at least it’s just hair

This is me. This picture was taken on my 35th birthday. I had a full head of long, curly hair my whole life. At 30, my eyebrows started falling out. After my first daughter was born, I lost about 80% on my hair on my head. After my second daughter was born, I lost all my hair in my body, including my eyebrows and eyelashes. I’ve had a mixed relationship with my alopecia. I tried everything to stop the hair loss. The hardest part, though, was some of the things people would say to me. No one was ever deliberately mean, but they were thoughtless and would project onto me how they felt about my alopecia, unsolicited. Or they would compare their hair complaints to my alopecia, as though they were the same thing.

The hardest one for me to hear was “At least it’s just hair”. My body was (and still is!) going through so many other internal changes and symptoms. My hair loss was an outward representation of something terribly wrong in my body. Emotionally I’ve grown to embrace, or at least accept my alopecia. I’d obviously prefer to have hair on my head (and eyelashes!) However, I know many in the alopecia community who were devastated by their hair loss. No one should ever tell someone how they should feel about their illness.

At this point, I’ve become grateful for my hair loss. After so many doctors have blown me off for other symptoms for so long, the alopecia waves the red flag that something is up. I’ll take the silver linings where I can find them. 

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#ehlersdanlossyndrome #EDS #zebrastrong #POTS #MCAS #mastcellactivationsyndrome #craniocervicalinstability #CCI #hashimotos #chronicillness #spoonies #alopecia #alopeciauniversalis #chronicfatiguesyndrome #CSF #ME #butyoudontlooksick #invisibleillness

why the zebra?

Medical students are taught the phrase “When you hear the sound of hooves, think horses, not zebras”. This is in reference to a rare disease or condition- consider the more common diagnosis first and don’t jump the gun thinking it’s something more outside the box. Unfortunately, many doctors never get to thinking about zebras even after the horse is ruled out. Ehlers-Danlos syndrome is considered a rare condition (though I personally think it’s more common than we think, just under diagnosed), hence those of us with EDS being referred to as Zebras.

While I can appreciate this mentality, and understand the reasoning behind this kind of teaching, this mindset has been incredibly damaging to me and many of those in the zebra community. This kind of mentality leads to underdiagnoses and years of unnecessary physical and emotional suffering. After I received my diagnoses in March of this year, it took months for it to even sink in and for me to actually believe the doctor and what she was telling me. I kept trying to really internalize these new diagnoses and what it meant for me, but all I kept thinking was “She probably just gave me a diagnosis because she knew I was looking for one”. After unpacking this further, I realized this was a result of being told for many many years that I was fine. That it was me. That I just needed to meditate more. Have you tried yoga? (yes) Have you tried acupuncture? (yes) Are you taking B supplements? (yes) Therapy? (yes). These questions also evoke a sense of shame- like it’s my fault I feel this way. Like I’m not doing enough for myself. If I just did X or Y better, I would feel better. Doctors were condescending and would patronize me like I was making a big deal out of nothing.

Cardiologist: “You’re having heart palpitations all the time that take your breath away and make you super dizzy? Well, sweetheart, with that cup of coffee you drink in the morning, it’s no WONDER you feel that way!” (For the record, I did stop drinking coffee for a season and still got heart palpitations.)

Endocrinologist: “You’re hair is falling out? I mean, you did just have a baby. That’s totally normal”.

Me: <shows him how I’m 75% completely bald at this point, before I lost all of my body hair>

Endocrinologist: “Oh, well, you just need to try and get some rest. Stress’ll do that to ya.”

Former PCP: “You eat two eggs in the morning at the same time? You should never, EVER, eat two eggs at the same time.” (literal actual advise from a doctor. Because clearly, occasional eggs are the source of all my problems. Right up there with that one cup of coffee in the morning).

Functional Doctor: “I have some great meditation apps that can teach you mindfulness and relieve your anxiety.”

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for mindfulness. But mindfulness won’t fix my labral tears. Mindfulness won’t fix my cervical instability. Over and over again I was told that I was the reason for my health problems. I wasn’t doing enough, yet I was trying so hard. I started to downplay my symptoms. They’re telling me I’m fine, right? Guess I must be fine. Having a doctor tell me for the first time how unstable I am was simultaneously scary and so relieving.  I hear a lot of zebras feeling this way. I wonder how our journey’s could be different if we didn’t have to experience the emotional trauma of disbelief and belittlement, and could move towards a direction of awareness, support, and education from the beginning.

how did i get here?

