The Reward and the Wake of ME/CFS Advocacy

Two weeks ago, my family came together for an advocacy event coordinated by incredible friends and family in our old hometown, Grand Junction Colorado. The function was a success and took a lot of hard work by people who cared and put in major time and heart behind the scenes. My sisters friends Avery and Jordana, Jordana’s dad Harry (awesome dad name) and my Uncle Mike who was under the impression that months earlier he’d retired (Nope!) Besides them many more came together, helped fund, offered services, and sponsored the event in order to make it happen. As for me, I sort of just had to show up.

Beyond friends and family that put in the effort to sort out logistics doing an incredible job, the article in our local paper impressed me majorly–not just with it’s advertising of the event, but by publishing a full page color spread, covering our families stories respectively and including a digestible narrative about the reality of MECFS and giving it a wider context. I felt happy and surprised to read this article right out of my humble hometown, when such a surprising amount of press from noteworthy and “big league” media can completely miss the mark.

The dense, nearly unbelievable history mixed with present political roadblocks and numerous scandals all under the M.E. umbrella make the disease particularly hard to write about and convey in one article without writing a novel. Not to mention the personal, human interest side of this, and the toll it takes on patients and families. Very few articles contain both, and many more are simply clumsy, neglecting essential facts or even accurate data. Due to our general lacking presence in the media, I know someone might think “Well any press is good press, right?” But I struggle with that adage. When you’re fighting a thirty year old false narrative, not all press is good. In fact it can easily be bad by perpetuating fallacies, inaccuracies or misconstrued data, and even celebrate studies (like the PACE Trial) or treatments which have done the MECFS community incalculable harm.

So I guess, no, not all of it’s good. Too often I’m excited to see press about MECFS only to be disappointed beginning just the title, which will call the disease “chronic fatigue” or in the first line, inaccurately label the number one symptom as tiredness. *facepalm* But I digress, I didn’t mean for this to get into the media missing the mark, or the missing media in general, because today is about advocacy. And when people with this disease, their caregivers and loved ones, researchers and doctors are out there fighting for it, none of them will get it wrong. All of them know the numbers, the history, the truth, and the unfortunate personal toll.

The event in Colorado was a success. And maybe I’m a romantic and would call it that if even 3 people showed up, because that’d be 3 more people who were aware of something that is so rarely seen, heard, talked about, or understood. But many more showed up, family and friends we hadn’t seen in decades, strangers too, all to learn about a disease on a Sunday night, when it would be so so so easy to stay home and just forget it. It’s hard to express the humility and gratitude you feel seeing people show up, tell you they’re thinking or praying for you or your family, or even a stranger offering his hope and encouragement for the future. It all meant a lot, really. So THANK YOU again and again.

After the screening of Unrest, the 3 of us (my mom sister and I) spoke and were followed by Linda Tenanbaum, the CEO of the Open Medicine Foundation and human firecracker, who infused hope back into the audience, who were probably mostly thinking Dang, this is a shitty situation. Shituation?  She closed out the night before it was on to the reception. The firecracker (Linda) is an amazing speaker and doer, and having her attend the event only amped it up. Getting filled in on the OMF’s work and most up to date findings was a truly optimistic breath of fresh air.

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The OMF is at the forefront of research and work purely off donations, as in every cent goes into the science. All participants–brilliant researchers, doctors, scientists and logistical coordinators work on their own dime. Why? Some of them have a child or loved one with this disease, others just a determination to find answers to something with so few. Due to the explicit lack of urgency in the government when it came to MECFS interest, when submitted applications for funding biomedical research were repeatedly turned down by the NIH, these guys got together and decided it was time to do the work themselves. And thanks to the generous donations of so many people, they’ve been able to achieve and find incredible things. There is still a lot to do and this kind of science will require a lot of GREEN. But hey, maybe the #MillionsMissing protestors out there today in the streets will help change studying a disease with public charity to adequate funding provided by the Agency whose job it is to fund.

When we attended another event much like this one in California in October, it took me roughly 30 days to recover. I know because I videotaped myself everyday for a month to track how each day went after we returned. It’s a long trip and these events, while incredible and worthwhile, take a toll. The socializing alone is just like physical exertion, and the event in GJ lasted roughly 6 hours. While I’ve recently undergone an upswing in my health, I watched my mom that night—speaking and catching up with many old friends. Sitting as much as possible, not having even one glass of wine or “playing with fire” by any stretch of the imagination. She played it safe and did what she could to pace herself. You’d never guess anything might be wrong by looking at a photo from that night.

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Yours truly, My Sister Amelie, Linda Tenanbaum, Mama Gelpi, and my Aunt Amy. You probably know her.

