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Posts Tagged ‘becoming disabled’

I saw my rheumatologist last week. I still don’t have an official diagnosis, but thankfully I DO have medication. I mentioned before that I’ve been on prednisone for a while now. Prednisone, while it treats inflammation, does not do anything to deal with the immune system malfunction that is CAUSING the inflammation. It also has a host of really lousy side effects – the hot flashes, emotional instability (including great anger – I think we’ve all heard of “‘roid rage”, and prednisone can definitely cause it!), weight gain, fat deposits that alter the shape of the body (usually rounding the abdomen greatly and adding a ‘hump’ of fat on the upper back), ‘moon face’ (the face getting all puffy and round), bone degradation, and all sorts of other fun things. The longer you’re on it, and the more you take, the greater your side effects. The original dose I was on did not seem to help, so my rheumatologist had approved doubling it. The week before I saw my rheumatologist, things were getting worse and worse. The on-call doctors at his practice increased my prednisone twice in response to my phone calls, which meant I was taking three times what he had prescribed when he started me on it. Lucky me, that was enough to trigger the ‘moon face’ effect. If you saw only my face, you would think I had doubled my weight – I have an enormous double-chin, and my face just LOOKS fat. I don’t think I’m a vain woman, but it was quite upsetting to see all the same.

My rheumatologist said that the latest two increases meant I was taking far too much, and lowered me down to twice my original dose.

He also started me on Plaquenil. It’s one of the first-line medications for rheumatoid arthritis, though it’s used in other rheumatological disorders. I suspect that at this point, the working theory is that I have seronegative rheumatoid arthritis. It’s a good match for my symptoms – I’m affected most in the small joints of the hands and feet, and in my spine, and that combination is not uncommon in RA. All of my blood tests other than indicators of inflammation and a very generalized indicator of autoimmune activity have come back normal, so whatever I have, I have the seronegative version of. At that point, it’s a clinical diagnosis, purely based on what the doctor sees in terms of my symptoms and how he thinks it fits together. It is entirely possible that at some point in the future, something will change and the blood tests will show precisely what’s going on. That happens for some people; for others, the blood tests are never conclusive.

So I’ve been on the new medication for just over a week. While apparently it has nasty gastrointestinal symptoms for some people, I have so far been spared that, despite my usual sensitivity to such things. I don’t wish to jinx anything, but the swelling in my fingers is already down slightly. I’m now back to normal, but I’m definitely slimmer. And the moon face effect seems to already be coming back down slightly.

Unfortunately, the muscular problems in my back are not succumbing to my efforts to help them. I did figure out that I seem to be exacerbating my troubles by using my iPad when I’m laying down. The worst of my muscular problems are between my shoulderblades at this point, and those muscles are working when I hold my hand up to type or navigate on the tablet. My physical therapist had some ideas about better positions to set myself up in, but then the tablet is far enough away that I can’t see what I’m doing! I think I may just have to accept that I can’t spend much time online until my back is doing better.

That’s really all that’s going on around here. I have projects that are just waiting for me to have my hands and back behaving at the same time – a hair clip I am repairing the finish on, a sweater that needs to be sewn together, and I’ve joined in a hair craft exchange for the holidays. So far, the only thing I’ve been able to do is knit, because neither my hands nor my back needs to be at its best for that – it doesn’t put as much pressure on my thumbs as sewing, and it doesn’t require sitting somewhere other than my couch the way other things I’d like to work on do.

I’m enjoying one of my classes, and the other two I’m just trying to keep my head above water. I’ve missed SO much class, the professors in those two classes would be well within their rights to refuse to let me take the exam, but it seems like both of them are willing to let me slide. Thank heavens. I don’t find the classes particularly useful for one of them – the cases are pretty self-explanatory – and while I do like the other class just fine, I think I just don’t get as much out of class as most people do anymore. I’ve been at this so long that I’ve gotten pretty decent at teasing out what’s important in decisions, I think. It’s funny, it’s much harder (to me, at least) to tease out what’s important given a set of facts than it is to tease out what’s important from a case. A case is all about principles, where a fact pattern is more like…matching recognition. You have to be able to pick out which pieces are like cases, and then apply the principles from the right cases. I hope that makes sense, I’m not certain I’m explaining in a way that makes sense to someone who doesn’t work in this field. It’s one of the reasons that there is talk about how useful law school really is. That, and unless you do a clinical of some kind, you learn very little about what the process actually looks like. Okay, someone comes into their office and gives you a bunch of facts…so what do you do then? What should this form or this request to the court or this motion or this filing look like? What order do you do things in? Who do you need to send things to, and how? And people are taught perilously little about how to bargain, which is often at the heart of legal work. Very few cases of any kind actually go to trial; most settle. And if you don’t know the very basics of how to bargain, how on earth are you going to get your client what they should get? I see this in exercises, where instead of giving an opening offer, someone will give a range of what they might accept. No, no, no, you start at the best end of your range and know in your head that you’re willing to accept less, and then see what their opening number is, and then both sides work towards a compromise, if possible. If you give them a range straight off, they’re going to START at your low end of acceptable and try to work you down from there. I never realized how much shopping at places where one haggles could be helpful professionally until I saw how very badly some people do at this sort of thing.

Anyhow, enough about school.

The fiance and I need to do something to insulate this place – the heat keeps cycling on, and admittedly it’s quite cold out tonight, but this is expensive. Unfortunately, we have electric forced air heat, which is terribly pricey. I don’t even want to think about what our heating costs are going to look like this winter. At least with my horrid prednisone hot flashes, we’re keeping the apartment relatively cool (64 degrees, where I normally am uncomfortable under 68 or 70), which I suppose is probably helping matters. I am realizing that the big bay window that I love in our living room is going to be a horrible heatsink all winter, because we can’t really put window film up to help keep it warmer. I guess we’ll just have to do all the other windows in the apartment, and get draft-blockers for the doors we rarely use (we have 3 outside doors – one to the ramp, one out of our kitchen, and one into the building), and just hope that helps keep us warmer in here. I definitely expected a place that was extensively rehabbed less than a decade ago to be better insulated! The worst part is that the room I need to be the coolest is the room that is consistently the warmest. I have the worst time with the heat flashes at night, so I like the bedroom cooler, but the heating system does not agree with me. So it’s sweaters and blankets in the living room for us. Ah well, at least we aren’t worrying about keeping guests comfortable, just us and the pooches.

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Two weeks ago today, I picked up my back brace.

We’ve been thinking about getting me a back brace for some time now. Ever since I dislocated two ribs in March, really. After that happened, I had bought a soft posture corrector online. It seemed to help reduce my rib pain, and had the added bonus of keeping my posture a bit better. I’ve had back problems since I was 15, and shoulder problems since I was 17, and this seemed to be helping a little bit with both.

So my doctor decided that if the soft, kind of generic shaped posture corrector was helping, perhaps we should go in for something a little more structured. He sent me off to an orthotist, and the orthotist picked out a brace for me. It’s pretty new to the market, and part of what we all liked about it is that it’s a slim, light weight design. The California Eco brace seemed like a good answer for what I need – it provides support to both the lumbar and thoracic (that is, lower and mid-back, which covers most of my problem answers), and it helps pull the shoulders back and keep the spine aligned from the sacrum (the pelvis/hip bones) to the base of the neck. If you’re curious about it, you can see a good description and picture of it here – http://www.orthomerica.com/product/1606696-california-eco.

Now, I was supposed to pick this thing up MONTHS ago, no exaggeration. But we moved, and while I was still in physical therapy for the ribs and the back issues that came with them, I started my summer class. The summer class ended, and then my auto-immune thing flared wildly. I had bigger fish to fry than picking up a brace. Then fall classes were starting, and the auto-immune thing was still giving me problems, and my insomnia decided it needed to be a bigger part of my life. And frankly, if we’re being honest here, I procrastinated a bit about picking it up. I didn’t want to wear it. I didn’t want to be deciding whether I would deal with it making me all lumpy under my clothing or whether I’d wear it on the outside where it’d be visible. Anyhow, the stars and planets finally cooperated, and I was able to pick it up two weeks ago.

They told me to use the usual wearing-in schedule. For those of you not familiar with braces intended for long-term wear, this is how it works. You have to gently accustom your body to the new piece of equipment. So typically, you wear it for one hour on the first day you have it, and slowly increase the amount of time you wear it until you’re able to wear it for as long as you’re supposed to. I suppose ideally, I’d be working up to wearing it whenever I’m not in bed. Anyhow, the point here is that you start with one hour of wear typically. Being a somewhat cautious soul, I started by wearing it for 40 minutes.

It felt weird to have my posture altered like that, but not bad. It did feel good to take the brace off at the end of that 40 minutes, but anyone who wears braces will tell you that it pretty much always feels good to get the brace off at the end of the day, even when you’re completely adjusted and accustomed to it.

