Free Fall

Photo by ian dooley on Unsplash

One of my greatest fears is falling. It’s not the height that scares me. It’s the fast lack of grip, the surge to the bottom. I don’t like being out of control.

Never have.

Ironically, a recurring theme in my life is losing control. I never learn to let go and enjoy the fall, see where it takes me.

Never will.

For the past four months, I’ve been fighting to keep my health insurance plan. My state changed the minimum annual income requirement back in March, and we’re now $400 over the mark. $400 is far from enough to cover the cost of a yearly deductible and monthly premium, plus co-pays and prescriptions. Yet in the state’s eyes, we should be able to afford it no problem. They don’t account for rent and heat. They don’t even look at your income after taxes.

We looked at my husband’s company’s insurance plan, too. Even though it’s a bit cheaper than one of the state market’s plans, we still can’t afford it.

We’re already struggling.

I’m really grateful that we had state insurance these past few years. Because of it, I was able to get a diagnosis and start treatment for my UCTD. Still, we can’t afford another plan, and we definitely can’t afford my treatment and monitoring without insurance.

I looked into several avenues, but they all came down to one thing: soon I’d be out of medicine.

Once I run out of medicine, my disease becomes aggressive. It isn’t long before I’m bedridden again and I’m unable to care for myself. To write. To live.

I felt myself spinning out of control. One of my other greatest fears is my disease. I’ve worked hard to get to where I am. I’ll be damned if I go back.

The fear is suffocating. My rheumatologist and I have determined that Plaquenil isn’t enough, that I need to add other medicines. Plaquenil has been so very therapeutic for me, but it’s not a magic bullet. I still have pain and stiffness, fatigue and brain fog, and other symptoms that may be related but definitely need further testing.

It doesn’t help that someone I love with an even more severe condition is losing her insurance, too. Chronically ill people rely on social services, but those programs are always the first to go when states need to make budget cuts.

I’m too scared to feel angry.

I have one last thing I can try. It’s a long shot, and I’m only going to have a small window. If I’m successful, it’ll be the net that catches me at the bottom. If I fail, well… I guess I’ll have to finally learn to let go.

Can’t Win (Plaquenil, 1 Year)

My Christmas cactus that I got the same day I started Plaquenil.

Today I’ve been on Plaquenil for exactly one year. While Plaquenil and Prednisone worked really well for my joint pain, both gave me some unfavorable side effects. Prednisone made my blood sugar skyrocket and threw some of my other labs off, so I had to wean off it. Plaquenil did okay on its own, but for some reason the GI side effects—diarrhea, heartburn—just keep getting worse. I had to come down to one pill a day instead of two.

I’m feeling it.

My rheumatologist said that if I flare, she’ll put me back on Prednisone, so there’s a good chance I’ll be starting it soon. I want to feel better—and I really want my hands and hips back—but I’m scared of the high blood pressure, freaky blood sugar, and weight gain. So I may have been holding off on making that phone call.

It feels like I can’t win.

This may be TMI, but Plaquenil can be an outright asshole. At first it seemed like it wasn’t getting along with dairy, but now it seems to give me diarrhea randomly. Heartburn, too. You’d think those are minor side effects, but trust me, they can quickly ruin your day. And your night.

SIGH.

Still, I look at posts and pictures from a year ago, and I know these two medications have saved me, side effects be damned. It comes down to a choice: would I rather debilitating joint pain and fatigue, or random bouts of diarrhea and heartburn, paired with high blood pressure, blood sugar spikes and crashes, and hot flashes?

via GIPHY

I’m trying to hang in there until my rheumatology appointment; playing phone tag is not my idea of fun, and I get shitty cell service in my apartment, which makes it even worse. I’d rather speak to her in person and go over our options. (She’s wonderful on the phone, too, but connecting is always a challenge.)

My appointment is almost two weeks away, though, so I’m gonna have to call.

It doesn’t help that I’m facing losing my health insurance, but that’s a whole other post. The gist of it is, my state changed its income regulations this year and we are now just a couple hundred dollars over the requirement. Yet we can’t afford a monthly premium and we sure as hell can’t afford appointments and prescriptions out of pocket. A friend suggested I can appeal the denial, but we weren’t denied—I’m stuck in an Access Health CT website loop. (If you live in my state, you know what I mean.) So that’s another phone call I’m dreading but have to make.

via GIPHY

It’ll work out, though. In the meantime it’s all about managing my pain and anxiety.

