On the Other Hand

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It can be hard to “live my truth.” Just because I have had a revelation or realization does not mean I can instantly incorporate it into my lifestyle.

Especially because my hope just got a kick in the teeth. The latest bump in my pump did not work. This means more time on oral baclofen, which, remember, is heavily sedating. Being sedated is different than being fatigued because I can’t fight it. Chemicals overtake my body and my will. They rush through me, making me heavy, blurring my thoughts. I take baclofen four times a day. It knocks me out for two hours. Being unconscious so much hurts my mental health, relationships, writing, and hope.

I say “being unconscious” because being sedated isn’t always the same as sleep. I sometimes wake up fully rested, ready for an hour of activity before it’s time to pass out again. However, sometimes I wake up feeling like I have only been out a second. It’s disorienting to say the least.

Everyone, from caregivers to family, is overjoyed when I am awake, and they all want to see me. I should be flattered and feel loved. Instead, I feel pressured. Imagine if, as soon as you wake up, whoever is near you is full of energy and ready to play. When I wake up, all I want is a few minutes to myself to check my email, catch up with Evan, maybe send a few texts – all the things you do to slowly come back to the world in the morning. Because it is perpetually morning for me. In an ideal world, whoever finds me awake would express their joy, then ask if I need a few minutes. I think that would help reduce the pressure I feel and make me ready to fight through my discomfort like I decided to in my last post in order to be present for the people who love me.

I’m beginning to fear I will always need the baclofen, that the pump will never work. I honestly don’t know how much longer I can handle this. Choosing hope is harder with each failed bump.

But I know I will go on because I have no other choice. I have up to three years before my lungs fail, and even if I live like this, the time I steal with Evan makes any amount of suffering worthwhile.

My Depression Diary

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Trigger Warning!

Forward:
When just over a month ago I sensed that my mind was changing, I was overcome with a frenzied need to record everything I thought and felt. Even before I understood that I was depressed, I realized I was going somewhere that outsiders could never truly visit. I became consumed by the need to write a message from the inside that could maybe serve as a map or even just a sign that says “Keep Out! Here Be Dragons!”

Not so long ago, sharing my diary with strangers online never entered my mind, not even in my worst nightmares or wildest dreams. It was that impossible. However, that was before ALS. The same rules – even my own most personal code – no longer apply. I am braver because I am a soldier now. I take risks because that’s how you fight. This way, even if I die before the cure comes (and it will come), I’ll go knowing I made the path less lonely for my fellow soldiers and just a little easier for those who come after me.

I didn’t sign up for this war, but my enemy means to kill me, so I must give everything I have and am in this fight. Privacy is a luxury long gone. I will share my most secret thoughts and vulnerable moments in service of my fellow soldiers and the people who make my life worth fighting for. Right now, that means showing you what it’s like inside the beast that senses we are battle worn and easy prey. My hope is that if you read my diary and recognize yourself or a loved one in these words, you will realize it’s time to call for reinforcements, whether in the form of a psychiatrist who prescribes antidepressants, a therapist who talks you through the climb out of the pit, or a priest or pastor who provides solace and guidance.

To learn more about preventing and identifying depression, read my ALS News Today column12212627122128. I will share a follow-up post in the next few weeks on different types of intervention and how to choose which is right for you.

Now brace yourself. We’re going in.

Entry 1:

I am choking on the strength of this episode. It wraps ever tighter around my throat, just like his hands. As I write this, I am sitting in bed, watching a funny show while checking my email, text messages, and Facebook notifications. It is the middle of the night, a time of terror for me, so I need the safety of the blue electronic light of my devices. I bask in the glow, then I drown my thoughts in sitcom banter and a whirlwind of multitasking.

Burying my dark thoughts is a high stakes game; if I don’t use the right maneuvers, the shadows win. No matter how scared I am now, it is nothing compared to how I will feel if the memories creep in. The memories open the floodgates of flashbacks, which will sweep me far away and back in time to that room where I was raped and nearly murdered.

I escaped with my life, but certain parts of me died there, namely the part that believed no one would ever hurt me. Well, actually I had never really considered that I could be a story on the news as easily as any other human. I held myself apart in the way we all must to some degree if we want to function in the world. Dwelling on our abject vulnerability would reduce us to terrified shells of ourselves.

Like me.

Entry 2:

I can’t close my eyes in the dark. I can no longer write, I can’t focus on reading. All I can do is mindlessly watch TV. I am afraid to sleep because I want to remain vigilant, and I know nightmares are waiting for me. I am resuming therapy, or at least that’s what I tell myself, but I am desperate for a quick fix. I know that no miracle pill exists to give me relief, but I have been living with PTSD for eleven years, never knowing when it will become active and derail my life. I’m exhausted.

