Fighting Fear, Fighting Frustration, Finding the Silver Lining

I finally made it home today, one week after going to the doctor to check on a fever. Funny how a checkup can turn into a brief hospital stay. Not so funny how a few nights in the hospital can bring back so many memories and ignite so much fear and frustration.

Last Sunday, I woke up at 6am with a fever of 102. I texted my mom, and at her behest took some acetaminophen. Luckily, this kept the fever down and manageable for most of the day, but when I awoke the next morning with a fever of 99.5, I knew it was time to get it checked out. If I were someone else–someone without a crazy medical history, someone who didn’t owe my daily comfort to an immunosuppressant–I probably would have ignored the fever and just spent a second day in bed. How bad can a fever be, after all? Apparently, it can be an indicator of something pretty serious.

I drove the hour to my GP (because, let’s face it, once you find a doctor you like it’s really hard to switch to a new one when you relocate). She ordered several tests and cultures, so I decided to stay the evening with my grandparents, who live close by. That evening, I was still feverish, but I enjoyed the comforts of staying with my Nana, including her delicious cornbread. Normally, I try to stay gluten-free, but I have a particular weakness for Southern cornbread, especially when I feel ill. It turned out to be a good thing that I stayed the night. The next morning my doctor wanted to retest my white blood cell count. When it came back just as low as the day before, she requested I admit myself to the hospital.

A Quick Note on WBC Count

Your blood is made up of several different kinds of cells. Your red blood cells carry oxygen and nutrients to your body. Your platelets help patch you up when your body is cut by coagulating in the wound. And your white blood cells (WBCs) help fight off infection. Your WBCs are further broken down into types: some WBCs fight infection while others carry the infected cells to the infection-fighters. The carrier WBCs are called neutrophils, and a low neutrophil count is called neutropoenia., usually an early indicator of leukemia or an anomaly caused by certain medications.

My doctors explained that they normally like to see neutrophil counts above at least 1,500. Mine was under 400. And so I was admitted to the hospital…

After the Hospital – Deja Vu

I was admitted Tuesday and released Saturday. My fever diminished, and my white blood cell count rose enough to pull me out of neutropoenia. I thought that would all make me feel better, but somehow I’ve found myself much more uneasy than expected. Physically, I feel mostly fine. A little more tired than normal, but fine overall. Emotionally, however… I have seen much happier days.

Being in the hospital, even for a short time, reminded me of the vulnerable, fragile feeling of suddenly not having control over my everyday actions. It brought back memories of wanting so desperately to escape, to wake up and have the nightmare be over. The loop of late-night IV drips and the constant stream of different doctors and nurses rushed into my new reality. The world I had built up that felt safe was suddenly infiltrated by the horrors of a past I’d tried so diligently to forget. In a matter of days, my new normal had crashed into my all-too-familiar, vulnerable past.

I thought that fragile feeling would disappear when I left the hospital, but then I stayed the rest of the weekend at my grandparents’ home, the place where I had spent months recovering the last time my life had flipped on its head. I felt fine physically, but I was irritable and pensive. The fear of losing the life I’d built–again–created a hard wall of fear and frustration in front of my face before I could even realize it was happening. Thankfully, my family saw it first. They let my harsh comments go and explained away my frustration with every little thing. It’s amazing how much you can need a hug without realizing it.

When I drove home today, I found myself weeping over the simplest songs. I found frustration and jealousy at a friend’s Facebook event invite because she knew I couldn’t attend. Logically, I knew she was reaching out and being friendly. But emotionally, all I could think was, “Screw you and your simple life. How can you rub it in my face how completely over my life is? How can you treat me as though none of what I’m going through matters?”

It was a ridiculous reaction to a perfectly kind invitation, but I couldn’t push the feelings of anger and frustration away. It wasn’t until later, when I was talking on the phone to my mom, that the real reasons for my frustration poured out of me in a stream of tears and words.

