Tag Archives: chronic illness

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.

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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 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.

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