Ehlers Danlos Awareness Month – FAQ

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May is Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome Awareness Month, and so far, I have been pretty quiet about it. However, now seems like a good time to answer some questions about EDS, that I am frequently asked.

What is EDS?

Ehlers-Danlos syndromes (EDS) are a group of rare inherited conditions that affect connective tissue in the body. Connective tissues provide support in skin, tendons, ligaments, blood vessels, internal organs and bones and make up over 20% of our bodies. There are 13 different types of EDS, caused by faults in certain genes that make connective tissue weaker. Depending on the type of EDS, the faulty gene may have been inherited from one parent, or both parents, or in some cases, the faulty gene isn’t inherited and can occur in a person for the first time. The most common type of EDS is Hypermobile EDS (hEDS, formally known as type 3) . Rarer types include classical EDS, vascular EDS and kyphoscoliotic EDS.

Does it hurt?

The simple answer to this is yes, it does hurt. I am on painkillers daily. These reduce some of the pain and symptoms that I experience but they don’t get rid of them. In some ways, I’ve got used to being in pain, so a lot of the time, I’m able to block it out and I’ve learnt to live my life around pain. I’ve got a fairly high pain threshold (never cried after breaking a bone kind of high). When I have an EDS flare, things can become more difficult because my pain levels become harder to manage. In these situations, I often have to increase the medication that I take and I’m usually found attached to a heat pack or hot water bottle. Increasing medication comes with its own issues, such as more side effects, so taking more medication isn’t something that I like to do.

Have you tried…?

Probably, yes. I have tried so many things to try and alleviate symptoms, with varying levels of success. Kale hasn’t cured me, nor has a clean eating diet. Similarly, eating quinoa hasn’t cured me. Different things work for different people, EDS affects every single person differently, so whilst a hot bath with epsom salts works for me, it might not work for one of my friends. Aside from medication and heat therapy, I have regular physiotherapy appointments, where my joints/tendons are put back into place or I have ultra-sound therapy, which is a non-invasive way of reducing inflammation in the body.

How did you catch it?

I didn’t. I was born this way baby. Ehlers-Danlos Syndromes are genetic conditions, so I have had EDS all of my life, I just didn’t know. As far as I know, no one else in my family has EDS, meaning that despite being symptomatic since the age of nine or ten, I wasn’t diagnosed until the age of twenty two, as no one was looking for it, or suspected it. EDS is also classed as a rare disease, which makes the diagnostic process longer and more complicated. On average, it takes ten years for a person to be diagnosed with EDS, from the first onset of symptoms. EDS UK ran an awareness campaign highlighting the length of time it takes to receive a diagnosis of EDS. You can watch the video here.

Can you have children?

I have no idea, mainly because I’m not in a position whereby I am trying to have children. However, the diagnosis of EDS in itself does not stop you from having children, but it can lead to a higher risk of complications for the mother and baby. I am very mixed about wanting to have children. In an ideal world, I would love to have children and I would love to be able to conceive naturally, but I am mindful of the fact that EDS if genetic, so there is a 50% chance that I could pass it on. I wouldn’t wish this condition on anyone and that includes any future children. EDS is an unpredictable beast: some days I am absolutely fine, with minimal restrictions, other days I can’t move from my bed and require care from another person for basic daily tasks. Having worked with children and young people who are young carers, that has to be something I will need to consider. Hopefully in time, I will be in a better position to properly decide what is best, because right now, I don’t have the answer.

When will you get better?

I won’t and I find it so difficult when people ask this question or say that they hope I get well soon, because I am not going to get better, in the conventional sense. I have periods of time when things are more manageable, and I lead a fairly normal life but the downside to that is the inevitable payback. And payback is a bit. In the five years since being diagnosed, my health has declined hugely, although that isn’t completely down to EDS, but also co-morbidities, such as gastroparesis and POTS. A future with EDS is sometimes quite scary to think about because I don’t know from one day to the next how functioning my body will be, but I have to remain hopeful that treatment options will improve with time and research.

Will you die from it?

This is probably the worst question that I have been asked, in relation to EDS and it’s such an important one to answer because of that. To make this question hit even harder, it was asked by a paramedic, whilst I was being rushed into hospital by ambulance. I reminded him that this job is to try and prevent me from dying. I know that he was asking out of curiosity because he hadn’t treated a patient with EDS before, but there’s a time and place. As I said above. there are 13 different types of EDS and vascular EDS can be life limiting due to the possibility of organ and vessel rupture. Life expectancy is not usually shortened with other forms of EDS. That said, conditions that are co-morbid with EDS can impact on life expectancy. If you have gastroparesis for instance and have intestinal failure as a result, the sad fact is that death from a lack of nutrition can and does happen. EDS can, in many cases, cause progressive deterioration and degeneration of connective tissue in joints, spine, eye, gums, teeth, internal organs, and central nervous system. No one with EDS knowns what the future holds and emotionally, that is a big thing to deal with.

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How to Talk to Someone With Depression

Depression can really change how a person thinks and perceives information. It can cause friction between friends and family members and often lead to a person feeling even more isolated. Depression is a mental illness that can affect anyone. It is not something that you can simply snap out of or a sign of weakness.

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Mental Health Foundation

Below are some ideas around talking to someone with depression and questions that might be helpful.

