Have You Tried Turning It off and on Again?

Spring is finally started to come to Southeast Michigan, and with it, the expected fibromyalgia craziness.

First, mid-February’s snow storms brought pain due to humidity changes, but the solid week of snow after brought some relief. And just when my body thinks, ‘we are in the deep of winter and I’m good with this,’ the temperature rises again and all of the snow melts.

My body has now changed to the ‘what the heck?!?’ spring transitional mode early; this usually doesn’t happen until mid-March at least. These transitional periods mean that fibromyalgia symptoms can change daily. (And sometimes even hourly!)

Seven years after diagnosis, I feel like I should be ready for this. I should know that my body is going to do this until the temperature starts getting into the mid 50s on a regular basis, and I should plan my activity levels accordingly. But for all of my planning and scheming to take it easy on myself during these spring thaws, it seems something always gets thrown in that causes my plans to go out the window. This time, it’s crazy work hours, some mental health work and a low-grade infection (a UTI that I have antibiotics for because all of my tips and tricks to take care of it aren’t working anymore…if you want TMI…)

This past week, it all caught up to me. By Friday, I was part zombie, part comfort-food-carnivore; I was exhausted but would eat every bit of food you put in front of me. That evening, I didn’t just fall asleep; I passed out.

And I slept. And slept some more. 13 hours later, I finally woke up. And while I was no longer this zombie/carnivore hybrid thing, I still decided that everything that had been planned for the day was not gonna happen. Instead, I sat curled in my comfy chair watching my husband play video games the entire day until I passed out again.

And slept another 13 hours.

After the second sleeping session, I started feeling like myself again. I did a (modified) weekly run and continued to rest to shore up energy for the beginning of the work week. And looking back on things, I should have realized I was coming due for another fibromyalgia reset.

A fibro reset is exactly what it sounds like. Your body goes offline by sleeping deeply for 16-26 hours in order to reset your energy levels and mental capacity. I usually need one of these once every two months. But although I can tell when my body is starting to gear up for one, I don’t get to choose when the actual reset is going to happen. I’ll just wake up one day and either realize I’m still so exhausted I can’t get out of the bed (which is a majority of what my sick days are from), or I’ll be doing something and suddenly I can barely keep my eyes open.

I’ve found resets to be a lot like turning your computer off and on again. And it’s only until after the reset takes place that you realize how much things were starting to slip. You start to see the laundry piling up, tasks at work not being done completely, your diet and exercise regime going out the window, and other surprising things like a kitchen starting to look like the hubby created four different new recipes and none of them were ever cleaned up. And after you get over the shock of missing things, you can slowly start to pick up where you left off and get on with daily living.

I’ll admit, I’m not a fan of fibro resets because of their frustration factor. It seems like you just start getting into a new habit or routine when one happens, and it means you lose most of the momentum you’ve gained over the past two months. This is especially true with the diet and exercise. Even two days where you don’t keep moving or eating to your appropriate plan will take away months of work, making you feel like you are going backwards. Still, I can’t stop them from occurring. And I have tried everything I can think of to do so.

So thanks to the reset, I’m going to have to be spending this week figuring out what I’ve lost. So far, I think it’s just my stamina that has taken a big step back as I’m recognizing I’m pushing myself more to get normal chores and my exercise done. I’ve also noticed the daily stretches have become harder to do again, which makes me wonder if I need to bump back my stretching to easier exercises.

Yes, I know – To the average person, I’m sure it sounds like I’m being ridiculous. How could 48 hours of being out of commission cause anyone to lose strength, stamina or flexibility?

Welcome to the exasperation that is fibromyalgia.

The good news is that I had some good habits established before the reset. So that will help make up some ground. In the meantime, I’ll also do a quick revisit to my diet and exercise routines to see if they need an update, or if there is something that would work better for me. So at least the check-in actions will be something good that comes out of this.

Overall, I’m sure it’s a good thing to have a regular reset, much like resetting your computer or phone every now and then. At least on a computer or other electronic device, they function better (or at least more normal) after a reset is complete. If that was the case with a fibro reset, I’d be marking the calendar and counting the days toward the next one.

After this week’s check in, I’ll move forward again with modified plans, and see how far I can get toward my stamina and strength goals. I have to keep moving and stay positive about all of this. After all, gardening season is coming up and I have plans for my beautiful gardening space.

Things People With Fibro Don’t Want to Hear (And Some They Do).

Through the years I’ve heard a lot of people attempt to sympathize or relate to fibro sufferers when they are flaring. And while many of these sayings were spoken with good intentions, they end up hurting instead.

Remember, Fibromyalgia is an indeterminate diagnosis, so many people who have the disease have to fight to simply prove that they are disabled in the first place; many times even fighting their own thoughts because we have been so shamed about claiming a ‘fake’ illness.