It was perhaps 6 hours later that problems started. I was watching TV and relaxing, and suddenly there is a horizontal bar of pain about an inch wide slicing across a space slightly broader than my spine. There were only a few minutes left to the show, so I figure I’ll just watch to the end and then go and lie down. The pain starts spreading, first the bar extending horizontally, and then increasing vertically. It traced down my spine and up my spine. My head began hurting terribly. And then it started affecting other things – my abdomen hurt so badly that I started retching. I went and lie down in bed, and the pain was bad enough that I was making noise and woke my fiance. I ended up throwing up, and it took me a while to figure out that I wasn’t having a tension-induced migraine (which was how I initially interpreted the combination of headache and nausea/vomiting). I got out my tennis ball and started working on the muscles right around where the pain started. It took me a good long while, but I finally got the worst of the pain to abate.

I spent the next week using heat, the tennis ball ‘massage’, and stretching to try to get the whole thing under control. I was doing not too badly by the weekend, but come Monday it got worse. So Tuesday, I got in to see the same day clinic at my doctor’s office. He’s impossible to get a same day appointment with, but the doctor I saw was quite pleasant. She gave me 2 weeks’ worth of muscle relaxants, and perhaps more importantly, a prescription for physical therapy.

I bumbled through a week of feeling truly dreadful, and then today was finally able to see my physical therapist. He does think that the brace is a reasonable choice, but we need to do some work on my back before my back is ready for it. And I need a much slower wear-in schedule, starting with no more than half the time I originally attempted. Shoot, I think I’ll probably just do 10 minutes to start! Anyhow, he did a lot of mobilization on my spine today, because that was a big part of the continuing problem – the muscles that support the vertebrae had locked up so badly that nothing could move. It was definitely not the most pleasant physical therapy session I’ve ever had, and my back is very tender now, but I am hopeful that this will help. The physical therapist also believes that in the long run, the brace will likely be good for me. It’s just getting to the point where I can tolerate it that’s the trouble.

In other news – I got my results for my blood work. It’s not going to be helpful in diagnosing me. All of the tests to pinpoint more specifically what kind of auto-immune condition we’re dealing with came back in normal ranges. Whatever I have, I apparently have the sero-negative version. While that’s not unheard of, it is a bit unusual. I suppose given how often I have the unusual version of conditions, I shouldn’t be surprised! I see the rheumatologist a week from tomorrow to see what he has to say on the matter. I hope that he’s able to put me on something that isn’t the prednisone I’ve now been on for almost two months. It has my insomnia acting up, and I have terrible heat flashes (to the point where I’ve been keeping the house about 4 degrees cooler than I usually tolerate, which is 6 degrees cooler than I normally like), and a couple weeks ago, I chewed out the fiance so badly over something utterly inconsequential that he was afraid to come home from work. Oh, and I’m sweating buckets, and I’d like to eat the whole world. Quite the unpleasant little drug. Necessary, but unpleasant. I’m worried that my doctor will want to keep me on it. If that’s the case, they’re probably going to need to increase my dose again, because the hand, foot, knee, and back pain is all coming back, and my hands are visibly swollen again. this is all getting old, body! I’m fed up with being swollen up. I just want you to go back to playing nice and not beating yourself up.

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Most of you who read my blog have done so for quite some time, and I’m sure you’ve noticed that in the past couple years, I’ve been much more quiet than in the past. I’ve been dealing with pain and inflammation and mental fog and all kinds of fun new symptoms while desperately trying to finish law school. It’s been a rough two and a half years, since the ‘new’ symptoms started.

For a while, my doctor and I thought it might be Lyme Disease. I responded positively to the right antibiotics, and very swiftly. We did several courses, and things improved a bit each time, then got worse again. Despite multiple blood tests, the only things that ever showed up were markers of increased inflammation.

I got frustrated with the status quo this summer, and asked to be sent to the rheumatologist again. If it was Lyme Disease, we had treated it pretty aggressively, and yet I saw no improvement. Besides that, I started having symptoms that are not as much associated with Lyme Disease. For example, I have psoriasis on my scalp, which has been there for most of a year, though it was only diagnosed this summer – I just kept forgetting to ask about it after the dandruff treatment did nothing to help.

Well, we have a general answer now. I probably never had Lyme Disease, but instead have had an auto-immune disease at sub-clinical levels. Basically, that means that my immune system has been attacking me, but not in a way that showed up in blood tests. I got the first positive auto-immune test – an anti-nuclear antibody or ANA test – about two months ago. About a month ago, whatever is going on kicked into high gear – my hands puffed up so that there were days I couldn’t even hold a fork, my feet were bad enough that some days I couldn’t walk, and boy has it been awful. The rheumatologist gave me a steroid to bring down the swelling, and then a week later had to increase the dose because the inflammation rebounded. My hands are now back to about where they were before this latest flare, though I’m still on the steroid so they’d definitely be worse without that. I’d like to eat the whole world and drink a lake. I also have a new found sympathy for menopausal women who complain about hot flashes. I was pretty dismissive before (internally! I’d never say such a thing to someone complaining about them!), but now I’m waking up every hour or two at night because I’ve sweated so much that the sheets are plastered to me and I’m so miserably hot from the waist up – and that’s with the apartment turned down cooler. It took me a week or so to figure out how to more or less balance things; until then, I was freezing from about mid-thigh down and frying on at least my head and often all the way down to my hips. On a good night, it’s only my head that gets hot, so I put a blanket over my body and turn the air down cold and then I only wake up a couple of times. On a bad night, I’m alternating between frying and freezing, and it’s making me groggy during the day.

At this point, there are definitely forerunners in the list of conditions that I might have. Psoriatric arthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, Sjogren’s Disease, and Mast Cell Activation Disorder/Disease are the current hottest suspects, as I understand things, but frankly none of the auto-immune diseases are entirely outside of possibilities. MCAD in particular has been observed to happen at higher frequencies among people who have EDS, so I suppose that may be the most likely, though it’s much harder to test for than the others. The second panel of more specific blood tests is due back any day, so hopefully I’ll have an answer soon. Unfortunately, the answer may well be that whatever I have, while it has been identified as auto-immune, can’t be identified more specifically via blood test. I pray that with an answer will come a more direct treatment. While the steroid is helping, and while steroids are often used in bad flares of rheumatological disorders, they are treating a symptom (inflammation) instead of dealing with the immune system itself. (Technically, MCAD seems to be classified as a hematological disorder rather than a rheumatological disorder, so I may need to be sent off to a whole different specialist, and people who treat MCAD are harder to find than people who treat what are more or less bog standard rheumatological disorders.)

I’m still feeling emotionally blitzed. On the one hand, there is a chance – an admittedly very small chance, but a chance all the same – that the past 7 years of health issues may all be linked to this, and thus may all markedly improve given effective treatment – I might get some semblance of the old Kali back, and the old Kali’s LIFE back. On the other hand, this has been going on for at least 2 1/2 years, and on some level I’m very angry about how long it’s taken and how little my doctors have been able to do to help me. Part of me feels like someone should have figured this out long before now – if the drugs to treat auto-immune disorders were not quite so powerful, I would have pushed for a trial of one long before now, because at least it would clearly eliminate auto-immune conditions, which can run at levels a blood test cannot detect for years, and may very well have done just that in me. I’m worried that the blood tests will be inconclusive, which means the possibility of less pleasant tests like biopsies to look for Sjogren’s. And I’m tired. I’m tired of it being one new thing after the next, tired of being sick, tired of being sickER, tired of the progression, tired of having to watch new symptoms blossom and often be present for long periods before anyone does anything effective about them. I’m frustrated with the whole medical industry, which I know is not completely fair to particularly my GP, who is a very caring individual who has invested a lot of time in learning to treat a patient as complex as I.

Hopefully, I’ll have another update for you all soon with an answer, and then we’ll get to start the treatment merry-go-round. Most medications for auto-immune disorders come with heavy side effects – oh, certainly, nothing to compare to the damage and pain of letting the condition run unchecked, but unpleasant all the same. I’m not looking forward to that part of a potential diagnosis.

And I’ve got to manage to hold things together through December. This is my last semester of law school, and at the end of this I’ll finally have enough units to graduate in May. Finally. It will have taken me twice as long as the average student, but finally I’ll be there. Then…well, I guess I try to open a law firm, which is its own terrifying adventure – new attorneys almost always join other firms, for good reason, and I probably won’t even have the money to hire a paralegal to help make sure things get done right. But that’s the next chapter, right? And hey, if my health evens out…maybe I can find a small firm that is willing to take on someone whose law school career doesn’t look all that great, so that I don’t have to figure out every step of this alone.

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Or at least, that’s what this week has felt like.

