All I Want For Christmas is $100 Million Dollars

100 million dollars. I’ve never lived in a world where that figure represented an actual amount of money. I don’t think I’ve ever used it for anything more than hyperbolic effect in conversation. As in, Anthropologie is so expensive even a scarf there is like, 100 million dollars. I’m not even sure I could write out that number with confidence about how many zeros follow the number one. Unacquainted as I am, I’m learning to write and say it with total conviction, because now it does represent an actual amount of money, and I am seeking it with earnestness. Within the strange world of politics-meets-medicine, it’s no longer an absurd number. In this new context it’s become completely reasonable. In fact, some would say given the facts, it’s an exceptionally modest amount. Go figure.

As many of you are probably tired of reading about, I began a campaign earlier this year requesting that the NIH allocate this amount of funding toward the research of a mostly neglected, orphaned disease. Over the year, this has become the most important pursuit of my life. And I believe the cause to be one of the most important in anyones life: our health. Like many things, you don’t realize how important it is until you don’t have it anymore.  Stepping foot into the advocacy world provided me with a new, unexpected perspective–to see the community I’m a part of, from the outside in. This adjusted outlook has fueled my insistence for change to a degree I’ve never felt before. Interestingly enough, this outside viewpoint began within my own family, but not from my own experience with the disease.

I rarely talk or write about it, but my mom has lived with ME/CFS for two and a half decades. Most people with this disease will tell you there is a pre-sick version of themselves that couldn’t quite  survive once the illness took hold. I was only 2 when my mom became sick, so I don’t remember or know her as any other way than how she is. I’ve been reflecting on the reality that there is a whole side to her I’ve never really known. Prior to getting sick, she might better be described as a type-A personality. She was fast-moving, organized, sharp–an ER nurse. She and my dad had a large social circle and were both involved in the community and church. But no one would ever know about this past part of her, how could they? She left work tentatively to devote herself full-time to motherhood and raising four children under the age of five. In pictures she looks happy and privileged to be a mom and wife. In old videos she is lively and beaming, her voice animated, giggly at times.

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Real nice, Doug.

Christmas morning, 1984. 4:30 am. Grainy video footage taken mostly by my dad (a tech geek elated by new video recording technology) reveals this other side to my mom that many people besides me have never known. In the classic reddish-brown hue that tints all memorabilia from the 70‘s and the early 80’s, three kids under the age of five are glowing in wait in our sunken living room. The fourth kid, me, is five months old sitting in a car seat on the sofa. (Thanks guys) My siblings frantic excitement is palpable–the kind that only comes on Christmas from children who still believe. They remind me of shaken up cans of cola, overflowing with joy. In contrast my mom and dad aren’t entirely awake yet given the hour, and early video footage provides evidence of a boisterous Christmas Eve party late into the night before. They speak in soft tones of voices and have glazed over look on their faces. Despite the lack of sleep, my mom still looks beautiful in a long white robe, rubbing her eyes intermittently to try and pep up. The kids grow more intoxicated with each new gift, and both my parents take turns reacting to 3 individual shouts of “Look at my new toy! Look! Can you open this?” Crumpled up wrapping paper begins to litter the room like discarded wads of kleenex. Outside, it’s still dark.

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Toy assembly line, 4:45 am
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My brother Nick is crying because he can’t find his legos.

I love this footage for many reasons. For one thing, it captures such an iconic display of Christmas morning during such a happy time as if out of a Rockwell painting. You can sense the love between my parents, and observe childhood traits in my siblings that still exist today. Nick is methodical and organized with his unwrapping, and with everything. At one point my sister Amelie opens a gift and says “Wowwww!!!”as her eyes grow huge with excitement. When she shows it to my mom she laughs and says “Amelie, this is just the box.” My brother Doug still receives high-tech gadgets for Christmas and maintains the same enthusiasm. And me, I am still perfectly content to lie on the couch surrounded by my siblings–listen to them tell stories, laugh, bicker, cook, play games, and pine for my mothers attention. Even as a baby, I was comfortable and entertained just watching and listening to them live around me.

