PANDAS & Lyme: My Recovery and 8 Years of Misdiagnoses

Archive for the ‘Life with PANS/PANDAS’ Category

I Have No Idea What I’m Doing Anymore

I don’t know where I am or where I’m going in life anymore.

With my final semester of college on the horizon and an amazing summer internship behind me, it’s finally sinking in that it’s time to figure out what I’m doing with my life next. I’m pretty sure that anyone about to graduate from college is feeling anxious about transitioning into the “real world,” but for me, as someone recovering from PANS/Lyme, there’s a whole other layer of messiness.

Although a lot of my symptoms are minimal at this point, my depression is getting more and more out of control. It’s to the point where my psychiatrist is treating me as if I have Bipolar Disorder, though he won’t diagnose it since he thinks it might be caused by Lyme Disease. I have days where I feel like everything is wonderful, life is great, and I could do anything; I work very intensely for hours at a time and set impossible goals for myself, and when I tell people about it, they look at me like I’m nuts. Then, on other days, I sleep as long as possible, sit alone in my room all day, and can’t stop crying for no reason.

Most of the time, however, I don’t really feel anything. I’m not exactly unhappy, but nothing interests or excites me anymore. I somehow managed to do really well at my job this summer, but even though it was something I’ve dreamed about for half my life, and I was grateful to be there and did enjoy many aspects of it, so many days, all I wanted was to go home and do nothing.

Fundamentally, I’m a very driven, goal-oriented person, so this isn’t a matter of laziness. There’s still a part of me (the real me) that desperately wants to do what I thought I’ve wanted for years, but when it comes time to actually do anything, I’m miserable. To add insult to injury, I have everything in line to start a good career—the skills, the connections, the determination, and even a job interview—but some days, simply getting through the next hour feels impossible. So how will I ever do much of anything with my life? Sometimes I feel like it’s such a waste that I’m good at what I do, since I’m afraid I’ll never be able to have a career at all.

I’ve been asking myself if maybe I need to change careers and do something completely different, but when I really think into the matter, I realize that there’s nothing else that seems better. Even more confusing, when I have my manic/hypo-manic days, I find that my career dreams haven’t changed. But I also wonder if perhaps I’m just burned out—perhaps I need some time away from school and work, and then I’ll rekindle my passions.

However, there is still one thing that somewhat remotely interests me on almost any day, and that’s the idea of finally writing the PANS memoir I’ve contemplated for years—though it was difficult to even make myself write this post (hence my lack of updates for the past month). Some people have told me that it would be one of the most meaningful things I could do, so maybe they’re right. Maybe I’ll take a year off from everything and finally get the story out, and then I’ll know what to do after that.

But for now, as the start of the semester and the end of my time in college draws nearer, I have no idea what I’m doing in life anymore. Yet I do know this: I need to hurry up and get better, because eleven years of PANS, Lyme, and depression is long enough.

Minor Symptoms, Major Anxieties

I still can’t believe I went so far from home for this internship…

A few weeks ago, I took a huge leap of faith, packed up my bags, and got on a plane to the big city. As the skyline came into view, the realization of what I was doing for the next two months hit me a hundred times harder than the impact of touching down on the runway. I was about to start a prestigious internship, living in a part of the country where I’d never been and working with people whom I’d never met. What had I gotten myself into?

I’ve been doing so much better over the last couple of months or so, but I’ve noticed that there have been some small things that continue to creep in and make me feel “different” from everyone else. These minor symptoms become major anxieties because I’m still holding my breath and not seeing my health for what it is—that I’m 95% better and no one would ever know the hell I’ve been through without me telling them.

For example, I have small involuntary movements which, even in my best times of remission, have never completely gone away for more than a few days at a time. I always wonder, does everyone notice the twitches? Do people think there’s something wrong with me?

And of course, there are the food issues. There haven’t always been many “safe” foods available here, so I’m pretty sure some colleagues have noted that I seem to eat very little yet run a whole lot. (No one knows how I binge in secret, which means no weight loss.) Have people figured out I have an eating disorder? Do they think I’m vain for obsessing about food and exercise so much?

Perhaps most telling of all is that I have a mild form of “face blindness,” or prosopagnosia. Some people are born with the condition, but for everyone else, it’s caused by a brain injury—or in my case, PANS. Prosopagnosia means I have a terrible time recognizing faces, so I often get people mixed up and sometimes don’t know who people are. I rely on hairstyles, voices, and body shapes, instead of faces themselves, to tell strangers apart. Still, I’ve managed to embarrass myself a couple of times by mixing up similar-looking coworkers. Do people think I’m really inattentive—or worse, that I’m some kind of freak?

Although face blindness, involuntary movements, and food rituals certainly have a negative impact on life still, I feel like the main way that PANS affects me now is what it’s done to my confidence. I used to not care what people thought of me, but for the last three years, I’ve worried that people can sense that I’m “different” and cannot see past my symptoms to find who I really am.

When PANS was at its worst, the plethora of symptoms affected every part of my life and made me feel like nothing more than a heap of crippling psychiatric and neurological problems. With the way PANS literally steals yourself from you and takes over your mind and body, each moment can be your worst nightmare. So after living this awful dream day after day after day, for multiple years, it’s hard to open my eyes and realize that I’ve finally awoken—and even harder to not worry that the nightmare will recur.

Even though I’m more or less well now, I’m still afraid of seeming crazy, of saying nonsense, of spacing out in the middle of giving a presentation, of having uncontrollable tics, of not being able to understand what I read, and of being underestimated because of my illness; I worry about concealing imperceptible symptoms and symptoms that are no longer here, because my anxiety doesn’t know that I’m okay now.

Nevertheless, when I asked one of my new friends if she’d noticed any of my symptoms, she told me I seemed like the healthiest person in the group—that I’m “glowing” with health. Truth be told, I’m actually performing extremely well at my job, and I have a large group of friends who apparently like me a lot. Even if anyone does think I’m “different,” it hasn’t stopped them from befriending me and respecting my work.

I may still have some symptoms, but they’re not preventing me from doing anything that I want to be doing, so how can I complain? Maybe someday soon, if I stay well long enough, I’ll be able to exhale and see for myself that I’m really as well as I am.

3 Years Later… The Beginning of the End?

Celebrating 3 years of blogging and the beginning of the end of my battle?

Three years ago today, I published my first post on this blog.

At the time, I was in a downwards spiral, falling apart and losing my mind. My doctors were baffled and running out of treatment options, and I was threatening to take my life. But then, my family figured out I had PANDAS/PANS. Thus began a three-year fight to regain everything my illness had so suddenly stolen from me.

Back then, it seemed I was the only 19-year-old on the planet who was fighting for their life against this allegedly pediatric condition, PANDAS/PANS. There were no blogs written by patients—only parents. I wanted to read from someone writing about going through what I was going through; I wanted someone to show and tell me that I would be okay. Since I could find no such blogs at the time, I figured I might as well be the person to change that so that something good might come from my ordeal one day.

Today, in 2017, I can say it’s been quite a journey, but I almost dare believe I’m now 95-99% recovered. I’ve been through three high-dose IVIG treatments as well as eight low-dose IVIG infusions. I’ve endured tonsil/adenoidectomy, over a year of steroids, month after month of antibiotics, and countless therapy sessions. Although I still take medications and follow a Lyme disease antibiotic protocol, today, I’m able to live my life, and I’ve managed to accomplish things I never would’ve dared to dream when I started this blog.

So I wanted to take a moment to thank all of you for reading The Dreaming PANDA and for offering your encouragement and prayers over the last three years. I’ve probably never met any of you, but your support has meant the world to me. Thank you for taking the time to read what I write, and sometimes, to reach out to me. It can be lonely to deal with a life-altering disease, but this community has kept me going—and I sincerely hope my writing has helped you in some way, too.

I’m not quite ready to stop this blog just yet—in fact, I’m not sure if or when I ever will, since I have more readers than I ever thought I would when I first started. I don’t ever want to stop raising awareness, and I have every intention of continuing to bring hope to those of us who’ve been affected by PANS and Lyme.

For this reason, I’m planning to write a memoir in the near future, and I intend to post excerpts along the way. With any luck, however, I’m now living in the final chapter of my recovery journey.

I know a lot of you are probably out there wondering if you or your kid will ever get better and live a productive life—just as I wondered when I began writing three years ago. You might feel hopeless and think that no one can get past this. It’s often been an impossibly hard journey, but you know what? Yes, I’m okay now. And you can get there, too.

My Narcolepsy Diagnosis Almost Killed Me

What happens when you’re diagnosed with narcolepsy, and every treatment fails?

Three years ago, I wanted nothing more than to be awake.

After a sore throat on my first day of college, I’d become increasingly incapacitated with sleepiness that nothing could relieve. I spent the majority of freshman year asleep, existing in a dream-like state where I never seemed to attain full consciousness. I hoped for a solution to my problem that worked as quickly as it had begun, but nothing prepared me for what my sleep neurologist said instead, on that fateful May afternoon:

“You have narcolepsy.”

My whole world shattered.

Narcolepsy is a serious autoimmune disorder in which the body destroys the brain chemical hypocretin—the neuropeptide responsible for regulating wakefulness. There is no cure.

Normally, there’s a clear line between the sleep and wakefulness cycles, but in narcolepsy, it’s as if they’re blurred together.  People can experience sleep paralysis with strong emotions while awake, known as cataplexy, and carry out routine activities while asleep (automatic behaviors). They may see terrifying hallucinations while waking up or falling asleep, and they might wake up and not be able to move. Worst of all, you can’t stay awake during the day (though you might not be able to sleep at night). Untreated, it’s utterly debilitating.

I would have narcolepsy for the rest of my life, my doctor explained, but with medication, it shouldn’t stop me from living.

On the surface, I fit the bill for narcolepsy perfectly. I had daytime sleepiness so severe that I could fall asleep standing up, in the middle of a conversation, or after sitting down for five minutes, regardless of how much I slept at night. I had the cataplexy; whenever I laughed hard, my knees buckled in a paralysis attack. I had the hallucinations and the automatic behavior. And I had Periodic Limb Movement Disorder—my legs would move hundreds of times while I slept, resulting in awakening over two-hundred times during my overnight sleep study; people with narcolepsy often have PLMD.

But there was one problem with the diagnosis: my sleep studies didn’t look like narcolepsy.  In my daytime sleep study called the Multiple Sleep Latency Test, where I took five twenty-minute naps over the course of the day, I never once entered REM sleep—and entering REM in at least two naps characterizes a narcolepsy diagnosis. So I was a “narcoleptic…” Who didn’t really have narcolepsy.

My neurologist wasn’t confident in my diagnosis, so he sent me away from the appointment with medicines to treat the PLMD, just in case it was the sole cause for my extreme sleepiness. If the medicines worked, I didn’t have narcolepsy. But the medications I tried—Neurontin, Neupro, and Requip—didn’t make me any less sleepy, and instead, I deteriorated further. Requip even landed me in the ER, with violent involuntary movements, and I lost the ability to walk.

So apparently I did have narcolepsy—and now a movement disorder and increasingly severe psychiatric problems that five other neurologists couldn’t explain or relieve.

After the Requip nightmare, I started a $5000 narcolepsy medication called Xyrem, but it too failed miserably at controlling my symptoms; before long, I reached the brink of insanity as I fell into delirium, became terrified of vomiting, and stopped eating.

“We’re so sorry, but we don’t know how to help you.”

