Before you judge my dog’s birthday party

Last month, my oldest toy poodle, Quixote turned TEN years old! Quixote is my first dog and has boldly taught me everything I know about poodles. He is a ruthless, but effective physical therapist. He forces me to socialize in hopes of scoring treats from strangers.

Of course, I had to spoil him with the perfect gift.

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A Charmin Forever Roll! A 12” roll of toilet paper, one of Quixote’s favorite vices. At first, I wanted to order the Forever Roll for myself. Charmin offers a money-back guarantee: Go up to one month before changing your roll. As someone who endured two colonoscopies in one year, I feel like that’s a bad business plan. My mast cells love a challenge. Then I realized my blog readers would much rather see pictures of my poodle than hear about how much I pooped in a month.

Quixote’s birthday serendipitously fell on the same day as his weekly agility class, so I also threw him a birthday party. There were hats, treats, and party favors.

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I worried these Facebook photos might undermine the seriousness of my health challenges. I try not to care what people think, but unfortunately image does matter when you’re of the precipice of crowdfunding.

I know a lot people of people think dog birthday parties are ridiculous. In fact, some people believe all birthday parties are ridiculous. I have a couple words for these people:

  1. Don’t steal my joy
  2. Prepare to feel like an asshole

First of all, it cost almost nothing. You better believe I collected every half-chewed stream of toilet paper and place them in a bag by my toilet. The mini hats were on clearance, because they look absurd on humans, and the lottery tickets technically made money. The balls were less than a dollar, even though Boost the Aussie thinks they’re worth a million.

Second, I miss celebrating birthdays. In fact, I miss celebrating all occasions with others. Because of MCAS, I usually spend my birthdays and Christmas alone. I can’t go to restaurants or parties with friends and family anymore. At the same time, I need celebration more than ever to offset my health challenges. Right now, my life just feels like a series of fights and losses. Quixote’s birthday was the perfect opportunity to share joy in a safe space. Feel like a jerk, yet?

Furthermore, I’m allergic to men, babies, and baby-making. I cannot imagine how many ways childbirth would destroy my body, nor how I would take care of children when I can barely care for myself. Plus, MCAS appears to have a genetic component. Instead of wallowing in my fear that I may never be able to have kids, I am focusing on the family I do have, even if it’s not human.

Finally, my dog has helped me and continues to help me get through hard times. At first glance, his help appears self-serving. Quixote keeps me on a strict schedule of meals, bathroom breaks, and exercise. He is the reason I get up in the morning and the reason I go outside. He is the reason I regained strength in my body. He is the reason I learned how to ask for help when I need it. He is the reason I keep fighting.

P.S. I am honored to have been nominated as a WEGO Health Awards Hilarious Patient Leader. If you haven’t already, please endorse me to raise awareness for mast cell disease, EDS, and POTS!

 

The Three Little Pigs and the Big Bad Dryer

Once upon a time, there were three little pigs, all with mast cell disease. The pigs lived on an American farm where antibiotics and pesticides were heavily used. As the pigs became sicker, they decided to escape the farm and move into three condos in the same building in the city. They loved their safe condos in the city.

One day, all three of the little pigs felt very ill. They noticed a flowery fragrance seeping through their condo vents. Their throats and heads swelled. They vomited and couldn’t think. When they asked the condo association about the smell, they learned their neighbor had recently installed a ventless dryer.

The dryer huffed and puffed and blew volatile organic compounds (VOCs) all over the condo building to the detriment of everyone’s health, especially the three little pigs.

The first pig cried, “Not by the flare of my skinny, skin, skin!” and filed a nuisance complaint with the condo association. The association asked the neighbor to stop using dryer sheets, but decided the fragrance was otherwise negligible. The first pig had no choice but to return to the farm, and shortly after, was turned into bacon.

The dryer huffed and puffed and continued to blow VOCs all over the condo building, even without the dryer sheets.

