There is, I hope, a thesis in my work: we may encounter many defeats, but we must not be defeated. That sounds goody-two-shoes, I know, but I believe that a diamond is the result of extreme pressure and time. […] I am saying that we may encounter many defeats—maybe it’s imperative that we encounter the defeats—but we are much stronger than we appear to be and maybe much better than we allow ourselves to be. Human beings are more alike than unalike.
– Maya Angelou, from The Art of Fiction No. 119, the Paris Review
Earlier this week, the writer, teacher, composer, filmmaker and exceptional human being Maya Angelou died at the age of 86. I remember watching TV during the 1993 Presidential Inauguration, spellbound as she recited “On the Pulse of Morning.” I was only twelve years old, but I knew I was witnessing something awesome, in the sense of breathtakingly impressive. I now grieve her death, but I also recognize that she has left behind an extraordinary legacy, a legacy that lives on in her creative works and the influence she has had on multiple generations, myself included.
But it isn’t Maya Angelou’s death that makes my heart heavy. It’s the news that two women from the online arthritis community have died, one from heart failure, and the other from an untreatable infection. I want to say that I didn’t know either of them personally, so my grief isn’t one of personal loss, and I do not want to encroach on anyone else’s sorrow. Yet I can’t help but feel the rage and sadness begin to boil up inside of me: these deaths should be preventable. Autoimmune disease shouldn’t have shaved 60 or even 16 years off of these young women’s lives. Yet too many doctors fail to identify early autoimmune disease, and then after diagnosis they fail to “treat to target,” insisting that if joints aren’t visibly inflamed, then everything must be OK, dismissing patients as hypochondriacs when they report symptoms (like fatigue, weight loss/gain, and chest pain) that point to the violent damage that autoimmune disease is doing to internal organs and the vascular system.
Sometimes people are offended that I didn’t tell them when I was sickest, that I kept the fatigue and the pain to myself for months and months. I say, “it was a dark time, I didn’t really tell anyone.” This is not exactly true. But it comes close enough, and I still find it hard to explain what it feels like to be inside a body that is closed in by great pain on all sides. Then, as now, the narrative collapses—there is no form, no genre, no model to give hints about what might happen next, and the energy of accepting the pain, trying to soothe it, or worse, resist it, takes all that is left of the self. The disease attacks the cricoarytenoid joint of the larynx and my voice cracks. I am rendered mute from pain. There is no energy, no voice left for storytelling.
In retrospect, whatever kernel of “truth” emerged from the experience sounds hyperbolic: the stuff of melodrama. Freckles upstaged by a whole galaxy of palpable purpura that climbed like angry spiders up my feet and legs. Fingers, toes, wrists, knees—all swollen into unrecognizability. Vials of bright yellow liquid and boxes of syringes. The bargaining and shaky hands of the first few self-injections. Fatigue that hit me like a linebacker and pinned me to the ground. Waking in the middle of the night to the sensation of a knife slicing through my lower abdomen. The daily lattice of hair in the shower drain and the shock of white where my scalp was exposed.
We have stories about cancer, heroic stories of resistance and remission, and sad, or sometimes uplifting, stories about those who do not make it. We do not have stories about those who face great pain with no identifiable foe, pain that will dog them for the rest of their lives, pain that is the result of the body turning against itself, permanently. I will spend whatever years I have left trying to both accept and outrun this pain, with an arsenal of needles and pills as my only weapons. There is no “lesson” here except that life is random and parts of it are miserable. Some people face the misery earlier, and some later. Sometimes the pain comes from within, and sometimes from without. Whatever mindfulness and compassion I have gained are not a result of the pain—they are my last defense against it. Pain is not a teacher, it is a torturer.
Among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected. (Occam’s razor) “Whenever an affirmative proposition is apt to be verified for actually existing things, if two things, howsoever they are present according to arrangement and duration, cannot suffice for the verification of the proposition while another thing is lacking, then one must posit that other thing.” (Chatton’s “anti-razor”) “Patients can have as many diseases as they damn well please.” (Harrum’s Dictum)
Medicine has its own little collection of aphorisms–pithy sayings that often get trotted out to try to explain or discount patient behavior. These aren’t limited to variations on Occam’s razor, but they often work to suggest that the simplest explanation is best. On more than one occasion, I have been subjected to a paraphrase of Dr. Theodore Woodward’s directive: “When you hear hoofbeats, think of horses not zebras.” This is generally taken to mean that the physician should consider the most common diagnosis first, rather than an exotic one. I suppose this is good advice for the medical intern, or the harried ER doctor, but what happens when it is a zebra, and not a horse? Or two zebras? Or a herd full of zebras? Or an albino zebra?
All of this is on my mind today because I saw my rheumatologist earlier this morning to discuss my unsuccessful attempts at tapering off of prednisone. I had hoped Kineret would be my magic bullet– and it has been for my inflammatory arthritis (which meets the diagnostic criteria for RA, but is likely a variation of TRAPS and/or AOSD). However, as it turns out, lupus is still lurking in the shadows, and was all too happy to make an appearance once the prednisone shield came down. So back up the prednisone dosage goes.
At this point, I wish I were better at grappling with uncertainty. If nothing else, chronic illness forces you to relinquish the illusion that having a diagnosis is an end point. It’s really just the beginning, and always subject to revision. As my doctor said today, my symptoms could be entirely different in five years. So I do my best to focus on now, and on what will allow me to have the best quality of life–to flourish–now. If it means prednisone today, it means prednisone today. Maybe later it will mean Imuran, CellCept, or Benlysta. Maybe research into autoimmune and autoinflammatory diseases will reveal new causes and new treatments and I will end up with an entirely different diagnosis altogether.
It’s so easy to be discouraged, but then I think back to how miserable I felt when I was first diagnosed, then when I was on methotrexate and Arava with the added trauma of losing half my hair (and sometimes what felt like half my mind), and it’s easier to see how far I’ve come. A few milligrams of prednisone isn’t the end of the world. Diagnoses are a means to an end. It doesn’t “please” me to have more than one rare disease, but if I’m a zebra, I’m a zebra. I didn’t choose to be the exotic one, but really, who would choose to be a horse when you could be a zebra instead?
A lot of people assume medical debt is something that happens to “other” (read: poor, unhealthy) people. But pretty much everyone is at risk, including “comfortable” people like me with “good” health insurance. As of January 1, two of the prescription medications that helped put my autoimmune disease into remission have nearly doubled in price (from $75 to $125 and from $135 to $190). I now have to decide if I should devote more of my budget prescriptions each month, if I should reduce my dosage (and run the risk of having symptoms come back), if I should try to find a lower priced medicine (which could mean months of trial and error and a possible flare up), if I should try to apply for patient assistance, or if I should go into debt to pay for my medical expenses.
Infographic courtesy of http://www.nationaldebtrelief.com/
“When I came back in for my follow-up, I was told I had lupus. A disease that has no cure. To me, that diagnosis was not a death sentence, but a sentence to feel the way that I felt at the moment for the rest of my life. I felt pain, I felt exhausted and I was not me.
Having lupus has been like having a horrific hangover while doing two-a-day workouts — #exhausting.”
More on CNN.com.