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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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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It’s all a bit (fleecy lined) pants

January is one of those months when nothing really happens, it’s all just a bit blah. One minute you’re cramming a too big bird into a too small oven, the next, you’re realising that February is about to happen. Once again you ask yourself: What the hell happened there?

Was January shorter this year? Did I sleep through a week and not notice? Did we ever finish off all that turkey? Creme eggs already? Really?

For me, the weather plays a rather large part in this black hole of time. So cold has it been lately that I’ve only left the house when absolutely necessary. School runs and the occasional trip to support sporting offspring fall into this category. Clearly, I braved the post-Christmas sales as well, but that’s also a ‘necessary’.

Each day in 2017 I’ve sported exactly the same ‘dressed for warmth, not style’ combo: fleecy lined yoga pants (yoga mat not required), furry lined hoodie, furry lined slippers and thick fleecy socks. When needing to leave the house, so many additional layers of fabric are required that I struggle to bend over and pull my boots on. Aforementioned sporting trips involve jeans over yoga pants, multiple thermal vests under hoodies and two additional pairs of socks inside the fleecy ones.

Do I look like a blue whale packing some extra winter blubber? Most probably. Do I really care?  Nope. Far too cold to give a shit. Have I showcased any of my ‘must make more of an effort to look stylish’ new sales purchases? Erm, no.

So about all this January blah-ness. I think it probably comes down to motivation; I know that I definitely lost mine. I suspect it might have been thrown out with the Christmas wrapping paper by mistake. It’s probably languishing at the bottom of a recycling skip right now, waiting to be pulped. Or worse still, buried in some godawful landfill with a pile of stinking nappies.

Sorry, I digress. Back to the blah.

For once, I can’t even blame it on the dodgy health. So far this year I’ve had great days, mediocre days and ‘don’t you dare even try and wake me up’ days. For the most part though (touch wood) the tablets are still doing their thing. Of course autoimmune is no friend of winter. My joints feel more inflamed in the cold. My mood dips when the sky is grey. My fatigue is ramped up by the central heating. My fingers often look like a rotting corpse.

It’s safe to say I probably won’t have much of a spring in my step until… well, until Spring. When the first daffodil is brave enough to claw it’s way out of the earth and face the world, I’ll consider doing the same.

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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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Get outta of my head

Today was the first day in over a week that I woke up and didn’t wince.

For the last 8 days I’ve had a killer headache that just wouldn’t shift. A migraine-like nightmare that has made me sound sensitive, light-sensitive, heat sensitive, people sensitive and living sensitive.

headache-sick-and-alwaystired-comIt’s felt like a 100lb block is crushing down on my scalp, sharp spikes are stabbing into my eye sockets and a metal band is wrapped around my forehead – a metal band that some sadistic little bastard is screwing tighter and tighter into my temples every time I move.

This has made me feel nauseous, dizzy and as grumpy as hell.  It’s hurt to look, think and move, and as a result of this, I haven’t been able to really do anything or go anywhere. I’ve mainly moped from room to room, moaning a lot and clutching my head. Writing anything was pretty much out of the question, as sitting in front of my computer screen was like staring at an eclipse with my eyelids taped open.

Every morning last week, I opened my eyes, reassessed the pain levels and thought ‘shit, here we go again, there’s another day ruined.’  When there’s no end in sight and the tablets aren’t even making a dent,  8 straight days of headache can seem like an eternity.  That’s 192 hours, 11520 minutes or 691200 seconds of feeling like utter crap. For heaven’s sake, we’re told God created the entire universe in less time than that, including the 7th day when he sat back, relaxed and admired his work.

Sadly, I am all too familiar with the whole ‘headache’ scene.  I spent a large chunk of my childhood experiencing the varied delights that a migraine has to offer: flashing lights, dancing black spots, exploding head, spinning rooms and wall-to-wall puking. Thankfully I rarely get a fully blown migraine these days, although they have been known to creep up on me in seconds if I do something foolhardy.  Like, tilt my head back, for example.  Lesson certainly learned that particular day: never attempt to paint a ceiling.

A trip to the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel a few years ago also proved rather pointless, when I realised I was unable to look up and see the paintings on the ceiling – the paintings being the very reason for the visit in the first place.  Of course, by the time I’d walked a good 3 miles through museum’s long (and frankly boring) corridors to get to the chapel, my hips had long since given up on me and I had to limp into the room and have a sit-down.  Adding insult to injury, after lining up to touch St. Peter’s foot in the Basilica, and putting in a request for a cure, my health has only gone from bad to worse.  Seriously Pete, where’s the love?!

With Lupus, Sjogren’s, vertigo and a Chiari malformation all sticking the boot in, these days the headaches are pretty much part and parcel of my everyday life.  I would, in fact, be more surprised if an entire week went by ‘headache free’.  Keeping on top of this amount of pain requires the stashing of tablets in every pocket, bag, room and drawer in the house.  I batch buy every week just to keep up with the demand.  I’m pretty sure my local supermarket thinks I’m stocking up for one big Armageddon style hurrah.

Making life that little bit easier still, the listed side effects of both Azathioprine and hydroxychloroquine are… wait for it… headaches.  Seriously people?  Is there no break to be had here?

With Lupus being a disease that affects the nervous system, sufferers are statistically twice as likely to get these migraine-like headaches.  Lupus headaches, they call them.  Yes, someone obviously put a lot of time and effort into thinking up that name, didn’t they.  Tension-types headaches are also more prevalent.  I totally get that.  Having Lupus definitely makes me grumpy and tense.

The Systemic Lupus Erythematosus Disease Activity Index (SLEDAI) – a scoring system often used in Lupus research – describes a Lupus headache as a “severe, persistent headache; may be migrainous, but must be non-responsive to narcotic analgesia”.  Narcotic analgesics, by the way, are drugs that ‘relieve pain, can cause numbness and induce a state of unconsciousness’.  You’d think that unconsciousness would probably be enough to stop the pain, surely?

As ever, with such medical theories, opinions and statistics, there are ‘people’ who dispute the notion that people with Lupus could possibly suffer from a specific headache.  Dare I suggest these non-believers don’t have Lupus, don’t get the headaches and don’t have the first bloody clue.

Try living inside my head for the last 8 days and just maybe they’d have a fresh perspective and a totally different viewpoint.

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Note to self:

You stupid girl.  The next time you feel like this crap, please drag your head out from under the cushions and pay attention to the following symptoms:

When your lungs feel starved of o2 and every breath hurts – it should not be ignored.  When it feels as if a boa constrictor is wrapped around your chest, crushing your ribs  – it should not be ignored.snake-sick-and-always-tired

When you wheeze like a smoker for no good reason – it should not be ignored. When your body feels extra depleted, done in and defeated  – it should not be ignored.  When your skin turns an even sicklier shade of grey – it should not be ignored.  When you’re hacking up mucus the colour and consistency of gloopy Ambrosia custard – it should not be ignored.

You silly, silly girl.  All these symptoms are not ‘normal’, even in your messed up world.  Quelle surprise, you have a lung infection.  And that, my dear, will not quietly disappear without a helping hand, no matter how deep into denial you dive.

So now you can add another eight little steroid tablets to your breakfast menu and wait to see if they do the job.  What’s that, you moan?  14 tablets with your granola is just too much to bear?  Perhaps you’ll remember that next time…

Look on the bright side at least.  Best case scenario: you’ll perk up and soon be back to your usual Lupusy self.  Worst case scenario: come the weekend you’ll have  bulging muscles and be ready join the ladies Russian shot put team.*  A result either way, it has to be said.

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* I jest, of course, these steroids don’t turn you into a super athlete overnight.