Love in the time of coronavirus

With apologies for butchering Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s title, this last week has brought with it some interesting dilemmas. For many families like ours, the coronavirus outbreak would mostly be a question of making sure we’re not in a position to pass something on to elderly relatives and neighbours, and an acceptance that we’d probably all get it eventually, much as we did swine flu back when, but that we’d be over it soon enough and move on. Not so, this time.

This time it is more complicated. When we faced down swine flu, I was still healthy. The truth is, S and H will probably not have it too badly, if they catch coronavirus. As for me, well, having spoken to the GP yesterday about something unrelated, it’s not so clear I’d be OK. The chest infection I had over Christmas was a wake-up call. I’ve had free flu jabs for a few years now as someone with chronic conditions. I figured there was no harm in doing so because nobody enjoys flu, but they led to a false sense of security.

At Christmas, sick with a chest infection for which I had obviously not been vaccinated, and which other family members shrugged off as “just one of those things”, I found myself in an ambulance, feeling I was slowly drowning. It took me weeks to recover. I saw the GP for different antibiotics when the first ones didn’t work, and saw the same one yesterday to update a few issues and work out what the next steps should be. Inevitably, coronavirus came up. It feels a lot more real when your GP starts saying you need to take precautions.

Just how do you self-isolate in these circumstances? How do you prevent the people you love making you ill, since it’s S and H who are most likely to be the vectors of transmission in our family? We’re a demonstrative family. We hug. I do the bulk of the cooking, and even when I’m ill with a migraine or something that prevents me being able to stand in the kitchen and cook, the chances are we’ll be eating something I batch cooked and popped in the freezer. We have only two bedrooms, so S and I are inevitably going to share a bed when he’s home. And during the week, I have to be there to parent H in the morning and ensure he goes off to school in the right frame of mind. For that matter, if I get sick, will we have to keep H off school as well to prevent onward transmission? Do we paint a big X on the front door?

There is no hand sanitiser available to buy in the area. Idiots have either panic bought or decided to turn it around for a quick profit on eBay. For all the soap we have in the house, it’s the lack of hand sanitiser that places S and H at risk of catching the coronavirus at work or school, where access to handwashing facilities may be limited at key times like mealtimes: H can’t wash his hands before going to lunch at school without then having to touch surfaces that may harbour the virus on his way to the refectory.

It turns out that at times like this, love is my husband tracking down some surgical spirit online so I can make hand sanitiser and try to keep us safe – him in London, H at school, and hopefully me here at home – for as long as possible. Love is washing his hands and beard often. Love is not kissing me or hugging me at the station when I pick him up from the train, waiting until we’ve reached home and he can wash up. Love is H washing his hands more than is natural for a 13 year old to keep his mum safe. And love is me staying home and looking after myself, trying to avoid getting sick so I can stick around and love my family for as long as possible.

Pale light

It’s Monday morning, and H has gone to school. Many parents would be on their way to work for the day, but I’m lucky enough to work from home. This is a precious time to me. The house is still, I can hear the birdsong outside, and Gwinny is draped in liquid feline fashion across my thighs, sharing warmth.

Unlike many, I have no aversion to Mondays. I may not like the early morning much, because getting out of bed is hard and needs me to be awake for more than an hour beforehand. But that peace from having the house to myself after a weekend of noise and bounce? It’s my time to breathe and set my objectives for the week, when I’m able.

Parked here on the sofa, gazing at the changing light of the sky in the late winter sunrise, I try to assess where on the scale I am with the fibromyalgia symptoms. Is this a working week? A bit of work or a lot? Unbearable pain and impenetrable brain fog, or a more gentle ache and a light mist?

I complete my daily check-in with the different parts of my body that can cause issues. This felt like a lot of effort the first few times I did it, but I’ve learned the hard way that it’s better to tune in and adapt my schedule accordingly than it is to charge headlong at what needs doing. I don’t help anyone if I use up a week’s energy in one day and then can’t work, cook, or more generally look after myself.

Last night I lay in bed with electric stabbing pains coursing up and down as I prayed for sleep. Today I’m sluggish and achy on the physical front, but my brain seems to function. I can string sentences together, managed to complete a sudoku puzzle, and was able to remember the contents of the BBC news bulletin ten minutes after, so today is a day for working and a welcome chance to catch up on some of the things I’ve been unable to do this year because the fibromyalgia has got in the way.

