Category Archives: Perception

When Orange Speaks Louder Than Words

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When Orange Speaks Louder Than Words

Mel wearing an orange shirt, dark glasses, and a brown Aussie hat.Fey and Mel nuzzling faces while Mel wears an orange shirt.Mel with only hir torso and arm visible, wearing an orange shirt with an orange crocheted shawl hanging off hir arm.An orange crochet project sitting on Mel's lap, bamboo yarn with a lot of shell stitches that is going to become a cardigan, with a metal crochet hook with a green handle.

Orange is the color of Autism Acceptance Month.  Because it’s the opposite of blue, and blue is the color that everyone is told to wear for Autism Awareness Month.  Which kind of sucks because my favorite colors, and nearly all of my clothes, are brown and blue.  And I used to really hate orange.  Sometimes I hate the term Autism Acceptance, too — I like the idea behind it, but I don’t like the way the term has become a meaningless buzzword in some people’s mouths.  Whether it’s parent groups who throw the word ‘autism acceptance’ around to sound current but don’t actually accept the slightest thing about their autistic children, or whether it’s autistic people who’ve fallen in love with the words and forgotten the meaning.  Either way, I like it as a concept but not as a buzzword.

Anyway, I hated orange.

Then my father died.  I was very close to my father.  As a way of remembering him, I began to wear his clothing. My mom sent me a bunch of his shirts, suspenders, watches, and other assorted clothing and jewelry.  And I began to wear his clothes, regardless of color.  

My father wore a lot of very colorful clothes.  I had to get used to that.  But most of the colors he had look surprisingly good on me.  This did surprise me because his skin was a very different color than mine, much darker.  But someone pointed out that while our skin was different in terms of darkness, the actual hue of our skin was nearly identical.  Which goes a long way to explaining why nearly any color that looked good on him, looks good on me.   The only place we seem to go wrong are on certain pastel shades that just look better against his shade of skin than mine.

Wearing my father’s clothes is more than a symbolic act of remembrance.  It helps me get inside of him.  It helps me find him inside of me.  It helps me find the parts of him that I didn’t even realize were there until he was already dead.  There’s something about it that makes me love him even more, makes me comfortable in my own skin, makes me see the many things about us that are alike as well as the differences.

And orange, most of all, has come to symbolize that entire process for me:  Finding something totally unexpected about my father that was also inside me all along.   Finding that many shades of orange (mostly darker shades, definitely not pastel peach shades) look good on me, sounds like a superficial thing.  But when it’s in the context of my father’s death and the meaning he had and continues to have in my life, there’s nothing superficial about it.  It’s about as deep as things get.  And that’s unexpected as well.

By the way, one thing I never take off is the circular necklace you can see in one of the pictures.  It’s a see-through locket containing hairs from my father’s beard, that he agreed to send me before he died.  I take it everywhere with me, and even a year ago when I was too delirious to understand that my father had died at all or what the necklace was, I still managed not to lose it despite losing some very important items during the same hospital stay. 

So I now appreciate orange a lot more than I used to, and I now have more orange things to wear this month.  Both because my father gave me orange clothes, and because since coming to view orange as symbolic of all these things, I have started making myself more orange clothing.  The shawl pictured above is something I crocheted myself, and the crochet project I am working on in the last picture will be a cardigan made out of bamboo yarn.  I’ve made other orange things as well.

I had other things planned to post this month.  I had a lot of things planned.  Like the song says, “Life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans.”  I’ve had tube problems and problems with my steroid levels that have taken up a lot of my time and energy lately.  So I think the very long post I had planned for Autism Acceptance Month is going to turn into a Blogging Against Disablism Day post for May 1st.  And this post will have to suffice for an Autism Acceptance Month post — right at the end of the month, of course.  But all these problems have made my inertia twenty times worse than usual, so getting posts out at all is a miracle and it’s a good thing that the posts I am talking about that I’d planned, are mostly already written months ago, and then stored in anticipation of this month.  Because I rightly guessed that I wouldn’t be able to write much for whatever reason when the time actually came around to have things ready.

