Over the course of my journey with rare and complex diseases, there have been many moments of hopelessness. When you’re at the end of the road, when you’ve outlasted all the options- what do you do next? Where do you go on this shaky ground of fear and desperation? How do you take a step when all you’re waiting for is the other shoe to drop?
Because there isn’t any other option. There isn’t anything else. I’ve been asked a million times: how do you do it? You do it because you don’t have a choice. I wish to hell that on the impossible days I could just say “hey! It’s too much! I can’t handle it!”- but that’s not how it works. You go forward because it’s all you can do.
As one of my favorite quotes goes: “Some things don’t require courage. They just need to be done.”
And once you’ve moved on from the quagmire of non-options, you figure out what you can do. You adapt. You glory in the tiny victories, and in the inconsequential pieces of our lives that most take for granted. Your “normal” changes, and you learn to live despite that. Or perhaps because of it.
I attended the Global Genes Rare Patient Adovacy Summit. My first year attending the full conference. I was honored to speak on a panel on young adult advocacy, and something that I feel very strongly about. I also got to listen to sessions run by amazing activists and awesome people, who educate and advocate and want to empower others to do the same.
I was astounded by the courage and resiliency found in the people who fight tirelessly for medications and legislation and quality of life, despite the fact that for many, modern medicine will not move fast enough. The changes they put into effect probably won’t benefit them, trials and medications they were crucial to the success of may not be their miracle. They are not necessarily fighting for themselves or their family members- they are fighting for the next family. The next teenager diagnosed with an incurable disease. The next parent who has to hear that there is nothing that can be done for their child.
So for those who are healthy, untouched by rare disease: start advocating. Push for cures, even if it’s not your child or you or a family member, even if you know no one who fights an incurable diagnosis. 1 in 10 have a rare disease. And so if you don’t know someone, odds are you will soon. And if that’s not reason enough: medical science has come a long way. As humans, we reach into the bridge of the unknown- but the technology is often moving faster than the people behind it. Yes, science is racing along at breakneck speed but that doesn’t change the fact that for most, the cure isn’t there. Because science doesn’t move fast enough.
That’s not to say it doesn’t help and fix and cure: I would be dead if it weren’t for modern medicine and technology. And so would many of my friends, and a good number of people at this conference.
And yet. For most, there is no treatment. There is no miracle drug. We do not have a way to solve their disease. We do not have a way to solve my disease. So advocates fight for symptom management, for accessibility, for quality of life. For adaptations that can make life better and more livable. And yes, we do fight for cures. But medicine moves slowly. Drug trials take time. And honestly, time is of the essence.
What do you think of when you think of rare disease?
I think of closed doors. Of dreams shouldered, sometimes forever- because things have moved on from living and into surviving.
1 in 10. If it hasn’t affected you yet, chances are it will.
And when that 1 in 10 finally affects you?
There are more than 7,000 rare diseases and disorders. And 95% of them have no treatment. Do you want to take those odds?
I’ve tried to sit and write this post many times, and each time I’ve written a half-hearted attempt at a paragraph, and then closed my computer, telling myself that I’ll finish it tomorrow. But no matter my comfort level, I need to speak on an issue that is too often left unvoiced and unsaid.
I’ve dealt with post-traumatic stress disorder for two years now, as a result of medical experiences. PTSD. I’ve called it “traumatic symptoms”, and “PTSD-like episodes”- but let’s call it what it is. PTSD. I’ve resented naming it for several reasons, but the biggest one is I had trouble reconciling the events with how I felt-thinking because I hadn’t gone through a war or a natural disaster that I didn’t deserve to call it PTSD. I’ve spent a lot of time telling myself that it wasn’t that bad, that I was just being a wimp who couldn’t deal with trauma. But suffering is subjective, and there’s no use saying that I can’t feel the way I do because someone else has it worse. Someone will always have it worse.
Trauma as a result of medical experiences and medical mistakes is much more common than is discussed. Most of the people I know who deal with chronic and serious illnesses have some form of trauma related to medical experiences, whether it be major or minor. Even caregivers often experience trauma and anxiety. And the anxiety and depression that can accompany PTSD and chronic illness itself is too often unrecognized and therefore untreated.
I was hospitalized on and off for about six months, including one 2 1/2 month stay. During this period, I was being hospitalized for dehydration, inability to get rid of my own waste without intervention, extreme weight loss and pain. We now know that I was dealing with severe gastroparesis and delayed intestinal motility. At the time, I also was in a tremendous amount of head pain, and many neurological symptoms. None of these things seemed to matter. I was told that I had no physical illness, that I simply had an eating disorder, conversion or somatoform. I was told that my parents were too protective, that they were making me sick, and that they were feeding my apparent desire to skip school and get attention by pretending to have an illness. I’ve always thought that funny- if I really wanted to skip school or get attention, I’m positive I would find a way to do it that involved less pain.