My doctors were running out of treatment options… Or so they thought.

In a last-ditch effort to save me, my parents begged for a five-day steroid burst. If it worked, then perhaps I had that “controversial” autoimmune disorder called PANDAS/PANS.

And then I woke up.

After three days of Prednisone, I was in my right mind and awake without stimulants for the first time in months. Even after the burst ended, my “narcolepsy” was still gone. The transformation was so shocking and dramatic that my formerly PANS-skeptic doctors became PANS advocates.

A couple weeks later, a specialist confirmed my PANS diagnosis, and I received IVIG to more permanently stop my symptoms. A case of mono and a Strep infection had tricked my immune system into attacking my brain, which manifested as sleep issues and psychiatric/cognitive problems.  Although the sleepiness returned to a more mild extent two months post-IVIG, it never reached the severity of before, and after a second IVIG, it disappeared for good.

Today, three years after my narcolepsy diagnosis, though I’m still fighting PANS to a far milder extent (and now Lyme), I live a fulfilling life.  So I can’t help but think, what if I’d never found out I had PANS? If PANS hadn’t killed me through starvation or suicide, then it would’ve been a living death sentence to survive with treatment-resistant “narcolepsy” and PANS’ other torturous, disabling symptoms.

10% of those diagnosed with narcolepsy have normal levels of the brain chemical hypocretin, meaning the cause of their symptoms isn’t understood. And doctors still don’t know the cause of narcolepsy’s cousin, idiopathic hypersomnia. How many other people are out there diagnosed with hypersomnia, narcolepsy, or PLMD who, like me, actually have PANDAS/PANS?

Until more patients and doctors are aware of PANS, we’ll never know. Although I’m no longer the “Dreaming” Panda in the same sense as when I came up with the blog name in 2014, now I dream of the day when no one has to endure what I did to awaken from their nightmare. I hope people will share my story, and their stories, with the world, to turn this dream into reality.

The Truth About My PANS Recovery

PANS can mean losing your very self… And then trying to get it back in recovery.

The other day, while filling out forms for an appointment, I froze, as I came upon the medical history section. How could I even begin to explain it all? Moreover, how could I fit everything on two little lines?

I somehow managed to list all three of my psychiatric medications, along with the five antibiotics I rotate in my Lyme protocol. Hesitantly, I also listed Lyme disease as a current medical condition, mostly to explain the many antibiotics. But then I paused… Do I really need to list PANS, too?

You see, in all three of the major PANS exacerbations I’ve had in the last ten years, I’ve not only dealt with crippling OCD, anxiety, depression, cognitive problems, and movement disorders, but I’ve lost my very self; I’ve felt and acted like a different person that no one recognized. Contrarily, I’ve recently started to feel like my “normal” self. Does that mean I’m better now?

During my worst times, it was like an invisible wall had shut me inside my own tormented mind. I was trapped within my own thoughts, yet completely outside myself. I saw the world, but I wasn’t part of it. Life had lost its colors, and my days ran together in a blurry mass of the black and white of OCD, and the gray of depression. My body was alive, but the person I had been was gone.

While each episode could start overnight and suddenly take me away, coming back to life post-IVIG has always been such a long and slow process that I’ve never been able to pinpoint an exact time when I’ve returned; I slowly regain myself and watch symptoms die away at a glacial pace, and it eventually occurs to me that I’m fully present again.

By now, it’s been over a year since I caught Lyme disease and suffered my third major PANS episode, ten months since the high-dose IVIG that was meant to bring me back, and five months since I began Lyme treatment. And recently, I realized that I was finally myself again. So can I legitimately say I have PANS anymore? For that matter, do I really have Lyme?

I know too many people with PANS who are home-bound, yet here I am, driving around town and trying to meet new people just for fun. I know some with Lyme who can’t get out of bed, but I just ran my second half-marathon (albeit five days after an 103º fever herx). I know kids who would love to be able to go to school but cannot because they are too cognitively impaired from their illness—and then there’s me, with eight semesters of college completed and a 3.94 GPA. I know PANS and Lyme kids who literally want to die and can’t even bear to think about tomorrow, but I’m sitting here looking forward to a summer internship. How can I be sick?

Unfortunately, just because I’m “back” and appearing to function quite well doesn’t mean I’m better—far from it. My anxiety has gotten so bad that I’m now taking the anti-psychotic Seroquel each night to help make it manageable. Plus, I remain on Lamictal and Wellbutrin for other psychiatric symptoms. Most days, I continue to have a hard time walking, and I have so many (small) involuntary movements that I physically cannot be still. Oh, and quite often, my speech comes out nonsensical.

There was a time when I was that kid who wanted to die and couldn’t even manage to go outside—indeed, my severe anorexia meant I was slowly dying last summer. Now, I’m the walking wounded; I still get around and can put up a good fight, but I’m not completely okay, either. I have myself again, but I also have plenty of symptoms.

And so, I added “PANS/Autoimmune Encephalitis” right along with “Lyme Disease” on that form the other day. I’m so grateful to have returned to myself, but I’m seeing that healing a brain and an immune system is a long and arduous process (and there’s always the possibility of a flare or relapse). I await the day when my symptoms are finally gone.  So despite my apparently high level of functioning, yes, I really do still have PANS and Lyme—even though I also have myself again.

Why I’m Working through PANS

Can someone with PANS/Lyme keep up in a competitive environment?

A couple weeks ago, I was elated to find out that I’d been accepted for a summer internship!  This wasn’t just any job offer, but a highly competitive internship that I’ve worked towards and dreamed about for years. It seemed so surreal that this door had finally opened!

Unfortunately, I quickly came crashing back into reality when I remembered how ill I’ve been lately. At the moment, my anxiety is so out-of-hand that it’s not clear how I’ll finish the semester, because I can hardly even start my assignments.  On top of this, I can barely walk without a mini-seizure causing my legs to collapse, and I’m having a difficult time speaking coherently.  If I’m this dysfunctional right now, how can I possibly hold down a job in a few more weeks?

I have had some really good days lately, too, but even then, I still live with a sense that my illness is following me like the bogie man, ready to jump out and attack at any moment. To me, one of the cruelest aspects of PANS is its unpredictability. Just as I think I’m healthy and in the clear, suddenly, it can overtake me again. I live on egg shells because I never know when PANS will strike next. I fear that I’m always one cold or infection or exposure to Strep away from the brink of insanity.

Even if I improve in the next few weeks, how can I do an internship this summer if I might lose myself any day, without warning?

Nevertheless, after ten years of PANS, I’m a race horse kicking at the gates; for too long, this illness has kept me locked up as I’ve watched everyone else take off without me. Now, this internship is my chance to tear through the doors and speed down the track. I have a life to live, and I’m not about to let PANS stop me.

So I accepted the offer.

At this point, I’m more terrified than excited, but you know what? I refuse to not try just because of the bad things that might happen. I know I may have to pace myself and guard my health more than the other interns. Even so, because I’ve become accustomed to the uncertainty of never knowing how long my symptoms will be in remission, I work very hard on every day that I’m able—apparently with higher-quality results than many other healthy people. If I’m well this summer, then I believe I will not only get through the job, but I will pass everything with flying colors.

I’ve long come to terms with the inevitable uncertainty of my condition, and day-by-day, I’ve been working through the difficulties and moving towards recovery—albeit much slower than I’d like at times. But now, I’m determined to keep working through PANS this summer, as this internship leads me toward my dreams.

I Am Not an Illness

Sometimes, I don’t know who I am anymore

It was 5:00 in the morning, the day’s homework wasn’t finished, and a test that I would surely fail loomed over me. My kitchen counter-top was covered in crumbs and empty wrappers, and I’d been spinning on my stationary bike for the last three hours. My laptop was opened to my class notes, but I had a major food hangover from the 4000 calories I’d consumed just hours before. Studying was near impossible.

As I realized I’d spent the whole night exercising and making calorie calculations rather than actually doing anything productive, I asked myself… What has become of my life?

At one point, I stopped biking and took my computer to the living room for a break for my exhausted body and mind. When I opened my Instagram, there, staring back at me, was a picture from a couple days before, in which I was beaming and glowing in a crisp dress following a successful presentation I’d given at school.

Seeing this happy person cut straight to my heart. How could I possibly have transformed into a binging monster less than 48 hours later? Why couldn’t I stop eating and just hold myself together? If only people knew who I really was—the girl that has Lyme disease as well as an eating disorder that’s spiraling farther and farther out of control—the younger students would no longer look up to me, and my professors would lose their respect for all I’d done.

But then, it hit me: that pretty, intelligent woman plastered to my profile page… That was the real me—not the girl who stuffs her face with junkiest binge food she can find into the wee hours of the morning, despite already feeling like her stomach might explode. Nor am I the girl that screams about wanting to die because of the psychological torment that an inflamed brain brings about.

Over the last ten years of PANS, I’ve so often felt like a person I don’t recognize. Sometimes, I’ve forgotten who I am, because it seems like I’m nothing more than an illness that’s taken over my mind and life. But I am not Lyme disease or PANS or an eating disorder… I am me.

In my worst times, I do my best to not think about who the real me might be, and I try to forget what life is like when I’m well—it seems too painful to realize everything that my illness can rob when it takes control. Yet this week, I’ve started to think that maybe, just maybe, it’s important to hold onto the memories of the better times, because they’re reminders that I am more than an illness or a set of debilitating psychiatric problems.

I don’t believe that PANS can ruin who we are—it can only obscure it. Beneath the brain inflammation and the torturous symptoms, there is still a soul and a personality that is waiting to resurface once healing comes. I may have PANS, but PANS doesn’t have me.

As I closed my computer, gathered up my notes, and packed up my backpack later that morning, for the first time in a long time, I felt hope that there will be a time when I can feel like the person in my Instagram photo every day—the woman that everyone else sees from the outside. Someday, PANS will hide me no more.

The True Meaning of “Tired”

tired-panda-small

When people ask how I’m doing these days, I never know how to answer, so I just say to everyone:

“I’m tired.”

But this isn’t a tired that can be relieved with a good night’s sleep, a break from school, or a hot cup of coffee—this is a tired that penetrates my very soul. It’s a tired that makes simple tasks take untold mental effort. It’s a tired that makes me uninterested in anything more than surviving each hour ahead. It’s a tired that makes me wish people would stop asking about my post-college plans, because I don’t even know how I’ll get through today.  This is a tired that’s sucking the very life out of me.

It’s now been about two months since I began Lyme treatment, and I’ve been herxing every two weeks; just as I recover from one reaction, I start having another a few days later. Each herx not only makes me physically tired, but the roller-coaster of symptoms leaves me mentally exhausted as well. With the last two herxes, I’ve ended up worse than before once they’re over.

Now, after three herx reactions, I feel like my life is slipping away between my fingers, and there’s nothing I can do to stop it. I neither recognize myself nor the nightmare unfolding before my eyes.

Lately, I’ve felt totally out-of-control; one moment, I’m almost okay, and the next, I’m repeatedly telling my mom that I want to die. One moment, I’m able to struggle through homework (albeit slowly and with great difficulty), and the next, it’s as if someone has “wiped my brain;” I suddenly become confused, disoriented, and unable to say little more than choppy words and gibberish.

To make matters worse, my eating disorder is so severe now that my psychiatrist thinks I should start intensive outpatient therapy. My mom has moved in with me, because I can no longer take care of myself. I usually can’t go to work, and I’ve had to drop some classes that I was really enjoying. But truly the worst of all of this is that I’m so depressed that I’m sometimes mad at God in the mornings simply because He let me wake up again.

