Becoming Visible in an Invisible World…

 

Last week (9-15th September 2013) was National Invisible Chronic Illness Awareness Week.  The idea behind this particular Awareness Week is to raise awareness of invisible chronic illnesses (which there are many!) as well as providing support to those suffering from such conditions, who may feel misunderstood by others, who often disbelieve their illness because they ‘look so good’.

What does a person with an invisible chronic illness look like?  The truth is, they look just like you or me.  Look at the person sitting next to you.  That person although may look healthy and normal , but their body may be hiding a secret.  That person could be battling a hidden illness such as fibromyalgia, ME, lupus, or MS.  They may look perfectly fine, but they may be in excruciating pain, dizzy or suffering from fatigue or other such symptoms often associated with invisible chronic conditions.

The symptoms associated with my condition such as the constant dizziness, bouts of vertigo, the trembling, stiffness and weakness in my legs are all invisible to the outside world.  No one other than me feels the trembling sensations or can feel the world spinning.  To look at me, I look normal, healthy.  Going out the only clue would be the crutch I use; but often people assume it’s used because of a temporary injury.  Often when I bump into someone I knew either from school or University days, or just a person whom I haven’t seen for a while asks “Oh, what have you done to your leg?” assuming the crutch is temporary and not because I am suffering from a permanent disability.

Nowadays, however the somewhat invisibility of my condition has become much more visible.  Because of the severity of the trembling in my legs, and the fatigue that has become so much worse, I now have to use my wheelchair much more regularly.  On the days where I am out with my carer, I am in my wheelchair more than I am out of it, to avoid falls and because the stiffness and trembling in my legs makes it so difficult to walk far.  It’s still true that the dizziness is bad that being in the wheelchair is difficult for me, but as the falls are much more regular and the trembling is so severe that now I have learnt I have little choice but to use the wheelchair.

 

Me out and about in my wheelchair

Me out and about in my wheelchair

 

 

Last week, whilst out with my carer, we went to our regular coffee shop for our favourite hot drink, is when I overheard a conversation between a middle-aged couple about me.  “I saw her walk a few steps before getting in the wheelchair, so she can’t really need it; she must be faking”.  This unfortunately isn’t a rare statement against those with invisible chronic illnesses who occasionally need to use a wheelchair or other assistive devices.  Those who are healthy can’t seem to fathom that a person can fluctuate between needing to use a wheelchair, or other assistive devices such as a crutch and feeling well enough to being without such assistive aids.

It raises interesting questions whether such awareness weeks and events are working and are successful in raising awareness of invisible chronic illnesses when there are still such prejudice and discrimination against those battling with such conditions.   How can we raise awareness within the wider community and population about chronic invisible illnesses and disabilities and the impact they can have on those living with them.  How can we teach others that wheelchairs are needed for not just those who are paralysed or missing limbs; that wheelchairs are not always a permanent fixture in someone’s life but can be used for certain situations or when a person experiences a flare in symptoms; a common feature with invisible chronic conditions.

During the National Invisible Chronic Awareness Week, people blogged, tweeted and shared information and took part in discussions on Facebook to raise awareness and connect with others facing similar situations but it seems that we have more work to do in educating the public, to help the end the prejudice and discrimination when those with invisible illnesses when using assistive devices as well as using disability badges…

 

Don’t judge others for you do not know their story…

On Wednesday at the ‘Life 4 Living‘ group that I attend, we had a very interesting seminar on Diversity.  In the seminar we were split into two groups and given a laminated sheet with a picture of an island, and a deck of cards with pictures of a diverse group of people, with only their occupation listed on the cards.  We were then told that a ship carrying the people on the cards was in an accident, which resulted in the ship sinking and the people being stranded in the middle of the ocean.  Each group had a lifeboat – however, on the lifeboat there were only spaces for 10 people, and hence we had to decide who of those people to save and whom to leave in the water.

