Today is Fibromyalgia Awareness Day. Due to my involvement in the National Fibromyalgia and Chronic Pain Association, I was urged to send a request to my governor – the infamous Chris Christie – requesting he sign a proclamation declaring today Fibromyalgia Awareness Day for the entire state of New Jersey. To my delighted surprise, he signed it.
Fibromyalgia is a disabling illness that affects about 2-5% of the population in the U.S. and around the world. It is a central nervous system disorder that causes sensitivity to pain, central sensitization, chronic fatigue, sleep disturbance, stiffness, cognitive dysfunction, bladder and bowel problems, migraines, and more. Fibromyalgia rarely occurs in a vacuum; the vast majority of patients will eventually develop other health issues – e.g., lupus, POTS, arthritis, spinal problems, EDS, connective tissue disorders, RSD, etc. I consider fibromyalgia to be an opportunistic disorder. It will heighten the symptoms from any and all of the other health problems we have. It will make the pain worse; it will make the brain fog more pronounced. That is why it is important for patients to get all of their health issues under control.
No one chooses to have fibromyalgia. It is not something to aspire to. It irrevocably changes your life. You have to cater to its needs constantly by pacing yourself during normal activities. You have to take more frequent breaks in order to avoid a flare up. Things you once took for granted now have to be planned well in advance. You want to go food shopping? Then you have to avoid all strenuous activity for the entire day. You have to plan it around other people’s schedules so they can go with you because you can no longer lift heavy or awkward items. Some days you will need to use a cane just to be able to walk the aisles in the store. Some days you will have to swallow your pride and use one of the electric carts provided by the store. You will have to endure the stares from other customers as they see a relatively young person who does not appear sick using the electric carts that are usually used by the elderly. Some customers might even come up to you and scold you for it. It is not easy looking healthy on the outside while your body is a mess on the inside. If I wore my illness like a dress for all to see, I am convinced people would look away in disgust.
For all those suffering from Fibromyalgia, this is your day. Awareness is key to managing this illness. We need doctors to understand us and we need the public to not shame us.
According to Wikipedia, chronic pain is
“pain that has lasted longer than three to six months…Chronic pain of different etiologies has been characterized as a disease affecting brain structure and function.”
When pain hangs around our bodies for too long – i.e., past the time period of normal healing for the original cause – it starts to change the central nervous system. Pain receptors go into overdrive while pain suppressors go on vacation. MRIs and fMRIs have clearly shown that the brain processes pain differently once it passes over to chronic pain.
If chronic pain is a disease, then there is a list of symptoms that go along with it just like any other disease. The biggest and most disturbing of symptoms is brain fog. It can cause difficulty remembering words. There are times when I am talking and have to describe the word I am searching for because I can’t remember it. This is frustrating to no end. The frustration can then make my anxiety increase which then makes remembering words even harder. It is a viscous circle. Short-term memory can also be impaired. The other day I was talking with my husband and we agreed I would go to the store to pick up a few things. Fifteen minutes later, I still had not left and he was perplexed. When he asked me why I hadn’t left yet, I could only stare blankly at him. I could not remember the discussion we had just had! Not only is this embarrassing for me, it is also difficult to explain to my husband. There are no visible warning signs when my brain is not working. I can’t even tell when I am impaired, much like someone who is intoxicated not realizing they are too impaired to drive.
Speaking of driving, brain fog loves to mess with me during this activity too. Although I am a safe driving, I will get confused as to where I am and where I am going. There are times when I am driving that I cannot recognize the road I am on. I will know that I am on the correct road, but none of the surrounding look familiar. This is easier to ignore than the other times when I actually get lost. I have learned to take the same roads over and over again without deviation because taking a “short cut” will usually end up getting me lost or turned around somehow. Night driving is the worse because so many visual clues are hidden in the dark. It is to the point where I have to rely on my GPS to get me where I want to go, even though I have been there many times.
Explaining these limitations to others is difficult because both the chronic pain and brain fog are invisible. No one can look at me and see my disabilities. They see a perfectly normal-looking, almost-39-year-old woman. They see a healthy-looking mother (unless it is one of my days when my legs don’t want to work right so I am limping or using my cane). I rarely appear disabled so that when I act it, people are surprised. Even I can be surprised at my body’s defection from normalcy. It can feel like a separate entity from who I am. Some days I have to wrestle for control over it – and I don’t always win.
My mind is a slippery slope. It has always been this way. The more emotional my memory, the slippier it is. Growing up in a dysfunctional family where emotions ran high and negative feelings were the norm has had a serious impact on my ability to remember just how bad things were back then. My brain has done a wonderfully effective job of blocking the negativity. I know things were bad; I know things weren’t right. But I’ll be damned if I know who, what, where, and why. I grasp onto to the stories family members have told me like a drowning women hangs onto a life preserver. I cling to the memories others have because without them I am at a loss. My childhood resembles the Dark Ages of Europe – empty space where we know life was lived but not how. On the one hand, I am blessed to only remember the happy times growing up. However, I can feel those empty spaces sucking away at me like a black hole. Just because I cannot remember first hand what happened doesn’t make the damage any less severe. I live with the repercussions of events I can’t remember. Is this healthier for me? Is it best to keep those things buried in my subconscious? Every time I try to pull those fragments of my childhood to the surface, my mental state suffers. My hold on sanity quivers until it threatens to snap. My new family, the one I married into, does not like it when this happens. And who can blame them? It is not a fun experience to watch a loved one grapple with deep-seeded pain, with their always fragile hold on normalcy.
On the flip side, my brain has compensated for this memory loss by sharpening my capacity to remember the non-emotional side of life – a.k.a., data. Raw data gleamed from books and lectures and seminars. It made school easier for me since I had all that extra space in my consciousness. I excelled at the acquisition of data. It was my thing. It made research (a passionate hobby of mine) that much easier to pursue. But now that chapter of my life is over. My illnesses have stolen yet another piece of my life from me. My memory has disintegrated before my very eyes. Brain fog (yes, it is a real, biological event) has stolen my ability to move data with ease from short-term storage to long-term storage. My ability to retrieve data from long-term storage has failed me too. It makes remembering appointments and to do’s difficult. If I don’t leave written reminders around me everywhere, I lose track of them. They slip into the gaping holes that exist in my brain. And just forget about my formerly large vocabulary and eerily precise ability to spell the most difficult of words. Those are climbing out the window one megabyte at a time. That tip-of-the-tongue feeling we all get occasionally is a daily experience for me. I know I know something, yet I can’t recall it. It isn’t dementia; it is the tortuous reality of brain fog.
Today’s rant was inspired by a missed lunch date an hour’s drive away from home with a sister I only see once per year because she lives in the south and I live in the north. It was a lunch date with my Babcie (grandmother in Polish) to celebrate her 95th birthday. I really don’t think normal people forget important dates like this one. It is no wonder that I feel like I am losing my mind…