randomlyrobyn

Grieving the life I could have had

In many ways, I’m an optimist. I’m a smiler. But every now and then something knocks me a little bit.

This week I’ve been thinking about my future, applying for part-time jobs, frantically reworking my PhD thesis in its final stages. I get asked a lot what I am going to do when I finish my PhD. Firstly, submitting your thesis isn’t when its “finished”, with the exam and corrections, I have no idea when it will be truly finished and when I will graduate. Secondly, planning what to do next is hard. Not because (as some people think) I want to be a perpetual student and stay at uni forever but because I honestly don’t know what I will be able to do long-term.

In an ideal, non-sick world I’d stay within academia. I’d apply for post-docs and research positions that mean you have no security and frequently bounce around institutions – if you’re lucky enough to get them. If you’re not, you work maybe as a university tutor, trying to publish your research and filling out endless applications. But I can’t do that. I’ve realised that this career path does not suit someone like me. Someone who has so many specialists that it took years to assemble, who has a range of ongoing treatments and medications that cannot be disrupted. Someone who needs a support system to function – and I don’t mean that I’m scared to move away from home or anything but living with a chronic illness is hard y’all. I rely on my support system of my mum, my family, my friends, my church, my GB to keep me going at times when I want to give up. To leave that system would be heart-breaking and isolating – and my illnesses are pretty good at those two things already.

My back-up career plan was always teaching. I love teaching at uni. But training to be a teacher means an intensive course which even my able-bodied friends have found draining and difficult. And even if by some miracle, I survived that year, there’s no promise of a job in NI. In the alternate universe where I am a teacher, I’d be one who had to take a lot of time off and who taught sitting down clutching a hot water bottle the majority of the time. So I’ve had to say goodbye to that long-held plan.

endo

My life has not turned out the way I thought it would – does anyone’s? By 27 I was convinced I’d have a proper job, my own house, my own yellow VW Beetle and maybe a relationship. But, I’m still at university, living at home with a VW Lupo that was once yellow but it so dirty its hard to tell with a wing mirror held on by wishful thinking. Oh, and I’m single. Not that that’s really the issue here. The issue is that my conditions – endometriosis, PCOS, interstitial cystitis (the main three) – have taken my life in a completely unwanted direction. Instead of staying on the route I’d planned, with excellent signposts and clear progression through various checkpoints, I’ve ended up on a dirt track in the middle of nowhere with a faulty Sat-nav and no idea where I’m headed. My future seems like that creepy road in Beauty and the Beast where the wolves live.

creepy road

I think I’m allowed to be sad every now and then for the life I could have had. It’s hard not to be when others are doing so well in life; when friends land awesome jobs, fearlessly travel solo, advance in their solid careers, get engaged, get married, get mortgages. Everything I do is now coloured by the fact that I am not ‘normal’. I have to be extra-careful looking for jobs because I know I will not be able to stay on my feet or work long hours. I will need a boss who gets it – and I’ve been pretty spoiled by the awesome support of my supervisors at uni and the part-time jobs I’ve had here.

I’m not going to get better. Yes, I’m far better this year than I was last year thanks to my most recent surgery but I’m still not healthy. I live with pain everyday although, thank goodness, the pain is now reduced to a manageable level but still there. There’s no cure for endometriosis or interstitial cystitis. My insides will always be messed up.

life change

It’s okay to grieve for the life I could have had. But it’s not okay to wallow. Like I said, I’m a smiler. I’m an optimist. I experienced the onslaught of fire and brimstone in my pelvis for years and still managed to get a first in my degree. I fought like a Viking for my diagnosis and I work hard every day to help my body be the best version it can be. I won a national research award despite not being able to walk without a stick and pumped to my eyeballs with painkillers. I’m finishing a PhD and yeah, it’s a bit late but so are most people’s and I’ve had friggin’ three operations since I started it. If I can’t find a job that suits me and my body, I’ll just make one. I won’t roll over and give up. But I won’t pretend that my life hasn’t changed permanently because of my health.

I’ll adapt. I’ll figure it out. I’ll succeed. I’ll smile.

pain

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Endometriosis vs Interstitial Cystitis

Endometriosis has pretty much tried to control my life for half of it. Sometimes it succeeds. Other times I’m strong and stubborn and fight back.

endo sparkle

Interstitial cystitis is relatively new and only been around for the last few years. It’s like the needy cousin of endo and likes to play havoc on those few places in my pelvis that my endo occasionally leaves alone.

IC

Both are chronic conditions with treatments but no cure. Both are invisible illnesses. Both are surrounded by stigma and taboos. Both suck.

I’m comparing my experience of these two illnesses to show the similarities and differences and hopefully give an insight into the literal and metaphorical pain of living with multiple conditions. (Oh, I also have asthma, migraines and PCOS etc., etc., but we’ll be here all day if I go through everything.)

Symptoms

Endo

Painful, heavy, irregular periods; Pain during or after sex; Infertility; Painful bowel movements; Fatigue

For me, my endo symptoms began with my first period at 13. I had really heavy, really painful periods that could happen at any time. When I was 20, I began having pain every day and was knocked out by the associated fatigue. I had bowel problems for as long as I could remember but they got worse. I hadn’t had sex but using tampons or having anything internal was simply not possible due to pain. My vagina was a no-go zone.

