The Cube

It occurred to me yesterday that living with myelopathy is like a compendium of games.

The day usually starts with The Cube.  How many attempts will it take to get the lid off the coffee jar?  The game requires patience and concentration.  I focus on keeping my grip tight.  I need the audience (my family) to be quiet; a casual comment like good morning and coffee granules are crunched underfoot for days.  Oh dear I have to use my ‘simplify’; “Kitty!  Would you fill the milk jug for me.”  Did I put sweetener in? I did.  Did I? I ‘ve done years of trial runs but still the game challenges me. People may presume that being at home my day drags but no.  Half an hour goes by and I’ve yet to get the coffee lid back on the jar.  I’m so busy my coffee is cold.  God I love it when someone makes me a cuppa.

Much of the day is spent playing Cluedo.  Is my iPod upstairs in the bedroom or in the kitchen with Caitlan?   Is my phone in the front room with Paddy?   My tablets are definately in the bedroom with my husband.  My book? That’s in the garden.  I get my cane, take a step down onto the patio, holding the grab rail and then shuffle. My right leg doesn’t lift without considerable effort and I can’t afford to fall over again.  Whoosh  it’s the afternoon and I’ve done nothing but boy do I feel tired.

Scaletrix.  I need the loo.  In the chair lift I settle.  Finger on the up button.  Staying on the track isn’t the problem, it’s maintaining finger pressure otherwise I stop prematurely and beep.  It’s not as fast a ride as I’d like and the ride down is a bit hairy – it’s the vertigo that does it.

Twister is the most physical.  I can’t bend. Crouching down to the fridge I get on all fours to rise.  Well that worked yesterday.  John! Patrick! Caitlan! Help! I can’t get up. Rolling off the sofa I’m on all fours again, a hand on the coffee table to leverage myself up – oops – here I go balancing precariously, doing a reverse mexican wave.  I put a hand on the door to steady me.  Concentrate. Slowly…put…one leg…in front of the other.  Ahh.  Ahh. Ahh. Bugger that spasm was bad.  Why is my right leg a foot behind me.  It’s so heavy. It’s not moving.  I think I’ll have to sit the next round out.  Maybe a lay down.  Gosh it’s tea time.

I think Articulate is the most frustrating.  Verbalising is increasingly challenging, the words I want are rarely in reach.  I confuse names.  My word selection is dysfunctional I say wank instead of wink, tart instead of smart.  (My friends really give me dirty looks lately.)  I stop midway in sentences because I lose the thread of what I’m saying.  I need…I need…oh what’s it called?  It’s red….it’s jelly…not jam…it goes with…with…oh what’s this meat called?  Turkey! Yes.  It goes with turkey. Cranberry sauce shouts Paddy – yes Paddy that’s it Cranberry sauce. Nope we don’t have any. F**k!  It’s funny how that particular word rolls off the tongue more easily every day.  I say it quite eloquently I think.

The physical toll myelopathy takes is difficult to cope with but the mental strain and stress are as debilitating.  Holding a conversation, banking, shopping; these are all challenging.  I like to think I’m a generous person.  Twice I’ve walked away from the cash point leaving my money in the machine for the next person to spend.  At the checkout I need to focus – on my pin number – remembering to remove the card and put it away safely….whilst the cashiers are chatting to each other, laughing.  I feel like screaming – Please! Just for one minute concentrate on me – the customer – who is obviously a bit dithery and in need of some support.  Oi and you behind me Mister – the more you tut the slower I’ll go!

The last  game I play?

Come on lot’s of you have played it too.

Hope your surgeon has a steady hand – buzzzzzzzzzz.

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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.

Thirty Years A Slave

It’s my wedding annivesary this month.

I don’t think my husband knows that.   We’ve never celebrated it.  Our lives were so busy with work and children and enjoying the moment that it got put to the back of the drawer.

So much has changed since I first fell ill with CSM…but most of all my husband.  These are not criticisms they’re fact.

My husband expected

  • a dinner on the table after work, something involving meat and veg
  • the house to be tidy
  • the children to be settled

If I typed a list of what I did and what he did I think I’d probably divorce him…so we won’t go there.  Actually although I was a full-time working mother I was happy to meet his expectations.  My nature is to care.

We ticked along nicely.  Sometimes we had spats and fallings out.  Sometimes I wanted to scream in his face that I was bloody exhausted from work and juggling kids and housework and cooking.  Other times I felt this immense pride that I was a super being. I’d never been good at anything – I was so mediocre I blended into walls, doors, landscapes, skyline; I barely existed till I met my husband.  His high expectations elevated me; I was an epic wife and mother.  That’s not a brag – it’s true.

