Being tired is not the same as fatigue.

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Being tired, even being exhausted, is not the same as the kind of fatigue that people with chronic illnesses are dealing with day to day. And I knew this, intellectually. But after going on steroids to treat adrenal insufficiency, and getting some stamina back, it’s like a revelation.

I haven’t really had much in the way of clinical fatigue since I got on steroids. I only feel it on my bad days, and my bad days aren’t all that bad compared to how they used to be.

I do get tired. I get exhausted. But even at my most exhausted it’s not the same.

Fatigue, when talking about in a medical sense, is more than exhaustion. It’s a sense that everything is drained from your body. You don’t just feel tired, you feel sick. Your body doesn’t work right.

I wish I could just upload the feeling into people’s heads so they’d understand it’s not the same.

Like, take the feeling of clinical fatigue, wrap it in a package, and hand it to all the people who think that chronically ill people are just lazy.

And then take the feeling of ordinary tiredness without clinical fatigue, wrap that up in a package, and hand it out to people with chronic illness so they’ll remember that they’re not just lazy or tired.

Because that’s so hard to remember in the thick of things. It’s easy to think that you’re only dealing with the kind of tiredness everyone else gets. It’s easy to start believing that you’re just not trying hard enough.

But if you ever get the chance to try a treatment that works, and works big time, and alleviates a good chunk of that fatigue. Then it’s crystal clear that if anything you were working harder than most people do, and for less results.

Because that’s what keeps coming back to me. So many things are so easy now. I was working harder than I’ve ever worked in my life, and getting nowhere. And now I’m barely working at all in comparison, and I’m improving every day.

So this understanding is important for healthy people because they often expect too much of us. But it’s also important for sick people because we expect too much of ourselves.

The way a cat loves.

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[Written the same day as my previous post.]

I love the way a cat loves. When she takes every blank place my memory won’t fill in. And she sits at the center. In a big bold cattish way. And fills in all the blankness with layers and layers of catness. And somehow curls up in my arms, curls around my whole mind, at the same time, keeping everything in. Her love replaces blankness with catness and terror with love and sobbing with purring and I love her for all of it. And loving her back makes a circle.

Don’t ask, I can’t tell, I can’t even explain.

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[Originally written on October 17, 2012, after a hospitalization for pneumonia and gastroparesis, in which I experienced severe delirium for five weeks. This was my first attempt to explain what I was going through. It was the basis for part of the story in my comic.]

She skated towards me wearing a red winter scarf. My feet were frozen to the ground. She waved her scarf in the air from a distance. It was the only thing with color in sight. Then it flew through the air and landed in my hands.

I clutched the scarf tight. I didn’t see but felt her fall. I didn’t see but felt life struggle to maintain itself, and fail. I didn’t understand. I never understood. I couldn’t make sense of anything anymore.

I never let go of the scarf. I unzipped myself and wrapped it around my heart. To keep everything warm when nothing was certain. And then I cried until I thought I would never stop.

And I’ve tried to hide what is gone. But I’m not sure if it fools anyone. There are places we used to go, things I used to do, and they seem as dead as she is. Only sometimes I feel something squeeze my heart. And things pop into focus once again, in color.

I can’t tell you all of my wishes, because they are all in code. I can’t tell you what I can’t do anymore. It’s just one more room in the building, left blank and unexplored. I wish I was known for who I was and not for what I did. I can’t tell you what I’ve lost or what I’ve gained.

I can still see more than people want for me to see. I can still feel things deeper than people expect. What I can’t understand, I still can’t understand, only more. I still want things that can’t be named. I still can’t tell you any other way than this here, right now. What stays, what shifts, what’s changed.

If you wanted something different, I can’t help it. This is what you get. If you don’t understand, maybe it’s not here for understanding. I’m just exhausted, and didn’t have the energy to tell you the normal way. So I took what I had and I went where I could. And this is what you get.

Don’t tell me what I should have said. Chances are, I couldn’t. This is brain damage we’re talking about. It isn’t convenient. It doesn’t instantly vanish. If I could only tell you a tenth of it.

It’s hard to look around and see that nearly everything I used to pay attention to, is impossible to understand. It’s hard to know I can’t say anything unless it follows a particular pattern, like this does. I couldn’t say this part without all the rest before it. All the rest. Not something else. Something acceptable.

I’m scared and I couldn’t tell you why. It’s winter and the wind is blowing hair in my face. I’m glad I have the scarf around my heart. Otherwise I’d get lost in all the snow. Everything used to be familiar. Now there’s so much snow I can’t identify anything. Or not much of anything.

Please, something be familiar. Something be unfrozen. Something be other than white. I feel tiny, and I’m shaking, and I don’t remember anything. Not what I just said, not that you’re alive. In here, I don’t know you. I don’t know me. I don’t know anything.

But it always fades back. And there’s always more. And I always find myself writing this. To you. To who? To me. To they. I don’t know. All I know is I couldn’t have written this any other way. And maybe someone can even figure out what I meant. Because it’s in there. If you look in the right places, and with the right eye for the reality of one experience or another.

I am through, so I hope, sitting up all night with neon pink insects eating my eyelashes. Lying in a sunlit room with parts of me flying into the sky and back again. Night after night trying to avoid being flattened into a grid pattern and dissolved. In lots of pain. With lots of nausea. And I hope never to visit that realm again. A lioness carried me out.

Not that anyone noticed. They come in and change your IV bag and the hours between are left for you to lie still and drift into bizarre hallucinatory worlds that always have an undercurrent of hell on earth to them. They don’t check you for it. That’d take time. So of course they’re blindsided by my paranoia and then, after that was gone, sliding into the blank white snow everywhere. They only noticed what affected them.

