Great Expectations…OK Zero Expectations

Something funny happens when you become chronically ill. Ready? You become totally shitty at fulfilling the roles that probably came easy and natural to you before The Grand Interruption. Parent, kid, sibling, husband, wife, friend–all of those roles are going to suffer, because you’re simply unable to do the things you could before. Your capabilities become limited, your time becomes precious and cornered, and your ability to meet your and other peoples expectations will fall short, again and again. I admit it fully, I’m in general an unreliable source of help, or maybe just unreliable period. And if you don’t think that stabs me straight in the ego, then try saying out loud “I’m a human wasteland” and see how it feels. Because that’s about how it feels.

But we have to be fair, to ourselves and others. We can’t hold ourselves to the same standards as before, especially when we don’t have the same working parts. And we have to remember that the adjustments we make are not adaptations that we alone have to get used to. All those people for whom we provided some kind of role, they’re going to be affected too. They’re going to get exhausted, be disappointed, feel the pain of you not being who you used to be, just as you, the sick person will. I don’t know what it’s like to be a friend or a family member of Mary Gelpi, but I know that I begin 90% of my texts, emails, and conversations with an apology–because I couldn’t make it, I’m responding so late, I won’t be able to attend (insert anything important) I’m sure they become as tired of hearing it as I become of saying it. It’s exhaustive, saying sorry all the time. It’s probably tiresome to be on the other end of it too. But you are sorry, you don’t want to be this crappy of a friend or sister or girlfriend–and while being sick is nobody’s fault, it is the reality and it’s going to be painful. Learning to redefine our roles must be a lifelong process, I’m not sure. I just know I’m still learning.

Maybe a part of being proactive in that transition is becoming more honest and realistic with myself about what I’m able to do. I don’t deny that I suffer from wishful thinking, and probably make commitments I shouldn’t. Letting people know that I can’t be counted on, which is still hard to say, would probably let fewer people down less often. They have to know what to expect, which is unfortunately very little, but it’s up to us to fill them in.  Sometimes you get so busy being sick, you forget to communicate. You forget that people don’t know, or remember. Or you give up on telling them because it can feel repetitive and pointless, but I don’t think that’s true in reality. If I’m not honest about what I can do, out of fear or pride or whatever it is, I will let people down because they won’t know where the line is

I’ve had to face the reality in the last few years that there is no such thing as “solid plans” for me, or relying on myself 100% to be able to follow through with them. Every plan basically has an invisible “tentatively” written behind it. Last month I rescheduled 3 doctors appointments because I was too sick to make it. I have no idea how I’ll feel one day to the next, and that takes constant adjustment. I remember my whole family coming to visit last summer, they were sitting around my living room trying to figure out who could babysit the kids while they went to the French Quarter for the day. I remember sitting in the room saying Guys, I’m right here, I’ll watch them. I was actually, momentarily, offended that they didn’t consider me. Then someone said Mary, you can’t even do your dishes right now. Oh yeah, whoops. I forgot my own unreliability! As Louis C. K. would put it, I’m a non-contributing zero. Hah, yes. That sounds right. I had to laugh that even I couldn’t remember that I just can’t be counted on right now, and as much as that can be a kick in the gut to admit, it’s sort of silly to take it personally. If you’re sick, you’re sick–just admit it and keep moving.

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“Sweetie, can you do the dishes?” “No dad, I’m a non-contributing zero.” “Oh, right. Well, we love you anyway!” “Thanks guys.” “OK now get out of the way so we can do the dishes.”

 

I said in the beginning that being sick makes us crappy at fulfilling our roles, and in the traditional sense that may be true. But it also remains that when you’re sick, you just can’t do what you can’t do. If you don’t have legs, you can’t walk. It’s toxic to compare yourself to an old life where all your faculties were in place, to a new one where half your parts aren’t working. But being sick forces you to redefine your role, and I think there are ways to use your new way of “being” in the world and still be functioning in your respective roles. It’s not as is being sick effects your ability to love. If anything it’s made me love deeper, made me more grateful, and made the friendships that have lasted grow in certain ways. Still, I fail a lot, and many times it’s because I’m a flawed human being, not a chronically sick person. So I try to be extra cautious of both. Like most things being sick teaches, awareness seems to be key.

