May 12th is Fibromyalgia Awareness Day! This year I plan to attend a walk in New York City to raise money and awareness of this disabling disorder. It is called the Caterpillar Walk and will be held this Saturday. My wonderful son will be accompanying me. I think he is most excited to be going into the the city. He has never been even though we have driven by or stopped on the outskirts numerous times. I am also excited (er… nervous) – (1) I have never driven in NYC before, (2) with my brain fog, I am worried I will get hopelessly lost, (3) I will forget where I parked, (4) what if my feet and legs are in too much pain? (5) what if I am too fatigued to drive home? The worries are endless…
Raising awareness for any illness is important. It helps when we are advocating to legislatures about allocating funds for research and treatment options. It helps when we are raising money for advocacy and research. It helps when trying to explain our symptoms to family and friends, and even strangers.
So, for those of you who are not familiar with fibromyalgia, here is the 30-second elevator speech version:
Fibromyalgia is a chronic pain disorder with a variety of symptoms, the main ones being: fatigue, sleep problems (including insomnia, sleep apnea, non-restorative sleep), cognitive dysfunction (also know as brain fog or fibro fog), stiffness, tenderness. Other symptoms that can occur are depression (because who wouldn’t be depressed sitting around all day in pain?), anxiety, migraines, acid reflux, irritable bowel syndrome, irritable bladder, pelvic pain, temporomandibular joint disorder. Doctors do not know what causes this condition but research has shown it effects the central nervous system, immune system, and the sympathetic/autonomic nervous systems.
In a nutshell, it sucks. As a Guns & Roses songs states, “What we have here is a failure to communicate.” It is like our bodies are out of sync and rebelling against us. This has a profound impact on our daily quality of life.
I have a challenge for all of you who do not have fibromyalgia. Place a clothespin on one of your fingers. Can you last ten minutes with it on? How about an hour? A day? That is only one of the symptoms people with fibromyalgia live with on a constant basis – only we never get to take the clothespin off.
When I got pregnant with my one and only child, I was an active and vibrant twenty-something year old. I had a great career that allowed me to travel all over the country. It challenged me at a level I wanted and, not to mention, it paid awesome. Those early years of parenting were difficult as a working parent but so worth it. I have to admit I felt like Supermom. Mom by night and worker bee by day. I thought I had it all. At some point, I switched careers so I wouldn’t travel anymore and could be home every night with my little one. But I still felt like Supermom. I am sure other working parents can relate.
Then IT happened…
I was about to turn 30. My husband and I were talking about having another child. I was comfortable in my new job. I was happy. But then I got a headache. I was never one prone to getting headaches – maybe one or two per year. But this headache was different. It didn’t go away for two weeks. And then it came back for a few more weeks. I knew something was wrong. I knew this was not normal. It took me several appointments with my family doctor and a neurologist who didn’t specialize in headaches or migraines before I realized they couldn’t help me. However, I am a researcher and did my due diligence. I found a top headache/migraine center not too far away in Philadelphia called the Jefferson Headache Center. It took two excruciating years of trial and error – plus a week-long stay in the hospital – to stop my now daily, chronic migraine. I felt like I was in a nightmare until the pain stopped. However, by then, my brain and central nervous system had been rewired to amplify any and all pain while decreasing the neurotransmitters that suppress pain. It was a formula for fibromyalgia that was eventually diagnosed a year later.
Meanwhile, I was still trying to be Supermom to my little toddler. He was only three-years-old and could not fathom what was going on. I put all my energy into hiding my illness from him while my husband and I frantically looked for answers for my health. For those few hours after work that I would spend with my son, I would try to be active and play with him only to crash as soon as he was in bed. It was a strain on all of us.
Despite my best attempts, my son knew something was wrong. The pain was written all over my face. It was programmed into the way I walked, the way I moved. I could not hide it from those close to me. One night I was crashed on the sofa while my son played with his blocks. He came over to me with his Jaffy (an orange, stuffed giraffe he got as an infant and could never be without until he was ten) and place the raggedy animal on my head. “Jaffey will make you feel better, Mommy,” he said. It was so cute and sweet that I wanted to cry. My illness was already impacted my son. I felt like a failure as a parent because I couldn’t protect him from seeing his mom hurting. It was my first lesson in parenting with a chronic illness.
As the leader of my local support group South Jersey Connections, I take it upon myself to try to attend any free seminars on fibromyalgia, chronic pain, and chronic fatigue syndrome so I can share the information with my members (many of whom cannot attend due to their health). I have noticed that some brilliant (and I use the term loosely) person create a PowerPoint presentation on fibromyalgia that mainly focused on vitamin D deficiency and aluminum toxicity that can be cured by taking malic acid. This PowerPoint has been distributed so thoroughly into the healthcare community. I have seen it so many times I could recite it by heart.
Last Thursday night I attended yet another FM seminar with the same PowerPoint presentation. I was tempted to simply walkout when the chiropractor/nutritionist started his spiel but decided to NOT be rude and give the guy a chance. He obviously did not know how well-used the slides he was using were. As expected, the actual presentation was the same but, thankfully, the Q&A was more interesting. He really let his knowledge and experience shine through at that point and I was impressed. He had a completely different approach to improving one’s eating habits and dietary changes than the standard one-size-fits-all food pyramid that every nutritionist I have ever worked with uses. He focuses on your symptoms and blood work. He looks for signs of deficiencies in vitamins, hormones, and other areas. He looks to see if you are in an optimal range instead of the default ranges labs use (which are not the best ranges in most cases). He will treat borderline deficiencies through supplements and dietary changes. Having personally tried just about every approach out there (and having a diminished savings to prove it), I felt optimistic.
