Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Just Make It Work

One of the wisest people I’ve talked to is Vicki, the thirty-something patient with cystic fibrosis I interviewed extensively for Life Disrupted. Chapter Seven (“Salient Suffering”) details a conversation we had about suffering:

“For years, people have told her [Vicki] how brave she is, how strong and resilient she must be to endure the many complications of her illness. They are likely referring to her ever-present cough, her intrusive feeding tube, or her very basic struggle to get enough air…Some people assume that by virtue of these physical symptoms, Vicki is somehow naturally equipped to handle them. She disagrees with this all-too-common assumption…She puts up with the disruptions and the bodily complaints because she has to, something perhaps healthy people don’t always consider.” (42)

I had a somewhat similar conversation with Kairol Rosenthal, author of Everything Changes: The Insider’s Guide to Cancer in Your 20s and 30s, for a different project. You’ll hear more about it down the road, but we talked a lot about cancer mythology and the idea that having cancer makes you stronger, or more spiritual, or more ____(insert adjective of choice here).

What if you were already strong before cancer? What if you endure it all because the other option is not enduring it and knowing you might die?

Anyway, I had all of this on my mind this weekend after talking about work with a friend of mine.

“It’s amazing what you can do when you have no choice,” I said. It was a light-hearted conversation about work ethic, but my smile didn’t mean I wasn’t completely serious.

And it’s true. When you have obligations and deadlines it doesn’t matter if you’re overcommitted or tired or would rather get home earlier—you get it done. I think pretty much everyone from all walks of work life can relate to that.

My desk at work is pretty much empty; everything I need is in my laptop or my briefcase. Years of hospital packing have conditioned me to have everything I need to be able to work at all times with me wherever I go. But my office at home is the opposite. I spend more time there (a couple weekdays, most weeknights, and weekends) and it shows. My desk area is the epitome of organized chaos—folders and papers and notes and staplers and binder clips and books and coffee cups litter to desktop, flanked by stacks of folders and more piles of books (and often, dog bones and half-chewed tennis balls) on the floor.

Above the desk hangs a combination magnetic wipe board/bulletin board, adorned with post-it notes, quotes, forms, phone numbers, etc. At the very top is a quote one from one my graduate school professors. It is simple and precise, and I find I need to look up at it every day:

“There is nothing as clarifying as a deadline.”

Writers, I am sure you can relate to this, that you have stayed at your computers until 3am or gotten out of bed when it is still dark and skipped meals and plans and, oh, entire weekends or vacations, to meet your deadline. When you want something badly enough, you make it work, like this writer I’ve followed for a couple of years, who steals every possible chance to work on her writing: before work, after work, and every weekend. Her book recently published.

It may have been born out of a writing workshop, but again this quote is far more universal. Even when it isn’t easy or doesn’t even seem possible, we make our personal definition of a “deadline” work: the mother who was up all night with a sick baby still goes about her day with no sleep; the working parents with crammed schedules make it to the teacher’s meeting and deal with the work consequences when they should be going to bed; the financially strapped student takes on another part-time job while juggling classes and internships and expectations from so many people.

It is amazing what you can do when you have no choice. It is not always ideal and it is not something you can sustain forever but sometimes you just have to take a deep breath, vow not to think about it too much, and plow through it. It could be finishing grad school, or completing a medical residency, or working on a huge client project. Or it could be dragging yourself through the machinations of your day when all you want to do is sleep.

When it comes to health, I agree with Vicki’s sentiment that much of what we do as patients is because the choice not to do it is simply not viable. I do not think moral attributes need to be part of what is largely pragmatic.

Chronic illness complicates the daily negotiations and moments where we just need to make it work that we all face. For example, we might not take that sick day when we’re feeling under the weather with “normal” stuff, the same sick day healthy people might take, because we know that while we feel miserable with this cold or headache now, we might really need the sick day for pneumonia or a severe flare. Necessity dictates that we make our decisions based on a different rubric. Sound familiar?

We might totally over-commit in the moment and pull long days when we’re feeling okay because we know our ability to be productive is not in our control when we get worse. How many times have you been there?

I can’t help but think about the time I had to facilitate a three-hour graduate school seminar fresh from a hospital discharge. By “fresh” I mean I bargained for a morning release so I could make the class on time, changed back into the clothes I’d worn to the ER seven days earlier, and had my (very skeptical) mother drive me the few city blocks from the hospital to my campus. In my haste to get my materials together and my exhaustion from the hospitalization I forgot to take off my hospital bracelet, and I know I sounded terrible. It wasn’t ideal and it certainly wasn’t preferable, but I got it done. I knew there would likely be other times in the semester when I wouldn’t be released in time, and I couldn’t afford to take an incomplete in the course.

