Category Archives: Chronic Life

The Hard Stuff.

Rusty Hoe over at Living with Bob posted this today, about the benefits of being honest regarding the hard parts of chronic illness. While wallowing isn’t terribly helpful, reaching out for help in the inevitable dark places that come with chronic health conditions is a valuable way of establishing social support, which can mitigate the experience of pain and distress associated with illness.

I know this very well (very! It’s the underlying topic of my thesis!) but still fail frequently to walk the walk. I’ve been avoiding this little space because of a horrible flare, which has left me intermittently screaming aloud (hadn’t done that in a while and didn’t miss it), crying on public transport, and mentally way, way down in the dumps. I thought that because I was feeling bad, I had nothing worth sharing and should keep my thoughts to myself. The Living with Bob post reminded me today that that isn’t necessarily so.

I can be honest and say I’m struggling, and that it’s okay. I can hope that if you’re struggling too, you can take some comfort knowing you’re not alone, and that you don’t have to always pretend everything is perfect for fear of being a downer. I can say that acknowledgement of your struggle, from others and from yourself, is incredibly important to wellbeing in chronic pain and illness. I can say that I’m sorry that we live in a society where asking for help is often construed as weakness. I can say that just by virtue of continuing to put one foot in front of the other and endure, you are showing incredible fortitude, bravery, and strength, whether you can see it or not.

I can remember that even when I do everything right in terms of self care and treatment, sometimes I will have flares anyway, and that they don’t mean I’ve screwed up or let anyone down. I can remind myself that even where I have slipped up and not taken care of myself as well as I could have, that doesn’t mean that I’ve brought this on myself and deserve to be punished.

I can remember that I’ve gotten through every rough patch so far, and that I’ll get through this one too. And you will too, whenever your next flare arrives. We just have to wait it out.

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Brain Fog & the Blahs.

So the post title might sound like an unappealing band, but that’s the state of things at the moment, I’m afraid. Nothing big and horrible, just a whole bunch of small irritations and disappointments compounding to make me feel generally – ugh.

I applied for a job, which was huge for me; I’ve been talking myself out of it for so long that summoning the courage to actually apply took a lot. I sorted referees (terrifying! I hate asking people to vouch for me), bought interview-appropriate clothes (I’ve lost 16kg and all my tailored stuff now looks ridiculous) and updated my resume (a.k.a. engaged in a brief exercise of ‘let’s look at all the ways in which I have failed’). I didn’t hear back, so I’ve been doom-and-glooming about that, even though I rationally know that at least now I’m prepared for the next thing that comes along. I also was recommended for a position a friend is vacating, and was assured that I wouldn’t need to interview or anything, I’d just get it, and haven’t heard back about that either. I feel like, hey, you don’t even know how crap I am yet! Och well.

I’ve just switched to the slow-release of oxycodone, after being on fast-release for a couple of years. The latter worked well, but makes me hyperactive, so at night-time I’d have to choose between sleeping in the next three hours or pain relief. It also wore off too quickly to get by with one dose during uni days when out for several hours at a time, and the facial-but-especially-my-nose itching which has been a constant side-effect for me had worsened to the point of being unbearable lately.

So, I asked for slow-release, and on all those counts it is better – but the pain relief is less effective. And pain relief is kind of the most important thing when it comes to pain medication, right? I’ve been waking through the night feeling like the muscles in my back around my facet joint are burning (new and exciting pain symptoms, yay!), and my gait is worse because I can’t force my leg through the swing as I take a step in the way I need to. And because I am eternally terrified of seeming like a junkie, I will have to put up with it for a month until this script runs out.

Worse, I’m going on a date with my partner tonight, and have been looking forward to it, and now sitting through dinner and a movie is looming, horrible and insurmountable. I am determined not to (for the umpteenth time) get halfway through dinner and have to go home because my back hurts, but I also get really surly and curt when I have to work through pain. Not the best setting for an enjoyable romantic evening.

And last but most importantly for me, oh god the brain fog. It’s been particularly malicious for the past week or so. I’m trying to finalise a research proposal and rewrite then incorporate some theoretical content into a literature review, both of which are fairly highly demanding cognitive tasks (at least for me). My usual coping method during particularly bad bouts is to put the hard stuff on hold and do mindless busywork tasks, but my deadlines are looming and it needs to get done. It’s like mentally walking through very deep mud trying to have ordinary conversations (I felt like the world’s biggest moron in my last supervisor meeting), let alone produce fluent academic writing. It’s massively frustrating to be sitting there, knowing I know the perfect word to describe a complex concept and yet not for the life of me being able to retrieve it.

So, after all that whining, in an attempt to be constructive; help! How do you manage brain fog when you have to work through it? Any strategies that might help? I’m open to anything!