I’m always asking the questions that I think everyone is asking; am I doing the right thing, am I good person, what am I meant to do with my life? My circumstances? We all have our different sets of assets and vices, and it’s a balancing act trying to find the middle part where your feet are solid on the ground. Becoming chronically sick picks up your lifeless body and throws it upside down and backwards so that when you land you hardly know which way “up” is. It’s a puzzle, a maze, finding your way, but not impossible. The guru’s are always asking “How are you going to use what’s been given to you?” I always looked at that question as asking how I’d use the gifts I was given–the positive things in my life. Now I realize the question is far deeper than that…I think more often they mean, What will you do with your pain? How will you use this Extreme Disturbance to do better? Well hell, I don’t know. I just know that all we can do is try. Many times that means living with the mystery and not the answer. Also not easy to do.

I think it’s possible to use the condition of being sick in positive ways and to also maintain your roles by newly defining them. It seems to require incredible creativity and ingenuity, and I’ve certainly suffered from a lack of those many times. But I know there are ways to transform your old ways into new ones that are equally rewarding but not costly or impossible. I wouldn’t have confronted these conundrums if I hadn’t become sick and lost control of all the things I used to think of as mine. It has at least opened me up to the possibility of higher consciousness, and compared to who I was, I know the Mary without control has a better grasp on reality, is more compassionate, a better listener, less proud and more forgiving. I hope that doesn’t sound like bragging, I just think it’s good to examine the gifts that our so-called shitty circumstances can uncover. I obviously have a long way to go, but I know being sick has opened up deeper channels for me, and transformed the way I see the world and being in it.  Maybe it’s selfish, but I learned forgiveness by having to forgive myself first–for being where I was, for the things I could not do, for always thinking I should be doing better or further along. I had to let the unrealistic expectations go, and forgive myself for not reaching them.

I remember in my first serious relationship, which wasn’t until college, he frequently complained that I never apologized. My response was always “But that’s because I’m not the one who did anything wrong.” Holy cow, I’m the worst! It took years of learning humility and grace that being and saying sorry is a virtuous thing. It means recognizing your wrongdoing and at least becoming temporarily conscious of things you can do better. When you have a fight with someone, sometimes it’s because one person flat-out messed up. But many times, it takes two to tango, and talking things out, forgiving, letting go…all of it is stuff that moves both people forward. I don’t say this pretending as though I’ve mastered the art–I only know it’s there, it’s a choice. And it’s a good thing to know. I don’t know what or who I’d be like, were I still in my structured world, independent, living my life. But I know I enjoy the view from where I am now much more. I almost don’t look at life as mine anymore–I’m not sure whose it is. I’m still the driver, but it’s definitely a borrowed car.

Anyway, I guess this is your healthy reminder to keep those expectations low! And be grateful for the people who love you despite your human-wastelandednesss. They obviously see that you’re still cool despite being sick. And when people ask you to do something you’re incapable of, remind them with a smile: “I’m a non-contributing zero!” Then find new ways to contribute. :)

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“Son, you’re a non-contributing zero, and that’s OK.”     “…Thanks Dad.”

Health, Happiness, New Expectations

 

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How to Write About Pain

For a few days now, I’ve been writing about the experience of chronic pain, in a descriptive way that might convey the experience to someone who’s never lived with it before, and also as a comparison against acute/short-term pain, beyond their obvious difference in duration. I think I finally came up with a good analogy to depict the experience of daily pain, the internal battle it becomes, the consuming and exhaustive nature it takes on. But I’m not going to write about that yet. Because also for the last few days, I’ve been questioning why I’ve taken the time to try and get this very unique experience across anyway. I’ve wondered whether it’s futile in the first place, but more I’ve been reflecting on whether the point in it is genuine; if I’m doing a service of any kind, or if my ego has found a formal way to complain. Like Tolle says, that is the ego’s favorite thing to do.

