What Makes An Illness Invisible? I do I do!

There is a certain hesitation that comes with being sick with a disease they refer to as “invisible.” Who are they? And why do they call it invisible? The they is simple; it’s not so much a reference as it is a perspective. People and doctors don’t tell us our ailment is invisible. They simply don’t see it. And when you’re sick, especially for a long period of time, you become keenly intuitive about who sees it and  who doesn’t. With someone who does, a certain ease settles in, as though you could wink at one another and understand it completely, even if you’d met minutes ago. Your guard goes down. Shoulders relax. That apologetic tone leaves from your voice. Those who don’t see it, or don’t fully “accept” it, and it makes sense that some wouldn’t, by the way, given this disease is not visible and is rife with evidence that it’s psychiatric or something else, we can sense that just as quickly. There’s an immediate undertone of tension, it makes my cheeks hurt while talking, the way eating a lemon does. I can feel my defenses go up. No matter how strong I’ve become at sloughing it off, doubt or judgment, it still stings. ‘Rubs salt on the wound’ as they say.  It makes me want to explain everything, from the start, “No wait, if you just listen to how it all went down, if you knew how I was before this, what it’s like most days…” but it’s useless. For them but more importantly for me. For us. I have to cease needing the validation from others and just trust my inner self. ‘Choose your battles wisely’ they say. Turns out they say a lot don’t they.

I think about The Truth, the eternal one that we’ve gotten wrong so many times, absolutely certain with documentation and everything that we were right and that was that. And yet the world remained round and the sun chilled with black sunnies on in the middle of the earth revolving like dude, yall are way off. The truth has never required us to imagesbelieve in it in order for it to remain, and that often brings me comfort. It’s my ego that seeks the validation. Still, I’d call it’s pretty reasonable that you’d rather not be seen as crazy or a malingering pansy particularly in a vulnerable time of your life when you’re sick and need support. But this is another “invisibility factor” of the illness. And it matters because not being believed is a psychological kick in the brain. Or face. And that’s just it. We don’t look the part on the outside. People can’t see pain. Or a headache. Full body weakness. Mental spaghetti. Vertigo. The hit-by-the-truck feeling. Yada yada yada. All there is for “outsiders” is our word, and some take us up on it, others don’t. I’ve been surprised observing the fluctuation of strength in my own word, depending on who it’s being exchanged with. I’ve been struck that a doubter could make me doubt myself.

Besides not seeing it “on” us, most doctors aren’t going to see it “in” us either. Invisibility factor number 2. We’ll give gallons of blood and urine samples and get x-rays and MRI’s and whatever other procedures they can think of that insurance doesn’t really wanna pay for :). They may find little things, but for the most part it will all come back normal. Yaaay! Normal. But let me intervene quickly that the American medical term for “normal” is a bit flawed if you read how the numbers are configured, but that’s another issue. But the point is: invisible. Again. Even in our blood and our brains and our tickers! Sometimes they find little things off here and there, but in no way would consider this a part of ME/CFS, they’re all isolated symptoms. And so there you are either in an ER bed or sitting on the crinkly white paper of a doctors’ office being told you’re in fine health and that this is good news. But it’s also important to point out here, often these tests are ‘normal’ because most doctors aren’t trained on what to look for in regards to this illness. This isn’t taught in most med schools. There’s no standard diagnostic test yet which make makes things harder. Invisibility Factor Number 3: no research. The things a specialist test for are far more in-depth (and expensive) than a regular doctors work up: like NK cells, cytokines, CMV, HHV6 and many more. Right now, due to the lack of these specialists, it’s basically like having cancer and visiting the foot doctor. Welp, everything looks great to me! 

Marc-Colaluce-DPM-300x240
I mean this is just a great picture

Still, a large man in a white coat, his degrees framed behind him, scanning through your labs and telling you you’re fine, to get outside, drink more water and eat more protein, (my experience) well, it encourages doubt. Even though I knew otherwise. I know what I feel inside, and it does not align with what I’m being told. And yet, when someone challenges your thinking, someone bigger and smarter and who you’re supposed to trust, you can’t help but consider that they might be right–thus, you might be crazy. Woohoo! But it’s important to recognize the reality of the situation right now, and also that this it’s changing. More doctors are being educated about the illness and presumably in the next ten years, you won’t have to travel to other states in order to find one who knows more than you about it. Not to mention, doctors make mistakes. They are humans after all, and they don’t know it all. So often after a bad experience with a doctor, or anyone for that matter, I have to remember, (or my mom has to remind me) that this is vastly misunderstood right now, and people aren’t acting out of malice but from misunderstanding. That lack of understanding is just beginning to change. Slowly. And you know what? I think the petition may end up helping with that. That’s my hope, anyway.

