Healthier Stay


Reflections On Shark Week

It’s Shark Week! The one week a year where the cable universe is devoted to the most majestic of underwater predators, the shark. I am a marine biology freak. My dream job has always been, Marine Mammologist, and I love snorkeling and SCUBA diving. Shark week is always a big thrill for me. It’s also a week of reflection. When I think of sharks I think of grace, agility, power, strength and pain. Sharks make me think of pain dreams.

Since I live with Crohn’s, Ulcerative Colitis (UC) and Chronic Functional Abdominal Pain (CFAP), pain is a part of my life every day. Chronic pain comes in many forms, mine include; cramping, burning, stabbing, searing, throbbing and pressure. I’ve learned to deal with most of it through medication, breathing and guided relaxation but there are times when I’ve had absolutely no power over my body. Pain medicine is not designed to take all of your pain away. It’s designed to take the edge off and restore some functionality. The best case scenario, in most cases, is a 50% pain reduction but that can take years and pain is never static. Breathing and relaxation are great to help when you are conscious, but what happens when you are asleep or if the pain knocks you out? I’ll tell you…pain dreams. When I am flaring I get nightmares so intense I actually feel like my body is being attacked. Sometimes I dream of lions but mostly it’s a great white shark literally tearing me to pieces. My pain gets so intense that my brain equates it with an external attack. I dream I’m getting eaten by an apex predator with a giant toothy grin. When this happens I can’t wake up, I start screaming and fighting for my life. Woe to anyone who tries to wake me up because I am apt to punch or kick them and I don’t even know they are there. I just keep trying to get away from the pain.

These horrible dreams were very common when I was first diagnosed, occurring anywhere from a couple a night to several a week. That was a truly frightening time for me, I couldn’t control my body and I was hurting the people I loved. I was most worried about my dad. He was onTPN(nutrition and medicine pumped through an IV) with his IV catheter attached to his heart. If he tried to help me while I was flailing I could have killed him. I was afraid to go to sleep and terrified of what I was going to wake up to. These dreams kept up for about 3 years, through sleeping pills, anticonvulsants, antidepressants, painful muscle blocks and sleep studies.

I finally found a doctor who listened to me; he changed my pain medicine and recommended a pain therapist. Finally, my dreams started to recede as I started a new regimen of opioids and relaxation therapy. I’ve been having a bad flare since January and I’ve only had one pain dream. I think my body has been trained to breathe and relax even when I’m unconscious. My pain keeps growing, but my body’s responses are better and I’m exploring better pain management, including a pain pump. The pump will deliver medicine through my opioid receptors and I won’t be held hostage to my faulty GI tract for pain relief anymore.

As I watch Shark Week this year, I can reflect on how far I’ve come. I enjoy the shows for what they are and celebrate an amazing, misunderstood animal that should be respected. As I watch, I think of my body the same way. Maybe with training, awareness and research we can win the battles against our bodies and save the sharks!

We Fight Crohn’s Every Day

I’ve been living with chronic illness for the past fifteen years, but it has affected me all of my life, my father had it and brother was diagnosed when he was eleven. I struggle daily to live a life that is defined by me, Donna Kay, and not by Crohn’s disease. The best way for me to explain my life with Crohn’s, Ulcerative Colitis (UC) and Chronic Functional Abdominal Pain (CFAP) is through analogy, this is how I’ve always pictured it in my head. My symptoms started getting very unruly and I was diagnosed my freshman year of college, coincidentally a TV show debuted that I absolutely loved—Buffy the Vampire Slayer. One of the main characters is Angel a vampire cursed with a soul. Angel started his afterlife as Angelus, a vampire, whose only concern was which human he would attack next. After killing the wrong Gypsy Princess, he is cursed with a soul and has to live with the guilt of killing all those people.

