Being chronically means I live with the knowledge that at some point, someday I will have a flare of one or more of my conditions. I could go months without one and then have several back to back, or they could be fairly regular. Flare ups are unpredictable, sometimes it’s obvious as to what caused them, and other times there seems to be no rhyme or reason to them. Managing them is a joke. Other than knocking back the muscle relaxants and painkillers the only thing to do is try and ride it out.
I’m currently in the middle of an Ehlers Danlos Syndrome Type 3 and Complex Regional Pain Syndrome flare up. Agony is not a strong enough word to describe the sheer amount of pain that I am in. I knew my EDS flare up was coming, my pain had been getting dramatically worse over 72 hours and it felt like I had battered every inch of my body. What I wasn’t prepared for however was my CRPS to act up.
It’s hard to communicate to people who don’t have CRPS exactly what type of hellish pain it is. The only way I can think to describe is this. Imagine you have several vegetable peelers the width of your leg, someone is dragging all of them down every millimetre of your leg with excruciating slowness. Digging the blade in to the point it reaches your bones. This evil being has a partner in crime, who is simultaneously pouring vinegar into your open wounds whilst dropping lit matches on to you. On top of all of this is Benedict the Dystonia Alien who is rejoicing in contorting your leg in every position imaginable heightening the pain further.
This pain is constant. Its at the point were it feels like a miracle if I manage 5 minutes without crying. My oramorph only makes a slightly dent in the pain. Sleep is a distant memory as my leg is ravaged with mind boggling pain. All I can do is hope and pray that this flare up ends soon and does not once again become a fixture in my day to day life.
Can you believe it’s been 5 years of blogging already? I can’t quite wrap my head around how quickly this has come around. It feels like just last week, I searched for a webhost desperate to spread awareness of Dystonia after feeling like I was floundering in a sea of uncertainty with little resources to pursue in my quest for answers. Now I confidently tackle my condition head on and happily refer people to resources I have come to know and trust.
When I started blogging it was completely in the mindset that it would be purely to raise awareness. Over the last 5 years this has evolved to be a space where I can openly and honestly express myself without fear, safe in the knowledge that someone out in the vast vacuum of the web will be able to relate to what I am going through. My blog has become a site for awareness, expression and connection; I cannot get over how many online friends I have made. Whilst I am sad that so many of you have to live with this life altering condition, I am thankful for each one of you that has become a vital part of my day to day support network.
Over the last few years this blog has been nominated on several occasions for awards, won one, and even become a resource that several neurologists hand out when diagnosing new patients (this still flatters, astounds and thrills me). I’ve had other sufferers pounce on me with hugs and their stories at hospitals; I love this, it shows me that I am doing something right.
Just a few years ago, reaching this milestone seemed ridiculous. I didn’t know how to live each day let alone 5 years with this hideous condition. Now, several diagnoses later, I have learned to find joy and laughter in my spasms, to treasure every moment that puts a smile on my face and be thankful that drs like my neurologist exist, for without my neuro my world would be darker (literally). So instead of being disheartened that 5 years on I’m still battling, I’m lifting my chin, defying my alien and celebrating each little success.
The exact cause as to why people develop Dystonia is currently unknown for the majority of people. For a small group of people it occurs due to a gene mutation, brain injury, infection, secondary disorder, or as a result of medication. Pinning down the root of the condition is something that research is currently focusing on.
So far we know that for some unidentified reason there is an issue with a section of the brain called the Basal Ganglia. It is known that this region of the brain enhances activity in the motor cortex which controls the agonist and antagonist muscles. In a healthy person when they make a movement the way the muscles contract and relax is coordinated and harmonious. However with Dystonia there is a deficient inhibition in the antagonist muscles which can result in both sets of muscles contracting simultaneously. It’s not clear why this happens.
The Dystonia Society UK have a fantastic wealth of information on the ins and outs of Dystonia, which I would really recommend reading to find out more information on the condition. For now it seems unlikely that any one particular theory will be proven right in the immediate future, so I shall continue to personify my Dystonia into a cheeky little alien, it’s a far more entertaining cause.
Its been a few weeks since I last posted, and it’s mainly because I don’t have a clue where to begin. My body has been doing what it does best and excelling at being complicated resulting in very confused Doctors trying to figure out what to do with me; I’ll let you know if they ever figure that one out!
