Welcome! ... What is it like to live with a chronic illness?

Dealing with any chronic health condition, and/or illness, can be a daunting task in-and-of itself. While there are numerous aspects that affect one's everyday functioning and survival, one of the greatest frustrations is the lack of understanding, compassion, and tremendous judgement experienced by an individual struggling with any chronic health problem. While it may be difficult to relate to someone who battles a chronic illness, it is so important for those on the outside looking in to make their best attempt to understand their loved one's challenges.

Several years ago my mother stumbled upon a wonderfully written document called "The Spoon Theory." This piece details what it is like to live with a chronic health condition in simple and relatable terms. In my opinion, it is a must-read for anyone whom is seeking to better understand what it is like to live in a body which is chronically ill.

Trust me ... this piece is enlightening and extremely insightful.

This blog is a commentary on my own very personal, and sometimes very painful and challenging journey, with chronic health conditions (including the auto immune diseases Psoriatic Arthritis & Ankylosing Spondylitis, Fibromyalgia, Hashimoto's Disease, Hyper-Mobility Syndrome, PCOS, as well as a spine condition called Spondylolisthesis), and the medical system. While I am not a doctor nor a medical professional of any kind, I am most definitely one very experienced patient! My hope is to share my gained knowledge and experiences with others who deal with similar issues.

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Thursday, June 30, 2011

What does it feel like to have an auto immune disease and chronic illness?

Having an auto immune disease feels like a gradual yet steady descent into a deep dark damp hole. Similar to that of depression, but not the same paradigm. As you begin to fall there are a few people that notice and try to reach out and grab you, but you are not able to hold on for very long, soon finger tips lose touch and the hole tightens its grasp. From this hole you have a hazy window to see life; where you get glimpses of all the things you once held so important. You watch it all pass you by, and with time gaining speed, you make attempts to climb out, but you simply exhaust your body even more. Sorrow, anger, and plain frustration, are common place ... and, after a time, you don't want to "explain" how you feel anymore. You don't have the energy, the desire, the will to get others to understand. Heck, you are in a daily struggle for your life, you cannot waste your precious fleeting energy on words; words that so frequently go unheard anyway.

There are a few days - absolutely wonderful and overwhelming days - where you actually feel like a human again. Unsure of when to expect such a day, especially as the years roll by and your "bad days" outweigh your "good," you often awake with a better sense of your old self, like meeting someone that has been packed away and brought out for a special occasion. You seem to have little or no control over this person, or that of the obviously less desirable "sick person." All you know is that when this person, and this seemingly healthy body appears, you must take advantage of all it has to offer. I must say that this is a big pitfall in the world of a person living with an auto immune disease. Especially true for someone whom is dealing with a very active period (better known, and often referred to as a "flare"), with no sign of a remission in sight. I say this because someone living with a chronic illness - an illness which involves itself in nearly every facet of one's life - is truly walking a tight rope. 

A "balancing act" is putting it mildly when looking at how to have a "normal," and semi active life, while struggling with such an illness. I cannot speak for other people living with the same or similar conditions, I can only speak for myself, but, I do believe that many would agree with me when I explain that "overdoing it" on a "good day" is a common occurrence. As a former perfectionist (former only because I could/can no longer physically deal with the pure energy perfectionism requires), a good day presents itself with so many "things" to do. So many things have been left undone, waiting for your attention, literally in every part/area of your life (from financial issues to personal relationships, and everything in-between), and when you have an opportunity to tackle the wide array of items that have been torturing you from afar, you try to get as much accomplished as possible before you drop from exhaustion. Unfortunately, because you are trying to put a few weeks of activity into a day or two, it is very easy to overdo it, which clearly creates imbalance, and is usually just too much for a less than stellar body.

Plain and simple, when your body has been hijacked by some ridiculous condition, you cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, function at the 'average person's' level. You simply cannot get even the most basic things done in an entire day that would easily be accomplished by a healthy energetic person in an hour or less. You are lucky (and happy), to be able to get out of bed, take care of your own hygiene, feed yourself (if you can stomach food or even have an appetite) and make a good attempt at contacting the "outside world." 

To some, perhaps many, individuals like this appear lazy, and are very frequently labeled as such. While putting myself in these outsiders' shoes, I can completely relate to how one might view such a person, as no one truly "gets it" until it touches their own lives in an intimate manner. And, even when something of this nature is in your life everyday (say you are living with a loved one whom is experiencing the grasp of a chronic illness), you still don't really get to a level of complete understanding and true empathy.

