On the virtues of being a data point instead of a statistic.
On the virtues of being a data point instead of a statistic.
There will be a video from me, also, probably tomorrow night. I have a followup neuro appointment tomorrow so I’ll have things to report maybe. Definitely have things to talk about.
While you wait, GO CREATE YOUR ADVANCE DIRECTIVE.
So, you can now totally play with Stephen Hawking’s voice software:
I really, really hope the world takes this and does amazing things. The best and brightest technology always finds its best use in the hands of public developers, so many amazing things created that were not even THOUGHT of by the device creators. If you couldn’t tell, I’m a huge fan of open source, and I’m an ardent worshipper of public projects. Someone out there has something brilliant to make, someone can take this software and make it do something so far advanced we never even CONSIDERED that it was possible. Someone is going to take this tool kit and make ALS so much easier to deal with we’re going to wonder how we did without it in the first place, and I’m waiting.
Let’s make something cool.
Today’s post comes with story time!
I’m walking with the cane into the cafe. There’s a girl who works there that I smile and say hello to practically every day. She notices the cane, today. I don’t always bring it down when I get a drink, but today I have. I’m a little wobbly, anymore.
“OH no, did you hurt yourself?”
“No,” I shrug, “I have Lou Gehrig’s. I’ve just gotten weak enough finally that I need this a lot.”
“Oh, god, I’m sorry, I’ve heard of that. Is it painful?”
“Oh no, nothing hurts, really, but it’s just a loss of strength over time. I guess that’s a good thing, nothing hurts even if you ARE dying slowly,” I half-joke.
“Well aren’t we all,” she smiles back.
“Truth,” I tell her, and we part ways.
We’re walking to a restaurant, my coworkers and I. We parked kind of far away, and I’m struggling a little with my cane, to keep up with the crowd.
“Keep up,” he jokes, falling behind to walk next to me.
“I’m trying,” I tell him, grinning. “Y’all bastards walk too fast.”
“Well maybe you’re not trying hard enough to keep up,” he teases.
“Yeah sorry, everything’s slow with me. Neurons burning out, walking, you name it. I’m *sorry* I am slowly dying,” I joke.
“Well, everyone’s dying,” he shrugs.
“Some of us just take the fast track,” I tell him.
Please, please stop saying “well technically everyone is dying”.
It’s like when the cashier is ringing up your stuff and something doesn’t scan and you snort, “well I guess it’s free.” It’s a dumb joke, everyone’s made it, she’s heard it a thousand times. And it’s already old and it wasn’t funny in the first place and you’re not that clever, just pay for your shit and leave. And you know it’s a dumb thing to say, but you said it anyway, and will say it again, but everyone politely laughs even though no one thinks it’s clever.
Only, …no. Okay. It’s not really so much like that. It’s..
It’s dismissive as FUCK is what it is. Yeah, okay I get it, everyone is dying slowly. We are all biding time until our own demise. Everyone, eventually dies. MEMENTO MORI.
When you tell me, “yeah well we’re all dying, right?” I know you’re trying to soften the blow. You’re trying to comfort me in a way, to include me with the rest of the human race, telling me that death is normal and it’s okay. To make light of the situation. And I will always, always joke back.
But I don’t want to.
What I WANT to say is “fuck you”. You’re completely dismissing my death. You’re diminishing the sadness of my struggle. You’re telling me that I’m nothing special, that my disease is no big deal. Everyone dies. So what? My disease will kill me but hey, everyone eventually dies anyway so what does it matter? What do YOU matter? What are you whining about? Everyone dies, so what.
So what? Yes, everyone dies. But YOUR book has a billion potential endings. Boating accident! Heart attack! Cancer! Pneumonia! Peacefully in your sleep with your loved one by your side! Gun accident~! You could die of ANYTHING! You could die during sex! You could die from mountain climbing and being exposed to the elements! You could join an international drug cartel and be gunned down on the private air strip in Boca Raton when Louie rats you out! You NEVER should have trusted Louie! You could fall on the sidewalk and hit your head JUST SO and become brain dead until your tearful mother signs the paperwork and they pull your plug. Choose Your Own Adventure Death! If you would like to die of accidental CO2 poisoning, turn to page 56!
My Choose Your Own Adventure book has three possible endings. A long, lingering loss of ability and strength, humiliation, frustration, and fear that ends in…..
OPTION ONE! Sudden accident. I mean, anyone can get hit by a car, randomly, or some freak accident, lightning strike, store robbery gone wrong. Anything could unexpectedly kill me. We’re even on that front.
OPTION TWO! Suffocation! I choke on my own spit, unable to breathe because my muscles have all atrophied and I can’t swallow or take a breath and eventually I choke to death. Drowned in my own spit.
