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.

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We’ve still got time

For the last two years I’ve lived on a clock.

A clock that has been ticking away the moments to where I meet my end. My illness eating away parts of me that are unseen.

Because of this I’ve adjusted to a “come what may” attitude towards life. I’ve been living free and fearless, feeling that this was the only way for me to live my life to the fullest.

But I have recently come to realize that this may not work for my anymore. I can no longer live in the shadow of my disease.

I have people I care about and friends whom are important to me. The ‘come what may’ philosophy only worked for me when I had nothing to live for and therefore had no fear of what happened to me.

This is no longer an accurate representation of my life.

Maybe it’s that 2018 is in quick approach and it makes us all think about what is important in our lives.

Love. Family. Friendship. Truth. Fun. Happiness.

No I don’t suddenly fear death or the end of my being, despite that always lurking.

No, I don’t fear the clock of life.

I fear the loss of the important things.

People go through their entire lives not being truthful to themselves and others. Life is short, no matter what time clock we are all on. Cherish the time that is given. Share your feelings. Tell your friends they are important to you. Tell your loves what they mean to you.

Instead of being fearless, respect the time you’re given and use it wisely. It’s not to late to be truthful to who you are.

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…

Dying doesn’t mean “done”

It’s been made known to me recently that a lot of the people in my life have the wrong idea about what’s going on with my illness. I suppose this is due to lack of knowledge and understanding, as well as not wanting to open the can of worms that is the discussion of my disease. I get it. It’s human nature to be curious, and yet at the same time awkward.

Some friends and family come right out and ask the questions they want to know the answer to. They are direct, clear, and concise. They want to be in the know throughout the whole process, maybe this helps them be more supportive.
Others wait for me to update them with bits and pieces on my healthcare. They follow the news as it comes in, rarely asking questions, content with the bare minimum.
Then there are those that do a bit of their own research. They read articles about Rheumatoid Disease, drug options, new fad diets, and testimonials from people who’ve had less aggressive strains than I. They endlessly give their opinions on the medications I should be taking, the weight control and dieting that I should be on, and how I should live through my illness. Not from the stand point of a medical professional, but from a person who subscribes to Rheumatoid Arthritis Today, and keep their screens open to WebMd.

I’m happy that the people in my life like to be informed of my disease, and like to stay in the know to an extent. But at the same time, no matter how many articles are read, or how often they come to visit (which lets be honest, is only on my good days), it’s not the same as experiencing it. No one will ever know what goes through my head, or my body. It’s easy to say “I understand what you’re going through” when talking about a wicked case of the flu, or a nasty migraine. But they can’t possibly know what it feels like when I wake up feeling like a bus hit me in the night. Or that getting up from the toilet feels like my knees have dull butter knives being slowly pushed through them. That when I try to get dressed my shoulders feel dislocated. And that showering when your hands ache is one of the hardest things I’ve ever experienced. Biting my shampoo bottle to get a smidgen out on to my wrist because my hands are in the immovable claw position, or using my mouth to hold my loofah has been one of the most trying times of my life. 34 years old and I am an invalid on most days. Tell me, what article can tell friends and family how that feels? I need to buy it up in bulk and send it to everyone I know.

 

Sometimes being ill is the loneliest feeling in the world. Even with the unending support of my mom, the only person besides my doctors who has the closest to accurate idea of what my life is like, it can be hard to move through the tides of my disease.

I have 14 doctors whom I work with. 14 medical professionals who have years upon years of experience working with the ill, and still no one can help me. In the beginning, I used to think it sounded kinda cool that my Rheumatologist needed to consult with other doctors regarding my case. I was an anomaly. No one had seen a case like mine before. It was more aggressive, more damaging, and more out of control than anything any of them had seen. But I quickly realized that that kind of “special” isn’t the kind anyone aspires to be. It’s not special or fun that no one can help me. And people wonder why I don’t want to talk about it. Why I don’t care to share. I mean, what do you say to someone who wants to know what dying feels like?

