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Seeing Possibility

Making Some Kind of Peace With My Pain

 

During my descent into illness, all I could see was what was being taken from me. When chronic illness kept routinely shaking up my life in new and horrible ways, I started to believe that there was nothing to look forward to, and the injustice of going from perfectly fine to not fine at all was unforgivable. It’s natural to feel that way, everyone grieves uniquely, and we lose a lot in the transition from well to sick. Grieving is permitted, encouraged, and part of the process of regaining strength. It’s not pleasant to be in that place, where all roads lead away from your dreams, all days blend together because of the pain, and because of all the sadness, fogginess, stress, and panic of becoming suddenly or gradually disabled. You may in that time lose track of who you are for a second, or maybe for a lot longer, because it seems like it is all going to be taken and not one scrap of the person you were before will be left.

Surely, in this storm I will blow away, and all that will be left is the space I take up and the burden I place on others.

That is one stage, and it is not possible to skip steps in the recovery process without being forced to revisit them later.

 

Take a minute with me to envision what you have lost. For instance, as my illnesses multiplied and progressed, I lost my ability to work, drive, plan a schedule and stick to it, work out consistently, go where I want when I want, grocery shop on my own, pay bills, feel accomplished, cook, clean, and there is the scary possibility that I may not ever be able to have children with my specific problems. I have lost confidence, I have lost my sense of place and I have lost my mission in life. Or have I?

Okay, upon second look, yes, I have lost the ability to drive, but not my ability to travel with others and see through other’s eyes. I have lost my ability to work a traditional job, but not my ability to create a new legacy through artistic endeavors. I have lost many friends and relationships, but those were not the people I wanted and truly needed to find. I have lost the ability to plan ahead, but found the freedom to enjoy the spontaneous little joys my body does allow. There is a good chance I may not be able to give birth, but I can still have a family built on love, and maybe some day I can even adopt. I have lost confidence but then found it again in the oddest of places, like this blog and in my artwork and jewelry making. I lost a lot, yes, but the gifts that took residence in those spaces and voids in me where I felt loss and grief are astronomically more important to me now than what I lost ever was. What I have now cannot be taken away. It cannot be undone or shattered by someone or something external. I can and do still have dreams and goals, and they are not all tinged with the bitterness of “but only if I could just ____. It would be so much easier.”

Easier is not always better. It might feel better for a while, but I’m the kind of person who has always needed a challenge to rise to, a place to test my strengths and get to know my weaknesses so that they can never destroy me. Illness and hitting rock bottom emotionally, physically, and mentally was that place. With the door to my previous lifestyle, abilities, and routines firmly shut behind me, and no idea where I was or where I could go from there, I somehow found the strength to lift my head and take that first stumbling steps towards the only tiny pinpricks of light I could make out in the inky void in front of me. In the beginning they seemed either so small or so far away that the journey was certainly pointless, but still, I missed daylight and fresh air too much, so I put one shaky foot in front of the other and moved, as slowly as I needed to, as fast as I could. Sometimes I crawled with my head down through narrow passages, in the direction I thought I had seen the light, and sometimes I got lost and had to double back. Sometimes the light flickered and I felt a cold rush of terror and emptiness.

At those times, I feared I would be stuck forever in this place, and there were points where I was more certain of that than anything else, but still I wanted more, and still I crawled toward the promise of less stale air, away from the rotting dampness, and towards the possibilities that those lights represented. I imagined that when I found them they could be so many different things, maybe just a forgotten candle abandoned along the path by someone else who had gone before, or maybe it would be the full daylight streaming in through a tiny crack in the darkness. Maybe I could find that crack and widen it, pry it apart with my bare, bleeding hands, sucking gulps of fresh air into my screaming lungs.

Of course I stumbled and fell, sometimes a great distance. I fell all the time. Falling became a part of the journey, and one I became increasingly comfortable with. Go ahead, knock me over again, throw me off a cliff. I taunted the empty darkness, not out of bravery but out of stubbornness. Clinging to any surface that seemed stable, my feet learned to anticipate the road ahead a little better with each steep, scrabbling climb and desperate push to make it just one more tiny, trembling inch towards the light.

As I pulled and climbed my way through the darkness, I began to see a glow ahead, not the bright streaming light of day, but I large mass of light ahead, hazy and difficult to make out, but there, somewhere ahead of me, above me. My hands clawed at the side of the cliff face I was travelling up, searching for the edge, finding it and then pulling for what seemed like forever, my arms burning and shaking, my fingers slipping on the stone. And then I was on top of the cliff, looking back at the dizzying heights I had climbed to, so far that I couldn’t even see where I had come from. There was just the black abyss in the direction I had previously travelled in. I turned my back to the deep darkness, prepared to continue my escape, not sure how I had made it so far or how far I still had to go.

