*I’m making a concerted effort to keep these blogs shorter and “more digestible.” This is not that blog. Last year was a book all on its own and I feel the need to fill some gaps where I was unable to write during certain parts, so I’ll do it now so I can move on to the present. Apologies it’s not shorter and sweeter. Next time.
The beginning of 2017 had begun so auspiciously. My health was in the “good enough” category. Not great, but not terrible. I don’t even know if the word ‘good’ fits with any precision here, but looking back at the beginning of the year, it was so much better than how the year was to end.
The hopefulness, the call to act, the feeling that I could help change things related to a health crisis all felt visceral and achievable. Whenever I felt down about something, disappointed, or discouraged, I constantly asked the same question: Why not me? I’d waited on others for so long, expecting there to be a happy ending soon enough. But you grow older and you see that things don’t happen unless people believe they’re possible to change, and if those same people don’t believe they can contribute to this change, in whatever way small or large, things remain the same. When we stop waiting on others, and decide no matter where we are in life, there is always something we can do, we will add light to a place of darkness. We can try. And I can tell you from personal experience, many failures, some successes, that trying, regardless of outcome, feels a whole hell of a lot better than waiting.
I think it’s why we may sometimes take the longer route home, even though we know there’s an objectively quicker way to get there—but that shorter way involves stop and go traffic the whole time. Most of us would prefer to just drive, on a road that feels open, then sit in a tense car and yell OH COME ON and beep our horns (as if this does anything in congested traffic).
I hadn’t expected the outcome that came out of writing the petition. Yes once again, I”m talking about the petition. But this stuff matters— to me, and to millions, and I need to quit pretending this is a blog that will always (or ever) be extremely exciting or cover my super fun travels to Brazil! I am after-all, documenting life and a chronic disease and a hopefully changing political landscape that I am attempting to contribute to. I try to keep things light-hearted and fun when I can, and highlight the sometimes tragic hilarity that comes from this weird, unconventional life I live. That’s the creative challenge. But the aim of truth telling is tied for 1st in what’s primary, because there has been so much, well, non-truth telling. (I’m looking at you, psychiatric club of England!) I also try not to make it so much about me, but that’s a joke, because this is me, writing about me, and also M.E. (Myalgic Encephalomyelitis— you get it.)
In early January I met with the LA State Director who works directly under Senator Bill Cassidy. I sat with him for two and a half hours, giving him the whole spiel. At the end, I showed him the petition, which had amassed roughly 35,000 signatures at the time, and it seemed to surprise him. That led to him arranging an extremely brief “meeting” with Bill Cassidy, (literally a 3 minute talk in the parking lot between meetings, where I said as much as I could, and handed him a printout of twenty pages of comments where sick people had told their stories in condensed bursts trying out for help. Some of them were heartbreakingly short and to the point. “I have lost everything. I am bed bound. I’m not living anymore.’ As he was being ushered into his car to his next meeting and his team shouting that he was late and to please hurry, he shook my hand and looked me in the eye saying “I really would like to know more about this.” But politically things were a mess at that time. Is that a redundant thing to say? No longer even necessary? I was told he would be in our state (Louisiana) for roughly 30% of the year or less because his help with the Healthcare Bill in DC was very much needed. So I met with the State Director, but it just inherently felt like such a good thing. Any politician empathizing with you, listening to you and looking you in in eye feels successful all on its own. I realized we were all looking for that. We just want to be seen and heard, and I want to continue that mission.
Attending the “Storm on DC” in May where a large group of us-advocates, advocacy group leaders, those sick with MECFS and those who loved them— met with representatives of more that 150 congressional offices, which felt like movement in the right direction. Besides that, the catharsis I found in meeting other people who were living my kind of life was invaluable. It was the human reminder that I’m always trying to tell myself, that I’m always replying to others when they reach out. We really aren’t alone, even if we’re by ourselves. There are many of us, and yet isolation dominates. This sentiment is perhaps the hardest to remember, the most difficult to convince your heart is try.
