Why Chronic Illness leads to Loneliness

I think it’s true to say that all chronic illnesses have one symptom in common: Loneliness.

For me, it can be one of the worst symptoms of the lot, often battling it out with Pain and Fatigue to ‘win’ the day and get one over on me.  For healthy, socially active and ‘other side of the bars’ people, it must seem odd that a state of mind could ever pull top trumps on a physical pain, but in many ways it does.

To understand how it’s probably best to dissect each symptom: surgical gloves at the ready!

Let’s start with Chronic Pain.  In whatever wonderful form it takes, there’s no disputing that this one is unquestionably an evil bastard – unrelenting and utterly vindictive.  It takes no prisoners and gives no time off for good behaviour.  I won’t woffle on about just how bad Pain can be, as I’ve already covered that here.  And here.

But Pain (in its simplest, non-chronic form) is a widely known entity.  There isn’t a person alive today who hasn’t felt its wrath, from a grazed knee and pesky splinter to a twisted limb and broken bone.  And let’s not forget childbirth – the mother of them all!

This shared understanding of Pain makes it socially acceptable: it can be openly discussed and easily emphasised with.  No GP will ever panic if you tell them about Pain, they’ll just reach for the prescription pad (or keyboard, these days) and bombard you with drugs.  In the case of Chronic Pain (or mine at least), most of these pain ‘killers’ barely scratch the surface; they’re as effective as a hit man with a cast iron moral compass.  But at least for Pain there’s plenty of meds and it always makes me feel slightly proactive to pop a pill.

Then there’s Chronic Fatigue, an equal to Pain in every way.  Real, wall-hitting, concrete-encasing, treacle-plodding Fatigue is the undisputed Queen of All Bitches.  It drains the life out of life and the fun out of everything.  But I’ve already covered my hatred of Fatigue here.  And here.  And here’s my Top 10 Things That Fatigue Isn’t list.

Unlike Pain, however, Chronic Fatigue has to be experienced to be truly understood.  It is not the same as tiredness (that everyday, run-of-the-mill stuff that everyone feels) and nothing else compares.  In my opinion, Fatigue is a powerful force for evil: The Dark Side, Dementors, Death Eaters and The Eye of Sauron all rolled into one.  It’s impossibly hard to fathom for those with bounce and vigour and this makes empathy rather thin on the ground.  There is some, however, as  Fatigue can make you look like the walking dead and it’s obvious to all that you’re really not feeling great.

Sadly there are no pills for Chronic Fatigue, but it can (according to the ‘medically’ trained) be aided by rest.  And taking it easy.  And learning to pace yourself.  Please just excuse me here while I roll my eyes.  What all this Fatigue and resting and spending time on your own does lead to is… the actual point of this blog.

Loneliness: an entirely different type of beast and the Satan of Symptoms.

For me, Loneliness is something that sweeps in and out of my life, like an all-consuming surge of water in a particularly menacing storm.  Whether it comes from nowhere or accompanies a flare, it always takes me completely unaware.

It creeps up on me whilst I’m focussing on Pain.  It slinks into the room while I battle Fatigue, filling up every last bit of space until I feel I can’t breathe.  It sits beside me when I’m resting, invading my thoughts and slowly drip feeding negativity into my brain.  It’s as if the worst of my insecurities and crippling fears are joining forces, playing games with an already fragile mind.

It’s hardly a surprise that Loneliness stands shoulder to shoulder with Anxiety and Depression.  They’re like a small coven of witches all hell-bent on dragging me down.

Yes, Loneliness is a bleak and terrible place to find yourself: dark and isolated and a million miles from everything that feels familiar.  It has the ability to transform any environment, no matter how safe and secure and make it feel empty and odd.  It’s the unsettling feeling that something is ever so slightly out of place, but you just can’t put your finger on what or why.

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Loneliness for me is like looking out at the world from behind a set of bars.  It’s seeing life carrying on around me, life carrying on without me.  And however much love may surround me it doesn’t change the feeling that I am completely alone.

