Saturday, June 23, 2018

20 Years Sick, 20 Thoughts (Part IV)

6. There is relief in letting go of a dream. Once the door to motherhood closed a couple of years ago, I intensely grieved it. Earlier this year, I began to feel relief that the question had been answered for me. I no longer had motherhood as a choice (in a biological sense), and it opened up space to create new dreams. It's not always a negative to let go of a dream, or to redefine your dreams.

17. I'm still trying to make my life fit into that of a body that doesn't work properly. I find saying no, even to lunch with a friend, agonizing. I still push myself past my limits because I struggle to limit myself when life is so full of beautiful things. Every choice I make to say no feels like a loss. Life is full of missed opportunities for all of us. Every time we choose one thing over another or say no to something, we do miss out. This isn't something unique to chronic illness, but it is absolutely amplified by chronic illness. If you could choose one thing to do in a day or a week or even a month, how would you choose? What would you choose? What price would you pay physically to do that one thing?

18. Grief and gratitude co-exist on a daily basis. I believe that these two feelings will co-exist in my life for the rest of my life. I recently made peace with this when I read Toni Bernhard's thoughts on 17 years sick. We can absolutely feel two emotions at the same time. 

Example: I am SO happy to be able to go to the park for a little walk and not be in the wheelchair. I am SO happy I can leave the house at all now. I am SO sad that I can't take mile long walks anymore and just escape into nature for hours. I am so sad that I cannot enjoy the physical highs of exercise and the self-confidence that being in shape brings. Rinse and repeat. Apply to every daily activity. 

When we become sick at a young age, we lose a lot. No one told me that grief would be the most challenging part of my journey. It's constant, gut-wrenching and devastating. Honor it.

I know I talk a lot about grief, so much so that I hit people over the head with my discussions of it. This is because I had no idea that it was such a part of the chronic illness experience, and it is in many ways, an unrecognized type of grief. For those who are newly diagnosed or those living with grief, I want to acknowledge its role in chronic illness.

For me, giving up the dream of motherhood was the hardest thing I ever did. The physical suffering of chronic illness is grueling. But for so many of us--the emotional toll, the losses and the griefs--are as hard or harder than what we deal with on a daily basis physically. To the children I loved who never came into this world I say: "I would have named you Isaac because I wanted you to know joy." Or "I would have named you Esther because you would have been my star." I have cried out to G-d in deep heaving sobs asking him why He did not want me to be a mother.

19. Living in the present is the only way I can survive. No matter how you slice and dice it, I will live with a chronic illness for the rest of my life. I have no idea how we will all survive this physically, emotionally and financially. All I know is that we have done the best we can to plan for the future, and we are okay right now. While I do try to problem solve for the future, it's too uncertain to have any firm plans or decisions in place. This can invoke total panic. I try very hard not to let the good that is now be clouded over by fears of the future. I don't succeed every day. I am human.

20. Every day I still wake up surprised that I am so sick. This illness is just as confusing to me as it is to you. The symptoms of this illness are invisible to me and to you. Symptoms change over time, come and go without warning, are difficult to explain, and vary greatly from person to person. If I wake up feeling 'well', I feel ready to conquer the world. I am quickly reminded that my body is not suddenly going to be ready to head out for an invigorating run.

I often wonder how we can feel this awful without really understanding what is going on or how to do much to fix it. How do we really explain fatigue? I remember when I couldn't buy shoes that tied because by the time I got them on to leave the house, I would be too tired to leave. Or when I was too tired and weak to eat dinner sitting up or to eat out on our patio. Eating out on the patio, enjoying Mom's incredible garden and locally sourced food is now one of my very favorite things. 

When you ask me what my symptoms are, I often find myself tongue-tied because of how they change from day to day and how each individual symptom may not sound very debilitating, but in combination they can and do amount to a great deal of suffering.

I've now woken up 'still sick' for two decades of my life. 



Photos: More photos from Musser Gap.