Functional is how I would describe myself at the moment. In that I can get up and dressed but it’s causing a lot of pain, and then that’s my spoons used up for the day. I’m pretty sure sleep would make me feel a thousand times better, but between my iron tablets (I’m extremely anaemic) causing severe sickness morning and evening, spasms, palpations and generalised pain, I have found that I am lucky to get three hours of sleep a night. As most people with chronic illness know being fatigued makes everything harder and it all seems a lot worse than it probably is. This has resulted in tears quite regularly recently simply because I don’t quite know what to do to help myself.
I’m currently 33 week pregnant, so there’s not long left to go. It reassures me to know that once baby is here I can go back on my Botox injections and safely take stronger painkillers and muscle relaxants again. Whilst I’m keeping my fingers crossed I’ll be able to avoid going back on high doses of these, it’s comforting to know that I will be able to manage my pain far better.
I’ve been in bed for three hours now, tossing and turning. My left shoulder is agony, and I have horrific nerve pain in that arm and over my right rib. I feel rather emotional, and wishing for the ever-elusive magic wand to be waved to take the pain away. I know that this flare up in the long run will be worth it, and once the baby is here I’ll forget about it. But right now, coping with a flare up of my current conditions and a flare up of my new symptoms is making things feel pretty tough.
I’m hoping that whacking my TENS unit on full and using my heat packs will help me get enough sleep tonight that tomorrow is better.
Today is Rare Disease/Disorder Day 2017; it’s focusing on bringing much needed attention to complex conditions that are sorely in need of more research. I’m not going to to go into much detail about each of my individual conditions as each of their awareness weeks are just around the corner, what I’d like to discuss instead is my experience of day to day life when you have a rare condition.
When you read the words mobility aids I’m going to bet that the majority of you instantly conjured up an image of a wheelchair, crutch or walking stick. You’re not wrong all three of these are part of my day to day life depending on the condition of my body that day; and just because I perhaps didn’t need a wheelchair first thing that morning, doesn’t guarantee I won’t be completely reliant on it an hour later. In my daily life I have to use compression gloves, splints for my thumbs, wrists, arms and knees, neck brace and ankle stabiliser to try and keep my body in a somewhat functioning capacity. Now that doesn’t mean that I wear them all 24/7, but at any given time I’ll have the majority of them on.
A selection of my day to day living aids
I’ve had to come off the majority of my medication due to pregnancy, but I’ll admit I’m counting down to being able to have my botox injections and anti-inflammatory meds again. Just 5 minutes standing at the moment is enough for my feet, ankles and knees to swell up like balloons and takes a good hour to go back down. If my body is really playing up then just standing up wrong results in a knee slipping out of place. Between the spasms, the subluxations/dislocations and seizures, medication has become a vital part of my everyday routine. This involves being aware of when in the day I have taken them, remembering which ones it’s important to eat beforehand with and which ones I need to avoiding eating before taking, it involves planning in advance to make sure I never go out without my medication on me plus bringing along some spares because you never know just what may happen.
It’s been almost 5 years and I’m still not used to the looks and comments I receive. I’ve heard it all, that if I drink enough green tea, lose weight and seek therapy then I’ll be cured. People don’t seem to realise that every suggestion they can throw at me I’ve most likely tried, and that living with a chronic rare condition isn’t like getting over a bad cold. My brain literally doesn’t work in the manner it should, my genetic makeup is faulty which has resulted in a connective tissue disorder that will only get worse, and don’t even get me started on having a treatable chronic infection that the NHS won’t treat as A) They don’t like to admit that Chronic Lyme Disease exists and B) They’ll treat me if I get a positive lumbar puncture but because I have a movement disorder I can’t have a lumbar puncture. Honestly it’s all a bit of a joke.
It can be difficult dealing with general society and medical professionals refusing to accept your explanations. To a degree I don’t blame them, half of my symptoms are crazy and, as they are rare, people aren’t familiar with them and like to brush them under the rug. But doing that doesn’t make it any better, the symptoms don’t magically resolve themselves, if anything they get worse as I’m not receiving the treatment I need.
My Health Varies From Minute to Minute
There’s not much rhyme or reason to my symptoms, which makes it hard to predict what to expect and when, which in turn makes it difficult to manage. One day I may be perfectly capable of getting up, dressed, and having a generally active day. The following morning I may wake up unable to even roll over in bed. The unpredictable nature means planning in advance is key but also difficult. More often than not plans are cancelled at the last minute due to ill health.
