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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…

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A Note To The Elderly…

Something has been really bugging me for the past few days, and it took me awhile to be able to put it into words here.. This time it’s not so much about what I deal with, but more about how others deal with me. Or rather, us, those who are sick in their  youth.

When we were little, we were taught to always respect our elders. Its like a mantra that is ingrained in our brains since infancy. I couldn’t tell you when I first heard it, but its been repeated to me throughout my entire life. And I get it, being respectful of your elders makes sense. But how did that start? Why was it only ‘be respectful of your elders’ and not taught just to be respectful of everyone? Because now I fear, that in teaching everyone this ideal, we’ve given some a false sense of superiority. Like bad behavior is okay if its from the elderly because somehow they’ve earned it?

Also, what is the rule for the elderly then? If all us younger folk have to be respectful and gracious to those older than us, what do they have to do towards us? Anything? No? Here lies the problem. It may not seem like a problem for most, but for those of us who are under the age of 60, and are living with chronic illness, it is one. Most of the elderly that I have been in contact with since becoming ill have absolutely no regard or respect for the fact that I am sick. They either don’t believe it, or flat out ignore it. Because somehow, I couldn’t possibly be ill or disabled if I don’t carry a senior citizens card.

My first example of this is from a couple of weeks back when a friend and I were outside a local mall. We were sitting on a bench eating ice cream cones in the sun, and watched as an older couple in their 50’s were pushing a young woman in a wheel chair who looked to be in her mid-30’s. It wasn’t clear what the young woman’s disability was, but her parents (I’d assume) were helping her sit at a table of an outside cafe adjacent to our bench. The older couple looked tired, but were diligently helping their daughter whom clearly couldn’t walk. I don’t know what it was about this scene that made me smile. Maybe just a nice reminder of support from loved ones, for those of all ages with disabilities. The smile faded however when an much older woman walked past them, and decided to speak her mind on how she saw the situation. I didn’t hear everything, but I did hear the older woman tell the young woman in the wheelchair that she should be helping her parent out instead of the other way around.

I was outraged. Especially, since this was not the first time I’d seen these behaviors. In the almost five years since I was diagnosed, I have been confronted with this quite a few times. And by this, I mean older people than I mouthing off at me or other young disabled people, about how we can’t be sick/disabled and shouldn’t rely on our elders.

Um… WHAT?

I’m sorry, I didn’t realize there was a rule about not being sick before having wrinkles…

Another example of this happened to me just the other day while at the bus stop outside my local grocer. As I was waiting for the bus, I watched two elderly women in their late 60’s-early 70’s push their shopping carts past the sign that forbids carts from leaving the premises. They crossed the street, went down a block, and stopped at my bus stop where they abandoned the carts outside the front door of a local clothing store. A salesperson came out and while he seemed visibly annoyed, said nothing, and proceeded to push the carts back to their home. The women stood next to me with their grocery bags, and as the bus came into view I signaled the driver to stop. Now, I was taught to respect my elders, and I always let them get on the bus first. So, as the bus stopped and opened its doors I stepped back politely. This was not necessary however, as one of the women physically pushed me back with her arm, causing me to stumble, and said “respect your elders”.

ARE YOU F*CKING KIDDING ME?

How is pushing someone you don’t even know, whom politely stepped aside for you, and then barking at them to be respectful, a gesture to be respected?? The bus driver asked if I was alright, and after picking up my dropped grocery bags, I boarded the bus and sat in the rear, as far from the rude lady as possible. They then spent the next five minutes I was on the bus, talking about how rude young people are and how they need to learn respect. This is where I draw the line.

No, I did not say something to the rude lady. I did, however go home and have a long think about how I would approach this blog.

Here’s the thing… Respect goes both ways. It shouldn’t be something we teach kids to follow just based on age. Because somewhere down the line, this ideal got warped, and not just in the eyes of youth, but in elders as well. Of course, I know these were isolated incidences. And not every single person over the age of 60 is rude to anyone younger. I have a lot of family and friends in my life whom have always been respectful of me, despite my age or disability.

But at what point did people of a certain age start thinking they were superior just for reaching that age? And at what point did the idea that a young person who is disabled, have less rights than someone who is elderly? Even back when I lived in Hawaii, and rode the bus there, I was often shamed by the elderly for using the disabled section on the bus. In their eyes I was too young to be truly sick or disabled. Like my illness didn’t matter because I hadn’t lived long enough.