This was obviously very difficult as the only basis we had to make our decisions is what they looked like and their occupations.  During our discussions we decided to save a doctor and nurse, to treat those with medical injuries, a carpenter to help build shelter from the bad weather, and gardener’s to help grow crops and nutrients whilst being stuck on the deserted island.

However, we soon learnt that the doctor who we chose to rescue was in fact a doctor of music and not a medical doctor.  And the nurse, was a veterinarian and so would not be very useful in treating human patients!  And the people whom we rejected, for example, the biker as we thought he looked like he would cause trouble, would in fact be extremely useful in an emergency situation as he was a surgeon.

This exercise, however, taught us how we often make judgements based on very little information causing us to make snap decisions on the type of person we are busy scrutinising.  We are too busy scrutinising others; determining the type of person we believe them to be instead of seeking out the person’s story.

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Many of you spoonies reading this will surely understand this; particularly those with invisible illnesses as we are often victim of others’ judgements.  For example, once I went out, and forgot my crutch.  Due to the problems with my balance, I was all over the place, and as a result, a woman came up to me and accused me of being drunk.  I have heard many other stories, of spoonies whom have been victims of incorrect assumptions made by others – people who have been accused of misusing a disability badge, because there were no outward signs of illness or disability, and thus were labelled as being healthy, and in no need of using a disability parking bay.  There are endless examples of these types of anecdotes that have been shared by spoonies everywhere.  I am sure everyone reading can think of at least one example from their personal experience.  Please feel free to share your experiences in the comment section below.

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So, the game that we played at Life 4 Living, and through the experience of living with an invisible illness, has taught me to not make assumptions about people, without getting to know them first.  To not assume that a person has no wounds, or illness because there are no scars; no signs of illness or disability as not all wounds, illnesses or disabilities are visible, many are hidden as if keeping a secret from the outside world.  And as the quote above also tells us, we also shouldn’t judge so quickly or harshly as we may find ourselves walking in that person’s shoes.

Perhaps if we weren’t so quick to judge in the exercise at Life 4 Living then we may have chosen the people that would have been useful whilst being deserted on that island, instead of those we chose based on our preconceived ideas regarding their abilities and resources that they would bring.

 

This is a lesson that we all must learn….

HAWMC 2013 Day 24: Pinterest Board

 

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Welcome to the Health Activist Writer’s Month Challenge brought together by WEGO Health – a social network for all health activists. Again, I am participating in the annual Writer’s Month Challenge in which I will be writing about my health activism and health condition based upon prompts given.

Today’s prompt reads as follows:

Create a Pinterest board for your health focus.  Pin 3 things.  Share the image

Invisible Illness Panel: Journey to Diagnosis with an Invisible Illness

Hello to all my readers

I would like to take this opportunity to thank Christine Miserandino (@bydls) of ‘But You Don’t Look Sick‘ and WEGO Health for inviting me to take part in the Health Activist Roundtable yesterday as well as the other participants: Michele (@lifeaftertrauma), Andrea (@thegreatbowelmovement) and Amy (@abeeliever).

Unfortunately, there were some technical difficulties on my end which prevented me from fully participating so thought I would take an opportunity to discuss my thoughts on some of the issues that were discussed.

Topic 1: How did it feel to have symptoms but no succinct diagnosis? 

As with most people, I think that frustration is the first emotion that people feel when experiencing symptoms without an accurate diagnosis.  My frustration seemed to stem from the lack of understanding from the doctors, a lot of what is written regarding dizziness seems to be directed towards senior citizens, so when I presented with dizziness at the age of 8 many doctors were simply stumped.

Frustration is certainly a key word in terms of invisible illness – frustration as the problems and all what is associated with it cannot be seen so is often met with scepticism from medical professionals, as if we are faking and just want some attention.  Frustration as often with many illnesses, test after test comes back clear, and no cause can  be found and so that cycle continues time and time again, with a definitive diagnosis taking months and sometimes years to come to fruition.