Admitting My Frustration, Facing My Fears

When I was growing up, I was always reminded how lucky I was to have my arthritis in remission. As in, my mother constantly reminded me. At track events or cheerleading competitions, when I took the field with Dance Line or took the stage for Drama Club, my mother would gently remind me of how proud she was of my accomplishments–and how grateful she was that I could enjoy them. Because my juvenile rheumatoid arthritis had gone into remission at age 4, I didn’t quite understand what she meant. It wasn’t until living with RA these past six years that I finally understood that gratefulness.

Knowing what I know now about sitting in doctors offices, scheduling everything around prescriptions and infusions, and spending time in hospitals, I want to tell the people around me to be grateful every day. I want to scream at people to make better life decisions and to take better care of their bodies and their souls. I want to remind myself every day to take better care of myself. At the end of the day, the person I am really frustrated with is myself. And my parents. And God.

If I’m being perfectly honest, I do my best to live my life as carelessly as others my age. The minute I could afford to dye my hair again, I went bright red. The second I wasn’t on a medication that reacted negatively to alcohol, I ordered a gin and tonic. The moment it seemed like I had a new normal that didn’t involve 5 different eyedrops and 3 surgeries a year, I stayed out late and went out on dates. I lived life the way I saw other people my age living. And when I couldn’t hold as much alcohol as I could before getting sick, I blamed my medication. When I couldn’t stay out late because I got tired by midnight, I pretended I was fine. When I realized I really didn’t feel like drinking and staying out late anymore, I took up the role of Designated Driver and acted like I hadn’t changed. But I had.

I’m 25. I have RA. I get tired around 11pm. I don’t like being drunk. I prefer board games to bar-hopping. And I hate that it makes me different from my peers. I hate that my wrists hurt when I don’t eat well. I hate that getting a fever puts me into the hospital for a week. I hate that my schedule revolves first around doctor and infusion appointments before anything else. I hate that I have to make sure everything is a certain level of clean. I hate that I have to do about 5 extra things than most people before I leave the house. I hate that I have so many little things to remember that I can’t seem to remember anything anymore. I hate that I have an infection that caused me to get sick last week, but I won’t know for another week or more what it is. I hate the fear that it’s something even more life-changing that what I already know I have. I hate that none of my close friends seem to understand how vulnerable and frustrated all this makes me feel. I hate that I don’t feel like it’s fair to them to tell them how I feel. I hate… so much!

I’m so jealous of people who can get up in the morning and just walk out the door. I’m jealous of people who don’t take pills every day. I’m jealous of people who haven’t had to visit a doctor in years. I’m jealous of people who don’t live in fear of what else might go wrong. I’m terrified that something else will go wrong. Something else always seems to go wrong. There it is: my frustration, my jealousy, my FEAR. Because what it all comes down to is fear. Fear that I can’t deal with whatever else gets thrown my way. Fear that I won’t have the things I always wanted. Fear that I will be alone in enduring whatever comes next.

The Silver Lining

When I recognize these frustrations and these fears, life is just as quick to show me how incredibly fortunate I am. I live in America. I have easy access to doctors who can help. With medication, I live a relatively normal life compared to most Americans. Compared to most of the world, however, my life is charmed. I am grateful to have medications to remember each morning. I am grateful to get out of bed each day and get ready for a job that I’ve had for more than 3 years. I am grateful that this fall I will have the opportunity to study what I love. I am so grateful for the things that I have, the life that I lead, and most importantly the amazing people who make it all worth it. Like my grandmother told me yesterday, I might never have all the things that I want in life, but I will never be alone. I have my family and friends to thank for that. In a way, I have myself to thank for that. And my parents who helped me to create the person I am and the life that I have. I especially have whatever God there is to thank for that.

I was reminded by a Kutless song today that “You have to face the clouds to find the silver lining.” My family, my friends, and all of you are my silver lining. Hold people close, open up to those around you, and don’t be afraid to talk to a stranger and make a new friend. Life seems so much less frustrating when you’re surrounded by love.

