“You see us as you want to see us – in the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions.” Brian, in a letter to Mr. Vernon, The Breakfast Club
Did you know the term “Basket Case” didn’t originally start out meaning someone who seemed incapable of dealing with life’s issues? (And, if we’re being honest, there’s also a meaning under that meaning involving the assumption the person is either completely manufacturing complaints without any basis in reality, or is, at a minimum, being histrionic about simple stuff that we’re sure they could handle better if they didn’t prefer attention over self-care. And the assumption under that assumption – the most nefarious, segregating part of it – is that we ourselves certainly wouldn’t have such a hard time if we were in the Basket Case’s shoes. Everyone’s a hero in his dreams.)
According to this really cool article I found, it seems that “one of the earliest known documented instances of the phrase was actually in denial that ‘basket cases’ actually existed, as found in a bulletin issued in March of 1919 on behalf of the United States Surgeon General.” In summary, a Basket Case was supposedly a soldier who had lost all his limbs and required being transported in a basket. Though, according to the Surgeon General, that wasn’t actually a thing.
In any case, Basket Case has evolved in the last hundred years to pejoratively mean a person, presumably mentally ill, who is incapable of functioning normally. And it is a word I’m increasingly worried will be assigned to me every time I go to my doctor to further the ongoing discussion about all the various pain I live in. Panic attacks. Aching side. Stinging pain under my right breast that I describe as Sweeney Todd living under my boob. Fatigue. Fuzzy thinking. And even though I have a mostly good attitude about all of these symptoms (because, frankly, the only thing the world hates more than someone in chronic pain is someone in chronic pain with a bad attitude. How dare they?), I doubt myself most when I have to ask the question, “Will you please prescribe me some narcotic pain relievers? I just can’t live this way anymore.” Because, is that true? I love the high of narcotics. I know this. I can hear the animal voice in my brain – the same one that I separated from the sound I recognize as Me when I quit drinking 9 months ago – saying, “Woo hoo, it’s time to take a pill!” when it’s time for my next dose. But the answer is, yes, they really do help. They make the pain go away. When the pain goes away, I pull my shoulders out of my ears and unpucker my sphincter. I relax. I can fucking live and function for a while.
Part of the reason I’m writing this blog is to clarify my complaints. I talk about them a lot; not usually as a whole, as I am here, but in pieces. Maybe I’ll post a picture of myself getting an iron transfusion, or I’ll hold my right breast while speaking to someone. This usually leads to a question and then an explanation. And, thank, god, normally my symptoms don’t synchronize all at one time. Though, last week they did (which is a story for another time) and, thus, the inspiration to finally break it all down into one comprehensive explanation.
So here is a list of the four primary medical issues I see my primary care doctor and/or my therapist for. And with full acknowledgement that listening to someone else talk about their body pain issues can be as scintillating as hearing Aunt Mary drone on about her gout, I’m going to include where each diagnosis falls on the Allie Brosh Pain Scale (ABPS) to mix things up.
(Side note: If you don’t know Allie Brosh, please stop reading this post this instant and immediately read everything she’s ever posted on Hyperbole and a Half. Talk about dealing with life’s pain with a sense of humor! I tip my hat to you, Ms. Brosh.)
Alright, here’s the list:
- Anxiety and emotional disorder/Complex PTSD
- Date of first instance: Birth to 20 years old (Complex PTSD), June 11, 1993 (traumatic brain injury)
- Cause: Interpersonal violence and other traumas (Complex PTSD), Multi-fatality car accident (traumatic brain injury)
- Treatment: Psychotherapy (12 years now), psychiatric medication (currently: Cymbalta), hard-fucking-won self-care and life skills (ongoing), kitties/puppies
- Symptoms: Panic attacks, social anxiety, intense rage, impulse control dysregulation, addiction, depression, and other behavior-related issues (too many to list here)
- Secondary Symptoms: This diagnosis, even when managed with psychotherapy and medication, is like a shit cloud that drops a little dusting of shit snow all over everything else going on in my life at any given time. Sometimes the light dusting is more of a shit avalanche; but thank gods that is less and less common as the years wear on.
- Pain level on the ABPS: Medicated: – 1-3; unmedicated: 2-8 (it all depends on the day and other social/environmental/physical factors)
- Anemia (like, not fucking around anemia)
- Date of first instance: Lifelong
- Cause: No idea. Probably Gremlins.
- Treatment: Intravenous iron transfusion, approximately annually. (Because iron pills are constipating and, thus, exacerbate the IBS symptoms, I’m unable to take them. Yes, all of them. Yes, even that one. And, no, cooking with cast iron doesn’t help. I mean, not very much. Not enough, anyway.)
- Symptoms: Brain fog, fatigue, quick to tears, oversleeping, scatterbrained
- Secondary symptoms: Time lost at work, time lost parenting (due to all the fatigue-related lying about)
- Pain level on the ABPS: When my tank runs low and it’s time for an iron transfusion: 2-4; when my tank is full and and I’ve just had an iron transfusion: 0.
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
- Date of first instance: Unknown. I started investigating the pain symptoms in 2010, just after I got the Essure procedure done, thinking it was related. (It’s not, by the way. I’ve investigated that thoroughly. And yes, I know about the class action lawsuit with Erin Brockovich.) But, looking back, it seems that I can point to idiopathic lower right side pain throughout my entire life from puberty forward. They even took my appendix out for lower right side pain when I was 13, and it turned out to be healthy.
