Some Chronic Pain Thoughts – A Chronic Voice Link Up

Every month Sheryl at A Chronic Voice hosts a link up for chronic illness bloggers giving prompts to share thoughts and experiences.  The prompts for September are Finding, Researching, Dating, Reusing, Recounting…….

Some chronic pain thoughts

September has rolled in and I find myself thinking about my pain – specifically my chronic nerve pain – even more than at other times.  This month is the anniversary of the trial for my spinal cord stimulator implant and I can’t help but find myself RECOUNTING the events that led to this.  The ongoing and relentless feelings from the lower back down to the toes – electric shocks, burning, creeping, cold, running fluids, sharp, creeping – to name but a few of the words that describe nerve pain.  Drug after drug, surgery after surgery and the accompanying feelings of hopelessness as each fails to bring some relief to this untameable beast.

Recounting 1

 

 

Another referral followed, this time to a pain clinic – but which health professional would stick their head above the parapet and take me on?  At some time most chronic pain sufferers will experience doubt – doubt about the physical symptoms being experienced, doubt about your own sanity and doubt as to whether family and friends believe you.  “How can it be possible to have so much pain if nothing shows on a scan?” “Try not to think about it all the time” “You need to pull yourself together” – just a taste of the messages that might be received.  By the time I was under the pain clinic in London, I was FINDING myself regularly questioning whether the pain was in my head, how I could carry on living like this and just what would the expectation of the clinic psychologist be.  I knew that my referral was with a view to having a spinal cord stimulator implanted, but I also knew that I would have to fulfil certain criteria first including attending a pain course. Most pain courses will have a large psychological element and this was no different – over the next fortnight we attendees would be FINDING ourselves sitting on a “metaphorical” bus with our fellow passengers representing the parts of life affected by our chronic pain: body, mind, loved ones, employment, friendships, emotions, self esteem, social interaction, sleep, finances, independence….the passengers were endless and deeply personal.

Finding

 

 

It was important, and remains the case, to understand that our chronic pain cannot be completely alleviated by drugs and that no one should medicate to do so – as discussed recently by Chronic Mom – or by a device such as a spinal cord stimulator.  In fact the medics were very clear that this form of  symptom control will not help everyone and may even make some symptoms worse.  The months between leaving the relative safety of the course and returning to have the trial procedure were spent RESEARCHING spinal cord stimulators/neuromodulation and exactly how it might help mask chronic nerve pain.  This led me to the world of forums, self help/pain groups and blogs – what an abundance of information and support is out there.  Sadly there is also an abundance of suffering out there and at the time I was staggered by both the number of people living with chronic illness but also by the outpouring of support that I received.  I can honestly say that this led me to decide the night before my trial surgery to start my own blog for both family and friends and to offer my support/story for others.

Researching

 

 

Hubby recalls the morning of the trial clearly and says that it was the most nervous he had ever seen me before surgery – and in many ways it was far less invasive and much shorter than my other ops, including my caesarian sections!  I felt physically sick and very scared to the point of standing on the doorstep of Guy’s Hospital, London at 7.30am and declaring I was going home.  Why did I feel like this?  I think it was the genuine fear of the future if it didn’t help – the fear of living alongside this pain with no control or relief for the next 40 or more years.  How many of my chronic pain friends have found themselves in this situation at one time or another, I wonder?  My guess would be the majority and this would cover a huge variety of different pains – maybe you can share with me!  This fear can be mentally draining and lead to psychological trauma, depression and even suicide.  I have been fortunate that the implant and connected wire/electrodes sitting snugly by my spinal cord do give me some relief, but there is a constant fear that one morning I will wake up, switch the device on and find that the wire has moved or the pain just is no longer covered by the device.  Of course this only covers one of the many pains weaving in and out of my body parts – at the moment I would love to have it extended to cover the nerve pain running from my neck to my fingers!  What a pity there is no easy fix, no magic wand for all our pain types.

So this brings me on to RE-USING some of the techniques that we were taught during the programme to help to manage pain.  These were all well recognised methods including:

  • gentle exercise – to improve physical fitness, stamina, muscle tone, spacial awareness and a sense of well being.  It is well documented that for back pain particularly,  immobility will often increase pain and muscle spasm.
  • mindfulness and/or meditation – including using guided imagery
  • breathing techniques and relaxation – to help challenge negative thoughts and stress which can increase pain levels
  • recognising and understanding the root causes of chronic pain – including how medication may or may not help to reduce pain
  • accepting that chronic pain can rarely be cured but that it is possible to move forward to live a full life
  • heat therapy (heat pads, wheat bags), cold therapy, hydrotherapy
  • pacing – learning to pace oneself in order to undertake daily tasks from washing to socialising
  • social interaction and talking – including talking therapies
  • combining all of the above to cope during a flare of symptoms

I am constantly reusing these techniques in order to live day to day with my own chronic pain.  It is important for me to have realistic and attainable expectations and yet still be able to live – remembering some days this is easier than others!

Reusing

 

So just how do I introduce the word DATING into this post?  Well my dating these days consists of a calendar highlighted with a series of “dates” with different hospitals and specialities – I believe that rheumatology and gastroenterology are to be personal highs in the coming weeks.  Add to this a mix of date nights with the spinal cord stimulator charger to ensure my internal battery never runs out(!) and binge watching favourite Netflix shows (currently iZombie) and you will be starting to get the picture of the heady extent of dating in the senior PainPals household……

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To read other contributions to this month’s A Chronic Voice link up visit here!