I had three appointments this week: one with my GI for new symptoms, one with a rheumatologist for a collection of new symptoms I mentioned in a previous post, and one with the headache center because my headaches are getting worse and I’m willing to try a preventative again.  All three appointments concluded in ways that I have to admit I’m far from thrilled with.

My new GI symptoms were lower GI bleeding and increased GI pain.  Now, I’ve been diagnosed with IBS, so I’m used to a certain level of GI pain, but it’s usually because of spasms and I have medication to treat that.  This pain doesn’t respond to those pills, and GI bleeding is always a concerning symptom.  There are two basic possibilities when you’re dealing with lower GI bleeding: hemmorrhoids and inflammatory disorders.  While hemmorhoids are a vile thing to consider, they would definitely be the lesser evil here.  One or two treatments could get rid of them, and while there’s a chance of recurrence, it’s not a huge lifetime thing.  Inflammatory disorders are a whole other boat.  Both Inflammatory Bowel Disorder and Crohn’s Syndrome are auto-immune issues, which means that your own immune system is attacking your GI.  We’re talking medication probably for life and the possibility of major surgeries to remove parts of the GI system that get too badly damaged.  Not pretty.  Both are currently on the table, and will remain that way until I get a sigmoidoscopy done next month.  I’m sure you can imagine, with GI pain, how much I want to have a camera shoved up my derriere.  Especially since the last time, I ended up in the ER a few days later with one of the few episodes 10 out of 10 pain I’ve ever had.  Ugh.

The rheumatologist appointment wasn’t a whole lot better.  I’ve seen this rheumatologist before; in the summer of 2008, he was the first doctor who suggested I had Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome.  He struck me as a kind man and a good diagnostician, so when I needed to see a rheumatologist, I asked for him by name.  We talked about symptoms, and he could see the swelling in my wrists even if he couldn’t see it in my fingers (because I have exceptionally slender fingers, they look about normal when swollen).  I didn’t like his answers, either.  He said that there were a couple of possibilities that sprang to mind.  Because of the GI symptoms under investigation, he said that I could have Inflammatory Bowel Disorder or Crohn’s, which can cause generalized arthritis-like inflammation.  I could also have a sero-negative rheumatological disorder like rheumatoid arthritis or Sjogren’s; the main confirmation for either of those would be a negative diagnosis for bowel issues and a positive reaction to medications that treat them.  In any case, he suspects something I’ll be dealing with for the rest of my life.  Joy.

And finally, on to the headache specialist.  I stopped seeing them a year ago because I tried two different preventative medications and reacted badly to both – sleeping 16-18 hours a day, having trouble doing simple things like feeding myself because I’d get sidetracked somewhere in the process (usually after putting food into the microwave).  Thing is, the headaches have gotten worse again.  I’m now having positional headaches, which scares the crap out of me because I know that can be a sign of Chiari, which is way more common in EDSers than in the general population.  It can also be a sign that the cervical settling I was diagnosed with a bit over 2 years ago is causing problems.  Well, the headache specialist threw in a new possibility – he said I could have pockets of cerebro-spinal fluid developing in my brain, which apparently is also more common with EDSers than the general population.  Aw fuck.  If that’s the case, they have to go in and patch them because they can cause brain damage if left unchecked.  Gah.  Because of this possibility, I have to have a MRI done, with and without contrast.  That’s pretty much torture to me.  I’m mildly claustrophobic, and having my head bound in place and then being slid into a tube that barely has enough room to fit me is pretty horrific.  Worse yet, to do a with-and-without contrast, they have to do one set of scans, bring you back out so they can inject you with contrast, and then put you back in.  It is one thing to deal with being put in once; something about being pulled out and put back in heightens the sensation of being trapped enormously for me.  And of course, for an MRI, you have to stay perfectly still.

They also are having a little trouble with preventatives because of my other conditions.  Migraine preventatives tend to be drugs that were originally intended for other uses that were discovered to have headache-preventing qualities.  They fall into 3 major groups: anti-depressants, anti-seizure meds, and blood pressure meds.  They don’t want to give me an anti-depressant because I’m bipolar.  I’ve reacted badly to 3 anti-seizure meds, so we don’t want to try that route again – no sense beating a dead horse.  Which leaves blood pressure meds…which have the potential of making my POTS worse.  I guess that’s less scary than messing with things that can affect bipolarism because I have a better chance of catching POTS symptoms before something bad happens, not to mention that the gap between theraputic for headaches and theraputic for the original use is wider for blood pressure meds.  That is to say, the level of anti-depressants needed to prevent migraines is closer to the level needed to treat depression than the level of blood pressure meds to prevent migraines is to the level needed to treat high blood pressure.  The really bad news is that they think the main medication I’m on to manage my generalized body pain may be making my headaches worse.  They want me to think about coming off of it.  The idea of coming off of the medication that makes the pain that encompasses my whole body tolerable is enough to make me want to scream.  I have to sit here and try to figure out which is worse: the possibility that my headaches will continue to get worse, or what it will feel like to come off the medication.  Pain is a funny thing; being on opioids is known to make pain worse in some people, so it might not be as bad as I think.  Except I remember what it was like before I got on the opioid medication.  I spent all of my time either at school, doing homework, or asleep, because being awake was too damn painful.  I don’t want to go back to that – it’s a frightening possibility.

Which is to say, this week was full of catostrophic SUCK.  I got answers I didn’t want at every turn.  It sucks up your energy, dealing with stuff like this, as if I didn’t have all kinds of other things eating up my energy.  I’m exhausted and sad and frustrated and angry, and feeling very vulnerable right now.  I feel like I am walking on thin ice, and anything could send me plummeting into the deadly cold water beneath.

In some different news, I am not the only person who has been dealing with sucky stuff lately.  A friend of a friend has had a crisis happen where she cannot get the treatment she needs to be as healthy and well as she can be.  My friend, Sharon of aftergadget.wordpress.com, organized an auction to help out.  There are a variety of things included in the auction, from artwork to services.  Please check the auction out at http://heathersauction.blogspot.com/!

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When you have disabilities and illnesses, you inevitably get people asking how you live with them.  The short, pat answer is one day at a time, and there is some truth to that.  The longer answer is what I’d like to address today.

For me, at least, each piece is different.  Some you just make little adjustments for; some re-work your world and change everything.  Some you hardly ever think about, while others require your attention on a daily basis.

Now, I’ll be frank with you, the list of things that don’t fit the norm with my body is pretty extensive.  I don’t have a single system in my whole body that is unaffected.  I’m not going to go through all of them because it would take forever.

So let’s start with a relatively common one: asthma.  I developed asthma when I was 12.  At first, it was relatively mild, so it was just annoying.  Sure, I carried an inhaler at all times, but I really only needed it if I was running or swimming hard.  When I was 15, it took a sudden turn for the worse.  That was when it became terrifying.  I remember the first attack that sent me to the hospital.  I remember my mother calling the nurse’s line at our health insurance to find out what we could do.  I remember them setting me up so I was laying back at a 45 degree angle on the couch and having a humidifier blowing moisture into my face, which only made it worse.  I remember getting  woozy because I couldn’t breathe.  I remember my chest hurting.  I remember the tense ride to the emergency room a few blocks from my parents’ house, where they gave me a breathing treatment.  There are few things more frightening than the first time you are almost completely unable to breathe.  It hits you at a visceral level, it makes you…it makes you fear death is stalking you.  I also remember my first coughing-type asthma attack, where with each cough my lungs tightened further.  I remember the asthma attack at the Girl Scout camp up in the mountains, where I had to hang on for 30 minutes as they drove to the nearest hospital, desperately hitting on my inhaler and trying not to panic because panic only makes the attack worse.  Of all my conditions, asthma may be the scariest, because when it hits you are completely at its mercy until you can get a breathing treatment.  You live with it by always being prepared – taking your inhaler with you everywhere, and if you have a preventative, taking it every day.  You live with it by knowing where the nearest emergency room is.  You live with it by having people in your life around you who know you have the condition and who help you when it hits.  You learn breath control and breathing techniques that help you to partially control your asthma attack with your mind.  And you live with the fear, this little dragon coiled ’round your heart, ready to squeeze when you feel a little wheeze in your breath or something makes you cough, that tension when you see someone smoking and know that might be enough to set you off.  I mean, you get used to it, because it’s always there.  It gets less scary, and the attacks are no longer terrifying but more a nuisance.  You don’t think ‘Oh god, I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe!’ on your thirtieth severe attack, you think ‘Damn it, off to the ER again, I hate this shit!’

Asthma is one of the hard ones because you know that it can kill you and fast.  Hell, it can easily kill you, if you don’t manage it aggressively.  When things are good for a long time, your vigilance slackens a little, until that time you get a little wheezy and realize you don’t have your inhaler.  Hopefully, it’s a small attack that reminds you to keep your inhaler around; my pediatric asthma specialist told me a story about a friend of his who died because she didn’t have her inhaler on her person and she didn’t get to the ER fast enough.