IC

Frequency in urination; Urgency in urination including pain, spasms, incontinence; Abdominal/pelvic/vaginal pain including painful sex

For me, I’d always been prone to UTIs and kidney infections way more than anyone else I knew. I guzzled cranberry juice like there was no tomorrow. At 24, the familiar UTI-like feelings just wouldn’t go away no matter how many antibiotics my GP put me on. I started peeing ten times more than ever before. I started having “accidents” which are neither the kind toddlers have in nappy ads or middle-aged women have when laughing in Tena ads. Those are somehow acceptable versions of incontinence (along with being really old). To be 24 and worried about leaving a puddle on your seat in the cinema is not okay. I started having spasms in my bladder and a nearly-constant burning in my urethra and vagina. Again, vagina not happy.

sex

Diagnosis

Endo

In the UK on average it takes 7.5 years to be diagnosed with endometriosis. I was diagnosed after 5 but told I was cured and the word ‘endometriosis’ crossed off my files. When my symptoms returned a year after lasering the endo off, I had to start at the beginning again. Go through every test and hospital department all over and be told that there was no way it was endo, I had been ‘cured’. The second diagnosis (of the same disease) came 10 years after my symptoms started. This is generally the timeline I use to describe my diagnosis time since the first diagnosis was magically erased.

IC

I can’t find a definitive average for IC diagnoses but since a lot of it involves ruling out other possibilities first, we’re talking years rather than months. For me, it was only 2 years until I got a hesitant diagnosis of mild IC. And I am incredibly grateful for that.

Why the difference in diagnosing times?

Well, I have a few thoughts on why my IC diagnosis came a lot quicker than my endo one. Firstly, I knew my body extremely well. I’d been meticulous about monitoring my endo symptoms and I just knew these bladder symptoms were different. Secondly, I was more confident when I pursued a diagnosis for my bladder. As a teenage girl with bad periods I’d been fobbed off by medical professionals for most of my life and after the artificial menopause at 22, I just knew I couldn’t take that any more. I learned to self-advocate and educated myself on what was going on in my body. I got better at taking control of my own healthcare and having a say in what treatments doctors were doing. I became what some term an ‘expert patient’ though I’m pretty sure doctors and hospital management refer to me as something far more rude. But you know what? My lot in life didn’t improve until I started standing up for myself medically. I didn’t get answers until I started annoying pretty much anybody who could help. So, when I asked my gynaecologist about my new bladder symptoms he sent me off to uro-gynae to get it looked into.

Treatments

Endo

The way women with endometriosis are treated in Northern Ireland is tantamount to a crime. Suggesting that a young woman in pelvic pain is ‘hysterical’ and needs therapy rather than medical intervention is an idea more at home in the pages of a Victorian novel rather than a western society in the twenty-first century. Needless to say, the way I have been treated for my endo has been negligible. Some of the people have been lovely but some have attitudes and manners more becoming to a Neanderthal. The management of endo as a chronic condition does not yet exist. Every step of the path to diagnosis and after it is an uphill struggle against chronic incompetence, ignorance and wilful neglect. Temporary treatments like the pill and coil helped with bleeding but didn’t touch the pain. The menopause made it worse. When I finally got excision surgery it was like reaching the promised land. My condition was recognised and treated properly but I was exhausted from the struggle. Then, a few years later, the cycle started again. I’m a few months post-excision and feeling fantastic but I know the fight will continue when the endo comes back.

IC

For IC my treatments have been a lot more physical than endo. I attend physiotherapy to help with my screwed up pelvic floor muscles and started a course of bladder instillations to help repair the lining of my bladder. All within a few months of diagnosis. The hospitals were the same, even some of the people were the same but it was like a different planet. One where you were respected and treated with dignity. Of course, the illusion of progress has now faded. My treatments were improving my symptoms so much that I literally didn’t even feel like me any more. Then the pile of cards came tumbling down. Interstitial Cystitis is a rare disease that not many have heard of and the dedicated clinic for treatment was run by one nurse. When that nurse became ill, everything stopped. Because the treatments need to be regular to work, the improvements I had experienced are being undone and my symptoms are creeping back. My bladder is rebelling to tight clothes, food and drink and my vagina has been designated as a war zone once more.

dr IC

While my own experiences have shown differences between endo and IC, there are of course many similarities. Mostly, the way it makes people feel when you talk about them. I talk about my lady parts a lot (have you noticed?) so I think to some it was a relief when I got a disease that wasn’t uterus-related. However, 90% of those with IC (around 400,000 in UK) are women. Both conditions highlight the attitudes of society to invisible illness and ‘women’s illness’.  Both are under-funded and under-researched. Both are subjects not polite to talk about over dinner or on a first date. (I have done both.) But its about time that we start talking about these things and do it loudly so no one has the option to put their fingers in their ears and pretend they can’t hear. Both desperately need more awareness. Let’s make some noise.

