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.

Hangers On a Ledge 

I run these ideas through my head, trying to piece it together. I try to make sense of a history that began before me and most likely, I’ll never really be able to figure out. Whenever you’re trying to find where things went wrong and how you can make them right again, it can all feel too big, too long ago to find solutions that make sense now. But still, the red part inside of me that stirs as though it has a body that can do anything, tells me this is something we can fix. We can do better–those words, they play over and over.

I travel back in time, the early 80‘s I guess. That’s when it started showing up in different places and on unexpected people, and the powers at large weren’t able to connect the dots. It’s understandable of course–the thing is literally invisible. Maybe the lack of pressure, lack of genuine concern about the disease began there–at a moment in time where it couldn’t be ‘seen’ under microscopes and wasn’t ‘believed’ often by the people who were suddenly sick and then never better. Maybe it was that the thing wasn’t killing anybody. Nothing fatal. Just a flu. “A yuppie flu” they called it. Not only are the sufferers alive, but they don’t even look the part! They aren’t sick on the outside. And rearranging my position in all this, putting myself on the outside looking in at this “movement” of unexplained sick people, I understand how this notion worked against us–how it continues to today. I think of the old adage “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” That may be true in many cases, but I can’t say it applies aptly here. Not in regards to our bodies anyway, which upon the slightest push can fall and not again get up.

What isn’t killing me is not making my body stronger. I am the least strong I’ve ever been. The medicine has caused weight gain that at times has me and my face looking like a bloated pumpkin. It’s hard not to feel at battle with the thing that is intrinsically connected to me, and between us exists a fine line of fighting it and not fighting it at the same time. The whole thing is an honors class in balance. Some days are better than others, and I wonder, am I stronger, or am I just less sick today? There remains a difference. But I’m probably focusing on the wrong area here. No doubt that in our minds, the adage applies. When every day is a battle, beginning with waking up, with sitting up in bed and planting your feet on the ground and taking those first few painful steps to the bathroom, and doing this day after day after day, for some of us years and decades, well then no doubt your mind will grow stronger. It can also grow cynical, it can become   bitter–but many times you’ll surprise yourself with the strength you find and the moments you find it in. If you can keep trying, if you can manage a smile and a laugh, to be happy for other people, to still believe in something good, then certainly you haven’t been killed, and the battle has made you stronger. But that is our mind. Or the soul maybe– An almost contradiction that is both a connected but separate faculty from the body. Refer to the ancient philosphers and you’ll find some disagreement on the subject. I think in either case, for the mind the body is only temporary. And this brings a relief to me. Whatever happens to me physically, I won’t be carrying it forever.

I think of all the others, sick like me, dreaming and hoping and feeling desires like the rest. It’s strange how our indignant heads are alive and full, swirling with ideas and goals just as though we had a body that could serve them all–make them all come to light. But at present time we don’t. So call us “alive” and say we “look well,” but know there is only a very small surface of which most the world sees. And the majority of life with this illness falls far below it, in a darkness underneath that very few see. Some can’t see it. Some don’t want to. Others just haven’t had the access.

It’s funny thinking about that word “alive.” Sure, we’re alive. But there’s an important difference between living and surviving. “Just getting by” physically, is hard to equate with living. And worlds away from thriving, which might be called a pretty commonly desired endgame. We, however, are hanging on by a thread, and it’s hard to call an existence like that “life” with any real conviction. It’s similar to hanging at the edge of a cliff and grasping it by one hand– would we really call that hiking?

That is the point where many ME/CFS patients are: hanging on with a half-steady grip, still breathing, still a beating heart inside, but stuck; Left with few options but, you know, to go on hanging there. It’s hard to have a social life or work a job or vacuum your living room when all of your mighty, tiny strength is being poured into hanging on to this cliff. It’s no wonder why so many people have it let go. There is just not enough hands at the top, not enough people offering help to pull you up, and no safety net at the bottom. And similarly, just as pulling a dangling body up off the edge of a cliff is a difficult but achievable task, a “problem” with more than one possible solution, curing the disease that has millions of people hanging by their own one or two threads is equally obtainable. It’s just to a larger degree. But it’s far from Impossible. And it would involve a few similar tactics: some people at the top, those say, for whom walking and standing is not a great feat, and who themselves are not also hanging off the edge of a cliff, combining their efforts and resources and intelligence and getting to work; finding a solution, in this case a cure.

