Chronic Disease

Day 218 and Brain Fog

Being physically sick sucks. But having your mind take a turn for the worse can be worse. I’ve written about being in the grips of pain and the fear I have of exhaustion, but I don’t think I’ve written about what it feels like for one’s mind to struggle.

Whenever I read about recovering from covid and it’s challenges I can’t help but notice how often brain brain gets mentioned. The Lancet published a study of over 80,000 people that offers some concerning evidence that Covid has significant impacts on brain function.

“Finer grained analysis of performance across sub-tests supported the hypothesis that COVID-19 has a multi-domain impact on human cognition.”

If you don’t rely on your mind to make a living maybe the prospect of losing cognition isn’t as scary. Though I doubt it. I’d argue that the primary fear of losing one’s mind has much more to do with feeling one cannot communicate as effectively with one’s loved ones. We tend to get used to our cognitive capacity and finding it lacking can be quite terrifying.

I’m quite lucky that my own disease, ankylosing spondylitis, messes with my spine and not my mind. I’ve generally retained my sharp mind even if my body occasionally fails me. But I’ve still felt the frustration and confusion that comes with reaching for understanding and problem solving and coming up short.

Occasionally if my pain is bad enough my mind feels like it slows. It’s almost imperceptible but it’s still there. Like I am grasping for something that’s just an niche or two out of place on a shelf. You reach expecting it to be there and startle with confusion when it’s not. You adjust and get your grip and can carry on, but you are frustrated as you felt sure that the extra inch wasn’t supposed to be there.

Lucky for me this is fairly rare and easily solved with an NSAID. Once acute pain recedes my thinking is quick again. But what if it wasn’t? How would I learn to cope with that sense that my thinking wasn’t as clear as normal? Sure, maybe aging will do me in eventually, but I wouldn’t chose anything that could slow my mind.

Chronic Disease Internet Culture

Day 217 and Reasonable Accommodation

Accessibility is an interesting topic for Americans as we pride ourselves on being the land of opportunity. Every citizen has the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Of course, in practice the outcomes of this pursuit are wildly unequal. But we all generally agree that every American should be given the same chance to pursue it. We want the American dream to be accessible. Equal access matters.

I feel this particularly strongly because I’m disabled. I have an autoimmune immune condition called ankylosing spondylitis. My immune system attacks my body and it manifests in occasionally inconvenient symptoms like swelling in my spine that makes walking painful.

Thankfully I was born an American and I live in the twenty first century. We’ve got modern medicine. So my life can basically be normal thanks to immunosuppressant drugs. If you didn’t know my medical history (ok that’s unlikely as I write about it, like, constantly) you couldn’t tell I’m disabled. I’ve had absolutely equal opportunity to pursue life, liberty and happiness. I’m deeply patriotic as a result. No one treatments me like a second class citizen.

But I get the impression that some people might try. Invisible disabilities have some upsides, you get treated normally, but the downside is you can see the kind of unconscious discrimination and bias people have because they’ve got no useful signifier like a wheelchair which reminds them to keep their mouth shut around you. Which means I hear a lot more of what people really feel. For which I’m grateful. I’d rather know if you think I’m less equal than you.

Watching able body healthy folks discuss vaccines has been a real trip for this reason. The sick and the elderly are ostensibly the reason we engaged in efforts like stay at home orders and now vaccinations and masking. We’ve made reasonable, and occasionally unreasonable, accommodations for the sake of our most vulnerable. The vast majority of Americans did what they could.

Now the accommodations are becoming more more permanent and less inclusive. And I wonder if they are reasonable accommodations for everyone. New York City is instituting vaccine requirements for indoor dining, cultural venues, and indoor public places.

People are going to get a really clear message: if you want to participate in our society fully, you’ve got to get vaccinated. It’s time,” NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio said at a press conference.

I want to participate in society fully. But getting vaccinated hasn’t been easy for me. I am one of the small number of immunosuppressed Americans for whom the vaccine either isn’t an option at all, comes with significant risks, or doesn’t work at all. It’s a misery to not be able to take advantage of one of science’s most significant achievements. I want to be successfully vaccinated very much. It may be possible but it’s costs are very high for me.

Now I grant I have no intention of going to a concert in Manhattan but it hurts to see people casually suggesting that all people who remain unvaccinated did so as a personal choice. It’s not really a great choice pursue a destabilizing course of treatment that may take away my ability to walk and cause significant pain. But sure. Call it a choice. I wouldn’t wish it on you.