 

 

For more info on endo see

https://www.endometriosis-uk.org/information

For more info on IC see

http://www.cobfoundation.org/bladder-conditions/interstitial-cystitispainful-bladder-syndrome

 

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Feel the fear and do it anyway

Reblogging a guest post I wrote for endometriosis awareness week coinciding with my smear test! Looking after our gynaecological health is so important and just because it hurts, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get your smear. So, if No Fear Go Smear doesn’t apply to you, know that you are not alone. Many women struggle with vaginal pain and associated pelvic pain but rarely talk about it. I urge you not to put off going for your smear just because you know it will hurt – arrange it for a time that suits you, explain everything thoroughly before hand and try your best to relax. You never know, it might just save your life!

cervicalscreen1

Robyn, @randomrobyn shares her experiences of Endometriosis and cervical screening

I’ve had painful periods since I was 13, chronic pelvic pain from the age of 20, diagnosed with Poly Cystic Ovarian Syndrome at 21 and endometriosis at 23. So, I am no stranger to the gynaecologist. Over the years, my embarrassment of talking about my lady parts has gradually decreased to virtually non-existent. Now, at 27, I also have a bladder condition called Interstitial Cystitis. Once a month I get a special treatment applied via catheter directly into my bladder. I also have pelvic floor physiotherapy. Getting naked from the waist down is a normal part of any doctor or hospital appointment for me.
But, when I received my smear letter at 25, I freaked out. My endometriosis has not only meant that I live in pelvic pain each day but has also affected me in a very intimate way…

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Excision Surgery

So…after months and months of waiting, I was finally called in for my excision surgery in early December.  The week before I had all my pre-op tests done, including my first ECG. The day before, a test had to be repeated because it had gone out of date since the week before so I went to the hospital for a blood test.  The big day came and I was admitted to the day of surgery ward.  My mum was sent off and I settled in to wait until my afternoon theatre slot. I saw a registrar and signed my consent form.  I waited. Then the registrar came back.  My operation was cancelled.

cancelled

A morning case had been more complicated than expected and knocked the afternoon list out of whack.  What especially hurt was that I have been that complicated case myself during my lap in 2012.  However, in my case I was simply closed up and told to come back for proper surgery in six months. I was too complicated to even cope with on the spot.

I returned home heart-broken, unable to see an end to my pain.  It was nothing I hadn’t experienced before.  The health service had consistently disappointed me in the 14 years I’d been suffering from pelvic pain. How could I expect this to go swimmingly? I allowed myself a few days to throw a pity party and then I got angry.

No one got in touch from the hospital – even though I’d been assured I’d hear from them first thing on Monday. On Tuesday, I was climbing the walls.  I was not going to be forgotten about. I started ringing and emailing everyone I could, trying to get someone to help. No one knew anything. My consultant’s secretary had no idea what was happening.  The waiting list office thought I’d had my surgery the previous week. The whole thing was a shambles. I contacted the Patient Client Council to see if they could get through the doors being slammed in my face. Through sheer stubbornness, I eventually got to speak to the omnipotent lord of all gynae theatre management who told me in no uncertain terms, I’d have to wait until January. I resigned myself to another Christmas in pain.  Resigned myself to not being able to finish my PhD any time soon.

Maybe it was the fact that I made so much noise.  Maybe it was the prayers being sent up from my church, friends and family. Maybe my consultant felt bad for not being able to help me when he said he would.  Whatever prompted it, a miracle happened.

The week before Christmas, I had my operation.  I kept my expectations low and told few people. I arranged all my own pre-op assessments once again, promised them for the fourth time in a month that I definitely wasn’t pregnant and wangled my pre-surgery drugs out of my unwilling GP.

I was only kept in hospital overnight and joy of all joys, woke up without a pelvic drain.  I had only three wounds and a catheter and was sore as hell. Although I’d seen my consultant only once before theatre, I never saw him any other time. A team of doctors including a woman who questioned why I wanted an operation at all and who had told me I even needed one, informed me that they had removed adhesions from my Pouch of Douglas.

uterus

I had endo removed from there in 2013 when I was classified as Stage IV. The adhesions were sticking my bowel and uterus together so after unsticking them (check me out with my medical lingo) they put some magic stuff in to hopefully keep them from sticking together again. I was groggy and sore but I asked as many questions as I could think of. Most women apparently don’t ask that many questions. They just want to be told if they’ve been fixed and no details, thank you please. Not me. I needed the details.

I had a quiet Christmas, watching movies, eating and colouring in, letting my body heal. Feeling my bowel slowly adjust to what its meant to do.  Finding myself gradually becoming stronger, able to move a little quicker, last a little longer.

By no means is the war over. But this battle has been won. And I am revelling in the victory.

 

 

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The long and winding road

I’m hopefully having an operation next week. Something I am desperately excited about.  This may seem weird to normal, healthy people.  People whose experience of hospitals is minimal.  But, I know this operation will help me live a better life. For a while anyway.

Three years ago I had excision surgery for endometriosis.  This is where a skilled surgeon cuts out all the bits of endo growing inside me. Last time it was in my pelvic ligaments, the outside of my uterus, a little bit on my intestines, the Pouch of Douglas, rectum and vagina. When I had it removed, life was awesome. Some days I was even able to wear jeans that fitted me (the ultimate dream). I did most of a PhD, went to conferences here, there and everywhere and had a long-distance relationship that involved a lot of airports. Last year, things started getting slowly worse. I had new problems on top of the pain that was creeping back into a starring role in my life. This year has been hell. I’ve become so ill that most days I can’t leave my house. I’ve continued as best I can but life has been hard. I’ve had problems with basic bodily functions. I’ve had so much fatigue that I have to lie down for 15 minutes after having a shower. I can’t do more than one thing on the same day. I have barely been living.

