When the solution becomes the problem

March 31, 2020

How do you handle fear? It’s one of the most basic human emotions, and something that we all experience from time to time. Right now, I would guess that more of the world than usual is feeling it on a regular basis.

I don’t know if there’s a “right” way to handle fear, I only know my way: planning, control, and facts. When I’m scared about a new medical test or a current flare or even something not health-related, I deal with it by focusing on the facts, and making plans for what might happen. That allows me to feel in control, which in turn reduces the fear. It’s not perfect, but mostly it works.

Right now, that’s not possible. We have few facts; this is a disease that didn’t exist in humans just a few months ago. The facts that we think we know, keep changing. It also depends on which experts we ask.

Making plans makes things worse. One downside to being a planner is that I’m great at looking 10 steps ahead. I read a lot, so I understand a lot about the world, not just in terms of the pandemic but in general. On top of that, I’m smart. I’m also a logical thinking, very left-brained. Put all of that together, and I have some very clear ideas about where the world might be headed. I have multiple scenarios in mind, based on what actions are/aren’t taken and what so-called facts turn out to be true or false. None of them are good, though some are worse than others. Unfortunately, so far my predictions (made 2 weeks ago) have been accurate.

Not only is making plans very difficult, but there’s another wrinkle: they don’t help. There is absolutely nothing I can do to make the situation in the world any better. There is nothing I can do to make it so that I can sooner see my family or my friends, go out socially, date, have sex. Nothing.

The best I can do is make plans to keep myself alive and healthy. So far I am doing that through day-to-day actions. There are no long-term plans to be made. I just have to keep doing what I’m doing: staying in my apartment, carefully cleaning the groceries that my neighbor brings to me, leaving my mail to sit in the corner of my home for a week (I’m cautious and also not that interested in the mail.) My “plans” involve planning meals, ordering extras of my prescriptions in advance, choosing ebooks to download, and texting friends to stay in touch. Those are not long term things.

Looking at “facts” is not only unhelpful, it’s incredibly stressful. It makes me feel a lot worse. Ditto for making plans. I never tell anyone my predictions because I don’t want to upset anyone, but they aren’t great. I hope I’m wrong, I really do. But in the meantime, having those thoughts in my head only makes things worse. Even as I type this, I am being careful not to think about anything in detail.

So what’s the answer? For me, it’s focusing on the day-to-day. As a planner, that has always been incredible difficult. I thrive on thinking about the future, not only to handle fear, but also to increase excitement about fun things to come, to work out solutions to problems, and more. Avoiding thinking about the future is taking a real effort.

I like reading the news, but right now that’s stressful. Still, I don’t want to avoid the world, and there are other things happening. So I am reading the headlines every day, and trying to only read articles that are not pandemic-related. I am not succeeding 100%, but the reduction has still helped immensely.

When family and friends talk about the pandemic, it’s hard not to get drawn in. I have always been political, so it’s hard not to get sucked into conversations about the way our politicians are handling things. But since I hugely disagree with almost everything they are doing, yet have no ability to change it, this upsets me again. Whenever these topics come up, I try to change the subject. Again, I do not succeed 100% of the time, but any reduction is helpful. I am trying.

Focusing on the day-to-day can be especially hard when so little else is happening. When I talk to someone and ask, “What’s new?” they don’t have much to say. I am trying to focus instead on question like, “What have your kids been doing to stay busy?” “What are you reading right now?” “What shows or movies have you been watching?” It helps a lot to have something else to talk about, and it gives me ideas of shows and movies to watch. For my part, I tell them about the books I’m currently reading, the bird that’s building a nest outside my window, or anything else I can think of on a neutral topic. I ask about their families and tell them about mine.

This is hard. There is nothing about this situation that is easy for anyone. I am alone, and not being around other people is hard. Others are with families that are crowding them and they need time alone. Yet others are in unhealthy home environments are need to leave but can’t. We are scared. Kids aren’t learning. People are losing their jobs or becoming overworked. There’s a lot of stress out there. So yes, it’s damn hard.

That’s why I am focused so much on taking it one day at a time. It doesn’t fix anything in the long term, but it makes this manageable for me in the short term. For now, that needs to be enough.

And one more thing: when I need to, I have a good cry. Because that’s ok, too.


Not missing sudden onset diarrhea

December 28, 2019

I quickly packed up my laptop, water, reading glasses, phone, and jacket, and walked hurriedly to find the nearest restroom. Sitting on the toilet, I wondered what caused this sudden bout of diarrhea, since this hasn’t happened in ages. And then it hit me: this hasn’t happened in ages!

It feels like a fucking miracle.

