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.

Cleaning with Fibromyalgia

When my husband and I were dating, we lived in separate states. The first time I decided to come visit him for the weekend, he was so excited he told his father, his brother and his sister. Their first question to him after they heard the news was, “Are you going to clean your house?”

I love my husband, but yes, he has some…bachelor tendencies.

A year later, when I moved states to move in with him, I immediately put us both on a cleaning schedule of the house. Yes, I admit it. I have OCD tendencies. And we had three cats at the time. So I wanted to make sure that we had a clean enough house that should family or friends stop by, they wouldn’t be bombarded with a smell of cat that would chase them out of the house.

Two more cats and a dog later, we live in a house twice the size of the original one, and I had the same OCD tendencies about cleaning it. Carpets were shampooed quarterly. Vacuuming was done weekly. Spring cleaning meant every room gets cleaned top to bottom, moving all furniture and cleaning everything in sight. Yes, that included the basement and garage.

Then the fibro hit, and that all went out the window.

I learned pretty quickly I had one of two choices; let my husband handle the cleaning and accept however he did it as good enough, or beat the crap out of myself to get it done how I wanted it to look, on top of still trying to do the work and my heavy workouts.

The fact that my husband secured a job he could do from his home office helped solidify the decision. But I have to say, letting things go was NOT easy. Many times there were nights I’d be upset about how something was done around the house. Sometimes it was the OCD talking, sometimes it was my fibromyalgia frustration coming out, and sometimes it was because the way he cleaned something really wasn’t the best way to clean it in the first place. But I have to give my husband credit; he supported me through it.

There was a lot of talking. Finally new chore lists were made of what needed to be done daily, weekly and monthly. If I had the energy that night after work I was expected to help (and I did my best to do so). Spring cleaning like I had done before was no more. Instead, a room or two each year that needed it the worst was done in its place. The garage became ‘his’ domain, and was cleaned every couple years. The fridge, cleaned when things were past their date (we dated and labeled EVERYTHING that went in the fridge to help with that).

After the first arrangement I remember having flare ups of pain and laying on the couch watching him clean. I truly tried to ignore every time he did something ‘his way’ instead of what I thought was the ‘right’ way. It got easier over time to do, but I must admit there were times when it was very frustrating.

But I learned, and the house was always presentable enough for friends and family to stop by (well, maybe not as presentable enough for my grandmother to stop in, but that was an entirely too high a level to attain without my help.)

Now things are changing again as my husband went back to the office this year to work. We are still working out chores, and I’m learning once again that if I want something to be done the way I think it should be, I have to be the one to do it. It’s not his fault if it isn’t done the way I do it. And although we still have more talking to do, I think we will make it work.

Find Your Pace

About a year and a half into my diagnosis, a well wisher sent me a picture of a woman doing a yoga posture. It was a forearm balance, a variation of Feathered Peacock Pose. The yogi in the pose had fibromyalgia, and she made this pose look effortless. My well wishing friend was basically saying that if this woman could do this pose, that I could too, even with the Fibro.

At this point I wasn’t giving up on doing the same things I did before the diagnosis yet. I pushed the hell out of my body to try to continue to attend Tae Kwon Do and Hap Ki Do classes and keep up with the rest of the students. And I was still pushing through 40 hours of work, yoga and running when I could. So saying my body hated me at that point was an understatement; I hurt like hell every single day, but I refused to let up.

To make matters worse, I had gone several rounds with different medications to try to get the pain under control. I had gained 40 pounds at that point thanks to the side effects of those medications. And at this point, additional problems were already starting to kick in, problems like IBS, depression and anxiety.

So I see this picture, and recognize I’m nowhere NEAR the level of yoga that this yogi could do. And the icing on the cake… the description said she was a mother, and in her leggings and top, she looked like she had a body to kill for.

The only thing this picture did for me was make me realize I wasn’t there. I wasn’t at a level of perfection that I wanted for my body. I didn’t have that strong of arms, I couldn’t lose any weight (and seemed to be gaining pounds by the second) and there was absolutely no way I could look that good in the body I had. So how the BLOODY HELL could this woman do it and still have fibromyalgia??!? And how the hell could she make it work when I was busting my ass and only injuring myself further?!