On the plus side, if I start Prednisone again, I’ll be able to take notes for my classes. (My hands have not been digging this whole pen holding thing.) I’ll also be able to type faster.

And did I mention that my beautiful Christmas cactus is now a year old? It’s now so full and there are several vibrant blooms (with dozens more budding). A month ago, it didn’t seem like it was going to bloom at all. A year ago, I wasn’t sure I could keep it alive. (I’m all right with succulents, but this one came from a pharmacy and I didn’t know how it would do.)

There’s a metaphor in here about patience and faith. I think.

I’ll Go Down Swinging My Cane

Photo by Chris Barbalis on Unsplash

When I got sick 10 years ago, I wasn’t planning on getting sick. I was actually planning to grow my web design business, save up the good salary I was making, and have a family. I wanted three kids. I’d only just started dating Mike, so I can’t say I was planning on marrying him, but I was an 18-year-old woman with hopes and dreams. I didn’t plan on getting sick. My goal was not to leave the workforce and become homebound because of my illness. I wanted to travel, to eventually set down roots and buy a house. I didn’t plan on going on state insurance because my husband and I couldn’t afford his company’s plan. I didn’t foresee setting aside my dream of having a family.

Let me be clear: I love my life. I’m happy that, even though I’ve lost a lot, I have been able to pursue my other dream—being a storyteller—even while bedridden. But I did not plan on getting sick.

No one does.

Mothers don’t hope to give birth to a baby who loses a kidney before he can even walk. Veterans don’t think they’ll spend their retirement years battling cancer instead of enjoying their grandchildren. Hardworking women who once worked multiple jobs don’t pencil in getting emphysema and pneumonia on their schedule.

But it happens, because life happens.

Today the Senate voted to continue working to repeal Obamacare and replace it with Trumpcare. The proposed bill blocks people with pre-existing conditions from getting insurance, takes away funding from state insurance that helps low-income people, and all but cripples healthcare assistance for the elderly and disabled.

All of this right smack in the middle of my disease changing.

Aside from worrying about family members and friends who will definitely be affected by the Senate’s decision today—possibly mortally so—I’m concerned about me. Because not a day goes by that I don’t wonder how different things might be for me if I hadn’t gotten sick. Would I have a mortgage and three kids? Ironically, if I hadn’t gotten sick, I could afford to pay for my healthcare.

I didn’t get a chance to really blog about it, but I’m having bladder and nerve issues that may be related to my UCTD—that may indicate that it’s developing into Lupus. I’m waiting on labs that my new rheumatologist ordered to check on my kidneys. I’ll probably be seeing a urologist to figure out what’s going on with my bladder; a neurologist ruled out carpal tunnel and said she thinks my nerve pain is from my autoimmune disease. My rheumatologist said that Plaquenil can be great for some things but not others; I may be looking at adding another medication to my regimen.

More tests, followups, and medications that I cannot afford out of pocket.

Under Trumpcare, I’d be blocked from getting insurance because of my pre-existing condition. Right now, I truly don’t know what’s going to happen to me.

And I’m trying like hell right now to not think about the people I know who will actually die without their medications and treatments. Because if I do, I won’t be able to breathe.

Today my country made a shameful, disgusting decision—all because part of the government can’t stand that a black president dared to try to help sick, disabled, and low-income people. They can’t bear to let Obamacare exist, just like they couldn’t bear to allow the original bill to pass. Instead of trying to fix the things that are wrong with Obamacare—like the annual fee for uninsured people that, ironically enough, the GOP helped create because they bickered over the original bill—they’d rather burn it all down, out of spite. They’d rather not examine the exorbitant cost of healthcare and medication in this country. And now 24 to 32 million Americans face losing healthcare. Of those 32 million, a good percent of them will die without it.

I cried all afternoon. My eyes are swollen, my heart is broken, and my autoimmune disease continues to attack my connective tissues, nerves, and bladder. I don’t know what’s going to happen to me or my loved ones. I keep trying to find some hope tonight, something to hold onto. Because I’m one step closer to losing my healthcare, but it’s not over yet.

My Autoimmune Disease is Getting on My Nerves… Literally

Photo by Matheus Ferrero on Unsplash

I had a nerve conduction test with my new neurologist yesterday. The test was to see if the numbness, burning, and tingling in my hands is because of carpal tunnel. I was referred by my old rheumatologist.

