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.

You Don’t Know Exhausted Until

you-dont-know-%22exhausted%22I never followed up on my last health update (the one where I found out I was once again looking at a Lupus diagnosis). Since that post, I’ve gone into a full-throttle, super nasty flareup.

  • My pain has been steadily at 10/10 (8/10 at the lowest, with medication). I thought I had it under control after breaking up my Tramadol dose. Usually I take 100mg at bedtime, but I started taking 50mg in the morning and another 50mg at lunch instead, using my herbal medicine before bed to get me through the night. I got the idea to split my Tramadol from a friend, whose pain management doctor told her that Tramadol isn’t great for treating pain; you have to take it ahead of the pain—which I’ve long suspected. The downside to all of this Tramadol? TMI alert: I’ve been a little constipated, which I’m pretty sure is making my back pain worse.
  • Joint pain is symmetric, meaning both sides hurt. So both of my thumbs are painful and stiff, both knees, both elbows, etc. Oddly, my right side hurts more than the left in some cases; my right big toe, right hip, and right thumb have consistently been more swollen and painful than the left side. I suspect these joints all have bone spurs (Dr. Memet said she thought my toe did [both in the toe joint itself and the other nearby joints]—, my hip x-rays showed bone spurs, and my thumb feels exactly the same as the other joints do).
  • The pain is a hot ache and it radiates. But it also feels… bruised? There’s almost a throbbing, too; I can feel my joints swelling. It’s really hard to explain. Regardless, it feels fucking horrible.
  • My lower back is equally painful on each side, and very stiff. This morning Mike had to help me get dressed and put my slippers on. He had to help me sit and stand up multiple times. And every time I need to get something from one of our cabinets, he’s had to do it for me (our cabinets are underneath our counter—no overhead ones).
  • The pain wakes me up at night, multiple times. There have been a few nights where I couldn’t get comfortable and so didn’t sleep at all.
  • On top of the pain, I’m drained—no matter how much sleep I get. I’m not usually a napper, but I’ve been caving and taking naps. I’ve also been chugging Emergen-C like it’s my job. Neither that or coffee really help, though, so I’ve mostly been drinking plain water.
  • The only place I’m truly comfortable is on the couch. It curves nicely against my back and reclines, so I can get the pressure off my hips and knees too.
  • I need my cane while out and about—if I’m even up to leaving. I stayed home instead of going to a wedding reception this weekend. Today I basically haven’t moved from the couch, because walking and standing are sucky.

Since my last post, I found out that my anti-dsDNA was positive and pretty freakin’ high. A positive anti-dsDNA means:

  • there’s definitely something autoimmune going on
  • there’s a pretty good chance it’s Lupus
  • the immune system is attacking the DNA
  • the person is currently or about to be in a flareup
  • the higher the levels, the worse the flareup

My rheumatologist’s lab measures anything over a 10 as positive; my anti-dsDNA measured a 24. That’s more than double the normal level.

My rheumatologist said he doesn’t want to diagnose without a positive ANA, but I’ve found several medical journal articles that said doctors don’t need more than a positive anti-dsDNA to diagnose Lupus—especially with presenting symptoms. My rheumatologist said he was calling in Plaquenil, though—or so I thought. When I went to pick it up at my pharmacy, it wasn’t in. I checked the pharmacy several times, and they even checked other locations. No dice.

Honestly I’ve been so exhausted, not to mention tired of the medical merry-go-round, I haven’t called my rheumatologist’s office yet to see what happened with the ‘script. I was on the phone multiple times with them before and after my blood work came back, trying to resolve my bad appointment. I’m just sick of having to do all of this.

I have, however, been reading up on the anti-dsDNA, Lupus, and some other things.

  1. What Arthritis Pain Feels Like—It’s possible that I have both OA and RA (or Lupus). Dr. M told me I have bone spurs in multiple joints. However, some articles indicate that bone spurs can be caused by RA/autoimmune. It really depends on the author, as rheumatologists all have different opinions. Either way, this article describes my pain to a T.
  2. New Findings with Eppstein Barr Virus—I know one thing for sure: this all started after I had mono, which is caused by EBV. I thought this article was interesting, because even though it didn’t mention Lupus, it did mention some findings. For example, researchers believe that a healthy zinc level may keep chronic active EBV disease at bay. I’m wondering if my EBV is slowly evolving into Lupus. If so, could taking some of these supplements help keep flareups away? Or maybe it’s CAEBV? Chronic Fatigue Syndrome? Rheumatoid Arthritis? Lupus? Some combination of multiple or all of these? Can someone please get me some answers before I lose my mind? 😜
  3. Characterization and Treatment of CAEBV Disease—This article made me want to check my EBV levels; if nothing else, it’d be interesting to compare where they are during a flareup to their levels during remission.
  4. Understanding Lab Tests and Results for Lupus—This was the article that suggested rheumatologists only need positive anti-dsDNA and presenting symptoms to make a Lupus diagnosis and begin treatment.

