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!

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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.


Feeling a mysterious new contradiction

June 19, 2019

Last night I went to a Meetup group for the first time in 7 or 8 months. The folks there greeted me warmly and asked what I had been up to, and why I hadn’t been around. And the thing is, I found it hard to answer, even to myself.

I had been thinking about that before I went. At first, I was busy. Then I didn’t feel well. Then I felt better, but I was trying to catch up from not feeling well. It was never a priority – yes, there were times I could have gone but chose not to. But also, lately I have either been feeling too ill to go out, or else I’m feeling pretty good and I’m using that opportunity to catch up on household chores, fun projects, and spending time with close family and friends.

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Most recently, the surprising thing is that for the past month or so, I have been feeling so much better, while at the same time I feel that I am struggling more than usual. This is new to me, and hard to wrap my head around, much less describe to someone else. The closest I have come so far is a battery metaphor, since this is mostly related to energy and fatigue (though other symptoms play a role, too.) My battery never gets to 100% anymore, and probably never will. But lately I feel like I struggle to get my battery as high as it had been. If prior to the past month it sometimes got to 65% on good days, now it never gets above 50%.

But here’s the surprising part: it goes down more slowly. Before, it wouldn’t take much for me to go from 65% to 50% to 40%, but lately I feel like I can do a lot more at 50% before I drop down to 40% or lower. It’s an odd feeling. I’m more tired on my best days, but I can do more because I stay at 50% for a lot longer.

I want to know what this means. Is it a sign of improvement or a sign of deterioration? I believe it has to do with going off of an adrenal supplement. The goal was to stop the supplement for 2 weeks so I could take a test, then resume it. The first few days were horrible, but then I actually started to feel better. I had to put off the test for an extra week because of scheduling issues, and by then, I wanted to see what would happen. After all, I really did feel better than I had in a while. Now it’s been 5 weeks and I am anxiously waiting for the test results. What will they show? Will I need to go back on the supplement? Will I instead need the prescription that we were contemplating? Or is my body better off on its own? I am figuratively chewing my fingernails in anticipation.

My body is a series of mysteries. Sometimes there are answers, but far too often I never find out what is going on. I have learned to accept that for the less pressing issues (though sometimes I later find out they were more important than I had realized) but since fatigue has been my most disabling symptom for many years, this is tantalizingly close. I can almost feel the answer to the mystery dangling in front of me, but I can’t quite reach it. I am aching to know, though, if I am improving or deteriorating. Could I be on the verge of a breakthrough? Or is it the edge of a downward slide? Maybe the iron infusion that I had dreaded is having an affect? My fear is that the test won’t give conclusive results, and I won’t know why I feel this way or how to proceed. I should find out any day now, and until then all I can do is wait.

I see doctors constantly, and when they ask how I have been, it is almost always hard to explain. But now the answer is that I feel both better and worse at the same time. I hope they can help nudge towards more of the better.

 


Yes, it’s a choice

June 11, 2019

One thing my therapist is helping me realize is that many of the things I do for my health are actually choices on my part. I often feel trapped, like I have no options, but that’s actually not true.

Take the party I went to recently. I put on my sexy new dress: tight, red, showing cleavage, and making me look hot. This is the sexiest dress I’ve owned, and I didn’t want to ruin the effect by wearing my big, bulky knee braces. So I made a choice: I didn’t wear them.

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The dress I wore with the knee braces I didn’t

I wear those knee braces every time I leave the house, but since I knew I wouldn’t be doing much walking, what if this time I didn’t? What’s the worst that would happen?

Well, long term I could do permanent damage by wearing away cartilage, but that wouldn’t be an issue for one evening. I would be in pain, but maybe that would be ok? I know the pain, and it would be manageable. I should still be able to drive home, which is the deal-breaker for me.

