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.

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little by little

I was looking through #quotestoliveby on Instagram tonight and came across three small words.

“little by little”

I’m sure that this is probably a mantra for many, as it could encompass so many aspects of life. It might have been written to encourage people to strive for their goals, to not give up. Maybe to save their pennies, and go for that dream vacation. Or keep chipping away at their education, until they’ve succeeded in their dreams.

I used to love seeing quotes like this. I’d save them to my quotes board on Pinterest. I even contemplated getting some of them as tattoos, so powerful a message they were, I wanted them as a permanent reminder.

But tonight I see these words and they don’t speak to me as they once might have. I see “little by little” as a reminder of my mortality. I see it as my disease chipping away slowly at my body from the inside out.

Little by little my bones grow brittle and break more often.

Little by little my fatigue consumes me to where I wonder if I can get out of bed again.

Little by little my hair falls to the floor.

Little by little the drugs fail and I wonder what will be next if I’ve already tried everything.

A lot of people have commented on how strong I am about my disease, how in control I seem, how optimistic. They don’t realise that this is the mask I must wear, my uniform. Because if I share how scary it is to not know when the end is, then I’m being “dramatic” or “looking for attention”. No one wants to hear when the chronically ill are suffering. It’s a nuisance, something that should be kept to themselves. So we do. We keep it in. We become experts at the “I’m ok”.

But there are days like today, moments where the gravity of everything collapses our resolve. It might be a song on the radio, or a comment someone made at dinner, or that moment when we look in the mirror while washing our hands. Everything we hide from everyone, including ourselves, shatters. We remember what we are going through and how bad it is.

So tonight, when I read those three words, I remembered that little by little my body is dying. And that just sucks.

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.

The Choice

When I was eleven my mom and I were living in New Zealand, her native country. It was definitely a lot different growing up than growing up in Hawaii, an island chain that didn’t experienced the four seasons like most. Hawaii didn’t change into shades of autumn, there were no piles of fallen leaves in gold, auburn, and burnt orange. The worst winter I experienced was just hard rain that brought on humidity that only those living in the tropics would understand.

When we moved to New Zealand following her finalized divorce to my dad, my mom cautioned it would be colder, but it never felt that cold to me. I bundled up in sweaters for winter, and donned a rain coat in spring, but that was more for comfort than anything. I didn’t realize the temp change until dipping in the ocean for the first time. The South Pacific Ocean was much colder than the tropical climates I was used to. I could never get used to the icy feeling. Those who lived in New Zealand were of course used to it, stating that in the summer it was warm. But their idea of warm was my idea of Hawaii on its coldest winter day, when most wouldn’t jump in.

However, I was a born water baby. I have many photos of me as a small child, and I’m always playing next to a body of water. The Scorpio in me could never get enough, I was a water sign through and through. As soon as I was old enough my mom put me in swim school and I took to it like a fish. I won swim meets left and right, and excelled at anything water related.

So, when I was eleven we visited a famous Auckland region beach called Piha, located on the west coast. Piha was known for its good surfing, even boasting a surf club. It was a black sand beach as well, which I’d only ever experienced one other time before, and loved the novelty of it. Piha was also known for its strong currents and rip tides. So well known in fact that there were safety zones in which you could only swim between two marked flags, and lifeguards on duty to rein in swimmers or surfers who’d been dragged out by the fierce pull of the ocean.

On that fateful day back when I was eleven, we had been driving around with my moms boyfriend at the time and I had brought a friend along with me.

Rae was a schoolmate whom was certainly not my favorite friend, but was the one available to hang out that day. While we got along just fine, I had always sensed a bit of resentment from her (yes even at 12 I could see it). She was an only child as well, from a single parent household, but was raised by a father and not a mother. I often wondered if she envied my close relationship with my mother, and had noticed quite a bit of competitiveness.

We weren’t beach ready, and lacked swimwear, but we did have a couple towels on hand and Rae and I begged to go for a dip. Looking back now, the t-shirt and shorts combination I was wearing was definitely not the best swimwear for a beach like that. However I was eager to be in water again, and despite the chilling cold of the icy South Pacific, I jumped right in.

