Post Sixteen. Wheelchair Or Not?

I’m currently trying to decide whether or not to buy an electric wheelchair. It is however, an expensive purchase, in the thousands, so if I do, I have to be sure. The problem is, I’m not sure.

If I go for it I will first have to get over some significant emotional barriers about what this means for me. Does it mean I am ‘giving in’ to my illness? If it does, is that bad? There’s little point in pretending that I don’t have ME, that I’m not severely incapacitated by it. Will I become too dependant on it and risk deconditioning? I don’t think so. I can walk short distances and I don’t plan on using the wheelchair to get somewhere I can manage by foot, I like to use my legs when I can. So I’ll still be walking the same short, and infrequent distances as I currently do, and I had it confirmed at a recent hospital appointment that my muscles have not (yet anyway) deconditioned. Will I feel self-conscious and embarrassed to use it in public? Probably. I already feel self-conscious and embarrassed to use my walking stick. Will people treat me differently when they see me as a wheelchair user? Possibly. This article in The Pool suggests that 25 per cent of Brits find it “uncomfortable” talking to disabled people. Apparently some people feel they have nothing in common with disabled people. Will the people who once felt they had things in common with me no longer feel that way? Has my personality now reduced down to nothing but ‘chronically ill person’? To be honest I think some people already do feel that. They can’t see that despite this life-changing illness I am still the same person, with the same interests, the same morals, the same passions, the same dreams and the same goals, it’s just that my body no longer works as well as it used to. Something I struggle with is that my illness is ‘invisible’. Generally speaking I look ‘well’. There’s no way that someone who didn’t already know could look at me and know that I have a severe debilitating chronic illness/disability. So a wheelchair would solve that problem, wouldn’t it?

There are many situations that I currently avoid. On a better day I can manage the walk to the post office and back, although not without PEM (post exertional malaise). But this is based on not having to stand in a queue, and I can’t possibly know ahead of time if there is a queue or not, so I don’t risk it. A wheelchair would change this. There are also many activities that I simply cannot do, that are far too much for me, that I don’t have the energy for and that my legs wouldn’t manage. Like walking to my mum’s house, or having a wander along the High Street to visit my favourite coffee shop that is just that bit too far for me to walk (I’m talking about you Coltman’s). When I go out I might be able to stay out for longer while maintaining my energy levels. On better days I could do these things with a wheelchair. Note that this would still have be on a better day, I might have wheels but I’d still have ME, I’d still have daily widespread pain, debilitating exhaustion, dizziness, brain fog and sensory overload. Having an electric wheelchair won’t undo any of my symptoms, it will simply give me access to a higher level of mobility than I currently have. So far, I’ve begrudgingly accepted my current limitations, the fact that I’m mainly housebound, that many activities that used to be so everyday and normal for me are now off limits, I don’t like it, but it is what it is. But maybe it doesn’t have to be? With a wheelchair maybe I could regain some of my lost independence and freedom, maybe it would open my world up. If I can get past my fears and insecurities it could be wonderfully empowering.

I do however have concerns, some rational, and some possibly less so. I’m concerned about how much I will use it, will it be worth it? Like I said, the arrival of a wheelchair is not going to suddenly improve my health enough that I can start going out every day, or even every other day. What if I only get use out of it a couple of times a month, is that enough to justify the cost? I also have to think about the overall use of my already limited energy. If having a wheelchair will allow me to go out more frequently, will I actually end up using more energy on these outings, energy that I wouldn’t have used otherwise? Should I accept and stick to my limitations, remain mainly hosuebound in the hope that only prolonged rest and limited activity will allow me to recover? Maybe. But this existence has already damaged my mental health, so what will a few more years, decades, or a lifetime of this do to me?