It’s a strange balance, between the nuisance and the fear.  Nowadays, I only get scared by my coughing-type attacks, partly because those tend to be far more severe.  Even those, it’s just a case of getting headed towards an ER as soon as the coughing starts, because I can’t stop them without a breathing treatment.  The other attacks, I just get annoyed.  I know the likeliest result is that I’m going to be stuck focusing on my breathing for the next half-hour, and not being able to do anything else.

Let’s go with the big one – Ehlers Danlos Syndrome.  To be perfectly honest with you, it varies wildly how this one hits you.  I have a moderate case of EDS, so I can’t really describe what it’s like for people with more severe cases.  I was born with naturally very tight joints, so it took longer for EDS to really damage my joints.

You don’t think much of it when you’re young and relatively healthy, and thus undiagnosed.  It doesn’t affect you much then.  Sure, you get injured more often than other people, and sometimes in ridiculous ways, but it’s not something that really sticks out all that much.  People just think you’re a clutz, and for that matter, you probably do too.  I sure did!  It was strange, because when I was focused on what I was doing, I had unusual precision in moving, but as soon as I wasn’t in that extremely tight focus, I started banging into tables and such.

EDS is mostly a nuisance.  Dozens of braces I’m supposed to be wearing at any given time (finger, wrist, elbow, knee-and-ankle-and-foot).  I hate the way it makes me stand out – there isn’t really a way to hide braces that run from the middle of your thigh all the way down to the sole of your foot.  Nor can you hide braces on your fingers, unless you wear gloves, which would make you stand out even more.  (I am thankful that I have the relatively pretty finger braces – I know some people are stuck with ‘fleshtone’ plastic, while I wear much more slender bands of silver.)  I hate that I can’t carry my own groceries.  If I go grocery shopping, I have to get someone to help me out to my car and have someone at home to lug them in.  I can’t even pick up a gallon of milk without hurting myself.

I hate that my hips and shoulders sublux at the slightest provocation, and that we haven’t been able to effectively brace them.  I hate the pain that comes from all these injuries that have happened over and over and over.  I sometimes feel defective.  I often feel broken, hence the title of my blog.  Certainly dysfunctional!  After all, I can’t function in the ways I used to.  I don’t usually compare myself to normal, but I do compare myself to younger Kali.  The Kali who danced 12 hours a week.  The Kali who went to grad school and carried an overload on classes.  The Kali who liked strength training at the gym.  Even younger, the Kali who loved to play soccer.  The Kali who drove an hour and a half to go shooting (archery) twice a month with her friend, and shot for hours.  The Kali who could hand sew like lightening.  The Kali who wore high heels.  Kali the swordfighter and fencer.  I miss being that Kali.

Some of living with EDS is embarassing.  My bladder leaks, so I have to wear pads all the time.  It’s frustrating – it isn’t the typical kind of leak people have, where a few drops escape when they laugh or sneeze.  That kind, you can do exercises to strengthen the muscles.  Mine just seems to be this light, constant dribble.  When I have to use the bathroom, it usually hits suddenly with a great deal of urgency, which means I have to abruptly break off conversations to run to the bathroom.  It’s also embarassing to be a twenty-something who has to ask people to carry her groceries to her car and ask people to give up seats on public transportation and use a scooter and park in the disabled spaces.  I’m mostly okay with it, it just twinges when people look at me like there is something wrong with me for needing assistance.  It embarasses me and it makes me mad, because what the hell do they know?  Who are they to assume that everyone who looks ‘normal’ doesn’t have some kind of disability?  Who are they to judge me?  If my doctor is willing to sign off on disabled plates and placard, who are they to think I don’t need it?

Onward, next disability: POTS (Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome).  This one has been extremely hard for me, in part because it kind of comes and goes.  There’s a baseline that’s always there, that makes me extremely sensitive to temperature and even mild dehydration.  It’s annoying, especially when I go somewhere that doesn’t allow me to bring in water and I have to pay a fortune for drinks.  I often get a bit light-headed and dizzy when I stand up, and I have to hold onto something until it passes.  I suppose it’s a little embarassing, especially when people freak out because I abruptly sit down in the middle of the office to avoid falling.  Mostly, in that stage, it’s managable, as long as I can avoid heat and keep fluids in me.  When it gets too hot, or I get too dehydrated, though, it’s…well.  It’s unpleasant.  One of the first things to go is my ability to think coherently.  By the time it physically shows that I’m not okay – when I turn scarlet and collapse – I often can’t even explain what’s wrong to people around me.  “I have POTS” doesn’t mean anything to most people, and it’s about the limit of my explaining.  I can sometimes manage to tell people that I’m too hot, or that I need water, but not always.  That’s the scary part of this condition – I can’t really take care of myself when it causes problems.

But then there are the flares – in the flares, I can’t sit up without medication, because it makes me so dizzy, and I get headaches.  When I’m in a flare and it’s bad, I can’t walk without someone holding onto me, supporting some of my weight and keeping me from falling.  I get stuck in bed because sitting up is impossible.  I fall asleep.  I can’t remember anything, and get nonsensical.  Part of what has made this post take so long was the tail-end of a POTS flare.

And that’s not all the symptoms that come with POTS.  I get random episodes of tachycardia, where my heart just starts RACING, racing so hard I stagger and lean into a wall or fall.  I get occasional extra venticular beats, which feel like being kicked in the chest.

POTS is, to me, one of the hardest to live with.  It’s not predictable, and I have only so much control over it.  It traps me in the house when it’s hot, and stops me from being able to tolerate much less enjoy what was once my favorite season: summer.  I miss the days when the glowing warmth of the summer sun was pleasurable, was an excuse to break out little strappy summer dresses that made the boys stare.

Next up, migraines.  Migraines are a royal pain, and somewhat dangerous.  They creep on, slowly increasing pain until that’s all there is.  All my senses become jagged spikes of pain, and I need to close myself off to as many as possible – I need to lay down on smooth sheets and a soft bed, in the dark, and quiet.  I usually end up putting on a blindfold in addition to being in a dark room, because the dark has to be absolute.  I turn on a fan to provide a constant noise that smoothes over the serrated teeth of other noises.  I’m nauseated, and unfortunately the migraine medication is a nose spray.  Postnasal drip means it ends up at the back of my mouth, and it is incredibly, horribly foul tasting.  Not a good combination with the nausea (and dizziness) that are already swelling up.  Sometimes I throw up, especially with the more painful ones.

The complex migraines are even worse.  The pain is indescribable, and is bad enough to make me vomit over and over again.  I hurt so much I want to whimper and sob, but the sound and motion of those make the pain even worse.  Sometimes it gets so bad that I can’t stop myself, even though I know it’s only making things worse.  Lights blur into giant stars of blinding light, like a sunset on a smeared windshield.  Sometimes my hands twitch.  I lose spots in my vision sometimes.  This is when the migraine gets dangerous – I can’t transport myself, by driving or by public transit.  I often end up in the ER because I can’t stop the pain with the migraine medications I have and I need IV pain medications.  For those of you who know your opioids, morphine usually isn’t strong enough; I usually need dilaudid if it’s one of these vicious beasts.  For those of you who don’t know them, I need the STRONG stuff.  The stuff they normally give you when you come in in extreme pain?  I sometimes don’t even feel it.

With migraines, you live knowing that you carry around this mostly quiescent beast that will occasionally turn and rip into you.  If you’re lucky, you have triggers you can avoid, foods or smells or lighting effects that you can avoid and prevent the migraines.  My main trigger at this point is tension in my neck and shoulders, which doesn’t sound all that bad, but I’ve been in 6 car accidents, partially torn a muscle that connects the shoulder to the neck, and have dislocated both shoulders frequently.  I have chronic problems with the tension in all of the muscles in my back, neck, and shoulders.  Sitting in a less-than-comfortable chair for an hour can trigger a migraine if I don’t keep shifting and stretching.

GERD + IBS.  Ooh how I hate these.  GERD is gastro-esophogeal reflux disorder, which basically means that there isn’t as good a seal at the top of my stomach as there should be.  I take an acid-blocker to help with this, but it’s not enough on its own.  I have to mind what I eat, and I’ve had to eliminate caffeine except for chocolate (which I couldn’t bear to get rid of).  If I have a greasy meal, I have to be good for the next day and a half at least.  I can’t manage really spicy meals anymore, which is a shame because I love me some spices.  And when I say spicey, I don’t just mean heat – I also mean pepper and cinnamon and whatnot, because they’re hard on the GI system.  The other issue with the acid-blockers is that I have an astonishing ability to acclimate.  I get an average of 6-10 months per drug before they stop working well enough.  Right now, I’m probably at the end of a drug.  It’s scary, because I’ve gone through all of this class of drugs.  We tried moving me on to the next alternative class of drugs, and it was far worse than the failing drug – I felt like my stomach and my esophogas were on FIRE, and I kept vomiting small amounts.