The Reality of Knowing I’ll Never Get Better
This is something that I’ve known since 2012, but with every new diagnosis of yet another rare condition that cannot be cured it gets harder to deal with. I find it hard to picture anything ahead of time simply because I know these illnesses aren’t going anywhere, that pain is always going to be a prominent feature in my life. How do you cope with knowing that? It’s been 5 years and I’m still working on acceptance. What I find hardest is when people say in a well meaning manner “I hope you get better soon”. It’s an automatic social nicety but it brings out the jealous monster in me. I want to be well more than anything, it’s just not a reality for me, and knowing that the one condition I live with that can be cured is unlikely to ever be sufficiently treated due to sheer stupidity inflicted on sufferers by NICE guidelines, well that just takes the biscuit.
When you’re chronically ill you rather quickly get a feeling for the attitudes/how well informed the Drs in charge of you are on your conditions. IF you’re lucky you get a wonderful open minded Dr who takes the time to listen to you, my neurologist is a perfect example of this and has always fought for me. However, and sadly it seems more frequently, you come across Drs who are either simply not up to date (with everything they have to know this is understandable), or they just seem to enjoy being ignorant on the matter.
In 2012 I was admitted with worsening Dystonia to a nearby hospital, during my inpatient stay I developed pain triggered non-epileptic seizures. They completely dismissed my Dystonia and told me that it and my seizures were completely psychogenic and that the only treatment I would benefit from would be psychotherapy and that the seizures could not cause me any harm. This diagnosis was based on the fact that in my early teens I’d been physically abused, it didn’t matter in their eyes that I had sought years of counselling, and had put that section of my life far behind me. Months later I met my wonderful neurologist who confirmed my original diagnosis of Dystonia and informed me that my seizures had absolutely nothing to do with my past, but were caused by my body’s inability to cope with the significant levels of pain that I experience.
I have over the last few years been told repeatedly that my seizures cannot cause me any harm. It’s always fun to point out to the Dr at this point that this isn’t true when it happens on the stairs, or from standing, or crossing a road…the list is endless. In recent months, my POTS & EDS consultant has queried whether my seizures are in fact related to my POTS and autonomic dysfunction, but again this falls on deaf ears amongst my current local Drs.
It’s coming up to 5 years since my first run in with this particular hospital and their attitudes have not changed in the slightest. Last night I was taken by ambulance to hospital after having a seizure, I collapsed from standing and gave my head a rather good whack on the loo as I fell. Normally I wouldn’t go to hospital straight away for this, but due to hitting my head and being pregnant the hospital advised me to call an ambulance. This turned out to be a good call as halfway there I had another seizure which negatively impacted my breathing.
I’ve spent a lot of time in and out of the hospital recently due to my faulty body, so have got to know the staff in the wards relevant to me quite well. This also means I now dread every single visit. When the Dr came this morning for the ward round I felt like holding a hand up and saying chill I’ll leave now. He leaves me doubting my own sanity each time. However, I held my tongue and heard him out, just in case he’d actually done some research over night; he had not. Instead he gave me the usual lecture and then threw in that after discussing my case with a consultant, that has never met me before, they were going to refer me for psychotherapy for my seizures.
I’m beyond angry. At the back of my notes, and I inform the staff of this every time I am admitted, there is a letter from my neurologist explaining my seizures, explaining that it’s not just in my head and as clear as day states I need IV muscle relaxants and painkillers during one, and that there is no psychological deeper issue that needs dealing with. However, it’s become apparent that turning to the back of my notes and reading this letter is a far too complicated process.
Having to go through the same frustrating and time wasting process every single time I visit this hospital is exhausting and frankly disheartening. I know that I did need to go yesterday and get checked over, but coming up against the same walls over and over again leaves me feeling like I would be better off avoiding this hospital at all costs and I can at least self-treat at home to a degree. It’s sad that 5 years on from my first encounter at this hospital, the same issue has yet to be dealt with.
