Chronic Illnesses: Who Knows?

In the past few months I’ve seen increased frequency and severity in my symptoms and even new symptoms coming to light. When I have flare ups or new issues I often become more aware of my current physical state, and ironically, while doing so, I usually think I’m better off until these harsh realizations, moments of brutality that shine a light on the fact that no, I’m not better, I’m actually worse, but I’ve just gotten used to being sick, used to this flare up that just never left, that became my new “normal.”

Though I’m used to high levels of pain, severe nausea, frequent migraines, fatigue, etc. when I wake up and have new symptoms or symptoms I’ve had before all of a sudden “amplified,” it can be super frustrating, discouraging – not to mention painful. But when these “flare ups” come about and decide to stick around for more than a day or two, the mind starts to wonder….

Is this a flare? Are these symptoms going to go back to “normal?” Is there something more serious going on?

Pain is a hard thing to talk about and understand because everyone has a different relationship with pain, everyone’s “scale” is their own – my 6 could be your 9 for example – and you can’t really know what anyone else’s is unless you’re living it. My pain has been a totally new phenomenon the last couple weeks, my body is searing, my head is killing me, it’s just relentless. This pain is different from my “normal” pain, though, so it’s kind of hard to compare them severity wise, it’s hard to simplify it to a word like “throbbing, stabbing, burning, etc.” or a number 1-10 – I’m in severe pain and discomfort all over my body and it won’t give me a break — I wish that were enough to figure out a way to help, right?

“What concerns me the most is the unknown….it is just too overwhelming to think about…”

When my symptoms cause me to be even more “disabled” than normal, when I can’t get up or out of the house for a week or more, I’m hardly able to be around others because of the pain and stimulation, and I’m sleeping excessively or unable to sleep at all, it can be hard to find motivation, hard to force yourself to get up and get going, doing something as simple as shower or change into fresh pjs…

“No one really explained to me the depth or the magnitude of that diagnosis, no one explained how serious and life changing this chronic illness can be….”

There are so many unknowns with chronic illnesses, and most of us learn all about that through personal experiences, not from doctors or even google doctor! Living with conditions that even doctors don’t know enough about can be scary, all of a sudden everything you know is just swept out from underneath you, you’re left with so little understanding and no control over your own body, your own life. This is all shocking, it’s devastating, and you have got to find a way to embrace it, conquer it, and grow right along side it, otherwise, it will break you through and through, not only physically, but mentally and emotionally, mind, body, and soul.

The Gift of Normalcy

I had a fabulous childhood; I was loved unconditionally, I was supported by my parents in everything I did, and I never felt alone or scared or underappreciated, I always had everything I needed and 99% of the things I wanted 😉 My parents always encouraged me to try new things and find whatever it is that makes me happy.

I’d always been a small town girl, good student, decent athlete, volunteer, etc.; Well, I wanted to be more than just “normal,” more than just small town, so I thought going away for school or finding a job that could set me up for working outside of my hometown & granting me the (financial) freedom to live a lifestyle that I thought was important to me might be my answer.

Like most kids – at least I hope it is this way for most – I was always told I could do anything, be anything or anyone I wanted to be when I grew up, and I embraced that thought and always dreamt about what I wanted in years to come. At 3rd grade I wanted to be a writer, then a cook. In middle school it was a lawyer, then an FBI agent or a behavioral analyst like those on Criminal Minds, and finally, by college, I wanted to be a behavioral therapist focused on autism.

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Did I mention my gift for style?

After falling ill and having two severe “flare ups,” the second of which never passed, has guided me into a whole new set of goals for my lifestyle. Instead of searching for my door to an extraordinary life full of adventure and expensive brands of clothes or my dream car – red convertible incase you’re wondering – I want to focus on something so simple – I want to find my happy, I want to make the most of my NOW, and that’s not money or material, that’s my people, my dogs, my artwork, my small adventures just driving a mile to see the dam in different seasons or try to see the eagles nesting, the bears someone spotted down the road, or just the ice on the trees or the flooding over the bridges.

I went from planning every part of my future and searching for all things perfect to searching for all things normal.

I want to be able to enjoy all of the small things, I want to be able to say yes every time I’m invited to go out with my sisters, I want to be able to make new friends who I can say yes to when I’m invited out …

Hell, I’m not even asking to be able to eat or drink a coffee or a martini, I just wanna go.

 

Chronic illnesses leave you with so little control, losing your ability to make all of the small, simple decisions that most people don’t have to think twice about can be an incredibly difficult thing to adjust to!