People like DeBlasio do not seem to recognize that the message being sent is I can particulate fully in society or I can be one of those dangerous anti-society anti-vaxxers. It’s “one of us or one of them” and the “them” are bad guys. I’m not anti-vaccine. I think it’s generally safe for the vast majority of people and I hope that if you are healthy that you make the choice to get one. But not all Americans are so lucky.

So I beg you to reconsider your choice of words when discussing how much you disdain the unvaccinated. How it’s your choice to be an outcast of society. And don’t phrase policies like DeBlasio did. I deserve to be a part of society too. You made reasonable accommodations for people like me. Saying that I’m now a societal outcast is exclusionary. It’s pretty fucking in-American. Find a damn reasonable accommodation maybe.

And sure I’m not going to be attending anything at Madison Square Garden. But don’t legislate that into a final demarcation. Don’t caste me out forever. It’s not like I don’t know it isn’t safe for me. But maybe one day I’ll feel like it’s worth the risk to dine inside with friends. Maybe that’s an unhealthy impulse to take such a ridiculous risk, but so is drinking and eating fried foods and I’m allowed to make those choices without legislative interference. If I wear a mask and show a negative test maybe Bill De Blasio can see it in his heart to let me chose my own risks. But don’t for the love of America say that the unvaccinated can’t participate in society. I promise you will not like where that leads. A second class citizenship has never ended well.

Biohacking Emotional Work

Day 215 and Leisure

I’ve got a bad relationship with work. Since I was a teenager I’ve been compulsive about the idea of hard work. I don’t know how I got to have a problem with the Protestant Work Ethic but it seems likely I developed it long before I read Max Weber and found it’s comforting rationalizations about work’s inherent morality.

I’m fascinated by things like commodity aesthetics, the history of consumption, and theories of leisure & status. Partially because I got a kick out of supposing I was a better person than those wretched lazy types. I wasn’t so sophisticated to sneer “rentier” class as kid but I was well on my way to veneration of hard work and productive capital. An economics degree finished the job.

This was compounded by growing up in a family that worshipped the culture of Silicon Valley. The innovation of computers and the people that worked all hours to bring their creativity to the world were the most important people on the planet. They hadn’t quite crossed the cultural rubicon of power that the tech industry has now, but the power of making the future was hard work and heady stuff even before it captured the mainstream. I wanted to change the world like the people my father admired

There was a time when computing and automation raised questions of a new era of leisure. If we could move all of the work we’d previously done manually to automated systems perhaps humans could ascend to The Culture of Ian M Bank’s novels. In a distant future of abundance, sentient AIs run industry and production, so humanity can do, well, whatever it likes.

But we haven’t achieved a post scarcity world. If anything accumulating resources and showing you’ve done it by the rules of the meritocracy makes hard work even more crucial. You’ve got to play and win two games. You’ve got to make the money and show you’ve demonstrated the proper status while doing it. It seems like leisure is losing the battle quite soundly.

I’ve been pushing all year to get back to hard work. I’ve worked hard at my health. I’ve committed myself to biohacking. But really what if the obsession with working myself to the bone is killing me? I’ve been completely relaxed as I prepared for a medical procedure this week. I’ve never felt better. Which forced me to ask myself if maybe I better come to live leisure like the way I have loved work. It might be a much better life for me. The future sentient AIs might approve as well.

Biohacking Emotional Work

Day 211 and Laughter

I miss being able to enjoy time out in the world. You know that feeling when you’ve spent the last two hours at your favorite bar with your friends just talking about nothing? The ease that you feel being with your community and enjoying being together? The casual camaraderie and easy laughter that comes from no expectations time together has been lost to many of us. I miss it.

It doesn’t seem like those days are coming back for some of us in the near future. If I give too much thought to the impact of things like the pandemic I think I just spike my cortisol. That’s a stress hormone. The stress of reactivity is killing all of us. Constant panic over floods, heatwaves, outbreaks and all their downstream effects is overwhelming our capacity to live. And yes, granted a more globalized war with a changing climate is capable of killing us. But we don’t have to let futility do us in early. We can find our way into solutions. But only if we stay alive to do it.

I’ve been coping with apocalyptic nihilism by shitposting on Twitter. Yes I realize this is a popular upper class pundit class past time. I’ve got some self awareness. But it’s also the only thing that mimics being out socializing with your friends. And I think that’s worth a lot. Shitposting is good for the soul.