I’m out. But it’s not over. And I wish I could tell you the things I can’t say or understand. But they’re just lost. And I get scared if they’re ever coming back. And this was the only way to tell you. So don’t ask it to be less roundabout or full of things that didn’t literally happen. Because right now that’s one thing I can’t do, can’t do at all. Don’t call this creative writing it’s the only damn writing I have at all this moment. And what I’ve done hurts like blinding colors in my eyes instead of a scarf warming my heart. If she’s dead or asleep, I can’t tell you, don’t know, but it hurts.

The Scarf — A Comic About Delirium

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This is not a BADD post.  It’s just a post I’m making for people who might have wondered.  And people who didn’t wonder, but might want to know.  And people who might have experienced something like this, and might be feeling really, really isolated.

In the fall of 2012, I was hospitalized for roughly five weeks with aspiration pneumonia related to gastroparesis and bronchiectasis, and I now know that undiagnosed adrenal insufficiency played a huge part in why I got much sicker than anyone thought I should be.  (My doctor now thinks I probably should’ve been in the ICU during the first part of that stay.  At the time, the first of several hospitalists took the position that he was only going to treat my pneumonia and was going to ignore all of my other conditions.  It was hell on earth and there were times I only existed by the skin of my teeth.)

It was a grueling and traumatic experience.  Especially things related to the severe delirium I dealt with both in the hospital and after I returned home.  And the aftermath of that delirium, which took over a year to fully dig my way out of.

The worse your cognitive impairment after a period of delirium, the more likely you’ll die later on.  So delirium isn’t just this weird thing that causes disorientation, cognitive impairment, and sometimes hallucinations.  It’s also something that can kill you.  It’s a form of brain damage, as far as they know, and each delirium makes you more vulnerable to further delirium.  But exercising your brain can help.

So I started taking classes online, to try to keep my brain occupied.  One of the classes was a class on comic books.  The big assignment for the class was to make a mini-comic.  I’m not good at that kind of drawing, and I’ve never been able to finish anything like this before.  But to my surprise, this comic pretty much poured out of me.

I want to make one thing clear though, before anyone reads it:  This is not the literal narrative of what happened to me.  It combines elements of things I experienced in a literal way, elements of things I experienced in the delirium, elements of a story I wrote later on in order to try to deal with the feelings the delirium and hospitalization caused in me, elements that are pure metaphor, and elements that are put there to make the story flow easily.  This comic is about emotional truth, not literal truth.  For instance, I didn’t just “wake up from the delirium and squeeze someone’s hand” (although there was a period of time when holding someone’s hand was quite important) — that’s just a shorthand for a much more complicated process than I could do in seven pages of comics.  The tube feeding came months after the first hospitalization, not immediately.  And obviously the person I drew looks nothing like me.  Some of the story follows a stereotypical story pattern for certain things, specifically so that I could explore others without having to flesh out every detail that varied from a stereotype.

The PDF of the comic is available at the following link:

https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/92647909/TheScarf.pdf

Here’s a picture of the front page:

The Scarf.  Stylized drawing of a woman holding a red scarf, inside a white circle, on a black background.

There’s two things that I hope about this comic:

1.  That it can express something of what I went through.  Because it was one of the most profoundly isolating and lonely experiences of my entire life.  It seriously felt like going into the underworld or something, and after I came back I felt like that world was all over me and I couldn’t break through to the world that everyone else was in.  And nobody could talk to me about it, and nobody could offer any advice, and I felt like I still had a foot in that other-world for over a year.  And like nobody could really see me, because I was in that other-world, and I couldn’t see anyone else, because I wasn’t in their world, and it was very frightening and isolating and I most of the time had no words to articulate any of it.  Except occasional bursts of almost-poetry.  But it felt like whenever I said anything, people just stayed silent, they didn’t know what to say or how to respond, and that made me feel even more distant and frozen and dead.  Also whenever I was hospitalized or sick I’d fall back into delirium even more easily and that didn’t help either.  Writing this comic was the first way I felt I could express any of that feeling in a big way.

2.  Even more so, I hope that if anyone else has gone through anything like this, that it speaks to them in some way.  That’s the other reason I’m posting it here.  My friend urged me to make it public for the sake of people who might be feeling the same isolation.

Also, that holiday season, my mother bought me a red scarf and pinned a note to it saying “to wrap around your heart”.  It means everything to me.  I still have it, and I especially wear it when I’m feeling like I’m being dragged too close to the delirium-underworld again.  Which happens, but less and less often, especially since treating the adrenal insufficiency.

I hope this is meaningful to someone besides me.

Love, Fear, Death, and Disability

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People fear and even hate disabled people because we remind them that they are both fragile and mortal. They don’t want to remember those things about themselves. And they find ways to physically shut us away, and mentally shut us out of their awareness. And they delude themselves that they are different. That something they do will prevent them from ever becoming one of us. And prevent them from ever dying.

I have lived a long time as what I’d call precariously ill. A person who’s precariously ill isn’t terminally ill. There’s no saying for sure that we’ll die of our illness. But death is a constant possibility.

In my case, my gastroparesis led me to frequently inhale large amounts of stomach fluid at once. I have bronchiectasis, which makes it easy to get infections and hard to clear them. And untreated, severe adrenal insufficiency, which can turn an ordinary infection into an adrenal crisis. That combination made my health, and my life, very precarious indeed.

I have a strong belief that if people were more open about death, people would be less terrified of their own mortality. And thus less terrified of things that remind them of their mortality. Like, say, disabled people and sick people.

I’ve never had what they call a “Near Death Experience” ™ where you come very close to death and have this fairly uniform experience of a light at the end of a tunnel and all that kind of thing. But I’ve had encounters where I’ve gotten too close to death for comfort. Usually I had an infection that wasn’t playing well with my untreated adrenal problems. I would become extremely weak, so tired that it felt like just keeping my heart running and my basic bodily functions going, was too much. and I was losing the ability to do those background things your body is supposed to do effortlessly. And then I’d see death hanging around, it’s the only way I know how to put it. Sometimes other people around me would see it too.