    Anti-DsDNA is more specific to lupus than ANA and can be very valuable in making a diagnosis of lupus. […] If the anti-DsDNA levels are high, the disease is more likely to be active. There is either a current flare or a flare may be imminent.

  5. I’ve long been complaining about Connecticut healthcare. Recently I found another spoonie living in CT who, after years of getting nowhere, went to see a rheumatologist in Boston. Within a single office visit, he diagnosed her and began treatment. I’m starting to think it’s time to get an out-of-state opinion.
  6. She also has a post all about filing for disability, which really gave me hope because I thought after being rejected that there was no way I could get it. I know many people get rejected the first time and have to try again, try again, but I thought since I lost my diagnosis, I definitely didn’t have a chance. But it seems like, as long as you can prove your illness is affecting your ability to work—which it is—you can get disability.

I know I should’ve called both my primary and rheumatologist days ago, because even if they don’t feel like doing anything about it, at least this will be documented. It’s nearly time for a followup visit with my rheumatologist anyway, and I’m scheduled for a followup with my primary for November 17th. (Long story short: My primary wants me to come in every month in order to have my Tramadol refilled.) And my rheumatologist wanted to check my levels again in another month.

I’m out of ink (and can’t afford more right now, sigh); I’d really like to print off these articles as well as a list—my current symptoms, things I’ve tried, goals that I have, etc—and bring them in with me. I’ve started looking for rheumatologists in Boston who take my insurance (spoiler: there aren’t many), and I’m considering picking one and calling to make an appointment. But it’s a three-hour drive there, and we’re barely scraping by—never mind able to afford a trip to Massachusetts and back. I’m really starting to think it’s worth the risk, though.

I also need to get my medical records from Dr. Mongelluzzo (my former primary) and Dr. Greco (my first rheumatologist who retired, which was why I started seeing Dr. M); those records have blood work showing positive anti-dsDNA (and I’m pretty sure a positive ANA, too). I’d like copies for myself, rather than transferring them over. For one, it’s just good to have them. And two, I don’t trust Dr. S to actually read through them (nor do I trust Mongelluzzo’s office to actually fax them over, as I’ve had so many issues with them in the past; they’re very nice but extremely busy). I’d like to make copies of my copies for Dr. S, and highlight things that fit into the puzzle. Basically, I have to be my own detective and advocate.

The problem is, I need to get into Waterbury and sign a release form for each of them (the offices are across the city from each other). This is also a gas money issue. And, I have to pay for copies of my medical records from Dr. Mongelluzzo (I’m not sure about Greco’s office). A friend got copies of hers, and it was something like $2 a page—so I know my records are going to be hefty, since I was there for several years.

So maybe now you can see why I’m so doctor-fatigued. 😂

It’s all got to be done, though, if I’m ever going to get anywhere. I’d really like to start moving forward, because I’ve been in limbo for the past nine years. I mean, I dropped out of the university I was attending for my B.S. in Elementary Education because I was so sick. And I never went back. I’m still paying off those student loans. Even though I really love being an author, it’s not enough. We’re drowning here; I’m frustrated because I can’t work, and Mike is frustrated because his job doesn’t pay enough and he can’t seem to find anything else. It’s kind of funny because we both really want to take care of each other.

He insists that he can handle everything if he finds something better; I insist that, if only I could get better, I could work too and he wouldn’t have to stress it.

I keep hoping that if I work hard enough, write better books, and write enough books, we won’t even have to worry about it anymore. But the reality is, even if I became the best author in the world with the most published books ever, it’s not always possible to make a living. I mean, maybe I’m being cynical and negative, but someone has to be on the low end of the spectrum. Not everyone can be a NYT/USAT bestselling author or even mid-list.

Heavy sigh.

On the plus side, I’ve been pouring all of this frustration into my work in progress (SOF4). Speaking of, I broke 12K last night! *happy couch dance*

I should mention again that I have a GoFundMe page open and, if you’re an author looking for services or just want to help, you can donate and help us catch up on bills. Click here.

