I’ve been struggling with chronic pain and illness for over six years now. In that time, I’ve come to some difficult situations and choices, and for the most part had no source material to turn to. Being without a specific diagnosis means that there are less places to access wisdom by those who have gone before – I read some that share symptoms or challenges with my reality, but even those who have a name for what’s going on find that there are times when your only choice is to struggle through and make the best choices you can. Sometimes we choose wrong; we do something that makes things worse, or we choose a doctor who treats us poorly, or our behavior during times of stress alienates the very people who want to support you the most.
These lessons are by no means definitive, or the only lessons I’ve learned, but instead I’ve chosen these because in hindsight I really wish someone would have given me advice (or even a clue!) in hopes of avoiding some of the inherent pitfalls involved.
10. There is a difference between someone who wants to help you, and those who want to solve your problems.
The people who have been the most supportive in times of difficulty are the ones who chose to assist me specifically so I could do more for myself. The ones who end up burned out and resentful are the ones who chose to do things in hopes of either doing things for me, or doing things with the expectation that things will get better in some form of permanent fashion. I could continually ask people to scratch my back, or someone could buy me a backscratcher. (And here’s where I thank the anonymous person who did exactly that.) You could volunteer to take dictation when I can’t type, or you can help me find dictation software I like or suggest another way of sharing my thoughts (like a podcast). This lesson taught me not only how to tell what a person’s intentions are (to help or to solve), but how to phrase requests in very specific ways so even those who are inclined towards solving end up doing things that make us both feel good. If I know you’re a “solver”, instead of asking for something nebulous (like, “I need a way to move my legs more without causing pain”), I take a little more time and ask for something more specific (“I need one of those cycle bikes that rest on the floor and have a motor, here is a link to a few I like on Amazon.”)
If I’m unsure of what the specific need is, that’s when I turn to the helpers. Because they are focused on supporting my independence as much as they are focused on the challenge at hand, their brainstorming will naturally drive itself towards choices that give me more freedom and less reliance on others.
I’m not saying one is bad and the other is good; I’m saying that in order to lean on my support system without burning everyone out, having a general sense of how someone feels helpful can expand and strengthen your team. Just like you go to Joe when you want to gossip, and choose to go shopping with Pat because they have a style sense that matches your own; knowing who is best qualified to get your through a hurdle makes it easier to ask and receive with the least amount of guilt. Which leads me to…
9. People generally want to help as much as they can; those that won’t or can’t will make themselves known.
It seemed somewhat obvious to list “Asking for help is hard”, because you don’t need to be chronically ill to know that. What I’ve learned about opening myself up to receive help when I need it is that sometimes the “obvious” choice isn’t the right one. One of my people who drive me to doctor’s appointments comes from 3 hours away to do so, usually coming in the night before and leaving that evening. They’ve done this even when my appointment is less than 20 minutes from my house. I have tons of friends who live closer, but many of them have legitimate reasons why they can’t help out. Before I figured this out, I would totally freak out when I thought I knew the absolute “right” person for the job, only to have them decline or just not respond to my requests for help.
Another facet of this lesson is that although it can be downright frightening to be honest about something you need – especially if it requires large amounts of resources like time, money, or commitment – it’s better to be forthright. Even if someone can’t solve the whole problem, they may be able to help you by breaking the ask down to smaller chunks and delegating it to a larger pool of people. It might be difficult for someone to drive to my house, then drive to a doctor’s appointment two hours away, take me home, and then go back to their house. Instead, maybe one person picks you up and drops you off; another gets you at the docs and takes you halfway home, where someone who normally makes that commute can take you the rest of the way. Or if you need to clean house because you’re having a party, instead of asking one person to come the day before and help you out, you can throw a “pre-party meet-and-clean” so your shy friends can both do something helpful and get to know a smaller group of people before the throngs show up.