One of my main concerns is based around the fact that I can walk short distances. I worry about what people may think, or say, when they see me get up from my wheelchair and walk. There’s a horrible meme that I’ve seen on Facebook a few times, (which unfortunately means that I have friends who have ‘liked’ or shared this meme). It’s a photo of a woman standing from her wheelchair to reach a high shelf in a supermarket. The caption reads “There’s been a miracle in the booze aisle!”, or something along those lines. It’s cruel, it’s ableist, and not in the least bit funny. I don’t want to become a meme. Some people seem to think that wheelchairs are only for those who cannot walk, at all, ever. I read The Mighty, an excellent website full of personal accounts written by people all over the world living with various illnesses and disabilities. I’d recommend it for anyone, it has aided my understanding of the vast world of illness and disability immeasurably, and couldn’t we all use a good dose of increased empathy. I come across a new post pretty much every day about people judging disabled people. Either they don’t look ‘disabled enough’ to use that parking space, despite having a Blue Badge (or the equivalent in their country), or they look ‘adequately disabled’ in their wheelchair, but then they rise from their wheelchair and their spectators think ‘my god it’s a miracle’, or more frequently, they think the person in the wheelchair is a fraud. This kind of thinking is common, far too common, I read these stories frequently. Many people judge and make assumptions, they lack the ability to consider any set of circumstance other than their own, they view disability in black and white, rather than the many shades of grey that make up the world of disability and chronic illness. I don’t want to be the person being judged for getting out of my wheelchair when I can, need or want to, and I don’t want to be the butt of anyone’s jokes, especially not when I’m already going to be feeling all sorts of self-conscious and vulnerable sitting in my wheelchair.

Of course, when I’m able to temporarily push my fears aside, when I’m thinking rationally, or when I think about how I would advise someone else, it’s a different picture altogether. I view a wheelchair like a pair of glasses. People who don’t have perfect sight wear glasses, or contacts, to aid their vision, and some people use wheelchairs to aid their mobility. It’s an aid, something to help and enhance a person’s quality of life. No one judges me for aiding my vision by wearing glasses when I use the computer or read, so maybe no one will judge me for aiding my mobility by using a wheelchair, and those who do view me differently, well, do I want them in my life? And I know I shouldn’t care what strangers think, but I do, sadly. When I’m able to think positively about this new world of mobility, I already know where I’ll go first. My favourite walk, in the valley behind my mum’s house, it’s so peaceful, the town is completely out of sight, and maybe this sounds cheesy, but it’s where I feel closest to my dad, we walked here together so many times. The wheelchair I have my eye on won’t manage the whole walk, I’d need an all-terrain, four wheel drive monster of a wheelchair to walk the full thing, but just a glimpse of the valley would be enough for me. The thought of being able to go out and not worry about how long my legs will hold me up, or whether my lightheadedness or dizziness will overwhelm me, well that thought brings me nothing but joy.

The wheelchair I’ve been eyeing up is lightweight and foldable, and of course it’s electric. I don’t have the strength in my arms to self-propel, I mean, I couldn’t even squeeze the juice out of a lemon the other day. And I don’t want to be reliant on someone pushing me, that defeats the purpose entirely. The reason I have to be absolutely certain about this is the cost, it’s incredibly expensive, around the £2,500 mark, possibly more depending on what accessories I buy, like a second battery etc. Before you ask, no, an electric wheelchair, for me, is not available on the NHS. If I want it, I have to buy it. There is however another option. Crowdfunding. It is not uncommon at all, actually it’s incredibly common, for people to crowdfund their electric wheelchair. I don’t know how I feel about this, actually I do, I feel really uncomfortable about this. I know it’s not exactly the same as a person asking for sponsorship to fund their amazing holiday to Peru so they can hike The Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, under the guise of ‘charity’, but the idea of it makes me squirm all the same. So I ask you, how would you, my friends, family and readers feel about me crowdfunding my electric wheelchair? Would it be really cheeky and/or presumptuous of me?

