Finding Hope

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There are times like tonight when the reality of my own life is overwhelming. It usually happens when the house is quiet and all the kids are in their beds. It’s at this time of night I have a chance to really think about things. Every day seems to move faster and more furiously toward too many events I cannot understand or control.

In the quiet night air is where anxious and stomach churning thoughts often disrupt what should be a peaceful end to the day. It’s hard to ignore the pain I feel at the end of each day when my body starts to feel the repercussions of any physical activity I may have been a part of. It can get so intense that it feels like punishment for participating in my own life.

It’s when I retire to my own bed earlier than almost every other person my age that I think of my sick little boy sleeping in his own bed. I worry about seizures that may go unheard. I sicken over the knowledge of my own weakness when he is in need. If an emergency arose, would I reach him fast enough? Could I physically do what is necessary if needed? I usually push these thoughts from my head the moment my husband appears in the doorway of our bedroom. “What would I do without him?” A thought of appreciation but also a bit of a morbid one, but a thought most parents with a sick child have frequently. We wonder how the delicate balance of our family could be repaired if we lost one of us. The magnitude of such a reality is frightening.

Often, when I recall my own thoughts of the day, I realize death lingers in my own mind more often than I am willing to admit. I have a chronic disease. My disease is running rampant while I am holding on with any last scrap of optimism I can muster. I wonder how I have any thoughts that even resemble positivity because life certainly hasn’t handed out a fair share of difficulty. It seems like the scale is not tipped in our favor. When one terrible event happens, another is rushing toward us.

The big issue with chronic illness is the “chronic” part of the phrase. It’s definition; constant or having a long duration tells me what kind of hope my son and I have at a release from disease and pain. With incurable disease, the disease never ends and freedoom from it comes only through death. With pain a constant companion to incurable, chronic disease, it isn’t a wonder why my thoughts seem quite morbid. It’s also easy to understand why I’m depressed. There isn’t an end to the pain or side effects of disease…….. there is no end. There are no cures or a remission for us. Medicine and surgery only treat the symptoms and based on the drastic measures we are taking to treat our son’s symptoms, it sometimes doesn’t feel like much of a life at all.

Dreams are put on hold, plans are cancelled, and hope seems lost. But it’s that small word almost at the end of the last sentence that have given strength to so many in worse circumstances than my own. Sometimes it’s the only thing people who feel weary and burdened use to overcome. Hope.

Hope is a word manifested through people, actions, and words. Hope is sometimes given, sometimes it’s stumbled upon, but hope is often the only thing left when everything else feels lost. On those days when I am focused on going back to bed because of the relentless pain, I cling to the hope that tomorrow will be better. I have hope that I can make each day wonderful in spite of it. Hope is the echos of a good deed. Those echos reverberate in my heart, especially in recent times, and have often brought me to tears. From gesures of kind thoughts or prayers to giving generously with no ask of recognition, we have felt more love than we may have felt in a lifetime with no difficulty. We have been humbled by pain but also by love. What a feeling it is to have a breaking heart also feel so full.

When it feels like life is too much, I don’t have to look far to find happiness. It’s the smile on our children’s faces. It’s their endless desire to love and be loved. It’s those who see past our absence from their lives due to the circumstances we can’t control and choose love us anyway.  We feel loved when we finally crouch out of our darkness and into the world and there are people still waiting with open arms.

I have hope when our children display compassion learned through circumstances that ask them to miss out on so many things by no fault of their own. Every time they offer me one of their little hands so they can help me up the stairs or care for me in concern, I have hope. They have compassion learned by trials. They don’t get to do many of the things other kids their age do like play summer T-ball or take swimming lessons. Our abnormal circumstances don’t always allow normality. I make myself sick thinking about what disease takes from everyone in this family. I feel like the little part of their childhood taken away will be the big things when they get older so I hope we offer them other beautiful memories in return. Right now, it’s that quiet time of night when they are asleep and I am awake to think of these things. I think about the smiles on their faces. I think about how much love they have for me regardless of how I feel about myself, or still, how others feel about me. They see me at my worst and still love me and I them. I realize I have much to look forward to tomorrow.