As I faced my new direction suddenly there were hundreds of lights, some tiny, some larger. I was overwhelmed by how many of them I could see, in every direction. The darkness behind me gaped open, reached out its fingers for me, but I knew the darkness was a lie now. Just like going outside of a large city to watch the stars wheeling in the sky in some dark corner of the wilderness, I was seeing what had lain ahead all along for the very first time. It had all been there already, but like the starry skies, hidden by nasty pollution, obscured by the much dimmer lights seeping out from under the doors that had long ago slammed shut behind me, and blocked by rainclouds I could not control. Every period of pitch darkness that I learned to live through, every cliff face scaled, every strange twisting path taking me farther and farther from the roads I had already traveled, had been leading me here, to the warm mass of lights joining together.

Then without knowing where it had begun, I was on a road again, a completely different road. It was a clear, brightly lid road, with others traveling along side me. I did not know how long they had been beside me, but I saw these souls carrying each other even when they themselves were weary and their feet dragged. They pushed each other forward with encouraging words, with outstretched hands, and the path became more and more filled with light. I began to follow their example, finding people who had fallen down and supporting their weight until they could support themselves again. Ahead of me I could feel the first rays of sunlight as the night began to dissolve into the distance behind me.

I kept moving, my arms linked with hundreds of other men and women who were determined that we would make it, all of us. As the sun rose higher, thawing the frozen fingers of my traveling companions, turning our lips from blue back to pink, I could see that it was not merely hundreds I travelled with, but millions. As far as the eye could see, the crowd extended, all joined together, all making sure no one fell behind. Suddenly I remembered that in the beginning, when I fell, I didn’t always fall that far, and it had been those outstretched hands pulling me back to safety when I teetered on the edge. I may not have realized it at the time, but the small candles littering my path, the tiny flickers of warmth and truth, each beating heart that extended me love, had been with me in the cold, lonely night, too. We had not seen each other yet, but we were all heading in the same direction, some crawling, some sprinting. Fear evaporated, all memories of bleeding alone in the dark overtaken by the friendly faces all around me, the warm and calloused, well-traveled hands holding mine.

From the blackness where I had first found myself, alone and terrified, to the uncertainty of the tiny branching paths leading away from everything I knew, to the first time a hand touched mine in the darkness, and finally to the moment that the sun began to rise and I knew things would be better soon, this had been a four year journey of climbing out, scraping knees and shoulders, muscles burning, hands shakily feeling out the rough outline of objects blocking my path, while my feet unconsciously learned to avoid the dangerous patches of shifting ground that appeared frequently. The many falls, the hands who helped me stand up again, the unconditionally loving community of fellow travelers who had all stumbled their way, thinking themselves alone, through the darkness. Each person beside me now was as insistent and stubborn as I was. We had not been willing to die in the valleys and ravines that life had flung us down. Working together, even when we didn’t realize it, we had found allies in those who also fled the same nightmares. The bright of the sun rising ahead of us made the long, harsh journey fall away. I could see people hugging, celebrating, and smiling, soaking in the widening rays of light as they congratulated each other. There would be other dark nights to travel through, but now we were not alone, we were moving steadily away from the vast emptiness behind us, with millions more beginning the final stages of their climb towards the daylight, and millions more up ahead.

The climb out is shorter in the end if you pace yourself, if you do not fall as often, if you survey your surroundings with purpose, resourcefulness, and an eye for opportunity, but also for danger. Making the journey meant frequently taking a moment to scan the horizon for trouble looming and for the possibility of new paths appearing in front of me at any time, in any place. It meant that I could pause, but I could never stop. Even suddenly in the middle of the darkness, there can be a new object in your line of sight that wasn’t visible just a few steps back. You don’t know what’s out there until you start moving away from the doors that are already closed and seek out the road(s) leading to what is still possible.

Up until this past year, there would have been no way to know what was up ahead, or even what direction I was travelling in. I was doing my best, but my best didn’t seem nearly good enough. All that surrounded me was loss and grief, and though I tried to focus on other things, my mind was always drawn back to the negatives. Trapped in the cage of chronic illness and chronic pain, I saw myself as useless, I imagined my future was full of only mounting grief, I felt horribly selfish for getting sick, I could find nothing to love about myself and could not see how anyone else could love me either. Things were bleak and dark, unfair, stacked against me, and I didn’t want to have to be the one who was stronger than I felt. I wanted to scream, I didn’t want to be inspirational, I didn’t want to be friendly, I didn’t want to learn mindfulness or try to be more optimistic, I didn’t want to try to build a new, healthy life within my limits because the limits seemed ridiculous and, well, limiting. I just wanted a cure, and anything less was inexcusably, woefully inadequate. And that’s okay. That’s a part of the process. Some of us stay there for longer than others. There is no right and no wrong here, and no shame, only the eventuality of picking yourself up, or taking the hands that are offered, and trying again no matter what. There’s no denying that when you feel like you’ve lost your purpose in life, it’s tough to see the point in putting one foot in front of the other.

Who knows what drove me forward out of that place, who knows what strength I dug deep to find in myself, or if it even was my strength. Who knows where I found the courage to ask for help, or to take the hands outstretched to me, when I didn’t know what I had to offer in return.

