Sickies and Sick Days

So last Saturday I went to a Writing Conference in Newcastle. It was interesting, and I enjoyed myself, but I noticed not long after arriving that I had that itchy, sinus-y feeling behind my nose that usually means hayfever is about to hit me with it’s puffy-faced rhythm stick. This developed into a few sneezes and sniffs over the course of the afternoon, and by the final panel had morphed into a snot-fest so impressive that total strangers in my vicinity were forcing me to take their tissues. But I already had evening plans, which I staggered through (albeit with far more snivelling and considerably less tolerance than usual) and eventually made it, gratefully, to my bed. Here is where it became apparent that this was not hayfever, but a cold. By 5.30am, when I was in the shower attempting to steam the bastard out having had no sleep whatsoever, it became apparent that this was an absolute bitch of a cold.

This pissed me off for several reasons. 1. Being ill sucks. 2. The one thing my body can be relied upon to do well and reliably is sleep, and the cold had taken even this away. 3. I have a chronic disease, which I feel should give me some sort of free pass for minor illnesses. 3. Being genuinely ill on a weekend feels like the universe is giving you the finger.

And it’s this last point I want to talk about today. That labyrinth of guilt, judgement and defiance that is The Sick Day. Now I find that people tend to fall into one of three camps when it comes to Sick Days:

  1. The person who calls in sick at least once a month for various nebulous reasons relating to headaches, dizziness and other intangible problems. Simultaneously resented and admired by colleagues, who sit around the office giving each other significant side-eye while saying things like, ‘it must have come on so sudden because Janet seemed fine yesterday…’ and wishing they’d made a bigger deal out of that sniffle they had last week.
  2. The person who will not call in sick even if they are literally dying, and feels the need to point this out at any given opportunity, whilst coughing into their tea round.
  3. The person who calls in sick only when they feel genuinely lousy, sits at home riddled with guilt all day and spends the next week apologising profusely to everyone they work with.

During school I did my damnedest to be a Type 1, and was usually thwarted by my mother’s cast-iron insistence that I should ‘see how [I] feel when [I] get there’. Real illnesses were few and far between, and padded with a gradual three-day build up to an Oscar-worthy performance of coughing and spluttering that would have put Meryl Streep to shame, but rarely convinced my mum.

These days, I’m ashamed to say, I’ve become a Type 3. Having been diagnosed with an actual disease, I’m constantly telling myself that I shouldn’t use the sick day now – because I might need it later this month. It’s a stupid attitude. The equivalent of saving your favourite part of a huge meal until the last mouthful, only to be so full you can’t actually eat it. Last year during a flare-up of my ulcerative colitis, I told work I only needed the mornings – when my colitis is at its worst – at home, and spent more than one afternoon trapped in the staff bathroom, pretty sure that getting that email sent out could have waited. But what if there had been a day where I really couldn’t leave the house – as opposed to just managing the 20 minute walk to work – and I’d already taken a sick day that week?

That smart attitude would be: well bloody take it anyway.

But it’s so hard to feel that way. During the year prior to my diagnosis, when my symptoms came and went in spectacularly unpredictable swings, I was working in a café and knew that my calling in sick would mean one of my colleagues’ day off was ruined by The Phone Call. So I didn’t do it. Even now I have an office job, and nobody directly bears the brunt of my sick day, the hangover of that guilt still plagues a Sick Day. Even the Sick Days when I’ve been unable to keep any food down, didn’t have the energy to walk to the corner shop and have to physically grit my teeth through the pain in my stomach, I felt guilty. How stupid is that?

So this week, on Monday morning, I called in sick. To be honest, I was feeling much better than I had on Sunday and probably could have staggered through the day if I’d needed to. But that’s not the point. Just because you can force yourself onwards, it doesn’t always mean you should. Sometimes, you need to power through the guilt, and take that bloody Sick Day. Sometimes you need it.

That said, I still felt guilty enough to do an extra day’s work later in the week, to make up for the heinous cheek of being ill. Baby steps.

(In a similar vein, this fantastic The Pool article sings the praises of occasionally having a skive – and I agree with every word of that, too.)

5 things for a fiver that have helped my overall well-being

Here is Amy with a blog about some cheap things you can do to help you in trials and tribulations of everyday life.

Since graduating from my MA on average I have lived on around £50 a week. This excludes the rent/board I have been given my sister to keep a roof over my head and times when I have been able to save a bit (mainly for a trip to Hong Kong I had in February). But in general I have learnt to live on not a lot of money at all. But I hear you say, what the hell has this got to do with health?

Well, the instability of my life for the last year and a half has had an impact on my mental health. It is reflective of many of my friends who have gone through (and are going through) a similar experience. But instead of banging on about it because I do appreciate things could be a lot worse, I am going to talk about some coping mechanisms I have come with which help me along the way. Please bear in mind with this, that I do live in Sheffield and I am quite quirky.

