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 💙

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Whispering Darkness…

Some of you will be aware I write when I need to process. Never more necessary than this week.

I’m struggling right now, both physically & mentally. This is totally down to our disastrous current government. I make no apologies for being political when those very politics are affecting my physical & mental health.

I received notification in June/July this year that even though I had been previously awarded lifetime DLA (Disability Living Allowance) for my chronic & progressive conditions, due to govt changes to the benefit system – namely the introduction of the new PIP (Personal Independence Payment) benefit – I had to reapply. Yes, reapply.

You’d have thought the sensible thing to do for people with lifetime disability awards would be a simple transfer, but no. Reapply as if you’re a completely new claimant. There was an option to allow them to access your previous assessment records for DLA to support your claim – “if they are still available”. Yes, it appears the DWP may have failed to actually keep records properly. Who’d have guessed.

I want to be clear here before moving onto the effect this process is having on me personally – the only reason the govt have rolled out PIP is to get disabled people off benefits. It’s that simple & that barbaric. A UN report in 2017 “accused the Tories of creating a ‘human catastrophe’ in the UK” which violates disabled people’s human rights, the text below is quoted from The Canary, the full article is available here

The UN are currently carrying out another investigation into UK poverty and the impact the current government has had on this, looking at key areas including these listed below – text again is from The Canary, full article is available here.

I kind of wanted to be clear on this – this is not me as a benefit claimant just being awkward or heaven forbid “ungrateful” – but a widely acknowledged truth. Disabled people are being disadvantaged by this government, the facts prove that. The United Nations knows it.

So, back to to this process. I had to call to apply after receiving the letter which was incredibly difficult for me – anything to do with benefit changes causes me severe anxiety – I was physically shaking when I rang, despite being prepared by Citizens Advice on what to expect so I had the information I needed right in front of me. It took a stomach churning twenty minutes. Just to ask for the form.

Once the form arrives in the post there is a four week deadline for completion. The earliest appointment Citizens Advice had was for almost six weeks away. So again I had to go through the ordeal of phoning, this time to request an extension which thankfully was granted.

I cannot begin to describe the vile process of completing that form, even with a trained & sympathetic advisor. I can’t write for any length of time myself because of the RA in my hands, so they had to complete the form for me. It’s invasive, incredibly personal & embarrassing. Answering questions on what medications you take, their side effects, how often you manage to wash yourself, use the toilet, leave the house, eat, get out of bed, the assistance you need but don’t get, and the intimate details of every symptom of your conditions & disability from bowel movements to insomnia, light sensitivity to Myoclonic Jerks.

The awful thing is on a daily basis you are mostly able to avoid thinking about the vastness & sheer weight of multiple conditions & symptoms alongside chronic unceasing pain, you simply deal hour by hour because that is manageable, mostly. This is like plunging into the abyss with your eyes taped wide open. It’s not an exaggeration to say it’s traumatic.

Every tiny personal detail of your life is discussed & transcribed, ready to be pored over by faceless strangers – without the requisite medical knowledge – but with the power to remove your income & your car & leave you destitute & housebound. Yes, it’s that f*cking huge.

So – my appointment with the lovely & very empathetic lady at Citizens Advice? Three hours. Three grueling & exhausting hours. And I wasn’t done yet.

It took me another two hours at home to go through, copy & annotate twenty-seven separate pieces of medical evidence going back about 18 months. Scan reports, surgical reports, consultants letters, radiography reports, it all went in there. This took me about three days.

So finally it all went into the post. I had a text on the the 8th August to say my form had been received.

I then heard nothing until Saturday 3rd November when a letter dropped through my door. Yes, just over twelve weeks, or 3 months. Every single day since August my anxiety has grown worse. My depression is also pressing at the edges of my consciousness, whispering of hardships & darkness. My GP is fully aware & we’re monitoring my mental health, the frustration is that we know the exact cause & have no power to remove it.

So the last couple of days I’ve basically gone turtle. I’ve retreated inside my shell, alternating between Netflix & reading depending on my ability to concentrate. The minute I stop either my thoughts are immediately back to this planned assessment. I feel dreadful as stress flares everything. Fortunately I have a wonderful friend who has agreed to be with me for the appointment which is incredibly helpful.

