Defined by?

A recent thread by @HannahPearl_1 on twitter questioned the suggestion from someone that “it’s important not to be defined by” our illness. Hannah went on to say she understood what the person meant but didn’t feel able to agree.

This got me thinking. ‘Defined by” is a term that crops up a lot in #ChronicLife circles & forums online. People tend to be either against it as somehow limiting, or in favour of it because our illness affects every aspect of our lives.

But what does ‘defined by’ actually mean? I’ve had a trawl through Merriam Webster online looking at meanings & synonyms to try & pin down a definition, and it’s a little slippery. But I love language so let’s give this a go!

Defined has a number of uses which vary the meaning:

  • to draw or make apparent the outline of
  • to mark the limits of
  • to point out the chief quality or qualities of an individual or group

It’s the second & third definitions I’m interested in here, because I think this may be where the divergent opinions around the phrase derive from. Let’s have a look at both…

To mark the limits of

If one applies this to living with a chronic condition I would take ‘defined by’ to mean that we acknowledge our illness affects us in ways that inhibit the way we live our lives. For me this meaning absolutely applies to my life. Inspiration porn often tells us nonsense like “the only disability is a bad attitude”, and this simply isn’t true.

Current popular ideology leans towards telling everyone they can be anything, do anything and there are no limits, which is a lovely sentiment in fairy tales but totally untrue in real life. We all operate within limits, whether they’re the law of gravity or simple genetics – someone like me with red hair, pale skin & freckles is never going to achieve a suntan!

That doesn’t mean giving up on ambition & dreams, or never setting goals, of course not. We all need things to strive for, to challenge ourselves, to work towards. What it does mean is that we can live our best lives by focusing on the possible, the achievable, and taking steps at our own pace to get there.

To point out the chief quality or qualities of an individual or group

Applying this to living with a chronic illness implies that we are characterised by our condition, that it becomes an intrinsic part of our being. Again, this undoubtedly applies to my life. I am no longer able to separate out my illness & disability from who I essentially am, and I don’t see that as a bad thing.

This doesn’t mean it is all that I am or can be, just that #chroniclife is entwined with my sense of self, my lifestyle & my place in the world and I’m very ok with that. I think this is completely natural human behaviour – if I flip back in time to when I was working my whole identity was entwined with my career in the training sector, which is why it was initially so very hard to accept having to effectively retire. I wasn’t sure who I was without being defined by what I did.

It doesn’t help that as a society we value people by what they do, not who they are, and we love putting people in boxes & applying labels. Would I let anyone else characterise me or define my limits? Not a chance. But as a chronically ill person with disabilities I’ve definitely earned the right to set my own.

And I choose to identify with my illness, my disability, and do so proudly. It’s taken me a lot of work & some fab therapy to get to this point in my life, and I’m happy to own it.

But you know what? If you don’t feel this way that’s fine too, surely one of the most important things we do is choose how to define ourselves 💙

Dear Newly Diagnosed…

You obviously feel in need of support.
I do remember that feeling – that you are really struggling with the whole idea of having RA – of becoming chronically ill.

So you’ve joined a support group, seen a few posts about surgeries and disability and people trying their third biologic, now you’ve gone from slightly concerned to terrified!

It’s important I think that newbies to #chroniclife are made aware that it tends to be those with more severe symptoms who gravitate towards support groups or twitter, and stick around. It’s important we acknowledge that around 40-60% of those diagnosed with RA and treated early will likely achieve controlled remission with medication. That’s actually pretty good odds. And those people often never feel the need to look for support groups online or to stay around if they do.

So our tribe tends to be those who’ve been a bit battered, often suffering with mental as well as physical issues that ergo cause emotional as well as physical pain. It means sometimes posts and tweets can seem dark or bleak, but it also means we have a fabulous empathy with each other and are able to give outpourings of love and support and prayers whenever they are needed – we’ve been there, and many of us have come out stronger for it.