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Part of this adjustment is that severe chronic illnesses require just about 24/7 care, as an adult, so alongside the control, you lose any and all modesty and privacy you had left. For an introvert like myself, that’s no easy feat to come to terms with. I’ve never liked being the center of attention, & being sick is not a super easy situation to deal with when you’re shy, I mean just having people ask me how I am all the time has been tough, it’s a balance of how much to share.

It’s a quick second to think through — who is asking, do I know them? Do they know my story or are they just asking b/c that’s how you greet people? Do they want a real answer or are they being polite?

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I started this blog to help update people on my own health, but also to spread awareness so that people know how to handle situations like this, and I hope it is helpful for other spoonies but also for care takers and loved ones who are looking for help and advice so feel confident in your ability to support your loved one during their journey.

I sometimes get an urge to do something that normal people my age should be doing, and sometimes it might be a push for me, maybe even a risk, but sometimes a girls gotta do what a girls gotta do.

These times are those in which I don’t need questioning, doubt, or guidance. I don’t need it and I don’t want it, I just want support, I want love, I want encouragement. I want you to be happy that I am doing something that will make me happy, and we can deal with the repercussions as we go 😉

So, what’s the greatest gift you can give me? The best way to talk to me, best way to treat me?

Treat me like you would treat anyone else.

I can’t speak for every spoonie/tubie personally, but I know that personally, but learning how quickly things can change, how abruptly you can lose the ability to do your favorite things, eat your favorite foods, go out and take advantage of your youth, or even just care for yourself you often reevaluate your perspective and priorities.

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When you hear my name, I don’t want you to think of “oh that poor sick girl,” or “oh what a shame, she was doing great things.” When you hear my name, I want you to think, Rachel, Rachel is going to do great things, Rachel is fun, Rachel is creative, and Rachel is making a difference for others. Rachel is sick, but Rachel is capable. I’m tube fed, IV saline dependent, and I use a wheelchair, but I am ABLE to be me. I have good days, I have motivation, I have goals, dreams, hope, and feelings. I’m just like you, but I have a whole different, deeper understanding a perspective.

I don’t need to do everything in the biggest, grandest way. I don’t need to make a ton of money or have the biggest group of friends. I don’t feel a need to stick out or be recognized as anything more than just being me. Being Rachel.

Recovery: The Real Challenge with Surgery

The past two weeks have been even more challenging than my “normal” for both my body and my mind. I had surgery two weeks ago to place a new/additional feeding tube and we ran into some challenges and now I am trying to heal and recover.

I’ve had to spend more time in bed since getting home from my surgery because I’ve been unable to move much on my own. For the first week I couldn’t sit up, stand, walk, sit down, go to the bathroom, brush my hair, or do anything for myself. Being 100% dependent on other people is really hard, regardless of the fact that I was already disabled and very dependent on my parents for so much even prior to surgery.

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Kevin needs his new tube placed!
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Baxter alerting me.

I have to admit that the first week or so post- surgery is all a blur. There was lots of pain, many doctors, a painful car ride home (or two), a lot of sleeping, medications, ambulance, pain, another ambulance, an awful ER, pain…. But what I do remember is that both of my parents were right there by my side the whole time. There was never any talk of hiring a nurse to do the hard work or asking another family member or close friend to come help so my parents could go back to work. Every day I had at least one if not both of my parents there taking care of me, no complaints or mention of using up their sick days.

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3 tubes?!

For the first many days I slept 20+ hours a day with the help of pain medication, nausea medication, and sedatives, which all together helped make me more comfortable. After my ER trip on Monday/Tuesday I stopped taking the heavy pain medications because they delay gastric emptying so I also stopped sleeping and instead started having major insomnia again. By Wednesday/Thursday I was starting to walk on my own and eventually getting out of bed by myself, too. Although I run out of energy quickly and my pain levels are still severe, every step forward is worth a celebration.

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Our one and only trick or treater 🙂 My favorite visitor!
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Always blessed and spoiled by my parents’ coworkers!

Having such a supportive and involved family made all the difference for me; I didn’t have to worry about keeping up with meds or finding a good nurse or anything because my parents and sister were on 24/7 “Rachel Duty” for as long as I needed them. We also have an incredible community that supports me by sending cards, flowers, and gifts but they also support my parents at work and through facebook and texts/calls of support and well wishes. Being the parents and care takers of a young adult as sick as I am is no easy task and it’s extremely important to have that support.

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Mom sleeping in the ER.

Surgery is tough, but recovery is hell. Waking up each morning in major pain and knowing it’s not going away isn’t easy on anyone physically or mentally, but each small improvement or sign of progress gives me hope. Life is precious and every day that your body is functional and pain free is a gift; I encourage you to take advantage of every day and live life to the fullest, always follow your heart and do more of what makes you happy. Find joy in every day.

