Category Archives: Chronic Illness

Book Talks, WEGO, and Weekends- Oh My!

Good googly moogly, friends! This week has felt especially crazy. It wasn’t terribly busy by normal people’s standards, but for a sick chick it wa downright exhausting. 

The Book Talk

My local library invited me to talk a little about the book Joe and I wrote. It was such a fun experience. I realized that I’m a nervous wreck when I talk around new people now, but I also realized I can stay conscious in spite of prolonged tachycardia. That seems like a win. Most importantly, I met several new friends who plan to return for the chronic illness support group I’m leading at the library. I look forward to hearing their story and helping to encourage them along this crazy, chronic journey. 

WEGO Health Awards 

I found out a couple weeks ago that this blog was named a finalist for WEGO Health’s Best in Show: Blog award. I’m still so very overwhelmed and grateful that my blog was chosen. The award announcement was Wednesday, and we didn’t win- which is perfectly fine. I mean, of course I would have been thrilled if my blog was chosen as a winner. But, if you saw the other blogs I was up against, you would understand why I wasn’t devastated to lose. It was seriously an honor to have made it to the top 5.  Plus, I got this snazzy purple T-shirt, and I love a good shirt. 

Weekend

And, now my friends, I’m headed to Knoxville for more football time with my main guy. (I’m actually blogging on my phone while Joe drives.) I’m very much aware that my everything hurts (yes, all the parts- they hurt), and a full day of bleacher sitting is not going to help this situation. However, I’m equally aware that I love going places with Joe, and I don’t want to miss a single adventure. I’ll be honest- in my life, sometimes the bravest thing I do is going on an adventure when I’m not sure if I’m up to it. (It’s a measured risk, though. Joe has missed games before when I just wasn’t up to actually going.) 


Friends, I hope your weekend is great and filled with as much rest of adventure as you want. 

(Thanks for enduring my test run of blogging from my phone. 😬)

Peace, love, and health. 

💙

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Sleep.

I’m really tired. I’m always tired- this is hardly a revelation. But, if I’m being entirely honest, I have the absolute worst sleep habits ever. I don’t apologize for my strange relationship with sleep, though, because I have done everything within my power to help the situation- to absolutely no avail.
Here’s where I get around to making a point. Please, (please, please, pretty please, with melty cheese on top) do not cast judgment on the sleep patterns of those with chronic pain. Occasionally, I hear my chronic illness/ pain friends commenting about how their family/ friends have told them they would feel better if they would sleep on a normal schedule. While I agree that would be super fabulous- are you actually kidding me? Do you truly believe anyone chooses to stay up all hours of the night? Of course not. When you don’t/ can’t sleep your mind becomes victim to all the “what ifs” of your condition, relationship, and general life. Who would choose to do that? No one.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I don’t think chronic pain patients are the only people who can’t sleep. I know mental illness and hormonal changes affect sleep patterns. I’ve heard that my parents of newborn friends are rather sleep deprived as well. Joe has sleep apnea, and sleeps with a CPAP. It’s a sleep disorder. That’s another legitimate concern. I’m truly not trying to act like I’m the only person with a sleep concern up in here. (Although, Joe sleeps like a sweet angel baby once he dons that CPAP mask- as if there’s never been a sin to enter his blessed life, and I’m a little jealous.) I’m sorry. I really am. I feel your struggle, and I’m not trying to detract from it.
But, seriously. To all the people who feel I- or my other chronic illness/ pain friends- should just go to bed at a reasonable hour, please keep this in mind:
When I go to bed at night, I am quite literally putting myself into a device of serious discomfort. If I lie on my left side, I have to worry about my left shoulder dislocating. More specifically, I know my left shoulder will dislocate if I don’t move to another position quickly enough. If I lie on my right side, I’m lying on the hip that dislocates. Even if it doesn’t dislocate- it hurts. It really hurts. If I lie on my back, I lose feeling in my arms and legs- which makes my 37 nightly restroom trips almost impossible. (Seriously, you try walking on numb legs.) I don’t even try lying on my stomach, because my back spasms to the point that I literally can’t move to sit up. (Again, seriously inconvenient for the whole 37 restroom trips situation.)
I am a human rotisserie. I spend my nights spinning in place- hoping I will find a place that is comfortable enough to doze.
So, please. If you have opinions about what time sick people should go to sleep, keep them to yourself. It’s not easy. I assure you- we have tried every supplement, sleep aid, magic ointment, and tea. We are trying. We are combating pain, adrenaline surges, and the general fear of the unknown. It’s not easy, and I assure you- your advice about going to bed at 9 or turning off devices at 6 do little, if anything, to help. Please, give us some grace to figure all this out. It isn’t easy to live like this during the waking hours, and it when it’s dark, it gets even harder.
Chronic illness/ pain friends, please keep in mind that not everyone keeps our strange hours. I’ve found solace in online support groups during the wee hours of the morning when it’s impossible for my husband to be awake. I’ve had to learn that it’s okay if Joe is resting well during the hours that I’m trying (without success) to sleep. Joe has had to learn that it’s okay to let me sleep well past the hour that functional adults typically sleep. If you are living in a relationship that is juggling chronic illness/ pain, you have to learn to be patient while the other one sleeps. There are typically 6-8 hours of the day that one of us is awake and the other is not- just because our bodies run on opposite schedules. We are often quirky ships in the night. That is not only okay- it’s part of the balance of this life.
While we’re being very honest here, I’d like to also mention that my dog wakes me up for a drink of water (in which she must actually be walked to her bowl because she’s scared of the dark) at least three times a night, and Joe is a blanket hog. Those are very real situations in which the advice of healthy people is always appreciated. I’m considering making both of them sleep in the bath tub.
Peace, love, and health, friends.

