on absences & beginnings, of a sort

Posted: January 31, 2022 in Life/Stuff
Tags: , , , , ,

I haven’t been blogging much, lately. I’ve wanted to at times – the ideas have been there, the impetus to say something – but I’ve bled it off in Twitter threads rather than coming here, because that’s felt easier. Blaming the pandemic is convenient insofar as it’s largely true, but it’s also not the whole story; I was already struggling to blog before it started, and once it did, there wasn’t much bandwidth for considering why. We’re still in the pandemic now, almost (god) three fucking years later, for a variety of reasons that make any sane person want to walk into the sea if considered too closely, and things are still bad, but they’re also a different, slightly more hopeful flavour of bad, or at least more resigned, by which I mean we can go outside now and see people and get vaccinated, but – well. Well.

Anyway, the point is that, pandemic aside, I’d been having a rough time of things re: mental and physical health since, oh, let’s say 2012, which timeline not-so-coincidentally lines up with getting pregnant and having a child, who is now five days off from turning nine (!) and is in every respect a wholly wonderful person. It’s just that, as boring and gross and as gauche as certain people think it is to mention What Pregnancy Does To The Body (and hence to the brain), it’s actually quite a lot, and when some of those people are doctors who think that discomfort and sadness are a sort of AFAB baseline to which giving birth should natively acclimate you, such that raising any medical issues without, in their eyes, an obvious cause is just a hypochondriac complaining, it’s hard to get those things diagnosed, let alone fixed.

So: let’s say you’re me, a genderqueer-leaning-slightly-more-masc-than-hitherto-realised person who, prior to pregnancy, has been keeping all those feelings in a careful mental box without ever quite acknowledging them. All of a sudden dysphoria is a Real Goddamn Thing, because even more than your body changing, you’re suddenly being publicly, consistently, insistently gendered in ways you never have been before, and you realise oh, I really don’t like that, but feeling sad and gross and confused is, again, considered a fairly normal part of pregnancy, so it takes a couple of years to sort that all out, and in the interim, you contract a nasty viral infection postpartum that leaves you feeling shitty for months – and again, you are not listened to, not about the tiredness, discomfort and not-rightness in your body and certainly not about the excruciating pain that comes with breastfeeding, except to be told that you must be doing something wrong and either way just to push through it – until you finally collapse in a fever and have to be hospitalised for a week on powerful IV antibiotics.

Eventually, on your own recognizance – because, again, no one is listening to you, or at least, no one who’s a doctor – you do some research and determine that, regarding breastfeeding, you have an atypical presentation of Raynaud’s Syndrome, which is why it feels like someone is slowly pulling a hot wire out of your nipple when you feed your child (breast is best, the nurses say repeatedly; just push through the pain, are you sure you’re latching him properly? no? well, just keep at it, don’t switch to formula). You take this finding to a doctor who, for a miracle, agrees to prescribe you the relevant medication, and the pain goes away for a blissful week before you get a plugged duct and are once more in agony, at which point you switch to formula and, finally, are able to relax.

But your body still doesn’t feel right. You’re fatigued, not just tired but bone-pressingly exhausted all the time, so that some days you can’t get out of bed; it feels like there’s a giant hand physically pressing into the mattress, insisting that you need to lie down even when you already are. Your back starts to hurt. You explain this to doctors, but the best they can do is shrug and suggest it’s purely a mental health issue, as though your depression is making you hurt and tired instead of your hurt and tiredness making you depressed, and you don’t think that’s right, but you have to try something. So you go on antidepressants – a mild dose, of a drug you later find out is being discontinued in places because of its many unpleasant side-effects, with which you soon become intimately acquainted. They help a little, but the fatigue remains. Everything is hard.

You do more research. After a while, you wonder if the viral infection fritzed your immune system on its way out, as sometimes happens, making you more prone to inflammation. Tentatively, you ask your doctor to prescribe some anti-inflammatory meds. The doctor obliges; you take one, and have more energy than you’ve had in the four years since your child was born. Briefly, beautifully, you think you’re cured. But still, the tiredness comes back, stronger and worse, and now your back is hurting all the time, and one day it just goes twang! and leaves you barely able to walk for a fortnight. You blame the terrible Ikea couch you’ve been working on and try to sit more at a desk, which is uncomfortable in a different way, and keep on doing your best.

By the time your child is six, you’ve moved from England to Scotland to Australia to America and are now thoroughly tired of being tired, to say nothing of having doctors in four countries all shrug at the apparent vagueness of your daily, life-inhibiting tiredness and say there’s nothing to be done, all while implying you’re making it up. You think, all right: either this is a weird autoimmune condition that I can’t do anything about, or it’s something really simple and obvious that we’ve somehow missed. You rack your brains and come up with a single possibility: perhaps the only dietary change you made since becoming a parent – drinking soda in place of alcohol while pregnant, which became drinking soda daily thereafter – might be responsible. It feels like a hail Mary – bourbon and coke was your go-to pub order for years; if soda was a problem, surely you’d have noticed before? – but there’s nothing else to try. So you go cold turkey on soda, have two days of dizzying withdrawl symptoms, and then –

The fatigue is gone. Absurdly, beautifully, completely, gone.

