2017 and Falling Off the Edge of the Earth

*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.

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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 in the possibility of things changing, 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, than 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.)

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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 true.

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.

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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.

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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 often just as hard or harder. It is truly, I say this with total conviction, a full-time 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 you 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 wouldv’t survived the last part of 2017 without you, I honestly don’t know. I feel decently 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, we’re not alone, and we still need outsiders help.

Mom, Marc, Monty, Family: thank you.

Health, Happiness, & Good Things To Come

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Miami, Migraines, Diners, Doctors

I am sitting at a booth in one of those themed diners in a shopping center, adjacent to the clinic where I saw the specialist on Monday and had what looked like hundreds of vials of blood taken today for more testing. I figure I should eat even though I’ve no appetite. I never trust a menu this long, so I play it safe and order the soup and salad, which is neither good or bad. I guess that’s what you’re really asking for, a meal to quickly forget.

mp,550x550,gloss,ffffff,t-3.3u2.jpgThe music is too loud in here and I find myself strangely annoyed with the gimmicky decor. License plate style plaques fill every inch of wall space boasting phrases like “Stressed is Dessert spelled backwards!” and “Soup of the Day: Whiskey.” I stop. I just close my eyes a minute. Adjust. The problem is not the restaurant. It’s me and this body I have to animate—it doesn’t fit in the world in comfortable or easy ways. It’s like dropping a wild tiger in suburbia, except maybe the opposite. It’s like trying to build suburbia in the middle of a jungle, then complaining the tigers are noisy and sometimes scare the kids. No one else seems bothered by the music.

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“Hey, you don’t belong here.”
“I might say the same thing about you.”

I don’t want to be this young and think like a curmudgeon. Better to let go. It’s because it’s 11:30 and I’m on day 9 of a migraine cycle and I’m wearing real pants. I had to get blood drawn and I don’t normally exist before noon. Mornings are just constantly, reliably painful and tough.

Everyone has days where life feels so tired, so repetitive, that you want to hit snooze and wake up under some alternate sky where there is no weight to carry. No gravity, no effort required to move. Where everyone looks each other in the eyes. We listen. We don’t say the words “Sorry” followed by the word “but…” or “if”. Our hearts resonate with each other, and our heavy bodies have shed like snake skin, like the useless, heavy weight they’d become. There is a lightness in every capacity.

Tolle says this alternate side of the sky I am referring to is possible here on this side. And I believe he is right. But it takes so much practice and learning and presence. Presence. How easy it is to walk into a cheap diner and complain about decor. ap,550x550,12x16,1,transparent,t.u2.pngThat kind of observation lacks creativity. Not to mention, it’s very counterproductive to complain about these things when you’re already feeling down. So I’ll tell you what I like about this costumed diner. All four booths in my vicinity are filled with at least parties of two people eating, and all of them are talking to one another. None of them have their phones out. A phenomenon! Particularly this couple across from me.

They are in their 60’s, and somehow it seems obvious they’ve known each other a long time. I could be wrong of course. They could be divorcees who met on ourtime.com and newly in love. But it’s not the sense I get. In my mind they’re in their Act III of their marriage with grandchildren they have pictures of on their phones to their friends at Bridge. I like that they haven’t run out of things to say or lost some kind of delight in the simple pleasure of each others laugh. They seem to laugh a lot, casually, throughout their light hearted conversation and this feels so good to watch. I always used to fear I’d marry a man and eventually he’d lose interest in me and I’d find his stories boring and then we’d be at a restaurant eating one day with nothing to say to one another. As though there was nothing new to discover about the other, or that we’d lose curiosity in the way each of us experienced the world.

But I know that only happens when we’ve decided we know a person completely and with total certainty. And if we’ve decided that, the issue is not the other person.”The human mind mistakes its opinions and viewpoints for truth…but it is no more than a viewpoint, one of many possible perspectives. Reality is a unified whole. Thinking fragments it into pieces.” Tolle says a lot about the “thinking” mind, and that it’s very useful in our world. But it’s also “very limiting when it takes over your life completely. It’s only a small aspect of the consciousness you are.”

