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.

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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…

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.

You’re not sick enough

For over four years I have allowed myself to entertain the idea that maybe one day I would be well. It would usually come after periods of having little to no pain flares, or a burst of energy after weeks spent bound to my home. Small fantasies if  you will, of seeing myself hiking again, or being able  to travel more of the world like I’d always wanted to. And then these visionary bubbles of hope would be popped every time a doctor would tell me I was getting worse, or that I’d procured another illness, to add to the ever increasing pile of shit I was already dealing with.

One of these frustrating moments was just a couple of months ago. It was on the same day that my rheumatologist told me I could re-start Remicade, a drug that had started working for me just before I left Hawaii. In hearing this news I was in such a great mood. Having only received three infusions before leaving the island, the drug had already produced amazing results, doubling my energy, and lessening my pain flares. I was stoked.

However, that excitement was short lived when my doctor informed me that recent test results showed I had developed Pulmonary Fibrosis, a lung disease that can be fatal. It turns out that the severe inflammation that Rheumatoid Disease caused in my body had produced scarring on my lungs. It wasn’t yet determined how bad it was, and I was sent for more testing including blood labs and x-rays. On top of that it was also concluded that I likely had Lupus, another autoimmune disease, that my doctors had suspected for many years.

I was devastated. Why was it that every time I started to feel like my disease was turning a corner, I’d turn that corner and walk smack into a brick wall?

Depression came on swift wings with the winters rain, and I started to seriously doubt the years I had left. Research came and went. I talked to my therapist in what seemed like a never ending loop of what if and why me‘s. Every part of my life looked gray, as if I was wearing Eeyore glasses.

But just as nature surprises us with change, so did my mood. The storm in my head began to lift, and with my Remicade infusions, so did my heavy heart. I hate to sound like a cliche and say that my rose colored glasses faded away and every thing seemed okay again, but that’s really what it was like. Without knowing how or why, I found my happiness again, and moved forward at a surprising pace.

I started to exercise a lot more, having finally found the energy to do so. I took long walks that went miles, and explored areas I’d only known as a child. In one of these walks I stumbled across a Cat Lounge, an awesome place where you could literally spend hours petting cats, and resting as they took naps on your lap. Some days, I would just walk up the hill behind my house to a little cafe, sitting by the window sipping hot chai lattes, and writing for hours.

With this burst of new energy, I started to see friends more often, even venturing out more on weekends. For the first time in over four years I was really feeling like my old self again. I even went on a couple dates, and while none of them panned out, it felt good to be out in the singles world again. Energetic, confident, and hopeful.

Now, you’d think that this lovely change in my attitude and physical self would have been celebrated by others. I figured after years of hearing my depression over my illness, lack of enthusiasm for life, and the dreariness of daily pain, that friends and family would rejoice with me that I was starting to feel a little better. Especially with the fact that I had been able to lose 80 of the 90lbs gained on steroids and pain management medications. I mean I wasn’t cured (there is no cure), but it felt good to feel good, even if only for awhile. I knew that there could be periods of wellness, followed by periods of illness. But I wanted to embrace the wellness as often as I could, and make the most of it, while I could.

To my surprise, not many in my life shared my zest in this. You know that phrase “misery loves company”? Well, this was a cracked out version of that. I received a lot of “Well, don’t get your hopes up”, “You’ll probably be sick again next week”, or my favorite not favorite “You could still gain the weight back”.

For fuck’s sake!

Look, I’m quite aware that I’ve been sick-its my body! I’m quite aware there is no cure-I have seen more than a few doctors! And I am beyond aware that my illness varies from day to day, if not hour to hour. But do you understand that when you have a chronic illness that you’ve been told may very well kill you, any day or moment where you feel genuinely well needs to be enjoyed? Can you please let me relish this time where my joints aren’t screaming at me, and I don’t want to cry at the loneliness, and I can just be happy if only for a moment?

Its like I am not allowed to feel well, even if its for a short while. I am the sick person, the sick friend, the sick family member. If I display even a hint of joy, energy, or confidence, then suddenly its this big deal. As if maybe I was faking it the whole time-because yeah, I just faked four years of excruciating pain and fatigue, for sympathy. Instead of letting me be happy, I am berated with “I guess you’re not that sick after all” or “I thought you were too sick to get out of bed”.

For fuck’s sake.

I am NOT sick 24/7. Yes, sometimes I can be sick for days and weeks on end. Sometimes it feels like my entire life is me standing under a rain cloud that follows me everywhere, except instead of rain and thunder, I get new diseases, cancer scares, and Osteoporosis. That sometimes its like I’m in a crowded room screaming and no one can hear me or cares.

So you’d think that when I am feeling good people would be happy? Nope. In the land of Chronic Disease, if you’re not sick and miserable all the time, then you’re not really sick. Or you’re being too optimistic and you need to be brought back down into the ditch of incurable misery, and stay there.