Every admission, I was placed in the “behavioral unit”, the care unit for eating disorders and mental illness. Most of the treatments that were tried caused me to decline, rather than improve. I was physically injured multiple times during the admission. I’m not going to go into specifics, but it wasn’t good. I feel the most damaging things were more psychological. Trust was used against me, and things I said would be twisted, and used as reasoning for their actions. Promises would be made and then broken with the same nonchalance, and my safe spaces and coping mechanisms were whittled down to nothing, even as my body declined. The doctors refused to release me until I met certain “goals”, and yet every time I would achieve one, the goals would change. My parents wanted desperately to sign me out against medical advice, but were told that if they did, child protective services would likely be called. I was eventually released (after more than two and a half months) because a holiday doctor came on for thanksgiving weekend, and was unfamiliar enough with my case that he was willing to discharge me. I don’t know what would have happened if I had stayed, but I certainly wouldn’t be where I am now (mentally or physically).
I was understandably dealing with a fair amount of anxiety and depression at this point, but it was a result of the experiences, not the cause. The distinction is incredibly important. For example: pain causes anxiety. Anxiety can cause you to tighten and tense your body, which in turn increases pain. However, the anxiety was not the source of the original pain. I was trapped in a cycle of increasing pain and ever escalating anxiety.
The mental consequences of my experiences were astronomical. I emerged from a 70 day stay a very different person than who I was prior. I was terrified of all new doctors, terrified that they wouldn’t believe that I was sick, that I was in pain, that my body and organs were failing me. Trust was consistently used as a weapon during my stays, especially the longest one, and it’s taken a tremendous work on my part, and the proof that there ARE good doctors, to get myself out of that mentality. It’s something I still struggle with: the fear that medical professionals will be harmful, not helpful.
I don’t know whether those treating me believed in what they were doing and thought that their course was in my best interest, or whether they were simply unwilling to challenge the opinions of others. I wonder if they regret it. These have rolled around in my head for quite a while, the unanswerable questions. I don’t think I’ll ever know the truth.
Recently, my health has deteriorated somewhat. A few weeks ago, physically, I felt like I was in a very similar state to how I felt right before the admission that was so disastrous to my health, physical and mental. It’s odd that a physical feeling can launch your brain back into fear and panic. However, it’s caused me to look back at my recovery over the past two years, and realize just how far I’ve come. I’ve learned to try to trust doctors and other medical professionals again. I’ve learned that when someone asks about my mental health, it’s often not because they want to criticize me for it, but to make sure that the consequences of my physical state aren’t causing additional mental health problems. I’ve learned to try and love myself and to accept that my body and I are on the same side.
Recovery and healing are never a straightforward process. There are bumps and ruts and moments when you feel you’ve slid backwards. But I am moving forward, just in a different way than I expected. There will always be impatience, because healing takes time, but recognize that you are moving forward. You are making progress.
For me, moving forward and making progress has only been possible because of the support network I am so lucky to have. My immediate family, my psychiatrist, my other doctors who have understood, my friends online and in person who’ve had similar experiences. I’ve had to learn to ask for help, and I’ve learned that for help is not weakness. If anything, it shows that you’re strong enough to realize that doing this alone is impossible.
I’ve thought often that because these events effected me so strongly, it must mean that I’m weak, or that I’m not trying hard enough to handle fears or flashbacks or panic. That I’m “doing it wrong”. But those fears aren’t the truth. And for anyone dealing with similar things- you are trying. Your feelings are valid. There is no one way to handle this, no road map where you can say “Aha! Here’s where I went wrong.” (Sometimes, I wish there was.) Honestly, much of my healing and recovery process has been building my road map, and it’s all easier said than done.
There are still moments where I feel like I can’t keep going. When a waiting room has me trying desperately to remember my coping skills, or when a doctor’s choice of words has me suddenly questioning myself and my body. There is no logic in PTSD, and though the logical part of my brain may be saying that I am safe, the parts that control my panic and fear don’t seem to get the memo.
“Sometimes the things we cannot change end up changing us.”
I have changed fundamentally in the years that have passed since I first got sick. In both positive and negative ways. You see lots of mushy quotes about how hardship makes you a better person, or that you can’t know joy without having experienced pain. And for some things, that may be the case. But the truth is that change is not always positive, and there isn’t growth from every experience. Sometimes surviving is the only thing you can do. One foot in front of the other, one minute at a time. And that’s okay. Healing is uneven, bumpy, and difficult, and it’s never the smooth process you expect or wish for.
There’s a Japanese word, kintsukuroi. It means “to repair with gold”. It’s the art of mending broken pottery with gold or silver lacquer, and the pieces become “more beautiful for having been broken”. I like to think of my body and brain like that: beautiful not in spite of flaws, but because of them. That I am more than I was before, not in spite of the challenges, but as a result of them. Heart and brain and body all mended with silver thread and gold, held together by silver linings.