Never having the experience of rescuing a person dangling off the side of a high-up something or other, I imagine that a rescue is within the realm of human capability. There are many ways to go about it, and maybe I’m being sort of dense here, but I’d venture it basically comes down to people lowering themselves to the ground, extending their arms to the dangling human, and with a great amount of strength pulling the person up until he’s back on his feet. And while maybe the tactic is basic, the act itself requires a solid effort. Lifting a person from this particular state is like trying to maneuver deadweight– Much easier to carry a body which is alive even if incapacitated, than one that’s dead and stiff. I’d like to emphasize that I’ve never hauled a dead body around but I’ve tended to my share of drunk friends who had 6 too many, and it would take 3 of us just to get the person, alive with a LOT to say about the world and true friendship, into a car. The very obvious point is, saving the person who’s still hanging there off the edge while I write this, is a very doable thing. And I know I’m comparing apples to oranges, or apples to bowling balls, but I believe with every part of me that this issue of solving or at least better managing this disease has never been on account of inability. This is something we can do, we’ve simply chosen not to based on some very obtuse, very lacking scattered pieces of information that cannot be labeled as facts.

Me, I can’t rescue the hangers on the ledge. Of course I can’t, I am one. But therein lies the kind of rescue I can provide. I can hang off the ledge next to you. Because there is something undeniably comforting in knowing that whatever struggle you find yourself facing, that you’re not in it alone, and that others are in the same boat. Or off the same ledge as it were. Like I mentioned, you can’t do a lot while devoting all your energy into grasping your spot on the mountain and not letting go. I can’t march in front of congress demanding to be seen, nor can I carry out the hundreds of other ideas I have that I think could make a difference, could help change the state of things in a positive and progressive way. But I can do a little. And thanks to modern times, maybe my little could turn into a lot. As I write this, I am laying down in a dim room in my moms bed. I have a frozen ice pack on my forehead and around my neck, with a hot pack at my feet under the covers to help draw away the blood from my head, which is throbbing like always. And yet I am still able to write, thank you very much Steve Jobs, on this rectangular dense brick otherwise known as my phone. It’s often hard to sit up comfortably with the computer in my lap and so being able to jot everything down from just a small device is kind of a miracle. Very often, while either FaceTiming with my niece or buying dog food from my phone that will be at my door tomorrow, I this is it-we’ve arrived at the future. And yet, I don’t even know how a calculator works.

The point is, healthy or functioning or bedridden or whatever, there are little things we can all do, in our own way, that can help change things. And yes I hear how corny that phrase played out. Recently I watched an interview with an author and Benedictine Nun named Sister Joan D. Chittister. She was really inspiring to watch. An author of over fifty books, she writes about about many topics including spirituality, women in the church, and social justice. She is clearly leaving an amazing footprint on the world through her written and continued community work and is firing up others to do the same. She said she is often asked by people “What can I do to help change things.. To fulfill humanity or to better the world?” Her answer is very stripped down. “Something.” And her brilliance was immediately illuminated in her acknowledgment that speaking up for a friend is as big as a March on Washington. “Just do something. Wherever you are with whatever you’ve got. When you see an injustice or see something that needs changing, do something. It doesn’t matter how small, just do something.” Of course this answer resonated with me. I often get discouraged about the state of things concerning the disease and the state of my life and all the change I wish I could make happen but physically I am unable to. But I forget that small changes, small acts can have huge impacts when carried out diligently. I have so many big ideas, big dreams that I hope to achieve one day. But I also have to remember that one day is now, and it’s probably better to focus on what I can do today, as I am and with the resources I have now. And I think putting in the work that might feel small, that isn’t NY Times worthy, doesn’t mean it lacks the chance to make a difference. There’s a feeling you get when you pour yourself into something you care about, that seems to carry out a mission from deep inside you, even if you don’t know what that is exactly. I get that feeling every time I sit (or lay) down to write. I may not know for a long time what the role of all this is or how it will play out in the larger context of things later on down the line. I just know it’s what I can do now. It’s my something, so I’ve got to keep at it.