OPTION THREE! Suicide! I decide somewhere along the story that I’ve had JUST ABOUT ENOUGH, thank you, and take some pills if I can still swallow, or push the meds into my guts via feeding tube.
THAT’S IT. Those are my options. Your roadmap to life has a lot of lingering little trails and you never know where they’re going to take you. You might decide to become a mountain climber at 60, you might die tonight, you might waste your life away at some meaningless job until you have a heart attack at your desk. Your maps are open and wide and the ends aren’t known but the possibilities are endless. My map branches three ways, and there are many many stops along the way. Loss of walking. That cuts off a thousand roads. Loss of hand/arm movement. Well there’s a ton of other destinations crossed off my map. Unable to eat. Well that’s a lot of stuff closed off to me, what with the wheelchair and the feeding tube and hell, you need a special van to travel now, you can’t just pick up and go. So my destinations are the trauma ward, a palliative care hospital bed, or a dose of pentobarbital in a place of my choice.
We’re all dying. Some of us have our stories written, and the endings are not happy. There is no happy ending for ALS. And when you compare your unwritten book to my Cliff Notes, it’s insulting.
Your story probably does not have chapters in it about falling for absolutely no reason and getting a really horrible looking scratch out of it but not allowing yourself to show pain because the people you’re with are freaking out that you fell and you have to assure them you’re okay. It probably does not feature you cleaning out a cat box and breaking out in a sweat over that small, stupid effort. It probably does not feature a feeding tube or respirator as a given course. It likely does not have six introspective chapters, each titled some variation of HOLY SHIT I AM GOING TO DIE IN A REALLY FUCKED UP NIGHTMARE WAY AND I KNOW IT’S COMING. Your story might have a little chapter about being embarrassed in front of someone when screwing up something you were trying to say, but I doubt it has six paragraphs afterwards wondering if that was a one time fluke or is it a sign your tongue is starting to atrophy too? Did I enunciate when I was on the call with my manager earlier? Is this guy saying ‘what’ because he didn’t quite catch what I said or because I have lost the ability to speak and he literally has no idea what I just said? Your book has going to work and going shopping, but does it have a pre-chapter about managing a ride that isn’t going to be too hard for you, or not purchasing #thing because you’re not sure you can lift it up in the cupboard where you’d like it to go? Your story’s ending is unwritten. Mine is written in stone, carved by hands that no longer have the power to pick up a chisel.
Telling me “everyone dies” is the same as co-opting #blacklivesmatter into #alllivesematter. You’re technically correct AND YOU ARE COMPLETELY MISSING THE POINT. And diluting the original message with your vapid need to be included. Of COURSE everyone dies. Of COURSE all lives matter. BUT THAT IS NOT WHAT WE ARE TALKING ABOUT RIGHT NOW. You are dismissing the message and selfishly, HORRIBLY, turning the story about you. In telling you that I am dying, I am not saying no one else dies and no one else has to mourn. I am not dismissing the value of your mortality. I’m not denying your story has an end. I’m telling you mine is brief. As someone put it, by saying “save the rainforests” I am not saying “fuck all the other kinds of forests, they’re deserving of destruction”. By saying black lives matter, it’s not to say others DON’T. To say that I’m dying is not to say that you aren’t.
It’s the same, also, as when you tell a friend your woes and s/he says, “That’s okay, I lost my job today.” IT IS NOT OKAY. YOUR PAIN DOES NOT DIMINISH MINE. You have a right to your suffering, and it does not trump or cancel out anyone else’s. People will often try to one-up your sadness, and I’m guilty of doing this too, sometimes, and it’s a horrible, horrible thing to do. I don’t understand what the point of it is. I see your suffering and raise you “my keys got locked in my car”. Your pain doesn’t matter, because I have a completely unrelated circumstance that I somehow have determined is more impactful than yours and therefor I am suffering worse and I WIN at the FML game! And LOSE at Friendship and Human Interactions! And I leave with a parting gift of making your situation worse by dumping all over you when you wanted comfort from me! I’m going to put that statement again in its own line, because it’s important.
YOUR PAIN DOES NOT DIMINISH MINE.
We are all dying. Some of us just know the way. And if you don’t, then I’m happy for you. Seriously. I rejoice with you in not knowing your end. It’s an amazing, free world of possibilities and I’m delighted you get to dance in that sunshine. I will read my own story, and dance as long as I can, while the rain comes, before I’m washed away. Both of our stories are fantastic pieces of literature, but because I got a sneak peak into the last chapter, it doesn’t make my book any less worth reading. Your book’s unknown end chapter doesn’t make your book better than mine, or different. And when I tell you the plot, you don’t have to tell me that EVERYONE’S story finishes. Because of course it does. I was just trying to tell you about mine for a second.
