Petition On A Mission

I realize not everyone receives the updates sent out on the status of the petition from change.org, so this is a basic copy and paste of that update with a few additions so we’re all in the know. It shares  the latest action we took and where things stand as of today.

I’ve been effectively in and out of a crash, and trying to manage pain that seems to have surpassed manageability. This has made it difficult to be the sort of advocate that executes all my ideas, completes so many goals, and more simply, publishes all the writing I do but bury in miscellaneous places.  I will be better at posting here like I used to do. Apologies for going AWOL a while. I suppose that’s another matter altogether. ANYway…

***

The box was too big for Matt’s car, so we assumed my moms car would suffice: a larger mid-size sedan. Still the corners jammed against the dashboard and window panels. The trunk? No, the trunk would not contain it either. So finally we had to put it in the bed of my step-dads old Toyota truck. I say ‘we’ but who am I kidding? Matt did all the literal heavy lifting. I actually took a photo by accident that perfectly depicts this point.

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On the way to Kinko’s, storm clouds of a distinctly Southern nature darkened and began thickening across half of the sky. A small part of me worried it’d start to rain and the box would get wet. But a bigger part of me felt more alive and hopeful than I’d felt in a while. Finally this thing was happening. But let me backtrack.

On Friday morning, (Sept 14th), I sat at my type writer fuzzy-headed after a crappy night of painsomnia and two hours sleep. But I was determined to finish this letter and write the words I felt Francis Collins would ultimately read. Something about that day, despite my feeling like a rotting banana, told me this long-ago set goal needed to happen without further delay. Time for that damn ginormous box that’s turned into a veritable piece of my living room furniture to finally leave. Time to begin the vital journey to its’ intended recipient in Bethesda, Maryland. (The NIH) (Francis Collins) (You get it)

This all took much longer than anticipated– to finish this part of the project. We printed the rest of the accumulated signatures since hitting 50,000. (!)  Printed the hundreds of pages of public comments left on the feedback page. Painstakingly blacked out all personal information on the 350+ prescription bottles I’d be using in lieu of packing peanuts. We’d completed everything but the personal letter to Collins I wanted to go on top of everything, Should he see or look through none of the rest of it, my hope was he would at least read a letter. A last attempt, if you will.

It was so hard to know which route to take in writing to him–what angle would really reach the guy. So many ideas had swirled through my head for weeks every time I laid down and stared at the ceiling, a hundred different drafts sat waiting inside me. I had to trust that the right words would emerge that day.  So I sat at my desk and banged at the keys of my typewriter. Intuition told me it might speak to him in a more immediate way for some reason. By the end it looked like a telegram to the president in the 40’s on the status of the war. (Not so far off, hardy har.)

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My healthy ally, close friend, and now fellow ME/CFS advocate Matt, told me a week earlier he’d also written a letter. We could include it if I wanted to. When I read it and saw how incredible it was–saw the effectiveness and resonance of words from someone watching this disease from the outside, I knew it needed to be included too.

Anyway, it was time to finish this last part of the job. When it was done, I began to pack the last of everything.

***

The box was filled with two tall stacks of paper on the bottom, comprising more than 2,300 pages of printed names. That’s what 51,000 signatures of support looks like. Cushioning and surrounding those bricks of names were the hundreds of empty pill bottles. (We don’t have recycling in my parish so I mean, why not?)  On top of the orange plastic ocean sat a brown box, just about the size of a Life cereal box. Inside were nearly 500 pages of your words–everyone that signed who had something to say. Voices of support for change, personal stories, loved ones stories, people sick for decades still holding out hope, and people sick at the end of their rope.

I was surprised how poignant and succinct so many of these messages were. These were the voices our government needed to see and hear (an ongoing need), so that box of papers went on top. Then of course, our letters.