Ask if they have had anything to eat or drink. If not, suggest having a glass of water and have something to eat if they can manage it. Talk about healthy and quick options, to avoid carb-loading which is likely to only give a quick burst of energy. Foods that are rich in protein are good. The thought of cooking for yourself when you are deep in depression can be too much to even consider, so offer support in buying healthy and nutritious ready meals that can be shoved in the freezer and cooked easily.

At the risk of sounding like someone from a crisis team, asking someone if they have had a bath or shower when they are feeling awful is sometimes an idea, providing the person is able to keep themselves safe in doing so. Self care is terminology which is thrown around by crisis teams very readily, but there’s no denying the fact that feeling clean is going to make you feel slightly better about yourself than being unclean. I get it, I really do, the energy and effort involved in having a bath or washing my hair means that it’s the last thing I want to do when I am depressed, but I try to remind myself that I deserve to be clean and I deserve to look after myself.

Again, at the risk of sounding like I am regurgitating snippets from the crisis team, encouraging someone to stretch their legs and move from their bed or the sofa is a way of showing that you care. I am not for one moment suggesting that you need to be walking miles in the picturesque countryside or be running a half marathon, but a quick walk around your immediate local area is enough to get those endorphins zipping around. Gentle exercise in the home is an option if you can’t face leaving the house, you can find lots of simple home exercise routines on Youtube, if you can’t face watching a highly positive and energetic fitness blogger and the NHS has home workout videos which are easy to access and follow.

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A big part of depression is shutting yourself away from people and not engaging with friends and family. This is definitely something that I do and I am fortunate to have a really support group of people around me, to check in with me and talk rubbish to distract me from the mess inside my head. Encouraging people to talk can be with friends or it could be with a medical professional. Ask if they have had any medical input and find out when the next planned contact will be. You can work out if you should be encouraging them to make contact with a professional sooner, or, if it can wait, suggest writing things down, to share next time there is contact. Don’t be afraid to offer physical contact, like hugs, but know that this doesn’t suit everyone. Whilst I love a good hug or cuddle, I know that for some people, this is their idea of hell, so knowing what works for the individual person is important. Pets are also a value source of companionship and support.

Ask if they have had any changes in medication and if they are taking their medication are prescribed. New medication can really mess with your head, especially in the early days when withdrawal is a risk and side effects of new drugs are more prevalent. Make sure that they are safe, as some medications increase suicidal thoughts and ideation and then wait it out with them. If things don’t improve after a few weeks, suggest contacting their GP.

If you don’t know what to say, just say that: tell your friend that you are there for them. As a humans, we want to immediately have the answers and be able to solve every single problem that we are faced with but sometimes, that isn’t possible. Let them know that you’ll be there, don’t accuse, threaten, blame, or make light or joke about how they might be feeling. Reminding a person that you care is one of the most important things that you can do. Knowing that you’ve got someone holding you up and fighting the beast alongside you is less isolating and is a reminder that you matter.

It’s worth remembering that what works for one person might not work for another. Asking how you can help and if there is anything in particular that would be useful is another way of showing that you care. Not everyone is open to the offer of help, not everyone knows what help they need and what you think is helpful and what they think is helpful could be two very different things.

Even if you can’t relate to a person’s problems or they seem insignificant, don’t belittle how they are feeling. Try to resist solutions that might seem simple to you. Most importantly, don’t make judgements on how they are feeling. Everyone’s feelings are valid and we all react in differing ways to situations. That doesn’t make us wrong, weak or defective, it makes us human.

Lockdown and Mental Health

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Staying indoors has become the norm in the UK, with the country adapting to life in lockdown due to the coronavirus outbreak. The government imposed the lockdown on the evening of Monday 23th March, meaning that we couldn’t leave our houses, except for permitted times such as one outing for daily exercise and essential travel, like going to work if you’re a key worker and going to medical appointments. The way of life in the UK changed very quickly, we couldn’t (and still can’t, at the time of writing this) visit the houses of friends or family, use leisure facilities, visit attractions, gather in large groups spend time outdoors, unless it was for exercise.

Whilst lockdown in the UK hasn’t been as strict as in other countries, it has been completely different to life as we usually know it. As someone who thrives on routine and structure, suddenly not being able to work despite being a key worker, see my friends and extended family or use a leisure centre was incredibly difficult and I know that I’m not alone in feeling like that. I started isolating before it was enforced, due to underlying health conditions and I am now on week ten of isolation/lockdown and whilst it was hard towards the beginning, I am getting used to this being my normal. Sometimes it feels like a bit of a slap in the face, after spending over two years out of work and effectively very isolated because of my health, to now being forced into isolation again, when my physical health is pretty good and I was back in a working environment.

We are now at a point where lockdown restrictions are easing but it is going to take a long time before we are back to normal. Social distancing is set to last months and restrictions could be put back in place if cases start to peak again.

So how am I staying sane?

I didn’t cause COVID-19 and I can’t take it away. As much as I joke about my frustration about it being caused by someone eating an undercooked bat, there is so much more to it being a global pandemic than that and it’s can’t be simplified. I like to be able to control every single aspect of my life and going through lockdown has taught me that sometimes, I can’t be in control and that I need to just go with the flow. I don’t know when I’ll be able to go back to work, I don’t know when medical appointments will resume and return to normality, I don’t know when I will next be able to hug my friends, but everyone is in the same position. I could make myself unwell, stressing over things that I can’t change, or I can accept it and deal with things as they come along. No one can easily fix the situation we are in, sure people can stay home, wash their hands, social distance, use common sense and not go round licking lamp posts but that isn’t going to change things over night. Life will be very different for everyone as a result of COVID-19 and we will need to adjust to that new normal.