There’s another option, I could reapply for PIP (Personal Independence Payment), a benefit that helps with the extra costs of a long-term health condition or disability, it’s the one that is gradually replacing DLA (Disability Living Allowance). I did apply for this a couple of years ago, I attended the horrendous face-to-face assessment, the assessor lied in his report (for example, he claimed that I made my own way to the assessment centre, even though my mum drove me, which he knew, he gave her a form to claim back her petrol expenses) and the DWP turned me down. Despite the fact that more than half of PIP decisions are changed after mandatory reconsideration or an appeal to a tribunal, I didn’t fight it, I simply didn’t have the energy. I also felt that I could manage without PIP, I had my ESA (Employment Support Allowance) and the rental income from my flat (minus the letting agency fee, mortgage, insurance etc), so I wasn’t feeling hugely driven to challenge the result. Something really annoying though, I really could use a Blue Badge, which means when I go to the GP, or to the hospital, or anywhere that has designated disabled parking, my mum could park there. But, in the region in which I live (Scottish Borders), I can’t apply for a Blue Badge without first receiving PIP. So, to get a Blue Badge, I would need to reapply for a benefit that I don’t really need, then apply for the Blue Badge. It’s ridiculous. But actually, the more I think about it, I could use PIP. It would take time to save up, but it could pay for my wheelchair, it could pay for the expensive experimental treatments that I currently cannot afford, acupuncture for my chronic migraines, for example. It could pay for my counselling (currently paid for by a kind benefactor), it could pay for my supplements and my private prescription for Low Dose Naltrexone. The more I think about it, my illness/disability does incur many costs, having ME is expensive, and that is exactly what PIP is for. But do I have it in me to go through the traumatic (no exaggeration) application process again? I don’t know. My mental health is fragile, and the DWP are certainly capable of pushing me over the edge.

One of my biggest bugbears in life is unsolicited advice, people advising me when I haven’t asked for advice. But I am now asking for advice, your advice is very much solicited. What should I do? What would you do? Should I feel self-conscious? I know you’ll say I shouldn’t, I guess what I really mean is, can you understand why I will feel self-conscious? Can you empathise with me? Have you ever had judgemental thoughts about someone who can walk short distances using a wheelchair? Did you laugh at that internet meme? Do you think it means I’m giving in to my illness? Do you think it will hinder my recovery? How should I pay for it? Can I crowdfund this without people thinking “cheeky cow, pay for your own mobility aids!”? Should I put myself through the harrowing process of applying for PIP which will undoubtedly end up at a tribunal (most do)? Or, could it be one of the best possible things I could do for myself? I just don’t know. I really don’t.

Update: The day after I published this I had a moment of clarity regarding the fears that are holding me back. You can read about this here… Post Sixteen Continued… Wheelchair Or Not. An Afterword.

Post Nine. Why I Write This Blog.

I came across a blog post from The Mighty this morning and I urge you to please read it. It explains so well why someone living with chronic illness might share so much about their illness on social media. I’m aware I might have Facebook friends who think I’m oversharing, or attention seeking. I’d like to think that anyone who knows me well enough would know that this is not the case. I wonder if people think that I’m too ‘negative’. All I can say is, I’m realistic, I’m honest, I don’t exaggerate and to be frank, if anything, I probably downplay the reality of my illness. I don’t share everything. I possibly use humour too much, to make you feel less uncomfortable. And so begins why I share so much about my illness…

ME is a serious and debilitating illness, I want you to understand that.

It is unfortunate that the reality of living with ME is really very shitty, and that’s putting it mildly. So when I’m being honest about my illness, it’s going to come across, as guess what, really very shitty. ME is an incredibly debilitating illness. For moderate to severe patients (I’m on the severe end of moderate), living with ME is said (by many experts) to be “like living with late-stage cancer, advanced stage AIDS, or congestive heart failure, for decades”. ME is unfortunately such a massively misunderstood illness though that those comparisons may have shocked you, or even offended you. I am absolutely not downplaying the horrendousness of AIDS, or cancer, or congestive heart failure or any other serious and life-threatening illness. I am not looking for sympathy. I am trying to make you see ME more clearly for what it is. If being honest about my really very shitty illness is ‘negative’, then so be it. (Why is negativity such a bad thing anyway? Emotions and feelings can come in both positive and negative varieties. I personally don’t feel it’s healthy to repress what I’m feeling, I let it out, I ‘feel’ it, good or bad, and if it’s negative, I work through it, and eventually move on, and this will sound really clichéd, but maybe I’ll have learnt something from it.).