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This is also shared to Esme’s Senior Salon part of the Sharing, Inspiring and Promoting Bloggers group

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A Zebra Returns – when a Flare combines with Brain Fog and equals a Blog Drought

Why is it that chronic illness can leave you feeling like a hypochondriac? When one thing leads to another and then another and then yet another? A flare of days turns to weeks turns to months……

adult alone despair emotion
Photo by Ana Bregantin on Pexels.com

When I wrote my last blog post I had no idea and certainly no intention that it would take me so long before I would be back again.  So often we speak of pacing and the need to prioritise for our own self preservation, but even this can become physically and mentally exhausting.

Chronic pain combined with brain fog, combined with the disability of the dislocated right shoulder (yes of course I am right handed), multiplied by the hot weather doubling the effects of POTS and the number of faints, equals in some strange algebraic type equation a hell of a couple of months!!

 

A Zebra Returns 1

I am lucky to be an admin for a great group called the Chronic Illness Bloggers and I always prioritise the scheduling of their posts to Facebook as number one each week.  This means reading each blogger’s post to check that it adheres to the group rules ahead of scheduling and this is a past time that I look forward to – my guilty pleasure, for sure.  There are some seriously good writers out there and each week I come away having learnt something new, hungry to try another different recipe and generally inspired by our community. Brain fog and painful hand spasms have led to writer’s block on several different levels for my own writing……and on reading some of these wonderfully written and thought provoking blog posts, I have actually questioned my ability to write and felt a little intimidated.

The longer my flare and writing drought have endured the harder it has been to find my way back.  The inevitable thoughts of losing readers and poor stats start to creep in as the ever popular “how to write a successful blog” type posts crop up daily on my social media feeds.  Social media – aghhh! Has anyone else found themselves drowning in the inability to keep up with all the different platforms, when a head that has been stuffed with a mixture of cotton wool and candy floss will not allow you to remember how to even eat breakfast?  Scrolling down the ipad on Instagram is enough to set off hand pains, and keeping up with world politics on Twitter is enough to trigger a migraine!

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Photo by Kat Jayne on Pexels.com

 

Two days later and I am back to try to finish this post.  The last couple of days have been filled with fainting, trip to the doctor, more fainting, CIB scheduling, even more fainting and….oh no, the increase in symptoms caused by monthly hormonal fluctuations!!  Great.  But….I have read and scheduled more blog posts – found great tips on managing pain, journaling, the importance of a great support network to name but a few – and I thought about why I started blogging in the first place.  I knew nothing about stats and social media platforms – I wasn’t on Facebook or Twitter, and Instagram was just a word that the kids threw about.  Not once did I think about the numbers who might read my ramblings about chronic illness and family life. I wanted to share my experience of living with chronic pain and chronic illness – at the time having a spinal cord stimulator implanted to help with nerve pain – and maybe give something in the same way that I had received support and hope from other blogs.  Writing can be therapy, a distraction, an outlet, a hobby and a sanctuary.

So here sits this zebra attempting to write…hopeful and thankful and wanting to re-engage with this wonderful blog family.

 

A Zebra Returns

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PS: I am also the owner of some fab mauve fingerless compression gloves that help keep the spasms at bay when I type – hurray! IMG_0600

 

When The Simplest Things Floor Us

Isn’t it funny how sometimes the simplest of things can floor us?  Not the big things – the dislocations, the brain fog or even a recent A&E visit to check out an ankle injury for fractures.  Over the last few weeks a new enemy has been creeping up, slowly and insidiously until a sudden movement caused spasm and pain off the Richter scale.

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Photo by Fabiano Rodrigues on Pexels.com

Where? Back pain? Neck pain?  Well they still haunt me daily alongside the dislocations, but this is different and affects everything I try to do.  One evening several weeks back, my right hand suddenly drew itself up with a sudden, intense spasm into a claw.  There was no warning and the pain was searing – in fact I screamed the roof off leaving no one in any doubt that something had happened.  Cramp? No, this was a very different feeling as the ligaments and bones within my hand felt as if they had become intertwined and stuck in a confusing rigid medley of pain and spasm.

 

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When the simplest things

 

Several hours later the claw unwound as quickly as it developed, but the pain, now in both hands continues.  Maybe it is a repetitive strain type pain or some of the nerve pain may originate in the problems in my neck, I don’t know, but it affects everything.  Holding a cup of tea, brushing my hair, holding a book……and typing!  Admin duties for the Chronic Illness Bloggers and emails have been prioritised but typing is painfully slow.  Writing my own blogs has slowly but surely slipped away from me.

Nothing in life is predictable is it? But life with chronic illness has “unpredictability” as a middle name – no day is ever the same, it is impossible to know how the body or mind will present itself as it wakes each day.  The bigger issues, “the big picture”, can be easier to cope with, but the little things that are unexpected can be the straw to break the camel’s back.  The best laid plans can be blown apart, resentment hits, brain fog distorts memory and pain can take hold.  Yet life goes on with or without functioning hands!

Hand

 

This has taken several days to type…..hopefully normal service will be resumed soon!

