Why is support such a hard word to comprehend?

I’ve been thinking a lot about support recently.

We, the chronically ill, think about it all the time to be honest. We lay in our beds, or sit uncomfortably in our chairs, just wondering when we will have enough.

The ladies in my support groups get it. We can talk all day about the lack of support we get from our own doctors, friends, family members, even spouses. Some of us have been sick for many years, and yet we always are surprised by the painful sting of the lack of understanding around us.

And it’s not like our disease is uncommon. You can find a wealth of information online regarding the disease and its symptoms. Rheumatoid Disease is unfortunately common, I know at least four other people with varying stages of it. So, I find it fairly ridiculous when I’m faced with comments from people I know, saying “Oh I don’t really know much.” Yet, these are the same people that feel the need to lecture me on how I could be cured if I started yoga and went gluten free. *insert eye roll here*

Just for the record (in case you’re a new reader), I have tried so many diets, workout routines, and herbal treatments. I’ve tried acupuncture, CBD oil, vitamins, spiritual healing, magic moon rocks, I mean I could go on for ages…

When you are as sick as I am, trust me when I say this, you will do anything and try anything. I never asked to be sick, this wasn’t in my life plan. Do you think when I was young I dreamed about one day being 37 and unemployed? Do you think I imagined dealing with pain day to day that was so bad that most medications in the world don’t work for me? Do you think I hoped to have such a debilitating disease that it scared away most men in my life, leaving me often single and lonely?

No. The answer is no.

I have tried everything in my power to find something, anything, that would work. So, once again I am here pleading with people to not be bad friends to your sick friends. They don’t need your judgement. You will not and cannot ever understand what they go through day to day, unless you’ve experienced it yourself.

The best support is just being there. You promise to show up, then show up. If you promise to listen, then listen. Be supportive by understanding that what we are going through is something difficult for us. That we didn’t ask for this life, but that we struggle through it every day. And we want to be better.

A women in one of my support groups is realising that her husband is not the man she thought. He is very unsupportive of her struggle, and instead of trying to uunderstand, he checks out. This is not the support we want or need. Spouses and family members may have it the hardest, it’s true. They see us at our most vulnerable, at our weakest moments. The best way to support us through that is to just BE THERE. Don’t make it about yourself, your needs, why it affects you. We know it affects you. But we need you to be strong for us because sometimes we can’t be strong for ourselves.

This last month was a hard one for me. I was in the hospital for pneumonia, an ailment which I’m still recovering from. During the worst of it I cracked My ribs on both sides from all the coughing. It has been a hard month of pain on my body, and a very slow road to wellness.

Because of the multiple hospital stays I’ve had within the last six month, my mother and I decided to move in together. It seemed the best way to give support to each other. We move this weekend.

Now obviously I don’t have to tell you how painful it is to move with broken ribs. Packing has been a nightmare. The last two times I’ve moved I was in a romantic relationship. Now that I am single again I am reminded how hard it is to do things like this without the support of a partner.

So, I took to Facebook and asked if any friends could help me with the move.

I was shocked at the lack of response. During the best times I’ve always had close friends offer help if I need it. But when I call in that offer? Crickets…..

At the same time, a friend who I don’t know very well, stepped up. Not only offering her help, but also that of her partner. It’s times like these when I feel my faith in humanity gets restored bit by bit.

But I’m still disappointed.

I am a giver. I will give and give until I have nothing, if only to ensure the comfort and well being of others. I know this about myself and I know it has been overly taxing on me before. Especially in the midst of me living day to day with the illness that consumes me. But I will always offer help, and give whatever I can. That’s how I was raised.

It’s taken me many years to realise that not everyone is the same. Some people take. Some people are only present when it suits their needs. Some people are flaky. And honestly, some people just don’t care. And it can take you a while to really figure that out for yourself. I’m 37 years old and I still hold on to the hope that everyone cares the same degree that I do.

I’m an optimist, what can I say?

I guess the point to my litany is to be self aware. Be supportive to those who need it. Be a good friend, spouse, family member. Give what you can, not just take. Try to understand what it’s like to walk in the shoes of others. Listen. Care. Be.