The point is, we did it. We all did it. We came together and hit more than 50,000 signatures. People spoke up. The pill bottles piled up. Letters written, stories shared. Everything made it’s way into that box. And on Friday the whole kit and caboodle was taped up, sitting in the bed of a truck to Kinko’s, about to begin it’s travels to NIH. I kept looking out of the back window at it, as if it were a dog we were bringing to a farm for a better suited family to adopt.

At Kinko’s, a mostly disinterested, monotoned man asked us the typical questions and entered my uncertain answers into the computer. I was told to double check the info before hitting “accept.” National Institute of Health, Office of the Director. It felt dreamlike. I forget this man actually exists. Accept. And just like that, all that work, all our voices–in a box and carried with a grunt over to “outgoing.” Not without a picture first, of course.

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This mission so far has been possible because of the digital world we live in. Undoubtedly, none of it could be achieved without the accessibility and capability to assemble provided by the Internet and social media. For that, I am so grateful to live in the age we do.

But by putting this work onto actual paper made this crisis and our words come to life. I am one of the “millions missing”, and yet sometimes I have to remind myself my life isn’t normal. We can just do so much better, and the simple act of printing out each of your names made this reality, this need for change take on a visceral urgency in a way that names and numbers on a glowing screen can’t always do.

This was one of my major intentions in sending a box with everything printed. I wanted something people at the NIH could feel the literal weight of, could touch and hold. Something concrete they could carry with their hands. They’d be able to see what thousands of names demanding change looked like, and read our actual stories on paper. Holding our voices and stories and pleas for help in his hands, maybe Collins and those at the NIH might realize our fate is in their hands, too. They have the power to fix it. This is so much more than just a box of names.

My other point in all of this was to disrupt in a way that was not easily ignored. I wanted to get our truth and demands and personal messages delivered in an unconventional way–one that for instance, couldn’t be sent to spam. So thank you for providing me with material to disrupt with. A 24 x 24 box weighing in at just under 50 lbs should at least spark some curiosity on their end. So long as someone opens that box, I think something important is going to transpire.

I want you all to know, I realize this mission is far from over. The petition will stay open and running for as long possible. Sending this obnoxiously sized box with the things it contained was just one attempt at reaching the NIH. It’s certainly not the last, and I realize it may not work. But to really try always involves taking a risk. If this doesn’t work as intended, I can’t see it as a failure. It will only make me try harder.

So. 48.8 pounds. $100. And a lot of hope and prayers this box reaches the target. Thank you to my healthy ally Matt, for doing so much heavy lifting in all this. And thank YOU, if you’re still reading. For signing, sharing, speaking up, and helping demand change. It’s because of you we have something concrete to disrupt with. My gratitude is immense.

Out of everything, we cannot underestimate the power of our voices in this fight, and I intend for this petition to stay open as one channel where we can come together and say what needs saying. Thank you all who have spoken up and continue to. Thank you for making all of this possible.

Health, Happiness, O’ Little Town Of Bethesda

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The Campaign

OK, so I can’t actually link the above image that says CLICK HERE TO SIGN to the page where you would actually CLICK SOMEWHERE TO SIGN. Blogging problems amiright? In other news, you can click here to sign.

If you haven’t heard, I’ve begun a campaign on change.org. I’m petitioning the head of the National Institute of Health (Francis Collins) and the Secretary of Health and Human Services (Sylvia Burwell). If you have heard, and you probably have because I posted it everywhere for a while there, I do apologize for the redundancy. But for the first time, it seems like the right people are at the helm of the organizations that can immensely influence the potential for way more research (funds) for ME/CFS. I’ve written previously about the shaky if not scandalous history of this weird disease and the mishandling of it (i.e. neglect) on a federal level. As a result of being dismissed and grossly underfunded for so long, treatment-wise we are exactly where we were back in 1987. That was the year my mom got sick, when the disease was hardly even heard of. But it’s a new age, and there are a lot of people fighting out there, and this is just one more way of attempting to be heard, influence important change, and help increase awareness. Plus Monty pressured me to do it.