***Look for hope, even of you have to make yourself. Wake up and make the best of the day, even if you require help to do it. This doesn’t mean trying to do things beyond your capabilities, it means trying to smile or laugh, even of you have to spend the day in bed. Love to the fullest of extent, even when you feel like you have nothing left to give. You aren’t guaranteed a long life, you’re not even guaranteed a fair life. Take it from someone who knows how unfair life can be, good things are not promised and someday, the end may seem closer than it has ever felt before. Take time to cry when needed. Don’t expect to feel great about every person or thing that comes into your life. Sometimes you have to work at what’s important and let go of the rest. Most importantly, find what makes today beautiful, I bet it’s closer than you think.***

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An Invitation

I want to invite you in to my life. This will be extremely difficult for me. I am a private and sometimes quiet person but what I have to show you is important. It is a glimpse into the life of someone who is living with Rheumatoid Arthritis and Fibromyalgia. I also have four children and one of them has a disease called Tuberous Sclerosis Complex. He is multi-disabled. Among several secondary diagnoses, he has epilepsy and autism.

I want to capture my life in pictures to put a face to invisible disease. I want to give a voice to others who also struggle silently. Many people, like my family, face difficult daily challenges so I hope my story will serve as a reminder to be kind to others. You never know what challenges someone else is facing.

This is how you might see me in public on a typical day.

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(I say might because with four kids, I don’t always have a lot of time to apply make-up and fix my hair before I leave the house.) Yes, I “look normal” yet I am very different. Here is life from my perspective:

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On this day I had another rheumatologist appointment. I was brought back to the exam room and four needles were arranged neatly on a tray. I have never been too excited about needles and this had me nervously thinking about the five injections I had already received since the beginning of the year. I suspected these syringes had something to do with the problem of pain in my shoulders the Dr. and I discussed at my last appointment. I tried to prepare myself mentally for what was to come. Waiting thirty minutes gave me time to doubt accepting these additional injections, but I reluctantly elected to take them in hopes of increased mobility. Unfortunately, it landed me in an ambulance with a suspected allergic reaction. It also altered how I could be treated in the future.

A few short weeks later the only positive side effects of my shots had worn off. The anti-inflammatory properties were gone and my RA took over. I was experiencing my first RA flare. I could describe it simply by saying, “it hurt to move” but I was unprepared for this kind of pain. I was shocked, reeling in pain from the smallest movements. Fibromyalgia gave me a secondary blow as it pained the area around the joint effected by RA. In a matter of weeks, I went from a 34 year-old mother of four who was keeping up with her children, to a woman unrecognizable to even myself. I revisited the rheumatologist and began physical therapy in hopes of any relief. At the advice of my physical therapist, I purchased a rollator. It would help with my mobility when the pain made it too difficult. My hands hurt so bad that I could hardly grasp the handles. My body retaliated against me and it hurt to stand up straight.

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At the peak of my flare, the morning hours gave me the most pain and I had difficulty getting out of bed so my husband began to help me….

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He helped lift me to my rollator….

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And had to help me on and off the toilet.

My knee was so full of fluid that I couldn’t get my leg over the bathtub. My hands hurt so bad that I couldn’t wash my hair, let alone squeeze my shampoo container without assistance. He waited outside the shower to help me wash my body and hair and help me in and out of the tub.

Each day would carry on and each night I would cry out and wonder, “Where is my life?!”

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Even my hands swelled to the point of making everyday tasks difficult, so I started a small dose of oral prednisone. I eventually had to take two a day. It has it’s own unpleasant side effects, like sweating and mood-swings, but it helped me function. It was enough to reduce some of the problematic swelling but I was still in constant pain.

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It wasn’t the only medication I was taking to help me through my flare…. and there were more side-effects…. My legs were bruised from taking Naproxen. I was also getting headaches from my pain medication.

