HAWMC Day 9: Getting out of the Comfort Zone

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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 given prompts.

Thursday April 9th: Challenger 

Share with readers about a time you had to overcome a daunting challenge.   What words of encouragement would you share with others who find themselves facing similar difficulties?

The last daunting challenge that I had to face, and one of the biggest challenges that I’ve faced for a long time, was our holiday in May of last year.

The holiday was a fifteen-night cruise around the Mediterranean Sea, visiting ports including Cadiz, Barcelona, Livorno (Florence) and Civitavecchia (Rome).

Not only was the first time that I was to go on a cruise, but it was also the first holiday I would have been on, since the deterioration of my symptoms such as the dizziness and weakness in my legs.

The magnificent ‘Adventure of the Seas’

I mentioned in a recent post, about the anxiety provoked by going to new places or experiencing anything new can be for someone living with a chronic illness.  Not only do visiting or experiencing anything new raises a lot of ‘what if’ questions (What will I be like?  What if I become ill? for example) but as chronic health conditions often flare, we therefore do not know how our conditions are going to be around the time we are away.

Furthermore, as someone living with a chronic illness, familiarity is comforting.  Being surrounded by everything that is familiar is comforting; they hold special memories, and know familiar places like the back of our hands and if we become ill we know exit strategies or places easily accessible to recuperate until we feel better.

We may be missing out on incredible adventures and challenges if we don't push our comfort zones
We may be missing out on incredible adventures and challenges if we don’t push our comfort zones

Being out of our comfort zones, therefore is uncomfortable and scary.  The fear of the unknown is overwhelming.  And this is exactly how I felt for days leading up to the cruise, especially as I was also experiencing a bad time with my symptoms at the time.  There were times, I admit that I really didn’t want to go, but looking back, I was so glad that I did.  Here are some words of advice and encouragement that I would give for anyone in the same position:

  • Talk through your fears and worries with somebody else, preferably someone going with you on the holiday (or whatever situation you are in).  Our minds will very often catastrophise things, and these thoughts often become out of control when we bottle them up.  So, talk through the worries and anxieties with another person and then talk through coping strategies and action plans for various possible scenarios
  • Make an appointment with your GP and ask for some extra medication to see you through the holiday.  I was so glad that I did, as because I was experiencing a sudden deterioration in symptoms, the doctor prescribed me some extra medication for the worsening pain which really helped during the cruise and helped with sleep
  • Do not focus on what you cannot do, but enjoy and make the most of what you can and what you enjoy!  On the cruise, as I was feeling so bad for the majority of the time, I found that I was unable to do things that I was looking forward to such as getting off the ship and visiting places like Rome and Florence.  At the time, however, I spent so much time being upset and frustrated at not being able to do it, that I forgot to enjoy the little things that I was able to do, such as the relaxation and pampering in the solarium and using the wonderful facilities such as the jacuzzi, which really helped to ease some of the pain
  • Relax and enjoy!  Holidays are all about resting and relaxing (in my opinion), and everyone has different ideas on what this entails.  If this means, lying on sun loungers all day, or reading by the pool then do it!  Don’t compare your holiday experience with somebody else.  Make the most of what you are able to do.
  • Feel the fear and do it anyway!  If there is anything that I learnt during the daunting challenge last year, it was definitely to worry less and enjoy it more.  Going on holiday with a chronic illness is challenging, however, it is also very worth it.  It allows not only a break from the ‘spoonie’ routine of doctor and hospital appointments but also allows a welcome respite from the confines of the four walls of our homes where we spend a lot of our time.  So, just go and make wonderful and lasting memories to cherish for many years to come!
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HAWMC 2013 Day 6: A Letter to my Condition….

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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:

Write a letter to your condition – what do you want to get off your chest? 

Unfortunately, today I am feeling particularly unwell, and am not feeling up to writing.  So, instead I have decided to republish an older post, which was along the same line as today’s post, which asked us to write a letter to our condition.

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Dear brain lesion,

I am not sure quite what to say to you, as I have never written a letter like this before but I will try my best.

I find you very odd; I experience so many fluctuations in my condition – how I feel, and the severity in which I experience the symptoms that you cause me.  These fluctuations not only change day by day, but can also change hour from hour, or even minute by minute!!  And it’s these fluctuations that stops me from leading a normal life. This condition does not allow me the ability to make plans for nights out with friends, or holidays or full days out, as I never know how I will feel on that particular day, or even I am having a rare ‘good’ day, I have no knowledge whether it will remain that way, or if I will be taken ill sometime during the trip.  