Xoxo

Learning to Live in Today

This week, while the class I began school with started their fourth year of college, I started my third year of medical leave.

People often ask me if it makes me sad to see posts about college or to drive through grounds when I’m headed to the hospital, but mostly what I feel is disbelief. How has it been so long? Does life really move on so easily without me? Will I ever get to be “normal” again? Do I even know what that means and could I return to it if I tried?

At a young age we start to understand that our lives follow a guided path; sure, everyone’s is different and we all stray from that path at times, but in general, it is set up for us. We grow up being loved and cared for, we learn right vs. wrong, we go to school and hopefully graduate. From there, you either get a job or “further your education,” aka more school. Some people get married, some have children, some do neither. The order isn’t the same for everyone, but we all make plans and in general, most people end up following some variance of “the path,” as I’m calling it.

Well, my path was altered in high school. I got (really) sick when I was about 16. It took me years to get real answers, in reality, I’m continuing to seek more answers to this day, but since getting sick, my life has been anything but “normal.” I spent time on homebound from high school, I did one year of college before withdrawing on medical leave, I’ve lost countless friends because of these illnesses, and I’ve lost any firm perspective on what my future may hold. However, I’ve also grown and become a stronger and wiser person.

Do I wish I were starting my fourth year with my friends right now? Of course. But I’ve learned that we can’t always predict where we will be in four years or four months or even four days…

You don’t have to fit anyone else’s mold. Yes, go to college; study whatever you want! Or, take a gap year. Travel. Volunteer. Be an actress, an athlete, an architect, a doctor, a musician. Be a stay at home mom, a stay at home dad. Be you.

Most importantly, don’t hold back. Splurge where ever you can, big or small. Do all you can to live in the moment and enjoy every possible second. Today, right now, is all you have. Now don’t go spending your family’s life savings on lottery tickets or a trip to vegas using the excuse “Rachel told you to,” but buy yourself something you’ve been wanting when you get your paycheck, just because you earned it. Take your parents or your family out to eat just because they deserve it. Do something just because it makes you or someone else smile, do it just to make memories.

Life is beautiful, but it is short and unpredictable. Throw caution to the wind and always follow your heart.

Desensitized to The Diagnosis

Yesterday I got a new diagnosis. But in all honesty, a new diagnosis doesn’t phase me much anymore. When I was 16 I got my first diagnosis, Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (POTS), but I had no idea that 5 years later I would have more diagnoses than I can count on both hands.

In 2016 I was diagnosed with Ehlers Danlos Syndrome, a genetic condition that affects connective tissue and collagen in your body. For me, this diagnosis explained a lot. I had already been diagnosed with Dysautnomia/POTS/NCS as well as Gastroparesis and generalized dysmotility in my colon and intestines. I had been struggling with unexplained chronic joint and nerve pain and I finally had an answer; although EDS wasn’t an easy answer and it meant I will likely never be completely free of illness, I finally had answers.

You probably won’t understand this unless you’re chronically ill, but after receiving that diagnosis, the ones that followed haven’t been surprising to hear or hard to accept. EDS has a lot of co-morbid conditions, and as mine has progressed and as I’ve seen more specialists, I’ve collected a nice array of conditions. Because I know my illness and understand what it can cause, I’m prepared for all of the co-morbid conditions it can bring on.

It’s never good news when I get another diagnosis, but I like to think that a diagnosis simply means we are moving forward towards treatments and answers, it doesn’t actually change anything symptom wise. I’m the same as I was before the diagnosis, I just have more answers and another syndrome/condition on my records. Usually a diagnosis actually brings me more relief because doctors actually start treating a conditions once it has a label and is no longer just unexplained symptoms.

I don’t mean to minimize the severity or seriousness of chronic illness; every illness I have I take very seriously and we treat each to the best of our ability. But after being sick for so, so long and being diagnosed with so many things, there is a desensitization to the process. Maybe it’s a protective mechanism, a coping mechanism, or maybe it’s just because it becomes your life, but just because I’m progressively ill doesn’t mean I have to let each diagnosis set me back.

A Word From Many: Ehlers Danlos Syndrome

As part of Ehlers Danlos Awareness Month I asked a large group of women with EDS to describe their journey with this condition in one word. Whether it be their most common symptom, an adjective that explains how their life has been affected, or an emotion that describes what EDS means to them, I just wanted to hear what EDS is to each person. I took all of these words and put them together to share in hopes that they will show how brutal EDS can be to so many people, but also to show the incredible strength that it brings to it’s sufferers and as a reminder that no one fights this alone.