The second pig cried, “Not by the flare of my skinny, skin, skin!” and filed an American Pigs with Disabilities Act reasonable accommodation request with the condo association. The association inspected the common areas of condo building, which were not affected by the dryer fumes, and consequently, could not offer any reasonable accommodations. The second pig had no choice but to return to the farm, and shortly after, was turned into sausage links.

The dryer huffed and puffed and continued to blow VOCs into the lungs of the building residents.

The third pig cried, “Not by the flare of my skinny, skin, skin!” and filed Fair Housing Act reasonable accommodation request with the condo association. The third pig also provided medical documentation of her disability. The condo association had never heard of this before, and didn’t take the request seriously until the third pig threatened to sue. The condo association passed a new policy requiring homeowners with ventless dryers to use low VOC, unscented laundry products. If the residents insisted on using fragrant products, the association recommended they use one of the vented dryers available to all residents in the common areas.

And the third little pig lived happily ever after, except for ongoing, non-dryer-related, life-threatening mast cell reactions!

Learn more about ADA and FHA disability accommodations for housing.

P.S. While I hope for a fairy tale ending, I’m still legally battling my neighbor and association.

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.”

I walk circles around the hospital

Everyone warns you that prednisone will make you fat, and when it does make you fat, they remind you that prednisone made you fat. Meanwhile, you’re just trying to stay alive. In 2015, before I was diagnosed, I became dependent on daily prednisone to control my symptoms and allow me to keep working. My weight gain did not frighten me; it seemed like a reasonable side effect in exchange for keeping my job, health care, and sanity.

However, no one warned me prednisone can cause muscle wasting. Contrary to popular belief, prednisone will not turn you into The Incredible Hulk. While it may incite bouts of rage, long-term use will actually convert you in A Blubbering Blob that has to ask grandma for help standing up. My arms became swollen noodles unable to compensate for my collapsing legs. I relied on my toy poodle to pick up items on the floor. (Note: get a bigger dog.)

Although I stopped daily prednisone four years ago, my muscles still haven’t fully recovered. To be honest, physical therapy hasn’t been a priority. I’ve been preoccupied with breathing and eating. Also, between MCAS and EDS, physical therapy can do more harm than good. Even well-intentioned specialists can cause injuries with life-altering consequences (e.g. CSF leaks). On the other hand, strengthening muscles can help stabilize joints and reduce injuries.

I have been walking a lot more lately though. Not because I want to rehab my muscles, but because I want to rehab my poodle’s muscles. Last fall, he injured his shoulder tendons and he had to wear a brace all winter. Now, his physical therapist has prescribed strength training, including daily walks.

Yes, I prioritize my dog’s physical therapy over my own. First of all, I still trust veterinarians; they understand my health issues better than most of my doctors. Second, my dog loves physical therapy. Maybe I would be more enthusiastic if someone fed me bacon or peanut butter every I lifted a leg.

Walking is my safest form of exercise, but it’s still difficult and exhausting. I worry about getting dizzy and passing out. I worry about getting stung by a bee and needing an ambulance. I worry about subluxing my hip or knee in the middle of my walk, and struggling to make it back. So, I walk circles around the hospital.

Trust me, it’s not as weird as it sounds.

I live next door to a hospital.

Okay, that part is slightly weird. I prefer to call it serendipitous. I bought my condo years before my MCAS diagnosis and subsequent emergency room visits. It is super convenient and it allows me avoid one of my greatest fears, asking for help. I just hobble over with my swollen throat, kidney stone, or spinal fluid leak. I never worry about my safety, even though passing out along the way is always possible. (I have considered a go kart.) Between the smokers, security guards, shift changes, and constant stream of ambulances, I know wouldn’t be left unattended for long.

Which leads me to my latest hobby: walking circles around the hospital. Sure, it’s no nature reserve, but I don’t worry about dying. Do you know what’s more soothing than chirping birds? The screaming sirens of ambulances rushing to save lives.