Stay with me here, I don’t think people with Crohn’s, or other chronic illnesses, are demon spawn. Angel is unique, he has to struggle with an entity that wants to rule his life and a soul that keeps him connected to the real world. Once he has a soul he becomes a person fighting his own body. I think of Crohn’s as the vampire side: sapping his strength, attacking his body, placing him on a specific diet i.e., the blood bank, inhibiting his dating life, limiting mobility, sometimes causing depression (Angel can be a broody son of a gun.), constantly in a state of thirst (pain) that can never really be slaked. Oh, and all of these are enhanced as his stress increases. That seems like a horrible existence- it’s supposed to be it’s a curse for his prior transgressions- but Angel learns to master his own life and body. He learns to coexist with this permanent hitchhiker and even find a use for some of his afflictions. This may be an odd comparison but it shows what Crohn’s can do when left unchecked and what we can do as we learn to accept it as a part of life, but not as the ruler of it.

Crohn’s is an autoimmune disease that affects the digestive system, from the mouth all the way through, it causes inflammation, ulcerations, blockages, fistulae and cobblestoning {numerous ulcers mixed in with healthy tissue to give the effect of a cobblestone street}. So basically, a Crohn’s patient is attacked by their own body and the area that is hit worst is the body’s supply depot. Our bodies can’t pull all of the necessary nutrition from food because something in there is constantly maneuvering against it. We learn quickly what food we can eat, and what food will cause immense pain. The most common symptoms for Crohn’s disease are; nausea, vomiting, cramping, constant pain, irregular bowel habits, acid reflux, bleeding and anemia. That’s a lot to deal with every day. It can feel like your whole body is working against you but you still need to carry on with your day.

In Sunnydale, vampires act like, um, vampires. They can drink all the blood that they want and generally enjoy wreaking havoc. The vampires have no humanity or compassion; those qualities died and were replaced with a demon that controls their bodies. This world is shared with humans, who fight every night for their right to life, a chance to graduate from high school, follow their dreams and kick some vampire ass. Angel has a huge challenge. He has to fight his own body so that he can try to lead a fulfilling life. He still has the cravings of a vampire, but he has a soul now and so he has emotions and nerves. He sometimes turns into Angelus, but never for very long. Angel gets nervous now and worried and upset and happy and loving, he’s almost hormonal!

With Crohn’s that is always a big challenge, worrying if the conditions will be conducive to your body: Is there a private bathroom? Will I be able to eat at the dinner party, i.e.: will I be too nauseas, is there anything that I can eat? Do I have my medicine ready? What do I have to do to plan for this activity? If I can’t go will I still have friends? Since we can not always be spontaneous, we need to plan ahead just in case something comes up quickly. I know that doesn’t make a lot of sense, but with a chronic illness, the more you prepare for anything, the more you are able to do. I have all of my medicine in one bag at home and I try to have at least 8 hours of medicine, hopefully 24 hours, on me at all times. I take 28 pills a day, so they don’t really fit in a seven day pill box, it’s just too small. I have had to train myself to get my meds together before I leave, every time, so that I can face the day and all of its surprises. Scoping the area for available restrooms, even asking staff if there is a family or private restroom, releases some stress because you know where you need to go, when you need to go, in a hurry. Making sure to eat ahead of time is another big recommendation. Before arriving at my friend’s wedding, I ate dinner at home. She was providing food at the reception, but I can’t eat fresh fruit or vegetables, or anything with seeds or nuts, that makes it hard to eat at a summer wedding. I also try to drive myself, then if I have to leave I won’t infringe on anyone else’s fun. This way of life can be difficult but it has enabled me to enjoy more of the same things as healthy people.

Angel eventually learns to help his friends and becomes a knowledgeable resource; they turn to him nearly every week. Eventually, he learns to help people he’s never met and shows them that they can live with a dark side too. On the show, Angel, Angel helps Faith, a rogue vampire slayer. She learns to fight off her darkness and feel human again. One particular trait that I admire in the Crohnie/ HYPERLINK “http://www.butyoudontlooksick.com”Spoonie/  HYPERLINK “http://www.whatthejules.com” Chronically Awesome community is that we try to help our newbies. We can share our stories and our knowledge with a new patient, family member or a friend. We share on social media, we share on our websites, we talk and we walk in the  HYPERLINK “http://www.ccfa.org” Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation’s Take Steps Be Heard walks. We want a cure but, until we get that we want to live as normal a life as possible and share our successes.

I remember my first pain attack; I

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