Thursday, December 10, 2009

action alert: ask your Senators to support neurology incentives

The Alliance for Headache Disorders Advocacy has sent out a critical call to action, asking all of us to email our Senators. The full email follows.

Dear AHDA advocates:

The AHDA is dedicated to improving the welfare of individuals suffering from headache disorders. Our near-term goals have focused on increasing NIH funding for headache disorders to lead to improved therapies. However, the health care reform bill currently being debated in Congress has forced us to take action in a slightly different direction to protect access to quality medical care for patients with headache disorders.

The Senate Health Care Reform Bill contains a particular provision to provide bonus Medicare payments to doctors from certain primary care specialties. This is a very good idea. It is intended to incentivize and encourage doctors to enter and stay in primary care practice.

Physicians who specialize in headache medicine provide primary or principal care for patients with headache disorders and more than 90% of them are neurologists. Unfortunately, neurologists have been unaccountably left out of eligibility for these bonuses. If the Health Reform Bill passes with the incentive program as it is written, it will significantly undermine the ability to recruit and retain doctors to the field of headache medicine. Headache doctors are already very scarce, and it will become that much harder to find one.

What can we do? Fortunately, Sen Klobuchar of Minnesota, along with Sen Collins of Maine and Senator Brown of Ohio, have offered a bipartisan amendment to the Senate Health Care Reform Bill that would add neurologists to the Medicare incentive program. We, at the AHDA, have added our voice of support for this amendment to those of other national groups with interests in patients with neurological diseases, including the American Academy of Neurology, the ALS Association, the Parkinson's Action Network, the Epilepsy Foundation, the Brain Injury Association of America, the Alzheimer's Foundation of America, and the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.

We are asking you to contact your two Senators right now through our website to urge them to co-sponsor the Klobuchar amendment. Doing this is as easy as just a few mouse clicks. Please do it as soon as possible. Also, please forward this email and ask everyone that you know that cares about someone with a neurological disorder to do so now too. The Klobuchar amendment will be voted upon by the Senate any day now.

To email your Senators, click HERE.

It's easy and should take you 10 minutes or less.

Thank you very much.

Best regards,

Bob Shapiro
Bill Young
Brad Klein
Teri Robert

If you are not already receiving the AHDA alerts directly in your inbox, please click here to sign up.

Be well,

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

fluctuat nec mergitur*

* "She tosses on the waves but does not sink".

I remember when I spent a semester living in Paris during college, I frequently took comfort in this phrase, the motto of the city of Paris. I had a lot of trouble there with culture shock and the language barrier, even though I spoke quite a bit of French when I went. Now that I'm struggling, again, in troubled waters - this time because of chronic illness - I find myself coming back to this phrase.

November proved to be one of the hardest months of the year. The first three weeks I felt tossed around by the weather coming through, wave after wave of storms. We set all sorts of records for rainfall, and not surprisingly, the November storms brought huge wind and dramatic pressure changes. A perfect storm for Migraine misery. I spent three weeks doing nothing but my part-time job (a paltry 18 hours a week) and laying on the couch, and remembered how awful it is to be so sick.

The third week of storms, I decided to increase the dosage of acetazolamide, as Dr E had advised I could do. I lasted four days at that dose. It's hard to tell, but I want to say it made my head pain worse. I say it's hard to tell because I was already feeling so bad that it was difficult to tell what pain came from which trigger.

And when things began to look up, when the storms calmed and I stopped the higher dose of acetazolamide, when my mom came into town for Thanksgiving, I was tossed by yet another wave. My boss called me the Sunday night before Thanksgiving to let me know he was laying me off, because he just couldn't afford to keep paying me anymore. And to add insult to injury, the unemployment office is "reviewing my claim" and hasn't paid me in over a month.

