Life with fibromyalgia
My experience battling a chronic illness as a full-time student
On any given day, I experience widespread, chronic pain that ranges from mild to debilitating.
I have fibromyalgia: a medical condition characterized by chronic widespread muscle pain, heightened pain response to pressure, extreme fatigue, altered sleep, poor memory and impaired concentration.
I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia about two years ago. It started with a backache that would not go away. I thought I pulled a muscle or something, but as weeks turned to months, I began to wonder if there was something else going on.
Soon after I started experiencing the back pain, the fatigue set in. I found myself falling asleep in classes and even taking naps in the hallway in the middle of the school day. I thought I had mono, so I scheduled a doctor’s appointment.
The mono test was negative and my blood work was normal. My doctor told me I probably had some type of virus and that with rest and fluids, I would be back to myself in no time.
However, the pain and fatigue only grew worse.
I was stiff from head to toe every morning and even sitting up and getting out of bed became a painful, arduous process. I would sit down on my bed after taking a shower and end up falling back asleep due to the fatigue, and I would wake up disoriented in the middle of the afternoon.
Soon, I was sleeping well into the afternoon on a regular basis and even walking to the bathroom was a struggle due to the pain and stiffness.
So I made another doctor’s appointment.
Once again, all of the tests and lab work indicated I was the picture of health. The doctor dismissed my symptoms as another virus and perhaps a muscle strain in my back and sent me on my way.
Frustrated and overwhelmed, I grew depressed. I was unable to attend classes or hang out with my friends. I barely managed to get through four-hour shifts at my part-time job and relied on prescription strength ibuprofen and quad shot large lattes to keep me afloat.
My allergist was actually the first to mention the possibility of fibromyalgia. I had a routine appointment to check on the status of my allergies and asthma, and he asked how my general health was. I explained how exhausted and in pain I was all the time, and how my general practitioner was unable to find anything wrong with me.
“That sounds exactly like fibromyalgia,” he said.
I remember feeling baffled by this suggestion. I thought fibromyalgia was an old person problem. However, he assured me that fibromyalgia affects people of all ages, even young children.
While the thought that I might have a chronic, incurable illness was terrifying, it also provided a strange comfort. I was beginning to think I was crazy because all of my lab work said I was perfectly healthy, yet I was experiencing so much pain and exhaustion that I struggled to function.
If I did in fact have fibromyalgia that would mean my suffering was not all in my head after all, and perhaps I could finally get some treatment and start to feel better. I went back to my general practitioner and asked her to evaluate me for fibromyalgia and finally, I got an answer.
My doctor prescribed pain medicine and a muscle relaxer, as well as a stimulant medication to aid with the fatigue.
Slowly, my symptoms began to improve. While the medication helped take some of the edge off, lifestyle changes and remedies that are more natural proved to be the most helpful treatments.
I started taking yoga and going for walks. I drank herbal teas with pain-relieving and calming properties. I started drinking more water and eating more fruits, vegetables and lean proteins. I was also diagnosed with celiac disease (gluten intolerance) and lactose intolerant, both of which commonly co-occur with fibromyalgia.
It is still rare for me to have a day that is completely pain and fatigue free, but I am doing so much better than I was two years ago. Whenever my symptoms begin to flare up, I immediately work on incorporating more nutritious food into my diet, engaging in gentle exercise, drinking more water, brewing plenty of my special teas and practicing pain-relieving meditations.
Because fibromyalgia is categorized as a disability, I considered leaving school and my job and going on social security disability. There is no shame on going on disability if that is what is best for your personal self-care and my doctor even suggested that I should.
I chose to return to school full-time and continued working at my part-time job.
After battling depression, anxiety and an eating disorder and coming out stronger and healthier than ever, I was confident I could lead a successful life even with a chronic pain disorder. My previous struggles made me incredibly strong, and comparatively, fibromyalgia did not seem like the end of the world. I knew I could face it.
There are still days when I struggle to get out of bed. There are still days where I cry my eyes out because it feels so unfair to be in so much pain for no reason. But no matter how strong the pain and exhaustion can be, I know I am stronger.
So I keep going. I keep taking care of myself. I keep believing in my dreams. And I refuse to let having a chronic illness define me.
Maddy Fowler is the assistant news editor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.