All that matters is that I made it, and that others have made it, and that you will too, one day. In the future, there will be a time when you look back, and you will see how far you’ve come and how many people have helped you along the way, and you will marvel, because wasn’t life supposed to be over? Wasn’t everything supposed to be spiraling further and further into the realm of tragedy? But it isn’t either of those things.

There are awful parts, there are many of them, and there are times when I pray for death because I hurt so much and I have nothing that helps, but from here on out, I can remember that I am always arm in arm with millions upon millions of other pain warriors. Even through the darkest night, the men and women I march with are always right beside me. They make sure I get up when I fall, they pull me along when I cannot walk, they lend me light when my own candle burns out.

There will be other doors in my life that slam shut on dreams I have held dear. Chronic illness is not the only fight I will have to survive, nor is my struggle with illness and pain over. It continues, and I continue to move towards hope and light all the same. There is no going back, there is nothing there for me. Only sealed doors. If you are in that same murky darkness, you are not alone. The paths away from the places you have been shut out from, take them, take any path, because I promise that where you are heading is better than where you have been. Maybe not tomorrow, or the next day, but eventually. Daylight is coming.

The biggest, shiniest piece of advice I have to offer on living well with chronic illness is that the company here does not suck. In fact, that person whose writing, photography, art, or youtube channel makes you feel like they truly understand you, go talk to that person! I can’t promise something magical will happen, but you never know. Magical things have definitely happened for me in the friends and community I have made online, and every time a new and beautiful friendship arises, it has started with an honest expression of admiration that turned out to be very, very mutual.

 

 

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A Book for Moms With Chronic Pain and Chronic Illnesses!

I know I haven’t been around in a while and I’m very sorry, life has been so crazy and my typing and thought process so poor that I’ve been taking an unintentionally long break. I have been writing every now and again, but mostly on Tumblr and Instagram, and sometimes for images I make in photoshop. Maybe I should post all those soon? I have also written about thirty drafts on WordPress that have been eaten, gone unfinished at the last minute, or that I am too embarrassed to post right now (and maybe ever). I will get back into the swing of things slowly but surely in the next month.

But, for now, I was stumbling through Amazon, and found this book and it just about made me burst into tears. I want kids so badly but because of EDS pregnancy dangers, my family history of Spina Bifida occulta and neural tube defects, the strong possibility that I have the MTHFR gene mutation, and a bunch of other factors, including a total phobia of doctors (I can’t even get into that on here or I will freak out and lose my relative calm for how much pain I am in and the fact that it’s 3:30am).

Though I want children desperately, what I really want and desire above a biological child is to adopt. I’ve always wanted to adopt. There will always be kids out there right now who need families. It seems so against my values to selfishly have a child via birth when I know there is little chance that child will not suffer like I do, and when I know that my ability to be a good parent to a very young child is never going to be strong enough. The thing is, I have a lot of love to give and knowledge to share, if not a lot of physical ability. Unfortunately, I will still struggle with very basic mom things, like shopping for clothes, or food for that matter, or taking them places at all, and cleaning isn’t getting any easier or more feasible lately though I try really hard. I’ve always wanted to be the perfect mom, but I think a large part of chronic illness is accepting that even healthy people don’t live up to that, therefore I certainly won’t.

I will be a good mom, I think, but I will have to work really freaking hard at it, and it will take everything that I have to give and more. Even if I do adopt a child, I am worried that I will feel like a failure as a mom no matter how much I try to cut myself slack for what I can’t control.

Seeing this book helped me a little. Knowing others are struggling with this, and that enough people even to sell a book about it.

Has anyone actually read this to their kids or bought it for themselves/future reasons? I hope there are more books like this out there by the time I am able to foster or adopt.

Why Does Mommy Hurt? by Elizabeth M. Christy

Why Does Mommy Hurt?: Helping Children Cope with the Challenges of Having a Caregiver with Chronic Pain, Fibromyalgia, or Autoimmune Disease

Not Pretending

I hesitate to admit this, but it’s important. Before i got sick I was already pretending to be normal, pretending to be happy and productive and on some sort of trajectory, but I was just as lost as I am now. I have been dealing with severe anxiety disorders my entire life, ADHD, obsessive behaviors too numerous to list, occasional bouts of treatment resistant depression, insomnia, self-injury, severely restricted eating or binge eating depending on the year, as well as growing up with chronic pain to a much lesser degree than now in the form of frequent dislocations/subluxations, migraines, and dizziness/nausea, all of which went untreated for a long time, or treated but not correctly.

Now that I have a series of chronic illnesses/conditions, my mental health is under the microscope constantly. It has been enlightening but also terrifying. Not being able to hide my mental health or my physical health anymore is the part I’m still trying to accept. I’m used to being miserable to a degree and pushing through, always pushing through, and to have my body take that ability away from me has caused some serious grieving.