It’s been a pretty sick and trying few weeks for me, and I feel often that accessible moment of how easy it would be to just throw in the towel, or to become hardened by the relentlessness of the experience, but I want to remind the other hangers on the edge out there to hold tight, because not only are there rare gifts to find within all this, things will change. They have already begun to. Today will become tomorrow. And one day soon enough, this will all be a memory of something that yes, didn’t kill us and made us stronger. Hang in there. Hang on. It is going to get better.

Health, Happiness, Cliffhangers 

An Open Letter to Myself, To Be Read 10 Years From Now

Dear future self,

Congratulations, you’ve made it to 41. If you’re still living in your parents pool house, don’t feel bad. We all move at our own pace. I hope this letter finds you well. You know, I normally hate that line, mostly because it’s hardly ever genuine except as an ice-breaking device used in emails just before asking for something, usually money. But I mean it. ‘Well’ is pretty relative term, but you know what I mean–better. Better than today. It’s November 5th, 2015.

For record-keeping, I’ll set the scene. I’m writing from bed, the computer in my lap and Monty sleeping on the edge in his spot. I am achy, heavy-bodied, and nursing a head-ache that now spans the entirety of my face. It’s strangely resistant to pain medicine so I use frozen peas to numb it. I feel the force of gravity pushing against every move I try to make. Standing up makes me dizzy and faint, so I’ll spend most the day sitting or supine. (POTS) My brain is fuzzy and clumsy. My thoughts come fast and then stutter and mix up on their way out. Writing is better than speaking. It’s more patient. My heart mimics hummingbirds and butterflies. It makes this audible “clicking” sound whenever I lay down, like my own cardiac stopwatch in which to keep time! My blood pressure spikes and drops, making simple things hard, like showers and teeth-brushing. (Dysautonomia) So I stay horizontal–a term my specialist uses and advises on days like today. But the Interstitial Cystitis makes this part harder. I peed 12 times last night! A new record. But who’s counting? This is how crash days go. Another part of the disease that goes mostly unseen.

Greetings From 2015
Greetings From 2015

But let me interject. The point here is not to belabor on about life with illness. This is simply the physical state of things, and the more important point I am making is that I am OK.  I’m not living a life that looks anything like the one I planned for, (haha, plans) but I’ve found meaning here too. I’ve forgiven what my life was supposed to be, and grown into the one I have. It’s smaller-sized than the one I dreamed of, and it bewilders more people than it impresses, but I’ve actually learned to like it here. Every day despite health and money and a recently sad surplus of dead animals in the pool, I crawl into my bed at night and it hits me that I’m OK. A small flick on the side of my head.

Is it a contradiction to say you’re fine but also expect change on a large scale? I hope not. But it’s partly the reason I’m writing now. I detect a shift underway. I hear a slight buzzing sound behind the drone of everyday life, and it hints at considerable change to come. I hope in time this letter will be a relic from an era long gone. I hope it will be a nearly humorous account of the way things used to be once, but that it won’t sound all too familiar. I hope that physically I’ll just barely be able to recall it, like the name of a childhood teacher on the tip of your tongue. That’s my hope, but who can know? Just in writing this I can feel my future self alive somewhere; that she exists on some unknowable plane, and that when she reads this letter it will make her happy.

It’s my belief that if I’m not cured by the time I read this, that my mom will have shot me like I made her promise to. Only joking calm down. If I’m not cured, I expect at least to be a much higher-functioning version of my present self. I should be able to work at least a few days a week, to attend (and dance at) a wedding, or to go on a bike-ride and not crumble for days after. I don’t see this as wishful thinking or as the result of divine intervention. I see FDA-approved, effective treatment options as an only natural, foreseeable byproduct of the serious research to come by governing agencies like the NIH and the CDC. As I write this, there are zero approved treatments. My 25 pills a day are mostly bandaids on a broken knee.

Up until now, the world hasn’t quite known what to do with someone like me, like us; chronically sick people who don’t get better and don’t die. And I understand their unease. This is all relatively new, and we just haven’t developed the etiquette for it yet. But a bigger issue exists in this realm, and it’s having a disease called Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, a name so comparatively small and demeaning, I don’t even like to say it out loud. It’s hard to keep my own eyes from rolling. Instead I call it Shit Turd Disease, which feels no less valid or serious, and has the added bonus of a cackle at the end. Out in the world, I don’t really feel like a person who has a disease. I feel like someone with a strange secret to keep–Something to talk about in hushed, apologetic tones. Or something better not to talk about at all. Explaining and defending it takes an energy you just don’t have. So you stay quiet, but there’s a loneliness in that choice.

