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.

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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 😊

Please watch #Unrest

Some of you may know I have Myalgic Encephalomyelitis, or ME/CFS. Many of you will have no idea of what that actually means beyond “being tired” which is so far from the truth. For too long the medical profession & the media have treated ME/CFS as a joke, a mental illness, or fakery. It is none of the above, and the mindset is insulting to every single one of us.

It affects waking & sleeping. It affects cognitive thinking and speech, memory, writing and listening. It causes seizures and myoclonic jerks. Clumsiness. Bowel problems. Joint pain. Muscle pain. Exercise intolerance and PEM (Post Exertional Malaise) which can last for weeks or months. Flu like symptoms. It affects every minute of waking life every single day.

In the face of ignorance and incompetence from those with whom she sought help, Jen did what many of us do. She went online and found a tribe. Somewhere where we are heard, seen and understood. Where we are validated.

She then went much further, eventually creating and filming Unrest. This is her story, but it’s also our story. Thankfully I’ve never been as severe as Jen, I pray I never am.

But I have periods of days when I am invisible, when no-one sees me. I don’t get dressed or leave the house. When I wake from an 18 hour sleep then have a three hour nap. When holding a conversation is impossible. When simply sitting up is just too hard, let alone leaving the bed or sofa. I am too often one of the #millionsmissing

Please watch #Unrest – it’s now on Netflix. The link to the trailer is below. Yes it’s hard viewing. But it will open your eyes to the reality of the lives of millions with ME.

PEM – or Bed Now Please

Having just started to come out of a bad incidence of PEM I realised it’s something I’ve not specifically posted about. Yet it’s been a huge part of my life for over three years. So I’m going to try to explain in personal terms just how incredibly debilitating it is. A little background is probably necessary.

According to the NIH* “Post-Exertional Malaise (PEM) is a cardinal symptom of the illnesses referred to as Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME), Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS), and chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS).

A cardinal symptom is one that must be experienced by the patient to confirm diagnosis of the condition, in this case ME. Although my official diagnosis of ME wasn’t confirmed until about eighteen months ago, my GP and I are both in agreement that this has been ongoing for me since the time of my original RA diagnosis.

So, what exactly is it? And how does it differ from the fatigue experienced by patients with RA or other autoimmune conditions?

The NIH* states that “Unlike generalized fatigue, PEM is much more profound and reduces daily functioning. This symptom is characterized by a delay in the recovery of muscle strength after exertion, so it can cause patients to be bedridden for multiple consecutive days.”

And this is exactly what I’ve just been through. More recent studies into PEM recognise that the earlier criteria of ‘exercise’ was misleading and led to confusion amongst patients affecting diagnosis, ‘exertion’ is now used to provide a clearer picture, and it’s recognised that this can be mental or physical exertion, and that the physical exertion has a much lower baseline than in the standard population, as patients with ME are rarely able to exercise.

So we know PEM is profound and reduces daily functioning. But what does that look like? And how does it feel in real patient terms?

The NIH* describes it as “a worsening of ME/CFS, ME and CFS symptoms including fatigue, headaches, muscle aches, cognitive deficits, insomnia, and swollen lymph nodes. It can occur after even the simplest everyday tasks, such as walking, showering, or having a conversation.”

Seriously? Showering? Having a conversation? Actually yes, and in my experience having conversations, chatting, talking, call it what you will is incredibly draining. That doesn’t mean it can’t be enjoyed, but it does mean I’ll often pay for it later.

I’ll try and describe as clearly as I can how I was affected this weekend. I came home Sunday evening from visiting my Dad, which involves more driving than I would usually do. I want to make it clear here that I’m not blaming you Dad!! ❤️ Going to Waitrose or even popping out for lunch can have exactly the same effect. That’s the point. It doesn’t take much. And it doesn’t have to be physical. Dealing with simple paperwork for a short time can do the same thing.

So, Sunday afternoon. The first sign for me is usually yawning. Before I had ME I never thought of yawning as being a physical thing, but this can drop me to my knees. It’s like my whole body yawns with me. A couple of friends in my regular social circle will spot this a mile off now, and they’ll simply say ‘time to go home’. Apparently I suddenly look exhausted. Always attractive!

I’d say that on average within twenty minutes of this yawning starting I’ll be asleep, there is no choice, no putting it off. It’s like my whole body is simply shutting down. My head stops thinking, my muscles go heavy, and I can barely walk.

I lay down on the sofa at about six pm on Sunday, and only came to properly at about 6am this morning. So that’s 36 hours of basically being unconscious. I know I woke twice when my alarms went off to take my meds, and I know there was a third alarm I ignored so I missed a dose. I know I briefly came to and made a coffee at about 7pm on Monday, and it took everything I had to get into the kitchen and back. The rest is a blur of weird dreams involving a pub fire, going swimming in Italy and a trip to a theatre. Strange but true.

So that’s 36 hours lost so far. When I woke at 6am this morning I knew the worst had passed, the almost coma like feeling had gone, and my mind is awake to some small extent. Enough to slowly write this at least. But I have zero energy, and little concentration. From experience it will take another 24 hours at least before I’m able to actually get up and shower. I won’t be able to read or follow a TV plot properly, and I will probably sleep a lot today, though hopefully more refreshing sleep, not the passed out exhausted-ness of the past two days. Although it’s not an experience I’ve had I imagine I probably feel about the same as a marathon runner the day after, when everything hurts and you can barely move!

This is not a rare occurrence, it happens about once a week. I can lose from one to three days. I do pace my activities quite carefully, plan down days around days I have to be up and out, whether for medical appointments or social. I live alone so I try to get out three times a week for a couple of hours each time, usually a couple of coffees or soft drinks with friends. It’s incredibly easy to become isolated with chronic illness and it’s so very important we don’t.

So today will be a ‘sofa day’, as it happens it’s very rainy and dark outside so a perfect day for a couple of daft movies and snoozing. Then, fingers metaphorically crossed, I’ll feel human again tomorrow 😊

Footnote – it’s curious but common in #chroniclife to feel the need to validate ones symptoms and experiences, especially with something like ME which is incredibly still dismissed by some doctors. In this instance I’m actually glad I was wearing my sleep tracker, which has recorded 23 hours of sleep for yesterday. Proof!

*I have referred to and quoted from the American NIH or National Institute of Health because I find their website carries clear and up to to date articles. The full text that I’ve quoted from can be found here.