I got really sick in 2001. It took another two years to get the first diagnosis that made any kind of sense – Chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS). Two years again to fill out more of the picture with diagnoses of Fibromyalgia and Endometriosis. It wasn’t until 2007 that severe Dissociation started to round out our understanding of my perplexing and severely disabling experiences. There are still some unknowns. For example, we know that none of the mucous producing cells in my body work very well, but we don’t know why. It doesn’t fit with any my existing diagnoses and I test negative for the only other diagnosis offered, Sjorgens. So I live with dry skin and dry mouth that destroys my teeth and dry eyes that cause widespread nerve die off and means I have to be very careful about caring for them because I can’t feel it when an irritant gets into my eye. The only other possibility offered to me is chronic anxiety destroying mucus function due to PTSD, which I developed as a child.
Today, it’s day 14 after the surgery and I’m home on the couch, completely exhausted and scared. I have some very, very bad memories, and at times like this I get scared. CFS and Fibro are diagnoses of exclusion. That means I spent years getting tests and seeing doctors. We learned things the hard way. Like that my liver doesn’t seem to work so well. Or that I’m allergic to opiates. I tried a lot of pain killers under desperate circumstances before someone figured out it was the whole drug family I can’t process. At one point, my health was crashing so fast and so catastrophically with no answers that a specialist warned me they might be figuring out what was wrong with me in an autopsy. My mother was told to be prepared for a funeral. There was so much fear. Bone deep, soul killing, trembling but nowhere to run, and no one to fight, and no point in screaming, and no escape, fear.
There’s host of horrifying memories. Lying on the floor vomiting due to an allergy to Digesic, stomach acid burning in the 6 stitched holes in my mouth, the sensation something like biting down on burning coals that don’t cool. Screaming, unbearable agony.
Memories more banal, the daily suffering. Not leaving the house in months except to see doctors. Being told everything was in my head and I just needed to exercise more. Passing out on the footpath while walking, trying to manage Depression I didn’t have. Endless rounds of job applications for work I wasn’t even slightly well enough to do. I remember months of severe dental pain, living on milkshakes and blended peas. I remember baths in my clothes so a family member could come in and wash my hair because I was too exhausted to lift my arms that high. Old friends asking me in bewilderment “What do you do all day?”, new friends telling me they wished they had CFS so they could have a holiday. Crying with frustration and wishing desperately for the day I would be well enough just to do half an hour of cross stitch a day, for my sight to return and the pain lessen and a tiny bit of energy to come back, not enough for a life, just enough for a tiny, quiet hobby to give some shape to the endless days. I would have given anything, just for that.
So there’s terror, and memories of terror, and a kind of survivor’s guilt. I know many people are still living in their nightmares, lives shortened by illness, chronic pain and disability destroying dreams and caging a big hopeful heart in a dark place.
Today I’ve been scared. I had a terrible down turn in my life after a surgery previously. It was to remove infected teeth, I was told the abscesses were drip poisoning me and I’d be much healthier after the op. Instead I had allergic reactions to everything and my health crashed. For the next few years I needed a wheelchair or electric scooter to be mobile most days, I was so exhausted and in such terrible pain. It doesn’t take much to bring back that fear.
So today I’m reminding myself that those days are gone. Even if I got really sick again, it won’t and can’t be like it was. I’m no longer lost and bewildered in a dark woods full of monsters. I know the territory now, I understand the need for grief, the place of rage and humour. I’m not being tormented by a mad lover or spending energy desperately trying to hold onto empty friendships. I have names for what is wrong with my body, I have a safe public housing home to live in, a secure income on welfare, a lovely doctor who looks out for me. The nightmare that scares me is just a memory now, I’m jumping at shadows. So I sit here on the couch with my white and orange dog, and we eat Zooper Doopers and watch Buffy and life goes on. The fear that was choking me settles. The trembling in my bones calms. This is my life now, and sometimes it’s scary or painful or hard. But those terrifying days of loss and torture are gone. I made it through.