In April, my consultant put me on the ‘urgent’ list for an operation. He initially was sceptic about the amount of pain I claimed to be in, hardly surprising when three years ago he told me I definitely did not have anything wrong with me.  He did an internal scan and whatever he saw changed his mind about my need for excision. I have considerable issues with internal scans, or anything internal for that matter. The only one I’ve had before was at the age of 20 when a female gynaecologist told me she wanted to examine me and I didn’t understand what was going to happen until she grabbed a giant stick, put a condom on it and started putting lube on it. As a virgin, I did not react well to this alien object being stuck inside me and cried so hard, the nurse whose hand I was clenching begged the woman to stop. After that experience and with increasing confidence in directing what I need from my health care providers, I have firmly stated to them that I cannot handle an internal scan as I can’t even use tampons. In April, I was so desperate to be taken seriously by the one human who could help that I agreed. It was horrendous but it worked.

The ‘urgent’ list was nine months. The normal list was fourteen. I continued on, planning for an operation in January, setting myself a goalpost to work towards. Then, when I phoned up about when I would have my cystoscopy (which had to be before the excision) I was told that I wouldn’t get my excision surgery until next April/May. I was so disappointed and frustrated.  It wasn’t just me though.  Thousands of people in Northern Ireland were waiting years for desperately-needed operations, or even just to see a consultant. A bigwig from England claimed that ‘heads would roll’ if what was happening in NI happened in the rest of the UK.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-34406754

 

I was asked to go on the radio here in Belfast to talk about how the waiting list times were affecting me.  I also ended up in a segment on the news. As a result of these interviews, I got a phone call the next day from one of my hospitals and ended up having my pain clinic appointment brought forward.  This was excellent news but I was growing weaker every day and I knew I could not live like this until April.

My mum and I, after months of putting it off, finally went to see our local MP to ask for help. Because NI politics are pretty ridiculous, this was in the middle of various ministers, including the Minister for Health, repeatedly resigning every week. This visit coincided with the Guardians’ brilliant endo campaign, which you should check out if you haven’t already

http://www.theguardian.com/society/endometriosis

so I was armed with front page news on my condition. A few weeks later I received a written response from the civil servants filling in for our sometimes-absent Health Minister.  It told me I had to wait until June. There were 44 women ahead of me on my consultant’s list. Now, that’s a general gynae list because the only specialist in NI is an obs/gynae consultant and cannot just have an endometriosis list. At this point, my heart broke. Mum and I started looking into using savings and getting loans to go privately, something we really couldn’t afford to do. I managed to get an emergency appointment with my consultant at the end of October when he took one look at me and knew I needed this operation. He prioritised my case and last week, I got a provisional date.

My pre-op assessments were this week, tests I’ve had many times before as the NHS sends for you repeatedly for them as they only last for 3 months. My general health is much worse than its ever been before and I am praying that I pass all the tests they did so that they let this go ahead. I have taken time off uni, pushed back my submission of my thesis, postponed my physiotherapy and starting my new bladder treatment until after I have recovered. I’ve made all the arrangements I can make but I am still terrified that it won’t happen. At the same time, I am exhausted.  I have had to fight so hard to get to this stage. At times, my mum took up the fight because I was just too tired to continue. It breaks my heart that even after almost ten years trying to get a diagnosis for my pain, I still have to struggle so much.  The fighting never seems to end.

But, I live with hope.

Hope that this surgery will lessen my pain and improve my quality of life. Hope that I will one day be able to have a family. Hope that one day things will be better for the millions of women and girls who fight this disease. Hope that one day there will be a cure.

endofightlikeagirl

 

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Embarrassing Body: the endo edition

Announcement: some parts of this post may be too graphic or upsetting for some readers.

Consider yourself warned.

 

Now, endometriosis is a giant pain. Quite literally. Pain is my thing, it is what I talk about the most because it is the most dominating aspect of my life. But there are other things that endo affects. The kind of things we use all sort of euphemisms for when we are forced into talking about them, usually only with our healthcare professionals. Yep, I’m talking about toilet-related symptoms.

While I have zero qualms (good word) about talking to anyone or anything about my uterus, ovaries, periods and vagina, I am not quite as comfortable talking about what exits my body. Spoiler alert: hardly anything. But my bladder and bowels are affected by my endo and as they are slowly consuming my life, I have to talk about them.

IC

My bladder (or “the waterworks” as doctors like to say) only started misbehaving a few years ago, after my last excision surgery. I’ve always been prone to kidney and urinary tract infections but this was something else. I took a lot of antibiotics for bladder infections but they didn’t seem to do any good. I was peeing way more than I used to and feeling a stabby pain when my bladder was too full and right after it emptied. I started having “accidents” and not the joyful kind from Tena lady adverts. Then there were other times when I needed to pee but physically couldn’t, once not being able to go for 19 hours. When I saw my gynaecologist, I told him and (brand new information!) found out that there had been endo very near my bladder which had been removed so the pain on getting too full could be caused by the adhesions.