Not convinced that ME is that debilitating?*

I split my clinical time between the two illnesses (ME/CFS and HIV), and I can tell you if I had to choose between the two illnesses I would rather have H.I.V. But C.F.S., which impacts a million people in the United States alone, has had a small fraction of the research dollars directed towards it.”—Dr. Nancy Klimas, AIDS and CFS researcher and clinician, University of Miami

“They [ME/CFS patients] experience a level of disability equal to that of patients with late-stage AIDS and patients undergoing chemotherapy…” – Dr. Nancy Klimas, CFS researcher and clinician, University of Miami (2006 Press Conference)

“In my experience, (ME/CFS) is one of the most disabling diseases that I care for, far exceeding HIV disease except for the terminal stages.”—Dr. Daniel Peterson (Introduction to Research and Clinical Conference, Fort Lauderdale, Florida, October 1994; published in JCFS 1995:1:3-4:123-125)

“We’ve documented, as have others, that the level of functional impairment in people who suffer from CFS is comparable to multiple sclerosis, AIDS, end-stage renal failure, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. The disability is equivalent to that of some well-known, very severe medical conditions.”– Dr. William Reeves, former CDC Chief of Viral Diseases Branch

“[ME/CFS patients] are more sick and have greater disability than patients with chronic obstructive lung or cardiac disease, and … psychological factors played no role.”—Dr. William Reeves, Chief of the ME/CFS research programme at the US Centres for Disease Control (CDC) (Press Release AACFS, October 7th, 2004).

“[ME/CFS patients] feels effectively the same every day as an AIDS patient feels two months before death; the only difference is that the symptoms can go on for never-ending decades.” —Prof. Mark Loveless, Head of the AIDS and ME/CFS Clinic at Oregon Health Sciences University (Congressional Briefing 1995)

The good news is, these patients don’t die. The bad news is, these patients don’t die.” – Ron Davis, California-based geneticist whose son has ME/CFS

To spread awareness.

My blog started because I wanted to raise awareness of ME. I know that there are many people in the world, including health professionals who do not take this illness seriously. I also know there are people in my life who do not take this illness seriously. Mainly due to being uninformed. But also, my friends and family (apart from my mum) only see me when I’m feeling well enough to see people. So of course you may see me and think, ‘ME doesn’t seem that bad’. Unless you are my mum, you have never seen me on my worse days, or possibly even my ‘normal’ days. You have only ever seen me on the ‘better’days, the days that I can scrounge up a bit of excess energy to have a conversation (I had no idea before ME how much energy was required to hold a conversation). You also see me putting on an act, I often pretend to feel better than I am. But also, when I am with people, I don’t want to go on and on about ME, I’m already living it, I don’t want to be always talking about it! It’s also an invisible illness, you can’t see my pain, my exhaustion, my weakness, my dizziness, my brain fog etc. You also don’t see me in the hours or days after your visit, when I am suffering for it, when every inch of me is in pain, when I don’t have the strength to hold my phone, when I’m crawling because my legs are too weak. So I am probably partly to blame for the people in my life not knowing the reality of my life with ME. The problem is, when I am feeling too unwell for visitors, I simply cannot have visitors. And the majority of my days are spent being too unwell for visitors. I recently had someone ask me how I was doing. I told them ‘really weak, achy and slowed down, like there’s an elephant sitting on my shoulders’. In reply they asked if I had a bug, or if it was an extra bad ME day. But no, it was a very normal, nothing out of the ordinary, run of the mill ME day for me. After two and a half years of this illness, people still struggle to understand. I hope this blog will help with that. Also, and most importantly, no one is going to fund research for an illness they aren’t aware of.

It gives me a sense of purpose that I don’t get elsewhere.

It gives me purpose and a sense of accomplishment. My purpose before I became ill was to help people. I worked, alongside an army of incredible volunteers, for a homeless charity redistributing surplus food from the food industry to those who needed it the most. I supported people with all manner of obstacles and difficulties in their lives, people excluded from their families and their communities, on their life journey. I could see how I was contributing to the world, to my community, to people’s lives. I could see the difference I was doing. That is what I did for a living. It was a privilege, and I was working with some of the most inspiring people I have ever met. In that job I had found my vocation in life. A friend of mine at the time told me I was her hero, that she was so proud of me. I now haven’t been to work for over two years. I no longer contribute. I’m not helping anyone. I have no purpose. I don’t feel that I have anything to offer anyone. I’m not making anyone proud. That was until I started receiving some really wonderful feedback about my blog. Then I got my first message from a stranger. A stranger who was newly diagnosed with ME, and my blog had helped them feel less alone. For the first time since I had been off work I felt I had accomplished something, something that had helped another person, and that makes my blog all the more worthwhile.