In part that’s because it’s true.  Loneliness is something that I often feel and think about but very rarely discuss with anyone.  Partly because I don’t want to cause offence to those who are always by my side and partly because I don’t think anyone else would really care.  Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t think so.

The worse part of Loneliness is feeling that it’s so damned obvious that everyone around me should be able to spot it.  I really, really want someone to notice how I feel, but of course, it’s as invisible as all the other symptoms so no one ever will.

Even my rheumatologist doesn’t.  He’s certainly never asked me whether I feel utterly alone with the collection of diseases it’s his job to treat; he couldn’t be less interested in my state of mind.  All he wants it for me to take my meds, never query his opinion and turn up once or twice a year to be ticked off his ‘to see’ list.  My new GP also steers clear of Loneliness.  Maybe that’s because she can’t afford to open the floodgates and release the tidal wave of tears that’ll inevitably come.  She knows it’ll be nigh on impossible to replug that dam in a 10-minute allocated NHS time slot.

So maybe my worst symptoms come down to how much understanding and empathy they evoke.  This puts Loneliness on the winning podium as how can there be empathy for something when no one even knows it exists?

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Lupus: surviving summer and box set surfing

This week I have been wiped out beyond all belief.  Flared up, energy-less and completely lacking the will to blink.

If I were a car, the fuel lights would’ve been violently flashing for at least the last hundred miles.  I’d be running on the remaining fumes of whatever it is that keeps me going.  At the present that would be copious amounts of anti-inflammatories, green tea, bananas and blueberries.

It’s all the weather’s fault.  This summer completely did me in, with its endless weeks of heat and sun – neither of which is my friend – followed by a burst of sub-Saharan temperatures that could have brought an African elephant to its knees.  OK, admittedly I’m talking English summer here, so perhaps with a little perspective I should scratch the elephant and replace it with a cow.  A very elderly cow.  A very elderly cow with arthritic knees, severe heat stroke and terrible dehydration.

It’s a well-known fact that a summer in the UK usually involves three things: high expectations, endless rain and crushing disappointment.  Anything over 15 degrees is met with shock and rapturous applause.  Climb into the 20s and the glamping brigade comes out in force.  Head towards the 30s and severe weather warnings begin.  Creep up any higher and the roads start to melt.  Literally, melt.  Nudge north of 35 degrees and the country battens down and prepares for Armageddon.

Shock.  Horror.  This August the mercury actually hit 36 degrees.  Across our green yellow and pleasant parched lands, the unmistakable raspy voice of Steven Tyler could be heard drifting through the still and stuffy air.  “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” he warbled, on constant repeat.  I humbly beg to differ, I could have happily missed the lot.

This sort of heat could cause even the spriteliest of people to wilt and fade –  and then there’s me.  I’m quite literally as far from spritely as it’s possible to be.  Back in June sometime, my body clocked one look at the ongoing weather reports and threw its hands up in a panicked surrender.  The next few months were brutal.

Roll forward to September and whilst the summer may have finished, the after-effects of that heat are like an unwelcome house guest.  Lingering and annoying.

Once upon a time, a younger, healthier version of me used to laugh in the face of the hottest of suns and crack open another bottle of tanning oil to celebrate summer.  (Clearly reckless and stupid by today’s standards, but normal back then.)  Today it’s a different story that I keep having to learn the hard way: even the mildest of months + lupus/sjögren’s/fibromyalgia do not mix.

And so, there’ve been endless weeks of dizziness and headaches, plenty of staggering around the house, closed curtains and a hell of a lot of horizontal living.  When your body renders you ‘not fit for purpose’ sometimes all you can do is sit, weep and wait the flare up out.  From my makeshift bed on the sofa one week, I worked my way through the latest series of Poldark, two series of The Crown and half a season of Greys Anatomy. Plus Love Island, obviously.  Even for a self-confessed TV addict such as myself, I have to admit this was pretty extreme viewing.