My next task which I couldn’t bring myself to do today is to call them & ask why they’ve not taken on board the request on the form from Citizens Advice & myself for a home visit, and see if its possible to change it. Honestly from what I’ve heard I’m not particularly hopeful.

Then I need to prepare, think of this as a job interview but twenty times worse. Its so easy with fatigue, anxiety & brain fog for me to use the wrong words, forget whole symptoms & conflate conditions. It’s basically a quiz about me where I can get the answers wrong much too easily. I’m terrified of this, and not without reason – so many horror stories of poor assessments are a matter of record.

One last note – DWP or whomever, if you’re reading this and thinking even for one second “well if she can write a blog that makes sense she can work” you are stunningly misinformed about what being chronically ill & disabled looks like.

This, as with many of my posts takes hours – but never all at once. Initial thoughts, a few notes, finding links, remembering what the hell I was talking about when I lose thread mid sentence, stopping for sleep or rest, editing, rechecking, a final read through to make sure I haven’t made a compete idiot of myself. It all takes precious time and energy spread out over days, to do something that when I was well I could have rattled off in ten minutes.

This is my reality, please simply believe me.

PS – for anyone who has bought into MSM (Main Stream Media)’s outright fairy tales about benefit fraud & demonisation of claimants – here’s the real deal from the government’s own data. A tiny 1.2% of benefit claims are fraudulent.

Like HMRC, the DWP also estimates fraud and error for its benefit payments. Its most recent estimate shows that overpayments to claimants in 2017/18 were £3.8bn, or 2.1% of its total bill. Of this, 1.2% (£2.1bn) of its £177.5bn budget was claimant fraud. Full article here.

RD Blog Week #1 – The Medicine

RD Blog Week #1 – The MedicinePatients with autoimmune disease often are not treated well by Doctors & Pharmacists when we ask for or receive pain medication. What has been your experience?

This is a blog I drafted last Friday, whilst it may seem a smidge off topic I feel it accurately reflects the experience of so many of us with chronic pain.

I recently watched a half hour TV programme called ‘Britain on Painkillers – The Silent Epidemic”. I truly wish I hadn’t bothered. I should have realised from the title that this would not be a balanced & factual scientific look at pain medication, with input from all sides of the pain management arena, but instead an incredibly biased piece of presenting laughingly called journalism. Thanks ITV 1, this is exactly why I no longer watch you. I was literally pausing every few seconds to check I was hearing correctly, then stopping to make notes, the more I saw & heard the angrier I became. Hardly my usual Zen Friday evening!

*I’m trying very hard as I proofread this to remove any sarcasm, please forgive me if it can’t help slipping in.

Very early in the programme we were addressed by Dr Frances Cole, a Pain Rehabilitation Specialist who started by saying that whilst Opioids are effective for short-term pain, for chronic pain they are “pretty useless”. She went on to say “People & pain become a muddle of hopelessness, unhappiness, despair, loss of jobs, loss of income. Are Opioids really going to address that? No!” I’m guessing that she meant people IN pain, but same difference. I don’t disagree with her observation that people diagnosed with chronic conditions suffer emotionally, this simple fact is a known truth within the chronic pain community, both anecdotally & from scientific study. Receiving a chronic health diagnosis is life changing.

However…Her question at the end of that statement seems to deliberately obfuscate the point. We do not require or expect effective pain relief to fix our emotional responses, expedite our way through the grieving process or regain employment or mobility for us. We simply want to stop or at least dial down the hurting for some of the time. Not an unreasonable ask, surely?

The presenter then noted that an estimated 43% of British people are suffering with some form of chronic pain. No data or qualification was given so I’m unable confirm or deny this number, but it would seem logical to me that it would be inhumane for any medical professional to expect 43% of the population to just ‘live with it’.