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My support system changed rapidly as infection rates spiked. I still have therapy but it’s over Skype and I still speak to my GP but it’s on the phone. As lonely as isolation can be, I know that the support is still there, just in a different format. I’m not having any physio which is hard and I’m not seeing my support worker, as the service she is attached to has temporarily closed. I’m not going to lie, some days are hell: I get angry and I’m probably not a very nice person to be around. Some times I am an anxious mess. Other times, I plod along, doing what I can to make the days easier and taking little steps to keep my brain occupied. Asking for help is not selfish, it is normal to be finding life hard to deal with right now, so we need to show ourselves a little kindness and compassion. And if someone is in a bad mood and is more snappy than usual, or cries over something stupid, don’t take it personally. Give them a virtual hug and remind them that they’re not alone.

One of the biggest things that I’ve come to realise is that I need to be realistic. Like I said above, some days I feel like I can take on the world, other days, I would happily stay in bed and tell everyone (but mainly BoJo) to fuck off. Reading has been the one thing that I’ve been able to fall back on during lockdown, I can happily spend day after day reading, but I accept that shutting myself away in a fictional world isn’t always what is best for me. Or my eyes. That said, I do have days when I’m not in the mood to read and I’ll be honest, initially, I would beat myself up for that, as though reading a book in a day was the marker of success. Trying to stick to some form of routine has been hard, but as much as possible, I make sure I’m up at the same time every day, I do some exercise, read, talk to friends, do some of the endless adult or medical admin and go to bed at a sensible time. I keep my room as just somewhere to sleep and make sure I spend daytimes in other rooms of the house, or the garden, to try and vary my environment as much as possible.

I’m not saying for one moment that I have completely got this whole lockdown thing sorted. Ask me tomorrow and I’ll probably be fed up because I want to go swimming and because I can’t see my friends, but actually, I’m doing okay. This isn’t forever.

Mental Health Awareness Week

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So as I said in my last post, my May favourites: lockdown edition, it has been well over a year since I last sat down and put pen to paper. The main reason for that is because 2019 was a really awful year. Towards the end of April 2019, I was admitted as a day patient at a psychiatric hospital, near to where I live. Things had got very bad, very quickly and I plummeted into crisis point without much warning. The care, compassion and support that I received from hospital staff was amazing. They genuinely saved my life and that isn’t something I say lightly.

After three weeks in hospital, I was transferred to a step down provision, which is jointly run by Mind and the NHS and I was there until July. It was, undoubtedly, one of the hardest things I have gone through. Having struggled for over ten years with my mental health, I never expected it to get to a point whereby I needed to be in hospital for my own safety. It was new and scary but made so much easier by the fact that I was treated with dignity throughout and made some wonderful friends. We laughed together, cried together, despaired together, rolled our eyes at other patients and ultimately, supported each other through a horrible time.

I was discharged in July and for a few weeks, it felt like I could take on the world but it quickly became apparent that I wasn’t yet ready for the world (and the world wasn’t ready for me) so at the end of August, I was readmitted and remained a day patient until the middle of December, when I was very suddenly discharged from all mental health services.

Having spent over six months in some form of day patient provision, to suddenly be faced with going it alone was a terrifying prospect. I soon worked out that it would be sink or swim and that I would have to work very very hard in order to stay out of hospital and to try and rebuild my life.

A year on since my first admission, I think I’m doing okay. Things are different, but good different. I have a job that I love, I’m working with the best people who make me cry with laughter and I am incredibly fortunate to be surrounded by endless support and understanding from my line manager and senior staff. Juggling a job, mental illnesses and chronic illnesses is hard at times, but I’ve never been made to feel inferior to other members of staff or like an inconvenience.

Obviously it hasn’t all been plain sailing. The past few weeks have been challenging, not because of covid or lockdown, more because it hit hard when it got to a year since being admitted. I’m the first to admit that I am hard on myself and there was quite a lot of beating myself up behind the scenes because I’m not where I expected to be or where I want to be in life. I was referred back to the mental health team, however the referral was refused. At the time, I was angry and felt let down, but a few weeks on and I think that the referral being refused was the best possible outcome. I don’t want to be under the mental health team and constantly be having to prove that I am sick enough to warrant their care: I want to get better and I want to get better for myself, not so services can put a tick next to my name and say that they’ve cured me. I don’t think I’ll ever be cured, I think I’m always going to struggle to some extent with mental illnesses, but I am learning to live my life along side them, instead of them dictating my life and my choices.

It’s a really cliched thing to say but my experiences last year changed me, but they changed me in a good way. It made me realise how passionate I am about mental health and the link between mental and physical illnesses. It taught me that sometimes, the only way out is through. Sometimes there isn’t a quick fix and you’ve just got to ride out the shit times and catch that bear.

