Why It’s Okay Not To Work When You Live with Chronic Illness

Having an illness like fibromyalgia is not a reflection of your character. No one works harder than someone with a chronic illness – every day is a struggle to work through symptoms and do your absolute best to be where you’re needed.

Why It's Okay Not to Work When You Live With Chronic Illness

The biggest change in my life that followed my fibromyalgia diagnosis was leaving my career because I just physically could not keep up any longer with the demands of the job. I’ve never felt more conflicted about making a decision. On the one hand I felt relief – it was incredibly stressful to constantly fail to meet expectations while working harder than ever before. On the other hand, I felt like I was losing a core part of my identity. After all, a career is not just what someone does between 9 to 5 – it’s often how a person understands and defines themselves.

Have you ever noticed that the first question someone asks you after being introduced is “so, what do you do for a living?” It’s common to answer the “what do you do for a living” question by saying “I am a ___“.   In our society, an occupation is not just what you do but who you are.

We place a moral value on being hard-working – putting in daily effort to provide for your family and contribute to your community – as long as you get paid for it. I still dread meeting new people and having to answer the what do you do question. It’s hard not to internalize the negative judgments about people who don’t work – usually variations on ‘they’re lazy, incompetent, and a burden to society.’ In Canada, where I live:

  • 14% of people with fibromyalgia reported that they were permanently unable to work (compared to 2% of the general public);
  • 43% had annual personal income less than $15,000 [poverty line] (compared to 29 per cent of the general public) (Parlor).

“Our society is largely driven by money, profit, and earning power, and this makes our professions a major part of how we identify.  So if you lose your job, you can easily lose your identity, too” (Norris, 2016). I felt so disoriented in the months after I left my job. It was hard to figure out who I was now and how I fit in.

As I began to engage online  with other people living with chronic illnesses and disabilities, I learned more about how to understand work and disability in our society, and what that meant for me as I transitioned to staying at home.

Definition of Disability:

Initially, the label of ‘disability’ did not resonate with me. I associated it with a permanent condition like vision-loss rather than a fluctuating illness like fibromyalgia. But once I learned the definition of disability, it became clear how it applied to my situation. According to the American Disability Association, a disability is a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits major life activities (Blahovec).

Fibromyalgia impairs my abilities by causing pain, fatigue and brain fog. The lack of truly flexible accommodation in campuses/workplaces, like fixed work hours, deadlines and location, combined with stigma about invisible illnesses/disability, prevents my full participation in society.

Is Disability an Individual Problem?

The most common way we look at disability in our society is through the lens of ‘normal versus abnormal’. A person with a disability is different from ‘what is normal’ because of their limitations. This understanding of disability is often called the medical model – disability is an abnormal, medical condition affecting an individual (Scope).

We often hold up ‘inspirational’ examples of individuals with disabilities who ‘overcome’ their limitations by ‘fighting through’ the challenges they face, all the while having a good attitude (Abilities). The flipside of this is if you go about your business, pacing yourself within your limitations, you may be judged for “playing the victim” by “giving in” to your disability!

Disability as a Social Issue

If we were able to create an inclusive society, which removed the barriers that restrict life choices for people with disabilities, then everyone could participate equally in our communities. “The social model of disability says that disability is caused by the way society is organized, rather than by a person’s impairment or difference” (Scope). Barriers can include attitudes (stigma, discrimination), policies (workplace accommodations) and physical design (accessible entrances, transportation). For chronic illness advocates, joining the disability movement can help to “advance not only the goals for people with similar challenges, but for the whole disability movement” (Blahovec).

After I learned about the medical model versus the social model of disability, I felt like a light bulb went on inside my head. Here’s what conversations around disability taught me about living with fibromyalgia, and I think applies to anyone who needs accommodations at work, or no longer works:

  • Having an illness like fibromyalgia is not a reflection of your character. No one works harder than someone with a chronic illness – every day is a struggle to work through symptoms and do your absolute best to be where you’re needed.
  • News flash for your inner critic – not being able to participate fully in work/school is as much about ablest barriers as it is about physical limitations, and neither of those things is your fault!
  • If your contribution to the world is not in the form of paid employment, it is no less valuable than anyone else’s. The world is a better place because you’re in it!
  • Finding your identity outside of career makes you a more well-rounded person, whether it’s in relationships (like being a parent) or passion projects (creative expression, writing/advocacy).
  • Pacing your activities within your limits is working smarter. There is no need to “overcome” or be “inspirational” – just living your life the best way you can is all you need to do.
  • Having an illness or disability is pretty commonplace. Living with fibromyalgia is not your individual problem, but just another thread in the fabric of the human experience overall (we need to normalize life with fibromyalgia rather than pathologize it!)

(This article originally appeared in the June 2018 edition of UK Fibromyalgia Magazine)

Resources

Abilities (Disability as Inspiration: Can Greater Exposure Overcome this Phenomenon?)

Sarah Blahovec (HuffPost Blog: I have a Chronic Illness. Here’s Why I Embrace the Label ‘Disabled’)

International Paralympic Committee (UN Convention on the RIghts of Persons with Disability)

Margaret Parlor (Canadian Women’s Health Network: Understanding Fibromyalgia)

Scope (The Social Model of Disability)

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Fibromyalgia Awareness Day: How a Fibromyalgia Diagnosis Changes Your Life Story

By Katarina Zulak at Skillfullywell.com

After Diagnosis - How Fibromyalgia Changes Your Life Story

An illness like fibromyalgia permeates every aspect of your life – it forever alters the trajectory of your story. For this year’s Fibromyalgia Awareness Day, I wanted to reflect how my diagnosis changed my path, both in negative and positive ways.

I have written about my story before, but here I want to talk about the impact my diagnosis had. Initially, all I could see afterwards was loss in every direction, as if a tornado had ripped through my life, reducing everything I had dreamt, all my castles-in-the-air, to rubble. There would be no graduation from my PhD, no career in international development, no travelling around the world, no more outdoor adventures, no parties, no financial independence, and no buying a house, among many other no’s.

Fibromyalgia changed most of my relationships. I now depend on my husband for many daily tasks, household chores, and finances – I am a dependent and he is my caregiver. I have lost friendships, and I see the friends I still have less frequently then I would like.

Grieving over the losses caused by chronic illness is a different process than the usual stages of grief people experience. When I wrote a post on grief after diagnosis, I found the concept of infinite losses very helpful for illuminating this:

Most often, grief is a reaction to a single, time-limited event… Grief associated with chronic illness, however, is more complex for many individuals.  For people who are chronically ill, the losses are multiple and permanent and therefore difficult to resolve. Because these losses are unending, they’re known as infinite losses (Jackson, 2014).

But my story doesn’t end there. In the trials I’ve experienced on my illness journey, I have forged a stronger, wiser and more patient personality. Fibromyalgia stripped me down to my most basic self and forced me to find my identity independent of career, relationships and external activities.

The positive gains that I’ve experienced after diagnosis cannot be measured in dollars, or posted as pretty pictures on social media. Instead of outward experiences, chronic illness has directed my journey inward. For the first time, I have cultivated a relationship with myself.

Mindfulness meditation was the turning point for me. As I came to know the content of my own heart and mind, and began to tend to my inner self like a gardener cultivating a flower bed, I learned that growing in wisdom was a worthwhile goal to pursue. People on the outside may not appreciate my efforts, and I might not have material worth to show for it, but my inner peace is a higher reward than any external validation.