Then there’s the other half – IBS (irritable bowel syndrome).  Caffeine makes me have horrible cramps, if I have much at all.  Hell, I get horrible cramps for no apparent reason – they just strike all the sudden, and BAM I’m curled up in a ball because it hurts like you wouldn’t believe.  Spices will trigger that, too.  Appalling amounts of gas, which is of course embarassing.  Diarrhea and constipation.  I rarely get that sense that I should go to the bathroom soonish – it’s always NOW NOW NOW.  Very inconvenient when you’re travelling.  It hit on the road at one point, when I was maybe 10 minutes from home, and I thought I could make it home.  Um, well, let’s just say it didn’t work out that way.  I pulled into a fast food place that I sometimes ate at and cleaned myself up as much as I could.  (Worse, I was on a date – he was following me to my place, where we were going to have tea and snuggle.  It was probably our third date.  We got to my place and I told the now boyfriend that I was sorry, I needed to shower RIGHT NOW and I understood if he wanted to leave.  He was still there when I got out of the shower, and wasn’t phased when a very mortified Kali explained what had happened.)

I also have Raynaud’s.  Raynaud’s is basically an extreme sensitivity to cold.  See, when your body gets really, REALLY cold, it starts closing up the veins in your extremities so that your blood stays in your core.  It’s why people get frostbite on their extremities mostly.  My body starts doing that sort of thing at much milder temperatures than most people’s do.  It means that I tend to have corpsicle feet, waxy pale colored and cold.  My hands also do it, and my nose and ears.  And don’t get me started on how incredibly painful it is when it hits your nipples.  (Our bathroom is really not insulated enough, and this was before I started using my little space heater to warm it up in the winter…)  I suppose when it’s cold out, I’ve also had it hit on my butt, where it’s not covered by my jacket.  This is one that is mostly just a nuisance, where you have to be careful to bundle up properly and gently re-warm things that have gotten too cold.  It’s uncomfortable, sure, and sometimes even painful.  It’s a little embarassing.  It’s also made the boyfriend almost jump out of bed – I curled up against him and my foot hit his shin, and he JUMPED.

I’ll finish up with the last big one: mental illness.  I am bipolar, not certain which type because I was originally diagnosed type II but started having symptoms more like type I a couple years ago.  I also have PTSD and panic attacks.  The three end up kind of interwoven, with each affecting the others. 

The primary piece is the bipolar, though.  Looking back, I’ve probably had it since around puberty, which I understand is pretty typical.  I was diagnosed at 17; I suppose it would be more accurate to say I self-diagnosed and had it confirmed by my therapist.  I was taking a psychology 101 course, and we addressed abnormal psychology for I think two weeks.  I read the description of bipolar and went ‘oh my god, that’s ME!  Except that I don’t get angry like it says in the book.’  My therapist said that it’s because I’m type II rather than type I.  The thing about bipolar is that essentially your emotional state is a tightrope walker.  It’s easier for us to be pushed over into exaggerated agitation and exaggerated depression by life events, and sometimes they just happen without triggers because it’s a chemical imbalance.  The depression is the harder part, for me.  You just feel…stuck.  Tasks feel far larger than they really are when you look at what needs to be done, and far smaller than they really are when you look at what you’ve accomplished.  It’s hard to feel inspired to do anything.  Hard enough to make yourself do the things you love; nigh impossible to make yourself do things you don’t like.  You feel so insignificant, as if nothing you can do makes a difference, nothing matters, why the hell are you trying?  Don’t you get it, you don’t matter!  It’s very hard to get out of.  It’s like being in the bottom of a pit with a shovel and trying to get yourself out of it.  If you do what’s natural with a shovel and just keep digging, all you do is get deeper.  You have to make yourself try to dig one of the sides into a slope you can walk up, and you deal with collapses and sliding and losing your footing and ending up back in the bottom of the pit.  Often, you need a rope lowered to you – therapy and appropriate drugs.

Mania is harder to explain.  First, let me say this – there are two levels, there’s hypomania and ‘true’ mania.  Hypomania is often not uncomfortable to the person who has it.  In my case, I get hyper-focused and goal oriented, and work for 8 hour stretches without remembering to eat, find myself looking up from my work to see I should have been to bed hours ago, sleep 6 hours and bounce up like I’d had my usual 9 hours.  That’s what I had as an undergrad, and it wasn’t really all that bad to deal with.  I got a lot of things done, and if I occasionally prioritized creative things over academic things, well, I didn’t do myself much harm.  True mania….well, a therapist explained it to me this way.  In mania, your baseline arousal gets raised.  With a higher baseline, something that would have worried you normally consumes you, something that would have been an irritation becomes infuriating, and something that would have given you a moment of pause becomes terrifying.  It’s like all of your emotions got amped up.

My bipolar is mostly managed via medication.  For a long time, I only dealt with depression and hypomania, so I just used antidepressants when I was depressed and came off them when I wasn’t, with a therapist’s supervision.  Nowadays, because I have mania symptoms, I do take medications all the time.  I still have to be careful how much stress I allow in my life; it’s easy for stress to push me into depression or mania, or worse yet, a mixed state, where I feel like molasses in winter except that I’m angry, or scared, or…whatever.

Trigger warnings: description of PTSD symptoms, and panic attacks.

I’m mostly recovered from PTSD.  I was in an abusive relationship just before I turned 18, and I kind of shoved all of it into a box and didn’t think about it until I was 22.  It took me about three years to get to the point where it stopped being a Thing in my life.  One of those years I spent in intense therapy, which is kind of like having major emotional surgery; the next year, I did no work on it and just let myself recover; the year after that, I did some lighter work to ease the scar from the emotional surgery.  It still occasionally pops up, but it’s rare.  I’ll have times when getting boxed into a corner makes me go into a panic, or when someone reaching in too close to me feels threatening, but they’re rare. 

When it was in full swing, any unexpected touch would send me into hyperventilating, and I can remember being in such a panic that I was compelled to abruptly leave, drive home, lock all the doors and windows in the house, and then lock myself in the bedroom, curl up in bed, and get online to instant message with someone I was comfortable with.  There are few things as terrifying as driving on a freeway when you’re in a panic attack; you’re freaked out that someone will hit you, what if someone on the other side of the freeway goes over the median?, oh god that railing was close, where did that car come from?! that truck is white-lining into my lane and oh my god there’s no shoulder here…so on.  I slammed the door in front of my roommate because it didn’t register that she was behind me and calling my name.

Nowadays, I just have times when leaning over me is triggering, or cornering me freaks me out, and I’m still not great with unexpected touch.  People who are close to me get educated on avoiding triggering me, and what to do if I get triggered.  It’s mostly a non-issue, but it comes up now and again.

Panic attacks are managed by breathing techniques, mind-body focus, and medication.  I also know certain actions that will help with a panic attack, like letting myself check that the front and back doors of the house are locked and the windows are closed.  When I have them away from home, I seek out places where I can some space to myself, like a bathroom or a dressing room, or better yet my car.  I also speak to myself, remind myself that no one is really going to hurt me, and that I am safe.  I also learned, over the years, that getting myself curled up in bed and picking up a book that I have read so many times it is a familiar friend is almost guaranteed to calm me down.  Thankfully, being in recovery from PTSD and having my bipolar well-medicated mostly prevents panic attacks.

I think that’s all the big ones.  I guess what it works out to is a lot of preventation and preparation for ‘just in case’.  A lot of adjustment, that’s for certain.  My life is very different than it was before I developed these disabilities, and part of coping with that is finding new hobbies and new friends who get it, new places to talk, so on.  Since I became disabled, I’ve focused a lot more on my creative side.  I knit and crochet and paint and make jewelery now.  I blog about living with a disability.  I have a service dog.  I’ve made new friends who have disabilities, and one of them has become a roommate.  I have a boyfriend whose capability to understand and help is astonishing.  The biggest part of living with it is making it worthwhile, and you do that by finding things that make it feel full to you.