I get it, it's hard to understand. It's difficult to grasp, and then deal with it on an everyday basis. Having compassion on a constant basis is a strain on the other party as well. Trust me, if you are that other person in the equation, we know that you want to scream, pull your hair out, and tell us to just get better, dammit! And trust me, there is nothing more in this world that anyone with a chronic condition wants than to just BE NORMAL AND HEALTHY. It's not fun, it's not comfortable, it's not what "life" should be, nor is it what we want.

After you are asked repeatedly how you are doing, how you are feeling, ... as well as things more sarcastic, like, so ... when are you going to feel better? - even while many questions are simply out of love, respect and concern - it becomes harder and harder to answer, or even speak to at all, as the answer feels like it will never change. And I do believe that many people become fearful that perhaps it won't. At least this has become a very real fear for myself. I think too, that because such an all encompassing health related condition can feel as if it has saturated your life (and often it does), it absorbs a lot of one's being and fills the many corners of the person's existence, even when it is actively resisted. This leaves the disease in control, and it very quickly and easily begins to feel like you are the disease ... that it is the only thing that defines you. This is a tough place to be, and again, you find yourself trying to partake in a balancing act.

As for this very moment, I need to take a deep breath and take a break. I am trying to teach myself better ways to cope. Not to overdo everything when I get that special day when the old me is a resident in this very alien body. I'll let you know the results. Thank goodness that the perfectionist is simply unable to function, as she would have lost it a long time ago!

Chronic Pain Anyone?

Chronic pain. The phrase, or rather, state of being, makes many of us cringe with great discomfort and resistance from the get go ... but unfortunately, so many of us deal with it every single day of our lives. It makes daily functioning - everyday activities - extremely challenging, and affects many, if not all areas of our lives. Those who battle chronic pain know just how much it can affect energy levels, attitudes, mental and emotional states, along with our general interactions and behaviors in our world. It is always on our minds, sometimes so much so that we cannot sleep, participate in activities, even eat. Chronic pain literally drains us; depleting our energy levels so much so that it is a struggle to get out of bed some days. And, once we open our eyes and make that first movement to get out of bed, we are faced with the challenge of "getting going," so to speak. We quickly and easily become exhausted from dealing with the pain which emanates throughout our bodies, and for some (myself included), the pain is so great that it feels as though one's body has been hit by a mack truck during those hours of sleep. Depending upon the cause and source of the pain - which may be experienced in a variety of ways - one thing seems to remain consistent: It is a daily struggle which is always present, creeping into every aspect of our lives.   

Pain is our body's way of telling us that something is not right within one of our many body systems. It is meant to alert us to a problem, and in turn, we are suppose to either "fix it," or stop the action/behavior which is causing the pain. But, when we are faced with a permanent health problem/condition/illness that results in continuous pain (and therefore, the problem is not fully corrected), we have to seek out different ways of "solving" our pain problem. So many of the "solutions" for chronic pain, provided by the medical community, are more or less "band-aide" fixes. Of course, there is the popular "medication fix," which does not truly address the problem, although for those that have too much pain to deal with life, it is often a necessary evil. On the positive side, medication may assist in decreasing pain levels, resulting in the body conserving and directing more energy towards healing the core problem(s). Surgeries, and other medical procedures, are common place for western medicine providers as a means to solving pain related conditions. But, I must say, that in my experience many of these "solutions" only lead to more problems, rather than fixing the underlying issues. And, I fear that there are a few too many doctors out there whom are a bit too excited to jump to the surgery route, but, that is just my humble opinion, not a fact. Of course there are situations that require surgical interventions in order to save a person's life, and I understand this as well, as I faced a similar dilemma. In my personal situation, while my operations and procedures promised not only to save my life (which they did), and reduce the pain (to a good degree for several years), the outcome was far from what was suggested or anticipated, and to be frank, my pain remains a life long struggle. When an individual does require surgery, more often than not there remains a mix of ongoing and unpredictable problems as both a direct and indirect result. It's typical, at least in my experience, that many doctors and healthcare providers often bill a given procedure or surgery as a complete fix; a fix that promises a solution to the given condition, end of story. All of us dealing with chronic pain - whether it arose from a spine condition, injury, illness, or any other countless health condition - know the truth. And the truth being: That there is no true "fix." No matter how grand, no matter how praised the procedure, or skilled a physician, there is no simple, quick or perfect answer to the pain problem. So many people want to believe in that fairy tale. And it is understandable, as we hate to see our loved one's in pain and suffering firsthand is not a joy either, especially if it is a long term and daily experience. It seems unending, and honestly, much of the time, it is. 