Taking in the simple pleasures of an ordinary day has enriched my life – tuning into sensory experiences like the warmth of sunshine on your skin, the aroma of coffee brewing in the morning, or the sound of bird song. Learning to savour the little moments of closeness with people I love on a daily basis is one of the most important lessons I’ve learned.

Difficult moments happen daily, triggered by pain, difficult emotions, and frustrating appointments, among other things. I’ve come to see these like thunderstorms, that eventually pass, just like the weather. It helps me to read less into those thoughts and feelings, to stop over-analyzing or ruminating on them, and eventually to let them go.

Beginning to accept myself, despite my mistakes and missteps, and feel compassion for my body, even when it lets me down, has probably made me a stronger, more patient and compassionate person. I know I treat those around me better because of it.

Being a better person is kind of the point of living your life, after all. I’m not trying to say that developing fibromyalgia was worth it, because I don’t buy into that “think positive” prescription. But what I aim for is a quote I read somewhere along the way:

“it might not be the life you planned, but it’s a good life nonetheless”.

Pain, Pregnancy & Prescriptions: Why You Should Treat Your Pain and How to Manage Safely (While Trying to Conceive & Pregnant)

The first question I had after we decided to start TTC was about how to safely manage my medications during pregnancy. It’s vital not to under-treat your pain! Here’s where to find the info you need. And to those of you who criticize women in pain who are taking prescriptions while trying to conceive, my message is: get out of here with your stigma!

How To Find Out If Your Medications Are Safe During Pregnancy

During my 20s, I spent a lot of time and effort trying not to get pregnant. I used pills, patches and IUDs, coped with side effects, sat for hours in waiting rooms just to get prescription renewals, had a couple of scares thanks to late periods, and experienced all the other joys of being a woman using birth control.

It’s a surreal moment when you and your partner make the terrifying and exciting decision to you flip the switch, and start trying to conceive. Suddenly it’s all basal body temperature, ovulation predictor kits, and cervical fluid checks (and acronym hell – TTC, BBT, OPK, CF, TWW and BFP – it’s like a secret code!). Learning and tracking all of the ovulation signs is hard enough, never mind the challenges of pregnancy and parenthood, But for those of us with chronic illness, we face the additional hurdle of managing pain and other symptoms along the way. It’s vital to have a pain management plan while trying to conceive and pregnant:

“Because of fear about use of drugs during pregnancy, some pregnant women would rather suffer than treat their pain. Consequently, it is possible that such women are at risk of undertreatment, or no treatment, for painful conditions. Chronic, severe pain that is ineffectively treated is associated with hypertension, anxiety, and depression—none of which is conducive to a healthy pregnancy” (Motherisk).

The first hurdle you will most likely face, like I am right now, is how to safely manage your pain and other symptoms while you and your partner are trying to conceive?

How To Find Out If Your Medications Are Safe During Pregnancy

The first question I had after my husband and I decided we wanted to start trying was about the safety of my medications during pregnancy. At the time, I didn’t realize how complex this issue would turn out to be. It seems simple enough – a medication is either safe or unsafe, right?

Not so fast. In fact, a whopping “91% of the medications approved for use in adults lack sufficient data to determine the risk of birth defects due to use of medications during pregnancy” (CDC – Treating for Two).

The problem is that there are no double-blind, placebo-controlled research trials involving pregnant women. Why? Because it’s unethical to test the safety of a medication on a pregnant woman and her growing fetus – the potential consequence of causing a birth defect is too great a risk (CDC – Treating for Two).

Instead, the information doctors have about the safety of medications and pregnancy usually comes from observational studies of women who have chosen to take a medication during their pregnancy.

“Registries enroll pregnant women who have taken a certain medicine. Then, after these women give birth, the health of their babies is compared with the health of the babies of women who did not take the medicine” (CDC – Treating for Two).

The best you and your doctor can do is learn what information there is about the safety of the medications you take, weigh the potential health benefits and risks, and make a judgment call. But don’t fear prescriptions while TTC or pregnant. In fact, “Medications used in therapeutic doses for acute and chronic pain appear to be relatively safe in pregnancy” (Motherisk – click for a general overview of medications and supporting studies).

So where can you find the information that has been collected about prescription medication use before and during pregnancy?

In the United States, you can contact an organization called Mother to Baby, a nonprofit run by experts in birth defects. You can call toll free at 1-866-626-6847, text 855-999-3525, or visit the website at https://mothertobaby.org/.

In Canada, you can contact Motherisk at 1-877-439-2744 toll free or online at http://www.motherisk.org/

Prescriptions And Pregnancy: Get Out Of Here With Your Stigma

Prescriptions And Pregnancy: Get Out Of Here With Your Stigma

I take medications to manage my pain, including nortriptyline, tramadol and pregabalin. When I first went online to research this issue, I faced a wall of stigma and guilt-tripping over women taking prescriptions while trying to conceive or while pregnant. I felt a lot of stress and guilt about my “choice” to continue taking medications – as if I was somehow failing as a mother before I even became one.

I want to push back against any notion that taking medications to manage your pain while TTC or pregnant is in any way selfish. Yes, some medications are dangerous during pregnancy and the information we have about them is sometimes limited. You have to do your research and perhaps switch medications and emphasize non-pharmaceutical strategies to manage your pain (like massage, acupuncture, gentle exercise, yoga and meditation). But we also know that being in pain, stressed, and unable to sleep while pregnant is harmful to a growing fetus. Reducing those illness symptoms is actually a responsible act, something that a caring mother would do. So to those of you who criticize women in pain who are taking prescriptions while trying to conceive, my message is: get out of here with your stigma!

 

 

 

 

 

Hormonally Challenged: What You Need To Know About Adrenal Hormones, Fatigue, and Fibromyalgia

If you have fibromyalgia and want to reduce your fatigue, this is what you need to know about the critical link between your sleep/wake cycle and adrenal hormones. Your adrenal glands play a vital role in determining your daily energy/fatigue cycle because they produce the important hormones cortisol and DHEA.

The Critical Link Between Adrenal Hormones, and Your Sleep/Wake Cycle

When I got the results of my adrenal function test, I found the explanation for my daily energy and fatigue cycle. This test measures the functioning of your adrenal glands, which are responsible for regulating the production of several critical hormones, including cortisol and DHEA. It can help you figure out your daily energy/fatigue cycle so you can modify your treatment and pacing decisions to best effect.

To be clear, I am not suggesting that the diagnosis of adrenal fatigue,  a controversial condition among medical doctors, is the same as fibromyalgia fatigue. Instead, I believe that research has demonstrated the important role hormones, like cortisol, melatonin and DHEA, play in your daily circadian rhythm (sleep/wake cycle).

Abnormality in circadian rhythm of hormonal profiles has been observed in [fibromyalgia]. Moreover, there are reports of deficiency of serotonin, melatonin, cortisol and cytokines in FMS patients, which are fully regulated by circadian rhythm (Mahdi, et al., 2011).

These hormones are often deficient in people with fibromyalgia. Since cortisol and DHEA are produced by the adrenal glands, I think it is correct to say that ‘adrenal hormones’ are part of the fibromyalgia fatigue puzzle.

What is an Adrenal Function Test?

The test involves taking saliva samples four times during one day (before breakfast, lunch and dinner and at bedtime). My naturopath gave me a kit with four test tubes to spit into, and a plastic envelope to mail the samples across the country to Rocky Mountain Analytical labs (weird, right?). They tested my saliva for the cortisol level from each sample and graphed how it fluctuated during the day. I also had my overall DHEA level tested.

What is Cortisol and Why Should You Care?