Because at the end of the day, that’s what’s happening. Some of my doctors have had the nerve to say it out loud. Others just ignore it and keep their mouths shut. No doctor wants to tell their patient that they can’t help anymore. Sure, they can keep prescribing medications as they are manufactured, and talk about healthy lifestyles, and a positive can-do attitude. But it must be hard for them. To have to look in the face of someone who they don’t know how to help. It’s the failure a doctor never wants to know.

 

As for me…

What do I say to you? What do I say to my doctors? What do I say to the family and friends that have the guts to ask me how I truly feel?

I guess it’s that I feel everything and nothing.

Not the answer everyone wants but the only one I can give.

I feel like I’m a broken record when I talk about how much pain I’m in. It sometimes feels like no one really believes me when I say it hurts everywhere. I’m tired of being asked what my pain scale is from 1-10 when it’s always more like 50/10.

I cry almost every day in the comfort of my bed away from prying eyes, so that I can stand in front of everyone else and smile. I’m not smiling for me, I’m smiling for them. So they don’t have to be touched by my pain, my life, my suffering.

You want to know what it feels like to be dying?

It feels like living. I haven’t died yet. My life still continues. My body still lives, the blood moves through it, and I still walk. Dying feels like living each day in the knowledge that I’m still breathing. That I am still getting up out of bed every day. Dying tastes like the chocolate brownie I ate an hour ago. Dying feels like the hot shower I had this morning. Dying feels soft like the fur of my cat as I stroke her belly.

These are probably not the answers that people wanted. But I’m not ready to live up to their expectations of what my illness should feel like. I know what it feels like and that’s all that matters. Well, that and the fact that while I may be dying, I am certainly not done.

 

What my disease really took

I’m going to be 34 this year, in just a few short months.

Life right now is different than how I imagined it ten years ago.

Life is different than how I ever imagined it.

I don’t think anyone sits and wonders what their life would really be like if they were ever diagnosed with a debilitating disease. Sure, we make idle remarks about how hard it would be, but no one ever truly believes that it would happen to them, or a loved one.

But then it does and the world turns upside down and everything you knew or wanted fades away to a memory. It sits in a dusty picture frame on a forgotten shelf in the back of your mind along with all the other things you’ll never accomplish.

I used to entertain a lovely dream about meeting someone. Or maybe I already knew them. But in this dream time had stopped and we had realised our perfectness together, and so that all was right in the world. They thought I was the most beautiful creature, just as I thought they were as well. We would sit together in silence, holding hands, and smiling in the knowledge of how lucky we were that we had found the meaning of life.

Then when I got sick my dream started to change. Now it was that this person didn’t care that I was ill, and just loved me all the same. When they looked at me all the pain and suffering would melt away, and I would no longer be a girl who was sick. I would just be a girl. A girl who a boy fell in love with.

I don’t let myself think about that dream anymore, not even the newer one. I look in the mirror and see the face that everyone else sees, the face that he wouldn’t want to see. 45 pounds of steroid weight around my belly, legs, bottom, and face. A pain that never goes away, even when treated with a smile. An air of sadness that I can’t hide no matter how optimistic I act. Tight and shiny purple knuckles, legs covered in black and purple varicose veins, a body that rebels against itself at every turn. It’s not what anyone looks for in a mate, I know. I don’t let myself entertain the dream anymore.

Instead I keep my days full. I keep a tidy house, I cook and bake for friends who want it, I play with my cats and feel comforted by their never waning love and devotion. I feel happy for my friends who have found the life I yearn for but can’t have. I congratulate the news of new life, of new families, of love that was meant to last for someone else.

But I don’t let myself think about what I’ve lost. The part of my disease that no one realises is the worst. The loss that is never talked about because it hurts to wonder about something I can’t have.  The someone I will never have. What my disease really took. The one hope I’m not allowed to dream about. The life I lost when I got sick.

If you would like to help me stay on my feet and live happily and not homeless, please visit my campaign and make a donation to my fund. Thank you.