The past few years have been an exercise in treading water and just trying not to drown in the stormy waves of chronic illness, constant pain, debilitating Migraine symptoms, adverse effects, depression, anxiety, unemployment, financial strain, frustration, stress. While my pain levels have undoubtedly improved over the past year, my emotional state has gotten worse.

I'm ready for this bad cycle to end. I'm ready for some good news. I'm ready for some smooth sailing. But I clearly don't get a choice in the matter. Chronic illness (and unemployment) is all too good at reminding us how little in life we can actually control; I'm left trying to weather this storm, trusting that I won't sink.

Be well,

Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

slowing down

If my Migraine disease has taught me anything - and continues to teach me anything - it's the value of slowing down.

We talk about slowing down all the time when we discuss chronic illness. Being chronically ill requires us to reserve our energy for those things that really matter, to evaluate what we can and cannot do based on how our bodies feel. While initially upon being diagnosed we can fool ourselves into thinking we can still operate our lives at "normal" speed (whatever that means), eventually our bodies demand us to make some hard decisions.

On an even more basic level than that, time slows down with pain. My Migraines and IIH together mean I'm in constant pain. Coping with that pain can slow down time - can you remember a time when a painful injury made it feel like an eternity until that pain was relieved? Chronic pain has a funny way of altering one's perception of time.

Slowing down also takes shape in the way we carefully consider choices where others might make snap decisions. Should I go out tonight, or stay in? If I get off the couch, will my symptoms feel better or worse? What is the best thing for me to eat tonight, based on how I'm feeling? If I take a shower in the morning, will that make it more difficult to get through a full day of work? Should I shower at night instead? How can I dress myself to go out so I'm comfortable but still feel stylish? Stopping to consider every little incidental action slows us down.

Since yesterday was Saturday, that meant a weekly trip to one of our local farmers' markets. DF and I buy the vast majority of our food directly from farmers. (There's quite a large backstory here, which I plan to post about in the future. The short version of our reasoning is that it's the cheapest way to get the quality of food I need to eat to help manage my multiple illnesses.) The seasonal market we used to go to ended at the beginning of October, so we're now going to a year-round one; since DF was working on Saturdays I got to go myself. Which was a nice change from our usual habits.

Yesterday I wasn't feeling very well because of some stormy weather that had passed through the night before. My body soon told me to slow down, a not-so-gentle reminder that even when I think I'm taking it slow, my body has ideas of its own. So I found myself in one of the farmers' stalls, surrounded by fresh produce, deeply breathing in the wonderful smells of earthy, spicy fall vegetables. Mmmm. And I found myself smiling despite how crappy I felt.

When illness and pain try to steal everything from my life - friends, family, health, happiness, fun - I find myself eventually refocusing on those things that are most important to me, and those simple things that bring me joy. In a world complicated by medications, symptoms, doctors, hospitals, treatments and bills, it is incredibly refreshing to enjoy the simple beauty of the first winter squash of the season. That joy doesn't make the pain and illness go away, but it does give me a way to step outside myself, even if just for a minute. And it gives me a moment of slowing down.

Be well,

Saturday, October 24, 2009

climbing back on the horse

It's no secret to me - or anyone who's been following my blog - that I've been having a really tough time lately. My mother keeps telling me, don't despair. Chronic illness is certainly difficult enough to deal with all on its own, but add in the unemployment and sometimes (often) it is just too much to cope with.

My Depression and Anxiety issues have gone from lurking on the horizon to ominously looming over my daily life. I can squeeze out a few hours here and there throughout the week when I feel okay, or even happy, but sure enough the gloom comes back. Like dark, sticky cotton candy.

It seems like each week brings more difficulty to deal with. DF found out that the last day of his seasonal job is October 31; after that, he'll once again be unemployed with no new prospects. (At least this time, there was notice.) A few weeks ago, I quit one of my part-time jobs after it became very clear that the increased Anxiety was not worth the measly paycheck. And as I posted last week, there was the massive failure of my recent medication trial. Everything just keeps piling up. 