I still don’t understand

I grew up with Disney, and fairytales, and romance. I grew up believing one day my prince would come and sweep me off my feet and save the day.

In my twenties I quickly learned how silly these concepts were. That Disney wasn’t real, that fairytales were rare, and that there was no prince waiting on a white horse.

In my early thirties, I woke up one day with Severe Rheumatoid Arthritis. In the six years that have passed since then I’ve learned that my body wasn’t made for romance, fairytales, and dreams come true.

I don’t know what the meaning of life is, or why we are here, and what we as humans are meant to do. But I’ve come to realize that I my body and mind were meant to endure colossal amounts of pain.

Pain from the diseases in my body that won’t quit multiplying. Pain from cancers that won’t give up. Pain from being destroyed from inside out. And the pain from being constantly let down by those who don’t stay.

If my body was meant to endure such stress and pain, why give me a heart and mind that is so vulnerable to the human condition?

Why let me know sadness and sorrow, heartache and loss? Was the physical endurance not enough for one person to take? Must I feel the destruction of everything inside on such a monumental level?

I don’t understand why I was made to experience so much pain. I don’t understand. I don’t understand.

No one can do what I do

Today I was on a video chat with my dad and he said something that has really stayed with me.
We were talking about my disease, “the gift that keeps on giving”, and how despite the odds I’m always optimistic.

Yesterday I got out of the hospital again. It was my second hospital stay in two months, not a great average for someone like me.
In September I was in the hospital for six days, with an esophagus complication that was never really resolved. In those six days I developed a cold that I still have, and blood clots in my arm from a perforated vein via IV insertion.
The cold is annoying yes, but the blood clots ended up being a real shit. I had plans to go to a friends wedding in California, just a few weeks later, which ended up not happening.
My dad has planned to pay for my tickets but the clots caused him unease and he reneged on our deal. (I later found out I couldn’t have gone anyways due to not being able to fly with clots in my arm.) Unseen problems that turned into a big mess. Fairly sure I lost a friend or two over it. The ongoing cost of a disease I didn’t ask for.

Early Monday morning I woke up with a sharp pain in my right thigh. It was a confusing place for pain in my body to be, as it wasn’t near a joint. Rheumatoid Arthritis attacks the flesh around your joints, but this felt like someone was slowly sawing off my thigh bone.
When the pain became unbearable I took myself back to the Emergency Department. This time, unbeknownst to me, I had a clot in my leg. A very large one, deep in my thigh, known as Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT). This was a serious matter as if the clot broke it could travel to my lungs or brain and I could die instantly.
After many tests and overnight observation, it was concluded that I must take twelve days of self injections in the belly (ouch!), followed by three months of blood thinners. No flying for me anytime soon..

Now out of the hospital, and limping around on a cane, I’m packing up my room to move this weekend. An unfortunate overlap in my current reality. I took a break and called my Dad on What’s App to check in and update him on my status.
After I told him about my hospital stay, the medication options available, and my recovery time, he looked stricken. I told him not to worry, I’d dealt with bad before, I could do it again.
He said “You’re right. No one else could do what you do.”

Huh..

That statement has really stayed with me.
“No one else could do what you do.”

It reminds me of a conversation I had with my partner the other day about ‘reality’. (We’d been watching American Gods, a show about the unknown of our world, and the idea of creating your own reality, your own fate.) I asked him if that were true, then why would I create a reality in which I was always in pain? Seemed a bit strange for someone to want to go through that on purpose.
It was an odd show to be honest….

That conversation stays with me too. Coupled with the notion of “no one could do that but you”, I’m left wondering.

People have told me before that they didn’t know how I could get through the things I have. Didn’t know how I coped with the pain, the depression, the unknown fate of someone with an incurable disease.
And I think about it too.
I think about it a lot.

When I was a kid I was such a wimp. Paper cuts would end in tears, a scraped knee would be the end of the world. I couldn’t lift weights like others in high school during PE. I wasn’t a very physical person at all.