A good family friend arranged for me to meet the Majority Leader, Steve Scalise, where we all sat down, and I attempted a summarized spiel of MECFS and the train wreck it is. More importantly I introduced this disease to a man who’d never heard of it, which is typically how these things go. Then I told my story in fast forward, as something he could connect to. Maybe something he might remember. The three of us did a little trouble shooting of ideas. We didn’t have two and a half hours, bur he too wanted more time to learn about and think on this. I left him with short and digestible literature. When we left he shook my hand and I looked him in the eye, hoping he would remember me. That somehow in the future, he’d have some faint memory of a girl he talked to—explaining a crisis underneath everyones nose that needed immediate addressing. A continuation of being seen, being heard, asking people pointedly,”Can’t we do better?”
We tried. I tried. And regardless of what obvious or immediate changes were made (not many, but a few important ones), this all felt very good. To try. You know when you’re doing your best and when you’re slacking. Nobody really has to tell you.
Unfortunately after my bump of health in the spring, I seemed to start on a downward spiral to crap town. I fell in love, which was energizing, but the burst of it didn’t last very long. In late summer we tried ketamine infusions to try and get a hold on my chronic pain—in my legs and my head/face. It was basically insane. And sort of a Catch 22, because I think if I didn’t have ME, I would’ve been able to handle the 3 infusions per week for two weeks. But the physical demand of doing anything 3 times a week at that point was extremely difficult. Strangely, it improved the pain in my legs, but made my head worse. I’d get a horrible migraine after each treatment and woke up the next day like it was back for vengeance. I’d have a day to recover before we’d go in for another treatment and do it all again. For someone with this illness, this kind of protocol just isn’t all that possible or as it easy it might be for others. At any rate, we went through with it, because if I was going to endure the physical hardship and psychological insanity, I wanted to really go for it. I wanted to know explicitly if this would work or not, and not do some half-ass attempt. Apparently the first 6 treatments and the time in which they’re given is crucial to their effectiveness. I would try anything that might help the pain, get me off meds.
It was an intense two weeks, and I’ll go into much further detail on another post because there is a LOT about that course of treatment, physically and spiritually, and not a lot of personal experiences written about it out there. I believe it could have worked for the nerve pain in my legs if my mysterious stupid head didn’t explode at anything new we tried. I crashed from the exertion, the migraines became a given, and it just became clear it wasn’t working. Wasn’t going to be possible or given a real chance to work. So we paid a hefty financial and physical price, but at least we tried, and we always will attempt things that promise at least a good possibility of lessening my pain and eliminate the need for prescription drugs that are harder to fill than buying a machine gun.
This was toward the beginning of August, where afterward my functionality was already in decline but it continued and seemed to increase its rate of downward spin. Particularly in October, where I seemed to fall off the earth.
The pain doctor changed one of my long acting pain meds to see if we might get a better hold on the leg and face pain. I had an extreme reaction to it. On day 3 the “skin crawling” I had felt at first turned up to a 10. I’d wake up at 3 am to my legs and arms squirming, kicking, flexing— feeling like a kinked hose with full blast water trying to flow through it, impossible to keep still. My muscles would be flexed without my telling them to. My fists would be clenched and my toes curled under my feet, then pointed, back and forth on repeat. Moving felt “good” in a weird way, only because remaining still felt impossible. But I was so exhausted anyway, all this muscular strain helped nothing and only worsened.
On day 4 came an episode that we can’t really explain. I was at the vet with Monty when I was already feeling rough but pretty suddenly felt I like would faint and as though my insides were melting. Luckily it’s across the street from our house, so I cut appointment short, trying in spurts and sputters to explain what dysautonomia was to the vet techs as I sat on a bench before the 60 second ride home. Have you ever heard of POTS? “Like frying pans?” I came straight home, laid down on the couch, drank peppermint water for the intense nausea and iced my aching head. Suddenly I needed to vomit. I wrapped myself around my moms toilet where the bathroom spun but I could only spit. I prayed to puke because the nausea was so immediate, making my face hot and the saliva in my mouth swirl, collect at my lips and pour out like a faucet, but nothing.