I’ve never thought of myself as an activist, and I still don’t really, but for the first time I’m feeling the strange pressure to make something happen. Anything. I wrote the campaign on a day when I was feeling really sick but also really hopeless and discouraged. I thought, I can’t sit here and feel bad about this anymore. I had to try. It’s interesting because on one hand, I can’t rely solely on the discovery of a cure to make me happy or my life complete. I forget that even healthy people have a hard time. Life, as discussed and agreed upon with most friends and family, is just really effing hard. It just is. Even if by all accounts you have everything one would require to be “happy” or feel whole. It’s so easy to just assume that everyone else has all their shit together–that they’re drinking champagne on a yacht somewhere with good looking friends and laughing, or having family day in the park with their soul mate and three perfect children. Is that a thing? I don’t know.

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“Isn’t life easy?” “Oh my God I was just thinking how easy life is!!”

But I’m guilty of this. Many times when I’ve felt deeply the challenges of my experience, I’ve felt even more wounded by the idea that the rest of the world is at a party that I’m too sick to attend. And that is fantasy. Sure, there are definitely people out there who have it way more together than me and are probably experiencing more joy than I am in the current era I’m going through. Even so, health, marriage, children, careers–these don’t necessarily equal happiness or fulfillment. Everyone is carving out their own unique path through this chaos, discovering who they are and hoping to live a good life they can be proud of in the process. I’m not positive, but I think “happiness”, or maybe I should call it “inner peace” or contentedness, develops when you are operating out of your true self, that inner person that we catch glimpses of when creating or carrying out our passion or holding the hand of someone we love. It can be anything, but I think there is person within all of us, a 100% unique super-person made of ultimate consciousness that we’re all striving to become. And when we follow the whispers of that super-person, it feels right. It feels stable among a lot of instability.

As I grow older, I think the biggest revelation I’ve come across is that everyone is figuring this thing out as they go. They’re putting on their pants in the morning and going to their job or raising their children or poaching an egg and some part of them has their fingers crossed that they’re doing it right. That they’re doing what they’re meant to. And somehow it can easily seem as though everyone else knows absolutely what they’re doing, where they’re going, and how they’re getting there. But even these people can’t be completely certain. There’s no real way to know, no standard form of measurement that says yep! you’re doing it right! We’re all living this particular round of life as each of our weird selves for the first and time. All we can do is our best, and follow that invisible thing that usually presents in the gut, telling us to turn left or right or that you’re talking to a crazy person or to get the hell out of some place. There’s an inner compass there, and we probably don’t listen to it enough.

My “path” the last five years, which continues now, has been finding a balance; finding a way to manage and tend to this illness and still construct a life that I like; one where I can sustain loving relationships and do some good and make a meaningful life I can be proud of. The balance is also about not letting my life or identity revolve around the illness. This is hard because truthfully, it effects everything. It just does, it should be called Pain-In-the-Ass Syndrome because that’s what it is and you kind of become one out of necessity.  But I know there is a way to use it to become someone better without letting it define me or my life. I know in order to grow and become the most conscious, full version of myself means experiencing every last drop of what is thrown in my path, including the insanely hard stuff, like life-altering illness. My mom reminds me of this when I get really down. Try to take everything you can from this, because these are the unique teachers that help shape who we ultimately become. And it matters that we grow into ourselves, that we become who we’re meant to. Otherwise we’d all be born with the same talents and passions and personalities. We are so awesomely diverse just to begin with, innately, and our experiences through life are even more unique, and this is what informs our distinctive selves for the better, if we engage it whole-heartedly as an opportunity to grow into who we’re meant to be. I don’t write that as though it were something easy. It’s one of the hardest things in life: to accept pain and struggle with open arms and surrender to it as a pathway to being better, more conscious, to living a more fulfilling life. Maybe that’s how to know if you’ve done it right..if you ring out the rag of your life at the end and not a drop comes out.