So here you go *drum roll* “5 things you can do for a fiver which help your mental wellbeing”:

1. Plants: I have always liked plants. When I lived in Manchester I bought a lavender plant when I was having a bad day and decided mentally that if I could make the plant blossom, my life was going to be ok. A year later after dragging it a long with a car load of all my possessions over the Pennines, it died and I thought I was destined to failure. Post Hong Kong where I spent many evenings wondering around the wonderful Bangkok Flower Market with my friend Oliver, I came back completely inspired and since, I have managed to grow some magnificent flowers in the flat. For a couple of quid you can get a vase or (I like) a clear bowl, and for a similar amount you can buy a plant. There is something about nurturing another living thing I find quite therapeutic.

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2. Meditation: This is relatively new to me, but I have always enjoyed the meditating I have done in the past. After a recent high blood pressure reading, I took a leaf out of Becky’s book and went to a meditation drop in last week. It was simply wonderful and so relaxing I really took a lot from the experience. For £4.50 it was worth every penny and hopefully will have a positive impact on my health!

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Big Buddha in Hong Kong

3. Coffee and cake with a friend: Not sure if any of you have felt the same, but there is a lot of guilt when you’re poor. Because money is tight, you always feel bad for spending money of things that lack real “significance”. Putting aside the assurance that I have applied and continue to apply for full time/stable work, I have realised with time how important it is to have friends you can meet up with and have a rant to. A coffee and cake helps as well and there are a handful of lovely spots in Sheffield where you can get a coffee and a cake for a fiver or less. I find this really important to keeping me balanced.

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4. Exercise: I have blogged a lot about this is in the past, but I find exercise possibly one of the most important hobbies in my life at the moment and a lot of this has to do with my mental health. My advice is to find an exercise you enjoy, some people are more individualistic (like me) who prefer running on their own than taking a directions from someone else; some people enjoy the camaraderie you get from a class. Either way, exercise is so important to maintaining a healthy body and a healthy mind (sorry, I wish I could word that differently to sound less of a pretentious twat). Putting aside the trainers/leggings/sports bra you might need to initially buy, running and other forms of exercise are very cheap, if not free (and you can look like this below…)

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Currently training for 10k. This is a picture of me after a run and says it all.

5. Buying fresh food: One of my favourite weekly activities is going out of my way to walk for 25 minutes to buy my fruit and veg from Ozmens on London Road (well I did tell you I was quirky…) I currently work from home two days a week, and I find that a break in the afternoon does me a lot of good. I have always loved cooking and am a proud foodie, so the excitement I get from food shopping in a lovely international food centre is mega. I manage to get quite a lot for a fiver too!

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I realise at the end of this list that there a number of other coping mechanisms I have as well, such as buying a monthly album, drawing/being generally crafty, live music, Ru Paul’s Drag Race, a good book, writing these blogs. I suppose this realisation is a warming ending to this rather strange blog post…

Am I losing my spine or am I losing my mind?

This week Amy is in conversation with her sister Elle, talking about the back problems she has been suffering with over the last few months.

It all really started at the end of January. That’s when I first started having lower back pain, but it wasn’t severe at this point. It was on the 23rd of January, on a Friday, that I woke up and thought “this has got a lot more serious.” I was particularly concerned because the pain was in my lower back, not in the shoulders/neck area which is where I usually suffer with tension.

I decided to check my urine (I am a nurse bear in mind) to check for any signs of infection, it was completely clear…

What are the signs of a urine infection? (well this is a health blog after alll…)

Nitrates in your urine. Leucocytes in your urine. Protein in your urine. Mine was completely clear (and I did two samples because this is the sort of person I am…)

So let’s get back to it…

Yeah so anyway I continued to go back to work, but mentioned to the staff that my back was hurting. By the end of the shift I was in severe pain. The only way I can describe it was that my whole back was like a brick, and that there was a fist wrapped around my spine at the bottom.

My partner Adam, who has suffered with back problems himself, was looking worried when I got back to the flat. We decided to go to the walk in centre but there was a 4 hour wait and in panic, I rang 111. They basically said you know “just go home and rest it off.”

The pain got really bad that night. I mean I couldn’t sit down or lie down, I just had to stand all the time. I rang 111 again and they got me an appointment with the GP collaborative. The GP I saw said that they suspected I had a muscular strain and prescribed me some high strength cocodemol. I was also signed off work for two weeks.

So how did you feel after the two weeks off?

I continued to be in pain.

What was the pain like, can you describe it?

For the first week it was just very very tight, like I was sat in a corset that was being tightened. I just was never not in pain. The cocodomal wasn’t really working either, so then I was put on diazepam.