Orange also stands for fire.  I used to think that fire meant the kind of anger problem I used to have, and I was afraid of my own fire.  But someone told me that my anger problem was misdirected fire.  That real fire, properly channeled, could mean something closer to passion.  And that’s when I began to truly integrate fire into who I was, and it flowed through me, and it was something I’d been missing for a long time.  Adrenal insufficiency sometimes feels like it tries to drain me of that fire, when I get close to an adrenal crisis, it’s like everything goes flat and deflated.  But when fire is properly flowing through me, it feels like finally being alive again.  So that’s another thing orange has come to mean to me. 

The things I’ve found about my dad in myself, by the way, are not irrelevant to Autism Acceptance Month.  My father and I are both autistic, and we share a lot of traits.  One of the traits that we share that I treasure the most, is our tendency to communicate with objects.  As in, both communicate by means of using objects, and experience communication (it’s the only word that really fits) between ourselves and supposedly-inanimate objects.  I knew to some degree this was true of my father, but it became much more apparent as he was dying, and even more apparent when I received many of his belongings after he died.  I arranged some of them into a memorial shrine, and any time I want to see him all I have to do is look through the objects and I can always find him by sensing the connections between them.  

Not a lot of autistic people talk about this, but a lot of autistic people very much do things like this.  And many people have told me they look at objects differently after seeing how I have interacted with objects after my father’s death.  People are used to seeing objects as dead in themselves.   And they are used to seeing interaction with objects as inferior to interactions with people.  They are used to seeing attachment to objects as an ‘attachment to material possessions’, like a consumerist thing.  So they are legitimately surprised when they see someone doing it completely differently than anything they’ve ever seen before.

Some people react well to that and some people react badly.  I’ve been lectured more times than I care to count, on how objects are not really alive and you can’t really interact with them.  Usually they talk to me in the same way they would talk to a five-year-old who believes in unicorns.  Other people have explained anthropomorphism to me at great length, totally neglecting the fact that I’m not in fact attributing human qualities to objects.  I interact with them, they interact back, I see them as alive, but being alive is not a human-specific quality.  And they are alive in a very specific way that has nothing to do with humans and nothing to do with the actual categories of animate and inanimate beings in general, and I interact with them as what they are to a degree that most people who see them as dead probably don’t. 

And usually the person doing the explaining manages to be incredibly condescending both to people like me, and to cultures that don’t differentiate as much between living and non-living creatures as modern Western culture does, or differentiate much differently.  The view is that we’re just simple-minded idiots who don’t yet know enough, aren’t yet highly evolved enough as a person or as a culture or both, to have figured out what Western science knows.  Never mind that their view of how we see things is usually mind-bogglingly simplistic in and of itself.

For some reason, such people seem to feel almost compelled to force their worldview on me.  Like I’m just one tiny little person who happens to be moving through a world full of people who mostly don’t share this worldview.  I’m hardly a threat to anyone.  But they seem to feel threatened enough that they have to quash any sign of difference anywhere they see it.  And I’m not just talking about nonautistic people, I’m also talking about autistic people who don’t happen to share this particular autistic trait.  (Because no autistic trait is universal, and quite often autism involves opposites a lot — so that both a trait and its polar opposite will be common autistic traits.  Sometimes even both showing up in the same person at different times.)

But what really amazes me are the people who are willing to have their mind changed about objects after they see how I interact with them.  They see that there is respect there.  They see that there is depth there.  They see that like many autistic people with similar traits, I move through a very sensual world full of richness and depth.  They see that I use objects to communicate with other people, to say important things that I can’t say with words.  They see the way I use objects to remember my father and to interact with him after his death.  They see that there is something deeply real here.  And they come to respect that, even when they don’t fully understand it.

And I never set out to cause them to respect me.  Any more than I set out to convince one of  friends that being gay is not a sin.  I actually told her I didn’t mind that she thought it was a sin, as long as she didn’t interfere with my life on that basis, and went on living my life around her as I was.  She said that just knowing me changed her mind about gay people on a religious level and on other levels.  And that’s not something I ever set out to do, in fact I was careful not to set out to change her mind.  But it happened anyway.  And that’s how this thing with the objects has happened:  I never intended it, in fact I never would have known the change was happening in some people if they hadn’t told me in private that I had changed their entire way of viewing how people interact with objects. But they did change their minds because of me, intended or not.