A light would fill the room. It wasn’t a visible light. It was something I’d see on the inside of my head. It seemed to be coming from everywhere. There was a sense of being more profoundly at home than I had ever been in my life. As if there was this one tiny piece of the universe where I fundamentally belonged, and I had finally found it. There was an overwhelming sense of benevolence and peace.

And there was the sense that if I wanted to, all I had to do was relax and stop fighting. All I had to do was rest. And I could be in that intense, profound place of love forever. But if I fought, and won, it would still be waiting for me when my time had come. It did not entirely urge me either way. It was patient. It had all the time in the world.

But while it didn’t actively urge me to die, death did have a gravitational field. That’s what I called it during my first conscious encounter with it. I was ashamed, at first, to tell my friends what it had felt like. I was afraid they’d think I was weak, or cowardly, or that I had a death wish. So with some disquiet, I told my friend what it had felt like the first time I encountered death in this manner.

It felt, at first, like I couldn’t fight. More than that, I didn’t want to. I couldn’t even conceive of fighting. I had a strong urge just to rest. To allow my heart to stop and my breathing to slow and to surrender myself completely to death. The closer I was to death, the stronger this feeling was. So I started referring to it as a gravitational pull. It was only when I gained a lot of strength back due to medical treatment that I even had the will to resist, let alone the power.

My friend gave me an explanation that made me feel much better about my reactions. It was not that I was weak-willed or wanted to die. It was entropy at work.

Entropy involves a system trying to go to the lowest energy state. In order to survive, living things are constantly fighting entropy. We do this by feeding off of other living things and converting it into fuel to give us the continued energy to survive. If we simply allowed ourselves to go to the lowest energy state without a fight, we’d be dropping dead right and left. Most of the time, we are good enough at temporarily cheating entropy that we don’t feel its pull on us.

But when we are severely ill enough that death is a possibility, then we begin to feel it. We feel how strenuous it is to stay alive. And if we are sick enough, and exhausted enough, we begin to feel an overwhelming desire to allow ourselves to go to that ultimate rest. To allow our bodies to wind down forever. And that is the gravitational pull we have to escape if we are to live.

Much like a black hole has a point of no return, death has an event horizon too. I’ve obviously never been past it. But I’ve seen people and animals who have. And I saw (in my head, not with my eyes) that same intense light around them, that seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere at once. I felt that same profound, unconditional love.

This is how I know that death is nothing to be feared. In fact, even though the separation between us and our loved ones can cause tremendous pain and grief, death itself can be a beautiful process for the person who is dying. It can be for those around them, too, if everyone lets it be what it is.

I want to emphasize something though. Yes, I believe that death can be benevolent, friendly, necessary, and even beautiful. But I also believe all those things about life. And given that we only get one shot at this lifetime (even if reincarnation exists, which I don’t pretend to know) then it’s very important to resist death until it’s actually our time to die.

Our life is something we owe not only ourselves, but the people and society around us. Whether or not we understand our contributions, we each have one, and the world loses something without each of us in it. Disabled people in particular get a lot of messages saying that we are burdens on society, that we do not contribute, and that it’s best if we’re dead. And that’s completely wrong. In fact it’s despicable, unforgivable, to do anything to convince someone that these things are true of them.

So I am not saying “Death is beautiful, surrender to it the first chance you get.”

I am saying “Life is beautiful and you are an important part of the world, whether you can see it or not. You have obligations to the living world, to stay here as long as you possibly can. But when your time truly comes, don’t be afraid. Death is a necessary part of life. And it can be friendly, benevolent, and beautiful in its own right. When your time comes, it’s possible to die with love, without fear.  And if you have ever existed, then some place in time, you always exist.”

One thing that facing death can do, is force you to reexamine your priorities in life. And that can be scary. It can be especially scary if there’s something in your life that you’ve been running from, hard, for a long time. As you near death, you won’t be able to keep up the fences in your mind that allow you to deny things like that. If you learn to face these things long before you get close to death, then death is less scary. And if there’s something you’ve done wrong that’s been a burden on your mind, it can be important to remove that burden before you die. That’s why some religions practice confession before death, but it doesn’t have to be in a religious context if you’re not religious. But the sooner you deal with things like this, the less they’ll hang around and make your death unpleasant.

But the biggest thing I have found, any time I’ve even faced the possibility of death. Even if I haven’t come close enough to feel that gravitational pull. Is that it’s forced me to examine what is really important in life, and what is trivial. And it’s actually pretty simple:

Love is all that’s important. The experience of love, the expression of love, living love and compassion as your highest and only principles in life. Living for what you can do for others, not what you can do for yourself alone. Everything else fades into the background.

I can remember an ambulance ride after aspirating stomach fluid. When that happens, you don’t know how long you’ll survive. You could get an infection and get over it, or it could do you in within a week. You don’t know if you’ll get lucky, at that point. And everything narrows down.

At that point, I always find myself faced with one question: “Have I loved enough, and have I expressed that love enough throughout my life?” Everything else falls away. That’s the only thing my conscience cares about in the end. Have you lived your life as a strong enough expression of compassion and love? The best way to have few regrets when you die is to get started living that love right now. Easier said than done, but worth the struggle.

This doesn’t mean becoming touchy feely and hugging everyone you meet. It doesn’t mean being serene and peaceful all the time, or never getting mad. (In fact anger is sometimes — sometimes — an expression of love at a particular moment. Not habitual anger problems, but anger as a reaction in a particular situation when everything fits together in a way that requires it.) Love is an active thing that requires constant evaluation and action. It’s not holding hands and singing kumbaya. It’s not feeling soft and fuzzy all the time. Expressing real love can be fierce and intense, difficult and demanding, even scary sometimes.