Dazed, you do some googling. Apparently, it’s relatively common for pregnancy, which has a big impact on the immune system, to leave you with new allergies that you never had before. You learn that a certain type of caffeine intolerance, while not really referred to as an allergy, nonetheless falls under this umbrella, and that it can cause fatigue, as your body no longer processes caffeine as a stimulant. You have been poisoning yourself into misery for six years without anyone realising. You are furious; you are vindicated, that it wasn’t all in your head. To celebrate your newfound energy, you spend the whole day cleaning the house, bend slightly to look out the window at the end of it, and slip a disc in your lower back. The next day, you can’t walk and have to be stretchered down from your third-floor bedroom to a waiting ambulance – stretchered upright, because the stairs are too narrow for you to lie down. The pain is worse than childbirth. You go straight to hospital. It’s a week before you can walk again.

Recovery is slow. There is physical therapy. Months pass. You’re in pain every day, but (you think) manageable pain. By the start of 2020, you’re ready to go to the gym again, and have just gotten into the habit of it when the pandemic hits. The pandemic is all-encompassing and terrible; your child is in first grade when virtual learning starts and in third grade before he returns to a physical classroom. In 2021, both you and your husband suffer the loss of a parent and are unable to travel to be with family because Australia’s borders are closed. You watch their funerals over zoom; both times, the internet briefly cuts out.

Near the end of 2021 and with a newfound awareness of your mortality, it occurs to you that, two years after slipping a disc and five years after starting antidepressants, you are still in daily physical pain, while your mental health is good. You did ask for a chiropractic referral a few months back, but the doctor wouldn’t give you one: physical therapy only, they said, but the physical therapist never returned your call. The doctor who prescribed the antidepressants is in another country, while your current doctor is hard to get an appointment with even when there isn’t a pandemic. You do some research about going off your particular brand of antidepressants: the side-effects you’ve been living with are becoming steadily more pronounced, more unpleasant, and the more you research, the harder it is to understand why you were put in this particular medication in the first place, given the seeming gulf between its designated purpose and your original symptoms. The depression itself was caused and exacerbated by the now-understood fatigue, which is no longer an issue, and your dose is small enough that tapering won’t be noticeably better than going cold turkey. You decide to take the risk.

You go off antidepressants, and you use the money inherited from your father’s passing to pay for a chiropractor.

Withdrawal symptoms last just under two weeks and are mostly manageable – weird, but manageable. You brace for your mental health to crash, but it never does. Instead, your body gets stronger and your head gets clearer, and as you start to read more quickly, easily and voraciously than you have in years, you realise suddenly, angrily, that this vital part of yourself – your ability to read, to focus on words – had been badly impacted by a medication you should never have been put on in the first place; were only really prescribed because nobody was willing to figure out the source of your actual problem.

And then you go to the chiropractor, who takes one look at your spine, x-rays you to be sure, and shows you how, when you were pregnant, your pelvis twisted within your body, tilting up and back like a crooked bow-tie, steadily imbalancing your whole body. This is why your lower back has been hurting for years; why you slipped a disc so badly; why, even though you did everything your physical therapist asked of you, the pain never went away. You almost break down in tears in the chiropractor’s office, but manage to save them for when you get home. You begin a schedule of adjustments to put your bones back where they should be.

A week into 2022 – a month before your son’s 9th birthday – you wake up without a lancing pain in your hip for the first time since 2019.

It’s been nearly a decade since I first fell pregnant. My health has been impacted by it every day since then, both mentally and physically. I’m coming out of it now, I think – I hope – but I’ve thought that before, and each time, there’s been some other issue lurking in the woodwork. I love my son dearly; I am furious at the broader medical establishment for leaving me to fumble around in the dark, alone, because my quality of life was not held to be important if the symptoms impacting it didn’t have a quick, obvious, commonplace solution. I have been reticent to talk about going off antidepressants on my own as a positive thing, because even when they’re working properly and perfectly prescribed, they can still have unpleasant side-effects, and it’s easy to think you’re better when you’re not, and it’s always better to consult a medical professional, and and and – but still, I was prescribed a medication for a condition I did not have, in lieu of trying to determine what I did have, and it briefly helped the symptoms without touching the cause, and made my life miserable and hard to an extent I’m only fully realising in its absence, and I can read again now, without feeling like I’m forcing my eyes through glue, and I need to be able to say so.