And that’s a really important thing to know – we do come out the other side. My first year with RA was dreadful, I lost my job, I was made homeless. My depression spiralled. It was a dark time, perhaps not dissimilar to where you may find yourself now, and without my online tribe (not forgetting my wonderful IRL family & friends!) I’d have collapsed. These fabulous, generous strangers kept me putting one foot in front of the other when I couldn’t see the way forward. They held up a light.

It was hard and it was sad and it was painful, I won’t pretend otherwise. Antidepressants helped, my GP helped, psychotherapy helped, group therapy helped, and very gradually my feet found new, firmer ground. On balance now I can honestly say chronic illness has brought more good into my life than bad.

The worst happened and the sun still rose and set. That’s life changing right there. Survival. Some great therapy led me to mindfulness which lead me to meditation and gratitude. Despite being ridiculously ill and in constant pain I am genuinely happier with myself than I’ve ever been in my life.

RA was the brute force needed to make me stop & smell the coffee. I know it touched me for a reason. I live more spiritually and much more slowly, I treasure my friendships, I’m more sympathetic, more patient & more kind. I’m grateful for the smallest things, a warm bed, hot coffee, a good book. I’m no longer impressed by the material, but hearing a bird sing or watching the clouds move can and frequently does fill me with with joy. My path has been irreconcilably altered by RA and I’m the better for it.

Yes I still have dark days. I’m very ill, with RA, ME, Fibro & other conditions. So I have constant pain and take a lot of meds. I’m still on antidepressants and fully expect to be for life, they boost chemicals I need to be me and I’m more than fine with that. But my darker days are just that now – days. In the past they would have been weeks or months, my coping strategies developed and yours will too.

I wanted to share this with you not because you’ll do the same or feel the same – we all walk our own path through this life. But to hopefully reassure you a little that you absolutely will find your way. Chronic illness is not an end but a shift to a new beginning, an altered life does not have to be a lesser one.

My newcomer tips?

  • Get enough rest.
  • Listen to your body, if it hurts, stop.
  • Build your pain toolkit – meds, gels, ice, heat, tens, marijuana, movies, whatever works for you.
  • Let go of worry about what others may think – it really doesn’t matter.
  • Look after you – baths, chocolate, candles, pamper yourself.
  • And always, always remember to be as kind to yourself as you would to others – we are way too hard on ourselves.
  • Practice #selfcare daily

Sending blessings, Namaste 🙏🕉️💙

Excuse me, I’m Dormant…

I sort of feel I should start by apologising for being so quiet recently, especially with blogging, but the spoons have been really low for a couple of months. I feel the balance is tipping towards more ‘bad’ days than ‘good’. I dislike using those terms as they feel like I’m judging, I’ve hit the trusty thesaurus, how do dormant days and wakeful days sound?

The definition of dormant seems particularly apt – adjective: dormant (of an animal) having normal physical functions suspended or slowed down for a period of time; in or as if in a deep sleep

That accurately sums up about 40% of my time. Maybe more. At the moment I feel like I’ve hit a medical stalemate – another great word – any position or situation in which no action can be taken or progress made.

I saw my GP (who is fab) on Friday, we ran through a few symptoms where her answers were, not unreasonably, that there’s nothing that can be done. Of course if a,b, or c get worse let her know, if not do my best to continue to live around them. She has the option to refer me back into the hospital Fatigue Management team so to keep that in mind for the future.

FYI I’m not being ignored, I have ongoing support from Thoracic (lungs), Rheumatology (joints & lungs), and Orthopaedics (spinal surgery, sciatica) as well as my GP.

But none of these stop me doing this. Sleeping for 16, 18, 20 hours at a time. I track my sleep now because I’m not sure people believe me, but I’m genuinely out for the count, I don’t wake to pee, drink or eat, and a bomb could go off without me stirring. Usually after a sleep like this I wake but can barely move, it takes everything I have to stay upright just to make a coffee and maybe toast. It’s like the worst flu feeling quadrupled. I literally stagger to the kitchen and back, almost on my knees.