Medical science has come a long way in a short period of time. That much is true. But, for all of you fellow chronic pain sufferers - those whom battle chronic ailments and diseases like cancer, auto immune diseases, spinal conditions, transplants, severe infections, and so much more - know that no matter how spectacular the presented solution appears, there is no band-aide which truly sticks. This is why I have believe it is so important for those who suffer with chronic pain to share our stories and provide each other support, empathy and compassion. While there are many causes for our pain, we all deal with similar struggles, face the same challenges, battle the same attitudes, navigative the same painfully broken medical system, and fight for a sense of normalcy with everyday that passes. I hope that anyone and everyone who deals with chronic pain may feel that they can share their stories, their tears, their anger, and their accumulated knowledge & experience on this page. I hope that we can provide each other some support, resources, and the "do's and don't's," all in the name of decreasing the pain.  

Chronic pain sufferers are the only ones who can truly empathize and hear other chronic pain sufferers. The same sort of rule is witnessed with both chronic illness and other serious long term health conditions. It is a struggle to get others in your life to really "get it." I find that while they try to understand, try to sympathize and be compassionate, it is nearly impossible for them to understand the full magnitude of chronic pain when they are not in it everyday, every minute, like we are.  I know that many of us try to remain quiet about our pain, not to bother our significant others or family and friends. And that as a general rule, we try to avoid sounding like we are "complaining." And we are not complainers. We are usually survivors ... courageous survivors at that, and all of whom endure far more than anyone should ever have to deal with in a lifetime. It becomes beyond frustrating to get others to truly understand that we do not enjoy being in pain, nor do we enjoy having the same answer to the question, "how are you feeling?" This struggle often interferes with, and strains relationships and friendships. It can make us doubt ourselves, our bodies, our minds, and can result in an internal, and seemingly hopeless battle of anger, frustration, and sadness. 

I believe that this issue is similar to the struggle so many of us face with doctors, and convincing them how we feel in our own bodies. We know ourselves better than anyone else. Yes, even better than the "god like," "know it all" doctors, whom often try to tell us we are crazy or depressed when they can't find an answer to our pain and constellation of symptoms. It is an easy train to jump on, not to mention a frequently travelled train ... It allows the doctor to appear competent when they doubt themselves (which they rarely admit to), and with their authority and status, we begin to doubt ourselves, believing that our pain is not real, or that we are crazy, selfish, and/or attention seekers. It happens so often that we begin to ignore our best advocate; our intuition. When we are ill, dealing with so much pain, facing daily fatigue, and literally struggling to get through the day, we have little energy left to battle doctors, question their authority and push for help. I have experienced this first hand more than once, and it nearly resulted in my death, and ultimately changed my life forever. I would like to note that I do not dislike all doctors, and do promote visiting a provider(s) whenever your health requires. But, I want to emphasize how important it is to listen to your own voice, trust your gut, and not buy into the idea that the doctors know all and should not be questioned. From both my own personal experience, and from observing and listening to other's, I have seen a pattern that seems to occur far too often, one which I find frightening.  

I will post blogs to this page that describe various personal experiences in the "field of pain"... situations, stories, experiences, and interactions, that others that would likely not fully or truly understand, unless they too have been in the throws of chronic pain. I will also add my findings when it comes to what has worked for my pain, and what hasn't cut it. Two treatments/practices already mentioned in the blog include Soma Body Massage Work and Reiki Energy Work. You may read more about the practices themselves, as well as how they have helped relieve my pain. There are additional website links provided which are related to sites which further detail the practices and where you may find providers in your area. If you have any questions about said practices, please don't hesitate to contact me! Also, please add your own suggestions, as we can never have too many ideas and suggestions for the relief of pain!!! My desire for this blog subject is simple: I hope that it may allow a dialogue to open between all of those whom experience chronic pain, so that we can share, support one another, listen and truly hear each others pain and struggles (because sometimes that's all we need, no judgement, no comments, or even suggestions, just someone that really knows how you feel and can therefore provide validation in your experiences). There are obviously a lot of different ailments, and with all these various conditions comes a variety of surgical procedures/options ... Some are more successful than others, some are "newer" and/or "experimental," and many can only be found at certain medical hospitals, universities, communities. If you have information regarding any procedure, providers, hospitals, etc., please provide any details that you may deem important and ultimately helpful to someone dealing with the same or similar situations. From my experience, given the level of patient privacy rules these days, it is often hard to get all the information you need, the nitty gritty of the details, what to expect, how a doctor performs (even personality), and all can help a fellow chronic pain patient find a good fit for their health care choices ... hopefully, making their future a bit better through knowledge that may allow them to avoid certain things, and ask certain questions.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Finally! Answers to my chronic illness ...