I liked Dr. Z instantly. She is straight to the point, but really nice. Mike’s been seeing her, so I was already familiar with her and right at ease. Still, I was a bit nervous. Since my old rheumatologist referred me back in April, my symptoms have progressed.

  • the tip of my right index finger has a constant burning sensation
  • the area beneath my thumb on my left palm goes into spasms
  • my feet now get burning and tingling sensations

I had a feeling I wasn’t dealing with carpal tunnel.

During the test, Dr. Z and I chatted about my symptoms, my autoimmune disease, and which doctors I’ve seen. Even though she can seem brisk because she gets right down to things, I found her very warm and personable.

When the test was over, she explained how it worked. Basically, the computer measures how long it takes the electric stimulation to get from Point A to Point B. She showed me the normal ranges and where mine are: normal.

The good news is, she said I don’t have carpal tunnel.

The bad news is, she said it’s likely my autoimmune disease attacking my nerves.

In further good news, Dr. Z said there’s no nerve damage yet. She only tested my hands, and told me that if I’m still having the sensations in my feet in four weeks, to come back. (Since it’s a new symptom, she prefers to wait another month before testing.)

Next week I see my new rheumatologist. I really hope she can put these puzzle pieces together; neither bladder inflammation nor nervous system problems are really a UCTD thing. They’re more of a Lupus thing, and since Dr. S had said my UCTD could be pre-Lupus, I’m a little concerned.

Now that my joint pain is under control and I’m not bedridden or dependent on Mike to help me get dressed, I’d really like to address these other symptoms. I just hope that my new rheumatologist is willing to figure this out with me.

A Sudden Goodbye

Photo by Ross Findon on Unsplash

Yesterday my father-in-law told Mike that he got a letter saying that our rheumatologist was leaving the practice. I didn’t want it to be true, but I didn’t think my FIL was mistaken. So I called Dr. S’s office.

It’s true.

They couldn’t give me any information. The receptionist I spoke to said she honestly didn’t know. All the staff had been told was that it was personal. It was sudden. I asked about my appointment later this month, and she told me he was already gone.

I’ll be seeing one of the other rheumatologists that day instead.

I’m crushed.

I don’t know how to feel or what to expect from Dr. C. I don’t know if she’ll stick to Dr. S’s treatment plan. If she’ll change my diagnosis. If she’ll even take me seriously. Every time I see a new doctor, I have to start from zero. I have to convince them that, even though my labs are vague, I am legitimately sick.

Every single time.

This couldn’t come at a worse time. I’m dealing with new symptoms, that I thought were carpal tunnel but are now affecting my feet as well as my hands and wrists. There’s a chance that it could be my UCTD developing into Lupus. I need my rheumatologist, who has taken me seriously and worked very closely with me. Not a doctor I’m being shuffled off onto, who now has an even heavier load of patients.

I want to be optimistic. I really do. But it’s hard.

On the Wings of Hope (Plaquenil, 2 Months)

via Unsplash

It’s been quite a while since I checked in here with a full health update. To recap, I started Plaquenil on December 1st, 2016, along with Prednisone to get the inflammation down and give me some relief while the Plaquenil got working. Aside from a few mood swings and hot flashes, I’ve been doing well on the Prednisone; I’ll take almost anything over flareup-level joint pain, to be honest. Most of the side effects have simmered down, though. In between now and then, I came down with the flu and had some debilitating neck and lower back pain.

Turns out that the neck and back pain are probably stress related, aggravated by new pillows, cold weather, and working at the computer. I asked the APRN about it at my primary doctor’s office and she brushed me off, as usual. When it got really bad—I mean, brought me to tears bad—I went to the ER. They brushed me off too, until they saw my x-rays. Although there was no fracture or anything, the doctor could tell that I was in a lot of pain because of how ramrod straight my neck was. He said they usually see that in people with whiplash; normally, the spine is slightly curved in the neck. He sent me away with Vicodin, which makes me vomit. All I wanted was Flexeril. When I asked him if I could cut the Vicodin pills in half to avoid them irritating my stomach, he actually laughed in my face and told me that I needed to go home and chill out.

Nice, right? But this is nothing new.

