When I was young, I dreamed of performing on a Broadway stage so I threw myself into acting at a young age. I got a few roles in community theater and I even co-stared in one production. Then, when I got into high school, my popularity as an actor declined. I did get a few small roles (remember, there are never small roles, only small actors), but nothing like before. Which was okay. I was still performing.
Since I was in my middle school choir, I was admitted to my high school choir as an alto. In spite of the small roles and complete lack of solos, my dreams of Broadway continued to grow. But when a parent is diagnosed with cancer, dreams have to be set aside. Singing lessons are no longer on the list of priorities when a family member is fighting for survival. Fortunately, that parent has been cancer free for over 30 years.
College demanded a career focus and even though I took acting classes, my major took too much focus. Children came soon after and the pressures of being a parent made the dreams of a life on the stage impossibility, though I still got into a few community theater productions over the years.
Finally, the kids were independent enough that I could start singing lessons again. At 42, I knew I was too old for Broadway. The dream that had been put on the back burner had eventually burnt out. I mourned the loss of it for a very long time. Once in a while, I still do.
I was excited to be taught by a friend who is a professionally trained opera singer. She encouraged me to learn for my own enjoyment and put behind me the criticisms and hateful voices from my past. So I started learning vocal exercises and breath control. That’s when I started noticing a problem.
Of course I ignored it at first, especially since my friend complemented me on the natural vibrato in my voice when I sang. I was also told repeatedly that my control would improve with time. But I couldn’t help being concerned about the stuttering exhale that became more evident during breath control exercises.
It wasn’t long after that I noticed a shaking in my right thumb that I had no control over. I also noticed that a few of my other fingers did the same shaking thing to a lesser degree. So I went to my doctor and he told me that I probably had what are called Benign (or Familial) Essential Tremors, a chronic nervous system disorder that causes involuntary rhythmic shaking. My neurologist later confirmed this diagnosis.
Have you ever seen an older person whose hand shakes back and forth? That’s ET. Unfortunately, this disorder can affect any part of the body. But it usually appears in the hands, head (nodding) and…voice. Yeah.
Imagine trying to give a presentation at an international conference when you sound terrified. I did that and I sounded horrible. I sounded like I had no idea what I was talking about, even though I had been working on my research for a year.
At a workshop on ET, I learned that the only way to temporarily fix the problem with my vocal chords is to get injections of Botox. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want anybody sticking needles in my throat.
Thus I have joined the ranks of Samuel Adams, Audrey Hepburn, Sandra Day O’Connor and others who dealt with this disorder. It’s nice knowing I’m not alone and that this condition can be improved with medication. But stress and anxiety make the tremors worse in spite of the medication. I found that out the hard way.
Since then, I have tried singing along with the radio and I found that I cannot hold a note. The acoustics in the shower are no longer my friend. I had dreams, but those are impossible now. My song has been silenced.
The other day I awoke, took my first set of morning pills that have to be taken on an empty stomach (and then no food or drink for 30 minute after), and then did something very stupid.
I forgot to take my other medications, the ones that require food.
My dog decided to go ballistic over a new puppy next door, and I was busy dealing with his barking. I then just went on with my day.
WHAT A DAY IT WAS!
I began to feel very weak and unwell. This was not only physical, but also mental. Now, those of us with a chronic illness deal with a lot of depression. Pain demands a great deal of energy, both mental and physical. I am aware that one of the medications I take does not “build up” in the body and missing even one dose is dangerous. I was about to find out how dangerous.
I had cramping, a blazing headache and started shaking. What I was truly most frightened about was the depression and anxiety that set in quickly. Each hour brought more pain and more anxiety. I felt I simply could not live with so much pain and depression. While not suicidal, I was using all the tools and tricks I knew to keep myself somewhat calm.
I began monitoring my physical symptoms, making sure that they did not escalate to where I would need to go to the hospital. I was ready to go in if needed, and knew it would be important not to drive myself. I had the number of the local taxi service out, and also had texted my husband at work. Thankfully, before I got to that point, I figured out the problem.
Do you have a tool box full of tricks and treatments? The time to “wing it” is not when you are in the middle of a crisis.
So what were the tools I use? What’s helped me in the past deal with a sudden onslaught of pain and depression? Here is the short and the long version! WHAT TOOLS DO YOU USE? PLEASE SHARE! Because you can never have too many tools when dealing with chronic illness!
Cliff Notes Version
1.Depression lies (thanks Bloggess)
2.Laugher is the best medicine
3.Distraction is important. (thanks youtube)
4.Have friends on stand by at all times.
5.Nature is good
7.Stop trying to do stuff, especially stuff you don’t want to do.
8.You have an illness, of course at times you will feel unwell!
9.Share you are having a rough time of it. (this includes sharing with your physician or go to the ER if things really escalate)
10.Don’t forget to take your medications correctly! They can only work well if you follow directions on when and how to take them!
My Tool Box
1.Remember the Bloggess. Jenny Lawson (aka the Bloggess) has blog posts that are helpful in two ways. The first way is she writes about the important fact that DEPRESSION LIES. My depression was lying to me saying “This pain is so horrible, I can’t live with this. Obviously the medication is not working. You’ll never be able to do anything other than suffer….” I just kept remembering it was lying to me and just a few days ago I felt great, and I would feel good again soon.