I’m tired of watching myself fade away. I’m tired of getting better only to get worse later. I’m tired of PANS. I’m tired of Lyme. I’m tired of endless treatments and trips to the doctor. I’m tired of watching life go by while I stand still. Sometimes, I’m simply tired of living at all. How much longer can I keep doing this?

But you know what? The runner in me still knows that being tired doesn’t mean you have to give up. No, “tired” is a challenge and a dare to keep moving forward despite your body screaming at you to quit. Some of my best runs have been those when I was sure I couldn’t take another stride, and yet I went on for several more miles, running faster than I thought was possible.

I may be tired, but with God, I’m stronger than I’d ever dare to believe. I don’t know how many more miles I have to run like this, but one thing’s for sure: I will keep pushing forward, even if it means crawling across the finish line of this disease, tired, exhausted and gasping for breath.

Why I’m Struggling through College… For the 8th Time

With PANS and Lyme, homework isn't the only thing making college so difficult.

With PANS/Lyme, homework is far from the only reason college is so difficult…

It was with a truckload of emotions that I pulled up to my apartment last Monday night, before my eighth semester of college. While being at school means seeing my friends again and keeping busy with interesting things, it also usually means grinding myself into pieces as I try to get all the required work done in the midst of PANS and Lyme. College isn’t easy for anyone, but trying to do it with these chronic illnesses can make it a hundred times worse.

I thought I was looking forward to being back, but as I began to unpack, I was overcome with dread and despair, and I had a meltdown. This wasn’t a PANDAS-triggered flare meltdown—this was the meltdown of someone who is simply beyond tired of having to function with a debilitating illness. Yes, it’s important to realize that not every emotional outburst from someone with PANS is caused by brain inflammation—we’re human just like everyone else.

Even though I made straight-A’s last semester and seemed totally together on the outside, honestly, I was a train wreck most of the time. I easily spent (and still spend) two or more hours a day on food-related rituals and obsessions. I restricted until I became too weak to walk to class without losing my breath. And then I binged a lot… And purged. (How I got to that point after not eating because I feared vomiting so much a couple years ago is beyond me.)

As if an eating disorder weren’t bad enough, I had one horrendous PANS flare that almost hospitalized me, and several others that left me unable to get any work done. Sometimes, it took me eight hours to get over my anxiety about starting an assignment, and then another four to complete it. I often slept only two hours and lived off caffeine.

If last semester were the only one that was so difficult, maybe I wouldn’t have been so upset about the idea of getting through another semester. But truth be told, most of my semesters have been almost as bad—and some worse…

Freshman year, I was at least halfway asleep most of the time, which resulted in a narcolepsy misdiagnosis (hence my being the “Dreaming” Panda). Sophomore year, I was often half-crazy, because I had terrible PANS flares every week or two, and in between them, I was barely living. Junior year, I was almost okay… Until I got Lyme disease and anorexia in the spring.

Would you want to be back at college if this was how it’d gone so far?

Yet as hard as college has been, I decided this week to gird my loins and do whatever it takes to finish—even though it means enrolling in 16 credits now so that I can graduate in December. The thought of staying beyond then is simply too much to handle.

Indeed, these first three days of school have been anything but easy so far. I have more homework than ever before, and more pressure to do well now that I’m a senior. And on the second day of class, I had a Herxheimer reaction that put me on the couch and shut me up inside my apartment all weekend—but thankfully, I was actually able to get some work done.

But you know what? Even though college with Lyme and PANS is difficult, I’m just glad that my Lyme treatments have made me well enough to be here trying at all. A month ago, my family and I were looking into residential care, so I consider it a gift to even be able to struggle through school again.

At the start of every semester, my parents have tried to encourage me by saying, “Maybe this semester will be better than the last one.” Much of the time, it hasn’t been, but my Lyme treatment is most definitely relieving my symptoms already. And so, this time, I’ll join in their optimism:

Maybe this semester will be better than all the other tough semesters…

The Puppy Is Alive!

Puppy

With another semester of college done, I can truly say I thrived under exceedingly difficult circumstances. Several months ago, I vowed to stop trying to live up to the expectations people had for me as a top student in my program, but instead, I ended up exceeding them with yet more awards and accolades—I got all A’s, again. Frankly, I’m not sure how I do it…

But unfortunately, instead of coming home and taking a victory lap, I staggered across the finish line of the semester and face-planted with a flare. The drive home was interrupted by my first panic attack in a year, and the moment my mom pulled into a gas station, I got out of the car and started yelling, bawling, threatening to run off, and ticking violently, surely appearing psychotic to everyone around us. Somehow, my mom eventually coaxed me back into the car, but I spent the rest of the trip completely tormented by thoughts that tried to tell me I wanted to die.

In typical PANS fashion, I’ve been falling hard and fast into a very dark place. The day I got home, I could do nothing but lie on the couch doing mindless activities on the computer to distract myself from the tormenting, looping thoughts. But at some point one evening, my concentration on an iPad game lapses, and the thoughts come rushing back.

My mom looks over and notices the tear trickling down my face. She knows what’s coming…

Indeed, I can’t hold it in any longer. I burst out into a rant about how fat I am, my latest 20-cookie binge, the shin splints keeping me from running, the torment in my brain, the dreams I’ll never achieve thanks to PANS, and the hopelessness of what seems like an endless cycle of relapse and recovery.

“I shouldn’t have come home. All I do is make you all unhappy!” I finally blurt out, upon seeing my mom join me in crying.

She tries to remind me of the joy I also bring and says her tears are because she can’t help but hurt for me. She tells me to imagine I had to watch a puppy being tortured, and that I’m that puppy to her. I mutter yet another suicidal remark before my dad interjects:

“It’s not any better if the puppy is dead.”

I know he’s right—I really do.  But sometimes, this makes me feel even more hopeless because I know I’m stuck living in a miserable condition for the time being.  However, some part of me deep down knows that permanent PANS is not my destiny, so that’s why I choose to keep enduring flares like this one and not give up.

“We’re going to see the Lyme doctor this week,” my mom reminds me, trying to give me a ray of hope that we’ll find something to get me better. But you know what? I’m sick of being a human guinea pig while doctors figure out how to treat a disease that, despite increasing research, is still poorly understood. I’m tired of enduring what sometimes feels like two years of medical experiments with no conclusive results.

But alas, this puppy is not dead. It may be tortured, but the torment will not kill it—not physically, not mentally. And historically speaking, whenever the pain comes, it soon ends with the right intervention.

Sometimes, when I’m in a place like this, I try to not think about my “real” self—the person I am when the tendrils of torment and despair are not constricting me. I don’t like to realize how many things I’m missing out on or to understand how much I’m no longer able to do. But truth be told, I somehow accomplished everything I wanted this semester, and I even ended up with more friends than ever before.  Life isn’t always as hard and painful as it is at the moment.

So it’s true: this puppy is still very much alive and fighting. And my successful semester proves that I’m determined to someday win the war with PANS.

The PANDAS Games

Does anyone ever win the PANDAS Games?

Does anyone ever win the PANDAS Games?

During one of my many insomniac nights recently, I found myself watching the second Hunger Games movie, Catching Fire. While I knew this wouldn’t exactly soothe me to sleep, there was one quote in particular that’s haunted me continuously:

Haymitch: No one ever wins the Games… There are survivors. There are no winners.

Lately, I’ve been feeling like that about my fight with PANS and about my health in general, because I just got some troubling news: I tested positive for Babesia, exposure to Tickborne Relapsing Fever, and possibly Lyme Disease. Just when I thought I was back on track, I’ve now found out that I could still face a long road to healing.

And of course, all of this is on top of my ongoing challenges with PANS, anorexia, and an immune-deficiency. I’m back at a healthy weight at this point, but some days, I’m still so incredibly tormented by the anorexia thoughts that I’ve considered spending my winter break in residential treatment. And my Common Variable Immune Deficiency (CVID) means monthly low-dose IVIG treatments, which means I spend a day at an infusion center each month and then feel exhausted for almost a week afterward.

Some days, I don’t think it’s ever going to be possible for me to win the “PANDAS Games.” I know I’ll survive, but will there ever really be a time when I’m well without taking antibiotics and antidepressants, getting monthly infusions, and constantly worrying about avoiding Strep?

For those of you who don’t know the story of the The Hunger Games, in the second movie, the people who won the Games in the past were forced to compete in them yet again, after they’d been crowned as victors and promised a lifetime of security and riches. I’m no different from those people. I beat PANS a year ago and went on to live my life and do some pretty amazing things, but then it came back this summer, and I’ve been forced to compete in the PANDAS Games all over again. Can I really win this time around, too?

Fortunately, my doctor, who’s one of the leading experts in PANS, has told me since that first day when I limped into her office two years ago that I’ll get totally better someday and be able to put all of this behind me. She’s repeatedly said that, with proper treatment, no one has to be stuck with PANS forever.

I certainly have my moments of doubt, but it’s true that, even now, I’m well enough to be making straight-A’s in part-time college, holding a (very) part-time job, and socializing more than ever. Oh, and I just ran eight miles this weekend, while in July, my POTS basically made me pass out from just standing up. Even if it seems like it’s impossible to win these games, the fact is that I’m well on my way to being crowned a victor, yet again.

Haymitch might have been right about the Hunger Games, but he’s wrong about The PANDAS Games: someday, somehow, I’m going to be a winner for good.

How PANS Really Feels

PANS is an explosion inside my brain

PANS is an explosion inside my brain

“Mom, I want to die!” I burst into the living room screaming, a look of sheer terror in my eyes.

“Please… Help me!” I plead as I crumple into a heap on the sofa, wailing and yelling at the top of my lungs.

I’m being tortured—a sinus infection is causing my immune system to attack my brain, triggering sudden and severe mental illness. This is just another evening in the life of someone with PANS/PANDAS who’s having a flare…

The only way to describe the torment I feel in these moments of a severe flare is that it’s like someone has jabbed a knife into my brain, but the pain is mental instead of physical. It’s like fingernails scraping against a chalkboard, and the chalkboard is my soul being whittled away. It’s like a bomb going off inside my mind, scattering my thoughts and setting my brain on fire. I’m no longer present, but I’m aware enough to not be spared the grief of losing myself. It’s mental agony so intense that, in those hours, I’d rather die than continue to endure it indefinitely.

Shockingly, just a few days before, I wasn’t unlike any other college senior—I was happy, full of life, a bit stressed from midterms, yet looking forward to all that was in store for me. Killing myself was not something on my agenda. But then, I caught a cold, and I soon noticed myself becoming forgetful and struggling to think clearly. A few days later, I started refusing food out of fear (not from a lack of appetite). Then, I suddenly began hearing looping thoughts telling me that I wanted—and needed—to die. The most basic tasks were impossible—simply putting my shoes on was mentally overwhelming. I didn’t care about anything and was completely disengaged with life.  Every few hours, I’d suddenly become gripped with a wave of terror for no reason, and I’d start crying uncontrollably because of the severity of the mental pain.

Within a week’s time, I’d lost my mind.