But if you want to have as few regrets as possible at the time of your death, it’s best not to wait: Get started living a loving life right now. And start facing things you’re trying to run from. And unburden your conscience from anything that’s been weighing on it. Because you don’t want to die terrified, fighting against yourself, feeling the pressure of unrelenting guilt or shame. It’s best to live your life now in a way that will leave you with no regrets when you die.

But that’s a hard thing to do. I’m aware of this stuff, but I can’t claim to be living the perfectly loving life that I want to be living. I know there are things I could be doing for others, right now, that I desperately want to do for others, that somehow never get done. Despite that, I know deep down in my bones that love is the only way to live a good life or die a good death.

It’s hard for even disabled people to talk about what a good death looks like, because we are under so much pressure from society to accept that death is better than disability, that death is an acceptable alternative to the unbearable suffering that we are supposedly enduring, that we will be happier dead than alive. The media is full of stories where nondisabled people kill us and we’re said to be better off, our deaths are said to be understandable. And stories where we become suicidal and instead of trying to prevent our suicides, our societies rally behind us to give us a ‘right’ to an easy death. That stuff is everywhere, and it makes it very hard for us to look at what a good death would actually be.

It’s especially hard to talk about accepting death, because people are always pressuring us to accept our deaths long before we are ready to die. I would quite possibly be dead already if I hadn’t had a lot of the online disability community fighting for me last year, when doctors tried to persuade me not to get a feeding tube. (They couldn’t deny it outright, because they knew I needed one. So they came into my hospital room every day while I was sick and weak and exhausted from pneumonia, and tried to persuade me that life with a feeding tube was so awful that ‘the alternative’ would be preferable.) I clearly disagreed with their assessment of when is the right time to die, and I disagree with anyone who tries to make it sound as if living with a feeding tube, on a ventilator, or with other ‘artificial’ means of living, is somehow the point at which disabled people should give up and die.

But there is a point when giving in isn’t a bad thing. And it’s not a matter of how many machines you’re on to keep you alive. It’s not a thing that can be quantified. It’s that nebulous time “when your time has really come”. At that point, there’s no shame in giving up the fight, because fighting when you’re truly beyond death’s event horizon just makes death more unpleasant, it doesn’t keep you alive. But I’m afraid to even say this, because I know someone, somewhere, will twist it around and use it to persuade disabled people to give up and die before our time is really up. It happens all the time, and disabled people have every right to be extremely wary of talk of ‘giving in’ as a good thing.

But regardless of that, death still has an event horizon. And once you know, for sure, that you’re beyond that point of no return, then there is nothing wrong with simply surrendering to love, surrendering to the light, surrendering to whatever gods you do or don’t worship, whatever you want to call it, however you see it. And you will become part of the rest of the world, and that is right, and true, and beautiful. And heartbreaking for those you leave behind.

Between my experiences lately, and serious medical experiences my parents have been having, I’ve been thinking a lot about death.

Normally, I write about the ableism involved in pushing disabled people towards our deaths. The ableism in thinking that disabled is just half-dead and that dying is good if you’re disabled. The ableism in thinking things like “They keep people alive too long these days, it’d be better if people just died without a long drawn-out time where they’re disabled before they die.”

But now, I’m writing about a different aspect of ableism and death: The way ableism against disabled people is tied to nondisabled people’s fear of sickness and death and physical imperfection, fear of their own mortality. And dismantling fear of death dismantles that aspect of ableism. Nothing I say here should be taken as supporting ableist ideas about how disabled people should just accept our deaths and go quietly. Instead, I’m talking about a more universal acceptance of death, one that should happen when our time has truly come and not before.

And I’m talking about love, because I deeply believe, more deeply than ever, that love is the only thing that can make things right in the world. Love that comes from the depths of what it is to be a person, love that comes from everything good in the world, love that demands a lot of us and changes us and is intense and powerful and fierce and real and sometimes demanding and scary. Love that leads to compassion that leads to actions people undertake for each other, not for ourselves.

And most of my sense of this love comes from my encounters with death. I don’t know why it works like that, but it does. I’ve talked to others who have had similar experiences. Sometimes facing your own mortality can make you scared and twisted up and angry and bitter. But sometimes it can open you up to new depths of love and caring about others, that you didn’t know were possible. And even if you start out scared or angry or bitter, it’s possible to change bit by bit, more and more towards enacting that love in the real world.

I firmly believe that if people were more willing to face our collective fragility, vulnerability, mortality, and death, then we would be less ableist. All of us, disabled and nondisabled.

I’m going to end with a video taken shortly before the death of Eva Markvoort, a young woman who had cystic fibrosis, got a lung transplant, and ultimately died of chronic rejection. I’m posting the video because she so clearly allowed her impending death to open her up to all of the love that the world has to offer. This wasn’t easy for her, it didn’t just magically happen, and it’s not meant to be an inspirational cripple story, which I’m sure she’d have hated — one of those things where we exist only to teach a lesson to the nondisabled world, when we are so much more than a lesson. Yet I hope that we can all face our deaths as well as she did in the end. At least, I hope that I can. When I look at her in this video, I see in my head that invisible solid light that I see whenever I or someone else is sufficiently close to death — it’s all around her, it’s coming through her, and it’s allowing amazing, beautiful things to happen to her and those around her in her last hours.

This was her farewell video to the world, don’t watch it without something to wipe your eyes:

 

She once wrote a love letter that read, in part:

When I sit outside on the ferry is when I most believe in love. I don’t know why. Something about the wind makes me feel alive…the seagulls and the sky…whether its sunny and bright or cloudy and grey or nighttime and I’m surrounded by vast darkness…I just feel…FULL. Full of love and energy….almost as though I’m porous and the wind soars through tiny holes in my body and I’m part of it all…the earth and the people and the relation of everything with everything…as though I don’t matter…but its not scary…its wonderful….i feel so free.