After a while, my pain started to ease off in the mornings, but grew worse in the afternoon. I was in a cycle of taking my medication and ringing 111 for support.

Mentally it was difficult too. I felt like I had lost control of my body. You know, I couldn’t do the things that I could always do. I was very scared, I was very worried that it was going to be like that forever. I had known of people slipping discs and having to take months off work and I was worried it was going to affect my career. I don’t like being sat in my own thoughts in my own flat.

After the first couple of weeks, I started to go back to work which was on reflection a mistake, but I was taking a GPs advice. I did one shift, came back and I couldn’t walk like normal. I had to be guided to bed by Adam.

After this came the spasms. They felt like I was being electrocuted down my entire body, from my back down to my legs. The combination of these and the palpitations was horrific. It felt like a prickly porcupine was wriggling up my back. I couldn’t sleep properly and I was exhausted. I was ringing my GP every couple of days for more help, but they just said to continue to take the medication for now.

I was struggling to cope at this point, I was panicking; I felt I was locked in a room and I couldn’t get out. All I wanted was to be back to normal, you know I couldn’t get in the bath on my own, I couldn’t dress myself, I couldn’t pick anything off the floor, I couldn’t do any house work.

Not that you did much anyway…

Haha I know. But for that to happen to me, as someone who has always been independent and powered through difficult situations, was very difficult.

 

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A relaxing foot mask

 

Do you think that the mental effects of being ill had an impact on the physical symptoms?

I do I think it made the pain worse in a way. I was constantly having dark thoughts and being out of my routine of work did not help. I had really irrational thoughts as well like, what if I am paralysed? Am I going to be like this for the rest of my life? Crying for no reason, you know just crying!

And now you sound like me!

Hahaha I know! But really it was like my body was saying you have to cry, you are in too much pain not to be crying.

My symptoms changed after this point. I got more syatic pain; numbness, pins and needles, tingling down both legs and a numbness down below. It was very on and off. I had started to go to physio which was helping.

Do you think that part of the fact you were getting better at this point was that someone had taken more concern over your problem?

I think part of it was that and I think part of it was the fact he (the physio) had, through deep massage, literally got the spasm out. You know, for a while during and after physio my muscles were really relaxed.

To be honest the following few weeks were like a rollercoaster. One good day where I could walk a lot and be active was met by another terrible day where I couldn’t do anything. And there was conflicting advice; some people said to keep active, others said don’t do too much. I was in a  whirlwind of contradictions to be honest and was the whole way through this experience. Every professional I met, the physios and the GPs, told me different things. I was lost. In the end I just listened to my gut and did what I felt made me feel better at the time.

 

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Soaking my feet really made me feel better

 

After about two months, I felt I was getting somewhere and I went back to work. Unfortunately after about two weeks at work I had a flare up, which involved biolateral leg pain in both legs, feet and my bum. I also had arm pain and was starting to have spasms again. I thought I was back to square one.

After weeks of not contacting them, I rang 111 again, in desperation really. I’d never had leg pain in both legs. The numbness down below was getting more and more intense; I felt like I was needing to wee all the time. The pain in my legs was excruciating. I couldn’t sit for more than 10 minutes. After a few days I was referred to a muscular specialist who then referred me for an MRI scan, mainly due to my caudaequina symptoms, normally highlighting a more severe problem.

At this point I was off work again. There was one night where, I am sure you remember Amy, we ended up in A&E because I was so scared of what I was feeling.

It must have been about a week later that I got my MRI scan. I just couldn’t believe the results. I had no abnormalities, with either my neck or my spine. I burst into tears on my doctor, I just couldn’t believe it.

The GP explained how complex the back was, and she felt it was most likely a muscular problem. She told me that muscular pain can be just as bad and that if it had occurred in a certain area of my body, that it can push on the syiatic nerve.

So reflecting on these quite surprising results have you any thoughts?

I explained to my physio, who was very surprised by my results, that I have suffered with severe anxiety and part of my condition is overthinking things. I have had help with this for many years, but obviously this experience you know, was completely knew and different to anything I had gone through before. I do believe that the stress and anxiety that I was under, worrying about my career, my life, having to have surgery all these things which had become very real and apparent just exacerbated the symptoms.  I think part of this was also because I wasn’t on the right medication.

So to conclude I think you should delve into your coping mechanisms throughout this experience…

Well apart from the support network that I had, I turned to Art. Through being creative I felt like I was doing something productive and I didn’t have to move much to do it which helped! Walking and generally going out when I could, helped. I had regular baths and magnesium flakes really worked well for me as well. Also heat patches.