Those of us whom are young and battling chronic illnesses should have the same rights as anyone else, age be damned. We shouldn’t be shamed by others for being sick, because trust us when we say, we don’t want to be. We don’t want to be using canes or wheelchairs, it embarrasses us that we have to use disabled placards on our cars, and park in special parking to get closer to an entrance. We didn’t sign up for this, and we had no idea it was coming, unlike old age. We don’t ask people to respect us, nor do we make a big deal about it in public. And we don’t teach kids to respect the ill or disabled, but we should.

Instead of teaching children to respect their elders, why not teach them to respect everyone?

And to the elderly who think I’m too young to be sick and disabled…I agree. I am too young, but that doesn’t mean I’m not. So please respect that.

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

He didn’t want me to love, and so I never did

Even before I got sick and my whole life turned upside down, my dad would tell me not to bother with relationships and love. From a young age he told me to concentrate on school and work, that I didn’t need to worry about the complications of romance. Despite my contradictory feeling on this matter, I think it really affected me subconsciously throughout the years. we are our parents children, right? Despite our feelings on how we swore to not be like our parents, to not make the same mistakes, we do, don’t we?

My parents divorced when I was very young. My mom raised me primarily, and I saw my dad every other weekend while we lived in the US, until my mom moved us to New Zealand when I was 10. Despite my dad’s feelings on the subject, I didn’t like spending time with him when I was young because he was so strict, and at times cold. Its no surprise to anyone that really knows me that my dad and I have not often seen eye to eye. He has always voiced his opinion on how I was raised, how he felt my mom kept me from him, and his general dislike of the situation after the divorce. No matter how many times I’ve told him I was the one that didn’t like spending time with him when I was little, and that I would beg my mom to not let me go to his house. He “forgets” every time I try to stand up for my mom and set the story straight, and remind him of who left whom. He left. Not us.

I think a lot of my fear of him when I was growing up was how much his “advice” felt like insults and put downs. To this day, he will always stand by his word that he was being parental, and voicing concerns. But when you’re 13 and your dad asks if you’re pregnant and pokes at your belly, that barely extends from your hips, well you tend to fear the comments and advice.  To be clear, I was NOT pregnant, I was growing into my body as any teenage girl would.

When I reached my mid-teens was when the “you don’t need a boyfriend” comments began. I was not to be deterred, and was as boy crazy as any hormonal girl of my age. But, when it came to the time of liking someone, I found myself to be quite commitment phobic. This went on long into my early twenties, and even gave me problems in my first long-term relationships. For years I believed that I wasn’t phobic of relationships, that I was just being sensible in not attaching myself to someone. It wasn’t until I found a really good therapist that helped me primarily in dealing with my disease, that I started to understand what had happened.

Subconsciously, I was following my dad’s advice for years, decades even. When I started working in my early twenties, the comments changed from “you don’t need a boyfriend” to “you don’t need to worry about marriage”. Now, I will never really understand why he said these things to me. I don’t know if he truly feels that relationships are a waste of time (he’s in his second marriage, so I can’t see that being an anti-commitment comment), or rather that he thinks I just shouldn’t waste my time. Or maybe he thinks I’m incapable of dealing with them, or that there are more important things I should be concerned with. Which may make more sense now that I’m sick, but these comments have  been made since I was 10…

My point is, despite my feelings that I always wanted relationships and eventually marriage, I think his comments subconsciously deterred me from having them. Or rather, having healthy relationships.

Now, I am 35. I suffer from several chronic illnesses, one of which will eventually lead to my demise. And I am alone.

With my illness comes the desire to not suffer alone, and I wonder if I’ve lost my chance to find someone. Days pass into weeks that pass into months, and the loneliness sometimes feels unbearable. Yet now, instead of that incessant nagging feeling that I shouldn’t worry about relationships and marriage, I now incessantly worry that I shouldn’t bother with them due to my shortened life expectancy. Is it fair to engage in love with someone when I can’t give them forever?

I have no one to blame but myself. I listened to the wrong advice for a long time, and now that I’m sick, I worry that I lost my chance to enjoy something I’ve always craved, but never let myself truly have. I can’t get over the feeling that it might be unfair to want a lasting love, if that love might only last five to ten years depending on my hypothesized life expectancy.

