Tuesday, March 26, 2013

When the Going Gets Tough for the Chronically Ill

We all know the saying:
When the going gets tough, the tough get going.
But when you live with chronic illness, I think a more fitting revision might be:
When the going gets tougher, the tough disappear.
At least that's how it seems to me, especially when I look back at my own blog archive from the last year.  When I started Hepatitis C treatment in February 2012, things got really tough.  So I compensated by temporarily letting go of a lot of the things I love doing, like blogging and container gardening, to focus on my health.

Thing is, I've noticed that this happens to my chronically awesome friends too.  I visited the blogs of a few sick friends the other day and saw that they too have been absent.  From the few posts one friend was able to publish, I learned that her life is undergoing several major upheavals all at once.  I saw that she is posting as often as she can.  As much as I want her to keep sharing her story, I know her capacity to deal with life right now is overtaxed and her blogging must take a back seat.

The truth is, when you live with chronic illness, you lose your ability to do a lot of things.  Heck, there are days when I can't properly focus on getting just one thing done!  I often think doing is for healthy people.  Some days just being is all I have the energy to do.

But those of us living with chronic illness already get this.  So why am I writing this post?  Because I'm sad that our voices seem to fade out when things get really bad for us.  Our stories stop being told at the exact moment when the need to talk scream about what is happening is so much greater.  Which makes me frustrated, because when we get quiet, it seems like the healthy people in our lives don't notice that we are getting swallowed up by our tough health battles and could really use their help.

Call me cynical, but the only help I see us sick friends getting is that weekly reminder to church-goers to pray for the sick and elderly. (They still do that, right?) The rest of society is geared towards the able-bodied, so we aren't getting much help there, are we?

But we need much more than prayers.  Our lives are so much better when 1) we have healthy friends and family sharing positive interactions with us on a regular basis and 2) those folks can offer us some support and assistance, or arrange for it, when we really need it.  Unfortunately, too many of us don't have these positive interactions with healthy friends and family.  Even when we are surrounded by healthy people, those folks sometimes chose to tune us out instead of help us out.

We know that the fundamental truth is that it's hard to be sick. And we are faced with another fundamental truth: it's hard for healthy people to truly comprehend what it means to be sick and sometimes it's even hard for healthy people to just be around sick people.

Here is a quote I think pretty much sums up this problem:
People think they know you. They think they know how you’re handling a situation. But the truth is no one knows. No one knows what happens after you leave them, when you’re lying in bed or sitting over your breakfast alone and all you want to do is cry or scream. They don’t know what’s going on inside your head—the mind-numbing cocktail of anger and sadness and guilt. This isn’t their fault. They just don’t know. And so they pretend and they say you’re doing great when you’re really not. And this makes everyone feel better. Everybody but you.
~ William H. Woodwell Jr.

Now I feel bad that I have taken up so much of your time eloquently defining this issue when I don't have a solution to it, at least not yet.  But then again, perhaps the solution comes when we all start talking more about this, rather than letting healthy people go on assuming those of us living with chronic illness are "doing great."  Because let's be really, really honest--even on our "good" days, we aren't anywhere near to "doing great."

My goal is to live life "as well as possible" each and every day I live with chronic illness.

How does chronic illness impair your ability to tell your story? When health battles overwhelm you, do you get the support you need from the healthy people in your life?  What are your ideas on bridging the gap between ourselves and healthy people?

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Monday, March 11, 2013

Life Can be Painful for People Living With Chronic Pain

One of the first lessons you learn when you start living life with chronic pain is that daily life--family, work, home and school--can make your pain worse. All those little things I used to do without much thought, like run errands, cook, clean, shop and socialize, became huge pain-inducing obstacles to overcome when fibromyalgia pain came into my life.

It took me several years to figure out which daily activities made my pain worse. I know for many of us, the list of these activities can be quite long. And because pain symptoms can fluctuate over time, I find myself constantly editing my list--adding new pain triggers and scratching off the ones that are no longer problematic.

Right after the trip-and-fall accident that triggered my fibromaylgia, I tried to continue with my "normal" activities. I constantly pushed my body beyond its new limits to get things done and wound up getting so flared-up afterwards I needed to spend days in bed trying to recover. When enough was enough, I changed my tactic and put off as many things as I could to avoid flare-ups. But that meant a lot of things weren't getting done, which was very discouraging for me.

Thank goodness for the practical pain management techniques I was taught at the Cedars-Sinai Chronic Pain and Fibromyalgia Program in 2006 and for the online classes and groups at the CFIDS and Fibromyalgia Self-Help website that helped reinforce what I learned.  I discovered that once you recognize and identify the daily activities that are your pain triggers, you can almost always figure out ways to minimize their painful impact.

Over the years, I've used these strategies to deal with pain-inducing activities:
  • modify the activity to make it less painful, i.e. sitting down to do something instead of standing
  • break an activity down into smaller steps that can be done over time vs. all at once
  • find people who can help me do the things that are painful
  • delegate the activity to someone else (usually my husband)
  • say "No." and learn to live life without doing some things

Unfortunately no amount of planning or preparation can help with the things in daily life that are truly out of your control.

Now that I live with chronic pain, I cringe with fear at the thought of any kind of accidents happening to me. This fear is fueled, in part, by some mishaps that have occurred to me since fibromylagia: my shower bench breaking underneath me while I was sitting on it and breaking my foot while taking a big step down from our storage shed.

My biggest fear was realized a little over a week ago when my husband and I were involved in an automobile accident as he was driving us home from the mall.

The accident itself still gives me nightmares. The fact that my pain level has shot up to a 10/10 on several occasions over the last 10 days is quite a nightmare too.  And don't get me started about the numerous trips I've needed to make to the doctor's office and/or the Emergency Room to treat my accident-related symptoms.

My pain and my life have become quite unmanageable since the accident, which is equal parts frustrating, exhausting and frightening.

What concerns me most is that chronic pain can make it more difficult to identify physical injuries from accidents.  Pre-existing pain can mask the symptoms of new injuries and make it more difficult for your doctor to diagnose new problems.

As bad as the accident was, the SUV we were in (and our guardian angels) did a very good job of protecting us from severe injury.  On a safety note, I always wear my seat belt when I am in a car, even thought it can poke at my painy parts.  I know that the seat belt I was wearing literally saved my life. Unfortunately the "seat belt sign" injury I sustained is one of the reasons I'm now dealing with more severe pain.

I'm not sure what happens now.  Among many other things, I'm concerned about how long this extreme flare-up is going to last.

It's going to take all the self-help pain management techniques I have in my toolbox to get me through today.  I'll just have to wait and see what tomorrow brings. In the meantime, I do know daily activities that weren't particularly bothersome a fortnight ago are going back on my list of pain triggers.

I wrote this post because I'm especially interested in hearing from those of you who have been in a situation similar to the one I currently face. I want to hear your suggestions for coping with accidents and injuries that make your chronic pain worse.

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