Then instead of doing full investigations on what may be the cause, I was stuck with the label of ‘anxiety’, stating that the anxiety was simply psychosomatic – the easy diagnosis, the one doctors seem to use when they are truly stumped and  haven’t a clue what was going on or are too lazy to carry out full investigations or even write referrals.  Another emotion is loneliness and isolation – all caused by the lack of knowledge or understanding of what is going on inside of me, and having no one around who is going through the exact same experiences as myself.  This all started when I was 8, when the internet was still in its infancy and was something that I did not have access to, and social media certainly did not exist.  If only it happened when I was older and had access to the internet and social media sites, then I may not have felt that loneliness and isolation.  I just felt so different from my friends and peers from school, something was happening to me, something which isn’t visible, and so was not really understood by anyone.

Interestingly, in terms of the problems with the legs and the symptoms of the heaviness and stiffness associated with the spastic paraparesis, I only found out about them after the diagnosis.  As the cause happened at birth, I have always experienced these problems with my legs, so thought they were normal as I hadn’t known any different.  So, is important to remember that every little experience inside of your body that feels different or normal should be noted and talked about with the doctor – after all it could hold the key to getting that final diagnosis…

Topic 2: How did you navigate the health system during your quest for a diagnosis?

This is an interesting topic in terms of the UK Health System, as obviously it is extremely different to that of the US Health System.  As in the UK we have a National Health System, so we do not pay to go and see medical professionals or even for treatment after receiving a diagnosis.

This obviously provides challenges in itself, such as long waiting times to see specialists and consultants, especially within certain specialities such as neurology.  So, often GP’s will only send referrals when it is really needed.

And as I was labelled with a ‘psychosomatic related condition’ then doctors became very sceptical regarding any symptoms that I was experiencing, linking them all to the anxiety disorder and depression that was diagnosed. Once you are stuck with a certain label it is certainly very difficult to get rid of that particular label, and instead of investigating the problems, I was referred to psychologists, psychiatrists, occupational therapists and other mental health professionals – they didn’t seem to want to believe me when I said the anxiety problems that I was experiencing all started after the dizziness, and the panic attacks that I eventually had started after the dizziness had come on.  I became dizzy and then I started panicking, instead of the other way around.

Deep down, I had always known or at least suspected that there was something wrong, that there was an problems inside of me that was the cause of all these symptoms, and it wasn’t until I left university and grown up somewhat, I became advocating for myself and pushed for being referred to consultants and specialists as I just wanted to find out what was wrong or at least put my mind at ease that it wasn’t anything serious.

Advocacy is an important part of the journey towards diagnosis, you really need to learn to stand up for yourself with doctors and other medical professionals!  Trust me,  if you stay quiet and meek as I often was you may never find out those all important questions!

Topic 3: Did the internet or social media help you in finding your diagnosis?

As I said before, when all of the symptoms started I was very young, and the internet was still in its infancy and as I had no real access to it as we didn’t have it at home.  Once I got a bit older, I admit I did ‘google’ the symptoms I was experiencing.  This was when I found that much of what is written about dizziness and balance related problems, will often regard it as something which affects the senior population, and could not find any information regarding these problems within my particular age group.

No, the internet and social media really didn’t help through the particular diagnosis stage, but has really helped me since then.  The support I have found since then has been incredible and have been lucky to have found life-long friends from various support groups as well as people I have met through Twitter, Facebook and of course, WEGO Health!

Topic 4: have you turned to the internet with symptoms or how your symptoms relate to your diagnosis and what goes with it?

Before the diagnosis, I had to really stop myself from constantly ‘googling’ my particular symptoms as it can be extremely frightening, especially when all the worst-case scenarios are presented on the screen.  As often what happens with new medical students you will convince yourself that you have something terribly wrong with you!

However, since the diagnosis I have done some research on the brain stem and much on neurology, and have found that damage to certain areas of the brain stem certainly explains the symptoms I have experienced and continue to experience.  Looks like the doctors were finally right!