The thing I was most commended for other than my test scores was my ability to pretend like I wasn’t hurting while I was, both physically and mentally. All of the bits and pieces that make me my own person are also things that drew negative attention when I was younger, and I have trouble getting over that still.

My response to the negative attention, eventually, was to reinvent myself to be as normal as possible, as plain as possible, to not stand out too much, and to deny my artsy, nerdy, angsty side the freedom it wanted. Now I’m left with artsy, nerdy, angsty as things I need to learn to be proud of and to embrace again. I want to, I really do.

can you remember who you were before the world told you who you should be?

Those parts of me which long for the freedom to reinvent myself into the person I really am are winning. My hair is teal, my clothes are whatever the hell I feel like, I have been writing more honestly and openly, and I have picked up a paintbrush again.

So the path is there, I know what I need to do, but I’m scared to be myself again. For so long I’ve been this average-intelligence, straight, workaholic, brown-haired, plain-clothed girl who kept the ugliness and the oddness to herself, absolutely devoid of the desire to write the darkness inside of me or to paint it, only allowing thoughts out through a careful filter, and calling that happiness. It wasn’t. Neither was it sadness, exactly. I was just going in the wrong direction.

The reality is that my careful filter is broken now and only works in fits and starts… I can’t be anyone other than the person I have always been underneath the normal life I was trying to build around me like armor. I still love the interests I have cultivated while lost and wandering through life; I still love to garden, bake, and make my own home and beauty products. I absolutely still love my boyfriend, as well as this house and our cat. This is simply my soul wanting me to unleash it in any way possible in my new life, with my new limitations. I need to find a purpose, yes, but I also need to find myself again, be kind to myself instead of denying myself the freedom to be weird and potentially wonderful. So much anxiety must be tied up in the act of pretending not to be excited about the things that truly make me happy.

I don’t fully know what my happiness will look like now, but it will look different than the one I pretended was right for me.

To be honest, I’m relieved.

There are parts of me that are stronger than ever, and then obviously there are parts of me that are so weak that they have stolen life and time from me. But I am a survivor. This is me surviving. It might not be pretty, the struggle can get ugly and mean in an instant, but I have always survived, and I will continue to do my best. That will have to be enough.

I’m not any less okay than I was yesterday or the day before, I am simply not willing to pretend to be better or different than I feel. Some days I am still a suicidal teenager and some days I am a sage adult, and many days I bounce back and forth between the two. However, both are okay, both are me, and I am always going to be a survivor, even when I have no idea what else I am.

The term survivor implies that someone came through or currently resides in hell, however, and that is the part that people seem to forget. The struggle is what breaks you, but it is also what rebuilds you. We cannot be the same after we travel through nightmares turned reality.

Not the same, but certainly still me.

I am just too exhausted to draw a silver lining on my clouds today. Today it’s okay to acknowledge the storm overhead. To be soaked in it and shivering and afraid of the power behind it, but to remember that the sun also exists, just beyond those clouds.

More Exhausted Than Ever

Right now, I will do something very small and have to sit down immediately after or during a slightly more rigorous task, and it’s not the pain that’s knocking me down so hard, although there is a lot of that, I’m just pretty damn exhausted. Like, my bones are way too tired to walk to the mailbox or make it down the stairs to the garden, but I’m still able to fight through and manage those things sometimes. It’s very confusing. Overall though, the fatigue has ramped up to a point where I’m scared a little.

This is not meant to be a bid for sympathy or anything, I just have to have a place to put all this down and get it out of me. My body won’t allow me to do much of anything else and even writing has me fading in and out of consciousness because it leaves me so fatigued. To be completely honest, I’ve been feeling a lot worse lately. I pushed myself trying to create a small business that was never going to happen, and in many other areas of my life, and none of my accomplishments have added up to anything lately, not even one completely clean room. I have learned a lot and there were tiny moments of excitement and victory, but that isn’t anything I can put on my resume, really.

It’s depressing to feel like your health is going in the opposite direction that you’re aiming for. A lot of us are familiar with that feeling though, unfortunately. It’s just another part of chronic illness unless you can find a treatment that works. For a while things will hold steady symptom wise, and then a cluster of new ones will pop up one after another, which is what has been happening recently. Not every single new symptom stays around long-term, some of them will just last the length of this particular flare up, and some of them will attach themselves to my illness and they will be added on top of my daily already unmanageable pain, fatigue, and bodily systems that are completely out of whack. But these new symptoms will not be so courteous as to show up clearly on a test. Just abnormalities here and there, nothing to make an easy diagnosis off of. It makes my head spin trying to get a clear grasp on even the list of weird things that have happened with my body, and a lot of it isn’t stuff I feel comfortable sharing.