The fact that I achieved anything professionally during this period is, the more I think about it, miraculous, or perhaps a testament to my own bloody-minded reliance on fiction in general and fantasy in particular to carry me through life. I want to blog more, and hopefully will do so, but I find that I’m having to unlearn a habit of flinching from my own ambitions. For so long, I’ve had to curate specific conditions in which to read, to write, to work, because if I attempted to do so otherwise, I’d run up against a wall of exhaustion and fail, and that sense of failure – of wanting to do a thing I love, but finding myself unable to – has left me inhibited, like a crocodile stunted to fit the undersized pool in which it’s kept. There are so many books I’ve picked up and struggled to read in the last few years, not due to any fault in the writing, but because my brain has been lagging, muddled; I want to read them now, but still, there’s this terrible, paralysing fear whenever I reach for one that the fog will come back, an invisible wall to smack me out of my progress. I feel the same about writing, especially here – but I’m trying. I’m going to keep trying.

My next book is coming out this year – my first since 2017 – and I’m terrified. I love this book; it’s just that I’ve got all this leftover terror of being too tired, too far away, too not-enough, and that makes it hard to remember that somehow, amidst all the terrible everything of the last half-decade, I managed to not only write a thing that I love, but get it on track to be published. Part of me is paranoid it’ll all somehow be taken away before it ever hits shelves, which I know is irrational, but I’m working on that, too.

Anyway. This is all to say that, while I haven’t been blogging much for a while now, I’m still here, and I’m trying, and I’m hopefully getting better, which is really the most that any of us can aspire to. It’s about to be the lunar year of the tiger, which is my year and therefore exciting, and frankly at this point, I can use all the positive omens I can find, so I’m leaning into it, mentally. And whoever’s reading this, I hope you have – or are having – a good new year, too. We could all do with one.

Comments
  1. KimBoo York says:

    I’m so glad you’ve journeyed through all of this and are here to bring a new book into the world! It is incredible how the “medical establishment” demeans and disbelieves women, and especially pregnant/post-pregnancy women (not something I had to go through but I’ve known so many women with stories similar to yours, it’s infuriating). I’m so sorry you’ve had to go through that. ❀

    As an aside, it's interesting about the effect of soda! I had a similar life-altering change when I cut out artificial sweeteners on a lark. No idea if it would make a difference to anything. Three days later my sweet tooth, in fact my craving for sweets in general which has haunted me since childhood, disappeared. I felt SO betrayed by the messaging around artificial sweeteners and weirded out by the change. Chemicals! Who knew! ahahahah.

  2. LionessElise says:

    We sure could, and likewise.

    Good hopes and positive omens are useful things.

  3. Jean Lamb says:

    Brava! I went through a similar struggle with menopause (without the agonizing pain, thank you turmeric supplements). Am now a caregiver, which means that anything wrong with me has to be ignored because, you know, caregiver. Oh, and still with fun menopause symptoms, though not as bad as they were.

    So my journey has not been the same, but I can sure hum harmony.

    Though I could give you some post-partum fun and games, too. Apparently once you’re on the estrogen rollercoaster your body screws with you for life (so when you start feeling not-right when you hit around the right age, get that part checked out, too and please get a female ob/gyn).

  4. Sheesh. I’ve heard other stories of doctors not listening to women but this turned out one of the worst. I’m glad things are improving.
    I hope the book does well.

  5. Thank you for sharing your story. I’m so sorry you had to experience all that pain and medical gaslighting. And I’m glad you’re finally getting the support you need. Be well and stay safe; be kind and stay strong. The world needs your stories. πŸ’œ

  6. Jeeeeeebus. I knew you’d been having some difficulties, but not the scale and persistence of them. I wish I could say I’m surprised at how you were treated by the medical establishment, but . . . yeah.

    VERY glad that things are on an upswing at last. May they continue that way.

  7. I’m so glad you’re on the mend! What an awful series of challenges.

    Thank you for sharing the detailsβ€”I know someone who has been similarly fatigued since pregnancy, and who drinks a lot of coffee, and now I’m wondering… Can you suggest useful keywords for researching that type of caffeine intolerance?

    • fozmeadows says:

      I think just looking up β€œcan caffeine cause fatigue” or β€œcan caffeine intolerance cause fatigue” is a good starting place. I hope your friend is able to get their issue sorted out!

  8. Dana Lynne says:

    Thank you so much for the post. I am so grateful you found your way out of that dark forest. So sorry you had such horrid doctors. I look forward to your blog posts whenever you are able to do them.

  9. Brian B. says:

    What a deeply miserable, frustrating series of challenges you’ve undergone, with such little help. Ugh! Several of my friends have had to create medical solutions to mysterious conditions by cutting out artificial diet elements of some sort or other; actually, now that I remember, our older child adapted just fine to pre-school many years ago, after being disruptive and miserable, once we made sure there were no artificial dyes in his food and drink. But then, of course, you found that and got a new hassle. We’re so glad you’re finally making progress to a better life.

    I grew up a short walk from the world’s leading chiropractics college. All my life I’ve heard (1) rationalists explaining why it’s a scam and (2) periodic testimonies from people incredibly grateful for their chiropractors. I’m supposed to be skeptical of group (2), but I dunno, doesn’t their own value system demand I be at least as skeptical about group (1)?

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