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There’s so much I could say about it being mental health awareness week. But the simple fact is that we are aware. There is so much awareness, what there isn’t is adequate support for people who are struggling. We are told, time and time again, to reach out and ask for help, but so often that is ignored, or you’re made to wait an inexcusable amount of time, or you’re given the most basic input because it’s deemed to be the most cost effective. This country has a problem and that problem is that mental health is not seen as a priority. One in ten children and one in four adults will suffer from some form of mental health problem at some point and quite frankly, being kind is not enough to stop that. There needs to be more funding, better research into best treatment methods, more early intervention, less silencing through medication and more treating people are individuals. Until that happens, sadly, I can’t see much changing.

May Favourites – Lockdown Edition

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It’s been a long long time since I last sat down and wrote a blog post, more on why in another post. But as way of easing myself back in, I thought I’d kick off with a monthly favourites post, looking at all the things that I have loved so far in May. Obviously if you’re living in the UK at the moment, we are in lockdown because of COVID-19, so most of the favourites will be based around making life as painless and as interesting as possible, when you’re stuck looking at the same for walls for months on end!

 

Books

My absolute favourite book from this month has to be Q by Christina Dalcher. Long time readers of my blog might remember how much I obsessed over Vox, Dalcher’s first novel (I crowned it my book of the year) so I had high expectations for Q and it did not disappoint. It is powerful, gripping and a little bit shocking: in a world where being perfect is everything, what happens when you are faced with someone you love not making the grade? I think what hit me the most is how this book is actually inspired by historical events. While I knew that eugenics had been embraced by the Nazis, I was completely unaware of the American eugenics movement of the early twentieth century that predated this. This novel looks at eugenics in a 21st century society, leaving the reader wanting more and more. I already cannot wait for Dalcher’s next book. 

After reading Q, I’ve felt like I’m stuck in a bit of a rut when it comes to books, simply because I don’t think I’ll ever read anything as powerful or as good. That said, I really enjoyed Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano. I thought that this book was beautifully written. When a plane suddenly crashes, twelve-year-old Edward Adler is the sole survivor. In the aftermath of the crash, Edward struggles to make sense of his grief, sudden fame of being a sole survivor and find his place in a world without his family. But then Edward and his neighbour Shay make a startling discovery – hidden in his uncle’s garage are letters from the relatives of other passengers and they are all addressed him. Based on true events where a nine year old Dutch boy was a single surviving person of a plane crash, this book looks at what it means not just to survive, but to truly live.

I also really enjoyed Seven Lies by Elizabeth Kay. This dark and gripping story looks at the friendship of Jane and Marnie, inseparable since childhood and how their friendship slowly unravels over the course of seven lies, eventually leading to a death. My only criticism was that it ended too quickly. The book itself was very fast paced but the sudden nature of the ending made it seem like a slight anticlimax.

Films/TV

Having spent all of the past few months stuck in the house due to lockdown and needing to isolate because of health conditions, I have very much made use of my netflix subscription. One of the best series that I have seen in a long time is Unorthodox, based on the book of the same name, by Deborah Feldman. As a member of the strictly religious Satmar sect of Hasidic Judaism, Deborah Feldman grew up under a code of relentlessly enforced customs governing everything from what she could wear and to whom she could speak to what she was allowed to read. In Unorthodox, we follow the story of Esty, a young Jewish woman escaping a strict religious sect in Williamsburg, New York, and building a new life for herself in Berlin. I’m ashamed to say that my knowledge around Judaism is limited so I learnt quite a lot watching this series, although did have to concentrate due to the amount of Yiddish spoken. 

I’m a bit late to the party on my next favourite, but I finally watched After Life, written by and starring Ricky Gervais. I’ll be honest, when I started watching it, I was a little indifferent. I’m not a huge fan of Gervais so I was not in any way prepared for the six hour emotional onslaught that happened when I watched series one and two in one sitting. I have never cried so much at a TV programme. After Life follows Tony, whose life is turned upside down after his wife dies from breast cancer. He contemplates suicide, but instead decides to live long enough to punish the world for his wife’s death by saying and doing whatever he wants. Although he thinks of this as his “superpower”, his plan is undermined when everyone around him tries to make him a better person. If you haven’t watched After Life, stop what you are doing and watch it right now. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry and most of all, you’ll want to give your loved ones a massive hug.

Spoonie Favourites

Being stuck at home has meant that I haven’t been able to have my usual physio appointments and my body is starting to struggle. A friend recommended buying an acupressure mat, which is designed to relieve stress and pain. The cynical part of me isn’t sure if it’s making much difference as I’m still stressed and I’m definitely still in pain, but I will do anything to try and get my body to July when physio appointments will hopefully resume.

 

Lockdown Favourites

It’s seems only right to finish off by looking at some of the things that are making lockdown that little bit easier.

Firstly: jigsaws. I’d like to say that I am a pro at completing jigsaws, however this isn’t the case. I lose my mind after about 10 minutes, but it’s kept my brain busy, especially on wet days when I’ve been hibernating.

I also gave into temptation and ended by buying Sims 4. At the time of buying it was massively reduced (that’s my excuse anyway) and I’m managing to pass many hours building my dream house and then killing off my sims in as many dramatic ways as possible.

I’m not sure if I’d class it as a favourite but I bought myself a cheap pair of blue light blocking glasses for when I’m video calling people, as I seem to end up with a banging headache from increased screen time. Time will tell whether these make any difference, I suspect that I actually need my eyes testing and need new glasses, so my online purchase of blue light blocking glasses are only to bridge the gap until an eye test is possible!