It may sound like a crazily stubborn thing to do, but I didn’t see a choice at the time. Or perhaps more accurately, I knew all too well what it felt like to really not have a choice, to be stuck in that hospital bed, and it wasn’t an opportunity I was going to squander. Accountability is still important, even when you're not feeling spectacular. I bet you can relate to that.

In the end, maybe this circuitous post is really nothing more than a pep talk for everyone out there feeling a little overwhelmed or a little unsure of how you will reach your goals but you know somehow you will. When I look at the quotes I've collected here, I am glad there are people who have been there who can remind me of that sometimes. Or, you know, today.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

In the Headlines, In Real Life

My writing may be a little more erratic than normal right now, but I still try to stay on top of the headlines. It’s the journalist in me; a day doesn’t feel right if it doesn’t start with skimming the newspapers, no matter how early. Every now and then, I come across stories that directly resonate with what’s going on in my own life.

As a New Englander, I am acutely aware of rapid and drastic seasonal changes and their effects on my lungs. I suffocate in humidity, cold winter months mean lots of infections, and the gray area between summer and fall and winter and spring are predictable only in their unpredictability.

I steadfastly maintain two truths about the weather and my health: my lungs are as accurate a barometer of weather changes as an arthritic’s joints, and the reason I did relatively well when I lived in Dublin was because although the weather was consistently dismal, it was consistent. No huge swings, no choking heat, no bone-chilling lows.

Anyone else sensitive to weather fluctuations?

Now, as I wrote awhile ago when I started this blog, I do not have asthma. However, when I read this NYT article on asthma and weather changes yesterday, I nodded along in agreement. The study found it is not just environmental or allergic factors that contribute to asthma symptoms:

“The study authors noted that many patients are well aware that weather fluctuations influence their asthma symptoms, but this is the first study to document the effect. In addition, it wasn’t just cold weather that triggered asthma problems but temperature increases as well.”

It’s what I’ve always known about my some of my own lung symptoms—wheezing, congestion, etc—even if they are caused by bronchiectasis exacerbations and PCD. Right now, I’m sitting here in summer-like conditions with newscasters warning of a big chill tomorrow—but I already knew that was coming. I could feel it in my chest.

Switching gear a little bit, I was so happy to see this wonderful newspaper article about the Chronic Illness Initiative at DePaul University. I have strong feelings about chronic illness and education. From students being proactive, anticipating their needs and problems, and communicating regularly to faculty and administration being flexible and accommodating, there are many steps we can take to ensure that students with chronic illness achieve their educational goals.

Luckily, the Chronic Illness Initiative (CII) is an institutional resource that helps both students and faculty navigate these complicated issues, and enables students to complete their degrees at an appropriate pace for their medical needs.

I’ve written about the CII before, but this recent article was particularly compelling to me because I spoke at a Symposium there last spring and was fortunate enough to meet several of these students, including some interviewed in the article. I was impressed with their commitment to education, but also with their enthusiasm for the CII itself.

Even more, this fall I’m actually teaching an online class through the School for New Learning at DePaul, the same school that operates the CII. It’s a class that explores how people with chronic illness exist in an otherwise healthy world (the personal and institutional challenges), and there is definitely crossover between the goals of the CII and course content.

It’s a great article, and personally, it is neat to see when headlines and real life intersect.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

On Invisible Illness

This week is Invisible Awareness Week, and my post about it is a day later than I wanted it to be, which is right on par with the way things are going right now.

In fact, I wasn’t planning on just posting about it; I was scheduled to present a virtual seminar this week and due to intense schedule conflicts, and with great regret, I had to cancel. (I’m already percolating ideas for next year, so we will see…)

I’d originally planned this post to be a continuation of the conversation about illness versus disability I’ve had here on A Chronic Dose. To wit, I recently sat through an HR orientation and was pleasantly surprised by the time and attention the speaker gave to “invisible” conditions.

But that post didn’t work out as planned, either, though I do promise to return to it.

Instead, though it’s a day later than what I wanted and not neatly focused like I’d planned, all I can do is write about where I am right now.

Overwhelmed. Exhausted. Exhilarated. Optimistic. Anxious. Trying to plan for the unpredictable, willing my body to cooperate for me and not let me down, and trying to squash the voice that’s whispering Haven’t you learned anything yet?

I’m adjusting to some new work changes and client load and embracing the opportunities with gratitude. It is a precarious balance, though, and while I loathe cliché, it does seem like all it will take is one slip and everything could tumble down like a house of cards.