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Christmas Eve, 1984

The footage is also deeply nostalgic of course. It’s both wonderful and emotional to hear my dads voice again, to see him alive and in his element. Happy, goofy, making corny jokes. But it’s also a snapshot of the woman my mom was before she got sick. It’s not that this part of her is totally gone, but the illness simply changes your capacity for regular things, even socializing. As such you’re forced to make adjustments. She appears so spirited and vivid in these videos, so unweighed down. Maybe it’s because I so often see how the illness has effected my own appearance every time I look in the mirror, my posture, my facial expression even, that I can easily spot how it’s changed her physically, her whole body language, the inflections of her voice. Even sleepy and in the early hours of morning, there’s an underlying, unrestricted vigor in her–something that lies dormant now. There is a heaviness to this disease, like an invisible ton of bricks you carry with you at all times. Look hard enough and it’s not so hard to see.

My mom was never able to go back to ER nursing as planned. “I couldn’t trust my brain anymore” she says, and the stakes in that line of work were just too high. While she still calls so many people friends and loves them the same, her social life took an extremely hard hit. Given the insidious nature of this disease, I imagine it’s difficult for those who knew her before she was sick to adjust to this comparatively different, limited person–who by most accounts appears so much the same. As a result, relationships struggle to sustain the blow dealt by all the change, and to continuously explain the illness and your newfound incapabilities is exhausting, especially because you have such little energy to begin with. As a result, many people tire out and turn inward, ending up more like hermits or monks. My mom has always been strong and independent, never one to feel sorry for herself or even reach out for help, perhaps sometimes when she could use it. As much as she’s made the best of it and adapted to a less social life, I know a place in her aches not just for the friendships she had, but for the friend she was once capable of being. This is one of the hardest adjustments to the illness, particularly painful because it happens during a time when you need friends and support the most.

Since the birth of her second child, my sisters health has been steadily declining. For the past year and half she has slowly worsened with classic MECFS symptoms. Ruling out many other diseases that mimic this one, she will see a specialist soon for an official diagnosis. But many tests are showing the same abnormalities as those with ME. She is the same age that my mom was when she got sick.  Fortunately because we know now the best course of action, she has a better chance of recovery by addressing it early and aggressively. In March, she left her job tentatively to attend to her health full-time and attempt to get her symptoms under control. She has seen what pushing it has done to both my mom and me, and I don’t think any of us could stand it if it happened to her too. I know leaving her job was not easy for her. She loved her career as an interior designer, began a successful start-up firm with a partner and worked extremely hard. But as her symptoms became more frequent, more severe, longer and harder to recover from, she knew she had a decision to make: Cut her losses now or risk losing a lot more later on. She chose to act now, which was no doubt the right way to go, but I doubt that made the decision any easier on her.

For so long, my whole family, especially my sister and my mom have been my champions who carried me when I was weak and encouraged me when I felt hopeless. I’m so eternally grateful to them for all they’ve done and continue to do, and I’ve always wondered how I will ever repay them and my whole family for their kindness. I believe now it’s my turn to be their champions. Maybe this is my chance to finally return the favor.

I don’t have money to pay back the expenses, and I don’t have the strength to reimburse them by “working off” my debt. What I do have is a voice. A small platform. And a petition with 40,000 signatures. I’ve watched what this illness has done to my family. I’ve read the hundreds of heartbreaking stories that sick people have left on the petition page or emailed to me. I’ve become friends with Jamison Hill, the first person I’ve met who’s close to my age and has MECFS. He was a former personal trainer, and has now been bedridden since January of 2015. He lives in a dark room, able to tolerate exceptionally little light and sound; most days he is barely able to talk. Seeing this widespread devastation was upsetting but also opened my eyes to the urgency and dire need of this issue. It lit a fire within me that’s stronger and different than before. I think sometimes it’s easier to fight for other people than it is yourself.

My mom and sister never gave up on me, and so I promise that I won’t give up on this. It’s a black and white petition with a very specific ask. I won’t settle for the gray bureaucracy of political red-tape that is slow moving, inefficient and has failed this community for the last 30 years. I am hoping Santa, or the right senator, can bypass all that.