This flare up has brought with it a bout of sleep paralysis episodes, limb tremors and increasing muscle weakness, much worse than usual chest pain, rib dislocations, absolutely unpredictable new headaches and some severe migraines that actually got the better of me and landed me lying down until they subsided, hip subluxations on both sides, knee instability and weakness, poor typing and speech, including mixing up words, writing something completely different from what I was intending or thinking I was writing, forgetting phrases and words, increased inability to finish a sentence because I can’t remember why I started it, using big words but forgetting all the small ones, dizziness, trigeminal neuralgia attacks that feel like being struck with lightning over and over again in the same spots on my face, occipital neuralgia that is like being chiseled into on the back of my head, or like someone is grinding a screwdriver as hard and slow as possible into my occipital nerve, tmj issues making it a challenge to eat/smile/talk too much, jaw dislocations hundreds of times a day, lack of coordination and hand dexterity as well as random violent spasming when I try too hard to control my muscles for extended tasks like painting and typing, really painful joints all over, fatigue so heavy I feel like my veins are full of lead and my muscles are made of tissue paper and my bones are filled with cement, GI issues which all of a sudden include throwing up just about every other day, and delayed stomach emptying with all the associated nausea and pain and hating food/food hating me, possibly gastroparesis but I’m hoping not, problems associated with migraineurs even when the really severe head pain is not present (olfactory hallucinations, auditory hallucinations, light/sound/smell sensitivity, big blurry spots or color spots in my vision, things that look like shiny, constantly moving sprinkles all over my field of view, thinking things are moving when they aren’t, as well as not being able to track movement very well), falling asleep suddenly after exertion with no warning, feeling like I’m walking on razorblades and broken glass, sudden moodswings mixed with lots of feeling hopeless or just numb and dissociated from my disobedient body, muscle cramping, brainfog that is stronger by far than my Ritalin prescription, not understanding what people are saying unless they repeat themselves a few times, some obsessive behaviors I cannot stop doing and ptsd flashbacks, skin that hurts like thousands and thousands of nettle stings, and just so much more, but it would take so long to list, and this is why seeing a doctor once every 3-6 months is totally and completely unhelpful.

And I’ve been like this for two and a half weeks now, and it keeps dropping new surprises on me so I’ve got no idea when it will let me go…

I lost 15 pounds, and that was startling and positive. Not sure why I was so startled, I think it’s hard for me to notice the healthy changes I make and pat myself on the back unless some kind of tangible progress comes out of it, but lately I actually have noticed myself doing better at picking the salad from the garden over chips or pasta on the side, I’ve been back into yoga in bed, and in my better moments I try to sneak tiny bits of yoga into my day, with my arms close to my body and not pushing my flexibility to it’s max because I’m not in that kind of shape and my body can and will bend too far in every direction if I don’t watch myself in a mirror while I do it.

I’m so exhausted that it makes me laugh that I’m adding yoga back into my days but I can’t shower more than once every five days. Priorities slightly skewed? I don’t know, a shower is one very big expenditure of spoons that you’re committed to once you start, and yoga I can stop any time it hurts me, I can modify it to hurt less or not at all and to be done lying down even, and I dole out spoons one at a time to each little micro-session which is much less punishing on my body than taking a shower. God I miss being able to do that every day. The stupid shit we take for granted when we are healthy, I was so greedy taking two or three a day during sports and summer or just to get warm in the winter, and I never imagined I would ever give up my obsession with being sparkly clean every single day. It hurts to think about stuff like that though, and in general I just try to accept that things are the way they are and not ask “why me?” too much.

Not being able to shower is a big gauge for how much of a toll this has taken on me. The things I would have never given up if I had a choice, the gardening every day and walking for hours, the freedom of driving and earning a paycheck even if I didn’t enjoy the job or the commute sometimes, my clean house, the freedom to work out or go out with friends whenever the mood hit me, frequently visiting vintage shopping and buying fancy coffees just to treat myself, painting whenever I had a creative idea come into my head, preserving and cooking food especially when it came from my garden, baking bread almost every day, fashion, being able to complete deadlines and not be a total flake, being able to plan my next day and stick to it,

I feel bad enough on a daily basis that younger me, who had a damn high pain tolerance, would have been asking to go to a doctor almost every morning. But I don’t go even when it gets to be unbearable, because it’s so discouraging to be told more than once every 3-6 months that there is nothing new to try, nothing else to do that is in my price range, nothing, nothing, nothing, and to be treated like a drug seeker, a whiner, a lazy kid who can’t be bothered to get a job, when I just want to get better. I just want some hope, some kind of a future to plan on and look forward to. I don’t want to have to take these drugs. I don’t want to have to take two sparse and precious oxycodone just to get through taking a shower. This is not something I constructed to get out of working. I miss working. I’m young, my ability to work was my future and now I’m very lost.

I’m reaching for that point towards acceptance of my illnesses and new life where I can start to explore my talents and try to find more solutions, more small improvements, more joy in my life. I feel like it’s both close enough to grab and pull closer and simultaneously so far away that I fear I just can’t get there. I know I can only take it one day at a time and keep looking for the small victories, the shiny bits and the lessons learned no matter how painful, so I can quietly celebrate my life for those wonderful things amidst the chronic fatigue and pain.

