One More Time.

It’s been quite a year.

Stood in front of the armoured War Elephant in the Royal Armouries in Leeds at our wedding.

In the middle of January, mere weeks after getting married, my husband & I began the search for a new home. Our current apartment was falling into disrepair at an alarming rate thanks to a disinterested landlord & unhelpful letting agent. It was almost impossible to keep warm, & we were both heartily sick of sticking our hands down the back of the toilet to reset the cistern after every flush. Almost immediately on our search we found a block of smart-looking apartments on the edge of the city centre, nestled behind the shops & arena. We booked to view an apartment which was cancelled at the last second, so booked to view another similar apartment, & despite making an appointment to pay the deposit were told that someone had snapped that one up at the last second too. Although it didn’t feel like it at the time, this was a good thing.

I viewed the third apartment alone as I had more lenient annual leave arrangements than Jarred. The letting agent surprised me with the higher rent, but once inside the apartment it was clear why. It was more spacious, easily able to accommodate the wheelchair in all rooms, & had large windows overlooking the little garden outside. Of course, the office of the letting agent was inaccessible, so much to their displeasure we were forced to do the paperwork in the apartment block’s reception. The agent bumped up the rent even more much to my displeasure, & repeatedly reminded me how much easier it would be if this could be done in the office. There were queries over their guarantor policy & my ID, & the agent added an extra month’s rent to the tenancy agreement, but eventually after a stressful couple of days, it was all finalised.

Now that we knew we would have a home once our current tenancy arrangement ended, we could move onto more pleasant things; arranging the honeymoon. We planned a week in London around a wrestling show, of all things; after all, Jarred did propose at such a show. At the start of March we hopped on a coach down to London, staying in a hotel near King’s Cross in the north of the city, & enjoying a range of activities including the London Eye & a matinee show of Phantom of the Opera (Part 1 & Part 2).

All too soon we were travelling North again, & a couple of days & several loads of washing later, I returned to work. I was approaching six months in my job by this point, & my probationary period was up for review. I was disheartened to learn that my probation would be extended for a further three months, although my line manager was as kind & supportive as ever. However, it did seem that my difficulties in the job mainly stemmed from the fact that it was a step above entry-level, & I essentially had to learn everything the entry-level role should have taught me, & then learn my actual role on top of that.

After the Easter break came a succession of birthdays; a close friend, my dad, my father-in-law, my brother-in-law, & then me. A couple of those birthdays were milestone one’s, although I think if I disclosed which milestones I would be disowned, & so my brother-in-law came up on a bank holiday weekend to stay with us. I had booked the rest of the week off work, & I spent most of that playing my birthday present; the much-underrated Rage 2.

In amongst all of the birthdays was a trip to the gynaecology department at the local hospital (yay?). I wrote about that saga rather recently (Part 1, Part 2, & Part 3) so won’t go into the details here, but I was pleasantly surprised at how well that appointment went. It was after that appointment that my journey towards getting an answer about my gynaecological issues truly began.

June was a stressful month as we prepared to move house, & I also undertook a trip across the Pennines to Manchester, for an ironically inaccessible conference on disability. The end result was essentially having to pack the entire apartment on my own in a weekend, which also turned out to be one of the hottest weekends of the summer. To make matters more awkward, our landlord was not too happy that I had disclosed the extremely long list of broken things to the letting agents they were working with, & kept trying to charge us for things that had been in a sorry state long before we moved in two years before, but after obtaining some legal advice they were forced to back down. Still, July 1st, the day we got the keys for our new apartment, could not come fast enough.

The day we moved was bright & sunny, filling the apartment with natural light as we unpacked the essentials. Both of us had booked the week off work, & with the help of my bridesmaid & her partner, we were settled within that week. We were all pleasantly surprised at just how smoothly everything had gone!

Looking up at our new home; a red-brick building styled to look like a large house, nestled behind some trees.

The day we moved house was also the day I passed my probation at work, earning my place working alongside a characterful team of like-minded individuals. I’m not sure I had ever felt so positive & confident before; I had a gorgeous home I could be proud of, a brilliant job I could be proud of, & a gorgeous husband I could be proud of (for the most part, anyway). For about six weeks I was rolling on cloud number nine, even going so far as getting a new tattoo, & then I had to return to the hospital.

The black & white skull & rose, with 5 red ladybirds crawling over it, on my right shoulder.

This appointment was harder. The temporary treatment I had been on had already worn off, & I had to work hard to convince the doctor that the best way forward for me at this point was diagnostic surgery. Fortunately, the man saw reason once I had explained the situation, & I was told to expect a letter in the post. Sure enough, a few days later I had confirmation; on 24th September I would undergo a diagnostic laparoscopy.