That day I learned a valuable lesson that has stayed with me for a long time. Rae and I unfortunately got caught in the rip tide that day, and we were pulled quite far out. We knew we were in trouble but started to make the slow and steady swim back in. After what seemed like forever, a lifeguard boat came out looking for people in distress. Rae was closer and I shouted at her to get his attention. Luckily he saw her straight away and picked her up. I waved at her to have him pick me up too, but she did something that has stayed with me for these twenty five years. She looked right at me and then turned her head, and motioned she wanted to go back in, knowing that I needed help but denying it to me. In that moment she couldn’t look past her resentment or whatever she felt deep in her soul, and made the choice to leave me in the sea.

I understand that at eleven perhaps she didn’t know what she was choosing, that she might not have had the capacity to realize my life was in her hands. Though I certainly had the capacity to know and realize if I wanted saving I would have to do it myself.

I don’t know how long it took me, but I slowly and methodically swam in. My water laden shorts and shirt did nothing to help my struggle, and I’d never realized until that moment how very streamlined my swim team uniform was. I thanked the universe that I was a swimmer and that perhaps I’d always trained for this moment, when my skill would be needed most. I finally made it back in and back to my mom, her parter, and Rae. I glared at Rae but said nothing to her, it wasn’t necessary, we both knew what she did. And after that day I didn’t spend any more time with her outside of school. I knew a bad apple when I saw one.

I have thought of that day many times. I’ve mulled it over in my head, picked it apart, tried to understand how and why. But the conclusion I’ve always come to is that we just can’t know what’s in the heads of others. We can’t know their demons, as much as they can’t know ours. Did she want me to drown? Probably not. Did she want me to suffer? Maybe. It’s not worth thinking about too hard.

Last week, I returned to Piha Beach for the first time since I was eleven. Twenty five years of fearing those strong currents, and in a way fearing the death that I could have met had I not been strong enough. I sat and let my feet squish in the black sand, watching the distant waves before me. It was then that everything started to make sense. I had an epiphany.

About a week ago I saw a post I liked on a chronic pain page that I follow on Facebook. It said..

“I often ask myself, why me? Why must everyday be a pain day? But then I ask myself – why not me. I would not wish this on anyone else and perhaps the universe gave me this because I can handle it better.”

Now when I first saw that I scoffed at it. I mean the universe sucks in picking people if that’s the case. I’d prefer a different present thank you very much.

But when I was at the beach, I started to think about it. And then I got back in the water after having being scared of its currents for almost three decades. The currents were really strong and I had to fight to keep between the swimming flags. There were moments where I wondered if I should pick my feet up and see how far it swept me away. It was then that the universe reached down and gave me a revelation that has taken my lifetime to conceive.

On that day, when I was eleven, I could have certainly drowned if I gave up. I was tired, my legs and arms ached at the weight of the water against me. I could have let go and let the sea swallow me. But I didn’t, because I knew I could make it. I knew it would hurt and it would be exhausting, but that I’d make it if I wanted to live.

Since I got sick, and then sicker, and then sicker, I have cursed the world for giving me this when there are healthy serial killers that walk the streets. Cursed the universe for giving me this pain and heartache when there are billions that live without it. But just like that moment in the ocean all those years ago, I was given a choice. There have been so many times that my disease has almost won. I’ve been hospitalized, been in cardiac arrest, I’ve blacked out because the pain almost consumed me. But I’ve always chosen to wake and deal with it. There have been times where I know my body would have given up if I let it. A moment in a hospital bed after I blacked out from arrest, a moment where I saw dark and light and knew I could choose a different path.

I chose to live. And sure, I don’t want to be sick. I hate my disease and the fact that I never get well despite the handfuls of pills they make me take, and the chemicals they pump into my IV. But I’m still alive, and I wouldn’t wish this on anyone, even that girl so long ago that turned her back on me. Maybe the universe did give this to me because it knew I could handle it. That I wouldn’t let it defeat me. Maybe that’s what it means to be alive. Having something to fight for, living for more than just the 9 to 5, and the mortgage payments, and the white picket fence. Sure, a lot of people have it better than me, physically, mentally, and financially. But maybe I’m different because I’ve looked into the darkness and turned away.

I’m alive not because my heart still pumps. I’m alive because I choose to be. I’m severely ill, dying slowly from incurable diseases. But I feel more alive because I know how fragile I am. I’ve looked into the darkness a few times now, and I’ve said no to its painless quiet. I’d rather live with this than not at all.

