Living with an Invisible Illness

by Elizabeth Walker

Throbbing, wrenching, searing, exhausting, sickening, miserable, and dreadful. Those are the words I chose from the McGill Pain Questionnaire to describe the pain I felt during a flare of my fibromyalgia last week.

I’ve dealt with chronic ailments my entire life. When I was in elementary school, it was migraines. As a teenager, it was irritable bowel syndrome and what I now know was endometriosis. In my early twenties, I developed chemical sensitivity and was covered in itchy red welts over my entire body for two years straight.

Then, in my mid-twenties, the chronic, widespread pain set in. Pain. All over my body. All day. Every day.  Along with the pain was sheer exhaustion. No matter how much sleep I got, it was never enough and I would seriously melt down over the thought of the energy it would take to do simple tasks like filling the dog’s dish or responding to an email.

After nearly eight years of the pain and exhaustion, visits to specialists, a battery of tests, and several stints in physical therapy, I was finally diagnosed with Fibromyalgia. Fibromyalgia (FM) is a central sensitization syndrome. Basically, my central nervous system is on high alert at all times and pain, and other sensory signals, are amplified.

It turns out, that all of those other problems I’d had earlier in my life fall under central sensitization syndromes as well. Migraines, irritable bowel syndrome, chemical sensitivity, endometriosis. They all fall under the same umbrella. As do temporomandibular disorders (otherwise known as TMJ or TMD) which I have also since been diagnosed with. Additionally, interstitial cystitis, restless leg syndrome, and even post-traumatic stress disorder are categorized this way. Often, as in my case, patients present with different central sensitization syndromes over the course of a lifetime.

Most of these syndromes are invisible, but the implications on those diagnosed can be debilitating. My FM has caused me pain nearly every day of my life for the past 15 years. When I get what I call a flare, I’m in excruciating pain, shaky and nauseated, for at least two and a half days at a time. Flares can last up to a week and can occur as frequently as twice in a week.  I’m in complete misery. Yet, people often tell me when I’m in a flare, that even though I report that I feel dreadful, I look great.

I never really believed this until recently. A co-worker emailed me a photo that he took of me at a work event. The day it was taken, I was dealing with maxed-out pain. The absolute worst it gets for me. It was so bad that, not to freak anyone out, I was actually thinking about how I could put myself out of my misery in a way that would have the least amount of impact on my family. How would I do it? Where? When, exactly? However, looking at the photo, you would never know it. I’m smiling while I work, carrying my big heavy camera, walking around in strappy high heels.

A photo of me on one of the most miserable pain days of my life.

My chronic pain and fatigue have had a huge impact on my infertility journey. When I was finally diagnosed with FM, I was already trying to conceive. Because of this, I wasn’t able to try any of the medications used to treat FM. None of them were appropriate for someone who was pregnant, or trying to get pregnant. I couldn’t take the medications, but I couldn’t get pregnant either. Then, I started taking other medications to help me get pregnant and they made my pain worse. Yet, I still couldn’t achieve a pregnancy.

It was a vicious cycle and I felt like I was running a marathon that would never end. So, I took a break to try meds for a while. Cymbalta. My miracle drug. I don’t know how managed before it. While I still have pain nearly every day, the intensity of my day to day pain is decreased while I’m taking this medication. Life is much more manageable.

When quite a bit of time had passed and it was time to get back to fertility treatments, I had to go off my meds. For me, weaning off Cymbalta is done gradually over the course of a couple of months and the withdrawal symptoms can be unpleasant, dangerous even. Brain “zaps” (which feel like electric shocks shooting through your brain), vertigo, anxiety, nausea, tremors, visual disturbances. Not only is this scary, I was terrified of how intensely my pain would return after the Cymbalta was out of my system. However, I couldn’t move forward with treatment for infertility without discontinuing the meds I take for pain, so it was the only way to go.

No more Cymbalta, just more infertility medications. Medications delivered orally, by suppository, by injection. No pregnancy, just more physical and emotional pain. A variety of invisible ailments. Invisible disabilities.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot over the past few weeks. A year ago I changed my diet. I now eat a Paleo diet and have had some allergy testing so I avoid the foods I found out I’m allergic to as well. No sugar. No dairy. No grains. No eggs, pineapple, paprika, asparagus, crab, trout, and more. The results of the change in diet have been life changing. It’s meant that I’ve actually had some pain free days over the past year. Something I hadn’t experienced in well over a decade. However, the past couple of months have been hard. I’ve continued to eat a strict diet, but I’ve had more frequent flares. It scares me. I wonder if it means that I’ll soon go back to living in fear like I did not long ago. Back to week long flares several times within a month.

The other reason I’ve been thinking about it is because I’ve joined the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion committee in my department at the University of Michigan. I’ve been working on populating the committee’s website and have been gathering information from the members of our team. Which areas, pertaining to diversity, should I list as their areas of interest or expertise? Which topics should people feel comfortable approaching them about for mentorship or assistance?

