Strong enough for a man

Things that should be gender-specific:

Medical Care
Supportive Undergarments

Things that should not be gender-specific:

Hammers
Water bottles
Pocky
Writing utensils

….actually come to think of it, those first two things are probably an all-inclusive list. All else is unisex. Unigender. Pangender? Social awareness is hard.

PSA, MARKETING IDIOTS: WOMEN DO NOT NEED SPECIAL PINK TOOLBOXES FOR OUR DAINTY WOMEN HANDS. I have ALS but I can punch you in the jimmies just as well as a man can. For now. And when I can’t? I’ll have Danielle do it. And she can hit like a truck, man. You do not want this.

What does this have to do with ALS? Not much. I was looking at knee braces just now and they have ones “for women” that look exactly like the ones that are just “knee braces”. And they’re the same. Only pink. Sometimes? Yes, medical gear needs to be gender specific. But my knee is built like any dude’s knee. Well, originally, anyway, or I wouldn’t need a knee brace I suppose. And so this turned in to this post, which you have just wasted precious minutes of your life reading.

You’re welcome.

Assisting the Assistance

One of the most common questions I get asked is some variant of “what can I do for you?” or “how can I help?” or “what do you need?” It’s a common response to finding out someone is in distress, when the situation is too large to process at once. It’s a natural instinct, to want to exert some kind of control over a situation that makes you powerless. Okay, it sucks that you have a terminal disease, what tiny little piece can I work at to make it suck a little less? There must be SOMETHING. Anything.

You know the absolute best thing you can do, for anyone going through A Big Deal?

Take care of their caregiver.

The Big Deal sucks for the person who is center circle, no question. But it ALSO sucks for the people around them – as Dr. Doug McClure told me, “You’ll find it’s not that YOU have been diagnosed, WE have been diagnosed.” The caregiver is responsible for keeping everything together when the diagnosed no longer can. They do everything from making/getting to doctor visits to cleaning house to coordinating visits to making sure they’re wearing clean socks. Lifting spirits and lifting patients. Finding hope and finding the damn car keys.

Dying sucks, and there’s a lot of planning and work and Massive Introspective Soul Searching ™ involved, but comparatively? My job is easy. I just gotta die. Whether I work at it or not, the end for me is the same. I just have to let it happen. Danielle, though, she has to plan and prep and care and organize and clean and all the things I can’t, from here on out. It’s a really big deal in its own right. Later on in our joyful journey of doom, if I just let things happen without working at it, I’m pretty much where I was either way. If she lets things happen without working at it? I won’t eat. She worries about keeping my house clean, making sure I’m not expending too much energy, researches places to live, and is pretty much an unpaid personal assistant.

…The woman cleaned up cat poop this weekend to spare me having to spend a spoon to do so. CAT POOP. THAT IS LOVE, PEOPLE. She’s signed on to scoop cat boxes for NOT EVEN HER CAT.

It’s a tough job but it doesn’t have to be thankless. I’ve done thankless jobs, and they’re soul-draining. I’ve done really shitty jobs happily, because I was appreciated for it. It’s amazing how far a thank you goes. An honest, sincere word of thanks. A “hey, I know this thing took up all your weekends for a month and I’m sorry I can’t pay you for it, but let me take you to lunch at least”. Taking a second out of your life to say “I appreciate the hell out of what you’re doing.”

I’ve said it before: it is fucking AMAZING how helpful it is, to simply have someone just acknowledge what you’re doing is hard.

So if you want to do something for me? Do something for Danielle. Buy her a freakin’ Jamba Juice or something. Ask her how you can help share her burden. She needs people to care for her. Someone to give her a break sometimes. And mostly? People to recognize that what she is doing is HARD. She is shifting her entire life to be there for me. People need to appreciate and acknowledge that sacrifice. I appreciate the ever loving SHIT out of her, and it will be extremely helpful to me if others do, too.