As an FYI, I’ll post about chronic pain next time, because I do actually think it’s important to explore for many reasons, especially if you’ve not been through it. And I’ll write more about why when I come there. But first I had to type out loud, because I question the morality of what I do—writing about my broken body and the battles that accompany it—or if there is any in it, all the time. I constantly ask whether I’m evolving, learning anything, or passing good things along, important things. Or if I’ve sunk to the lowest common denominator of the human experience, something literally everyone goes through in his life, and if it’s just too easy to make that a goal and have it blinded by ego.

I always worry about going too far into how “bad” things can feel. Sometimes, there is truly no point in bemoaning something you can’t control, and it doesn’t help anyone to go on and on about any matter of it. In fact it can easily make things worse, redirecting the mind to focus on negative aspects and intensifying the size of something that you are trying to keep small, in check. Not to mention, you’ll bore everyone to tears. No one likes a whiner, and I try to be cautious about keeping the line drawn, bold and underlined between the two pathways the narrative can take:

One describes an experience so that people on the outside might have a better idea of what his fellow humans are dealing with. It can help expand “common ground”, I think. If it’s done a very good job, it might help replace judgment with compassion, or prevent misunderstanding or a lack of empathy due to disbelief that it’s even real. It helps close the gap between the experiences of two people who have not lived in the others world.

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Guilty
The other path, takes pain and gives it too much of a stage. It exploits something that all humans go through in some capacity and disguises itself as some kind of cursed reward. It gains momentum by reliving the same woes with new words, and by getting others indulge in their own without reflection. It’s not adding anything new or valuable to the conversation. If it isn’t honest or asking for help, if it isn’t uplifting people, but just reinforcing old wounds, it’s fair to say it’s gone south. Ever notice how someone complaining can rub off on you and lead you to do the same, or simply leave you feeling depressed? I’ve experienced it in person, and I know writing and reading accounts can be just as powerful.

Similarly, a positive person, who still acknowledges reality but seems to see through their moment of pain, can leave you feeling hopeful and inspired. The difference is not that these people haven’t endured pain, but what they’ve done with it. How they chose to let it shape them.

I know I’ve crossed over into the negative side way more than I’d like to admit, and probably even fooled myself into thinking it was necessary. Talking about hardship will always draw people in, because we’re all being challenged in our own ways, carrying our unique burdens. But that’s why I scratch half these posts or become too afraid to write about things. It’s a necessary and good thing to talk about the realities we face, because so often it provides people reinforcement, encouragement, reminders they are not alone and the vital belief that they can endure their hardship, just as many before them have, and emerge on the other side. Reading other peoples stories has always inspired and comforted me. Sometimes I distrust myself and skip out on telling certain stories or of certain experiences, but I think maybe it takes practice in reading enough good stories, and knowing the difference between which one will do good, and which one is the ego getting his fill.

I pray constantly to be a source of optimism through honesty, not to exploit a reality that’s in comparison to some, very very lucky. I think you write about pain the same way you live with it, which is to keep in checked moderation and right sized, and attempt to keep eternity in view, somehow. I don’t know how to do this, but I know some good ways not to. So what can I do but try and hope that I’m on the right side of sharing a personal account. Usually if I become too whiny, my mother hits me. Kidding– but you have a big enough family and they don’t let you complain too long or past a certain point, so I’ve relied on them often to keep me in check. A good friend will do the same.

What I’ve learned so far is how easy it can be to start expecting things to go bad, because so many things go bad. But we do ourselves a disservice in becoming convinced the world has conspired against us and we’re doomed to draw the short end of the stick for the rest of our lives. The trouble with that kind of thinking, besides it having no intrinsic value, is that it assumes the rest of the world is riding the easy train to party-town, never confronting a hardship, enduring pain, or drawing their own crappy short sticks. No one has a monopoly on pain. It’s part of all our respective contracts here. So having the idea that your life is hard and everyone else is clueless and has it easy will only make your own pain worse by punctuating it with something that isn’t true, first. And second, that idea undermines the lives of others who do know pain good and well, but whose experience you are now denying, because you can’t see past your own. I cringe to consider how many times I’ve done this, being stuck in my own dark hole.