Pain at the moment is my constant companion. After weeks of agonising, seizure inducing pain, and more hospital visits than I care for, I was informed I’d dislocated two ribs. I normally handle dislocation rather well; if my thumbs have popped out, it’s no big deal, I can pop them back in with ease, my jaw causes a fair bit of pain and in some cases I need help relocating it, but the majority of the time I can manipulate it back into place myself. My ribs however are a completely different story, there’s not a lot that can be done about it. I’ve had several medical professionals try and get them as close to where they should be as possible, a tear-jerking process might I add, and every time within hours they are back out of place. Sometime it’s simply because I twisted too fast or I sneezed or, if I’m a real dare devil, I tried to get out of bed. Everyday basic activities cause enough pain for me to be on regular codeine four times a day, and tramadol if I start seizing. The hospital doesn’t know what to do with me at first, they admitted me to: rule out anything more serious such as gallbladder problems; keep a close eye on the baby (who’s coping miraculously well with my faulty body) and keep me on regular doses of paracetamol, codeine and oramorph. Whilst they thankfully didn’t find anything on the scans that needed surgery, they did notice that both my kidneys are distended which won’t be helping my pain.
Now I’m back at home and it’s hard to know what to do with myself. There are some brief moments in the day when my pain feels manageable, like earlier today. Foolishly this afternoon, I decided to take advantage of feeling okay and fold some baby whilst clothes sitting on the floor. You would think that this is a job that shouldn’t take too long and isn’t exactly taxing, right? Wrong. The pain quickly got extreme enough, despite codeine, for me to realise if I didn’t lie down flat on the floor asap I was going to risk hurting myself as I knew my ability to stay conscious was fading. Whilst being on the floor was enough to keep me conscious for the majority of the time (I’m pretty sure I had 2 or 3 seizures), it wasn’t enough to stop my brain from going into functional paralysis mode. I spent just over an hour unable to move any part of my body, struggling to get my eyelids to flicker and completely unable to make a sound. I knew I needed help and that my partner was in the next room, but I had zero ways of indicating to him that I was in trouble.
It’s like having your mouth gagged, your eyes taped shut, and your entire body rolled up and bound tightly in a weighted blanket; the entire time even your thought processes become sluggish and it takes effort just to think. There’s so much temptation to just give in to unconsciousness, I can feel it on the horizon, creeping closer and there’s not a lot I can do to keep it at bay. Some days I admit I welcome it; being functionally paralysed terrifies me, I can’t bare being aware of how helpless I am at the moment in time. Other days simply managing to remain conscious feels like the biggest victory I could ever ask for and achieving it is my way of fighting back.
After about an hour on the floor I had regained enough control of my body to make small noises and through the blessing that is voice technology instruct my phone to call my partner. Eventually we got tramadol into me and managed to move me to our bed. I’m exhausted, it sounds bizarre but having your brain cut off from the rest of your body is shattering. I’m now curled up, wrapped in a fluffy blanket, relishing in the slightly duller pain. I’m admittedly scared to even consider moving but the pain killers have enabled me to feel my body and I’m in a safe place which is all I can ask for.
Yesterday was a hard day physically & emotionally. I was struggling to sit up without my heart rate shooting through the roof, experiencing extreme dizziness, fatigue and high pain levels. This is my new normal though, and it’s exhausting. Late morning I had a phone meeting with my university disability advisor. She enquired about my symptoms and their impact on day to day life, along with what advice I had been given from the Drs; this was so that a plan could be put in place for me to safely complete the next semester of my degree. Admitting that I was fainting 20-30 times a day on average, had been advised to be on bed rest and use my wheelchair if I had to go out (which results in dislocations if I self-propel) was not something I found easy to vocalise. The little stubborn voice in the back of my head was protesting that I was perfectly well enough to physically attend my lectures. However not being able to guarantee I’ll remain conscious, being unable to eat without fainting, and with tachycardia developing just by sitting up a decision was made that I could not safely attend uni without putting myself at risk. Normally I’d argue against this, and I wanted to, but I have to remember that it’s not just myself I would be putting at risk. Now this doesn’t mean I’ll be putting off the semester till next year, it just means I’ll have to complete it from home which is perfectly doable.
Despite the fact that I know this plan of action is reasonable and realistic I couldn’t help but feel defeated. I know I’m not well enough to attend class, but to me that’s not acceptable I feel as if I should be trying harder; it’s a ridiculous attitude to have, but it’s there nonetheless.
Late last night I found myself feeling deflated and quite sorry for myself. I know this is pain related, I haven’t had so many bad pain days in a row for some time, so when periods of pain flare ups occur it impacts my view of things. Normally I’d just increase my meds, count down till my botox injections, knowing that in a matter of days I’ll be enjoying a good spell again. The fact that (unless an emergency spasm occurs ) there is no botox, no muscle relaxants, and limited pain relief options available until after the baby is here is hard. This is mainly due to having to accept my limitations once again.