What an amazing Christmas it could be for millions of people with this disease around the world, to finally have real hope knowing that change is happening now, and the kind of research we’ve all been waiting on will finally be possible. It’s not a change that would normally happen quickly. And I don’t expect this fight to be easy or painless. But, it is Christmas. And even at 32, I still believe in something powerful around this time of year that makes anything possible. I know that this is, but it will require the right kind of help. Here’s hoping, for all of us, that we get it.

Health, Happiness, Believe

If you’d like to add your voice or help circulate the petition to more people, that would be amazing and please click here.

To donate to Jamison Hill’s medical fund click the link!

Yall Rock, Thank you to all.

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Tension of the Opposites

I often forget that my life is somewhat unconventional– That it requires further explanation to obvious meet-and-greet questions. I forget that answering the typical questions that arise with meeting someone new or catching up with someone old will often start a domino conversation effect that can go any number of ways. Sometimes it’s unintentionally critical questions, sometimes it’s the strangest of medical advice, and other times it’s this awful but easy-to-spot look that no matter what words they’re saying, it’s only the word doubt that’s written all over their face. Of course they’re not all this way, and sometimes when I let down my guard and am honest about my circumstances, it opens the door to friendships and closeness I would never have expected. There’s something about sharing a hardship (without being overly needy) and being heard openly, that evokes a certain trust between two people. It says I have seen the darkness too, and the space between them lessens.

There’s a whole spectrum of reactions, and even though I forget temporarily, for the most part I’ve grown used to and so prepare myself for the array of conversational tones and and twists and turns our exchange may take. It took a while but by now I can usually see where things are going fairly quickly and attempt to steer a conversation going nowhere either back to the other persons life or to an entirely new subject altogether. It’s for the best. Outside of the new and complicated, sometimes awkward anecdotes that come with simply talking to a person, my life feels very normal. On a personal, day-to-day level, I’ve grown used to the terms by which I live, and it’s usually when I share these terms with someone else, my large set of footnotes, that I remember how not normal my situation is. I long for the day when I can complain about my jerk boss, commiserate about the insane landlord of my apartment, (which in my fantasy always has big windows) and when my roommates are no longer my parents. No offense to them–they no doubt long for that day, too.

Living life with a chronic illness means a few things for me: It means being 32 and not working a real job. It means taking 25ish pills a day and still living under my parents wing. It means a lot of solitude and a lot of talking to the dog–probably more than to humans. It means I typically smell like BenGay or peppermint oil, and wear an ice pack on my head almost always. These things have aligned themselves under my own heading of conventional. They are my normal. But I forget that they’re not and require an often long, boring story that explains “my normal” that I’ve grown to cringe whenever I have to tell it. Reciting how and why you arrived at here and now, over and over and over out loud, you almost start to feel like a phony. I don’t know what it is, except that maybe after so long of recounting a story, one that could easily be labeled as unfortunate, in such a casual tone of voice that’s inarguably bored with itself, you begin to question how it is that you’re happy. How it is that you consider such ridiculous conditions as if they were commonplace and acceptable. You start to wonder why you aren’t more up in arms about the whole thing.

I don’t know when it became such a frequent place to end up, but lately I always find myself hanging in the tension between two opposites, struggling to find the fragile balance in the middle. Feeling bide between two of anything is usually unsettling at best, but can often (for me) be exhaustive torture. The two forces aren’t necessarily always polar opposites. Sometimes they’re merely dissimilar, but operate on the same plane. Think surrender and giving up. Gone unchecked, one can quietly ooze into the other, and suddenly you’re nowhere you ever meant to be. Sometimes they’re contradictory forces: maybe your heart wants something that the head doesn’t like. Other times it’s reconciling two truths at odds, choosing between two options and stuck in the messy mud of the middle. Since I consider myself pathologically plagued by indecisiveness, I seem to find myself living in this “tension between two” all the time. It’s trickled its way down from me flailing between two important choices, to agonizing over things as inconsequential as toothpaste. I’ve spent way too many hours of my life struggling in that aisle.