Now Piha Beach can be a memory of the first time I chose to be stronger than you could ever imagine. And choosing is beautiful.

Support Isn’t A Competition.

I read a great quote online yesterday, which prompted me to write this blog today. It was one of those posters that Word Porn posts daily on my Facebook feed, and instead of scrolling down past it like I do usually, this one caught my eye. Here it is…

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This one really spoke to me, because I feel like I deal with this on a regular basis due to the nature of my disease. And this particular statement I feel like I’ve literally been living.

Rheumatoid Disease has plagued my body for three and a half years now. Endless years, it seems sometimes, that I’ve dealt with this indescribable pain, whom no one can fix. I’ve tried so many medical treatments, pharmaceutical and homeopathic. I’ve attempted every fad diet out there, all proclaiming to be the “cure-all” for my disease. You name it, and I bet I’ve tried it! Even going as far as using essential oils, sleeping with healing rocks, and attempting to meditate the pain away.

I have spent countless hours in frigid medical offices, waiting for yet another “check-up” appointment. Or another visit where my doctor will inform me that now do I not only have the worst case of Rheumatoid Disease for someone my age in Hawaii, but also of all their colleagues’ patients on the mainland as well. Gee, that’s some great news, I’ve always wanted to be the best at something. I could never have imagined it would be concerning a debilitating, incurable disease. I’m so lucky!

I’ve spent more time with my Rheumatologist and PCP than I have with some of my closest friends. Truth be told, that could also be said for most of my family members as well. And I’m not saying that’s something bad, it’s just my reality. My week’s schedule is usually broken down in three main priorities: first comes doctors appointments, then work related training/events/prospecting, then family time, and friends and social engagements can be worked in after that.

If you really look at my priorities, you can also see how important my health is to me. I’m 34, about to be 35 in one month. I don’t want my disease to define me, and to accomplish that, I need to work hard at finding a way to coexist with it. I have to figure out how to live with my disease in a way where it doesn’t rule my life and dictate who I am as a person. And to do that, I am 100% committed to finding a medical treatment plan that works for me.

My second priority is my financial independence. I now receive a small monthly siphon from Social Security, but it is nowhere near enough to live off of. So I had to find a part time job that I could do without hurting myself, or worsening my disease. That came in the form of direct sales with Rodan + Fields, which fortunately fits my needs perfectly. I work from home, hell, most days I work from bed, and I make my own hours. I’m my own boss, and have no one above me causing me stress. It’s almost completely social media and word of mouth based, and works perfectly with my retail background. I’ve only just started, so I’m not making any real money yet, but I will in time, and I’ll be financially secure for my future. And the best part is that I love my job. I love helping people, and making them happy. So, really, it’s a Win/Win.

My third priority is my family. No matter what is going on in one’s life, it’s always nice to have family to fall back on. Spending time with both sides of mine (I was a child of divorce, so I get two), is something I try to make time for regularly. Now, I’m not saying that my family relationships are perfect, far from it. But at the end of the day your family doesn’t change. You don’t get to swap them out if you have a fight, or don’t see eye to eye. With family you’re committed to the good, the bad, and the ugly. And I have dealt with all of those memories from both sides of mine.

Although, this is where the aforementioned quote comes in to play.

I understand that dealing with people with disease is hard for some. Knowing a friend, or even an acquaintance, who is going through an intense medical situation can be tough. Even dealing with a lesser medical situation, like maybe reoccurring headaches or acid reflux, can be hard for some to process. We don’t know how to react, or how much empathy or sympathy to have. It’s daunting for some people to deal with those who are sick. And even more so if we are talking about incurable diseases, cancer, or any other life threatening medical issue.

In my own medical journey I’ve actually lost friends because of my illness. Not because they were scared of “catching it”, Rheumatoid Disease isn’t contagious. But mostly because they were at a loss of how to handle it. They didn’t understand the disease, and why I was so sick, and why after all my treatments I wasn’t getting better. And instead of asking me about it, and attempting to understand what I was going through, or asking how they could be supportive, they instead pulled away. Yes, it initially hurt my feelings, but at the end of the day I have learned that I’d rather surround myself with supportive people. People who want to be in my life, not those who feel they have to be. I think that goes for pretty much everyone, healthy or not.