So for this post, I want to list things I’ve heard over the years and why I don’t want to hear them. And I’ll add some encouraging things too, just to give some ideas of things that make me feel supported or loved.

“But you don’t look sick!”
Ahh, the classic saying that is not only said about Fibro, but also MCAS, POTS, EDS and many other illnesses. Just because I don’t look sick doesn’t mean that I’m not. And if this is meant as a compliment, it’s doing a pretty bad job of being one. Because what you are really saying is I’m doing a really good job hiding being sick.

The truth is that those of us who have these illnesses don’t want to have them.  We want to be able to do things we like and not need additional aids or help getting day to day tasks done.  But we can’t always be independent.  And saying we look like we should be just furthers the pain and frustration that we can hide very well that which makes us sick.

“Well, I have <fill in the blank>”
If you are trying to sympathize by sharing an illness you have, you aren’t doing a good job of sympathizing. The last two times I heard this statement, it was someone telling me they have arthritic hands, and the second was a headache (NOT a Migraine…a headache). I can, without a doubt, tell you that having a fibromyalgia flare up is worse than either of these two. When you can’t walk up the stairs, drive a car or barely turn a page in a book because your entire arm hurts, then we might be able to compare pain. Not to mention the fact that a fibromyalgia flare lasts much, much longer than a simple headache can.

“You know, many others feel the same way as you.”
This one really hurt, especially because it was someone that I looked up to at one time saying it. This person didn’t know anything about fibromyalgia, and my attempts to even explain it to them were useless.

But even though many people suffer from fibromyalgia, you cannot compare chronic pain with this disease. Let someone with fibromyalgia compare pain with another sufferer. Don’t throw everyone in the same boat. We all have different thresholds of pain levels, we all have different flare triggers, and different sites of pain.  Chronic pain is bad, but it is different in intensity as well as significantly different areas being targeted by pain.  A Chronic pain patient could have Chronic back pain, ankle pain, or arm pain.  In Fibromyalgia, the pain is constant, and it’s everywhere in your body.

Ultimately, everyone is unique, and everyone must be allowed to express their pain.  Trying to simply group fibro patients in with Chronic pain patients (or other maladies) doesn’t do any of us justice. Everyone isn’t me, and everyone isn’t having pain right now. Realize too, that this isn’t about feeling special. It’s about feeling heard and understood; something fibro sufferers rarely are.

“You are going through a flare? So this really hurts?” <Smacks my arm>
Yep! This happened. And by a family member. He wasn’t expecting me to break into tears after hitting me either. The lesson here – If a fibro sufferer says something hurts, DO NOT test that. I think it’s one of the absolute worst things you can do.

And just for the record, I did get him back a couple of months later – in the martial art I studied, I learned where some very  painful pressure points are. He got a nice (touch controlled) punch to a rib pressure point that took his breath away.

So instead of saying something above, how about saying one of these things, instead?

“I’m sorry you are hurting. Would <this> help?”
Just the acknowledgement from someone that they see me in pain is a comfort. Being willing to help with getting a door, finding a chair to sit in or a place to rest for a moment is huge. It doesn’t have to be much, but it makes us feel supported, which can actually help us relax and maybe even lessen the pain level slightly.

“That sounds brutal! Tell her I’m thinking about her.”
This was said by the same person that made the ‘others feel the same way’ comment above. The context was my husband telling the person that I would not make an engagement because I was in so much pain. The person recognized I was in pain and using the term ‘brutal’ in his response actually meant a lot because they validated that I really WAS in that large amount of pain and had no chance of making the event.

“I am glad to see you/thank you for coming out”
Many times fibro sufferers can’t make events or engagements because of the pain levels. We aren’t trying to simply cancel all the time, we just don’t know what our pain levels are going to be like. Sometimes the fact that we made it at all is astonishing. So if we made the effort, it might because we are pushing through just to see you. Too many people take it for granted that someone with fibro can just go anywhere. That isn’t always the case.

Overall, just recognizing that yes, fibromyalgia IS a disease and causes widespread pain and that we who have it CAN be disabled is huge. Keep that in mind when you are talking to someone with the disease, and you can help us feel supported and not feel like so much a burden.

Looking Disabled

Me, finishing my very first half marathon on Belle Isle in Detroit.

Still trying to be an athlete, the year of my diagnosis I ran two half marathons. The last one I pushed the hell out of myself to get it done in less than three hours.

And boy did it cost me.

I spent the rest of the day (and the day after) barely moving and using my cane heavily. And even though I had expected to be in a lot of pain and barely moving, there were still things that needed to be done. So my husband and I went out to do errands the second day after the marathon.

I decided to wear my half marathon shirt that I was so proud of, but again relied heavily on my cane. The looks I got in the stores were priceless, especially because the shirt had the date of the half marathon printed right on it.