Pain can be blinding or clarifying, depending on how well it’s kept in check. It can be overwhelming in the moment but when held against the larger backdrop of our lives, it usually highlights what is good, it makes gratitude grow and can help you see with new eyes. If pain is held up only in its moment in the dark, and seen as punishment, bad luck, or some kind of payment you got stuck with and others are getting for free as though its some kind of tax, then you will pay continually, and your relief will be rare. Pain shouldn’t make us proud, it should show us humility. Acting well and grateful and good in the face of pain is what should make us proud.

Sometimes I think of my life from a birds eye view, looking at it plotted out on paper like a map, where I can trace with my finger through the course, beginning to end. When I get discouraged, I think that what I fear is living a life I can’t say that I’m proud of in the end, when I’m tracing my line and seeing how I behaved. I know what will make me proud is having loved fiercely, being steadfast, humble, trying, listening well, finding humor in every stupid day, and being grateful for the lucky life I was given, the family of love I was born into. In the meantime, it feels good to put your head down and work. Sometimes you endure the pain quietly, and know that you’ll be OK whether you tell someone about it or not. I think moderation plays a role, and a discernment in what is worth sharing and what will only exhaust us to speak about. In some way it comes down to self-awareness and restraint.

I’ll end with this passage I read in The Road to Character this morning, a book I’d highly recommend by David Brooks. The first quote is Brooks summarizing George Marshalls training at VMI, followed by a quote from Cicero, which Brooks used to explain the composed, revered manner of Marshall throughout his life.

“The whole object of VMI training was to teach Marshall how to exercise controlled power. The idea was that power exaggerates the dispositions–making a rude person ruder and controlling person more controlling. The higher you go in life, the fewer people there are to offer honest feedback or restrain your unpleasant traits. So it is best to learn those habits of self-restraint, including emotional self-restraint, at an early age…

That person then, whoever it may be, whose mind is quiet through consistency and self-control, who finds contentment in himself, who neither breaks down in adversity nor crumbles in fight, nor burns with any thirsty need nor dissolves into wild and futile excitement, that person in the wise one we are seeking, and that person is happy.” -Cicero

Health, Happiness, Restraint

P.S. This is dedicated to Varney Prejean, the eternal optimist in the face of pain and such a happy, loving, groovy person. If you’ve got an extra prayer, send one out for him. Hang tough Varn-dog, we’re rooting for you!

Apathy, Advocacy, Jumping In

I remember a conversation I had with my mom, roughly six years ago. It was not long after the Great Crash of 2011. I was slumped at a bar stool in my parents kitchen. I’d been crashed a while and not doing very well, physically or mentally. It was a grey, wet Winter, perfectly depressing, and I remember looking out our office window and thinking “I feel exactly like the weather.” I’d been caged up too long, among other side effects. Everything was a reminder of what I’d lost, what I believed the disease took. I knew I should be grateful I had somewhere to go, and I had people to take care of me at all. Not everyone has that, no doubt I was lucky. But I didn’t want help. That kind of surrender is never really easy, but when you’re in need, it’s really the only way to go. Resistance just ends up making you mean to the people who are trying to help you.

My mom was folding laundry, explaining to me the details of a promising new study going on, something involving the gut; I wouldn’t know because I was barely listening. She told me that I should follow the research and recommended I read a blog called Phoenix Rising, a veritable A-Z of everything MECFS. It might help me feel better if I at least understood more about the disease, on many levels.

But I could almost feel a visceral resistance to this idea. Ironically, I didn’t like reading books or blogs or stories about this disease. They only reinforced what I already knew, and they all ended the same—no one got better. I can remember holding back tears, angry tears I guess, that I didn’t want to read anything about this disease again unless it was an article touting that they found a cure.

They?

(Insert really awkward DC photo)

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So terrible.
6 years later, I found myself frozen in the doorway of room 129 in the Rayburn Building in Washington D.C. I was attending an event called “The Storm on Washington“–an event I felt a strong pull toward for a few months.