In the midst of all this upheaval and getting used to a new work schedule, I've let some components of my treatment lapse. I haven't had a massage in several months; I had been going weekly. I've pretty much stopped keeping my headache diary. Last week I even skipped my Nia dance class because I still had the citalopram in my system. I've given myself permission to stop keeping my headache diary, as right now it's causing more stress in my life. I plan to start keeping it again either when I start another med or the beginning of the new year (whichever comes first). I have a follow-up appointment at the end of March with my headache doc, so even if I don't restart my diary until January, I'll have three months of records to show him.

Massage is a different story. I know it helps me to feel better by releasing the tension in my neck and shoulders, even if it doesn't directly help my Migraines. It's silly, really, that I haven't just called and scheduled an appointment, but in the murk of daily life it's easy to avoid making phone calls.

So, my goal for this week is to make that call and restart my weekly massages. I'm focusing on not being hard on myself for ignoring this part of my treatment plan. It's difficult to continually put so much energy into an intensive treatment regimen that seems to offer little return. But every little bit does help, and incrementally I hope I'll improve.

A big part of being able to cope with chronic illness is setting small, achievable goals and recognizing when I achieve them. I know this, but I'm writing it here to remind myself. This week's small goal is scheduling a massage appointment. Hopefully I'll start to overcome this inertia, this feeling of wallowing, by taking that first baby step. Then I can look at my other goals (adding a weekly tai chi class, for example) and start working toward those.

And maybe, just maybe, the regular massages will start to chip away at my stress.

Be well,

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

action alert: express Migraine to Congress

Betsy Blondin, editor of the excellent book Migraine Expressions, has put together a great way for us Migraineurs to increase our visibility with Congress. Betsy's efforts come at a terrific time, right on the heels of Cindy McCain "going public" with her Migraine disease.

This timely advocacy effort is called "Express Migraine to Congress", and it is very simple. Anyone can purchase a copy of Migraine Expressions and designate a specific member of the House or Senate to receive this book. Betsy is offering these books for Congress at a reduced price ($18.95) and will include a $1 donation to the Alliance for Headache Disorders Advocacy for every book purchased through this effort.

Last week, I purchased one of these books, which is now on its way to Senator Patty Murray (a member of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee). Betsy is keeping track of which members of Congress have been sent books so our efforts aren't duplicated.

I realize that in this difficult economy, you may not have room in your budget to purchase one of these books. If you do have the money, please consider sending a book to Congress. If you don't, please consider making a small donation to ADHA, or even just write a letter to your members of Congress. Betsy has kindly published a sample cover letter and given us permission to copy and paste it in our own letters. Every little bit helps, and now is a great time to join our efforts.

Let's show Congress that Cindy McCain has 36 million other Americans who are also desperately seeking a cure for Migraines!

Purchase a copy of Migraine Expressions HERE.
A list of the members of the Senate (including who has already received a book) HERE.
A list of the members of the House (including who has already received a book) HERE.
Betsy's blog post about Express Migraine to Congress HERE.
Betsy's sample cover letter to Congress HERE.

Be well,

Sunday, October 18, 2009

side effects and self-doubt

I've been here before. A brief trial of a medication, followed by confusing side effects and my doctor's orders to "discontinue the medication".

As I posted last week, I started a low dose of citalopram (generic Celexa, an SSRI) mainly to help with my Anxiety, and hopefully my Depression and Migraines as well. The first two days, the side effects were tolerable, but by the third dose, my body felt overwhelmed. I put a call into my doctor's office on Thursday morning to see if he thought I should wait out the side effects, and, not surprisingly, got a call back from his nurse telling me to discontinue the medication.

And now I feel myself plagued by self-doubt and "what ifs".

I know that any medication I try will have some side effects. I know that many side effects will improve with time. It's hard for me not to feel like I'm giving up on a medication when I've only taken four doses of it. Dr E told me it would take about six weeks to see if the citalopram would help me, and I know that it can take two to three months for a daily medication to kick in. So stopping after only four days seems like quitting.