I mean, all I have to do is stay as healthy as possible, right? (Insert cynical tone here.)

But I cannot indulge the what-if’s and the doubts. It does me no good, and it flies in the face of my reason thoughts on hope.

And really, in the middle of a lot of changes and decisions and pressure, what this tension is about is identity. It’s an ongoing evolution; just when I think I’ve established a groove, I need to re-calibrate.

I’m a writer. I’m also a consultant, an editor, a professor, and a patient. Sometimes those roles overlap, like when I was asked to teach a course using my first book as a core text. (Talk about the personal and the professional colliding. I might have more to say about that later.) Often, the roles aren’t as blatantly converged, like when I sign on new freelance editorial clients, or when I stand in front of other classrooms and hand out syllabi and the only way anyone might know about my patient experiences would be if they Googled me. (Hello, potential Googlers!)

Clearly it’s no secret, but this part of life is something I leave outside the classroom and client conversations. This division is frenetic, but necessary.

I thought about how I wanted to be identified by others (which of course is much more about how I want to see myself), and the whole notion of public versus private while I waited for my new physical therapist to arrive last night.

My normal therapist is away, and I haven’t had anyone besides him for six years. (Yes, I am spoiled.) Having a health care provider visit your house is such a different experience than going to a hospital for treatment. A complete stranger comes into your living room, performs a rather physical treatment on sensitive body parts, and is witness to all minutiae and vulnerabilities of private life: the mail on the front table, the barking dogs, what you’re making for dinner, and often, what you look like in pre-dawn hours when your glasses are still on and your pajamas don’t match and you reach for the spit cup.

“So how was your day?” she asked when we were settled into position, as if we were picking up from an earlier conversation. Because you know, that's what you do when someone you've known for about 90 seconds is thumping your chest and it's dinner time and your dogs are slamming their bones on the hardwood floor, begging for attention.

“Long but productive,” I said. And from there we talked about where she lived and how I worked near there. We talked about writing and teaching and graduate school, and we talked about rescue dogs and traffic and commuting.

And even though she was there because I have PCD and bronchiectasis and I was literally choking in phlegm before she arrived, it didn’t really come up.

It wasn’t that my illnesses were invisible (um, hello hacking cough and vigorous clapping) but they were not defining.

The point of Invisible Illness Week is to spread awareness to others. This week, I think I was the one who needed to appreciate that sometimes the push and pull, the tension between being a patient and being a person, the re-calibrating of roles—it all settles out.

One day at a time.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Beyond Memes: Public versus Private

There’s an interesting meme going around Facebook and blogs right now: 30 Things About My Invisible Illness You May Not Know. With Invisible Illness Week quickly approaching, the questions posed are particularly resonant.

I’ve thought a lot about how I’d answer the questions. For some, I had immediate replies, like “Something I never thought I could do with my illness that I did was __” (live abroad for a year) and “The hardest part about mornings are __” (trying to be awake and, you know, pleasant for early morning chest PT). But several of them touched on things that my experiences don’t speak to in the same way; namely, the “before” and “after” of illness onset, or, most notably, “If I could have one day of feeling normal again I would__.”

Like many lifelong patients, this is my normal. I cannot long for what I cannot imagine. But the question of which is better, to have known healthy before getting sick or to have never known healthy—a question that comes up fairly often—actually hints at something deeper than these static boundaries. This is my normal, this is the life I created from the circumstances in which I found myself and I would not trade what I have created for a taste of a different meaning of normal.

Though I’m not going to complete the whole meme here, I think it can be incredibly useful, and not just for people adjusting to sudden or adult-onset chronic illness. As I read people’s replies about what nice/surprising things others have done for them, it hit me how much of that is my normal, too. I’ve always been sick, I’ve always been surrounded by friends and family, so I have, quite literally, grown up having people respond to me with compassion, loyalty, and empathy.

In fact, the hospital visits, cards, phone calls, Fed-Ex’ed mix CDs, etc and the intrinsic knowing that there are people who will come in the middle of the night if they are ever asked form such an enormous debt of gratitude I feel no amount of similar deeds I do for others can ever repay it.

(Of course there have been moments of the opposite, and friendships that didn’t survive this, but like the careless comments, insensitive assumptions, or completely inane expectations I’ve received, they are exceptions, not the norm. Er, normal. Not trying to pun here.)

I’m not saying I haven’t had adjustments to make, or new realities to forge. I didn’t get correctly diagnosed with some of my more serious problems until I was an adult, and my treatments changed significantly. And like most patients with chronic illness, my health status fluctuates frequently and drastically, so life is a constant cycle of readjustment.