- Cause: Unknown, though research indicates that IBS disproportionately affects women, as well as disproportionately affecting people who experienced childhood trauma
- Treatment: Unknown (the research is ongoing, but not conclusive, and poorly funded. It’s not a sexy disorder. You know…’cause poop.) A GI specialist recommended I try eating only low FODMAP foods, and since making that switch, the frequency and intensity of my IBS pain has diminished greatly. HOORAY! Also, I spend a lot of time lying under a heated pad when the pain flares up. Kitties and puppies help, too.
- Symptoms: For me, the primary symptom is a dull (as opposed to sharp), constant, nagging pain in my lower right abdominal quadrant – above my hip, below my ribs, more to the side than the center; diarrhea, constipation
- Secondary symptoms: Time lost at work, time lost parenting (due to all the lying about), time lost tending to life in general
- Pain level on the ABPS: 3-9, depending on what I ate. Narcotic pain relievers can knock this down to 1-2, but now that I’ve found the miracle of the low FODMAP diet, I don’t need to worry about treating the pain with that modality anymore. Hooray again!
- Intercostal Neuralgia (a.k.a. Sweeney Todd living under my boob)
- Date of first instance: December 19, 2013
- Cause: Flexible bronchoscopy, right VATS with right lower wedge, followed by completion lobectomy (i.e. they removed a chunk of my right lung, as well as a benign tumor)
- Fun fact: The whole reason they even found this tumor was because I was investigating the lower right side pain that ultimately resulted in the IBS diagnosis. I was a-symptomatic for this particular issue and, in fact, in the end, the tumor wasn’t causing any harm at all and could’ve stayed forever right where it was. They only reason they even noticed it is because they were looking at my gallbladder and Fallopian tubes (to check out the Essure coils) and just happened to catch sight of the end of my right lung. Then all investigation came to a screeching halt and Tumor Gate 2013 swung into full and rapid effect. For the surgery, they placed the chest tube in an old scar from the 1993 accident, when my right lung collapsed and a chest tube was inserted to re-inflate it. I have no idea if going in through an old scar/insertion point caused the nerve damage, but I suspect it did. Although, my research indicates that this type of nerve damage isn’t uncommon for people who have had identical thoracic surgery.
- Treatment: Ongoing. Hydrocodone helps a lot, but as I’m terrified of becoming a pain pill addict – and as evidence suggests this is a viable possibility – I won’t be using them anymore. Besides, my doctor is an upstanding dude and I’m pretty sure he won’t prescribe them anymore. At any rate, they help, but they cause their own problems. Hot tubs offer some relief. So do heating pads. I found this fabulous contraption at Fred Meyer yesterday that has two pockets for gel pads that can be heated in the microwave and then the whole thing wraps around my upper torso. Also, I’ve discovered that having my breasts tightly compressed with an Ace Bandage can be helpful – until then exact moment it’s not. Then, all I can think is GETITOFFGETITOFFGETITOFF until the whole thing can be unwrapped. Also, I can’t wear a bra anymore. Which is annoying and presents its own challenges. You ever tried to talk to a parent at your children’s school with your nipples poking out everywhere because you didn’t want to have to deal with dressing strategically to drop your children off at school, but then you ended up having to go in, and then there you are? It’s annoying. Kitties and puppies don’t help a lot with this issue, sadly.
- Symptoms: The damaged intercostal nerve is one that wraps around my torso and is located between the ribs. It starts at the scar under my breast and then wraps around my back at the same line of latitude. The point under my breast is the most painful part. It feels like being sliced brand new, for the first time, with a scalpel over and over and over again. Sometimes the pain shoots right out the end of my nipples. The back pain tends to come mostly when I’m lying down (which I do a lot because of the side pain!) and it feels more like stinging in one spot in my back, exactly opposite of the front spot. It’s like lying in a pile of cactus needles just on that one spot. The really frustrating part is that this pain came and went for years. Then, all of a sudden about a month or six weeks ago, it started up pretty much all the time. I have a hard time lifting or moving my right arm too quickly, as it causes the pain. I tend to hold my right arm tucked tight against my right side, sometimes pressing my hand against my breast. I cannot be bothered to care if this A) looks weird, B) bothers my children, C) is socially appropriate in any way or, D) is “professional.”
- Pain level on the ABPS: 8-11
Man. Look at that list. It’s exhausting reading it, much less writing it all out. And it doesn’t even cover the lesser complaints that make life hard, such as:
- Being a single mom of twice-exceptional twins (which means they’re geniuses and behaviorally/neurologically a-typical, aka a beautiful pain in the ass)
- Being the parent of an adult child who struggles with addiction and homelessness
- The day-to-day struggles of living
- Fun fact #2: People with chronic health issues get to have a regular ol’ bad day, too! Our cats still get sick and our plumbing still leaks. Etc. We’re special that way.
- My aching left leg, which was crushed in the accident and hurts mercilessly for three weeks in the fall to the point that I can’t walk on it sometimes and have to use a cane
I’ll stop there. But I could go on. The point is… What is the point. I guess it’s maybe when your Aunt Mary is complaining about her gout have a little compassion. Maybe it’s the hope that people will start being more empathetic and less judgmental in general, so that Basket Cases like myself can just get on with the business of getting on without the extra pressure of worrying what “they” think. Or, maybe I just needed to list it all out to see it and have more empathy for myself. Jesus, I’m a mess. But I’m an entertaining mess. Not as hilarious as Allie Brosh, but that’s a goal.
Thanks for reading, team. In exchange for that kindness, I offer you this video, which levels the playing field and can make freaks of any stripe feel better. Have a great day.