Thank the Good LORD for great friends.

Not even an hour after I posted that last entry, and sat here, feeling very small and afraid and helpless, my little brother Eric sent me this:

bahahaha

And I went from crying with grief to crying in laughter.

And that’s how I know I have the best planets in my orbit.

He, She, Me.

He:

A few weeks ago, a few very short weeks, a friend posted something in her facebook along the lines of “our routine doctor appointment turned into a little bit more. He’s being admitted right now, but please don’t worry!”

…and I worried.

She’s like me. Bubbly, happy, all about best possible outcomes, optimism, and smiles. She’s a joy to be around. He’s a sardonic, sarcastic, clever man who used to be my boss. You know he’s awesome if he used to be the boss of me and we STILL talk. He’s snarky and hilarious. They’re both a pair of my favorite people. Still can’t believe they hooked up, much less got married, but they’re fucking perfect for each other and I’m really glad they did. I love them to pieces.

So when she, bubbly, optimistic She, didn’t SAY what had gone awry, I knew it wasn’t good. And then I was invited to a support/information group created in facebook, to keep in touch with what was happening and how we could all help. And then, scary words eventually saw the light of day. Cancer. Stage 4. Scant months to live. Maybe more if chemo works.

And just like that, their lives were over as they knew it. And just like that, the floor dropped away from all of us who knew and loved them.

I can’t even pretend to say I know what it’s like to be told you have a short and definite lifespan. I know how it was for me, how it continues to be, but I can’t even fathom what he’s going through. His time is so much shorter than mine, his notice so much more sudden. He has a wife. And while they’re publicly taking it with grace, no one knows what’s going on inside. Some aspects I can guess at; the panic of Time suddenly a companion, yelling at you about all the things you have to do before you go. The complete bafflement of, how did this happen. Is there something I could have done? But then there’s also the chemo – unlike my timeline, there’s a chance for an extended cut, but only if you can withstand it. And now they have to decide quality of life vs. quantity. And I know that mental argument very well.

There’s absolutely nothing I can do but stand by and love them, and listen, and hold space. And when they make decisions, honor them. Be there as much as they will allow me to be. And then let him go.

It’s the only thing within my power.

She

I wrote about her awhile ago. She was suffering from bulbar onset ALS, and she gave me the chance to figure out and to talk about how I feel about assisted suicide. And she gave me the courage to tell all of you, and start that difficult conversation. It’s a really hard thing, to tell everyone that you are probably going to take your own life and they’re going to have to forgive and be okay with it. She did it with perfect grace.

She had been fighting the Boss Fight of ALS for awhile. Her decline was fast. I only knew her through facebook posts, and it seemed like daily there was another struggle, another development. But she faced it with so much fucking GRACE, and smiles, and gratitude. Her posts weren’t about how she’d never live to see her son grow up, they were about the daily joy she found in his company and the treasure trove of memories she was building for him. Her posts weren’t about her medical suffering, they were about the gratitude for the people who helped her through it all. Look for the rainbows, she says constantly.

April 4th, she had fought enough. She left a goodbye, and a video for her son, and the last words, “Enjoy. I have.”

And then she let go. And so I, too, let her go.

Me:

I’m losing strength in my hands.

I’ve been noticing maybe a month or two now, but I’ve been in complete and total denial. The mailbox lock has ALWAYS been hard, it’s just a bit more difficult to turn the key; must have frozen or something. The lid to the cup is way more difficult to pry off because it’s new. Cutting a piece of steak cramps up my hands, but hey, it’s just cramps. I had AGES before my foot strength was lost after the cramps started, right? My hands are shaking while holding my laptop because I’m just tired. The word of the day and things that I write up on my whiteboard every day just SEEM a little shakier. But I’m sure it’s nothing. Right?