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I mentioned in a couple of posts that Hudson and I had some difficulties after we were forced to be separated for 3 hours a week ago on Sunday.  I believe it was the first time in his life he was left entirely alone – always before, there has been company.  First his litter and his dam, then his puppy-raiser (who I know never left him alone because he was part of a prison program, so there is no leaving the dog in the other room for the night or similar) , then his kennel-mate and his trainer, and then me and the boyfriend.  He is a very emotionally needy pup, and will often come over and nosebump me to get my attention and a pat on the head.  When he is parted from me, he is always extremely happy and eager to be returned to me.  (this happens, for example, when I am ill and the boyfriend must take him out, or when I have a severe IBS attack and must run for the bathroom while the dog is eating his dinner, or when I need x-rays and other imaging done that would either be a health hazard or so loud as to unsettle him)

Being a very sensitive, needy dog who has never been left alone, he was quite upset to have it happen to him, and for so long!  It was somewhere between 2 1/2 and 3 hours altogether that he was left home.  I am quite happy to note that he did not become destructive at all.  I worried mostly that he might hurt himself trying to get back to me, but fortunately that did not happen.

That is not to say it was smooth sailing.

When I first came home, he was delighted to see me again.  He scooted around like he does when he was excited, his tail whipping so hard back and forth that it struck his own flanks.  He nearly leapt into my lap.

However, that was short-lived.

Like a small child, Hudson went back and forth – he was upset and wanted my comforting, but he was also upset with ME and wanted nothing to do with me.  He’d come over and bump me with his nose or his head to get my attention like he does sometimes when he wants affection, and after just a moment of petting he’d walk away from me.  It was totally abnormal for him, because usually he wants to hang out as long as I’ll pet him!  Other times, I’d invite him to come be petted and he’d just lay there looking at me, sometimes not even bothering to look at me.

Worse yet, from my perspective, is that he started ignoring commands.  It’s one thing for him to ignore me when I’m offering affection – it’s a bit of a snub and hurts your feelings a bit, but it’s not removing the very capabilities you rely on.  On the other hand, when your service dog won’t even follow you out of a room on command, you worry about relying on them.  When I tell him to stand, the command I use when I need to use him to steady me when standing or transferring, will he ignore me and keep moving, risking injury to us both?  When I ask him to pick something up for me, will he?  When I need him, can I rely on him?  Or will he keep ignoring me?

I suppose I’m lucky that I continued to be sick and not leave the house.  I had to do things for myself that he usually does – get up and turn on and off the light, figure out how to pick up things off the floor, use the edge of the bathtub to steady myself instead of the dog when getting up off the toilet, kick things out of the way instead of having the dog move them…it was a rough couple of days, but managable.  I don’t know what I would have done if I had to leave the house on Sunday or Monday.

On Tuesday, I had to go out, because Hudson and I were due to be tested for our recertification.  I was very, very worried that we wouldn’t pass.  A big part of the test is how well the team works together, and to judge by Sunday and Monday, we might not work well at all that day!  He ended up behaving fairly well.  Not at our best, but it was good enough to pass.  It was a huge relief to pass…and be done.  To not have to worry about this for another two years.

But I went through 2 1/2 days of my service dog not wanting to have anything to do with me, and that was their fault for separating us.  I went through more pain at the hospital, I was alone, and I had to deal with days of my service dog ignoring me.  If it weren’t for them, all I would have had to deal with last week was a nasty stomach virus.

And THAT, that I could have handled.

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One of the problems with support networks is that the people in them have their own priorities. Now, that’s not anything against them – every person has different priorities from the person standing next to them. Even if you take a couple in an incredibly close relationship, they’re going to put different value on things. That’s the nature of human beings.

The trouble creeps in when the priorities downright clash.

Right now, I’m not supposed to be walking much at all. Not until I get my new knee brace, which should be the middle of next month. It’s inconvenient. It means that I have to use my scooter everywhere, and that’s a bit difficult. You see, I live in a house with 3 steps up to get in the front door. So I can’t just wheel my scooter out the door. Also, I don’t have a trailer or hitch-mounted carrier for my scooter, so to take it places, it has to be broken up and put in the trunk, then hefted out and re-assembled. The scooter breaks down, sure…but even broken down, there’s a 50-lb piece, which is far more than I can heft without hurting myself.

Now, typically, the boyfriend does all hefting of the scooter, and drops me off places. However, the boyfriend’s uncle just died yesterday, and he’ll be driving a couple hundred miles to his family for the funeral. He’ll be gone from Tuesday until the weekend, most likely.

I’ve called friends, and no one is available. I thought I was in big trouble. I really can’t get around without my scooter!

I lucked out this time – my neighbor is willing to give me a hand. We built a ramp a while ago, but it’s too heavy for me to move. My neighbor will put the ramp into position so I can wheel on out. I’ll use public transportation (which includes a longer ‘walk’ than I can do even when my knee isn’t busted, but I’ll be on wheels!). When I get home, my aide will put the ramp back out at night so I can come in (or she’ll break down the scooter and carry it in piece by piece – that may be easier for her, because she’s a small woman and the ramp is 8′ long).

It’s scary, though, when you need help and you go through your support network and NO ONE can help. It’s frustrating! Part of the problem is that when you have a major disability or a chronic illness, your support network is often thin because of the sidelining affect that ablism has on you and, well, we’re often less able to go out and socialize. So you end up leaning on everyone harder than you should. You find yourself begging favors of the same handful of people over and over and over, and you can only hope that you don’t burn them out.

And when you burn out one of the few people who helps you, man are you ever in trouble. So far, thankfully, I’ve been able to avoid asking the same people for favors more than a few times each (with the exception of the boyfriend, who kinda does everything), so I’ve preserved my social network as best I can. That looming threat always worries me, though…the thought of ‘what would you do if one of these people stopped helping?’

One can only hope it never happens.

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While I’m disabled by chronic illness, I have kind of an unusual story for that. My transition from able-bodied to disabled was much more like that of someone who’d been in an accident. Fine one day, not so good the next day, and really awful for the third day…and staying that way.

I went more or less the typical stages of grief, though a little out of order – denial, depression, anger, and finally moving on to more-or-less acceptance. I really never did much bargaining; the closest I came to that was hope that we’d find the right medication and I’d be cured. Obviously, as I’m writing this identifying as a person with a disability that involves chronic pain and fatigue, that didn’t happen.

I’d had a weird episode of pain in my joints in the fall semester of my first year away at college. It lasted about 4 weeks. We never did figure out exactly what was causing it, except that my anti-nuclear antibodies were up, which indicates some auto-immune action. It went away on my own. Remembering that, I spent the first several months in denial about what was going on, and believing it’d suddenly get better like it had years before. Yeah, that didn’t happen either.

I think it took me 3 months to accept that it wasn’t getting better, and then I went ‘well, if I’m not getting better, I’d better settle in and deal with it.’ That was when I put in my paperwork to get a service dog, though I got my first cane a couple weeks before then. I was still shocked over the whole thing, and some part of me still believed that we’d find the right medication and it’d make me a lot better, even if it didn’t cure me.

I was in such a state of shock at that point that I was perhaps too honest about my illness with people who weren’t prepared for it. I didn’t try to hide that I had severe, constant, unrelenting pain, and that some days I was too damn sick from pain and fatigue to make it to class. That bit me on the ass pretty badly.

I think it took me about 6 months to accept that we could only do so much about the pain. That was when I got put on pain meds 24/7, including an opioid and something to deal with neural pain. I improved a fair amount at that point, and got back most of the use of my hands that I had lost. Even though I accepted that pain relief was only going to do so much, I still hoped for the magic pill cure. It was that first year when I gathered several of my specialists – the neurologist who was investigating what turned out to be a side effect of one of the first medications I’d been put on, the urologist, the gastroenterologist, the pain specialist.

The months after I first got sick, a lot of people I knew started suggesting it was Ehlers-Danlos syndrome. I didn’t realize I was as hypermobile as I am, and I don’t have the classic stretchy skin, so I shrugged it off and decided it couldn’t be right pretty quickly. Silly me, huh?

But it kept being brought up, and as more and more of my body had trouble – my bladder, my GI, so on – I looked at EDS again that summer and I thought ‘it’s possible’. By the middle of the fall semester, I finally decided that it was likely enough to look into a specialist. My GP had a similar reaction to mine at first, though she thought that the distinctive facial features associated with vascular EDS (the rarest of the 3 most common varieties) was seen in all people with EDS, and I definitely don’t have it. One of the features is thin lips, and I have rather full lips, so it wasn’t a match. She also didn’t realize that I have grey scelerae (that’s the whites of the eyes – in people with EDS, they are often blue or grey, because our scelerae are thinner).

That summer, my neurologist wrote for a permanent placard on the same visit that he told me whatever I had was not neurological, and he was sorry he couldn’t help me.

I got sent to a rheumatologist somewhere in that first year, and he couldn’t tell me much except that my troubles weren’t auto-immune. The neurologist and rheumatologist both not being able to help was both frustrating and hopeful – it said I might still have something a pill could cure, instead of something progressive.