Friday, June 22, 2018

20 Years Sick, 20 Thoughts (Part III)

11. My life is amazing and beautiful. Holy Oprah Ah-ha moment! This sounds trite and cliche. Before you cringe, hear me out. Being sick sucks. I hate it. But, in the midst of it, I am so freaking fortunate that it often brings me to tears. So many people, especially those with disabilities, live a life full of great struggle beyond living with their illness. I happen to live in a town I love, to live in a house I love, with a mom I love, with two dogs who are like children to me, and with all of my needs met. I eat healthy home-cooked food every day. The same person (Mom) has been my caregiver for my entire journey. My dad and Abbie live nearby. My healthcare team is beyond incredible. My friends rock. People show me kindness above and beyond my wildest imagination. I love the work I do for Hopkins and for activism. 

12. I need people to fight for me. I never thought I would be considered one of the vulnerable ones in our society. But I am. I can do my teensy little share of advocacy, but I need healthy, energetic people to care for and fight for me. This means I need people like the tireless Dr. Rowe to keep doing his research and search for solutions. I need healthy people to help me with Rowe's Research Runners. I need people like my friends running for office who understand that, because they are in a position of privilege and ability, helping people like me matters. My friend M. said to me: "It's our job to do this for you because we DO have the energy and the ability." Making peace with this idea took me two decades. 

13. No one asks me "What will you do when you get better?" anymore. This is, in fact, an incredible relief. 'Better' means a lot of different things. I am 'better' now than I was five years ago, but I still can't 'work' in a traditional sense. It's less painful to let go of the dream of going back to the life I had imagined for myself 'when I get better' or 'before I got sick' than it is to simply live in the present, live the best life I can, use my energy wisely towards good causes when I am able, and trust that whatever my level of functioning is or becomes, I will use my gifts as well as possible. 

14. I still believe in finding a life partner. In putting myself back out into the dating world again, I realize that my life is wonderfully full. Anyone who comes into my life this time around has to be a value-add for me. Last time around, I believed that if someone accepted my illness that was 'enough' or that was 'the best I could find'. I have fought to create this beautiful life, and I won't let someone be my partner without them seeing that I bring things to the table too. We need to be a value-add to one another. Period. 

15. Chronic illness is about coping. And leisure activities keep me sane. 

Being sick, in pain, and struggling to get through each day is physically and mentally grueling. It's exhausting. My guess is the last time you had the flu, by the second day you were complaining and frustrated and ready for it to be over. Or the last time you injured yourself the healing time felt interminable. Let's think about going through that or feeling that way day in and day out for two decades.

One of my high school classmates had a biking accident in which she became paralyzed. In rehab, she had to participate in leisure therapy. At the time she wondered why this was so important for her healing and life. Later, she found that her photography help to sustain her. When I start to get down on myself for needing leisure time/activities in addition to all that I need for my self-care already, I try to remind myself of her words about why we need leisure activities as part of our survival story.

The suffering can be intense. Sometimes NO leisure activity is possible because you are so sick. And often the type of leisure activities people like me can do are limited (to different degrees at different times.) During my worst times, listening to Performance Today on NPR became a highlight of my day. I listened to hundreds of books on tape that a librarian brought me and fell in love with children's literature. My friends Sarah and Bob would burn CDs for me and other folks introduced me to new music, too. I started watching TV and movies--something I rarely did before I got sick. I could do all of these things lying down or in a recliner. I colored, wrote snail mail, pet my dog(s), went for drives with Mom, learned to knit simple items, and found that painting my nails made me happy. The activities don't have to be fancy or expensive--they just have to bring you comfort, peace or joy.

It can be hard to already be sick and struggling with lack of 'productivity' and independence, and then require leisure time to cope mentally or survive. I still struggle with guilt when I'm resting with a quiet activity that I can manage while my mom is tirelessly maintaining the home life.