Clearly, my body was sending me very strong signals that it did not like this medication. The side effects in question were those listed under the "call your doctor immediately if you experience these" category. (In the interest of not scaring off other patients who may be trying this medication, I'm not going to detail the side effects here, as this is a very effective medication for many people.) And obviously Dr E thought that the side effects were serious enough to outweigh any potential benefits.

But I still have that little voice in the back of my head, telling me that I should just suck it up, that everyone experiences side effects and I should stop complaining. That if I ever want to get better, I need to just push through it until it gets better. In the face of this negative self-talk, it's very difficult to maintain perspective on the situation. (And this kind of self-talk is a key characteristic of my Depression.)

Every time a medication is crossed off the list so clearly and quickly, it makes it that much more difficult to try the next one, as I try to push past the fears and anxiety about past side effects. Because I feel so sick all of the time, it's hard to push through the added sickness of side effects - and it seems massively unfair that I should have to do so. But really, what is fair about chronic illness?

So now I'm left marking time until the citalopram completely clears out of my system and my body has time to get back to its normal level of crummy. And I'm trying not to be too hard on myself in the meantime.

Be well,

Friday, October 9, 2009

learning to ask for help

DF and I recently went on vacation to Charleston SC for a week, which marked the official start of our wedding planning. We had a great trip. The first half we spent with my mom and sister; after they left, we had three days to ourselves to play tourist. I actually felt fairly good during vacation. I still had the daily head pain from my Migraines and IIH, but I paced myself and practiced good self-care, and was able to enjoy our vacation - even if a lot of it was spent in the condo we stayed at.

When we came home last week, the real world seemed to crash back into place around us. All the stress we had been ignoring about unemployment, finances and everything else hit hard. I realized - on the plane ride home, in fact - how much my Anxiety has gotten out of control over the summer.

Like many Migraineurs, I struggle with a number of comorbid conditions: Migraines, IBS and mood disorders (namely Anxiety and Depression). I've struggled with bouts of Depression in the past, particularly during my third year of college when I first got sick. Even after my Migraines and IIH were successfully treated, the Depression stuck around for a long time.

It's no secret to me that this has been a difficult summer. DF and I have not been able to land "real" jobs after being laid off last November. Between our paychecks and unemployment checks, we're making ends meet and aren't in any immediate danger, but everything feels very precarious. My health has only just started to improve from the very low point of last year. I've been dealing with a triple whammy, in a sense, of my unemployment, DF's unemployment and my crummy health.

This summer has marked a vicious cycle of Anxiety-pain-Depression-Anxiety that I just cannot get out of. The Anxiety about all the life stresses feeds my pain, and the pain in turn feeds my Anxiety. While I'm having less pain overall (thanks to the acetazolamide for my IIH), I still have not had any break in my pain in several years, and I still have a long way to go to find an effective treatment regimen.

I saw Dr E for a follow-up appointment on October 1, the day after DF and I got home from vacation. As I sat in the waiting room writing down last minute questions, I wrote a note about my Anxiety. It was serendipitous that my appointment with Dr E was right after vacation, when I realized how much I've been struggling, so I was willing to bring up my concerns. Anxiety and Depression are hard things to talk about, even with a doctor whom I trust.

In fact, I have spoken with Dr E about this same issue in the past, which made it easier to bring up this time. When I saw him in February, we discussed my Anxiety as related to unemployment; at that point neither DF nor I had any job prospects on the horizon. Dr E prescribed a low dose of citalopram (Celexa), though I never started taking it since I did find a job not long after my appointment.

But now I find myself stuck in the same position. And it's just tiring to feel all this emotional upheaval on top of my regular physical symptoms. I feel so frustrated by the constant pain, the daily dizziness and nausea, that I often just want to scream. The longer all of this stretches on, the harder it becomes to cope.