 

What on earth am I supposed to eat?

Around Christmas last year, I realized a painful truth- I had fallen victim to leggings. How does one become victimized by leggings, you ask? I put on jeans and realized that without the comfortable stretch of elastic, I could no longer get into my normal size. Given that I truly hate shopping for jeans, I decided I would lose weight rather than buy more.
So, I began researching diet plans. I’m sure some of you are thinking, “Why don’t you cut back on junk food and start working out?” Well, it’s a little more difficult. First, my exercise possibilities are seriously limited by joint dislocations. Also, I needed a diet plan that allowed me to eat the sodium I need to maintain a sensible blood pressure. So, after a lot of research (and by research, I mean I consulted Dr. Google- not an actual nutritionist), I decided to try the low carb diet. It was great. I ate eggs and butter and bacon, and I still lost weight! My jeans fit. My husband was thrilled that we were eating meat and eggs for almost every meal. It was a beautiful thing.
Then, at the end of February, I had labs drawn and realized my cholesterol had almost tripled from December until then. After a fairly one-sided discussion with my cardiologist (where he reminded me that EDS and POTS are not exactly compatible with strokes and heart attacks), I started cholesterol medicine and committed to no longer eating meat.
Poor Joe. He went from eating meat at every meal to trying soy hot dogs (which he actually prefers over “real” hot dogs) and lentil shepherd’s pie. One week I was preaching about how our bodies need animal fat- the next week, I was telling him how pigs are slaughtered. This poor man has been the real victim in my dietary indecision.
Here’s what I’ve learned- everyone seems to have strong feelings about how we’re supposed to eat, but I’m not sure anyone actually knows what they’re doing. A few days ago, I posted in an EDS forum asking for advice for recent digestive issues. First, let me say that I was thrilled with the number of responses I received. Everyone was so kind and genuinely trying to be helpful based on their personal experience. However, I couldn’t help but laugh at the range of answers I received. Go vegan. Eat meat. Eat more bananas. OMG, don’t you dare eat bananas. Potatoes are evil. Eat all the potatoes. Eat some yogurt. Dairy will kill you. Eat low carb/ high fat. Eat high carb/ low fat. Then they started using words and non-words like “histamine, alkaline, and FODMAPS.” What in the world? Is everyone as confused as I am?
Remember a few years ago when we were convinced that everyone should be gluten free? I tried that for 5 months with very little success. But, at least that sort of made sense. Now, I’m clueless. Twenty-five years ago, I had to drink milk every day. I think there was some part of Parenting 101 in the 80s that said children had to drink milk or you had failed. Now? Milk is frowned upon. Get your milk from an almond or a coconut, people. But, as with all things nutrition, I can’t actually tell you why you shouldn’t drink milk/ eat dairy. It’s just a thing we’re saying.
I say all this silliness to make this point; no one has all the answers. There are those who will blame your illness, symptoms, mood, or hair color on poor eating choices. But, in fairness, I doubt that any two of those “food blamers” would actually agree about what is/ isn’t healthy. I’m trying to fuel my body the best I can. My jeans currently fit. (Okay, I’ll try them on again at Christmas to check.) I don’t eat meat- even though I just made a pot roast that smells delicious. The only thing that I can eat without getting nauseous right now is a baked potato. I eat too much cheese- even though it makes me feel awful. (But, seriously, y’all- cheese is delicious and worth the sacrifice.) I’m headed into football season, and I know that game day food options for a vegetarian will consist mostly of French fries. We’re doing our best- even when the “best practices” for healthy eating seem to be changing daily.
Peace, love, (organic bananas) and health, friends.