I have something that is mine, that I am in control of. It makes me feel a bit more ‘normal’.

My life is ruled by my illness. ME affects every single aspect of my life, there is not one thing that it hasn’t had an impact on. Daily tasks that were once so easy, so natural, are now mammoth tasks of endurance. All of my decisions these days revolve around my illness, I no longer have the freedom and independence that I valued so much. I’m not in charge, ME is. But my blog is all mine, I control the content, I control when I publish a post. Of course ME dictates when I can write and for how long, and it always punishes me afterwards. But I can bitch about it all I want in my blog. Mwa ha ha ha. 😉

It helps with the isolation and loneliness.

Back when I had a life (pre-ME) I would occasionally cherish having a few quiet days to myself, knowing I wouldn’t see another human until I was back at work on Monday. However, having two (plus) years to yourself when it is not through choice, when it is forced upon you through illness is horrible, and boring, so mind-numbingly boring. It is frustrating. It is upsetting. It is depressing. It is lonely, very very lonely. The isolation, I have found, can feel as bad as, if not worse, than the illness that brought upon the isolation. This illness prevents me from keeping in touch with people with the frequency and regularity I used to (I need both the required energy and a certain level of cognitive function to do that). And that results in people not contacting me as much as they used to. To go from being surrounded by people every day at work, the gym, the pub, the supermarket, the bus, or a restaurant, a cinema, Leith Walk, etc, to being almost housebound so very suddenly has been heartbreaking for me. It is incredibly difficult to cope with. Like in the post I shared from The Mighty, my world has become smaller and smaller, and I am alone most of the time. We need human contact, and my social media accounts, and my blog, have become my main source of interaction with other humans. I’m so grateful to at least have been struck down with a long term illness during the age of social media. When I share something about my illness on Facebook, whether an article, or one of my blog posts, I hope for ‘likes’ or comments. Not to feed my ego, but because it shows me that I am being heard. At least one person, for a short time, was thinking about me, and I feel a little less lonely, a little less forgotten and a little less invisible. And when, like me, you are so starved of human company, that one ‘like’ can keep me going for the rest of the day.

*Sources…

www.meaction.net

Dr Nancy Klimas. Readers Ask: New York Times Interview

Dr Nancy Klimas, Dr Daniel Peterson, Dr William Reeves and Prof Mark Loveless quotes

Ron Davis quote

Post Two. My Sigur Rós Payback. 

I read an excellent article this week entitled ‘I Won’t Apologize for Having Fun While Chronically Ill’, by Denise Reich for The Mighty. I had planned on writing a similar post myself but she says it so perfectly and it fits in well with what I want to write about today. So here it is… (and you might want to read this first).

I Won’t Apologize for Having Fun While Chronically Ill

This week I did something fun, and nope, I’m not going to apologise for it. But I will let you know what happens after the fun is had. What the consequences are for me. What I know I’ll have to go through afterwards.

It’s Sigur Rós day!

On Tuesday I had my first night out for nine months. I saw my favourite band, Sigur Rós, who were performing at the Edinburgh International Festival. I haven’t had a night out since I saw another of my favourite bands, Agent Fresco, in Glasgow last November.

This concert wasn’t just about doing something fun and seeing my favourite band though. It was a chance for me to feel normal. To have a taste of my pre-ME life. It was something for me to look forward to. I ‘need’ something to look forward to. Something that will keep me going on the bad days. It was also a gift for my mum. Because two hours of live Icelandic post-rock is obviously the perfect way to thank my lovely mum for looking after me so well! 😉  (She does like Sigur Rós, FYI, she wanted to see them, really.)


