The Other Side of Invisibility

Generally speaking, I’m not big into selfies. I prefer to take pics of my son and my dogs. That said, friends on social media will likely be familiar with the “progression of mediocre selfies” series; multiple attempts at family self-portraits taken during our adventures. Our crappy selfie skills have become a family punch line. But truth be told, I adore their candid silliness. 😊

For the last 18 months, I’ve been sick enough that I’ve largely disengaged from my previous everyday life. I don’t have to tell you all that, of course, because I’ve been absent here. Pain and fatigue are quite a tag team, as many of you know. They’ve largely limited my ability to write in complete sentences. But I’m slowly writing a post on my continuing pharmaceutical roulette, and I hope to feel well enough to get back to a more regular rhythm soon. I cannot thank you enough for sticking it out with me. 

At this point, you may be thinking “Girl, you weren’t kidding about not writing coherently. I mean, how do those two paragraphs even relate to each other?” But bear with me, because I took a mediocre selfie for this post. 

My selfie skills haven’t improved, but the caption says it all. When you’re chronically sick and mostly homebound, you can feel invisible. When everyone around you is racing to work, you can feel invisible. When your daily accomplishments include “got out of bed”, “slept for more than 3 hours straight”, or “made it to the doctor”, you can feel invisible. 

Much has been written about the frustration of the invisible chronic illness. But less is said about the invisibility we feel.  We are so often forced to the sidelines, as the world spins around us. So, this selfie proves, to me and to you, that I’m still here. Even without a job. Even without makeup. And it’s no accident that I’m holding a crochet project. If I take it slow and use the right tools, crochet is good exercise for my joints. It’s also a calming influence on my mind. I feel accomplished when I complete projects — in crochet, in the kitchen, or with my writing. And that’s crucial for my type-A personality. 

Is the feeling the same as closing a big deal or leading a strategy session with a business partner? As crossing a half-marathon finish line? As singing a solo in front of a crowd? Nope. But like my selfie, these hobbies remind me of where I am on life’s journey. They help me remember that I am here. And no matter what, I’m grateful for that. ✌️

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Confessions of a Chronically Ill Overachiever

January marked five years since my RA diagnosis. It’s been a long road. Over the last couple of thousand days, I’ve received additional diagnoses and tried many remedies. I’ve gotten my hopes up and lost hope more times than I can count. Still, my life is mostly one continuous flare. And I have a confession.

I’m over it. ALL of it. The bone-crushing pain and the soul-shattering fatigue, of course. But also the endless planning, the constant balancing, the “perfect diet” quest, the pharmaceutical cocktails, the restrictions, the endless doctor visits, the guilt, the embarrassment….the end of carefree days. Most days, I can barely fit into my shoes. During the rare times I feel relatively “good”, I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop.

The relentlessness of chronic illness has taken a tremendous emotional toll on me, on my loved ones, and on my life. That’s inevitable, I suppose. But here’s another confession.

I believe I am making it worse.

I’ve been on this earth for 41 years. For all of that time, I’ve been a planner, a doer; what is commonly referred to as a Type-A personality. I face my setbacks head on, I stay positive, and I keep pushing.

Balance = more visits to beautiful Alaska! Photo credit: Jessica Hawk-Tillman.

Finding Balance = more visits to beautiful Alaska! Photo credit: Jessica Hawk-Tillman

And that’s the problem. I have been treating RA, Hashimoto’s, Sjogren’s, Fibro, tachycardia, and food allergies like temporary setbacks. In my mind, they’re something I need to push through so I can “come out stronger” on the other side. Case in point: In late 2011, I pushed myself so hard that I caught two viruses back to back. My body shut down, and I needed a central line and vasopressors to save my life. I had sepsis, spent days in the ICU, and was off work for 10 months. It should have been a wake-up call to me. It wasn’t.

In conversation, I would tell you that my expectations of myself are different than they were before I got sick. In my head, they are. But my actions continue to reflect my lifelong attitude toward any obstacle. “Forging on” is leading to crashes, disappointment, and feelings of failure. And if I want to do more than survive, I need to change.

This doesn’t mean I’m giving up. Quite the contrary, actually. I understand that while I need to keep a positive outlook, it must be balanced it with the reality of my daily challenges. I understand that I need to keep pushing for better health and new treatments, without pushing myself over the edge.

The amazing Toni Bernhard spoke about this very phenomenon in her most recent article. She discusses “positive thinking” vs “mental contrasting”, and wow. She nails what I’m trying to say above. Before we continue, please take a few minutes to read her thoughts at the link above. Go ahead, I’ll wait. 🙂

I’m now reevaluating every aspect of my life with these 3 questions. What’s my goal? Given my health, what are the obstacles I may face? How do I balance positivity and the reality of these obstacles, so I can reach my goal?

  • My work life today looks almost identical to my pre-RA days. The pattern of my days and weeks is predictable. I push myself during each work week, collapse most every night and weekend, and feel guilty and disappointed in myself when I do. Afraid to ask for accommodations at work. Afraid to say ‘no’, despite my body’s screams. Now, I’m speaking up. I’m requesting accommodation. I’m working with my manager to ensure my work allows me to contribute meaningfully, while keeping some spoons in reserve more often than not.
  • As we all know, doctors, pharmacies, and insurance require lots of extra energy to manage. They’re necessary, but I’m looking for ways to be a good patient and optimize these tasks. Here is one service I’m currently investigating. I’m pretty intrigued by the possibilities.
  • I’m opening myself to using assistance on long outings, remembering that I won’t enjoy myself (nor will Lora and Bear) if I am focused solely on my own pain and fatigue. Canes, rollators, and even my wheelchair are friends, not enemies. I’m even considering a motorized scooter.