It’s the only time I’m not afraid to die. Cuz I can feel the wind and I know that I’ll always be a part of life…and the love and energy that are contained in my skin will be let loose into the wind and the world will just know how much I care and love and I will live forever. I believe that love is what defines us as human. I believe that my love for you will never die. My heart breaks to think of how lucky I am. How happy and hopeful and full I am. I love you so solidly. I am real and you are real and I hope we will always be real. I am in awe of you. My interest in who you are is infinite. Drop a stone in the well of my desire for you and you’ll never hear it hit the bottom. You amaze me. Your love makes me invincible…no not invincible…immortal. Because when I die I believe my love for you will surround you till your soul joins mine in the wind.

I hope that the world can learn to overcome the terror they associate with fragility, imperfection, vulnerability, and mortality, the terror that currently makes so many people fear and hate disabled people (and, in turn, drive us closer to an untimely death).

I hope that the world can stop fearing death, and stop fearing the disability and sickness that reminds them of death.

I hope that people will understand my meaning here, and not use it to justify the deaths of disabled and chronically ill people who need all the help we can get to survive already.

I hope that the world can learn to love — in the active, difficult, demanding way that deep love entails — and that this can further all of the above. Because active love and compassion, caring about each other on every level possible, is the only thing that digs deep enough to create lasting change.  And love is the only thing that can end fear or hatred.

Blogging Against Disablism Day, May 1st 2014

After this, I am never again putting up with bullies telling me that my medical conditions are imaginary.

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After my diagnosis of adrenal insufficiency, then the last foothold that bullies had made into my mind, it fell away like sand.

It wasn’t just that the diagnosis was so obvious, so grounded in specific laboratory tests that nobody with any knowledge could argue with.  It wasn’t that, so much, at all.

It was what I felt in my body.

It was the way I felt life returning to my body.

It was the way I felt sturdy rather than fragile.

It was doing forty jumping jacks in a row, fast.

It was going up seven flights of steps to use a treadmill for ten minutes, then go all the way downstairs, and then back up to my apartment.

It was doing things, large and small, that my body couldn’t do before.  Couldn’t.  Not even a little.

It was feeling that fall away from me again, temporarily, when my body first adjusted to the dexamethasone dose I was on, and having it come back again when we raised the dose.

I realized that the reason the bullies got to me so badly was because deep down I thought maybe they were right.   I’d experienced a severe but undiagnosed chronic illness for years, and it had gotten much worse six years ago.  I painstakingly hid as many aspects of it as I could, let people believe there were other reasons that I could do less online, because every time I described an illness, I’d get bullied for it.  I’d get told I was making stuff up for attention.  When I was hospitalized last year, I sought help online with obtaining access to a life-saving treatment, and some bullies even had the nerve to capitalize on a life-and-death medical situation to give them a platform to denounce me again.  Then when I described the situation, one of them had the extra nerve to come here and tell me that because I was fat, I couldn’t possibly have enough eating problems to need a feeding tube.  (I’ve lost nearly 70 pounds involuntarily.  When it was only 40 pounds in 2 months, a doctor told me I was burning muscle and that it was going to affect my heart.  Do I have to be dead of starvation before I’m thin enough for my gastroparesis to be real?)

And on some level I accepted this.

And I accepted it because I thought that maybe I really was imagining things.  After all, I had no firm diagnosis for this mystery illness that was causing me so much trouble.  Maybe I didn’t want to get better.  Maybe if I just wanted to enough, I could jump and run and walk up stairs.  Maybe I didn’t have to be in bed all day.  Maybe the vomiting and burning hot and freezing cold and total limpness were something I could make go away, with everything else, if I wanted to enough.  Maybe I was somehow making it up, and then fooling myself into thinking I wasn’t making it up.

And I can tell you that nearly everyone I talk to with a hard-to-diagnose condition has thought this way.  But those of us who have been bullied or harassed, and had rumors spread about us that we’re faking everything?  We think this way more.  We may hide it well, but most of us think this way, at least on bad days.  And it’s a terrible way to think.  It winds around your head and makes it hard to take any action at all in life.  It makes you doubt the deepest things about yourself.  It can make you passive, it can make you lash out, but either way it makes you less effective at anything you’re trying to do.  It’s hard to get anything done when you’re divided against yourself, doing the bullies’ work for them.

Anyway, this has all changed.

I don’t think like this anymore.

The test results tell me that everything I felt wrong with my body all these years, has a measurable, physical cause that’s very simple:  I don’t make enough cortisol, because I don’t make enough ACTH.  Years of depletion has led to chronic and even life-threatening illness.  And this is clearly adrenal insufficiency (a medical diagnosis), not ‘adrenal fatigue’ (a vague catch-all that requires no actual proof of an adrenal problem at all).

But it’s not the test results.

It’s what I feel in my body now that I’ve gone on dexamethasone.

It’s being able to run and jump and climb stairs and go for long walks.

It’s feeling sturdy for the first time in years.  It’s feeling the fire of life course through me for the first time in years.

It’s realizing I could live to old age, and starting to wonder what it will be like to have grey hair and wrinkles.

No bully can take those realizations away from me.

And the change that has happened in me makes me realize how disgusting this form of bullying is, and what a low form of humanity anyone is who deliberately participates in it.  And I’m angry.  It’s an intense, focused anger.  Focused on everyone who has ever tried to make me doubt who I am and what I am experiencing.

Because I have a better fucking track record than most people with chronic illnesses, when it comes to having things show up on actual test results like this.  And yet every time, every time I have to prove myself.  Sometimes the proof comes at the last minute.  One day the proof may come too late to save me, and you’ll have that on your conscience, if you even have a conscience.

But seriously:

Problems urinating, dismissed out of hand as psychological in 2000, diagnosed around 2006 as spasticity of the urethra, treated with an implant that helps my muscles relax.  But not before I had infection after infection after infection.

