revel in it. For as long as it lasts, feeling good is important, and something worth savoring.


What a difference a haircut makes

May 20, 2019

I recently got a somewhat-drastic haircut, and was surprised by just how good it felt.

This wasn’t totally out of the blue. I had thought about cutting my hair super short for a while. I had it short many years ago, but since just before I got really sick I had grown it out, always having it somewhere between chin-length and almost shoulder-length. Recently I wanted to cut it but chickened out. Then a few weeks ago, as I pulled into the parking lot at SuperCuts (an inexpensive chain) it occurred to me that instead of a trim, I could do something different. I sat in the chair and asked the stylist I’d never met before to cut my hair really short. And she did! It came out even shorter than it had been a dozen years ago.

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Instead of my haircut, here’s a photo of an adorable furry dog cuddling with me.

I immediately loved it, but it was as I drove home that I questioned why I was downright ecstatic. I mean, it’s just a haircut, right? But it was more than that.

It was me making a conscious choice to change something about my body in a positive way, with no baggage attached. When was the last time I had done that?

Thanks to my chronic illnesses, I so often feel that I don’t have control of my body. A haircut is a small thing, but it’s still a thing I chose to do. And that feels good.


Getting taller thanks to physical therapy

January 27, 2019

There are so many topics I want to write about but they’re negative (I mean, the name of the site is Chronic Rants, after all), and I really need to focus on something positive today. So let’s talk about a surprising benefit of my physical therapy.

When I was a kid, my hands and feet were bigger than my mom’s, so we figured I’d be taller than her 5’2″. When I was diagnosed with scoliosis, x-rays were done to see how much more I would grow. The doctors predicted I would be around 5’3″. But as I grew, my scoliosis got worse and compressed my torso. In the end, I was only 5’1″.

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Now, being short isn’t the end of the world, but let’s face it, it can be super inconvenient. In fact, a lot of my neck pain comes from being short. Reaching up to get things off of high shelves, reaching forward for the steering wheel, sitting awkwardly in chairs because I can’t lean back and have my feet on the floor at the same time, and so much more can cause problems. I have even developed arthritis affecting the big toes in each foot as well as the start of bone spurs in those toes. My doctor told me to stop standing on my toes. Easier said than done! I stand on my toes to reach shelves in my apartment, to get things off of shelves in stores, and even to sit on a toilet (ok, I’m not standing on my toes, but they’re still at that angle, because I’m too short for my feet to be flat on the floor.)

And never mind my inability to find anyone in a crowd or see over the person who sits in front of me in a theater.

I go to a lot of doctor appointments (no surprise there!) and they often weigh me and measure my height. I range between 5’1″ in the morning and 5′ 0.5″ later in the day. I can be a little taller as I go about my day thanks to an extra inch or so from my sneakers or winter boots. Unfortunately, due to toes issues I can’t wear heels any more. It’s not like I wore them every day, and I didn’t wear super high heels, but once upon a time I would occasionally wear heels to work and enjoy being 5’3″. I would often wear heel to parties so that I wouldn’t have to crane my neck as much when I stood around talking to people. Taller folks laugh at that, but it really helps. But now, no more heels for me. For the rest of my life.

So I’m short. I don’t love it, but I’ve accepted it. It’s not like I have a choice. I’m not looking forward to shrinking as I get older, and I hope to minimize that with my physical therapy, but even so, with my scoliosis, I know it will happen.

So imagine my surprise when I went to a doctor appointment right after physical therapy and they measured me at 5′ 1.5″! I was thrilled. I know PT helps with my pain and discomfort. That’s been obvious from the start. And my current physical therapist is the best I’ve had. I travel way out of my way to see her. In the past, PT was 6-12 weeks, then sending me home to continue on my own. When my problems recurred, I was blamed for not consistently doing my exercises. But let’s be real here: sometimes they won’t happen. If I have a week where I feel like shit, where I’m too fatigued or in tons of pain or have a super heavy period, then I won’t do those exercises. And then when I resume them after a week or two, damage has already been done and I won’t be able to get myself back to where I was at before the short break. That’s not my fault, it’s just how my body is.

My current PT is different. She sees me every 1-3 weeks all year long. We space things out in a way to get insurance coverage throughout the year, meaning we make a lot of adjustments in the autumn based on how many visits I have left. This means I maintain a certain baseline that works well. If I come in with a complaint, she focuses on that, like this week when I had a lot of neck pain. If I come in without any particular pain, she focuses on general posture, loosening muscles, and straightening my spine.

And it must be working. For the first time in many years I have a lot less pain on a consistent basis. When I first started seeing her, I would come in with a lot of pain to every session. If I didn’t see her for 3 weeks I was in agony. Now, 3 weeks is usually doable. I recently had to stop seeing her for 6 weeks due to some family issues she was dealing with. By the end I had some pain, but it wasn’t too bad. I was amazed!

Obviously PT was working well for me, but getting that height measurement just put a number on it. She was pleased when I told her. But then something more surprising happened. A few weeks later I saw a different doctor and they measured me. This time I wasn’t coming directly from physical therapy. In fact, my last PT appointment had been 3 days prior. But when they measured me, I was 5′ 1.5″ again! I was floored.

I don’t know if this will last. I don’t know if it will even happen again. All I know is that for once, I have concrete, numerical proof that something I am doing is actually working. I’ll take it!

Now excuse me, because it’s time for me to do my physical therapy exercises.

 


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