Note: I drafted this…before today. And then life happened and I didn’t finish it and never posted. Just saw Wil’s speech pop up again, and realized it had to be finished. This is a little less sibling-focused than some of my posts, but know that some of my anxiety defffffinitely comes from being a toddler and seeing my infant sister’s seizures, which I have more often shoved aside than faced. Depression is my anxiety’s shadow. Let’s get to the story, then, shall we?
Remember when I told you about how my sister and I are Star Trek fans, and kinda nerdy? Today I am remembering that, with so many emotions.
Today a dear friend of mine sent me a link to Wil Wheaton’s blog, where he posted the text of a speech he gave at the National Alliance on Mental Illness. I struggle with anxiety and sometimes depression, and the resonance was so strong, and my emotions felt so big today, that it took me three attempts to finish reading it. It was just…a lot. Relief at seeing my own struggles in better words than I usually pick. Shame that I am so ashamed so often. Sadness that my fight is feeling so much like a fight, and not like a “good” healthcare situation where you go to the doctor when you’re sick, and you get treatment, and you are better. Anger that it feels like this is ANOTHER burden, on top of the fibromyalgia, on top of the immune system weirdness that will 99% probably never be pinned down, on top of being a sibling and loving so fiercely someone who needs so much, on top of the normal human struggle to live and care for loved ones of all ages. I just got a bad health insurance situation resolved, mostly, and just yesterday, so I’m hoping I can spend some time on the phone on Monday setting up new care providers and all of that fun stuff.
Including a therapist.
But let me tell you more about meeting Wil Wheaton. Yes, go read my earlier blog entry, if you haven’t yet.
When I went to the con where he was appearing, I was in the throes of awful grad school stuff. I was at the tail end of my dissertation, my advisor was not the best fit for my training needs, I was not getting enough support – I literally waited for feedback on one of my chapters for nine months. (Years later, we think my health was already collapsing some, because I got a bad infection during my second year of grad school, and my immune system was probably starting to spiral into weirdness that culminated in the fibromyalgia.) And most grad students facing the wrapup of their work and the writing up of the dissertation are anxious, stressed, or otherwise not in a good mood. I’d known I struggled with anxiety since my first year of college, so I was seeing a therapist (who predicted that I had something like chronic fatigue, just without any pain). I was struggling.
And I just wasn’t as open about Lily then as I am now. I hadn’t figured out how to NOT make a big deal about her life, you know? Because she is, in a few ways, so different from everyone else. She can’t be treated like a typical sib, because she isn’t typical. Talking about her needs sometimes seems to feel almost proactively defensive – making a thing of it – but not talking about her makes me sometimes feel like I’m hiding her, which isn’t true.
So Wil Wheaton asked me about myself a bit, and I told him – with my anxiety on full display, in retrospect – that I was trying to finish my PhD. And he was gracious about it. He didn’t say anything about the fact that one of the books I brought to be autographed was from a used bookstore, and I hope he knows I would have bought it new, but I just couldn’t afford it then. He told me that he was sure I’d finish my PhD.
Those small moments are such powerful things, aren’t they?
Now, knowing Mr. Wheaton to be a fellow member of the anxiety club, that memory feels so much stronger. A moment in which a stranger said that I would get there, get through it – and not JUST a stranger, but someone whose work I had admired, a celebrity.
I want to thank him now, more than ever, for helping me fumble my way through that day and the months that followed – being brave enough to share Lily’s story with her heroes, being brave enough to be awkward, resolving to finish my degree. Now I’ve been a college professor, using that degree, and tried to give back, to help students and friends and strangers, via this blog, sharing tips about coping with anxiety, and maybe – if I’m lucky – being that person to speak, in a small moment, to help even one other person who’s struggling.
Do you need help coping with emotions or with mental illness? Check out these resources – some paid, some free, some low-cost. All links open in new tabs or windows. You are not alone. WE are not alone.
Captain Awkward: look, if you’re not reading, you’re missing out – can you really ask for better than advice from a filmmaker/film professor? Join the Awkward Army and be less alone in the fight against your jerkbrain. If you’re looking to be a good ally or to support a friend/loved one fighting mental illness, come read about that, too.