A variety of really nasty symptoms, dismissed out of hand as being ‘fat and lazy’ and other things of the like, for years.  By the time, around 2003, that they found the problem, my gallbladder had not only produced two large gallstones, it had failed completely and was sitting in there dead by the time they pulled it out.  The surgeon was visibly angry at everyone who had delayed diagnosis and treatment.

Breathing symptoms.  Got me thrown out of emergency rooms more than once because treatments for asthma didn’t help — cyberbullies then proceeded to use those stories to convince people that “even ER doctors think she’s manipulative, see?”  They never thought to check if it was something other than asthma.  Eventually they found an infection and atelectasis in part of my lung.  Even after that was fixed, I was getting told that my continued breathing problems weren’t a big deal, were all in my head, all that kind of thing.  Until I got assigned a new pulmonologist, who did a CT scan and found “mild bilateral lower lobe bronchiectasis and scattered peripheral tree-in-bud opacities consistent with small airways disease”.  When treated for bronchiectasis, the problems got significantly better.  Imagine that?

I had ongoing joint pain that I knew wasn’t arthritis, so I avoided telling doctors about it because I didn’t want to tell them about one more thing wrong with me that didn’t fit in the usual box.  Finally a doctor badgered me into admitting that I had joint pain, then had me perform a series of movements.  He diagnosed me with benign joint hypermobility syndrome on the spot — a condition that’s characterized by overly flexible joints combined with widespread joint pain.  The test is really simple.  Bullies claimed I was faking this even though I posted pictures of my thumb flat against my wrist, which is impossible to do without a hypermobile wrist joint.  (I can also stick my foot behind my head and other fun party tricks that I really shouldn’t, medically, do.  But I do do it sometimes because it’s the fastest way to prove to a doctor that I’m not kidding around about being hypermobile.)

I had ongoing problems with nausea and food that stayed in my stomach for way too long, sometimes I’d throw up things I’d eaten days before.  This was eventually diagnosed as gastroparesis, using a test where you eat radioactive eggs and they test how slowly it goes through your stomach.

And now I’ve had this baffling array of symptoms, for years, and the blood cortisol test, ACTH test, and ACTH stimulation test confirmed that it’s a severe secondary adrenal insufficiency.  My response to treatment, according to my endocrinologist, more than confirms it.

How many people with chronic illness can say they have a track record this good?  Of saying they had a medical problem, and having it actually show up on a test in such a clear fashion?  I mean, the problems I have tested as having have not by any means all been the problems I was expecting to have.  But they all eventually showed up as something.  And that’s more than a lot of people can say.

So why the extensive bullying about being fake, when I have more proof of my authenticity as a sick person than most sick people will ever have?

It’s not because there’s any actual evidence that I’m faking anything.  It’s because bullies will be bullies, and they sensed this as a vulnerable point for any person with a chronic illness.  It’s because, I’m sure, a few of them have actually convinced themselves that they are on a righteous crusade against evil, and I am evil.  It’s because I have some people who, for reasons unknown to me, really hate me, and they thought this would be fun.

But it’s also because there’s a cultural norm that says that disabled people are all potential fakers until proven otherwise.

It’s because everyone is always looking for whether the wheelchair user can wiggle her toes, whether the blind man picks up a book and reads it with his eyes, whether the nonverbal person can say a few words here and there when xe’s under sufficient pressure and all the stars align just right.  It’s because people believe that we are all getting away with something.  That disability is about getting something for nothing.  That being sick means getting special privileges.  That everyone would fake illness to ‘play hooky’ from life, if there wasn’t constant vigilance against the possibility.

Governments love to spur on this kind of hatred and suspicion.  Disabled people in the UK right now are afraid to leave their houses because hate crimes have risen.  And the hate crimes have risen as a result of a media campaign saying that disabled people are exaggerating or faking their conditions in order to get benefits that they don’t deserve.  People are afraid of getting beaten up in public, because they’re being scapegoated by the government for the financial crisis that’s plaguing the world today.  And disabled people are always among the first to get scapegoated for such things.  We’re too expensive.  We need too many special privileges.  This always happens, and horrors follow.

According to Paul Longmore in Why I Burned My Book, the idea that you need to watch to make sure disabled people aren’t cheating on our benefits goes back to the English Poor Laws.  I wish I had my copy of his book on hand so that I could tell you everything he knows about the subject.  But basically it made it clear that there were poor people who deserved help, and poor people who didn’t deserve help.  And that we needed to always be careful only to be helping the right people.  And that the wrong sort of people would always be trying to take advantage of our charity and goodwill, so we must always be on guard.

And that attitude is what’s behind the suspicion of any disabled person who isn’t 100% stereotypical.

Speaking of which — you want to find a disabled person who is faking?  Find someone who has absolutely consistent abilities that never waver in any way, who is always able to do the same things, always unable to do the same other things, and those things never shift around.  She’ll be very much like the stereotype of whatever condition she claims to have, and won’t deviate in the slightest.  She will be everything you expect of a disabled person.  And that is why you will never find her so you might as well give up looking.

The people you pick on relentlessly as fakers are the ones who are generally actually more typical of disabled people, but less stereotypical.  We don’t have just one condition, we have two or three or four at minimum.  Our abilities are a moving target that we can’t always predict, let alone anyone else.  We seem to be able to do one thing but unable to do something else that we “should” be able to do if we could do the first thing.  We don’t obey any of the rules people have in their heads of how disabled people are supposed to be like.  And because of this we are vulnerable and because of this we are targets for relentless bullying, harassment, and defamation.

So a lot of us hide things that aren’t stereotypical.  Or we hide how bad things are.  Or we hide how bad things have gotten.  Or we try to play the role of a more stereotypical disabled person, hoping it will free us from bullying.  But then if we are exposed as having hidden anything, ever, or pretended anything, ever, then bullies have ammunition to accuse us of faking, and it all gets worse.  So we’re trapped in a double bind:  There is no way to be ourselves and escape ableist bullying.