Anyway, I think I’ve burbled on enough for now. Thanks for listening. 💜

Elizabeth Barone

This Is My #Paingry Face

photo-on-10-12-16-at-4-24-am

It’s five in the morning. My joints are bright hot fireballs of throbbing death. I’m exhausted and have been all day, but the pulsing ache in every single joint of my body is like an alarm clock blaring in my ear. When I’m in pain like this, all I can focus on is the pain. All I want to do is whimper. The only thing I can talk about is how much pain I’m in.

My chronic pain runs my life.

The thick gray smudges under my eyes, the tangled nest of curls bundled up on top of my head, the inward curve of my shoulders—all of it a portrait of the pain I live with when I don’t have a DMARD combatting the inflammation in my joints/tendons. And I’m frustrated all over again, because I’ve been denied those medications. And I’m really feeling it.

I got comfortable. I’d been on SSZ and maybe I took it for granted. Constant headaches and a perpetual metal taste in my mouth seem easy compared to what I’m feeling right now. Maybe I shouldn’t have complained. Maybe I should have kept swallowing the pills and taken what little relief they gave me. I was ungrateful, and now I’m paying the price. The warm summer months rolled in, easing my transition off SSZ. I went swimming. I ran errands. I cleaned my house.

Now I’m lucky I can move at all.

I hate the cold months. I know everyone is reveling in fall right now, but all I want to do is give those who are celebrating sweaters and Instagramming photos of leaves the stink eye. Because for me, October through May is hell unleashed.

If it hurts to die, this is exactly what it feels like.

I don’t mean to be melodramatic. It is five in the morning and I should be sleeping. I’m usually sleeping at this hour. I have places to go and things to do during normal morning hours, yet I will have to choose between resting and getting blood work done. My knees and hips hurt so badly, I feel like I need a wheelchair.

I’d go to the emergency room if I thought they could do anything.

What I need is a different DMARD and a hefty dose of Prednisone to get me through until it starts working. I need a doctor like the ER attending who knew that inflammation was my issue, even if my blood work said otherwise. I need someone like the PA I used to see, someone who listens and won’t give up. Dr. M was becoming that someone, but she left the practice. And now I just feel so fucking lonely and depleted.

I don’t know how I keep doing this. Living with this is the hardest thing I’ve ever done, hands down. And I’ve been through a lot of difficult things. I’m not saying I’d rather go through them again—they were eviscerating enough on their own, thank you—I’m just saying that this is so hard and I’m so tired. I’m out of spoons—emotionally, mentally, and physically.

I’m done yearning to be normal. It’s been nearly a decade. At this point,  it’s not going to happen. I just want some kind of quality of life. I don’t want to burst into tears because I’ve dropped the cap to my water bottle and can’t physically make it across the kitchen floor to retrieve it. I don’t want to feel lonely at almost 5am because my husband went to bed hours ago. I don’t want to slap a temporary painkiller Band-Aid on my gunshot wounds, hoping that Tramadol will bring my pain down to a 8/10. I don’t want to feel like I’m missing out while my husband, brother-in-law, and niece hang out at a gallery and I stay home because I feel like microwaved zombie.

I’m just so fucking tired.

I’m not going to do anything more drastic than smoking a cigarette, but I need all of the love, strength, and support that I can get right now. I feel almost cheesy asking for this, but if you can even just leave a comment with hugs, that would be so helpful.

This probably goes without saying, but I’m taking Wednesday off.

On the bright side, I wrote 400ish* words for SOF4, and it’s officially #OwnVoices because I’ve given Krista my enthesitis related arthritis. Tonight’s—this morning’s?—session was basically just a long description of how much everything hurts her, AKA me. Here’s a little snippet:

Hot twinges buried themselves in Krista’s knees, bringing the world into razor sharp focus. She winced, then quickly smoothed the expression on her face.

“We’ve got to do something,” Perry repeated. “The entire band’s gonna implode if we don’t handle this.” A large curled fist lightly smacked the palm of his other hand, punctuating his last few words.

Her cheeks twitched into an involuntary smile. His passion was endearing. “I’ll let you know,” she said softly, her shoulders curling inward. Sliding her phone from her pocket, she glanced at the time. Shit. It was time to get to class. She swallowed hard. She barely had the energy to walk there, never mind sit through the lecture.

“Hey,” Perry said, his voice low and soothingly warm. “You all right? Your cheeks are kinda flushed.”

Great. She inhaled through her nose, gathering her strength. “I’ve got to go.” With every ounce of energy, she pushed up from the bench. “I’ll talk to you later?”

He shrugged. “Sure thing.” He raised his coffee in a salute.

Turning, she forced herself to walk away like a normal person. Her joints protested, the ache deepening. If that was even possible. She gritted her teeth, stifling the scream rising in her throat. She was so tired—tired of being in pain, tired of trading her life for more rest. And now, with South of Forever in such a bad position, she was going to be even more tired.