Oh my God the heat patches…

Yeah, the heat patches that I wasn’t meant to put directly onto my skin which I didn’t realise until last week or something! But yes, the help of my boyfriend Adam, the exercises I was told to do like palates on the swiss ball. Because of my low mood as well, nothing really interested me but sweet foods- muffins, cream cakes, chocolate éclairs- so in many ways I comfort ate.

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What I will say to end it is that you have to go with your gut instinct and I am now taking amatriptoline which is helping me tremendously with the nerve pain.

 

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Some great exercises to help strength your core and back

 

 

 

Trying to find balance

Written by Ros her previous blogs have been about anxietykeeping goingbeing ill and capableautism and the question ‘how are you?’, more of her art can be found here.

I am writing this the day it’s supposed to be posted… well to be completely honest a week after it was supposed to be posted (luckily Meg saved the day last week with her excellent post).

If you know me you’re probably thinking that’s normal because I’m a bit of a disorganised mess. I am terrible at responding to messages, committing to plans, I am often doing things last minute, things that should be simple can take me weeks to get round to etc.

I think scatty or eccentric would definitely be words used to describe me, however there is a lot of time and energy that goes into being this disorganised so today I’m going to break some of that down for you with a glimpse into the world of my Autistic brain.

Behind the chaos:

  • Most of my blog posts are very well thought through, re-written multiple times (and in ideal circumstances proof-read at least once).
  • I have a system for how I rank texts and the importance of replying to them; there are multiple variables here and even those on my priority reply to list often get ignored.
  • I attempt to rank ‘daily’ tasks by importance, time and energy.
  • When I make plans there are many factors I consider, I often run them through with another person and my reply will have been thought through (even if its ‘I’ll have to think about it’).
  • Activities I have done before/places I have been have their own score, which intersects with my physical/mental state; I also have a system for judging new things and places based on this.
  • On that note I also have complex social systems which has people in my life placed based on my assessment of our relationship and multiple other factors (this influences my interactions with this person in relation to my current state).

I have often thought about drawing these out but it feels vaguely sociopathic to have physical representations of some of these concepts.

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I use these systems to attempt to organise myself; I have to-do lists dotted around, which try to take these into account. My to-do lists never look that complex and how effective they are is dependent on my mental state but I’m getting better, they can contain things like ‘shower’ (I put my towels on to wash today, if you have an estimate for the last time I washed them you can probably double it and you would still be wrong).

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One of the reasons I need these lists (and also why they fail sometimes) is because often I am at the mercy of my own body/brain. I have come to realise that the greatest of intentions do not mean something will happen; I mean I can’t even clean my teeth twice a day and I keep a toothbrush by my bed.

I have come to see my physical form as a delicate eco structure as unpredictable and irritating as it is beautiful. One moment I can be buzzing with energy, practically bouncing of the walls; another I cannot muster the energy to get up and go to the loo, pick up the glass of water from the bedside table or even adjust to a more comfortable position.

The same is true of my brain, I can have brilliant ideas, be thoroughly engaged and interested in the world, then everything can disappear into nothingness suddenly I find it hard to access simple knowledge or care about engaging with anything/anyone.

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There are many shades of these states and they can interact in the strangest ways (being full of energy yet mentally aware that nothing matters and having no motivation to do anything, is a strange conundrum).

This is what I have to be aware of in the general scope of my life and it’s difficult; understanding my own emotions is not something I am highly skilled at, my concept of time is extremely fucked up and my processing speed can match that of an old school computer.

You may be thinking the number of systems I have is overkill, but this is how I maintain a life that is not predictable.

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Without these systems I get to new places and I shut down, think of the worst pain you have ever been in, that brain fog that overwhelms everything, that’s kind of my experience. Or maybe a better description is that moment when you can’t think of a word it’s on the tip of your tongue, you can feel it in your brain but it just won’t let you access it. Now imagine things like how to start/continue a conversation, how to walk into a room (how to leave to got to the loo) are just on the tip of your tongue, it’s not great.

More to the point, without these I may not even get involved in half the interesting things/people that I do manage to engage with.

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While I don’t always pay attention to these lists and systems having them in place is useful and I update them the more I learn (as most of them are internal). I am constantly trying to figure out a balance, but often (even with my systems) this is like trying to control a see-saw when the other side is an over-excited child.

The more I think about this metaphor the better it gets: I mean as an adult you can sink down and stop the see-saw but what you’ll get is a child in the air in tears or jumping off: the inevitable injury. But also as soon as you push off you are at risk of the child pushing with the whole force of their body leaving your knees at severe risk. Sometimes you get off/fall off the seesaw and you take some time away but eventually you get back on and try and figure out this whole balance thing over again.

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I’m not sure if this made any sense or was even that accurate but I gave it a good shot and I still just about managed to post it on the Friday (just about).