There were the times like this that I was able to walk quickly to the closest restroom. There were the times I was walking around outside and had to walk into stores, hoping they would let me use their restroom, sometimes begging, sometime being turned away. There were the times I was walking through less commercial areas, and wondered if I would find a toilet in time. There was the time I was in bumper-to-bumper traffic on a highway in another state, wondering if I would have to deal with diarrhea in the tall grass on the side of the road. Thankfully, I made it off the highway at the next exit, immediately found a motel, and was allowed to use the restroom. There were the times it hit me at a friends’ home, and I was embarrassed by what I thought they might hear and/or smell, not to mention how long I would spend in the restroom. There were a lot of near misses. There were a couple of times that I pooped my pants.

And I haven’t dealt with any of those in ages. In fact, the only diarrhea I have had this year has been easily explainable. It was either due to gluten or my period (maybe I will get my period today or tomorrow?) That was it.

The thing is, these bouts of sudden diarrhea weren’t short-term. This has been happening since my teen years. After 25 years of it, of course I was aware that it had stopped. I have been very aware of how much better I have been feeling, and am incredibly grateful for it. Even so, sitting on the toilet in the library 20 minutes ago, I felt immense relief and gratitude that this is no longer a regular problem for me. I still have loose stools, but not these sudden onsets where I must run to the nearest toilet. I no longer worry about it when I go out. I no longer make a point of searching out bathrooms in public places, just in case. I no longer feel the fear and anxiety of this unpredictable affliction. I feel freedom from all of that.

I am bitter and resentful that this wasn’t addressed properly 25 years ago, but I am also thrilled that it seems to be resolved now. I hope that it never returns.


When even the good things cause stress

October 27, 2019

The thing people forget is that even good things cause stress. Like the party I recently threw.

We talk about stress as an emotional condition that’s bad and must be reduced. That’s not untrue, but it’s not the full story, either. When it comes to adrenal fatigue, all stress can be a strain on the body. I explain it to people by saying that winning the lottery could make me very sick, and I believe that’s true (not that I’ve had the chance to find out, unfortunately.)

We overlook that there are different kinds of stress. There’s emotional stress and physical stress. There’s stress from good things and from bad things. Obviously I would rather have stress from winning the lottery than from the death of a loved one, but my adrenals will suffer either way. They just can’t produce the necessary hormones to handle the stress.

I feel it if I don’t get enough sleep, if I walk too much, if my body is inflamed, or if I’m dealing with some other form of physical stress. When the stresses are both emotional and physical, it’s especially rough. That’s what happened earlier this month. Several friends and I threw a surprise party for a friend. The party planning was stressful. Then the night before, I slept horribly. Some of it was from worry over the party going well, but a lot of it was from pain, probably due to the rainstorm we had. I also had a friend staying with me for the weekend, since she came from out of state for the party. I was thrilled to have her visiting me! I love her, we’ve been friends for 30 years, and I wanted to hang out with her as much as possible. But I was also exhausted, and needed to rest.

It is so hard to balance my emotional and physical needs in a situation like this. Thankfully, I was surrounded by understanding people. I’m also very thankful for my current coping mechanisms. I used some stress-relieving techniques from my therapist. I took an extra dose of my adrenal medication. I used medical cannabis. I laid down for half an hour in the afternoon to just quietly breathe and relax my body. Between the physical rest and the emotional break plus the medications, I began to feel better. My friends didn’t expect me to do as much physical setup for the party, so I was able to sit more.

In the end, the guest of honor had a great time, we all had fun, and everything worked out well. But it was still nerve-wracking. I find it frustrating that even good things can be too much for me. I wonder if I get married some day, will I even be able to have the large wedding reception I’ve always wanted? Will I have the energy to dance at my own wedding? Probably not, and that saddens me so much. Of course, I am also single, so that’s a big hypothetical! Still, the point is, will the good things be so stressful for my body that I can’t enjoy them? Right now they often are. I just hope that won’t always be the case.


Trying to be careful without getting in my own way

September 18, 2019

I am super sensitive to gluten. I have known that for a long time, but it amazes me every time I get glutened. One time, the culprit seemed to be some grapes that someone (who had been handling bread) picked up and then put down, and which I then ate without realizing (until it was too late) that they had done that. This last time, I think it was gluten on my own hands that did me in.

Last month I wrote about starting a new medication and the difficulties in getting my doctor to increase my dose. What I didn’t know when I wrote that piece was that I had just been glutened. That might explain some of my increased anxiety, though not all of it. It definitely explains why I wasn’t responding enough to the medication. As soon as the gluten symptoms went away, I felt how much the new med was helping. That took 19 days. Yes, 19 days. Yikes!