So again, these words come from over a hundred different women– not just me! Many of the words were suggested by more than one person; the most commonly used ones are in the largest print. I don’t share these seeking pity, but because those living with EDS live complicated lives full of so many symptoms, emotions, and stressors that go unseen. Awareness month may be over, but every day we will continue to fight for better treatments, more awareness and understanding, and we will continue to fight for our lives.

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Ehlers Danlos Syndrome: When Things Went From “Promising” to “Progressive”

I was diagnosed with my first “real” chronic illness at age 16. In reality, I had been having symptoms for a long time, but they had always been passed off as hormonal symptoms, asthma, growing pains, etc. At the start of my junior year of high school I was diagnosed with Dysautonomia/POTS along with three other types of tachycardia and Occipital Neuralgia. I was experiencing severe, daily headaches, chronic fatigue, hypotension, tachycardia, pain, and a myriad of other symptoms. Although the doctors I was seeing did tell me that these illnesses were chronic, they also told me that because of my age and how the illnesses presented there was a high likelihood that I would grow out of them by the time I was in my early 20s. Although I was struggling at the time and had to change many aspects of my lifestyle to cope with these new symptoms, my parents and I had hope that this was only temporary and we would see improvement.

About a year later when I had just started my senior year of high school I was just getting over pneumonia when I started seeing an increase in my fainting and then began having gastrointestinal symptoms. Within a few weeks I went from vomiting once or twice a day to not being able to keep down any of my meals. By November I was taken out of school and placed on homebound due to my inability to attend classes regularly; my state of health was in rapid decline. In December I was admitted to UVA hospital where they were finally able to put a name to what was going on… gastroparesis. My stomach was essentially paralyzed and had stopped being able to process or move food through. At the time they told me it was a chronic condition but that in young people with no other pre-existing conditions it is often post viral and will go into remission or can even go away completely within 9-18 months. They fully expected me to fall into this category and told me that adjusting my diet and taking nausea medication should get me through until this time passed.

Although I did see temporary improvement with my gastroparesis, it obviously did not pass. About a year after my diagnosis I had my second “flare up” and ended up re-hospitalized at UVA and eventually ended up with both a central line and a feeding tube. After seeing multiple specialists including cardiologists, electrophysiologists, motility specialists, neurologists, GI doctors, a psychiatrist, rheumatologists, dysautonomia specialists, and I’m sure I’m missing something, I ended up finding out that my POTS and my GI dysmotility/gastroparesis is likely all caused by a genetic condition called Ehlers Danlos Syndrome (EDS). This diagnosis is what changed the dialogue surrounding my health.

EDS is a group of connective tissue disorders that are passed down genetically and cause a defect in the collagen in our bodies. I have hEDS (previously EDS type 3), which is also known as hypermobile EDS because one of the most distinctive factors is having hypermobile joints (having hypermobile or double jointed joints does not mean you have this condition, so don’t worry!). Because of my collagen defect, my joints are loose and my connective tissue is “stretchy,” leaving me with joints that sublux or pop out of place frequently and are prone to dislocation, skin that is stretchy and bruises and scars easily, and a body that bends and folds in funky ways. EDS also causes me extreme pain almost 24/7, it has caused osteoporosis to develop at age 20, led to chronic nerve pain, and it affects every part of my body down to my eyesight, my hair and nails, and my organs.

For me, EDS is the most likely cause of the autonomic failure that has caused my Dysautonomia as well as the cause of the failure of my GI tract. The tests I had done last fall showed that my entire GI tract is now affected, meaning the paralysis and dysmotility has moved beyond my stomach and into my intestines and my colon. Sadly, EDS is a lifelong condition that has no cure and very few treatments. When I got diagnosed with EDS, doctors stopped talking about growing out of it and starting talking about “comfort” and “symptom management.” The dialogue changed and things got a lot more serious. We have a lot of hope for improvement in my symptoms and my quality of life and we hope every day that someone will discover more answers for me and everyone else who is living with these illnesses, but EDS changed the game for me.

I don’t write this to scare you or ask for pity, I write it because it’s awareness month and I think it’s important to understand that there are illnesses out there that go unnoticed and unfunded and you only hear about it when it hits someone close to you. Heck, I had no idea what gastroparesis, POTS, or EDS was until I got diagnosed, but now my life is literally forever changed by them and even I don’t have answers. Doctors don’t have answers. So I write, I share what I do know, and I hope that maybe the next girl will find out a little sooner or find the right doctors a little faster. Awareness is important, so thank you for reading and thank you for sharing!