To me, much of the chronic illness experience is about coping. By this, I mean finding ways to ease the suffering if at all possible. This can mean wearing a pair of heated slippers for unbearably cold feet; finding just the right pillow to alleviate or minimize neck pain; setting up the car for travel so that I am reclining the entire time; finding a way to sit while doing make-up and hair; having a total of six (yes, six!) recliners in our house; buying slip-on shoes rather than tie ones; wearing blue-light blocking glasses so that I can be on the computer or watch TV longer; getting a smartphone so that I could stay in touch with my friends and family when I was bedridden; using a shower stool when showering; finding apps that help make life easier--like using Voxer to chat with friends on our own energy timelines and sleep-wake schedules; and asking people to reach out in ways that are manageable if talking on the phone is too hard or emailing is too hard; showering at night instead of in the morning; creating a space that is pretty enough that you can stand looking at all four walls and the ceiling for days or weeks on end; getting a zero gravity chair so you can sit outside and lugging it to picnics, events or even concerts at our performing arts center; getting a handicapped sticker so you can go places more easily; using home delivery services for books from the library or accessing those of the Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped. I've needed and done all of these (and a zillion--yes a zillion--more) things at various time throughout my illness.

Both our coping and our leisure involve being innovative, creative, patient and open to trying things that may seem quirky and crazy to 'normies'. Anything. ANYTHING that makes your life easier and more comfortable and easier to cope is of value.



Photos: Part of the Musser Gap area/trail. Soon to partly be used for luxury student housing and a park. :( Goodbye to one of my favorite vistas. 

Sunday, June 17, 2018

20 Years Sick, 20 Thoughts (Part II)

6. It's still possible to live a meaningful life. My life feels more focused, clear and and meaningful than ever before. That being said, I am able to look back and see how my life has ALWAYS been meaningful, even in the darkest, most difficult times. 

I have a large circle of friends, including many who live with varying degrees of health. My sickest friends--the ones who worry the most that their life might not be meaningful or who feel like a burden-- are some of the most reliable, emotionally intelligent, empathetic, kind and compassionate people I know. 

In this world, kindness and compassion are more important than almost anything.

7. Research has advanced little in the last 20 years. This makes me sad for myself, for every person I know with these illnesses, and for every person who is newly diagnosed. I recognize that answers for treatment and diagnosis will come after I have lived a life with these illnesses. I stay hopeful that my quality of life will continue to improve, but I rest quietly in the knowledge that research for illnesses that don't have funding goes SLOWLY.

Right now Rowe's Research Runners combines my passions, my story, my quest for meaning and my desire to create change. I like that I'm settling into this new role just as I also mark two decades of living with chronic illness.

keep my hope alive for future generations of people with these illnesses and I do my work for them (and for Dr. Rowe's legacy, of course).

8. My story matters. It took me a long time to be able to say this. And it still feels a little strange to say. How do we use our story as a catalyst for change while remaining humble and focused on others? Just when I think writing is a selfish act, I will get a message telling me how much a post helped someone, validated someone, or served as an ah-ha moment for someone. 

9. Use mobility devices if it means I can have more freedom and be more engaged in the world around me. This is a hard one for a lot of us. Sometimes I still miss the Rolls a bit because it allowed me to go on longer outings. It gave me freedom and allowed me to leave my house. I still use a seat cane for times when I know standing will be hard. 

For people with dysautonomia and/or chronic fatigue syndrome, I would consider using a zero-gravity chair or reclining chair as a type of mobility device. If using one at the movie theater, theaters around town, at services, at a gathering/party means you can go instead of stay home because you can't sit up long enough, use one.

In the same vein, wear compression garments, and wear them with shorts if I want to. If it bothers you, just think how uncomfortable *I* am wearing these suckers!

10. Finding 'people like me' is part of my survival story. I am not sure how I would have endured the last 20 years without the friends I have met from around the world. I spent years on DINET's forum where I got both help for my illness and lasting friendships. I have been friends with some of the women I know for over 16 years now. 

Having friends who 'get it' means I can text them just about anything--emotional and physical--and they understand me. Pretty much no topic is off limits or TMI with us.



Photos: Arboretum, Mother's Day 2018 (May 13th). Viburnum; Apple blossom tree with petals on the ground.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

20 Years Sick, 20 Thoughts (Part I)

It's a couple of days before my anniversary of getting sick (June 18,1998), and I woke up feeling tearful and crabby. I put aside my to-do list for the day and decided to write instead. Every year, this anniversary stirs up a lot for me. 

Here are my 20 thoughts on 20 years sick (published in installments). I've written them from MY perspective only, as I know there is no 'one size fits all' for living with chronic illness. 