And I joke about it, because it’s a sad thing and I try to keep things light; but I want you to know that it’s crushing when you dismiss me like that. Everyone dies. Yes. This is an unfortunate fact. A fact that does not change that I have a terrible disease and I’d like to be able to talk about it without it being diminished to a non-problem by the words “everyone dies”. You don’t need to one-up this. You don’t WANT to one-up this. It’s okay. Just say ‘sorry’ or shrug and agree, or laugh with me about it, or tell me to man the fuck up, tell me anything but that I am insignificant because of course everyone dies. And none of this matters. Because I fucking matter. If I didn’t, you wouldn’t be wasting your breath to piss me off with those words.
Some of us have a story they’d like to tell, before that happens. Not because they think it’s the best book. Not because they don’t think you have one, too. But because they think it’s worth reading. So, thank you for reading mine, so far. I hope it’s been worth it.
Everyone dies, but I guess not everyone gets to blog about it, yeah?
I attended a symposium on ALS research today. As a result, my brain’s kinda full. Full of information, full of renewed energy to be a part of the solution, full of the obligatory introspection.
Oh, introspection. The knee-jerk “how does this all affect me” reaction to Serious Things.
So I apologize if this point is disjointed. My brain is random today and I’d really like to write up a full thing about the symposium and everything involved with it, I know that I probably won’t be arsed to do it. So instead, I’ma just barftype what’s on my mind. You’re warned. Two things come to mind, though, two main ideas that went through my brain repeatedly as I listened to three very, very smart people talk about advocacy, research, and a promising drug therapy, in their turns.
One? Thank god for science. Jeebus Christmastime flapjacks. The third speaker, specially, spoke about laboratory mice and their contributions, and the second spoke about stem cell therapy involving foetal spinal stem cells. Both highly controversial. Live animals, dead babies. Dead *potential* babies, I suppose, depending on your beliefs and politics. I don’t care to get into that. What I DO care about is how fucking USEFUL these research methods are, how sometimes really horrible things produce really amazing and life changing things, and how every day those decisions must be reevaluated. “Sacrifices must be made” is such simplistic bullshit, but I can not fathom how we’d get on without some of the amazing research and therapies and information that comes out of doing things not everyone agrees with.
I firmly believe that even the most staunch OMG DED BABIZ U MURDRER SINETISTS BASTURDS protester, if diagnosed with fast progressing ALS and told “there is promising research that may lead to a halt or reversal in your symptoms” will probably suddenly think that well, okay, maybe just ONE dead baby. That would be okay. One dozen babies in my spine to keep me walking and alive suddenly doesn’t seem so bad, I mean…Just as “NO YOU MUST LIVE WITH WHAT GOD GAVE TO YOU” might think differently about assisted dying. Until you are personally affected, until the decision could conceivably have some import to you personally, your opinion doesn’t carry much weight. You really, really don’t know, CAN’T know, what you really believe until it’s challenged and you face some really fucked up choices. While you’re safe from the consequences of that decision, you probably shouldn’t be allowed to make decisions for people who ARE affected. I’m looking at you, old white guys making reproductive rights decisions for women. And you, PETA person. If your kid had cancer, and I told you that 2000 mice have to die in order to give your kid a chance to live? I bet you’d be suddenly less enamored of mousey rights. Maybe skip the hypotheticals and ask people who actually DEAL with the consequence.
*stepping off the soap box*
Oh, idea one point five – saint preserve us from everyone who has “read an article”. Especially off of the internet. You guys pipe down, too. The three panelists do this for a living. They’ve probably read that article. There’s a reason it’s not called out in the slides.
Point two, and the main one, is amazement at the sense of community with ALS peeps. I have met, and kept in touch with, and care about, people I’d never in my life have met otherwise. I’m antisocial (despite what Danielle says (or at least highly socially avoidant)) and it was a bit weird to come to the symposium today and know some of the people there. Simply because we’ve been similarly touched by a disease. Nothing else in common. Just..yeah, I have this disease too, ain’t it shit? Diagnosis comes with an education, and ALS particularly comes with a community. People I see so infrequently, and yet we have something that connects us on a level that no one else could possibly share.
I learned today that a disease is considered “rare” if less than 200,000 Americans have it. The number thrown around for ALS is usually 30,000, but I also learned today that the ALS registry puts it at more like 12,000. That’s really not many. My employer has 17,000 employees in my area, for example. All Americans with ALS are outnumbered by people working in one metro area for one company. So when you find someone else in your area that even remotely understands, you take note of that person and make an effort to keep them around. There’s nothing like being able to share on a deep and intuitive level what you’re going through. Because even though other people might understand on a theoretical level, it’s a completely different thing to find someone that you can just make eye contact with and say, “Fucking ALS.” and they say “yeah.” and …yeah, to their very SOUL they know exactly what you mean. Because fucking ALS. And because you know how shitty it is, you feel similarly compelled to help someone else in the same position to make their situation suck less. So you stick together, and exchange ideas, and cry for each other, and celebrate the triumphs of perfect strangers with whom you only share one horrible, horrible affliction.