Topic 5: How did you feel to finally get your diagnosis? 

I found it to be a very bittersweet experience, on the one hand I was so relieved to have the diagnosis – I finally got the validation from the doctors, that all what I have been experiencing wasn’t in my head after all, and instead was caused by damage to an area of the brain.  However, it was also quite upsetting as the consultant informed me that there wasn’t anything that can be done to treat or cure the condition, only certain medications that could attempt to control the severity of the symptoms, which unfortunately I have found not to be effective and continue to be severely affected by certain symptoms.  The consultant further informed that the symptoms and the lesion to the brain stem seems to be stable and there should be no further deterioration in symptoms.  unfortunately this hasn’t been the case as certain symptoms have deteriorated, some quite markedly where I am the point of being assessed for a wheelchair due to the weakness in the legs.

Another point to note is that doctors do not know everything; even these top consultants!

Topic 6: How did the diagnosis change the way you thought of your health and body, etc?

As I said before, I finally felt validated and relieved that there was an explanation of my symptoms.  Now that I finally knew after years of searching and endless doctors appointments and hospital visits I could finally live instead of merely existing within my body and my life in general.

Topic 7: How did your diagnosis change the way others thought about you and your health?

I’m not sure as I haven’t really discussed it with anyone but I now notice that nobody really says things like they used to.  Things like “You should get out more”, “You need to push yourself to be able to do things” and so on.  They have now come to realise that the symptoms were not imagined or psychosomatic, and there was a physical reason for them.  It’s like they think no longer think that I am to blame for what has happened to be and how I am – it’s like they now think I have a valid excuse to be how I am.

Topic 8: Do you have any tips for those currently searching for a diagnosis; now that we are over that bridge what would you tell someone still on the other side?

I would advise someone still looking for that validation  and important diagnosis to not to give up, and to not be afraid to challenge doctors or to ask questions.  We all need to speak up and to advocate for ourselves – if my parents and I didn’t then I may still be where I was 2 years ago; without answers, validation or that diagnosis.

 

Thank you, and thanks again to everyone at WEGO Health and to Christine for being a wonderful hostess!

Am Taking Part in an Invisible Illness Panel!

Hello Everyone

I just wanted to let you all know that tomorrow at 12.00 p.m. EDT (4.00 p.m. GMT) I will be taking part in an Invisible Illness Panel with WEGO Health and Christine Miserandino from ‘But You Don’t Look Sick’ who is very influential within the Invisible Illness Community, the author of the wonderful and relevant ‘Spoon Theory‘ and whom coined the phrase ‘spoonies’ for all those living and dealing with invisible chronic illness.  The topic will be the Journey to Diagnosis with an Invisible Illness.

You can join in the conversation by going to the tweetchat tomorrow, where there will also be a link to the online meeting room:

http://tweetchat.com/room/haroundtable

Wish me luck!!

 

My Inspiration…

Over at WEGO Health this month is ‘Health Activist Inspiration Month’.  The purpose of this month is to celebrate what drives health activists to empower themselves and others as well as the inspiration behind what makes them carry on the important work.  As part of the celebrations, I have decided to share the inspiration behind the blog and what inspires me personally.

My inspiration comes from the loneliness and isolation that I felt after my diagnosis of a long-standing brain stem lesion and spastic paraparesis.  Like most other people, I turned to the internet – searching various search engines for any information about the condition, and organisations or blogs where I could connect with others exhibiting the same condition.  Imagine my disappointment when I found that there was no such information or support networks out there, adding to the loneliness and isolation I already felt after a long battle with trying to get diagnosed, as well as how different I felt from others my age due to the symptoms I was experiencing.

After inspiration from a close friend and fellow blogger, I decided to start my own blog and so it was born in January 2012 so that no one else who may in the future be diagnosed with the same condition will go through what I did – feeling as if they were the only one going through this and that no one else understands what it is like!!