The programme then segued into filmed conversation with a patient; I’ll just call her AB. The presenter stated AB was “plunged into dependency” on Opioids after damage to nerves in her back. Repeated shots of AB lifting blister packs of tablets from a plastic box were shown, interspersed with shots of her playing toddler to emphasise the ‘danger’. The medications she specifically mentioned were Tramadol & Codeine. She said “I have to keep it (the tablets) in the box locked up high because a lot of this is very dangerous, for most people it can be fatal…. I was given these drugs with no guidance or support on how to use them” It was also mentioned that once she’d started taking the meds she suffered with drowsiness, nausea & memory loss.

Where do I begin? I can indeed confirm that both Tramadol & Codeine if taken incorrectly can be fatal. So can paracetamol, arsenic (cherry stone anyone?), sugar, nutmeg and water. Earth is fatal if you are buried in it, in fact life itself could accurately be described as a fatal condition. Ridiculous and more importantly irrelevant nonsense. I think it was at this point my BP rose to nuclear.

To address her other points:

  • No-one in the UK can legally obtain Opioids without a prescription from their doctor. They are a controlled substance. A prescription, by its very nature prescribes (stipulates) how many pills you should take, and how often, as well as if you need to take them with food, or avoid alcohol or driving. If this isn’t enough ‘guidance’ for you, then the instructions are also printed on a label stuck to the box, and warnings about the dangers of not taking them as prescribed are on the patient information leaflet, along with common side effects and advice to report these to your doctor
  • Drowsiness is a common side effect of Opioids and is clearly advised on the prescription label, the box & the leaflet. However drowsiness, nausea and memory loss can also be caused by severe pain. Scientists know that pain interrupts the neural pathways that store information in our memory. This is why so many chronic conditions cause what is known as brain fog, it’s a common & frustrating issue. So whilst it is true that Opioids may have been behind these symptoms, it’s at best disingenuous not to mention another very likely cause

The programme did briefly attempt to explain the way Opioids work by both blocking the way we process the pain signal, and activating a release of Dopamine, saying that this causes a ‘feel good’ feeling, which we then want more and more of, and this is what causes addiction. I’ll leave my very simple response to this claim to real science, using the voice of Dr David Ley – “Dopamine serves many complex functions in the brain, and only kindergarten brain science describes it as an addictive drug.”

Dr Cole was wheeled out again, this time describing how long term Opioid use can cause horrid side effects such as becoming sickly, groggy, confused, drowsy & muddled. As at least two of these terms mean sleepy, and two mean confused one suspects hyperbole. She went on to say Opioids also cause depression, suicidal thoughts, that they affect the “mind through to the body”. Am I saying it’s not possible for them to do this? Absolutely not. But – speak to any chronic pain patient. In fact speak to anyone who has ever received a life changing diagnosis from a doctor. They will all tell you that it sometimes takes weeks, months or even years to grieve. We grieve for our healthy selves, our previous lifestyle, our loss of employment, our sense of identity, our activity levels, our mobility, and many other emotionally impactful changes.

You don’t need a medical degree to be aware that life-changes cause emotional distress, anxiety & depression. Now add in constant debilitating pain. Trust me, life initially feels very bleak. Depression causes among other things an urge to sleep, confusion & suicidal ideation. I’m not saying it’s either/or, but that both need to be factored into a patients mental state – if mind affects body then certainly the reverse is true, body affects mind. Have I said disingenuous already?

Moving on, a Pain Consultant stated that Opioids only work for 1:10 patients anyway. No idea what data was used to make this claim, but even if we accept this as factual I would offer the following comparison as food for thought. Less than 20% of people diagnosed with cancer types which are difficult to diagnose and/or treat survive their cancer for ten years or more (2010-11).  Recent CDC studies show that flu vaccination reduces the risk of flu illness by between 40% and 60% among the overall population. Both of these measures save lives. No-one is even suggesting that we stop offering treatment or vaccinations because they don’t work for everyone. Yet this is the view offered here. Does one have to be in a life threatening situation before medical professionals will allow us to play the odds? Ask almost any chronic pain patient if they’d like to try a pain relief medication that has a 10% chance of being effective & the answer will undoubtedly be yes please. (The latest data I can find {NIH,2017} suggests Opioids will be effective for 30-50% of Chronic pain patients).