My parents had come to stay with me for fall break, believing they would bring me home for the rest of the semester. The usual high-dose steroid regimen I take for flares had failed miserably—even a high-dose Solumedrol IV drip did nothing. However, one night, in a last-ditch effort to rescue me from the brink of insanity, we pulled out what was left of an old Azithromycin prescription, and I started taking it (with my doctors’ approval). Sometimes, if steroids don’t help PANS symptoms, it’s a good indication there’s an unresolved infection. I was already on penicillin, but plenty of bacteria can’t be killed by it.

With three days of Azithromycin, I felt no change—though my parents claimed I was starting to look a little less tormented. And then, one day, I started doing homework. Then I ate real meals. Before long, I felt engaged with the world again. By the fifth day, it was as if the whole incident had never happened; I was 100% back to where I was before.

People often ask me what it’s like to have PANS—to survive the mental anguish of flares and then in the good times, to live with the knowledge that it could all recur any day. But the truth is that, to me, there’s nothing like losing, and subsequently, finding your mind again to make you appreciate the goodness of all the little things in life that so many of us take for granted. When I have a bad flare like this one, PANS makes me want to die, because it turns my brain against me. On all the other days, PANS makes me want to live as fully as possible, because I know tomorrow is so uncertain, and I want to enjoy all the good things in my life while I can.

Living with PANS has never been easy—in fact, it often feels impossible, but now that this flare is over, I’m grateful to be alive and well and back in class, and I’m grateful for Azithromycin.  And of course, I’m grateful for parents and doctors who don’t give up on helping me live even when my brain tricks me into wishing that they would.

Recovery Is Possible!

Sometimes just when you think it's hopeless, you get better!

Sometimes just when you think it’s hopeless, you get better!

Okay, I’m keeping it shorter this week, because I’m doing so well that I’ve been extremely busy! As I’ve said in the past, the better I’m doing, the less I tend to post and tweet, because I’m away from the blog living my life.

Anyway, I just wanted to give some hope to those of you out there waiting for your PANS treatments to work, wondering when or if they’ll ever kick in. Everyone’s path is different, but yes, recovery from PANS is possible.

Six weeks after my third high-dose IVIG, there’s no comparing where I am now to where I was in July. I mean, I was a ghost in my own life at that point—I went through my days incapable of doing much of anything. Nothing interested me, and everything was too overwhelming. I’d lost so much weight from restricting my food that I was about to end up in the hospital. My POTS was to the point that I could almost pass out simply from standing up. Sometimes, I started hyperventilating for no apparent reason. I often said nonsense because I couldn’t remember words when I spoke.

Suffice it to say that life was beyond crappy at that point—so much so that I’d lost the ability to understand how ill I was.

But where am I today? Well, I’m living on my own, doing college part-time, working part-time, and getting back my life. I’ve regained all the weight I lost, and now I’m strong enough to exercise again—I even ran five miles last weekend! If I have POTS now, I can’t tell. I’m doing so well in every way that I’ve been socializing more than ever before, and I’m sort of seeing someone… Sort of.

Yet as great as all of this is, I’m definitely not out of the woods yet. I still struggle with some executive functions like concentration and planning, and it’s still very much a fight to not let the anorexia thoughts control me. Plus, my handwriting may be the worst ever; unless I write extremely slowly and focus intently, I often can’t write a single word without omitting or reversing letters—and then I don’t know how to fix the spelling. As for my POTS, I continue to drink four liters of water every day and take in at least 5000 mg of sodium, so for all I know, I’d get symptoms again if I reverted to “normal” hydration and salt intake.

Nevertheless, although this IVIG hasn’t fixed everything yet and may or may not have cured my POTS, I remain optimistic that I’m continuing to heal. And I’m so grateful and amazed to have come as far as I have in a few weeks. However, I’m not ready to think a whole lot about the future or make plans, because there’s always that fear that this IVIG will stop working, just as my first one did.  But you know what?  Even after that first relapse, I eventually recovered, despite the setback.

I can’t afford to dwell on my fears. If there’s anything I’ve learned from having PANS, it’s that you have to live in each moment, appreciating all of the good things as they come. Although it’s in one way a curse to know I could wake up tomorrow and lose my very self, knowing this has helped me make the most out of every day and every hour of good health. So even if I still have some challenges, I’m just going to keep enjoying all of these latest victories, keep living, and keep remembering that the hard times don’t last forever—recovery from PANS is possible.

Why I’m Not Living up to Your Expectations

Sometimes, you have to clear your own path

Sometimes, you have to clear your own path

Last semester, when I received special recognition for some of my work at school, my college experience transformed. I quickly went from being the quiet kid with few friends, to the student that everyone in my department knew about. People who’d barely spoken to me before were now congratulating me and asking for advice. And I finally got invited to social events.

While I enjoyed my upgraded status, with my success came a side effect: unreasonably high expectations.

No one ever said to me outright that they expected me to be the best, but I could feel certain expectations when I walked into a room sometimes: peers assuming I knew far more than I did, professors scrutinizing my work more carefully, and outsiders urging me to do whatever it took to get into the “top” grad schools. While I’d thrived on this pressure at the time, after being so ill this summer, I found myself dreading showing up at school this semester while still struggling so much. I hated the possible humiliation that could come from having everyone find out I couldn’t even handle a full course load anymore—that I went from being “at the top” to barely being enrolled at all. I hated the idea of not living up to what my professors and peers had once expected of me.

For the first few days back at school this semester, I treated my part-time status and my now-delayed graduation as shameful secrets that I had to conceal. I walked through the halls pretending to be just as fine and happy and productive as ever so that I could fool myself and everyone else into thinking nothing had changed since last semester. I wished more than anything that I still had my old life where I could meet everyone’s high expectations.

But one night this week, after countless hours of struggling to even start any work, I went home and bawled my eyes out in frustration over the difficulty of writing a one-paragraph assignment. Before I had the flu in March, I could’ve done this homework in under an hour with little anxiety, but now, my brain is a mess, and the simplest things are exhausting. That night, reality came crashing down: I can’t possibly live up to anyone’s expectations anymore. And more importantly, I don’t have to.

I decided that night that I had to forge a new path for myself to get to my dreams in my own way, rather than the way others expected me to go.  I found so much freedom in releasing old expectations. Just because my path will be different from what everyone expected, why does that mean it’ll be worse than what “should’ve” been?

And really, who cares what anyone else thinks and how they choose to go through college themselves? It doesn’t matter, because we’re all on our own journeys with our own obstacles, so there’s no point trying to live up to the expectations of people who don’t understand my life. Yet truth be told, when I finally started talking about what happened this summer and my ongoing difficulties, I was showered with nothing but love and support—even from the professors who had been the hardest on me in the past. It turns out that most people are far less critical than I thought, so I might as well do what’s best for me instead of what I imagine people expect.

This road of relapse, slow recovery, a lighter course load, and new expectations is not the one I would’ve chosen, but it’s the one I’ve been given. So I’ve stopped asking why such difficult things have happened to me, and I’ve learned to accept and bear up to whatever lies in front of me. I’ve figured out that life with a chronic illness requires resilience, and resilience requires accepting life for what it is instead of dwelling on what I wish it were. Resilience is letting go of old expectations and moving forward as best I can—even if I must crawl towards my dreams instead of running.

Stuck in the In-Between

I'm stuck in-between being ill and being well

I’m stuck in-between being ill and being well. http://www.madadventurers.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/stuck-dog.jpg

The other day, when my high school best friend and I met for one last goodbye before returning to college, at one point, she asked what I was looking forward to most about going back to school. And then, it hit me: I wasn’t looking forward to much of anything about my senior year.

If I were going to have a heavy load of classes I knew I wouldn’t enjoy, if I had no friends, if I didn’t like my college, or if I hated being away from home, then I’d have a reason to not look forward to the coming year. But trust me, as the popular, poster child for my major who always gets amazing opportunities, I should have everything to look forward to. Yet none of it interests me anymore.

At the moment, I don’t know what I’m doing, but it’s not exactly living. I’m not depressed, but I’m unable to do much of anything because it all seems so overwhelming—it’s because my executive function and other cognitive processes are so poor. I’m not unhappy, but at the same time, there’s not a whole lot that makes me happy, either. I’m living halfway, in the in-between of a brain that’s not quite healthy, yet not nearly as dysfunctional as it once was.

Do you know that feeling when you’re really hungry, but you can’t find anything that appeals to you? That’s my attitude about life. I so badly want to do the things I usually enjoy, but I can’t quite will myself to do them. For a fleeting moment, I sometimes begin an activity, but then I realize how much brainpower it will take, and I can’t follow through. Part of me wonders if this is my brain’s way of forcing me to rest so that it can heal. Who knows?

If you saw me on the street right now, you’d probably have no idea my brain was inflamed. I’m well enough that I’m still able to go out and have coffee with a friend—though I often forget what I’m saying in the middle of a conversation and sometimes start saying nonsense. Even if I look “normal” on the surface, however, internally, I know I can’t completely think straight. (At least I know I’m not completely “here” still—it’s when I’m unaware of this that I’m truly in a bad state.)

To be honest, I’m afraid I’m making a huge mistake by trying to do college in this life of in-between. Is my brain truly well enough for homework? Why do I imagine I’ll magically be able to function better when I’m away from home—without my support system? I can barely stay on task long enough to cook a recipe. What business do I have getting through a day of college?

I feel like I don’t recognize my life anymore, because I’m in-between wanting to live and not having the mental energy to try. I feel like I’m wandering aimlessly through my days, with no clear direction. Yet maybe, just maybe, the structure of going to three classes each week will give me back a sense of purpose. No matter how difficult this semester may be because of my cognitive issues, I will at least have a feeling that I’m being productive by trying to do school.

While I may not be looking forward to any particular aspect of senior year just yet, I’m looking forward to a time when I feel like I’m living again—when I enjoy things and have my mental faculties back. I’m looking forward to a time when I can once again live without PANS or its ramifications interfering with what I want to do. So I’m hoping and telling myself that being back at school will get me unstuck and pull me from the in-between to the life I used to love.

Goodbye, Anorexia?

Did I really eat a restaurant without having a panic attack?

Did I really eat a restaurant without having a panic attack?

This week, I reached a turning point in recovering from my eating disorder.

Up until now, although I’ve known how destructive my restricting has been to my body and though part of me wanted to stop, anorexia had so much control over me that I wasn’t completely willing to give it up. I said a few weeks ago that I was going to start treatment for it, but honestly, I was so depressed the day of the appointment that I couldn’t get out of bed and just cancelled it.

But one day this week, I looked in the mirror and saw my ribcage awkwardly jutting out in front of what was left of my stomach. I’d now lost seventeen pounds and weighed less than I did in sixth grade. I noticed bones in places that I’d never seen before. I realized how terrible I felt all the time: I was always cold, I had headaches every day, I couldn’t fall asleep, my brain was foggy, and I was constantly forgetting things. All of my POTS symptoms were suddenly getting worse, too. Recent blood work showed anemia, and my doctor told me I’d be in the hospital soon if I didn’t start eating more. Most frightening of all, I was having constant chest pain, which could’ve be a sign that my body was starting to break down the heart muscles as it was running out of other fuel.

Indeed, I was slowly dying. Then again, anorexia had so taken me over that I wasn’t really living anymore anyway. I was terrified to think of being in the hospital with a feeding tube—but I was even more afraid to eat. How could anything change?

I wish it were as simple as just “snapping out of it” and deciding to eat more, but it’s not. The idea of eating an extra one hundred calories is enough to send me into a panic attack. My brain screams at me to restrict so loudly that I can no longer hear the voice of reason. Even when I know it could kill me eventually, anorexia has so much control over me that I will fight with everything I am to continue to restrict. I am a slave to my own torment.