 

When the simplest things 2

The ActivePosture Vest – My Trial and 5 Star Review

Disclosure

For some time now I have been looking for a garment that would give my ever dislocating shoulders some support and yet that I would also be able to actually put on without dislocating said shoulders!  More of this below.  The Active Posture products were recommended to me and the company gave me a posture vest to trial in exchange for a fair and honest review.

ActivePosture

 

Background from the ActivePosture website

Posture clothing: all you need to know
It can be difficult to keep an upright posture throughout the day, which is where posture clothing from ActivePosture® can help. Posture clothing activates muscle memory to help you achieve an improved, upright posture.

Posture clothing can be a comfortable and practical solution for problems induced by poor posture, or it can act as a supplement to training, exercise and physical therapy. Your posture has an influence on your physical health and overall well-being, so having aligned posture benefits us during work, training and in everyday life.

How does posture clothing work?
At ActivePosture.co.uk you can purchase clinically tested and medically approved posture clothing from leading manufacturer, AlignMed®. Our products are inspired by the concept of Kinesio-taping, which stimulates muscles, improves blood circulation and can aid in maintaining an aligned posture. Our posture clothing can be worn in everyday situations, whether it is during physical activities or when you are stationary.

Who is posture clothing suitable for?
Pretty much everyone can improve their posture from wearing posture clothing. It is also particularly beneficial to supplement physiotherapy and training, however, if you have a recent injury, we recommend consulting a physiotherapist or doctor before use.

 

 

The Product

ActivePosture offer products for both men and women in several different styles and colours.  There is a classic v necked vest top, in petrol blue, white or black for gents or blue, nude, white, black or burgundy for ladies.  A zipper fronted vest is available in both black and white for gents and ladies.  There is also an AlignMe Interactive bra available in 4 colours.

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The website gives clear instructions to measure for your posture vest and suggests that if between sizes you should opt for the smaller as the top must be snug.  At 5 feet 8 inches and taking a 34 A/B bra, I wear a UK size 12 and ordered a Medium which fits well.  I can’t comment for fit for ladies with a larger bust size, but please be aware that the vest is not fitted with cups.

My vest arrived quickly and was beautifully packaged, creating an excellent first impression for the product inside.  The vest itself is made from a mixture of nylon, spandex and polyester and beautifully constructed with Neuroband support straps throughout the lower neck, shoulder and back area.  These bands are all made from different levels of elasticity and exert different pressures on the body.  I had requested a zipper version for ease when putting the vest on and taking it off – this is because I have recurrent dislocations, arthritis and chronic pain particularly in my right shoulder.

 

My Trial Period

I have had my vest since the beginning of February and was advised by the company to gradually build up the wearing time.  The recommendation is to start wearing for an hour per day, but as I have a specific condition that means my connective tissue and joints work differently to the norm, it was suggested that I use it for 30 minutes per day.

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The vest does feel tight initially and the shoulders need to be fitting correctly – if the vest is the correct size it is possible to feel a gentle pull across the shoulder blades and muscles, and this increases if the wearer begins to round their shoulders.  There is also support around the lower back lumbar region too.

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After building up wearing time over a 2 week period, I then opened a drawer and suffered a severe (even by my standards) dislocation which left my arm hanging low, immobile and in a great deal of pain.  It took approx 2 weeks before the humerus would even pretend to stay in the socket…….and most days it continues to slip out as I cough, sneeze or just move!  During this initial fortnight my pain was too severe to wear anything snug, but I had a long planned theatre trip and made the decision to wear the vest in order to try to support my shoulder – my main reason for wishing to trial the product.

My thoughts

I found the ActivePosture product to be of a high quality and very comfortable to wear.  I have washed it several times, following the manufacturer’s instructions and it has maintained the shape and washed very well.

Please remember that my anatomy is slightly different and I am looking at the product for a different support – but I believe that for pure posture support and to run alongside physio programmes, this product works very well.  I have worn the vest whilst sitting both at a table whilst typing and also relaxing in an easy chair and was definitely able to feel the posture support that it encourages.

I am not unrealistic and did not expect the vest to hold my shoulder in socket or to prevent my dislocations.  If only it were so simple!  My physio has always said that when dealing with my shoulders he must forget all that he has been taught, and instead work with me in the opposite way to how he would treat everyone else!!   But I had been hoping that the vest would offer my joints and lower neck some support and I am delighted to report that it does.  I have not worn the vest whilst my shoulder is completely out of joint – to be honest it is difficult to wear any top – but I have been wearing it when the shoulder/s are in the normal (for me) state of constant subluxing.  My preference is without a bra underneath.  I have found that the top acts rather like a compression garment and offers my stretched muscles and ligaments gentle support, whilst I hope also encouraging the muscles to do a little work themselves. (Please note that I do regular exercises when I am able to prevent too much deconditioning).

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Not quite the models from the website, but you need to see the vest on yours truly!

I have also noticed support across the lower neck where I have several vertebra that have a tendency to “pop” in and out.  This leaves me at times with a “dowager’s hump” and I genuinely believe that the Neuroband support mechanisms in this vest have helped with better positioning and pain control.  Many of you will also be aware that I have had major surgeries on my lumbar spine over the years, and a very pleasant surprise has been that this vest also gives me support and compression around this region – gentle compression (actually sometimes full on pressure!) really helps manage my nerve damage and pain.