After mulling this over for a few days, though, I think the more striking “before” and “after” I can point to is that between illness being public or private. For twenty-three years I was sick and while it seeped into everything I did and every decision I made, it wasn’t something I talked about outside of family, friends, teachers, and of course, doctors. I’ve had some sort of a byline since I was 14, but the only piece of “public” writing that concerned illness was my college essay, and that was mainly because I felt I should probably explain why I missed the better part of two years of high school. You know, minor details.

And then, as the story goes, I found myself in a nonfiction course in my MFA program with a looming deadline and I didn’t know what else to write about, so I wrote about life in the hospital and suddenly, eleven other people knew more about my thoughts and emotions during medical crises than most people in my life did.


A few years, a few hundred blog posts, one book and another in the works, and many, many exchanges with other writers, bloggers, and patients later, here I am. And as much as I work to update and refine my reality based on the color of my lung secretions, how much air I can breathe in, or what other random infection or problem that springs up, I find the balance between private and public just as important and just as complicated.

I strive for the universals of modern chronic illness but know those depend on particulars. After all, all writing must tell a good story, and that story comes in the details. I embrace the conversations and explorations a more public illness experience allows for, and I appreciate the irony that people who read what I write are sometimes more in tune with what’s going on than people I know—it’s a macro version of that first workshop experience I had as an MFA student.

But for all the stuff that happens offline, the daily minutiae and the more serious decisions and reactions that are part of my normal that do not make their way into my posts, I am equally grateful for the private experience of illness.

And so to return to the meme, let’s look at #26: “When someone is diagnosed I’d like to tell them__.” Based on this post, I’d tell them of the value of online communities and social media, of how interesting and affirming it can be to read other people’s experiences and see traces of your own story in them. I’d tell them to connect, to leave comments on blogs, to know no one has all the answers but you should always be open to learning from others’ perspectives.

And I’d tell them that the best-case scenario is to also have someone you can call when you are crying and need someone to hear the tears, or when you have good news that the people who have traveled this long road with you offline can appreciate the most.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

So Long, Summer

It’s been an usually long time since I’ve written—somehow, life and all its unpredictability conspired against me in terms of writing time.

And in the past several days, while I was adjusting to major work changes and family health stuff, entertaining visiting friends and making doctor appointments (because the good always accompanies the not-so-good, which keeps us sane and moving forward, I think) summer somehow slipped away. The cold, rainy weather of this past June and July and the two-week sweltering heat of late August did not constitute a real summer to my New England psyche, so today’s brisk temperatures and distinct autumnal crispness feel a bit hollow—you can’t say goodbye to those stereotypically lazy, hazy days of summer that really never happened.

As you know, I’ve been dreading the return of fall and winter in a way I never have before. Normally the choking humidity of summer in Boston and the luster of the promise of a fresh new start is a powerful combination that leaves me pining for September by, oh, July 4th. Seriously. I used to be the kid who had all her school supplies bought (hello, Trapper-Keepers and erasable pens) and organized by mid-July.

This year, not so much, but for good reason. I didn’t have any serious infections or freak medical calamities, which was a refreshing change. I got to sit next to President Clinton and talk about health care reform, and celebrated my fourth wedding anniversary. I woke up and on most days, I was able to complete the tasks I wanted. The daily maintenance and ministrations of chronic illness were white noise, routine parts of my life that did not define my life.

I want this trend to continue, despite the shorter days, the copious amounts of germs that accompany winter, the threat of H1N1(I’m not paranoid, just acutely conscious of my risks, just like I am with regular seasonal influenza), etc.

As I think back to my last post on hope (forgive the stream of consciousness style of this post), I’m reminded that we never can tell how things will unfold, personally or professionally. All we can do is move forward, do our best to minimize the variables we can control for, and adjust when necessary.

I have a medical plan in place to try and prevent another winter like last year, and more than that, I have a lot of things to look forward to this fall: new career challenges in academia, moving forward with my book, etc. As much as I’ve been willing time to stop lately, it hit me when I dropped some of my fall clothes off at the dry cleaners last night: that queasy feeling of anticipation.

September’s here, and I have every reason to believe (or to hope) it will be the start of good things.

Speaking of new changes and things to look forward to, I’m pleased to announce that my friend and colleague Jenni Prokopy from ChronicBabeand I are starting a radio show this fall. The Chronic Truth will debut in a few weeks on BlogTalk Radio. It will feature a variety of topics (diagnoses and doctors, relationships, health reform, etc), and will include guest experts, listener questions, etc.

We’re both really excited to collaborate on this (we had a blast doing our podcast) and will get the rest of details out to you as soon as we can.
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