This one’s for the teachers who can no longer teach . . .

Back to school time is one of my favorite times of year. I love buying crayons and pencils far more cheaply than any other time. I enjoy the enthusiasm of a second-grade girl picking out the perfect backpack. (In my day, kid, we had Lisa Frank Trapper Keepers, and they were the bomb.com.) I appreciate a clean classroom that shows the tireless efforts of the janitorial staff to prepare the building for young learners. And, I’m borderline obsessed with classroom decorations. (Seriously, parents. If your child has a teacher that has decorated every inch of his/her room, please comment to the teacher on how amazing your child’s learning environment looks. Those decorations are time consuming and EXPENSIVE- and more than likely came out of the teacher’s personal funds.) I have loved this time of year since I was old enough to join my older brother for back to school shopping when we were kids.
Now, though, it’s different. I still love the energy and hopefulness of both teachers and students at the beginning of the year. I still enjoy hearing about first days of school. I’m thrilled that my social media is filled with teacher friends’ pictures of their classroom for this year or parents’ pictures of their little ones headed off for the first day. I even look forward to taking a super obnoxious “First Day of School” picture of my own absent-minded professor (and husband) when he heads back to the classroom. There are aspects of this time of year that make me smile, but the fact remains that this time of year hurts.
I am a teacher- or I was, at least. Mentally, my calendar still runs August to May rather than January to December. I still have nightmares where I’ve missed the first day of school or I have a class of 40 students who won’t listen to anything I say. But, if I’m being honest, I’m also haunted by a dream where I go back to work, and I’m a teacher again. In the dream I keep saying, “I never thought I’d be well enough to do this again.” Then, I wake up, and my shoulder is dislocated and my heart is racing, and I realize I’m still in the same body that disabled me more than four years ago when I taught my last class.
I’m not complaining, really. I’m certainly not trying to put a damper on anyone’s back to school enthusiasm. I’m simply saying to all those who feel especially vulnerable at back to school time, I feel you. I feel your tears. I feel your mourning of unrealized future plans and dreams. Most of all, I get it. I understand how it feels to simultaneously be grateful that you’re able to stay home and focus on your health- all while being enraged that your body has demanded that of you. I understand how it feels to want to hide from your former colleagues because of the shame of “not being able to hack it”- all while hoping they’ll tell you about their classroom experiences so you can live vicariously for a moment. I understand what it means to hurt this time of year- even though it’s one of your favorite times of year.
I don’t have advice on how to handle this hurt, because I’m in the middle of it. I know that it gets better with time- I haven’t openly wept in the back-to-school section of Wal-Mart this year, so that’s progress. I don’t know when or how broken hearts heal. I imagine this will always hurt a little- especially at this time of year. So, while I continue to try ‘to bloom where I’m planted,’ I’ll be the first to admit that where I’m currently planted hurts, but I’m not the only person living that reality. So, former teachers, school employees, and students who can’t return to class for whatever reason this year, I feel your pain, and I’m here. Maybe if we keep our heads down and watch a lot of movies on Lifetime, August will pass quickly and painlessly.
By the way, my absent-minded professor has requested to wear a Spiderman costume for his first day of classes, because he saw it in a Wal-Mart back-to-school commercial. (Goodness, this guy . . .)
Peace, love, and health.