In a moment, I’ll get up and prepare my day. So much of this condition is about management and routine: if I can imprint onto my muscle memory that the day starts with making sure I have a drink and some fruit to hand, and that I’m located somewhere that will minimise the number of times I have to get up or go up and down stairs, I have some hope that on the bad days the habits are sufficiently ingrained that I don’t need to rely on my foggy brain but can instead do things on autopilot.

It’s a strange life, but it is mine. The sky in the window has become a pale, cement grey; the trees are still, with no wind to stir the dead leaves that failed to fall in the autumn. It’s tempting to take the view as a metaphor for my life, but I would reject that. The gentle play of the light as I watch is a reminder that time is passing, nothing more.

Gwinny gets up, stretches, blinks slowly at me before placing a cold, damp nose on my hand. I have my orders. And now my day begins.

So what’s fibromyalgia and why should I care?

When you share your diagnosis with someone, you can expect a range of reactions, depending on the condition. Cancer? Sympathy and sadness. Man flu? Derision. Inflammatory arthritis when you’re not obviously old? But you’re too young, but mostly, ouch, that sucks. Fibromyalgia, on the other hand, gets a whole range of its own, from “huh?” and “fibro-what?”, to “I knew someone with that, they were so lazy” and “oh, you mean hypochondria?” and “that’s just a name they made up to keep neurotic women happy.”

Very rarely, you get someone who actually has a clue, and whose response is “you poor thing, that’s awful. Let me know if you need anything when it’s flaring up.” And that kind of reaction might sometimes have me in tears, and other times wondering just how hard it might be for the rest of the human race to be that decent.

I’ll be honest, I underestimated what a chronic fatigue condition can do to people. Which is silly, when you consider how much of my upper sixth I lost to glandular fever. But it’s easy to forget how debilitating things can be, if you ever knew, and there are times I’m not proud of where I probably gave a less than sympathetic response to someone. If you’re one of them, I’m sorry.

So if you’re here because you put fibromyalgia into a search engine to find out what your friend or relative has, this one is for you.

What’s the worst thing about fibromyalgia?

That’s actually quite a tough one to answer. At times I would say, all of it. The pain is no fun, having no energy to look after yourself or your child, unable to do so much as read a book or watch a box set on Netflix? Also very little fun. Crashing and having your core temperature drop a couple of degrees because your body has so little strength it’s had to prioritise one key process like digestion over another key process like maintaining body temperature? Not a party, either. Knowing that if you draw on every last reserve you have you can do one thing, but that you’ll pay for it for days after? Yeah, that sucks, too. There’s other stuff, of course, but these are for me the worst bits, and the very worst of all is the being unable even to rest peacefully when you’re so far beyond exhaustion you’re practically in tears and you can’t sleep, can’t settle for the new and interesting ways your body makes you feel pain, and can’t concentrate enough to distract yourself.

OK, that sounds pretty grim. But you can take something for that?

If only. The thing is, once upon a time the doctors thought fibromyalgia was an auto-immune condition, which is one of the reasons that rheumatologist departments seem to make – anecdotally – most of the diagnoses. That’s how I was diagnosed: my OT said I should ask my rheumatologist about fibromyalgia, since I was due to see him in an hour. He asked if I minded him prodding me and then proceeded to make me scream when he palpated what I later discovered were the pressure points so common in fibro patients. That hurt. But he was pleased because, as he said, it was obvious, really, and he should have thought of it before. For a moment I had hope, because that sounded like there was hope of a treatment, but he soon cleared that up.

Fibromyalgia, it turns out, is a Central Nervous System disorder. By all accounts, they don’t know what causes it, and they don’t have a cure for it, and right now they don’t have any treatment for it, either. While there are some people who benefit from taking pregabalin, gabapentin or even amitriptyline, I react very badly to those drugs: suicidal ideation, hallucination, insomnia are all present, and it’s not like I sleep much anyway. It makes no sense to persist. So there we are, incurable and untreatable. If there were any clinical trials I’d be first to volunteer, because the hope of something to make my life normal again is too much to pass up. However, there are no clinical trials into fibromyalgia running local to me, and maybe not even elsewhere in the UK. Not that I’m in a fit state to go anywhere if there were.

