Maybe Daring to Be Different Isn’t Always a Good Thing

Painting your hand is just one way to show support of Rare Disease Day

Saturday, February 29th is Rare Disease Day. “The main objective of Rare Disease Day is to raise awareness among the general public and decision-makers about rare diseases and their impact on patients’ lives.” 

I became ill in July 2010 but wasn’t diagnosed with Undifferentiated Connective Tissue Disease until November 2011. When my rheumatologist finally put a name to my symptoms, he told me UCTD is rare and that if I wanted to walk around and call it “the Kennar,” I could.  

At the time, I joked with my doctor, telling him I had always “dared to be different,” so why should this be any different.

But since that morning, I’ve changed my mind. 

I don’t want a rare condition most people have never heard of. I’d much rather live with a more common, even ordinary, chronic medical condition.

A disease doctors understand and can easily treat.  

Maybe even a disease with its own awareness month or magnetic ribbon I can attach to my car.  

My Ongoing Quest For Heroism

It hurt to get up on that fence, but I was determined to do it and have this special, silly moment with my son.

“Above all, be the heroine of your life, not the victim.”

– Nora Ephron

 

I am trying very hard to be the heroine of my life. 

In the beginning of this medical odyssey (which began almost ten years ago), no one knew what was going on inside my body. Which meant no one knew how to help. 

I did everything every doctor suggested. Went to every appointment. Met with every specialist I was sent to. Did every test doctors recommended. 

For my readers who don’t know, I first became ill in July 2010. I didn’t receive my diagnosis until November 2011. During that time, I met with a neurologist, geneticist, rheumatologist, vascular surgeon, and ophthalmologist (did you know certain cancers reveal themselves through your eyes?).

Back then, I automatically said yes to everything. My body felt out of my control. I was scared. My son was  two years old when I became sick. I needed answers, and I needed help.

Now, almost ten years later, I know I’m dealing with a chronic illness, and nothing fatal (thank goodness), and I’m not so quick to readily agree to a doctor’s “recommendation.” I probe for further information. I email my doctor and ask for clarification on something he said during my appointment. And I ask a lot of questions. 

Why are you recommending this procedure?

What are you looking for?

What are the side-effects?

I didn’t “do” anything to get sick. And there’s really nothing I can do to make it go completely away.

In that sense, I am a victim. 

But, I can exercise some control over how I choose to live with my autoimmune disease. Which means asking questions, taking my time to make a decision about a procedure, and gathering as much information as I can.

And in that sense, I am a heroine.

It’s My Illness, Not Me

Sometimes we all need reminders. (I found this message on a sidewalk last month.)

 

It happened again. 

A doctor told me I’m weird.

I’ve written about this before. Back in the fall of 2018 and again in the summer of 2019.

The Mighty published my personal essay “The Hard Realties I’ve Faced After My Doctor Told Me, ‘You’re Just Weird.’

Now it’s winter 2020.

And apparently, from a medical standpoint, I’m still weird.

Here’s the thing. I’ve said it before, I’ve written it before, and I’ll write it again – I’m okay with being weird. I know a lot of people think it’s weird I like to eat leftover Thanksgiving turkey cold and dipped in ketchup. Maybe it’s weird that I always have to sleep with blankets covering me. Some might find the nine rings I wear to be weird.

Weird can be good. Weird can be unique. And special. And celebrated. It tells the world I don’t need to be like everyone else.

Except – when it comes to medicine.

I’m going through a rough time right now. Actually, for the last several months. My rheumatologist referred me to a neurologist in his office. I’ve had two different (unpleasant) tests/procedures. 

One test revealed “muscles abnormalities.” Abnormalities – just a fancy word for weird.

The other test supported the findings of the first test.

But when my rheumatologist walked into the exam room the other day for my follow-up, he told me he had met with the neurologist, reviewed the findings, and in his words, “She says you’re weird.”

“I’ve heard that before,” I replied.

But inside I didn’t say that. In my imagination, a whole other scenario played out. I got off the exam table and started screaming at everyone. 

“Don’t call me weird,” I hollered, enunciating each word.

“Tell me you don’t know what to do. Tell me you don’t know how to help me. But do not f – – -ing call me weird. It’s not me that’s weird. It’s this disease.”

I had images of me standing outside on Wilshire Boulevard, using a baseball bat to whack the street signs. 