So I did it. I brought the braces with me, just in case, but I left them in the car. I wore cute sandals with my orthodics in them. The dress calls for heels, but I knew that level of pain wouldn’t be worthwhile. I’m better off in sneakers, but really didn’t want to do that. I wanted to look good, damn it!

I was in a lot of pain for the first part of the party. Eventually, though, I found a good balance between sitting and standing. It meant sometimes sitting when I would rather stand, but that happens a lot even when I wear the knee braces.

But it also meant that I felt good about the way I looked. I kept forgetting that I was “passing” as healthy, so when I asked a guy out on a date and he said yes, he didn’t know about my health issues. When I showed up to our date in a cute dress and knee braces, I had to explain. I wasn’t doing it to pass, though. I wasn’t trying to hide my health problems. No, I was simply trying to look good in my new dress. And what’s so bad about that?

It is a privilege that I was able to make that choice. I know that some day I might not be able to. But somewhere in the midst of everything, I realized something important: I wasn’t simply choosing to not wear my knee braces. I was choosing to boost my emotional health at the cost of my physical health. That was the true choice that I made.

Within two days my knee pain levels had returned to normal, but the memory of how I felt all dressed up has stayed with me. It’s spring now, and even though I wear skirts and dresses almost every day, I will be wearing my knee braces whenever I go out. That, too, is a choice that I am making. The thing I have to remember, though, is that it is a choice. I am choosing whether or not to do the thing that is best for my physical health. And occasionally, it best not to do that thing, and to give my mental health a boost instead.


Choosing convenience

May 20, 2019

Let’s face it, dealing with chronic illness takes a lot of time and effort. There are the myriad medical appointments, tests, and treatments. There’s handling the day-to-day symptoms. The flares just add to it all. And that’s on top of having fewer “good” hours in a day than most people. It’s exhausting and overwhelming at times.

That’s why, after many years, I have finally decided to choose convenient options without guilt whenever I need to. Yes, it’s better for the environment to use reusable containers instead of sandwich baggies, but I’m using the baggies when I need to. I will still use the reusable containers most of the time, but when I can’t fit all of the containers into my cooler to bring with me to the doctor appointment, or when I’m going to be out all day and I need more space in my bag, or when I need to make my bag as light as possible, or when I can’t keep up with the dishes then yes, I’m going to use the plastic baggies and then throw them away, and I won’t feel guilty about it.

Similarly, I should use rags when I’m cleaning. But that’s more to wash, more to deal with. So I will use paper towels at times and I won’t feel guilty about that. When I’m in a bad flare, I will use paper plates and plastic forks without guilt. I will run the air conditioner if that helps me to feel better. I will take extra long showers when that helps me. And I will do all of it without guilt.

I believe that every person on this planet has a responsibility to do what we can to preserve and improve our environment. But I am also aware that we have to accept our limits. And maybe one shouldn’t come at the cost of the other. I have been adhering to this new mindset for several weeks now and it has been freeing, not to mention helpful. Instead of doing what’s “right” or what I “should” do, I choose what makes the most sense at that moment. Sometimes I use the reusable containers, sometimes the sandwich bags and you know what? Either one is ok.

Now I’m wondering what types of things other folks choose for convenience, and I’d love to hear from you. Please share yours below! It would be good to add to my list and to give other readers more ideas, too. So what shortcuts do you take?


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.


“Don’t let the hormones make you think that you’re crazy”

April 8, 2019

I’m an over-thinker. I always have been, I just didn’t realize it was possible to be any other way. In more recent years, as I have had a lot more time to think and a lot less ability to do other things, I have found myself thinking things through even more. This can be incredibly useful, and has allowed me to research my health condition, for example. But it can also lead to trouble, like when I worry about what certain things mean.

I read a lot, too. I read books, blogs, news articles, Facebook posts. I read about chronic illness. This reading means that I find useful information, but I also learned about things I would probably be better off not knowing. I often wish I could unlearn things.