The presenter then talked about an increased number who are addicted to Opioids, again no data was given. She stated that the biggest problem with long term Opioid use is addiction and that ¼ of a million people in Britain are currently struggling with Opioids. Even if one ignores the fact that “struggling with Opioids” is hardly a scientifically defined term, this number seemed very low to me. I’m no maths genius, but, if Great Britain has 65 million folks, and we calculate the % of the population that a ¼ of a million are, we find that according to the programmes own numbers in reality only 0.4% of our Opioid patients are ‘struggling’. I truly feel for those who become addicted to legal painkillers, but this is hardly what one would reasonably describe as an epidemic.

Unsurprisingly to anyone familiar with this topic about two thirds of the way through the tone of programme changed from vague to patronising. Almost anyone living with chronic pain will have experienced these pearls of wisdom many times, from not only medical professionals but their friends & family. Trust me, frustrating!

At this point viewers were treated to the opinions of a Dr Rebecca Hennessy. She was very keen we realise that she as a doctor had a ‘responsibility to say no’ when long term pain relief is requested. She started by saying that is easier for patients to take a pill rather than undergo long term courses of therapy. She followed this with “we have to help patients understand why no is in their best interests. The challenge comes when you’ve got someone who is overwhelmed…. they haven’t got much resilience to lose the weight, do the exercise, meditation, all the other things we look for

At this point I was torn between saying ‘what the f*ck’ a lot, laughing hysterically or sobbing. The words I actually scribbled down were patronising garbage.

The same NIH study linked above also says “It is important to emphasize that the term “pain management” has not been clearly defined and sometimes is used erroneously to denote solely pharmacologic tools. Yet pain management may involve the use of a number of tools—both pharmacologic and nonpharmacologic—to relieve pain and improve function and quality of life. Before proceeding to a review of these various treatments, it should be noted that, while each may be used on its own, their integration in multimodal strategies that cut across medical disciplines and incorporate a full range of therapeutic options—including cognitive-behavioural, physical/rehabilitation, pharmacologic, and interventional therapies—has been shown to be most effective in the treatment of chronic pain

It goes on to state that unsurprisingly US insurance companies are very reluctant to sign off on nonpharmacologic interventions. A simple equation that unfortunately also afflicts the NHS – money. Mental health care, CBT, massage, physiotherapy etc all cost far more than opioids. So essentially some parts of the medical profession want to remove medication without providing patients with the NIH recommended holistic approach to pain. Quelle Surprise.

Those who know me (& regular readers) will know that I am incredibly open minded when it comes to managing both my illness and my mental health. The two are inextricably linked. However – I also respect real science, and know that treatment for one should not be confused with treatment for the other.  I practice relaxation techniques, I meditate, I practice gratitude daily, and I’ve mostly come through my own grieving process. All of these things take time, and are often a steep learning curve. Do they help me cope with being in pain every single minute of every day? Yes, without doubt. Do they relieve my pain? Not in the bloody slightest, I’m mostly able to process it in a less invasive & emotional way, but it is still there, a constant unasked for traveling companion.

The only things that provide actual pain relief are Tramadol, Oxycodone and Marijuana. As one is illegal here obviously that’s only guesswork(!), but I can confidently assert that the Opioids always turn the pain down by 40-50%, and I always take them as prescribed by my doctor. I don’t even use them daily, not because I’m pain free but because I’ve built up quite a high level of pain tolerance and would rather keep the meds in reserve for when I’m in real discomfort. My choice.

The most frustrating thing for me was that throughout the programme was conflating methods for reducing pain with methods for coping with pain, as well as using the terms dependency and addiction interchangeably. They are all very different things and should be respected as such. I can only surmise that the intention was to deliberately confuse the average viewer.

I’ll finish what has turned into an opus with one of the last statements made by the presenter, which illustrates my last point beautifully. “The long term gain (of reducing Opiod use) will be fewer people trapped in the circle of dependency, a relief for them and their families.” Believe me no-one minds being dependent on a medication, they save lives. Millions of us are dependent, diabetics on insulin, on immunosuppressants, on inhalers, even cardiology patients on simple but life saving aspirin.  We need those medications to survive, to live, to thrive. This is the way in which the majority of chronic pain patients are dependent on Opioids. We are not addicts.

