Well I’ve attempted to write this a few times and failed. In the past I’ve been given labels and written about them. And in reality my diagnosis is still fluid and ongoing.
It’s mostly described as a list of symptoms with a few anecdotes/ short stories thrown in for goo measure. I’ll start all the way back in the beginning… take a deep breath and grab a comfy seat, it’s a long one.
The early days
When I was younger I used to have bouts of severe stomach aches, and vomiting. I remember my first one so clearly. As a birthday treat my mum and dad had taken me to London to see ‘Joseph and His Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat’. Any 80s child, and closet Jason Donavon fan, will remember the song that was at number one for like forever (sorry if it’s now in your head t… any dream will do…). We were too late to see Jason but starring in it was Philip Schofield of the broom cupboard fame. If you’re too young to get the references then you really missed out. I vaguely remember the show and the t-shirt I got a treasured (until my sister pinched it and vommed all over it whilst travel sick). What really sticks out though is the insane stomach ache I had after the show. We had gone to get pizza and I spent the whole time in the toilet unable to hold anything down.
And so it continued from that point and happened anywhere and everywhere. Always coming on super fast and the most painful thing ever. All the attacks were attributed to an almost ten year grumbling appendix. In reality I think they were Abdominal Migrainesthat were mentioned at the time but not really explored. This was the appearance of my first condition, Chronic Migraine.
Head and occasional abdominal migraines are with me to this day. And no they are not just headaches but they are completely dibilitating and so painful you wonder whether you can cope (if someone gave you a shotgun you’d probably pull the trigger). I have ended up in hospital with mine and take meds daily to stop them. In the last 3 months I have had 5 major attacks each lasting from 7 to 24 hours. Sometimes they cluster and sometimes they don’t. They have a significant affect on my life as are so sudden and viscous. They stop me functioning completely. I’ve tried multiple medications including Propranolol (worked a little bit) and Pizotifen (worked a lot but caused massive weight gain) and my current medication Sodium Valproate ( I have it under review). I also find that sumatriptan is the best medication to use when they start. My latest one has lasted 6 days and although I’ve managed to carry on functioning throughout and stave off the big blow out. It’s been painful I’ve lost my appetite and sleep.
At 17 I had an enormous attack of stomach pain and migraine. I was supposed to be painting the set of a play and ended up rolling around on the floor cloth in agony, I saw the school nurse and begged to just go home. Looking back I was so used to self managing these attacks that I was convincing to others that I was better than I was. (I still do this now, so if you ever do see me asking for an ambulance, I really need it.) On this occasion the School Nurse must have got me a cab home or something. All I remember was the next couple of days wanting to die from the pain. At some point a GP came out to me and when I wouldn’t let her touch me because of the pain she told me I was being a silly little girl. She gave me pethidine and anti sickness and told me I’d sleep for ages then be ok. I woke up twenty minutes after she left and was back in exactly same pain and vomiting. Eventually I was only bringing up pure black liquid (sorry) and had a circular bruise on my forehead where I’d passed out on a bucket and was still being sick. Eventually another GP came and said it was classic appendicitis. I went off to hospital and had my appendix out.
As a side note, the not being believed by doctors, the self managing of the attacks, misdiagnoses. Plus falling behind at school and teachers thinking I didn’t care has had a huge affect on my mental health and self esteem. In particular feeling as though I had failed and feeling guilt for being ill, or though I was using it as an excuse, is still with me now and it hurts to write it. I remember one of the drama teachers, who was involved in the play I mentioned above, pulling me aside and asking me if I should be doing drama! All because I’d missed the play whilst in hospital and hadn’t finished the floor cloth I was writhing on. Despite getting an ‘a’ in that course, completing a degree, and running a successful theatre company for ten years, I still ask myself the same question and it cuts really deep.
After my appendectomy (still don’t know if it was appendicitis or migraine) at 17 I kept getting flu like symptoms. I had constant fatigue and joint pains. It went on for weeks and weeks, then into months. At the time it was attributed to a glandular fever like virus that my body couldn’t fight off. I dropped back a year in sixth form and began the pattern of doing things at my pace. I couldn’t focus in lessons and would fall asleep on my desk despite fighting it. Interestingly at a similar time my sister was diagnosed with Juvenille Arthritus, and what I didn’t know till later was my mum was diagnosed with Ankylosing Spondylitis. I think this episode was either my autoimmune trigger or the first signs of activity. Multiple blood tests at the time showed positive ANA and white blood cell activity but it was never explored further.