I’m lucky to have an understanding & considerate employer, who allowed me to take the necessary time off work for the surgery & recovery without needing to use any of my annual leave. As the date got closer I got increasingly more nervous, not necessarily because of what they would find, but what they wouldn’t. Above all else I needed the validation that my symptoms were not all in my head, as had been suggested countless times before.

Sat up in my hospital bed post-surgery, with a disconnected drip still stuck in my hand.

Unsurprisingly the surgery did find something, that something being the endometriosis I had been telling doctors I had for years. The next two weeks post-operation were miserable. I was predominantly alone & housebound, in a lot of pain & still without treatment despite now having a diagnosis. My stitches, which as it transpired had been applied incorrectly, became infected. Then my GP was less than helpful, but fortunately I had managed to wrangle a telephone appointment with the gynaecologist for the end of November.

In mid-October I returned to work, now having been employed there for over a year. Given the large pile of paperwork waiting for me, & the even larger bouquet of flowers, it would appear I had been missed. It took a couple of weeks, but by the start of November, the majority of the backlog of work had been cleared. My line manager also had a new daughter.

A large bouquet of pink, white & purple flowers, of many varieties.

As our first wedding anniversary approached, Jarred & I decided to book a mini-break in York for late November. York is always spectacular as Christmas approaches, & considering the nature of the historical buildings littered throughout the city centre, is surprisingly accessible. You can read about my trip here: Part 1 & Part 2.

Upon my return to Leeds I had my telephone appointment with the gynaecologist. Fortunately, he was significantly more supportive than my GP, & proposed that I go back on the only treatment that had proved effective without miserable side effects in the past. Unfortunately, that did involve being injected in the stomach every few months, but it meant relief for the foreseeable future.

Now we have Christmas in our new apartment to look forward to, although of course when this is published, both Christmas & our first wedding anniversary will have passed us by.

As for the coming year, we know we have a home for well into 2021, so can relax on that front. My career in medical research could take several paths, & I look forward to finding where I end up. I don’t tend to plan as something will always come along to scupper plans; plans cannot be scuppered if they do not exist. I know I say this almost every year, but to have a less eventful year would be a pleasant relief; we will just have to wait & see.

I Am Not a Drug Addict.

Despite the world’s insistence on kale enemas being the cure-all for everything from colds to cancer, some illnesses require carefully manufactured pharmaceuticals for a cure, & even then sometimes there is no cure & we can only treat the symptoms. There is a plethora of such illnesses, & as of writing I live with at least 3 of them; asthma, depression, & chronic fatigue syndrome/myalgic encephalomyelitis. Depending on the outcome of my impending surgery, I could be adding another to the list – endometriosis (note: I now live with 4, because having just 3 was boring).

All of these illnesses are chronic. For the most part their causes are unknown, making it impossible to cure them. Instead, all we can do is treat the symptoms for as long as they persist, & the word chronic should give you an indication that the symptoms last longer than a couple of weeks. Yet, as fellow sufferers of such conditions will all tell you, we are constantly being reminded by our doctors that the pain killers & symptom managers we rely upon to function are only meant to be used for 6 months, or at most a year.

You don’t need to be a doctor to know that chronic illnesses don’t have the good manners to abruptly stop without warning after 6 months of using a prescribed medicine. However, at this point we start to be pressured by medical professionals to stop using medicines, without alternatives being offered. We are faced with a choice; subject ourselves to debilitating symptoms, or insist on keeping our prescription & be labelled as dependent on drugs. As far as most doctors are concerned, this is no different to being a drug addict, living from one high to the next, consumed by the need to remain intoxicated. Very few of them seem to fathom that our dependency stems from the desire not to be in excruciating pain.

My prescriptions keep me alive; they mean I can breathe. On top of that, they dull the pain enough to allow me to move. They meant I got an education, a full-time job, a husband. They mean I can write blog posts & make videos, join protests & watch wrestling, socialise & play games. Even with them I remain in constant pain.

Back in early 2019, shortly before we were scheduled to leave the EU for the first time, my main prescription disappeared. No one would supply it. I argued with the doctors & pharmacy daily, watching the number of pills left dwindle day by day for an entire month. Eventually, just before I ran out, the supply returned, but for an entire month I had lived in constant fear. If they ran out, how would I work? If I couldn’t work, how would I pay the rent? If I couldn’t pay the rent, where would we live? Even scarier than the financial aspect was the knowledge that I would be in unbearable pain.