Chronic Lessons: Then and Now

When I first came down with an invisible illness shortly after being in a car struck by a semi-truck, things looked pretty bleak.

My thought process after six months of dealing with the constant doctor visits and physical therapy, with the pain, fatigue, and fevers, was that either me or my illness was gonna go. Both of us were not gonna share this body.

Fix it or kill me. That was my motto. I could not conceive of a world in which I could not work, but in which I still had value. Value despite a dollar amount I was bringing in. No part of me wanted to accept that I would have to learn to live with this, or that my life not only had to be paused, but also that I may never be able to participate in the same ways as before no matter what I tried to cure myself. We hadn’t even started talking about disease processes or autoimmune or anything at all other than injury from the car accident, but I was frustrated that I just kept getting worse the more work I did to heal.

On the days in between flare ups, before I knew what a flare up even was, I insisted to myself that I was cured, and I was horribly let down and unprepared for every single episode or new symptom that manifested.

When people told me it would be easier and better to approach my illness from a place of positivity, I was furious, because they were making the assumption that I wanted to live with pain in every part of my body, and I really did not, at least not at that point. I had just recently been perfectly healthy, my body and brain up to any challenge set in front of me. How could I adjust to being so drastically limited and in so much pain I couldn’t even drive or work a full shift? It truly seemed impossible.

It also felt like when people tried to encourage me to make peace with all the unknowns and all the debilitating symptoms they were implying that mind over matter would cure me, or at least allow me to live a ‘normal’ or fulfilling life. Again, a life without a job and my recently hard-won independence seemed so completely unfulfilling. I went straight into defensive language, outbursts, and isolation at the first suggestion that somehow I was expected to be strong enough to cope with physical weakness, fatigue, pain, sensitivities to sound, light, chemicals, smells, and touch, energy crashes, cognitive dysfunction, lack of ability to work or drive, and the accompanying guilt and grief that go with losing your place in life right after you gain autonomy over it for the first time. I could find so many more reasons to be upset than to be optimistic. It felt like everything I loved had been ripped away, like all my choices had been taken from me. Of course that isn’t true, but for newly diagnosed or undiagnosed pain patients, especially at a young age, it’s entirely common to feel like it is the end of your life and nothing good will ever be possible again unless it comes packaged as a complete and total cure. The temptation is to retreat and hope that you can pick back up again where you left off when you feel better, and that’s acceptable with temporary injuries and illnesses, but with chronic illness there are often no “feel better” days, and there is only so much hiding from life you can do before it becomes apparent that life is going to continue, albeit differently.

I still have moments where I think I can’t handle it, and weeks where everything spins around me and I hope hope hope I will still be okay when it all lands again. I still fear for my future, I fear for my relationships, and feel insecure about my lowered libido, frequent whining, fitness level, and inability to contribute financially. Those things are part of being human though, if I didn’t experience some guilt and upset over them, I wouldn’t be me.

Amazingly, I have learned a lot through illness. I have learned to be patient no matter how uncomfortable or unhappy I am. I have learned to take care of and prioritize myself even when it feels selfish and lazy. I have learned that internalized ableism is what makes me feel that way, and that ableism does not do me any good, especially not when it has become a part of my own thought process. I have learned the importance of asking for help, though I haven’t quite mastered actually asking for it. So much has sunk in; things that I was resistant to when fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome first reared their heads. I wonder if I am even the same person anymore, but not in a totally negative way.

I have learned above all that there is not as much wrong with me as there is with a society that teaches people to base worth off of income earned, sexual intensity, physical ability, and even intelligence. There is nothing wrong with having an excess of one or even all of those things. But there is nothing inherently better about possessing those things, either. Except that it certainly makes your way in life a lot easier to have money, health, sex appeal, and unlimited brainpower. Maybe that’s what I like more about myself now; it’s not that easy anymore, I can’t just draw on one of those things and call myself a better person for having it. I can’t reassure myself with meaningless attributes, and that is its own kind of blessing. I have to concern myself instead with things like courage, persistence, kindness, and even that elusive thing we call happiness. Amidst all the pain, being ill has given me something wonderful; it has allowed me to seek out those true, meaningful, beautiful traits in others, regardless of what value society has assigned to someone.

I’m actually surprised that the person I was ten years ago has grown up into a person who does not hate herself and who rarely wastes energy on disliking others. It’s a pleasant realization. I really believe I must have hated myself to treat my abled and active body with such disdain, and to have thought I was so boring when my life was always so full of unique friendships and passions, and to have constantly been comparing myself to others and feeling so shortchanged. Not to say I don’t have moments where my body is a source of insecurity, and I certainly get frustrated with the slow, meandering pace that my brain operates at now. Somehow though, over the years, the negativity has become tempered with “but tomorrow I will be grateful for what I do have”.

