Lately, I have been really feeling the solitude that my illness has wrought on me.
I am aware that I am emotionally not alone. I know that I have friends, and family, and a fairly large support network of doctors and medical professionals. I know that if I was having a bad fatigue day, a friend would be just a call away to come over and lend support. If I was having bad pain, and needed assistance bathing or eating, my mom would be over as soon as she could. If I was stuck in my head about the severity of my disease, I could call my therapist and we could talk through my struggles with my reality. If I just needed a friendly face, my sister is available for a video chat and emotional support. I am not alone emotionally.
One could even make the argument that I am not physically alone in my illness either. Over 1.3 million Americans are affected by Rheumatoid Arthritis, and it affects almost 1% of the worldwide population, according to the latest statistics from rheumatoidarthritis.org. As well as millions of others whom suffer from countless autoimmune diseases, chronic fatigue, and chronic pain. Yes, we all share a common link in our fight against invisible illnesses.
But no one can say they suffer from exactly what I do. No one else out there can say they are affected by the exact same diseases and illnesses that I have, in the exact same way. Because despite our common threads, we are all fighting our own battles within our bodies. No two people suffer the same way. We are as individual as every drop in the ocean, and that can be very isolating.
Over four years ago I was diagnosed with Severe Rheumatoid Arthritis from the get go. That alone was a tough struggle for me as I felt like I wasn’t given time to even get used to the searing pain. One day I just woke up and it was there, and its never left.
A year later I was forced to stop working by my employer and put on Temporary Disability Insurance, before eventually being officially “laid off”. By that point I was walking with a cane, and taking very strong opiates to calm the pain that I felt in every joint in my body. With a heavy unbelieving heart, I filed for Social Security from the Federal Government.
A year after that I was diagnosed with Severe Osteoporosis, my doctors telling me my bones tested like those of an eighty year old woman, and not of a woman of thirty-three years, my actual age at the time. Know how I found out about the Osteoporosis? By receiving a bear hug from a friend that cracked my apparently brittle ribs. Yep, that’s right….a HUG.
Within six months of the Osteoporosis diagnosis, I was sent to see two new specialists, a Cardiologist and Oncologist. After a biopsy of my esophagus, a tumor was found to be benign, but I had signs of early stage Lymphoma. I’d also started having chest pains congruent with Pericarditis, a heart condition attached to Rheumatoid Arthritis. New medications followed, as well as a mammogram, an MRI, multiple x-rays and CATscans.
Eventually, due to the inflammation in my body, and my weakened immune system, I landed in the hospital for a severe Cardiac event. It resulted in my being placed In the Intensive Heart Care ward at Queen’s Hospital. During my time there I suffered through Severe Pericarditis, including three minor heart attacks. I was thirty-four years old.
My doctors told me if I got any weaker than I was, and if they couldn’t find some medication that would work on calming my inflammation that I wouldn’t make it to my sixties. Truth be told, I was given a hopeful ten years.
For a change of climate, and pace, I made the decision to come to New Zealand, where I am a citizen, in early 2017. I thought with a different atmosphere, and medical system, that perhaps I could finally find a way to extend my life. By March of this year, no medications had worked for my diseases, and I was getting increasingly worse. My body was either intolerant of the medications available, or allergic to them. It felt like time was catching up to me. I hoped that somewhere out there beyond the ocean was the key to my mortality.
By June of 2017, I had already started a new form of chemotherapy medication for my disease that appeared to be working for me. Physically I felt less pain, and had more pep in my step. I was starting to be able top exercise again, and I had lost a lot of the steroid weight. So, when I met with my Rheumatologist after a series of tests to check my condition, I was feeling very hopeful. It was then that I was informed of my new diagnosis’ of Lung Disease and Lupus.
There are times when I can feel so very small in this world. Like a drop in the ocean. The solitude of my illness can be so overwhelming. No one will ever quite understand what I am going through, or how this feels. No one can tell me they know how hard it is to wake up sometimes knowing that your own body wants you six feet under.
I don’t quite understand how these things work, but I do know that it pretty amazing that I have not completely fallen apart by now. There are days where I can wake up and not be fully assaulted with the gravity of my situation. I can have a shower, get dressed, and face the day, rain or shine, with a smile on my face. I can see my mom, or friends, or just take a walk and feel happiness in my heart.
Then there are times where I look in the mirror and wonder when my last day will be. I wonder what awful thing my body is doing today to destroy itself. I can lay in bed for hours staring at the ceiling in silence. No tears, no anger. I contemplate my mortality and the awful unfairness of my life, like I’m watching an old movie with no sound. Days like that I lay there and contemplate my life as if I were a drop in the ocean. I wonder what it will feel like when I am swept away by the current and I have let go. Today is not that day.
But it will come. Sooner than I would like.
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?