And I think that’s really important.  Sometimes people don’t come to accept autism — or aspects of autism, as the case may be — because we’ve been shoving things in their face.  Sometimes they come to accept autism, and autistic people, and autistic people’s ways of being in the world, because they spend enough time around us that they get to see us in a well-rounded context.  Not in terms of rhetoric but in terms of real life.  And seeing us, seeing how we live, seeing that our ways of doing things are legitimate even if they’re different than anything they’ve ever imagined before, that can be far more important for some people than anything we could have to say about the matter.

If saying things weren’t important to me, mind you, I wouldn’t be a blogger.  I may be a reluctant writer at times, but I’m definitely a writer.  But I also think there’s things in the world far more important than words.  And I also think there’s many different ways to communicate something, and writing is only one of them.  Not everyone can write, but everyone can make a contribution, deliberate or not, to the acceptance of people like us in the world at large.  And as writing this kind of post has become more and more difficult for me — it was never easy, but it’s getting much harder with time — I’m learning to very much value my ability to just exist and get things across by the way I exist around people.

There are a lot of things about being autistic that are hard, and I have to confess that lately it’s the harder things that have caught my attention more often.  The difficulty of keeping in touch with even my closest friends, to the point I’ve become almost completely socially isolated lately.  The ever-increasing level of inertia, which has snuck up on me because it looks very different after severe adrenal insufficiency completely reshaped the way I experience stress on a subjective level.  The stress levels that come not from emotional stress but from the sheer strain of having to function on an everyday basis — walking from one room to another, getting in and out of bed and chairs, going to the bathroom, making words, changing feeding tube dressings upwards of twelve times a day, going to new places that are visually overstimulating, anything involving getting information into or out of my brain, thinking on an intellectual level.  Things that most people don’t even know are skills, let alone difficult ones, because most of them are done automatically.  And all of these things are contributing to it not always feeling great to be autistic lately.

But orange brought me back to my father, and my father brings me back to objects, and objects bring me back to that rich world that my father and I both take part in.  Which brings me back to the way that just being who I am in front of people has changed their entire way of viewing objects and people’s relationships with them.  And that’s the good side of autism, and this is one of many ways that autism acceptance — the real thing —  can happen.  One person at a time, through living our lives as authentically as possible so that people can see exactly who we are and how we do things.  And when they see that, when they see who we are and how we live, some of them come to accept us on a deep level.   And not a lot of people are talking about that.

So I guess I’m glad for orange after all.

Almost Alike: A Medical Cautionary Tale

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Blue medical bracelet with a medical symbol in white and the words "Adrenal Insufficency" on a metal plate.

Medical bracelet that says “Adrenal Insufficiency”.

I’ve been thinking about medical stuff a lot lately, so apologies if my posts tend towards the medical for a little while.  It’s what happens when you suddenly realize how lucky you are to be alive, and how close you came to death.  My father’s cancer has me thinking about life and death and medical care a lot, too.

In my dealings with doctors, I have found that they like the solutions to their problems to be neat and tidy.  In particular, they want there to be one diagnosis that explains all the symptoms they’re observing.  They want their patient to have that one diagnosis, and if their patient shows signs of more than one thing, it fouls up everything the doctor wants.

Case in point:  I had this neurologist at the headache clinic.  I told him that they strongly suspected my mother of having myasthenia gravis, or hereditary myasthenia.  Both are neuromuscular junction diseases that cause specific muscles to wear out quickly as you use them.  So for instance my eyes start out tracking the same object fairly well, but as time goes on, they drift outwards leaving me seeing double.  I had told my neurologist all about this, and about other muscular problems I’d been having.

I don’t remember why myasthenia came up, but I told him I was going to start on Mestinon, a medication that treats myasthenia.  His response was swift and a little annoyed:  “It’s not going to do anything.  I don’t think you have myasthenia.” 

“Why not?”

“Because people with myasthenia have trouble with specific muscle weakness. You have generalized weakness.  It’s not the same thing.”

