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.