If you have ever attended one of these free seminars, you know the doctor or healthcare professional tends to offer a free consultation as reward for sitting through their presentation and also as a chance to get to know them better before deciding to be a patient. I usually pass on this offer because of its shear desperate sales technique. However, against my better judgement, I scheduled a free session with this man. He told me he would review any blood work results I brought with me to give example of how he could help me. I expected some basic information about increasing my vitamin D and eating less sugars to lower my blood glucose. I also expected him to try to sell me some of the supplements his clinic carries. Boy was I surprised – and not in a good way!
I show up for my free session and instead of the good chiropractor/nutritionist I met at the seminar, I meet a woman claiming to be a case manager. After quizzing her on her credentials, I find that she has none! She has five years experience working in that office as a case manager which I quickly came to realize was code for salesperson. After taking a thorough history of my symptoms, she explained the science-based nutrition program they use and then goes over the cost of said program. She spent a lot of time breaking down the costs for me with the various payment plans I could use. To do the full program would cost me $1,000 and insurance wouldn’t cover a single penny of it. Who wouldn’t jump on board for that? She was very thorough with the different payment plans and how I could spread the process out so I could raise money in between appointments.
I can’t express enough the disappointment I felt in not meeting with the chiropractor/nutritionist like promised and for having printed out all my blood work results over the past three years for nothing. I was so disheartened that I didn’t even have the energy to complain about the bait-and-switch they had pulled on me. I mean, what is the point? It won’t change how they treat me or any future potential patient, right? They obviously think this sales technique works. I am just so disappointed that healthcare clinics take advantage of sick people in this way. When you are sick, you can’t always think straight (can we say brain fog?). This technique blatantly takes advantage of us.
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.
On March 26th, 2014, after yet another snow storm, the FDA held a public hearing for patients, their advocates, and others with interest in the treatment of fibromyalgia. For four hours the doctors who work in the Division of Anesthesia, Analgesia and Addiction Products. They were attentive and asked pointed questions. The discussion focused on the multitude of symptoms patients experience, how well (or not well) medications have helped patients, the non-drug treatment options (including holistic and alternative treatments), the side effects and withdrawal symptoms of medications, and what an ideal medication would look like.
Attendees came from all over the country and even from other countries, like Mexico. Patients opened up their souls to the FDA panel, hoping that our desperation for treatments that actually help will be developed. I heard such heartbreaking stories. We all appear to be in the same boat – even though we can manage our symptoms to a certain degree, it does not mean we are living at a higher quality of life. We are treading water and getting nowhere. Fibromyalgia patients have to change their entire lifestyle in order to cope with the limitations of this illness, and that does not even include all the co-morbid conditions we have. The only people I know who do not have another chronic illness with fibromyalgia are those that doctors simply have not diagnosed yet. Fibromyalgia is an opportunistic illness.
In a few months (after additional comments have been submitted), the FDA will release its report on fibromyalgia based on everyone’s comments and concerns. I have high hopes for this document. It can help doctors understand the illness better. It can help pharmaceutical firms fine tune their research. It can help university researchers conducting their smaller research. It can help medical students learn about this illness. It can help politicians understand the illness so they can pass effective bills. It has the potential to improve the status quo like nothing before it.
The Fates are some twisted sisters. They must have sat around one day dreaming up the most messed up combinations of illnesses. They were really having fun when when they planned out my future. They must have gotten such a kick out of giving me polar opposites for chronic illnesses to bear – yes, the pun was intended. “Hey, Clotho! Wouldn’t it be hilarious to give someone a disease where they have to pace their physical activity and require good sleep habits, and combine it with another disease where they have way too much energy, can’t sit still and don’t need sleep?” Well, sister, welcome to my world! That is what you get when you have bipolar disorder and fibromyalgia. On days when the mania starts acting out of control, I can count on the fibromyalgia flaring up like a bad dream that just won’t go away. I mean, what the Hell! The cruel irony of having days when I feel on top of the world, like I can do everything I ever dreamed of doing, when I feel so vitalized and super human. Oh, those days are like liquid gold, like I have found the Fountain of Youth and it is calling for me to drink deeply… But then fibromyalgia rears its ugly, painful head. My body contorts in pain. My muscles spasm in agony. My joints ache like a son of a bitch. And the lack of sleep turns my brain to mush, fogging up my once brilliant mind. It can take days, months to recover from a glorious manic high. The consequences of not taking my medications or simply slipping on a banana peel of Fate. Whatever the cause, the damage is always the same.
The way I see it, I must have really pissed off someone in a past life to deserve the perverse hand of cards I was dealt. What could I have done? Maybe I offed Kennedy or Lincoln. I could have been Jack the Ripper or Typhoid Mary. Whatever it was, it was bad. I can’t believe life would be so cruel to send me these two chronic illnesses (not to mention the other health problems I have had or have) without there being a cause. I refuse to believe that I simply pulled the short stick in life. Pessimistic, I know. Instead of seeing the glass half full, I have always wondered who the Fuck drank my water? But I know how unproductive this thinking can be (cause lets face it, after the mania comes the depression). I know I need to force myself to think differently about my life. Therefore, I should focus on what my illnesses have taught me. Or maybe I should focus on the difference I can make for others because of my illnesses. I know at some point all this will make sense, there will be a moral to the story of my life. It may be something as simple as treat your body with respect when you are young so you reap the positive rewards later in life. I am just hoping it is not something sadistic like we all live a miserable life before we die.
On that cheerful note, have a great week! 😉