 

I hope this gives you some inspiration of things to do or read with the world being a very strange place. Keep safe and remember to sing happy birthday when you wash your hands.

 

April Favourites

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A slightly delayed monthly favourites blog post for April, if you’ve read my recent post about depression, you’ll know what’s been happening in my life and where I’ve been. Anyway, that aside, April has been and gone and it feels like 2019 is flying by, or is that just me?

Over to what I’ve loved in April.

Books

My standout book from April has got to be Internment by Samira Ahmed. I’ve been telling anyone who will listen to me to read this book. Set in a near future United States of America, seventeen year old Layla is forced into an internment camp for Muslim-Americans along with her parents. Layla begins a journey to fight for freedom, leading a revolution against the internment camp’s Director and his guards. This book is chilling and powerful in equal measures, mostly because the plot could become a very real prospect if social divisions escalate. The real terror of Internment is how close it is to the present-day United States, with the narrative making it clear how few additional nudges are needed. In addition, there is a deep-running theme about complicity and about how not standing up to something can be the same as letting it happen. This is not only how non-Muslim people either allowed or actively voted for the laws and internment camp seen in the novel, but also how people can turn on those who rebel.

Another bookish favourite from April is My Sister, The Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite. The title makes the book pretty self-explanatory. Korede’s dinner is interrupted one night by a distress call from her sister, Ayoola, she knows what’s expected of her: bleach, rubber gloves, nerves of steel and a strong stomach. This’ll be the third boyfriend Ayoola’s dispatched in “self-defence” and the third mess that her lethal little sibling has left Korede to clear away. She should probably go to the police for the good of the menfolk of Nigeria, but she loves her sister and, as they say, family always comes first. This book was addictive, leaving the reader with the question of who is more dangerous? A femme fatale murderess or the quiet, plain woman who cleans up her messes? I never knew what was going to happen and I love that in a book. Highly recommend, although the Nigerian language intertwined throughout the book got a little confusing at times.

Me Mam. Me Dad. Me. by Malcolm Duffy is a humorous and heartbreaking debut novel with the fresh, funny, honest voice of a 14-year-old Geordie lad recounting the trials and tribulations of family life and finding first love. The literacy ward nominations alone for this book speak volumes: Waterstone’s Children’s Prize 2019 Shortlisted, Sheffield Award 2019 Shortlisted and Carnegie Medal 2019 Nominated to name a few. Danny’s mam has a new boyfriend. Initially, all is good – Callum seems nice enough, and Danny can’t deny he’s got a cool set up; big house, fast car, massive TV, and Mam seems to really like him. However, cracks begin to show in Danny and his man’s new life and they cannot be easily repaired. As Danny’s life spirals out of control, Danny does the one thing that he can think of and find his dad. Malcolm Duffy has done an amazing job with his book which will appeal to so many readers on so many different levels.

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Films/TV

Having spent the majority of my time at home (in pyjamas) you would think that I have loads of film and TV recommendations. However, I am a creature of habit and will happily rewatch Happy Valley, Line of Duty and Silent Witness, to the point that I know the plots of by heart. That said, I finally finished watching Broadchurch, which I started watching last year but then never finished. Honestly, by the time I got half way through series three, I was a little bored but it still provided plenty twists and turns that I wasn’t able to predict.

I also sat down and finally watched The Hate U Give, based on the book by Angie Thomas, of the same name. I loved the book more than I can put into words, I very rarely cry at books or films, but both the book and film has me crying in sadness and anger at the unjustness of the situation being played out. Sixteen-year-old Starr lives in two worlds: the poor neighbourhood where she was born and raised and her posh high school in the suburbs. The uneasy balance between them is shattered when Starr is the only witness to the fatal shooting of her unarmed best friend, Khalil, by a police officer. Now what Starr says could destroy her community. It could also get her killed. Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, this is a powerful and gripping film about one girl’s struggle of justice and equality.

After a lot of deliberation, I watched The Disappearance of Madeleine McCann, after a number of people recommended it to me. I’m not sure how I feel after watching it, it certainly showed various things in a different light and it gave a balanced account of what happened. That said, it didn’t offer any new facts or insights. Unsurprisingly, The McCann family refused to take part in the series and asked those around them not to either, which leaves me feeling that the documentary itself wasn’t a necessity, more recapping of an awful situation that doesn’t have an end.

Spoonie Favourites

I’ve been really struggling with restless legs/arms/body and muscle spasms, due to some of the medication I’m currently taking. I was given a couple of suggestions of things to try, aside from the midnight baths and diazepam which I had been relying on (not an ideal combination…I don’t advise it!), including a weighted blanket and various prescribed medications. However the suggestion that came up the most was magnesium, specifically magnesium oil spray, which you spray on the soles of your feet. It hasn’t completely cured the spasms but it has made a difference.

What did you love over April, I love hearing your recommendations!

 

I Am Depressed

This isn’t going to be a particularly cheerful blog post, I will be talking about mental illness. If you’re feeling vulnerable, please read with caution.

I am depressed. By that, I don’t mean being a little bit sad, I mean full blown life altering depression, resulting in me being in hospital. People are using the term “breakdown” and to be fair, that’s quite an accurate description. I don’t feel ashamed about the fact that I am depressed.