Butler Wanted…

Wouldn’t this just be fabulous? Simply the fetching & carrying would be a total blessing! I’ve gone with

  • Coffee because, well, coffee
  • Great food because my appetite is horrendous & cooking takes too many spoons (pun intended 😊)
  • Secretarial skills – oh to just dictate blog ideas at random hours, this would be a real treat, I might even get that novel done!
  • Who doesn’t want a psychic provider of heating pads & ice packs?!
  • Massage because, well, massage
  • Invisibility, on demand obviously, so I keep my sense of space

So what do you think I’ve missed? I’m sure there is loads more a spoonie butler could do, let me know what your top skills in a butler would be?

Namaste 🙏💙

Somewhere to Retreat…

Hi there, apologies it’s been so long, between one thing & another I’ve struggled to find find the motivation to blog recently, mostly energy & concentration levels low due to ME, plus RA hitting my hips – you know the drill. But…. I wanted to post something about my most favourite place to be (apart from my sofa), & a tweet certainly wasn’t going to cover it. I suddenly realised I had something I wanted to say, so back to my blog at last!

Where to start? The short version is that my lovely friend Ian (pictured below), the owner of my local bar – The Retreat– celebrated 30 years in business this weekend, which is frankly amazing in today’s economy, & mostly down to the fact that they’ve consistently provided us with excellent food & drink, amazing staff & service & so much fun. Exactly what you want from your local, which coincidentally is 250 years old this year! 😊

I turned eighteen in 1988 which was the year The Retreat opened, and yes, I’ve been using it fairly regularly ever since! I’m still slightly stunned thirty years have actually gone by & I’m not completely sure where they went! I’m still only 27, right? 😁

Anyways… Why I am writing this here? Because particularly since I became chronically ill this place has been a literal as well as metaphorical lifeline for me, and it’s a massively important part of my support network, I’d go stir crazy without it.

It’s somewhere I try & visit two or three times a week depending on how I’m feeling. It’s somewhere that as a lone female & a disabled person I feel completely safe. Better than that, I feel loved. I get table service & have my own personal cappuccino mug 😍

Most of my friend network is based from here, The Retreat has always attracted a wonderfully eclectic crowd of people as regulars & long may this continue. Ian also employs some truly fabulous staff & I love them all dearly, they’re family.

Whether I drop in early lunchtime or later afternoon there is never not someone I can chat to. Sometimes after two or three days in bed you just need human contact, and this place is it for me, it always lifts me.

Because of meds it’s very rare I have alcohol these days, I haven’t drunk “properly” for over three years, but I’m still made totally welcome for my coffees or soft drinks. My wonderful GP is well aware I use the place & often checks in with me on appointments that I’m still getting out at least a couple of times a week – we both know how important that is for my mental health, it’s way too easy to become isolated when disabled.

Any good pub or bar is always a community hub, & The Retreat certainly fills that role beautifully, whether you need help with the crossword or to find a plumber this is definitely the place to be.

So, I absolutely wanted to be present as much as possible this weekend, and I managed both Saturday & Sunday afternoons. Evenings are unfortunately a bit beyond me. But I’ve spent time with some of my favourite people in my favourite place, & that’s what was important to me.

Have I come home and crashed? Horribly. Everything hurts, I’ve barely moved since I got home this afternoon & I’ll probably trade at least a few days for these two afternoons in a row. And you know what? It’s worth every bloody spoon I’ve used, pain included.

Because sometimes life has to be about more than illness & pacing & doctors & tests & meds. Friendships & love are so important, I treasure them & the joy they bring me.

I’ve said before this is my equivalent of the TV bar Cheers, “where everybody knows your name”. So I guess what I really want to say is not only Congratulations Ian, or “I bloody love this bar”, but mostly Thank you, for being my respite, my social life, my Retreat.

Why I Don’t Do ‘Stuff’….

This may sound a little odd but I often forget the reason my pain levels stay manageable is because I’m very careful with what I do & don’t do. Today was one of of those rare days when my mind was awake, I had some energy and was in the mood to tackle a couple of little jobs at home.

