When friends have chronic illnesses too

August 8, 2017

The first couple of years in my chronic pain support group, I got a lot of knowledge and support from the group. But now, what I get out of the group more than anything else is friends who understand.

It started slowly, with a couple of conversations after the group ended. Eventually, two of us decided to get together. Then we kept hanging out. That emboldened me, so I invited another potential friend to hang out. Then another. I haven’t stayed friends with all of them, but the ones I have kept in touch with are now valued friendships.

It’s not all rosy. Having friends with chronic illnesses can present its own challenges. We cancel on each other constantly. I invited a group over to my place. 6 were going to come. 2 showed up. Everyone else didn’t feel up to it at the last minute.

And speaking of logistics, it’s so great to have people to hang out with on a weekday! Being home so much can be isolating. Not working is lonely and makes me feel unproductive. Having a place to go and someone to see, even just once or twice a month, makes a huge difference.

Now on the flip side, when I’ve been the one to not show up because I don’t feel well, I know they understand. I don’t have to explain, make excuses, or apologize. It’s totally fine. And that’s awesome.

Of course, we don’t always understand. No two illnesses are the same, even when you have the same diagnosis. We share what helps us and what doesn’t, which is great. But sometimes there’s a bit of envy, frustration, and defensiveness, too. Why is she complaining about having trouble walking when I can’t walk at all today? Should I tell her about my pain when I know hers is even worse? I wish I could work/travel/have kids/have dogs/go to festivals/whatever like she does. I have had all of these thoughts and feelings and more. I try to go with it. It’s natural and ok to feel it sometimes. I just make sure it’s not all the time.

One friend I especially like is someone I think I would have been friends with if we were both healthy, too. When we hang out, sometimes we discuss our health problems. More often we’re busy with the other things in our lives – talking about my dating status, tossing a ball for her adorable dog, playing board games, comparing our latest crochet projects. Just stuff. Because we have interests in our lives besides our health, and that’s important. And yes, we talk about health stuff too. We give each other tips for handling certain symptoms. We provide an ear when the other person just needs to talk. We bounce idea off each other.

These friendships mean the world to me.

Not all friendships are in person. I have been amazed at the friendships I have cultivated online, too. It can be hard with this blog, since it’s anonymous, but I am also online in the chronic illness community as me. Through this blog, I have had some great email exchanges with folks. Through my own profile I have met amazing people both online and in person.

If you don’t have friends or community with chronic illness, and you feel lonely or misunderstood, give it a shot! Just remember, chronic illnesses shouldn’t be the only aspect of your friendship. Do other things, talk about other things, focus on other things. From time to time it’s nice to have someone to complain to about all of this health shit, but that won’t be the basis of a solid friendship.

Do you have friends with chronic illnesses? If so, how does that affect your friendships? Please share in the comments!


Feeling moody from pain

July 19, 2017

There’s an emotion toll to chronic pain that’s easy to miss if you have only ever experienced short term pain.

A banged finger will heal soon enough. A sprained ankle will cause frustration. Even a broken bone rarely leads to anything permanent, and so you just wait it out. But the chronicness of chronic pain means that you need to handle it long term, and that comes with a lot of emotions.

Over the years I have had many feelings about my pain. Working through them has helped me to deal with my feels now, and yet, I still struggle.

I have new pain. Just 2 short months ago my thumbs weren’t even on my radar. I used them without thought. Now, everything hurts. I cringe when I realize I have to go to the bathroom, because I know I will feel extreme pain when I pull down my shorts. Picking up a plate is difficult and painful. I wonder how long it will be before I break and drop something not from clumsiness, but because of the pain or weakness. [Side note: I say my thumbs hurt throughout this post, but more specifically, it is the joint that connects each thumb to my hand. Thankfully the rest of each thumb is ok…. for now. Since every movement affects that joint, I can’t use my thumbs without feeling the pain, though.]

I’m scared. This pain could be permanent. I might literally have it every day for the rest of my life. Or it could go away. Or it could go away and then come back at random times. There’s no way to know.