Depression is ugly At times, it has felt like there’s been no way out. There aren’t any clear cut answers and it’s been more than a little bit chaotic. It is so much more than just being sad. It’s a feeling of endless hopelessness, combined with a fear that in unexplainable. It’s nothingness. It’s not knowing how to and not wanting to carry on.

Having said all of that, I consider myself as pretty lucky. When things started going wrong, my GP very quickly referred me back to mental health services, someone from the team rang me that same afternoon and the following Monday I had an assessment with the mental health team. I wasn’t expecting much, my previous experiences with the mental health team haven’t been positive, I’ve always been “functioning” meaning that despite any mental health battles, I’ve held down a job and coped (for the most part) without any intervention being needed.

This time, things were different. I was so depressed during the assessment, I could hardly speak. I couldn’t cry because I was too depressed to cry. Within ten minutes, a decision had been made that I needed to be referred to the day patient service at the local psychiatric hospital. I was shocked, scared but ultimately, numb, to this news because I honestly felt in a place whereby I was beyond help. I wanted to die. It’s a hard thing to admit, but I’m not going to shy away from it. By the end of the week, I had been assessed by the day service and then started the following week.

I’m now nearing the end of my two weeks as a day patient and will be transferring to a step-down service, run by the mental health team and Mind. Honestly? I am terrified. The walls of the hospital have been my safety and security. I’ve been under constant supervision and I’m scared about how I’m going to cope without that. But I’ll never know unless I try. I have got to try, for myself but also for the people who have had my back over the past few weeks and supported me when I have felt unsupportable. I’ll still have support from staff, albeit less intensively – I’m not expected to go out into the world alone just yet, thankfully. I could fall, I could fly, but I will not fail, whatever happens.

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There has been progress. Despite being physically unwell over the past few days (yay gastroparesis), mentally I’ve been okay. Last weekend I was counting the hours until I was back in hospital, I resorted to behaviours that I haven’t engaged in for years, and I mean years and the thought of getting to Monday morning and being back in hospital felt impossible. This weekend hasn’t been completely struggle-free but I’ve managed. I’ve used the advice and things that I had learnt in psycho-education sessions to keep myself safe.

Why am I writing all of this? Because I’m angry. I’m so bloody angry. I’ve struggled with mental illness for years and years, so maybe this was inevitable. But maybe not. The biggest trigger to this breakdown, or whatever you want to call it, has been my physical health. In the past 18 months, my life has changed drastically. I’ve gone from holding down a full-time job, saving to buy my own home and being a fairly independent adult to being on longterm sick leave, frequenting hospital more than I frequent pubs, with no real hope of moving out, being heavily reliant on my mum. Don’t get me wrong, I was still ill when I was working, but the diagnosis of gastroparesis and then Addison’s Disease has turned my life upside down. And I have had no support in dealing with that. There is a huge correlation between mental and physical health: you have a cold for a few days and mentally you feel like shit. Now imagine feeling shit, but more, every single day. With no escape.

Chronic illness, or any form, is life changing. But you don’t get the support in dealing with that. You’re expected to cope. Expected to just get on with it. That is not okay. I know of too many people from the chronic illness community who are now in hospital because of their physical health. I’m angry because I’ve been failed and I’m angry because so many other people are also being failed.

So yes, I’m feeling mentally stronger having been a day patient, but none of the underlying issues have been addressed. The trauma of my life changing so much in such a short space of time has not been addressed. No one has acknowledged the trauma of having to fight with medical professionals just to be believed. The medical traumas that I am unable to even begin to speak about are still being brushed aside.

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We have got to connect the dots between mental and physical health. One cannot exist without the other. I don’t know how to make the changes that need to happen. But I do know that this has got to be talked about more, to prevent more people from being failed.

Addison’s Disease Awareness Month

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There seems to be an awareness month or day for everything these days, but I’m going to take advantage of that and the fact that April is Adrenal Insufficiency awareness month.

I was diagnosed with Addison’s Disease in August 2018, so I’m still fairly new to the disease and very much still learning about managing it.  Addison’s Disease is also known as primary adrenal insufficiency and is a rare disorder of the adrenal glands. The adrenal glands are two small glands that sit on top of the kidneys. They produce essential hormones: cortisol, aldosterone and adrenaline. In short, having Addison’s Disease is usually the result of a problem with the immune system, which causes it to attack the outer layer of the adrenal gland (the adrenal cortex), disrupting the production of the steroid hormones aldosterone and cortisol. This means that my body doesn’t produce any cortisol. In a normal person, extra cortisol is released when they are unwell, have a shock or injury, so I need to be really careful when this happens and I will need to take medication for the rest of my life to replace the missing cortisol.

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When my cortisol is low and prior to diagnosis, I felt very unwell. I had such low energy levels that I spent more of my time in bed sleeping. No amount of sleep helped and it was a whole new level of exhaustion that I can’t put into words. As well as the exhaustion, I was also very weak: my legs would give way because my muscles felt so weak and mentally, I felt incredibly fragile and cried a lot.

Despite Addison’s being a rare disease, I found the diagnostic process pretty straight forward. I had a blood test to check my cortisol levels: at 9am they should be over 400… mine were are 87. Following on from this, I was referred to endocrinology to have a synacthen stimulation test, which is where a synthetic hormone is injected to encourage the adrenal glands to produce cortisol.  Mine didn’t produce the cortisol, which led to the diagnosis of Addison’s Disease.