Cortisol, also known as the ‘stress hormone’s is produced by the adrenal glands (endocrine glands that sit on top of the kidneys). You may have heard of cortisol and its role in the ‘fight or flight’ response to stressful situation – when the body releases high levels of cortisol , alongside adrenaline, to initiate that heart-pounding mode, pumped up feeling you get in a crisis.

But cortisol also plays a vital role in day-to-day functioning.  Cortisol is released in the morning to help you become alert and focused. It is supposed to decline gradually during the day so that by evening you feel sleepy and ready for bed. Melatonin, the ‘sleep hormone’, rises before bedtime and reduces cortisol production by the adrenal glands. However, in women with fibromyalgia, night-time melatonin has been found to be abnormally low and night-time cortisol abnormally high, probably leading to poor sleep quality.

The green shading on the graph in Fig. 1 shows the ideal downward curve from morning to night. There is a normal range in the population, with people on the upper end going from 7.0 to 1.3 ng/mL from a.m. to p.m. and people on the low end of the range going from 1.0 to 0.2 ng/mL.

In some studies, a pattern of low daytime cortisol and high night-time cortisol is characteristic of a disordered circadian rhythm in some people with fibromyalgia.

 

Fig 1 My Cortisol levels during the day

Fig 1 My Cortisol levels during the day

My results: Mid-afternoon Slump and Energetic Evenings

You can see that my results are all off (above, the dark line connecting dots): high in the morning, low in the afternoon and back up again in the evening. I start the morning at 2.8 ng/ml, decrease to 1.4 by mid-afternoon, then increase back up to 2.6, and finally taper off at 1.0 ng/mL at bedtime. This explains my mid-afternoon slump and energetic evenings. Dr. Love also pointed out that I go from being in the bottom 50% of the normal cortisol range in the morning and afternoon, but by evening I am in the upper 50%, and trying to fall asleep with a relatively high level (l.0 ng/mL cortisol). This is probably contributing to my night time insomnia.

Yes, my results are in the normal range, but fibromyalgia involves increased central nervous system sensitization. My pattern of cortisol production is abnormal and I believe that a sensitized nervous system can interpret sub-optimal levels as intense fatigue.

How To Balance Your Cortisol Levels to Improve Energy

Be wary of many adrenal supplements that lower cortisol – if you have FMS your problem might be cortisol levels that are already too low.  I need to boost my cortisol levels in the afternoon and reduce them in the evening. You can read about my favorite adrenal boosting supplements here.  They include Vitamin C, B5, licorice and rhodiola. For night-time cortisol lowering, I like to use time-release melatonin to improve my sleep.

There are also important lifestyle changes you can make to balance your cortisol levels and improve your fibromyalgia symptoms (New Life Outlook). For example:

  • Relaxing music. Enya is still putting out the tunes, guys. Play it all day or take a break and get lost in it. At a nice low volume, of course.
  • Meditate. Grab your heating pad and a timer. Even just five minutes a day can keep major stress away.
  • Acupuncture. Once a week or once a month, for body and mind relief, I swear by those magic needles!
  • Exercise. Nothing too intense for me. I work with light weights and a slow pace.
  • Eat clean. The more you do it the better you’ll feel. Your body will thank you for not having to work so hard.
  • Consistent sleep schedule. Your body has a natural rhythm, just like Enya. Listen to it… Just like Enya (New Life Outlook).

 What is DHEA and Why Should You Care?

Fig. 2 The numbers

Fig. 2 The numbers

DHEA is produced in the adrenal glands, and is a precursor hormone for estrogens and androgens (male and female sex hormones). This hormone helps to counter the stress effects of cortisol in some tissues, such as the brain and heart, and supports a healthy immune system. It is an important factor in balancing your cortisol levels. Studies have demonstrated that DHEA supplementation can help improve mood and sexual interest in women with adrenal fatigue. It’s role in fibromyalgia is unclear:

A small study published in 2012 suggested that DHEA levels may be low in post-menopausal women with fibromyalgia and that lower levels were linked with reduced pain threshold and tolerance and several measures of illness severity. However, studies have been inconsistent as to whether FMS involves low DHEA levels (VeryWell).

My naturopath recommended 1 start with 5 mg per day (a fairly low dose). I found that my energy is more sustained, even on days where I slept poorly. Processed wild yam and maca root can also increase DHEA.

Update: because I have endometriosis, boosting my estrogen by taking DHEA was worsening my pain levels, so I don’t recommend it for women with endometriosis, fibroids or breast/ovarian cancer. 

Instead, I now take rhodiola when my fatigue is high. Rhodiola is considered to be an adaptogen, and studies demonstrate that taking this supplement improves stress tolerance by “influencing key brain chemicals, such as serotonin and norepinephrine, and natural feel-good opioids such as beta-endorphins” (Life Extension Magazine: Rhodiola).

A Word of Caution About Balancing Hormones

One final note: “In advanced stages of adrenal fatigue, when the body is already exhausted of nutritional reserves, it is inadvisable to take supplements that may stimulate the adrenal glands. Doing so, would be like stepping on the gas pedal in a car that has no gasoline in it. Not only will you not get anywhere, it can actually hurt the car” (Dr. Lam). It’s best to consult with your healthcare provider and to educate yourself about improving your energy by supporting your adrenal glands rather than pumping them up with a bunch of supplements.

I was  made aware of a great new book about Adrenal Fatigue called The Adrenal Fatigue Solution by Dr. Eric Wood and Fawne Hansen. I had previously read a book on adrenal fatigue several years ago, but a lot of research has been done since. This book presents the research in an accessible, easy to read way, along with naturopathic treatments. They also have a helpful website http://adrenalfatiguesolution.com/  with a lot of information there on adrenal insufficiency and treatments. (For full disclosure, the authors contacted me to review the book and provided me with a free copy. I genuinely feel it is a helpful resource on the topic, and have not been compensated for saying so).

Resources

Fatima, G., Das, S. K., Mahdi, A. A., Verma, N. S., Khan, F. H., Tiwari, A. M. K., … Anjum, B. (2013). Circadian Rhythm of Serum Cortisol in Female Patients with Fibromyalgia SyndromeIndian Journal of Clinical Biochemistry28(2), 181–184. http://doi.org/10.1007/s12291-012-0258-z

Life Extension (Rhodiola)

Dr. Lam (Understanding Rhodiola Health Benefits and Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome)

Life Extension (Stress Management)

Mahdi, AA., et al. (2011). Abnormality of circadian rhythm of serum melatonin and other biochemical parameters in fibromyalgia syndrome. Indian J Biochem Biophys.  Apr;48(2):82-7.

New Life Outlook (Cortisol and Fibromyalgia)

Teitelbaum, J. (2007). From Fatigued to Fantastic. Penguin Books: NY.

VeryWell (DHEA Supplementation in Fibro)

How to Plan a Chronic Illness-Friendly Wedding

How to plan a chronic illness friendly wedding

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I was daunted about taking on the chaos that is wedding planning. Through trial and error we were able to plan a wedding that mixed tradition with our own style and my health needs. I wanted to share what I learned about how to plan a wedding that a spoonie bride (or groom!) can not only survive but enjoy.

*Spoonie: A person living with chronic illness, based on the spoon theory

KATIE AND GEORGE_171

1. Be unconventional –  the standard all day, all night wedding format is not spoonie friendly. You know, getting ready, early afternoon ceremony, pictures, sit-down dinner, speeches, and dancing until late in the night. Add to that the fact that a wedding is an emotional high in itself. Most of us would lose all our spoons before the ceremony was even though! So pick the traditional elements that are most important to you but design the rest of your day within your limits.