Friday, April 4th, I fell. For no reason. It was the first time that happened; I wasn’t tripping on anything or trying to maneuver, I just…fell. And wrenched my ankle. And felt very sorry for myself and frustrated. And so I told Dr. Goslin this, on Thursday during my appointment. And she confirmed I’m losing strength in my hips.

…And I said I think I might be losing strength in my hands. She did the usual tests. And proved that I am.

I was absolutely right in that this? This is a trigger. This is panic and terror and the beginning of the end. And this makes everything so much worse. My timelines have shifted, and things I thought I had some time to do, I suddenly don’t. I have to write the letters while my handwriting is still stable. I have to do all the things I can’t, soon. And I’m freaking the fuck out. Because I don’t know what else to do but scream.

She asked if I’d like to borrow a motorized wheelchair to see how it works out. And internally I flipped the fuck out because I am NOT ready for that. No way no how. But outwardly I politely declined and said I’d like to wait awhile before going down that road. She agreed that I have a lot more time of mobility left, so there’s no rush. But it’s coming. Danielle suggested one of those old-people jar opening assist things. And I panicked a little but kept it in. I said maybe a walker, but not a wheelchair. Not yet. But my hands are going to have to be accommodated for.

After the appointment we went to the store to get some meds and some air fresheners for the empty rooms in my house that I’m clearing out for sale. And I couldn’t get the fucking tops of them off. I had to use my teeth. I still have dexterity, but my strength is going. And so, too, are all of the things I thought I could do to keep the loss of mobility tolerable. For now I can still type. I can still play video games. But I thought I had so much more time before I had to think about the end of those things. To a time when I can’t use chopsticks, to when I can’t pull myself out of bed, to when I can’t dress myself.

And it scares the motherfucking SHIT out of me.

I’ll get accustomed to the changes as they come. I’ll persevere. But I feel like this is kind of when I really start to die. No mobility? Whatever, that’s okay. Seriously. It sucks, but a wheelchair isn’t that bad. This is a hardship, but not the end. When I am no longer able to draw stupid pictures, no longer able to frost a cupcake, no longer able to chat, no longer able to launch Skyrim…that is the death of me. When I am no longer able to even fucking pet my cats. That begins the days of the useless shell that I become. I wonder if I’ll want to go get the prescription the day I drop something for no reason. I won’t use it yet, but I wonder if that’s going to be the preflight check. When I will start thinking seriously about the endgame.

And I don’t know if I’ll have the strength to let go, when all I feel like doing is trying to hold on.

And I’m really, really scared.

Vocabulary

In addition to changes to my lifestyle, I’ve made changes to my vocabulary. I thought maybe you would like to know these words, too, because they’re verbal shortcuts, easy ways to explain something, so long as the person you’re dealing with knows these words, too. So! Some of these are specific to me, and I realize that people reading this might not understand. Then there are some that are REALLY useful in dealing with terminal diseases, and the people who have them. It includes reading other pages. That’s right, I just gave you homework. Deal with it. *sunglasses descend*

MY WORDZ, LET ME SHOW YOU IT:

Godzilla Disorder/Disease
This is how my friends and I refer to ALS. It got that name before I knew what it was, it was just a better phrase than “whatever the hell is wrong with me”. My main babe Danielle came up with it, as I was trying to figure out what to tell people when they asked why I was limping. “Just tell them you got attacked by Godzilla. In the legs.”

Get-Ups
These are different than spoons (definition of that to come). There is a specific number of times I can get up, out of a chair, out of a car, off the floor. Once I’m upright, it’s fine, but the effort of getting up takes more out of me than a lot of other activities. It’s like…it takes more gas to stop and start a car at a stop light than to leave it idling. Same principle. Once I’m standing, it’s fine, but there are only so many times a day I can get my ass vertical.

General Vocabulary, reporting for duty, SIR!

Silk Circle
http://articles.latimes.com/2013/apr/07/opinion/la-oe-0407-silk-ring-theory-20130407
If you only read one thing from this list, it needs to be this. This is how to behave when someone is having a hard time. This is how trauma works. Comfort in, dump out. THIS IS IMPORTANT. There is no better way to put this, and no better way to behave.