In the current unstable political climate of the UK, & who knows what madness will have taken place by the time this post is published, that fear has returned as the supply of my medicine falls into question. It made me realise just how dependent on these prescriptions I had become.

Dependent though I may be, addict I am not. Addiction is an entirely separate physiological & psychological dependency on drugs, often obtained illegally or for recreation in the first place, which still needs to be treated with far more compassion & understanding than it is given now. The stigmas & stereotypes that haunt addiction also haunt me, & that is what I despise. Chronic illnesses & drug addictions are two separate conditions, in need of different treatment options. To lump us all into one category & regard us all as lazy strays draining “the system” of money damages us all.

When all of this is said & done, there is one fact left to face. If we’re being honest, the pressure to get chronic illness patients to stop using prescriptions is to save money for the NHS, not for our own good as they like to tell us. What good is not being addicted to drugs if we’re in unrelenting misery instead, which ironically is something that drives people to use illicit drugs. While the NHS certainly does need more funding, jeopardising the health of patients goes against everything it was set up to do.

So, when you see scare-mongering on the news about people becoming dependent on prescriptions, just remember that there is an entire side of the debate supressed into silence. We are not drug addicts. We are just sick.

Womb of Woes: Part 3.

The clock had skipped forward almost two hours when I came to in a bed, oxygen mask on, with a radio playing quietly in the corner. For the first few minutes I could barely keep my eyes open, but eventually the fog lifted. When it did I wished it hadn’t, because I think that was when I discovered what being impaled felt like.

After a bit I was returned to the ward, & my oxygen mask was switched for a tube which was a lot more comfortable. I could barely manage sips of water, let alone the hot drink & food I was offered. By now I could feel multiple wounds which told me that they had found something; the surgeon had explained I would only have one incision for the camera unless they found something that required surgical intervention.

I think it was about 6 pm when one of the other surgeons came to my bed. Without bothering to close my curtains she loudly & bluntly exclaimed that I had endometriosis, & that the lining of my uterus had wrapped itself around my ovaries & had had to be cauterised. Treatment would only be offered when I returned to the clinic several months later, & I was good to go despite being unable to eat, drink, or use the bathroom properly. I would also not be getting any pain relief.

Fortunately, the head nurse on my ward seemed to have experience at handling M.E. after a general anaesthetic, & basically refused to let me go home until the morning. That evening, after my husband had gone home after a long day for us both, I sat in bed chatting to the other women staying overnight, & managed to eat & drink a little. After something of a concerted effort, I even managed to use the bathroom.

In the morning I was given breakfast & sent on my way, with documents explaining why I would be taking 2 weeks off work. We took a taxi home & almost immediately I returned to bed. For the next three days I could only manage to stay awake for a couple of hours at a time, & didn’t leave the bedroom except to use the bathroom. The most exciting thing I did was take a shower: I removed my dressings in the shower to discover that I would never be able to wear a crop top again with confidence; thanks to my previous surgery my midriff is covered in scars, & my belly button is warped.

By the weekend I was able to stay awake all day, & even made it into the lounge where I played video games & watched TV. It was over a week until I had the strength to get dressed & leave the house, & even then it was for less than an hour. By this point I was desperate to keep my brain active to avoid becoming even more depressed, as I was now able to fully process the emotional impact of my situation.

For 11 years I had been disbelieved & left in pain. For almost a decade of that it had been exacerbating the M.E, working in conjunction with it to obliterate my health. After 11 years I finally had an answer that shouldn’t have been anywhere near as difficult to get, & even though I now had that answer, I had been sent home with no pain relief & no treatment. Even now, with a confirmed medical diagnosis that cannot be disputed, I am left to struggle on my own.

We are supposed to be grateful for the NHS, because access to health care is considered a privilege & not a human right, & in comparison to most Americans we’re lucky. While this is true I think I can be excused in finding it difficult to be grateful for a system that has once again left me to suffer for years, so concerned on cutting costs that the wellbeing of patients is disregarded in favour of excuses. If I could afford private health care I wouldn’t even hesitate. I fail to understand why not having healthcare is considered the baseline & having healthcare is the privilege, when healthcare should be a right & failing to provide that should be a violation of that right. Quite simply I wouldn’t wish my experience on anyone, & everyone should have the right to not constantly be in pain.

Womb of Woes: Part 2.

My second appointment was with a different, younger doctor. Once again I reeled off a list of my symptoms, fully expecting them to be ignored. Therefore, it was something of a surprise when he actually listened to me. When I explained that the inability to have sex, which can be attributed to an entirely separate condition called bilateral dyspareunia, was not what I considered to be a problem, he listened. The focus was shifted onto my other symptoms, & a discussion about diagnosis & treatment was quickly underway, which came to a drastic conclusion. For three months they would use hormones to medically induce the menopause at age 22. If my symptoms stopped, they would undertake a diagnostic laparoscopy, quite literally sticking a camera into my guts to identify the problem.