He explained it as if I didn’t know this.  But he also explained it as if I hadn’t told him time and time again about the specific weakness, that was separate from the generalized weakness.  As if I hadn’t told him things were more complicated than he was expecting.

He offered to run an EMG but told me the results would be negative because “You just don’t have myasthenia gravis.”  I declined the testing.  I don’t like to be tested under circumstances where the doctor has already determined what the results are going to be.  Plus, I’d just been through an invasive procedure that left me in horrible pain for weeks, and I didn’t feel like being poked and prodded again.

But I did try the Mestinon, and it did make a difference.  It was subtle at first.  I could walk around my apartment without falling.  My eyes tracked things better, and for longer, before the double vision kicked in.  It was things like that.  The more Mestinon we added, the better those things got.  So it seemed my headache doctor was wrong, and there was something real about the effects of the Mestinon.

But in other areas, I was getting weaker.  In fact, as far as I could tell, I was dying.  I was hesitant to tell anyone this fact, because it felt like a fairly dramatic thing to announce.  But I’d known terminally ill people who had more energy than I had at times.  And I have instincts that tell me when something is going badly wrong.  Something was going badly wrong, and it went along with that more generalized muscle weakness.

I’ve already told the story of how I got diagnosed with severe secondary adrenal insufficiency.  And that’s what happened.  They found no measurable evidence of cortisol or ACTH in my blood.  When they flooded me with ACTH, I made cortisol, but not as much as expected.  Meaning my pituitary gland is not making enough ACTH to tell my adrenal glands to make cortisol.  And this was the reason for, among many, many other symptoms, my severe muscle weakness that affected my entire body.

I went into treatment for adrenal insufficiency and everything seemed to be looking up.  No longer bedridden.  No longer required to use a wheelchair for anything.  Not that I minded these things so much when they were happening, but it’s nice to be able to get up and walk up and down a flight of stairs when you want to.  It feels good to be able to exercise, after six years of bedrest.  Dexamethasone makes me feel alive again, instead of waiting for the next infection to kill me.   I feel strong, and sturdy, and robust, in a way I haven’t in years, and my friends sense the same thing about me.

The only problem?  Not everything went away.  I still had weakness in specific muscles.  I’d been referred to a new neurologist at the same time they were testing my cortisol.  This neurologist never pretended he had any answers.  He was simple and methodical in the way he worked.  He would come up with a list of every possibility, no matter how remote, and then he would run tests for every possibility.  This made me trust him in a way that I didn’t trust my migraine neurologist.  So I let him do any test he wanted to do.

Many of the tests, he came in and did them himself, which is unusual for a doctor.  Usually they delegate that stuff.  He did a regular EMG that turned up nothing, and I thought “See, my mother didn’t have an abnormal EMG either, so whatever we have isn’t going to show up on tests.”  Neither of us showed up as having the antibodies, either.  I began to think this was going to be one of those things that we never solved.

Then he called me in for something he called a single fiber EMG.  He was going to stick a wire into my forehead and measure something about the muscles.  I remember that on that day I had a lot of trouble even holding my head up on one side, and that I was seeing double.  He stuck the wires in, made me raise my eyebrows and move my eyes around.  There were a lot of electrical noises.

At the end of the test, he told me he wanted to see me as soon as possible because the result was abnormal.  The muscles were firing asynchronously. 

I didn’t know what that meant, but a week later I was in his office being told that I probably did have a neuromuscular junction disease after all.  Probably myasthenia gravis, possibly a much rarer hereditary form of myasthenia.

And to think that literally a couple weeks before I got the single-fiber EMG, my regular doctor and I had been discussing whether I really needed to be on Mestinon anymore.  We thought maybe my only real problem had been the adrenal insufficiency all along, and that my response to Mestinon might have been some kind of placebo effect (even though I don’t seem very prone to that effect even when I want to be).  Even I was starting to fall prey to that idea that a diagnosis is just one thing.

Right now, we don’t really know what exactly my diagnosis is.  We know for certain that I have secondary adrenal insufficiency.  And we are pretty certain that I have a neuromuscular junction disorder, and the most common one of those is myasthenia gravis.  (I’m just going to refer to it as myasthenia gravis for the rest of this.  Because it’s shorter than saying “the thing we think is myasthenia gravis maybe”.)