10 Signs You Might Be a Damn Hippy.

  1. You can name 10 uses for coconut oil without Googling or checking Pinterest.
  2. Your idea of ‘just like a chocolate milkshake only crunchy’ involved almond milk, bananas, nut butter, and cacao nibs.
  3. You spend an inordinate amount of time picking chia seeds out of your teeth.
  4. You couldn’t clean your house without baking soda and vinegar.
  5. You’ve traded in Chanel for home-crafted scents from Etsy. You persist, despite sometimes smelling suspiciously like an antique store run by an over-enthusiastic herbalist.
  6. You put a lot of food on your face. And underarms (coconut oil, baking powder and arrowroot starch only… so far).
  7. You spend as much time reading cosmetic labels as food labels, and in both cases, that is a lot of time.
  8. You’ve had an angry outburst in the aisles of a supermarket upon discovering the questionable ingredients that are in processed foods you’ve always eaten.
  9. You have the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database in your favourites.
  10. You have not only changed your own diet to one considered unconventional by most of your peers, you’ve converted your family … and your pets.

I’m moving toward crunchy and proud these days.

And my ten uses for coconut oil, besides the aforementioned deodorant: cooking oil, home-made chocolate base, smoothie thickener, hair mask, skin moisturiser, shaving cream, eczema treatment, make-up remover, oil-pulling, and a spoonful with my multivitamin to encourage absorption of fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, & K).

Any others? I need MOAR COCONUT OIL (clearly) 😀

Hot and Cold.

I’m more or less back on track after my hiccup a couple of weeks ago, and typically enough, my body is engaging in its time-honoured tradition of stress reduction = get sick. I’m feeling flu-y and fatigued and my vision, which gets messed around with periodically by my occipital neuralgia, has been dodgy – I’m finding it hard to focus on a white computer screen and the letters are all blurry around the edges. Which is, of course, great for getting a research proposal completed in a timely manner.

Feeling vaguely feverish last night and this morning, I took my temperature and then realised I didn’t know what constituted a fever so took to Googling. Apparently, while 37 C is the average, anything from 36.4 to 37.6 is fine. Above around 39.5 is cause for concern, and 35 and below can indicate hypothermia.

So, maybe everyone else already knew this, but I’ve forgotten everything I ever learned in human biology in high school. And because I’ve been monitoring my body temperature daily for the last couple of months, I now realise – my body temperature is rarely if ever in the ‘normal’ range. It’s only been 36.4 and above for two days out of the last month, and is typically between 35.5 and 36.5. I’ve had a couple of days below 35.5 although never as low as 35.0. My highest body temperature in the two months has been 36.9, last night, and it’s never reached 37.

I already knew my body was weird, but this seems bizarre. I knew I subjectively felt like my body couldn’t regulate temperature well, and my extremities are cold and sweaty for most of the cooler weather. Mostly I don’t handle heat though – I suppose if a hot day in my hometown is often five degrees warmer than my maximum body temperature it could explain why it feels ever-so-slightly like dying.

Does anyone else out there have a lower-than-average body temperature? Do you know why? It seems like it could be a dysautonomia thing – my resting blood pressure is often the low end of normal, maybe they’re tied in? And how the hell do I work out if I have a fever?!

A Chronic Pain Primer – Part One.

My radio silence for the last little while has been due to finishing my lit review on chronic pain management by health care professionals. It’s interesting stuff (to me, because I am a nerd), but it surprised me constantly how much there was in the literature that was taken for granted as the best way to do things, that I had never heard before. I’ve been a pain patient for nearly five years! Why hadn’t anybody told me this before?!

I wanted to share some of the big, important stuff in case anybody else didn’t know it too, and doesn’t have the luxury of journal access via their educational institutions.

The widely accepted definition of pain is from the International Association for the Study of Pain; “An unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage, or described in terms of such damage.”

There are a couple of important parts to this. Here’s the first one:

Pain does not mean something in your body is being or has been damaged. It feels like it, which sucks horribly. But pain in and of itself is not harmful. If you have new pain, get it checked out, thoroughly. But if you’ve been scanned and tested and your doctor had assured you there is nothing physically wrong, it’s okay to believe it. It’s okay to move your body without fear that further damage will occur.

This does not mean your pain is not real and valid. The pain might be an ongoing signal from an old injury that’s healed, or a disproportionate response to a minor injury, or occurring in the absence of an injury. The definition of pain means that pain is whatever the person feeling it says it is. End of story. So even if medical professionals can’t find a concrete physical cause for your pain, it does not mean that you are imagining it. More importantly, it does not mean it cannot be treated.

The bad news that nobody told me? It might not go away. It’s difficult to fix something if you don’t know what it is. Even where a specific physical cause for pain is identified, as with a damaged disc, and surgery is undergone to fix it, the pain may persist. Because your brain is blessed with the very cool and adaptive ability of neuroplasticity, it learns and changes. Once it gets used to feeling pain, it gets really efficient at feeling pain. It can amplify small amounts of pain or just keep re-sending the same ‘OUCH!’ messages once the problem that prompted them has stopped. For some people, this means that once chronic pain has developed and gotten really entrenched, it can be incredibly difficult to re-program and get things back to the way they used to be. So that’s the hard bit; there may not be a cure for your pain.