A lot of my current (relative) level of peace has to do with getting almost all the way off of Lyrica and starting to paint again (more about that soon!). A lot of it has to do with this blog and the wonderful people who have introduced themselves and the strong sense of community that lives here. Also through the groups I have been invited into because of my writing here. A lot has to do with therapy, some of it with self-therapy techniques, and some with the actual, lasting progress I have made along the way. It’s easy to look back at three and a half years of illness and feel overwhelmed with all the life I have not lived in that time. I had planned to have a career and a child by now, and perhaps to have bought my house.

Ten years ago, I would have only seen that big dark cloud of not measuring up materially to the person I had set out to become, and I never would have noticed all the glints of silver lining to be found from where I’m standing in the rain. Three years ago, I feared there was no happiness or peace to be found amongst the terror and the overwhelming nature of being sick in my early twenties. Two years ago, I knew that others lived with diseases and still had fulfilling lives, but the knowledge just made me angry. A year ago, the knowledge that others out there were dealing with similar things and did not want to die every single day started to give me hope, and this blog helped me find those people and learn the self-acceptance that I needed so badly.

Now, I want to start to figure out what I can do to give back, but I have taken a pretty big set back this week by conscious overexertion so I could spend time with my family and my mom while she was visiting Oregon for ten days. During my recovery from this, I will be writing more and pondering what I have to contribute, and where the chronic pain community would be best served by what I do have to offer.

Thank you for reading my blog, thank you for reaching out to me, thank you for being so understanding and gentle, and so patient. I couldn’t have done it without you.

The 1 Year Anniversary of The Worst Week

I have been through some extremely tough things in my life. Up until this time last year, I refused to say that any particular day or week or month was the worst of my life. It wasn’t worth thinking about, really, lots of it had been bad, but lots of it had been life-shaping, wondrous, or a learning experience, and it all balanced out in my mind.

Last year, this same week, I was sitting in a hospital sobbing, begging the universe to give us back my boyfriend’s father, who was in a coma after having a stroke. He had been rushed to the hospital within minutes of my boyfriend’s mom, Pat, noticing that his speech was odd, and that in the bathroom there was shaving cream everywhere on the walls and the floor. She was so on the ball, and we are so lucky that she was, because he had been about to get in the car to drive them both to our house. Who knows what would have happened, but it would have been so much worse and more traumatic for my boyfriend if they had both been in the car when he lost control of his body. We rushed to the first hospital he was taken to. He couldn’t speak, but he kept smiling, which was weird and scared me, he rarely smiled unless it was for a very important reason. I told him with the least tears in my voice that I could manage, that he was the best dad a girl could ask for, and he smiled at me and nodded a little, and I do not know if he understood me or not, but I am glad that the next and last thing I said to him was “I love you dad.”

He was not the normal stroke case, they were limited in that they could not administer the regular drugs because he had platinum in his head from a surgery to correct an aneurysm a decade prior. But the fact that he could indeed wiggle his toes and fingers these first few hours, and move his face and nod at us, even stand and follow some basic commands, it all seemed so promising. We were sent home by Pat to get rest, and within hours I came down with a violent case of the swine flu. That was Sunday, and it was the last day Dave knew who we were. We had no idea what was happening or what was going to happen, what it all meant. There was only shock.

That week, every morning we would go to the hospital as the sun was coming up, there were no visiting hours so we just got up and went there straight out of bed. I didn’t shower, I was in a horrible pain flare up and my body was playing host to a gnarly bug and just couldn’t manage through the whole routine, but I did pull on a dress every single day for some reason, and I do not know why. Every day I was not allowed to go back and see him at all, because of the swine flu. I sat outside the ICU on a bench with a bucket and a box of tissues and cried my heart out for hours at a time. No one looked at me or paid any attention to the girl directly in front of the ICU doors, crying and taking rounds of pills every two hours.

That Friday my boyfriend was scheduled to have his third major hip surgery in as many years. We obviously did not think it was a good idea to put him under while his father was in a coma. He cancelled the surgery he had waited almost a full year for and arranged his school schedule around, because there was just no way. And I am so glad that he didn’t go through with it.

Sometime towards the end of that week of fear, shock, and grief, I had an appointment up at OHSU, the teaching hospital in Portland, at the Frida Fibro Clinic. I was so delirious and sick. The pain from days of sitting on benches in front of the ICU in odd positions had overwhelmed me, and then the sadness for my boyfriend, his mother, and the father I had for five years all crashed around me louder than anything else. My aunt and uncle drove me to the appointment so my boyfriend could be with his mom. I was already not driving because my arms were not strong enough and did not always respond to my commands, and the side effects from the meds plus brain fog were so great that I often did really stupid things even if my body was working. I felt crazy and I was baffled at that time, because I had been the first girl able to bench 160 in my middle school. I had been effortlessly stronger than most people my entire life, and now… nothing in my body seemed to be obeying me.