Currently, I find myself in the center of multiple conundrums, questions, opportunities, examinations.. Not all of them are quantifiable, and many of them seem to be ongoing or recurring. I lay in bed at night and the questions fly around the room like some kind of adult mobile made of cosmic curiosities and pitiful choices. Here’s an example of the things my brain has been tangled up with lately:

*How do I surrender to my circumstances and accept my reality without giving up on trying to make things better?

*How do I talk about being sick without getting caught up in my story?

*How do I write bearing the reader in mind without compromising authenticity?

*How do I maintain a sense of autonomy and identity knowing full well I am reliant on the help of others.

*How do I engage in advocacy that is proactive and realistic without losing myself and my worth in every day outcomes?

How do I satisfy this sweet craving without overdosing on gummy vitamins?

Welcome to what Carl Jung called “The Tension Between the Opposites.”

Jung taught that if you can withstand the tension between two opposites, if you can sustain the angst of being suspended in the middle for longer than what is typically comfortable, often possibilities and solutions will arise you wouldn’t have considered before. It can be an enlightening experience, but not easy, and often painful while in the thick of it. The waiting is tough. But if you can hold that tension, you’ll usually encounter what he referred to as ‘The Transcendent Third’. This new ‘third’ solution can involve both or neither of the two pieces you’re between, but in the wait, you can reach deeper into consciousness, and often that’s where the wisest answers can be found. “There will be two opposite approaches for solving it. Neither solution will be correct, but must undergo the tension that will result in a third approach.”

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“There will be two opposite approaches to solving a problem. Neither will be correct, but must undergo the tension that will result in a third approach.”

The world is so fast now. We rarely take the time to be still, to even allow a silence, mistaking it for boredom, or a space that must be filled. If you’d like to experience the discovery of the Transcendent Third, you have to answer the question that Lao Tzu posed on the matter: Do you have the patience to wait until your mud settles? I’d say most of us don’t. Or we do but fail to realize it, living among a pace that’s fast and noisy and nearly impossible to keep up with.

Lately I’ve given a lot of thought to the concept of surrender; something I continue to learn and accept almost every day it seems. Among everything that being sick has taught me, surrender seems to stand out the most. Difficult beyond words, but once allowed in, it can feel like you’ve been given a glimpse of the divine. It can be a beautiful thing, but for me, learning it didn’t come easily. Or all at once.

For years before 2011, my body spoke to me in a language called pain. Fatigue. It said slow down, stop, you’re not getting any better. And for years I downplayed, dismissed, and sometimes outright denied to myself that there was a real problem. As things were falling apart inside, I strived to hang on to all the attachments that the illness slowly started to take.  I thought as long as I could keep my job, it lessened somehow the reality of having a disease. It diminished it to an anecdote. I had it, but it didn’t have me. As such, surrender came in pieces. Determined as I was, I couldn’t bare the tension of working, being sick and trying to get better. Convincing myself I could multi-task, I was actually just failing at three at once. Hah. Something had to give. I

will never forget that conversation in Andrews office, me holding back the tears as best as I could, saying I didn’t want to go. I had done my best, but my body just couldn’t take it anymore. Neither of us wanted me to worsen. We hugged and said that thing people say even when they know it’s not true. “I’ll see you again soon!”  Don’t worry, I told him. But he did look worried, something in his eyes. I punched my time card for the last time–yes the 100-year-old gallery still used time cards. On that drive home across the bridge to my parents house, I cried the whole way. I felt more lost and afraid than I ever had.

That was the end and the beginning. The next two years would be the hardest–the most brutal on every level. I resisted. Lied to myself. Conceived of ways I could return to the path I was on before getting sick. It felt like someone had sat on the remote control of my life and accidentally pressed the pause button. There was an incessant feeling that wherever I was, there was somewhere else I should be. Not this. Not here. I was sick when I should be well. In California when I should be home. At home on a weekday when I should be at work. I never had an inkling that Yep, this is right where I’m supposed to be. I thought if only I could survive this “wrinkle in time” I could resume the life I’d had before. Just like that. As if time moved in any direction but forward.