Nevertheless, I found freedom this week with my third round of IVIG. I don’t understand it, but yesterday, I ate all three meals without even trying to count the calories—usually, I have to plan everything out ahead of time and be sure I’m not going to eat “too much.” I’m normally extremely anxious about going to restaurants because it’s so much harder to count the calories, but yesterday, it was fine; I enjoyed my meals like a normal person. It’s like that terrible demon called Anorexia has left me.

You see, with every IVIG infusion, I get a dose of a steroid called Solumedrol. In the past, I’ve noticed immediate relief from symptoms because of it, so if there was any doubt that my anorexia was related to brain inflammation, it’s gone now—you’re not supposed to get better from anorexia just because you had some steroids and immunoglobulins. But the real question is: will I stay better?

As I finish up this third round of IVIG today, I’m bracing myself for the post-IVIG flare that I always have two weeks later. I’ve decided to continue to see the psychiatrist every week for therapy, because I don’t want the restriction to creep back in. I’ve told my parents how they can hold me accountable, so that they can help be sure I don’t lose any more. I’m calling a nutritionist, because even if I were somehow totally “cured” of the mental aspects of anorexia, I still have to recover from the physical consequences of malnourishment.

I don’t know if or when this eating disorder will come back to enslave me again, but I do know that this time, I’m not going to listen. I reached my physical and mental breaking point this week, and I never want to go there again. Life has more to offer than starving myself and being tormented by food. I don’t like to think of what would happen if I continued with that, so I’m running as fast as I can toward recovery.

Goodbye, anorexia. Hello, life.

Why I’m Throwing Up My Hands

How much can I let PANS steal this time?

How much can I let PANS steal this time?

Until a few days ago, I was certain I wouldn’t return to college this semester. Between my crippling depression, incapacitating executive function and concentration issues, and my physical weakness from POTS, living independently in less than two months while taking senior-level classes seemed like an impossibility.

Indeed, I’ve been so depressed lately that I’ve not wanted to do anything at all—my days have consisted of unnecessary amounts of sleep, wasted time playing mindless iPhone games to use up the hours, obsessing over calories, and too much exercise. I’ve barely been able to will myself to get dressed and showered each day, so how could I possibly keep up with college, too?

But one day this week, I woke up and realized there was also no way I could keep living like that at home, away from school, for five more months. I love my family, but I want some independence. The more I thought about my friends and the opportunities I had at college last semester, the more it hurt to think of being gone for so long. It’s too painful to imagine POTS and PANS continuing to take that life from me this fall. Perhaps staying home would be easier on my physical health, but not being at school would surely crush my spirit.

Nevertheless, sometimes, you’re simply too sick to do what you want, no matter how much you want it. It doesn’t matter how unfair this is—bad things just happen sometimes. Why should I think I’m an exception? Perhaps this time, the only way to deal with the grief of losing so much to PANS is to let myself feel it, then pick up the pieces and try to move forward on a new path.

But what if this chapter has been no more than a detour?

The other day, when my parents discovered I was still restricting and losing weight, they contacted my neurologist, and she put me on a one-month steroid taper. I really didn’t think it would work. In fact, I didn’t even want it to work—I just wanted to give up.

But lo and behold, my improvement has been dramatic. The steroids have helped me regain my will to live and to fight. For the last few days, although concentrating on anything for too long has still been like paddling a canoe upstream with a spatula, my depression has gone. For the first time in weeks, I’ve been able to open my textbooks, do the readings, and write short assignments on the material. It may take five hours, whereas a similar assignment in April took one hour, but hey—I’m doing them!

So I’ve decided that, if before the fall semester, I can finish these summer courses for which I had to take Incomplete grades, then I can handle a part-time load in the fall. And I’ve decided to make it happen somehow, because I’m tired of not living, and I’m tired of watching myself slip away. Even if I can’t do everything I want, perhaps I can do some. I must regain all that PANS has stolen from me.

I’ve decided to go back to school.

There may be a time to rest and let your debilitating illness temporarily steer you away from your dreams, but then there’s a time to throw up your hands and say, “#&@% this! I’m living my life now!”

For almost ten years, I’ve suffered under PANS. I’ve lost more time, opportunities, and friendships than I’d care to remember. In the two years following my diagnosis, I fought bravely and was sure I’d finally won the war, but PANS has recently been trying to take me away again.  I’ve had enough of this disease. I’m throwing up my hands, getting back in the fight, and returning to school to live my life.

POTS & PANS: A Recipe for Disaster?

My body is cooking up trouble with POTS and PANS

My body is cooking up trouble with POTS and PANS

“You’re going to hate me when I tell you this,” my cardiologist said this week.

I braced myself to be told my heart was damaged from Rheumatic Fever—or to be told my symptoms were all in my head, as so many doctors had said over the years…

“Your heart is fine—in fact, we haven’t seen one this perfect in years.”

Relief washed over me for a moment—until I remembered how my pulse had shot up when I stood for a test a few minutes earlier. The look on my doctor’s face told me I wasn’t imagining my symptoms.  What I’d feared most was true:

“You have… Dysautonomia.”

Dysautonomia is a fancy word for when a person’s autonomic nervous system (ANS) malfunctions. It can be caused by infection, autoimmune disease, or environmental triggers. The kind I have is called POTS (Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome).

My doctor explained that whatever illness I had in April triggered a malfunction in the part of my ANS that regulates blood pressure and heart rate. So now, whenever I stand up, my heart starts beating very fast because not enough blood is returning to it; blood pools in my legs instead, so I get lightheaded and dizzy. Not surprisingly, this leaves me exhausted all the time.

“You can recover from this,” he explained. “But it’s going to take a lot of courage and time—possibly two or three years.”

I left the appointment that day with my head spinning—not from a lack of blood flow, but from the realization that my world had, once again, been turned upside down. For weeks, I’d hoped to find a simple cause to my fatigue with a simple fix. Instead, I got yet another diagnosis that doctors are only beginning to understand—another condition like PANS that could take a long time to defeat.

Although there are medications such as beta-blockers that can help POTS, for now, my treatment plan is to take in more salt (about 5000 mg of sodium each day), drink more water (2-3 liters), and slowly ease my way back into exercise. I also need to be sure I sleep enough and eat well (easier said than done while fighting an eating disorder).

To be honest, I’m still a bit in shock over this latest diagnosis and what it means for the months to follow. But at the same time, I’m really not surprised that my body once again had a strange reaction to a virus—albeit in a new way.

Frankly, I see POTS and PANS as related, because my POTS came on at the same time that my PANS symptoms started getting bad again. Indeed, my PANS doctor told me many of her patients have both POTS and PANS—a true recipe for misery and disaster.

Because of this, I wanted to make you all aware of POTS.  Symptoms include:

  • Rapid heart rate when standing or sitting up
  • Dizziness (especially when standing)
  • Lightheadedness
  • Fainting or almost fainting
  • Fatigue
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain
  • Feeling heaviness in your legs
  • Headaches

For most people, proper treatment can lead to significant improvement, so it’s important to get a diagnosis. You can read more about POTS and other kinds of dysautonomia here: http://www.dysautonomiainternational.org/page.php?ID=30

I’m still trying to process what happened this week, but I refuse to accept POTS as a permanent part of my life. However, the cardiologist told me if I don’t fight POTS now, it will get worse, so I’m going to keep pushing forward one day at a time—I’m determined to find a recipe to overcome both POTS and PANS.

A Ghost in My Own Life

Ghost

With this latest relapse, I’ve been living as a ghost in my own life.

In a single day, I went from eagerly and excitedly whittling away at homework for my summer classes, to crying at the thought of writing a single paragraph of a paper. I went from enjoying meals and coffees with my friends, to being terrified of any group of people and not eating lunch at all. I went from being praised at school for contributions I made in my department, to wanting absolutely nothing to do with my chosen field.

And over a couple months, I went from a healthy 110 pounds to a dangerous 96 pounds because of my eating disorder.

To put one more rotten cherry on top of the melting sundae that was my sad state, I’ve been too sick to run. Running used to be the one thing that could make me feel better no matter how depressed I was, but now, I haven’t even had that.

Because of all this, this week, my family and I once again found ourselves in the waiting room of my PANDAS neurologist. I’d hoped that my one-year follow-up would be a happy visit when we would celebrate everything I accomplished this year, but now, we were almost as desperate as our first appointment two years ago. And I was even four pounds lighter than I was in 2014.

I knew my doctor would be concerned about my fourteen-pound weight loss, but I wasn’t prepared for her reaction to other symptoms. After I shared details about the last couple months, she looked at me and said, “I’m going to have a heart attack because you haven’t seen a cardiologist,” and immediately called the cardiology department at my local hospital to get an appointment.

Why such concern? My neurologist suspects that the flu-like illness I had three months ago was the Strep-triggered Rheumatic Fever, which often damages the heart. Indeed, I was diagnosed with post-viral pericarditis in May—an inflammation of the sack around my heart, so her suspicions are somewhat warranted. Although a recent EKG came back normal, I have yet to regain my strength. Furthermore, Rheumatic Fever can cause extreme fatigue and weight loss, which I’m experiencing.

“What about the anorexia?” my dad asked.
“She’s going to need more treatment. Some kids need three IVIG’s… Actually, this is bad enough for plasmapheresis,” my doctor told us.

I could’ve cried when I heard this. I didn’t realize how serious my eating disorder had become and that being malnourished could also possibly damage my heart. I knew I was miserable, but I didn’t know I was in bad enough shape to warrant IVIG or plasmapheresis. In that moment, I felt like surely none of this was happening to me—perhaps it was all just a nightmare. Perhaps I was only a ghost observing someone else’s life. But I was wide awake and in my own body.

So I have my third IVIG scheduled in a few weeks, and I’ll be seeing a cardiologist today (Tuesday). My doctor thinks it’s unlikely that my heart has been permanently damaged, but the possibility of Rheumatic Heart Disease is nothing to mess around with. Maybe I will at least have an answer as to why I’ve been so dizzy and exhausted and unable to run…

There is another ray of hope, too: I was switched from Azithromycin to penicillin, and so far, my mood seems to be brightening every day. I’ve even started eating an appropriate amount of food (though I still obsess and count calories in an unhealthy way), I’ve resumed my hobbies, and I’ve been able to do some homework. If the improvements continue, I won’t be getting IVIG.

It’s been an unbelievably awful few weeks, but I’m so determined to beat PANS into total submission one more time. I’m holding out hope that the penicillin will continue to work its mysterious healing and that I won’t ever need more IVIG. I’m choosing to believe that slowly, but surely, I will keep coming back to life in the flesh, never again to haunt myself like a ghost.

Why I Won’t Eat

You know it's a problem when you feel guilty about eating an apple.

You know it’s a problem when you feel guilty about eating an apple.

With this latest flare, I’ve been struggling with an eating disorder again.  Restricted food intake is one of the two major diagnostic criteria for PANS, so my new obsession is nothing unusual.  In fact, this is the third time in my life that I’ve faced an eating disorder: the first was when I was nine or ten and the second was in 2014.

This time, my eating problems began suddenly, a few days before a bad virus three months ago.  There have since been periods when I ate without guilt and felt no need to restrict, but at other times I’ve suddenly become completely tormented by food—classic PANS.  My eating disorder is, in essence, mental and physical torture.