Sadly anyone with a chronic anything will tell you that watching TV as an invalid isn’t half as much fun as you’d think.  By the end of that week when the sofa and I had (temporarily) parted ways, I was miserable, bored, lonely, restless, festering and what felt like mere hours away from the start of a bed sore.

Not being able to partake in the world around you is beyond completely pants.  I hate it and resent it in equal measures.  So yes, for me, I’m relieved the summer is now behind us.  That being said, I have some sketchy recollections swimming around in my grey matter about how the winter is even worse.  Arghhh.

The thought of clambering in and out of all those tight thermal layers, boots and heavy coats is already making my little Raynaud fingers curl up in dread.

 

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Pain: a very curious companion

Chronic Pain is something of a curious companion.  A very constant, curious companion.

When waking in the morning it’s already there.  Bright-eyed, bushy-tailed and smirking in delight.  Always perched at the end of your bed, double espresso in hand and impatiently tapping a foot.  Just waiting to crack on and eager to ruin your day.

From eyes open to eyes shut, Pain makes everything you do a mission and the simplest of things a chore.  Stairs turn into mountains and every walk feels like a trek.  It’s there when you shower, cook, eat, drive, shop and rest.  It pesters you when you’re working and turns your brain to fog.  It mocks all attempts at exercise.  It punishes you for weeks.

Like a lazy toddler who refuses to be put down, Pain hangs off necks causing knots to form and tendons to shriek.  It clings to backs until muscles pull and ache.  It grips hands in a vice, crushing fingers until colour drains and cramp sets in.  It bounces off hips and sits astride shoulders, gripping temples and reigning blows down upon throbbing heads.  It’s positively relentless.  And an utter pain in the arse.

At the end of the day when you eventually collapse into bed, Pain is still there.  Snuggled in like an unwanted spoon, weighing you down and wrapping around every painful limb.  And then for its grand finale – the biggest insult of all.

By the time your eyelids are hanging down past your cheeks, blissful sleep doesn’t even come to save you.  No sirree.  Pain snores like a freight train, kicks the small of your back and hogs the entire duvet.  So now, you’re utterly exhausted and completely wide awake, all at the same time.  Painsomnia they call it.  Possibly the worst hours of the entire 24-hour day.  And that really is saying something.

Week after week, year after year Pain hangs around like a bad smell, just sat there waiting every morning.  You can try drowning it in lavender scented bath water or drugging it with pills.  You can count your breaths and be mindful or ‘downward dog’ it to death, but nothing really seems to work.  No matter what you tell it or how loud you scream, rant and swear, it just smirks a little more and ramps it up another gear.  To give Pain its dues, it certainly has commendable staying power and a very thick skin.

So yes, Chronic Pain is quite possibly the most curious, constant and loyal companion of them all.  Just like cellulite or a very needy dog, come rain or shine, no matter what you do, it’s always there and it refuses to ever back off, take a break or budge.

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Vampires, superpowers and surviving the summer

The UK is currently celebrating something of a rare phenomenon: the skies are blue, the temperatures are up and, for the first time in an eternity, the bank holiday weekend isn’t a total washout.

I love this weather, I really do.  Everything always seems so much easier to achieve when the sun’s out.  Sadly, however, this weather doesn’t really love me.  Aside from the heat making me feel triply sluggish, going out in the sun can be an incredibly risky business indeed.

One of the many annoyances of having Lupus is being extremely sensitive to sunlight; this is called photosensitivity.  For many, exposure to sunlight can make symptoms – such as rashes – much worse.  In my case, the pigmentation on my face darkens with lightening quick speed.  A quick, unprotected trip outside and I look like I’ve been stamped on the forehead with a triangular branding iron.

The strange shape of this pigmentation is something of a mystery, both to me and the dermatologist who checked it out.  I’m guessing that either I fell to earth from Krypton and have undiscovered superpowers, or it’s some sort of magic inner eye. Either option would be acceptable and more than welcome.