The police officers would come. I would admit all my wrongdoing. Take full responsibility. And tell the officers that I was just overcome with emotion. I had been called weird once too many.

Because when my doctor told me I was weird, I knew we didn’t have any more answers. I knew I wasn’t going home with a new treatment plan. 

I live with pain. Each and every day. 

Pain isn’t weird. Pain is exhausting. Pain is depressing. Pain is want-to-pull-the-hair-out-of-my-head upsetting. But it’s not weird.

Why I Feel Guilty About My Autoimmune Disease

I live with an invisible disability. A chronic medical condition causing chronic pain. An autoimmune disease called Undifferentiated Connective Tissue Disease. My rheumatologist described it as having overlapping symptoms of lupus, myositis, and rheumatoid arthritis.

On any given day, at any given time, I feel exhausted. Depressed. Angry. Confused. Vulnerable. Fatigued. Pissed. Worn-down. Less-than. Weak.

The emotions fluctuate on my day – my activity, my energy, my pain. 

But there is one underlying emotion that’s always there. One emotion that serves as the shaky foundation for all the rest. 

 

That is the beginning of my most recently published personal essay. Click here to be-directed to The Mighty to read “What It’s Like To Feel Constant Guilt With an Invisible Disability.”

Chronic? Yes, Unfortunately.

“Chronic congestion.”

No, she wasn’t talking about the 405. 

The physical therapist was talking about my left calf. My calf is, was, the primary source of pain related to my autoimmune disease. For the last few months, the pain has traveled and now extends up into my thigh.

But apparently, what I refer to as a hard knot, or tightness, in my leg, my physical therapist calls “chronic congestion.”

She held my leg up, my foot pointing toward the ceiling as she rubbed and massaged and gave a basic summary of my case to another physical therapist. “She’s got chronic congestion all in here.”

It is chronic. I’ll give her that. My condition began in 2010 when I woke up with a swollen left calf, unable to stand or bear weight or walk for days. I was hospitalized and treated for cellulitis, a bacterial infection doctors believed was the cause of my swollen, red calf. 

But even after my calf regained its normal appearance, even after I could walk and drive and climb stairs, my legs were never the same.

About a year and a half after my hospitalization, I was diagnosed with a rare autoimmune disease called Undifferentiated Connective Tissue Disease (UCTD). It has overlapping symptoms of lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, and myositis without it being any of those diseases. It’s a medical hodgepodge in a sense, and a whole lot fancier way for doctors to say they don’t really know what’s wrong with my legs or what is causing it.

Whatever you call it, it means each day I experience varying levels of pain, fatigue, weakness in my legs with my left leg always worse.

So I completely agree with the chronic part of her statement.

But “congestion”?

I hear congestion, and I think of a stuffy nose. 

Or I think L.A. traffic and planning a visit to the Aquarium of the Pacific on a Sunday, a day the 405 is generally less congested.

It’s been weeks since the physical therapist used that term, and I can’t stop thinking about it – “chronic congestion.” 

It bothers me. 

Because, what can we do about chronic congestion?

City planners haven’t figured it out when it comes to southern California’s freeways.

And, as of right now, doctors and physical therapists haven’t figured it out when it comes to my legs.

 

Hoping For Courage

What is going on inside these legs?

Without going into details, I have a medical test/procedure scheduled later this week. 

Here’s what you should know:

I’m living with my autoimmune disease for almost 10 years now. In that time, I’ve already experienced this particular test twice. Each time the results were inconclusive. 

The test is being done a third time mainly for comparison purposes. It’s been a few years since the last test, and doctors are interested in seeing if any changes show up this time around. There are some concerns that my left leg may be worsening. If so, this test may give some clues about what’s going on in my leg.

Aside from the fact that I don’t want to have this test in the first place, I’m not sure what to think about this test and its possible results.

Here’s the dilemma:

Do I want the test to reveal something? To pinpoint a reason why my leg pain is increasing and my leg strength is decreasing? Would this perhaps give doctors a lead, a clue, in terms of more effective treatment? 

But what if my leg does test worse? What would that mean? 

Or, do I want this test to be like every other test I take – indeterminate? Within the boundaries of normal-enough? 

Which is reassuring I guess, but on the other hand it also means it provides doctors (and me) no answers, no explanations, no reasons why I feel the way I feel.