Before I learned that, though, I would frequently ask not for what I needed, but for what I thought people wouldn’t be offended by when I asked. I had to learn the very hard way that although it might be easier to ask for someone to drop me off somewhere and I’ll just use my walker to get around; if I wake up that morning and my arms aren’t up to the walker, I’m totally screwed unless my friend is physically able to deal with the wheelchair and has the time to stick around for my whole appointment. Or if I needed money to cover some over-the-counter medical stuff, I would sit and agonize over what I “really needed” and what I could “live without” or “make due”. Usually, someone would find out that I was using duct tape to hold bandages on or stealing alcohol wipes from the doctor’s office. They’d sit me down and remind me that people generally want to help, because knowing that their friend is in a bad way makes them feel helpless. Giving them the opportunity to make a difference makes them feel like they’re really doing something.
I also had to learn that there are people who will tell you many times that you can call them anytime if you need anything, but they are only being polite. In fact, I think one of the reasons that chronically ill people usually dismiss vague offers of help like these is because we’ve learned that there’s a good chance they won’t come through. Not necessarily because they don’t care or don’t want to (although there are people who don’t), but because they don’t have the resources or ability to help in the ways you need. You just get to a point where you know asking is a waste of time, even if you think they might be a good choice for one reason or another.
8. If your friend has stopped inviting you to fun group things, it is sometimes okay to check in and ask why.
If you’re wracking your brain to remember what you might have done to offend someone, because all of a sudden you’re no longer “on the list”, it could very well be because you weren’t able to attend enough other events because you didn’t feel well. Or maybe because the place where the party is a fourth-floor walkup. Or maybe because they know you don’t drink and so inviting you to the bar seems mean. And honestly, sometimes they’re worried about reminding you about all the cool stuff your friends are doing that you can’t participate in anymore.
I tend to tell people that these days, I see an invite as a way of saying, “We want you to know you are wanted”. Even if it’s obvious that I can’t participate, just knowing that when they were thinking of the top 25 people they want to go skydiving with, you’re number 23. Sometimes, I use the opportunity to see if some sort of adaptation can be made so I’m included – my friend has an upcoming birthday bash, but her apartment is up several flights of stairs; I asked her if maybe a day-after brunch could happen in a wheelie-friendly restaurant. Done! Other times, people are being too cautious about what I can and can’t do; I might have to bring a chair and take lots of breaks, but I am able to go to the bonfire in the woods given enough time.
7. If you’re feeling left out of fun things, make fun things happen in places and ways you can handle.
There are lots of times when I’ve been home on a weekend night, mooning over all the cool things people on Facebook are claiming to do that I can’t for one reason or another. And it’s not always about health/ability; I might not have the money, or couldn’t find a ride, or required me to RSVP too far in advance. Honestly, it didn’t occur to me right away that the answer was to take charge and plan fun things that were tailored to my needs. Now that I live in a completely-accessible place (thank the Gods!), I have been hosting more stuff. Not only do I know the place is accessible, but if I need a quick breather or if I get a bout of nausea/vertigo/pain/etc, I can duck into my room for a little bit and let my guests entertain themselves. And if I need to check out of the festivities completely, it doesn’t mean everyone has to leave. I just elect someone to take over hosting duties and disappear into the Del Cave.
And if the fun things that I want to do are location specific (like going to the Drive In), I can do my homework to make sure the place is accessible. I can also set up somewhere to be the Temporary Del Cave, whether it be in the car, in a friend’s spare room, or even the handicap stall. I tend not to carpool, so if I need to check out early no one else is inconvenienced (except whomever’s driving). If food is going to be part of the fun, I can call ahead to see if the food on premises is Del-safe; if not, I can usually find a small thing to pick at and bring food to eat on the way home. Even if I am worried that I will have to cancel last minute, I can make sure that people are as invested in doing the fun thing as much as seeing Del at the fun thing, so if I have to back out I know people are still having fun.
Even when I’m at my sickest, I’ve still entertained guests. I just make sure they’re informed up front that I’m not doing well and they should bring things to entertain themselves, or maybe even make plans to go be a tourist or go shopping at the Outlet Mall, so I don’t feel like they’re sitting outside my bedroom door breathlessly waiting for me to feel social again. That way, we both get to spend some time together, and no one feels mislead or guilty if I need a nap. It doesn’t hurt that we have wi fi and an off-brand Roku device, as well as tons of odd books to read. The town we live in has a few cool things to do, and we’re pretty close to places like Gettysburg and Baltimore if you really want to get your tourist on.
