Many months ago during a routine drug treatment I heard a happy commotion and looked up to see balloons entering a private room across the infusion center. Noticing my curiosity, the nurse checking my vitals offered, “Last day of chemo.”
My lips curled upward into a celebratory smile, but it was interrupted as a different feeling suddenly took my breath away.
“Oh,” I breathed in sharply, “I’ll never get balloons.”
I was crushed.
The nurse asked, “What are you receiving infusions for?”
“Ankylosing Spondylitis,” I ventured, waiting to see if I would need to explain the disease to her.
“Oh, yes,” she replied, “I have Rheumatoid Arthritis. Perhaps we can bring you balloons for your next infusion?”
First of all, what is Ankylosing Spondylitis (AS)?
Wait, how do you even pronounce it?
Ankylosing Spondylitis (An-kee-low-sing Spon-dih-ly-tuss) is a disease that causes inflammation throughout the body, especially in the spine and low back, and can cause bone spurs to fuse joints together, typically in the spine. As you can imagine, extra bone growing in your body that’s not supposed to be there can be quite painful. Additionally, since AS is systemic it can also damage organs including the eyes, liver, lungs, and more.
So now that you know a teeny bit more about AS imagine you are the one who was just diagnosed with it.
Congratulations are in order simply because you are reading this blog post. It’s difficult to believe, but I often hear from people whose family and friends shun them for “faking being sick.” These same family and friends often don’t make an effort to learn what their loved one is actually experiencing. So thank goodness you believe your friend and want to learn more.
Before I keep going, I want to express how lonely it can be to trudge through life surviving a disease that people do not know about. I spend substantial time and energy educating friends, strangers, and even doctors about my condition, which leaves little room for receiving compassion and empathy – like the supportive gestures people usually offer to someone who has a disease in the limelight. Everyone knows cancer is bad, but AS is not a well-known disease, so for a celebrity to name it on stage is life-changing. Continue reading Talking Ankylosing Spondylitis with Imagine Dragons’ Dan Reynolds→
About a year ago I connected with the folks of Self Care Catalysts and downloaded their free app, AS Health Storylines (available on android and Apple products), that helps track medication, symptoms, diet, appointments and more. This, and other apps, has helped me – sometimes I need a reminder to take a certain medication; I also like all this information in one place so I can share it with my doctor and disability attorney.
When I first began injecting myself in the leg with harsh, genetically-engineered chemicals, I was terrified. I still am. Not of the shot, but of the drugs going into my body to help manage my Ankylosing Spondylitis (AS).
Biologics, a type of specialty medication made from living cells and tissues, come with potential side effects like cancer, tuberculosis, and heart disease. When I first read the drug pamphlet, the dangers written in margins and between the fine print triggered my first post-diagnosis breakdown. I was 26, had been seriously ill just once in my life, and was finding my groove in the adult world. This was the first of many blubbering, head-throbbing, “Why the hell me?” temper tantrums that left me in a trembling blob on my bed.
What could possibly convince me to push this harsh medication through my body – maybe for the rest of my life? Logic and realism prevailed over emotions, and statistics were drowned out by my need to swallow the pill, so to speak. Above that consuming fear was a desire to have a semblance of my former life back, and this medication promised that possibility.
A week later, I sat in one corner of a large room with a nurse, shaking as I learned how to give myself a shot. She watched as I held my breath and pushed my thumb in and out, quickly, to trigger my first dose. My life flashed before my eyes and I cried precisely two silent tears – what had I done? Certainly now I would die of sudden-onset cancer, be ripped from life by tuberculosis, or my heart would fail in my sleep (if I was lucky). The contradictory decision to sustain life by injecting what I saw as a death-threat substance grabbed me with icy, bony fingers and shook me, hard.
The course of my life was now officially altered. I had joined the ranks of being specialized-medicine patient. I had taken the red pill.
The Affordable Care Act (affectionately termed Obamacare) is likely to be repealed in a few months.
I’m told personal stories are powerful, so I want to share mine.
I was always going to be healthy. Aside from a slight concern when I quit a job that offered health insurance and took another job without it, I never once considered I would need a team of doctors. I boast a background as a college athlete, professional mover (yes, heavy furniture, etc) and otherwise health-aware person.
But my body lied to me.
Nearly four years ago, I was diagnosed with Ankylosing Spondylitis, a severe disease that causes rampant and painful inflammation in the spine and other joints in the body, sometimes leading to the growth of bone spurs that fuse spinal vertebrae and hips. I wasn’t diagnosed by a healthcare provider at first – I found out I inherited this disease from my father after matching our symptoms.
An oft-used quote at my alma mater is: “From the outside looking in, you can never understand it. From the inside looking out, you can never explain it.”
This year I went to Burning Man, an arts, music, and alternative lifestyle festival in Black Rock Desert in Nevada. Upwards of 70,000 people come together every year the week leading up to Labor Day to party, play, explore, gift, create, and survive in the middle of a desert complete with dust storms, extreme temperatures, and limited access to resources. You just have to experience it.
My initiation as a virgin to Black Rock City involved hugging a naked man, hitting a gong, and rolling in the dust. Immediately, I was Home.
I went to Burning Man intending to spend time at the Temple, where people leave things they need to release: prayers, tokens, fears, celebrations, memorials. There are weddings, funerals, meditations, and services; people crying and hugging and others alone in silent introspection. It seems the Temple consistently attracts a larger crowd than any other place in Black Rock City. It’s a place to take a breather from partying, to find a safe space from an overwhelming emotional experience, to celebrate or remember, or just stop and feel. As with all things Burning Man, the Temple does not stay. We cling to its temporal nature and wait for it to be set ablaze the final night, cleansing us of whatever we left there. It’s a symbol of transition and release. Continue reading Burning Man and My Disease→