And there are consequences to it. For decades, the voices of the sick have been drowned out by the loud, proud professionals with strong opinions about our disease. Their ‘efforts’ are continually led by the notion that we can be cured with exercise and positive psychology. This was what the influential $8 million dollar Pace Trials set out and claimed to prove. Exciting! But upon 3rd party inspection, methodological flaws were found throughout the process, basic but crucial scientific protocol was neglected, and there were blatant conflicts of interest: Trial scientists had longstanding financial ties with the disability insurance companies who’d rather not foot the bill for those with Shit Turd Disease. And yet these trials still helped solidify the narrative that these “non-treatments” were legitimate. For more than thirty years, this idea has fueled study after study, it has shaped public opinion and policy, but it has not actually made the sick people better.

But here is where I detect the buzzing. Our attempts to improve public awareness and patient advocacy are hindered by the obvious: We’re a sick, slow-moving crew, and many of us are house or even bed bound. Fighting to be heard requires a vigor that’s diminished when you’re sick. I imagine a CFS Race for the Cure! would be more like a Saturday Night Live skit, with an embarrassing amount of joggers passing out on top of one another thirty seconds after the gun went off, half of them being hauled off in ambulances. But we’re living in the age of technology now, without the prior limits that hindered communication and networking. Now our collective voices can be heard without us leaving the house, and that matters here. The digital age provides for a new accountability and transparency where there was none before. Maybe now that professionals know their work will be seen by many sets of eyes, they’ll be less inclined to make those silly mistakes like those of the Pace trials that deeply effected the lives of millions of people. All of this helps to balance out the power. This is how we change the direction of the fruitless path we’ve been on. We have always had the right, but now we have a platform–thank you internet– where we can be seen and heard, and we have to use it.

Of course, people will stick to their guns (even in the face of gun laws they’ll do it!) And that’s OK. This isn’t actually about proving anyone wrong. No, that is the egos fight and it doesn’t belong here. This is about knowing that silence never yielded progress, and that to enable the truth we have to listen as much as we talk. It’s about ending an era that has ignored the complexity and vulnerability of what is true for the convenience and righteous facade that comes from salaried opinion. At a basic level, this is a humanitarian cause. What does it say about us that we treat the sick this way? What we do to each other we do to ourselves. So let’s do better.

Curing and treating this disease has never been an issue of capability, intelligence, resources or technology; It’s simply a matter of the right people having the committed willingness to try. If we begin there, it will be enough. But that means really beginning. It means treating this disease like an actual disease, and not some commonplace complaint or nagging ‘woman’s issue’ to be fixed with yoga. It means at least 10 times the amount of annual federal funding toward research. It means leaving the politics and scandal and doubt in the past, and surrendering the ideas that have proved ineffective. Let’s begin with purity of intent–to understand and cure it so people can get their lives back. Then I can stop writing these weird letters to my future self.

There are a lot of different ways that the next decade might play out. I could very well be cured, married with babies, living the kind of fast-paced, busy life I watch other people live. I always imagined I’d have a daughter and name her Catherine after my mom. Of course I might still be sick, an unpaid blogger still living in my parents pool house. I’ve already reconciled both possibilities. I’ll be OK. But then again, I’m not alone. This is much bigger than me.

This is millions of people at the mercy of a disease with a bad reputation and a worse name. And I’ve realized it’s useless to keep crossing my fingers about necessary change. This letter isn’t written out of hope, but as a nod to the future that I feel called to make better, starting now. It’s a reminder that change is possible and it always starts small. It’s my own refusal to stay quiet, especially on behalf of the many sick people far worse off than me, too sick to speak up. When I read this again, it shouldn’t matter whether I’m sick or cured. If I’ve done the work, I’ll be reading it from a better world; where sickness is not a secret, where we gravitate toward the truth, and where the silenced voices are finally heard. If that’s the world I’m living in, this will be the reminder that we did it, and that we’re OK. A small flick to the side of the head.

