The BB’s Book Club

 

I met my husband when I was 19 and he was 27.  He was in a friendship group of boys and girls he’d gone to school with, or that lived on his estate.  I was a loner; fairly reserved, so I was socially out of my depth among the tight-knit, strong, sassy, independent women in the group.  They knew who they were, they were in established relationships, they were loosely friends with my husband’s x – it was awkward.  But I was in awe of their bond, their easy banter, their shared experiences.  Thirty years later I’m still a little envious of their remarkable rapport; they have this honest and pure sisterhood.  They’ve been there for each other through school, boyfriends, breakups, pregnancies, miscarriages, raising kids, losing family; they are totally solid.  I still sit on the peripheral of this dynamic but it’s a warm, accepting, fun place for me to  be.  It’s a bit like when you are given a honoury degree.

There was a baby shower a while back.  It would have been so easy not to go.  It was a long enough car journey for my unsteady neck to be bobbing up and down.  My alcohol intake was down to water with a hint of wine and my conversation was dried up.  But I pushed myself.  And I’m so glad because Jen, who’d recently lost her husband, who I barely know, had formed a book club.  They’d met once and she said come along.  Whilst coping with her loss, she was thinking of me and my limitations and I thought fantastic; I can do this.  To live with myelopathy you need to focus on what you can do and let go of what you can’t…otherwise you’ll drive yourself mad and into a wheelchair.

So I find myself part of this sisterhood which I am totally embracing.  I have not missed a book club night.  They are a Come Dine with Me/Through the Keyhole fusion.  I’ve had great food, lively conversation and I’m living.  I’ve been so pleased with myself reading the book and engaging with friends.  It’s been a struggle because I am deteriorating and I am an unreliable guest.  Two weeks ago I was in Charing Cross, with head pain that immobilised me, half distraught thinking what the f**k’s gone wrong now, half angry that ninety percent of the health professionals attending me are clueless about my condition.

Since coming home my priority has been making it to Book Club.  Not tidying, not cooking, not shopping, not pleasing anyone else, just managing my pain and my mobility and getting to my lovely friend Paula’s birthday who was hosting Book Club.  I’d spent the week doing the complete minimum only stretching and moving around the house.  Come Saturday morning I laid in bed, pain in every joint, my head a ton weight sitting on a brittle neck, my stiffness wretched.

Three things got me to book club:

  • celebrating Paula’s birthday who’d put on a scrumptious dinner and dessert,
  • ensuring I remain in the inner circle because it’s a very lonely, miserable existence if you don’t help yourself to socialise
  • MYELOPATHY.ORG – being in hospital was a painful reminder of how misguided so many doctors and neurologists are.

My situation is ridiculous.  There’s Paula, at work all week, shopping for food for twenty guests, spring cleaning, cooking and I’m struggling to participate.  It’s my perfect night and it’s touch and go whether I’ll be well enough.  But what’s been lovely is no one pushes me for answers about my condition, I’m just accepted and treated gently.  I feel so lucky to have these ladies in my life.

But the icing on the cake is their enthusiasm and willingness to support our charity.   When I was in hospital I was so demoralised by the complete lack of interest neurologists have in myelopathy.  I thought, I’m doing something about this NOW!  When I say ‘I’ that means someone else because I can’t raise money for Myelopathy.Org without being helped myself.  So I asked the girls to donate a pound each time we meet for Book Club and Paula was so gracious about me hijacking her birthday to plug and collect for Myelopathy.  Particularly as I’m already the most needy member.  And I feel guilty that my participation is like hit and run.  I’m in there with the food and the book review and then I’m off.

 

But seriously when my husband came for me at about eight thirty my head was pounding and the car journey made me sick.  I was up till 2.30 am with severe body pain but I kept thinking this will pass and then I’ll count the money, blog and get my husband to deposit the funds raised during the week.  I’m still in pain, I’m doing breathing exercises right now like I’m in labour, I’ve taken Oxy and Tramadol but it was worth it; I had a great time last night.  I know I was fuzzy headed toward the end, I had to keep moving around because pain was creeping in and my balance was starting to waiver and my phone confused me.  It affected the quality of my goodbyes.  I wanted to hug and say thank you to each book clubber.  They probably don’t realise what a positive impact they have on my life…but I am so grateful – thank you ladies. xxxx.  Also you gave more than a £1.

On our Facebook page we often chat about how our disability comes into question.  That how we look doesn’t reflect our inner pain; which is true of many debilitating conditions like arthritis, autoimmune disease, fibromyalgia. Then there’s how our mobility alters so precariously; it’s no secret that I could be in bed, rigid with pain one day and in Nero’s the next.  Also age is used against us.  For some reason people think the younger we are, the better placed we are to cope.  Actually it means our spines have given up way too early and if we don’t conserve what we’re left with we’re in trouble.