Now it’s been almost six years that I have lived through pain that most couldn’t conceive. Bearable pain that I live with daily would send most people to the Emergency Department. I live with things that I never imagined I would have to. I’ve been in hospital more times than I can count. I’ve experienced heart attacks, survived lymphoma, survived cervical cancer, and broken several bones from hugs.
I live with Rheumatoid Disease, Osteoporosis, Fibromyalgia, Lung Disease, and Lupus, daily.

“No one else could do what you do.”

Maybe he is right. Maybe they all are.
I may not have been ‘born for this’, but I live with it on a level that many could never conceive.
Because they will never see it on my face. I wear my Disease like a smile on my face. I stay optimistic, I stay positive. Because I have to.

No one else can do what I do.

Oh, is my hair loss from chemotherapy inconveniencing you?

For those of us who take forms of chemotherapy for our disease, it’s a pretty big deal.

It’s bad enough that we get flak from the cancer community for using the term “chemotherapy” when explaining our biologics, when that’s what it actually is! I get that some of us aren’t on the high doses that cancer patients are on, BUT IT IS STILL CHEMO AND IT STILL HITS US HARD. It’s not a competition to see who’s on the worst drug or dosage.

I’ve been on biologic infusions for a couple years now. That means that I willingly consent to toxic chemicals being pumped into my body in the hopes that it makes me well. Sometimes, they do. I have unfortunately been on the other end of that a few times. The last time my body didn’t like chemo, the backlash consisted of multiple heart attacks and an eight day stint in the ICU.

It’s not a competition, so don’t tell me the chemo I take doesn’t have a toll. I get nauseated and vomit for hours. My body turns to lead and I have to sleep like the dead for up to 20 hours sometimes, just to recoup. AND my hair falls out.

Its gotten better over the years. The first time I went on chemo it came out in large clumps, to the point where I had to cut my hair short to hide the gaps. These days it doesn’t fall out en masse. But it does fall out! I have strands all over my floor, all over my pillows, and all over my bed and sheets. It sticks to my clothes, and it stands out cause I’m a redhead these days. You really can’t miss it.

It makes me very self conscious. You don’t need to tell me my hair is everywhere, I KNOW. No one knows better than me!

Most people are pretty cool about it. Sometimes they pick it off me discreetly, or mention I have a chunk sitting on my shoulder. I blush, take care of it, and we act like it didn’t happen.

You know what’s not ok?? Acting like you’re put out because my hair is in your vicinity. I’d love to not have my hair fall out, but I didn’t choose to be chronically ill, and I certainly don’t love being on chemotherapy. Have some fucking sympathy or compassion. But saying “Ew your hair is everywhere” or refusing to touch things in MY room because the hair “grosses” you out… Like are you serious?

How entitled do you have to be that you shame me for something I can’t control and hate about myself?!?! That shit is not ok. And while in my naivety I may have put up with it in the past, I will not longer.

No one in any circumstance is allowed to make you feel bad about yourself or your circumstance. EVER. That shows their insecurities, not yours.

So that will no longer fly with me. Nor should it for anyone else.

Our footprints

I recently ended a two week long road trip around the South Island of New Zealand. A trip that I never thought I’d be able to take at this point in my life.

At 36, I never thought I’d be struggling under the burden of multiple chronic illnesses. Never thought that I would live each day in pain and fatigue, wondering if or when it would all end. In March of 2016, one of the eleven doctors and specialists that I saw on a regular basis told me that I was living on a clock. A clock that no woman in her mid-thirties should have had to think about. A clock that was slowly counting down the time unto which my life would end. I had time, years in fact. But not decades, like most my age looked forward to. Ten years minimum, fifteen if I got lucky.

I took that news on my own, silently in his office, starting at my hands as if they were supposed to provide me with the answers he didn’t have. If they could find a medication that worked for me, more time could be bought. But they hadn’t found anything in the years leading up, and every day my disease turned more aggressive. Every time I visited a doctor a new diagnosis would be presented, or the bad news of a failed medication would be shared. Years of allergies and intolerance to the leading drugs for my diseases, countless failed treatments, and pain, so much pain. And then to hear that despite all my optimism I was going to die sooner than maybe even my own parents…

Five months later I landed in the Intensive Cardiac Unit at Queens Medical Center for ten days. I survived a “multiple cardiac event”, according to my cardiologist and the medical team that looked after me. Despite my doctors projections, my body had other ideas in mind for my time left on earth.

