I had a typical chronic illness experience this week. I’m writing this article particularly for family, friends and colleagues of patients, to increase understanding in the community.
Edited to add: After publishing this I decided to add a personal thought. Other chronic illness patients may or may not agree with me, so check first! We are not looking for sympathy. We definitely aren’t looking to be told to try extra Vitamin C, D or K. We don’t want, “But have you tried….” because trust me when I say this, most of us have agreed our treatment plans WITH OUR MEDICAL PROFESSIONALS.
So what do we want? Just acceptance! Accept what we say at face value, don’t doubt us. We aren’t making it up. It is what it is and many of us are very used to it and just get on with life as best we can. We don’t want a fuss. I’m not saying we don’t welcome kind thoughts or offers of assistance. Yes, you can certainly make me a nice cup of coffee or tea, that would be lovely, thank you. But the most important support you can offer is acceptance and understanding without doubting what we say and without making a fuss as if you expect us to keel over in the next hour. This may not be your normal, but it is our normal.
We hear and talk a lot about chronic pain in relation to chronic illness, but as we know from my last article, I’m pretty much pain free on my new medication. That is very pleasing. Pain is not the only debilitating issue we face.
Wednesday night I did not sleep at all well. I had an intense two hour meeting and worked an extra hour on Wednesday – did that contribute to the bad sleep? No idea. Woke up Thursday morning feeling shit. There is no other word for it. While I do try to stay polite in my articles, the lovely medical word I like, malaise, didn’t quite cover it. Unwell didn’t cover it. Clinically, my experience would likely have been classified as malaise, but that is such a nice sounding word it didn’t cover how I would have described the feeling. I want to stress, no pain. Pain is NOT our only problem.
I doubted I could actually work, but we had a 9:30 meeting scheduled so I dressed, braved the world. When I say I braved the world, let’s not get too ambitious here! I work from home, so braving the world entailed throwing my hair in a bun, putting on some clothes and some lipstick and sitting in front of my laptop camera for a Teams meeting! I did warn my colleagues I felt crap and doubted I’d make it through the day but would work as long as I could. Stomach pains then arrived, along with a couple of trips to the bathroom – I think you get the picture.
However, by 1 pm I felt relatively normal and completed my work day (quite productively, as it turned out) although I was a little hyper, which made no sense either. Logged off at 4 pm, sat down in an armchair and a wave of nausea engulfed me. My stomach felt funny, just funny. I was a little dizzy. The unwellness was back with a vengeance. I had a 5 pm appointment with a girlfriend for iced coffee and cake. There was no way I was going to be able to drive or have cake. I cancelled. Dug deep in my medication supply and swallowed anti-nausea medication and took a Somac (Pantoprazole). By 6:30 pm I felt marginally better. Went to bed reasonably early (for me, that is).
Slept like a log! Best night of sleep for the last two years, I think. Woke up Friday morning all cylinders firing! Went for a 1 kilometre walk before work. Worked my usual hours without issue. Waited for the temperature to drop (the weather temperature, not mine, mine was fine) in the evening and walked another 1.3 kilometres at just after 7 pm, before the rain arrived.
This morning (Saturday) I am giving my body it’s usual Saturday morning recovery-from-the-work-week time and I will head to the gym this afternoon for a weight training session.
So what on earth happened Thursday? I have NO idea. I hadn’t eaten anything different, I hadn’t been out partying, I hadn’t overly exerted myself physically on the Wednesday. I suspect the bad sleep wasn’t the cause, but a symptom – of course I can’t prove that.
These episodes, while not painful, are very restrictive and affect quality of life. I’ve been trying to think of a way to describe the situation that healthy people may relate to. You see, most people have experienced an episode of pain in their life: a toothache, a twisted ankle, recovered from surgery, headaches, a broken bone, a sports injury, something. Although healthy people might struggle to really understand chronic pain, most do understand pain itself at some level and know it exists in different degrees of severity. Most people who have not experienced malaise have no similar experience to inform their understanding of what the patient is going through. We look fine, no bandages, stitches, crutches – so what’s wrong with us?
The closest I can come up with is imagine you have a case of influenza but without the temperature, runny nose and headache. You just feel shit. Throw in a bit of lightheadedness and nausea (but no throwing up) for good measure. Don’t confused malaise with fatigue or lethargy, although they can sometimes arrive hand-in-hand.
Healthy people (e.g. family, friends, colleagues) can find this difficult to comprehend. It arrives out of nowhere, lasts an indeterminate time, may fluctuate and is extremely annoying and quite debilitating. I don’t like cancelling coffee dates with friends. The patient literally may not be able to do anything. I couldn’t on Thursday afternoon/evening, I just sat until I went to bed. Feeling extremely annoyed, but there was little I could do about the situation. It may not happen again for six months. It might happen again tomorrow. We never know.
If someone you know has these episodes, be gentle and supportive, even if you don’t understand. Trust me, we don’t like it either.