A friend of my mine asked a while back “Have you ever considered that they might be right, that this might be more of a psychological thing, and you could actually be cured by pacing your exercise and receiving cognitive behavioral therapy? Or do you feel totally positive that it’s a physical disease?” This is all under the umbrella that I fully accept and believe that mind and body are connected and the health of the mind is intrinsically tied to the health of the body. Still, this topic is not being brought up so much in the same way with other diseases. The intention is different. I admit didn’t know exactly how to answer. I felt like “techinically” the right answer was, yes, they might be right and this might have a major psychological component that could be an intrinsic part of it and a part of curing it. I should have to consider that these psychiatrists might be right. But I couldn’t do it. Even though I have looked at myself in the mirror and asked that question, considered this  many times Could I be crazy? Could this all be a front, could I be a mildly insane hypochondriac? Or could this all be ignited by something psychological from my childhood that I never worked out?” These doubts have run through my mind more than a few times. But in that moment, despite by own past consideration of other possibilities, I truly felt like a monkey being asked, Are you open to the idea that the others might be right, and you might be a giraffe? I answered in solid faith even though I felt myself nervous to do it. “No, I’m sure that’s not the answer to this.” I was in that moment, a total  monkey.

I am an indecisive, uncertain person by nature. It takes me twenty minutes to pick out what to wear, including pajamas. (Ahem, that’s what I wear)  I doubt and question myself a lot. I feel like I’m still learning how to be who I am. But, I’ve had twenty years of this invisible illness and gone through the ringer of its effects, felt deeply the losses it has caused. I’ve watched what it does to my mom, who I trust. I’ve read the stories and comments of thousands of others with experiences uncannily similar to mine. High functioning, happy people, (SANE PEOPLE) who had a rug swiped out from under them and were never the same. I think of the extremely current research and that of the last five years. I think of Lauren Hillenbrand. Of Whitney Dafoe. Of my doctor, Nancy Klimas. And I just can’t imagine at this point, that all of this comes back to some psychological trauma that just needs to be worked out with behavioral therapy and physical conditioning. This is what is being touted as a legit cure in many countries, including ours, but particularly England, Australia and a lot of Europe. This illness can be triggered by a psychologically traumatic event, but this only points to another pathway in which, whatever this disease is categorically, (presumably a virus that takes advantage of a vulnerable immune system) that it has varying opportunities in which to intervene. This doesn’t make it a mental illness. And even if it were, it still doesn’t justify the way it’s been treated up to now.

I wish I could say that I’ve never doubted myself or the disease again. But I have moments where I do question myself. But I think that’s normal. Enough people question your your point of view, inevitably you’ll question it yourself. I know that there are many more invisible diseases besides M.E., and that a lot of people have felt isolated by the facade it produces. I hope if they’re reading they know they’re not alone, and they’re not crazy. They’re just sick, with whatever: ME/CFS, Depression, Fibromyalgia, Arthritis, Lupus. I have moments where I forget what it’s capable of and crash myself for days. My mom always tells me, don’t play ball with this disease, it will always win. That’s typically how I’m reminded of reality when I doubt it– the state of my own body. It’s hard to doubt your own illness when you’re struggling to walk. And if that somehow isn’t enough, I close my eyes and go back to my inner, inner self, where the truth lives in stillness, without interruption. Where the world is flat. Where the earth orbits the sun. Where an invisible disease simply hasn’t found the cause or cure, but one day soon will be seen, will be believed, but most importantly, will be cured.

Health, Happiness, (In)Visible

P.S. The petition is still live and running! The new goal is to get to 50,000 signatures before I formally present it to Collins and Burwell which should be in July. I promise this is the last high goal. We stop at 50. And if we get there, I will sing a song on camera that I wrote called “Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and Other Associated Conditions” and post it to the blog. It’s two chords, and worth seeing. Mostly to watch me make a completely humiliating knucklehead out of myself. So sign!   Good night.

Haikus From A Crash

Spent Saturday night
Forgetting. Acting my age.
I’m young, I can dance.

For four nights, five days,
Never left my best friends bed.
(Hospitality.)

This tin-can music
On hold with the pharmacist
Tries to get me down.

Robot voice thanks me,
Your call is importan–Click.
Avoid urge to die.

Doc: Where is the pain?
Head, Muscles, Joints, Skin. Constant.
Doc: Are you depressed?

Congratulations!
Didn’t go to med school but,
I’m my own doctor.

The universe yawns-
Striving for life I don’t have,
I’ve become Facebook.

I cried when the maid
Killed the spider in my room.
Alone, things get weird.