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This was also my first visit back to Edinburgh since I moved away to be closer to my mum (just) over a year ago. I planned a perfect Edinburgh day. I had my heart set on spending some time in Princes Street Gardens, in my favourite spot below the castle, sitting on the grass, with a coffee. Something that I used to do on almost a weekly basis, but hadn’t done for well over a year. So, that’s what I/we did, only for an hour, but it was lovely. I did have slightly worse than usual lower-abdominal pain, but pain is my new normal, so that wasn’t a big deal. Then we got a taxi along to the venue, Edinburgh Playhouse, where we met two of my friends. Just being in the theatre was exhilarating (theatres feature quite prominently in my previous life). This was my fifth Sigur Rós concert and it was as incredible, loud, powerful, emotional, visually stunning and awe-inspiring as I anticipated. Hearing my favourite song, Starálfur, live for the first time was unforgettable, (and may have made me cry a little bit). It was the most ‘alive’ I had felt in a very long time, and I really needed that reminder. I was in a massive Sigur Rós daze on the bus journey home and well into the night. I went to bed feeling very happy and very content.

The next day and it’s time for my punishment to begin…

I knew I was going to suffer payback* for my over-exertion. In this case I decided the emotional benefits of seeing Sigur Rós and escaping my everyday existence for a few hours would be worth it. (Today, I’ve been re-thinking that somewhat, but that will pass). So, feeling unwell the next day was inevitable. The next again day however I didn’t feel too bad, I had a fairly ok day of cooking, resting, listening to music, resting, re-watching Gilmore Girls and more resting. Of course I immediately think ‘this is progress, the payback hasn’t lasted that long, maybe I’m getting better, maybe I can start going into Edinburgh more frequently!?’ But no. Today I feel the worst I have in a long time.  I can’t remember the last time I have felt this bad. It’s proper ME stuff today. So weak I can’t hold my head up. Completely drained of energy. My limbs feel like they’re made of whatever the heaviest substance in the world is. My brain is foggy. I’m disoriented. I can’t find my words while talking to my mum (who popped round with my shopping, then again with a comfier pillow, I told you she looks after me well). I can’t stand for more than a few minutes. I’m nauseous. My head hurts. My throat is sore. I feel I’m on the verge of fainting. I’m warm like I have a high temperature, but I don’t. I’m forgetting things. My arms and legs ache like they did after I did my first Body Pump class. My skin hurts. My face/sinuses hurt. I’m unbelievably tired but I can’t sleep. My eyes are straining at the effort of writing this.

This, unfortunately, is my reality. This is what I have to look forward to if I push myself just a bit too far. Sometimes though, I don’t know that I’ve pushed myself too far, not until it’s done. Often I can feel it coming, my body will warn me, and I’ll know to slow down or stop, but not always. There are times I have no choice. If I’m in the middle of washing my hair, I can’t just stop mid-hair wash, with shampoo still in my hair. Or if I have a deadline in regards to a benefits application, in that case I have to just push myself through it. Then of course, very occasionally, like with this concert, I knowingly push my body beyond the boundaries of what it can comfortably manage. I wonder if you can imagine knowing that you will feel this way, to some extent, after every activity you do? I’m not just talking about the occasional, once every nine months concert, but after having a bath, watching a film, emptying your bins, changing your bedding, having a phone conversation, going out for a coffee, making breakfast, filling out a form…

I also have the added dilemma of knowing that over-exerting myself is bad for me, not just in the short-term, but the long-term too. There is no way of knowing this for sure, but every time I decide to, or have to push myself, I am aware that I may be risking lasting damage. I usually do play it safe. But if I only ever play it safe then I won’t have much fun in my life, I’ll miss benefits deadlines, I’ll miss hospital appointments, I’ll never see my friends or family.

I know that once I recover from this bout of payback I’ll only remember the good bits of the week. And the highlights of this week are definitely better than most. I’ll be pleased that I went out, felt normal and had fun. It will feel worth it, even though I knowingly did more than what my body can handle. Because sometimes I have to. How else am I to keep my spirits up.

* Payback, also known as post-exertional malaise, is a symptom of ME. But it gets worse, it’s a symptom made up of lots of symptoms. These symptoms can differ from ME person to ME person and may appear immediately after the activity or after a period of delay, and may last days or weeks.

PS My mum loved the concert. 🙂