Also from about 15 years old I began to struggle with mental health. At this time it was suggested I had Anxiety and Depression. By the time I went to University at 19 this was really affecting my life and I asked for counselling etc from my GP. By the time I was in my 4th year of university I was having an extremely difficult time personally, with my degree and at home. All of these contributed to a series of severe panic attacks. These were medicated and I just got on with it.
Fast forward a couple of years and I wasn’t coping physically at all. Firstly I constantly had the flu and couldn’t function. I worked really hard and just found ways of coping with feeling so ill. I went to the doctors and was told I was ‘unlucky’ to have had flu nearly every month. This was the biggest insult and I just couldn’t cope. I couldn’t get a full time job but built up my self employed work. This meant I was self managing whatever was going on in my body. I could work around the illness by ploughing on with everything I had when in a good patch and hiding when I couldn’t. This managed everything on the surface but in reality I was chasing my own tail constantly. Friends and others constantly commented on how often I was ill, other less kind comments urged me to just suck it up and stop moaning. I remember having conversations with people saying I think I’m going mad but something in my body is really wrong. I still felt like a fraud and the burden of guilt.
In 2005 I began to get severe chest pains. They were so bad I couldn’t use my arms or breathe. The pain was unbearable. My first reaction was that there was something wrong with my heart so I went to my GP. They thought it was either muscular or even anxiety and sent me away with pain killers. But it kept happening in cycles and I could feel the attacks coming. I saw multiple physios who mostly made it worse through their exercises. Eventually I saw a brilliant physio who wrote back to my doctor. She had seen me for a long time and recognised a number of symptoms pointing to something more than a mechanical problem. My trigger points were wide spread and with the other symptoms she thought that maybe it was fibromyalgia. She wrote a long and thorough report for my GP that took into all my symptoms such as fatigue, confusion, dispraxia, flu like symtoms, migraine etc. I returned to my GP who called in a senior partner and they decided together that this was something more. For the very first time I was being listened to and this GP stayed with me through a lot of the next bits.
So I finally got referred to a rheumatologist and felt like everything would finally into place. I was finally being listened to and it was recognised that something was wrong. Within seconds of the rheumatologist walking into the room I was crushed. Before even meeting me or talking to me he looked at one set of bloods and announced ‘it’s not lupus, it’s not RA’. Only then did he examine me or ask any questions. But he never really looked or listened. He avoided eye contact with me, choosing instead to stare into his computer screen. I can honestly say I’ve never met a colder or more inhuman person in my life. By the time he abruptly said ‘you can go now’ I was more confused than ever and in tears. I began to walk out as the nurse barked ‘go get your bloods’. ‘What bloods?’ I said as I broke down completely. Then she explained everything the doctor should have done, and that he was a good doctor despite his bedside manner. I don’t think he was a good doctor and triggered lots of mental health issues. Later I got a mystery letter in the post summoning me to a full upper body MRI and physio. Apparently all ordered by the rheumatologist, I didn’t have a clue what was going on. Nor did the physio it seems. I was dumped in a cubicle with a trainee who took one look at me and said ‘I can’t treat you you need someone more senior’. They’d be in contact, they weren’t.
The next letter I got was summoning me to hydrotherapy. Amazing I thought something practical I could do to help myself. But this was not the case either. The therapists didn’t know why I was there and asked which physio I’d seen, I never had had a proper appointment with any. So they offered me sessions which I tried. The result was cancelling after three seasons as I was in so much pain I couldn’t breathe, move or sleep. My GP wrote a letter of complaint, I was so let down and felt toutured by the treatement both physically and mentally. Again I thought I was going mad, but this time my GP was behind me and persisted. I finally had someone fighting my corner.
So letters of complaint were written and I chose my next rheumatologist at a different hospital. I decided to give it another go and this time couldn’t have been more different. He listened carefully to my history and family history. He said he thought something auto immune like was going on. The first thing he diagnosed me with, however, was Joint Hypermobility Syndrome. This explained a lot of the chest pains I’d been having, as well as other symptoms in most people hypermobility isn’t a problem but with overlapping symptoms it was reeking havoc with my joints, connective tissue and pain. I was finally referred to a specialist physio who confirmed all the previous physio I had received was more damaging than good. I still see her now and she is part of my ‘magic team’ of experts. Without all the sessions I’ve had with her, including ultrasounds and acupuncture, I wouldn’t be able to move half as well as I can today.
To be continued…
Lets rest here for now because I’m tired physically from writing this and mentally from going through it all. I hope this begins to explain to others the extent of what’s going on. But mostly its been a hugely useful process for me to go through it all chronologically and to realise why some of my behaviours and blocks towards the system are there.
Next up in part two, my thirties…