2.Remember the Bloggess. Again. Because it’s important to DISTRACT YOURSELF. That means avoiding anything depressing, like self help books about depression. Or sad movies. Or the news. You have to laugh, and some of her blogs will make you laugh. Think giant metal chicken, and you will survive. I also recommend the youtube bloggers Simon and Martina at Eatyourkimchi. Martina suffers from a chronic illness. She gets your pain, but she also shares the comedy aspects of life in South Korea. You will laugh.
3.Think “Kitten Videos”. My daughter called me from half a world away, where she lives, and told me “Watch kitten videos”. Anything that makes you go “Awww” works well. Also cats will make you laugh. Avoid anything with Sarah McLaughlin, we want happy videos about animals. This cat site has calming videos of Persians. The most famous is India the kitten. Also call your own pets over, nothing is more calming that our pets!
4.Remember your friends. I’ve recently moved to a new neighborhood, and I really don’t know anyone well enough yet to knock on their door and say “Can I just sit here for a bit, I’m scared.” Instead I have a mental list of everyone I could text and call that would drop everything to be there for me. Just to listen. The list was topped by two great girlfriends, and they also have my husband’s phone number. The point wasn’t that I talked to anyone, the point was I knew I could talk to someone if I needed them.
I would also like to especially thank my friends, who while I did not call them, are always there for me. When you give someone with a chronic illness permission to call, you are doing a good deed. Just the KNOWLEDGE that I could call my friends made me feel less anxiety and safe. Want to be a hero? Just give a friend permission to “call if needed” with no judgement- just support. Even if they never call you, that knowledge “I can call” is a wonderful gift that will help your friend through tough times.
5.Go outside. If this was a real depression, not a lack of drug reaction, this would have worked pretty well. It was a beautiful day and the combination of sunshine and walking the dog would have lifted my spirits. I felt anxiety so I took the dog for a walk in the wooded area behind my house, and nine of out ten times, this makes me feel better and that at the very least I made the dog happy!
6.Break the rules. Dieting? Eat something you like, and forget the calories. Find a great book on Amazon, who cares about the budget! Order that $15 book and munch away on buttered popcorn. Indulge. You are interested in getting through the NOW, and you do whatever it takes. Probably a glass of chardonnay, or a bottle of chardonnay, or heck a barrel of chardonnay, is not a good choice. But for me, food and a book works very well. Also know your body. A glass of wine is very helpful for many friends with chronic illness. If it works, and you feel comfortable with it, do what works.
7.Don’t try too hard. This is the most difficult for me. I hate that when I am depressed or in pain I have a “Wasted day”. NOTHING is going to get done. I’m just going to deal with the illnesses all day! So I keep trying. I cleaned the litter box, and I was “There I did something!” But I was exhausted and felt guilty as that was all I had done. I had to then assure myself “You have a serious illness, and taking care of yourself and dealing with this illness IS YOUR JOB.” I assured myself I would feel better, and it was time to stop faking being well.
8. Give yourself permission to feel unwell. This ties into number 7, if they day is a write off it’s fine. It’s not a write off if you are battling to keep sane and deal with waves of pain. That’s job enough, don’t try to throw making a huge dinner or cleaning all the bathrooms on top of it. If you are not a positive Pollyanna type, accept it. My neighbor with RA is very upbeat. She is “In the past we’d be in wheelchairs!” (I have also hints she is on some wonderful meds I avoid!) I’m not going to be upbeat all the time, and that’s fine. We should not let others tell us how to deal with our personal chronic illnesses. Grumpy cat types unite!
9. Make sure people know you are feeling unwell. Ask them to check in with you. I sent my husband a text, telling him how things were. He called right after he got out of a meeting. If you know someone is going to check on you, especially if you are alone, you’ll feel safer. I even reached out to people in Facebook, just in a PM, “I’m feeling bad, I’m having a bad day.” They checked back throughout the day.
10. CHECK TO MAKE SURE YOU DID NOT MESS UP YOUR MEDICATION! When I felt myself getting worse, I thought, “I’m going to take my next dose of medication early, I can’t wait another 2 hours.” As soon as I saw that pill container with the arthritis drug I felt instant relief. I still felt like crap but I KNEW WHY. Medicine timing is very important. Read the instructions, and be clear with your doctors about WHEN is the best time for taking a medication. My thyroid medication took almost 6 months to figure out. When I took it at night on an empty stomach, I suffered from insomnia! The middle of the night, I awoke about half an hour later with insomnia. First thing in the morning works best. However, not if I forget half an hour later to take the other 3 medications I rely on. Medication juggling is very difficult. We have to be vigilant.
Medication mix ups can also be very dangerous. I was getting ready to call my physician right before I discovered what had happened. I knew that I was getting worse instead of better, and that my “tools” that usually work well were failing me.
…..also you don’t have to have a chronic illness (or two of three) to share your TOOLS that get you through the tough times. I would love to hear more ways people have of making it through the tough times.