* * *

Krista was in a bad mood when she finally got out of class. For one thing, it’d run fifteen minutes over. The pain in her knees had increased, as well as taken residence in her elbows and wrists. For some reason, the knuckle of her left thumb was aching, too—a hot, pulsing flare. Yet, from the outside, her body looked completely normal.

Her phone buzzed in her pocket. Stepping off to the side of the hall she was walking through, she fished it out and read the text from Poppy.

Where are you? We need to start recording. xx

The double exes were like a haphazard “LOL,” thrown in as insurance. Their sole purpose was to placate the terse, demanding tone of the other words. Krista was fluent in girl speak.

Sighing, she texted back a simple “OMW,” and resumed her trek toward the building exit. Her body protested with each step, hinges stuttering when they should have bent smoothly. By the time she got to the double doors, she’d made up her mind.

She opened the Uber app with a quick swipe and a tap, not even bothering to look at the screen. She knew her iPhone better than she knew her own body—a fact that was twice as true, since said body was constantly rebelling. She longed for the warm summer months when she’d have little pain.

Her heart whispered “Soon,” and she shuffled through the double doors and into the sunshine.


*I initially thought I wrote like 600 words, but I just checked the word count and was kind of disappointed. But something is better than nothing, right?

The Complaint

via Unsplash
via Unsplash

Late Monday morning I finally gathered up the nerve to call my rheumatologist’s office. I was super anxious about it because, in the past, I’d asked to see another rheumatologist in the practice and been denied. Apparently they have a policy that patients can’t switch doctors.

I’ve never heard of any policy like this, but no matter how hard I pushed at the time, the office staff refused to let me see the other rheumatologist—even though Dr. M had suggested I see a psychiatrist and sent me on my way. Even though my weekend was very calm and relaxing, by Sunday night I was a ball of nerves again. What if they wouldn’t let me switch? What would I do then?

It wasn’t until I got to my best friend’s house that I was able to call. Sometimes, you just need a buddy. We sat in her office and, while she worked on something for a client, I got on the phone.

“Hi,” I said when one of the receptionists picked up. “I need to speak to someone who I can leave a complaint with…”

I explained everything that happened last Thursday. Calmly. Even though my hands were shaking. The woman I spoke with was very nice. She listened. She didn’t interrupt me. When I finished, though, she explained that it’s against their office policy to let patients switch doctors.

It felt like the floor had suddenly dropped open underneath me and I’d plummeted through. Still, I took a sip of ice water and a deep breath. I was in control, and I wasn’t taking no for an answer.

I reiterated my concerns, that it just was not okay for Dr. S to come in and change everything when I’d been doing so well. Even if sulfasalazine was giving me nasty side effects, it had been helping—which was what Dr. M was hoping. Seeing the results told us that she’d been right, that I have enthesitis related arthritis. We just had to try another DMARD.

I explained that I had really wanted this addressed before it gets much colder, since that’s when I really have trouble with my arthritis. (And I’m already having a really hard time with the cooler temps, but I guess that’s another blog post.) She repeated their policy and explained that, since it’s not really a complaint and “more a difference of opinion,” they wouldn’t ordinarily have me switch. Plus, Dr. C is not currently taking new patients.

Again, I felt the ground giving way beneath me.

But, she said, it just so happens that a new rheumatologist is joining the practice at the end of the month—and she takes my insurance. (Which is state insurance, and boy, do patients on state insurance get treated differently. But that’s also a post for later.) The receptionist told me that she can talk with Dr. S and she’s sure that he will okay the switch. In the meantime, she asked, “You are going to do your blood work, right?”

“Yes,” I said. “Of course.”

She asked if I wanted her to wait to talk to Dr. S, and I said no—I’d rather her speak to him right away. So she was going to send him a message and then the office would call me once they got the new doctor’s schedule. I thanked her and, mostly satisfied, hung up with her.

When I got off the phone, Sandy—who’d been sitting there the whole time—told me that she was really proud of me. “You handled that conversation really well.”

Unfortunately, it just comes with the territory. For the last near decade, I’ve had to learn to advocate for myself. Doctors and their offices are busy, at best. At worst, they don’t want to listen for whatever reason. I’ve been steamrolled by so-called professionals many times—people telling me there’s nothing wrong with me or it’s “just” this or that. It’s hard not to feel beaten down. Throughout my early life, I got spoiled with a pediatrician who usually knew the answers and always listened to my parents and me. I could trust that he would help me feel better, or at least take the time to try.