6. Needing a lot of down time, alone, can be spiritually enriching.
At first, any time I had bodily-enforced down time, my gut reaction was distraction. What book can I read, what show can I watch, what silly online game can I get lost in? Those are still good stand-by distractions, but when I’m experiencing more down time than up time, it can feel like I’m wasting my life. It only emphasizes all the things I wish I could be doing, or things I expected myself to be doing at this age that have been replaced with this stupid reality I did not want nor asked for. I start slipping down that greased slope towards the maw of depression. Depression brings it’s own symptoms and challenges, and it complicates your health situation that way. I struggled a lot with depression last year, but what became the rope ladder that got me going in the right direction was finding purpose in my rest. I re-started my meditative practice. I found some great online videos of seated yoga, wherein the guide repeatedly tells you that if a pose or stretch is painful, to just breathe and wait for the next one. I began sitting in front of my altars and just letting my mind wander. I began writing for the sake of writing, instead of feeling pressured to cater every word towards a goal – a new post, a new class, a new ritual, etc. I started a personal diary.
The more I found the usefulness in stillness, the more I began to see bodily-enforced down time as something to look forward to. It let me choose to slow down, even if I didn’t have to, which helps keep me from overdoing it. Even if I’m away from home, being able to find a quiet place to sit by myself and just listen to the nature around me can help me enough so I don’t have to run home at the first sign of discomfort.
It also helped me clear out some cobwebs in my Godphone pipeline. Whodathunk it was easier to hear the Gods when you weren’t constantly doing things or thinking things? It also gave me the joy of feeling the presence of my Gods when I didn’t need them; to be able to sit and commune with them without any goal or purpose other than to be. It fills my heart with joy when I have the distinct pleasure of sharing my life with my Gods, even when all I can do is lay in bed and open myself to them. It has definitely strengthened my bond with Hel, who quite enjoys my company and a cup of tea from time to time.
Just finding ways that make stillness productive in its own way, while still being relaxing and stressless, makes me appreciate that my body reminds me to do it from time to time.
5. Be honest, with yourself and with others, about how much time you can spend with them, and how you want to spend that time.
Maybe I’m in the minority, but I would rather have one incredibly long and windy phone call a month than seventy billion text messages a day. Not only do I know it is very likely I can find an hour to commit to said phone call, but it just feeds me better. I see text messages as a tool of necessity – I’ll be there in 20 minutes, Do you know BobJo’s phone number, Are you free for a phone call tomorrow, that sort of thing. This is also why I am rarely signed on to any online chat service. It feels too demanding – answer now or I will ask you sixty times if you’re still there!
It also means that if I’ve just spent a whole weekend with you in person, I can guarantee that I will spend the next week in lots of down time. I value in person time quite a bit, but I’m also content if it only happens once or twice a year. I understand that we all have busier lives now, and the convenience of immediate communication in McNugget sized bites is undeniable, but it just doesn’t feel right for me. I know this paints me as a luddite, and I don’t care. I care so much more about the quality of the time we spend together, doing things that we will remember and that matter to us, than trying to live up to demands of being always accessible and immediately responsive to all of the people who matter to me, all of the time. I am one of a few people I know who not only shuts off my phone from time to time, but I also leave it at home! Aghast, I know! (It may sound a bit crass, but now that both of my parents are dead, I no longer worry about there being an emergency I need to know about right away. I figure there’s nothing I can do about an emergency that can’t be done when I turn my phone back on, or check my email, etc.)