This process is raw, and frankly, it’s a bit scary to share. But we’re all facing it. And I’m thinking it might be less scary if we do it together. So, I’d love to hear from you. What are your confessions? What changes are you making? What have you realized? Does “mental contrasting” resonate with you?

It’s taken five long years, and lots of lessons, but I get it. In that spirit, here’s one more confession:

I am chronically ill. It is not my fault, and it was not my choice. Still, there is a fulfilling life out there for me. It just looks different than the one I had before. I accept this, and I will do the work to live it. Every day.

Pain, Opioid Addiction, and Cake

Poster from the movie Cake: www.cakemovie.net

Poster from the movie Cake: http://www.cakemovie.net

NOTE: This post discusses a movie that is not yet available in wide release. I have not had the opportunity to see it, though I have done significant research on its content.

Jennifer Aniston is racking up praise, and awards nominations, for her role in “Cake“. In the new movie, Aniston plays Claire Simmons, a chronic pain sufferer. That part of her character excites me, as it sheds light on the challenges of managing everyday life with unending pain. Unless you live with it, it’s impossible to imagine how pain touches every moment of every day, and this part of the movie will be eye-opening for many. Watching the trailer and seeing her character struggle, I keep thinking “I’ve been there”.

However, Claire is also addicted to the prescription narcotics she uses to manage her pain. By all accounts, her performance is admirable. Still, as a daily Percocet user, I cringe at the thought of once again being represented in the media as a drug addict.

Before I go further, let me state very clearly that I understand the perils of drug addiction.  According to recent studies, more than 2 million Americans are addicted to prescription opioid painkillers, and the number of deaths from these drugs has quadrupled over the past 15 years. It is a serious issue, and one that deserves attention. The problem is complex, and overprescribing is one of the causes. If you need help, I urge you to seek it here. Please.

Media is all over this epidemic, and “Cake” is just the most recent example. A running theme in “House” is the main character’s struggle with chronic pain and Vicodin addiction. Disclaimer: Aside from the pain = opioids = addiction story line, it’s one of my all-time favorite television shows. And the emphasis extends well beyond fiction. “The Doctors” are already using “Cake” to discuss the problem of painkiller addiction in America.

Again, I don’t disagree that painkiller addiction is a sobering and serious issue. But I take issue with the conflation of chronic pain patients and drug abuse. I suppose it’s easy to assume the problem largely rests with those of us that take these drugs regularly. However, evidence doesn’t support that assumption, no matter what the media portrays. A DARE Review of 67 studies on the incidence of chronic pain patients that became addicted and/or exhibited aberrant drug-related behaviors (ADRB) concluded that the correlation is very low. Specifically, the review found:

  • In testing for abuse and addiction, the studies included 2507 chronic pain patients on opioid therapy. 3.27% developed abuse/addiction. When the group was controlled to include only those patients with no history of abuse or addiction, the percentage dropped to 0.19%.
  • In testing for aberrant drug-related behaviors (ADRBs), 2466 chronic pain patients on opioid therapy were included. 11.5% showed ADRBs. When the group was controlled as above, including only those patients with no history of these behaviors, the percentage dropped to 0.59%.

This series of studies all conclude the same thing: chronic pain patients using opioid therapy overwhelmingly do not abuse these drugs. There are exceptions, but we are not a primary source of the nation’s problem. However, when the media tackles the issue of prescription drug abuse, it tends to focus squarely on the chronic pain population. This association has real impact, on policy and perception.

For the truth, I encourage you to listen to the millions of spoonies. We use opioids as directed. They don’t get us “high”. With them, our pain is dulled, and most days, we can function. We can work. We can take care of our kids.

Listen to the spoonies, and you’ll understand the struggles we face when we attempt to obtain these medications. Consider the number of chronic pain patients that:

  • Suffer every day with unbearable pain because our doctors, fearful of DEA prosecution, won’t prescribe opioids that could help us.
  • Drive each month to the doctor’s office each month to show our license and sign for our opioid prescription.
  • Face scrutiny from doctors and pharmacists when we ask questions about our dosage.
  • Must legally document the pharmacy we’ll use to fill the prescription, limiting our options to fill the prescription.
  • Must drive to the pharmacy to learn whether they have stock. The information cannot be provided over the phone.
  • Drive to multiple pharmacies to find stock. My record is 8 CVS visits within a 40 mile radius, in one day, to fill one prescription. It took 7 hours, and I was in tears from the pain of driving.
  • Endure judgmental looks and comments from pharmacists, doctors, nurses, family, and friends.

Without opioid therapy, I would not be able to work, cook dinner for my family, or ironically, make my numerous doctor and pharmacy visits. We need understanding, genuine help, and sensible laws, not blame and judgment. Come to think of it, the same is true for those that are addicted. But that’s a post for another day.

Perception needs to change, and the media wields great power to help. Their portrayals of chronic pain patients, however, often do the opposite. This movie is just the latest example. Though I will check it out when it’s released, I have very mixed feelings on “Cake”. And that’s not something you usually hear from me.