Can’t forget him now–
Broke up just in time to find
Ringworm on my thigh.

A measure of will:
No one needs you anymore
Do you feel alive?

Monty at my side
Asks for nothing the whole day
Meet visceral love.

Tail wags in his sleep,
Watch his belly rise and fall
Love, you make me weep.

If Haiku rules were
Seven-Five-Seven instead,
Would I still be sick?

Bzzz. Thud. Bzzz thud bzzzz
Angry bee against the door
None of us get out.

Sad signing the forms
Which say I’m incapable.
BUT IM SEXY YALL!!!

Day 6, I’m alive.
Under water asking if
Dancing was worth it.

I should know better,
But I remember dancing,
Don’t remember price.

Health, Happiness, and Haikus.

Under the Water.
Under the Water.

*Shout out to Newman for haiku inspirations and continued decency in a perverted world.* 

Time To Kill

A little while ago, I was swinging on our porch swing while Monty did acrobatics with a stick and ran laps in the yard. I had been down for some time, but I couldn’t place exactly the source of the sadness. All I knew was that I could feel something missing and the result was not a loneliness but a “looked over” kind of feeling. It’s not uncommon for me to feel lost and uncertain about the direction and usefulness of my life, especially when I’m in a crash period. This feeling felt like it had roots in that. As I let my thoughts wander and my mind clear, these words entered my head and seemed to quiet the residual buzz: “I just want to make myself proud again.” It didn’t repeat itself like an incessant thought, rather the words just stood still in bold print, front and center in my mind. And then all at once I knew what that void I’d been feeling was. It wasn’t just a lack of pride, but the lack of pride and purpose that usually comes from working. Uselessness is a terrible feeling, and I know it arises sometimes from the fact that I don’t have a real job anymore. I haven’t in some time. And yet through this whole ordeal, that loss continues to cuts deep. It has me constantly wondering what I’m doing here and where I’m going and how I’m ever going to get there. As a working girl my path felt so clear-cut. I catch myself daydreaming of my desk and my business cards and the “importance” they implied.  But once the crutch of a job was gone, everything inside me felt upside down. Who am I if I don’t “do” anything?

Sitting in my bosses office and having to admit with a quivering voice that I “just physically couldn’t do it anymore” was one of the hardest moments of my life. My whole goal up until then besides getting better, was to find a way to hold onto that job. I knew if I was forced to leave it, it meant everything was irreversibly real. It meant despite what I planned or wanted, the illness was making decisions that I couldn’t change. It meant the scales had tipped and I was no longer in control. (Maybe I never actually was, but the illusion felt good) But now here I had come face to face with the truth that clinging onto the job was only causing me more suffering, besides largely effecting the quality of my work. Were I smarter I would have given in earlier and dedicated myself more seriously to getting well. But I was in a sort of denial up till then. I kept expecting to get better. I didn’t want to believe that this was truly going to be the new state my body. No one really wants to accept something like that, I think out of an inborn fear that doing so means you’re giving into something crappy and letting it take over–That you’re giving up on the possibility of getting well. But it was more just coming to terms with a reality and giving my health the attention it needed. Everyone around me seemed to know the time had come and were just waiting on me to call it, so I finally did.

I can remember solidly a few things from that conversation. I can still see his big sappy eyes as Andrew listened to me speak, and the honest calmness in his voice when he said  “It’s been hard to watch. I just can’t understand why this would happen to you.” I tried very hard not to cry but the tears fell anyway, much like they are now just remembering the whole interaction. We hugged goodbye and I tried to compose myself. I remember, I think in an attempt to lighten the sadness of that goodbye, him saying to please stay in touch and to come back and visit often. I said I would, knowing I probably wouldn’t. Knowing that life at the gallery would go on without me, while my own life was drifting into scary, uncharted waters. I punched out for the last time and felt totally numb. The French Quarter had just turned dark, freezing and damp, but I didn’t feel the cold at all. I paid the nice parking attendant with whom I normally joked around without even looking him in the eye. He made some comment about cheering up or smiling but I couldn’t bring myself to respond. I moved on autopilot like a robot. Once in the car all the terrible questions made their rounds. What would become of my life now? Who would I be now, sick and unemployed? What if I never get better? I tried to drown them out but the noise of the radio bothered me. That 40 minute drive home over the bridge felt like a dream. Once home, Monty ran up to me and my mom was sitting in her chair in the living room. Our eyes met and I lost it. “Well, I guess I don’t have a job anymore.” And that, as they say, was that.