Dr E wrote me a new scrip for the citalopram, leaving it up to me to fill it any time after the appointment if I felt ready for it. (He understands and respects my reluctance to try new medications after a series of really bad reactions.) I decided earlier this week to get it filled, and will be starting it next week. And I'm nervous about it.

It's so difficult to ask for help because it can be so difficult to admit to myself that I need help. I can't think myself out of my mood disruptions any more than I can think myself out of my Migraines. While I can do relaxation exercises and other non-drug therapies to mitigate my symptoms, they will not change the underlying chemical and neurological problems. So Monday evening, I will take my first dose of citalopram and hope for the best.

I'm learning, once again, how to ask for help when I need it, and trying not to feel like a failure for needing it.

Be well,

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

two important blog posts

I'll admit that I've fallen out of the blogging habit a bit this year, and once I'm back from vacation at the beginning of October, I hope to start posting weekly updates again. One of the toughest parts of blogging about a chronic illness is that chronic illness often gets in the way. My Migraines in particular often limit the time I can spend on the computer. I did want to take a few minutes today and post links to two very important blog posts and ask that you check them out.

The first is an excellent interview of Cindy McCain by Teri Robert. Cindy recently came out of the Migraine closet and has become an advocate for all Migraineurs. She recently appeared on the Today show, and Teri had the chance to interview her as well.
Teri's interview: Interview with Cindy McCain, Migraine Sufferer, Advocate

The second is a petition put together by the American Pain Foundation asking the FDA to consider educating consumers about the risks of acetaminophen, rather than strict regulation. Diana Lee wrote an excellent blog post about the petition. If you agree with the APF's stance, please take a minute to sign the petition before this Sunday, September 27.
Diana's post: FDA Ban on Prescription Pain Meds: Take Action Now
APF petition: Acetaminophen: Educate, Do Not Regulate

Be well,

Saturday, September 12, 2009

30 things about my invisible illness you may not know

The wonderful Teri Robert of MyMigraineConnection had recently posted this on her blog, From Teri's Keyboard, and asked me to participate.

I'll quote Teri's post here to better explain this meme:
Anyone who has Migraine disease or another headache disorder knows what it's like to live with an invisible illness. People can't see our illness. There are no outward signs. No physical scars, canes, wheel chairs, or any of the other outward signs that can alert people that a person is living with an illness.

Invisible illnesses are easy for "healthy" people to ignore. Unfortunately, so are the difficulties of those who live with these diseases. This adds to the burden of disease and makes lives even more difficult.

Each year, National Invisible Chronic Illness Awareness Week is observed to educate the public and raise awareness about invisible illnesses. One of the blogging activities this year is a "meme," 30 Things About My Invisible Illness You May Not Know.

Without further ado...

1. The illness I live with is: Migraine disease (including Transformed Migraine, Chronic Migraine, Migraine Without Aura and Acephalgic Migraine), Idiopathic Intracranial Hypertension, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, along with gluten intolerance, many food sensitivities, seasonal/environmental allergies and Asthma. I also struggle with depression and anxiety. For the purposes of this meme, I will mainly focus on the head pain issues.

2. I was diagnosed with it in the year: 2003 (Migraine) & 2009 (IIH).

3. But I had symptoms since: at least my early teen years.

4. The biggest adjustment I’ve had to make is: slowing down and learning to modify my goals (both short- and long-term). I've had to learn just what is realistic with my current limitations.

5. Most people assume: that I'm healthy, especially because of my recent weight loss (75 pounds since January 2008). It's hard for them to believe that I'm sick when I look so healthy on the outside.

6. The hardest part about mornings is: getting going. Mornings are the toughest part of my day and the time I generally feel the worst. Pushing through that initial crappiness can be very hard.