See you in ten years,

Mary
And Monty

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

The Cusp

You know in those movies where the main character is down and out after shit hits the fan and they’re nearing rock bottom but then comes this pivotal moment, a complete momentum change where usually an offbeat sidekick character busts out the tough love and tells them only they can change the course of their lives and no one else can do it for them? Suddenly this head-boppy motivational song chimes in and so begins the montage where down-and-out becomes up and coming and bad choices are replaced with healthy ones followed by inspiring shots of her showing kindness to strangers and looking bright and happy and you know, you know, that everything is going to work out for her. Her life trajectory rockets into the stars where her potential is limitless.  And all the shit that hit the fan has settled and disappeared. It’s all going to be OK. It’s going to be good.

I find myself on the cusp of my own Hollywood game-change montage. In the movie of Mary, it’d start with me rolling out of bed… onto the floor.Then Monty enters, pulling me by my shirt collar into the kitchen, and scoots me a plate of pills with his nose across the floor. Then begins my momentum shift song, potentially this one by The Killers

…followed by shots of me lifting three-pound weights and flexing my “muscles” in the mirror. I’m drinking green frothy stuff and throwing away prescription bottle after bottle, high-fiving doctors and crossing off lifelong goals. Suddenly I’m the one waking Monty up to play, and I’m helping sick people and giving speeches in front of the president demanding  healthcare change for the chronically ill. Then the camera slowly fades in to me typing at the computer in the hazy blue of night; a question appears across the screen: Are you sure you want to change this URL? It asks. I click YES, only to reveal my new web address word by word: Zero.Pills.A.Day.Com BABY! (Scene) For some reason this hasn’t happened yet. So weird.

OK so yes this is more Hollywood than reality and there are a lot of flaws to the fantasy, like me “exercising” for one. And vitamins curing me, for two. But the other half contains actual hopes I have for my life. There are real changes that I can feel waking from dormancy, and ambitions I know I can achieve, all that’s required is that I jump off. Dig in. But when it comes time to leap, I feel hijacked by my own dumb brain. Maybe it’s more of a lump; a dense rock in my depths that thinks of a million other things to do besides the one thing that matters. Sometimes it’s a total jerk of a rock and suggests I’m incapable or unworthy, or that someone else could do it better. And the worst part is, I listen! I think yeah, I should definitely attack my nails and cuticles until they bleed instead of trying to change my life and others for the better and for forever. Smart, real smart.

When it comes to writing, I encounter the same consensus among writers, which is painfully simple: That writing every day is obnoxiously hard and often achingly lonely, but you just make yourself do it.   The writer Anne Patchett writes in The Getaway Car that the key to completing artistic endeavors is forgiveness. Before she begins, “I grieve for my own lack of talent and intelligence. …Forgiveness is key. I can’t write the book I want to write, but I can and will write the book I am capable of writing. Again and again I will forgive myself.” I’m working to keep this in mind, since so many words and pages I write on this computer end up in the trash bin. It’s hard to know whether I have a discerning eye for quality work, or if I just don’t trust myself enough. It’s beginning to feel like the constant editing is just another guise I’ve unconsciously created to keep me from the jump. Amy Poehler advised in her recent memoir that in order to write you have to symbolically remove your brain and put it in a drawer, then listen to it throw a tantrum until it wears itself out–meanwhile you get going on the real stuff. “The doing is the thing. Talking and worrying and thinking is not the thing. Writing the book is about writing the book.” See? Basically to achieve what you want, you just have to do it. Brilliant. When I’m not in denial and I’ve let go of excuses, I am well aware that the only thing in my way, holding me back, is me; and knowing that almost paralyzes me even more. But I also know that change starts with awareness, so I think it’s time I take out a hit on myself. At least on the part that’s so lost in thought it leads to stagnancy. I can’t believe the trouble thinking causes. Has Tolle taught me NOTHING!?