So I guess I have a better understanding of why Harry Potter/Supernatural crossover porn forums exist.
May is ALS Awareness Month.
Last year? Boooyyyyy HOWDY was I aware of it. It struck me as poetic timing, the month after my diagnosis was Awareness Month. That’s when I really began to tell people about my own diagnosis, that’s when I made my universe aware that this was happening. I became an expert in describing what it was and why it was bad and why it was going to be okay, really.
It was a harried, confusing time for everyone, and a month of big decisions. I still hadn’t decided to sell my house yet, or wait until my symptoms made it necessary. I decided ultimately to move on the sale, thinking I’d rather have the ability to make the new house mine than stick it out. Which is good, because already it’s impossible to carry things up the stairs with both hands. I ask people to carry things for me, when they can. Even emptying the litter box and taking it downstairs is a trial. So I’m very glad I started when I did.
This May, I’m aware of ALS. I’m aware of the changes it’s made, both in my physical ability, the outlook on certain things, and the way people interact with me. I’m aware of the strength I’ve lost. I’m aware of the independence it’s taking away from me. I’m aware of the sudden burden of time, watching it slip away, wanting to do as much as I can with it while at the same time wanting to do nothing at all and just rest. I’m aware of my friends coming to terms with the disease for themselves, and either stepping up or stepping down. Both are fine. Everyone carries this weight separately, and I’m proud of people for realizing early that this is too much to carry – I’d very much rather them know this now, than force themselves to hold up until they break. And suddenly the support beam below me is gone. It’s better for both of us to realize this now. I’m aware of the amount of freakin’ PAPERWORK involved with dying. The diagnosis should really come with an administrative assistant. Danielle is helping and doing a fantastic job, but it’s not fair for her to have to deal with the bureaucracy AND the emotions.
I’m aware of changes. I’m aware that I don’t have as much time as I’d like to think. 10% of people with ALS live longer than 10 years, and I firmly believe that I will be among them, but I’m no longer so certain that I WANT to be around that long, depending on the decline.
I’m aware, and in awe, of the love and the support that came seemingly out of nowhere. I’ve never in my life been so inspired by the people around me, overwhelmed by the willingness to sacrifice for me, so many questioning voices: “How can I help?”. I’m aware of the amazing group of individuals surrounding me, each with their own talents and lives to live, but somehow willing to reach out and be part of my problem. Willingly burdening themselves with a battle they know is already lost, but wanting to make the loss a little easier.
I’m aware of how amazing my life really is. And I guess, in a fucked up way, I’m thankful for ALS showing me all of this. I’m aware of how bizarre that seems. I mean, I’d still be very very happy if it fucked off forever, but I guess if it’s gonna kill me, the least it could do was show me a little mercy and awesomeness. Most people don’t get to know how much people actually care for them, and what impact people have felt from their existence. I’ve been shown that, and told that. I’ve heard many of the lovely things people say at your funeral, while I’m still alive. And because of that, I’m very aware of the need to show people appreciation and love while you’re still around. How important it is to tell someone without prompt that you adore them and you’re glad they’re a part of your life.
I’m aware of how cheesy that sounds.
Today, I’m aware that I am a different person than I was a year ago, and will continue to change, but I will cling desperately to my optimism and humor and spit in Death’s face. Well, more of a girlyfight slappy flailing, spitting is gross. Eventually I’ll welcome her, but for now, I’m aware of so much more life that needs to be lived and so many more words to write. I’m aware of how much left there is to live.
Thank you all for being a part of it. I love you. I hope you’re aware of that.
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:
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.”
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!
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.
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.
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.
I imagine a lot of people out there share my weekly regime of tipping pills from many bottles into little plastic containers that mark the days by day and night. Times were, I took nothing (though my recurrent anemia said I really ought to be taking iron, and my living in Oregon says some vitamin D would be good). Occasionally I’d get a wild hair and buy some supplements and taking them maybe a week or two before I tired of it. I don’t have the luxury of tiring of it and setting the pills aside anymore, so once a week, I pull many bottles off of the apothecary shelves, and count them out into little daily pods.
9 in the morning. Gabapentin (twitches/cramps), riluzole (the only ALS drug), buproprion (for depression), armodafinil (for energy), citalopram (for anxiety), ranitidine (for heartburn caused by these pills), vitamin D (for missed sunshine), coconut oil (because maybe it helps, studies are out). Usually magnesium (for muscles and nerves), but I’m out of it just now.