One thing I wish I didn’t know what how much sicker and more disabled some people are than me. Obviously I knew this in an abstract sense, but being involved in the chronic illness community makes it a lot more real. I also see the high rates of mental illness among those with physical chronic illnesses. I worry that one day I could develop some of these issues. I could become more disabled, develop new physical chronic illnesses, develop mental illnesses, or all 3. This isn’t something I worry about all day every day, but it comes to mind a fair amount.

Last week I had a horrible bout of anxiety. I was nervous about the upcoming iron infusion, and the closer it got, the worse I felt. By the evening before, I was a complete wreck. I should have used some medical marijuana, but for some reason that didn’t even occur to me until the next day! I did everything else I could think of: I messaged some close friends, told them I was anxious, and asked for distractions. The kid videos, cat video, stories about their lives, etc. were very helpful. I read the questions my therapist had suggested I ask myself to determine if my anxiety is founded. I ate comforting foods while still having to avoid inflammatory foods, thanks to the food reaction a week earlier. The next day I stayed busy as much as possible. I was annoyed but managed not to panic when I got my period, only 3 weeks after the last one. I had a friend come with me to the infusion. But I was still a wreck.

On the way to the infusion, I told my friend who it would work. It’s a very short thing, but they keep patients around for a while afterwards because there’s a not-insignificant chance of a potentially fatal reaction. “No wonder you’re anxious,” she said. As I responded, “Oh, that has nothing to do with it” I realized how strange that was. I wasn’t worried about a horrible reaction. So why was I so anxious? I couldn’t figure it out.

Several days later I went to my therapy appointment and I immediately brought up the extreme anxiety. It was worse than just about any I’d had before – it rivaled how I felt the night before my food surgery several years ago, and that made no sense! We talked it through for a while. Eventually she pointed out that I have been hypothyroid lately, right? Yes. “Hypothyroid can cause anxiety. In fact, any psychiatrist who has a patient with anxiety will test their thyroid function.” (I pointed out this unfortunately isn’t the case and she said, “If they’re any good, they’ll do it.” Boy do I like her!) Then she pointed out I had unexpectedly gotten my period that morning, and I usually get more emotional a day or two beforehand. Of course, I hadn’t connected the two because I hadn’t known my period was coming. And then she said it:

“I know you worry about developing mental health problems, but don’t let the hormones make you think that you’re crazy.”

And I instantly knew she was right. I worry so much about developing anxiety (yeah, I know, totally counterproductive, right?) or depression but so often, the worst of my anxiety, depression, or other similar feelings are related to my hormones. When I was feeling down last fall it turned out to be a problem with my thyroid medication. When I suddenly feel like crying for no reason at all, it’s always my hormones. At that moment, that was exactly what I needed to hear.

So yes, in this case I would have felt anxious anyway, no doubt about that at all. Medical procedures worry me for a lot of legitimate reasons, and the last time I got iron infusions it didn’t go well, but I wouldn’t have typically felt this anxious by any means. On a scale of 1-10 I would have normally been a 5, not the 8+ I had been experiencing.

I immediately felt better. It was the hormones. That’s all. I have no doubt about that now that I have had some time to think about it (and my period has ended.) It was horrible timing, but there you go.

Could I one day develop horrible anxiety or depression or something else that has nothing to do with a hormone imbalance? Absolutely. Anyone could, but also, my paternal grandmother, father, and sister all had/have depression; my mother and several of her first degree relatives have anxiety. But that also doesn’t mean that every instance I experience is the sign of something chronic. It could just mean that my hormones are temporarily messed up.

Let’s face it, odds are good that I will eventually develop a new chronic illness. It could be physical or mental, and either way, I will have to deal with it. I worry about both, because I feel like I can’t handle anything else, yet I have felt that way before and have somehow managed to handle each new thing. For now, though, all I can do is keep trying to deal with my current health problems the best that I can, while attempting to not worry too much about what may or may not come in the future. And reminding myself that when I find myself feeling overly-emotional, it’s probably due to my hormones.


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