So what of that theatre trip?  Whilst still in an immense amount of pain and needing morphine for pain management, the vest helped me to sit through a loud and vibrating musical theatre experience.  Since then I have also worn it to cinema film showings and out to dinner – it sits neatly and snugly beneath clothes and I have increased my wearing time.  It is important to understand that the vest should be used in normal circumstances as an aid to better posture, so shouldn’t be worn all the time.  You must work your own muscles too!

 

 

Have there been any negatives?

The vest is made from synthetic materials so can become quite hot and sticky in warm conditions – however it does look like a “top” so I have stripped off on the odd occasion and still felt dressed!

The ActivePosture products are expensive at a first glance – particularly as many with chronic conditions are unable to work and like myself rely upon benefits for income.  The vest top retails at £99.95.  However I would now say that for a product that has given me both support with my joints and my pain that it is worth the expense……I can see the research and engineering that has gone into creating a quality product and I would rather forego other clothes/meals/coffees in order to own a product that will give me support on those bad days.

In fact my final endorsement has to be the fact that I have been bought some more vests by a relative (taking advantage of the current offer!) as I love it so much!

The ActivePosture vest is a 5 star product for me!

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Active Posture Pin

 

The company currently has a special reduced price for the products and are offering a volume discount – visit the shop here. (Note: this is not an affiliate post and I do not benefit from any orders made)

For information about research behind the product visit the site here.

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Posture Vest pin 2

 

 

 

“I Need You to Need Me” by Pamela Jessen

I have just read a post that I could have written myself – it reminds me of a conversation that was had very recently in our house.  When one half of a couple lives with a chronic condition – be it pain, disability, depression – the “normal” expectations of a relationship change, the boundaries move as partner and lover morphs into either carer or “patient”.

Pamela writes with honesty and gives some realistic suggestions for everyone in her post on There Is Always Hope blog.

intimatecouple

I’m tackling a tough topic again today – intimacy when you live with Chronic Pain. If you remember the Cheap Trick song, it’s been on my mind lately:

I want you to want me.
I need you to need me.
I’d love you to love me.
I’m beggin’ you to beg me.
I want you to want me.
I need you to need me.
I’d love you to love me.

How do you enjoy an active and healthy love life when you’re in pain all the time. How do you appease your partner, who may not understand what it’s like to be in pain 24/7. Even when you’ve explained it a million different ways, when it comes to talking about sex, and how painful it can be, it’s not an easy conversation, no matter how long you’ve been a couple.

To read the full post please visit There Is Always Hope Now

Pain, Pain Go Away…When Pain becomes All Consuming and Overwhelming

I woke yesterday morning very early, having only dropped off to sleep in the early hours.  A couple of hours of unsettled sleep and I knew that my bedfellow, pain was going to kick me about for the day.  Despite shivering in the cold early morning, there was that unwelcome yet familiar thin, feverish sheen of sweat all over my body that only comes with deep, intense pain.

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Pain,Pain Go Away

 

The strange thing was that I couldn’t quite tell where the pain was.  Start from the feet and move upwards:

  • feet and ankles: pain, check; left nerve pain worse, check
  • lower legs and knees: pain, check; left nerve pain burning, check
  • thighs: burning, check;
  • hips: can’t move them, searing pain, check;
  • lower back: don’t even go there, hurts too much, check;
  • chest: every breath is creating pain somewhere else, check;
  • shoulders: both dislocated: do not move, check;
  • arms and hands: numb, yet burning, check;
  • neck: spasm and screaming, check;
  • head: did I drink last night???
  • face and teeth: really??!! Yes!

The problem with this pain is that when it peaks nothing will help to reduce it.  No amount of drugs, distraction, heat or other remedies will help.

Pain is deeply personal.  Your pain will be different to my pain.  My own pains are different – the neuropathic back and leg pain I experience from nerve root damage is very different to my other EDS pains. Our pain might be in the same part of of bodies, but we will probably describe it differently and it will behave differently.  The same bedfellow taking a different journey to reach the same location.

Pain (speaker)

When my constant companion reaches these dizzy heights, even my spinal cord stimulator struggles to jumble and alter the pain messages received by my brain.  Some professionals believe that chronic “neuropathic” pain signals are processed by the brain differently, making it more resistant and much harder to treat.  I honestly don’t know and when it reaches these levels, I don’t care.

“Chronic or persistent pain is pain that carries on for longer than 12 weeks despite medication or treatment.” NHS Inform

“Neuropathic pain is often described as a shooting or burning pain. It can go away on its own but is often chronic. Sometimes it is unrelenting and severe, and sometimes it comes and goes. It often is the result of nerve damage or a malfunctioning nervous system. The impact of nerve damage is a change in nerve function both at the site of the injury and areas around it.” WebMD

 

There are many definitions for “pain” available and there are also definitions on American sites & Wikipedia for “intractable pain“.

The ensuing brain fog means I lose clarity of any situation and irrational behaviour follows. “Mum, why are you trying to do housework like a mad woman?” asks my teenage daughter…..just because!

  • because I can’t sit still
  • because my brain has gone into overdrive yet feels like candy floss
  • because I can’t think straight
  • because I can’t stand still
  • because I feel sick
  • because I have to do something
  • because breathing hurts
  • because doing nothing hurts
  • because doing anything hurts
  • because I don’t know what to do to make it just F.O!

