May is National Fibromyalgia Awareness Month. This post is reprinted with permission from this month’s featured sponsor, Leah McCullough, author of Freedom from Fibromyalgia: 7 Steps to Complete Recovery. You can read the original post and learn more about Leah’s book here.
I was living the “perfect storm” for getting an autoimmune disease in my early 20s. I was in the Army and living life to the fullest, but burning the candle at both ends.
First, I was working long hours and then also working a part-time job and taking college courses at night. (I figured sleep was what you could do all you want once you were dead.) I also maintained a vibrant social life which included consuming my fair share of alcohol. I also smoked about a pack a day of cigarettes.
I was eating a low-fat, high-carbohydrate diet which at the time I thought was healthy. I was consuming a lot of caffeine in the form of coffee and diet soft drinks. (I remember thinking this can’t be good for you.) I was given all kinds of vaccination shots, including some pretty exotic ones like yellow fever and bubonic plague.
To top it all off I was under an immense amount of stress due to the fact I thought I was to be deployed to the invasion of Panama and then onto the Persian Gulf War. (I did not wind up going to either, but went to Bosnia a few years later as a civilian contractor.) But the most stressful part of all was that I was being sexually harassed by my boss’s supervisor, the First Sergeant.
My only saving grace at the time was exercise.
I ran most mornings, took exercise classes at night and did hiking and sometimes surfing on the weekends. I had a fun, active, stressful life and it was about to come crashing down.
Two physical incidents happened to me about the same time I started experiencing symptoms. First, I found a tick at the bottom of the shower when I went in from being in the woods overnight. I developed a large, oval-shaped red rash on my calf. I don’t know if I contracted Lyme Disease and years later a test was inconclusive. The symptoms of Lyme Disease, as well as many other diseases, are very similar to the symptoms of fibromyalgia.
The other incident was I sprained my ankle while out on maneuvers and then I had to walk on it for several miles. It seemed to take forever to heal and I kept reinjuring it and spraining the other ankle as well. Then it seemed as though the improper alignment I was experiencing due to limping was affecting my knees, hips and back. My back muscles and joints were very sore all the time. I was becoming uncoordinated and tripping often. My physical therapist said that due to the repeated injuries my brain didn’t quite know where my feet were in space.
Then I began to feel exhausted all of the time, no matter how much sleep I got. It was so bad I went to the doctor and he gave me a bottle of pre-natal vitamins. Surprisingly, they helped for a little while, which goes to show how depleted my body was.
Due to all of the ankle injuries and the progression of pain I started seeing medical specialist in the Army for nerve damage.
That was the start of my quest for answers to the question, “What is wrong with me?”
I would not find out for over 7 years! In the meantime I went to countless doctors, endured all kinds of tests and was given all kinds of diagnoses from multiple sclerosis to the very familiar “it’s all in your head.”
Needless to say, this pretty much ended my military career. I could not carry out the physical portions of my job. By the time I got out of the Army, I had to wear high-top basketball shoes for support. I really couldn’t walk for any distances. Luckily, when I got out of the Army I was able to get a desk job and very slowly my ankles got better enough so I could wear normal shoes.
So for a while I lived a fairly normal life even though I had a lot of muscle and back pain and felt tired a lot. I got sick of going to doctors and just lived with it. Eventually I was able to start exercising again and this really helped me maintain my energy.
I did call in sick to work a lot more than a normal person and one time my boss insisted that I go to a doctor. I was very reluctant to go but my job was on the line.
That was when I received the diagnosis of fibromyalgia.
It was the one of the happiest and saddest days of my life! I was so happy to have a name of a real disease for my very real symptoms. I felt vindicated! I felt sad because I had a disease and I had really hoped there wasn’t really anything wrong with me. Also, there were no answers and there was “not much that can be done for it.”
Now that I had a name for what was “wrong” with me I started researching for answers and asking doctors for help. First, I found out that at the time, many doctors did not believe fibromyalgia was a “real” disease. Also, if you were diagnosed with fibromyalgia many medical professionals had a bias and thought you were crazy.
The first of many, many medications I was given was an antidepressant. I am not sure exactly how many different medications I tried to help alleviate the symptoms of FMS, probably at least 30. By the time I was about to recover, I was taking 9 prescriptions a month and 6 on a daily basis. Also, that doesn’t include the many supplements and vitamins I was taking as well.
About a year after I was diagnosed with FMS I was in an accident at work. I was a trade show manager and during the tear down of a show an 80 pound speaker from an adjacent booth was knocked over and landed on my head, neck and shoulder. I was pinned to a counter top. Nothing was obviously broken or bleeding and even though I was stunned I was able to get home. The next day I felt like I had been hit by a truck.
This incident led to me becoming disabled from working. I had to resign from my job. I tried working part-time jobs from home for a couple of years, but it seemed I could not do anything consistently.
I spiraled into a major depression.
Eventually, I was to the point where I spent about 12 to 16 hours a day in bed for over 6 years. I was in a tremendous amount of pain that was barely alleviated by narcotic prescriptions. I was pre-diabetic, pre-hypertensive and I was morbidly obese. I could barely care for myself and often had to choose between eating or bathing because I was that exhausted.
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