You don’t have to shitpost, but if you cannot find a way to lower your stress response, as we say in crypto, ngmi. Everything may be going to hell but you aren’t there yet. You’ve got a life to live, people to love and who love you, and a chance to be happy.

Fuck cortisol. It’s not good for you. That’s some metabolic poisoning eating away at you and you chose to let it kill you. There is no reason to give yourself unnecessary stress. Some stress is good. It makes you resilient. But stuff you opt into? Fuck that noise it’s only going to make you sick.

And despite whatever family trauma circuit you may be playing out in your head, YOU DO NOT DESERVE THAT SHIT. No I’m seriously disease and suffering aren’t a moral good. Everything might be rough but you need to find a laugh. It might just save your life.

Chronic Disease Emotional Work

Day 201 and Take It Slowly

I woke up today feeling normal. I wasn’t in any pain. I felt rested. The excruciating exhaustion that has gripped me had lifted.

I was a little bit surprised as I’ve been fighting off a setback that has diminished my physical and emotional state. An infection required an anti-viral that just destroyed me for the last week and a half.

The relief I felt at having the energy and desire to do normal tasks was palpable. I started making “to do” lists and plans for how I was going to use the energy during the day. I bounded out the door at 8am to my favorite trail to get in a walk before the summer heat hit. I came back energized and immediately went to workout. And then I realized I was doing it again.

In my relief to have back a functional body I was setting myself up to be exhausted by immediately over doing things. . My enthusiasm to get back to doing “all the things” would again be my undoing. Some residual guilt over needing to get back to people was on my mind and I used this projected shame right back into myself. What a disappointment I was to people and clearly I must set it right immediately that I’d been late by a week. I needed to respond to startups, catch up on my diligence pile, and email back all the folks in my inbox plus I was behind on any number of fund tasks for Chaotic. I justified these obligations as a reason to beat myself.

I have often struggled with the feeling that I need to work as hard and fast as I can when I am physically well. Part of it is my general tendency towards workaholism. But part of it is fear that feeling well is transient and I need to make hay while the sun shines.

I talked myself down from it and kept a steady pace through the day. I didn’t rush. I took breaks. And I didn’t feel guilty or beat myself. Which was quite a relief. It seems I can learn to take things slowly after all.

Aesthetics Emotional Work

Day 197 and Status Anxiety

I’m becoming quite bored of feeling like shit as I go on maybe day 8 or 9 of a poor reaction to an anti-viral. It’s not fun when the cure is worse than the disease. I noticed something fascinating as more and more “days off” piled up. I’ve still got a lot of emotional shit when it comes to being sick.

My anxiety over being seen as weak, lazy or lacking in willpower started to compound the more days I’ve needed to recover. What will people think of me that just as I’m making a comeback to full time work that I let myself get waylaid by a virus? Every project and meeting that needed canceling felt like I should accompany it with an apology tour. I felt like I owed everyone my time and energy. I felt ashamed.

The social striving and status chasing that have gripped the aspirational class seems to have its claws firmly in my psyche. At least when it comes to work, I’m convinced I must always be working to be “better.” Where the fuck did this self limiting belief come from?

Who cares if I needed a week off to cope with health care needs when I’ve been on medical leave for nearly two years? What is another week. Why am I so anxious to show that I’m capable of going back to work? Who the fuck cares! It’s not as if I’m dependent on a salary to survive. I’m not chasing a resume or CV polish on LinkedIn. I can just not work.

Technically I’ve already made it out of the status social climbing games. I’ve got money. I’ve got traditional credentials. I have a well compensated skill set that is easily hired out for income without sacrificing much of my time. I should not be experiencing any class anxiety at all. I should happily go into the leisure class and not concern myself that my workaholism isn’t possible for health reasons. And yet I’m absolutely panicked that I’ll be see as lazy and unreliable every time I have a minor setback.

It’s abundantly clear that aspirational class signals, especially around meritocracy and knowledge work, are as bogus as Edwardian England’s aristocracy. Class division can be upended if you just stop giving a fuck. But I’m experiencing exactly this anxiety noted in The Hedgehog Review.

The aspirationals’ endless pursuit of better can produce psychic restlessness and doubts beneath the façade of confidence and accomplishment.