In reality the only thing I can realistically hope for is courage. Courage during the test. And courage after the test. In whatever form I may need it.

 

A Promise To Myself

Today is generally the day when many people state their new year’s resolutions. Grand plans for dreams, goals, and aspirations.

I’m not going to do that.

Instead, I’m going to state my intention to continue working on my memoir. I’m going to promise myself that I will not give up on sharing my story. 

For my fellow writers out there, I highly recommend Writing Hard Stories: Celebrated Memoirists Who Shaped Art From Trauma by Melanie Brooks. This collection is such an inspiration, providing insight into how different writers took something hard/terrible/horrific and used it to create something beautiful/meaningful/relevant.

Here are a few passages I’d like to share with you:

“The reason I write memoir is to be able to see the experience itself in a new way. I hardly know what I think until I write. The therapy is one way of sort of processing things. But it’s only in writing about some of these things that we discover and understand the metaphors of our experience that give our life meaning. Writing is a way to organize your life, give it a frame, give it a structure, so that you can really see what it was that happened.” – Sue William Silverman

“I was a writer, and then this big thing happened in my family. And the way that I tend to try to understand things is through stories – both things that I write and things that I read. That’s the deepest way I know of expressing something inexpressible.” – Joan Wickersham

“You take what you’ve been through, and if you are a writer, you have to write about it.” – Suszanne Strempek Shea

“It really becomes memoir, though, when you open up space for others to enter – when it becomes about more than you, or your family, or your own personal feelings.” – Edwidge Danticat

“Don’t forget, it’s scarier not to do it than to do it.” – Abigail Thomas

 

My Son Is An Only Child

Our Beautiful Family

It happened again.

A couple of weeks ago, while at the checkout line, the friendly Ralphs cashier told me I needed to have at least one more child.

She said this in front of my son.

This time around, the cashier is someone we chat with each time we see her.  She is warm and friendly with my son.  She comments on how tall he’s gotten and asks how he’s doing in school.  

But this was crossing the line.

While she scanned my groceries and I bagged them, I tried my usual answer.  “We’re blessed with Ryan.”

But she didn’t let it go.  “You need to give him a brother or a sister.  You never know what could happen to you or your husband.  You don’t want to leave him alone.”

I felt a physical reaction, as if I had been punched in the stomach.  I know this.  It is one of my great fears.

As we loaded our groceries into the car, I spoke to my son about this conversation.  “I really like it when we see Dora, but I really didn’t like what she said to us today,” I told Ryan.

I continued.  “You know each family makes their own decisions about children.  How many to have, or if they’ll have any at all.  And each family’s decision is right for them.  Our decision is right for us.  Daddy and I feel so lucky that our family is the way it is.”

“I know,” Ryan said.

But like I began this post, this isn’t the first time a supermarket cashier has commented on our one-child family status.  And even though I’ve dealt with this before, it doesn’t get any easier.

Click here to be re-directed to RoleReboot.org  to read my personal essay, “When A Stranger Told Me I Needed To Have a Second Child.

 

Mommy Has a ‘Boo-Boo Leg’

My curious son and I, on the observation area of the Santa Barbara Courthouse. June 2018 (I climbed all the stairs!)

“What does the doctor do with all the blood after they check it?”

My son once asked me that question.  It took me by surprise and caught me off guard, because it was something I had never considered.  

It’s not the only good question Ryan has asked me over the years.  There have been so many I wrote a personal essay about them.  And I’m proud to say that “Mommy Has a ‘Boo-Boo Leg’: Talking to My Son About My Autoimmune Disease” is now a non-fiction finalist in the Pen 2 Paper Disability-Focused Creative Writing Contest.

Click here to read my essay, and this year, readers may vote for their “audience favorite.” (You must have a free Submittable account to vote).  

Thank you in advance for reading and spreading the word!

 

Weird Wendy

I am Wendy.  Woman, wife, writer.

I am, in fact, a woman of many “W’s.”

Depending on who you ask and how they feel about me, I may be described (to varying degrees) as watchful, wise, wacky, warmhearted, witty, wonderful.

Ask my rheumatologist, though, and he’ll tell you I’m weird.

To get the full story, click here to read my personal essay, “The Hard Realities I’ve Faced After My Doctor Told Me, ‘You’re Just Weird’,” which was recently published at The Mighty.