The depression finally kicked in pretty damn heavy when I finally came to the conclusion that no matter how much I tried, no matter how many times I counted calories, pushed my body through exercise or did anything to try to change my body, it wasn’t going to budge. The Fibro had dashed any hope of me having a body I loved; dashed hopes of my obtaining a black belt in either martial art, and it dashed any hope of doing yoga poses like that.

And it was my fault. At least that is how I felt at the time.

Now, I know a little better, or at least I hope I do. Perhaps my body is just very different than hers, and we probably have very similar limits on our energy; but just choose to spend that energy differently. Perhaps she is a full time mother, and does yoga on a regular basis. I split my energy up into working out of an office, chores at home, running, martial arts drills and yoga when I have the time and energy for it.

Part of me wants to do the comparison in my head. ‘Well, I bet she can’t run a 5K nonstop.’ Or ‘maybe she has never thrown a kick in her life, where I still can.’ And perhaps I’ll never get over wanting to do those comparisons. But in some ways, they are true. As a Fibro and CFS sufferer, you only get so much energy in the day. I spend it getting my husband out the door, caring for five cats and a dog, doing Pilates and making sure I get that 5K run in any chance I can get. She has different priorities, and thus spends her time doing yoga and caring for children.

I really try hard to keep that thought in mind when I do see someone who looks like they are handling their diseases a lot better than I am. I still consider myself to be in a bit of a learning phase with this disease. I’m trying to find my own pace, whether it is running, or figuring out what I can do after I get home from work. Sometimes I astonish myself. Other times, I make myself some sort of ‘nest’ where I can hide and rest for the evening because I just did too much.

And while I’m at it, the energy limits don’t just stop at physical ones. You have to find your pace when it comes to emotional energy, too. If you have a seriously stressful day at the office, you may not be able to get that extra cleaning in at home because you are just too mentally tired. Or you just can’t handle a commitment you had made previously and have to cancel. It happens.

What matters is that you do your best to find your pace, and keep it as well as you can. And after time, you will know your limits well enough to better understand when you are about to go over them. It’s all about taking the time to take care of yourself, which is the most important thing you can do.

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.

Attitude is Important

If you join an online support group for any autoimmune disease, you may be put off by the amount of frustration, anger and pain that get expressed. It is easy to assume that the group is full of drama, because all anyone ever talks about is pain. But unfortunately for those of us with autoimmune diseases, our life IS pain. It is a very rare occurrence for me to not have some sort of pain in my body every day, and it’s the same for anyone who has Fibro or an autoimmune disease.

To people who are reading that may not suffer from something like this, think about having the beginnings of a bad flu; your bones ache and you are exhausted. You might have a headache or your neck and throat hurt. Now think about having that every single day for a month. To those of us with fibro; what I just described could be a GOOD day. Days with a full fibromyalgia flare up are significantly worse!

Now thinking with that analogy in mind, I bet you can see why support groups tend to become places with post after post about pain, frustration and anger.

For some people, an online support group may be the only place they can talk about how the Fibro affects them. Perhaps their loved ones have finally told them not to complain anymore because they are tired of hearing it (yes, it happens). Or perhaps they don’t have any other support network around them that they can rely on, so the online support group may be their only outlet. Or they may be like me – they have expressed their frustrations so much to their loved ones that they are afraid that they are upsetting them, so they come to the online support group to vent.

Whatever the reason, we HAVE to get out how we feel. It’s healthy to do so. It makes us feel better to know someone is listening, even if it’s just a Facebook reaction to our post. Remember, we are not just talking about the occasional pain from working out too much, bumping an elbow against a shelf and getting a bruise or something like that. If I listened to someone without any pain-related disease complain regularly about every bump and bruise, yeah, I’d probably be one of the first to dismiss those complaints. But unfortunately, Fibromyalgia and autoimmune diseases are an entirely different animal to deal with. And they HURT.

