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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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.

Why can’t I have the cheesecake I ordered??

This is my first post in a few months… Mostly because my life really hasn’t been that exciting. Life with chronic illness gets like that sometimes. Our pain rises and wanes, we go through slow, inactive periods, etc.

Since its been awhile, you may be expecting a typical rant of hating the healthcare system, wishing doctors had better bedside manner, or the unending disbelief at how people treat the disabled. But, this is not the fruit I bear today. Today I want to talk about false advertising.

Now we may not realise it, but false advertising is EVERYWHERE. It takes a keen sense of snooping out the bullshit that the world is dishing out these days. Not just on that $236 eye cream made from expensive japanese fungus that ensures you’ll look like a 12 year old if you use it everyday for 3 months, cause anyone who falls for that is just asking to be scammed.

How about those medical commercials that tell us if we use this new biologic we too can look like the model they hired for the commercial, hiking up Everest like it’s nothing. I know Big Pharma is trying to sell some drugs, but come on. I’d like to be sent the file of every woman who took chemotherapy for a year and then decided to be a cross fit instructor because she’s cured.

I know I’ve covered this before, but recently I dealt with false advertisement, and it all came rushing back. I was at a restaurant this past Monday, and was perusing the dessert menu when I got excited. It said they had “American Cheesecake”.

Now this may not seem like a big deal to most, but I live in New Zealand now, where “real cheesecake” doesn’t exist. They make the unbaked version here which is more like a mousse. Im not saying that’s a bad thing, it’s just not MY thing. I love baked cheesecake. It’s firm, creamy, and always has a delicious buttery crust. So, when I saw American Cheesecake on this menu I was stoked. Of course I ordered it. It arrives….

(Insert exasperated sigh here)

WHY YOU LIE TO ME MENU???!!

What appeared on the plate in front of me could maybe have been identified as flan… but we would really be pushing it.

•No crust.

•Weird custard texture that tastes and feels reminiscent of hospital grade pudding.

•Very odd gelatinous layer on top that tastes like melted Lego

I was OUTRAGED. If they wanted a creative and inviting name they could have gone with anything. Why lie to me and say American Cheesecake??? Just say ” this is our version of what smelly gym clothes and a pudding cup would taste like if they had a baby”.

FYI- I think one of the worse disappointments in the world is ordering a dessert and it ending up being awful. This coming from someone who lives with chronic illness daily. You don’t mess with dessert.

RAGE!!

Four days later, I’m still stewing about it, AND I still haven’t had any goddamn CHEESECAKE!!

Hmm, I guess this did end up as a rant after all…

Here’s the thing… I’ve been sick for 5+ years. I’ve gone through things with my body that most couldn’t possibly imagine. There have been months where getting out of bed was akin to willingly cutting my own leg off with a chainsaw. I’ve worked at a desk when most would have been in an emergency room. When you become chronically ill, you learn to live at a level most would deem insane and impossible. We do it because we must. Or we wouldn’t be alive at all. So…

Moral of the story:

Don’t falsely advertise to the chronically ill. We don’t always have much to look forward to in daily life, so don’t make it worse lying to us!

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.

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.

My cold is not like your cold

I know time and time again I have advocated for the fact that being sick is not a competition or a race. We are not in the Pain Olympics, and no one gets a medal for being sicker than someone else. But I have to stomp my  foot today and cry out for all my sisters with Rheumatoid Disease and declare “Our colds are not like your colds!”

Its cold season for sure. I can’t get on a bus or be in a doctors waiting room without hearing a sniffle or a muffled cough. A lot of people are sick, and its no ones fault except for maybe the weather and this damn rain that keeps everything damp and chilled. So, we all walk around with crumpled tissues in our pockets, and and extra sweater in our bags, and we look like crap. All of  us. No one looks awesome when they have a cold. And everyone, men and women alike, has a little pity party for themselves about how shitty they feel.

Here’s the thing though, having a cold is shitty enough when you’re a regular healthy human. You get a cough, or the sniffles, and a sore throat, and your head becomes a bit fuzzy. Sometimes you gotta stay home from work for a couple days because you feel so lethargic and icky. Eventually after a week or so, your symptoms start to fade, you pull through, and its only a matter of time before you’re having a beer with friends around the corner again.

Let me paint another picture for you though… The picture of what its like to get sick when your entire life is already about being sick. When the cold symptoms start you’re praying that you don’t have the sniffles because of a cold, but maybe because you just breathed in dust from the curtains that you’ll never have the energy to clean. The sore throat starts and you force feed yourself a gallon of OJ because you know you can’t get a cold. But you know, you always know. Because no one knows their body more than someone who lives with a chronic illness.

Colds for us can last as long as three months if we aren’t strong enough to fight it. They can turn into Pneumonia, Bronchitis, Strep, and worse. A week can pass in bed where the only thing we can do is shuffle to the bathroom to pee, and then back into bed so we don’t get chills. Headaches turn to migraines. Those of us with chronic pain can sometimes be blessed by our diseases taking a back seat to let the cold do its worse. But other times we are stricken with flares, whilst also dealing with sore throats, raw noses from blowing too hard, and brain fog. A common two week cold for an average Joe turns into a two month long nightmare. And one of the worst parts is that we often aren’t allowed to get our regular treatments for our chronic diseases if we are fighting a cold or infection. Chemo and biologics have to be put on hold until the current illness clears our system. But they can’t if our flare ups contribute to them. So we get stuck in what seems like a never ending cycle of illness. For days, weeks, months…

So, next time you feel like responding to your friend that suffers from chronic illness that their cold can’t be as bad as that one you had last week…maybe take a moment to think about the differences between your every day life and theirs. Because from where I’m standing, I’d much rather a week long cold than the four weeks and counting cold I’m currently enduring.