But something changed in me the night that I almost died. It’s not that I wanted to go… Sure some of us living with chronic pain have been down that road where we wonder if the pain is worth going on. Nothing as dark as giving into those thoughts though. And in the middle of my second heart attack of the night on my third night in hospital, apparently when the pain became too great that I actually blacked out, I had an epiphany.

No, I did not “see the light“. I mean yes, there was light, but clearly it was the doctors shining something in my face trying to wake me. I did however feel like I had a choice. A choice on whether to let go, or to continue on.

I don’t know how long I was in that place, probably only seconds. Later my doctors told me I could have died. And I knew if I had been willing to give up, I would have. But something had changed. Despite all the pain, and the knowing I didn’t have long, I still wanted to continue. Something told me that I had purpose.

A year and a half later I finally understand what that is.

Earlier this year I made the life changing decision to move to New Zealand, as healthcare was more accessible for me there as I was a citizen. More so than it was in the US, as it wasn’t affordable, even on Federal Disability. It was a chance to turn my life around as well, live healthier, make friends, maybe find my purpose.

I started bi-monthly Infliximab infusions in June, and had successfully gotten myself off most of my hardcore painkillers by October. I’d even lost a large portion of weight that I’d gained from years of Prednisone usage. I got some new hobbies, joined groups, and made friends, so many friends. I even started dating for the first time in two and a half years.

Sure, I was still in pain. My disease didn’t magically disappear because I moved. Chronic illnesses don’t drift off when you find love, despite what Disney movies try to teach us. I still spent multiple days in bed, fatigued beyond repair. Lung Disease reared its ugly head in a new diagnosis in August. Lupus followed soon after..

The change was that I felt I was around more people that supported me. People didn’t treat me as pitiful, and because of that I was able to let the real me shine through. I reclaimed the person I used to be, maybe not in body, but definitely in spirit. And I realise now it’s all because of footprints.

Just like others footprints made an impression on me during my illness, my footprints were helping others too. I accepted the love and generosity of friends and strangers in Hawaii because my blog had reached them in ways I didn’t know. I couldn’t see that the knowledge I’d learned in my own experiences were helping people just as those whose generosity helped me. Just by listening to a friend, or sharing a meal, I was leaving footprints on the journey of others, just as they leave theirs on mine.

Today as my partner and I concluded our two week vacation, one that I wouldn’t have taken had I not left footprints on his journey as equally as he left his on mine, I had my epiphany. We were talking with our Airbnb host, just as we were getting ready to depart for the airport, and she shared that she had lupus. She shared this only because I shared that I wrote a blog about living with invisible illnesses. Through this tiny piece of information she came to not only understand that she shouldn’t feel alone, but also some references I gave her for support groups. She had no idea the resources that were available to her, feeling isolated by friends and family who couldn’t or wouldn’t understand.

On the plane ride home I thought about my footprints… If I can leave pieces of myself behind, to help or to grow or to love, then no matter how much time I have left, that time was worthy. I have and will continue to make a difference on those who choose to share my journey with me, just as I share theirs.

Our footprints, my footprints, matter…

Chemotherapy…a powerful drug no matter the diagnosis

This morning I start treatment again, after a 4 month hiatus while moving and settling in another country. It’s been a long time since I’ve had medication in my body that actually helps my Rheumatoid Disease, as opposed to just put a drug band-aid on it like steroids do. Four months is a long time to go without critical medicine that helps your mobility and pain.

Normally, I am pretty open with others about what treatments I am on, preferring to be upfront about everything. I am not ashamed or embarrassed that I used opiates for a long time when the pain was too much to bear. I won’t lie about the fact that four years of steroids caused my weight to go up so high that I didn’t recognize myself in the mirror. I am also not going to be bullied into the fact that a lot of people don’t like when I use the term chemotherapy to describe my treatment.