There is so much heartbreak and agony in the world; it’s hard to know who to help and how; often we don’t have the time or the resources.  Usually I donate to Crisis at Christmas.  This year I want to donate something to homeless teens/young adults.  I can’t fix the world but if you help one person then that’s brilliant.  When those around me support Myelopathy.Org they are supporting me.  I find coping with day to day life challenging. It’s very hard to fight your corner when you’re in pain and exhausted and so we rely on our friends to accept us and charities to be our voice.

Thank you ladies you raised £33.10 for MYELOPATHY.ORG.  Thank you Paula for your patience, I’m getting disruptive in my old age, but it’s because you’re my friend that I had the confidence to butt in.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Hermit

I think I need to join a self help group; Hermits Anonymous.  But that might mean leaving the house.  Let’s pretend that I’m there now,  it’s my first time and I’m sitting in a circle with you.   We are in a cold, dusty church hall.

I really, really do not want to be here.  I don’t know what to say to you.  Well I wouldn’t would I…I don’t go out.  At  Alcoholics Anonymous there would be bleak, hilarious touching stories – being a hermit is quite boring really but as I’m here now I may as well unload.

My name is Alison, I have cervical myelopathy and I’m a hermit.

I’ve been a hermit on and off now for about six years but since Christmas it’s got progressively worse.  I don’t Facebook, or blog, or write, or call my mother in law. Periodically something happens to me.  I alter in some way.  It’s not gamma radiation or kryptonite but it is something insiduous and weakening and I don’t know whether my physical deterioration effects my mind or whether a bout of depression effects me physically.

I think with any kind of disability or mental illness it’s easy to withdraw from life.  It’s not something I did intentionally it sort of crept up on me.  I probably need to tell you what sparked my addiction to my home but I know it’s going to sound like one long moan so I’m going to skip it and tell you a fairytale instead.

Once upon a time there lived a mother or four who was so busy working as a teacher, raising her family and loving her husband that she didn’t realise she was ill.  Her illness was so stealthy and so unpredictable that years went by but the longer her disease went undetected the more irrepairable damage was done.  The mother got slower and slower and tireder and tireder until one day she collapsed in a heap.  The End.

My time in hospital was the bleakest, lonliest, most desperate time of my life.  I was in so much pain and on a cocktail of drugs that seriously I wanted someone to shoot me and put me out of my misery.  It was here that hermitting got a hold on me.

Leaving hospital was the second step toward hermitting. I was wheelchair bound with an operation scheduled that I didn’t really grasp. I was in immense pain.  It was crushing – it’s in your head, between your shoulder blades, down your arms, in your toes.  I had pins and needles in a body that was a fizzing bath bomb.  It was like a constant low voltage taser.  The two months before my op I was so debilitated I sat slouched in an archair;   I physically couldn’t leave the house.  It was the sort of pain that you can’t snap out of because it was constant and deep.  I deliberated over my bag of drugs amongst which I had a large supply of morphine.  Prior to myelopathy I was rarely ill.  I only took paracetemol a handful of times. I think I had anitbiotics twice.  Taking the drugs seemed like giving in. Should I take them all the time? Should I only take them when I’m in actual pain?  I didn’t know.  Family and friends said only take them when you’re desperate.  I was desperate.  I was bordering suicidal I was so knocked off my feet.  Be strong, hot water bottles, vitamins, pilates!  All those snips of advice might be helpful for someone who has strained a muscle or tweeked something but not for someone who has spinal cord damage.

I have my operation.  When I come around I’m in pain but it’s normal pain, pain that you expect when your neck is opened up.  Two hours later I’m sitting up, having a cuppa and the next day I walk from Charing Cross hospital to Hammersmith tube and take the train home.  So you see I’m not a wimp or a fusser; I’m a can do woman.

Then things get a bit awkward.  No one has heard of CSM.  It sounded like something I’d invented.  Also because I had an operation people presumed I was fixed.  Other than Sharon and Paula when friends saw me out and about ‘you look so well’ they said but what they’re really thinking is ‘there’s nothing wrong with her’.  But they don’t see me the next day when I can’t raise my arms to wash my hair, I can’t put my shoes on, I’m swaying around the house like I’m on a catamaran, I’m popping pills, my husband pulling me off the loo, I’m in bed and can’t raise my head off the pillow.

Imagine you are running a marathon and the last mile is killing you.  Your limbs feel heavy, they’re burning from over exertion, you’re uncoordinated, your vision is blurring, it’s hard to breath…well that’s what moving around is like for me. It’s so challenging it’s easier to stay put.

Just because I have a smile on my face and a chirpy voice doesn’t mean I’m not disabled and being disabled doesn’t mean you have a leg and one eye missing.  Myelopathy operates under the radar.  You can’t see the head pain that has a stronghold on the brain or the muscles tightly twisting one day and loosy goosy the next.

After my second operation people begin to get the idea. Me too.