Entry 3:

Thinking about “the event” again. I guess writing “rape and attempted murder” became too clunky since I keep doing it again and again. I wish there was a word for that crime.

Here’s something weird: I had actually been in that room before. It had a great view of the Gulf of Finland, so I took a picture. I put in black and white because I thought it made the photo look artsy. During “the event,” I turned my head so I was looking out the window at that same view. I remember making that choice because I wanted to escape my body. Maybe I succeeded because when I look back, I can only remember the black and white photo. The memory lacks color and sound. In fact, that whole night remains in perfect silence, as if I stepped into the photo because inhabiting my skin was that unbearable.

I also sensed if I looked up, I would not survive. I couldn’t articulate it then, but in hindsight, I realized that it I were to look, I would have to confront what he was doing, and I didn’t want that image in my head. If I looked at him, the image would take over my brain like a fungus I saw on a nature show. The fungus commandeers the ant so that it becomes disoriented, out of touch with reality and its purpose. Ultimately, its new biological imperative is no longer survival. It follows the final orders of the sadist in charge by climbing as high as it can. Then, when the ant is paralyzed by vertigo and weakness, it gives in. The fungus cracks the ant and blossoms, sending its spores far and wide, aided by its victim’s lofty position.

Summary: if I looked up him, the images would have devoured my mind until I forgot who and why I was, creating so much pain that suicide started to look attractive.

That kinda happened anyway, though…

Entry 4:

My doctor came to see me. I can’t believe that I didn’t realize what’s going on until she talked to me. It is classic crying, lack of interest in anything, wanting to stay in bed depression. It is not the most severe I’ve had. On a scale of one being fine and ten being suicidal in the mental hospital (true story), it’s a five.

The PTSD fuels the depression by isolating me. I’m so mad at myself. I want to be stronger and fight this off with logic, but everything is scary. It makes me think of Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood. There’s a great quote when Grace says something like, “Quilts are so bright like war flags, I think we put them on beds so you take notice. You see the warning that the bed is a most dangerous place.”

That’s how I feel when I get in bed. I still feel the danger of a crime long since committed against me, so I stay awake on guard all night. When dawn comes, I finally surrender to sleep. The end result of all this fear and hyper-vigilance is loneliness. I am only awake when my friends, family, and beloved husband are asleep. I want to have friends over, go write in the beautiful library, and spend awe-filled hours in the art museum. I perpetuate my isolation by refusing to reach out to them.

I also play this game where I don’t contact them and then wait to see how long it takes for them to contact me. The longer it takes for them to contact me, the less they obviously care about me. It’s a shitty game, but I can’t stop playing.

Entry 5:

I feel like a raw nerve in pain after any interaction. I wish I could read substantial books. My intellectual hunger still rages (a good sign), but my concentration is too poor to make it through even the first page of any appealing titles.

Also, lately the library doesn’t have e-book versions of what I want, and I took this REALLY personally. I reacted as though this was a commentary on how little society values me as a disabled person. I am hung up on that anyway because of all the times President Trump has negated the value of the people with disabilities. From mockery to attempts to gut Medicaid and defund ALS research… I don’t want to let him me this way. It’s just that everything hurts me more now that I am depressed.

Entry 6:

I am starting to think this is happening because I am repressing sadness, which is a pattern for me, which I discussed in the post Leaves in My River, Stars in My Sky123127128123129.” I mean, the major thing that I have been crushing for years is sadness for Evan. If I really think about his situation of watching me slowly crumble, if I empathize and imagine myself in his shoes, I feel like I’m dying in a way ALS has never achieved. Knowing he cries in the car makes me sick. I sob hysterically until I can’t breathe. Imagining I’m the one crying in the car because I am losing him is unbearable, and I am grateful that I am the one who has ALS.

Entry 7:

Evan says to go easy on myself. Getting frustrated with myself does great harm and zero good. I can’t berate myself into ending the episode. I guess it’s time to learn to show myself the compassion I apparently think everyone but me deserves. After all, if I am not on my own team when I’m at my weakest, how will I fight my way through this? I know that logically. Now I have to figure out how to live that truth.

Wish me luck. I need it.

The Surprising Reason I Need to See You Dump Ice Water on Your Head

For me, the Ice Bucket Challenge is not just a way to raise money for ALS research. It’s not just about hope. The effect on me goes much deeper when I watch the videos. I know I have a vast support system that includes you, my dear readers. However, I can’t see you read my blog and articles. I get statistics on how many people read my words, and occasionally there are kind comments, but there’s a certain distance between us.

When I watch your Ice Bucket Challenge videos and you say my name, I feel seen. I feel less alone. The gift you give me when you make and post those videos is long-lasting and powerful. You kindle my heart, and I hold that light in my chest until next year when it’s time to repeat the challenge.