PANS-related anorexia isn’t necessarily like typical Anorexia Nervosa, however. In my case, I’m fully aware that I’m too skinny, but I’m compelled to continue my restricting anyway. In the past, I’ve also restricted because I was convinced that virtually all food would make me throw up, so the only thing I would eat was one particular kind of fruit smoothie.  Now, I’m afraid eating will make me gain weight and lose control of myself, so I’m obsessed with consuming a certain number of calories each day.

Living with my PANDAS-triggered eating disorder is like watching myself drive towards a cliff and not being able to stop, even though I’m the one behind the wheel. I know my behavior is dangerous, but I feel compelled to continue anyway.  I know I’m losing an unsafe amount of weight, and I know it’s bad to not eat. But the anxiety caused by eating any more is so intense that I would rather continue to restrict. Even worse, there’s some part of me that derives a twisted form of pleasure from not eating.

Sometimes, I also still enjoy the taste of food, but I often feel bad about it afterwards. In my mind, no matter how little I’ve eaten, I’ve always eaten too much, so I’m always guaranteed to gain weight. I know what my doctors will say about me weighing only 96 pounds, and I know it’s dangerous to have lost 13% of my initial, healthy weight. But for some reason, I just feel like I need to keep going, and the torment surrounding this urge is too strong to resist.

All day long, I’m doing calorie math in my head, planning my meals for days. I feel guilty about what I ate, and unsatisfied with what I didn’t—PANDAS tells me I’ve never eaten too little.  I’m beyond exhausted all the time, and I fear it’s because I’m malnourished.

I never imagined I’d become so ill again. I never thought I’d take things this far. Sometimes, I don’t feel like I have a problem, because I believe so strongly that I’m still in control of my eating disorder. But part of me knows that while I thought restricting would give me control over my body, it’s instead made me lose all control I had left.

On some level, I find comfort in the “control” I think I have through restricting, but deep down, I know I can’t continue like this. Deep down, all I really want is to be able to enjoy food again without any guilt and to be strong enough to run.

I’m tired of food controlling my life, and I’m tired of feeling so bad, so I’ve decided to start outpatient treatment for my eating disorder. And of course, I’m going back to see my PANDAS doctor to address the brain inflammation that triggered it in the first place.  Finally, I’m going to have the Igenex labs run to test for Lyme and co-infections (in addition to a couple dozen other blood tests).

Although I’m scared to stop restricting, I’m so ready to be free and strong.  I’ve decided that, somehow, I’m going to eat with pleasure again. 

The Terrible 2’s?

Cake

Happy 2nd birthday to me!

This week, I celebrate my two-year blogiversary.

I started The Dreaming Panda when I was at my absolute worst—I couldn’t walk, I’d lost thirteen pounds, I could barely stay awake, and I was morbidly depressed. This means it’s been two years since that first trip to the ER when everything got so bad and precipitated a resolution to eight years of misdiagnoses.  So I’m now two years into my recovery journey.

For weeks, I’d been planning a post where I thank all of you for two years of support and tell you about how great life is now and how miraculous my recovery has been in those two years. I was going to talk about how I made all A’s and B’s last semester, which was the first time I’d been able to handle a full load of coursework since Freshman year. I was going to tell you about how I recently did my first solo road trip, while two years ago, I was unable to drive at all because of how sleepy and out-of-it I was. I was going to tell you that I’d been taking another twelve hours of classes this summer and enjoying it because it was finally possible to concentrate and think clearly. But then something happened….

I flared and started heading for a relapse.

Despite taking the antidepressant Wellbutrin, I am once again depressed and have been forced to take an “Incomplete” in two of my classes. I’ve lost all motivation and spend my days lying on the sofa now. And I’ve also lost at least eleven pounds, because my eating disorder is back. It looks like I’ve hit the terrible-two’s in my recovery journey.

Though this might all come as a shock when I’d recently been posting about how great everything is in terms of PANS symptoms, over the last few weeks, it’s become increasingly apparent that I’m physically unwell. I’ve gone from easily running seven-minute miles and half-marathons, to getting out of breath after waddling a quarter mile at a twelve-minute pace. Sometimes, I can barely climb the stairs. I have awful headaches at night, I’m often dizzy, and there are huge dark circles under my eyes despite eight or nine hours of sleep.

I have no idea what’s going on with me—we’re considering everything from Lyme and co-infections to POTS to anemia. All I know is that I’ll keep fighting until I get better again. My brain may make me feel panicked and terrified of everything right now, but I’m not afraid of what PANDAS is trying to do to me this time. I’ve beat it once, and I’m convinced I’ll do it again.

While this isn’t the celebratory two-year anniversary post I’d hoped to publish, I still wanted to thank all of you for your ongoing support. When I made the daring decision in 2014 to anonymously share my entire journey with the world, I never could’ve imagined all of the wonderful people I would meet as a result. I never imagined the love I would feel from strangers. I never imagined how much some of my writing would resonate with people, as was shown with the hundreds of shares my post for PANS Awareness Day received this year.

Your comments and emails have kept me going over the last couple of years, and for that, I’m forever grateful. Knowing that what I’m sharing through my writing has helped some of you has made me feel like my suffering might have a purpose.  Thank you for that.

Though this year feels like the terrible-two’s so far, here’s to a year that brings complete healing to me and to all of you!

“Just” My Parents?

Is it really good to go home for the summer?

Heading home for the summer!

With another year of college behind me, I recently packed up my apartment and headed home. Although I was unbelievably busy this semester and definitely overworked at times, I had a great junior year. I’ve truly put down roots in the college town where I spend the school year now, so it was with mixed emotions that I pulled into my parents’ driveway for the summer.

I love being at home, I love not having to cook or do my laundry or go to the store, and I love seeing my family. But the problem with being home is that it brings back bad memories and makes me feel like less of an adult sometimes.

Since I’m twenty-one now, I’m anxious to establish myself as an independent adult. I couldn’t ask for better parents, but my relationship with them has regressed over the last couple of years as a result of my illness. I’ve still not been able to have a steady job, so I’m financially dependent on my parents for almost everything. While I’m grateful that they’re able to support me, as a matter of pride, I wish I could balance school and a job and PANS well enough to establish some independence.

However, the main regression has not been financial, but the roles my parents have taken on as a result of PANS. When I was nineteen years old, they basically watched me all the time and didn’t let me go anywhere without them knowing, because I was suicidal. At twenty, during flares, I would scream at the top of my lungs in terror and throw myself into my mom’s lap like a five-year-old. Even in the better times, I deferred to my parents’ judgement on most matters, because I didn’t trust my inflamed brain to make rational decisions. I loved my parents and they obviously loved me, but this was nowhere near a typical relationship to have with one’s parents at my age—though it was exactly what I needed at the time.

Now that I’m well again, I think we’re all trying to create new boundaries, and sometimes, it feels a bit awkward to me. I’ve had to reestablish my ability to make my own decisions. I’ve had to learn to think of my parents as just my parents instead of as my caretakers.  We’re discovering how to have conversations where symptoms and appointments are never discussed. We’re figuring out what I should and shouldn’t be allowed to do on my own now—like the adolescence that I never had.

Every relationship, like recovery, is a process.  No one is perfect, so there will always be flaws and disagreements in a relationship.  But if you love someone, you make it work.  My parents and I are very close, even though our relationship is changing.  But I believe this change is a good thing, because I’m growing up and getting better.

And despite some awkwardness, I’m glad to be home and to be together with my family for a few months. This is the first summer that I’m actually well and not pursuing additional treatment, so I’m going to be thankful for that and try to just enjoy spending time with my loved ones.

One Wrong Step and…

With PANS, you never know what step might pull you into the ground...

With PANS, you never know what step might pull you into the ground…

I know I said I’d start a series on the different treatments I’ve tried, but I’m pausing to tell you why I haven’t been able to post in several weeks…

I caught some terrible virus and have been having symptoms again.  As a result, I got behind in school, so I’ve had to use all my time to get on top of things again.

As you know, when someone with PANDAS gets sick, it never just means sitting in bed and sipping on chicken soup for a few days. In the past, getting sick could literally make me lose my mind. For example, what should have been a mild case of mono during my freshman year of college turned my immune system against my brain, leaving me suicidal, anorexic, and unable to walk.

So you can imagine my fear when I woke up a couple weeks ago with my whole body in pain and a pounding headache. I was so weak that I could barely sit up. Was this the beginning of the end, all over again?

While I didn’t go crazy, I’ve certainly had a rough time as a result of this most recent illness. For a week, I had a ten-second attention span, making it take four times as long to get any of my homework done. I suddenly got it into my head that I needed to start restricting again, and I’ve lost a few pounds. When I was well enough to go back to class, I continually wrote letters out of order when taking notes and struggled to figure out how to fix my spelling errors. Things were making me cry for no reason. One night, I couldn’t sleep because I was afraid that if I did, my heart might stop and then I’d die.

In the midst of this, I had a dream that I was walking on a road with a friend when out of nowhere, I dropped into a mud sinkhole and became submerged up to my shoulders. My friend had stepped in the same place and not fallen in, but what should have been a puddle nearly drowned me.

“This is what happens when I get sick,” I explained. “I need you to pull me out.”

Just as she reached out her arm, I woke up, my heart racing.

I haven’t been able to stop thinking about the dream, because it’s true for pretty much everyone with PANS. During times of remission, we walk around the world just like everyone else, minding our own business, but then, when the wrong virus or infection comes along, we’re swallowed up by the ground beneath our feet. Most people can emerge from a cold with nothing but a runny nose that lasts a few days, while the same virus could literally drive someone with PANS into insanity. And the worst part is that when you’re busy living your life, you know that any of your steps could be the one that sucks you into the ground.

But thankfully, this time, my friend Prednisone once again pulled me out, and now I’m not having symptoms anymore. I believe there’s a reason why, in my dream, the mud only went up to my shoulders instead of totally burying me—nowadays, my flares never completely take away who I am in the way they used to. As bad as this latest one sounds, it’s nothing compared to how my flares used to be. So while it’s been discouraging to have had a recurrence of symptoms, I’m reminding myself that the mud was unable to swallow me up to my head like it once did.

So readers, I’m fine now, and I’ve finally gotten caught up with school. Next week, I’ll actually be starting my series on treatments, beginning with a post on antibiotics, so stay tuned!

Life Beyond 100%

What does it really mean to be and to feel 100% oneself?

What does it really mean to be and to feel 100% oneself?

During my first few months of treatment, whenever anyone asked me what percent of myself I felt I was, I usually said 80 or 90%. Although I believed this was accurate, I was grossly overestimating my level of wellness, because I’d forgotten what life was like at 100%. As I’ve said before, I’ve never realized how ill I’ve been until I’ve gotten better.

The nature of my illness, since it affected my brain, altered my ability to perceive if I was really myself or not. People think I must have been terrified on the day I essentially lost my mind in 2014, but by definition, I couldn’t fully understand how far gone I was. I grasped that being suicidal, raging, and in a state of confusion wasn’t like me, but intellectually knowing I wasn’t myself is entirely different from experiencing and remembering who I really was. It was only as I began to get better that I started to comprehend how far from 100% I had been.

Today, I don’t say I’m 80%, I don’t say I’m 90%, and I certainly don’t say I’m 100%. I simply say that I’m well.

I’ve realized that when you don’t remember who you were as “100% yourself,” it’s impossible to give an accurate percentage. The sense of self is impalpable and can’t be constrained to measures or percentages.