This is one of the key issues that we as patients deal with in Rheumatology. Not many can grasp the fact that our diseases are very serious and can take lives. Everyone just assumes, because it’s more well known and talked about, that the big C is the really bad one out there. But Cancer is not the only thing that kills! Many die from complications of Rheumatoid Disease and autoimmune diseases. The numbers would shock you. But because it’s not cancer, or you haven’t heard a lot about it, it can’t possibly be as deadly right? WRONG.

I am part of a very supportive group on Facebook for women suffering from Rheumatoid Arthritis/Disease. We were ripped apart about a month ago by a sickening argument over using the term chemotherapy when talking about some of our treatments. An alarming number of women were very negative about the fact that some of use the very name our doctors themselves speak. Angry that despite the fact that we are in fact on chemotherapy drugs, and go through many if not all the symptoms of dealing with it, we shouldn’t be allowed to say “I’m on chemotherapy”. As if cancer patients are the only ones with the right.

Here’s where I get angry. This isn’t the damned Pain Olympics. It’s not a competition on whom is more sick and who can have what treatment! We are all sick! Some of us dying! Have some fucking empathy!

My doctors, including my Rheumatologist, all refer to Remicade as a “chemotherapy drug”. Before starting a round of infusions, I am given the same list of side effects and ailment symptoms that any other patient on chemotherapy gets. Infusions, while helpful to my RD, are brutal on my body. They make me nauseated, I vomit, I sleep for hours with no real rested feeling in sight, I lose weight, my hair falls out, and my skin turns white and crepe-like. But it’s not cancer related, so it’s not really chemotherapy right? WRONG.

If it’s not really chemotherapy, then why has my Lymphoma and Cervical Cancer gone into remission after being on it? If it’s not chemotherapy, then why do I experience the same side effects as those with the big C? If it’s not chemotherapy, then why do ALL of my doctors use that term?

Because…. It IS Chemotherapy. It may not be the same doses as different diseases and illnesses, but it’s the same drug. It’s a drug that helps many people to live better lives, that they may not be able to have otherwise. It helps me. That’s all that matters. I have the right to call it what it is. It’s chemotherapy, and it’s saving my life.

So, today I will make my way down to my local clinic. I will be weighed, have my temperature taken, and put into a bed. I will be monitored like a hawk, because these are serious drugs. Four hours later I will emerge, exhausted beyond comparison to anything I’ve ever experienced, nauseated and yet hungry. I will go home where my mom will watch me for 24-48 hours to make sure I don’t get violently ill-it’s happened many times. I’ll barely keep my eyes open while I attempt a few bites of food and sips of water, before falling back into coma-like sleep for days. I’ll continue to lose weight, dark circles forming under my eyes, my skin thin as paper, more hair falling out with every shampoo and hair brush. But I’ll be closer to pain free than I ever have been.

I have Rheumatoid Disease, and I’m on chemotherapy.

I’m not a superhero, but it’s scary all the same 

It’s nearing the end of 2016, and it seems like people are dropping like flies. Carrie Fisher died this week. Princess Leia, a superhero hero to one and all, one of the originals. She empowered women and girls alike, showing that we don’t need to be “saved”, and that we can have kickass adventures in life on our own. And just days later her mother, Debbie Reynolds, followed her demise. Just last week pop icon, George Michael, died as well. This was also the year that took Prince. 

Superheroes these people were. But the real life kind. George Michael gave millions of his earnings to the needy. Prince donated time and money to foundations as well. You could say they all lived good and meaningful lives. Their deaths will all be remembered, their lives immortalized in history and our minds.

That’s what we do with famous people. We build them up to be larger than life.

I will always remember this poster I saw on a directory stand at a mall once… It’s said “You can probably name every single American Idol winner, but do you known the names of all of your child’s teachers?”

That’s so true isn’t it? We know totally useless information about famous people, probably more than their own families or themselves. Yet we don’t know much about each other, r important people in our lives.

I guess my point is that we dwell on things that don’t really matter. Things that aren’t important or necessary or helpful to our growth and intelligence. And while focusing on nonsense we forget about what’s really important, or whom.