But the important thing — the thing a lot of doctors miss — is that there is not one diagnosis here.  There are at least two diagnoses, possibly more.  This is not the first time, and it won’t be the last time, that I’ve had doctors miss something fairly obvious because they thought that the simplest explanation is always a single diagnosis. 

I still remember back when I was dealing with three different diagnoses that affected movement in different ways:  Adrenal insufficiency, myasthenia gravis, and autistic catatonia.  And any time we’d try to bring up a symptom of one of them with a doctor, they’d bring up a “contradictory” symptom from a different one of them, and that would mean that… it couldn’t be myasthenia gravis, because sometimes I froze stiff instead of limp, because I also had autistic catatonia.   And it went on like that for years, where every condition I had was ‘contradicted’ by some other condition, so many of the doctors refused to see the complexity of the situation.

Sometimes that resulted in situations that were almost funny, but other times it could turn deadly.  There was a time I was hospitalized for aspiration pneumonia connected to gastroparesis, and my doctor refused to treat me for anything other than the pneumonia.  So I had collapsed in my bed after vomiting so much that all the muscles involved had gone limp and I was starting to have trouble breathing.  In retrospect we think it was the start of an adrenal or myasthenia crisis, and that I belonged in the ICU.  But at the time, the hospitalist simply refused to treat anything that wasn’t pneumonia.  So I had to lie there totally immobilized, delirious, and hallucinating, wondering whether I was going to survive, for days on end.  All because a doctor was only willing to think about one condition at a time.

Over the years, I’ve picked up an impressive collection of diagnoses.  Many of them are based on symptoms and my response to treatments.  But some of them are based on hard-core medical tests like high-resolution CT scans — things you can’t confuse for anything other than what they are.  I’m going to list the ones that  were diagnosed by those hard-core medical tests, and understand I’m listing them here for a reason:

  • Bronchiectasis (high-resolution CT scan)
  • Frequent bowel obstructions (x-ray)
  • Central sleep apnea (sleep study)
  • Obstructive sleep apnea (sleep study)
  • Early-onset gallbladder disease (ultrasound)
  • Exotropia (eye exam)
  • Gastroparesis (gastric emptying scan)
  • GERD – reflux (barium swallow)
  • Esophageal motility problems (barium swallow)
  • Dysphagia (barium swallow)
  • High cholesterol (blood test)
  • Hypermobility syndrome (Brighton criteria)
  • Myasthenia gravis or related condition (single fiber EMG)
  • Secondary adrenal insufficiency (cortisol test, ACTH test, ACTH stimulation test)
  • Urinary retention with spastic urethra (urodynamic testing)

So this is fifteen different conditions right here, that there is no possible way that I don’t have them.  They’ve been tested for, the tests are valid, there’s nothing unusual about the tests I was given, they exist.  I’m diagnosed with a lot of other conditions, but even if we pretended that those conditions turned out to be misdiagnosed because some of the diagnosis was subjective… I’m still left with fifteen conditions here that are very much real.  Some of them are more serious than others.  But many of them are difficult and complex both on their own and in combination with each other.  (Also, many of them went years misdiagnosed because doctors refused to even test me for them, believing that a person with a developmental disability or a psych history couldn’t possibly be telling the truth about their own symptoms.)

Now imagine you’re a doctor, and I’ve walked in your door, off the street, with no medical history.  And I’ve got the symptoms of all of these fifteen conditions.  Some of the symptoms are severe enough to be life-threatening.  And your very first instinct is to try to find one condition that accounts for all of these symptoms.  You’re going to be looking for a very long time, and you’re going to be lucky if I don’t die before you figure it out.

Of course, it’s still possible that there really is one condition that explains all this.  Or at least, a small handful of conditions.  There are many genetic conditions that can cause problems all over your body, and they can be notoriously difficult to pin down.  But for the moment, we’ve had to diagnose all of these things separately in order to get a handle on how to treat them. 

