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 💙

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.

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 💙

NYE 2017 – Reflections

I was trying to find a theme or quote that represented what 2017 has meant for me to use as a starting point, but nothing seemed quite the right thing. I know New Years Eve tends to bring us bloggers out of the woodwork, I think it’s the creative urge to somehow capture where we’ve been, and perhaps plot where we want to go. Combined with the creative muse that won’t let us know what the next sentence is until we write it.

My year has above all been a catalyst for change, and wending through it has been a series of lessons I hope I’ve learned from. I think I’m a better person than I was twelve months ago, and I hope in twelve months time I can say the same again and mean it as fully as I do now. There’s a lovely aboriginal proverb that says “”We are all visitors to this time, this place. We are just passing through. Our purpose here is to observe, to learn, to grow, to love… And then we return home.”

I have, with the support of some wonderful people, finally discovered the real Joy of Now. Not the superficial trimmings of mindfulness that is pushed by mainstream media, but the real living in the moment stuff. It’s mind altering. Life changing. And it’s so amazing! But I wouldn’t have been ready for this had it happened earlier in my life, I firmly believe that we have to become open and ready to welcome in the new and let go of the old, and do this with with self love and self compassion. Even when it’s as challenging as f*ck. Which it often is.

So how did I get here? I am forever grateful to Demi Schneider my wonderful therapist, who helped me become ready to open these doors almost two years ago now by teaching me how to love myself fully. To Ruby Wax whose fabulous book “A Mindfulness Guide for the Frazzled” gave my logical brain the understanding it needed of what was going on in my head and how to start rewiring those neural pathways. To the wonderful Calm app which helped me start meditating and sleeping again. To the beautiful Essia for leading me to The Now Project. And to Adrian from the Now Project who held my hand (literally & metaphorically) through one of the darkest hours of my life. And to the whole Now Project Team for just being here.

Does that give you a glimpse of how it all fits? How what seems random and disparate is beautifully interconnected. The Universe guides us to where we need to be even when we have no clue what we need. We can’t rush it, things will happen when they are supposed to. All we need do is live, right now.

For those that don’t know I was diagnosed with a serious lung condition in June, which at the time was believed to be terminal. It wasn’t a shock to me as I’d been expecting it for months, but even so it was definitely one of life’s “oh shit” moments. Thankfully I already had mindfulness and meditation in my life, without either I know I would have spiralled back into severe depression.

And here’s where synchronicity comes in. I attended my first retreat with the Now Project the day after I had this news. (See, I did have a point!) That evening during our informal meet and greet we were asked what we hoped to get from this weekend. As I listened to the others share a voice in my head (mine, of course) suddenly shouted “Nothing, I’m going to die, you can’t help me” In that moment everyone and everything else seemed trivial. Knowing I was about to either sob or scream I quietly left the room.

I went outside and sat under a beautiful willow, looking over the fields in front of the house. And I sobbed my heart out. Until gradually I realised I was watching the midges dance in the twilight. Above them Swifts circled and dove, catching their evening supper. And I found a measure of peace, my feet bare against the grass, grounded in nature.

Of course when someone came to see if I was okay I melted again. And Adrian, a complete stranger to me, sat with me for nearly an hour. Holding my hands. Bringing me back to my breath continually. And that is when I finally understood that we only ever have Now. None of us are guaranteed tomorrow. Nothing else is real. Catalyst.

I’m incredibly grateful to say that further testing has (at least for now) ruled out any significant impact on my life expectancy. I have Interstitial Lung Disease caused by RA, which in turn causes a lot of breathing issues, but they are manageable by moving slowly. I’ve also been formally diagnosed with ME this year, so fatigue impacts my pace too. And that helps me continue to live in the moment.

So in simple terms facing my own mortality brought me deep joy. I know I’m not the first or last to say this. And others will walk different paths. The one thing we’ll have in common is that realisation of just how essential it is to live Now. Not today or next week or next year – they don’t exist. When we combine that with real love for ourselves exactly as we are we become invincible. Even death holds no fear because it’s just another step towards enlightenment.