For the first week and a half or so, I barely left the house. Then I started to venture out a bit as needed. The final week I was mostly ok, at least enough to resume most activities, despite the extra pain, fatigue, and bloating. After almost three weeks, the symptoms subsided. The thing is, once I realized that I had been glutened, I tried to figure out how it happened, and there was no obvious culprit. I had not eaten a single thing all week that didn’t come out of my own kitchen. I quickly narrowed down the possibilities:

  • Something labeled gluten free actually had gluten in it.
  • I didn’t wash some produce carefully enough.
  • Twice I ate a meal outside of my home. I brought the food with me. Maybe I got crumbs on the container and transferred those to my hands somehow, and then ate something with my hands.
  • I ate a sliced apple and after a slice or two I realized I hadn’t cleaned my hands.
  • I had a hair on my tongue. I did my best to remove it without using my fingers, just in case they were contaminated.

These all suck. They suck because I am already being so careful in each of these areas, yet I got glutened anyway. There’s no doubt that it was gluten, the symptoms were very clear. I will never know for sure how it happened, but I know that all of these are hard to avoid in the future.

Before this latest glutening I was incredibly careful. I promised myself that this wouldn’t change anything. I would continue to be as careful as I had been before, and I wouldn’t try to control things more. It’s not healthy for me to be so hypervigilant. It takes a severe toll, emotionally and physically, and it doesn’t stop me from getting glutened. It can’t. I will get glutened many more times in my life. I try to keep it as minimal as possible, but there’s only so much I can do, and I have to be realistic.

Yet I have found myself being even more careful over the last few weeks. I hate it, and I am trying not to let this control me, but I don’t know how to do things differently. I don’t want to get glutened again if I can help it, and knowing that it’s inevitable to some extent isn’t enough to make me relax when I am out and about.

For example, I played a card game with friends. They were all eating appetizers and cookies, and I was very aware that they were probably transferring gluten onto the cards that I was touching. I made sure not to eat anything without first washing my hands. That’s fine. The problem is how anxious I felt about touching the cards to begin with. It made me anxious to know I was getting gluten on my hands. I feel like my own body is constantly unsafe whenever I leave my home, and that’s no way to live.

I am trying not to worry about the many ways in which my own home is not completely gluten free. I am sure that my phone is contaminated from being out in the world. I don’t clean every item that comes into my home. Grocery packages probably have gluten on them. My purse probably has gluten on it. My winter jacket will probably have gluten on it. My library books probably have gluten on them.

And there is nothing I can do about any of those things.

I must learn to stop being scared of gluten. Yes, it can hurt me. It could even kill me. But I have to continue living my life, and I can not do that if I am always afraid.

I am trying. It is not enough, but it has to be enough for now. Because what other option is there?


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.

 


“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.


Fallout from the mystery trigger

March 28, 2019

It started with horrible eczema on my hands. All day they were fine, then they were dry, tomato red, painful, cracked, and bleeding. Later there was gas. Then abdominal pains. Then constipation. Finally diarrhea, as my body got rid of the offending element and everything else I had eaten.

Clearly I ate some gluten or corn at some point. But I wasn’t all that sick, all things considered. This didn’t last as long as some other episodes. Plus, I’m super careful. Still, I had stayed over at my parents’ house, and even though I tried to be careful, there were crumbs everywhere, and we all pet the dog before and after meals. And we ate out at a restaurant that has always been ok for me, but maybe they made a mistake? I just don’t know, and not knowing makes it even harder.

The next day I was fatigued, but that makes sense. After all, my body had been through a lot. I had turned off my alarm clock and slept much longer than usual. Still, I was worn down, so I spent the day watching tv. I didn’t eat as much as usual, but I ate. I figured I would be fine by the follow day.

Yet I woke up today still feeling fatigued. It’s close to noon and the fatigue and brain fog are both intense, and much worse than what I typically experience. I am having trouble thinking clearly, and I wonder how much sense this post will make when I read it in a few days. Assuming I’m feeling better in a few days. Because who knows?

Now I am wondering how long this will last. I already canceled my therapy appointment tomorrow, but I have a big family event the following day – should I go? Even if I’m feeling better, would I be up to the hour-long drive in each direction? And to make it even worse, I finally scheduled that iron infusion, and that’s just 5 days away. I want to get it over with, but will my body be strong enough?

I don’t need to decide these things yet, but I will have to soon. If I skip the family event, I need to give another person time to make alternate travel arrangements. If I reschedule the iron infusion, I can’t do that at the last minute, especially since a friend is arranging her schedule so that she can go with me.

I have no idea when I will feel better. It could be later today or in a month. And what’s especially frustrating is that I don’t know what caused this! I wish I knew. Was it corn? Gluten? Something else I can’t have that I’m not even aware of yet? Was it the restaurant or my parents’ house or somehow something else?

I’m frustrated more than words can say, but there’s nothing I can do. Which is why in about 90 seconds I will once again be sitting on the couch, watching hours of tv. Because I just don’t have the energy to do anything else. Not even the many things I wanted to do today. And it’s all because of something I ate, even though I don’t know what.


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