Yet at 6 AM the next morning, I woke up on the couch just in time to see her collapsing, my stepdad with his arms outstretched underneath hers, catching her as she slowly went down, muscles twitching and trying not to pass out. She’d woken with a crushing migraine and often if she doesn’t take her medicine in time, some epic vomiting is soon to follow. She’d taken the meds but sometimes the migraine wins and all you can do is endure it until it’s had its way with you. She’d run to the first bathroom feeling her mouth start to water and knowing what was to follow, but my brother had just moments earlier gone in to shower before his early fight home. (Way to go NICK)

So she was on a quick race to the bathroom on the other side of the house, but midway through started to black out, and was luckily caught by my stepdad from behind while her muscles seem to go limp and the room blurred in and out. I can’t remember what was said but I knew she was going to spew quickly and ran as fast as I could for a bowl. I made it back just in time, with a casserole dish, which isn’t the best of bowls to puke in if we’re getting technical, but hey, better than the carpet.

After a nice little vomit session on the floor, we both pulled her up to the chair where we put ice on her neck and wrapped her feet in heat packs to try to get the blood to flow downward. She sat with her eyes closed, as though she were concentrating hard on something. But when you’ve experienced that kind of pain, you know just what it looks like, and that was it. She waited and Marc sat nearby for anything she might need. After an hour she was finally able to walk back to the bed and eventually get back to sleep. So, that was her morning.

And from what? From doing what healthy people do all the time. Watching a movie, catching up with friends, eating, hanging out. This is what put her over her envelope. Watching her I just kept thinking about the invisibility of it all. That no one would guess the woman they were with last night was in the extremely painful and scary position she was in now. But this is the story MECFS and those who suffer with it live it all the time. You see us when we’re well enough to be seen. Otherwise most of the suffering goes on behind closed doors, and no one presumes otherwise.

Today is #MECFS Awareness Day, and thousands of people around the world are taking part in the #MillionsMissing protest thanks to MEAction and many more. I wish I were one of them but I just couldn’t make it happen. So I made my sign with shoes attached on behalf of the three of us in the family to represent. It was only a tweet, but it was the best I could do.

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I hope anyone reading this who participated in the #MillionsMissing event knows the immense gratitude and unity from millions of us who couldn’t physically be there. This kind of advocacy isn’t easy, particularly on those who have the disease. They will all pay for it in terms of their health in big and small ways. And yet it’s what must be done in order to make the invisible seen, give the silenced a voice, and the truth a solid platform on which to land. My gratitude runs so deep to all those who organized to make THIS happen, and you know as well as I do, it doesn’t end here. We’ll fight even if we’re left beat up until things change the way they’ve needed to for decades. Hang tough, all of you. The Gelpi’s are with you in spirit. Thank you for your bravery, for caring, and for risking your own health so that we might all have a chance at actual health in the future. Thank you, in every language ;)

Health, Happiness, In Solidarity–Happy May 12th

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Apathy, Advocacy, Jumping In

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

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

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

They?

(Insert really awkward DC photo)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Health, Happiness, Tryin

Me Vs. Myself In My Own Campaign

I have to admit something that feels a little shameful, and since this blog seems to inspire little dignity in me and zero reverence I’ll go ahead and do it.

Lately I’ve felt a schism crack inside of me. I don’t know what it is, a Campaigner and a Skeptic. I’ve been advocating these last two months since I began the petition asking the NIH for an increase in funding for M.E. I can’t tell you how tired I am of just writing that sentence, and probably if you’ve kept up reading this, your eyes just glazed over. And then I feel bad about feeling exhausted by it. I believe deeply in the campaign and I want more than anything for it to do what it set out to, which is actually to change things in a quantifiable way. This whole thing has been fronted by social media, so I’ve spent hours posting it on every forum, every ME/CFS Facebook page, (of which it turns out there are like 4,000), tweeting to the same groups and other organizations I’d only just discovered,  and any and everyone involved in the CFS community, including celebrities who I’d read had the disease. This includes Sinead O’Connor and Olympic Soccer Athlete Michele Akers, but I didn’t hear back from either. I thought about singing a version of “Nothing Compares” to Sinead but rewriting it with lyrics that explained the issue and pleaded for higher funding. But I never did it. I head Glen Beck has ME, but I’m just not going there. I just…I can’t.