I’ve always thought of my habits as being high status. I read science fiction, make a hobby of macroeconomics, and pursue healthy biohacking experiments. Of course, that I think of these things as having status is precisely what makes me signaling it low status. The perception of me caring so fucking much is proof that I don’t think my status in life is secure. I’m no better than the middle class strivers in Downtown Abbey who miss manner cues. How embarrassing!

But if I can admit that I’m anxious about my place in the world maybe it’s a sign I’m not so beholden to class systems after all. I’ve just now admitted that I’m afraid of how I will be perceived if my climb back to health isn’t perfectly stage managed. I hope that is the first step in letting it go. Fixating on fear and anxiety isn’t great for physical health. So I’m putting it out there that I’m afraid of how I’ll be seen by others. And I’m letting it go.

Chronic Disease Emotional Work

Day 196 and Exhaustion

I’m terrified of being tired. It’s the first sign of illness and a trigger of a cascade of traumas for me after fighting for two years to recover my health. The fear I feel when my energy flags is more than mere phobia. It’s the kind of gripping all consuming fear that stops all other emotions from surfacing. It’s a fear that stops joy and anger. It stops my my breathe and chokes out my chest if I pay it too much mind.

I’m already shedding unbidden tears probing a little at the edge of this fear. The fear that exhaustion will never lift sits in my body, scaring me into believing I’ll be trapped forever.

I’m more afraid of fatigue than I am of pain. Pain is complete and totalitarian yes. It limits your world sometimes in the extreme. But pain is not an enemy that cannot be overcome. When pain spikes or throbs I’m equipped with tools to combat it. It’s not that pain isn’t terrifying and all consuming. I’ve written about the challenges of chronic pain. How it robs you of your right mind. But it isn’t an enemy that extracts complete victory either.

I feel I can fight back. Light pain can be tossed out of my consciousness with mindfulness exercises. Even a slight self inflicted pinch can deflect pain. If it’s unbearable there are pharmaceuticals on hand. It’s not that I don’t find pain to be consuming, I do and it is, it’s that it doesn’t feel impossible to conquer. I have tools with varying degrees of efficacy that let me retain my agency with pain.

With exhaustion I have nothing. I fear exhaustion is an enemy I cannot best. There are no tricks for my mind that give me a boost of energy or remove the obstacle of feeling leaden. The tiredness is too complete to be overcome by mantras. There are no drugs for exhaustion. Stimulants can drag me out of bed but the crash afterwards makes it clear the effect was extracted under duress.

A doctor doesn’t mind giving opioids for a patient with spinal swelling but telling them you are tired doesn’t do much. What could they even give you? Caffeine? Aderall? Of course you are tired they say, your body is fighting inflammation. In this moment, I’m overcoming an infection and a poor reaction to anti-virals. An inability to crawl out of bed is a given. Nothing can be done. I just need to ride this out and hopefully it will lift.

But I’m afraid of the tiredness that has taken hold of me this past week. The fear that all of the work and money I’ve put into recovering my help might have been for nothing lingers. I logically know, and doctors confirm, that I’m simply fighting an infection and we had a slight complication with the medication. They say I’ll be feeling well a few days. They asked me to stay in bed for a few days. But I cannot shake the fear that it it’s permanent. The fear that I’ve lost all my progress is real. I just hope I can convince myself that feelings are not facts.

Chronic Disease Emotional Work

Day 195 and Waiting on Hand & Foot

I’m embarrassed that I need help with minor physical tasks. I’ve got an infection of the self sufficient Americana myth that seems to have taken root right in my very marrow. If you need something done you’d better do it yourself right?

When I was much sicker and undiagnosed two years ago, it felt easier to accept help because surely it must be temporary. There is no harm in needing help if you know you can pay it back tenfold? There is no harm in being unproductive for a time if you can pay it it back with interest.

But what will if can’t pay it back? What if I must rely on the kindness of others forever? Early on I struggled with little things like needing to use a wheelchair in the airport. I told myself stories like“I could walk if I just tried harder and accepted more pain” as I went through the concourse on the way to a hospital stay. I couldn’t pay back fellow travelers for slowing them down. And maybe no one minded that I was sparing myself pain for little inconvenience on their end. Perhaps I could accept small types of kindness.

But what if it’s not temporary? And what if it’s a significant amount of help! What if I do need help with basics for the rest of my life? Thanks to a recent trip my husband took I learned his running of the household increases my capacity by a full 30%. I could do everything just fine on my own but it would make my life much smaller. And it doesn’t seem to make his life any less enjoyable. On the contrary he shines when showing off his excellence in operational matters. It’s possible what I see as an undue burden is something he quite enjoys.