Adapting to life with Addison’s has been hard. I think out of all the conditions that I have, Addison’s has been the condition which has had the biggest learning curve. Whilst my other conditions can mean that I feel very unwell, I can’t die from them: I could die from having Addison’s if it isn’t managed correctly. On the same day of diagnosis, I went into adrenal failure and was rushed into hospital. When Addison’s Disease is left untreated (or prior to diagnosis), the levels of hormones produced by the adrenal gland gradually decrease in the body. This causes symptoms to get progressively worse and eventually leads to a life-threatening situation, called an Adrenal Crisis.

I’ll be honest, I remember very little from being in crisis. I was very confused and dizzy and drifting in and out of consciousness. I couldn’t stop being sick and the weakness that I was already experiencing worsened to the point that I couldn’t stand up. It was a steep learning curve in how quickly it needs to be treated, had it been left I could have faced slipping into a coma or death. Scary shit.

One of the hardest things that I have to deal with are the rules surround sickness. In a normal person with Addison’s, if they are sick more than twice, they need to inject hydrocortisone and call 999, to be admitted to hospital for treatment. Because I have gastroparesis, I am sick. A lot. I am also prone to cyclical vomiting, which can be dangerous with Addison’s. Managing the two conditions side by side is a challenge but I have learnt to distinguish between my gastroparesis sickness and other sickness. Despite that, I still need to be vigilant and have spent many hours in A&E at risk of slipping into a crisis because of vomiting, praying that the magical anti sickness drugs will work.

Having Addison’s is made easier by the fact that I have an amazing team looking after me: shout out of the staff on Bagot and Drake Ward at the Churchill Hospital in Oxford for looking after me (and my mum) and answering all my endless questions to ease my anxiety.  I don’t dread endocrine hospital appointments because the staff are so lovely and friendly. I think the fact that I had already been diagnosed with long term illnesses, prior to my diagnosis of Addison’s made it slightly easier to get my head around, but it was still a shock, especially when it was hammered home that if I don’t look after myself, I could die.

I’m open to any and all questions about Addison’s Disease. I might not have all the answers but I’ll do my best or will signpost to support/information.

 

March Favourites

Here we are, another monthly favourites blog post. I was too unwell to write a monthly favourites post for February, and I’m not going to lie, I missed it a little bit. It’s such a good way of looking back over the month and picking out the good bits; chronic illness can be miserable and isolating so it’s nice to remember that life isn’t always like that!

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Books

My standout book from this month has got to be Paper Avalanches by Lisa Williamson. I’ve read Lisa’s previous two books and fell in love with The Art of Being Normal but was underwhelmed with All About Mia. Put simply, Paper Avalanches was a beautifully powerful book that I read in one sitting. Looking at parental mental illness, through the eyes of a teenage young carer, it gave a fresh look at the stigma surrounding hoarding and how dangerous it can be. Ro Snow is a character full of warmth and wisdom, way beyond her fourteen years of age and her frustrations towards Bonnie are quickly shared by the reader. I hope this book wins all the awards that it deserves.

Another book which I have loved this month is Looking at the Stars: How incurable illness taught one boy everything by Lewis Hine. Diagnosed with a life-threatening brain tumour and water on the brain at 17 months, he wasn’t expected to survive. But Lewis proved everyone wrong; he’s not only surviving but thriving. In one Facebook post on his sixteenth birthday Lewis invited everyone to see how he faces head on the challenges from his ongoing illness, and he went viral. Thirty million views later, Lewis now spearheads a campaign, Friend Finder, to make sure no one ever faces childhood illness alone. In his book, Lewis reflects on his brain surgeries and continual health problems, which are a daily challenge. He is at high risk of sudden unexpected death in epilepsy (SUDEP) and has a pump in his brain just to keep him alive and experienced horrendous bullying. Lewis shares how he finds the strength to overcome all this and still lead a fun and fulfilling life. 

My third and final literary favourite for this month is A Girl Called Shameless by Laura Steven which is part of the Izzy O’Neil series. In Laura’s first book in the series, we met Izzy, a loud and confident teenager who was subjected to revenge porn, something which is yet to be criminalised in the United States and the double standards surrounding the videos, in terms of gender stereotyping and feminism. In this second book, we catch up with Izzy, two months post sex scandal, The Bitches Bite Back movement is gathering momentum as a forum for teenage feminists, and when a girl at another school has a sex tape shared online, once again Izzy leads the charge against the slut-shamer. This time she wants to change the state law on revenge porn. If you’re interested in politics, feminism and gender debates, this is a book for you.

 

Film and TV

I haven’t watched much on television this month, combined with needing a lot of sleep and binge watching the box sets of Waterloo Road (judge me if you must), there hasn’t really been enough time. That said, I’ve been loving the Great Stand Up To Cancer Bake Off and have chuckled away and the celebrities’ awful baking skills, whilst being left wondering how they actually function in real life.