A friend and then a relative gave me some Flexeril to get me through, and it worked like magic (as long as I actually relaxed, too*). During my followup with my rheumatologist, I told him that I know it’s not really okay to share prescriptions, but I just wanted to make sure it was okay to take Flexeril with my other medications. He told me it was okay, and suggested I take it at night because it can make me drowsy. He also told me to not drive on it. I don’t remember him saying he was going to write me a prescription for it, but when I got to the pharmacy, it was there.

So few doctors have actually listened to me over the past decade, never mind tried to treat me, that I actually cried in the middle of the pharmacy aisle. I’ve never been so happy to take medicine.

During my appointment, we discussed how I’m doing on Plaquenil. My joint pain is much, much better, and he said this is around the time when Plaquenil starts to work. Since I can’t stay on Prednisone for very long, I need to come off of it. He asked me what I thought about that.

I just want to note how much that means to me, that he includes me in the conversation and treatment plan. I initially wasn’t sure about him, since he seemed to be brushing me off, but ever since our phone conversation, he’s shown me that he really cares. I think a lot of doctors do, but they can sometimes forget what it’s like to be on the other side—the patient’s side.

“Well,” I said, “I’m kind of nervous about coming off the Prednisone, because I don’t want the pain to come back.” I’ll be the first to tell you that my biggest fear is my pain. Not the 5/10 pain, but the 10/10, can’t move, can’t function, feel like I’m dying pain.

He nodded, then explained to me that he isn’t just taking me off of it. We’ll be slowly tapering down, to find the minimum dose that I can stay on while the Plaquenil starts working.

In short: I won’t be just coming off it. The pain won’t be rushing right back in like it has in the past.

I’m now on 7.5mg of Prednisone a day (previously I was on 10mg). My prescription is 5mg pills; I take one and a half every morning. The brain fog struggle is real, because I had to ask him to explain to me three times how I’m supposed to make 7.5mg out of 5mg pills. But he patiently explained each time, never got annoyed with me, and when I apologized for being so slow, he gently told me that his job is to clarify for me.

I really can’t express how wonderful this man is.

A decade of chronic illness and doctor merry-go-round has made me very skeptical about doctors. I’ve been mistreated so many times, it’s my knee-jerk reaction to mistrust them. But I’m glad that I shared my concerns with him and expressed how much I need someone to figure this out with me.

Sometimes, change needs to come from within.

Though I was nervous about tapering down, I’ve been on the lower dose for a week now and I feel great. Plaquenil is doing its job! Don’t get me wrong. I can still aggravate my joints by overdoing it. (I do.) I can still have bad pain days. (I have.) It’s still possible that I can have another flareup. It’s still possible that my Undifferentiated Connective Tissue Disease is pre-Lupus. I still very much fear my pain.

But it’s also starting to feel possible to get my life back.

For the first time in a decade, I feel hopeful again.


We Need Your Help

I’m feeling better, but I’m still not able to return to the regular workforce. On top of that, my husband recently had surgery that will keep him out of work for three weeks at the minimum, six at the most. He doesn’t have a lot of sick time available and we’re already struggling. We really appreciate any help you can give us.

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*Ha! Considering I’m an indie author and have to work my ass off for every dollar I make, I’m not very good at just resting. Still, the more I stress about money and my production schedule, the more my neck and lower back hurt. I’ve also been stressing about my health insurance and all of the insane things happening in my country, which I’m sure hasn’t helped. I’ve had to actively work at keeping my stress levels down by using coping methods, relaxation techniques, and unplugging. And buckling down to write a new book.

They Don’t Know What to Do with Me

photo-on-11-22-16-at-10-29-pm-2TL;DR: My primary doctor’s office doesn’t know what to do with me. Basically none of my doctors do.


Today I went to see my primary for a followup. In October I was told that I now have to come in every time I need a refill for my Tramadol (opioid painkiller that I’ve been taking for my joint pain for about five years). I also got a bit of a lecture on opioid addiction, which I know they have to do but, yeah. This after I had to jump through hoops to get the refill in the first place.

Anyway, I’d scheduled today’s visit when I got my refill in October, but I also wanted to come in to show them my swollen thumbs. Every time I try to take a picture of them, it doesn’t show up on my crappy iPhone 4 camera, but both of them are swollen at the joint. Late last year, my rheumatologist Dr. Memet said I have enthesitis-related arthritis, which means my tendons are inflamed where they connect to my joints. This explains why my inflammation markers in my labs are always negative. After that, she diagnosed me with Reactive Arthritis, but when she left the practice, my new rheumatologist canned my diagnosis—until my anti-dsDNA came back positive. Right now we’re looking at possible Lupus.

