Taking a day off

October 27, 2018

There’s this idea that every day is a “day off” when you don’t work a full time job due to disability. And in some ways that’s true, if you define a “day off” as a day that you don’t work 8 hours at a paid job. But anyone with a disability knows that’s totally not how it works.

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Days that are not days off:

  • Days that I have one or more medical appointments. Between getting ready for the appointment, driving to and from the appointment, the appointment itself, and the research to follow up on the appointment, even the shortest appointment is never all that short. I often have to rest for anywhere from 2 hours to the rest of the day after an appointment. It’s not unusual to wake up and do nothing but get ready for the appointment until it’s time to leave the house, then get home and be too tired to do more than eat a meal (if that) and watch tv. It can kill a day.
  • Days that I have nothing scheduled and feel obliged to get shit done around the house. I used to think of this as “day off” when I worked a full time job. The difference is, back then I might spend a few hours getting shit done, then go out and do something fun with a friend at night. Now, I can do one or the other, not both. So spending the day washing dishes, doing laundry, cooking, paying bills, and handling paperwork is definitely not a day off. Bonus: I usually forget what a toll these “easy” tasks take on my body, and end up feeling like crap by the end of the day.
  • Days that I run errands. Again, this used to be a great “day off” activity because I could get stuff done, then have fun later. Now, I use up my energy with groceries and other errands, and get home feeling too tired to do anything else. Worse, if the errands involve big stores with a lot of walking and florescent lights, I often feel especially sick at the end of the day. Worst of all is clothes shopping, where I usually don’t even find what I need, but feel sick afterwards.
  • Days that I don’t do anything “productive” or fun because I feel like crap. That’s called a sick day, not a day off. And it sucks. Big time.
  • Days that I try to get things done but have too much pain, brain fog, or energy drain to get anything done. I spend the entire day trying to do stuff, then finally give up because nothing is getting done. By the time I give up, I feel even sicker than I had before, plus I feel guilty for having “wasted” a day.
  • Days I deal with medical or benefits paperwork. It’s true that I don’t work a paid job, but if I got paid for the many many many hours I spent dealing with affordable housing paperwork, SNAP paperwork, fuel assistance paperwork, health insurance paperwork, emailing with doctors, researching treatments, researching diagnoses, or any of the myriad other stuff I have to do, I would probably earn enough that I wouldn’t need those benefits. Some irony there, eh?

Do you know what is a day off though? Today. Today was a fantastic day off! Here in the Boston area, we knew a nor’easter was coming. It’s warm enough that we knew it would be rain, not snow, but it was still going to be a nasty storm. I didn’t have any plans scheduled aside from dog sitting. I figured it was the perfect day to stay home and be cozy. I ran my errands yesterday, so I wouldn’t have to do it today.

I set myself 3 goals for today: (1) Finish the novel I’ve been reading so I can finally find out who the killer is. (2) Bake the apple crisp I’ve been wanting to make – mostly so I can finally eat the apple crisp. (3) Cuddle with the dog.

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It was such a beautiful day. I did end up doing a couple of things on my to do list, but only because I had time and felt like it. There was no rush. No pressure. No guilt. You know what else I did? I cuddled on the couch with that dog above and finally finished my novel (damn, I should have guessed she was the killer!) I made the apple crisp that I’ve been wanting to make for a month (doesn’t it look yummy?) and managed to not eat too much of it. I walked the dog outside, but otherwise stayed in. I wore cozy clothes all day. I watch a little tv. I relaxed.

And you know what else? I didn’t stress out over anything! No stress, no worry, no guilt, not concern. I didn’t do the million and one things I need to be doing this week, and that’s ok! Too often, I spend every day pushing myself to “be productive” until I burn out, feel lousy, and have to spend a day resting. It’s so much more pleasurable to rest before I get to the point of feeling like crap!

I have been trying to do this more often. Mostly I fail, but every now and then, like today, I manage it, and it’s amazing.

Tomorrow I have plans to see a friend in the afternoon and to do some phone banking from home at night for the upcoming election. I’m sure that in the morning I’ll try to do some of the myriad items on my list. But thanks to the relaxing day I just had, I will feel rested and relaxed and ready to take it on. Or I’ll remember how good today felt and I’ll choose to have some more quiet time instead. Either way, it’s a win!

What are some days that aren’t really days off that I forgot to list above? Please let me know in the comments! And if you haven’t taken a day off lately, be sure to do that soon. Because we all need that sometimes.

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Getting back to “normal” – whatever that is

October 15, 2018

I’ve missed you! This blog is one of many things that seemed to fall to the side as I struggled to keep up with the million and one medical appointments I had over the last month and a half. I kept wanting to write, but just couldn’t manage to pull myself together enough.

For weeks it felt like all I did was go to appointments. “What day is it? Well, I’m at occupational therapy right now so it must be Tuesday.” When you keep track of the days by thinking about what appointment you’re at, things have gone too far.