 

Spoonie Favourites

I’m fairly sure that I’ve taken about Nuun tablets before, but they’re so great, I’m going to mention them again. Designed to keep you hydrated wherever your active lifestyle takes you, Nuun tablets are packed with optimal electrolytes, containing clean ingredients. I was recommended Nuun tablets by a doctor in London to try and keep my hydration levels up and now use them daily. I’ve noticed a huge difference in terms of my concentration levels, which is saying something, considering I often have the worst brain fog possible.

Because of how unwell I was in February, being admitted to hospital was looking very likely. I (like many people) find hospital environments really stressful and I became aware that I wouldn’t manage with just my iPad to distract me due to battery life and charging etc. This lead to me to buying a portable DVD player which has been one of my best purchases ever and it has saved me during the long nights of insomnia when I haven’t wanted to turn my TV on and wake my mum.

Odds and Sods

I’m ending this blog post on a slightly different note. At the start of February, a friend lost her long battle with mental illnesses and sadly died. Megan devoted her life to helping others, even when she was struggling immensely herself. Her death has left a huge Megan-shaped hole in the mental health community and people are still trying to come to terms with her sudden death. In 2012, Megan founded the Recovery Shoe Box Project, Recovery Shoeboxes are mental health toolkits containing items that help you cope when times are hardest and coping feels difficult. Each box will include items that might distract, pamper, soothe and motivate and they are personalised to the individual receiving them. Since Megan’s death, £8,785 has been raised in order to keep her project on-going as a legacy to her. The aim is to reach £10,000 and after that who knows. If you’re able to donate, it would be much appreciated.

 

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Simon Godsave and Recovery Shoe Box Project

 

 

 

 

 

 

Universal Credit Saga – A Year On

So it’s been one whole year since I was signed off work and started the sole destroying task of applying for Universal Credit. If you’re a long term reader, you might remember my Open Letter to Theresa May, I was really reluctant to apply. I never thought that I would be in the position where I needed to apply for benefits and honestly, I felt a level of shame over applying. My usually proud front was shattered by admitting that I needed this financial help, but my health comes first. That was what I told myself.

And my God, was my front shattered. I had opened up about my health in a way that I never had before. I was begging strangers to take pity on me, in the hope that the application process might be made a little bit easier. Only, they didn’t take pity on me. Honestly, I felt a bit like a criminal. I was warned about sanctions if I couldn’t attend appointments if I was ill. Let’s remember at this point, that the whole reason that I was applying was because of how unwell I was and still am. I was asked when I was going to get better, because the government doesn’t seem to understand the concept of chronic or life long conditions.

I felt and still feel like a failure because I can’t work. I feel ashamed that I am ill, even though now, a year one, I am able to accept that life’s a bitch and doesn’t always go the way you want it to.

Anyway, after the initial stress of the first few months of the application, things calmed down a little. I had my work capability assessment and thankfully, the person leading the assessment had an ounce of common sense and agreed that I wasn’t fit to work. That was until. October, when my payments were stopped for no reason. I have real anxiety issues about going into the job centre because of the bad experiences that I’ve had there, but nonetheless, in I went to find out what had happened. I explained, very calmly, to the work coach that my payment hadn’t gone in and as a result, I was overdrawn. I kid you not, the work coach shrugged in reply and told me that “these things happen”. There have been admin issues over the past few weeks, which has meant that not all payments have gone out on time. Admin errors happen, what I am more frustrated about has been the sheer lack of communication, so I had no idea that this was the case.

I told the work coach, again, that I was overdrawn as a result of the payment not going on and was told that I would benefit from seeking advice from the Money Advice Service. The Money Advice Service is an organisation established with cross Government party support, that provides free and impartial advice on money and financial decisions to people in the United Kingdom. It is a really useful service, but not a service that I required at this time, because when my payments go in, I am very able at managing my own money. It’s very hard, however, to manage your money when you’re not receiving the money in the first place.

This leads me to now. I think maybe that I had become a little bit complacent when it came to Universal Credit: nothing has happened to offend me in a few months and I thought that things would remain that way. I went into the job centre to hand in my latest fit note and was told that my payments had been stopped and that I was being sanctioned.

 

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I cried. A lot. The past month has been awful, I’ve been really unwell (more than normal) and the last thing I needed was finding out that my financial security was at risk. The person I saw at the job centre wasn’t able to reinstate my payments and was only able to tell me that it looked like I’d missed a phone call. I rang the Performance Centre and was told that my payments had been stopped because I’d missed a review phone call. Yes, I had missed a phone call, but I had also notified them that I was in hospital at the time of the phone call and therefore unable to take the call, and please could it be rearranged.

I then had to wait a week for the actual review phone call. There was me thinking that it would be to ask me if there had been any changes to my health etc but no, they wanted to know if I was still single (as a pringle, for what it’s worth) and if I had any savings or investments. My favourite part was when they asked me if I was receiving a World War Two pension. Dude, I wasn’t even alive then…

Whilst none of this is especially dramatic, it really knocked me. There isn’t one single aspect of Universal Credit that is easy to understand or logical. It baffles me that they have such poor customer service skills, when they are dealing with some of the most vulnerable people in society. There have been so many occasions over the past year when the process of Universal Credit has made me more unwell than I was already. It really seems like the government will jump upon the smallest thing as a reason to stop payments.

Until that changes, people will still be failed. They will still be struggling to pay rent and afford food. They will still feel penalised for being unwell and genuinely unable to work and I’m ashamed to live in a country whereby the government think that is okay.

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