Pain on rain

Remember the old rhyme “Rain, Rain Go Away, Come again another Day”? Mine goes like this “Pain, pain go away, don’t come again another day!”  In this state pain killers just make me vomit, they don’t help anyway.  My beloved heat pad gives a little relief for a short period, but my body seems to know that the external temperatures have dropped despite central heating and layers of clothes.

This pain is exhausting and all consuming.  Eventually I am overcome and sink into a heavy, pain ridden slumber under a weighted blanket yet wake several hours later unrefreshed and still in pain.  What is to be done?  Watch the weather forecast, curse the temperatures (I know Chicago and other places have it a LOT worse, but my body doesn’t know that and anything near zero degrees is horrendous), try distractions and sit it out knowing that this peak will pass.

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Another day may feel wasted – another day of being unable to function, to be online with like minded pals, to read, to watch TV, to listen to music.  But this will calm, it will reduce from the peak to a trough and tomorrow is another day.

So today….I am here, I survived.  I am still in pain and currently sitting charging my spinal cord stimulator as I really can’t cope with turning it off during this cold weather.  The Six Nations rugby is on and feel like I have been in one of those scrums! My other pains are vying for attention now….when the nerve pain is at its worst the others fade into background noise, but today the shoulder and gut pain are shouting loudly.

But here I am typing, smiling, talking and tomorrow is definitely another day!

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Pain, Pain pin

 

Some Ramblings for January Prompts with A Chronic Voice

Every month I have great plans to take part in link up parties and then life seems to get in the way of writing.  One link up that I particularly love is Sheryl’s on A Chronic Voice where she gives prompts aimed specifically for people living with chronic illness to express themselves and share experiences.  January seems like the perfect month to join the party again…..so here goes!

january prompts

Dedicating

This is a great prompt for a new year isn’t it?  It could also be very cheesy!

I think that I would like to be dedicating more time and energy to working with fellow bloggers this year.  Sometimes I see others who give so much of their time to commenting on and sharing the writing of others (Sheryl at A Chronic Voice, Caz at Invisibly Me, Esme at Esme Salon, Sue at Sizzling Towards Sixty – to name but a few) that I feel a bit inadequate in my feeble attempts.

So maybe I should say that I will try dedicating my own time to working effectively and to stop procrastinating.  I had a teacher at school (Latin) who used to ask us “what is the thief of time” to which we 11 year olds would chant “pro..cra..sti..na..tion” without having a clue what it meant. Sir…I get it now!!

 

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Establishing

I really need to start establishing some proper self care routines that will see me through both the good days and the bad days.  For me self care revolves around reducing stress levels, which in turn will help keep the pain at bay.   At the moment “self care” – healthy eating, regular exercising (in our neighbours’ gym – so lucky!), pilates, meditation, mindfulness, rest etc etc – or maybe I should just say putting myself first in my schedule, well it seems to come way down the list of priorities and almost feels rather decadent.

 

love begins at home

Breaking

I’ve written before about chronic pain and illness being my constant companion and there are so many times that it feels like my companion is putting up barriers for me or tying me down in knots.  I want to be breaking through barriers and ties, physical and mental, that are holding me back and stopping me from feeling like the person I used to be, being the person I can be.

 

barrier

 

This might mean breaking some of the rules that I self inflict and wrap myself up in – one is the need for a clean, tidy house!  The biggest problem is that my idea of clean and tidy does not quite match with the rest of the family……this causes me more stress than anything else, and whilst I will try to be more laid back, this will be a tough one for me to break!

Breaking crockery is also something I’d like to do less of in my kitchen!!  Dislocated wrists and thumbs frequently equals dropped plates and mugs……BREAKING!!

Strengthening

Strengthening has to apply to my core!!  Whilst I was still mobile and fit, I practised yoga daily and attended classes several times a week, and had even been asked to train as a yoga teacher by my teacher!  My back has been troublesome ever since my surgery aged 21, so it has been important to keep my core muscles strong to support my weak back.  I wouldn’t boast a 6 pack, but I had a very flat stomach which pinged back after each of my 3 caesarian sections!  But….since turning 40 and my mobility and health have gone into free fall, those core muscles have gone into hiding……apparently muscle memory is a thing, if I can only coax them out.

 

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Allowing

I am not very good at just allowing myself “to be” – to accept my own limitations that come with my condition, to acknowledge the bad but to celebrate the good.

I want to allow myself to take a rest without beating myself up; allow myself to say “no”; allow myself to sit and just be without feeling guilty.  Most of all I want to allow myself to accept my conditions, warts and all – accepting is not a weakness, I believe it is a strength and liberating!

 

to be

 

So there we have it – my ramblings to add to the thoughts and writings of other bloggers that can be found here on A Chronic Voice. I hope you enjoy them all.

Update….as I type I have a new cleaner in the house – a lovely lady who works for a friend who said she could fit me in…..hurray.  Now I just need to make sure I don’t fall into the trap of cleaning before she comes – just nagging the kids to make sure that the floors in their rooms can actually be seen to vacuum!!

Claire x

Accessibility Day at Gatwick Airport – Air Travel with Chronic and Invisible Illnesses

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Last month I was fortunate to be invited to attend a special day at Gatwick airport to receive information about the Accessibility plans that are in place for travellers.  We – hubby and me – joined a small band of fellow EDSers (Ehlers Danlos syndromes) and other families with mobility issues, autism, Alzheimers and various “invisible” chronic health problems in order to experience “a practical overview of airport processes before actually travelling”.