Stay with me though, because there’s good news. When the cause of pain cannot be cured, treatment can allow the reduction of pain, the reduction of suffering (that’s the emotional crappiness and distress that comes with the physical sensation), functional restoration (getting your body to be able to manage doing things you used to be able to do), and improved quality of life. And what it boils down to is that pain which has the disability and distress stripped away from it is manageable, even if you don’t ever know where it came from.

It’s not peachy-wonderful, because it’s pain, and it will always be a noxious stimulus. But if you can move and sit and exercise and go dancing and pick up your kids for a cuddle, and if pain is irritating but doesn’t cause you to become depressed and anxious and feel like the world is ending, and you can work and drive and have sex and pay your bills and get by without medication if that’s important to you, then you can have your life.

So, that’s the key. Finding ways to work with it. Getting to do what is important to you and be happy and fulfilled and well in spite of pain. I’m not saying it is easy, I’m saying it is worth it. Because living with pain can suck, but having pain and not living your life is the cause of way more suffering and heartache.

That’s easier said than done, you’re thinking. Pain hurts. It is by definition unpleasant. Well, yes. But a lot of things are unpleasant, and people manage to live good lives in spite of them. So the important thing is to get treatment that enables you to reduce the unpleasantness of the pain as much as possible. And I’ll talk about that in Part Two.

Let me know – are you sitting there saying, well, duh, or do you disagree? Or do you tentatively agree but haven’t been able to make it work for you yet? I agree with this whole-heartedly, and living well despite pain is my over-arching goal, but that does not mean I am a happy ray of sunshine every day, so I’m still somewhere in the middle too 🙂

Thought for the Day.

One of my favourite things to do used to be going out to this awesome little Pad on Thursday nights with my friends and dancing the night away. I haven’t been in months now – I blamed mostly giving up drinking, poverty, and being busy. Actually, I’m pretty sure I haven’t been since my back surgery last July… hmm.

But it’s a public holiday tomorrow, and my friends are going, and I agreed happily. And I’ve missed it, and I’m glad to be going. But at the same time, as the hours have passed today, I’ve been getting more and more anxious and felt panic tightening my chest.

What if I look awful, because I’m eczema-blotchy and purple-legged and my bald spot is showing? What if I can’t do it without my old, eight-times-what-I-currently-take levels of opiates? What if I’m hobbling and people look at me weird, or I look strange dancing because I’m in pain, or I’m just awkward and a fun-spoiler because it hurts?

So, it appears I may have had some serious fear-avoidance happening without realising it. But tonight I’m determined. What if the worst happens? Well, people will think I’m odd (won’t be the first time), my friends will think I seem grumpy but forgive me because they love me, and I’ll come home early but hopefully still feeling triumphant I gave it a go.

So send good, strong-backed vibes my way and wish me luck! I’m feeling the fear and doing it anyway.

Be Cool.

It’s cooling down! I’m so excited! I got to wear a scarf yesterday, and fall asleep to the sound of rain last night, and I can hear the wind howling around the house this morning. We’re nearly a month into autumn, but for the last couple of years summery weather has stretched well into late April / early May.

I’ve never liked heat. Even before I got sick, I come from a family of sweaty people. I’m pale, pink-toned rather than yellow, and get scarlet-faced very easily, which I’ve always found embarassing, so I blush and get even pinker. I was born in a town on a coast below a desert, so most of the time it was scorching hot and dry as a bone; I don’t enjoy that type of weather but I can cope with it. Here, however, it is humid and sticky, and in summer you feel damp within seconds of getting out of the shower.

Since being sick, I can’t stand the heat, at all. I get nauseated, dizzy and light-headed, and surly. It makes my pain worse, and the things that help my pain (heat pad, exercise, not lying in bed all day, hot baths) horrible and torturous.  It makes my brain fog worse and I get Raynaud’s phenomenon more frequently, which tells me my blood isn’t circulating properly (and also means people keep commenting on my weird zombie feet in shorts-and-thongs [flip-flops] weather).

When winter(y weather) comes, I am invigorated. I feel energised and excited. I don’t have to hide inside in the air con all day. I want to go out for walks in the bushland by my house in the rain. I know others experience worsening of joint pain symptoms or Seasonal Affective Disorder in these conditions, but I thrive – although that may have something to do with our mild winters (I don’t think it usually drops below about -5).

Since my circulation has deteriorated I do find it hard to get my extremities warm, and my hands and feet have started sweating when I’m cold now (I’m attributing that to a confused sympathetic nervous system), but for me those are small prices to pay, I can bundle up in my favourite clothes to keep warm: boots, long coats, scarves, tights and leggings, thigh high socks, leather gloves, cozy jumpers and cardigans. I can snuggle with my partner and my cat under the covers listening to thunderstorms.

It will even be cool enough to wear a corset under my clothes if I’m headed out for the night and need some secret support to eke out a few extra hours of socialising (if you’ve never worn one, corsets are boiling! They’re often three layers of fabric, and my favourites have top layers of leather or brocade, so they’re thick and they don’t breathe).

I can’t wait. My mood is already lifting and I’m looking forward to decreased pain and improved productivity. How does your pain or illness react to the weather or temperature? Do you have good seasons and bad seasons? Do you think I’m crazy for loving the cold?