Early this year, I was packed off to uro-gynae to see what the heck was going on with my bladder. The urology clinic shares a waiting room with the sexual health clinic and has two broad camps: middle-aged to elderly ladies with letters for urology and young girls and women holding tickets for sexual health.  I belonged in the first.  In August this year I had a cystoscopy, where they put a camera in your bladder to see what’s occurring.  I demanded to be knocked out even when an anaesthetist who clearly hadn’t read my files concerning my vaginal pain told me I should be able to do it with just light sedation.  No endo had penetrated my bladder wall (yay) and my bladder was able to hold a good amount of fluid.  However, upon expanding petechial hemorrhages appeared which can be an indicator of Interstitial Cystitis. I’m now about a month away from starting treatment for this, a four week course of bladder instillations.  I also go to pelvic floor physiotherapy to try and help with the leaking and urgency.  My pelvic floor muscles are incredibly tight because of the years of pain so I work on relaxing them. My physio manipulates my fascia at each appointment which involves her internally massaging my vaginal muscles. It is incredibly painful and I have spasms for days afterwards.  It also involves a level of intimacy I haven’t really shared before…I think technically, I might have to marry her.

pelvic floor

To help both my bladder and my bowels, I changed my diet to cut out bladder irritants (such as coffee, sob) and increase fibre. I initially felt a difference but now that it has been a few months, my body has gotten used to this new eating regime and has reverted to its wicked ways.

Like many women with endo, I was frequently misdiagnosed as having Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). I have been on way too many treatments for this, none of which actually helped because I didn’t actually have IBS. When asking me the usual questions, doctors always picked up on my answers relating to bowel movements. I’ve never been a person who goes every day. Once a week has always been my normal. When I first started having actual bowel symptoms just before my last surgery, I had to learn to avoid certain foods. I’ve had every kind of laxative on the market, some of which were obviously invented by demons, and a camera up there to have a look around. I’ve been told I have chronic constipation, faecal impaction and other pleasant-sounding conditions. I have never tried anything that worked for longer than a month.

When my pain ramped up to level 11 these last few months I was put on higher doses of my painkillers and my bowels instantly shut up shop. It took me five days to finish a bowel movement. I was bleeding, seeing spots, feeling dizzy, sweating, everything short of passing out when I tried to go to the toilet. It was humiliating and unbelievably frustrating. My body continually acts unusually but for it to struggle so much with something all human beings can do from birth felt like a major betrayal. I was already on a mild laxative but it was obviously not working so I tried everything in my desperation.  Nausea had me off certain foods but I ate a lot of fruit and drank epsom salts.  My GP gave me extra-strength laxatives too. The combination turned my stomach and intestines into what felt like the inside of a washing machine for several days.  I could feel my insides churning and anyone near me could hear the atrocious sounds coming from my tummy. Finally, a barrier of wind heralded the great bowel evacuation of 2015. I don’t own scales but I reckon I am definitely several pounds lighter once weeks of ‘waste’ were finally expelled from my body. Now, its up to me to play around with my laxative options to find the right level that works best. Somewhere between constipation and diarrhoea.

constipation

Women with endometriosis face such a range of challenges; pain, fertility, fatigue, bladder issues, digestive issues, psychological trauma. I for one am quite vocal about my condition. I talk about it loudly and to anyone who will listen (and sometimes to those who won’t). Yet what happens in the confines of one’s bathroom is still a taboo. I still feel slightly uncomfortable talking about the bladder and bowel problems I have. Part of it is a societal silence about toilet issues. Another part is the feeling of betrayal. My body is broken, I know that, but that it can’t even cope with the basics of peeing and pooing is a challenge I never thought I’d have to deal with in my 20s. I’m forcing myself to talk about it more. It affects me almost every day so why keep something so monumental hidden? I have spoonie friends with other conditions so I can vent a certain amount to them. In the midst of constipation-gate, I texted one just to say ‘Hey, I haven’t been able to go to the toilet in like two weeks!’ because I knew she’d understand. I get that not everyone wants to talk about what happens inside someone else’s loo but sometimes I think we forget about this aspect of life with endo. We talk about fertility, about the long wait for diagnosis and about the painful and heavy periods but wider society needs to know that it affects all these other things as well.  The not-very-nice things that aren’t usually brought up in polite society.

sick girl

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30 things about my invisible illness

As part of Invisible Illness Awareness Week, I have decided to join in the 30 things challenge and share 30 things about my invisible illness.

1. The illnesses I live with are… endometriosis (also PCOS, Interstitial Cystitis, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome but most of my trouble comes from endo so that’s what I’ll be focusing on in this post)

2. I was diagnosed with these in… July 2012

3.  But I had symptoms since… 2002. The symptoms became constant in 2009 and stopped conforming to any pattern.

4. The biggest adjustment I’ve had to make is… sacrificing things I love. I used to have a full diary with things happening all the time.  I slowly had to give up each of these – church groups, choirs, clubs and societies.  Now all I do is work and GB (Girls’ Brigade).

5. Most people assume… that because I smile, I’m not that bad. In reality, if other people are seeing me, it means its a good day and I was able to leave my house.  I’m a smiley person anyway so I could be smiling on the outside while my insides feel like they’re being attacked by a large rusty hook.

6. The hardest part about mornings is… getting washed and dressed. Showering requires so much energy I have to lie down for 15 minutes afterwards. Clothing is always a tricky decision and sometimes I can’t bend over far enough to put my socks on.