1. Mark My Anniversary. Taking the time out to honor the losses and celebrate the victories, allowing myself to feel the emotions of the journey and finding a ritual to mark my anniversary provides healing for me. I have planted trees in our yard; printed words that define my journey and burned them in a dish of floating candles; had a girls night out for drinks when I felt better; treated myself to an outing at Ulta for a makeover and new beauty products; planned a special meal with Mom or simply left the day 100% for me. 

This year I'll spend my anniversary getting a salt stone massage (I've never had this before!) with one of the message therapists that is a tremendous part of my healing journey; have dinner with Mom and our neighbor, Marge, to celebrate her 80th birthday and....

I will be getting a tattoo. Yes. You read that right. I have a consult scheduled the week of my anniversary, and the tattooing will be done in August. I have wanted a tattoo for a very long time, and I'm ready to get a small tattoo that reminds me, in a positive way, of my journey.

2. I now define myself as a person with a disability. This is a huge mental shift. For a very long time, I just said I was sick. I now view myself as a person with a disability. Person first. Always. I am not a disabled person. 

The evolution of viewing myself in this light resulted from the 2016 election. Up until that time, I remember hearing Hillary Clinton speak in our town in 2008. She spoke of PWDs as part of those who matter and who she fights for. I remember thinking: "she's talking about me. And she's including me in her language."

But I didn't fully recognize myself as a PWD at that time. Now I do. This shapes my passion for activism for all PWDs, not just people with my illnesses. 

It's lead me to meet with my congressman, campaign for candidates who support healthcare for all and protection of people with disabilities, work for affordable healthcare, connect with larger healthcare organizations and, in general SPEAK OUT.

Relatedly, I now say: "I live with a chronic illness," rather than "I'm chronically ill." For so long I have put so much emphasis on my illness that it is as if I shake someone's hand and immediately say: "Hi! I'm Emily and I'm chronically ill." My counselor compared it to her going up to someone and saying: "Hi my name is E. and I'm gay!" Chronic illness is a part of me, but it is not all of me. Shifting this perspective is still in process. I find that I am most fearful of chronic illness as an immediate deal breaker when trying to date.

3. How others view me is their issue.  I surround myself with people who view my journey as one of resilience, perseverance and light. I don't have time for people who cannot see past my illness to my core or who see it as a weakness or something to pity.

4. I'm letting go of shame. We live in a society that wants women to be young, healthy, skinny and uncomplicated. For so long I have felt shame over being a person with a disability; over being sick; over living with illnesses that many people do not believe exist or are deeply misunderstood; over being sexually assaulted; over being a Medicaid recipient; over not being skinny. I've even felt shame around not being married, not having a career and not being a mom, as is 'expected' by society.

That's a lot of shame to carry around. I would rather pronounce myself a survivor, an advocate, and a person whose life experiences shape her world view for positive change  than as someone who has so much to be ashamed of. 

I'm no longer going to check off all of those boxes of shame.

5. Chronic illness affects and effects every aspect of my life. Every. Single. Thing. Every moment of every day. Period. It has become our 'normal.' We are so used to my sleep schedule, my medication schedule, planning out how to make things doable, figuring out foods to eat, etc. 

In this same vein, managing my health has to be my full-time job and number one priority. If I don't keep managing and maintaining my health front and center, I lose even more of the freedoms I do enjoy now. I don't love this reality, but I'm trying to accept it and honor it rather than push against it.

I never rest in stability. As I say: "It's always something with me." The last 20 years have literally been one empirical trial after another.



Photos: Tulips at the arboretum on Mother's Day 2018 (May 13).

Friday, June 01, 2018

I Can See Clearly Now

Sitting down to blog feels like home. Why do I wait so long to make time for this little place I love?

The last few times I wrote, things were hard. Really hard.

We finally figured out that the clonidine was causing my depression. Having a medication alter my mental well-being so powerfully is confusing and disorienting. I can use all of the tools in my toolbox to claw myself out of depression to no avail. I was at the beach--my favorite place--and I could not enjoy it.

Now that I have weaned off of this medication my mood is back to my 'norm' and I feel like myself. 