God bless.

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Day 2 – Health Activist Writers Month Challenge

Day 2 (April 2) – Introductions
 Introduce your condition(s) to other Health Activists. What are 5 things you want them to know about your condition/your activism?
 Share links to 3-5 of your old posts (or posts from other Health Activists!) that you think will help
the newly diagnosed.

 

5 Things You Need to Understand About RA

 

1) It’s not just for old people.

After “coming out” about having RA, there have been a rather significant number of young adults in my life who have come out about their own autoimmune disorders. Just a few months ago in the grocery store I heard two women strike up a conversation over organic eggs. As it turned out, they’d both been recently diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder and were changing their diets to help counteract the effects. And when I go in for my Remicade infusions every two months, I see people of all ages in those Laz-E-Boys!

2) It is just for old people.

While autoimmune patients seem to be getting younger and younger (I was diagnosed at age 2), the effects of RA in particular can age you very quickly. I make jokes about being a young person in an old body because RA can make you feel like you’re 80! Rheumatoid arthritis hurts. Your joints can swell up and burn and feel like they’ll never work again. On your bad days, getting out of bed can seem an impossible task–no matter how badly you need to use the bathroom. Lifting a glass of water might even seem a feat for only Superman! This is when you realize how important it is to have young whippersnappers around who love you. 😉

3) It may wizen you, but it also wisens you.

I also joke sometimes that I am an old woman living in a young body. My feet might not have traversed this world for very long, but the experiences I’ve had are significant. I understand better than most how to treasure a walk in the park, how to love my body for exactly what it is, and how to relish in each moment of another day lived to its fullest. Bad days can be frustrating, but good days are so much sweeter in comparison. Because I’ve lived beyond “old age,” I appreciate being young more. And I respect my elders much more.

4) Doctors don’t always know best.

In today’s society, we seem to view doctors as demi-gods. Their opinions are like laws. I, too, used to see them that way. And then a young doctor’s attempt to aggressively treat my RA nearly cost me my life and my sight. When my eyesight began to fail, the wonderful corneal specialist I was seeing actually referred me to a better doctor! This happened not once, but twice. I now see the world’s foremost eye surgeon for patients recovering from Stevens-Johnson Syndrome. Yet even then, he couldn’t figure how to keep my RA from interfering with his surgeries. So when my second rheumatologist wasn’t offering the help I needed (and not seeming to care whether I came in at all), I did some research and found a new one. My current rheumatologist has brought me back to normal! The lesson being: if you aren’t happy or aren’t seeing results, get a 2nd opinion. Get a 3rd, 4th, or 5th! Find someone who has read that obscure article relating perfectly to your case so he, too, can bring you back to normal.

And never, EVER, be afraid to ask questions. While doctors might not be able to prescribe certain things, their knowledge of other patients’ experiences can also prove helpful. For example, when the Remicade didn’t seem to be working all the time, I asked my doctor about dietary changes that could help. Going gluten-free after hearing her stories has been one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

5) You make your own “normal.”

During my flare-up of RA five years ago, I wondered how long it would be until I was “normal” again. I wanted any quick fix that would erase the pain, the weakness, and the frustration of it all. Instead, I got Stevens-Johnson Syndrome, which took me out of the “normal” world for a year, made life painful and difficult (and EXPENSIVE) for going on five years now, and permanently disfigured my eyes. Through it all, I held onto this subconscious hope that one day it would all be fixed. One day I would wake up, look in the mirror, and be “normal” again. I would have my skin back, my eyes back, my youth back. Then one day I realized that the old me was never going to return. My eyes will always look funny. I will always be on some kind of medication or special diet. I will always have to see doctors of one kind or another. And I will always have the immense strength and wisdom that have brought me to today.