Living in the Middle

One of my current favorite shows on television is "The Middle." It's strange and quirky and all the things that typically appeal to my sense of humor. The premise of the show is that they're an extremely normal family living in Indiana. They don't live in a big town or a terribly small one. They're certainly not rich- but they're also not quite poor. Their kids aren't especially fabulous. In all aspects, they live in "The Middle."

While I don't think my life is quite as entertaining as a sitcom for various reasons, I can completely identify with the idea of living in The Middle. When you're chronically ill, you get three types of days: good days, bad days, The Middle.

Bad Days

These are those terrible, horrible, no good, very bad days when everything is especially wrong, and there's no way to overcome it. For me, bad days are typically when I can't get my blood pressure to a functional level. These are the days when a joint dislocates, and I can't fix it on my own. These are the days when the chronic illness party has ramped itself up to full volume- and I'm the one paying the price. Bad days are irreconcilable to normal life. The grace of bad days, however, is that I'm typically not expected to act "normal" on those days. If my knee is swollen bigger than my thigh, no one expects me to buy groceries. When I'm blacking out every time I stand, it's fairly understandable that I'm probably not going to do much. While bad days are about as much fun as a flat tire in the rain, they're a part of the sick life that you learn to handle.

Good Days

Good days are elusive little suckers that seem to come with less and less frequency. Good days typically begin with a night of fewer sleep interruptions than normal. (I've given up hope for a night of completely uninterrupted sleep.) Good days are when all my joints stay where they belong. My heart doesn't act a fool. And, if I'm lucky, I even have some energy. These days are the unicorns of chronic illness existence.

I've had to learn to be a good steward of "good days." At one point, I used all good days to get things done in my house. However, that's not exactly fair to Joe. Now, I try to split good days between responsibilities and fun- because using my good days to enjoy my life is important, too.

The Middle

This is where life actually happens. I'm typically stuck in the middle of illness and symptom management. These are the days when I'm not sick enough to stay in bed, but I'm also not well enough to fully enjoy what is happening. There have been entire trips with Joe that I was so stuck in the middle that I had no actual memories of the trip afterward. On normal days- days in the middle- joints dislocate; my full body pain is certainly there; my heart races, and I'm nauseous. That's just life in the middle.

These are also the days when you'll see me buying groceries or meeting Joe for lunch. I cook and do laundry and walk my dog when I'm having days in the middle, because that's where the majority of my life exists. Now, I'm not telling you any of this to be a martyr. I'm not trying impress you with my set of symptoms in the least. (Not to mention, they're far from impressive or desirable.) Everyone I know has a situation (an illness, injury, relationship, job) that has a nasty middle that must be overcome. Rather, I'm saying this is what my middle looks like. This is what the day of someone fighting to live their life in spite of an illness looks like. Maybe this will help others to understand why those of us with chronic illness may seem short or distracted sometimes. Maybe this will increase understanding between the chronic illness community and those who don't struggle with illness.

Everyone of us wishes we could have more "good days." Sometimes I would even settle for a bad day if it meant I could stop trying so hard to act "normal." However, I'll settle for The Middle as long as I get to enjoy it with the people I love- even if "enjoying it" is a bit more of an effort than I care to admit.