 We’re not talking plastering walls and laying brickwork here – but what in my old life would have been maybe an hour or two’s pottering after work! I painted my bathroom windowsill, put a couple of new screws in to fix and touched up the paint on my hall radiator cover, and painted a piece of wall approximately 7ft x 6ft using a step stool.
This wasn’t all at once, I know energy wise I have to be very careful because of the ME. I was sitting down for doing at least half of this, and I took long coffee breaks in between each task. This really wasn’t hard work – or at least it didn’t used to be.

However…

I’m now hurting everywhere. Fibro & RA are both flaring. My feet feel like they’ve been beaten with a hammer, both hips are shouting, my back, shoulders, elbow and neck are all complaining loudly and my hands are throbbing. Plus of course I’m now exhausted.

The really silly thing is I genuinely forget sometimes there’s a damn good reason I’ve slowed down – I have to, because if I don’t, ouch. I really must remember to actually tell my rheumy about this at our next meeting!

These days most of the time I get friends round or pay someone to do this stuff for me, which is obviously the sensible option as it keeps my pain down and protects my joints. But when it’s “just” little odd jobs (that in a previous life you’d have tackled on a Sunday morning in no time) not being able to to do them is really frustrating. Being able to rely on others is wonderful, but having to rely on others is not so great and you do worry goodwill will eventually run out! And of course paying professionals to do work for you is yet another part of the expense that is living with disability.

It always costs one way or another.

 Despite all this… I’m feeling a rare sense of achievement! Three things that have been bugging me for months are finally off my to-do list forever. Will I do it again? You betchya – probably in around three months when I’ve forgotten again 😊

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 🙏🕉️💙

Behind The Illness is Me…

Thanks to Emma, who is part of my twitter tribe and a fellow person with ME for tagging me in #behindtheillness – it’s a lovely reminder that all of us living #chroniclife are also very human! You can find her great blog at NotJustTired

So you can find below some interesting & totally not useful facts about me 😊

Four places I’ve lived:

1. Stroud, Gloucestershire (my actual & spiritual home).

2. Eastbourne, West Sussex

3. Clifford’s Mesne, Gloucestershire
4. Constantine Bay, Cornwall

Four places I’ve worked:

1. The Swan Inn – chef & barmaid extroidinnaire!
2. Stroud College – Lecturer in Floristry
3. JHP Training – teaching then management across the South West
4. Athena, Bournemouth – book retailer

Four favourite hobbies:

1. Reading
2. Knitting (very much a learner)
3. Writing – my blog, poetry & occasionally stories
4. Meditation

Four things I like to watch:

1. Criminal Minds

2. Game of Thrones
3. The Walking Dead
4. Movies, especially good thrillers

Four things I like to read:

1. Fantasy – swords & sorcery – Feist, Eddings, Hobbe, Douglass
2. Spiritual – Thich Naht Hanh, Ruby Wax, Russell Brand, John Kabat-Zinn
3. Thrillers – Koontz especially
4. Poetry – most recent discovery is the C14th Persian poet Hafiz – sheer beauty through words

Four places I have been:

1. Guardalavaca, Cuba
2. Marrakesh, Morocco
3. Vienna, Austria
4. Ghent, Belgium

Four things I love to eat:

1. Chocolate
2. Steak & roasted vegetables
3. Indian food
4. Lamb Tagine

Four favourite things to drink:

1. Coffee especially cappuccino!
2. Green Tea
3. Havana Club aged rum (very occasional treat)
4. Mango & Passionfruit Juice with soda and ice

Four places I want to visit:

1. Budapest
2. Iraq, Iran & Syria (ancient Persia, pictured below)
3. St Petersburg
4. Canadian Rockies

Four bloggers I’d like to tag:

1. The very lovely Wren at RheumablogWren
2. The wonderful disability advocate Shona at ShonaLouise
3. The fabulous & focused Sally at SallyJustME
4. The boldy tweeting and often amusing Elise at TheFragileBones

There are lots of other bloggers I’d love to tag, I’m just hoping I’m not duplicating the tag with my choices!

I initially thought this would be a quick five minutes, then started thinking, reminiscing….. It’s been good fun.

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.