As my brain heals more and more, I’ve discovered that attempting to define my “self” in numbers, as it relates to my symptoms, is like picking up sand with a sieve. Just as I think I’ve remembered what 100% of myself means, I recover from symptoms I didn’t completely know I had. Then, all my numbers and estimations become meaningless, my perception of how much like my “self” I’ve been shifts, and I have to pick up the sand all over again.

How will I ever know if I’ve truly returned to my “self”? On the other hand, who’s to say that who I am now isn’t who I was always supposed to be? People are constantly learning and growing and changing, so perhaps one’s self is not only outer, observable behaviors and traits, but an inner, subjective sense. Who’s to say that I’m not more like myself now than ever before?

I believe that in the case of an illness that so fundamentally alters your experience of the world and your perception of who you are, recovery means being able to live the life you want without your illness stopping you or negatively affecting the way you live. By this metric, though I still have mild symptoms, I’m 100% because I’m doing everything I wish to be doing, with little interference from my disease.

However, I’ve come to accept that I can never be 100% of my old self again, because surviving PANS changed who I am. I’ve gotten stronger. I’ve matured. I’ve learned to not take my health or my life for granted. I’ve become more compassionate. I’ve even discovered a love for writing as a result of it.

Sometimes, I still mourn for who I used to be, and I grieve the time I lost. But slowly, I’m learning to embrace this new person born from many tears, treatments, and trials, and I’ve grown to see her not as a victim, but as a survivor. A warrior is who I’ve become. In this sense, I’m not just 100%—I’m beyond 100%, because I’ve emerged stronger than ever before.

100% isn’t always about a lack of symptoms—it’s about being able to live again and being completely comfortable with the inner self that you perceive you are.

PANS: Certainty of Uncertainty

To me, one of the most difficult parts of recovering from PANS is how, just when you think you’re done having symptoms, your life can change again in a day. Sometimes, I feel like with PANS, the only certainty you have is the uncertainty of the course of the illness.

Last week, I’d been doing great in every way imaginable, but on Monday, I started having tics again. At first, I didn’t think much of it because, sometimes, I have a few here or there, and then they go away. Unfortunately, this time they were the most pronounced they’d been since the summer, and I was even having vocalizations again.

By the next day, I was constantly sniffing and grunting and making all sorts of strange noises and doing repetitive movements with my head and arms. At times, I could barely finish a sentence without being interrupted by a vocal tic.

But PANS had even worse things coming to me…

The day after that, while walking home to my apartment (and sniffing all the way there), I felt my legs starting to get heavy. I tried to keep walking normally, but they would stop responding to my brain. All of a sudden, my knees were buckling every few steps, just like they used to do all the time when I was at my worst.

Over two days, I’d gone from being 100% functional to being physically disabled and having severe tics. Why was all of this happening to me? Was this the beginning of a relapse? Would I be spending this spring break getting another IVIG, just like last year?

Most of the time now, I don’t dwell on my illness or feel sorry for myself. But this week, it hit me all over again just how unfair it is to have a disease that can leave you handicapped without warning. No one deserves to live with this possibility hanging over their head all the time.

Over the last two years of recovery, I’ve often been in denial of my illness. I used to blame myself for every flare and every tic and every obsession and every treatment I needed to have. I never told anyone, but I always wondered if maybe, there was somehow a part of me that didn’t want to get better, and that this part of me was making me continue to need treatment. I felt bad for putting my family through what they went through because, somehow, it was my fault.

Deep down, I always knew that I didn’t want to be stuck with my illness, but by blaming myself anyway, I could claim some control over the disease. If I’d been responsible for preventing my recovery, then, at any point, I could’ve decided to stop having symptoms. I didn’t have to deal with the uncertainty of having no control—or with the truth that I was doing everything in my power to get better, yet I was still sick.

But there’s nothing like involuntary movements and partial paralysis attacks to prove to you that you have no control over PANS—and that even if you felt certain you were well, you can’t be certain you won’t have symptoms again.  This week, I was faced with the reality that my wishes to get better (or my false suspicions of wishing not to) had no bearing on my recovery.

After a few days of being disabled and utterly discouraged, my tics started dying away, and I was able to walk normally. I do consider this a good sign, since I improved without any treatment. However, I’ve since developed new vocal tics (though they only happen occasionally), and I’ve had a couple nights when I could barely walk again. But interestingly and fortunately, I’ve had no cognitive or psychiatric issues, so I’m counting my blessings. For now, I’m just waiting all of this out to see if it goes away.

Still, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t worried about what these reemerging symptoms may or may not mean.

Nevertheless, I’m slowly learning to accept the uncertainty of PANS—and my lack of control over it. I’m okay with not knowing what might happen next, because, through everything, I’ve always had an inexplicable conviction that everything will turn out right in the end. I struggle with my faith sometimes and am not always certain of what I believe, but this one conviction may be among the closest things I feel to certainty… Besides uncertainty.

Who Put Sludge in My Brain?

In a flare, I feel like my mind is full of sludge.

In a flare, I feel like my mind is full of sludge.

When I think about what a PANS flare looks like, rage episodes, wild involuntary movements, crippling OCD, short-term memory loss, and panic attacks are what normally come to my mind.

In the past, this was my experience. It used to be that, whenever I was fighting off any virus or infection, I basically lost my mind because my body started attacking my brain instead of just the infection. Flaring, to me, hasn’t meant having symptoms—it’s meant no longer having myself.

The week before last, as I was studying for my first physics exam, it became apparent that something wasn’t quite right in my brain. I’d been perfectly happy one day, but then out of nowhere, I had no motivation to do anything, I stopped socializing, and nothing interested me. Worse, I felt like someone was running my thoughts through a blender, because things stopped making sense.  The suddenness with which my symptoms came on made the reality unmistakeable: I was having a flare.

Whenever my physics tutor spoke to me, I had no idea what he was saying—not because of the difficulty of the material but because I couldn’t piece together the meaning of his words in the context of a sentence. I had to sit and think for a moment before I could decipher the message. It was like there was a bunch of sludge in my brain, messing up an otherwise functional engine, and my thoughts were all muddied. How was I going to pass the test in a couple of days?

Nevertheless, even though I was apparently flaring, I never got that old feeling of suddenly being possessed or out-of-control or otherwise outside myself—or the terror that I used to feel. I only felt that my mind wasn’t working right. Though unbelievably frustrating, it wasn’t nearly as upsetting as feeling like I was going crazy, as I felt in the past.

Although I hate the fact that I can still have flares that make me somewhat depressed and mess up my ability to think, I do find it encouraging that I had so few other symptoms this time. I never had any more OCD or tics or problems with walking. It’s a far cry from a flare I had a year ago, when I compulsively ran out of my apartment into the rain at 1:30 in the morning and started hallucinating. It’s even an improvement from my Strep-exposure flare in November, when I was so depressed that I spent an afternoon in a fetal position on my bed.

Indeed, recovery has been a lot of ups and downs. I used to hope that symptoms would vanish in a linear way over time, but this hasn’t been the case. While my day-to-day existence has slowly improved, I’ve continued to have flares even after two IVIG’s and a tonsillectomy. Yet as I was experiencing a couple weeks ago, my flares have gotten milder and milder, and I’ve fallen less far with each one.

Two days before the exam, when the sludge in my brain was making school utterly impossible, I began a high-dose Prednisone burst. At first, part of me questioned if I could really be having a PANDAS flare without more OCD or tics or anxiety, but when I had my mind clear after a day or two of steroids, it was unmistakeable that my symptoms had been from inflammation.

When it came time to take the physics exam, though my mind was sharper, I still wasn’t sure if I’d improved enough to execute such difficult problems. Although it took me longer than anyone else in the class to finish because of slow processing speed, I answered every problem and almost dared to hope I’d made a B.

And then on Friday, I got a surprise bigger than the realization that I’d flared without more OCD or tics: I’d made a 96%!

As frustrating as this latest flare was, I’m encouraged that each flare has continued to get less and less severe. I’m encouraged that a few days of Prednisone could bring me back to my usual. I’m encouraged that my flares no longer mean losing my mind. And I’m encouraged that I’m much better at physics than I would’ve dared to believe!

PANS and Romance: It’s Complicated

Guess who didn't get any roses for Valentine's Day...

Guess who didn’t get any roses for Valentine’s Day…

This Valentine’s Day was my twentieth in a row of being single.

Some of you have noticed my lack of discussion regarding my romance life, and a few have asked whether or not I’ve been able to date while dealing with PANS.

The answer is… It’s complicated.

I’ll soon be twenty-one, but I’ve never had any kind of relationship—unless you count a week in seventh grade.

For years, I was completely okay with my singleness. In fact, I actively didn’t want a boyfriend. There were a few boys in high school who wanted me to be their girlfriend, but I turned them all down.  In college (before I went into remission), I casually dated one guy off and on for a while, but then I stopped before it could become a relationship.

I felt bad for rejecting everyone, but I was always sure I’d done the right thing, because I never had feelings for any of them. I always told myself I was too busy for a boyfriend anyway, but ever since I was twelve, part of me knew there was also something “different” about me…

Whenever I would get together with my girlfriends in high school and they pointed out an attractive male walking by, I had no idea what they were talking about. I didn’t understand their butterflies or flirtation or talk of wanting to kiss. It was like I was missing something in my brain—as if puberty had never happened (though I experienced all the physical changes of puberty).

To make matters worse, I started having sexual intrusive OCD thoughts when I was eleven. They involved men and women and things that are far too explicit to mention, and though I viewed the thoughts as disgusting, I felt responsible for them. So I was sure they meant something about my sexuality, and I felt like the vilest person on the planet.

For a long time, I was confused about my sexuality—or rather, my lack thereof. If I couldn’t tell whether a guy was attractive or not, did that mean I was gay? Yet I knew I didn’t feel anything for women, either. Or was I actually attracted to both because of the intrusive thoughts?

To this day, I don’t experience attraction in the sense that most people think of it.  Sure, sometimes I “notice” a guy, but what I feel is little more than a strong desire to get to know him. I want guys to notice me, too, but there’s never a desire for anything physical.

Until recently, however, I didn’t even notice guys. The first time I ever found myself staring at someone because I thought he was good-looking was a week after my second IVIG—when I was enjoying a short period of near-remission. Since then, I think that a switch is slowly starting to come on in my brain, because this has happened a few more times—but it never once happened in all of the years that my PANS was untreated.

Perhaps I’m a very late bloomer in this area. Perhaps I never felt anything for so many years because it wasn’t the right guy. But personally, I think that PANS has both directly and indirectly affected my ability to experience attraction and to have relationships.

With PANS, the dopamine receptors—known to play an important role in romance—are attacked. Given that I’ve started feeling hints of attraction as the inflammation in my brain has decreased, I don’t find it hard to believe that some of my lack of feelings could’ve been because of the bad antibodies in my brain.

At the same time, I’ve never met another PANDA who also feels how I do (or rather, who doesn’t feel). But I can’t be the only person like this, right?

Of course, was I really going to be thinking about boys last year anyway, when the thought of putting away my laundry once overwhelmed me to the point of running out of my apartment screaming? How can you date when you’re dealing with crippling depression and anxiety? Plus, I’m sure I may once have tried to crush any tiny amount of romantic feelings I had towards anyone for fear of them triggering another intrusive sexual thought.