Peace, love, and health, friends.

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Overcoming the Fear . . . of New Places

I’ve talked a lot about how chronic illness has changed me. It’s changed everything from my physical appearance to my patience. One thing that continues to surprise me, however, is how much more nervous I am about new experiences now. There’s just so much that could go wrong. It may not- it typically doesn’t go quite as wrong as I imagine it will- but there’s always the very real possibility.
Let me explain using a real-life example from today.
Joe and I decided to visit a church where some local friends attend. Now, before this whole chronic illness and rapidly deteriorating joint situation began, I would have never thought twice about visiting a church. However, I’m a hot mess on any normal day of the week. Add to my normal hot mess having to dress like a real adult (you know, something that isn’t a Disney tshirt and athletic shorts), having to be ready by a certain time, and actually leaving the house before noon (I don’t really get a functional blood pressure until later in the day), and I’m an accident looking for a place to happen.
Today, while walking up the ramp into church (Shout out for an accessible entryway!), my knee quit doing the whole “knee thing.” I crashed into the side of the church to keep from falling. Joe, who is totally used to such shenanigans responded with, “You okay, Margaret?” I, of course, am now convinced the entire congregation thinks I came to church drunk and my name is Margaret. The second faux pas is way worse though. Today was Lord’s Supper/ Communion day at the church. It’s a beautiful service that I’m always humbled to participate in, but leave it to me to turn it into a debacle. As the deacons were passing out the communion wafers, they motioned for me to pass the plate to Joe on my left. Cool . . . except holding anything is complicated with EDS. I overestimated how hard I needed to hold onto the plate, my hand jerked awkwardly, and I spilled the symbolic Body of Christ on the floor in front of the back pew. Joe and I tried to clean it up- but those little wafers fall apart like chalk. And, you guys, it was just bad.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Church was great. No one asked me to leave- or even to stay behind and vacuum under my pew. All in all, I’ll call the day a success. However, that story brings me to this point- taking a chronic illness into public is a bit like taking a rambunctious toddler out among non-toddler humans. You have no clue how it’s going to behave. Yes, we all have socially awkward moments, and today’s mistakes could have happened to an able-bodied person, as well. However, the fact remains that the combination of chronic illness and me has turned me into a one woman wrecking crew.
There was a time when today’s events would have humiliated me. I would have told Joe I was never going back to that church again. However, at this point, I’ve accepted that these things just seem to happen to me. My body is unpredictable, and I doubt that’s going to get better with time. Here are a few things I remind myself to keep from hiding under my bed when social interaction turns into social embarrassment.
I’m not a celebrity.
I’m a somewhat normal 32-year-old woman living in Campbellsville, KY. Paparazzi could not possibly be less interested in me. I’ll never be featured on the cover of US Weekly (Thank goodness.). So, why on earth, do I think that anyone is enormously preoccupied with how I act? You see, in my mind, everything I do is amplified times a million, and I’m convinced the whole world is offended by me. I spend serious time stressing over my inability to sit and stand at the appropriate times during church. I just know that someone is hurt by my seeming irreverence. The truth? Most people probably don’t notice, and those that do are probably more worried about whether anyone is noticing that they’re singing off key or that their breath smells funky. I’m really not that big of a deal.
New experiences are worth the risk.
Today I participated in a beautiful church service. I met new people and visited with others I already knew. I even got a sucker after the children’s service. (I’m not sure how the minister knew I would really enjoy a sucker, and I’m seriously hoping I wasn’t staring at the candy box as though I’d never seen such delicacies before.) The experience of worshiping with other believers, sitting beside my husband during church, and seeing welcoming smiles on the faces of friends and strangers far outweighs any embarrassment I felt. I have yet to have an embarrassing public experience where I felt that my embarrassment wasn’t worth it to do something fun or new (although there have been a couple close calls).
People are generally great.
We hear a lot of stories about the mistreatment of those with invisible disabilities. I get it. There are people in this world who are jerk faces. However, for the most part, people are good. The deacon whose plate of communion wafers I threw in the floor? He chuckled good-naturedly and waved his hand as if to say, “Don’t worry about it.” The people sitting around me who noticed that I didn’t stand for all the opening music? They smiled and nodded and shook my hand when it was the time to do so.
The moral of the story? I’m a mess. That’s okay. People are cool. Keep taking risks- and learn to laugh at your failures along the way.