Even though I fought it, leaving work was the right thing to do and in my condition, was just a matter of when and not if.  In the beginning it was a relief– not to have to fake well, to call in sick, to let down coworkers, and to constantly apologize. But not so long after, I began to feel this noticeable hole, like the gap your tongue slides through after you’ve lost a tooth. I had all this new time to kill but couldn’t spend it how I’d like. The adjustment was extremely difficult. Besides giving me purpose and pride, my job had contributed to my identity and livelihood. There was a little space carved out in the world called Mary, and I was useful there; I fit. I did what was expected of me and was paid every two weeks. But now I no longer occupied that space and I couldn’t make sense of what place I held in the world. Without the distraction of work, I also had to learn to just “be” and accept these new circumstances, which was also hard. When you’re sick like that you can’t just leave and go for a drive, or go get drinks with friends to feel better about it. It makes you confront your life head on since there aren’t the typical escapes. I had to begin accepting my experience and not thinking of my days sick in bed as total wastes. I’m still learning to do this, but it is possible. It began with adjusting the expectations I held for myself, and redefining what my definitions of “work” and “purpose” really meant. For so long work was something you did 40 hours a week and got paid for. And our culture nearly defines who we are by what we do. I no longer had a satisfying answer to that question. “Uh, Unpaid blogger I guess?” It took adapting to where I was at that point and not in the past. I was always going to feel shitty comparing my life sick to someone’s who was well. I had to get real about my truth. Still, those adjustments were hard and I am still learning them.

Life with illness means a lot of time on your hands and a lot of solitude. You have to learn how to be still, which I’ve learned very few people know how to do. You’re away from the typical distractions and noise and chaos often, so there is a lot of “being” and not “doing.” It also means getting to know yourself really well. Luckily, I like myself. We seem to get along. But all of this new vast time without a lot of outside expectation took a long time to really understand and warm up to at all. I had to remind myself that being sick is a part of me but not who I am. That took time too. As time went on I would grow more worried that I hadn’t re-entered the workforce. Or I’d feel these waves of inadequacy like I did recently. But sometimes I wonder if it isn’t the purpose of my soul that’s getting carried out because I have a body that doesn’t allow me to be busy and caught up in the regular tasks of life.

This experience has taught me big things and continues to now. It continues to teach me to let go of things, to be still and not be restless, to be OK being alone, and to accept myself as worthy even if I’m not doing anything impressive or achieving BIG things. Most of these were learned because my body wouldn’t let me achieve all I wanted to, and the lesson in humility has actually made me happier in some ways. All of it has made me come to terms with things that I truly find important, things outside of a job where the ultimate goal was money. If I look at this time away from work another way, it feels more like a gift. It’s allowed me to find and develop my voice for writing, which was my passion all along. It’s let me explore many other parts of myself that were not a part of my life when working. Even small things like learning to play my dads guitar and spending more time with my family that I wouldn’t have otherwise. It’s forced me to find the same joy and fulfillment from the small things that I used to require in the bigger or louder stuff. Today it was just being outside in the sun with monty and appreciating the moment.

I think it’s easy to look back on my life with a “real job” through rose-colored glasses.  I was “bringing home the bacon”and dressing in nice clothes and looked and sounded like someone who had it together. But I can still remember sitting at my desk sometimes and thinking is this it? This is what I do the next 60 years and then I retire? I’d be naive to say things were perfect and always made sense then, too. They didn’t. But it looked better on paper and gave me stuff to talk about when people asked what I was up to. Those conversations are funny now ;)  I was still wondering about my purpose and the meaning of things then too. I was still asking those same questions. The only difference is, I don’t have the disguise anymore. I am clearly not headed in any predictable direction and I truly don’t know what the plan for my life is. But, at least I’ve got some time to figure it out. All kinds of time.

Still I wonder, were I to be better tomorrow, totally healed and ready to emerge back into the quick-paced world, is that what I would do? Go back to work at some job, have office birthday parties again and two-week vacations, and then all my problems would end? I doubt it. What I mean is, I don’t think that’s what this experience is about. There is something more to it than a temporary roadblock for my life. I know it has more to give me than suffering, and my work is to try and bring light to what has felt very dark. I think by learning to navigate any experience the right way, it’s never a total loss. Sometimes it’s the very thing that propels us or makes us better. There is always more meaning and a path to discover if we stay devoted to following the thing that makes us feel alive– this usually leads to finding our purpose, our spot where we fit. I guess it’s the days when I know that who I am is bigger than the things that have happened, that I still have things to offer the world, and I accept the course of my day even in its smallness, that I make myself proud again. It’s often not in what I do anymore, but in how I receive each day and whether I live it out as a gift or not.

Even if all I do is try, that is truly enough.

Health, Happiness, #SickPride