7. My favorite medical TV show is: House and Royal Pains.

8. A gadget I couldn’t live without is: my laptop. My cell phone is a close second.

9. The hardest part about nights is: going to bed on time. I'm a night owl by nature, but my Migraine disease requires that I get the right amount of sleep every night. It's difficult to make myself go to bed sometimes, and occasional insomnia and/or anxiety don't help with good sleep hygiene.

10. Each day I take 19 pills & vitamins.

11. Regarding alternative treatments I: currently do massage therapy and relaxation exercises. In the past I've done acupuncture and biofeedback. This fall I plan to try mindfulness meditation, as well as get back into Nia dance and maybe try tai chi/qigong.

12. If I had to choose between an invisible illness or visible I would choose: visible. It's unspeakably hard to feel like I have to prove to others that I'm sick.

13. Regarding working and career: I was laid off from my full-time job in an architecture firm in November 2008. In March of this year, I began working part-time as a hair salon receptionist, and this week I've begun a second job as a medical receptionist, also part-time. I'm not sure if I'm healthy enough to go back to full-time work, especially in an office environment. DF and I have broad future plans to start our own business, but that's quite a ways down the road. I feel very frustrated that I've had to put many career plans on hold (like licensing exams and graduate school) because of my health.

14. People would be surprised to know: that I am in some type of pain every moment of every day. The pain never, ever goes away.

15. The hardest thing to accept about my new reality has been: limitations. I'm an overachiever by nature, someone who pushes through "anything" to accomplish my goals. I've now learned that I have to respect the limitations of my health.

16. Something I never thought I could do with my illness that I did was: blog about it, and reach out to the vibrant online chronic illness community.

17. The commercials about my illness: maddening. I tell DF that Excedrin ads are more likely to trigger a Migraine than the drug would be to stop one.

18. Something I really miss doing since I was diagnosed is: spending time out of the house with my friends.

19. It was really hard to have to give up: pushing myself "no matter what". I've had to learn to stop when my body says so.

20. A new hobby I have taken up since my diagnosis is: knitting/crochet.

21. If I could have one day of feeling normal again I would: have a picnic on a sailboat with DF, without having to worry about the sun, myriad potential triggers or my proximity to a bathroom.

22. My illness has taught me: to say no.

23. Want to know a secret? One thing people say that gets under my skin is: "I've heard that __ fixes Migraines, you should try it." Trust me, I already have. I know you may mean well, but I would rather do without the unsolicited advice.

24. But I love it when people: show compassion or honestly want to know more about my illnesses.

25. My favorite motto, scripture, quote that gets me through tough times is: "There are times in life when we can nurture our talents and watch them grow. But there are also times in life when we can do no more than protect them to get through the day-to-day, until we have the opportunity for nurturing again." (paraphrased) from the former honors director at my alma mater. He and I were discussing my worries about the effects of my health on my semester's work.

26. When someone is diagnosed I’d like to tell them: the most important thing you can do as a patient is educate yourself and ask as many questions as you need to understand.

27. Something that has surprised me about living with an illness is: how much space it takes up in my life, and how every minor decision becomes a major choice.

28. The nicest thing someone did for me when I wasn’t feeling well was: when DF took care of me after my lumbar puncture when I had a spinal headache. In addition to everything he normally does for me, he went so far as to empty a trash can I had vomited in when I couldn't walk to the toilet.

29. I’m involved with Invisible Illness Week because: the only way to increase awareness of our illnesses is to speak out.

30. The fact that you read this list makes me feel: that one day, there will be more understanding of the struggles that chronic illness patients face.

If you blog, or even if you just Facebook, I ask that you please consider posting this meme with your own answers.

Be well,

Sunday, August 16, 2009


Eyes open too wide
Bright burning sun, eyes closed, seeing red
Colors bleached out, muted

Sandy eyes, dry, bloodshot
Pupils confused
Pain lurking behind eyelashes

Facial tension
Skin too tight, fragile skull
Crows clawing eyes

Frying my brain