It took a few weeks to start the treatment as my ordinary doctors were adamant that I was making a fuss over nothing & didn’t need anything quite so invasive (read: expensive). However, I basically annoyed them into submission, & the following three months were the best I had felt since my periods began. The symptoms were eliminated overnight. It was bliss. Even with frequent hot flushes, I was far happier.

All good things must come to an end, & those three heavenly months were soon up. I returned the hospital & saw yet another doctor, this time the head of the department. He was openly disbelieving that anything was wrong, despite the hormones showing such drastic improvements, & tried to dissuade me from undergoing surgery. However, after almost 11 years of fighting to be heard I refused to back down, & my surgery was set to take place at the end of September.

As the surgery approached I became increasingly nervous. You’d have thought that my nerves stemmed from the fear that it would go wrong, or concern for what they would find, but I was actually most afraid of them finding nothing. The leaflets given me all stated, in nicer terms, that if they didn’t find anything via surgery that there was nothing wrong with me, & that I would be discharged. I knew that there was something wrong with me, & had suspected for years that it was endometriosis, but now a definitive answer approached I began to doubt what I knew.

Eventually the day of the surgery arrived. As I was in the ward preparing for the operation, the anaesthetist came to speak to me. With the very briefest of greetings out of the way he immediately asked why I used a wheelchair. I answered, & was immediately asked how I was diagnosed with M.E. I failed to see how this related to the procedure but answered anyway. I was then asked if I did any exercise, & when I answered in the negative I was grilled as to why. He refused to accept that exercising more wouldn’t cure me, & looked down his nose at me in disdain. He added that as a chronic pain patient I could expect to experience more pain than normal upon waking up, but that they would treat that as they saw fit. Clearly, I was just another hypochondriac making a fuss about nothing. Fortunately the head surgeon, who visited me a few minutes later, was much kinder & more sympathetic.

It was approaching 2 pm when I was asked to walk to the operating theatre. They were surprised when I couldn’t just manage the “tiny” stretch of corridor which was at least 150 metres, without any walking aids. However, one of the nurses took the initiative & pushed me there in my wheelchair, saving me from further embarrassment.

The pre-op room was chilly, & as I stood in the thin gown in front of five men & a woman, I suddenly felt very vulnerable. I lay down & was given oxygen via a mask clamped far too tightly onto my face, making it difficult to breath, & a trainee doctor put the cannula in my left hand. He was so nervous about hurting me that he didn’t push the needle in deep enough & it fell back out, so then they had to try again on my right hand. He was mortified but I assured him it was fine; no practice model will ever be able to replace the real thing. As the ceiling tiles started to spin & merge above me, the nurse squeezed my hand.

Surgery.

Chances are if you follow me on social media, you already know that I’ve had surgery today. If not, I’ve had surgery today!

A selfie. I'm propped up on pillows in a hospital bed, still in my gown, doing my best to smile at the camera while making the horns symbol. You can see my cannula in the back of my right hand.

The surgery was a diagnostic laparoscopy to uncover the cause of my gynecological symptoms, & after 11 years, I finally know the truth. As I’ve suspected for a long time, I have endometriosis.

In short, this is when the endometrium (what lines the womb in preparation for pregnancy, & falls out during a period) has decided not to be limited by the conventional standards of a uterus, & has gone exploring my abdomen. While normally I would applaud anyone who defies convention, this results in pain & a myriad of other symptoms.

As well as the diagnosis, the surgeons have also removed what they can, so I have 3 new scars to add to the collection.

I’m tired & in a lot of pain, but I’m OK. I’m staying in hospital overnight as M.E. & general anaesthesia do not mix well. Thank you for all the well-wishes & support.

There will absolutely be several blog posts & a vlog documenting all of this, but for now I need to rest. The nurse has just brought me a cup of tea, & then I think I’ll go to sleep, but it takes more than a little surgery to break my spirit.

Bad Medicine.

Back in April the internet was blessed with this little anecdote about a woman who has suffered from migraines since her teenage years. Experience taught her to react to the signs of an oncoming migraine & take her prescribed painkillers before it fully took hold, & providing she did this, she didn’t suffer the symptoms any more. Her boyfriend, having never seen one of these migraines as she always nipped them in the bud, decided that she no longer suffered from migraines. He got it into his head that she had some kind of psychological dependence on her drugs.