7. My favourite medical TV show is… House. Not so much for the medical drama of it all – I just love House’s complete honesty about the pain he’s in. Sometimes I wish I could be just as grumpy and rude.

house

8.  A gadget I couldn’t live without is… technically not a gadget but I cannot live without my hot water bottle.  It goes everywhere with me.

9. The hardest part about nights is… constantly waking up every time I move. I can usually get to sleep okay but every time I move in my sleep the pain wakes me up. My bladder condition also wakes me up. 

10. Each day I take twelve pills and vitamins… plus a medicine morning and night. 

11. Regarding alternative treatments I… haven’t really tried many. I do use caster oil packs which I find helpful but my Mirena coil means I can’t have Mayan massage which I know helps others with endo.  I am doing physio on my pelvic floor at the mo – which is as much fun as it sounds. 

12. If I had to choose between an invisible illness or a visible one I would choose… visible. I once dislocated my kneecap and the six weeks I was on crutches I got more help and sympathy than in the six+ years I’ve lived in chronic pain. However, as my condition gets worse it is easier to see I suppose. Some days I have to use a walking stick to get about and more often than not, I have a hot water bottle or heat patch stuck to my tummy. 

13. Regarding working and my career… I’m doing a PhD because I am a huge nerd. This year I have mostly had to work from home as my pain has escalated. I’m due to finish this year and starting to think of the future. While I would love to stay in academia, I simply don’t think its realistic given my health. The career path for post-docs involves short-term posts and research projects usually for many years post-PhD. I can’t afford to move away from all my doctors and support network (ie my amazing mum who is my biggest fan and kind of my carer) and I doubt other unis would be as awesome as mine.  So, yeah, I’m going to have to figure out what comes next. 

fab

14. People would be surprised to know… that I really love my life. Yeah, it’s difficult and crummy but I have an awesome family, weirdo friends who love me as I am and a lot to be thankful for. A lot of people with chronic illnesses struggle with depression and having fatigue I am often asked by doctors if I feel depressed. They never believe me when I say I’m not. 

15. The hardest thing to accept about my new reality has been… how much I’ve had to change. My clothes have changed from jeans and tshirts to loose dresses. The majority of my time is spent in my house.  I have to plan every tiny little thing about life.  I can’t just go out spontaneously or throw caution to the wind. I can’t join in with activities so I feel left out a lot. 

16. Something that I never thought I could do with my illness that I did was… hopefully get a PhD! (Watch this space)

17. The commercials about my illness… are non-existent. I was once interviewed for the BBC about my illness and I wasn’t allowed to use the words ‘period’, ‘ovaries’ or ‘uterus’. Seriously?! 

uterus

18. Something I really miss doing since being diagnosed is… wearing jeans and eating pizza.

19. It was really hard to have to give up… caffeine.  I’ve given up a lot of stuff – certain foods I can’t eat, smells that make me vomit, groups I loved being part of but by far the worst is caffeine. Because it irritates the bladder I have been trying to cut it out and I still haven’t quite managed it. I’m down to one cup of coffee a day which, for someone who used to drink seven cups without thinking, is a Very Big Deal. Also, I have chronic fatigue and am on a crapload of painkillers – caffeine was my lifesaver. RIP Coffee.

20.  A new hobby I have taken up since my diagnosis is… well, blogging for one. I also campaign with the Endo Support Group in NI for better treatment and care for patients. I’ve also got lots of crafty ideas – though very few actually turn out the way I imagined. 

21.  If I could have one day of feeling normal again I would… wear jeans and eat pizza (no question). I’d hang out with all my friends, actually doing stuff, being totally spontaneous and stay up late, drinking all the hazelnut lattes I could find. 

dream big

22. My illness has taught me… .how strong I can be. And who really cares.

23. Want to know a secret? One thing that people say that really gets under my skin is… “it’s not like you’re going to die from it”. ARGH. Endo might not be life-threatening but it is life-changing, life-destroying. A close second is people who whine about colds and being “so sick”, oh what I would give for a Freaky Friday situation to show them what real sickness is.

24. But I love it when people… totally get it. When people tell me to wise up because I look like death, when friends come over to mine so I can stay in my pjs. When no one even bats an eyelid at my hot water bottle friends. When I’m having a rough time and my mum brings home a cookie or my further away friends send cards and care packages.

25. My favourite quote that gets me through tough times is… quite frankly, ridiculous. I would love to say it’s something really deep about being strong and enduring through the pain (and there are quotations like that I love) but my absolute fave comes from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. “From the ashes of disaster grow the roses of success.” No matter how crap something is, something beautiful can come from it. 

ashes

26. When someone is diagnosed I’d like to tell them… do not be afraid to stand up for yourself. We are programmed to believe doctors without question but, in reality, they only see you for a teeny weeny proportion of your life as a sick person. They do not know about your life, they might not even care. You can’t be afraid to ask for things, be cheeky. If I had taken charge of my own healthcare years earlier, I might not have spent ten years waiting for a diagnosis. Things only started happening when I made them. 

27. Something that has surprised me about living with an invisible illness is… what I talk about. I have spoken to politicians, been on tv and radio, been interviewed for newspapers, all about my messed-up pelvis. I never thought I would be the person people come to for vagina advice. After 13 years of having my periods and lady bits rule my life, I am finally calling a spade a spade. I will literally talk to anyone about my ovaries. As Dumbledore said, fear of a name only increases fear of the thing itself. 