I could get into all of the things wrong with the medical system—especially when it comes to being a chronic illness patient and a woman—but I honestly don’t have the spoons right now. I’ve spent the last nine years feeling invisible in so many ways. I don’t want to be erased. This is my quality of life, and no one else is going to fight for it.

I’m the only one who can.

I have a young family member who is in the DCF system and placed with another family member. He is special needs and, through DCF, has an APRN social worker who oversees all of his medical and occupational needs. She keeps track of everything and assists his foster parent with setting up appointments and getting different issues resolved. The other day I was thinking about all of this, and how helpful it would be if all people with chronic illnesses were able to have an APRN like that.

I know my body really well, but I don’t have all the knowledge that an APRN does. And since they understand the medical system as well as various illnesses, they can help you accomplish quite a bit.

I don’t know what it would take to get something like this rolling in the U.S. Hell, maybe it already exists. But it sure would be amazing.

Anyway, I’m moving forward. I’m nervous because, for the next month, I don’t exactly have a rheumatologist. I can’t call the office with complaints about my knees, hips, and elbows and expect any results (since Dr. S insisted that I can’t possibly have arthritis, that I don’t need “those medications,” and that I “should be grateful”). It makes me both angry and uneasy. It’s not fair.

But for me and so many others, this is the way it is. Not only do we fight our bodies, but we also fight for our rights as patients. And I get that rheumatologists have polarized opinions on seronegative arthritis. There are countless medical journal articles and research about both opinions. Dr. M was strictly of the “arthritis has to show up in blood work” camp—until I refused to stop coming to appointments and kept reiterating my symptoms and issues. She finally decided to treat me based on my symptoms rather than blood work.

It took me almost ten years to find someone who would.

I can’t afford to spend anymore time working with another doctor who doesn’t believe in seronegative arthritis. Dr. S was very nice and is very much entitled to his opinion. But this is my life, and I refuse to continue being miserable in order to hold his or anyone else’s hand through ten more years of jumping through hoops.

I’m Not Letting This Go

via Unsplash
via Unsplash

It’s been over 24 hours since everything went down and I’m still processing it. Everyone processes things differently—even from experience to experience. Sometimes you need to talk, even if you’re relaying the same information over and over. Other times you just need to quietly mull. I’ve found, in this instance, I’ve needed both space to just absorb and room to articulate.

Even though I’ve talked about it a bit on Twitter, written in my journal, ranted (like a hundred times) to my husband, vented to my sister-in-law, and tiredly filled my best friend in, I still keep running through it over and over again. And, even though technically I’m on a weekend-long social media cleanse, I really felt the urge to sit down and blog about it.

So here I am.

Part of me is in shock, enveloped in complete and utter disbelief. And then there’s the wide-eyed anxious part of me that is all, “See, I told you so.” I’ve been through this before, though, so many times. It’s not really surprising. It’s kind of just my norm.

This past summer, I got a sudden letter in the mail from my rheumatologist’s office, telling me that Dr. M was leaving the practice. I had a panic attack while reading the letter. While I’ve had a complicated relationship with this woman—during my first ever appointment with her, she suggested I see a psychiatrist and that was that—I’d made a lot of progress with her. She was listening to me, she’d given me a diagnosis, and she’d started me on a treatment plan. I spent years jumping through hoops trying to prove to her that I am not a drug addict or crazy. And finally, after nearly ten years, I was making progress in my medical journey. I was getting my life back.

I have joint pain. Often it is debilitating. There is radiological evidence of it; I’ve had several x-rays, MRIs, and even a bone scan that showed bone spurs and some other things in my joints. My illness causes marrow-deep fatigue. It flares from time to time, especially during periods of high stress or sudden changes in weather (like winter, rapidly increased humidity, or a drop/rise in barometric pressure). It behaves like an autoimmune disease—which runs in my family. However, my blood work is always inconclusive. I am seronegative for RA and I’ve had borderline results for ANA and double-stranded DNA.

Dr M determined that I have enthesitis-related arthritis, meaning the join pain is caused by inflammation in my tendons, where they connect to my joints. She explained that ERA doesn’t show up in blood work. She told me that she would treat me as if I have Reactive Arthritis, but that it could still be Rheumatoid Arthritis. She started me on a DMARD and, when it helped a little but had some nasty side effects, urged me to give it another shot. If it still gave me headaches and fatigue, she said, we would try something else.

And then I got the letter.