Captain Awkward: Guest Post: 14 Free and Low-Cost Mental Health Resources
Feeling anxious now? Try square breathing.
Hello, world! Again! It’s been…far too long since I’ve posted here, but I’m in a new situation with my life and have some time to write again (good!) and am having a lot of sibling-related anxieties (bad!).
To recap the past couple of years: I worked as a contract-based teaching professor, during which time my own health was really wobbly. I had a sinus surgery, I did a six-month physical therapy regime after meeting a new rheumatologist, I had far too many infections, saw too many specialists, and have a new, if not-written-out, diagnosis of something being wrong with my immune system. That wrong thing probably means I will get sick more easily than others and will stay sick longer than others, but there’s not much we can do about it except try to convince my body that it’s not allergic to everything. That means daily Claritin/loratidine for awhile. I also ended my job – a combination of my life being difficult so far from family while fighting with my body and things changing at my job; I struggled with meeting some objectives and my contract was not renewed. My fibromyalgia pain is way less bad now; my migraines/headaches are way fewer. I’ve even lost a lot of weight! But I need to move a LOT to keep that up, and I’m not feeling super right now.
As many/most sibs know: living close to/with your sib can be really different than living thousands of miles away. So expect blogging about that.
In Lily’s life, well, things have been just as active. She had a vagus nerve stimulator implanted, to help control the seizures by sending tiny pulses of electricity to her brain, effectively – one description you often hear for the VNS is that it’s a pacemaker for the brain – and we can use a magnet that we wave over the device (in her front shoulder, basically) to send a pulse to stop seizures. Which sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t, and hasn’t been enough. She had to be hospitalized due to complications from changing medications, and had to have her emergency intervention medication added as a daily normal medication. Mom was so frustrated that she started Lily on the ketogenic diet, under the guidance of a specialist nutritionist who works with people with intractable epilepsy.
Expect many, MANY posts to come on the keto diet. Particularly since we’re coming up on some Jewish holidays that involve specialty foods that Lily can’t eat on it, and we’re trying to improvise, using them as a test before her birthday. No chocolate cake – no cake! – for the woman who loves cake, in our effort to stop the seizures. It’s hard math for any of us, but really hard for her.
Which brings us to now: I am currently unemployed, living with my parents, searching for jobs and considering going to school for a master’s degree in an area other than that in which I got my PhD. Lily’s seizures are smaller right now, but not at all what I consider controlled. Mom’s health is okay, but she’s exhausted from the effort of the keto diet (and work, and her own health, and running Lily’s house as well as the family home – I’m trying to help, where I can). Dad seems okay but he’s either aging in a new way or is having symptoms he won’t or can’t acknowledge, and mostly we just get into a lot of fights, because I perceive him as having given up or otherwise disengaged with a lot of what I’m trying to help Mom do for Lily.
And with that: I need to go get in some exercise time before I help make dinner. Lily’s coming over with a supported living staffer, for modified fish taco night. I’ll be back soon!
Scenes from an active mind feeling fractured; this post does not flow well because my thoughts are not flowing well right now, but I think…I think I want to say it all, this way, anyways.
I’ve been in pain a lot recently – emotional as well as physical, and at times it’s felt…dangerous. Dangerously alone, fighting for control of situations I can’t control. What I crave is the safety to cry, to be held just tightly enough in the arms of a lover that I don’t have to think in order to feel myself not being alone, but gently enough that I have space to sob until my emotional pain, somehow, becomes physical, and fades.
Of course, I can’t have that; it’s magical thinking, I’m single, when I cry my sinuses fill almost immediately.
When it does come, catharsis comes at bad times, very often late at night, adding to the difficulty that is sleep. (I’ve been having nightmares recently, and there seems to be clinical evidence that sleep is disrupted in people with fibro.) It’s a horrible boom and bust: can’t fall asleep due to physical pain or anxiety, can’t get out of bed until late because of the need for sleep, not sleepy the next night when it’s normal bedtime because of sleeping in.