28. The nicest thing that somebody did for me when I wasn’t feeling well was… send me a care package or come visit me in hospital. I am really blessed to have so many brilliant people in my life who are caring, praying for me and concerned about how I’m doing. Sometimes even someone reading something about endo and saying “wow, I never realised what you go through” can mean the world. 

29. I’m involved in Invisible Illness Week because… the only way to make people aware of invisible illnesses is to talk about them! 

30. The fact that you read this just makes me feel… pleased that you took the time to understand a little bit more what life is like for me and for others living with invisible illnesses.

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Tired of telling people how tired I am

Fatigue is something I’ve come to have a pretty serious relationship with lately. Like, we’re practically married.

fatigue cookies

When I say I’m tired, it doesn’t seem to do justice to the depth of what I am experiencing.  I am not tired because I didn’t get my usual amount of sleep.  I am not tired because I have been rushing around, doing twenty things at once with no time to rest. I am tired down to my bones.  Everything seems to cost so much more than it ever did before. If I have a shower, I have to lie down for 20 minutes afterwards.  When I walk up a flight of stairs, I might need to take a break in the middle. I wake up, completely unrefreshed from eight or nine hours of sleep.

After a few months I went to my GP.  I waited a few months because the fatigue increased around the same time I was having a huge upswing in pain levels.  The pain, from an ovarian cyst, died down from a 10 to its usual 7/8 but my tiredness stayed at the even-going-to-the-fridge-feels-like-I’ve-run-a-marathon level.

fridge

My first doctor visit: “Fatigue isn’t really a specific enough symptom.” Following this, I was quizzed on my moods and it was obvious depression was the diagnosis being considered.  Now, I know life with chronic pain sucks but it still completely baffles people than I can live like this and not be severely depressed.  I have been offered more antidepressants than actual painkillers in the 13 years I’ve been in pain.  The validation has now switched from ‘it’s all in your head’ to ‘your life with a chronic condition must be getting you down’ but they still don’t believe I’m not depressed.  I don’t know what is so hard to understand about someone who, yes, is in pain on a daily basis and struggles with things healthy people don’t even think about but still enjoys her life.  I have a freaking awesome life.  My family is nuts but incredibly supportive and loving.  My friends are possibly even weirder but in the good ‘I love hanging out with these weirdos’ kind of way.  I’m being paid to do something I love AND I have tickets to see Benedict Cumberbatch in Hamlet.  My life rules. #blessed

My second doctor visit: a newly qualified locum (one of the best-looking doctors I’ve come across) who had no idea how to deal with a complicated patient like me.  His advice was to wait and speak to my pain docs next time I was at the Chronic Pain Clinic.

Chronic Pain Clinic: my consultant gave me my long overdue lidocaine infusion and was convinced the length of time I’d been between infusions was what had messed up my pain and fatigue levels.  I would be back to my version of normal now I’d had my infusion.

The infusion did what it always does – dulled my pain to a more manageable level but did absolutely nothing for my tiredness.  Back to the doctor.

My third doctor visit: this one was a real doozy. You know it’s good doctoring when you leave in tears. I was simply not pushing myself enough.  I had conditioned my body to being lazy and now it couldn’t handle anything else. I just had to find something within myself to force myself to get fit by doing exercise every day. I should also point out that none of these doctors were remotely interested in my other symptoms of nausea, dizziness, sweating, seeing lights, headaches and sensitivity to smells and bright lights.

My fourth doctor visit: I pulled myself together after briefly feeling like a worthless nobody following doctor 3. In the interim I had my first pelvic physio session and had an altered eating and drinking plan which involved reducing my caffeine intake among other things. Doctor 4 paid more attention to the other problems I was having and then she too started on the ‘recondition your body’ spiel. I stopped her and asked how I was supposed to walk for an hour every day when I cannot leave my house two days in a row.  I can’t go to the bathroom without feeling I might faint. Getting the shakes when I’ve performed any kind of activity for more than 10 minutes.  Her demeanour changed and suddenly she was more interested in my existing conditions (endometriosis, PCOS, IC – for anyone keeping count) ordering up a range of obscure blood tests.

I went for my bloods yesterday.  It took two nurses about 40 minutes to even find a vein.  I left with 6 different holes poked in my arms and hands, all with cotton wool and surgical tape plastered over them. When one finally found the Holy Grail of veins, my blood trickled out like a leaky tap in a horror movie. Drip. Drip. Drip. Even my blood is lethargic.

But…y’know…I’m still awesome. Even if I’m a vampire with a sleeping problem.

evil queen

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Collapsing at conferences and other adventures

Yes, I was accepted to an awesome conference, huge, important, everything you’d want really.  I arrived a day early, felt tired and sore as per usual and more-than-usually weepy. Chalked it up to nerves and my body just being my body.  I delivered my paper the next morning and that evening, collapsed at the wine reception.

Thankfully, a very lovely lady I had met on other occasions was there and, as literally the only person I knew at this conference of over 200, she sprung into action.  Aided by some very helpful security guards, she took me to a walk-in centre where I was diagnosed with a kidney infection and given some antibiotics.

I didn’t get to see much of the conference as a result of this turn of events.  I did see a lot of my small hotel room and felt sorry for myself quite a bit.  When I did manage to attend one more panel the next day, people I’d never seen before asked me how I was because I had become ‘The Girl Who Collapsed’.