London-Gatwick-Airport

Travelling can be a stressful experience at the best of times, but add a disability/special need/illness into the equation and this stress is magnified 100 fold.  Accessibility issues affecting wheelchair travellers have recently hit the UK national press with the stories of BBC journalist Frank Gardiner and athlete Justin Levine.  Each man arrived at his destination to find that his own wheelchair had been lost, resulting in Mr Gardiner sitting on the plane for an additional 90 minutes after landing at Heathrow and Mr Levine rejecting offers of an attendant wheelchair at Luton.  Whilst Gatwick and several other UK airports have previously run Accessibility days, this particular session could not have been better timed in order for the airports to improve Accessibility profiles.

Landside

Each family was allocated a time slot and we were met at the Virgin landside airline desks where we  were checked in and given the recently launched sunflower “hidden disability” lanyards.  The distinctive green and yellow lanyards are to allow staff to easily identify travellers who may need additional assistance, but might not have an immediately obvious disability.

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Chronic pain, autistic spectrum disorders, Alzheimers and dementia, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, Ehlers Danlos Syndrome, IBD/Crohns/Coeliacs, mental health disorders are just a few of the many conditions that might benefit under this scheme.  Members from both the police dog handlers and the border patrol were present to welcome us but it was  their beautiful dogs who stole the show.  Eighteen month old springer spaniel pup Gracie was a personal favourite of mine!

Do you know that there is an Accessibility and Families’ check in and security?  The whole process for the average traveller has changed so much in recent years and it can feel that everyone is wanting to check in at a million miles an hour……electronic check in from home, travelling with hand luggage only, business travellers wanting to get from A to B in the least time possible.  How does it feel if you take a little more time than the average person, if your child doesn’t understand what is happening, if anxiety turns into a panic attack?  We were assured that the Accessible and family security can be used for anyone who needs a little more time, space and understanding.  I wonder how many of you have used this facility?  Please share your experience!

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Pictures courtesy of Maria Cook

Last weekend Virgin airlines and Easy Jet were our hosts for the day, but I believe that other travel providers have played the host role in different locations around the country.  This was my first time to go through airport security since having my spinal cord stimulator implanted for pain control and in the same way that I am not able to go into an MRI scanner, the magnetic fields in the security scanners prevent me from going through the arch.  Like a pacemaker, the magnets in both devices would cause damage to my battery/programmer needing surgery to remove and replace the device.  I carry a medical alert card like others in my position and whilst my condition is now “visible” due to my wheelchair, for many with chronic pain and a similar implant, it would be impossible to see their chronic condition.  The security staff responded well to my needs and as hubby put my bag on the scanner and took himself through security, I was taken round the other side of the scanners and whilst remaining in my chair, a female office carried out a simple body search.  I passed and didn’t set off a single alarm!!

Airside

First stop – the “V” room.  This is Virgin Holidays’ new lounge in the North terminal which is for the use of Virgin customers booking a Holiday/Flydrive Package – it can be pre booked or booked on the day for each passenger.  We were treated to hot drinks and a tour from very attentive staff who are eager to please and answer queries.  I know that this is part of their jobs, but we were impressed by the welcoming demeanour, general knowledge and the care shown to us.  

V lounge

If you are not on a Virgin package or do not wish to pay to book the lounge, Gatwick North terminal has a newly opened Accessible “Quiet” lounge area located within the departures lounge and shopping area.  Here it is possible to sit in more comfortable seating, away from the crowds with screen information to monitor your flight and yet still be close to the amenities and eateries in the departure lounge.

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Fellow zebras taking advantage of wheelchair assistance!

I was using my own wheelchair and pushed by hubby, but there are many of you who don’t normally use a chair, yet walking through the airport prior to boarding your plane is just exhausting.  If you give the airport notice – 48 hours – it is possible to be helped by staff with a wheelchair, as some of our group did for their tours, or to make use of one of the accessibility buggies that you will have seen speeding through the airport.  My advice – don’t be too independent and insist on walking if this burns you out before even setting foot on the plane.  I have always been the world’s worst for doing this, but accept now that pride really can come before a literal fall!

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We were taken to the Sensory room next – the first area of its kind in a UK airport.  It is well recognised now that special sensory lighting, music and surroundings can greatly enhance senses and communication for a wide variety of sensory abilities.  My limited experience (when nursing) brought me into contact with such areas in children’s hospices and hospitals.  A room of this type can be extremely helpful for both children and adults with autistic spectrum disorders, physical and mental disabilities – I include dementia and Alzheimers here.  The room is airside and only for use by those passing through security – a 45 minute session can be booked at the special assistance reception in the departures lounge.  On the day youngsters in the room appeared to be having a great time, but there were few adults with disabilities when we had a quick “peek”.  There is a variety of soft play cushioning and this is geared towards those able to sit on cushions and beanbags. It is important to book ahead as there is an 8 person limit.  I think that the premise is fantastic and it is a very welcome addition to the airport experience – suggestions to add to this are:

  • for a further focus on use by adults;
  • to create wider aisles between the soft play areas for wheelchair access – the space is limited; 
  • to consider how different groups might relate to each other – adults, children, physically disabled, autism spectrum disorders, etc;
  • to ensure that the knobs and buttons on the activities are able to be accessed by those with hand problems;
  • to consider in the future expanding the existing room or have several sensory rooms to cope with the high demand that the facility will undoubtedly have!   Disclaimer: Please note I am not an expert and do not have autism