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My son’s epilepsy didn’t wait for me to feel better. Sometimes he falls at the onset of a seizure. After, his limbs are immobilized and he is frequently exhausted. His seizures are physically demanding for both of us. I often have to lift, hold, or carry him to a safe place before and/or after a seizure. On this day he had a two minute seizure that took over his body. He could not move so he begged me to lay him in bed. It was hard for me to carry his worn body to his bed. We were both exhausted. It was all too much and I sobbed as he lay there.

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It was no surprise that the physical demands of motherhood and my special needs son began to take a toll. The pain became intense in my shoulder so the doctor ordered an MRI. I found out that RA has torn my shoulder to shreds. The six paragraph explanation made for interesting reading. I have refused surgery as 12 weeks of recovery and therapy isn’t realistic for a mother like me.

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(I couldn’t even get the full summary in this screen shot.)

Another doctor appointment. Here I am waiting to see a pain management doctor. Nothing seems to be as cruel as living with chronic pain. It’s a daily struggle that I am desperately trying to conquer.

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Another bad day for my son’s seizures. On this day he fell to the floor before I could reach him. My leg had been so full of fluid that I could not get to him before the seizure knocked him to the ground. Although I was thankful he was inside and on carpet, the guilt of being unable to reach him before he fell ate away at me. He is pictured here after he finally stopped shaking. He once again had no control over his arms or legs so I had to lift him to the chair and sit with him until he could move.

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I pray for days when we cuddle just for the sake of cuddling, not because a seizure has prevented him from moving his own body.

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I may not be strong but I am determined to hold my baby when he needs me…

Between my special needs child and I, we spend a lot of time at doctors’ offices and in hospitals. What’s startling still is the realization that we will never get a financial break from the burden of disease and disability. It’s disheartening when my medicine cabinet is fuller than our pantry.

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In the evenings the kids often find me elevating my leg. Since my scare with steroid shots, I have been trying to allow my body to absorb the excess fluid naturally. It hasn’t been easy and I often need to elevate it to find relief. I also have a cyst on the back of my knee that may never go away, or so I have been told. On this night, my daughter found me, and I’m glad she did.

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Most of the time I look like a normal mom. I snuggle with my babies.

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That’s my family posing for lots of pictures during a rare trip away from home.

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I can also be found at the bowling alley with my family although you won’t see me bowl. My hands hurt too bad to pick up a bowling ball and my body hurts too bad to roll one down the lane.

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….but I am still much different. I know, it can be hard to see. And although I am allowing a glimpse into my life in hopes of changing the way others perceive it, there are still those remaining invisible facets to my life that are the most important.

In the early morning hours during my RA flare, my husband got out of bed and helped me do things he never would have imagined when we wed a short ten years ago. The jokes we made about caring for each other in old age have abruptly ended–just like my once healthy youth. And I realize in my worst moments, love and the affectionate care of my spouse intertwine much like his arms embracing my weak frame. In our darkest and hidden moments, we find love. It triumphs over every minute I wake in pain and he comes to my side, over every seizure that crushes the delicate body of our little boy, and any doubt that we will make it through every last setback together. So when I am asked, “How do you do it?” I may not always have the best answer but I do know I will make it because I don’t have to do it alone. I know I am loved unconditionally. And that is the most important thing you should know about my story…true love is not conditional…true love sees past differences, disability, fear, sadness, and disease. Love is my husband looking past my suffering and weakness and still seeing the woman he loves. Love is the confidence I have in his fulfillment of the promise to love me “in sickness and in health.”

Today, I am getting better and working with my specialists to find the right plan to manage my disease. This will not be the last flare I will see but the goal is to reduce the number of them, manage my pain, and slow the progression of my disease. The most important goal for my health is to be a productive wife and mother. I most likely have a lifetime of care with my special needs son and I want to have that privilege as long as my health allows. We also continue to work on improving his life despite his disease. It has been hard but I look forward to every moment I am given, good and bad. The good times give me hope and the bad times allow me an appreciation of them. And love sees me through it all.