I realize how much I have come to accept that I am an acceptable target, when I think of a good friend of mine and what would’ve happened (and it almost did, but for a twist of fate) if she’d met up with the same bullies I met up with at a certain point in my life.  It makes me shake with rage.  It makes me cry.  The very idea of her having to go through this makes me furious.  And I realize that I need to be just as furious that I’ve been forced to go through this, often with very little support and backup, for so long.  Because I matter just as much as she does, and I’m just as real as she is.

I have to say, though, that I have met people who were faking or exaggerating disability in order to manipulate people.  Very few, but I have met them.  And I understand that when done in certain ways, such actions can be devastating to everyone forced to be around them.  It can destroy trust.  It can destroy the cohesion of communities that are important for disabled people.  It can become an almost vampiric scenario where someone is draining time, energy, and money from people who can’t spare any of those things.  That isn’t what happens the majority of times that people fake things (the majority of the time, it hurts few to no people, actually), but it can happen, and I understand why people are changed by it, why they have trouble trusting after something like that happens.  I’ve been through it myself and it left my head upside-down for a long time afterwards.

But I’ve seen much more damage done to disabled people and our communities, by people who are overly suspicious of everyone for faking, than by people who are actually faking things.

In fact, I’ve seen irreparable damage done to disabled people simply at the idea that someone might think they were faking.  It’s an insidious thought that gets into people’s heads and won’t let them go.  It’s torturous.  I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.  And I’ve seen it all but destroy a lot of very good people who’d done nothing wrong.  And these aren’t even people who were directly targeted for ableist bullying the way I have been.  All they had to do was see that the bullying happened, and that was enough to instill fear and self-doubt.  Many people with disabilities and chronic illnesses are dealing with so much self-doubt already, that bullying and witch-hunts simply pour gasoline on the fire.  I would not be surprised if some people who were already feeling they had no hope of being understood, had been driven to attempt suicide this way before.

My self-doubt is gone.

It was like a fog that kept me always looking in the wrong direction.  It made me unable to see myself.

I can see myself better now.  I am strong.  I am as real and genuine as everyone else.  I have done nothing that deserves being singled out and attacked.  I have far more proof of the reality of my medical problems than most people who are not being targeted have of theirs, and that tells me that I’m not being attacked because of anything I’ve done.  But I can see, clearly, that I am stronger than anyone who has ever tried to attack me.  Because I’ve now survived relentless attacks on my character, death threats, emotional manipulation, and head games.  Things they probably wouldn’t have weathered anywhere near as well as I have.

I don’t have any hope that they will stop what they are doing.  Because I can see now that what they are doing has nothing to do with reality.  No amount of proof is enough.  In fact they probably want me scurrying around trying to prove myself.  They enjoy that.  Because what they want is control over my life.  They want me to be scared and running around frantically trying to please them.  I’ll probably be dealing with this until they get bored or something, if that ever happens.

But there are things we can do to minimize the impact of people like this.

We can make it a community norm that it’s intolerable for people to bully each other about their disability status.

We can support people who are being bullied about their disability status.

We can support people who are not directly being bullied, but who express fears about whether their illness is imaginary, whether they are just somehow making things up without knowing it, that kind of thing.

We can make things safe for people to admit to feelings like that, without condemning them as guilty just because they’ve doubted themselves.

We can work against community norms that say it’s really important to catch disabled people “cheating” at being disabled.

We can make sure bullies know we aren’t listening to them, and we can make sure that their victims (both direct and indirect) know that we are on their side (because there’s nothing bullies love more than to make their victims feel as if we are alone and everyone is against us).

We can work for love and compassion and against one-upmanship, bullying-as-funny-entertainment, and ego.

There’s all kinds of things we can do.

And inside of ourselves, we can dismantle this self-doubt.  Because self-doubt of this kind, it’s what this kind of bully wants.  They don’t just want to make other people doubt us.  The real fun comes from watching us squirm, watching us doubt ourselves, watching us tear ourselves apart.

I for one will never tear myself apart over this again.   Because I know now, know in my bones, that this has all been real, all along.  I feel it every time I walk up and down four flights of stairs without my legs giving out or even getting out of breath.  I feel it every time I exercise without vomiting.  I feel it every time I do jumping jacks, run, skip, and do all these things I couldn’t do before.  I feel it in the fact that I never anymore get so exhausted that I need a bipap to breathe.  I feel it in every single change my body has made since starting dexamethasone.  This is what reality is.  Anyone who thinks otherwise can screw themselves, but you won’t get a voice on my blog, not to tear me apart, and not to tear anyone else apart either.  It’s what Dave Hingsburger taught me years ago:  I’m okay, you’re mean.  That’s all I need to know.

Blogging Against Disablism Day, May 1st 2014

I am not your fairy tale miracle cure story.

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But more on that in a minute.

In the past couple years, I’ve been quietly preparing to die.  I hadn’t told anyone the full extent of what was going wrong with my body, because it was inexplicable.  Whenever I aspirated and got an infection, I became much weaker than the infection should have made me.  Sometimes I became severely weakened by stress alone.  I knew that there was something going on above and beyond the medical conditions we were aware of.  But I also knew that my symptoms could come from so many different things, it was unlikely we’d ever find it, or that it would be something treatable.

In parts of the chronic illness community, people use a term called ‘spoons’ to describe how much energy you have to do basic things.  I have mixed feelings about the idea, and the Spoon Theory story that originated the practice.  But sometimes it’s a useful thing.  What happened when I got sick was that my spoons would go negative.