Not only do I feel like myself again, I find myself in a new and better headspace as I approach my 20th anniversary of getting sick.

I may be sick. I may have very limited functioning. I may be at about 40% right now.

But in the midst of all of this, I've found a new and joyful light.

My life is full. My life is good.

I have a beautiful life filled with things I love.

It is filled with people I love, the dogs I love, and a more clear focus on my passions than I have ever had before. I'm also supported by a tremendous medical team and I am cared for by a tireless caregiver. I live with all of the comforts I need at home, including good food. :) 

I find myself feeling the abundance in my life. 

I still struggle to accept and recognize that the 'medical grind' will simply be a part of my every day life. Always. I want to stop pushing back against it all of the time, wasting my precious energy on something I cannot control. 

With me, it will always be something. When I think I can come up for a breath, something else pops up. That's not being negative. That's just the reality. It's time now to allow for the space and the acceptance that maintaining and managing life with chronic illness is time-consuming. 

It takes away from the time I have to be with my friends, family and passions.

The precious energy I do have left after my medical needs are met and I *try* to keep up with mundane tasks of life is spent on the things that matter most to me.

This has meant saying "No" to a lot more things so that I can reserve the limited energy I do have for friends, family, fur-babies, Rowe's Research Runners, writing and activism. I also need time to rest with TV or listening to a book. I also need my spiritual fix--in nature or at synagogue. 

I feel more focused and clear about where my limited energy must go. I still struggle to fit in what I need to nourish myself physically, emotionally and spiritually no matter how much I feel like I have cut things out and honed in my priorities. 

Living (with or without chronic illness) is always a journey and a process. 

Being able to find my way with a clear head, out from the cloud of the depression from the clonidine, leaves me feeling that as I ready to mark 20 years since my life changed so dramatically, I'm in a place of more peace than I have ever been.

There will always be grief and pain on this journey. 

I'm not going to sugar coat that.

What I will do is see clearly how beautiful and full my life is in spite of its challenges.



Sunday, May 06, 2018

Monday Dog Blog: Six and Sassy

Tovah Rose is Six and Sassy!

She celebrated her birthday in style.

The birthday pup wore a pink and white polka dot bandana with gold script stating: "The Birthday Girl," as well as a sparkly hot pink bow adorned with a bit of bling atop her head.

Tovah Rose Blossom of the Valley got all dressed up the evening before her birthday so that she could wake up fully dressed and ready for the her day.

At the stroke of midnight on her birthday, Mommy serenaded Tovah Rose, who licked Mommy's face--either because she appreciated the gesture or wanted Mommy to stop her terrible singing. 

A full body massage followed, during which Tovah Rose savored the attention.

Tovah Rose awoke on her birthday morning to a beautiful sunshiny day--a birthday wish come true--a day of hours spent in the yard watching birds and bunnies!

She took time out to pose for some birthday portraits but had a difficult time holding still, as there was so much to see and do on her big day.

An afternoon party consisted of being serenaded by Mom, Mommy and Gershwin. The dessert of choice was a small Cloud Star Wag More Bark Less biscuit topped with peanut butter and a candle, which the birthday pup seemed to know was destined for her tummy.

Gershwin received a similar treat (sans candle) as well.

Next, the two pups in attendance opened presents--although the birthday princess didn't really need or want help from her brother, who stole her new pink elephant toy.

After much enjoyment of shredding the tissue paper and discovering two new squeaky toys, Tovah Rose seemed quite happy with her celebration.

After a nap and some dinner, she spent the rest of the evening outside in the yard--going toe to toe with the bunny on the other side of the fence.

She settled in for a little TV with Mom and Mommy, during which Mommy gave her another massage.

She wore that bow and bandana as if to let the world know that being six and sassy suits her just fine.

She loved being the birthday girl and we loved celebrating our sassy six year old.

We just can't believe our baby girl is so grown up!

We love you so much little one,

Mommy, Mom and Gershwin

Friday, March 30, 2018

Sunset On Sunset: A Little Meditation

I'm done with as much packing as I can do tonight, taking time to drink my bedtime tea, and reflecting a bit on our fifth year at the beach.

We said 'goodbye' to the beach yesterday with a short visit in the midst of our packing.