So where do we go from here?

I wish I knew. In the past, even medical professionals needed some persuasion the condition exists. I can recall asking the neurologist I was seeing about my migraines whether fibromyalgia was a possibility, some time around 2008. He said someone with my psychiatric history – depression, as they thought at the time – would be unlikely to receive such a diagnosis. In other words, he thought it was all in my mind.

Most of the ‘treatment’ on offer is group therapy and CBT. It’s about learning to cope with the fact you’re stuck with it, not giving any real tools to reduce the impact of the condition on your daily life. I’d love for a meditation or some affirmations to actually work for me, I truly would. Who wouldn’t? But nothing I have tried has helped to date. My rheumatologist doesn’t sugar coat things. He doesn’t know of anything in the pipeline that will help. And that brings us back to the question in the title.

Why should I care about fibromyalgia?

The chances are high that you know at least one person with fibromyalgia, or CFS/ME, or Lyme disease, or PCOS, or something that has similar impact. The best thing you can do for that person is to try to understand. Be that one person who says “I get it, this is horrible. What do you need me to do?” And follow through. Whether you just offer to pop round and keep them company, or to help them tidy up a bit, or to get some shopping in, or just to give them a gentle hug and fetch them a cup of tea, understanding there is nothing they can be doing to change their circumstances and just accepting and loving them for who they are is the best gift you can give them. Life is hard enough without having to battle lazy stereotypes and ignorance. Having one or more people who understand is priceless.

You should care, because one day it could be you or a loved one. Because kindness costs nothing, and because being a dick takes so much more effort. Because doing something nice for someone who is beyond exhausted, in pain, and struggling just to exist might make you feel good about yourself, while making their day a little easier. And because that person is facing more battles every day than most people will ever realise. Be the friend you’d like to have if you were the one who had this, and believe them when they tell you what they’re going through. It’s little enough, but it can mean the world.

Brain fog

Every now and then, when you have a chronic illness and are used to its presence, you think that you know what it can throw at you and that, unpleasant as it is, you can deal with. Knowledge is power and all that. This is possibly the worst thing you can think. When it comes to religion, I’m agnostic. But I’m a firm believer in the law of sod, so I should know better than to think I really have a handle on how bad things can be.

Case in point, my fibromyalgia. There are people out there – medical professionals among them – who think that fibromyalgia is a made-up condition that doesn’t really exist, experienced only by white, middle-class females and closely linked to neurosis and hypochondria. This is not a helpful approach, but it is nonetheless shared by a substantial number of people. As imaginary illnesses go, though, it’s pretty unpleasant. It can drain all of your energy. It really, really hurts: I’ve described it before as feeling like someone has stabbed your muscles with a thousand sharp blades, then run electricity through them for fun. It causes weird things like hypothermia because your body is so lacking in energy it will prioritise doing one thing only: eating a meal can therefore lead your body to focus entirely on digestion, and ditch any thought of keeping you warm. Cue a three degree drop in body temperature and a very concerned husband.

None of this is fun. I’ve come to accept the fatigue and the pain and react accordingly, and I thought I knew what brain fog was. I was so very wrong. It’s brain fog that has kept me quiet on here for so long, because I struggle to maintain a train of thought. My train of thought is actually more like a tardy bus driving at speed past the bus stop where I’m waiting and generating a plume of puddle that soaks me on its way through, leaving me in the same place as I was but colder and more frustrated.

I can start to write things, only for them to make no sense when I try to re-read them. Or for me to re-read the lot and realise that I can’t remember where it started, still less what the middle was as I try to prepare an ending. At this point, if I can’t complete a piece of writing in one session and as no more than a first draft, it won’t be completed at all. I’d really like to have my brain back, and I’m doing what I can myself to manage my condition, but I don’t know when or if I’ll be back to normal. All I do know is that I’m not giving up. It may be that I have to fall back on posting recipes for a bit, because at least I’ve been having some fun in the kitchen. Or you’ll have to put up with me posting first drafts. But I’m still here. Please bear with me until normal service is resumed.