When I say negative spoons, I’m not just saying I really didn’t have much energy.  I don’t mean that I felt sick and tired in any way that even the average chronically ill person feels sick and tired.  I mean that I felt like my level of energy was spiraling downwards in a dangerous way.  Where the less energy I had, the less energy I had to replenish it.  At my worst, I would be lying in a hospital bed, going in and out of delirium, and in lucid moments I would notice that it took too much energy just to keep my heart going.  I’d wish that I could stop and rest.  And then I’d realize what that meant.

When I was not acutely ill, I had a constant, subtle sense of fragility.  It felt like one good illness could put me in the hospital or kill me.  And often it did.  I had four hospitalizations between late 2012 and early 2013.  More recently, I was having periods of time when for no reason at all, I’d become unable to move or stay conscious for long.  I knew something was badly wrong.  And apparently so did my doctor, because he started sending me to more specialists and running tests.

This was the result:

Results of cortisol tests, showing cortisol too low to measure, ACTH too low to measure, and cortisol rising up to 8 and 9 when my system was artificially flooded with ACTH.

Results of cortisol tests, showing cortisol too low to measure, ACTH too low to measure, and cortisol rising up to 8 and 9 when my system was artificially flooded with ACTH.

What does this mean?  When they measured the level of cortisol in my blood, it was consistently too low to be measured.   ACTH is a hormone secreted by the pituitary gland that tells the adrenal glands to make cortisol.  My ACTH was too low to be measured as well.  When they flooded my system with ACTH, I made some cortisol, but not as much as they might have expected.

And what does that mean?  It means that my pituitary gland isn’t making enough ACTH, and hasn’t been for a long time.  And that my adrenal glands have therefore not been making enough cortisol.  I have something called severe secondary adrenal insufficiency.  We don’t know the cause yet.  But the upshot is that it’s extremely treatable.  I’m on a steroid called dexamethasone, that replaces the cortisol my body can’t make.

That health crash I had six years ago?  The one I worked hard to conceal until after the worst was over, because I was afraid of being bullied for having too many medical conditions?  Where every single health condition I had took a nosedive, I ended up bedridden, and needing a power chair, and all kinds of changes took place?  We now think that was the time that the adrenal insufficiency became serious.  It may have been around for quite some time after that.  And if we hadn’t treated it, my expectation that I wouldn’t live to see forty, may well have been accurate.

On dexamethasone, I improved rapidly.

Prior to dexamethasone, I could not jump even when holding onto a grab rail.  On dexamethasone, I could do jumping jacks.  First five, then ten, then twenty, then forty.  Before, I couldn’t walk up one flight of stairs.  Now I can walk up and down eleven.  I’m walking everywhere with a cane now, and barely even needing to use the manual wheelchair I bought (thinking that it was more realistic that I’d need a manual wheelchair than that I’d start walking everywhere — I still do need it sometimes, but not that often). I can do 400 meters on a treadmill, I am starting to be able to run (my legs wouldn’t even move that way before) and skip and balance on one foot, and all kinds of other things I thought I’d lost forever.  I’m going on walks in my neighborhood.

Perhaps most amazing is the way I feel after exercising.  In my entire adult life, I have never felt this way:  When I exercise, I feel invigorated afterwards.  I feel more energetic after exercising than before.  This is entirely different than before, when even minor exercise made me throw up, collapse, or both, and could leave me sick and with my body temperature running high and low for weeks.

And this is amazing and magical and wonderful.

But every time I try to talk about this with a nondisabled person, or even with many disabled people, I run into a very ableist way of thinking about this:  The miracle cure story.

It runs sort of like this:  A disabled person has been hanging in the balance between cure and death (because what other possibilities are there for a disabled life?).  Hope means finding a cure, despair means not finding a cure.  They do find a cure and everyone rejoices and everything goes back to how it should’ve been (with them not disabled, of course) and things are great from there on out.

So I run into a lot of people suggesting to me that I’ve “found hope” (I haven’t).  Or that I’m “cured” (I’m not).

Here’s the reality:

I will be on steroids for the rest of my life, according to my doctors.  If I don’t take them, everything goes back to how it was and I would eventually die.

I have to keep injectable steroids around, because it’s that important that I get them every single day, even if I have a stomach bug or a clogged feeding tube.  I don’t have any other meds where it’s so important that the doctor has insisted on injectables.  Even meds that are dangerous to go off quickly.

A bottle of injectable hydrocortisone, Solu-Cortef.

Any time that I become stressed out or sick, my symptoms come back and I have to take more steroids.  This puts me at higher risk when sick, hospitalized, injured, or severely stressed out.  To give an example, when I found out my mom had been in the ICU, I went from feeling great, to too weak to breathe easily, in a matter of seconds.  And when I run down my stress hormones like that, I don’t make new ones, so I have to put them back artificially, it’s called ‘stress dosing’.

I have to be constantly aware of my body and of my stress levels and other factors that affect how much steroids to take.  And I have to largely play it by ear.  There is no blood test to tell you if you’re on enough steroids or not.  You have to learn that yourself.

I’m still autistic.  I still have a variety of other conditions, although some of them are much less severe now that I’m on steroids.  I still need a feeding tube.  I still need to communicate by typing.  I still need a wheelchair sometimes.  I still have stamina problems, just not as severe as before.   I still have severe chronic pain, which is getting worse as I try to train my body to move around instead of lying propped up in bed all the time.  I still have autonomic dysfunction.  I still have hypermobility syndrome.  I still have gastroparesis and bronchiectasis and the hellish interactions between them.

And even though it’s under control, I still have severe adrenal insufficiency.  Having something controlled by medication is great, but it’s not a cure.  A cure would mean I wouldn’t need to take medication, wouldn’t need to watch my stress levels and illnesses very carefully, wouldn’t need to be constantly alert to changes in my body.

This is wonderful, but an inspirational fairytale ending it ain’t.

Blogging Against Disablism Day, May 1st 2014