This room would be our “MECFS Command Center” throughout the long day–a place to commune in between meetings and rest, eat, talk, or collapse. (Really, there were beds) I hadn’t even entered and already I could feel the warmth of the room from so many bodies insides, at least 10 degrees hotter than the icy hallway. It was 9 am and a low, indecipherable murmur pervaded the room from multiple conversations–introductions and instructions and attempts to achieve order among a really huge, logistical effort. I stood there like a lost puppy, watching the quiet chaos unfold. I knew not one person. What the hell am I doing here?

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Meeting the MAN, Dr. Nahle
I was doing what I’d done many times before–jumping in without a clue. But I was among smart and determined people. The principal reason for being there was pretty easy anyway–to share my story, to try and humanize this disease and convey the experience with decision-makers. I’d told my story plenty of times before, I’d become pretty practiced.  That day 52 advocates would meet with over 70 congressional offices and representatives. A success in just making that happen, in my book.  (Thank you MEAction and SolveMECFS!)

It feels like there have been many beginnings to my entrance into the advocacy world. A place I never thought I’d enter, for reasons I’m still unsure of now. Bitterness maybe. Fear probably. I still feel like I’m hardly making a dent, but I am trying, finally. Bitterness, self-pity, doubt–all of those feelings depleted me, when I was already emptied of energy. They still come around. But finding small glimmers of faith that you might be where you’re supposed to be, even if the circumstances are crap, feel energizing. Any time I’ve come across hope, it’s like a flashlight turning on in a cave. It’s somehow always led me out, even if very slowly. But it usually means some kind of surrender; giving it a chance. I don’t write this as though finding purpose in a painful situation is easy. It’s not. Particularly chronic illness, which is long-term. It took a long time to figure out that I could still even have one, as I was. I still lose my way from time to time, and wait for a flashlight to flick on that I can follow.

I didn’t know when I published the petition last year that I was entering the world of they. Nor did I really know what I was doing then either, surprise surprise. I was following intuition and telling the truth, that’s it. But the same energy that brought me to DC encouraged me to write it. Call it the universe, or God, the collective unconscious, or soul–something outside the 5 senses was helping me out. I just sort of followed the scent.

Admittedly, I’m bad at campaigning. Gary Zukav says that when our soul and our intentions are lined up, the universe backs us in big ways. Maybe that’s what happened when it gained something like 20,000 signatures in a day. I was also lucky that my sister does know how to campaign, and my enormous family, circle of friends and other advocacy groups pitched in, all in huge ways, and now that petition has 42,000 signatures. When I wrote it I had my fingers crossed it would reach 1000.

Did 42,000 signatures fix the problem? No. But it did something else important. It connected me to so many people through the feedback page, where people can leave comments. People shared their personal stories, their loved ones stories, gratitude and words of encouragement. Total strangers said they’d pray for this effort. Every time I read one of those comments it made me want to work harder. It showed me how far-reaching and devastating this disease can be.

I thought had it bad? Talk about small potatoes. The petition did two things: 1. Showed me I could have it a lot worse, so easy on the self-pity, chief. 2. Stopped me from looking the other direction. Coincidentally, that’s exactly what we’re asking the government to stop doing now.

It was the petition that led me to connecting with an MECFS advocate online, who knew the D.C. Aide for Bill Cassidy, a Louisiana State Senator. I contacted him, which led me to a meeting with Cassidy’s number 2 guy and the Louisiana State Director, Brian McNabb. Meeting with McNabb for 2.5 hours, discussing everything MECFS was an incredible experience. Did it change anything? Maybe not. But it encouraged me big time. And in the end it scored me a meeting with Senator Cassidy. McNabb warned, it would be in between two events so it’d have to be quick, maybe 5 minutes. I said I’d take it.

So, I met Bill Cassidy in a parking lot on his walk to his car with a group of staffers surrounding us.