KATIE AND GEORGE_9

In our case we picked a venue where we could have both the ceremony and reception, to limit the travel time – a historic house and gardens in Toronto called Cedar Ridge Creative Centre. We had an afternoon wedding, from 1-5, which was the length of time I thought I could handle. We had a garden ceremony followed by a cocktail style reception inside, with buffet lunch and wine. I gave up on dancing, because it’s not something my body agrees with. Finally, our photographer took mainly candid photos, except for a few posed family ones during the reception. This saved additional time.
I brought a bar chair to sit on during speeches (but still got sore from standing for too long overall). I was lucky that my best friend was an incredible maid of honour, and she did an amazing job at keeping me hydrated and fed  and reminding me to take mini-breaks. As the bride, you become very distracted by meeting and greeting all of your guests, so asking someone to help you remember your self-care plan is a key element to you enjoying your special day.

2. Be budget conscious …without too much DIY
Spoonies are often on budgets because of constraints on work and expenses on care, but  there is no need to go into debt to have a lovely wedding. We spent approximately $7000. The only additional expense was our choice to have a green wedding – organic flowers, catering and wine is slightly more expensive, but we felt it was worth it.

Here’s how we kept costs under control:

  • We rented a municipal property, which was far less expensive then private venues. Cedar Ridge Creative Centre is a historic house preserved by the city as an art gallery with public grounds.
  • We limited flowers. We only had bridal/bridesmaid bouquets during the ceremony, with the garden flowers standing in for floral arrangements. During the reception we had a few floral arrangements on serving tables – mostly single flowers in vases.
  • We only served wine rather than having an open bar.
  • Most significantly for saving on expenses, we didn’t have a sit down meal but rather a catered buffet lunch.  Everyone mingled and enjoyed chatting, which we really enjoyed.
  • Finally, we didn’t go away for our honeymoon, mostly so I could recover without the stress of travel. It also kept our costs down!

DIY can be taken to extremes and will most likely lead to flares. I would rather keep it simple than crash because I decided to do everything myself!

See if you can delegate – Our families helped by creating wall hangings (wallpaper on rectangular foam hung like paintings), and favours (seed bombs). My best friend baked a delicious gluten-free vegan cake (yes, it is possible but it took several trial runs!).
The only DIY I did was using rubber stamps on craft paper to make signs for the serving tables.

 

 

 

3. Organize brain fog away

  • Make a spreadsheet or use a planning app. When things randomly occur to you, add them immediately. Set aside time to review your lists when you feel less foggy. Most importantly, have your partner and maid of honour double check regularly. You will forget things and things will go wrong, so try to be accepting that this is part of the process.
  • I became good at delegating, and this was a surprisingly rewarding thing to do, Initially I felt guilty, but it was a warm and fuzzy feeling that  my friends and family were happy to help, showing their love and affection. Our wedding was better than we had hoped it would be and part of that was the feeling that everyone had pitched in to make it that way.
  • In order to relieve my anxiety that  would forget to tell someone something they needed for their tasks, we made checklist spreadsheets for all our ‘helpers’. It may have seemed a bit OCD but as I’ve said, stress is toxic for spoonies, and since it made me feel better, it was worth it!

4. Plan around tension and keep your boundaries
Oh family – things can sometimes get complicate. For example, I have divorced, remarried parents. A sit down dinner with seating arrangements seemed like a nightmare, so a cocktail party was my solution.

Because we planned our wedding in under 7 months, we came up with our plans for our day quickly. One bonus was this gave less time for anyone to share unwanted advice during the planning process 😉 Actually our families were mostly happy for us to plan the day how we wanted. From talking to friends planning weddings, I advise not having conversations with people whose opinion you don’t want while you are still in the planning stages.

In my opinion the advice that it’s your day so you can do what you want is unhelpful. It’s your marriage and you can do what you want… But the wedding is a celebration with your nearest and dearest. The day is really about celebrating with them. We compromised on a few things, but then we stuck to our plans. I found the phrase “oh that’s an interesting idea, I will talk to my partner about it” helped so much to show you are listening to your family members, but reserving the right for you and your partner have the final say.  Boundaries are important for spoonies as a key way to manage stress and tension in relationships –  which can be toxic to our health and well-being.

5. Practice self-care and take it one day at a time
Plan your self care! I asked my doctor for stronger sleeping pills for the days leading up to the wedding, which helped relieve my anxiety that a sleepless night would ruin my day due to fatigue. I put in appointments with my massage therapist, physiotherapist and naturopath in the days leading up to the wedding. I planned time alone and time alone with my fiance,  just to have fun. Still, I did not do this enough and started to resent the wedding for taking up all my available energy, which is limited enough as is.  In hindsight I would double the time taken for self-care and to make time NOT spent wedding planning.

My maid of honour carried an ’emergency kit’ throughout the wedding day. In addition to make-up and comb, we put in pain killers, indigestion relievers,  and scented calming oils.

Secondly, what I eventually learned was that there is only so much you can organize in one day. At some point you have to let go of what you can’t control and focus on the point of it all – celebrating this love you have found. I learned this by just getting too overwhelmed and having to give up on extra tasks. I  wish I had started by taking it one day at a time! But being a bride inevitably takes over for a little while, as any married person will agree.

KATIE AND GEORGE_18

6. Finally, don’t read bridal magazines! This is NOT “the landmark taste-making event of your life” or whatever panic inducing nonsense they write. This is about love and family and friendship and fun. It’s A day, a big day, true, but not THE day. Spoonies don’t need extra stress! Or extra work! Or hand-dyed organic cotton ribbons to tie around chair backs for a shabby chic effect… Plan this day for you, your love, and your family and friends, not for anyone else!

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Probiotics for Fibromyalgia: Help Your Gut Help You to Boost Immunity and Relieve Anxiety

Can probiotics help treat fibromyalgia? According to science, probiotics can strengthen the immune system, which is compromised in people with fibromyalgia. Probiotics may help relieve stress, anxiety and depression– which are common symptoms in fibromyalgia. In other words, take care of you gut, and it will take care of you!

Probiotics for Fibromyalgia: Help Your Gut Help You

Can probiotics help treat fibromyalgia? Despite all the research being done on friendly gut bacteria, there are actually no studies to date that directly answer that question. But when you dig into the science a little deeper, you can find a wealth of studies that support the use of probiotics to treat fibromyalgia symptoms. In other words, take care of your microbiome (the ecosystem of gut bacteria), and it will take care of you!

Probiotics Can Get Your Immune System into Fighting Shape

Ever since I developed fibromyalgia, I dread getting sick. Infections trigger flare-ups at best and relapses at worst. Many people with chronic illnesses report getting sick more frequently than when they were healthy, and believe that their immune systems are compromised.

This is supported by the science. In the case of fibromyalgia, researchers were able to develop a test for diagnosing the illness by examining cellular immunity. The study proved that people with fibromyalgia have disregulated immune function at the cellular scale. Participants with fibromyalgia were found to have increased chemical messengers called cytokines, which are involved in activating inflammation in the body (Sturgill, et al. 2014).

Strengthening the immune system using different means, including by taking probiotics, seems like a really good idea in the face of this kind of evidence. Up to 70% of the immune system’s activities occur in the digestive tract. There are more than 400 species of bacteria in the gut, which altogether add up to more than 100 trillion bacterial cells. So how do probiotics help keep your immune system in fighting shape?