Living with you day-to-day is hard, and it’s particularly hard when questions are raised by others about you.  You are rare, and not understood, even doctors can be baffled by you.  This then causes the mammoth task of trying to explain you – what you are, how you affect me and so on.  I would wish no chronic illness on anyone, but one which is especially difficult as you are is particularly hard to deal with.  The loneliness and isolation that you cause, can often be overwhelming; no one can understand exactly how I feel, or what it is exactly like living with you.  There are no support groups for people like me, living with you, no friends who I can call on when times are tough and I really need to vent; I have several confidantes – some online, some I can see in real life, but still no one that can just get ‘you’ and how you treat me; how you affect me.

I have lived with you for so many years now; many of those years I did not even know of your existence.  Now, you are constantly making your presence felt, like a loud, harsh scream being blasted in my ear.  Every turn I make, you are their, like a shadow; a dark figure lurking, waiting.  And then within a blink of an eye, my legs will give out; lying on the ground, unable to get up due to the weakness in the legs.  You causing embarrassment; you causing injuries and pain.  The doctors tell me that there’s nothing that can be done – no treatments to help, no reigns that I can attach to keep you under control.  When I was diagnosed with you, at first there was relief – relief at knowing that there was a name for you; relief that finally I had validation from the doctors’ that you were very much real, and not in my head as it was often claimed.  Then, I have felt despair; despair at realising that there was nothing anyone could do to treat eliminate you from life.  It was like being blindfolded and then left in the middle in the centre of a garden maze where I am expected to find the exit without any guidance and without the ability to see exactly where I was going.

You have made me your victim, from something that I cannot escape.  Never will I escape you; you live deep within me, deep within my brain, there will you be there forever.  But I will not let you win, I will not let you beat me, and I will be happy despite you, that I am determined of.  Because of you, I have found inner strength, have found things that I am good at, and have found ways in which I can help others and participate in social activities and pastimes. Despite you, I have found friends whom I can talk to and despite the problems you cause, they like me for who I am, and look beyond my imperfections.

I may not be able to beat you, but because of you, I am stronger than I have realised; have made me aware that I can overcome certain obstacles and overcome challenges that come within my path.  And I will not let you beat me – all the obstacles and challenges that you present , I will overcome; find my own path into achieving everything that I wish to.  I am hoping to go on holiday, possibly on a cruise, and I am determined not to let you beat me – I will have a good time despite you. 

And for that I thank you.

Rhiann x

NHBPM Day Sixteen: What would it be to travel with this condition?

A brand new day, and a brand new post for the WEGO Health ‘National Health Blog Post Month’.  Today is the 16th day of this month-long writing challenge; and once again I have chosen to write a post based upon one of the bonus prompts provided.

The topic I  have chosen as you may have guessed by the title is travel.  The prompt asks to write about what it is like to travel with your condition.

Admittedly, I haven’t actually been on holiday for around six or seven years (it’s actually been so long since I have been on holiday I cannot actually remember the year I last went on holiday!).  Instead, I have decided to write a post on some of the challenges, I would face if I were to go on holiday – and if anyone has any ideas on how to overcome these challenges, I would love to hear them, so get in touch via Twitter, Facebook or email, or add a comment to this post!

If I were to go on holiday, my dream holiday would definitely be Italy – I love the food, and it just looks like such beautiful scenery.  I have especially wanted to go and visit the country after watching the film ‘Letters to Juliet’ – especially, as the beginning of the film is set in Verona, which is the place within Italy I would most like to visit, as Romeo and Juliet happens to be my all-time favourite play, and so would love to visit the balcony etc!

Some of the scenery in Verona

So, what about some of the challenges I feel, I would face whilst travelling.  For starters, if I had to fly to go overseas somewhere, it would not in fact flying that would prevent me from doing so, but instead the airports themselves!  If you have been reading my posts, you would know, that I have problems with high ceilings, as they increase the severity of the dizziness, and also increase the incidence of the episodes of vertigo.  Obviously, most airports have high ceilings, so spending time in such a place for approximately 3 hours (not including delays!) would be incredibly difficult for me, and would certainly make me feel incredibly unwell – all before even leaving the UK!!

So, what are the other options – I know that local bus companies offer a holiday to Lake Garda, including a trip to Verona; or perhaps an option would be a cruise?  However, my fear there would be all the motion from the bus or cruise ship would also make me feel very unwell, and could potentially make the dizziness or vertigo even worse.  My balance is incredibly poor on dry land, so i can only imagine what it would be like on a ship!!  Then there’s the weakness in the legs, recently, I was invited to a meeting regarding the introduction of a Life 4 Living group elsewhere in the South Wales area, and was collected by a Social Worker who runs the group in Pontypridd.  I cannot remember how long we travelled for, but it must have been over an hour – and by the time we arrived at the venue, my legs were so weak, and incredibly stiff, and was in a lot of discomfort afterwards.  And this was only after an hour, goodness what I would experience after several hours travelling on a bus.