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Parking Lot Office
I had to talk fast as he was late to his next meeting and his assistant kept saying “Sir, you’re very late, we need to go.” I spat all the vital things out as fast as I could. Knowing I didn’t have long, I left him with a folder where I’d printed out 25 pages of peoples comments and stories that they’s shared on the petition page. Did he read them? I’ll never know. But he looked me in the eye, he shook my hand, and he told me out loud “I really care about this issue.” I told him thank you, I couldn’t express how much we needed people to care. He said he wanted to continue the conversation when he had more time. We were being herded like cattle to his waiting car. A cynic might say he probably says that to everyone, but it didn’t matter. Here was one more person who had now at least heard of this disease and the issues, and also had some decision making power. His assistant who had hurried us both while listening to our conversation, started to get in her car, but stopped, got out, and gave me a hug first. Good stuff.

Later, my uncle who is a mutual friend of Representative Steve Scalise, had seen my “Chronic Fatigue Syndrome Song” on the petition page–a mostly embarrassing but celebratory song I wrote after hitting 40,000 signatures. He thought it was pretty funny, and asked if I was interested in a sit down

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Obligatory Photo, Thanks Mr. Scalise
with Steve Scalise, a Louisiana Representative and the Majority Whip. Umm, yes. So not long ago, my Uncle Paul and political mentor, Rep Steve Scalise and I all sat down for a while to talk MECFS. He was another kind and engaged listener. He asked good questions and was generous with his time. I told him my story, I attempted to tell the story of MECFS among my hiccuping brain, and Paul helped me convey some things when my words turned to spaghetti mid-sentence.

Would this meeting solve it? No, but it was one more person who now at least knew of the disease. Someone with decision making power. Count it.

It was exactly one week after that meeting that Scalise and others were shot in a baseball field in the middle of the morning. What?! I am as clumsy with thoughts as I am words when it comes to events like that. It’s so hard to understand, it happens way too often, and I still feel far away from it somehow. As cliche as is, I’m praying and sending healthy thoughts his direction and the others injured that day. How this all plays out in history, we can’t know yet. Maybe someone is reading this in the year 2045, and it will all make sense.

Why am I writing this now? Because I need the reminder, which is very obvious but I want in words anyway, which is just to try. A reminder of how much happier I feel when I go for it, even when I don’t know what I’m doing. A reminder that writing 15 versions of this one stupid blog post over the course of a month is mostly a waste of time. Just jump in. It’s not always complicated. It will never be perfect, but it’s almost irresponsible not to try at this point, and to keep trying, over and over.

I continue to walk the thin line between fighting for a cause I whole-heartedly believe in, and surrendering to circumstance and the things I can’t control. I’m always learning , that a sick life can be a good life too–and I hope can still become a person I can say I’m proud of in the end. It’s easy to cross over too far one way or another, but if I stop trying, I’m a gonner. Sometimes I fail. There are many (funny) stories where I blow it. But it feels so much better to get out there and blow it, then to act like a bitter teenager on the sidelines, thinking pain was never a part of the deal. This is the reminder; try. You always feel better when you do, so do.

Health, Happiness, Tryin

Fuel to the Fire

It’s been so long since I’ve typed at a computer, I think my typing speed may have dropped to under 60 WPM. Dangit. I should probably quit writing everything by hand in notebooks, if I want the words to appear anywhere else but in a stack on my bookshelf, that is. Also my handwriting is pretty indecipherable so I guess it makes sense to stick to the computer. It’s just that writing by hand has always felt easier, more accessible and immediate. There’s something more rousing about putting actual pen to page. I hesitate less. My ‘thinking’ mind turns quieter, and the space that must open in order for the good writing to come through stays that way, without distraction. Especially when I’m scratching away with a really great pen. Right now it’s a black Pilot G-2 07. Sounds like a damned air o’plane, and I’d even describe it as a “smooth glider.”. So, I guess I’ll just be transcribing from page to machine for a while. I need an intern. Any takers? I will pay in doughnuts. Why is doughnuts spelled like that?

This last month has been filled with a few major milestones. Most of them aren’t mine, but in the absence of personal excitement, the achievements of those in my inner circle are close enough–plus it’s something to tell other people. Like someone will say Whats new Mary? And instead of saying Um, nothing. I say Not much, but my childhood best friend had a baby! See how that works?