I have a third op eighteen months later.  I do not want a forth.  Ever. I now can’t raise my arms or bend without severe headrush, dizziness, pain.  I can’t scramble eggs my wrists are so weak.  Everything flies out of my hands, my grasp is poor.  I’m slower and more unstable on my feet.  I get confused easily.  I can’t sit for long.  I can’t stand for long. I can’t go far in the car, the poor suspension gives me nodding dog pain…but if I condition my hair, paint my nails, put some nice clothes on I look ok.  So people make unthoughtful comments, they make judgements – why was she using a wheelchair last week but not today – they think its mind over matter.  This all contributes to being a hermit.

To type this blog I’ve had to take 2 x paracemol, 2 x ibruprophen and 2 x tramadol in addition to my regular perscription of 600mg pregabalin and 75mg amitriptyline.  My fingers hurt, they keep involuntarily flicking onto the wrong keys and I have to repeatedly backspace, it’s very frustrating.

I haven’t really facebooked, emailed, written, left my home much since October. I find Winter a difficult season. Getting dressed is hard work; so many layers; it’s so much easier staying in my pjs.  So me showering and dressing is soldiering on.    Me going for a coffee is soldiering on.  I manage my pain by only doing what is in my comfort zone that day.  When I’m tired or struggling I go to bed no matter what time of day.  I used to feel guilty; a fraud when I felt well.  Not now. I’m determined to take care of myself and enjoy life even when my life is within the walls of my home.  I’ve been so poorly at times that I’ve conquered justifying my illness and explaining the hundred reasons why my husband is my full time carer.  I don’t care that so and so had a back operation and now they’re playing squash – good for them or that so and so is in terrible pain with siatica but they still go bingo – that’s lovely but it’s not a competition on who copes best with pain, or who suffers more.  I don’t need confirmation from others that I’m a trooper.  I know I am but who cares anyway, I just want to laugh and be happy.  Yesterday for instance I’d stiffened to the point of snapping so my husband drives me to the local leisure centre to swalk and with my float attached I stretched and flexed in the water in a way I can’t do on land because of poor balance. I had a lovely steam and hot shower and moisturised my skin even though my heavy arms burnt with pain and it was exhausting.  I couldn’t dry my hair though because I couldn’t hold the weight of the dryer or raise my arms. Afterward we went for coffee and a pastry in Cafe Rouge, sitting by the window, the warm sun on our faces. Marks’ food hall is next door.  I love looking in Marks.  It’s an outing.  When we arrived home I couldn’t get out of the car, it took my husband a good few attempts to get me out.  I couldn’t straighten, I was bent over.  My head was compressed like corned beef.  My daughter unpacked the shopping and put it away whilst passing me ingredients to make sandwiches.  I didn’t have a sarnie because my digestion now is crap and my weight continues to increase so I only have cereal for breakfast and one small healthy meal at dinner time.  That evening we watched Line of Duty.   I really, really enjoyed my day.  I was able to chat to my kids, have a laugh, hear their gossip, tease my husband.  Read a little. It was lovely; even though I needed painkillers I felt sprightly.

I’ve learnt not to dig myself a hole because I want people to think I’m brave and not wallowing in my drama.  Tomorrow maybe I’ll have a bad day, maybe I won’t cope, maybe my husband will have to cook or the kids will have to sort themselves out.  I don’t force myself anymore.  Taking a back seat has been the hardest thing but life is so much more doable now that I’ve let go.

This is why there’s been a long gap between this and my last blog.  I can’t be Miss upbeat twenty four seven, sometimes I feel overwhelmed by my recurring symptoms.  I struggle with the inconsistency of them not that I want to feel bad all the time, it’s just hard yo-yo-ing between well and unwell.  My condition can change hour by hour and that affects my confidence to go out.  I continually make arrangements only to back out at the last minute.  I have to be spontaneous and go hell for leather when I feel well.  Like when I saw LaLaLand on a Monday and Split on a Thursday.

The real point of writing today’s blog is that I’ve returned to the brilliant https://www.facebook.com/groups/myelopathy.support  after a long absence. I’ve read through the blogs and see fellow members experiencing the ‘work through the pain’ bullshit that I had to deal with.  Keeping mobile is essential but to live with myelopathy you need to be realistic and accept limitations and you need a supportive family who are informed.

In an ideal world anyone diagnosed with myelopathy should be referred to councelling. because it’s such a mind game. An informed professional is needed who can talk to us and our family about the condition, what to expect long term and how it might effect our life. Husbands, wives, children, friends need to recognise that we’re an endangered specie.  We need patience and understanding to help us conserve our energy and effort so that we have quality time.  Often I’ve felt like I have a personality disorder, often I’ve felt dangerously low, all the time I yearn for the old me.  The me that was going to be an active grandma in the future, the wife that was going to travel around the world with her husband, making love in the sea.  Instead I’m a wife who has no feeling below the waist; that’s quite a challenge for a relationship. My identity has been torn up and I’ve spent the last years reinventing myself.

I’m two and a half years now without surgical intervention.   I haven’t lapsed, I have not ironed or carried the washing basket.  I have not hoovered or mopped the floors. My symptoms are returning though but I am being strong and determined and getting on with things but I no longer take risks with my health.  I no longer pretend to be superwoman.  I’m simply a woman.