Without noticing myelopathy  gradually and silently drained my power, sapping my life force until I was empty…until I crumbled.

I remember the morning my husband drove me to A&E.  it was still dark.  About 4am. We had to leave our eldest, 16, in charge of our other three.  For me to relinquish my responsibility, to beg to go to A&E, meant I was in trouble.

I had no idea that my trip to A&E for some hard drugs would reveal that I was slowly becoming paralysed.

I was in hospital for seven weeks.  Whilst I battled pain and disability my family began to disintegrate.  The tight ship that I’d nurtured began to sink.  Call after call.  Questions. Hot air. Mini breakdowns. Slaming of doors.  It was all happening. The Murphy’s in crisis.  Blame was attributed to everyone and everything.  Each Murphy had an opinion. Fingers were pointed, hurtful words were spoken and that was just day one.

I had calls from my husband. He’s never coped well with vagueness or ambiguity.  How many items should he put in the washing machine – 10? No honey.  Ten socks would be too little and ten towels too heavy.  Just half fill it with anything.

My thirteen year old son calls.  He’s been prescribed tablets for his acne.  He needs to know how to swallow a tablet!  I talk him through it, together the tablet is downed.

My sixteen year old daughter calls.  She’s slammed the front door and leaves a shouting father behind.  Mum he’s cracking up.  We’ve no clean clothes, no towels, the smoke alarms persistently bleeps whilst dad burns, its chips every night and accusations that if we’d done more to help you wouldn’t be so ill.  She says that’s something coming from a husband who can’t find his own socks and boxers without his wife.

My husband was not a new man; there were no moisturisers on his bathroom shelf – a man bag? Please! But what I love about him is he rose to the challenge.  There is nothing my husband can’t achieve.    As cups and coffee jars fell from my grasp,  his broom and pan were not far behind.  As I swayed from room to room, tripping up, slipping up, banging into everything, he pulled up mats and moved furniture.  When my hands were too feeble to stir and too painful to mix, he picked up the wooden spoon.  I remember when my body gave out and I was confined to my bed awaiting another operation. I was too weak to hold a book so he unbound the pages of a best seller and attached a few at a time to a piece of cardboard that rested on my chest – we called it a Swindle.  I think that period was the worst time in my life.  I couldn’t climb stairs so occupational therapy delivered a hospital bed which was in the front room, next to the window.  I would watch the birds and the squirrels.  It’s so silly really but I named them.  My husband made ledges in the different trees and put bird food out to encourage activity. He conquered…the washing machine,  the oven, the Hoover, the iron, even sewing. Following my third operation I had reduced movement in my neck – I could not look down, food kept falling off my fork, so he made a base raising my plate to mouth level.  It was nice enough that I could bring it to the coffee shop or to a restaurant.

Marriage is hard.  Family is even harder especially when you have adult children living in the family home.  I don’t want to give the impression that it’s all Mary Poppins in our house.  It certainly is not.  My husband is my carer.  We spend too much time together.  It’s hard for me never to be alone.  I’m quiet, introverted, happy with my own company.  It’s hard for him not working. My husband is larger than life, opinionated, social.  My disability has been harsh on both of us.  There is no shielding loved ones from this disease because it is so erratic, so insidious, so damaging.

Like a kangaroo I bounce from one physical state to another.  I’ve spent the last two days in bed with a pain in my head and neck the demobilises me. My mood dips, rises, simmers. Today  I’m upbeat but I’m losing my balance, my head is cloudy, my grip has gone.  I feel very confused.

Today my husband got up with the kids, he drove them to school.  He popped into Aldi on way back for groceries.  He’s walking the dogs now.  On his return he’ll make soup and a sarnie. After he’ll tidy and hoover.  Then he’ll think about dinner.

I know without doubt my husband has got my back.  He’s researched myelopathy so thoroughly he could operate if he had to. We’ve always been a team.

On Facebook, on the myelopathy support group I feel sad reading comments about family members being unsupportive. I can’t imagine how gutted that must make you feel.  I don’t know how I’d cope if my husband wasn’t hovering around, checking on me, making our home cosy and looking after the kids.  He’s simply a different man.  I fell in love with the old him…but it’s the new him that I continue to love.

Funny bones

I don’t know why but sometimes I’m off kilter.  I get this heavy feeling of gloom and I’m not sure how I attracted it.  It makes me uncomfortably restless. I think of a skipping Damiola Taylor.  I see Stephen Lawrence unaware of the fatal danger ahead.  I think of my sons.  I don’t usually make these links but my gloom drags my negativity from the back of my mind to front of stage.