It may be there’s some genetic condition that causes neuropathy (my mother and I both have symptoms of autonomic and sensory neuropathy), which could in turn cause the gastroparesis and esophageal motility problems (and dysphagia, and other things that aren’t listed above), just as one example.  But right now we don’t have that information.  Right now we just know I have gastroparesis, and that it doesn’t play well with reflux and bronchiectasis, and that if I hadn’t gotten a feeding tube in time it probably would’ve killed me.  There could also be something behind the adrenal insufficiency, but that damn near did kill me a number of times before we even knew enough about it to put me on dexamethasone. 

And that’s why it’s important that medical professionals not restrict themselves to a single diagnosis when they’re looking at what’s going wrong with someone.  If you see symptoms that look contradictory, then you ought to be wondering if you’re looking at more than one condition at once.

If there’s one thing I have noticed, having been in and out of hospitals for a long, long time… it’s that my roommates are usually people like me.  They’re people with multiple medical conditions all at once.  They’re not textbook illustrations of a single condition in all its pristine glory.  They’re a mess, just like me.  Like my roommate who had both Lesch-Nyhan and myasthenia gravis (and was a woman, which is rare for someone with Lesch-Nyhan in the first place).  They really treated her like crap, too — they wouldn’t believe a word she said about herself, unless they could verify it from some outside source, which they always did, but still never trusted her.  Sometimes I heard her crying after they left.  At any rate, I can’t remember a single hospital roommate who had only one condition, unless they were in there for a routine surgery.

Which tells me that those of us who end up in hospitals on a regular basis, at least, are people with complicated medical histories.  Not people who just have one simple thing that can be figured out.  Which means that no hospitalist should ever do what one of mine did and say “I’m only treating the pneumonia, nothing else matters, no matter how bad things get.”  I’m really passionate about this issue because I’ve seen how close to death I’ve come, how many times, just because everyone wanted my body to be simpler than it was.

Maybe the problem is that we train doctors too much on textbooks, and on the people who most resemble textbooks.  We don’t want to confuse them with too much, all at once.  So they grow to look for the one explanation that will explain it all, instead of the fifteen or more explanations that will explain it all.  And in the meantime, their patient could die while they’re waiting to get properly diagnosed.

And that’s the part that worries me.  I’m very lucky to be alive.  My doctors know I’m very lucky to be alive.  And I have a pretty amazing team of doctors.  I have a great GP, a great pulmonologist, a great neurologist, and a great endocrinologist.  These are doctors who are willing to listen to me when I know more than they do, but also willing to argue with me when they know more than I do, it’s the perfect combination. 

My GP has been here since I moved to Vermont, and he is known in the area as one of the best doctors around.  We have our disagreements, but he always explains his decisions to me, and I always explain my decisions to him.  We respect each other and that makes everything work.  He has done his best to stand up for me in situations where my social skills have caused problems with other doctors.

My pulmonologist is amazing.  She always anticipates situations where I’m going to face discrimination, and she’s always ready.  When she knew I was heading for a really bad pneumonia, she had my lungs CAT scanned to prove the pneumonia was there, because she knew nothing less than that would get me admitted to the hospital.  And even then it took all she and my GP could do to get me into the hospital and keep me there long enough to get me a feeding tube.

I’m new to my endocrinologist, but he’s clearly really good too.  He’s been helping me through the first stages of being diagnosed with adrenal insufficiency, including things as difficult as when to stress-dose and how much.  He’s given me the confidence to figure out on my own the amount of steroids I need to give myself in physically or emotionally stressful situations.  That’s a key skill you have to have to avoid adrenal crisis, and I think I’ve finally got the hang of it.

My neurologist is also new, but he’s clearly highly competent.  There’s nothing flashy about him or anything.  It’s not like he has some kind of flashy swagger like you see on TV shows.  He’s very quiet.  What he has is the ability to be mind-bogglingly thorough.  He listens to everything you have to say, he asks very careful questions, and he takes very careful notes.  Then he thinks up every possible condition that could result in the symptoms you have, no matter how rare or improbable it seems.  Then he figures out which ones are the most important to test for first.  And then he pretty much tests you for everything.  If there were two words for him, it would be methodical and thorough.  And it’s paid off — we now know I have something similar to myasthenia gravis, even though all the signs were pointing away from it for awhile.  Like my GP, he’s one of those doctors that other doctors hold in very high regard.  I can tell by the way they talk about him.