So many days I have no idea what I’m doing or where I’m going or what’s going to happen to me and it results in either laughter or becoming totally overwhelmed. Where I used to fear change in life, I guess when things were stable and I was happy, I’ll sense an aching fear that things won’t change. That I’ll live and die in my parents pool house, an unpaid blogger with 37 chronic conditions. I can’t grasp where my place is among the world. Furthermore I can’t decide whether our place is made or reserved. Do we discover it or carve it out all our own? I don’t know. I only know that most days I feel far from either. Other days I feel close to a major turn-around; like something huge is about to sweep me up and change all of this for the better. But by the next morning we’re back to the ordinary. I’m taking my pills and moaning and Monty is doing his best to get me out of bed. Often my life feels like a raft drifting in the ocean in no particular direction, and the wind in all its thoughtless surprise is steering the boat, not really taking me anywhere at all.

Guess we're going South. Cool.
Guess we’re going South. Cool.

Monty and I roam around this town I’ve historically hated more like tourists than anything else. No one knows us by name, besides the pharmacist of course. We spend a lot of time at this coffee shop with the angry barista where I’m writing from now.There are girls here wearing the same uniform I wore in high school. They look so young and cute in their plaid skirts and Mary Janes. They seem happy and untainted and I like the way they burst out laughing at hardly anything. I can’t remember looking that young, a sure sign I’m getting older. Since turning 30 last year, I wonder a lot whether I’m really growing up or just getting older every year. I am surprised to have found the first grey hairs on Monty’s snout this year and I feel like a mother watching her kid go to the prom.Where did the time go?! There’s all kinds of proof that time has moved forward and carried me with it.  And yet my life could easily fit the bill of a 17-year-old in many ways. Some days that’s exactly how it feels. As my friends are advancing their careers and getting married and having babies, I still bring my mom to doctors appointments and often shop at American Eagle.

I understand the circumstances of my life are different and I have to make peace with that every day. But I also want to make sure I’m growing through all of this and not just surviving it. I guess I thought there would be a day when I reached adulthood, as though it were some test you passed, like the BAR, and then were a certifiable adult. I definitely figured as a child that by age 30 I’d have it all figured it out. Of course, I was young and blissfully stupid then. I couldn’t know how obscenely larger and deeper reality would become. I feel like I know less than ever before. Every answer springs up ten more questions. I’m uncertain of mostly everything except for the aggressive love I have for my dog. In short I have no idea if I’m getting it right. And I can’t imagine the day when I’ll feel like an adult.

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Didn’t You Hear?!

However, I did notice something of note at Victoria’s Secret last week. It was a routine underwear buying trip and my spirits were high because there’s something weirdly exciting about getting new underwear. There I was at the 5 for $25 wrack; my go-to section for cute and economical briefs. But I found myself all disgruntled making frowney faces as I browsed the huge selection. They were all Lisa Frank colors or animal prints. But worse, there was writing across the butt. Things like “No Peaking” and “Shopping Burns Calories!” adorned their backsides. Dear. God. The colors were blinding and I felt out of my element. I then spotted the sophisticated 3 for $33 wrack out of the corner of my eye, where the colors are muted bronzy tones and the designs are laced in floral maturity. More expensive yes, but, as I held a silky pair in my hands, modest, pretty and free of TEXT on the ass, I felt at home. This is where I need to be. I bought my favorites and left smiling. So that counts for something. I think.

Forward!
Forward!

All these thoughts weigh heavy in my mind; stupidly, uselessly. But they can be thick and hard to control. So I take Monty to the river, where he is immediately in his element and I can catch my breath. Monty finds the largest stick in the vicinity and makes me throw it in the water again and again and again. His enthusiasm is contagious and I laugh out loud watching him put his whole head underwater to find the waterlogged sticks. Something about returning to the spot and seeing the river flow in the same direction it did last time we were here quiets my head. Watching Monty run full speed and splash clumsily reminds me to chill out. That life is supposed to be fun, and it only moves in one direction.( See above) Collapsing under the weight of those thoughts makes me feel dragged by the current instead of floating downstream. I don’t know exactly who I am, and maybe it’s something that grows and changes until the day you die. I only know that life and happiness aren’t somewhere over there, and I need to stop assigning them to a future I can’t know. Times will be hard and times will be easy, but there is peace to be found in all of it if I can just trust myself and forgive the experience. More than that there are dreams to be made! I just need to move out of my own way so I can finally jump off. Over the cliff–that’s where the magic happens. That’s where the Hollywood montage begins.

Health, Happiness, the Edge.