This year, I have only seen one video, and that weighs heavily on me. I feel forgotten, like the challenge was just a short-lived trend, not the promise of support and camaraderie that I originally believed it to be. I am holding on to hope that the last few days of August will surprise me, though.

Won’t you let your heart kindle mine?

If you need a reminder of how the Ice Bucket Challenge, follow the instructions below. Don’t forget to challenge three people in your video and tag them when you share the video on Facebook. If you are able to make a donation, you can do it at alsa.org.

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Are you wondering what the donations have accomplished so far? Check it out!

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A Wild and Lonely Belief

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9Dedicated to Dr. Goslin for giving me permission to believe, and my husband Evan, who shields me from the worst of the winter winds.


I am a voracious reader. I always have been, thanks to my parents and grandparents, who planted books around my house in places I could reach even when I was still crawling. They were treasures I was allowed to discover on my own, and as a result, they felt special and personal to me. The books I read in my childhood became a part of me in that they showed me how to dream, hope, and believe. Even now, those stories influence the way I understand the world and cope with the rocks and daggers it throws at me. When I spot trouble coming my way, I snatch up one of these books, opening it wide to use the front and back covers as a shield while I confer in hushed, hurried tones with the characters inside.

Lately the shield I crouch behind is the work of one J. M. Barrie, and Peter Pan is whispering in my ear: “Every time a child says, ‘I don’t believe in fairies,’ a fairy somewhere falls down dead… Do you believe in fairies? If you do, clap your hands! Don’t let Tinker Bell die!” I watch the children bring Tinker Bell back by clapping and shouting, “I believe!” But what good can Peter Pan’s words do me, a young woman dying of ALS? More than you might ever imagine.

You see, I have this conviction that I will not succumb to my disease. I believe I will survive this. I can count on one hand the people who share my belief. I often hear other pALS (people with ALS) talk about their sadness over the special moments they will miss after the monster we are all battling cuts their lives short. On the earth beneath which we have been laid to rest, our loved ones will blow out birthday candles, throw graduation caps into the air, walk down the aisle, paint nurseries, and build cribs. We can only hope they think of us now and then as the flowers of their lives continue to unfold long after our own blooms have wilted and shriveled.

That’s not my story, though. My blossom is wilting because winter has come, not because I am dying. Bitter winds may batter my petals, but my roots are safe and strong. They remember spring and are waiting for it to come again. I have been told not to get my hopes up, and my answer is always the same: “What harm can believing do? If I am wrong, I won’t be around to cry about it.” The fact of the matter – which I rarely endeavor to explain anymore – is that believing is a source of strength for me. After all, Peter Pan said belief can save a life. If you need to hear about the power of belief from someone with more authority, consult another prominent book from my childhood. Open the Bible to Matthew 17:20 where you will find the following words: “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.”

To me, belief is so powerful because of what it inspires. The magic of belief lies in the way it empowers us to live, and when necessary, fight. I believe that I will be cured, but that doesn’t mean I expect an easy path. I know that only if I work hard and plan carefully, I will survive long enough to be cured. This conviction shapes how I live now. In order to last until the cure, I need to keep my lungs strong and clear with daily use of the cough assist and AVAPS machines. Each day, I also complete two dozen physical therapy exercises and follow my feeding tube meal program. I can bear all this and more – hours spent in the hospital for clinics and drug trials, daily vitamin injections, even a tracheotomy if my lungs fail – because I know that my story will have a happy ending.

This is my wild lonely belief: that I am not a withering rose, but a winter one, waiting with patient certainty for the sun.

A Lesson on Joy

In the movie adaptation of my life, the climactic scene would go like this: the camera slowly sweeps up to where I am snuggling into a warm plaid blanket on a rustic porch.  The sun peeks out from where it slept behind the mountain range. The soft light on my face shows I’m at peace. I struggled throughout the whole movie with how to carry on living, but last night I found the trick. My friends pushed my wheelchair out into the meadow behind my sister’s cabin, and we stayed up all night watching the stars, singing, laughing, and telling secrets. I know now that this is the key: live in the moment, live for today, and let no adventure pass me by until I close my eyes for the last time.

That’s what dying people are supposed to do, right? It’s our bittersweet version of happily ever after.

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Hanselmann Photography

For me, though, there was no mountain cabin, no midnight epiphany. For the longest time, there was only the looming specter of my death. When I was first diagnosed with ALS, I described the doctor telling me the news by saying, “He told me I’m dying.” I used to get those two things mixed up: having ALS and dying. They do sound the same. After all, there is currently no cure or treatment for this ruthless disease. Immediately after diagnosis, I planned everything from who would get my beloved cameo necklace passed down from my great grandmother to the type of funeral I want. I imagine a ceremony around a sapling which my family and friends can visit and tend to as it grows into a memory tree. I hoped my loved ones would picnic there, and children would climb my branches.