Thankfully, things began to slow down a bit 2 weeks ago. Unfortunately, right around that time I was feeling really fatigued. It made sense, given the physical and emotional stress of all of those medical appointments, right? Plus we were having unseasonably humid weather. I took more supplements. I pushed through.

It got worse.

I rested more. Watched tv. Read books. Let my chores wait and cancelled plans I had been looking forward to. I spent my time resting whenever I wasn’t at an appointment. It still got worse, and my stomach started to act up, too.

I thought about my diet. Had I eaten anything new lately? Some apples. But I made sure they were organic (a few autumns ago my stomach acted up and I learned it was the pesticides on the apples.) And I had only eaten 4 apples so far this season. I couldn’t think of anything else until a few days later when I was literally doubled over in pain, barely able to even walk from my couch to the bathroom. And then it hit me all at once: iron. I had started taking iron supplements.

The next day I stopped taking the iron* and by that night, I was doing a bit better. The next day felt even better than that. And now 4 days later, I feel back to normal! Whatever the hell that is.

I’m still tired. I’m in more pain than usual, mostly in my back, neck and shoulders. That’s from last week’s “rest” time on the couch, when I had horrible posture. I felt too bad to bother with it, and I didn’t do my physical therapy exercises either, plus my physical therapist had to cancel our appointment, and now I’m paying the price for all of that.

Still, I feel so much better than I did before, that I’m managing ok. And I only have 2 medical appointments this week! My friends would think that’s a lot, but you and I know better. After weeks of having 3-5 appointments every week this is nothing! And today’s appointment was only 12 minutes away, so there wasn’t even much driving involved. I had enough energy afterwards to go grocery shopping, then I came home and had lunch.

I am now sitting in cozy clothes, catching up on email, finally writing here, and generally feeling a bit more in control of things. It feels so good! In the back of my mind I think about how I still don’t feel up to dating, so I’m putting off signing up for a new online dating app that looks interesting, and I’m intentionally not thinking about how much I want a dog and am still not able to care for one. Ok, I think about it a little. But I try. Overall, though, I feel better physically so I’m trying to focus on the good stuff and ignore all of the things I want to do and still can’t.

Hopefully this week I can get back to having some balance in my life and in my schedule and then, well, maybe I can catch up on the many things I didn’t get to do over the last couple of weeks. After all, sick or not, some things still have to be done.

*In case you’re wondering about the iron, my doctor wants me to try taking a small dose. I was already taking 1/2 the recommended amount. We’ll see. About 5 years ago I had to have iron infusions because I couldn’t tolerate supplements. I was hoping to avoid that this time around, but no luck. I’m anemic so if the supplements don’t work, I’ll have to do the infusions again. But that’s a problem to deal with next week. For now, I’m focusing on getting back to “normal.”


Getting a break from the nightmares

August 17, 2018

While I have had symptoms of chronic illness for over 25 years (wow, that makes me feel old!) I only started having recurring nightmares in more recent years.

First there were the dreams where I felt the impending diarrhea and couldn’t find a bathroom, then when I finally found a bathroom the toilets were either set way too high on the wall (like, 4 feet off the ground!) or there were no doors on the stalls. I was trying to hold it in and feeling more and more desperate, but I couldn’t find a usable toilet that I felt comfortable with. I always woke up feeling stressed out and anxious.

Then there were the dreams where I’d be having a lovely time with family or friends. We would be passing food around the table and without thinking I would take a bite of bread or a cracker and after swallowing I would realize that I just ate gluten! Again, I would wake up stressed out and anxious. And wondering if I had really eaten gluten.

The dreams didn’t happen nightly or even weekly, but they kept returning. And no wonder. I was fastidious about avoiding gluten, but somehow I occasionally was glutened. And there was always the fear that I would slip up and eat it by mistake. There were multiple times I needed a toilet desperately and had trouble finding one. These were real life problems.

And the thing is, they still are. I haven’t been glutened in a while, but it’s happened this year, and I’m more nervous than ever about avoiding gluten. As for the diarrhea, I’d love to say that’s a thing of the past, but it’s not. It’s less frequent, and I’m incredibly grateful for that, but it still happens.

So imagine my surprise when I realized the other day that I haven’t had either of those dreams in months! I was free!

Will I ever have those stress dreams again? I have no idea. Even if I don’t, maybe there will be others. Again, I have no idea. All I know is that I’m not having them NOW!

I would love to say it’s because I’m less stressed out, but I’m not. In fact, lately I have been feeling more overwhelmed than I have in a long time. But at least I can get some rest in my dreams. I guess that’s a start.


Am I losing my joints?

July 30, 2018

First it was my wrists. Then my knees. Then my fingers and then my toes. Every few years some new joints began to hurt. Until this year.

