Fighting for MCAS

In many ways, 2019 was my worst year. My home became unsafe due to my neighbor’s laundry fumes. Even with air purifiers and a Vogmask, I couldn’t use my own bathroom without suffering from MCAS reactions. I missed meals and napped on the floor of my office, because I had nowhere to safely make food or sleep. Due to MCAS, I could not stay at a hotel or a friend’s house. Moving was not a reliably safe option either. Besides, I was already drowning in medical debt, living paycheck-to-paycheck despite working full-time at a well-paying job. I cried often and worried I was going to lose everything. The toll on my body resulted in emergency surgery in September.

But that’s not how I will remember 2019.

I was diagnosed with mast cell activation syndrome (MCAS) in December 2015. For the first three years of diagnosis, it seemed like every minute of every day was spent fighting a reaction. Eating, working, and sleeping seemed impossible. Sometimes I couldn’t walk. My body felt like an unruly toddler, throwing tantrums despite every attempt I made to appease it. I quickly learned medications were not enough.

My mast cells wanted a safer environment. So, I resigned to solitary confinement. (Technically not solitary confinement, because I had internet access, but you should still feel sorry for me.) As my mast cells quieted down, I realized my body is not my enemy. My mast cells are simply trying to protect me from a world swirling with chemicals.

This year, I switched from fighting my body to fighting FOR my body.

For me, the worst part of MCAS is not the lack of treatments or the hospitalizations, but people’s unwillingness to accommodate my health: a coworker who sprays perfume at the expense of my lungs, a neighbor who values fragrant laundry over my ability to eat and sleep, or a doctor who refuses to follow my medication protocol because he’s unfamiliar with MCAS.

Our world does not support MCAS patients. It prioritizes chemicals over people. In 2019, I was done feeling like my body was the problem and undeserving of accommodations. Here are some ways I fought for my body this year:

  • Filed a complaint with the Minnesota Board of Medical Practice. In 2018, a hospitalist refused to follow my emergency protocol and cut off my Benadryl and Diluadid in the middle of the night (after my friends left) and ordered morphine instead. Morphine is dangerous for MCAS patients and listed as an allergy in my chart. The board did not discipline the doctor; however, the complaint is on her permanent file. More importantly, the hospital made sure I received excellent care for my emergency surgery this year.
  • Shared my story with my local newspaper. The reporter interviewed me for one-hour, requested supporting documentation, and interviewed two of my friends. The interview was more stressful than I anticipated (hives!), but the front-page story changed my life and my ability to get people to understand my life with MCAS.
  • Asked for financial help. I think I threw up seven times before posting my GoFundMe, but my options were to lose my condo or ask for financial help. My deepest fear was that I wouldn’t receive the help I need, and I would confirm my feelings that I am not worthy enough to keep my home and survive. (Not true!) I raised $3k for a lawyer and safety improvements to my condo. After my newspaper story published, a local family paid my medical bills and I cried until I had to stop and take Benadryl.
  • Requested air fresheners be removed as a disability accommodation. Two businesses I frequent had air fresheners in their bathrooms. This year, I submitted formal ADA requests in writing. Although, the businesses were resistant at first, after my newspaper story published, the air fresheners disappeared forever.
  • Filed a discrimination complaint with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. I asked for my condo association to implement a fragrance-free laundry product policy as a disability accommodation under the Fair Housing Act. Instead, my condo association recommended I move several times. That is discrimination. HUD is currently requesting my condo association adopt the policy.
  • Drafted state legislation. Can’t wait to share more on this soon!

I wanted to give up so many times this year! I cried until I puked and I screamed into pillows. Other times, I was so tired or in pain that I couldn’t imagine responding to anymore legal letters. When I hit these breaking points, I stopped everything and rested. I reminded myself I’m not just fighting for my life, I am fighting for all people with MCAS. Then I planned the next tiny step I would take when I was ready.

Let me tell you about a few more moments that gave me hope:

  • When I was admitted to the hospital, my nurse was excited to meet another mast cell disease patient. His son had mastocytosis.
  • My pre-op nurse said she knew exactly how to time my pre-medications, because she had a daughter with MCAS.
  • During an emergency room visit for a hemiplegic migraine, a neurologist asked me to give a 10-minute speech on MCAS for the residents. He ended my lecture by saying, “This is why we listen to patients who know how to manage their disease.”

This year, I was grateful and angry, hopeful and scared. I’m taking all of these feelings into 2020 and continuing the fight for MCAS. I hope you’ll join me.

Oversharing

My best friend was coming over to spend the night for the first time. I could barely sit still while my right foot soaked in a bucket of warm water before she arrived. I had slept over at her house many times, but she had been too afraid to sleep at mine. Her fear baffled me. We just had conquered first grade and she had played happily at my house for countless hours. Besides, the best part of a sleepover is escaping your parents and their rules!

My mom, sitting in a chair across from me, picked up my right foot, wiped it with a towel, and set it on her knee for our nightly ritual. A plantar wart had taken root in the center of my heel–evidence of a summer well-spent at the local pool. My mom assured me the wart wouldn’t hurt me, although as she scraped away the dead skin, I questioned her intentions and kicked her a few times. Afterwards, I admired the progress of the wart’s eviction–my tiny science experiment.