Talking through how your feeling is something that I feel is undeniably important in enabling a person to help themselves. It’s the main reason I’m composing this post, so that I’ve expressed myself and can start focusing on being proactive rather than moping about. I spent a good chunk of time talking to my mum about this turn of events yesterday afternoon. Looking back now I can already laugh at the number of times I uttered the phrase “I don’t understand” or “I don’t know what to do”. The reality is I understand perfectly well why I’m not able to go to class, I have a crystal-clear understanding of the fact all of my chronic illnesses can get worse during pregnancy (and the majority of them have) however this is a temporary change, I also understand it’s okay to feel this way.
There’s really not a whole lot I can do to change the situation, unless anyone can point me in the direction of a fairy godmother? I can manage my pain the best I can but other than that focusing on the positives that surround me is the best way to keep smiling; when I look at what’s already happening this year (moving to a new flat, expecting our son, still being able to complete the academic year, and a publisher agreeing to take on my novel) I have to admit I have more than enough to be smiling about.
After a haywire week I am home from hospital and resting at my mum’s for a little while. My plan at the moment is to catch up on the university work that I have missed and take some time out for myself to reboot; would you believe i’m finally pacing! It only took four years.
During this time I won’t be blogging as catching up and getting back on track with my studies is currently my number one aim. So look out for a new blog post late December/early January.
Over recent months’ painkillers and Drs’ willingness to prescribe certain painkillers has been a hot topic in the news and on social media. Every country has different takes on the matter, but patient’s opinions are largely the same: We’re not addicts, so don’t treat us like we are! Now I’m not trying to deny that there are people out there, that for whatever reason, will say and do pretty much anything in order to get their hands-on prescription painkillers; but it’s sad that a handful of people can have such a dramatic influence on the chronic illness society. The majority of us need these medications.
Over the last few years I have had my meds altered significantly. I have met some Drs who didn’t want to prescribe me anything stronger than paracetamol, and whilst I’m always grateful for anything that makes a dent in the pain, I tend to find that paracetamol doesn’t make a huge difference to the agonizing spasms, or dislocated joints. If you have ever dislocated your jaw and then had spasms and tremors aggravate it for hours/days afterwards, you’d know that paracetamol isn’t going to do the job. Throw in pain triggered seizures and you’re in for one heck of a ride…and oh yeah more pain, on top of the existing pain, it’s a vicious cycle. Some Drs I have been under have been more than happy to have an open discussion about my medication, and then offer me a selection of painkillers that they feel are appropriate. I will always choose to start at the less extreme option.
There is no getting around the fact that painkillers can be addictive, and this is where the problem comes in. I completely understand a medical professional not wanting to provide a long course of pills that have the potential to cause more issues such as addiction and withdrawal. That makes perfect sense. However, there are ways to go about talking through this with patients that are sensitive rather than demeaning. I have lost count of how many times I have been accused of being addicted to pain meds, I’ve had Drs suggest I have counselling for my traumatic past as a replacement for my painkillers. Now correct me if I’m wrong but I fail to see how counselling for previous issues will solve a movement disorder and a genetic connective tissue disorder. I understand that a low mood can cause a patient’s pain tolerance to drop, and that pain in turn can cause low moods, but I still have a major problem with this line of thinking. I’ve given in to Drs on all of these occasions, and have been satisfied in the notes that get sent to them by therapists querying why on earth they thought I needed therapy. Believe it or not I am pretty happy despite being physically flawed.
Patients should not have to worry about admitting to their care provider that they are struggling to handle their pain. They should be sure in the knowledge that their Doctor will examine all the options that are open, be that a change in prescription, a physical therapy referral etc. There are many avenues to dealing with pain that should be explored and there are great patient courses teaching you how to reduce your pain as much as you can without meds. But we shouldn’t be made to feel like criminals for holding our hands up and saying I need help. If I wake up in the morning and I’m in pain then I know that by pacing and with regular breaks in the day that I can minimise the potential exaggeration of pain, however if I wake up with spasms/dislocations or both, then it’s reassuring to know that I can dull that pain to a point where I can function.
There’s no shame in needing help and asking for it.