In 2000 I was a student in one of the most difficult joint degree programs available, Georgetown University Law Center, and after my second year I started commuting up to Baltimore to Johns Hopkins School of Public Health for a Masters in Public Health. At the same time I was giving talks and on a book tour for I'm Not Sick, I Don't Need Help: Helping the Seriously Mentally Ill Accept Treatment (Vida Press, 2000)
I was also a mother. I thought that if I had a baby while I was in my 20's and in school, she and I could go to school together, and by the time I was done with the book tour and graduate school, she would be ready for Pre-Kindergarden. Being a student gave me the flexibility to spend time with my baby. I seriously underestimated how hard graduate school and the book tour would be.
My migraines started at age 5. One year, my Kindergarden teacher came to visit DC and looked me up. I didn't remember her. She taught for 20 years and said she would always remember me because I was very bright, but every few weeks I would come to class, hold my head and cry because it hurt so badly. I was the only child she had ever met that had migraines. In my life, I don't remember a time when I didn't suffer blinding migraines. Honestly, as a child I thought everyone had them and that I was just weak because I couldn't hide mine.
When we were packing up our house in DC, I found the thick file of notes from my neurologist from the period when the fibromyalgia attacked. At the time she was treating my migraines with Botox injections at the base of my neck (I have cervical occipital vascular migraines), and I told her that I was feeling radiating pain throughout my body. The pain was spreading and getting worse. Fast forward a year, and I was almost catatonic in bed from the pain. As I have come to understand it, Fibromyalgia is a spectrum disorder. It is possible to have a mild form, and I got the short straw and such a severe form that when I flare, my legs collapse under me and I can't walk.
The rheumatologist who finally diagnosed me with fibromyalgia told me that I needed to get my life "down to zero" because all the type A super stress that I thrived on was feeding my disease. I was devastated. Over the course of the next several years, I tried to work, volunteer and continue to be everything I had planned for myself. Each time I gave 100 percent, I would end up in bed for a week. After a big push (campaigns, organizing Katrina relief, helping a friend, etc.), I would go to my neurologist for emergency trigger point injections and get a lecture.
During this period I went completely vegan. I bought all my food organic and local. I had a great acupuncturist that provided some relief, but she fired me after I spent a hectic week in the hospital helping my best friend who had a brain tumor.
My husband, daughter and I went to Kerala in South India where I spent two weeks getting traditional therapy. They told me on the phone that they could cure fibromyalgia. When we arrived they told us I would need to stay 2 months. At least I tried.
Living on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, watching my friends have wonderful careers while I spent two days a week in bed, was destroying my self esteem.
I was working with the best doctors in the country, but there were no drugs to treat fibromyalgia. Even now I meet medical professionals who believe that a diagnosis of fibromyalgia is a "catch all" for all people who want narcotics. I never know if I should lecture them or shake them!
At the same time wonderful friends from college and law school moved on with their lives, but I still hadn't gotten better. I think that is what separates the Myalgia Mommies and Chronic Babes. Many people didn't want to hang around because after five years I was still sick, not getting better, and had a disease that many doctors didn't think existed. It is hard to be around someone who will always be sick. I learned this when my best friend was diagnosed with a brain tumor. We all rallied around him. There was a walk to cure brain tumors, and we had a great team. I have never seen a walk to end migraines. The definition of a chronic condition is that it will never go away.
Though life on St.Croix was warm and there was very little stress, I would still have bad days, migraines and some flares. The circle of people I surrounded myself with understood this and helped me to adapt to life with my illness.
One of the best gifts I was given was when my daughter began riding horses. It was our job to feed all the horses a few days a week. At first I said I couldn't do it because lifting the 50 pound feed bags was too much. The wonderful woman who was in charge said she would lift the bags. She taught me how to make each bucket weigh less than ten pounds and made it clear that she would take no excuses. I had to find a way to do the work. It was great exercise and time with my daughter.
Please feel free to share your story of how you have built a life around your chronic pain. Living gracefully and full of love is not easy. It is possible. I know it is absolutely worth it.
Have a great weekend.