I’m frustrated. When I feel horrible, I spend some time on the couch watching tv and crocheting. That makes me feel better. But I was in too much pain to crochet. I always fidget, always need to keep my hands busy and my fingers moving. But now any type of fidgeting I do is painful, because I use my thumbs, or I use other fingers and that pulls at the muscles that connect to the thumbs. What on earth will I do if I can’t crochet or fidget? I can’t even begin to imagine.

I’m sad. So very sad. Because I know that my thumbs will probably never be the same. And because I know there are other joints in my body that I am taking for granted now in the same way I took my thumbs for granted two months ago. I want to appreciate everything now, while I can. I even want to appreciate my thumbs because I know all too well, from 26 years of joint pain, that things will probably get even worse and that I will look back on this time and wonder with amazement at how I didn’t realize how good I really had it, despite the pain.

I’m overwhelmed. My head swirls. Did the onset of summer cause this or exacerbate it? If so, maybe things will be better in the fall? The increased dose of my anti-inflammatory supplement, from 1/day to 4/day, hasn’t helped. I really hoped it would. When I started with 1/day last year it changed everything and made me feel so much better, but it seems no match for my pain-filled thumb joints. Or maybe it’s disease progression, and I need to go back to taking Plaquenil. I don’t want to, for many reasons, but I can’t deny that it has helped a lot in the past. I’m in so much pain that I almost want to try it now, but should I wait to see if things get better in the fall? Then again, what if they get worse? What if waiting just leads to more damage and makes it impossible to halt things? No one can make these decisions but me. I could see my doctors, but would they say anything I don’t already know? Besides, I just saw my rheumatologist a couple months ago and I have another appointment to see her in a month. It seems silly to move that up so soon. We can discuss it all then. But when every day is such a struggle, a month feels very far away.

I feel trapped. I feel trapped in my body, which is so filled with pain. And I feel trapped in my apartment, because the evil humid air outside makes my symptoms worse. I know that even a walk to my car will increase my pain and fatigue and will bring on nausea and diarrhea. I can’t go out there. But I need to move, to be distracted, to do something.

I feel cut off. Texting has slowly become a primary form of communication amongst my friends and the new person I’m dating. But texting is far too painful. I dictate messages into my phone, but I find that frustrating. And even just navigating to my messenger app is painful. I can do it, but it hurts. I am SO GRATEFUL that typing on my laptop isn’t too painful yet. But what happens when it is? I lived through that 20 years ago, but computers weren’t as vital for communication then.

Yesterday my neighbor stopped by for a visit with her puppy. I hadn’t left the apartment all day, thanks to the weather and my pain. Even just opening the door and feeling that wall of thick, muggy air for a few seconds wasn’t good. Having a visitor felt so good! And the puppy was a darling! Petting him hurt, but it was worth it. They left all too soon. I wish there was a visiting puppy program for the sick.

I am so fortunate. I have a lovely home, a caring family, wonderful friends, and enough food and medicine. But the emotions still engulf me at times.

Unfortunately, my mother called last night at the wrong time. When we started speaking everything was fine. But during the call the pain became worse, and by the end, I was moody and bitchy. I was too busy talking to her and feeling sad and frustrated and overwhelmed to take a step back and recognize and work through my feelings of sadness and frustration and overwhelm. So I took it out on her.

And my mom, being the amazing woman that she is, listened, expressed sympathy, and never blamed me for acting like a selfish child. She has chronic pain too, though it’s less disabling, and I think she understood.

Halfway through writing this post, my mom called. She said that she wanted to do something for me and I could not say no. She is going to come to my apartment one day and clean it for me. I can’t clean it myself, and the cleaners I hired didn’t work out, so I have been feeling stuck. She wants to do this to help me.

I have so many negative emotions right now. This thumb pain is upsetting to me in ways I haven’t been able to express to myself yet, much less write down here. But having my mom in my corner definitely helps. Even if sometimes I still get bitchy. After all, I’m only human. And I’m scared.


When the best medicine is taking care of someone else

June 17, 2017

Today started out rough. I felt like I did too much on Wednesday. Thursday I did less, but probably should have stayed home to rest. By Friday I had no choice but to spend all day at home in my pajamas, watching tv and crocheting. So this morning, I was glad to feel better than yesterday, but I still didn’t feel great. And yet, I didn’t want to cancel all of my plans.