I have now begun supporting the ‘Invisible Illness Awareness Week Project’ and the inspiration behind supporting the cause as my neurological condition qualifies as an invisible illness – by looking at me you would never though that there was anything wrong.  But that isn’t the case as my days are filled with constant dizziness, frequent attacks of vertigo and visual disturbances, as well as the stiffness and weakness in the lower extremities.  Many people underestimate the effects of invisible illness or dismiss them entirely, claiming that the person is lazy or “that it’s all in their head” and so on.

It is due to these common misconceptions that inspired me to write about my life and journey with this condition – as many doctors for years blamed my symptoms on anxiety.  In want to be able to express the truth about invisible illnesses as well as dispelling those myths that many people hold.

And now I find that although non-one else I have ‘met’ has the same condition or disability that I have, nevertheless I have come across many other patients and bloggers out there that I have been able to connect with and gain understanding and friendship.  And the inspiration that keeps me going?  Receiving messages of support during a bad day can mean the world…

WEGO Health Advocating for Another Carnival: Once Upon a Time…

Welcome again to another WEGO Health Advocating for Another Carnival, it’s the fifth day and the prompt is as follows:

It’s storytelling day! Write a story about yourself, your community as though you are a children’s book author.  Be sure to include a beginning, middle, and end.  Extra points for illustrations! 

I love this prompt! It’s really different and am sure it is a style of writing us health activists haven’t tried before.  It seems to be a lot harder than it sounds but here it goes…

Once upon a time in a large kingdom called Wales there lived a young princess named Rhiann.  Rhiann was a very lonely princess, nobody understood her as she had an invisible illness meaning she was unwell but nobody could see what was wrong.  This was due to a problem with her brain, a problem no-one else in the kingdom suffered from.

As no other person could see why the princess was so unwell, many of the servants and commoners were suspicious of her assuming that she was inventing the illness to gain attention.  This made the princess so very lonely, and isolated, her only friend being her trusted dog named Honey.

One day, along with Honey, Rhiann went for a walk in the forest where she came upon a little cottage.  The curiosity got the better of the young princess and she stepped inside, “Hello?” she cried out.  Then a mysterious looking witch came into the light “Yes, princess?” she replied.  “Hello, my name’s Rhiann and I just happened to come across the cottage, I’m awfully lonely and was hoping to find a friend.”

The old witch stared at her in wonder, “Yes, my dear Princess, I have heard all about your troubles, and I have something here which will solve all of your problems”.  The old woman gave her a mysterious looking box, which looked very much like a large book. Rhiann opened this book, and instead found a screen with a board with keys, one featuring each letter of the alphabet, as well as numbers and other symbols.

“Thank you so much” the princess cried out, running out of the cottage, Honey behind her, determined to get back to the castle as soon as possible to try out the mysterious object.  As she arrived, Rhiann headed straight to her chambers, settling the mysterious object on her bed.  After studying it for several minutes, the princess found an on button – and she was soon transported to other worlds on the screen.  This thing she was given, according to a note that was attached to this object by the witch, was called a laptop, in which she was able to explore the ‘internet’ – a portal which could take the princess wherever she wanted to go.  The witch also gave instructions on how to use the internet as well as giving her addresses in which she could go on to make friends.

The princess desperately typed and typed these addresses on the laptop and whoosh, she found everything she could wish for.  She found a place were there were a lot of different people with a variety of different medical conditions.  She chatted for hours and hours with these people, talking about a lot of different things.  And she found that these strangers, accepted her for exactly who she was with no judgement.

And as the months and years passed all of these new people became her good friends and the princess was never lonely again.

THE END

So, what do you think of my attempts at writing as if I were a children’s book author?  I wrote this as if I were the main character – and the loneliness and isolation ‘the princess’ felt was the same feelings that I have had for many years, the feeling that you are not accepted.  That was until, like the character in my story I became active on the internet, especially within the health community as since then I have had the pleasure of meeting a lot of people who have accepted me for exactly the person I am, and I am blessed to call them my friends.  This is dedicated to all of them.