I did actually write a song, a two chord song on the guitar, so far titled “Chronic Fatigue Syndrome” but we’ll get to that later. Similarly I’ve been sending emails to both friends and strangers, asking them to do something. But doing this day after day can start to feel..a little desperate. Sometimes I didn’t like myself. It feels like I’m asking all these people to do something for me, people I don’t even know. But I’ve had to constantly remind myself, when I start to feel like some kind of annoying car salesmen with poor boundaries, this isn’t really for me, but for something so much greater. It always has been. One look at the comments page of the petition and it’s so clear that we need help, and we’ve needed it for a long time. So if I’m gonna go for it, I need to go for it. STOP BEING A PANSY, in other words.

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Pansies are quite beautiful it’s a shame they’re synonymous with WIMP

Despite many people and organizations reading my story for the first time, I find myself rolling my eyes at my own account. And I think God, what’s wrong with me? Where’s my pride for this fight? I have to remind myself that this has been a 30 year injustice that started before me, and I am just trying to help fix it. And then I find myself even struggling with that word. Is this really an injustice? And I realize when I ask that, it’s coming from a failure of perspective. The insecurity considering my own experience with this illness, and my sense of normal, which is inside out and backwards. Even though being sick has been the hardest battle of my life, I still look around at things and think “But I’m OK.” Sick or not, I can find ways to make it all work. I have so many people and so much love behind me that I know I’ll be OK. But there are 2 obvious flaws in that thinking. To begin with, when I really break it down, I think

Mary, you’re living in your parents pool house. You aren’t able to work anymore. Sometimes weeks go by without leaving the house or seeing anyone even close to your age. You live in a town you have no connection to except for the pharmacy and three doctors. You hang out with your parents A LOT. Last week your own mother washed your hair for you in the bath because you were too weak to do it. And showers, let’s not even talk about showers. The point isn’t that my life not being normal is the problem, it’s that I’ve become so accustomed to what the illness has done with my version of normal. I forget, this is actually kind of a huge mess that I’m just living out as best I can, one day at a time. I don’t plan things, I can’t keep them. Somewhere, I sense a clock is ticking. It can’t last this way for long, right? And if it does, would I be OK with a life like that?

So is this an injustice? Yes. Read everything that’s happened with this illness pertaining to the CDC, HHS, and the NIH over the last thirty years, and it would be hard to call it anything else. Just because I’m surviving and ‘OK’ doesn’t say anything about the millions who aren’t.

And that brings up the second flaw in my perspective: I am not nearly as sick as so many others who have this disease. There is a scale to the illness in terms of intensity. A portion can function partially, but it’s hard to call those who are at the other end of the scale “sick.” Their bodies are shutting down. Confined to one room, unable to talk or tolerate sound, eating through a tube. Would we call that living? So many people have been sick for decades, their husbands or wives gone because life with this disease hugely impacts relationships. Some can’t understand it or even really believe it. One woman told me her husband divorced her because, he said, “I can’t watch you slowly die anymore.” People, especially husbands, hate feeling like there’s nothing to do for it, no way to help. And at this point, that’s basically where we are. You’re lucky to find a doctor who knows much about it. All of this reminds me; sure, you can make lemonade out of lemons, but there is a far deeper issue at play here, and it’s been slowly building into what is now a health crisis. It’s like the equivalent of the Velvet Revolution- a calm, quiet crisis. It’s gone on gently behind the scenes, behind the noise of other major news, of more important health issues, diseases with names that don’t make a person stop and hesitate whether it’s “real” or not. So I have to remind myself, this is beyond lemonade, and this fight reaches for things far beyond me. This is for the thousands of people who are far and away worse than me, who can’t fight for the change that has long been needed. “Sick” is such an understated way to describe them. “Slowly dying” is more accurate, just like the woman said.

So, I need to stop feeling apologetic for fighting for this change. Yeah, it’s probably annoying on Facebook News Feeds, but I’ve seen my share of weird engagement albums of couples in urban settings, and political rants and pictures of peoples lives that are awesome that make me feel incredibly small and boring. So, I guess it’s OK to annoy with a petition for a while. It doesn’t mean I have to become a full-time advocate, but I need to see this thing through to the end, and getting petition signatures is really only phase 1. I need to participate (at least virtually) in the protests this week, because it matters to me, and I don’t know why I feel like I should keep it a secret that it does. The real work might just be beginning–getting the big dogs on the phone, and in person, and making the case. I will say, I feel more far more confident reaching out to these people with 33,000 signatures behind the request. Printed out, that’s over 1,500 hundred pages of names. That’s impact! And that’s what I was looking for. So Thank You, all of you. A petition doesn’t work unless the people sign. The next phase will be interesting and could take a while. But, as always, I will keep you posted.

I see big change up ahead. Monty too.

Health, Happiness, Justice

“Change will not come if we wait for some other person, or if we wait for some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.”            -The man, Barack