These are all what ifs and maybes. But sometimes I wonder if my life would have been different if I didn’t grow up with the whisper in my ear that relationships shouldn’t matter to me. Everyone deserves love, even if they are lead not to believe it is so. Both of my sisters have both married, and here I am dying of a disease that leaves me feeling more alone that anyone can imagine. Sometimes I wonder why my dad told me I shouldn’t bother with romance. Was romance to be avoided by everyone, or just me? And why was I undeserving?

Me, Myself, and I

As someone who has a lot of time on their hands, I find myself on social media quite a bit. It’s easy as pie to just tap my phone to see what’s been posted on Facebook or Twitter, or to have a quick laugh on Reddit. Quite honestly, I probably check my Facebook status anywhere from 15-30 times a day. A bit excessive yes I know, but be honest with yourselves, you do it too! Seriously, why don’t you go ahead and count sometime… I bet you’ll be surprised at how often you do it.

I think it’s part of human nature, the incessant desire to never miss out on anything. We want to be a part of everything and anything, and we feel let down if we aren’t “in the know”. This could pertain to anything too, be it sports scores, which celebrity is shagging another, your own friends relationship status updates, or how many potato chips the girl who’s dieting in the cubicle next to yours just ate. We have to know each other’s business, secrets, feelings, happiness, and pain. It’s just the way it is. We are obsessed with information.

My own personal vice is Who has read my blog?

I constantly check my stats on WordPress and Facebook. Has anyone new read them? Did they like what I wrote, did they leave a comment? Do people understand what I’m feeling? Am I making sense? Do they connect with the words on a spiritual level, or a physical one? Or do they even read them at all?

Have you ever noticed that you can post something online like a really long status update that’s a few paragraphs, or a blog, or an article, and people click like within seconds of you posting it? What exactly is it that they are liking? Cause it’s not your post, there’s no way they read it hat quick. So basically they like that you posted anything at all. And then you have no frame of reference on whether someone truly liked what you posted because they are just obsessive “clickers”. Someone posts something and hey are compelled to immediately react to it. Drives me nuts.

But why am I really annoyed by this? I mean, I don’t write my blog for anyone but me. Seriously. I may say that I love checking my stats and enjoy reading comments left, but at the end of the day, my blogs are for me, myself, and I. They are a way for me to express my darkest thoughts and feelings. Because in a way, they don’t feel read until I put pen to paper, or in this case-stylus to kindle. When I see my words, my feelings, my thoughts, well, that’s when they become real. It’s like saying something out loud makes it real for some people, well, writing it down makes it real for me.

It helps catalogue my thoughts, wishes, and dreams. I can always go back through them and remember exactly how I felt on that one day. Just like a diary, my blog is an extension of who I really am on the inside. So maybe my obsession with stats checking is really more about wanting to validate that people around me understand how I’m feeling.

In my last blog I talked about realizing my fears. Actualizing them and understanding how they affect my life and how in reality they have made me who I am today. Before writing that blog I lived in the fear of people knowing what I’m really feeling. I was saving their feelings and making them comfortable by not sharing my truths. And for what? So they don’t have to feel bad about my disease. What a senseless waste of time that was. Why should I hide what was really going on? Why were others comforts more important to me than my own? I guess I realized I was people pleasing, something that I’ve given up in recent days. I learned through putting my feelings out there that I was doing more damage than good. Mind blown.

Life is a journey. We learn new things every day, especially about ourselves. It took me three years to learn to put myself first. That time frame sounds ridiculous when I think about it, but that was my reality. But then I put my feelings into words and made the necessary changes. That’s what my blog helps me do. Realize what needs to change, how I can grow, and make it happen through actions.

Todays life lesson and realization is that social media does nothing for us if we aren’t commiting to being real and being ourselves. You’re not doing anyone any favors by liking every single thing that’s posted, or checking statuses every two minutes. You’re just feeding a compulsion to know information that isn’t necessary for your life. What we should really be focusing on is OURSELVES. What helps us move forward and grow. My life isn’t going to change drastically if I have more followers on Twitter or WordPress. The only thing that should matter is me, myself, and I. How I live, how I learn, how I grow. Everything else is just  fodder. It’s time to remember that I am here for me.

 

 

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