My childhood best friend had a baby. For real! It’s still hard for me to wrap my head around it, not because she’s the first of my friends to start a family. But because we’ve just been friends for so long, since we were babies in fact. We still laugh at jokes from when we were five! Sometimes I feel so young around her–I guess the kid in me comes out. Now she has one! A beautiful, alert, amazing little daughter. It’s all very exciting. I’ve decided that I’d like her to call me “Ont Viv” (what Will called his aunt in the Fresh Prince of Bel-Aire) I find it fitting, and if she has half the sense of humor of her mom, she will appreciate the spirit of this name. Of course, just like a milestone birthday, this big thing happened, and yet it’s not that different. Kaitlin and I are still the laughing, weird, sister-friends we’ve always been, except now there is a tiny little girl sleeping in the corner while we talk. Funny how everything changes, but the middle stays the same. Welcome to the world Bernadette Jane! Love, Ont Viv.

My other best friend, Dr. Emils, got married a week later. I was a bridesmaid: score! A Southern girl and a guy from Amsterdam equaled a classic New Orleans wedding with a dash of Dutch. Nice. Two days of wedding festivities and a crawfish boil led up to the ceremony at sunset, on probably the best day of weather New Orleans has had all year. Everything was perfect and she made such a beaming, beautiful bride. It was a happy, lively experience to be a part of and filled with a lot of love. All topped off with a long second-line led by a classic Nola brass band singing all the greats, including When the Saints Go Marching In. Weddings are the best. No, New Orleans weddings are the best. If you ever get the chance, go! I’m really happy for my friend, mostly because I could tell how incredibly happy they were together.

I’m also the last single girl on the planet. Sweet.

Engaging in a two day wedding weekend is a rare chance for me to see old friends, to be around people my age, to have a reason to dress up–or get dressed at all, for that matter. It’s not often that I get to do things like this. Not often I get to be 32. My life consists of a lot of solitude, which I like, but it’s always nice to get a glimpse of life outside the farm. If anything I live more like a 90-year-old dog lady, so I try to soak up every moment of acting 32. It’s tricky too, because I know that participating in things like this are not without consequence. Acting my own age comes with a price tag, so every time I decide to do it, I’m making a silent agreement. No one really knows the gravity of decisions like this. Or what’s involved in just showing up, or how  I’ll pay for it all later. The choice is so much more encompassing than just deciding to attend a party. I swear I don’t write this out of some martyr, woe-is-me mentality. It just struck me as I was swiping through photos of the big day, which was a really fun day–that it makes perfect sense why so many people misunderstand the illness. They don’t know the weight and preparation and consequence of partaking in something normal, like being a bridesmaid in a wedding. How could they? All they see is this:

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I did.

They couldn’t know how much time and tedious planning went on beforehand, including scheduling when I would bathe, to ensure there’d be enough time for rest between that and the next event. They couldn’t feel the certain amount of pain you just have to bare through things like this. They don’t see the plethora of medicine necessary to endure standing and socializing and lasting through a night. And they’d probably never consider such things, like a bath, or socializing, as exertion in the first place–As something that counts against you in your fight to keep strain at an absolute minimum. And that is almost always the goal. It’s obnoxious even to me, as I write it now. The strange reality of living with this thing. The exhaustive necessities involved in even small things. You’re always calculating how much every little thing will cost you, always trying to save up if you’ve got somewhere to be. But what really struck me is that nobody sees what the pricetag actually looks like. That’s because the pricetag comes later. They don’t see the subsequent week or weeks of recovery that follows at home. Which can look a little like this…

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Poor Monty

When I thought about the outward appearance of illness, the timeline of how it plays out, what I show to people when I’m out and what goes on at home–I realized not only how easy it would be to get the wrong idea about the disease, but also how I might play a part in misrepresenting its reality.