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Bye Old Life

I’ve had six years to adapt to the life I would feel proud to call my own again, but it certainly wasn’t  the one designed by my hand. I think the final straw that led to surrender was simply a matter of being too tired to fight. Somewhere after year 2, I let go of the last of my life plans–fed them into a shredder and watched as little paper ribbons emerged. Surrender. One part complete fear, one part total release. In hindsight it’s clear that the fear was mostly ego-driven. If I wasn’t designing my own outcomes, who or what was? And by the way, who could know the path I should take better than me? (Laughable now)  But the release had one up on the fear. It meant making room for the life that was waiting for me to finally begin. In fact I was the hindrance. I was the one sitting on the remote.

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My Life: Mid Rise Skinnies

After six years in the game, my life doesn’t feel foreign or as though it should be another way. It feels more like a perfectly worn-in pair of jeans. The ones where the denim is at that awesome level of soft and is tight and skinny in all the right places. I think jeans are one of the most personable clothing items. Have you ever tried someone else’s jeans on before? It feels like trying on clown pants. In the beginning, that’s what being home on a Tuesday at 2 pm felt like. Now that’s just business as usual.

I now struggle with the idea that if I surrender too much, if the circumstances of my life simply feel normal, I’ll become complacent. I’ll forget that it shouldn’t be this way. I’m not supposed to be sick all the time and spend vacations half conscious on the couch. But it’s become the norm. I don’t want to become so desensitized that a bookshelf filled entirely of my prescription bottles doesn’t shock me at all. And I don’t want to lose the fire in me to change the things we need to change, as a community that fought long and hard before I ever came around. I want to embrace and be happy where I am, but I want to be proactive. And so I’m trying to find the balance between enjoying the present while also remembering that there’s an injustice at play here, something that needs fixing. And I know that I have to try and help fix it.

I could easily be the one too sick to fight, just like millions of others with MECFS are, but I’d have no doubt that the warriors in the community would continue to work until it’s done. The baton might change hands but the balance remains. And just because I’ve tapped into joy and surrender and gratitude where I am, doesn’t change the fact that I am part of a community, one that has fought for this cause for decades. I owe it to them to do what I can. I am constantly seeking a way to advocate for what I know is right, but remain distant enough that my ego doesn’t get drawn in to the wrong efforts. It happens all too easily.

A very strange thing that might be hard to believe– I don’t actually love talking about being sick. Gasp. And I feel that I’m kind of terrible at the whole advocacy thing. Luckily online my awkwardness doesn’t shine through as much, but it’s still a struggle for me to solicit people to help, even though I believe 101% in the cause and am certain I’ll continue petitioning and fighting for it until the deed is done. But how can that be?How can it be true that I don’t like talking about being sick and yet I have an entire blog devoted to very subject: “Life through the sick lens”?

I’ve toyed a lot with these opposing truths and tried to understand how I could want both. And I think the answer is somewhere near this: By speaking honestly about the experience, particularly the chronic illness experience, which I found to be largely misunderstood, and by foregoing the typical polite response or social etiquette and supplementing it instead with what is true, I open up a space for us to move closer together instead of further apart. By writing about a topic that can be very isolating, I’m attempting to give people a chance to understand, instead of blindsiding them with “Well I live in mismatched pjs and I haven’t showered for a week because I’m too weak to shampoo my own hair and oh, you’ll never understand!” (Runs out of coffee shop. Trips. Continues running.)

Contrary to what I hear people say all the time, the world is actually full of good people, and most of them aren’t trying to hurt you. 99% of the ones I know are exceptional, and they are sympathetic and helpful about my situation when given the chance to be. But you have to be willing to reach out, which means you have to expose a need, and sometimes that’s the hardest part of all. I only know if I keep too tight a lid on my own unusual experience, hellbent that the world will just never get it, I will most likely be right, but it won’t be the worlds fault.

So, life continues, seeking out the peace in the middle. Waiting patiently for the right answer to arise in so many scenarios. And holding the tension between opposites long enough to tap into something deeper and wiser than I ever could be. It’s not the easiest thing, but it sure beats pulling my hair out between Crest Multi Care and Colgate Total at midnight in Walgreens. The point is to be still and patient, wait for the mud to settle, and allow enough time for my own transcendent third to arise.

Health, Happiness, Settling Mud