I know that I’ve been shit about answering email, but I’m making a real effort to get better about that. It’s not going to happen overnight, though. I get a lot of email, and the majority of it is the kind that implies a timely and personal response. I am also working on organizing my inbox so messages don’t fade into the abyss that is “the next page”, buried under reminders that Barnes and Noble is having a sale this week. I decided to focus on email because I enjoy exchanging written words with people; and email no longer comes with the expectation of an immediate response (unless it says so). I find that even if someone assumes everyone answers email in 24 hours or less, as long as I send them a thoughtful response that shows I took my time to think about what I wanted to say, I’m usually forgiven.
The point I’m trying to make here, though, is that no one has the right to dictate how you spend your time but you. Obviously, some kinds of relationships will want more time than others, but even then I consider quality over quantity.
4. “Go to the doctors” is not a solution of any sort.
Often, when I write about my symptoms, especially when I am worried about what they might mean, people tell me to see a doctor. On the outside, it makes sense. But the part that makes me want to pull my hair out is when people expect that a single doctor’s visit will somehow provide anything resembling answers. No matter how much information you bring with you, no matter if you write down your symptoms and questions beforehand, no matter if you’re self-educated about your condition or what tests might be necessary to figure out what’s going on, doctor’s appointments are rarely about answers. It only seems to apply if you’ve been seeing a doctor on a regular basis, have limited discussions to a certain subset of your symptoms, and have undergone tests and studies and what have you; then, maybe there might be some sort of resolution like surgery or treatment. 90% of my doctor’s appointments go exactly the same way; I come prepared to discuss my symptoms (including how they are limiting my ability to live life), and the doctor orders tests. The tests come back, and if I win the doctor lottery the first round of tests *might* show something treatable. Most of the time, it’s the beginning of a long road, where you are referred to several specialists, who all start from ground zero (because they don’t rely on prior doctor’s thoughts or opinions).
One of the biggest issues I’ve faced with the “go to the doctors” conundrum is along the way, someone will find an actual problem. In fact, I’m willing to bet that the more doctors you see, the higher the likelyhood that they will find something. This sounds like a positive thing, and in a way it is. It was good to know I had a giant abscess in my abdomen that needed to be removed. But it also meant that for the next ten months, it was the only thing I saw doctors for. Time and money being limited, it meant that I failed to follow up on tests from my neurologist, endocrinologist, and all the other specialists that weren’t related to the abscess. When I finally have the time to go back to these other specialists, I am always chastised for the lapse. Some tell me that I’m obviously not serious about finding treatment, and tell me to see another doctor.
On top of all of that, when I’m brutually honest with a doctor about the time issues involved, they act like they should be my only focus. I had been cleared for an uterine ablation three years ago (and I really need one), but the problem has always been that I have to schedule it four or more months in advance. By the time the surgery rolls around, I’m almost always in the hospital or about to be, for something completely unrelated. I have cancelled four ablation appointments so far. When I tell my OBGYN that the only way this will happen is if I can get it sooner, they act like I am asking for VIP treatment.
Another example: I saw a new neurologist last week, and I’m pretty excited about working with him. But I told him up front that I’m in a time where I can chase tests and make appointments and such, but that time is finite. I already know I have a new abscess growing in my abdomen, and there are a few other medical situations that are getting more serious. I explained to him one of the reasons I haven’t been able to get a diagnosis is because the doctor takes too much time to order and review tests and by then I have something more urgent to attend to. So what did he do? Schedule a test for a month from now, and a follow up two months from now. As I’m seeing my PCP this week about some stuff I am pretty sure will be determined to be more urgent, I might as well not bother.
Even with excellent insurance, there is a financial cost to all of this test chasing and multiple appointments too. I have to have money for gas, parking, and sometimes have to pay my driver. I frequently have to pay a fee so I can get copies of the results for other doctors (although this has gotten better since concentrating most of my specialists and my PCP through Johns Hopkins, since they have an electronic patient folder system where they can see what everyone else is doing). There are other kinds of costs, too, like spoons. I am worth absolutely nothing on a day when I have a doctor’s appointment, and doubly so if there some sort of test. Although Rave helps me a lot, I still spend time making the appointments, finding someone to take me, figuring out what I need to bring, if I need to fast or not eat certain foods, knowing and bringing what I need for comfort, etc. And none of that even covers the times I do all of this only to find out I can’t be seen, or if the machine won’t accomodate me, or if there’s no point to the appointment because the doctor hasn’t received the results yet. It’s ridiculous.