Life with a chronic illness means a lot of uncertainty. A lot of waiting. It comes with the turf- I haven’t met a single person who doesn’t struggle to some degree with the uncertainty and the waiting game. Bodies are unpredictable, so we don’t know how we will be from day to day.
Recently, I’ve been struggling even more so with this. I’ve been dealing with severe allergies, requiring me to wear a mask and be extremely careful with what I come into contact with. Six bouts of anaphylaxis in the past few weeks..you could say I’m a little on edge.
It can be quite scary and unsettling when you wake up and have no idea whether you will have a good day, or whether you’ll be in the ER needing breathing treatments and epinephrine. Additionally, sometimes it feels like despite all the difficult and dangerous symptoms, you and your medical team aren’t doing enough to fix the problem. Do not pass go, do not collect 200$.
I’ve really had to remember the past few weeks that I can and will get through this. These are some tips for dealing with it all.
One of the most important things to remember when you’re in this situation is to stay calm. Stress impacts how your body will respond. I know it’s hard to stay calm when you are experiencing scary symptoms (this is something I struggle with) but keeping your mind calm is helpful.
Distract yourself when symptoms are tough. This is something that helps me chill out when I’m worried or upset. Watch a movie, color in a coloring book, listen to an audiobook or talk to a friend. Find something that works for you, and use it.
Focus on the positives in the day. Small improvements are still improvements. This is so hard to remember, especially when it seems like you are sliding backwards. Even the daily improvements are a huge deal. Sometimes when I am struggling, I try to make a mental list of what has gotten better. This helps me stay positive and motivated.
Reward yourself. This is not easy! Dealing with symptoms and medical treatment on a daily basis is draining. Try small rewards that you can focus on and use to motivate yourself. For example, when I finish physical therapy, I will reward myself by watching an episode of a show.
Remember: your journey is your own. Comparing yourself to others and their health is not productive, and will just end up making you feel worse. Everyone has a different response to pain, to symptoms, and to stress. Someone you know may have similar symptoms but may have a completely different way of dealing with it. Always remember that suffering is subjective. There is no way to compare because everyone’s health is completely unique.
It’s not fun or easy to deal with unpredictable symptoms. It’s hard, and can wear you down mentally and physically. But remember… you have survived 100% of your worst days. You’re doing great.
If I could go back and tell myself one thing when I first got sick, it would be to find a new normal. And to try and accept the new normal.Sleeping all the time? That’s okay, that’s your new normal. Can’t walk without limping? That’s okay, it’s just a new normal. Using a wheelchair? New normal. Recently I was told to look into a new disorder, as a possible answer. I wasn’t phased at all, started doing research, and then it dawned on me…after almost 3 years of constantly being sick, this is my normal. And I’m okay with that. So if you’re just getting sick, or are struggling with something, find a new normal. Don’t forget the old one, but try not to expect your body to be capable of it. It’s impossible when everything changes, especially when that change is drastic- healthy, to sick, in a short time. I could have never imagined 3 years ago my normal would involve researching rare diseases, and administering meds through a feeding tube…but it does. My normal is not what I would have wished it to be, but it is one where I can live and thrive and be happy. “Normal” is after all, a very relative term.
And if your new “normal” feels not so normal at all, remember that you are not alone. And remember that things do get better.
I never knew that you would come for me. We all know about illness, it is the elephant in the room. Yet somehow, we always assume it will happen to “someone else”. The trouble is, we are all “someone else” to the rest of the world. When I joined the ranks of those forced to shoulder you, I realized I couldn’t depend on this life happening to others.
You came at an unfortunate time. I was at the cusp of life, supposed to be healthy and free. No one who has not tasted this world for themselves imagines that someone who is this young should be sick. You aren’t fair. You aren’t right. But you are what happened.
And my life today is very different than that of my peers- but that’s okay. Because I have learned to savor the moments where I can breathe without pain. To walk when I can, and when I can’t, that’s okay too. You have taught me that sometimes crying is the only way to heal.
You took so much that I would give a lot to get back. You took my love of sports, my ability to eat, some days even my ability to move. You’ve taken so much more. And I hate you for that. But because of this, I am grateful for the little things. In a few years, those are the things I want to remember. How despite you, I found hope, and happiness, and joy. I have learned to find the silver linings, even when it never seemed to stop raining.
You’ve showed me how fast life changes, but you’ve also shown me how to live. That sometimes, you should take the hurt later if it means you get to walk on the beach. That when you are living seconds at a time because of how much it hurts, remember that you will make it out the other side. That live isn’t measured in years, and months, or even days, it’s measured in heartbeats, and kisses, and prayers.
So illness? Thank you. Because of you, I know what it is to be brave.