For someone like me who struggles with walking and stairs, the thought of using steps up to a plane is akin to climbing a mountain.  It is encouraging to know that if an aircraft is using steps rather than a jetty boarding system, Gatwick airport has a fleet of German Bulmor transporters that wheelchairs can be strapped into and lifted via a hydraulic arm directly to the door of the plane.  This allows the passenger entry to the plane in their own wheelchair to then transfer directly into their plane seat.  We enjoyed a short ride in the Bulmor and the experience of the cabin lifting and lowering, all whilst I sat in my chair.  For younger members of the party there was an opportunity to board the huge airport fire engines and to have a go at operating certain controls.

 

 

The part of the day that I was most excited about and also feared was boarding the plane – my greatest anxiety over the years has been the thought of feeling trapped in an aircraft seat and my back pain becoming uncontrolled.  I can move when seated on my sofa, in a restaurant or even the cinema, but sitting in a car or a plane is a different story.  Unless you have experienced chronic nerve pain, it is difficult to explain what may seem to be an irrational fear of an exacerbation of this pain and being unable to do anything about it.  I was able to remain in my seat up to the doorway at which point I got up from my chair and transferred into one of the first rows on the plane.  The Easyjet cabin crew were keen demonstrate that they can offer assistance and a comfortable flight to any passenger with accessibility needs. 

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Whilst hubby chatted with the pilot in the cockpit……

I was told about booking my seat in advance – it is advisable to pay the extra to select your seat for leg room, the aisle, to be near the loo etc etc – alerting the airport and the airline of your needs 48 hours in advance, and that my wheelchair would be stored in the hold after I have transferred to my seat.  Tip: take your seat cushion onto the plane as it is likely to be lost in the hold! The loss and damage of wheelchairs has been in the media recently and is a very real concern for many wheelchair users – one lady cited the issue of “which end of a flight did the damage occur to her chair?” as no one would take responsibility.  No easy solutions to this one as yet.  The current policy is for accessibility passengers to board the aircraft first, in order to have time to settle and as much assistance as needed without the stresses of other passengers.  Once in the seat there is a small onflight wheeled chair (similar to a fire chair) for those needing assistance to move about on the flight, go to the loo etc.  I did find the seat comfortable and was in the area with more leg room – I don’t believe that I or others with EDS/chronic pain/arthritis/ fibromyalgia etc would manage with less leg room and the angle of the back of the seat is very important too.  The new EasyJet seat backs are fixed and I am pleased to say that they are not in a too upright position, but I would be unable to manage in a fixed seat that was very upright as my SCS would be cut off due to the position in my spine.

I asked about facilities at destination airports and the staff were very honest.  Apparently there is a European standard for Accessibility arrangements but they are open to interpretation and this means that they will vary from airport to airport, country to country.  This is obviously the case when flying elsewhere in the world too, so the best advice that I can pass on here is to fully investigate your holiday plans, journey and the accommodations made at your destination prior to any bookings!

EasyJet have an Accessibility and Assistance manager, Celine McGuigan who is informative and very keen to make airport travel accessible to all.  She is also notably keen to understand the needs of the Accessibility community from those with very visible disabilities to invisible problems/illnesses – in fact she has made staff, including those at a senior level, spend time in a wheelchair in order to focus minds on accessibility issues!  The young members of cabin crew are also to be commended for their knowledge and enthusiasm to help without ever being condescending or frightened to ask me questions. 

Feedback from the visit:

  • just how accessible are the aircraft toilets?  They are very small and is there room for the small wheelchair and a helper to assist with a transfer?  (I am aware that this is an area up for discussion around the design of both aircraft and trains);
  • people with allergies, mast cell activation syndrome and similar can be very sensitive to scents – some have experienced problems with the scents used to refresh the cabins and I know that the staff were going to look into this matter;
  • for staff to be aware during a flight that with conditions such as EDS, joint pain and cramps are a common problem and the passenger will undoubtedly need to stand and stretch;
  • for many the standard seats do not provide sufficient room, yet the seats with more “leg room” can come at an extra cost which can be difficult to swallow for those on an already reduced income and/or families with young children
  • I know that they have been in the media, but to continue to highlight the accessibility lanyards and the fact that many adults and children with “invisible” conditions will be using them; work with the community who will be using them and listen to feedback regarding wearing a lanyard and the design.

I can only congratulate all the staff involved for such an informative and practical day at Gatwick airport.  More of these days across the country would be a huge benefit to so many people and the comments that I have seen from other groups have been very positive. My own fears have been put to rest and whilst I am under no illusions that air travel for me personally will remain tough and very tiring,  and of course I still have some concerns, I do now think that I can do it. 

So come on hubby….where are you taking me?!

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Photo courtesy of Dan McKenzie

Please note this has been written from my personal perspective

Farewell to Me and Hello to Myself – Changes with Chronic Illness

I’ve been struggling to write, to take part in blog shares or blog parties. I don’t know why….brain fog, the constant nagging pain in a near permanent dislocated shoulder, stress from an adolescent, lack of pacing, all manner of things could be blamed….I just don’t really know.