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A Ride Called “Disease”

A group of teenagers push wildly through the crowd and down the fair midway. At the tail end of the group, a reluctant girl is holding the hand of a boy sporting a cheesy grin. “Come on,” he pleads as he pulls her hand in the direction of the rides.

“I really don’t want to,” she insists as her steps narrow and her pace slows. Both eventually stop to talk and after a pathetic glance from the boy, she relaxes her shoulders in submission and follows. He spots his friends rough housing in front of the ferris wheel. She protest, “No, I don’t like those things and this one doesn’t look safe.”

“Awww, it’s fine,” he coaxes. She could sense the doubt in his voice.

“Come on!!” the group taunts as she sides her way into line. The ride is old, very old. It has been a right of passage for many other teens. The long held tradition has included rocking, screaming, and bouncing the rickety ride as if to dare it to crumble.

“Don’t move our seat,” she whispered abruptly as they loaded.

“Sure,” he assured as he sheepishly grinned to his buddy in the next seat. Not long after they loaded, the rowdy group began screaming and yelling but they remained still until the last seat was loaded. None took the chance of being kicked of the ride prematurely. After the old ride was started and at full speed, the chaos started. Violent shaking, bouncing, and attempts to stand up over the seat bar began. The operator began shouting but they continued on. The girl held tight to her boyfriend’s arm but his assurance to remain still did not last. He began flipping the seat forward as hard as he could and she began to scream in fear.

“Let me off, I want off now!” she demanded as she drew as far from him as she possibly could. Her trust had been broken.

“We’re just having some fun,” he said as the ride came to an abrupt stop. The operator was now cursing as he began unloading the riders. An argument between the girl and her boyfriend ensued. He offered a half hearted apology only after she began to cry. His remorse lasted until he was reunuted with his group of friends at the base of the ride. Then he sneered and thanked her for embarrassing him in front of his friends. He turned away abruptly and lead the group down the fairway, the girl crying while scurrying behind. In confusion, her focus now became how she could make it up to him.

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I can definately relate to this story as I was that confused teenage girl years ago. Thank goodness I can laugh about it now and I am thankful that I have matured but that isn’t the point I am trying to make.

Instead this story is quite the apologue of the last few months of my life. A few months ago, I reluctanly stepped onto a rusty, old ferris wheel. It’s name was “Disease”. Despite it’s unsafe appearance, I convinced myself that I would be okay with “Disease”. Soon I had a passenger and it’s name was fear. I thought I had made peace with “Disease” and I wondered why fear had joined me.

“It’s okay, sit with me,” fear assured, “I’m a friend.”

“Disease” creaked and groaned but I didn’t get too nervous. I was familiar with the ride and I knew a few of the other reluctant riders. Then when the chaos broke out, I pulled myself closer to fear. “That’s right,” fear hissed as it violently began flipping my seat forward. I held tight to fear as the violent forward motion made me feel as if I were going to fall from my seat. Yet, I felt no comfort and my fears increased tenfold. The high and low of the ride now felt like they were coming too quickly. I was now frozen and with fear. I wanted off the ride, now! 

I began devising my own plan to escape. In the meantime, I tried to find some other way to brace myself safely into the seat. I couldn’t see anything, nor could I move. Something was sabotaging my safety. It was the fear still strapped in beside me. Not only  strapped in, but I was still locking arms with it. I had put all my trust in fear only to be deceived. I felt as betrayed as the girl in my story, but I knew I had to let it go. It was only when I let go that I could clearly see; and when I looked, I saw my son. He was riding alone in another seat. I had forgot about him.

Yet, there he sat looking out alone beyond “Disease”. I was staring at him while he began to make his way to the top. As he approached the top, he began to clap, and yell “Woo hoo!” He was happy and I was puzzled.  He wasn’t focused on the ride, he was focused on the view. He could certainly see the sky, the stars, the entire world from his vantage point.