At 2PM, another gabapentin.
When I get home, another riluzole and buproprion. Also vitamin C, iron, and a multivitamin (because you know why). Yes that is a children’s chewable. Deal with it.
At 10PM, another gabapentin.
5 of these are to deal with effects of ALS. One is to counter the effects of the drugs I take to deal with the effects of ALS. And then supplements, because my body needs all the help it can get. So many pills, and I have never calculated how much this costs me per day. Maybe I ought to. I’d probably be afraid. And then there’s the three optionals I have; cyclobenzaprine (for really bad headaches and stress tightness), lorazepam (for when I start to freak out), and zolpidem tartrate (for when I can’t sleep). I don’t take those very often. The cyclobenzaprine (flexeril) is an emergency maneuver – I’m prone to headaches and this is for when they last for days and for fucks’ sake I just want to relax and sleep. The lorazepam (ativan) is usually taken as a preventative when I am going in to a stressful situation (why hello, legal paperwork regarding my death) or when I have panic attacks. And I’ve had the zolpidem tartrate (ambien) on prescription for ages because I sleep for SHIT. But I rarely ever take it, one bottle of 30 of them lasted me nearly 6 months. They’re also an emergency maneuver (hello, trying to fall asleep with CPAP for the first time), reactionary rather than preventative.
And there is another one out there. A possible addition to my chemical combination.
It’s called GM604. There has been a very limited trial, it’s still crazy early, but they’ve shown it to slow the progression of the disease, and even one specific trial showed a minor return of ability. As you might expect, there are a lot of people trying to get it fast-tracked through FDA approval. There’s a petition here, and a Google Group here. The company producing it is called Genervon, which sounds like something Transformers use to make new Transformers. They’ve been keeping the world aware of their progress through press releases.
At the moment, Genervon is awaiting a decision from the FDA. If they’re approved, GM604 will be available and covered by insurance. If they’re not, they must continue through Phase 3 trials, which even at an accelerated rate that the FDA has promised will still take 3 years. Which means most of the people alive with ALS today will not live to see it. There really hasn’t been enough evidence, though, that it works. There’s enough evidence to prove that they should keep studying it, and have further trials, definitely. But not enough to prove it works.
The MS/ALS news magazine, the ALS Therapy Development Institute, and The Robert Packard Center for ALS Research at Johns Hopkins (yeah I totally cut and pasted that from the website) and many many others are watching this with cautious optimism, but not committing to either endorsing or condemning the drug. They want more trials to make certain it’s safe.
“Wait and see.”
“But we QUITE LITERALLY DO NOT HAVE THE TIME TO WAIT,” says just about everyone with ALS or caretaking someone or in the Silk Circle somehow. “GIVE US THE DRUG.”
“We don’t have enough tests to prove it’s safe,” says the FDA.
“What’s it gonna do,” ALS peeps say, “kill us!?”
And so the world waits. Maybe this is a miracle drug. It’s certainly not a cure, but it may be a substantial step.
Next stop: someone stealing the formula from Genervon and producing it in Mexico. Cue many, many ALS peeps taking vacations in Mexico. Because they just want to live awhile longer and will risk anything to get it. Their life is literally on the line.
I don’t know how I feel about it either way, to be honest. My progression might be slow enough that I’ll live to see the results of that trial. But I also fully identify with wanting to take a chance, if it means more time. More ability. More quality of shortened life. I’ve already said I would participate in trials, and I meant it. If I can create clinical data for this drug by taking it and checking in with doctors, sign me up. If it kills me faster, well, now you have a data point. And if it doesn’t, you also have a data point. From a medical trial standpoint, you win either way. From my standpoint, I might come out better than I went in. Or I might die, which I was going to do anyway. I definitely want to see more testing. Either controlled by the FDA or released into the wild and see what happens.
I’m excited that there is SOMETHING happening, in any case. Even if it’s potentially one more pill in my cases.
My local news did a story on a theoretical link between my employer and ALS. I declined to be a part of the story.
After seeing the report, I am certain I made the right decision to refuse to be a part of it.
They used my photo without permission, which is really annoying.
That’s all I have to say publicly about it.
Overwhelmed. In the BEST of ways.
I’ve gone on and on before about how grateful I am for the support I’ve gotten, how much I appreciate the support I’ve been given, how blown away at the love I’ve been shown. It’s probably become a little bit tiresome.
Well, suck it. There’s a lot more coming.
I admit I totally got press-ganged into doing the Walk in the first place. The Veterans Resource Group had a table in the cafe at work. I stopped by to chat, and met another person who ALSO had ALS for the first time. (I’ve met a fair few since then. We’re a small crew, but we run – or hobble or ride – in the same circles.) Part of the table’s purpose, besides awareness, was to recruit people for the Walk to Defeat ALS. “You should form a team,” I was told. “I bet you’d get a lot of support.”