Unusual markings aside, if my ridiculously sensitive skin is exposed to the sun it soon starts to tingle and feel like it’s on fire. Well, I say fire, but actually, it’s more like a freezing cold case of prickly pins and needles.  I imagine this is how vampires feel – or at least it’s how they are portrayed in the Twilight films, when their skin glows and sparkles in the sunlight.

Spending too much time in the sun can also bring on a Lupus  ‘flare up’ and make me feel downright grotty. This can be accompanied by full-on flu-like symptoms that can knock me out for days.

Taking Azathioprine makes me that much more sensitive still.  I reckon my skin now starts to burn before I’ve even put my shoes on and headed outside.  Take this morning for example.  I walked around the garden once and sat down for 5 minutes with a cup of tea.  Now that I’m back inside, my arms are already cold, tingling and deciSickandalwaystired.com Sundedly sore.  This is both frustrating, annoying and painful, in equal measures.

Yes, it’s safe to say the days of dousing myself in tanning oil and sizzling like a sausage on the beach are long gone.  I shudder at the thought of all the damage I must have caused my young skin in those heady, uneducated days of the 80’s and 90’s, when everyone smelt like Hawaiian Tropic and looked like overcooked bacon.

These days it’s all about finding a fake tanning product that gives me the right colour.  I’m aiming for a ‘realistically sunkissed’ shade rather than a ‘baked in a tandoor’ Trump toxic glow.

The pluses of being so sun sensitive are that I have no choice but to stay out of the sun as much as possible; this helps to keep the crows feet at bay.  On the negative side, however, the additional sensitivity brought on by taking Azathioprine increases the risk of skin cancer.  A pretty major ‘negative’ I know, but one I really have no choice but to take. These toxic drugs I pop every day are helping to make life much more bearable and relatively pain-free.  It’s all swings and roundabouts, as they say.

When living the life of a vampire, all you can really do is be sensible, resist the urge to top up your tan and make sure you protect yourself any which way…

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‘Top 10’ things that chronic fatigue ISN’T

Following on from the last blog about unwanted opinions, here’s my ‘Top 10’ list of all the things that chronic fatigue isn’t.

Feel free to print it off and wave it around in the faces of all those doubting non-believers!  Better still, why not download the PDF, print onto A3 paper and stick multiple copies around your home or place of work!

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Spinning right out of control

As weekends go, the last one wasn’t really the best.  Actually, it was probably one of the worst, in the grand scale of things.  Recent bugs, a helping of stress, cold weather and general exhaustion proved too much for my useless body, so it decided to teach me a lesson I wouldn’t forget in a hurry.

When emptying the (what felt like 100th) load of washing on Friday, the room suddenly tilted so violently, I nearly fell head first into the basket of wet towels. Strange, I thought, best I sit down for a bit.  By the time I made it to the sofa, everything was spinning around me at quite an alarming speed.  I could quite easily have been sick there and then, but knowing the cream chair covers would require immediate cleaning proved enough of a motivation to kept my partially digested lunch where it belonged.

Feeling as if I was walking at a right angle, I slithered up the stairs (past a rather alarmed looking son) and made it to the safety of the bed.  Lying down didn’t help much, in fact, it made things worse.  The insides of my head were now spinning too, and in the opposite direction to my body.  I felt dizzy-sick-and-always-tiredlike I was trapped on one of those horrible tea-cup waltzers.

When I woke up an hour later, it was dark, I was sweating like a beast and I needed the loo.  The trouble was, however, as hard as I tried, I couldn’t seem to get up.  All I could manage was to shuffle a bit and that just made the world tip.  Panic set in – big time.  I came to the conclusion (as you do) that I might have had a stroke.  Either that or the vertigo was back with a vengeance.

For those who think vertigo is merely a fear of heights, it is not.  Vertigo is a horrible, nightmarish infliction that can disrupt and ruin your life for months on end.  The thought of it returning fills me with a constant dread.

Trapped under the duvet, my only option was to ring downstairs for help. Thank god for the ever-present mobile that was finger distance away.  It took four unanswered calls and a feeble “help me”  before the cavalry came charging up the stairs.  By this stage, I was beside myself.  I couldn’t sit up, stand up or walk;  my body simply refused to comply.  Then the weeping and wailing kicked in, and, as we all know, once you go down that road it’s impossible to stop until you run out of clear airwaves to breath through.