And every time within two hours I’m passing out again. I use passing out deliberately because that’s exactly what it feels like, it’s almost as if I can feel my body shutting down, to quote the Borg “resistance is futile”. I spend approx two to three days a week like this.

To be clear here I’ve been diagnosed with RA, Fibromyalgia, ME/CFS, and RA-ILD (Interstitial Lung Disease). All of which will be contributing to this dreadful fatigue, though my suspicion is this is much more ME than the others. I’ve attended pain management sessions and fatigue management sessions which mostly revolve around pacing and CBT. Unfortunately as anyone with ME knows the use of CBT as a tool to improve fatigue has been totally discredited. And pacing just doesn’t work.

Pacing is actually a very simple technique. One monitors one’s activity and fatigue levels for a few weeks on a chart, then you calculate an energy ‘baseline’. So let’s say the average day allows you three hours of low activity. You plan around this and you slowly work on building up. Sadly this model assumes a number of modes of behaviour are manageble for the patient – such as getting up at the same time every day, sleeping for the requisite number of hours per night, ceasing to nap during the day, and that after sleep one feels refreshed.

None of this applies in my case. When I mentioned to the fatigue team that I can spend two or three days a week sleeping (dormant) they told me this “wasn’t usual” for ME. I thank the stars for the Internet, there is a lively community online who very quickly taught me I’m not alone, and I’m definitely not an aberration. In fact I’m fortunate, there are people with ME who’ve not left their beds for years.

I can sleep four hours or twenty, I never wake feeling refreshed. I can’t choose to not nap when I can be awake and say, reading one minute and the next it’s six hours later. Yes, my internal nap monitor is screwed too, it’s never just twenty minutes! I can’t work to a normal “sleep pattern”, when I’m dormant I not only sleep through alarms, I’ve slept through my cleaner coming and going, and a few weeks ago just crashed on the sofa whilst a friend was building me a walk in closet, thankfully he understood as his mum has ME so he finished quietly and tiptoed away. Bless him.

But I think these examples clearly show this is not down to me giving in or not trying. I don’t see anywhere to go from here clinically. So my only realistic option is to continue to flex and enjoy my Awake around my Dormant.

Yes this makes planning difficult. There are hospital appointments I’ve had to reschedule, blood tests I’ve missed. More important to my sense of engagement with life is the birthdays, the weddings, the lunches and the family events I’ve missed. It’s been a long time since I’ve felt guilty for these, I know now I have to listen to my body, but it still saddens me to have to cancel.

Is this difficult to live with? Yes of course, saying otherwise would be disingenuous. I think anyone faced with the reality of losing maybe three or four days a week, every week, for the rest of their life would be floored. I think the blessing here for me is that this hasn’t been a sudden notification, it’s happened gradually over the past few years and whilst I’ve railed and wept I’ve also become accustomed to these limitations being my life.

It’s just that this conversation on Friday finally drove home that this is here to stay. There is no magic pill or potion, therapy or faith that will make this change. Stalemate.

And so comes acceptance. So I will continue to try to see my dormant days as necessary recharging, to allow my wakeful days to happen. I will continue to try every day to find both gratitude and joy in my world. I will continue to use my toolbox containing items as random as meditation and tramadol, heating pads, mindfulness and antidepressants. And I will continue to find my joy in the smallest and often unlikeliest of places. Eyes wide open.

Namaste 🕉️

Acceptance is….

I was asked a question recently by a newly diagnosed young lady in her early twenties. She wanted to know how to find a way of living with RA – she was already in a lot of pain and her RA was quite severe which had her worried about her future. I was really touched that she felt able to ask me, and I was pondering what to say when it hit me – how blessed was I that RA didn’t raise its head until I was in my forties! I can’t even imagine how horrid it would have been to have found myself in these shoes at a younger age, when you’re still finding out who you are, what you think and where you want to be (Not saying I have those down now, but I worry about them much less!).