The pain was really bad while I was reading an amazing book – The Empathy Exams, by Leslie Jamison. It’s a powerful collection of essays, exploring, yes, empathy, but through lenses of pain (chosen and unchosen), incarceration, pushing yourself to the limits of endurance. It touched my sense of pain really deeply, evoked too much sympathy or empathy or whatever; I felt querulous and depressed while reading it, while simultaneously intellectually stimulated and relieved at recognition.
The pain is opposite around most of my friends; not everyone knows about the fibro, and I don’t feel able to be truly open and honest about my symptoms with more. Facebook can feel like a minefield: new pregnancies and births remind me that I’m aging and now have a chronic health condition that might preclude pregnancy or childbirth (LONG wished-for); weddings and vacations with friends can sometimes sting, alone as I feel (and as worried about money as I am). Someone said something about realizing that health is wealth, recently, as so many people share platitudes in graphic form about their luck or fortune at being healthy…and I am concealing a chronic condition.
Of course, all of the sponsored ads and posts from the few support groups/fibro/chronic illness/invisible illness groups I’ve joined? Sometimes they remind me that I’m not doing so badly – I’m still working full time, I’m not yet charged with Lily’s care, right now those I love most dearly are alive. I can afford to live in a place where I feel safe and comfortable, have health care from my job, and I can pay for my medications and health care.
AND – it MUST be said – I am still capable of being delighted by the good news and celebrating with my beloved chosen family and less close friends the wonderful events in their lives. I can support friends who are learning to accept themselves or others through the lenses of those platitudes, or who are trying to create more joy than sorrow by expressing positives. This is all possible, devoid of the jealousy or bitterness about my lack that I am currently fighting. Sometimes it’s closer to a 95%/5% YAY/BOO balance, but that I can handle – then I can join in the cheering while hiding my own pain, which is totally appropriate. Everyone does it.
It’s hard to think of yourself as lovable when you’re this deep in pain and so socially isolated that you sink into it psychologically. I’m never quite sure if I lack the energy to go out and be social, or if I think I will lack the energy and miscalculate, or (and this is the real fear) if I think I will lack the energy and that thinking causes my body to act as though I don’t have the energy. Walking to work in the morning feels awful, almost always, but I feel better several hours later, which adds to the confusion about whether I should rest or exercise during these phases.
Which leaves me here: locking into my own mind, hearing my jerkbrain insist that if I had any chance of finding or meriting love BEFORE – when I was already unsteady in myself as a genetically biracial woman raised only knowing half of the family, Jewish and valuing that, daughter of a woman with a degenerative neurological disease that THANKFULLY is held at bay by drugs, and big sister to Lily, complicated if wonderful person that she is. Now, I have fibro. Yeah, dating sure is fun. (Insert a rather sour expression here.) Feeling like a failure at dating is hard to stave off when you haven’t figured out how to leave the pain behind. I remember venting to a friend that nobody would want to have sex with a woman who needs to wear gloves at night during the winter in order to avoid finger joint pain; I know that I weigh more than I might otherwise because of the challenges of physical pain from exercise, medications, and strong food cravings that may be partly shaped by the fibro and/or the meds.
A variation of my daydream-nightmares is that I fail to find a partner, fail to keep a job or earn enough salary to support a family – because Lily is my family, and I need to be able to support her. One reason I seem to constantly be pushing my diagnosis away is that I can’t believe that after 30 years of life with Lily, I am no longer the healthy one with the brilliant career path possible. I love the work I do and find it to be incredibly important, but I know it’s less valued – intellectually, financially, and socially – than the job I had been aiming for.
I know I need to be working with a therapist because not only do I need to have help in handling this. I don’t want to. It takes time and money, it takes opening myself up again (AGAIN) to a new person. I don’t want to go to a therapist because I want to feel normal. Normal people may not actually manage their emotions perfectly, but there’s at least a facade of managing.