My evening plans had to be cancelled. I knew I had to get to bed early. But the afternoon plans – a friend coming over who I already cancelled on at the last minute last time – I didn’t want to cancel again. So I rallied and got dressed and waited for her to arrive, knowing it would be a quiet day and I wouldn’t have to leave my apartment.

When she came, she had the start of a migraine. Unfortunately, she had switched purses and didn’t have the over-the-counter medication that helps her. I didn’t have it either. I offered to go to the store, but she said no. So I messaged a bunch of neighbors. No luck.

I got her a cold pack for her head. I made her tea. I shut off the lights. Eventually, I insisted on going to the store for her. So much for staying home. But the funny thing was, I felt ok.

After taking the med she slowly started to feel better. I got her food and kept on eye on her, making sure she was doing ok.

I have noticed this kind of thing before. Obviously, there are times when I’m not at all able to care for someone else, or when caring for someone else will make me feel worse. But then there are other times, times like today. Times when I’m not doing great, but I’m not doing horribly either, and taking care of someone else gets me outside of my own head, distracted from my own condition, and eventually I even begin to feel better.

I feel bad my friend had a migraine. I wish that hadn’t happened. Still, it was a good reminder for me:

Sometimes the best medicine is taking care of someone else.


The importance of community

June 15, 2017

Last week I saw my primary care doctor for my annual exam. At the end of the visit, he brought up the fact that I was on disability. He said that only 5% of people ever manage to get off of disability benefits. He said that it was important to find activities to keep busy and productive. Then he talked about the isolation that can come when you don’t have a job to get you out of the house, and you don’t feel up to going out a lot. He said it was important to have community, and it’s important to make an effort to create that community.

He’s so right. (And I love that he’s having this conversation with his patients!)

I assured him that I have community. If he only knew.

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I have worked hard to make friends and build community. It doesn’t come easily or naturally to me. I’m an introvert by nature, and my health issues have made me even more of an introvert. Not being able to go out often doesn’t help either. But it’s important to me to have friends and community in my life, so I made it happen.

For me, the key has been to go for quality instead of quantity. I don’t have hundreds of friends, but the ones I have are good ones. Acquaintances are often happy to help me because they see me helping others.

That’s why when I needed to borrow a wheelchair recently, I had 3 offers to lend me one, plus 2 other folks suggested local organizations that lend out medical equipment for free. When I needed someone to push that wheelchair, I was able to post on Facebook and get some offers from friends and also from acquaintances I barely know. Because I have that community.

Sometimes it’s hard. I put myself out there, which means I’m often asked for help and I need to say no. Thankfully, most people understand my limitations. And they appreciate it all the more when I volunteer. A friend is going out of town and leaving her dog at home, with the dog walker coming by many times each day to walk him. It’s not perfect, but it’s the best they can do. I said that if she gives me her key (which I am getting today), I’ll pop in to visit him a couple times, just so he has someone to cuddle with. She was amazed. To me, this is just a nice thing to do for a friend. I won’t go by every day, but on the days I’m in the neighborhood, I’ll bring a book and read while her dog gets some important snuggles. It won’t be the first time I’ve done this for a traveling friend. (And let’s be honest, while it’s an inconvenience, I certainly won’t hate doggie snuggles!)

I belong to a chronic pain support group. Having people who really understand the struggle makes such a difference. It was one of those members who ultimately lent me her wheelchair, and even put it in the car for me because I couldn’t. I do a lot for that group, too. I created and run a Facebook group so we can communicate easily between meetings. I do other behind-the-scenes tasks, too. It doesn’t take much time, but it helps people. And they notice, and want to help me in return.

It’s so easy to become self-involved these days, and more so if you’re in pain or fatigued or dealing with other symptoms all day every day. Believe me, I know. And so many people lose their friends and their families when they become sick. So I am hugely grateful for the incredible people in my life. My parents and other relatives are super supportive, my childhood friends have stood by me and help when they can, and newer friends are ready to step up and help. Acquaintances do more than I would have expected. Even strangers offer to help, thanks to all of my work in the chronic illness community online (both this anonymous blog and a lot of work under my real name.) I am so fortunate that I began building that community long before I needed it, and that I still have it.