I’m guessing that the majority of the people on the committee with me, let alone that work in my 1000+ person department, have no idea that, despite looking healthy and “great”, I’ve become well versed in the human resources policies for medical leave, and my rights as a person with a disability, due to my fibromyalgia, my infertility, and the two medical leaves I had to take within a year of each other as a result. They would never guess that the issues I can help my fellow co-workers with are disabilities, medical leave, grief, miscarriage, and more.

Through it all, I’ve had an amazing support system. Friends who understand when I need to cancel plans because my pain is unbearable. Family members who make sure the holiday meals include foods I can eat. My husband, who let’s me sleep the entire day if I need to, and plays me funny cat videos to help take my mind off things for a little while.

I also have an outlet through my art. Somehow, creating is healing. Whether it’s the calm I feel brushing acrylic paint across a canvas, or the meditative act of weaving with wire, I feel steady. I feel like I’m more than my pain. More than my disability.

I invite you to join me, and The ART of Infertility, at SEA-ART-HEAL: The ART of Infertility in Seattle. You’ll have an opportunity to see the healing affect that art has had on me, and on others in the infertility community, through a collection of art and poetry on display at the Art/Not Terminal Gallery at the Seattle Center the entire month of April. Our exhibit opening reception is April 1, from 6 – 9 pm.

This exhibit, and the accompanying film screening of the movie, One More Shot (with a Q&A with the filmmakers), and a blackout poetry art workshop, are funded in part by the Seattle Office of Arts and Culture and sponsored by Pacific NW Fertility, Seattle Reproductive Medicine, Embryo Options, Acupuncture Northwest and Associates, and SIFF Film Center. Our media sponsors are ParentMap and The Stranger, and our community partner is Baby Quest Foundation. You can get all the info you need about the exhibit events, including registration, and how to buy a ticket for One More Shot, or reserve your space for the workshop, at http://bit.ly/SeaArtHeal (If you are interested in spreading the word about this event to your networks, please email me at info@artofinfertility.org and I will send you a tool kit :)!)

If you’re not in Seattle, don’t worry. We’ll have a lot of artwork and stories headed your way via our social media throughout April. We also have events coming up in Boston, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles. You can check out our complete schedule on our website. http://www.artofinfertility.org

Wishing you health and peace on your journey,

Elizabeth

Infertility Reminders in the Mailbox – Reframing through Art and Writing

Elizabeth Walker

The mailbox can be a dangerous place for those dealing with infertility. Receiving a baby shower invitation or a baby announcement can feel like a knife in the heart, or a punch in the gut. At least you usually have some idea they are headed your way. It’s the other random pieces of baby, child, and mom mail that give me the most trouble. One in particular.

mailbox_webI don’t have a problem with catalogs from Justice and American Girl or coupons from Babies R Us. I have 6 nieces an 2 nephews so those are places I shop. Every now and then I get an offer for life insurance from Gerber or an invitation to enroll my daughter in National American Miss pageants. I’m guessing that I just fit the demographic for Gerber and I imagine some of the stores I frequent with my nieces are responsible for the pageant requests. However, my blood pressure rises each time I open the mailbox to find an issue of Working Mother magazine.

If it weren’t for infertility, I would be a working mother now. When I pictured parenthood, I always saw myself balancing my children and my career. Sure, it would be a challenge but I was up for it. I get great pleasure from my work and envisioned my dedication to my career aspirations as a great model for my children and their future success, just as I feel my parents’ dedication to and love for their work influenced me. Working Mother magazine would be right up my alley. I’d likely read it cover to cover and check out any bonus content online.

I’m not sure how I got on their list. Again, maybe I’m just the right demographic, or maybe they are affiliated with one of the retail outlets I spend my money at. Maybe I even inadvertently signed up for it at some point when I neglected to read the fine print when I signed up to receive email notices. I tried for awhile to get off their list. An email to the publishing company, a comment on their Facebook Page. When that didn’t work I just started giving them to my working mother friends.

working-mother

Recently, I decided to reframe my relationship with the magazine by using it to make black out poetry. If you’re not familiar with the technique, you take a page of text and do a quick scan of it, circling any words or phrases that jump out at you. Then, you go back through and can narrow those down, and use them to create a poem, blacking out the rest of the text around those words. It felt great to cut a page out of the magazine and circle words with my pencil, later using black paint to isolate the words that would form my poetry. I decided to cut the page out in the form of a woman holding a baby and then decoupaged it onto canvas. Here’s the final result.

Working-Non-Mother_web

Committed, worthy, successful, non-mother.

Shouldn’t have to win acceptance.

My own positive impact.

Maria and I will be leading a workshop on black out poetry hosted by the Coalition of Women Scholars in the History of Rhetoric and Composition (CWSHRC) at the 2016 Conference on College Composition and Communication (4C) in Houston, TX on April 6. If you’ll be attending, please consider coming to our session.

If you live in the Houston area and are interested in sharing your story with ART of Infertility via an interview while we are in town, email us at info@artofinfertility.org. We would love to hear from you.