I think I stopped believing there would be a miracle cure only when I was finally diagnosed in the winter of my second year of law school. I can’t tell you how crushing it was to have that be true. On the one hand, I was relieved because it meant I didn’t have something that was progressive to the point of killing you, and some of the possibilities we went through were pretty damn scary. On the other hand, I was disappointed because I knew that bracing and improving my pain medications were all we could do – I’d always have this, no matter what medications I took.

I suppose I started identifying as having a chronic illness very early on. Within a couple of weeks of the start of the chronic pain and fatigue, I figured that having this twice (remember, I had an episode of joint pain and fatigue my freshman year of college) probably meant that there was something bigger going on. I don’t think I started identifying as having a disability until about a year after I’d say I developed that disability. I wasn’t certain it was permanent until after I went a couple hundred miles to see a doctor who was well-known for contributions to the understanding of EDS. (Incidentally, I saw someone in my own city first who was supposedly an expert in Marfan’s and EDS, who misdiagnosed me and treated me badly.)

If you were to ask me to give a single adjective to describe becoming disabled, I’d say it’s frustrating. Yeah, there’s a lot of grief involved too, but to me, the single greatest emotion I have towards my disability is frustration. Frustration that I’m injured again. Frustration that I’m missing things due to pain and fatigue. Frustration that I can’t do things I used to. Frustration with each new piece of adaptive equipment I need to get along. Frustration with the weight caused by my illness and the medications that treat it. Frustration with society. Frustration with doctors and the medical system. Frustration with my health insurance. A ton of frustration, which seems to be more like a landslide in that it keeps growing as it goes along. A few stones at the start; a cataclysmic crushing weight of rock and earth at the bottom.

For me, a great deal of what is necessary to be happy as a person with a disability was learning to deal with that frustration. It still hits me now and again, but not like it did that first two years. It really did take me two years and developing a better support network to get to the point where I didn’t want to throw things most days.* It took me that long to find a place where I really could deal with my disability and the process of becoming disabled without being upset all the time, instead of just putting up a front. It probably didn’t help matters any that while my physical disability was first happening, my bipolarism wasn’t managed well.

Two years. Sometimes it seems like a blink of an eye; other times, it seems like a lifetime. It certainly seemed like a lifetime when I was living with it! At the end, while I’m still not thrilled about the level of disability I’m living with, I’ve made my peace with it. I no longer feel as isolated, as frustrated, or frankly as disabled. I’ve figured out how to make things work, and I’ve accepted that mobility aids (including my furry four-legged one) are part of my life. I do still wish that I was able to do more than I currently can, and I do still miss things like dancing and swordfighting, but I’ve filled my life with other things.

I don’t know if there is some sort of ‘average’ time it takes to get to a good baseline of emotions when you get a disability. I’ve known people who have had disabilities for decades and are still bitter about it; I also know people who seem to have this infinite serenity about it from the start. I do know that unless you’re one of those rare people who really is utterly adaptable and completely unflappable, you have to learn good coping techniques and you have to learn to live a different life than the one you led before. Those are both hard things to do, and damn near impossible to do without support. I think support – friends and family, medical, mental health, and services – are absolutely vital to learning to live a good life with a disability. I think that a lot of people who get stranded somewhere harmful to themselves or others don’t have the kind of support to make the transition, or they lost the support they needed to stay in a good life. Either way could make you pretty bitter and angry, I’d guess.

*Don’t worry, I threw empty pill bottles at my open closet, so the bottles hit my clothing and dropped to the closet floor. Except for the one that bounced off the edge of my closet and hit me in the forehead. Yeah, that was embarassing.

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Welcome to the August edition of the Disability Blog Carnival! I’m very happy to be your host.

When I asked for submissions, I decided to make the theme ‘distance’. I think distance is an interesting concept because we use the same word to mean so many different things – the space between ideas, the space between here and there, the space between you and me, the space between us and them, the space passage of time creates, the difference between where we started and where we have gotten to, the space between understanding and not. Intentional spaces, ideological spaces, physical spaces, metaphorical spaces. It’s a word that I think sometimes encompasses much of the disability experience, because there always seem to be more distances we have to deal with.

Counter-Indicated: A visual representation of the distance between the various pieces of medical equipment I am supposed to be using; the buff colored wrist-brace with thumb immobilization can't be worn with the blue forearm crutches. The top of the left crutch and the bottom of the right crutch lean diagonally across the white canvas, trapping between them the buff wrist brace. Created by Kali, copyright 8/22/2010

Without any further ado, I bring you this month’s blog carnival.

From Maggie World, written by the ablebodied mother of a young woman with multiple disabilities, we have A Game of Inches. This post is about how physical distance, physical space can be incredibly important to creating and maintaining accessibility for someone in a wheelchair, using an accessible vehicle.

From Spaz Girl, a teenage girl with spasticity, we have The Importance of Crip Community. This post is about the importance of having a community out here, in ‘our’ space, where we are distanced from ‘their’ space. She talks about the way crip community helps us invision our futures, which are hard to see when all the role models we’re presented with are able-bodied.

From Lene at The Seated View, we have Bridging the Distance, a post about the way sometimes, people who do not have disabilities can expand their understanding and ‘get’ how important accessibility is through events in their own lives.

From Astrid at Astrid’s Journal, we have Then and Now: On Changing Abilities, and Why those Don’t Make Me Fake, a post about how changing over time does not necessarily mean increasing or decreasing disability. Sometimes, all it takes is a change in circumstances to create an apparent distance.

From Hand To Mouth, we have Assistive Technology and Accessing the Digital Divide. This post discusses the distance between how far accessible technology has come and how much technology most people actually have access to. How frustrating it is, to know that we have the ability to allow people to access the world in previously unprecedented ways, and yet we’re held back because the necessary tools aren’t spread widely enough. As the blog said, the bridge is so dear, so tenuous, as to be almost frightening to us on this side of the divide. How easily we could lose that access that we had to work so hard to obtain. And yet – and yet, does the chasm have to be so wide?

From Rightfully Deviant, we have The Community Imperative, a post about finding a crip community where you aren’t at a distance, a place where you and your disability just…fit. Just make sense. Don’t need to be justified.

From Amanda at Ballastexistenz, we have Distance Underthought, a unique post – a painting and an explanation of it that talk about distance and lack of distance where there is…understanding…among those of us on the other side. I don’t want to talk too much about this, because I very much liked her description of the ideas in the painting.

From Yasmin at Damn the Muse, we have So What Do You Have…, a post about a great interaction between her and her new neighbor/friend, that shows that we don’t have to be at a distance if people don’t treat us that way.

From In My Eyes: Life with Cerebral Palsy, we have From the Other Side of the Window, a post questioning film and life interpretations of kids with disabilities.

Finally, my own post. The Space Between is about the way the media creates greater distance between people with disabilities and people without disabilities using a handful of tropes that we see over and over and over. How much this distance could be closed, if the media would just let us tell our own stories in our own words!

Well, that’s it for this edition of the Disability Blog Carnival. I hope you’ve all enjoyed the ride! I sure have.

~Kali

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There is this space that exists between most people with disabilities and most people who don’t have them.

The trouble is, that space is mostly filled by media talk about disabilities, which create some very standard lines about what it means to have a disability. I think there are 6 basic lines of approach: person ‘overcomes’ their disability and triumphs; disability is So! Tragic!; caretakers for people with disability carry unbearable burdens and are angels if they carry it successfully; person with a disability is an angel (especially if they are mentally handicapped) nor “put here by god to teach a lesson”; person with a disability is cured (by hard work, by modern medicine, by non-Western medicine, by prayer, by meditation, by being positive, you take your pick); and people who do not have disabilities can imagine what it’s like to live with one.

But let’s break these down, shall we?

1) Person overcomes their disability.
Er, no. See, the thing is, a disability isn’t like a traditional horse handicap. Horse handicaps worked like this: the horse who was supposed to be the better racer had weights or distance added to try to even up the race. The goal of a handicapper was to get the horses to finish as close to the same time as possible. A photo-finish (that is, where the finish is so close a picture of the horses crossing the line must be examined to figure out who finished first) is the triumph of a handicapper.

We’re not like that. We aren’t carrying around some mystical extra weight to slow us down, nor are we running longer distances (most of the time – don’t get me started on how much longer accessible routes tend to be!). We’re just different. We do things differently. I don’t open jars with my bare hands, I have a tool that grips them and makes them easier to turn. I still get the jar open, just using a different method. I know of a number of people in wheelchairs, or people with dwarfism, who have lowered counters in their kitchen so that it’s accessible to them. I take the elevator instead of the stairs. Right now, with the newest knee injury, I get around on an electric scooter instead of on my feet. It’s just different.