My initial thoughts were around Acceptance, as it’s been the key for me in finding a way to live alongside my illness. But how do you explain that to someone young and newly diagnosed? Someone who is upset, scared, angry and confused. “Just accept it, you’ll be fine” is not going to cut the mustard. So this is a much longer (and more edited) version of my reply to her, which I really hope might help not just the young and newly diagnosed but the older (!) ones amongst us finding chronic life the emotional as well as physical rollercoaster it often is. So, Acceptance.

Where to start? Meaning? Let’s give this some context. Chambers English says to accept in this sense is to tolerate, to take on board. Not exactly cheering words. I know people often see acceptance as giving in or giving up, and it’s certainly not that for me. Acceptance doesn’t mean stopping researching treatment options, chasing doctors or not eating healthily. Let me digress for a moment – often in chronic life Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ seven stages of grief are referred to. Originally published in her book ‘On Death and Dying’ it was soon realised that it’s a really useful tool for understanding grief in any form, including grief for what and who we were after significant life changes. Diagnosis with a chronic condition certainly fits into that category. It helps us validate what we’re feeling as well as letting us know we’re not crazy, and we’re not alone.

The stages are usually described as Shock or Disbelief, Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Guilt, Depression and Acceptance. You can see a good explanation of those stages here, but I will just note that these are not linear, it’s common to jump back and forth between all of them, we process these in our own time. So whilst Acceptance is listed last, it doesn’t mean you have to cycle through the others first, although in all honesty it’s likely you will. It’s perfectly possible to go from depression to anger to bargaining and back to anger again, and it’s likely you’ll do it more than once. And that’s absolutely fine; there is no “right way” to grieve. Be kind to yourself, this is a lot to deal with.

It’s often a long road and I certainly didn’t get here overnight. Believe me I’ve ranted, railed, been depressed, had severe anxiety attacks, not wanted to go on, screamed why me – the whole box of tricks. I’m sure this shows in my earlier blogs! Acceptance is a tough thing to do with a chronic illness, but it’s such an important step, as it can bring us to a place of peace with our illness. Anger in particular is very wearing to carry daily, and hurts us emotionally.

You’ll need to find your own path to peace, no-one can do it for you. For me it’s been psychotherapy, leading to meditation and spirituality, alongside antidepressants and some great support from friends. For others it’s religion, counselling, psychology, support groups, medication, and sometimes just having a good scream! All of these are great tools. But I promise you too can make your peace with this.

Acceptance – to tolerate? So, eventually I’m back on track! Toleration suggests a kind of grudging version of putting up with, like your illness is an albatross around your neck. For me it’s much more profound and much simpler. Acceptance means non judgement. It means I stop attaching emotions to my illness. I accept it just is. Like a table or a chair, it exists, but I don’t have to feel anything about it. It’s not evil or bad or personal, and it’s not something I need to fight with or be angry at. Who has the energy for that?! Using mindfulness has made me much more aware of what I’m thinking, and if I find my thoughts are drifting towards anger or guilt I just return to my breath, and I remind myself they’re simply not helpful.

Acceptance takes work, it takes practice. It’s not easy, it means changing the way we think. Of course chronic illness has had a massive impact on my life, there are many things I’ve lost, so it’s important we choose where we focus. I’m fortunate; there are also so many things I’ve gained, including a fabulous support community across social media. I choose daily to focus on the good.

We all know things will change, chronic life throws us new symptoms and challenges frequently and I’ve found that if I try to accept and roll with these rather than fight them my life becomes calmer. Does it work every hour of every day? Nope, I still have anxiety triggers and a recent new diagnosis had me reeling for a few days. But previously that would have sent me down the rabbit hole for weeks if not months, so I call that a win.

Life is precious and there are no guarantees for anyone, so certainly for me the best thing to do is enjoy every moment. Really enjoy it. Even on the worst of days we have choices about what we focus on and how we think. So on my less easy days I’m really grateful that friends drop shopping off and I have a warm bed. On better days just sitting outside and feeling the sun on my face or the breeze on my skin reminds me I’m alive, and I make a conscious choice to be happy.