I was of two opinions on that. On the one hand, it’s asking for something. I’m not good at that. On the other hand, a tiny irrational fear, ‘what if I form a team and no one shows up?’ While I was debating this in my head, a coworker walked up to the table to see what I was up to.
“Vashti’s making a walk team, do you want to join her?”
He looked at me, “You are?”
And that’s how it started. I put up a poster outside my cube, I wore the red wristband, I talked openly and honestly about the diagnosis when I was asked, but I felt really weird about asking my friends to come over in support of me. I caved and asked my friends to help me name the team at least. We had a lot of really good suggestions, but in the end, The Godzilla Squad won out. On the 16th, I posted my team link.
On the 17th of August – the next DAY, for those of you playing at home – I was at 17 members and over $1000 raised.
To say I was overwhelmed is a gross understatement. So, fun fact! I’d never cried for joy before. I always thought it would be kind of cool if something like that happened to me, but I am not sentimental in the right ways, I guess, so it never happened. Until then.
The Ice Bucket Challenge gained serious momentum, and so did my team. On the 26th, I was at $3k and 26 people. A dear friend of mine in Sacramento also started a team in my name, Team Dinsdale. We met online waaaaaaaaaayyyyyyyy back in the day, before the Internet was a thing, when you had to dial directly in to someone’s computer and leave messages on a digital bulletin board. In the BBS days, my first handle was Dinsdale.
Life continued its usual frantic pace, there was a lot happening, and before I knew it, it was the final weekend. I had four people staying at my house to attend, and one flew in from Sacramento to be here for me. I was spoiled absolutely ROTTEN that weekend, with homemade Ethiopian food of amazingness, fancyface ice cream and donuts for dessert, and the best company a girl could ever ask for.
And then, Walk Day. This is my team:
Amazing people, every one.
We gathered in a spot that was strategic and awesome until the live band started playing. Right. Bloody. There. But we were VERY easily distinguishable in the crowd with the hoodies (OMG SO AMAZING LEENDAH I LOVE YOU) and Danielle, my main babe, had printed out the kitten-vs-Godzilla picture I’d been using for my Walk page, and attached them to an umbrella. And Matt. Oh my golly Matt. He had commissioned a mighty cape of DOOM and a head cover for his staff:
IS THAT NOT AWESOME.
Yes of course it is, don’t even bother answering.
There were a LOT of people there. Oh my god so many. I’m really glad I had my team around me so I was constantly distracted by OH MY GOD HI I HAVEN’T SEEN YOU IN FOREVER instead of ..holy crap I am in the biggest of big crowds and this sucks. We borrowed wheelchairs,Danielle and I, because I can walk a mile, but it sucks, and I think three is out of the question. Danielle had to borrow one because her foot is borked and it hurts her a lot to be on her feet at ALL and walking three miles is similarly out of the question.
It was a FANTASTIC walk. Well. Roll. I got pushed. The chair was surprisingly easy to wheel myself around in, but I had a lot of people willing to help me out. There’d been cold and rain suddenly, but it cleared up in time to be LOVELY for the walk day. Even a little too warm to wear the hoodies all day, for they were made of fleece and are SO COMFY AND WARM but maybe not the best when standing for a while in direct sunlight. Megan was the smart one, she held the umbrella. Some surprise faces showed up – I didn’t expect my older brother there, he told me he had to work but then didn’t have to! – and met a couple new friend-of-friend faces and did not at ALL have time to introduce everybody to everybody. We walked a really pleasant stroll along the waterfront, and groups connected and drifted as we walked.
We finished, exultant, and some of us stayed for a picnic, and some of us had to get back on the road.
I am so. so. so incredibly grateful. I am grateful to everyone who came. Everyone who couldn’t come but donated. Everyone who couldn’t come OR donate, but thought about me.
In the end, my team was 49 members strong, more than 35 of whom showed up to walk, and $5460 raised.
I’ve always strived to be the kind of person someone would care deeply about, and like having around. I …I guess I managed that, if the support and love I’ve been shown is ANY kind of indicator.
I love you all. You’re amazing and the world is lucky to have you in it.
Longer post to come. But I am so, so grateful to everyone that came out to show me love and support today. So grateful to those that could not but wanted to. So grateful to everyone everywhere who ever gave a shit about another human being. I am so glad to be alive and in such excellent company.
I am so fucking lucky.
I was introduced this week to a comic called Spinnerette. You can read it here. It’s a pretty fun send-up of superhero comics and usually pretty goofy – a fun romp of a comic. I’m not finished with the archives yet, so I can’t give you a complete opinion, but it’s well drawn and occasionally funny.