So I go missing.  I don’t Facebook, I don’t blog, I don’t work on my book because I try not to let bad mojo seep into my writing.  I like to think of my writing as reflective rather than a ruse to pull others onto my sinking raft.  There I go again with negativity.  It’s hard to shake.  At these anxious times I might lay in bad longer than normal because I don’t want the kids going to school with me on their mind.  Unlike doctors and surgeons they get to experience myelopathy up close.  They see how hard it is for me to stand from sitting, how I topple backwards, how bending down gives me such violent headrush that I’m gripping the nearest thing to me.  It’s a strange sight to see but we do mainly laugh about it…and then I send them to their rooms. Actually I don’t because who’d make me tea and bend down to the fridge to get the cheesecake out?

When my children  were little they loved a book called Funny Bones about clumsy skeletons.  They lived in a dark, dark, house and when they collided they called for Doctor Bones.   Sometimes he fixed them other times Doctor Bones put the wrong foot on the wrong leg or heads on backwards.  I feel like this body that I have now is not mine.  I was fit and firm and athletic and now I am something quite the opposite.  I feel like I’m on repeat.  There’s not a collision but my limbs stop working. My consultant Mr Bones (that’s not his name but I did see a neurologist called Dr Tripp – that didn’t go down well) scaffolds my neck.  I get to shuffle around again.

So  I have a little morose, silent breakdown now and again.  It’s not indulgent or selfish it’s necessary.  If something important is broken and it can’t be fixed it’s natural to be angry, to feel cheated, to question is it worth getting up today.  But it is. It’s that old story… someone out there is worse than you.  They are more disabled, they are in more pain, they have no friends or family, they are younger than you and their life will be shorter.

Myelopathy is life changing.  It’s like when a first child is born.  It will turn your life upside down but I think it’s better to flow gently down its river than be caught up in a current.  Don’t feel bad about feeling bad, that’s what I’m saying.  And equally important don’t let myelopathy isolate you.  Phone family and  friends; meet up with them, let them visit you even if you can’t get out of your pyjamas. Even though I was a little low and offline my friend Paula took me to Zaza’s.  It was so uplifting to be out and about.  My friend Sharon is visiting on Monday – there will be cake.  Already I feel a little more myself and here I am blogging again.

I think an element of honesty is important when blogging and talking within a support group.  I say an element because writing is about imagination and perspective. I am not down playing how depressed myelopathy can make you feel.  How the chronic pain is like some abyss you’re trapped in.  I think even Bear Grylls would crack.  I’ve been in a bad place a few times and I think each time isolation was at the root of it.  I’ve huddled under the duvet crying, I’ve looked at my tablets and had bad thoughts, I’ve screamed at my family.  These days when, like the London underground, I come to a sudden halt in a dark tunnel I say ‘Help! I’m struggling, I need  company, I want you to watch a film with me, can you make me tea and scrambled eggs’. I think I’m doing better phycologically  even though I’m  physically worsening.

So if you feel low talk about it.  Think of ways your family could help you even if it’s washing up or making themselves and you a meal.  If you can’t share your worries with family or friends then go online and check out https://www.facebook.com/groups/myelopathy.support/?notif_t=group_purposes_change&notif_id=1478724691615960  You are not alone. Comfort, help and information  is only a few key strokes away.

Support

If you have cervical myelopathy, or think you have it, check this site out http://myelopathy.support/myelopathy.html   I’ve had csm for five years but only recently found this site.  I’ve been stumbling around (metaphorically and physically) trying to figure things out myself.  This site is brilliant, there’s definitions of terms, visual explanations, personal stories, medical breakthroughs and investigations.  So check it out because it’s helped me immesely.  I’m still a follower.  It’s also helpful for family and friends to visit the site too because myelopathy effects the whole family, my husband is now my full-time carer.  Like mental illness, myelopathy isn’t always physically obvious so those around you may not be sympathetic particularly if you are middleaged.  Myelopathy is a natural degenerative disease, not uncommon in senior citizens, where it’s progression is usually slow.  Health professionals are not always trained to care for younger sufferers.  Myelopathy is not a one size fits all disease.  It’s complicated.  Each person’s body is unique, how we sustained myelopathy will be different, the damage to our spines will differ, nerves damage from surgury won’t be the same.  I could go on because I’m a bit boring like that but you’ll get the picture from the website’s post.

Now back to a bit of what this site is about.  I love a disaster movie, particularly alligators, conger eels, sharks.  I saw and heard of something horrible yesterday.  It was the most cruellest, freakish thing to do, I nearly cried – shark finning.  My advice is never click on a related link.  It will suck your breath out of your body it’s that horrendous.

rag and bone man human  my song of the week.  Remember we are only human so don’t be too hard on yourself (unless you have done something really bad)