I see Dr. S (my rheumatologist) on December 1st, but in the meantime really wanted my flareup and swollen thumbs on record. (My PCP and rheum are both in the same medical group, so they use the same patient portal.) My appointment was with the APRN at my primary doctor’s office. I went in with a two-page list of concerns, plus pictures of where I have joint pain in my chest. (Fun fact: There are joints everywhere. Everywhere.)

To be fair, the APRN was nice and she listened. But… she admitted she doesn’t want to mess with me because “there’s so much going on.”

I showed her my thumbs and we discussed my other trouble joints. I also asked her about Tramadol. A friend with a slipped disc is in pain management and her specialist explained that Tramadol doesn’t work for pain unless you stay on top of it. Meaning, if you take a dose at the end of the day when the pain is already high, like I do, it ain’t gonna touch it. I’ve long suspected this, so it was nice to actually “hear” a doctor confirm it. I asked my APRN if there was any way I could split up my 100mg dose throughout the day. She instead urged me to go to pain management.

I have… doubts about pain management. For one, I’ve heard a lot of horror stories. And… I don’t want anything stronger than Tramadol pushed on me. I’ve tried Percocet and other things and, yeah, they worked really well for the pain, but they knocked me out or made me super loopy. Either way, I couldn’t function. I like functioning. I have writing to do.

Another concern I have is that very few pain management clinics in the state take my (state) insurance. My friend has the same insurance and had a lot of trouble finding a place. She ended up with a clinic an hour away. I can’t swing that because Mike works full-time and we only have the one car. Family members have offered me rides to appointments but honestly I feel bad about asking them to take me that far, especially when pain management wants patients to come in often.

Maybe this sounds like excuses.

Anyway, I expressed all my concerns to my APRN and she said there was one in Southbury. Alas, they don’t take my insurance—but she did find one closer to me than an hour away. Just not as close as Southbury. 😂

Honestly, at this point, I didn’t feel like I had much of a choice. My rheumatologist has suggested pain management before (after grilling me about my Tramadol prescription), and last time I saw the APRN she wasn’t too crazy about me and Tramadol, either. It seems like more and more doctors just don’t want to mess with painkillers. Which is a shame, because when used correctly, they’re extremely beneficial to chronic pain patients. Plus Tramadol is honestly the baby aspirin of the painkiller family. No one is going to pursue it to get high. But I digress.

So, I’m going to pain management. Hold me.

To be fair, my friend had the same fears at first, but she really likes her clinic now. They’ve got her Tramadol dose to a point where it’s helping, and she’ll be having surgery for her neck soon. She’s very happy with the care she’s getting, so hopefully this will be a blessing in disguise.

I also talked to my APRN about my GI symptoms. They’re… pesky. And embarrassing, so I’ve never mentioned them here before. Nor have I discussed them in-depth with my doctors. But I bit the bullet and flat out told her. She said it sounds like IBS, which I’ve been wondering. The kicker is, when I asked what we can do about it, she said she doesn’t want to mess with my body because “there’s so much going on.” And laughed.

I was not amused.

Honestly, I just feel like I’m always being passed on. No one wants to help me. They’re either too busy or don’t have the expertise, so they hand me off. And nothing ever gets taken care of.

This has been going on for almost 10 years.

I had to fight for a cortisone injection in my toe. I eventually got it, but I had to jump through hoops. Cortisone injections are standard procedure for patients with arthritis. My grandmother gets them all the time. I’m pretty sure my dad got a couple in his problem hand (he has tendon issues). But when I walk in, it’s always “You’re too young for all these problems.” Like it’s somehow my fault, or like I’m making it up.

I eventually got the shot, and you know what? It worked like a charm. It wore off, and when I mentioned so to my APRN last time and said I need another one, she said I’m too young and laughed. Like this is all one big cute joke.

Why, today, I couldn’t start Prednisone to fight the inflammation, or at least get cortisone shots in my thumbs, is beyond me. I was flat out told they would only treat my IBS when it’s flaring—even though I said I have symptoms all the time—because they don’t know what to do with me.

They never do.