So yeah, when someone suggests I “go see the doctor”? I just laugh quietly to myself.
3. You are the only arbiter of what you put in your body/what you do with your body, and you don’t have to answer to anyone about it.
I can’t even begin to tell you how much shit I’ve been given about choosing to take opiates for pain management. Or about taking antidepressants (even though I take the kind I do because it also helps with nerve pain). Or about not eating healthy food every single minute of every day. Or about having an alcoholic drink (a single one) once every six months or so. Or about which supplements/vitamins/homeopathic remedies I should or should not be taking. Or people sending me articles about new medicines or treatments with the expectation that I will immediately talk to my doctor about it. And as those who have read the rules of this blog already know, I get tons and tons of people recommending alternative therapies, from yoga to acupuncture or reiki to magnets.
It can be difficult, because most of these people are legitimately concerned about your health and well being. They’re not trying to be obnoxious or naive. It is something they can do that makes them feel helpful. And oftentimes, they actually do know someone personally who has benefited from these choices in some way.
My decision has always been about quality of life over quantity of life. When I found myself breaking down into tears because the restrictive diet I agreed to try denied me the pleasure of having ice cream when I wanted it, (and this may sound juvenile but it is absolutely true) that I didn’t want to live if it meant I couldn’t gain what little comfort I can. I have been weaned off of opiates, and my quality of life went to zero (and doctors made the decision to put me back on, and chided me for agreeing to go off in the first place). I’ve tried to be open minded about alternative therapies, but especially now that I’m on a fixed income, I don’t have a ton of money I can invest in something that only has a small chance of making a difference. I can’t afford to shop in exclusive, trendy supermarkets in order to stick to a nutrition plan, especially if I don’t like what I do get to eat.
I make choices that don’t take my health into consideration. Everyone does. Whether it’s opting to forgo an exercise regimen, or getting tattoos when it may increase your chance of infection, or eating something knowing full well your body will hate you for it tomorrow, or skipping a meal every day in order to fit into that killer dress this weekend, it’s not hard to find examples of people making personal choices about how they treat their bodies that we might not agree with. Just because I am chronically ill does not mean I surrender the same right. I have to pay the same piper everyone else does. A life that is devoid of pleasure, comfort, and the occasional indulgence is practically inhumane, in my honest opinion.
3. If all you talk/write about is being sick, then the only thing people will know about you is that you’re sick.
Being chronically ill or in chronic pain is a very lonely thing. It is full of complex emotions and challenging moments that one really needs social support to endure. It can be liberating to express your inner dialog – your fears, your frustrations, your sadness, your oddly funny moments – so people might better understand what it’s like. It can help when your words encourage others to share similar stories, or even just leave a “I feel that way too” comment on something you wrote in a moment of despair. I would never, ever discourage someone from finding ways to communicate their struggle that ultimately help them face their illness with more resolve.
But before I started my second blog, most of my friends and acquaintances used this blog as their sole source for keeping in touch with me. As I consider this a blog – a place where I have a general topic and all of my writing ties into that topic in some way – everything I shared related in some way to either my personal experiences being chronically ill, or my insights about chronic illness and spirituality and the intersection thereof. However, many of those friends thought this was more like a journal – an accounting of my day to day life experiences – they began to think that I was consumed by illness and did nothing but go to doctor’s appointments and sit at home in pain. They didn’t call or write or visit because they were afraid to impose themselves, what with me being sick and all. I even had some professional issues because of this blog, where people refused to hire me or offered me smaller contracts so as to not overtax me. I realized that the blog had become a real issue, and I had to do something to remind people that I am still a dynamic, passionate, and lively person who has a lot of life to live yet. One of the solutions was to start Sex, Gods, and Rock Starsand take some time to promote it and build a following of folks who were only reading this blog because it was my sole expression online. It has been a real challenge, as making sure I am writing enough to keep both projects worthwhile (and to fulfill the Purposes for both – including my spiritual agreements about them). Sometimes I write more here, and sometimes there, and sometimes neither site gets updated for a while. But in the end, it has helped tremendously in creating a more realistic image of who I am as a well rounded and vital person who happens to also have chronic pain/disabilities.