I think we all need to heed my doctor’s words and find a way to build community. It will look different for everyone. Some people will reach out to friends, others will go to events through meetup.com (I’ve built some great community that way, too!) and others will do it all online. Whatever it looks like for you, I hope you are able to build the community that you need and that will support you, just as you will support them whenever you can.

What about you? How do you build community? Please share in the comments so we can learn from each other!


Getting ready to date

March 20, 2017

I’ve been super busy. Well, super busy for me, anyway. I have fewer “good” hours in a day than a healthy person, and they get filled up way too easily.

Which makes me wonder how I’ll manage to go on any dates.

I have written about dating on here many times. It’s not my favorite thing. I want a relationship, but I don’t want to date. First dates are difficult, tiring, time consuming. They’re full of small talk and uneasy silences at worst, and uncertainty at best.

I used to date a lot, but for the past 2 years I barely have. There are a lot of reasons for this, mostly having to do with bad breakups, a lack of energy, and different priorities. If I’m going to spend my  energy going out with people, I’d rather go out with friends. After all, I don’t see my friends enough anyway.

The thing is, that leaves me single and alone. I don’t mind being single and alone overall, actually. It’s really very nice in a lot of ways. But sometimes I want a companion. I want a best friend. I want sex.

So I’m trying to get back out there. Last month I went to a singles’ event and met two very nice people. The first was funny and interesting and smart… and self-centered. He never asked a single question about me. I knew all about his hobbies, his job, where he went to school. He doesn’t know any of that about me.

The next was cut and sweet and kind and lovely and said she’d like to be friends. Ouch.

So now what? I have two choices. I can sign up for OK Cupid or another site, which I really don’t want to do. I’m not a fan for a whole lot of reasons. Or I can try to meet someone in person, which hasn’t exactly gone well for me (see above: almost no dates for 2 years – and I wasn’t turning anyone down.)

I need to learn to flirt. At some point I stopped flirting, and it’s like I forgot how. I need to dress better – not easy when the clothing budget is $0. I need to make an effort.

An effort.

As if I don’t already make an effort every minute of every day. As if simply getting dressed and putting on minimal makeup and driving to meet someone and holding up my end of a conversation isn’t effort enough. As if dealing with my health isn’t effort enough.

But if I want to date, what choice do I have?

So I’m going to try. I’m going to dive back into the world of trying to flirt on a first date while also debating whether or not to hint at my health issues. I’m going to skip out on things during the day so I can have a simple coffee date in the evening. I’m going to go back into the world of suggesting alternatives to all of the dates that someone suggests which I know I can’t manage, without telling them why I’d rather sit in a coffee shop than enjoy an outdoor picnic. I’m going to go back to avoiding kisses on the first date because I haven’t yet told my date that the gluten they ate will make me sick if our lips connect.

And I’m going back into the world of constant rejection. Because apparently it’s not enough that my body rejects me, now I’m courting it from others. Somewhere in the last 10 years, between my late 20s and my late 30s, I stopped turning heads. So I need to accept that passive rejection as well.

So please wish me luck, friends. Particularly when it comes to finding the energy and pain-free days to go on dates. And please offer me any tips you have. Especially on flirting. I need lots of help with flirting.

 


Desperately wanting to get off benefits

February 26, 2017

As I started to write this, it felt incredibly familiar. So I did a quick search and what do you know, I wrote this almost identical post a year ago! So much has changed, and yet so much has stayed the same….

My health has continued to improve. No one is more surprised than me! It’s not like I’m well enough to work a full time job, or even a part time job from home that requires set hours. But I’m doing some part time work from home for myself (doing some consulting) that isn’t paying much yet, but there’s some hope. Still, it’s hard to aim for a very specific amount of money, knowing that I can’t earn “too much” because I’d lose my benefits.

Lately I’ve been more desperate than usual to get off of benefits. I hate the feeling of enforced poverty, and I’m not even poor! The income is way too low, but I have a ton of savings from back when I worked, and by cutting out all of my unnecessary expenses and getting a bit of help from my parents, I’m making it work.