Suddenly, all at once, things are doing downhill fast. In the past several months I have developed pain in my feet, thumbs, and shoulders. The foot pain is from arthritis, and it is especially disturbing because I had x-rays done 3 years ago that were fine. In only 3 years there has been marked deterioration and we don’t know why. The thumb pain is from tendonitis, something I’ve never had before. We don’t even know about the shoulder pain yet.

A few months ago, none of these bothered me at all. Now, walking has become more painful than ever, my favorite hobbies of crocheting and knitting are extremely limited, reaching for things is painful, picking anything up hurts, sleeping is harder, and I am freaking out.

Why is this happening all at once?!? Well-meaning friends suggest that it’s weather-related, but I know my body, and it’s not that simple. And besides, let’s say it’s the weather for the sake of argument. How does that help me? That only means that for months every year I’ll be in extra pain? And over time, as the climate continues to change, it will only get worse. So that’s NOT reassuring. Besides, it’s not weather-related. The tendonitis could be, but that began before the heat and humidity set in. And weather did not cause the arthritis in my feet or the bone spurs that are developing.

I keep wondering: how much worse will this get?

For years I have assumed that eventually all of my joints would be come painful, but I expected things to continue in that every-other-year pattern. I would have been in my 50s before things got really widespread. Now, in my 30s, I’m seeing the progression and it ain’t pretty. What will happen if I can’t use my thumbs? How will I function? What if walking becomes even more difficult? What if what if what if?

What ifs aren’t helpful, but I’m only human, and I can’t help but think about it. I’m following doctors’ orders: stop standing on my toes, limit crocheting and knitting, do handy therapy exercises, wear new orthodics…. but it’s not helping. At least, not yet. And besides, the goals with those are to lessen the pain. The doctors agree that this new pain will be permanent. And that makes it extra difficult when well-meaning friends hear about what’s happening and say that hopefully it will go away. When I say it won’t, that this is permanent, they get uncomfortable. They want to offer reassurances but there are none to offer. I get that. I’m the same way when someone I care about is hurting. Still, it sucks that people keep suggesting it will get better. Haven’t they learned? ALL of my pain is permanent. Sometimes it improves, but it never goes away.

Today is a calm day. Last week I was so upset that I couldn’t even write about this. I’m sure I will have many more calm days and many more upset days. In the meantime, I need to find some rational, logical part of my brain to start figuring out why my joints are suddenly causing me pain so much more quickly than they used to. Then maybe, just maybe, I might stand a chance at slowing things down.


I wish I could stop my fake smile

July 21, 2018

Even at 12 years old, I knew not to milk my situation. If I exaggerated the pain I was in, cried unnecessarily, or complained too much, it would come back to bite me in the butt later. I was right, of course. Even without all of the theatrics, some doctors and teachers suggested my pain wasn’t real, that I was just trying to get attention. Assholes. The thing is, this idea that I shouldn’t exaggerate anything boomeranged, and soon I was pretending I was ok even when I wasn’t.

Sometimes that’s a good thing. For me, faking it until I make it can help. And I hate having people constantly ask me what’s wrong, so looking like nothing is wrong can help to prevent that.

But then, sometimes it’s not so good.

Today a friend stopped by unexpectedly. I was NOT in a good place. I’ll probably right about that another time, but basically, I’m in rough shape. The pain has been worse lately, and it’s spreading to more parts of my body for some unknown reason. I’m worried about the future. I might have to move out of the apartment that I love. I’m frustrated and overwhelmed and, mostly, very scared.

I started to talk about some of this with my friend. I could feel the start of tears in my eyes. But I didn’t want to get too far down the rabbit hole. If I tried to explain everything, it would just lead me to focus more on the thing I’m trying to get off my mind for a while. So I said I needed to stop talking about it. And a second later we had changed the subject and I found myself smiling.

Now don’t get me wrong, smiling is a good thing, especially when you’re happy. But I wasn’t happy. I was smiling because I am used to plastering that smile on my face, even when I don’t want to. It’s what made the LTD and SSDI trials so hard: I was supposed to let them see how I really felt, and I didn’t know how to do that anymore. After so many years of fake smiles, how could I stop?

Before my friend showed up, I was definitely not smiling. I wasn’t smiling after he left, either. But with him here, I smiled. I thought to myself, “I should stop smiling. He knows I’m scared and in pain and he’ll be here for me. I want to stop.” But I couldn’t.

When my grandmother died just a few years ago, I cried during the funeral. Later, at the shiva (a Jewish tradition where friends and family gather to console the bereaved) I found myself smiling a lot. One relative I didn’t know very well even commented on how great it was that I could focus on the good parts of my grandmother’s life and remain so cheerful. Little did he know. I wasn’t cheerful. It was an act. I was smiling, I had a bounce in my voice, and I was miserable.

My fake smile was helpful today at the grocery store. I looked and acted normal, so no one asked any questions. But with my family and friends, sometimes I want to stop smiling.

If only I knew how.


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.


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.


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