With that being said, I believe it is also important to try to stay positive overall about the disease. Studies have shown time and time again that being positive will help someone get through suffering easier. And you don’t have to be the most positive person in the world in order to reap those benefits. Yes, there will be days when it is just impossible to even consider being positive about the pain levels. On those days where all you can do is lay on the couch or bed, supported by pillows and barely able to move, positivity is going to go right out the window. And that is fine.

But even on those days when the pain is the worst, I focus on some specific and positive things that do help me get through. I remember that I have the strength and courage to accept that the day is a wash and do everything I can to make myself feel better; even if that means laying in bed for hours, staring at a TV screen binge watching a TV series, or even eating popcorn, potato chips or ice cream (as much as within reason as possible of course…but even sometimes reason goes out the window when pain levels are high). I pull out heating pads, books, remote controls and anything else that I need within reach, and that is where I will camp out for the rest of the day.

But the most important thing I remember is that there will be a tomorrow. I WILL feel differently, thanks to giving myself some needed rest, and I will be able to do something different – even if it’s just to take a shower. I know I have the strength and courage to try again, and I will make some sort of progress beyond camping out at the campsite of the previous day, even if it is simply a shower and cleaning up my space.

I sometimes wish that there would be fibromyalgia support groups that are there to talk about the positivity more than the pain, as it’s so hard to have a positive attitude when all you hear is the negative stuff and can sympathize with it. Trying to stay positive is part of my personal treatment plan for this disease. So even if it means I have to stop back from a support group for awhile, I do it. Because ultimately I feel better when I am positive, and taking care of myself has to come first. Then, when I’ve built up some equanimity, I’ll continue to try to support others the best I can.

Having Fibromyalgia Is…

Hanging out with my dog Natasha during a recent fibromyalgia flare

It’s one thing to say, “I have Fibromyalgia.” It’s a total other thing to actually know what fibro sufferers go through day in and day out. With that in mind, I thought I would share some daily struggles and extra things I have to do in order to get through the day.

Having Fibromyalgia is having a cane in every floor of your home and in your car because you don’t know when the pain will make you have to use it.

Having Fibromyalgia is one day being able to help your family clean the house and the next morning not even being able to lift clean clothes to fold them.

Having Fibromyalgia is going into work full of pain but doing your best to mask it at work so not to draw attention to yourself.

Having Fibromyalgia is having long discussions with my husband to determine whether or not the flare up of pain is bad enough to take the heavy pain medication I get from my doctor. These discussions include several points: How many I’ve taken for the month; How many other pain meds I’ve taken that day and what else I’ve done to try to stop the pain before I go to the big last resort; And whether or not I’ll go over the allotment that the doctor allows me to have each month. (And to answer that question, my doctor allows me to have ten hydrocodone tablets per month.)

Having Fibromyalgia is being at work and typing one sentence too many on a keyboard and having your hands cramp up so badly you can’t even hold a phone.

Having Fibromyalgia is not allowing your cat to walk on your legs because it hurts too much.

Having Fibromyalgia is watching your husband walk your dog without you because the pain in your legs is so severe that you can’t stand or walk very far distances.

Having Fibromyalgia is not allowing your husband to turn on the ceiling fan or open a window because the airflow hurts your skin.

Having Fibromyalgia means not being able to travel in a car long distances without needing multiple days to recover.

Having Fibromyalgia is having your legs, feet, arms and hands go numb on a whim.

Having Fibromyalgia is doing your best to avoid the freezer or refrigerated aisles of a grocery store because the change in temperature hurts.

Having Fibromyalgia is learning how it feels to have pain just breathing.

Having Fibromyalgia is having brain fog so bad you can’t remember names of people or specific words long enough to have coherent conversations with anyone.

Every one of these have happened to me this past week as I continue to battle a Fibro flare up, thanks to the up and down weather here in the Midwest. I’ll do what I can to rest tonight. And tomorrow, pain or no pain, I’m going to get up, find comfortable clothes to wear to work, and see how productive I can be.