It took over 4 years to get an answer, a diagnosis, or rather, diagnoses, for my auto immune conditions. After seeing one doctor after another, finally, on April 11, 2011, I found the doctor who would bring many of my puzzle pieces together, forever change my life, provide much needed answers, and finally, validation of my health battles and a direction for hope. I am told I have two sero-negative auto immune diseases: Psoriatic Arthritis and Ankylosing Spondylitis. Both help to explain a number of my symptoms and many years of suffering, although there remains a few question marks; symptoms which do not fit into the category for either disease. So, with that, my Rheumatologist has hinted and suggested that there's likely a third, although those answers are on hold for now. Getting these diagnoses was like a victory for myself, for my life, my body, and even for my past. 

As a little girl I played many sports. Everything from volleyball, softball, tennis, gymnastics, dance, ice skating, and my most beloved, soccer. I was very active and loved being competitive. I felt great pride and accomplishment through both my own self and by way of other's reactions to my achievements in this arena. I also desperately wanted to please everyone, adults in particular. I was raised within a society which told young people not to question authority, not to doubt the opinions, beliefs and statements of your parents, teachers, and of course, the doctors. Some kids seek attention by doing negative things, I wanted the opposite; attention and praise for the positive things, and I sought it out as often as possible. So, of course as a young child and teenager the last thing I wanted was to disappoint someone, especially the adults. I wanted to make them proud and happy, not ashamed and angry. Being an overly sensitive person only increased my reactions to things, and I clung to every word, hand gesture, even facial expression, worrying constantly that I have done something wrong to make another mad, disappointed or upset in some way. 

When the pain started in my low back I was only 9 years old. I had yet to go through puberty and didn't have a full understanding and ability to recognize my body, but one thing I did know for certain: I was in pain and a lot of it. At first it came intermittedly, brought on or aggravated by more aggressive activities and sports, but I didn't pay it much attention and left it at that. As the pain and overall discomfort grew worse I was unsure if this was simply how everyone else felt in their body, and while I did say I was in pain, I only did so rarely and quietly, as not to upset or worry anyone. As time passed the pain became to much to bare when it came to playing sports, the last to go was volleyball. I remember the last day I played the game in fact .. I was good at it and the team looked to me to be a good player, and that day's pain was beyond horrific. I had to leave half way through and didn't live up to my typical abilities. My parents, especially my father, didn't understand why I needed to stop, and frankly, I wasn't sure why either, I just knew I was in great distress. Just like the rest, I gave up the game of Volleyball, with many thinking I was being lazy, or at least that's what I perceieved, especially since my doctor's had repeatedly said I was fine after each visit I came and complained of pain. Turns out those doctor's knew exactly why I was in pain, but didn't do anything about it ... although one later wrote in her notes that she was surprised I was still able to walk due to my extreme condition of Spondylolisthesis ... yet not one word of confirmation of my pain and complaint. I still wonder if that doctor simply hated me, as why would anyone with half of a heart allow a child to continue forward without any help knowing the severe and probable consquences of my condition? I can't answer that question. I don't think I will ever know, but it's always remained in the back of my mind, and in the pit of my stomach. She later went back and revised my records to make herself not appear at fault ... simply to save her own ass. The other doctor's made my x-rays, three years worth, vanish into thin air .. leaving no record, no footprint of me and the progression of my life altering condition. Both doctors got away unscalthed, able to continue practicing medicine. Sickening. 

As a child I didn't have a voice. I had my intution, which told me something was very wrong, but I didn't have the right words, the strength, the power to continue speaking up and fighting for my body. You do not question doctors ... at least that's the general belief and unspoken rule. And as a child, you are dually gagged, as they are both an authority figure and experts, how dare one question them when you're simply a child? You don't. Instead of continuing to voice my struggles, pain and tremendous growing discomfort, I wanted to please everybody, not create any problems, ... so I stopped; ultimately, I shut up. As a result I literally witnessed the edge of a cliff, coming close to falling off. And, while I didn't fall off, .. while I'm alive and still walking, my life was forever changed in so many permanent and not so wonderful ways. As an adult I was not going to allow this same scenerio happen again. I was not going to give up or shut up, and I vowed to continue listening to my body and stating the problems, even while people were annoyed and questioned my sanity. Yes, a lonely and long road to travel indeed, but I did it, and as a result, I won a big victory for that little girl inside of me who had no voice. Perhaps my past experience was a set up and a needed lesson in order to navigate this more recent struggle ... I am not sure. Although, I must say, that had it not been for that little girl, the pain, the suffering, the battle I nearly lost, I am not so sure I would have been so persistent this time around. 