Up until that point I had already been dealing with chronic pain for two years and one month, but I knew nothing about living well with a chronic illness yet. To my sorrow and guilt, it was difficult for me to even snap through the pain and be there for my boyfriend emotionally. That was so unlike me. I have always been there for those I love in their times of need, not just when it was convenient, but always. For some reason I couldn’t understand at the time, it was like my brain was wrapped in layer after layer of cotton and nothing could get in or out. Mainly out of fear and desperation, I kept my appointment. I wanted to find an instant fix that meant I could go home and help my boyfriend, support him in every way possible. I knew I was doing a terrible job and it was breaking my heart.

At this appointment I was kind of expecting to find out if I had fibromyalgia or not. It had been discussed briefly as a possibility in my previous appointment at OHSU’s Pain Center. I didn’t understand that there was no further test than the quick poke test I had done a month prior at the pain clinic, which I had heard her and her PA mention I “failed” but that was all. They had sent me to get a bunch of blood testing after that appointment, testing that got seriously screwed up by their clinic. After telling me the blood draw had not been done correctly, there had been no further news from anyone in between appointments. So I was completely horrified when the nurse practitioner that I was seeing glanced at a chart and said bluntly, “I see you have fibromyalgia, I’m sure you have prepared a bunch of questions to ask me. We also need to find out if there seems to be anything going on in addition to the fibro that needs to be handled by a rheumatologist.”

My brain kind of exploded. I saw rust colored shadows closing in around me, started sweating profusely, felt dizzy and my stomach went sour instantly. I didn’t connect any of that to the fibromyalgia she had just discussed, but rather I was still trying really hard to believe all the doctors prior who had told me it was all in my head. If it was all in my head, I could just… snap out of it, right? To have a name for it though, and one whose meaning I understood only a fraction of (but which seemed ominous even then), and to experience that in the middle of the grief I was already feeling hollowed out by… I was in no way prepared to hear my diagnosis that way. There’s no good way to receive life-altering medical news, but there are some really terrible ways, and my pain doctor somehow forgetting a whole month earlier to tell me she had diagnosed me then and there with fibromyalgia was one. If I had known I could have researched, I could have digested the news far better in a time when overwhelming sadness for my family was not my constant concern.

All I remember from the rest of the appointment is being sick. Nothing she said made it into my distracted, shocked, grieving brain.

A year later, a lot has changed, but grief for my boyfriend’s father’s  passing is not any less present, any less sad. We miss  Dave terribly, but we have done so much to make him proud this year. My boyfriend has since made it through two semesters of full time course loads, passing everything, getting some solid A’s on half his classes! I am so proud of his strength. At the same time, we finished up the basement to our house, and by “we” I mean all the pressure and responsibility that Dave was taking on with our house remodel fell on my boyfriend, who did not have the depth of knowledge on engineering, or building experience, that his father had. All the plans for the remodel were up in Dave’s engineer brain. We knew nothing about permits and where everything was and who to call, so it is entirely a testament to my boyfriend’s strength of character that it got done by October so we could rent it out.

When Dave passed, even the concrete was partially ripped out, every wall was gone, the plumbing wasn’t done, the electric was started but not finished, there was literally nothing down there. Now it is a fully functioning separate apartment, complete with electric fireplace, beautiful 6×4 ft shower tiled in stone, and an updated kitchen. We finished it while our roommates were moving in, so I do not have any pictures of the final project, but it’s a lovely two bedroom home. My partner also had to replace our vanity and sink upstairs in our bathroom in that time, plus fix up the other apartment that is attached to the back of the garage, a one bedroom cottage -style house with it’s own fenced part of the yard.

It has been a tsunami of change. The poor guy also rescheduled that major hip surgery in March, which took a brutal four months of recovery. I slept on the couch for all of that, so I could be near his recovery bed which was set up in the living room. Some of the things that have been accomplished in 2014 seem impossible. That one week exactly a year ago brought about so much change, so much grief, so much pain, personal strength and family closeness.

Though this week is the anniversary of the worst one I have ever been through, the week we lost a father, and the week I learned of my diagnosis of fibromyalgia, among other events, to my surprise we are still standing a full year later, and thriving even, though the grief is real and ever-present. Every day this year has been a struggle. Yet, there is still so much left to be thankful for, and we have done such a good job of finding those things. I feel blessed to be able to look back on a deeply sad year and still see the good, the progress, and the positive changes within both myself and my partner.

This holiday season, I hope everyone is willing to look back on a year that might not be perfect, and still see how it fostered (or forced) growth, resilience, and self-respect to blossom inside each of us. This was not an easy post to write. The changes this year brought about were not ones I would have chosen for myself, or my partner, but I am proud that we have done our best and we have always kept going, just like Dave would have wanted.

In loving memory of a devoted father, the man who built the foundation the rest of our lives are supported by.

Nothing will ever be the same without you, Dave. We miss you terribly. Most of all, we celebrate all of the wonderful things you did for your family. We are learning to talk openly about your accomplishments, the amount of time you got to spend with your son working on this house, and all the times you made us laugh; the things we miss the most about you. I hope that you are as proud of us as a family as I am of your son.

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