This post was meant to simply re-post the campaign, but it’s been a tough few weeks mentally and physically. What am I saying? It’s been a tough year. And there’s always words that need letting out. Otherwise cobwebs gather up there. Anyway, last week there was such an amazing response from family and friends, (and total strangers), to signing and sharing the petition, and that was truly humbling. I cried. Like a lot. I don’t know if this will work. I don’t know if it will get enough signatures to get the attention of important people. I just know I felt an ache on a particularly hard day that craved a bigger change and I had felt it for a while. So this was a place to start. I also wanted to remind people suffering out there that there is a lot of action being taken toward working with these agencies and finally getting the support and attention that the disease has needed for so long. Don’t lose hope. We WILL get there. Wherever there is. The good news? We surpassed 1,000 signatures! What does that mean? Technically nothing, except that 1000 people took the time to sign it and comment and share, and that is an awesome feat in itself, and I hope we can keep it going. I will post the campaign again here, and maybe find a better spot somewhere on the homepage where people can sign. I’ll figure something out. In the meantime, let’s all put on our pants, (or PJ’s if you’re sick) and pretend we know what we’re doing. In other words, let’s try. I have to remember to try. And you do too.

And then sign the campaign.  Pants not required.

Thank you, thank you, thank you so much to everyone who has signed and donated to help circulate this campaign. I think my sister is responsible for half the signatures herself that she reached out for. She’s a better campaigner than me, maybe I should hand it over. Thanks Amelie! And thank you to all of you. It truly means so so much, every single signature.  I will of course keep everyone updated. Mostly, I’m filled with humility and gratitude for all the support my family and I have received. Keep it going guys, I can’t tell you how thankful I am, except I just did and I’ve said it 10 times now so I’ll stop. But it’s really nice for people to feel that their voices have been heard, especially sick people who can’t get out there and fight, and I think this campaign is a way to facilitate that. OK ENOUGH TALKING GOD. Here it is. Sign it for Pete’s sake!

Health, Happiness, Pants

Below is the link if you’d like to copy and paste the campaign to send in an email. Otherwise, just click here and sign it. Thank you. I love you. A lot.

https://www.change.org/p/increase-funding-so-we-can-find-a-cure?recruiter=12447733&utm_source=share_petition&utm_medium=copylink

 

 

 

 

We Can Do Better.

I noticed an article in The New York Times recently titled “World Health Organization Urges More Care In Naming Diseases.” In early May, the WHO issued new guidelines for naming infectious diseases in an attempt to avoid damaging inaccuracies and stigmas that often the name alone can cause. They emphasized caution and symptomatic detail when choosing one; no animal names like ‘Swine Flu’ or peoples names like ‘Lou Gerrigs Disease.’ The new guidelines are a proactive attempt to prevent “Unintended negative impacts by stigmatizing certain communities or economic sectors.” They also mentioned that “The best practices apply to new infections…for which there is no disease name in common usage.”

Of course I read the article expecting to see CFS as a prime example of how damaging the effects can be from a poorly named disease. When Myalgic Encephalomyelitis was renamed “Chronic Fatigue Syndrome” in the early 80’s, it solidified an environment of dismissiveness, doubt, and critcism. A new stage was set: everything from the publics skepticism to the medical establishments cold shoulder were put into place, and little has changed in 30 years. Now if you had the misfortune of being sick with this disease, you were going to have two battles to fight.

I don’t just hesitate to say those three words out loud, I feel anxiety about it. Sometimes in doctors offices, I feel shameful saying it out loud, as if I’m confessing to how many packs of cigarettes I actually smoke each day. When I’m forced to say it, I swear I can hear any perceived validation deflate out of the room like a popped, zigzagging balloon. The words don’t hold any water on their own; they necessitate explanation that ends up sounding like defense. The words “Chronic Fatigue Syndrome” are not only misleading and insultingly trivial, they sound like a hypochondriacs failed attempt at making “tired” sound serious. And that seems to be the general consensus–that this is a “disease” where people simply feel sleepy all the time. Sleepy is for kittens and babies, and the primary symptoms of this are far, far beyond the bone crushing fatigue we experience. But this is the problem with labels, namely inaccurate ones. There is damage in what the words imply and even more from what they fail to say.