So I will always be different. I will always look different. But I no longer wake up in pain. I can exercise without worrying that I will throw out my knees or cause another flare-up (at least, for now). So instead of being “fixed,” I woke up one morning and embraced this new me, this new “normal.” I highly recommend it for you, too. We might not feel normal, but this is who we are. And we can be this kind of normal together.

 

Check out these links to some past posts that really helped me through the worst days:

Let Them Eat Cake

Connections

Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder

Finding Normal

Fearing Hope, Needing Hope

 

Moving Forward, Bending Backward

Today has been a big day for me (no fooling!) The beautiful sun in the sky marked a happy change in my life toward a brighter future.

I started the day with a piloxing class (combination of Pilates, dance, and kickboxing), which only a year ago I could not dream of doing. I made it through the hour-long class and was hyped up with endorphins for the rest of my day! No NSAIDS needs. Take that, stress and fatigue! Sometimes when I’m punching, I think about my rheumatoid arthritis and how my Remicade infusions have beaten it out of my life. It’s a truly freeing feeling.

At the end of the day, I went back to my dance studio for a ballet class! Five years after ballet caused the flare-up of my RA, I am able to enjoy it again. Again, no pain. No joint swelling. I bend and jump with everyone else in the class. It feels like such a miracle. Yet the biggest news of my day involves this very blog and the book I have begun writing also titled “Sudden Sight.”

When I graduated with my BA in December, my official plan was to get my PhD in political science/international relations. It’s a fascinating field, and I would likely make an excellent researcher or professor. My family supported me. My friends thought a doctoral program was nuts, but they wanted me to be happy. I wanted an achievable goal to work toward. I imagined that after I received my doctorate, I would begin work with a think tank or at an academic institution, and I would finally have free time to do my own writing. Looking through graduate school programs, though, I began losing my vigor. Time and again they asked, “What do you want to do?” And time and again, my answers were methodical and trite. Like with acting school, I was using something I was good at as a stepping stone for something I am great at and something I am passionate about: writing.

This past week, one of my dearest friends took me out for a drink and asked me the same question. Except with her, I couldn’t give the same methodical, trite answer. When I told her the truth, she asked the obvious, “Why not just write?” My whole life people have been telling me to write–my mother, my father, hell most of my family, my friends, my teachers, etc. Growing up, it was always my favorite pastime. But somehow, I never factored it in as a possible profession. Perhaps because of cruel words from my father’s second wife that poetry was “stupid” or because I could never see eye to eye with instructors on the meanings of famous works, regardless of my supporting evidence for the opinion. Either way, writing has always been a part of me and will always be a part of me, profession or no.

So why not write? Immediately following my hospital stay with Stevens-Johnson Syndrome, that had actually been my first thought. I wanted to write it all down, and to keep writing my stories, both fiction and non. It is amazing how medical tragedy–perhaps tragedy and grief as a whole–can evoke an almost childlike mentality. Sometimes nothing seems possible, but then suddenly everything seems possible. For me, it was like my heart was open and vulnerable in a way it hadn’t been since childhood. I had a new chance at life, and I could live it any way I wanted.

That feeling slipped away, though. The other side to near-death experience is certainly fear of it happening again. I had traveled away from my family and friends to follow my dream of acting, and I had lost everything overnight. Why would writing be any different? Why will writing be different? At least with graduate school, there was a plan that hard work would lead down a specified path to a career. There isn’t a path like that for being a professional writer unless I want to go into journalism. And my health conditions make investigative journalism rather tricky. There is no guarantee that writing will ever feed me or allow me to positively impact the world–my two main goals. And yet, if there is one thing SJS and RA have taught me, it is that no life path has a guarantee of those things.

One of my favorite characters in George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series has a mantra, “Fear cuts deeper than swords.” It is said, however, that the pen is mightier than the sword. Five years ago I nearly died and went blind. Today, I participated in two flexiblity-heavy dance classes. Tomorrow, I will write in spite of my fear. Here goes!