  • Probiotics protect the lining of your intestines from harmful germs and toxins (Yan et al., 2011). They promote the health and integrity of the cells that line the barrier wall of the gut, keeping germs and toxins from being absorbed into the bloodstream. In the intestines, friendly bacteria compete with harmful bacteria, preventing them from growing out of control. Some probiotics even produce substances to kill harmful bacteria – this is a take no prisoners kind of fight!
  • Probiotics communicate with the immune system to strengthen its response to infections and enhance its repair of intestinal damage. (If the nerd in you wants to know, probiotics interact with intestinal wall cells in complicated ways, such as by releasing signalling proteins that stimulate the immune system). Friendly bacteria can act like guards calling for backup, priming the immune system to prevent and treat diseases, like allergy, eczema and viral infections.

Probiotics May Help Relieve Anxiety and Depression

As people living with fibromyalgia and know all too well, the challenge of living with chronic pain on a daily basis is very stressful and raises difficult emotions. Depression commonly occurs alongside chronic pain (Holmes, 2012). Research has demonstrated that anxiety disorders are more common in patients with chronic pain conditions like arthritis, fibromyalgia migraine and chronic back pain (Asmundson, 2009).

What does this have to do with friendly bacteria? Scientists are beginning to uncover a fascinating gut-brain connection. There is exciting preliminary research on the potential benefits of probiotics for mental health. Researchers call these types of friendly bacteria “psychobiotics.” One study looked at the effect of consuming probiotics on depression versus a placebo. After eight weeks, participants who took the probiotic had significantly lower scores a depression inventory test, as well as lower levels of inflammation (University Health News). If you’re interested in knowing which strains were used so you can pick a similar supplement for yourself –this study used 2 billion CFUs each of Lactobacillus acidophilus, Lactobacillus casei and Bifidobacterium bifidum.

How can probiotics act like “chill pills”?

  • Some probiotics are able to produce the same kind of compounds that the nervous system uses as chemical messengers. For example, gut bacteria can produce serotonin, which is a feel-good neurotransmitter released in the brain and nervous system when we are happy.
  • Probiotics can help regulate inflammation in the body. As you may know, excessive inflammation is linked to many chronic diseases, including depressive disorders.
  • Friendly gut bacteria interact with our hormones, and may help to turn off the response of the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline.

Take Care of Your Microbiome And It Will Take Care of You

It’s important to remember that research has only studied a few strains of probiotics, among the many thousands that make up the human microbiome. It’s clear that each type of bacteria causes different effects in the body. Some of these effects are contradictory – some probiotics turn up the activity level of the immune system, while others turn it down. The sheer complexity of it all makes it difficult to draw any hard and fast conclusions. What is clear, however, is that having a diverse and replenished microbiome improves overall health.

The best way to take care of your microbiome is to regularly consume fermented foods rich in probiotics, and to take a probiotic supplement. It’s also vital to consume foods that help to “feed” the probiotics in your gut. After all, friendly bacteria need to eat too. Some foods help to nourish probiotics more than others, and these foods are called prebiotics. Some of the best prebiotics to regularly include in your diet are: dandelion greens, garlic, onions, leeks, asparagus, unripe bananas, barley, oats, apples, flax seeds, wheat bran, seaweed and cocoa. Prebiotics are often better consumed raw and cooked.

The best fermented foods to incorporate into your diet are:

yogurt: preferably a natural yogurt without the high sugar content of flavoured yogurt

  • kefir: a fermented milk product like drinkable yogurt
  • kombucha: tastes like a fruit flavoured ice tea, and is a fermented black tea and sugar drink
  • sauerkraut or kimchee: both are types of fermented cabbage
  • miso: a savoury fermented soybean product, usually used to make soup
  • tempeh: a fermented soybean product with a nutty flavour

Resources:

Asmundson, G. and Katz., J. (2009). Understanding the concurrence of chronic pain and anxiety: state-of-the-art. Depression and Anxiety (26)888-901.

Healthline (The 19 Best Prebiotic Foods You Should Eat)

Holmes, A., Christelis, N., and Arnold, C. (2012). Depression and chronic pain. MJA Open Suppl (4):17-20.

Psychology Today (Do Probiotics Help Anxiety?)

Psychology Today (The Gut-Brain Connection, Mental Illness, and Disease)

Sturgill, J. et al. (2014).Unique Cytokine Signature in the Plasma of Patients with FibromyalgiaJournal of Immunology Research.

University Health News (The Best Probiotics for Mood)

Yan, F., and D. B. Polk (2011). Probiotics and Immune Health. Current opinion in Gastroenterology 27 (6): 496-501.

 

Find other fibro blog posts on the Fibro Blogger Directory Friday Link-up

Fibromyalgia Fatigue: The Top 8 Supplements I Take to Improve My Energy

Fatigue is a disabling symptom of fibromyalgia – but I have benefited from several supplements which improve my energy. This article explains the difference between adrenal and mitochondrial energy supplements, how they work and what the research says.

This post contains affiliate links, which help support this blog. I only link to products that I use and like – my opinion has been in no way influenced by the makers of the products I recommend.

Tart Cherry

My Christmas present one year was an evil cold. I had been lucky the past several years not to encounter any viruses. After reading about the  negative experiences of other bloggers with FM or CFS who have caught a flu or a cold, I was nervous about the potential consequences. My worries were realized when, after my other cold symptoms cleared up, the extra fatigue didn’t disappear too. My fibro fog and afternoon fatigue were the worst I had ever experienced!  I spent the months after trying to figure out how to recover my energy to my baseline level.

Prior to this cold, my ‘energy envelope’ consisted of:

  •  required 10 hours of sleep
  • most energetic in the late a.m. and evening, lowest in the afternoon
  • able to do 3-4 hrs of blogging per day
  • able to spend one evening per week out

Now, even 11 hours of sleep was unrefreshing. I had to drop my classes because of afternoon crashing. The strangest symptom was visual over-stimulation – for example, difficulty making sense of store displays during an energy crash. My acupuncturist explained my post-viral fatigue as a failure of my body to turn off the sickness response. In other words, your body makes you feel tired and achey when you get sick to induce rest, so energy can be redirected to your immune system. Usually that response stops when you get better, but sometimes your body fails to ‘flip the switch’ from sick mode to healthy mode.

In the last few years I have discovered that my energy is impacted by two primary factors – adrenal function and mitochondrial function. The challenge is to figure out how to best support energy production in your body, both at the cellular level (mitochondrial) and organ system level (circadian rhythm and/or adrenal fatigue).

Adrenal Glands and Energy Production stop scrolling down

In a previous post, I wrote about the results of my adrenal function test. The adrenal gland regulates the production of several critical hormones, including cortisol and DHEA. Cortisol, also known as the ‘stress hormone’ is produced by the adrenal glands (glands that sit on top of the kidneys). Cortisol regulates many of the body’s responses to stress, including blood sugar levels, metabolism, immune responses, blood pressure, and central nervous system activation. Although high levels of cortisol are released, alongside adrenaline, to initiate the ‘fight or flight’ response to stressful situations, it also plays a role in day-to -day functioning. Cortisol is released in the morning to help you become alert and focused. It is supposed to decline gradually during the day so that by evening you feel sleepy and ready for bed. Proponents of the theory of ‘adrenal fatigue’ argue that initially, in stressful circumstances,  adrenal glands overproduce cortisol. But if a high-stress situation persists over time, the fatigued glands begin to under-produce cortisol, resulting in low daytime levels and worsening daytime fatigue (Life Extension: Stress Management).