I’m sure many of the people were simply thinking I was a volunteer and not a participant. Perhaps they made up some story in their mind about how I was someone who suffered a catastrophic joint injury and could never run again, but would still support the running community. I even had a well-wisher ask about how the race went. And when that happened, my biggest fear started going through my mind; that they would think I was a drama seeker, and the cane was somehow my choice for a drama seeking at that very moment.

Fibromyalgia is tough in that you really don’t know when those flares will hit. Sure, you can start recognizing patterns to plan for bad days; but trying to predict every single trigger is something that is just too much to attempt. That means there may be days when you are back to activities that were pre-fibro and feel great, and in the next day (or even in the next hour!) you feel like crap because you just pushed a little too much. And out comes the cane, the wheelchair or electric cart through the grocery store to get your groceries for the week. Or you ask someone else to get you home because the pain won’t let you drive or walk anymore.

Often we see stories on social media about someone who is told they ‘don’t look’ sick; so they shouldn’t have a cane, a disability sticker, shouldn’t take a certain parking spot, etc. And ultimately, it turns out that person had cancer, MS, or some other determinate diagnosis that clearly shows that yes, they deserve those tools because YES, THEY ARE SICK.

With an indeterminate diagnosis like Fibromyalgia, we don’t have the luxury of a black and white test to say whether or not we suffer from this disease. And to many, hearing someone say they have fibro is akin to someone trying to get out of something claiming they have a physical ailment; it’s an excuse to be lazy, dramatic or to just get attention.

Now I know I probably shouldn’t worry about what others think and say to me. And I also know I need to make sure I do whatever I can to ensure and safeguard my ability to get around and get things done. But at the same time, I worry about the perception. And some of the reason is because I’ve seen people who truly don’t have a reason to utilize an accessibility device use one anyway. It reminds me a lot of the debate of a service animal vs an emotional support animal; one is something that someone truly needs to get around and be independent as possible. The other is simply something that someone feels like they need to have around, no matter how ludicrous it looks. But just like there are now considerations of new rules to say what can and cannot be a support animal, I cannot help but wonder if there will ever be situations where I will be denied tools to help me move around because I don’t look sick, or can’t claim a determinate diagnosis is the cause of my sickness.

In a world that is becoming more and more fueled by perceptions and not by facts, I feel like things are stacked against me and people like me. We do everything we can to keep moving, keep ‘carrying our own weight’ so to speak, and to try to claim some semblance of the lives we once had prior to the fibromyalgia and other problems taking over. But even if we do our best, we will never be the same as we were before the sickness started. We will have to rely on canes, walkers and wheelchairs. We may have to end up with a disability sticker on our car, or expect others to drive us around because we are too fogged up and in pain to safely get someplace. And ultimately, we may have to feel the sting of someone looking at us to say ‘You don’t LOOK sick!’

I’ll fully admit, I don’t know the full answer to this question. Perhaps there isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ answer, and I just have to find my way as I go. Perhaps I’ll never be able to fully convince someone else that yes, I DO have a sickness that I need that mobility aid for, even though they’ve seen me run a 5K, do an advanced yoga pose, or just saw me post about my home gardens I tend in the spring, summer and fall Or even worse, what if that person is a coworker, watching me on a weekend walk around with in pain using a cane but they see me I zoom around my place of employment like I have no pain workdays? (They also don’t see the immediate fall onto the couch position I take when I get home because I’m so exhausted from keeping up the facade)?

With all of these things in my head, I do have some personal measures that I take regarding those aids. Perhaps I do have the goal of not attracting attention, perhaps it is partially pride. But my personal measure is that I do not rely on any aid unless it’s absolutely a necessity. I don’t walk with a cane just in case I need it; if you see me with a cane, it’s because I am doing bad enough that day that I cannot walk without it. If I am not driving, it’s because the pain is high enough that I don’t think I can drive safely. If I have a brace on a joint, or have my arthritic gloves on it’s because I’m already experiencing pain and I’m using the braces to soothe and comfort the affected area.

Simply put, the tools to help me cope come out only when I need them. They are never out as a precaution. Further, if I feel like I may need a coping tool because I expect my pain is going to be too high at a function, I’m going to consider not going to the function instead of simply going without the tool in question. Taking care of myself has got to be first and foremost in my mind, as no one else knows what I truly need and what my limits are. And part of taking care of myself is also determining when I can be strong and when I can be weak, and when I will be weak but still comfortable enough to use a mobility aid.

Someone may look at this and say that I’m waiting too long to pull out a mobility aid or brace, but I disagree. Pulling out the tool when I absolutely need it means that if there is push back regarding my use of the tool, I feel more comfortable being assertive when I push right back on that person. And using these tools sparingly to me means I’m not looking for drama or sympathy. I am simply getting done what needs to be done, and using the tools at my disposal in order to do so. To me, it’s the healthiest strategy for using mobility aids and braces that I’ve put together. And it works for me.