Spoons

The Spoon Theory written by Christine Miserandino


This is basically the idea that a terminally ill, or chronically ill, person has a very specific allotment of daily energy units. Mana, if you like (you nerd). You spend these points throughout your day, and when they’re gone, that’s it. Game over. You think “Going to work” is one unit. But no. Every little thing that you don’t even think about (getting out of bed, brushing your teeth, put your clothes on) takes one point. It’s good language to check in. “How are your spoons?” “I’m kinda running on a spoon deficit today, sorry, I can’t go.” “Are you gonna have enough spoons to do all that?”

Also? she totally stole a spoon from that cafe.

Holding Space

What it means to “hold space” for people, plus eight tips on how to do it well


This is a relatively new one for me. I haven’t talked about it here before. This is the idea that sometimes, the absolute best thing you can do for someone, and usually the HARDEST thing to do, is hold space for someone. Just stand by, and be available if they need you. Don’t interfere or get involved if they don’t want you to. Just be on standby for when they do. It’s really hard to stand by and be non judgmental and simply offer support; but I want you to know that it’s the absolute best thing you can EVER do for anyone having a hard time. Just, say you’re there to help, and then back off. Hold space for me. And I’ll hold space for you. I can’t promise I’ll be perfect at it, I’m still learning. But I’ll do my level best.

There are certain to be words to come. There are always new things. New swear words, if nothing else.

Anniversary

There’s a book called “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children”, which I love, and in the epilogue, it brilliantly describes how anything that changes you forever splits your life into two halves: Before and After.

Before, like anyone else, I had a lot of plans. I just bought a house. I had all the paint, and all the decorating ideas, and SUCH a garden planned in my head. My backyard is luxurious and I had many garden barbecue parties planned already. I had a spare room just for fostering kittens. My kitchen was a thing of beauty, I was planning amazing culinary ventures. This was going to be my forever home.

Before, my health was pretty good. I still had chronic headaches, but they didn’t really interfere with life much. I had lost a bunch of weight and was fitting into 32 inch jeans again – I felt healthy and cute, and was getting confident about my body. I wore size small shirts, and bought new clothes. I had energy, I was doing things and going out.

Before, work was reaching a comfortable zone. I had confidence in my ability to rise to whatever I was asked to do, and I saw a long career ahead. I was going to school to become an engineer and get promoted.

Before, I was comfortable in being single, I was self-reliant and independent. I could do anything by myself.

Before, I never really thought of myself as particularly important or special. I had people in my life I adored, but never felt worthy of their adoration in return.

Before, I never thought about death much. I knew academically that I agreed with assisted dying, I knew that getting paperwork done way in advance was important. I knew I should have an advance directive. I knew it happened to everyone, I knew on a high level what happens and that there’s a ton of complication and high emotion when it occurs.

A year ago today, I was in the middle of the Medical Folderol and had recently discovered I couldn’t stand on my toes anymore. A year ago today, I sat in Dr. Goslin’s office and stared at her hands while she told me that I have ALS.

After, I use leg braces, knee braces, and a cane to help me walk. When I walk down the hallways at work, I usually don’t bring the cane, but walk with one hand brushing against the wall the whole time. My social worker called it “wall surfing”. Walking a block exhausts me. I carried five empty boxes up the stairs last week, setting them on the steps, walk up a couple of steps, pick up the boxes and put them a few steps higher, repeat. I was sweating and out of breath by the time I was done. Walking the mile to the bus stop is out of the question. I carpool with an awesome coworker in his big red truck, and I know there’s going to be a time soon that I can no longer physically get in his truck. I can’t manage the one step up into my house, I have to brace my hands on the doorpost and pull myself in and up.