The thing is, I don’t want help from my parents. They’re lovely and I adore them and they never do anything to make me feel bad about needing their help. But I was financially independent the day I graduated college (they paid for it, bless them.) I had a job, an apartment, and savings from all of my previous years of work. They might occasionally give a generous check as a birthday gift, but that was. Now, they pay for my cell phone, pick up groceries for me, and do other little things, in addition to helping out in larger ways. I love them for it. But I hate it.

On top of that, I miss luxuries! I don’t need anything too fancy, but I’d love to go out to dinner without having to worry about it. I want to buy a sweater or two to replace the 5 that are threadbare. I hate that everything I spend beyond my rent is coming out of my savings, with the knowledge that I’ll never be able to replace it. Once I was out of work for a while, and I spent money from my savings. Fine. Because I knew that once I got a job, I’d put money back into my savings accounts, and I did. But this is different. If I stay on this path, I will never again be able to save any money at all. And that sucks so much.

My new consulting business is financial coaching. It’s something I started doing ages ago, back when I had a full time job, but now I’m trying to do more of it. It sucks to advise people on how to build up their savings when I can’t do that for myself. I read books and blogs about effective ways to save, thinking about which principles I’d like to apply myself, and then I remember that I can’t, and I never will.

I feel trapped. And lately I’ve been trying to escape from the cage. But there’s no way out.

I do the math over and over. After all, that’s my thing: calculating money. I figure out how much I would need to earn in order to support myself without Social Security, fuel assistance, food stamps, MassHealth (Medicaid), Medicare, or my new affordable housing situation. I multiply for taxes. I do the math and it feels impossible. But what if….?

And then just as I begin to think it might be worth trying, I remember that even if I can manage to work for myself from home for a while, chances are good that my health will take a dive at some point and I’ll be unable to work again. I could try applying for benefits, but it took over 2 years the first time, and I there’s a good chance the next time I wouldn’t get them at all.

If I’m going to get off benefits now, I have to earn enough that I can save huge amounts every year to defend myself against needing benefits again in the future. I have a lot of savings now, but not enough to last the rest of my life, which could be another 50 or even 60 years. I would be too nervous to go off benefits until I was saving large amounts of money. That would be in addition to the money I’d need to earn to pay my regular bills.

This isn’t impossible. My odds are better than 0. It’s just that right now, at this moment, it doesn’t feel that way at all.

Still, I’m aching to get out of this cage.


I need help but I’m not helpless

February 13, 2017

Maybe it’s because I have a disability. Maybe it’s because I ask for help. Maybe it’s because I’m a woman. Maybe it’s all 3. Whatever the reason, it’s irritating.

It’s winter in Boston. Winter in Boston means snow on the ground. Not every day, but enough of the time.

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It’s beautiful. It’s picturesque. And it’s a pain in the ass.

I love the snow when I’m indoors, but then I need to go out. It’s slippery, and I’m terrified of falling and further hurting myself. I’m not steady on my feet, so a fall is more likely. I need help shoveling out my car due to my back and wrist pain. Suffice to say, it’s difficult.

Luckily, friends and strangers have been kind over the years, and in my new home, that hasn’t changed. Folks have helped me shovel out my car, and for that I’m grateful.

What I could do without is the “explaining.” Today a neighbor helped to shovel out my car while I cleared the top, which thankfully I’m still able to do. It was really sweet – we’d never even met before. I was really appreciating his efforts. Then he told me to “try moving back a bit, don’t gun it, if you get stuck you’ll want to…” and he proceeded to tell me how to back out of the parking space. I’d already told him I’d grown up here and lived most of my life here while we chatted about Boston winters. So why did he think I couldn’t back out of a parking space in the snow (if you’ve never done it, yes, it’s tricky. But once you’ve done it for 20+ years, you usually know what you’re doing.)

The other day it was someone else telling me how to back out of a space. A couple weeks ago, someone warned me as I got in my car that the roads would be getting slippery soon. What the $%#@?!? I learned to drive in this stuff back in the ’90s! I know how to tell when roads are getting slippery, for crying out loud.

I need help. That’s true. I won’t deny it for a second. But I’m not entirely helpless. There’s a lot I can do and there’s a lot that I know. Driving in the snow is one of those things. So I wish people would stop condescending to me.


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