Ten years ago, I started down what was the beginning of a long and exhausting journey. I didn’t know it at the time, but my life was soon to be changed in multiple ways. What started as generalized fatigue eventually moved on to constant stomach aches, headaches, joint pain and hair loss. I was diagnosed with Hashimotos disease, hypothyroidism, and alopecia. I was put on medication, but my symptoms progressed.  I started experiencing heart palpitations, vertigo, unexplained rashes, constant muscle pain, insomnia…. One day I collapsed due to debilitating hip pain. I went to the doctor and was diagnosed with adult onset hip dysplasia and a Femoral Acetabular impingement. I needed surgery. Seriously? Where was all this coming from? My body felt like it was falling apart piece by piece, and none of it made any sense. I ate right. I took care of myself. I used to be so physically active. I used to bike 15 miles a day. Now, walking up a flight of stairs is challenging. How is it now that I felt so terrible all the time? 

I started seeing one doctor after another. My endocrinologist recommended I see a neurologist, who recommended I see a cardiologist, who recommended I see a rheumatologist, who recommended I see a neuromuscular neurologist and on and on it went. I tried healing through functional medicine. Natural homeopathic remedies. Acupuncture. Essential oils. Supplements. Anti-inflammatory diets. Test after test was run. I became friends with my phlebotomist. I was worked up for multiple sclerosis, lupus, Lymes disease, rheumatoid arthritis, even blood cancer, which sounds awful. All negative. I was called “medically fascinating” more times than I could count. 

As time went on, I felt defeated. I was Discouraged. Hopeless at times. And felt so alone in the process. I couldn’t even go to a support group because no one knew what was wrong with me. Was this the best I was ever going to feel? Is it all downhill from here? 

This past fall, I started experiencing excruciating shoulder pain. After trying the chiropractor, more acupuncture, and a massage therapist with no relief, I finally went to see my doctor. She sent me to physical therapy, saying I might have to have another surgery depending on what was wrong. The physical therapist diagnosed me with a labral tear and generalized hyper mobility of my joints. A lightbulb went on. A dear friend of mine had suggested I might have this genetic disorder she also had. Hyper mobility was a tell tail sign, and I had many of the other symptoms. This disorder is not well understood by most doctors, and my heart couldn’t take another doctor not knowing what was wrong with me or blowing me off. She suggested I see a specialist in Virginia. 

On March 7th, I was seen by a doctor who not only knew exactly what was wrong with me, but could explain how all the symptoms were connected, including the hip surgery I needed and constant labral tears. I was diagnosed with Ehlers Danlos Syndrome type 3, Mast Cell Activation Disorder, and hyper-adrenergic POTS. After some follow ups and some imaging, I was also diagnosed with something called Craniocervical Instability. This is a scarier diagnosis, but I see a neurosurgeon who specializes in CCI fot patients with EDS on July 29th to find out exactly what this means for me. 

This past decade has felt sacrificing, contemplative, and deepening. For the first time in a decade, I have some answers. The suffering I have endured has ironically been a constant reminder of all that I have to be grateful for. It has given me an opportunity to spend time in some thin places, and hold both the darkness and the light. Through suffering there has been opportunity for resurrection not only in my journey, but also for those who have journeyed beside me. I appreciate it through the lens of C.S. Lewis, “I’m not sure God wants us to be happy. I think he wants us to love, and be loved. But we are like children, thinking our toys will make us happy and the whole world is our nursery. Something must drive us out of that nursery and into the lives of others, and that something is suffering.”

what’s in a spoon

I chose this name for two reasons. The first being for those of us who are #spoonies, I figured you’d gravitate to it and know this is a safe place for you here. You are seen and there is room for you at the table. The second is for those who don’t know “The Spoon Theory” and are seeking enlightenment on how they can better connect with and support their loved ones who experience chronic illnesses. This might be a helpful tool for you too.

The Spoon Theory is a personal story told by Christine Miserandino. Christine suffered from Lupus. The direct link to her story is here, https://butyoudontlooksick.com/articles/written-by-christine/the-spoon-theory/ , but the idea is the metaphor of spoons as finite units of energy. Those who are healthy possess a more-or-less infinite amount of energy to complete the tasks of a normal day. These are for things one can take for granted, like getting dressed in the morning or cooking a meal. However, those with long-term illness don’t have this luxury. They wake up in the morning with a fixed amount of spoons. For some it might be 12, for others it’s 6. And they must choose, do I get groceries? Or do I take a shower? If I have lunch with that friend, will I be paying for it for a day? You are in constant negotiation with yourself, borrowing a spoon from tomorrow to complete a task of today. It is exhausting and difficult to explain to those who aren’t in the trenches as some are.

This place is a space to both learn and grow together. I want to share my experience. I want to hear yours. I want to offer compassion and grace, both to those around me and also, the hardest part, to myself. This is about me, and it’s also about you. Let’s sit at the proverbial table and really know we’re not alone, and recognize what a gift that is.

Don’t worry, I saved a spoon for you.