After, every crowded room is a minefield. Who is going to knock me over? I carefully watch my entire perimeter for unexpected people, or someone in front of me stopping suddenly. Every social interaction is a potential disaster, far and above my usual social awkwardness. There’s no more casually walking around, I have to be keenly aware of movement around me so that I don’t get tripped up or knocked down.

After, everything is a matter of energy budgeting. I wake up already exhausted, and everything is so much harder. My muscles have to work overtime to compensate for the ones that suck. There’s no more “just a quick trip down to the store room” at work. I have to plan that effort. Every little thing sends me in to a sweat. It’s super sexy. There’s no more getting a wild hair and deep cleaning the bathroom. Some weeks the bathroom doesn’t get cleaned at all.

After, my weight ballooned back up. Stress eating. Bleh. But the medical professionals encourage you to gain weight and keep it, with ALS. Heavier patients tend to have better prognoses. And you need that fat, for when you’re not able to eat anymore, like a whale living off its blubber. “Don’t go crazy, you don’t want to need a bariatric chair or anything, but..be nice to yourself and eat what you want.” Cause…fuck it, I’m dying.

After, I’m working hard to sell my house that I love and fought for because it’s becoming a physical impossibility to live there.

After, I am intimately aware of the legality and the complications of death. I’ve met lawyers and social workers and it’s more complicated the further you go. There’s nothing simple about the bureaucracy of death.

After, I know damn well how I feel about assisted dying. And I intend to exercise that right, if it comes to that, and it infuriates me that it’s not an option for Alzheimer’s patients, too. And an option everywhere. Brits should not have to take a permanent vacation to Switzerland to die in a strange hotel-like room. For a lot of money.

After, I am so, so, so blown away – daily! – by how much I seem to matter to people. By the sheer quantity of people who have stepped up to do something, even something small, to make my life a little brighter, simply because it was in their power to do so. And they love me. I thought I was insignificant, someone nice to be around, but certainly not someone who mattered much, and I’ve been told and shown how wrong I was. Constantly. In surprising ways.

After, I know how much I have impacted lives around me. I know how their lives impact mine. I know how important a seemingly insignificant gesture can become, years later. How memories define you, and can change your life without you realizing it. How important it is to reach out to people, all the time, because you never know who will show back up and be a key player when drama unfolds.

After, I know my strength. I know my calm and my pragmatism were not just theoreticals in my head, they are actual and they are real, and they will help me get through this. I know I have the grace and the quiet power that can see me through everything to come, because they have seen me through this far. I know my humor and my compassion will go far and help me survive for as long as I can.

After, I know that I’m seriously a morbid bitch. My dark sense of humor prevailed, and I’m finding things funny that would have appalled me had they been about anyone else. I am in love with a web series called Ask a Mortician, fascinated by the machinations of how we deal with death. I seriously believe we have done ourselves a terrible injury by trying so hard in the last hundred years to pretend that death doesn’t exist, it’s something that happens to other people. Because sometimes, it happens to you. And we, as a society, have forgotten how to deal with that.

After, I am intimate with the kindness of strangers. It never ceases to take my breath away, and it is so life-affirming when a total stranger gives me a kind word, encouragement. When total strangers sent me money to help. When a woman I’ve never seen before or will ever see again looks me sincerely in the eyes and says words of love and strength. And means them. It’s one thing to be told, “Good luck” or “have a nice day”. It’s another to feel someone reach out with their soul and tell you that they wish you all the best, and to keep up my optimism because it will see me through.

After, a year later, I reread my blog and see myself shift in little ways, and discover opinions I never realized I had. I see myself think about hard things, make difficult decisions, and become stronger than I ever thought I’d be. And I know that I’ll be okay.

Before, I didn’t know if I would ever have had strength and support to see me through After. After, I know love and support and strength and grace I would never have discovered Before.

After, I know that by the amazing and profound love of the people in my orbit, I’m going to be fucking FANTASTIC. And I can’t wait to see what the next year shows me.