But I can’t quite convince myself it’s a good thing. The self audience myth has a deep hole on me. But if a third of my capacity disapates into tasks like cooking, cleaning, errands, and logistics but I’m enriched and energized by work like writing or working with the media then shouldn’t the choice be obvious?

And yet I still find myself embarrassed and angry about my limitations. . Why did it exhaust me so much to stand and wash lettuce? Or require so much rest to recover from a short run to the pharmacy. Those are small, albeit physical, tasks. My soul feels broken and my body a traitor with these small physical limits.

Whereas other pursuits can be done from bed. And even though it sometimes makes me sad it’s not always my choice, I don’t mind that my world is often limited to lying flat for hours on a mattress. I don’t resent it. In fact, it makes me rather happy. I’ve got the whole world available to me thanks to the internet. I can invest as easily in bed as from a fancy office. Twitter is just as good a connection to the networks of ideas and power as conferences or clubs. Better often.

The only part I resent is feeling like I’m a burden. Like I need to be waited on head and foot like some aristocrat or an ailing relative. Well not like an ailing relative. I am ailing. That part is the. But I can thrive in it with help. I just hope I’m not to embarrassed to take it.

Chronic Disease

Day 194 and House

The downward pressure I was discussing yesterday is taking me out for a few days. My doctors are torn between whether it’s the virus I’ve been prescribed some exciting news drugs for, or if the exciting news drugs are simply too much for my body to handle. The minimum viable dose in pharmaceuticals can be tricky. Too much and you kill the virus and it’s host. Too little and the suffering continues on.

I was watching the tv show House last night. It seemed like an appropriate show to rewatch as when I first came across the show I wasn’t myself an idea “House” patient felt extremely soothed by it. Would I make to watch a doctor that gets to the heart of odd diagnostics? Who instead of saying “well the tests are normal” says “these tests don’t help us explain the symptoms” and carries on? Why yes I would.

I’m lucky to have a number of doctors who do the same. It makes watching the show enjoyable as I’ve sat through countless diagnostics meetings and drug experiments that sound exactly like the ones on the show. I recognize tests and treatments. I’ve been put on several of the drugs just for the two episodes I watched last night.

We are dosing down on the antivirals for a few days. I’ve been told to get some rest and not to add in any stresses that I can avoid. While I don’t think writing is stressful I do think checking off the box for my daily essay would feel like a relief. So I’m doing that a bit early and keeping it short. If you are inclined to send good energy my way or you are from a tradition that values prayer I would appreciate being in yours.

Chronic Disease Emotional Work

Day 193 and Downward Pressure

I’ve had a terrific year (pandemic aside) with significant progress on my health. I’ve become used to seeing positive trends, especially within the last six months. But the last month has been a mess for me and the downward pressure is getting to me emotionally. I’m afraid. The fear of a setback is palpable.

I haven’t been able to pinpoint exactly what has been causing a dip in my progress or frankly if it is even a dip, as it could just be a few bad days. It may be that I’m just not progressing as fast as I could have hit some Pareto Principle limit and it’s just going to be a slog to get the remaining gains. Some of my metrics continue to improve (I’m seeing cardiovascular improvements still) but my energy, pain and inflammation seem to be going in the wrong direction.

I’m crushed by the exhaustion in particular. And sadly I know this to be real. Because I take immunosuppressants I am prone to infections. To combat one I was put on a course of antibiotics which seems to have some negative side effects. So now I can’t tell if I am exhausted because I am running an infection or because I’m having a bad reaction to the drugs. Could be both.

I feel angry at my body for this pause in progress. I’ve been working so hard at improvements. When I look at how I spend my time I am often overcome with resentment and envy of healthy people. It saddens me how much more of my life needs to be dedicated to doctors than a normal person. It’s especially frustrating as in the spring I was regularly noting how well I was doing and how much capacity I had to work.

Of course, the benefit of writing every day is I can go back and see what was going on. I’ve been doing plagued by the caprice of my body before.

The trajectory of my health is one of continual improvement but scatterplot is jagged as hell as each day vacillates between health and pain.

It’s my hope that this is just another local minima and I’ll be able back to my “normal” soon. Even if I have hit 80% of my gains I can manage with that. But it’s valuable to recognize the negative emotions as they come so we can let them go.