I’ve personally found, though, that support can be a double-edged sword. You would think that anyone going through an intense illness, like mine, would welcome support of any kind. Through the assumption that any help at all is still helpful, right? WRONG. Support and help is only helpful if it comes from a good place. However, in my personal experience, support is often not without strings.

I welcome and appreciate any kind of support towards my person, my illness, my newfound career, and my journey in general, as long as that support is given freely. What I mean by this is that it’s given without expectations of a reward, or a guilt-laden reciprocation. Just like the quote says, “I don’t engage in acts of kindness to be rewarded later,” I don’t want to receive support with strings attached. An example of this might be a ‘You scratch my back, I’ll scratch your back scenario”. Or making comments like, “Well I helped you with that one thing last week, so….”

No one wants to feel like they’re being used. But expectations put on support is just that. It’s support with strings attached, and I don’t want any part of that. If you need help with something, just ask. But thinly veiling it as “support” basically makes the receiver feel like shit.

If you want to do something nice for me, or anyone, then do it. Not to get something back from it, or to make yourself feel better by showing others how “supportive” you are. If you want to be seen as a good person, then do good things. And leave it at that. Be kind. Be generous. Be good. Not for others. For YOU.

Giving me support in my illness isn’t a competition on who can do it better. The best way to support me while I’m going through this hell is to just be there. Ask me how I am. Ask me if there’s anything you can do. Ask me if I need help. Ask me if I need a ride somewhere. And listen when I tell you. Listen to what I’m saying to understand, not to reply.

I feel like everything has become a lie recently. Like suddenly I’m this vessel to be used to make others look and feel better. Like “Hey, did you notice, I’m being supportive?” Or, “Look at this picture I posted of me being so supportive!”

Supporting me isn’t a competition. I’m a human being, dealing with an incurable, debilitating disease. I’m just trying to make it through each day, each week, and each month, without landing back in the hospital. I just want a life I can be proud of, and get up for each and every day. Want to feel good about yourself, too? Do something good without thinking about who it benefits, and I’ll continue to do the same.

 

 

It’s not a competition

It recently occurred to me that a lot of my friends and family often belittle their own health issues in front of me out of guilt. I’ve done it in the past as well, so I recognize the action. You’re talking with someone who has a long term condition like diabetes or cancer, and maybe they experience constant migraines or something similar, and you start complaining about an awful headache you got the other day. Suddenly you clamp your hands over your mouth, mortified that you’re complaining about a headache to someone who not only experiences them all the time, but to an excruciating degree. It happens. We’ve all been there.
But only until I was the one in the chronic illness drivers seat did I realize that I shouldn’t have ever had to feel guilty for that headache, and neither should you. It’s not a competition, and I’m certainly not winning just because my illness is worse than yours.

Everyone who knows me, knows that I’m sick. And knows that I’ve been sick for quite a while now. I don’t hide my disease, nor my symptoms. Everyone knows that I suffer from chronic pain on a daily, if not hourly basis. Those closest to me know the severity of my disease and the toll it takes on my body. But just because I suffer, it doesn’t mean I think I’m the only one. I know there are hundreds of thousands of people out there that are sick, suffering, even dying. And you don’t have to be suffering or dying to want a little sympathy either.

Having a really bad cold, with stuffy sinuses and sneezing and coughing, sucks. Having a really bad headache sucks. Having a sore throat totally blows. Getting the flu is a nightmare. Cutting your hand or cardboard stings and is awful. I’ve had all these things happen to me and I know how shitty it can be. Life just hits us with a bus sometimes and it’s unavoidable.

So don’t feel like you have to hide your pains or illnesses from me because you think I get it worse. It’s not a competition on who feels more awful. Please don’t hide how you feel. Share your aches with me. Tell me about that awful paper cut. Let me support you, and make you a cup of tea for that terrible headache. We all get sick, and hurt, and feel crappy at times. You are not any less important because you don’t have a chronic illness and have 14 doctors on speed dial. A lot of you support me when I’m down and out, which is more often than not. Let me help you when you’re not feeling so hot either.

It’s not a competition. It’s just life.

If you’d like to help support my medical efforts and financial struggles, please visit my donation fund. All help is appreciated…

Christine Lilley’s Life Fund