It’s hard to explain the range of emotions when pain, panic, wretchedness and fear collide.  Feeling so utterly helpless is a scary, scary thing.  Not understanding what the hell was happening, or why it had come on so fast, made it scarier still.  At that point in time, I was utterly convinced it was never going to stop, or, worse still, if I went to sleep again I might never wake up.

It took a day in bed before the room eventually stopped spinning.  It took another 48 hours before my body was functioning at a relatively ‘normal’ level again.  Ridiculous as it may sound to some (though I know many others will certainly relate) for days afterwards I felt as if I’d undergone a major trauma.  If I’m honest, I’m still slightly shell-shocked by the whole thing now, and more than a little unnerved.

I have to say, it’s at times like this that I really hate how life can be.  And I worry about what exactly the future might bring.

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Day 274: hibernation here we come

Blimey, I’ve just counted and it’s 139 days since the last ‘Azathioprine update’. That’s 4 blood tests, 4 lots of results, some random appointments and a whole lot of readjusting since I went back to ‘Square One’ in July.

On the whole, it hasn’t been too terrible and there’s still no green, scaling skin, newly grown limbs or unusual superpowers to report.  The worst of the joint pain is still being held at bay (hurrah) and I’m definitely a hell of a lot more mobile than I was this time last year, or the one before that, or the one before that…

Fatigue-wise, it’s all much of a muchness, but that was always going to be the case. There is NO drug, quick fix or cure for chronic slothitus fatigue, more’senergy-meter-sick-and-always-tired the pity. What I have learnt, or rather, what I keep learning, but never seem remember, is this: I can manage day-to-day as long as I do absolutely nothing.

Ok, that sounds a bit bleak, I admit.  What I mean is, as long as I don’t try to push myself, be overly ambitious, think I’m more capable than I am or do anything resembling reckless, I can, for the most part, get stuff done.  That said, I still have very regular relapses when energy levels are at zero, zip, zilch and nada.

The approaching winter is, however, definitely throwing up a few curve balls.  During the last 6 weeks or so I’ve bounced from one thing to another, never quite having the chance to come up for air or recover in between.  Is this down to the Azathioprine?  I’m not entirely sure.

Having put the infection and headache behind me, I promptly came down with the flu.  Not that I actually realised it was the flu, until I was already halfway through the whole aches, pains, coughing and wretched snivelling. That, in itself, just goes to show how many horrible symptoms someone with Lupus will pass off as ‘normal’ before they even entertain the idea that something else might actually be wrong.

Just for the record, I did line up with all the OAPs in the village for my flu jab this year, but clearly, that wasn’t worth the nasty pain in the arm it gave me.  Either the head honcho at the Influenza Immunisation Programme picked the wrong strain to target this year or my body plans on surrendering to every single virus comes along.

With a cough still lingering a couple of weeks later, I’m now wondering just how well my now suppressed immune system is going to fare this winter.  I’m practically housebound as it is, and when I do go out, the cold weather shocks my body into one sort of head-to-toe meltdown after another.

So I choose to stay inside, dress in fleece onesies and whack up the thermostat.  A perfect solution, you might think, except for the fact the central heating seems to bring on a whole host of other problems: even drier eyes, terrible headaches, sniffs and sneezes, additional tiredness, wooziness and increased brain fog.  But turn off the heating and the Raynaud’s and general miserableness kicks in.

I think that’s what you call a lose-lose situation.

So, what pray is the answer?  Rethink my choice of drugs?  Completely avoid civilisation?  Wear a full germ resistant biohazard suit?  Or perhaps I should just do like a hedgehog, disappear under a pile of leaves and hibernate till Spring?

Either way, I am slightly concerned that by the time the trees have regrown their leaves in 2017 I’m going to be translucent in shade, socially inept and adding muscular dystrophy to the list of woes.

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