You know what came to my mind when I saw that Princess Leia died? ‘Millions will remember her death, but I wonder how many would pay attention to mine?’ 

I’ve tried to be as honest as I can to friends and family about my disease. I try to explain my symptoms, or what the doctors say, or what we know. But either it goes in one ear and out the other, people don’t really believe it to be true, or its too intense to comprehend at all.

Mom knows. Or at least I think she has a pretty good grasp of the reality of the situation. Even more so since my therapist sat her down and really made her see. I can’t imagine what must have gone through her head that day. Was it like everyone else I tell? Incomprehension? Sudden, gripping fear? Denial? 

It’s just like the Christmas season and Santa Claus… It’s all a myth, not really real right? Or the monster under my bed isn’t really there if I close my eyes real tight and pretend it’s not there… They’ll count to 1, 2, 3, and the boogie man is gone and all is right in the world again. Rheumatoid Disease doesn’t work that way…

You can’t pretend it doesn’t exist. And it won’t go away if you act like it’s not there. It will creep on you slowly, getting worse, and worse. Until one day you’ll look in the mirror and a poisoned and pale stranger looks back at you. Her hand are deformed, her back is hunched over, water and steroid weight clinging to her frame. She is not the beautiful woman who use to live in the mirror, and her weight won’t go away with diet and exercise and a can-do attitude.

Tonight Mom called me crying. She was sad for Debbie Reynolds. That she had to watch her daughter die before her, and that maybe the heartbreak of it, took her life as well. I think it was the first time my mom truly grasped the reality that she could outlive me. I’ve known for some time now. I’ve dealt with the depression of it, the sting of reality, the hard lump in my throat that I cannot swallow away. No parent should have to bury their child, adult or small. But that could be our reality.

I think the biggest issue patients face with Rheumatoid Disease is that people don’t understand how serious it can be. Everyone knows the word “cancer”, and they associate that with the deadliest kind of illness. But cancer isn’t the only thing that kills. And some autoimmune diseases are worse and kill quicker than cancer. Bet you didn’t know that did ya? Just like the Top 10 Billboard Artists, you can name them, but not diseases that kill. 

Well here I am to inform you… Cancer isn’t the only thing that kills. And most of you didn’t even realize how severe my disease was until I started undergoing chemotherapy, which yes, helps other ailments besides cancer. My hair is falling out, I throw up all day long, I look and feel awful. Yes, my disease is as bad as some cancers.

What you don’t know, or don’t want to know, is that I’m on borrowed time. I’ve tried to tell you how sick I am. I’ve asked you to understand. I’ve explained again and again. I post articles, I do research. I ask you to believe. But the Kardashians are more entertaining than a misunderstood disease. Or the latest Star Wars movie, or a new car, or celebrity deaths in the news.

It’s hard to watch anyone die so young, especially one of our female superheroes. I’m not famous, but mortality is the same for me as I’m sure it was for Princess Leia. No one wants to die young. Im not a superhero, but it’s scary all the same. The difference is I won’t be mourned by millions. I only hope that if I do go early, my body would shed light on this awful disease that is intent on stealing my joy. That I could at least serve a purpose for those who come after me, and that a cure will one day be found.

You may think this is a bit morbid. But I guarantee you, it’s only the reality I’ve been trying to share. I wish people would see my disease for what it truly is. I wish people would listen when I explain how very ill I am. I wish they would believe my doctors when they say that I won’t live as long as my friends. I wish people could truly see and understand. And really listen and try to understand as much as they would pay attention to their fave tv series or movie star.

I may not be a superhero, but my health and body are not less important either. I’m trying to stay afloat in a world where I’m drowning in my disease. All I want is for others to acknowledge that I am a person too. A person dying from an incurable disease. I just want to know I have the love and support and understanding of others. 

It’s a lonely reality when you know how sick you are, but it’s not as important as the latest blockbuster, or latest Prada bag, or the car you’ve always wanted. If you it’s a hard reality knowing exactly where you are on a priority list, and half the word sits above you.

 I’m sick. Can I get an acknowledgement please?