I laid on the floor of her bathroom, stuttering and having major issues speaking. My muscles kept clenching, all of them, would become rigid, and my teeth chattered. If I diverted my attention away from breathing it became hard to breath normally. It felt similar to the symptoms of SVT but I was not in active SVT, or I’d taken an atenolol just in case I was, and it would’ve worked by the time I lying on the tile. Something else was happening. I had to focus on just taking normal, deep breaths, trying to stay calm. I was twitching and my muscles were doing whatever they wanted. When I finally stood, unstable on my feet, my parents each held an arm and tried to guide me to the bed—but every time I moved I felt insane vertigo and urgent nausea. Even looking too quickly with my eyes to the left or right caused a flash of the same symptoms unless I lay still on the cold tile floor. I laid around the toilet again and tried to be as still as possible, ignoring whatever my body was doing on its own. My parents brought in a pillow and blanket and Monty laid next to the bathtub.
My body took turns twitching and shaking and going rigid, and I stuttered horribly when my mom asked me questions. The lights were too bright, so I laid there just as the last of the sun was setting. I knew she was conflicted—do we take her to the ER? But we’ve both had enough experience there—no one has heard of my disease. They would look at my prescription list and long, convoluted history and none of it would add up to anything, understandably. (We hardly mention ME/CFS in med school text books, and the printed “treatments” are so outdated, some still state “hysteria” as a cause. If anything, going to a bright, loud, crowded ER would make it worse. She used to be a nurse and was monitoring my vitals the whole time anyway. I told her “Please, no hospital.” But I think she knew I was in better hands at home anyway. I felt awful. Not just physically, but that it had come to this. That my mom had to see me like that. That the place you’re supposed to go for medical help is not a place we can go. All of it felt so backwards, so wrong. And it was just beginning,
It took four hours for the episode to finally dissipate and for me to turn back into normal Mary. Clearly I couldn’t stay on that med, which was incredibly disheartening, because it was the first one that provided relief for both the nerve pain in my legs that I’ve had for eight years, and the mysterious head/face pain that we’ve been trying to figure out for the last 5. No luck. But that med, that pile of gold in a bottle that finally eased the pain for both, was also a med violently rejected by my body, so I was forced to quit it. I cried and cried. I felt angry at my own body. Why wouldn’t it accept something that was finally helping it? It’s hard to hold out hope during times like that.
I was horribly crashed the day after the episode, but we had to go back to the doctor the next day and get my medicine sorted out. Another hour car ride, (thank you Mom and Marc) and we weren’t really told why I would have that kind of reaction—which seemed to fit the bill for serotonin syndrome, something I have had at least one episode of before. But they shrugged it off and agreed it was best to just return to my old regimen. The “good enough” regimen. There was only one huge problem that remained:
The side effects of that new drug I tried didn’t go away when we stopped it. It was as thought a switch was flipped. It began in October. I am still dealing with extreme restless legs and arms and toes and hands (which for eight years prior were 90% under control with lyrica), and my skin crawls as if I’m being tickled from the inside if I don’t take a different med to calm my whole nervous system down. The symptoms are insane without this new med.. SO, just to fill yall in, that was the last quarter of 2017, and I can say objectively, IT ROCKED.
I am telling this story because it’s just one example of how messed up this situation is, in so many capacities. I have had to see four doctors in order to get the medicine needed to calm down the symptoms caused by a medicine I tried for a short while in October. The DEA is coming down explicitly hard not just on patients but on doctors too and if they’re prescribing any kind of controlled substance. Their licenses are threatened, and they aren’t allowed to treat their patient the way they might normally choose— because an entity that knows nothing about medicine is interfering with their medicinal plan. But more importantly, I’ll never forget what my primary care physician said to me in a recent visit while we continued to try and sort all of this out, as I squirmed like a a worm on the examination table, about to run out of the medicine that was helping keep things ‘calm’ but I was forced at the time to try and ween off of. He’s a very good doctor and extremely educated in Dysautonomia, which is a huge part of MECFS. He said “It’s better for one or two doctors to be prescribing all your meds, not six or seven.” I agree with him. And how nice that would be, if only it were possible.