The results from an adrenal function test show that my cortisol curve is all off. I start the morning at the low end of the normal range, but then my cortisol slumps significantly by mid-afternoon, and finally increases to the high end of the normal range by bedtime. These results explain my mid-afternoon crash and energetic evenings (not to mention insomnia). According to my naturopath, this pattern of low daytime cortisol and high nighttime cortisol is characteristic of a disordered circadian rhythm in some people with fibromyalgia.

So how can you improve your overall energy by supporting your adrenal function?

  • Vitamin C and B5 (Pantothenic Acid): Both of these vitamins help promote adrenal function. They are inexpensive and provide a good foundation for re-balancing cortisol production. Vitamin B5 is a lesser known but still important member of the B vitamin family and it is used for energy production in the body. According to Dr. Teitelbaum, “your body’s highest levels of vitamin C are found in the adrenal glands and brain tissues, and the urinary excretion of vitamin C is increased during stress” (From Fatigued to Fantastic p. 90). Vit C formulations can be more or less potent and come with or without added antioxidants. I like Natural Factors Extra C + Bioflavonoids.
  • Licorice Root Extract:  In order to try to sustain cortisol throughout the afternoon to prevent the usual crash, I added licorice tincture on really tired days. It helps slow the breakdown of cortisol in the body, so whatever you do produce stays around longer (Life Extension: Stress Management). (Licorice is not for people with high blood pressure, so please check with a health care provider to see if it is appropriate for you and do your research first). I prefer to use a liquid extracts/tincture because I can tailor the dose – I found the average capsule dose made me jittery but with a liquid I can take just a few drops. Dr. Teitelbaum recommends the equivalent of 100 to 150 mg daily.
  • Time Release Melatonin: In order to improve my circadian rhythm, I added 5mg of sustained / time release melatonin at night.  Melatonin reduces cortisol, so it helps me with my elevated night-time levels (Life Extension: Stress Management). This stuff is quite effective! I have been sleeping through the night more regularly since I added this to my night time pill regimen. (I found regular melatonin did not have this effect).
  • Rhodiola: finally, I am also taking Rhodiola to support my nerve and endocrine system functions. Rhodiola is considered to be an adaptogen, and studies demonstrate that taking this supplement improves stress tolerance by “influencing key brain chemicals, such as serotonin and norepinephrine, and natural feel-good opioids such as beta-endorphins” (Life Extension Magazine: Rhodiola).  Rhodiola helps to promote mental focus and energy – key for those of us with fibro fog!

Fibromyalgia and Mitochondrial Function: Improving Energy One Cell at a Time 

Secondly, mitochondrial function is a critical part of increasing energy in fibromyalgia. Mitochondria are the power plants of our cells.

Studies suggest the energy factories may be running a bit low in FM. Muscle biopsies have found patterns of mitochondrial dysfunction (abnormal mitochondria, mitochondrial defects and muscle fiber abnormalities) similar to those typically found in mitochondrial disorders. Some skin biopsies have shown patterns of neurogenic inflammation and oxidative stress – two factors that negatively impact the mitochondria. Peripheral blood cells have demonstrated CoQ10 deficiency, mitochondrial dysfunction, oxidative stress and mitochondrial degradation (Health Rising: Is FM a Mitohondrial Disorder?).

I’m trying to take a combination of supplements that are factors used by mitochondria in the production of energy.

  • D-ribose:  D-ribose is a sugar produced in the body and taken to alleviate fatigue and pain in fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome. Dr. Teitelbaum contends that CFS/FMS is caused by “energy crisis” in the body, leading to a cascade of different symptoms like fatigue, pain, sleep disturbance, among others. One root cause of the energy problem, he argues, is that the ability of the mitochondria in your cells to generate energy is suppressed. Mitochondria produce the energy, called ATP, used by your cells to carry out all their functions. D-ribose is essential to the production of ATP. Therefore, taking additional D-ribose should help to support mitochondrial function and improve energy output in fatigued patients.  Dr. Teitelbaum has authored a few pilot studies that have demonstrated some promising results. The most recent study was an open-label study published in 2012. Significant improvements were found; specifically a 61.3% increase in energy, 37% increase in general well-being, 29% improvement in sleep, 30% improvement in mental clarity, 15.6% decrease in pain (Teitelbaum: From Fatigued to Fantastic).
  • CoQ10, a powerful antioxidant, is the catalyst that enables mitochondria to produce 95% of all cellular energy (in the form of the compound ATP). A Spanish research team has conducted several studies that demonstrate a CoQ10 deficiency in people with fibromyalgia, leading to mitochondrial dysfunction and increased oxidative stress. These researchers have also found that supplementing with CoQ10 improves clinical symptoms of fibromyalgia like pain, depression and fatigue (Phoenix Rising: CoQ10).
  • Acetyl-L-Carnitine, is an amino acid produced in the body from l-carnitine which is used to manufacture fuel for energy via mitochondria. This nutrient is also used in bodily processes that regulate muscle movement, as well as heart and brain function. People with fibromyalgia have been found to have low levels of carnitine. Supplementing with acetyl l-carnitine has been found in a double-blind placebo-controlled study to improve pain levels, depression and quality of life among people living with fibromyalgia (Prohealth: L-Carnitine).

Since starting this combination of adrenal and mitochondrial support, my afternoon crashing has evened out. My fatigue does not bottom out in the afternoon (less brain fog and no visual over-stimulation). I finally regained my pre-viral energy envelope. I am sharing all of this in the hope it gives some direction to others finding themselves in a similar situation! Take care of yourselves, dear readers!

 

Life Extension (Rhodiola)

Life Extension (Stress Management)

Health Rising (Is FMS a Mitochondrial Disorder?)

Phoenix Rising: (CoQ10)

Prohealth (L-Carnitine: Typically low in fibromyalgia and ME/CFS; Promotes healthy mood and energy)

Teitelbaum, J. (2007). From Fatigued to Fantastic. Penguin Books: NY.

Chronic Illness and Money Pain: The Honest Truth About Coping with Lost Jobs, Less Income and a Tight Budget

 

Chronic Illness and Money Pain: The Honest Truth About Coping with a Lost Job, Low Income and a Tight Budget

Chronic illness hurts all over, and that can extend to your budget. It’s not polite to talk about money, and that can lead to a cone of silence around this difficult subject. When I developed fibromyalgia five years ago, I was forced to leave my graduate program because I could no longer keep up. In the process, I lost my scholarship and my teaching assistant position. Now my husband and I live on a single income. I think it’s important to be open about how illness and disability impact income. First, it is vital to break down the stigma that ‘people who live on a reduced income are lazy.’ Second, I think it can be helpful for people living with long-term health problems to share their experiences and support each other with advice on how they cope with the challenges of life with illness.

Unfortunately, my inability to work is far from being an exception.  According to a Community Health Survey, 14% of people with fibromyalgia report being permanently unable to work (Parlor, 2007). That rate is 25% for working-age people with arthritis (Arthritis Society, n.d.). In Canada, only 51% of working-age people living with a disability are employed, compared with 75% of non-disabled working-age people (CCD, 2013). In addition, people living with a disability are two times more likely to work part-time than non-disabled people (CCD, 2013).

Not surprisingly, the reductions in employment levels among people with illness and disability lead to reductions in income. For example, 43% of people living with fibromyalgia reported their annual personal income to be below $15 000, compared with only 29% of the general population (Parlor, 2007). Overall, 20.5% of Canadians living with disabilities live below the poverty line  (CCD, 2013).