It’s hard to talk to people about it because I have empathy that they don’t expect. I understand something about the morning sickness of pregnancy because I’ve spent months vomiting on a daily basis. I understand something about toddler behavior because my sister is developmentally locked, in part, at that age. When I try to express this, I am sometimes rebuffed. I am afraid of that, so I hold back. Sometimes being smart enough to see the connections hurts, when people on the other side of those potential connections do not see, or do not want, to connect. (Don’t you love my elitism? Yes, I work to moderate most of it. Some of it is my philosophical preference.)
I know I am managing to proceed with my life, out of control as it feels. I know that the fracture lines are imagined or felt but not concrete, even if the pain is, very often, quite real. I hope it’s okay to say all of this; I need to be able to talk about it somehow.
I visited my family for the recent Passover holiday; it was the first time I’ve seen them this year. It’s the first time I’ve seen them since my sister’s most recent hospitalization. (I mentioned that in a recent post.)
It was incredibly sobering and scary to see Lily. She’d lost a lot of weight, which isn’t a terrible thing in and of itself (her meds do stimulate her appetite and she’s been overweight for awhile), but was probably a lot of muscle as well as fat. Her muscle tone and her control were abysmal. It was most obvious when she was trying to get around: she normally crawls at home, and couldn’t keep herself up on her hands – she was leaning on her forearms. She also couldn’t move very far, and needed to lay down and rest periodically just moving around the first floor. My parents’ house has two stories, and it took me something like fifteen minutes to get her up the flight of stairs. Lily’s feet kept slipping off of the edge of the steps, partly because she was having trouble lifting her foot high enough to securely plant it for leverage.
It was worse than that, though: Lily lacked the coordination and stamina to feed herself. She couldn’t keep herself sitting upright in her wheelchair and couldn’t balance herself on the toilet. It was exhausting, being there, helping her, even thought it was worthwhile.
Was there a reason for this? I’d never seen her recover from a seizure so slowly or so badly. However, Lily has also been on a fluctuating medication schedule – a new one had been added to the two she was already taking multiple times a day, and I think one of those was being phased out. Happily, my parents and Lily’s support staff reported that she was improving rapidly during my visit, during which time there was a shift in her medication plan. It sounds like she’s made some progress since then, too, needing fewer naps to get through the day and having the energy to engage in games – playing catch, for instance. So that’s all good. And we have a family friend who is in special ed who might be able to help get my sister into a physical therapy program that will help her regain her mobility.
But to be perfectly honest? Lily’s condition scared me pretty badly. This is only the second time in our lives that I have considered the idea that Lily might die before me. (The first was when she was in the ICU for a week with a septic Salmonella infection.) That’s a horrible thing to think about; to consider what my life would be without her seems incredibly selfish. It’s also deeply sad to think about being without her, even though right now she’s more often irritating than fun to talk to or to visit. Her loss would be something I would feel forever, and I can’t fathom the shape of it now. I can’t even try, because the very idea of losing her is so scary.
It’s a little odd, thinking about it, that I didn’t really consider my sister’s mortality on the day my mom told me that my sister’s estate would go to me if she were to die. I was extremely creeped out, and I know I talked to a friend about it when it happened, but it was mostly just a negative contingency, rather than a realistic possibility.
What makes this even more uncomfortable is how much it has exacerbated my own desire for a stable romantic relationship…and children. And how much it’s made me worry about my parents’ health; nursing my sister has taken a toll on them. I used to have really bad panic attacks about dying, and after a lot of talk therapy and a brief period of using an anti-anxiety drug, I managed to get those under control. Those restarted during my visit and I’ve been having a hard time keeping them from coming back in the past few days. I’ve had a hard time keeping my focus at work or being able to enjoy going on dates, and maybe also to sleep at night.
It’s this darkness that lingers, a small psychological itch that makes my conscious mind dream about living a life I can only describe as normal. My daydreams are of a house, a husband, a child – and enough energy to be a good teacher, mentor, volunteer – not just in the way we dream of how to take the next steps in our lives, but in a way that reinforces how my life isn’t about that ideal, and never has been. My therapist had to reassure me recently that it’s not atypical for a sibling to feel an urge to run away, to escape, but it doesn’t really help me move past the guilt and anguish. I guess that’s what I get to work on next, after I let those feelings happen. But for now I’m kind of stuck in it.