Here’s an example. A few months ago, the Institute of Medicine released a 600 page report devoted wholly to examining and better understanding CFS/ME. The committee not only provided new diagnostics guidelines and better disease management, it acknowledged the severity of the disease and put to rest the idea that it is at all psychological. Surprising many, they acknowledged the issues stemming from the name CFS and suggested a new one: Systemic Exertional Intolerance Disease. (SEIDS) It doesn’t exactly slide off the tongue, but it does finally address a discerning symptom of ME, which is the adverse reaction, down to a cellular level, to even mild exertion. This is far different than general fatigue. An exhaustive study like this one from an Institue with no previous involvement with the disease is a huge step in the right direction. The validation it provided for many sufferers was big, and the recognition of the staggering lack of science and funds to support it will presumeably apply more pressure at the federal level for a major increase.

I happened to read about the IOM’s report and name suggestion from NPR News, which I follow on Facebook. When I saw the hundreds of comments underneath the article I decided to look, and they weren’t anything out of the ordinary. Out of hundreds of responses, most of them were like this:

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Thanks, Steph. I’m cured!!!!
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Totally! It’s like I’ve never met anyone with Diabetes who can eat copious amounts of sugar. It’s obviously bullshit!
Em, you don't have this.  -Mary
Em, you don’t have this.
-Mary
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This person actually doesn’t believe in Carpal Tunnel so I don’t know where to go from here.
NOPE!
Hi Brianna, NOPE!

I know it’s a leap to project the reactions of a few Facebook commenters onto the general public. But in this case, these attitudes are not at all the exception. They represent a ubiquitous perspective most people have, whether online or in person. And maybe it’s redundant to say, but this is simply not a normal response to sick people. It just isn’t. It’s easy to see why sufferers hesitate to say the name out loud at all. Look at the environment we’d be entering into.

So, is this of any consequence? Does it really matter that the general public understand a disease? Not really, besides the demoralizing and crappy way it makes already sick people feel, no, it doesn’t. These people aren’t doctors, (most of them) and so who cares really? Besides basic human kindness, is this of any real concern?

The thing is, yes, I think so. Namely because this attitude pervades more than an uninformed public. This lack of concern, eye roll response travels all the way up to the federal level. Or maybe it trickles down from it. It’s hard to say anymore. Irregardless,  by now the two are in some osmotic relationship– One fueling and informing the other. And when this is the attitude at a federal level, the effects are far more detrimental and consequential. $5 million allocated toward research for the last five years from the NIH is a detrimental effect. No cause, no cure, and zero FDA approved treatments are all the result of a disease not getting the attention it requires. Ironically, people who are sick with this don’t want attention at all. They just want to get better so they can have their lives back. But the shot at finding a cure relies heavily on the desire to find one and fund the science for it. When the perception of it is so casual and misinformed, it contributes to negligence– it prevents that possibility of a cure the way it has for the last quarter century.

I can’t help but wonder if the same outrage would exist from people if the disease went by its original name: Myalgic Encephalomyelitis. Would people scowl at its existence and call someone with the diagnosis a lazy-ass complainer who just needs to eat better? Would they judge them for being too sick to work? No, because those responses are not to a disease called Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. They are responses to feeling fatigued; one is fire cracker, the other is an atomic bomb. I realize all of this may seem a little petty. It’s just a name and there are bigger fish to fry when it comes to this illness. But I cannot help but wonder if what’s fueling the size of those fish is at the core, a simple misfortune of a name. It’s crazy to think that a label could do such harm or have such far reaching effects, but I don’t doubt it in this case. The evidence is right there, in this abnormal anger healthy people have against sick people as if they’ve chosen to be sick.