Sometimes I seek the daily, thoughtless things about a person with such aggressive interest I think I might be dumb. Their calendars, notebooks, what they keep in their cars. One of my favorite hobbies is to take apart a guys wallet, piece by piece. All the useless receipts he saves. The frequent customer cards. An old crumbly picture, maybe. Movie stubs. Concert stubs. Their license—are they smiling in the picture or does it look like a mug shot? What made the cut for making it into the billfold and what didn’t. All tiny stamps of a person and his non-sequitor, paper trail of places he’s been. You can have the same fun or more going through a woman’s’ purse. Many clues in there. But these are little traces so few people see. Instead we go to dinner and say “Uh huh and what do you do? Oh interesting, tell me more about your boss. What a jerk!” I think first dates should be silent a exchange of wallet for wallet, or purse for purse, or wallet for purse, whatever. You get the picture.

My last boyfriends wallet, unless I’m remembering incorrectly, was a basic brown leather wallet that seemed to old for him and contained some concert stubs, because he was a music guy and not a whole lot else because he had a straightforward way of being in the world. A wallet was a thing to hold money and his license. But maybe more memorable was the night we went to dinner and left Monty and his dog Gracie home. When we returned, his wallet that he’d left on the coffee table had been chewed. His license, a credit card, social security card, and a one dollar bill perfectly torn in half littered the living room floor. We both loyally defended our own, claiming that “100%, my dog would never do that.” I thought it was kind of funny—a mystery we’d never know the answer to. Maybe it was Monty (it wasn’t), telling me Run! This thing isn’t gonna work! Mayday! Owell. Fun while it lasted. I still have the half chewed dollar.

I could say that the two buzzing gnats flying around my side salad are concerning, but you can basically always reduce these impulses to complain or feel disturbed by something or “talk to the manager” to nothing, because when you start to break them down, they just don’t mean all that much. We forget that so much of our devoted focus, particularly when it’s negative, is essentially meaningless. I am one person, and I chose to eat at a diner where children under the age of 12 eat for free between noon and 3. There may as well be a sign that says FREE BUGS. This isn’t the RITZ. The meal costs $10 and the waitress is nice.  If you’re always making noise about your tiny discontent, you just become a human gnat. We should ask ourselves what our questions or actions or statements are intended to do for five minutes before we go running to every manager. It’s so often just a thoughtless impulse. Gnats! We could just as easily forget about it and move on with the day.

I take an Uber home, and I find myself alone in the back of Ubers quite often. ‘Often’ is a relative term. I’m appreciating that the driver isn’t trying to engage in conversation. “It’s hot out!” “Yes, it is hot out! Also, I have a doggy!” I’ll tip him more for that.

Miami is a picturesque place, and I like the sidewalk traffic. Watching the world through 179389-3908867d8a204eebbcef4215613a5da0.jpeg  the window feels so much better than TV–and no commercials. Bonus! I see a couple kiss while they wait at the crosswalk. Then they smile and she says something that makes them laugh. I love seeing people kiss. Creepy? Maybe. I just like that kissing exists in general. There’s traffic, which is another easy thing to complain about. Tolle says complaining is one of the ego’s favorite hobbies. (Also being right.) But I’m in a quiet car. All I have to do is sit here, one of a few things where I’m actually quite skilled. Many beautiful things pass us by at a stop and go pace. I try to imprint the sights on my brain to take home with me.

I try presence. Just being aware of all my senses. I am grateful to be out in the world at all, when so often I am indoors. I try to remember how lucky I am that I was able to come here. What a gift it is to see a doctor who understands, who listens and looks you in the eye, who can help me find answers. (Thank you Dr. Klimas!) That I have my brother and his beautiful family to stay with and help care for me. That it’s time together we wouldn’t have had were I well. Yes, I have a body that feels like a decomposing pumpkin at times. And I actually feel I may look like a decomposing pumpkin at times. (See video below) But so many moments to be grateful for. So many gifts. Count them. Keep counting. They add up faster the more awake you are.

Keep fighting. Last year was hard. I believe somewhere in my depths, this one will be better, no matter the directional trend my health takes. I know we’re getting close. I tip the Uber driver and leave feedback. “Thank you for the quiet.”

Health, Happiness, Counting

All awesome artwork by Eugenia Loli

*Bonus*: I’m on Day 9 of my migraine cycle! Here is a clip of yesterday morning. It was kind funny in that tragically comical way.