In addition, there are out of pocket medical expenses. This is bad enough in Canada, my home country, where many people may not have extended health insurance for medical drugs or treatments like physiotherapy or massage. In the U.S., there is no public medicare (national health insurance), so the medical expense of just seeinge a doctor can be prohibitive. The CDA (2013) reports that, in the U.S., medical problems are behind 62% of personal bankruptcies and almost 50% of home foreclosures.

Finally, for those who qualify for social assistance, income support is severely limited. In Ontario, Canada, the maximum financial support for a person living with a disability is $1151/month, for all expenses (Community Living Ontario, n.d.). In the U.S., the average monthly benefit for a family paid by Social Security Disability Insurance is $1,130 (CDA, 2013). Since this amount would barely cover rent and food, it is hard to imagine how anyone could even begin to pay for vital medical expenses or enjoy any quality of life.

Those numbers can look pretty bleak and do not capture the strength and resiliency shown by so many living with chronic illness!  It is important for those who do not live with chronic illness to understand that we work harder than anyone you know, everyday, to manage debilitating symptoms, earn a living if we can, participate in our family and social lives, and advocate for ourselves and others.

If your politics tells you that social assistance should provide only survival support for medical and living expenses in order to “incentivize” recipients to work harder, then you are condemning to poverty people whose only ‘crime’ has been to develop a chronic illness. Working harder is not a cure fore a chronic disease or permanent disability. I believe a compassionate and farsighted society should provide adequate medical and income support to people living with illness and disability, because inequality wastes human ability and restricts the freedom of people to participate fully in society. Appropriate accommodations can be put in place so that we can work, including flex hours, remote work opportunities, and many others. We all have something to contribute, and many of us would be able to do more if adequate social supports were put in place.

I’ll get off my soap box now. It’s time to get practical. Since we are where we are in terms of reduced income for people with chronic illness, what can we to do?

  • Build a budget. No matter how limited, every dollar will stretch further if we spend it on what we need. For a simple and practical approach, I like using Gail Vaz Oxlade’s budget builder http://www.gailvazoxlade.com/resources/interactive_budget_worksheet.html
  • For your weekly expenses, use cash! If you also suffer from brain fog, then you will sympathize with how hard it can be to remember how often you swiped your plastic this week. If getting out to the bank is a hassle, then get cash back at the grocery store, so you can do two chores in one.
  • Put your cash in labeled jars or envelopes, keep your receipts, and record your expenses. Clear glass jars work best for me. My budget jars are labeled: groceries, entertainment, drugstore, pet, clothes, transportation and allowance:  http://www.gailvazoxlade.com/articles/budgeting/magic_jars.html.
  • Don’t be too proud to get the help you need. Whether asking for financial advice, applying for social assistance, buying second hand, or going to a food bank if the fridge is bare, remember this isn’t your fault and you deserve the best quality of life possible.
  • Coping with debt and bankruptcy when you have a chronic illness, by Lene Andersen https://www.healthcentral.com/article/when-the-money-runs-out-chronic-illness-and-bankruptcy
  • Here is some advice on winning your fibromyalgia social security case, by Donna Burch: http://nationalpainreport.com/winning-your-fibromyalgia-social-security-disability-case-8831202.html
  • If you are interested in extra ways of making money from home, here are a few resources from Being Fibro Mom:     http://www.beingfibromom.com/category/financial/make-money/

References:

 CDA (2013) Disability Statistics

CCD (2013) Low Household Income and Disability

Parlor (2007). Canadian Women’s Health Network: Understanding Fibromyalgia

Community Living (n.d.) ODSP

Arthritis Foundation (n.d.) Arthritis Facts

Arthritis Society (n.d.) Facts and Statistics

 

Real Life with Chronic Illness: Inspirational Blog Posts from Spring 2017

Real Life with Chronic Illness: Inspirational Blog Posts from Spring 2017

How reading chronic illness blogs helps me navigate life with chronic illness

Living with a chronic illness can feel isolating. How many people do you know who even have a chronic illness? Our daily challenges are unique, and it can be difficult to find someone who really understands.. Even when it comes to positive changes, I find that friends and family can have a difficult time relating to the treatments or lifestyle changes that I’ve made in order to improve my health and well-being. For example, starting a meditation practice or taking supplements was considered equivalent to fraudulent ‘snake-oil treatments’  by some of my more skeptical relatives. Even more broadly, living with chronic illness changes your perspective on life and your priorities. While you might see working towards acceptance as part of healing, other people around you might see it as ‘giving up’ on getting better. For all of these reasons, it can be difficult to find your way through the realities of life with a chronic illness

This is where the community of chronic illness bloggers comes in. Reading about shared experiences can help reduce that sense of isolation –– knowing other people out there can relate to what you are going through. Chronic illness blogs can help to suggest treatments or self-care strategies, which is important given the lack of research, medical treatments or adequate pain management supports out there. Most importantly, chronic illness blogs can inspire their readers with the wisdom of experience and the power of insight.

Here, I wanted to share a few of the inspiring posts I read this spring about navigating real life with chronic illness:

Inspiring blog posts from Spring, 2017

 

You are miracle.
You are harmony.
You are 90 trillion cells weaving new tapestry.
Each one testifies to the mystery
That even on the worst day
Even at your worst
You are still your best
You are miracle

  • The Beauty of the Story Your Life Is Telling by Stacey from Chronically Whole An inspiring take on the narrative of being a person living with chronic illness. My favourite lines: “Some may say it’s telling a story of failing by not getting better faster [but]… Let your life keep telling the story of adapting, overcoming, loving in spite of loss, being unafraid  to face the uncertain future head on…”

 

  • What can fairy tales teach us about living with chronic illness? That we have to be our own heroes, for one.  Rhiann, from My Brain Lesion and Me, writes:  “My experience of living with a permanent neurological condition has also taught me that we all have the power to rescue ourselves from our own battles in whatever form that they take.” Read more at Life is Anything But a Fairy Tale. 

 

My Fibromyalgia Story: Learning How to Manage One Day at a Time

my story

Part I: From Onset to Diagnosis

For Fibromyalgia Awarenss Month, I wanted to share my illness journey here on the the blog. My story starts eight years ago. It wasn’t a climactic beginning. It was just achey low back pain that got worse the longer I sat writing my M.A. thesis. It seemed like a common enough problem to have, except for the fact that I was 23. The nurse told me to take ibuprophen 24/7 and stretch. Spoiler alert: it didn’t work. About a year later, my body gradually began to fall apart, limb by limb. My back pain worsened. My knee gave out. My shoulders become too painful to allow me to type. This is what the doctors call “gradual onset”.

I thought I was losing my mind.

My doctor at the time told me all she could do was suggest Robaxacet. At this point I was starting my PhD. The physical demands of reading and writing 24/7 began to take their toll, exacerbating my pain. Daily functioning on my own became increasingly difficult. My fiancé (now husband), who was living 4 hours away,  had to come every weekend to help me with the chores (groceries, cleaning, etc.) that I could no longer do.  In retrospect, I think the stress of the program and my fear about not being able to meet expectations, as well as not being able to understand what was happening to me, pushed my body past the point of no return. After that I developed more of the classic fibromyalgia symptoms, like insomnia, fatigue and digestive problems.

I was fortunate to have been referred previously to a pain clinic for pelvic pain. This meant I was able to see a pain specialist for my musculoskeletal pain within the same year all my fibro symptoms exploded. In March 2012 he diagnosed me with fibromyalgia.