I wanted to make a point of talking about these doctors, because the point of this post is not to bash the medical profession.  These are people who have saved my life.  These are people I have built a relationship with over the years, or am in the course of building a relationship with now.  I’ve had plenty of truly awful doctors, but I’ve had a surprising number of truly great ones as well.  Most are somewhere in the middle.  But the great ones are the ones I owe my life to, many times over.  They have done things for me that, I am sure, they have never even told me about, and probably never will.

But all doctors, no matter how great, need a reminder that medical conditions don’t come in neat, orderly packages the way the textbooks make them sound.  Most disabled people and people with chronic illnesses have multiple conditions, not just one.  Often, these conditions have symptoms that can seem to contradict each other.  And even when there’s one overarching condition that causes all of them, there’s a good chance you’re going to need to find all the smaller conditions before you can put the puzzle together.  Many times, finding all the smaller conditions is a matter of life and death.  People simply can’t wait around to find the perfect most elegant answer when we’re going into adrenal crisis or myasthenia crisis on a regular basis.  Maybe there’s a reason I have adrenal insufficiency, and maybe one day they’ll find it, but for now I need to be on dexamethasone so I don’t die in the meantime.

Can you see the gaps?

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In the voids inside my mind
There’s an ocean, deep and dark
At the bottom of the ocean
There’s reflections of the stars

If you can see the stars
At the bottom, in the deep
If you can see the rainbows
That even the sun can’t reach

If you can see me dancing
Unaware of being watched
If you can see the world
Before a mind, before a thought

If you see distant reflections
Of reflections, of reflections
And if you can see the deep, the dark
The silence between worlds

If you can see the void
That stands in front of me
If you can see how full it is
And how empty it can be

If you see what it’s like
To not know at thirty
What they knew at three

But to know things
And to see things
That nobody else can see

Then maybe, just maybe
I can see you
And you can see me

What came before.

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If I could reach through the computer screen…

I want to hand you a lapis lazuli ball

So you can lose yourself in the deep blue

And be dazzled by the gold specks.

I want you to roll it over and over in your hand

Gently nose it to feel its texture

And weigh it in your hand.

I want to hand you my black tourmaline egg

So you can feel that unique texture

I want you to hold it while you sleep

And wake up to it, warm and slick in your hand

I want to hand you my amber ring

So you can watch the sunlight turn it into fire

And watch the sun set inside it glittering red, orange, and yellow

I want to do these things

So that I can say

We share these sensory experiences

And nothing can take that away

I want to hand things back and forth

And clack them together to hear their sounds

And rub them on our cheeks

And brush them against our fingertips

Then I want to hand you things too big to pick up:

The warmth and smell of a granite mountainside as the sun heats it up all day long.

The liquid sunlight melting across the coat of a cat who embodies sunlight well.

The whole cycle of life that takes place in the soil of a redwood forest. And the smell of that soil.

The deep rumbling sound of the Mother Tree when you’re curled up against it, surrounded by its invisible amethyst glow.

The feeling of lying in bed, but at the same time, being surrounded by a deep, glowing blue sky, as if pre-dawn or post-dusk. And listening to the music of the forest. Listening with my skin, listening with my eyes, listening with my fingertips, listening with my nose. Listening with everything more than my ears. Being wrapped in the song of the forest and the stars and the trees and the soil and the fungus, all singing, all singing inside me.

I know you can feel the layers of sensory experience. The layers of meaning that come before the meaning of mind. The things we were meant to forget, when we learned to think their way. The things we didn’t forget, the things that we retained no matter what we were told to forget. The stillness, the silence. The music in the silence, the growth and death and birth cycling endlessly.

I would hand you these things, if I could reach through a computer screen. And I would take whatever you handed back, and listen to it sing its unique song. And we could communicate the way we are meant to communicate. By what came before thought, by what came before sight and sound, touch and smell, by the resonance in what came before.

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.

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