It’s quarter to midnight on New Years Eve 2017, the moon is bright and full. I have candles burning gently and the enchanting music of Deva Prema playing in the background. All is well right Now.

Wishing you all a blessed 2018.
Dee 💙

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 🕉️

RA & Lung Disease, or my struggle for breath

Firstly my apologies for sneaking in a wildcard at the end of RA Blog Week, but I’ve been suffering badly with fatigue which is unfortunately not conducive to blogging!

It’s been a long year already, and it’s left me a little tired. Let me take you back almost 12 months….

October 1st last year I started coughing. An irritating dry cough that was constantly annoying. By the beginning of December my GP ordered a chest xray ‘just to cover all bases’ and prescribed a steroid inhaler to help with the cough, which we thought might be Bronchitis.

Around Xmas I started getting breathless on exertion, and over the next few weeks this got worse. My xray came back showing ‘some scarring’. I’ll cut a long story a little shorter here but over the next few months I had a number of attempts at spirometry tests which failed as I coughed too much, though they did indicate a restrictive breathing pattern. At this point I was referred into the hospital, and after more detailed HRCT scans, Fleuroscopy, a bout of pneumonia and extensive lung function tests it became apparent that the RA has attacked my lungs.

In the last meeting with my thoracic consultant I got to see the scans, including a short “video” of my lungs breathing. It’s fascinating to see, you know me and wanting the fine detail! What it’s also shown is that on top of the lung damage – which is very likely from the RA – my right hemidiagphram is significantly elevated, though still thankfully working. The diaphragm is essentially the muscle that moves your lungs when your brain says breathe.

I’m saying it looks like RA damage because the jury is still out, there’s still a small chance it could be pulmonary fibrosis and not interstitial lung disease – further tests will keep an eye on progression of the lung damage and help identify the cause.

But essentially parts of my lungs have become inflamed, and then hardened, reducing my lung capacity and making it harder to breathe. On top of that the raised hemidiagphram is squashing the bottom of my right lung which just increases the breathlessness. We don’t know why that’s elevated so investigation is needed there too.

There is no fix, no cure. Lung tissue can’t be repaired. At the moment my consultant doesn’t feel this will significantly shorten my life, but we all know life don’t come with guarantees. I’m not being negative here, just sharing the facts as they’ve been put to me.

Unfortunately whether I live another four years or forty, I will have to live with this constant breathlessness. It was particularly difficult the first few days here in Cyprus as my lungs struggled with the hot air, making breathing incredibly hard even on mild exertion. This has now eased somewhat, hopefully in part due to the new inhaler I’m on.

But daily life has become that much harder. What makes me breathless? Making a coffee. Having a shower. Getting dressed. Turning over in bed. Walking short distances on crutches. Cooking. Basically everything. I’m also increasingly tired, probably due to low oxygen saturation levels which are being monitored, but on top of ME/CFS this has been a big drain on my already limited energy. I’m slowly learning to take pacing activity to the nth degree, quite literally tiny baby steps.

There have been moments when this has been very scary, but I’ve come to realise it’s almost like starting over again with a new chronic illness. Except this time I’m better prepared. I don’t need to slog through the ups and downs of adjusting mentally because I’ve been there. I’m certainly not willing to allow – or even in a place where – this can knock me down.

So, both mentally and physically I take those baby steps forward. I still meditate regularly, practice mindfulness and gratitude daily and these help keep me sane (ish!). In all seriousness without these I’d have been floored by yet another chronic health issue, but living in the now definitely reduces stress reactions. I’ve had my moments believe me, but they’ve been mostly manageable.

I think it’s important to remember that as with my first diagnosis of RA, this isn’t an end but the start of a new, slightly tougher path. And with the support of some amazing friends and family I can learn to live with this too.

Please remember as always nothing on my page is intended as medical advice and any errors are my own!