The letter informed me that she was being replaced by Dr. S, some guy I’d never heard of. I was immediately anxious because I’ve had so many specialists—most of them male—over the years who have brushed me off. I’m anxious in general when seeing a new specialist, but the thought of losing Dr. M and having to start over with a stranger was terrifying. Still, I tried to be brave about it.

I scheduled one last appointment with Dr. M, where she gave me a cortisone shot in my right big toe and explained that she thought I had bone spurs there and in my other big joint in my foot. She said I might possibly have RA and osteoarthritis. And she urged me to give SSZ another shot, even though I asked if I could try another DMARD.

She instructed me to schedule a followup with the new guy for my toe. Cortisone shots don’t always work, and she really wanted me to see a podiatrist if my toe continued to be painful. It was so stiff and hurt so much, I could barely bend it. I couldn’t put weight on it at all and basically had to walk on the ball of my foot—which of course aggravated the pain in my other joints.

I couldn’t schedule my followup yet because the office didn’t know Dr. S’s schedule. This kind of irritated me, but I talked myself down and told myself to give him a chance. I was supposed to call the office to schedule it in a few weeks, but I got super busy with book stuff and it was summer. I always have very minimal pain in the summer, plus the cortisone shot helped and my toe was better. Plus, if I’m going to be honest, I was still super anxious about seeing the new guy. As summer wound down, though, I knew it was time to get back to my health and bite the bullet. So I did it. I was super proud of myself.

In the weeks that passed while I waited for my appointment, my arthritis started flaring. I felt fatigued every day. My joint pain increased. I’d stopped taking the SSZ again because the headaches and other side effects far outweighed the benefits, though it did help a little so I knew we were on the right track. I’d talked to other spoonies with similar diagnoses who’d recommended some DMARDs, so I knew for sure I wanted to try something else.

On the morning of the appointment, I got up early. I was anxious the night before so I didn’t sleep well, but I did sleep. I ate a tiny breakfast even though my nerves were shot. I treated myself to a coffee from Dunkin Donuts. I showered, dressed up—which is special because I’ve mostly been wearing shorts or leggings—and did my makeup. I made a huge effort to make myself feel good. And, I’ll be honest: I also went to great lengths to look like a responsible patient.

Though I’m ashamed to admit it, I’ve been mistreated and accused of drug seeking so many times, I often dress up when I go to the doctor’s—unless it’s someone who is familiar with me and someone I trust. Then I break out the sweats but still rock the makeup. 😉 I want to stress here that I know people who struggle with substance abuse are patients, too—patients who deserve medical care and kindness and respect. So many doctors make assumptions about chronic pain patients, too, which often makes it difficult for us to get those same things that we also deserve. No matter what the patient’s experience, they are a person who should be treated like a person. It’s a messy, outrageous issue that calls for an entire blog post of its own.

I brought a notebook to takes notes in and my agenda so that I could schedule my next appointment. I gave myself a pep talk and even wrangled Mike into coming with me for support, because just his mere presence eases my anxiety. Those blue eyes and the warmth and kindness that he radiates are 100%-natural Ativan, you guys. We arrived a few minutes early. I smoked a cigarette to further calm my nerves. Then we went in.

I checked in as usual and then waited a little longer than normal to get into an exam room. Or maybe it just felt longer because I was so anxious. I’m not sure. Dr. M’s medical assistant was the same woman, which was a huge relief. She took my weight, pulse, and blood pressure, as always. We went over my medications and I let her know that the SSZ wasn’t working out so I’d stopped it. I admitted I was nervous about meeting Dr. S but she assured me that he was very nice.

And he was. He was soft spoken and very gentle during his physical exam. But he completely ignored everything that was in my chart, everything that Dr. M had told me. He brushed aside my questions. He insisted that I couldn’t possibly have arthritis because my blood work is negative. He told me that ERA would also show up in blood work. When I asked him questions and explained that Dr. M had told me otherwise, he brushed me off. He told me that I probably have fibromyalgia—something I’ve heard a thousand times from other specialists who either couldn’t figure out what was wrong or didn’t want to listen. When I explained—patiently—that I’ve been determined negative for fibromyalgia several times because I do not have the tender pressure points, he brushed me off.

I know several people who have fibromyalgia, who have told me that their experiences are completely different from mine. They have muscular and nerve pain, not joint pain. I have joint pain, not muscular or nerve pain. And when I tried Neurontin, a medication for fibromyalgia, I had an extremely adverse reaction to it. I asked Dr. S if fibromyalgia affects your joints, and he gave me a completely hedge-y answer.

He also kept asking about my Tramadol prescription. He asked me like three times where it came from. (My primary care doctor prescribes it, and it is a low dose—only 100mg at bedtime.) Dr. S kept pressing me to consider a pain management clinic.