Peace, love, and health, friends.

Click here to endorse me for WEGO Health’s Patient Leader award, please.

Blooming Where I’m Planted

tiffatvandyDo you see that girl? That’s me- four years ago. (Do you see my awesome collection of stuffed animals? Yeah, my husband specializes in fluffy gift giving.) Four years ago, I participated in an inpatient research study at Vanderbilt University Medical Center (Clinical Research Center) during the 4th of July. I knew that I would never be well enough to participate in cook outs or fireworks, so I spent 11 days in the hospital doing experimental treatment for autonomic disorders. I was new to my POTS (Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome) diagnosis and not yet diagnosed with EDS (Ehlers Danlos Syndrome). I was confused and angry. I had left my career as a middle/ high school Spanish teacher nine months prior to this picture. I had no clue who I was or where I was going. In my mind, I had lost my worth as a professional, wife, and friend. But, during the same hospital stay when this picture was taken, there was a faint bit of inspiration that flickered amidst my desperation. I have no idea where I got this phrase- but I’m not especially creative, so I probably read it or heard it on television. But, the phrase that echoed in my mind and heart was, “You have to bloom where you are planted.”

I, like so many others, did not choose to be planted in current circumstances. I did not study to become a sick person. I didn’t marry my husband with hopes of being his disabled wife. However, if we’re all being honest, there are few of us who have written our own way. Life has planted us in some less than ideal places, and we have to decide what to do with the situation. Don’t misinterpret what I’m saying. I’m not going to tell you that all you need to do is smile or have a good attitude. Not at all. There are days when life isn’t a greeting card. There are days when I cry and complain and whine and eat all the junk food. However, in spite of a difficult situation, I choose to bloom.

Yesterday marked four years since the first picture was taken. I can still remember the emotions and pain of that day. I can remember trying to force a smile for a picture- but feeling like the gifts I was posing with were little more than a sympathy offering- little more than flowers at a funeral. Yesterday, I took a new picture- at my first ever book signing. My symptoms hadn’t changed (Has anyone else blacked out when they heard a fire truck’s siren? That was new for me.), but my perspective had.

I’m not handling all this perfectly. I won’t ever be the great inspirational story of the person who overcomes adversity. However, I live my adversity; I accept it, but I also choose to laugh and smile and advocate in spite of it. I’m blooming exactly where I’m planted- even when I wish I could uproot and move to higher ground.

So, how did I get here? I didn’t wake up one day and decide I like chronic illness. I didn’t adopt my “Bloom where I’m planted” mantra and immediately become a blogger. Heck, I didn’t even start giving unforced smiles at that point. But, I started laughing. I started looking for the hilarity of my newfound life circumstances. I slowly changed my thinking from, “I can’t believe this is happening to me” to “You won’t believe what’s happening now!” Regaining my sense of humor and finding my voice, allowed me to bloom.

The past four years have been the most transformational of any I’ve experienced. I have hurt and endured more than I would have believed. However, I’ve become more understanding. I have increased my capacity to love. Ultimately, I’ve become a person I wanted to be- but that girl four years ago could have never believed possible.

I will never be grateful for illness. If I had the ability, I would heal us all in a heartbeat. However, I am grateful that my broken heartedness has healed. I am blooming. It’s not always pretty. (Heck, I’m probably more of a weed or a wildflower than a beautiful, manicured rose.) I am proud of the growth of the past four years, and I look forward to continuing to bloom with all of you.

Peace, love, and health, friends.