Christine Lilley’s Life Fund

I get scared too

Wednesday was a rough day.

I don’t often have really bad days. Sure, I’d say two out of five days can be bad for pain. Really bad, like not get out of bed til mid afternoon bad. But the odds are that I’d more likely have a good one. Most days I wake up in pain, but it’s manageable..

I open my eyes and I assess where it hurts. Hands? Feet? Wrists? Then I take inventory of what needs immediate help and what can wait. Usually I need to run my hands under piping hot water to loosen them up. Then my day can begin.

Wednesday was a bad day. I knew before I opened my eyes. In fact I knew at about 3am that if be having a bad one. Lately, I’ve been waking up between 2-4am. It’s not that I’m fully awake and can’t go back to sleep. I’ve just been waking up knowing. I wander through my small apartment checking on things, making sure doors and windows are locked, rubbing my cats bellies, drinking some water, before going back to bed.

Some days I go back to sleep. I doze in and out for a few hours and then am able to do things through the day. But not that day. I knew the minute my body was awake it was going to be rough. But the good news was that it was an infusion day. That meant I’d be getting the good meds. True, not in the way I’d like, but I would feel better eventually. And I’d keep feeling better. For at least a month.

I should have known that my bad pain day would run off into everything else being bad. The infusion clinic was a mess. I guess they were short staffed, but no one knew what was going on, or who my nurse was going to be. I should have taken it as a sign, but what could I have done. I couldn’t come back another day, I was going out of town on Friday. Wednesday was the only day, because I usually needed one day to recover. Usually.

I fell asleep as soon as the IV was in and I took my usual dose of pre-chemo Benadryl (to ward off any weird side effects). The plan is that I usually fall asleep during the administering of benadryl and I wake up three hours later as they are taking my IV out. Painless. 

On Wednesday, forty-five minutes into infusion I woke suddenly. Mom was sitting next to me looking at the heart rate monitor with a concerned look on her face. I asked what was wrong but she got up to find the nurse. Apparently my pulse had dropped very low. The nurse had me take a few deep breaths and we waited as the rate on the monitor went back to normal. But that’s when my left foot started to itch. The whole underside felt like I had an isolated attack of chicken pox. Mom took off my sock and started scratching, but then suddenly it was my whole left side. It was awful. There were no hives, no rash, just uncontrollable itching. And then it was like an elephant was sitting on my chest. All I could think of as the nurse frantically called my Rheumatologist was,

“This is it. I’m going to die in this hospital.”

Because what else goes through someone’s mind when something goes wrong in a hospital. That’s where you go to get FIXED. Everything suddenly felt clouded and fuzzy, although maybe that was me just losing consciousness… But for a moment I wondered if I would wake up if I fell back asleep. And then I fell asleep…

I woke three hours later to my infusion finally being over. Instead of the usual 2-3 hours, I had been there for 5 1/2. It was the scariest time I had spent there. Ever.

I was nearly delirious leaving the hospital. I had cotton mouth. I was dizzy. I was hot. Everything felt weird and unfamiliar. Mom kept asking me questions but I couldn’t hear her. It sounded like the mumblings of an adult from every Charlie Brown cartoon I’d ever seen. I was confused. Lost. Scared. The sun seemed too bright. The noises of the hospital sounded like shouting. Why was everyone shouting? Mom looked confused. She didn’t understand what was happening to me. I jumped at the touch of her hand on my arm leading me to the car. It felt like my fibromyalgia was back. My skin tingled, hurt even. I was scared. Of everything.

I guess people don’t realise that it can happen to me too. Just because I go through the motions, live each day as I need to, it doesn’t mean I don’t get scared. In that hospital bed I wasn’t sure if that was my end. If my time had come. Luckily it hadn’t. But the point is I didn’t know that.

I get scared. I’m human.

I get scared too.

If you would like to help support me medically and financially I encourage you to visit my campaign page:

Christine Lilley’s Life Fund