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Farewell to Me

Hubby was clearing out earlier this week and came across some DVDs that he and my brother compiled years ago from my parent’s camcorder.  You must remember the black boxes carried by all self respecting tourists about 15 years ago?  Unlike the traditional camera with a film to be exposed and turned into photographs, the stream of moving images needed to be converted from a small cassette into a format suitable to be viewed on a home system – usually a DVD player by this time!  We had forgotten we even had them but, when the writing refused to flow, I have spent several afternoons watching short clips from 12 – 20 years ago.

 

A wonderful trip down memory lane from the eldest being an inquisitive toddler – did you really let him use let hammer and hit himself, Dad/Grandad?  – to holidays abroad with all three kids, to Christmases where departed family are still very much alive and laughing alongside the rest of us.  For me it was my young children that I was watching closely and shed a few tears when my lovely Grandad appeared with the then 4 year old politics student discussing a Ninja turtle gift for Christmas 2003.

But hubby told me today that he struggled to view the clips as he was watching me!  Why?! I wondered –  what was so interesting about me being mum….pregnant, with new babe and toddler, unwrapping presents, pushing a buggy, going to work. Hmmmm – that was it!  He saw me – how I was, always on the go, winging it most of the time, particularly around my back problems, pain and EDS.  Walking, running, playing, dancing, swimming, working.

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A particularly poignant moment was hearing our lovely girl’s voice, aged 2, telling Mummy and Daddy to cuddle as she zoomed the camcorder in on us – with a little help from her brother.  On hugging a little voice shouted out “Kiss!!” – we were on holiday in France and this was our last holiday abroad as a family as chronic pain was soon to strike.

Whilst I had not really seen myself, much less watched myself (who likes watching and hearing themselves?), hubby saw the person I was and remembered the person I became.  The woman turning 40, riddled with pain and opiates, puffed up with drug weight gain and lunging into reactive depression.  The woman struggling to be a wife and mother.  Sometimes it is easy to forget that this journey with chronic illness is not ours alone.  Our nearest and dearest live it with us, the good with the bad, the happy with the sad.

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The Moonwalk

When I mentioned her dad’s comments to the lovely girl, I did feel sad that her answer was that yes, she noticed it too as she can’t remember me before my symptoms took over and my general health deteriorated.  The mum on the film looks like me, sounds like me but is almost a stranger.  Or is she?

Hubby had the final say by reminding us all that it is possible to move beyond those awful middle years.  He says that I am me again!  It sounds a bit dramatic doesn’t it?! Accepting my situation, being pushed to come off the regular opiates in order to have a spinal cord stimulator and keeping as healthy as possible(!) has been transforming.

Whilst I will never be that thirty something who seemed to lose so much almost overnight as she turned 40, now as I look toward turning 50, I think that I can say that I am ME again.  I look in the mirror and as I look past the grey hair, the lack of sleep, the metal spine, the splints and mobility aids, I feel like myself and so I see MY reflection once more.

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Photo by Andre Mouton on Pexels.com

 

 

 

 

A Change in Season, a Change in Symptoms and Foodie Memories!

The weather has turned – my joints and dodgy bits of body are telling me it is colder, even if the sun has been shining.  Last night we went to a posh do at The Oval cricket ground and there was a drinks reception on the roof terrace before the meal.  On arrival it was suggested to guests that they left their coats on the second floor before ascending to the fourth floor.  It was lovely looking over the stunning cricket green (it really was very green) as the sun went down – but it was freezing!!  There was a blustery breeze that left many of the ladies’ bare shoulders blue and goose pimpled in their strappy evening gowns.  I had kept my outer layers on – a cape that looks a bit posh due to a fur collar – but my spinal cord stimulator and chronic nerve pain were doing battle with each other as to which could out do the cold air!

Earlier this week hubby and I were out shopping and again I was caught out by the sunshine!  Something that you don’t realise when you are up, mobile, walking and running is just how cold it can get sitting in a wheelchair.  My legs and feet were freezing and the cape (not the one from last night – one that Dad calls my “old lady blanket”) I usually tuck around me was safely in the car.  It is time to change the clothes, pack the summer shoes away and accept a different set of symptoms as the POTS faints decline as the temperature drops, and the chronic pain flares.

A change in season pin

 

This is the autumn term now and when I saw Lorna’s writing prompt (Autumnal food memories) on Gin & Lemonade it got me thinking to times in the past when I could go out without constant chronic pain.  I’m not moaning, looking for sympathy, just merely reminiscing!  My memories of autumnal food takes me back to the Halloween/Guy Fawkes nights of my primary school days and the bonfire celebration that we would attend as a family held by my brother’s school.  It was in the rugby field and the big treat would be toffee apples – hard, crunchy, golden toffee casing over soft red apples.  Dreadful for our teeth Mum would tell us every year!  But then as the evening temperature dropped and feet started to go numb inside wellie boots, there would be polystyrene cups of hot tomato soup – Heinz in those days of course! – and never has soup tasted so good.

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Thinking back there were aches and pains in some of my joints even then, but all put down to me being bendy (correct!) or growing pains (wrong!).  But the memories of that tomato soup, sticky toffee apples and not forgetting the fireworks and bonfire, will always makes me smile.

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Photo by Kartik Gupta on Pexels.com

 

Make your own toffee apples with this simple recipe from the BBC Good Food site