One night, when staying over at his place, she felt a migraine coming on. She went for her painkillers but couldn’t find them, so crawled to bed in a vague attempt to sleep it off. It wasn’t until several hours had passed that her boyfriend admitted he’d taken her medication to prove that she no longer had migraines, & only returned it to her after having seen her struggle for several hours. He was, apparently, remorseful.

Words cannot sum up how angry I was after reading this post. I was appalled. Disgusted. Enraged.

Those of us who suffer from invisible chronic illnesses such as migraines, fibromyalgia, or ME, or mental illnesses like depression & anxiety, are constantly being told that we don’t need the medicines prescribed to us by a doctor. In fact, many of us have great difficulty accessing the medication in the first place, so the thought of it being swiped away by some know-it-all with a homeopathic kale enema is beyond terrifying.

Even if it transpired that we didn’t need the medication, removing it completely without warning is straight-up dangerous. Many medicines require a weaning-off period where the dose is gradually reduced. For conditions like asthma & allergies, removal of the medication could easily result in death.

Even those who work in the medical profession themselves seem not to understand the need to nip symptoms in the bud before they escalate. When staying in hospital multiple nurses seemingly objected to the volume of pills I was taking. One temporary prescription I had been given the week before was even removed without my knowledge, let alone consent, & once the pain had escalated beyond control the doctor refused to come to the ward or give me anything to help, claiming without having seen me that I was faking it.

If even inside a hospital, our access to effective medication cannot be depended upon, it is no wonder so many of us guard our medicines so fiercely. They are often kept under lock & key, & it is rare that we let anyone but those who we trust most anywhere near them.

Had Jarred ever tried to wean me off the medication on the pre-tense that I don’t need it, & all I really need is spinach & happy vibes, the relationship would have been destroyed right there & then. Every day I trust him not to meddle with my medication, & after reading this anecdote I realised that I take his reliability for granted.

Unless you are a doctor with knowledge of the patient’s medical history, illness, & prescriptions, you are in no position to make these decisions. Even then you need to listen to the patient, and properly address any concerns they have. No one knows a patient’s illness better than the patient themselves, yet often our needs go ignored.

Think. You wouldn’t take away an ex-smoker’s nicotine patches because you’d never seen them smoke, & you wouldn’t take away a cancer patient’s chemotherapy because it’s essentially a deadly concoction of poisons & therefore you believe it won’t do any good. If you want someone with a chronic illness to trust you, you must prove that you can be trusted.

An Unconventional Medicine.

The difficulty in knowing how to deal with poor mental health is the fact that everyone’s case is very individual; everyone has different triggers, responses, and coping mechanisms. For me, my strongest coping mechanism is to write.

Writing about an upsetting situation helps me think about it logically and clearly. Converting emotions into words forces me to think through what happened stage by stage and piece together which bits are the most problematic. Watching the words appear on the screen in front of me helps me rationalise my reactions, allowing me to adopt the perspective of the reader reflecting on the choices of a character in a book. I don’t necessarily publish what I write in response to a tricky scenario either, although sometimes a passage will grow and develop into something I’m comfortable with others reading.

I picked up on this technique when I was having frequent accessibility issues at a building I used on a daily basis while at university, which despite my feedback and advice continued to occur, becoming increasingly frustrating as the months passed. Often I would come out of the building trying to hide the fact that my cheeks were flushed and I was shaking with anger, so nonchalant and disinterested was the response of the members of staff. I took to keeping a record of accessibility issues, when and where they occurred, and if possible who was responsible for an issue. About once a week I would submit this alongside an email reiterating my frustration to a more senior member of staff, but when that didn’t have an effect I took it to the highest level of management. The problem lingered but lessened significantly, and on my more recent visits I haven’t had any difficulties at all.

What I noticed was that keeping a record and writing an email about the incidents greatly helped calm me down, and while still annoyed and aware of the problem, I wasn’t fixated or brooding about it constantly. I decided I’d try this technique with other problematic scenarios, and was surprised to find out just how effective it was. The many issues I had faced at school concerning a lack of both physical and emotional support formed two blog posts, and my Twitter followers are bombarded with photographs of blocked access routes as I come across them. I found that while my memories of these cases are far from positive, I didn’t revisit these memories as regularly as I once did, and overall I simply felt happier. It worked.

If you want to try writing as a coping mechanism for difficult situations, it’s important to remember that no one ever has to see it. Computer files can erased, and paper can be shredded. It doesn’t need to be coherent, grammatically correct, or full or delicate vocabulary. It won’t work for everyone but it did for me, and it helped me put together something I feel truly proud of. Writing is my therapy.