Part II: Change, Anxiety and Trying to Cope

I was so relieved after my diagnosis that my symptoms had been validated – and given better medication than NSAIDs. I was given tramadol, which reduced my pain, and doxepin, which helped me to sleep. But I still hadn’t absorbed yet what this diagnosis would mean for my future. After my diagnosis, it became obvious that even with treatment, no amount of accommodations would allow me to continue my PhD. I had tried everything I could think of so I could stay – withdrawn from my TA position, put in place disability accommodations to allow me to submit work late, bought expensive adaptive devices and installed voice recognition software.

Feeling like my life was spinning out of control, I started having panic attacks on campus. When the spring term ended, I went back home to move in with my fiancé, and decided to withdraw from the PhD program.

With huge relief, I  went on medical leave from my studies. However, I was immediately confronted by the problem that my days were empty of activity or responsibility. I remember dragging myself out to a local cafe in the afternoons while my fiancé was at work. I wanted the anonymity of a public place, where I could feel ‘normal’ for awhile. It was the only cafe I could go to because the chairs were sensible rather than funky.  Still, I had to bring my back-rest with me, which generated stares from other patrons.  I would cover it with my coat in order to try to hide it from attention. I could no longer type or hold a book due to pain, so I was embarrassed to be sitting at a table without a laptop or reading material, like everyone else. I listened to audiobooks or free online course video lectures instead. I would set up my tablet so that it looked like I was working, rather than listening and staring around. I envied all the other people my age, surrounded by papers, purposely tapping away on their computers. The goals that I had been pursuing were on pause, indefinitely. I grieved for my old life. I pushed myself to go to the cafe, even on days I experience brain-fog or fatigue, because staying home felt like giving up. I spent that year in a state of shock. I was always someone whose identity was wrapped up in my work. I didn’t know who I was anymore.

Part III: Learning Self-Care Skills to Manage my Fibro

Gradually I started trying to put the pieces back together. When I got diagnosed with my chronic condition all the information about exercise seemed so out of touch with the reality of my life. At the time, I had trouble bending forward, which meant I needed help with basic tasks like shaving my legs. I had trouble getting up or down from sitting on the floor. I rarely took the stairs and had trouble walking or standing for longer than ten minutes. Since I was already tired, sore and busy then I wasn’t going to be able to go to the gym. I couldn’t afford a personal trainer. With my back pain there was no way I could participate in the group yoga classes I used to take in university. Even more frustrating was the fact that all the research I came across proved how beneficial exercise is to health. I knew that I should exercise but I felt like I couldn’t.

I found two at-home instructional DVDs in yoga/pilates and tai chi that I was actually able to do, which helped me to improve my physical functioning. I started seeing a physiotherapist who put together a thorough stretching routine for me to do daily. Without doubt, this is the single most effective thing I tried to improve my health and well-being. My pain decreased and my quality of life increased.

I was fortunate to be referred to a Cognitive Behavioural Therapy program by my pain clinic. I found participating in the course very valuable for learning tools to  manage the negative thoughts and feelings that accompanied my fibromyalgia. One of the core parts of the program was learning to identify negative thinking traps, or ‘cognitive distortions’.  These are thoughts that “sound rational and accurate, but really only serve to keep us feeling bad about ourselves.” I learned that I tend to think in “all or nothing” terms – a cognitive distortion. I would say to myself things like “if I can no longer pursue my career, I am a failure in life”. In CBT, I learned to challenge these distortions with the reality of each situation. For example, in response to the statement above, I challenged it by saying “While being in pain means I have to do less, that does not reflect on my personal worth, nor does it mean what I can do is meaningless”.

I was also referred for a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction course by the pain clinic. In this course, I learned to be more mindful of the present moment. I learned that worrying about the future or dwelling on the past, only makes me suffer more in the present.  It’s better for my quality of life if I return my focus to the next best thing I can do for myself in this moment. Critically, the MBSR course reminded me that, even with pain and flare-ups, there are small moments of enjoyment, if I only stop and notice them – the taste of a good meal, sharing a hug, a sunny day, or a favourite hobby. One of the key lessons I learned through mindfulness is that my thoughts, feelings and sensations, no matter how difficult, are changeable, like the weather. When I hold on to the fact that even my darkest moods will eventually lift, I feel calmer and more in control.

Part IV: Coping with Relapse

In 2014 I started a part time distance program for social work and completed the first year. But it wasn’t to be. I got a cold over the 2015 holidays and suffered the worst fatigue and brain fog I’d ever known. At the time I was just starting to look for a social work practicum placement. There was no way I could commit to working 15 hours a week out of my home. For the second time I had to withdraw from school.

I felt completely overwhelmed at the outset of my fatigue relapse last year.  First, there was the emotional reaction to a new situation: anxiety about whether it was here to stay, frustration that life was about to get more difficult, and grief at the prospect of losing what abilities I still had.  Secondly, there was the practical challenge of figuring out how I would cope, like what new treatment options to try or how to manage my daily routines and responsibilities.  Lastly, I faced the impact of a relapse on my relationships, such as the increased caregiver burden on my partner, and feeling less able to be present with family and friends.

My relapse brought me back to the beginning of my illness journey and how I coped after my diagnosis. I was able to use many of the lessons that had been learned the hard way the first time around. In essence, what I have learned is that I have the power of choice over what I focus my attention on each day. Through challenging negative patterns of thinking, being present, taking in the good, and pursuing an enjoyable hobby, I try to emphasize what enriches my life and let go of what doesn’t. Of course there are always bad days and I don’t believe any amount of positive thinking frees us from ever experiencing difficult times. I personally have found, however, that changing my worldview has dramatically lessened the amount of suffering I go through during relapses and has improved my quality of life. I spent that winter using the time to learn new things. I taught myself calligraphy, I read, and I wrote more often on my blog.

Part V: Moving Forward, Maintaining Balance

That spring, my energy began to slowly improve. I found a kind of peace in accepting that whatever I do next, it needs to allow me to work with my body and not against it. I think that’s why blogging and writing has ‘clicked’ more for me now than when I first started. I have found that grieving for your old life and finding acceptance in your new life is an ongoing process, not a one-and-done kind of thing.

Being at home allows me to respond to each day as it is. I’m fortunate to be able to stay at home. I sleep in late because without ten hours I am a brain-fogged zombie. I can’t type because of shoulder pain but I can use speech recognition software. I stretch, do gentle exercise, walk, and make sure I move around during the day. I balance my activities with self-care, which is how I am able live more fully, even with fibromyalgia.

In the summer of 2015 I felt well enough to finally plan my (fibro-friendly) wedding. On a beautiful August day I married the man I’d fallen madly in love with eight years earlier and who has been my saving grace through this whole journey.  He didn’t blink when it came to assuming care-giving responsibilities – he does the housework, the laundry and the dishes on top of his full time job. He is always understanding when we have to change plans or just stay at home. Most of all he is so supportive. He celebrates the small accomplishments of my life without ever making me feel ‘less than’.

I’m grateful for how I’ve grown through encountering all of the challenges that come with chronic illness. Learning mindfulness meditation and focusing on the present has given me a more helpful perspective. I’m a happier person when I remember to ‘stop and smell the roses’. I feel like I’ve become more patient, more adaptable, more assertive and more accepting than I was before fibromyalgia.  I’m proud of making it through every day, especially on the tough days where no amount of self-care stops your symptoms, and you just have to hold on to the knowledge that it will pass. Everyone living with chronic illness should be proud of the strength they have developed to manage daily life.

My new motto is something I read shortly after my diagnosis –  “It’s not the life you imagined, but it’s a good life nonetheless.” It’s something I hope for myself and everyone who lives with fibromyalgia.

National-Fibromyalgia-Awareness-Day-May-12