This night, however, the wart surrendered, releasing from my foot and dropping into the bucket of water below. My mom and I cheered. “I want to see it!” I begged, eager to size up the enemy. To my surprise, the wart floated like a tiny jellyfish with long, translucent tentacles swaying in the water. I assessed the damaged to my foot–a deep, yet, smooth, red crater.

“You cannot mention this tonight,” my mom warned. “You’ll freak her out.”

I had briefly forgotten about my long-anticipated sleepover. I imagined my friend’s overreaction, the horror in her eyes. “Duh,” I told my mom.

When my friend arrived, I raced to show her all the cool things in my house. Or least the most interesting things and tried to make them sound cool. After about an hour, I ran out of ideas. I sensed her boredom; she sensed my desperation. I closed my bedroom door and asked, “Wanna see my foot?”

I whipped off my sock and presented my heel. She didn’t scream or gasp. She stared as I told her everything my mom had taught me about warts. I assured her that it was no longer contagious. I studied her face. She seemed curious, not frightened. I put my sock back on to reassure her, just in case.

Later that night, when I was brushing my teeth, I heard my friend talking to my mom in the kitchen. I heard the phone be lifted from its receiver. My mom appeared in the bathroom doorway. “I told you not to talk about your foot!” she scolded me.

Fifteen minutes later, my friend’s mom came to pick her.

*****

So, the main reason I created this blog was because my Facebook friends couldn’t handle my oversharing. Turns out everyone wants to be your Facebook friend until you post something boring, frightening, or disgusting. Well, I’m not boring.

Chronic illness has increased what I like to call my “generous honesty”. Life is too short for small talk and I left all my shame in an ambulance in Florida. I have never sugarcoated my illness and if you ask me what I did last weekend, I am going to tell you which body part broke.

I share my experiences on social media for many reasons:

  1. I live in solitary confinement and poodles are bad listeners
  2. Sometimes I need validation that my disease is total shit and I am a badass
  3. Therapy is expensive and my last therapist quit the profession, which is way more insulting being unfriended on Facebook

But most importantly, my posts help people. Yes, my stories are terrifying and sometimes disgusting, but everyone has body that is probably going to do some scary shit before inevitably falling apart. I feel a duty to normalize illness and disability, because for every ten people who unfriend me, one person privately messages me and thanks me for sharing my experience.

*****

The next summer, shortly after graduating from second grade, the phone rang. “It’s for you,” my mom said.

“Hello?” I answered.

My friend softly stuttered on the other end. She said, “I have wart on my foot, and my mom and I were wondering how you got rid of yours.”

Why I made an encouragement board instead of a vision board

Every January, I make a vision board. To be honest, I enjoy the craft portion of the project most. A vision board is basically a pretentious collage that makes me sound like I have my shit together. It’s supposed to convey your dreams and leverage the law of attraction to make them happen. Yet, I never put a hospital on my vision board, but I can’t seem to stay out of one.

This year I am forgoing the traditional vision board for three reasons:

1. I am overly ambitious; my body is not

Before vision boards, I wrote resolutions. For example, here are my New Year’s resolutions from when I was 15 years old:

  • No chocolate except for special occasions
  • Find a volunteer job
  • Fix my many social problems or just shut up when necessary
  • Save $150 a month
  • Journal 3 times a week
  • Keep my face clear
  • Do all the other stuff I can’t think of right now

Well, that pretty much covers it. I was not a cool 15-year-old and I did not get more reasonable about my goals with age. I still eat chocolate every day and my face is usually dotted with hives. Let’s not even discuss the social problems. For the record, I did get the volunteer job… AT A HOSPITAL. These days I’m lucky if I can even keep my paying job. Vision boards and resolutions alike are loaded with guilt and regret.

2. The universe misinterprets my visions

In case you missed it, read last year’s warning about vision boards.

3. My friend refused to participate in our vision board tradition this year

Technically, we’ve only made them together once, but since my mast cells forbid all of my other traditions, it’s officially our thing. Maybe she refused this year because last year she was a little too scissor-happy with the yoga magazines and now feels guilty. Or maybe it’s because when we craft, I try to work “modge podge” and “she shed” into the conversation every 10 minutes, because I think it’s hilarious. She reminds me it’s actually called “mod podge” and I become more persistent. MODGE PODGE.

*****

This year, I decided I am making an encouragement board instead. Yes, that does sound even more nauseating than a vision board. Yes, a unvision board would be way more fun to make. (A unvision board is a collage of things you wish you could unsee. Yes, I totally made that up.) But after another year of pursuing the same dreams, getting knocked down and beat up, and feeling totally out of control, I need an encouragement board.

This past year, my friends and readers have kept me going. When I was in the hospital, your encouragement gave me strength to keep fighting and hope that I would recover. Oftentimes, I didn’t feel like writing, but the messages of support reminded me my writing helps people laugh and feel less alone. I dug up these messages time and time again when I felt low. Finally, it occurred to me to print these messages and make a collage.

Here’s what else my encouragement board entails:

  • A 11”x14” foam board
  • Scrapbook paper for the background
  • Inspirational quotes
  • Magazine clippings
  • MODGE PODGE (use doubled sided tape if you react)

Chances are you don’t have a blog and dozens of comments feeding your ego. However, I bet if you shared your dreams on social media, you’d also receive encouragement. Maybe from people you didn’t expect. And you can always print this out:

I BELIEVE IN YOU! YOU ARE AWESOME! – Hell’s Bells and Mast Cells