2. It takes time to accept that the likely hood of “getting better” is not that great; not only do you need to accept it, but those closest to you need to, too.
Obviously, this is not applicable to every chronically ill person in the whole world; you may have relapsing-remitting MS where there will be periods of time where you feel pretty healthy. Or in a year from now, scientists will make a big discovery about your illness and there may be better treatments or even a cure. It’s possible that after years of not knowing what was making you feel so poorly, the right doctor will stumble onto a diagnosis that has known treatments to alleviate your suffering.
But for me, I’ve radically accepted that I don’t know what tomorrow will bring. At the same time, I have no delusions that it will take one thing to completely treat my suffering and sickness. Even if I got a diagnosis, the chances of it being something curable are pretty slim at this point – I’ve been tested for most of that stuff already. When those closest to me string their hopes on a someday cure, it makes me feel like they are not only ignoring the present but that they aren’t paying real attention to my journey thus far. There’s optimism, and there’s self-delusion. I’m optimistic that someday doctors will know why I feel sick/pain that may lead to more targeted treatments, but I also accept that if that happens some of those treatments are things I’m already doing (like pain management) and others will almost definitely take time before they work. I mean, knowing you have cancer doesn’t mean that in a week you’ll be completely cured.
I need people who can dig in and see the reality of today alongside me. I can really only deal with this in small chunks – maybe not quite “one day at a time”, but close – and if all you want to talk about is some nebulous future, I can’t relate to that at all. Deep inside of that optimism, too, there are crunchy bits of judgement (if you only took this more seriously, you’d already have a diagnosis/treatment) and denial (it’s not possible to have these symptoms and there be no singular cause). I have lost important people in my life because they failed to accept the reality of what is, rather than keep their eyes shut tight, hoping for the pipe dream of tomorrow.
It also subtly communicates that the lack of a panacea is my fault – I’m not choosing the right doctors, getting the right tests, chasing the right diagnoses, talking about the right symptoms, etc.
One of the relationships I had to end because of this kind of thinking was my therapist. I sought him out to be someone I could work through my feelings about my medical situation with, but by the fifth session he was so frustrated that my doctors had failed to diagnose my “obvious case of MS” that I had to ask him to stop yelling. The next few sessions comprised of me gently encouraging him to be patient with the process, and when I finally realized I had become his therapist, I ended the relationship.
1. Do whatever you have to do to survive.
I mean this literally and figuratively. Even if you hate taking daily medication (or in my case, testing my blood sugar four times a day), if it makes your life an easier place to live, it’s worth it. If you are starting to hate or mistrust your doctor, get a new one. Ending relationships that only complicate your life and cause you more stress and pain may be difficult, but if it will eventually make it easier to get through the day, do it. Taking a break from seeing doctors because you need to save the money you usually use for co-pays in order to pay rent/buy food/pay bills can be a legitimate decision. Telling your doctor that a medication is on your insurance’s third tier (the most expensive one) and that you need a less expensive option is completely understandable. Finding plans or cards from pharmaceutical companies that will net you discounts on your meds might make your doctor sigh because OMG paperwork, but ignore their huffing and bring it anyway. Asking your friends to remind you of cool memories so you can read them when you’re in despair is not selfish or self-centered. Saying “no” to a doctor is always an option. So is “I want a second (or third, fourth, fifth) opinion”. Refusing to settle for a physician’s assistant and wanting to see the MD in your doc’s office makes sense if you’re medically complicated. Late night trips to the ER because you are in excruciating pain, or having a symptom that is scaring you (like chest pains or not being able to take a full breath) are not wasteful.
Don’t let anyone ever make you feel bad for making the best choices you could, given your resources and knowledge.