The point is not to harbor on issues I cannot change and I know that. Forward is the only direction now. But there’s such a lesson here in accepting things at face value and the harm it can do when we trust that we know better, before knowing much at all. It’s not just a poor social stigma we’re dealing with. It’s having a totally debilitating disease which costs the country roughly $18 billion a year in lost productivity, and the lowered chance we have at getting better because it just doesn’t appear or sound serious enough. This is where labels have much larger implications than just confrontational dialogue and ousting sick people. It’s bigger than that.

It makes me think of the way I perceive things and other people in my own life. How easily I make up my mind sometimes, one way or the other, about all kinds of things. I think of hearing or reading about issues and people and how fast and automatic a decision or feeling arises inside me. Sometimes I’m proud, thinking I know better about something, even when I hardly know that much at all. I think, if I never would have gotten sick when I was nine, were I still a healthy, functioning person 30-year-old, quick thinking and totally capable, and I heard of a “disease” called “Chronic Fatigue Syndrome,” what conclusion would my mind jump to? What feeling would I get? If all I had to go on were those three words, given that I wasn’t a doctor or otherwise well-versed in diseases, what would that label say to me? That name in its own twisted way, appears to say everything, enough for people to hold up their hands and say “I’ve heard enough, thank you.” Enough to feel decidedly one way or another without hesitation. Quick decisions and judgments like that do harm for all kinds of people with respect to all kinds of issues. I think we can learn from this one, and do better in the future across the board when it comes to making up our minds but remaining strictly at the surface.

Illness is not something to undergo alone, and anyone who has experienced it long-term will tell you that. When people email me about their families dismissing them, doctors referring them to psychiatrists, or marriages that crumble because someone is suffering from a disease with so few options and a world that just doesn’t quite “buy” it, I feel angry and discouraged. Mostly because I believe in the good-heartedness of people and I know we’re better than this. We can do better. Turning your back on someone who is sick is more than insult to injury. It causes its own tragic pain, separate and worse than the physical kind. It’s a new kind of loneliness, in a time you need people the most. After twenty years of being sick, the last five being the sickest, the hardest and most demoralizing part is battling something that so invisible to everyone else, all the while your whole world is crumbling.

The truth is even though it’s still massively lacking, there is more research than ever going on, and thanks to recent reports like the IOM’s and the Pathways to Prevention, pressure is building to invest more into solving this thing. My hope is that in the meantime people will be at least a little diligent before ousting an entire population of sick people as hacks. I hope if you’ve got major beef with the illness, you haven’t just heard the name and stopped there. To learn more about it, Cortjohnson.com is a great resource with vast information, including current and future studies and well-written dictations about their meanings.  To those who are sick and discouraged, I hope you’ll read this and have faith that you’re not alone and that the answers will come. Progress is slow but it’s moving. Until then, please don’t lose hope. Worse than being sick is the thought that our life is over if we never get better. There is value to gain in all of these experiences, whether you’re sick defending yourself or dealing with someone who’s sick with something you don’t understand. But try and remember we’re all brothers and sisters here. We need each other. Maybe the history and politics of this disease hasn’t been our kindest hour, but we can still turn it around, even if it’s one less person casting judgment or turning someone away. As is the case with all social change, it always begins with one. We can all do better, and I’ve never lost hope that our future will be far brighter than our past.

Labels and categorizing are important, they exist for a reason. But in the case of CFS, and the WHO’s new guidelines for naming disease with caution, help exemplify the power and possible harm of labels. They must be chosen wisely. The  CFS label was not, and it did an injustice to millions of disabled people. But it doesn’t have to stay that way. And despite how long and twisted the history is, it’s not ever too late to turn it around. Slowly but surely, I believe that change has begun and we’re on the cusp of something major. Despite my bad days, I believe in the awesomeness of humankind. We can do better. So let’s begin doing it now.

Health, Happiness, Better.