The sidewalk loops around the building for a perfect half-mile roundtrip. My poodle bounces along my side, putting much-needed smiles on visitors’ faces. Sometimes I consider waving through the window to the staff at the front desk, and shouting, “Hi neighbor! May I borrow a cup of Benadryl?”

My scale says I’ve gained a couple pounds this week. I hope it means I’m finally building muscle, not packing macaroni. I don’t need a bikini body, I just don’t want a weenie body, if I can help it.

Fake news

Imagine being limited to 10 buildings for the rest of your life.

Because of my severe reactions to fragrances and other odors, I can’t go to shopping malls or movie theaters. No concerts, bars, or sport events. I’m afraid to take vacations, because the last two out of three times I ended up hospitalized. Aside from the days I’m pumped full of prednisone, my life is contained to about 10 buildings I can safely breathe in.

For me, the hardest loss is eating out. I hate cooking and I miss socializing with friends. My diet is so restricted (low histamine, low FODMAP, and soy free) that even if I could breathe inside a restaurant, I wouldn’t be able to eat or drink anything. I can’t even drink the water.

Well, there is one exception: an allergy-friendly, burger joint with high-quality ingredients, disability parking, high ceilings, and good airflow. Although I have to premedicate and I still have mild reactions, I enjoy a juicy cheeseburger on special occasions.

Recently, I scheduled an office lunch at the restaurant to celebrate our interns. Although I certainly didn’t have to, I like to regularly remind everyone I am an excellent boss and a charming coworker. Food has way of connecting people, unlike my plastic-wrapped, HEPA filtered office with no windows and a locked door.

I snagged a corner seat at the end of a long table for maximum airflow. My service dog curled up underneath, while I popped a Benadryl and set my Fiji Water on a coaster. My coworkers and I ordered our food and began our pleasantries. I rarely see my coworkers ever since HR put me in solitary confinement. Still it’s really hard to give a shit about polite conversation when you’re constantly facing life-threatening situations. It’s even harder to offer relatable conversation when your personal life consists of Facebook, poodles, and texts from your neighbor checking if you’re alive.

My head bobbed as a tried to find a smooth entry into the conversation, like a game of Double Dutch. Don’t mention anything medical, especially not your CSF leak. Lately, everything seems unequivocally related to CSF leaks. “That sounds so fun. I’d love to try that… but my brain might hemorrhage out my ear!”

My focus was interrupted by a man approaching the end of table. He knelt down and began assembling a tripod. When he stood up again, I recognized him as a local reporter. My curiosity was interrupted as the waitress thrust a plump burger oozing with cheese in front of me. I grabbed the steaming tower of beef with both hands and inhaled the greasy goodness.

“Oh my god, why are they filming us?” a coworker exclaimed. Sure enough, the reporter was now hidden behind a lens pointed directly down the center of our table. My coworkers squirmed, trying to hide their faces, while sneaking bites of beef.

I snickered at their self-consciousness. I don’t worry about looking good anymore. Prednisone cured me of my vanity. I’m too busy convincing people of my disabilities, so I can get help. I’m constantly reminding everyone that I rarely leave the house and struggle with simple errands like oil changes and phone repairs.

In fact, I generally look pretty good considering how I feel. Here I was wearing a dress, flaunting perfect curls, and eating lunch with seven other people. Aside from the poodle hidden under the table, no one could tell I was disabled. Let the paparazzi get their shots.

I figured the reporter was collecting some b-roll for its evening newscast. Some friends and family would probably see it. They would be proud of me for appearing in public like a normal human being.

Or would they.

I turned my face away from the camera.

What if they see this and think I’m a liar? What if they suspect I eat restaurant food all time? What if they think these people are my friends and I’m having a great time? What if they think I lied about everything and no one ever wants to help me again?

I finished my burger, hoping it would push the paranoia out of my stomach. Instead, my nausea grew as I drove my coworkers back the office, a typical post-meal histamine reaction. I left work early that day due burger-induced cramps and fatigue. I spent the evening curled on my couch, waiting for the news, and preparing my rebuttal.