This is what MECFS patients mean when they say there’s no place to turn, no safety net. A person with cancer goes to the oncologist. A person with diabetes goes to the endocrinologist. Someone with heart disease, the cardiologist. Where does the person with MECFS go? The literal handful of specialists, if they can afford it? And where it’s difficult to fill any prescriptions because the specialist is out of state? Local doctors have often heard of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, which they often conflate with Fibromylagia—an illness one of my male doctors actually used AIR QUOTES when he said it aloud, as well as “Intersticial Cysitus”. I wanted to laugh high pitched and say with my own air quotes “Yeah, you’re a “really good doctor.” It’s such a joke. We are so misinformed. So uneducated when it comes to such a debilitating disease that is not new and is not rare. I’ll leave the numbers out of it, I’ve said them so many times before I believe they’ve begun to lose any real meaning at all.
By Christmas, as you may guess, I was not doing well at all. It was my favorite time of year and it all felt so tainted— the normal seasonal colors were drab and as I looked out the window of my moms car as she drove me home from yet another doctor appointment, I couldn’t help but cry. It was drizzling and ugly out, and nothing felt balanced or fixable. Just let it out Mary, it’s OK to be upset, my mom comforted me. But I was upset at even being upset. I wanted to be cheerful and play Christmas songs, but everything felt covered in the haze of this disease, the amount of time it took not just from me but from my parents who have lives of their own, and my lack of ability to advocate or do anything I wanted—it was all waring on me. On us. Everything felt like it was falling away.
I was extremely depressed and hadn’t seen friends or felt like I’d done something truly social or fun or meaningful for too long. Everything revolved around finding waking up to and finding physical relief, and then being fought back on every effort we made. I can’t count the hours we’ve spent at Walgreens, arguing that insurance should cover a medicine, or being told that they didn’t have this or that medicine in stock, so we could wait three days or drive an hour to another Walgreens that does. Once we were told they had 19 pills, of my prescribed 120. “I can give you the 19 now, but you’ll have to go back your doctor (an hour away) and get a new prescription written in order for me to fill the rest when we have it back in stock.” Someone. Please. Explain. Everything was a battle. I grew so tired of fighting, for everything. The disease is hard enough, but the logistics of the disease is even harder. It is truly, I say this with total conviction, a full-tie job. That phrase It shouldn’t be like this would play itself in my head a lot and it was hard to disagree. But what can you do? Keep going. Always keep going.
We had a good Christmas, and thus far I’ve been able to get the treatments I need in order to remain mostly comfortable. Thank you, Dr. Patel, and thank you Dr. Klimas. You truly are heroes to someone like me. I wish the government would leave alone—-unless it meant funding for research, then come on in yall!
It’s a new year, and for now, I have what I need. (Thank you MOM, and Marc. How I wouldn’t survived the last part of 2017 without you, I honestly don’t know. I feel decently functional functional right now and for that I am incredibly grateful. I just felt I needed to write out a bit of what happened last year, because behind it all, I hated that I wasn’t able to devote more of my time to advocating. I was in bed or my house somewhere, thinking of grand ideas that I was too weak to carry out. But enough of that, it’s in the past. I believe this year will be different as I’ve said before and we’ve already hit some major goals, which I will spill soon. So be on the lookout yall and hang on. I know how discouraging it gets, how isolating. I know how hard it is to hear “You’re not alone” when you’re by yourself. But it is the truth. We are getting there, and we need you.
Mom, Marc, Monty, Family: thank you.
Health, Happiness, & Good Things To Come