If you want a handicap like the traditional horse handicaps, try looking at lack of accessibility! The number of stores you can’t get into on wheels, the ramps that are canted too steeply to be used safely, the way tilted sidewalks make it harder to move, the way handicapped accessible routes mean around the side or the back instead of up the front, the fact that we have to do better than our able-bodied counterparts to get the same jobs, and so on, then yeah, maybe we’re dealing with a handicap. It isn’t our bodies that make them, though. I’m not triumphing over my disability; if I’m triumphing over anything, it’s society’s views of me.

2) Disability is So! Tragic!
Let me say right off the top that while disability isn’t tragic, the process of becoming disabled (say, via a car accident) can be. It would probably be more accurate to say that it’s traumatic, though. It’s really damn hard to adjust to a new disability. That doesn’t make disability a tragic thing, though; that makes accepting new limitations and figuring out ways to deal with them hard, and it makes dealing with societal views of people with disability really tough to swallow.

I’m not saying that it isn’t hard to adjust. It is. Just like it’s hard to adjust to living in a new country when you haven’t learned the language and culture first. You have to figure out how the locals do things, you grieve for things you had in your old country but don’t have now, you have to figure out how to express yourself in different ways, and you have to break down all your old ideas about what that country and its people are like. So it is with disability.

If disability can be seen to be tragic at all, it is because of the way people with disabilities are treated. Social Security for disabled folks keeps them below the poverty line. Places aren’t accessible. Abuse happens to us at a higher rate because we’re seen as less-than. It’s harder to get, and keep a job because employers also think of us as lesser beings. There isn’t the kind of community support we need. Too many people think of accomodating people with disabilities as giving us special treatment. The Americans with Disabilities Act passed 20 years ago, but we are still not really equal in most people’s eyes.

The most tragic thing about disability is that because disability is viewed as tragic, murdering us is often excused or given a ridiculously light sentence.

3) Caretakers carry unbearable burdens and are angels if they do it successfully
Arrite, let me say first off – some 20% of people have a disability in my country; more in countries where there are things like landmines or severe environmental pollution that cause higher rates of disability. If taking care of us were some unbearable burden, then I think most of us would be homeless or suffering from terrible, chronic abuse – far more than actually are. Yeah, we have a higher rate of both of those than folks who are able-bodied, but it’s still only a fraction of the disabled community.

Now, I’m not saying that caretaking is easy. Even my easy-going, big-hearted boyfriend gets fed up with it occasionally – usually when it’s midnight and time for yet another late-night hospital trip. It is a lot of work, and the world as a whole does not give enough recognition for the hours our families and loved ones and employees put in. My aide isn’t paid even half what I think she’s worth. I think that family caretakers deserve a ton more respite care and financial support than they recieve. I think good caretakers are great people and should be respected for that…but I don’t think they’re angels. I think they have good and bad days just like the rest of us. I think they make choices and sacrifices like the rest of us, though those sacrifices are usually larger than the average. I think they’re human beings with a tough row to hoe.

Part of the reason I’m against calling them angels is that it says that only very few people can do it. And that’s not true! I think most people could be caretakers if adequate support were available. It also says that people who are caretakers don’t need support, which I think is even more untrue. People who are caretakers have more stress than the average person, so they need more support – family and friends who are willing to help and to talk, governmental support for respite care and aide hours, financial support to ease the cost of helping us.

The other part of the reason is that saying we’re an unbearable burden excuses abuse. People with disabilities are abused at a sickening rate. Why? Well, I think it’s a combination of a few things. First off, most abusers pick targets that are not as highly valued as they are – people with disabilities, children, women, and people who are trans*. Second, most caretakers do not have adequate support, especially in terms of respite care. Third, as a society, we have said that it’s excusable to abuse and kill people with disabilities because their lives are tragic and they’re huge burdens. It excuses teachers who abuse disabled pupils because “they aren’t trained to handle them”. It excuses aides and institution workers because “the work is just so stressful”. It excuses family caretakers because “they have to work so hard to take care of them”. It excuses murder because our lives are seen as having less value, especially if the person is mentally handicapped or has a terminal condition.

4) Person with a disability (especially mental handicaps) is an ‘angel’ or “put here by god to teach a lesson”

Wow. Yeah, that one just blows me away. The fact that someone is disabled doesn’t make them an angel, any more than a caretaker is an angel! I’ve witnessed plenty of kids with disabilities throwing tantrums. I know that living treated as a lesser being is enough to make yours truely rage pretty good sometimes. We aren’t angels any more than the next person. We don’t have some divinely kind and understanding souls, we’re just like you, but with a disability. And being of less than average intelligence doesn’t grant a serene disposition.

Now, for people who call all kids angels, I suppose I can sort of understand why they’d want to call kids with disabilities angels, but please consider that it may be construed that you think people with disabilities are angles and might just piss someone off!

The ‘here to teach a lesson’ bit is one that particularly riles me. I’m not your freakin’ lesson! I’m a person. Hey, once again, just like you, but with a disability. And perhaps a few less prejudices, if you see me as a lesson! If you treat me like a lesson, you’ll get one you deserve – that I have a temper! I am a person. I’m here for the same reason you are, whether you believe we’re all shaped in a creator’s image or whether you believe we’re just the most successful genetic mutation. People with disabilities aren’t put here by some greater being to teach patience, kindness, equality, or any other virtue you might associate with us. (though let me tell you, a great many of us would like to teach TRUE equality. In my experience, people who speak of someone with a disability demonstrating equality tend to mean that all souls are equal, not about equality in treatment, in housing, in funding, in hiring, or in any of the ways that people with disabilities are discriminated against) We are just people. We just exist. Same as you. Same as everyone else.

5) Person with disability is cured
Here’s a cold hard fact for you: most people with disabilities cannot be cured.

Hard work won’t cure a disability. It may teach you to cope with the disability in such a way that the disability is not obvious or is no longer difficult to deal with, but it doesn’t get rid of the actual disability. Even though I learned to spell by rote, I’m still mildly dyslexic. My spelling is far better than average because of the way I had to learn it, but I scramble things like phone numbers on a regular basis.

Contrary to the Zoloft commercial where the sad, depressed head bouncing around turns into a happy smiley head, medication doesn’t fix everything. It can help, but most of us don’t get fixed by a pill. And when you get to physical disabilities, the rate of ‘fixed by a pill’ or a surgery doesn’t get much higher. There aren’t many disabilities that can be fixed by surgery.

I believe in the power of healing energy and prayer and whatnot, but I don’t think they can make the body fix things that are impossible to fix. I think that if anything, they make the possible happen more effectively. The same for meditation and thinking positively. None of that will fix my genetic cartiledge defects, and to be frank I’ll get quite snippy if people start trying to push their prayer cure.

6) People without disabilities can imagine what it’s like to have a disability.

Um, no. No and no and no. First off, you can’t imagine what it’s like to have my disability because you can’t wrap your head around how pervasively it affects my life. It comes down to everything, even the way I hold my hands to type and brush my teeth, how I lay to sleep at night, what clothing I choose to wear. Secondly, you can’t imagine how I’ve adapted to it. When I busted my knee the first time, I hit the point where I could carry a tray and use crutches the first time within a couple of weeks. Humans are amazingly adaptable creatures – it is the greatest strength of our species. If I could learn something that required that much concentration and coordination that quickly, how much do you think we adapt to years of living with our disabilities?

If you sit in a wheelchair and push yourself around a bit, you’ll understand how much muscle you have to develop to easily push yourself around all day…but what most people will ‘learn’ is how hard it is to push yourself when you don’t have that muscle! (in all likelihood, they’ll have you sitting in the heavy hospital style wheelchairs that are really meant to be pushed by someone else instead of the low-backed, low sided, lightweight chairs that most people with disabilities use) Borrowing my forearm crutches may make your arms sore, but it only takes a couple of weeks on them to get used to it. Trying to wander around with blinding goggles or a blindfold on doesn’t teach you what it’s like for a blind person to navigate, it teaches you that you don’t know how to. I really, really hate those ‘disability’ demos that pop people into different kinds of adaptive equipment. All people really learn is that they don’t know how to use the equipment we live with, but they THINK they learn how hard disability is. And then they pity us. Yet more space that puts between us and them.

The space between people with disabilities and people without could easily be narrowed by real disability narratives – our stories, told by ourselves. How much better we might be understood with a few less ‘wheelchair bound’ narratives and a few more ‘wheelchair using’ stories! I wish that people could see Paralympic athletes as what they are – people who have trained and are at the peak of fitness and skill at their sport, instead of ‘poor crippled folks who have overcome their disabilities’. We overcome nothing but societal prejudice, and work WITH our bodies! One of the first things we have to learn is to stop fighting our disability and adapt to it. But your average journalist has never had to learn that, and doesn’t have the training to listen to us explain it. As long as our stories are told by people without disabilities, people who can’t really understand us, this gap will continue to be, and we – people with disabilities – will suffer for it.

(updated to add, whoops, I forgot point 4)

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