Now, the fact that I am sick is not something I hide. I may not go into details over a coffee on a first date but I’d like to think I’m open about my condition.  I’m okay with people knowing I have something wrong with me.  But, as it turned out, I was not okay being ‘The Girl Who Collapsed’. Showing such a colossal sign of “weakness” at an event I had spent months preparing for made me angry.  I wasn’t angry at any one in particular, I wasn’t even angry with myself, I was just annoyed that this is what my life is like and I have no control over it.  I did everything right – booking the closest possible hotel, scheduling naps and rests, pacing myself.  And still, my body betrayed me.  As is its way.

So…

 

Two weeks later, antibiotic free, kidneys functioning like a champion, I embarked on my next conference adventure.  This one too presented challenges.  Luckily, it was at home (not in my actual home ’cause that would be weird and unprofessional), at a place 10 miles from where I live, accessible by car, familiar territory.  Awesome, right? Well…  When I turned up for the first day, wearing the most fiercely colourful dress I own, I was turned away from my usual car park. FREAKIN’ DISNEY ON ICE! Unexpectedly, I had to park a ridiculously long way away and so, it took me nearly half an hour to reach the venue.  (Note: it probably would only take 8 – 10 minutes for an able-bodied person to cover the distance but as I am the speed of a grandmother snail, I am allowed to be disgruntled.)  My mega-awesome-cool fold-up walking stick had arrived earlier that week and it made its debut helping me get to the building. Lunch was unidentifiable sandwiches which I had to forego thanks to my bowel and its tendency to spasm when I feed it things without thinking.  My paper went well and I lasted the whole afternoon AND dinner.  Although my body was tense and aching, my insides stabbing away like a nightmare serial killer, I was so proud of myself for getting through that day.  The next, and last, day I deteriorated.  My eyeballs turned red (which was a great thing to happen for the first time at an important career event), I needed the walking stick more and more, many painkillers and heat patches were necessary and at one point I had to leave for a while just so that I didn’t break down and cry with the pain in front of everyone.

But, guess what? I made it to the very end.  And, that fact alone made me inproportionately happy.  Now, the two conferences were completely different situations but I can definitely pinpoint what helped me in the second.  Firstly, I knew that my own bed and my comfortable home were waiting for me.  Secondly, although I am forever grateful that the lovely lady was there at the first conference, at the second there were multiple people I knew and trusted (including the lovely lady).  People that offered to help out or asked me how I was, who offered to do things for me, who told me to go home.  Conferences can be stressful, especially when you have a chronic illness to contend with.  But you know what?  I’m damn proud of myself for doing them.  And maybe I’ll live down ‘The Girl Who Collapsed’ thing eventually…

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Defying pain: my story

 

“Something has changed within me, something is not the same…”   Defying Gravity, Wicked

Something did change within me.  First, when I was 13, when pain and heavy bleeding became a regular part of my life.  Second, when I turned 20 and the pain no longer conformed to a monthly schedule but became a daily reality.

I was not the same as other girls my age.  I’m not the same as other twenty-somethings now.

My life consists of doctors appointments, hospital visits, tests, scans and dealing with the misunderstanding and under-appreciation of the condition I live with.

At 23, after nine years of hospital investigations, misdiagnoses and unpleasant treatments and procedures, I was diagnosed with endometriosis.  Endo is a gynaecological condition that affects 1 in 10 women where endometrial tissue grows in places other than the uterus.  It causes painful periods, painful sex, bowel problems, bladder problems, pelvic pain and infertility.

 

“I’m through accepting limits ’cause someone says they’re so

Some things I cannot change, but till I try I’ll never know” Defying Gravity, Wicked

 

Pain is part of my life now but it is not my whole life.

Since my diagnosis, I have become involved with the Endometriosis Support Group in Northern Ireland.  It is a non-funded, voluntary group for women and girls with this disease and has been an absolute lifeline.  With the group, I’ve been campaigning for a specialist endometriosis centre for Northern Ireland, for better treatment, earlier diagnosis and more awareness and education.  Endometriosis affects one in ten women yet takes an average of seven and a half years to diagnose.  The lack of understanding, in health care as well as in the community, is shocking.

I used to feel ashamed of my condition but not any more.  It is not my fault that I developed endometriosis – it is not contagious or environmentally-linked.  It is hereditary (my mother had it) but more research needs to be done into the disease in order to understand it better.

I cannot expect society to accept my condition and my limitations because of it if I never talk about what I go through.  Just because my condition is gynaecological does not mean it is shameful or taboo.  It is 2015 – and I will talk about my ovaries if I want to!

Personally, living in pain has caused some difficulties.  Pain-free days are rare.  At its worst, the pain feels like someone has shoved a rusty hook inside me and is dragging it around.

However, despite this pain, I am happy with my life.  I’m currently working on a PhD in History, a passion fuelled by my innate dorkiness.  Even though my education has constantly been interrupted by my illness, I graduated with a first class honours in 2011, winning a scholarship for a Masters and full funding for my doctorate.  My family and friends are awesome and make real efforts to understand and support me.  My faith and my church are always a source of support as well.

I accept that pain is a part of my life but I will not let it define who I am.

“As someone told me lately, ‘Everyone deserves the chance to fly!'” Defying Gravity, Wicked

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