The reason it was recommended to me, though, is that one of the main characters has ALS. She built a robot suit so that she can use what time she has left to fight crime, Iron Man style. I halfway expected to be vaguely insulted by how they treated the disease, but she’s actually pretty matter-of-fact about it, and the reactions of people around her are pretty faithful. She’s not her disease, that’s not the point of her character. It’s her motivation, but not her reason to exist. I like that a lot.
Similarly pretty accurate is the reaction when she tells the plucky heroine that ALS is degenerative, and she only has a few years to live.
And you can just..feel her frustration. The main character is more sensitive about this woman’s ethnicity than she is about her disease.
This is exactly how not to react when someone tells you they have ALS. Or any other disease for that matter. Please don’t do this. It is REALLY REALLY frustrating. You think you’re being all chipper and optimistic, but you’re really just sticking your fingers in your ears and going LA LA LA LA LA. You’re in denial and it’s really hard to be around you. You’re telling us that we can’t be honest with you when we’re having a bad time. You are obligating me to put a happy face on my hurt for your comfort, and fuck you for that.
ALS isn’t all shit, all the time, but sometimes it really is awful and we should be allowed to be up front about it. Allow us to break the news that YES, this is FATAL. And then let us be okay with that, and help you come to accept it, too. And when you accept how horrible it is, you can truly appreciate how marvelous the rest of it is, most of the time.
…Now where’s MY mech suit, dammit.
The Ice Bucket Challenge was amazing in bringing awareness about ALS to the general public. It’s gotten to the point now where when I say ALS, there might be a reaction, and I don’t have to continue, “..Lou Gehrig’s?” People are starting to know what ALS is. And that’s WONDERFUL.
But we’ve still got a way to go.
I am looking forward to a time when someone asks what’s wrong, I say ALS, and there is complete understanding. Not just “oh that’s pretty bad, isn’t it?” but “Oh, this is terminal, I’m so sorry.” It would spare me so many awkward conversations about treatment prospects and recovery times. There’s no gentle way to say, “There is no treatment. This is a death sentence.” It’s hard to drop that on someone and tell them that you’re okay, honestly, in the next breath. “I’m going to die. But it’s okay.”
It would be so much easier if they understood the implications already so that I can be spared giving people tidings of death with every conversation about my disease. Not just the mortality part, but the whole gradually becoming stuck in a meat shell until I suffocate part. It would spare so much awkwardness. I can’t even imagine someone having one of these superficial conversations with me, learning I have ALS, and then Googling it later and HOLY SWEET MOTHER OF GOD THIS IS AWFUL IF I HAD KNOWN I WOULD HAVE BEEN SO MUCH MORE SYMPATHETIC OH GOD SHE PROBABLY THINKS I’M THE MOST UNFEELING PERSON EVER. (I don’t. I promise.) But the alternative is unlimited conversations like this:
“Hi, how are you?”
“I’m going to die horribly, thanks, but otherwise grand. How are you?”
Okay, so: story time!
I ran into a coworker in the hall a little bit ago. He’s not with my group, but he works on my floor so I see him a lot. Really nice guy, though we got off to a rough start – we met in an argument over who had booked a conference room (I did! And I proved it!) and he was really bitter and snarky at us even though I GAVE him the room and we just found another one. But he had the good grace to make a point of finding me later to apologize and explain that he was really frustrated with getting kicked out of rooms a lot that day because I guess his admin sucked and didn’t actually reserve ANYTHING. But he was sorry he took it out on me. And we’ve been happy acquaintances since.
…Anyway. He stopped me in the hallway and asked me how I was doing. It was a genuine, “How are you?”, instead of the generic “How are you” that you pray to God the other person will just superficially say “Fine! You?” and you both can go about your day. He was actually concerned, and I was a little confused because we hadn’t talked about my disease before – had he seen the spot on the news?
“I’m good,” I answered him honestly. “Doing alright.”
He voiced that he had seen my walking kind of deteriorating and was wondering if I was okay.
“Ah, that. Well, I have ALS.”
There was a little bit of recognition there, and he sympathetically told me, “I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Thank you. But I’m doing okay.”
“So it’s a progressive thing?”
“Yep, someday I’ll be in a wheelchair.” I shrugged.
“Oh. Is it hereditary?”
“Sometimes. Not with me, but 10% of cases. Usually it just comes out of the blue.”
He was sympathetic, nodding.
“But nothing hurts,” I continued. “I’m doing okay. I’ll be working as long as I can.”
We’d reached the end of the hallway where our paths split. He gave me a warm smile and said, “Please let me know if I can help you in any way.” And he meant it.
I was touched. “..Thank you, I will.”
He turned to go, and said in farewell. “Well, I hope you feel better.”