Clearly, I need to work on my selfie skills. And why, yes, I DID get my hair chopped! :)

This year at the beach was a little bit harder and rockier than last year with my sprained ankle, illness on top of illness, and feeling much crummier than last year. 

It's a lesson in understanding that a 'change of scenery' won't wash away the illness--even as much as I wish that were the case. Chronic illness is chronic illness. It follows me everywhere.

The added depression at higher than usual levels for me bummed me out because it made me feel as if I wasn't appreciating or experiencing the moment as much as I wanted to be.

We've significantly lowered the dose of the clonidine that seemed to be causing the blues to worsen, and I felt my smile, goofy sense of humor, and zest for life peeking through again reminding me that there is light in the darkness.

April will bring lots of PT and other appointments to try to see if we can get things back on track. Health maintenance keeps me busy!

In addition, we return home to a busy April of hosting a meet and greet for Marc Friedenberg for Congress (please reach out if you would like to attend!), a local screening of the film Unrest, and lots of work prepping for Rowe's Research Runners. I've been trying to work on all of these projects from here at the beach, which has been a tremendous challenge give my energy levels.

We will be diving right back into things! I have to say that I am not quite sure I am ready to go home!

The pace of life here suits me quite well...SLOW! :) 

Even if this year was different or harder, we still got to be here for another year.  Mom is still health enough to do the caregiving and the travel. Every year we can both get here is a blessing. We love that we have this new tradition--which is something that was not even possible a few years ago. 

I slept a lot. We watched some good movies and TV (hit me up for recs!). We saw lots of blue skies and wildlife (osprey, egrets, alligators, turtles, sandpipers, dolphins, etc.) and the endless beauty of the ocean. We ate seafood and more seafood and more seafood. We went out to dinners, spent lots of quality time time with Cindy and Nick, enjoyed a visit from a Davidson friend and her husband, and got in a little bit of shopping at my two favorite places, Bleu and Jewelry by Wendy. We spent every day together, and I got in lots of snuggles and smiles and loves with my babies. 

I didn't write as much as I had hoped, or work as much as I had hoped, or listen to as many books as I had hoped, or read the book on writing as I had hoped I would, or knit as much as I had hoped, or Skype, call and email as many people as I had hoped, or write as much snail mail and thank you notes l as I had hoped (like none at all! :P), or feel well enough to enjoy walking (even though I made myself do it as much as possible) as I had hoped, or go to the beach as much as I had hoped, but as Jon Kabat-Zinn tells me every single day:

Let go of the tendency which we all have to want things to be different from how they are right now. And allow things to be exactly as you find them. Allow yourself to be exactly as you are.

I've been listening to Jon Kabat-Zinn's 45 minute mediation every single day for years. I have heard his voice utter these words thousands of times. 

I am amazed at how difficult it is to truly accept things exactly as they are in this moment. To not wish they were different. To be fully present. 

No wishing I wasn't sick or feeling depressed or so tired or that we didn't get to do such and such while we were here this year. Just letting it be what it is. 

This is my greatest and most enduring challenge.

This is my life as it has been given to me. And I continue to strive to live it as fully present and mindfully as possible, hitting the restart button hundreds of times throughout the day. I check and re-check my thoughts when they spiral into the sadness surrounding feeling and being sick.

In the midst of our last minute packing tonight, Mom spotted the sunset out the window. A glorious spectacle of a sunset. Just in time for our last night here in Sunset Beach, NC. 

We dropped everything, put leashes on the pups, and stood in the middle of the golf course taking in the beauty. 

Breathe in. Breathe out.

Live for these moments. And I mean, literally, LIVE, fight, stay alive for these moments. 

Thank you, Sunset Beach, for the gift of another year of your splendor. Thank you for another year that Mom, puppies and myself were all able to make the trip. Thank you for being exactly as you are meant to be in this moment. 



P.S. To those of you celebrating Passover or Easter this weekend, blessings to you.

P.P.S. I will do my best to keep up in some way--either via blogging or my Secret Facebook group (contact me if you would like to be in touch with me this way). Please understand that my energy has been more limited than usual and keeping up has been quite challenging.