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Of course, not all of my death thoughts were so serene. The prospect of dying young fueled what became an obsession with fading into a distant memory as my loved ones grow old without me. I worried most about what I would become to my husband, Evan. I imagined being a brief chapter of his life before he meets the woman who will be the main act, the mother of his children. She will succeed where I failed, giving him the family and future he deserves, transforming me into a tragic footnote in his biography. With my mind drenched in such excruciating fears, how could I surrender to the beauty of the present?

A series of fortunate events saved me from despair. First, we moved to Portland, where I received the exact kind of care I hoped for at my new ALS clinic. I now work with a creative, emotionally intelligent doctor who is full of hope regarding treatments currently being tested. She immediately empowered me by involving me in one such trial. Finally, I was doing something to fight back, and I dared to dream that the end of my story might not be written on a tombstone.

Then, a few months later, I found the next rung of the ladder that I would climb towards joy. ALS Awareness Month crept in, and a flurry of fundraising activity swept across my Facebook feed. Guilt pressed down hard on my shoulders; I was the one with ALS, but my family was doing all the advocacy work. As a last minute attempt to get involved, I decided to write a little note on Facebook every day about my life with ALS. I didn’t expect to generate much interest, especially since I wasn’t sure how much had to say on the subject. Flash forward three days, and I was pouring my heart out to a shockingly large and invested audience. I became enamored of power those posts gave me over my experience. That power, just like the power I gained from the drug trial, gave me the bravery to fight like never before. I dove into fundraising for the ALS Association, and my doctor and I collaborated with ALS Worldwide to learn new ways to preserve my speech, strength, and mobility. As my hope blossomed, I realized I couldn’t honestly fight for a cure without spending at least as much time imagining my life after ALS as I had spent fixated on my death.

I came to understand that joy will remain a distant dream if a person can’t give equal head space to the best and worst outcomes.

Real, lasting joy pumped from my heart to every inch of my failing body when I gave myself permission to dream. Now, I imagine that Evan and I will make up for all the years we have spent bound to our home and hospital by renovating an Airstream trailer and roaming all over the country, exploring national parks, chasing northern lights, and following music festivals. I will return to writing novels because the miracle of a cure will mean that a blog about ALS will be unnecessary. Evan will play guitar in the evenings, and I’ll sing along like I used to. Everything will be beautiful, and nothing will hurt.

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A few months after I started my blog, I got a feeding tube. Lying on table looking at the distant ceiling of the operating room, it occurred to me that this would be the first scar ALS left on my body. I got sad thinking about how I would never get rid of it, even if one day I no longer needed the feeding tube. But then, I thought of myself leaning out the window of the car on a sunny day with hundreds of miles ahead of me, Evan looking handsome in the driver’s seat,  our Airstream trailing behind us, glittering in the sun like a mermaid tail, and I didn’t mind a small scar at all. Some day, it will be the only reminder of what I suffered, and should I ever get scared embarking on my new adventure, I can look to the hole sewn up right beneath my heart and know I will survive.

Oceans Between Me and You

Lately, I feel like the little girl in this music video – that I have to put on a cape and mask just to face the world and my increasingly isolated place within it. Of course, that’s not a healthy or sustainable way to live, but I try all the same. Perhaps I try because I prefer the dull ache of wearing my cloak to the sting of vulnerability that comes with allowing the whole world to see my wounds. I doubt that I am alone in this, so maybe simply sharing the feeling will be helpful even if I can’t expose the words written on my back  for fear that they are true.

Sleepwalking

Tonight, after reading and listening to a podcast for a few hours, I felt stir-crazy from sitting for so long. I needed to get up. Specifically, I felt like trying out the Movements I saw on the Netflix series “The OA”. I was just about to do that when I remembered I could not get up.

This is not the first time I have forgotten my limits. Sometimes when I wake up, I plan on walking to the closet to pick out my clothing. It takes a few seconds of trying to swing my legs the edge of the hospital bed (how I miss the ankle-aching cold of morning floorboards beneath my bare feet!) to remember I can’t walk that far.

Perhaps I forget because I can walk in my dreams. Every time. However, even in my dreams, I am aware that walking is unusual for me. Usually, I dream that I am walking and then suddenly remember that, like Cinderella and her pumpkin and rag dress, my legs will return to being essentially useless by midnight. Sometimes, I even feel them weaken and my knees buckle. Even in my dreams, I cannot escape my disease.

Shrugging off the crushing weight of realizing my disability anew, I force myself to forget that I am stuck sitting and will continue sitting for the rest of my life, or until a cure is found. I look at Evan and my pets and try to let the feeling of being loved overwhelm the feeling of being trapped.