Another potential problem is the unpredictability of the condition; never knowing which days I am going to be well, or even how I will feel an hour from now.  It would be a shame to spend a lot on a holiday only for me to be laid up in bed for a day or two; it would feel like a wasted trip especially considering the costs involved with holidays.  Often, the symptoms are often exacerbated by fatigue and overexertion (too much walking for example), and very often on holidays, there is a lot of walking involved, whilst sightseeing and many people report feeling fatigued whilst on holiday or immediately after – so what would a holiday do to someone like myself living with a chronic illness.  I would certainly have to use a wheelchair that has been recently been given to me, although before I even think about going on holiday with it, I will really have to learn to be able to get used with using the wheelchair (at the moment I am having trouble adjusting to it – but will save that for another post!) in places that I am familiar to, before going somewhere unfamiliar.

I know a lot of people, often spend holidays lying on the beach or around the pool at the hotel they are staying in, but that has never really been me – I have always preferred to go out and soak up the atmosphere and culture of the place where I am staying.  I love to go and experience local museums, art galleries, or other tourist attractions – I would much prefer to be doing something rather than just lying around somewhere – even though it has become more increasingly difficult as the illness has progressed, becoming worse and its symptoms becoming more evident.

What are your experiences of travelling with a chronic illness?  Are there any tips that you could share that would make it easier for someone living with a chronic illness to travel and go on holiday?  Share your thoughts!

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!

WEGO Health Advocating for Another Carnival: Challenge Accepted!

Welcome to the third day in the WEGO Health  Advocating for Another Blog Carnival.  The prompt given was the following:

Leading a community isn’t all sunshine and ice cream – it’s hard.  Write a post that delves into the 3 challenges that you face as a Health Activist

This is a really interesting post, one, which really makes us, reflects upon our role – probably not something that we really think about.

 

One challenge that I particularly face, especially when one considers it is a rare condition – is simply by trying to find an audience for my blog.  Again, as I have previously mentioned it is not a common condition with very little information on the Internet or in medical books and have not yet met anyone exhibiting the same condition as myself.  As a result, I often wonder if anyone reading my posts can relate to them or if they are relevant to other conditions.

 

Many of the symptoms are general, such as the dizziness and vertigo can be applicable to many different conditions, and the spastic paraparesis is itself a symptom and can be found in patients with multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s Disease.  But still the question remains whether my blog is helping and making a difference to others.  Do I have something of value to add and share with whole health community?

 

The second challenge is being able to keep up with the writing and health activism whilst feeling so very unwell.  A lot of the time, I really feel so unwell that the last activity that I feel able to take part in is by going on the internet, and writing or taking part in some other activist related activity.  Us health activists need to attempt to learn to balance our lives – health activism is so important, it often gives us something to focus on besides our illness, and advocating for ourselves and others is an excellent approach to doing just that at, however, it is also important that we take time for ourselves and give ourselves a chance to recuperate when symptoms are bad and to rest as much as possible.

 

And the third challenge that I personally face, as a health activist is to effectively make people aware and to understand the challenges that patients with an invisible chronic condition face everyday, to let them know that although we make look well that it is not always the reality.  And in addition to make others aware of the language that people often use around those with invisible chronic conditions – that they are not often useful or helpful and can be really hurtful.   Some examples of things NOT to say to a person with an invisible chronic condition are:

  • “It’s probably just stress” – this undermines the severity of the symptoms being experienced; as if the person is exaggerating their symptoms as well as undermining the diagnosis given by a qualified medical practitioner
  • “It’s all in your head” – this can be really undermining and hurtful for someone with an invisible chronic condition; just because you are unable to see the problem does not mean that it doesn’t exist
  • “You’ve made it! You must be feeling better” – this fallacy is one that I get a lot and can be really infuriating.  For my condition and many others there is no quick fix or even a cure and hearing tis proves that invisible chronic conditions are completely misunderstood and no effort is even being made to understand by others.  For myself, I often try to make an effort to visit someone for their benefit as well as my own, often the worst thing to do is stay in and feel unwell and often like to leave the house to get fresh air and to have social contact with others
  • “Everyone experiences that” – I often get this directed towards the dizziness that I constantly suffers and feel that it often minimises the effects of the dizziness, yes, a lot of people experiences dizziness, but it many not be of the same severity that mine is, and often is not felt constantly as mine is

And there are many more!!  Can you think of others that people say to you which are not helpful?  Please share them with us and perhaps I can do a follow-up piece on the topic!