Getting a diagnosis of CIRS can be beyond overwhelming. There is no other diagnosis that brings with it such relief that you finally know what it is and how to fix it, followed by the slow, sickening waves of realization about how devastating “the solution” is. Contrast it with a diagnosis of cancer, which is utterly terrifying. With cancer, there is a huge amount to research, a sickening sense of uncertainty and mortality and a scary, expensive, time-consuming path to healing with “odds” of survival. Cancer is a huge bomb that drops onto your life, perhaps one that you know about personally.
With cancer, you may, amid the disruption, feel the outpouring of care from your family, friends and community. Someone might start a Mealtrain for you. People come to visit you. They feed you. Bring you flowers. You probably get to stay in your home, with all your tiny routines that function as a basis for any growth or striving or healing. You might get to sleep in your own bed, with all the coziness, warmth, security to nurture you through the aftermath of the bomb. It might bring you closer to your family and friends.
When the CIRS bomb drops, there is no Mealtrain. Your family and friends have never heard of this illness, and while they acknowledge that you are sick, they secretly wonder to each other about your mental health. Your visits to doctor after doctor yielding nothing more than “Your blood tests are all normal” has you wondering about your own mental health, too.
When you finally find a doctor who can do the correct bloodtests and who can tell you confidently that they have seen this before and they know what to do, well…you feel a tremendous sense of vindication. Phew!! Followed by anger. Why was this so hard? Why didn’t they believe me? The memory of arrogant doctors dismissing the agony you were in by telling you it was probably psychosomatic can make your blood boil.
The relief of finally knowing that there is a path to wellness starts to give way to alarm as you learn about what it is. Goodbye cozy bed. Goodbye family. Goodbye beloved house in which you have lived your cozy life. Maybe you will try to fix your house and come back to it. It’s a crapshoot, but in the short term, your life will be disrupted. Where can you live? Where will you sleep? How soon can you stop feeling like shit?
A Mealtrain right now would be awesome because you can’t find your fucking toothbrush. When your sense of place and all your tiny systems disappear, your nails get too long because you don’t know where your nail clippers are. You miss your medication doses because you’re not sure where you left your meds. Or you simply lose track of time because you’re not sleeping normally and feel like you somehow appeared in the middle of a dystopian novel where all your friends are suddenly too busy, and people who love you still stay away because they say they fear they might make you sick. You are hard to be around.
You suddenly have ten times more laundry than you can physically do in a day, but you are too scared to let anyone else touch it to help you. You start becoming scared of everything. “Is this object covered in the substance that made me sick?” You can’t see it or smell it. You can’t even feel where it is coming from at first. You are just learning that it exists as your own private invisible kryptonite, but that other people can eat it for lunch. You drag your sorry ass on survival missions to get food and do laundry and you bump into Facebook friends whose eyes glaze over when you start to tell them how your life is unraveling. They let you know that “you look good!”and then tell you “Let me know if there’s anything we can do!”
Next you realize that all the places you normally go could be contributing to the problem. The bank, the hardware store, your friend’s house, the car repair place. “Do I literally need to change my clothes and wash my hair after every store I go into?” It’s impossible. You bring the yuck into your car. Then stop feeling safe in your car. Your feeling of being safe in the world gets washed away like dust off your windshield in a monsoon.
CIRS has a much lower morbidity than most cancer diagnoses, but while a cancer diagnosis typically connects patients to the people in their lives and with their will to live, a CIRS diagnosis drives people away and connects you with your will to die.
When this happened to me, I began to feel a commitment that I would not commit suicide because I wouldn’t want to trade my pain for their pain like that. I could vividly envision the suffering of my son and my parents and my sister and my friends. But since I can’t be around my loved ones anyway, I sometimes get to feeling like I am holding a spot in the universe simply to prevent my loved ones from feeling the grief of my death. There are still days in which it feels like there is no other purpose to my incredibly grinding routine of uncomfortable survival than to postpone the date of my own death for their sakes. At least with cancer, it would be out of my hands.
No, I don’t want to die. But there are certain lives that include so much suffering that you don’t blame the person for wanting to die. Especially when they don’t realistically have a sense of future without the current suffering.
But there are a couple of crucial things I have learned on this path through hell.
Karen Dean reminded me that the struggle WILL come to an end. It is longer, more absurd and more grueling than anything you have ever even heard of, but there will come a time when you will have figured out how to sleep, how to have routines again and how to accomodate this new reality. And you will have fun again. She reminded me that people who commit suicide don’t ever get to have fun again. “I have had so much fun in the last few years!” she said. Someone she knew who committed suicide ten years ago hasn’t had any fun.
You will dance again, and make love, and eat delicious food. You will laugh again. It’s true. I have.
Your life might have gotten blown to pieces and you might never get back to how it was before, when you loved your life before. But I have also learned that there are things to love about this new, reconfigured life. No, I don’t have my son. It’s like a knife in my stomach when I think about it. But I woke up in my hammock in this wilderness and watched a great blue heron fly overhead. I have a daily routine of slipping into a hot springs and meditating while I look at the mountains. I know the phase the moon everynight without trying. I never noticed that before. I know what time it comes up (50 minutes later each night) and that I don’t need a flashnight when it’s waxing but I do need one when it’s waning.
There are certain lives that include so much suffering that you don’t blame the person for wanting to die. But I don’t have one of those. I am not a refugee fleeing a war zone. I am not a sex slave in a human trafficking ring. My child isn’t dead. My government isn’t trying to exterminate me. I feel like Sophie in Sophie’s Choice because I had to choose my health over being with my child, but I have enough food and I am physically safe and I even enjoy myself sometimes now. I am becoming a part of this new community I had to flee to. I can’t go home without getting sick, but there are really cool people here, too. There are kind, generous people everywhere. And I attract them, apparently.
I still have to live outside and I still constantly have crazy health problems that keep me from sleeping and require that I handwash all my laundry. But I have routine now. And electricity. And it’s no longer winter. I am still cold at night in my hammock, but I am OK.
I have learned that I have more choice about my suffering than I thought.
I have learned that there is a mental fork in the road that I encounter when I am having a problem. One fork is a path towards flipping out, spiraling into depression and despair and comparing my life to the life I had or one I’m “supposed to have.” I have learned that I actually have to contribute extra energy to animate all that suffering on that fork.
The other fork is completely different. On this path I stay in the present moment. In the present moment I am aware of how lucky I am. I have the freedom to take actions that can alleviate my physical symptoms. There’s always something I can try. I am not trapped. Sometimes that might include heating water so that I pour warm water over myself at 2am in the moonlight. It’s cold at first, and then I realize I am enjoying it. I might have noticed a sense of dread, but then I watched the dread from the sidelines, instead of inhabiting it. And look at that, I actually enjoyed that shower instead of using it to shore up some sense of resentment at the travails of my life.
I can suffer less even when my circumstances haven’t changed.
It has occured to me that there might be a purpose for me afterall, beyond staying alive so that my loved ones don’t grieve my death. I don’t know what it is yet. But I don’t have to know yet.
I can use my mind to solve my problems without giving it the power to send me into despair with its fictional stories. I can turn it off and pay attention to now. I am alive on planet Earth in this spectacularly beautiful, primordial place.
It is impossible for me to “schedule” my recovery and plan a future. I have no idea what will happen. The best I can do is to make wise choices now towards the future I would like to have, knowing that the “future” is an ever-changing figment of my imagination. I can’t will it into existence. All I really can do is stand at this fork in the road and choose one fork instead of the other. Over and over.