Another day, another doctor ...

Another day, Another doctor ...

A few years back a nurse from my primary care's office said something that struck a cord with me, .. something that a patient may have very easily taken as an insult, but for myself it actually brought clarity and perspective to my life, more specifically the life I have been living these past 5 years or so, .. although, one could argue the concept fits me and my life going as far back as my preteens. What did she say to me you ask? She said that I was a "career patient," a term which I had never heard or considered before, but something which rang so true. It also followed along the same lines as another comment made by my mother a number of times over these last few very challenging and painful years. Let me back track and say that this time spent seeking help, answers, a diagnosis, and finally, treatment, has been very hard on me, both physically and emotionally. One could also easily say that it's been a battle financially and spiritually too, as it seems one only affects the other, just as our body's systems and conditions affect each other, like the game of dominos. 

For the majority of these years I have felt many emotions, spent many frustrating days enveloped in a nagging desperation that the so-called best years of my life, the time in our twenties which is supposed to be racked with happiness, new experiences, success, ultimately the building blocks (or years) of our lives, has been all but wasted being ill .. waiting to get answers, waiting to feel better, waiting for treatment and improvement, all so I can get back to living my life as normally as possible. Many weights were lifted from my shoulders, my heart, and my very being, the day I received my first auto immune diagnoses. Aside from the obvious, one additional weight lifted was the idea and belief that so many of my good years had been taken away from me, wasted, robbed, down the drain with no chance of recovery, and certainly no opportunity to press the rewind button. My mom's statement to me has been repeated over these last few years, but I was not able to accept it and truly appreciate it, .. really be okay with what has been occurring (and what hasn't) as a result of my chronic illnesses, until I allowed myself to see the whole picture, diagnoses in hand. My mom said that this experience, just like with life, has been a true education, one on a doctorate level, and that I had all but earned myself a Ph.D as a result of my ongoing struggles. This idea gave me relief, a sense of peace that I haven't felt in some time, a calm which allowed me to let go of the idea that this time spent being sick, unable to do so many of the things I longed and hoped for, dreamt of, and expected for my life, wasn't for nothing, and that it was a very large, expensive and multi-faceted education which will serve me well in the present and the future. I even hope that as things come full circle, that it may help in the healing of my past, which remains a painful and tender subject with too many layers to count. So, here I am; a career patient. A career patient with an extraordinary graduate degree in life with so much more to learn, but so many more lessons to share. And, one thing I know which brings me much comfort, I am not alone, even while I am unique, rarely fit in "the box," and always seem to fall upon the more unusual, more rare circumstances, conditions, diagnoses, and so on, within every department imaginable it seems. 

I am not sure why all of this trauma has happened to me, to my body, to my life .. and yes, while I don't want to throw a pity party and allow it to be my entire life and all of me, I do find it unfair, sad, and lonely. I have always tried to be an honest person, a real person, one with some integrity and compassion, sometimes too much so, and to a fault, and so, I prefer not to sugar coat things, to avoid apologizing for my life and my feelings. I am only human and I am not sure how else I can reach others if I am not just me. I am overly sensitive to things, overly sensitive to others, their feelings and heartbreak, and to how they react to me, so I can't say I don't care what others think and say, as that would be a lie, but, I am working on it ... working on letting go of other's judgments, opinions, beliefs and even criticisms about me and what I've experienced and endured in the life. Holding on to such things doesn't serve me in any positive manner and only generates negativity. This, I know, is yet another lesson for my doctorate degrees in life, and has been tested over and over by my journey with these chronic health conditions. As I have shared before, I believe we are our own best advocates, sometimes the only advocate for ourselves, and so trusting yourself, knowing your body and following your intuition, your gut, is so important, sick or not. 

About Me

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My interest for all things related to health & illness arises from my own struggles with chronic health conditions. I have found it most therapeutic & empowering to write about my many experiences within this realm. Through education, my own research, and my ongoing personal challenges, I am teaching myself how to become my own best advocate. To learn more about me, please see the page entitled "About Cat" located at the top of the page. If you have any questions or comments, you are welcome to contact me through the "about" section listed above, or email me at healthandillness@gmail.com. Please note that this address is also linked through my profiles. Blessings of health, energy and peace.

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