If the word fibromyalgia turns me off, pain management clinic really makes me tense. I’m sure they help a lot of people, just like I know fibromyalgia is a valid chronic pain illness of its own. But I do not want hard painkillers because they are only a temporary solution to my pain. Plus, to be totally honest, they hit me too hard. I can’t function on them. I’ve only ever wanted a DMARD because they are a long-term treatment for my arthritis. I’ve literally never walked into a doctor’s office and asked for pain medication. NEVER. Because not only do too many doctors automatically assume that’s what chronic pain patients are looking for, but because it’s an automatic death sentence if you have a chronic pain illness and want to be taken seriously. In fact, I’ve asked to be taken off both Percocet and dilaudid because I did not like how they made me feel. It scared me, for example, how quickly my oral dilaudid dose stopped working and how I had to increase the dose literally the second time I took it to the prescribed two tablets a day—when one had worked fine the night before. I told my PAC at the time that I just wanted to go back to Tramadol.

But at that point in the visit, I couldn’t articulate any of this to Dr. S. I just sort of froze. Tears were at bay and it was all I could do to not start sobbing in the middle of the exam room. Panic closed in around me and I could barely breathe.

Dr. S said something about running blood work one last time, but that I can’t possibly have arthritis and it’s probably fibromyalgia. He told me that he didn’t want me to take SSZ anymore, that I didn’t need those medications. And he again recommended a pain management clinic.

I couldn’t get out of there fast enough.

Tears were rolling down my cheeks as I hurried out of the office. Running down the stairs, I focused on sucking down the rest of my iced coffee because it helped hold the tears in. By the time I hit the parking lot, though, I ran out of coffee and was sobbing. I was walking so fast, my body so pumped with flight adrenaline, that I couldn’t even feel my normal joint pain—and Mike could barely catch up. I tried really hard to keep it together, but I could barely get the words out to ask for a cigarette. As I lit it, I completely broke down. Mascara lines down my face and everything.

Hello, full blown panic attack.

Once it was over, this weird calm numbness washed over me. I’ve never experienced that before. It would be super cool if panic attacks could always end that way. I focused on helping a much-loved family member with her own doctor appointment. In a way, it was kind of good that we had back to back appointments in separate towns. In my numb state, I was calm enough to be there for her and it also took my mind off things.

But of course, it didn’t last.

Wave after wave of anxiety hit me once Mike and I got home, even though I’d taken pain medicine, which always helps relax me in both body and mind. It didn’t this time. I’d had a headache all day because I was nervous, but it intensified as the day went on. I’m pretty sure it was a mixed tension migraine because by 10pm, I was nauseous and had light sensitivity, plus my neck and shoulders hurt. Even though I tried not to, I kept bursting into tears, which of course made the throbbing pain in my head worse. And my joint pain was also sassy.

Between that and my mind racing, still trying to process everything, I didn’t sleep. I felt completely lost and even though I didn’t want to give up, couldn’t see any other option. I’ve exhausted every resource. I’ve seen every specialist possible. I’ve literally tried everything.

I spent most of today in a numb stupor. Mostly out of fatigue but also because I couldn’t wrap my head around it. Mostly I focused on helping my family, which also ended up being a huge help to me because I couldn’t wallow.

By later this afternoon, though, I started to feel incredulous. Indignant. Completely fucking pissed. I realized that I deserve better. That, just because Dr. S is a doctor, I don’t have to take his word as gospel. And it is not at all okay that within minutes he undid everything Dr. M did for me—everything I’ve worked for over the last decade. I’d really started to make progress with Dr. M and DMARDs were helping me get my life back. How dare he waltz in and take that away from me.

I decided that I wasn’t going to let him.

As I drove to pick up Mike from work, I realized that I needed to go to bat for myself. I was not going to let this doctor make me feel this way. He might be a great doctor, but he clearly wasn’t the right doctor for me. I decided, as soon as I pulled into the parking lot of Mike’s job, I was going to call the office and complain. Make my voice heard. Insist that I start seeing one of the other rheumatologists in the practice. Make them understand that it was not okay for him to treat me like that.

I was so proud of myself. More and more lately I am rediscovering my voice—and using it to advocate for myself. Not rudely, but loudly. Strong. Steady. Calmly. I was so excited when I slid into a parking spot. I grabbed my phone and speed dialed the office number. It rang and their normal announcements began.