For the first time, I slowly sat back and decided to try to see “Disease” as my son saw it. As I reached the top as he did shortly before, I was amazed of the view “Disease” gave me. I could see life from a vantage point few others could experience. Once I released fear, I was able to appreciate the view. Without fear, every movemment no longer made me nervous. I remained focused with my head held high. As I looked  I finally “got it” and I won’t soon forget what my little boy taught me about “Disease”. It can change you by fear or change your perspective. Fear wants to destroy and I’d much rather follow his example and keep living despite of fear.

Unlike the example in my story, my happiness didn’t have to be defined by who sat closest to me. My focus needed to be on anything that helped me break free from my own immaturity of the situation. Isn’t it amazing how my little boy helped change my heart and lead by example? “Woo hoo!”

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A Boy Fading

It’s the first day of school and he is worried about making friends, finding classes, and navigating a world that is literally closing in on him. You are nervous as you watch him prepare for his day even though you have seen him do it many other times. Your son is different. Your son has an invisible disease that is robbing him of his sight. You have to let him go although you know he is going blind. You won’t wave overzealously to him as he smiles eagerly at the stoop of the school. No, you will hide your fear with a haphazard smile and he will crack a cautious grin and wave to you anxiously. You are not sure if you will experience the happy anticipation of hearing how wonderful his day was because his previous school proved to be a terrible experience. You pray a new year and a new school will be the right decision for you both. The question, “Why?” rings in your ears frequently and today is no exception. You know the answer, it’s because he was born with this genetic condition that is stealing his vision. And then that same sickening feeling wells up from your gut and you try to stop yourself from revisiting the same internal battle that steals your sleep. You know the conclusion is always the same, life hasn’t been fair.

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When it comes to children diagnosed with a disability that robs them of any physical or mental capability, it is often hard to see the silver lining. The hard truth remains the same, it isn’t fair. It is unfortunate that in our supposedly accepting society, people often prey upon the weak much like a lion attacks the weakest of a herd. Too many continue to act like animals when encountered with someone who shows the slightest fragility. School should be a safe environment for every child but instead many children are teased, bullied, and excluded based on differences. Parents often have to decide if they want their child to continue an education at a school that is adding unwanted stress to already stressful physical or mental health issues.

Yet, it happens every day and the above llustration is a very certain reality for a little boy living with a rare genetic disease. His name is Avery, he is 10, and he was born with a condition called Retinis Pigmentosa. This inherited disease causes severe vision impairment by retinal degeneration of the eye. During the course of the disease, the cone and rod (photoreceptor) cells die which causes a decline in vision. The landscape of life for individuals with this disease slowly turns into a confined view of reality. Life that was once bright and colorful slowly turns into a channel of black.

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Even his favorite things are fading from view.

Avery is as bright and as inquisitive  as any other child his age. Through it all he has tried not to let his disease define him or what he wants to accomplish. But, Avery’s vision is slowly fading and with it, it takes the spirited independence of a little boy. He no longer rides a bike or a scooter because his disease has progressed enough to make these iconic childhood activities risky. At his young age, he now has to be more cautious because even walking into a new environment creates challenges.

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Sometimes he feels very alone.

And so brings us to Avery’s first day at a new school. He leaves behind students who heckled him for understandable clumsiness associated with his disease, parents who allowed and contributed to the bullying, and impatient teachers. He now has to familiarize himself with a new school, make new friends, navigate a completely different environment, just because he was born with an incurable disease. That is when unfairness is caused by the actions of those who made him to feel unwanted over no fault of his own. Disease and disability are never an elected decision of life, but the unfair treatment makes it seem that way. Teach your children about acceptance. Teach them to love one another regardless of differences. Even a child can be a bright light, and they too can make a difference in someone else’s life. And yes, a bright light for a child whose world is growing dark.

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Avery with his brothers.

If you wish to support this little boy and his family’s difficulty paying for his medical care, please visit their page:
http://www.gofundme.com/uqm3u7f3u

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