Monday, July 13, 2009

Straws on the Camel’s Back

So, it’s time to get back on track! I have often been asked “what causes chronic fatigue syndrome?” There’s no short and sweet answer to that question, and truly it differs from person to person. But today I wanted to take a little stroll down memory lane to share the factors that I believe, once added up, led me personally to suddenly and quickly succumb to this most unpleasant, inconvenient, and life-altering illness in the summer of 1999.

Prior to getting sick with chronic fatigue syndrome, I had spent almost a year and a half living in Russia as a missionary. Even though we had super-mega water filters in the apartments I lived in, there’s no telling what kinds of pathogens, chemicals, toxins, and parasites I was exposed to during that time. To make it worse, while I was in Russia I was operating in hyper-drive in my life – being a missionary who works 60-70 hours/week, studies 7-21 hours/week, cooks most meals from scratch, and deals with rejection and even hostility on an almost daily basis – this is not exactly a low-stress lifestyle! And with my perfectionist tendencies on top of it all . . .!

Let’s take it back a little further now. I can’t blame Russia alone for setting the stage for my 6-year illness! Let’s see . . . oh, yes! This intense, hyper-achieving lifestyle began much earlier – high school was an ideal breeding ground for habits of pushing myself to my limits. I got up between 4:30-4:45 AM during my entire high school career. I had religion classes beginning at 5:45 AM, then 7 AM band practice even before school began. And I had to get up in plenty of time to curl, style, and plaster my hair with hairspray each and every morning. AP and honor’s classes, first chair alto sax in marching, concert, and jazz bands, a drive for straight A’s (with a couple of exceptions here and there), and participation in a smattering of clubs and etc… kept me plenty occupied and stressed. Too bad I didn’t hit the sack until after 11 PM most nights. That’s 5 ½ hours of sleep on average.

Then there’s the fast food. My lunch each day in high school consisted of a $2 meal at either McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Wendy’s, or maybe an occasional splurge at Pizza Hut. EVERY DAY. If you think about it, a cheeseburger and large fries is totally balanced nutritionally, right? You’ve got the bread group covered with the white flour bun, the meat group with the “beef” hamburger patty, the dairy group with that piece of American “cheese”, and the vegetable group with the wilted pickled slices, ketchup, and fries! Since I rarely ordered sodas with my meals, and I had cut back on my candy intake by my sophomore year, I felt no need for concern over my diet.

After that, we come to the liver-toxic prescription drugs, and the immune-wrecking antibiotics. In high school and college I took antibiotics on and off for acne – a classic western medical “solution” to fix a problem caused by poor lifestyle choices, which ends up causing even worse problems for the person in the long run – killing the beneficial bacteria leading to yeast overgrowth, leaky gut syndrome, and a hampered immune system.

The summer after my freshman year in college I worked at a hospital, and when they tested me for tuberculosis exposure I tested borderline positive. As a result, I was put on a round of Isoniazid for 6 months – a drug designed to prevent a disease to which I had been exposed but for which I was at an extremely very low risk of ever developing, and that induces hepatitis (inflammation of the liver) in 1 in 100 individuals who take it (I had to have my liver enzyme levels checked every month while I was on it).

So when I was 21 and decided I need to take the incredibly toxic drug Accutane to eradicate my skin problems once and for all, I was unknowingly taking a gamble. Even though I started to have side effects after ONE PILL (muscle aches, dry and irritated mucous membranes, and loss of appetite), I continued with the drug for the next several months. It was giving me the results I wanted – no more break-outs! I faithfully went to have my blood drawn every 6 weeks or so to make sure I wasn’t going into liver failure. Again, I wasn’t too concerned – I didn’t drink alcohol, so I never gave a second thought to the drug’s potential effects on my liver.

I was between 22 and 23 years old during the time I lived in Russia. I got to eat some amazing and wonderful food while I was there, along with some pretty weird stuff! I had excellent health while I was there, even though some of the other missionaries around me were dropping like flies with vague complaints of fatigue, insomnia, pain, digestive issues, and etc… The only problem I remember having while I was there (besides one bout of food poisoning and the occasional headache, and always dragging in the morning) occurred toward the end of my stint. For a couple of days, I was doubled over with severe abdominal pain that left me lying in bed in the fetal position all day. But it went away as abruptly as it came, and things proceeded as usual.

Now we’re back in the summer of 1999 in Tallahassee, FL when I – a “perfectly healthy” 24-year-old – suddenly had the rug pulled out from beneath me and went from riding my bike around Tallahassee, to having the stamina of a sick 80-year-old.

The next strike against me was moving into an old cinder block house that had no direct sunlight (the same house my roommate Rebecca, my roommate, lived in who also got chronic fatigue syndrome at the same time. Suspiciously enough, we learned sometime in early 2000 that our next door neighbor whose house was similar to ours and who always seemed to be home ALSO had chronic fatigue syndrome!!) When I moved out of this house in the summer of 2000 and moved my bed, I discovered black slimy stuff all over the wall! Some kind of black mold, evidently. Not good.

A few weeks before I lost my health, I had a strange occurance. I ate a grapefruit, and an hour later I ran to the bathroom with great urgency. To my utter disgust (don’t read this if you’re squeamish), I found that I had passed the mostly undigested grapefruit. Along with wads of black stringy stuff that could have been nothing but worms.

By the time my roommate came home with a flu bug in July 1999, I was unknowingly a ticking time bomb for something to go amuck with my health. (In my blog entry entitled Drowning in an Invisible Flood, I shared how it felt for me in those early days of being sick.)

Stay tuned for more fun details on what cfs specialist Dr. Paul Cheney, MD defines as “Stage 1” of chronic fatigue syndrome, and tales of fun with doctor visits . . .

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