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.

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Mulling Over A Dream

It was quiet when my eyes were closed. It was when I could be at peace despite my world falling to pieces. I could be in the middle of a crowded room, or in busy store, or even now, as I lay on this cold bed in the middle of the local emergency room… With my eyes closed, I could shut the ugliness of the world out, maybe even pretend I was well again.

Not even a week had passed of 2018, and here I was with an IV in my arm, my mom sleeping next to me in a cold hospital chair. As per usual, no one had any idea what was wrong with me. A fate I had grown accustomed to. Leaving five hours later with a prescription for painkillers I’d never fill, and a suggestion to “get some rest”.

My problem is I can never get enough rest. Not if I want to attempt to have a life by any standards. I can’t sleep my life away afterall.

So in that hospital bed I lay with my eyes closed, waiting for no news. And in that quietness I fell asleep, mulling over a dream. A dream I’ve had many times. One that I know now will unlikely come true. Not so much a dream, but more of a memory…

The last memory of my other life.

The life I had before this was all I knew.

A life that wasn’t filled with medications, cold hospital rooms, and the constant threat of more pain, more fatigue, and a new diagnosis every six months.

Furthermore, a life where I would find someone who loved me for me. Where they wouldn’t look at me and see broken. Where they would marry me no matter how many years we may have together. A life with choices, and maybe children.

It was a good dream. But eventually I woke up and opened my eyes… Back to the cold hospital bed, to the doctor telling me she could do no more. Back to my reality.

I slept for a long while that day, once I had climbed back into my own bed, and my mom departed for the long trip home. I was used to this aftermath of hospital visits. Used to the bed rest, dehydration, and exhaustion that inevitably followed. Used to the loneliness, the unbearable loneliness that came with my disease.

But this time something new followed, I was not so alone. He came with food, and hugs, and the support I needed to get through it without falling apart. And in the days that followed, I realised his love allowed me to mull over a new dream.

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…

Personal Purgatory

I’ve been doing a lot of inner reflection lately, and it seems to me that those of us living with chronic illness do a lot of destructive thinking. I don’t think it’s on purpose either. I’m not talking about the inevitable depression and grief that comes with living with chronic disease, that’s a whole other can of worms… I’m talking about the depression we let ourselves slip into.

Rheumatoid Disease is shitty enough on its own, without having added Osteoporosis, Lupus, and Lung Disease to the mix. While I have accepted each of these as they have come, and deal with my diagnosis the best way I know how (smiles and realistic expectations), I find myself under a rain cloud. But it’s a rain cloud of my own conjuring.

There is a point that I think we all go through where we have had enough. The pain has become too great, or we lose support, or medical help, or all of these things, and we start to feel like we want to give up. I’m not talking about ending our lives, but more of an acceptance of defeat. At one point in our illness we accept that it can’t or won’t get better. It seems easier to accept that our disease has won, not only by conquering our body, but also our will. 

I realise that recently I have let myself get to this point. And I really do mean I let myself. At some point my loneliness joined forces with the disease destroying my body, and they decided to get married. And instead of dealing with my illness while trying to stay positive, I let myself slip into depression.

See, most people think we (the chronically ill) keep to ourselves because we want to be alone. When most of the time the reality is that we just don’t want to bring anyone down with us. We keep our feelings, pain, and sadness within, convincing ourselves that it’s better this way. In my case, I like to take it a step further by emotionally cutting myself off from others. I guess my logic is that I don’t want anyone feeling sorry for me, or treating me like I’m broken. But in doing that I end up putting up walls, especially around my heart.

I haven’t been in a romantic relationship in a long time. I’m talking years. Wanna know why?

I wouldn’t let myself. 

In hindsight I now see that my logic was really flawed. Because in keeping people at arm’s length, I not only hurt myself, but others around me as well. I started to use my disease as an excuse to not live my life. Not in the giving up sense, but I did throw away opportunities to have meaningful relationships with some great people because I justified to myself that I was saving them from dealing with my health issues. In truth, I was just building my own personal  purgatory.

It’s taken me a few years, but I’ve recently seen the light. Maybe not the light at the end of the tunnel, but at least a flashlight that will help me find my way. I realise now that letting people in is important. Sharing how I feel is important. It may not always get you the results you want, but it sure as hell is better than keeping it bottled up inside. I need to not let my disease define me as a person, and I have to remember thank don’t have to walk in this life alone.

No matter how many days I have left, mine is a life meant to be shared.  I will climb out of the purgatory of my own making. I will remember I am strong, beautiful, and worthy of happiness.

Its not a competition, but…

I know that I’ve said on many an occasion that I don’t subscribe to the Pain Olympics ideal. I will argue before anyone that this disease is not my own, and that not only do I share it with many, but there are so many other diseases out there that are worse than mine. Or if not not worse, than certainly more rapid in onset and/or life expiration. We unfortunately live in a world where diseases are as abundant as spiders, and often far more scary to deal with.

Its not a competition. No one wants to be sick. No one is going to admit they prefer the never ending pain, rather than living a healthy long life. And I know I’m starting to sound like a broken record, and I’ve probably made this point before… But if one more person tells me that someone they know has a relatively low impact disease and that I couldn’t possibly understand what its like to be sick, I WILL SCREAM.

About a week ago, I was talking with a friend and she was upset because her boyfriend is dealing with vertigo as a result of an ongoing ear infection. He had to take time off work at his construction job because of the dizziness and headaches that the infection had caused. I asked her if he’d been in to see a specialist yet, as I knew ear infections can be quite disruptive if not dealt with quickly. My friend went on in length about how stressed out her boyfriend was, and what a toll this whole thing was taking on him. I sympathized, stating I’d had an ear infection before and that they can be quite horrible to deal with, and that I was sorry he was in pain. To which she replied (to my utter shock), “Well, his is way worse, and you couldn’t understand his pain.”

Really? REALLY?

Look, I’m not trying to be an asshole here, or claim that I have the worstest disease of them all. I’m trying to sympathize and just say I understand. Its not a competition on who had the worst ear infection ever! I’m sure his IS quite bad if he was experiencing vertigo so badly that he needed to take a week off work. I understand that must really suck. Losing rent money sucks.

BUT…

“You couldn’t understand his pain?” Seriously?

I do more things while being in pain than you could possibly imagine. I put my body through things you probably wouldn’t think of doing, because normally you’d just stay in bed and ride out the sickness. My issue is that I can’t ‘ride out the sickness’ because it NEVER ENDS. I will be sick for the rest of my life. I will be in pain for the rest of my life. And because of my diseases, my life will almost certainly be shorter than yours.

I have woken up on a Monday morning and known without a doubt that I wouldn’t be able  to leave my apartment for at least three days. I’ve woken up on an infusion day in so much unbearable pain, and known that no matter what, I would have to get up and get to the hospital for my treatment. I could be screaming on the inside at every step down the driveway, but I’d force myself, because I have to. I won’t go as far as to be petty and say I’d love to trade a one week ear infection for my life, but don’t think for a moment that I can’t understand pain.

Pain isn’t just a physical feeling anymore. Sure, I feel the pain everyday. But its so commonplace now, that it just is. I don’t know what a pain free day feels like. I haven’t had one in almost 5 years. Everyday isn’t a “pain day”. To me, its just a day. Because the pain never leaves. The fatigue never leaves. The struggle of accepting what my life is now never leaves. The fact that my life will most likely be cut short never leaves. Pain isn’t a physical feeling. It just is.

Being sick isn’t a competition. But don’t you dare belittle what I go through, or I dare you to go through it yourself.

 

 

 

A drop in the ocean

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.