For one thing, I want to emphasize that the reason I am able to even show up and participate in a wedding is because I’m currently at a functional-enough level to pull it off. There is a spectrum to the disease, there is waxing and waning, and there have certainly been times throughout the last 6 years when I wouldn’t have been able to stand at the alter. Even so, being “functional-enough” still means tedious logistical preparation, and a two-week long crash as a result. So, I’m still miles from where I once was, or should be. But many others are bound to their homes, many are bound to their beds, and we are all suffering with the same disease. I realize that people may see me when I’m in public and just not “buy” that I could be sick. And I see why this misperception persists.

But I also think that often we assign too much power to labels, and we attach our personal version or image of what “sick” should look like, and those who don’t fit the bill are either doubted, ignored, or assumed sick “in their heads.” We should all consider the many forms that ‘sick’ takes, and acknowledge that even terminally or chronically sick people don’t look sick at all times. No one would’ve guessed my dad had cancer, and that guy was dying! Looks are deceiving, and this immediate tendency to mistrust what we don’t immediately see or understand results in a basic lack of humanity. I am probably at my most functional that I’ve been since 2012, but I still walk a very fine line. It can and does go south easily, and it still requires help from my parents, a lot of rest and recovery time, a ton of medicine and doctors, and a lot of supine time on my own. (With Monty) And I am a lucky one, for sure. I know that people who suffer with anxiety/depression, bipolar disorder, OCD, Lyme, MS, Lupus and other chronic diseases suffer with similar outer doubt and confusion because their illnesses are not always easily seen from the outside. Labels, symbols, projections; they’re all powerful things, and they’re something we should consider and adjust on the whole before we make up our minds about something we may know zilch about.

I think I feel the need to write about this because ever since I entered the world of MECFS advocacy last year, I came face-to-face with just how poorly understood the disease is, how much misinformation/pure fallacy is out there and dominating the conversation, and how many people are getting it wrong because of the name alone. (Another thing I understand, it’s a stupid stupid stupid name.) I also have to consider whether I am helping to change and fix these misperceptions or if I’m at all contributing to them; and if I am, what I can do to fix it. I thought a lot about that after the wedding while looking through such beautiful pictures from the day, from the confines of my bed, knowing I wouldn’t leave home for a while. I didn’t think critically about this before last year, but I’ve learned up-close how much these things matter. The problem of disbelief is so much larger than gossip or personal dramas. This is literally public opinion shaping policy. It’s allowing the lack of intervention on a disease affecting millions of our own and many millions more around the world. How long will we allow people to suffer? How long will we let the accountable people look the other way? The world is looking at us and our treatment of this disease, and we are totally blowing it.

As soon as we show serious interest, I know other countries will follow suit. I know we will also make important new discoveries and possible cures. For now, we are at a stalemate that is costing millions of lives and billions of dollars. It’s almost hard to believe it’s true or possible after so long. And yet, here we are…

In the last year there has been awesome and much needed support from the public. The many signatures on the petition was surprising and still continues to humble me. I should say, it was that petition with such a substantial amount of sigantures that scored me the local news spot, a meeting with the Louisiana State Director (whom I spoke with for more than two hours about mecfs) and the reason I had a follow-up with our Senator Bill Cassidy. There’s more on the horizon. I’ll write more of that later. But our fight to be recognized, pursued and funded for biomedical research has come closer than ever in the past year, and we have to keep up the momentum. To quote my mom, “The timing could not be worse.” Hah, she is right. Politically things are somewhat of a shit-storm right now, and the potential for a slashed NIH budget on the whole obviously doesn’t work in our favor. But with the recent diagnosis of my sister, the possibility of backtracking our earned success, I have a renewed fire to fight and faith in myself, the advocates, the public, and the system, and an unrelenting hope that we can and will fix this. The timing might be terrible, and yet the truth is, there’s no better time for change than right now.

There are so many people in the advocacy arena who are doing big things–as for me I will continue to campaign for awareness in all ways I can think of, and restart petitioning for signatures. But I think possibly the most powerful voice is that of the public– not from those who are sick, but from those simply who see the injustice that’s happening. That’s who we need to hear more from, and seeing the amount of healthy people who have signed the petition already restores my faith in people all over the world will come together and make this happen. Thank you all again. Here’s to the next 40,000…

Health, Happiness, Fire

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.