Well… I say NO.

I am not sorry that I don’t look sick all the time. I am not sorry that I don’t feel sick every moment of every day. I am not sorry that you can’t be happy that I can get a moment of peace every now and then. I am not sorry that my new medication makes me feel better some days. I am not sorry that I am not the vision of sickness that you need me to be.

Some days I feel bad, really bad. Some days I feel like I want to give up and die, seriously. There are days when I wonder how I’ve made it as long as I have. I often wonder if it would truly be better if I let my diseases consume me. Yes, it does get this dark inside my head. This is life living with chronic illness.

BUT…

On the days where the pain wanes, and the sadness cloud clears, and I feel like I’ve woken up like a normal person… let me have that. Enjoy the pain freedom with me. If I’m in an optimistic mood, be optimistic with me. Be happy with me, if only for awhile. Don’t make me feel like shit for wanting to spend one day, one hour feeling like a normal woman. In a life where I don’t know how many normal days I have left, let me appreciate the time given.

Let me be okay, if only for awhile.

 

 

Let’s talk about karma

I had an interesting revelation recently about karma. See, for the longest time I thought that karma wasn’t on my side because of the chronic illness I suffer from. I figured things surely weren’t going my way especially if I was in constant suffering from this terminal disease. I’d hear other people complaining about their lives and I admit that it really frustrated me. Not because they aren’t deserving of complaints, no judgments here, but because they sounded so minor in my mind to what I was feeling. And that’s of course wrong. I shouldn’t judge others lives as much as they shouldn’t judge mine. I wasn’t mad at them, I was mad at my disease. 

I guess for a long time I felt cheated by life. Cheated by the world, for having this incurable pain that I had no control over. But then I had this great epiphany a couple of weeks ago. It was just after receiving an amazing gift from a friend. I had unfortunately just cracked one of my teeth, while eating boneless chicken, no less. I was desolate because I knew I didn’t have enough money to go to the dentist, let alone go and get a root canal and a crown, which surely would’ve been the case. I was super depressed and had posted on Facebook how frustrated I was that I was too broke to go to a dentist. And amazingly an acquaintance of mine reached out through a personal message and offered to pay for a dental visit for me. 

I was floored. Having only one other time experienced such generosity, I was shocked. 

Despite my protests, my friend insisted I go to the dentist the next day, which I did. And very unhappily came to find that it was not one tooth, but two! Could the news be any worse? Yes. It would cost close to $4000 to fix my teeth. I was even more depressed by that point. So I told the dental assistant to call my friend, whom would be paying for the consultation, and he would give her a credit card over the phone. While she went off to collect her few hundred, I sat trying to comprehend how I could come up with all that money for a problem that was a pretty big issue. They were my front bottom teeth, and it wasn’t something I could ignore. Imagine my giant surprise when the dental assistant returned and told me my friend had not only paid for the consultation, but also for my two root canals AND crowns. Almost $4000 in dental surgery and reconstruction!

I was speechless. After agreeing to come back later that afternoon for the dental surgery, I contacted my friend, worried at how much money he had spent. But he was so nice! Told me he was glad to help me, having known how much I needed it. Not only did he know I would never be able to pay him back, he didn’t even ask for me to. I could not believe the generosity of someone I didn’t know that well.

That  night, as I rested at home with a swollen and numb jaw, I also remembered the generosity of another person. Someone who had read my blog and sought me out because of it. A very generous person who treated my mom and I to an amazing meal at their restaurant, just as a way to say “I care”. Two people who barely knew me, but understood my struggle, my pain, had reached out and given amazing support in ways I didn’t know could happen to people like me.

And of course I have received support in many other ways, from many other people as well. Friends who have bought me groceries when I’ve run out of food stamps, or couldnt get to the store. Friends who’ve paid my phone bill because all I could afford was rent. People who didn’t even know me and donated to my fund to help me have a home. Family members who have helped get me to the er and the doctors office. Family that took care of my cats when I was ill or away. As well as two military families that took me in after I couldn’t work anymore. And all of this done selflessly, with no expectation of payback, or strings.

I have been very very lucky.  I realize this now. All this time I thought I had bad karma because of my disease. That I was being punished for any wrong doings I’ve done in my life. No. How very wrong I was. My karma is outstanding. How else to explain why so many amazing  people do amazing things for me in my life? How else to explain what wonderful people I have around me, who dedicate themselves to supporting and loving me? If I were a bad person, people would not help me as they do. You don’t give your generosity to someone you think isn’t worthy of it. Not generosity like I’ve received. 

Silly me. Bad karma? No no no.

My karma is outstanding. What a wonderful thing to behold. And thank you to all of the people in my life who helped me realize this.

It’s not a competition

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christine Lilley’s Life Fund