Yeah, awareness has a long way to go.
I had the second talk today, for Intel employees. I mentioned the talks briefly before, but lemme recap.
The leader of the Veterans’ Resource Group here where I work contacted me to see if I’d be willing to help. Veterans are twice as likely to get ALS and we don’t know why yet, so they’ve dedicated this quarter to raising awareness. Part of that awareness campaign was two scheduled events where they brought out the technology available to assist ALS patients, tried to drum up support for the Walk to Defeat ALS, and talked about ALS in general. He asked if I’d be willing to just give a short talk about my diagnosis, how it came to be, and how technology has come into play. I came to his attention because of the news story on voice banking, and he thought that was a wonderful way to introduce ALS to Intel folks – apparently I am the only Intel employee currently working, who has ALS. He asked if I’d share my story. Of course I said yes, no big deal.
I thought a lot about what to say. I didn’t want to just stand up there and talk about my diagnosis. I didn’t even really want to talk about myself much, except to say, this is what ALS is, and if you have any questions at all about what it’s like, or how you get diagnosed, or anything, please ask, because I want people to know this stuff. There’s a lot of misinformation out there, and most of the information that is correct is cold and clinical, hard to put a face on. And I didn’t want to be a Sally Struthers pity party campaign of DON’T YOU FEEL AWFUL LOOK AT THIS HORRIBLE STUFF YOU SHOULD GIVE US MONEY AND FEEL BAD.
And so instead I talked about the tech. Both times, I didn’t manage to stay on script, but this is more or less what I said. And I wanted to share it here, because it’s valid and important to me.
After a 6 month chase including MRIs, a spinal tap, a biopsy, and several impressions of an electric voodoo doll, I was finally diagnosed with ALS. (As it was stated) ALS is also called Lou Gehrig’s disease, after a then-famous baseball player gave a speech telling America that he considered himself the luckiest man alive.
That April 1st, as I sat in the neurologists office and tried to process the news, the first thought in my head was not that I felt particularly lucky. The first thought was actually, “I have to wait until tomorrow to tell people, because NO ONE is going to believe me when I call them on April Fools’ Day to tell them I have a terminal disease.” And my second thought was, “Ok, now what.”
Some people interpret this as courage; I think it’s actually closer to pragmatism. If anything, working here has honed my natural ability to deal with crises with grace. I *can’t* panic; I’ve suddenly lost the luxury of time, and in less than a year I went from perfectly healthy to planning advance directives and making decisions about feeding tubes and ventilators. And it’s become a full time job figuring out how the heck am I going to AFFORD all of this. Dying of ALS is a very expensive endeavor in the States. There’s all of the mobility equipment I’m going to eventually need, there’s the two story house I had bought a handful of months before I was diagnosed that now has to be sold because stairs are becoming impossible. There’s going to be hospice care, and figuring out who I can rely on to get me to medical appointments.
And even more stressful that figuring out money, I have to tell a lot of people about my diagnosis. When a coworker asks if I’m limping because I’ve hurt myself, I have to tell them why I’m limping, and I find more often than not that it usually entails an explanation of what ALS even IS. When I told people of my diagnosis, while their first reaction is always “I’m sorry” – which feels lame to you? But it helps, it really, truly does – the SECOND thing out of everyone’s mouth is always some variant of: “What can I do to help.” I have never realized how many amazing people are in my life. When I was diagnosed, I knew I’d need someone to lead my care team when I couldn’t, and when I looked up, my best friend had her bags already packed and checklists in hand. When I realized that it’s become so much more difficult to do the simplest things like go to the store, I have a plethora of people offering to take me. My little brother moved his entire family from California to be here for me. Casual acquaintances have become friends. And my coworkers have become my invaluable allies.
I have the very good fortune to be working here at Intel. Our benefits are actually really good, especially when you compare them to the nightmare that is Medicaid. And most importantly? The people I work with are an incredible asset. You have two things we really need if we’re going to defeat this stupid disease. First? I’ll be honest, …we need your money. Research takes money to fund, and did I mention how expensive having ALS is? But second, and probably most importantly, you have intelligence and innovation. If you look at the tech available to make living with ALS easier, and compare it to what is POSSIBLE, you’ll see an almost comical shortfall. Eye gaze tech allows ALS patients to use a computer after their ability to move has gone, but it costs thousands and thousands of dollars, and the best stuff isn’t covered under insurance. There is good technology available, and there’s AMAZING technology POSSIBLE. And you’re just the people to help us push this tech to the next generation and make it available to everyone that needs it, not just those that can afford it.
Ever since that April diagnosis I have been shown time and again that I am completely surrounded by people who are willing and able to make this disease suck less – for myself and every other person with ALS.
And because of that, I realize that I am actually very, very lucky.