“You’ve reached the offices of Dr. C, Dr. P, and Dr. M. The office is now closed. Please listen carefully as our menu options have changed…”

I felt my heart sink. I’ve never felt so deflated so fast. It wasn’t even 4pm yet, and their office hours have always been 8am to 5pm, Monday through Friday. It felt like someone’s sick joke.

I’m still angry, but I’m also exhausted. These last couple weeks—and especially the last couple of days—have drained me physically, emotionally, and mentally. I’m so grateful that the weekend is here, that I can unplug from social media and just relax. Cleanse. Give myself love.

And then, first thing Monday, I’m making that phone call again.

I’m not letting this go.

Because I deserve better.

The Puzzle Falls Apart Again

via Unsplash
via Unsplash

All of my persistence paid off—I got my shot today. However, after this afternoon’s visit, I’m even more confused and concerned about my illness.

Excuse me for a minute while I haul out my giant binder with all my medical records…

Last summer when my rheumatologist diagnosed me with Reactive Arthritis (ReA), she mentioned that it could still be Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA). Because I’m seronegative, though—meaning my rheumatoid factor, sed rate, double stranded DNA, and HLA-B27 blood work is always either borderline or in the normal range—she decided to treat me as if I have ReA.

Side note: I need to start tracking my blood work levels; even though they’re always in the normal or borderline range, I need to chart them to see if they’re increasing at all—even if in small amounts.

This afternoon, while my rheumatologist prepped me for my cortisone injection, she said she felt bone spurs in both the small joint of my big toe, as well as in the large joint (that giant joint right under your big toe). I’ve been having trouble with both of these joints, so it makes sense.

While I was chasing doctors trying to get my right hip taken care of, scan results showed bone spurs in that joint, too. At the time, I was seeing an orthopedic. There was talk of surgery, and then all of a sudden I was told I wasn’t a candidate.

Nothing was ever resolved. I simply got used to the severe pain. And I got myself a cane.

Around the same time, x-rays showed a sclerotic lesion, AKA “bone island,” on my left ankle. I had a bone scan done to make sure it wasn’t anything cancerous and everything came back normal. According to the Department of Radiology at the University of Washington, “bone reacts to its environment in two ways — either by removing some of itself or by creating more of itself.” Sclerotic lesions occur when whatever is happening to the bone in question is occurring over a long period of time (as opposed to rapidly). “If the process is slower growing, then the bone may have time to mount an offense and try to form a sclerotic area around the offender.”

What might be eating away at my ankle and causing my bones to armor up? I can safely rule out cancer and injury to my ankle. UW’s radiology article lists several causes, two of which are autoimmune and inflammatory diseases.

The puzzle is starting to come together.

All of the signs are pointing toward something degenerative. My rheumatologist mentioned something about osteoarthritis (OA) while she all but ran out of the exam room. (She’s leaving the practice at the end of this month, so at this point she’s just done.) I asked how that was possible, since I’m 27 and definitely not a runner. She basically brushed me off and suggested that I might have OA as well as ReA. I don’t think this is the case.

My gut has been telling me over the last decade that my arthritis is degenerative (like RA). One of my biggest concerns has been my joints deteriorating as my autoimmune disease progresses. I’ve been questioning whether I actually have ReA since last year, but even more so as I chatted with other ReA patients in a Facebook group. My symptoms are similar to theirs, but there are a lot of inconsistencies.

For one, most of the ReA patients could connect the onset of their arthritis with or right after an infection of some sort. I had mono before I got sick, but that was a whole year prior. There’s very little research on mono and ReA, but most articles cite strep, bacterial intestinal infections, and STDs as causes of ReA. Not mono.

Since I just got the cortisone injection in my toe today and I’ll be transitioning to a new rheumatologist at the practice, there isn’t too much I can do about this puzzle right now. My rheumatologist insisted that if the toe doesn’t get better, to follow up with a podiatrist in the meantime. I don’t love the idea, but my best friend made a great point: a podiatrist specializes in all of the tiny bones of the foot. If I end up needing surgery, he will be the one to do it. He’ll also be able to give me fast relief. While it’s true that a podiatrist can’t treat all of my other aching joints, I can’t screw around when it comes to my feet.

need that specialist—especially if this is RA and it continues to progress.

She’s right, of course. I’m just frustrated, and tired of seeing nineteen doctors every time another joint goes. I guess I just thought I was done playing the doctor hop game; I thought once I had a diagnosis, I’d just have to do regular followups and keep taking my SSZ like a good girl.

But of course it’s not that simple.

My rheumatologist said the shot could take a couple of weeks to work, and to go easy on my toe. No flip flops—or at least, not cheap ones that lack support. I’m to wear sneakers and take it easy.

In the meantime, I’m in limbo.