Nevertheless, this Valentine’s Day, for the first time ever, I felt some pangs of loneliness. While I still don’t experience attraction in the same way as most people, I’m slowly starting to want somebody to share life with—something I was once convinced would never happen. I’m finding that, in all areas of my life, recovery reveals many surprising things about the person I really am.

So who knows? Maybe next Valentine’s day, I’ll post a picture of some roses from my boyfriend…

Flare or Fluke?

How do I know whether or not my struggles are from brain inflammation?

How do I know whether or not my struggles are from brain inflammation?

Yesterday, I humiliated myself in front of the whole class.

Most days now, I feel that I have my mind back—that I can actually think without anxiety and malfunctioning cognitive processes clouding my every thought. But every once in a while, I do something really strange or stupid, and I find myself truly questioning my recovery all over again.

Everyone makes mistakes sometimes, and anyone may occasionally forget words, get distracted, or misunderstand instructions. However, when I do any of those things, I’m immediately taken back to a time when I did them all the time and every day—a time when I had no business even living independently, let alone attempting college. I get more upset than your average person would whenever I slip up, because I never know if my cognitive blip is what a typical person might experience or if it’s a lingering symptom. Every potential symptom sends me into bad memories and fear of history repeating itself.

My embarrassment yesterday happened when I was called up in front of the whole class to demonstrate a new concept on the board (one that I knew very well from studying). I went into auto-pilot, and I made an extremely elementary mistake. Even worse, I didn’t notice until my professor said something and asked me to try again.

“Oh, wow! That was pretty silly,” I said, as the whole class snickered. “What was I thinking?”

To make matters worse, over the last week, I’ve been wondering about and bracing myself for another mild flare. My cognition hasn’t been quite right for a few days. I’ve been really anxious and borderline depressed, and I’m having trouble starting assignments due to anxiety. I’ve had problems taking handwritten notes in class, because even though I know how to spell, my hands frequently write words and letters in the wrong order, or I write the wrong letters all together. And then there’s the fact that my physics textbook was christened with my own tears over the weekend, because I was having such a hard time understanding the material.

But if this is a flare, then why am I not ticking any more than usual? Why is my OCD not getting out-of-control?

Because I’m not flaring. And I’m certainly not stupid. I’m just sleep-deprived and under a tremendous amount of stress, and I’m realizing that college is hard for everybody. Yes, I do have some added PANS difficulties still—the handwriting issues and my legs not listening to my brain after I climb stairs or walk up a hill (more on this later). But who doesn’t get frustrated by physics homework? Who doesn’t have compromised cognition after not sleeping enough? Who doesn’t get anxious when trying to get school work done while awaiting a pending internship offer?

I suppose it’s still possible that I could be about to flare, but I’m choosing to reject that idea. This time, the solution to my struggles is not a Prednisone burst or a switch in antibiotics, but simply going to bed earlier and trying not to beat myself up over what happened in class yesterday.

Over the years, I’ve had to learn how to be sick—how to appear to function, how to live as much as I could, and how to mentally get through the heartbreak of PANS when I couldn’t keep myself together at all. But now, I have to learn how to be healthy—how to deal with embarrassment and challenging classes and stress and all the ups-and-downs of a healthy person’s life.

Surviving Holidays with PANS

The holidays can be a difficult time for PANS patients and families.

The holidays can be a difficult time for PANS patients and families.

Call me the Grinch, but for people with PANS, the holidays aren’t necessarily “the most wonderful time of the year.” For me, the season brings back painful memories of when I was sicker. Plus, symptoms can be more pronounced when contrasted with holiday activities, family gatherings, and Christmas parties.

I love my family and friends, but there are times when I feel like the PANDAS bear is the elephant in the room during visits. Invariably, I end up explaining my illness at every get-together, because my symptoms are forever changing. One time, it’s chorea. Another, it’s inappropriately saying “butt” in the middle of conversations (a vocal tic). On a different occasion, it’s difficulty walking. Understandably, I think it’s hard for some to comprehend how unpredictable and all-consuming PANS can be—especially when I don’t always look very “sick.”

My problem is that I get annoyed when no one bothers to ask how I’m doing, because PANS has been such an enormous part of my life. At the same time, I get annoyed when someone does ask, because despite what this blog may lead you to believe, I’d usually rather talk about college or writing projects or running rather than my challenges. I’m so much more than my illness, and I don’t want to just be the person with “the disease.” Of course, the people who ask almost always genuinely care, so I do appreciate the gesture.

Another difficulty with holidays and PANS is the sensory overload that can so easily happen. Last Christmas, I got so overwhelmed that I had to remove myself from the festivities and take a nap to recharge. My family isn’t that loud, but when you have the sensory sensitivities that are so common with PANS, all of the lights and bright colors and conversation and laughter and activity can be overwhelming and too much to process—no matter how much you’re enjoying yourself.

Worst of all, the first time I experienced depression was just days after Christmas in 2006. I’d been having a lovely time with family that holiday, and then depression came on suddenly. (Although I didn’t have the classic onset of OCD to go with it, I wonder if this was the beginning of PANS.) So to this day, I can’t help but feel a piece of that sadness and darkness every holiday season.

Of course, there are times when PANS and Christmas can be a funny combination—as with my notorious Shower Gel Incident in 2007…

I was twelve and in the middle of a horrible flare, and my mom gave me some nice shower gel. I loved the scent. In fact, I loved it so much that I unscrewed the cap and started to drink it right then and there, beneath the tree. Everyone, including me, was shocked. Though amusing, the story is also unnerving, because it shows how impulsive and irrational PANS had turned me. But I’d rather laugh than cry about it!

Nevertheless, this year, I think I’m in the best health since all of this started so long ago. This year, maybe there will be no elephant in the room at family gatherings, because the bear is leaving me alone—and frankly, I’m no longer embarrassed about what happened to me. I wouldn’t quite say I’m 100% symptom-free, but my present symptoms are so mild that I really don’t feel like I’m sick anymore. I don’t know about you, but I think that’s cause for celebration!

I hope that maybe, next year, I won’t be thinking of bad memories or the difficulties of having PANS around the holidays—I’ll be thinking of Christmastime as an anniversary of when I finally got better—as long as this progress lasts… And as long as I don’t drink more shower gel.


So readers, I’d like to hear from you. How do you deal with the difficult combination of PANS and the holidays? How do you handle awkward family encounters related to PANS? Do you have an “amusing” PANS story related to this season? I’d love to hear, so please feel free to leave a comment.

Why I’m Thankful

It was a paleo Thanksgiving at my house this year...

It was a paleo Thanksgiving at my house this year…

With Thanksgiving this week, as I returned home and sat around the table with my family, despite flaring recently, I couldn’t help but be thankful for the progress I’ve made over the last year-and-a-half that allowed me to be at that table—and for the family surrounding me, who helped me get there.

As awful as the latest flare was, now that I’ve switched my antibiotic to Azithromycin and am doing better, I’m all the more grateful for everything I have. It may sound like a cliché, but it’s true that there’s nothing like losing something to make you understand its value…

A year-and-a-half ago, I lost myself to this terrible disease. Though I wasn’t dead, emotionally and mentally, I was gone. I couldn’t walk. I couldn’t eat. I often couldn’t speak cohesively. I was constantly having involuntary movements. Most of all, I lost everything about my personality that made me myself—my joy and the spark of life in my eyes; I turned suicidal.

Because I once lost everything, I try not to take things for granted anymore. These days, when I decide to walk to class, there’s a smile on my face because I appreciate that my legs and brain now work together. When I touch a doorknob without hesitating, I’m thrilled to no longer be tormented by OCD about what germs I may be picking up.

When I can carry out a conversation without forgetting words or saying the wrong ones, I consider it a privilege. When I sit still in class without thinking about holding in tics or disguising my chorea movements, I’m grateful. When I packed my suitcase all by myself this week, I felt accomplished, because my executive function problems once made this impossible.

Living with the awareness that I lost, but have now regained, everything I now have adds a new layer of joy to my life that I never could’ve experienced otherwise. While there’s still plenty of emotional baggage as a result of my ordeal, I try to see the ability to be more thankful for life as more than a silver lining.

Although I continue to struggle in a lot of ways and have flares, I strive to be thankful for everything I do have. Embracing gratitude, no matter what time of year it is, is important because it helps you focus on the good things, even if there are a lot of bad things in your life. I see it as a way to overcome, because when you remember what you have and all that you can do rather than thinking of what you don’t have and can’t do, you can make better use of the abilities and opportunities you’re given.

So this coming week, as I head back to school into the home stretch of the semester, I’m going to do my best to be thankful that I’m well enough to be in college, struggling to get enough sleep, finish my projects, pass my exams, and make it until the end.

When Strep Attacks…

Once again, I've been taken over by a flare.

Once again, I’ve been taken over by a flare.

Last Friday, I would’ve said I was 100% symptom-free. I went the whole day with no tics or OCD symptoms or depression, and most astonishing of all, I could pay attention in class. My mind was the clearest it’d been in years.

But just as I’d put my life back together after the last flare, it suddenly fell apart.

On Sunday, I began to notice myself having mild short-term memory problems. And then I had a few tics. Monday night, my roommate got sick with an 101º fever, swollen tonsils, and white patches in her throat. Meanwhile, I was becoming more depressed by the minute. A culture of my roommate’s throat on Wednesday confirmed the unthinkable… Strep.

I couldn’t believe my luck (or hers, for that matter). She’d never had a known Strep infection, but she happened to get her first one in college while living with a PANDA who’s been known to lose her mind around the bacteria. Why did this have to happen?

I was sliding ever closer to the cliff from Monday onward, even before I found out my roommate was sick. I began crying for no reason and couldn’t concentrate. My memory was so bad that I forgot how to make a salad I’ve made every day for the last two months, and I couldn’t even remember the topic of a paper I’d been writing all semester. There was no denying that my brain was inflamed again.

I hate how PANDAS is a seemingly endless cycle of grieving the loss of who you are, then rejoicing when treatment resurrects you. When I’m alive, I never know how long I have to live. Will I be in remission for three months, or will it be three days? When I wake up tomorrow, will the infection-of-the-day take me away? I never know.

The worst of all is the sensation of losing myself when I flare; I don’t have symptoms—I no longer have myself. And it’s all the more painful because I’m always completely aware of the fact that I’m mentally dying. I’m wide awake as my heart is torn from my body.

Even so, this flare, though debilitating, has not been nearly as bad as the flares I had before my tonsillectomy. Yes, I lost myself, but I didn’t fall quite as far. I can’t explain it, but this time, the wall that shuts me into myself during a flare wasn’t as thick as it used to be.

Although I was so anxious one day that I ran out of one of my classes and couldn’t come back, I never got to a panic attack like I used to. Although I was extremely depressed to the point that I shut myself into my room for hours, curled up in a fetal position on my bed, and stopped doing my school work (despite normally being a top student), I didn’t become suicidal like I used to. And although I had some trouble walking due to loss of coordination, my legs didn’t go completely limp and paralyzed like they used to.

Objectively, I’m still better than I used to be, even if Strep made me flare. But I’m devastated to have had yet another flare just as I’d recovered from the last one. I’m devastated that my body still makes autoantibodies when exposed to Strep. I’m devastated that I still have PANS at all. How much longer can I keep living with it?

For better or worse, PANS is a part of my life, and though I’m doing everything in my power to push it out, I guess I’ll just have to keep doing Prednisone bursts and antibiotics and all my other treatments and live with it as best I can for now. What choice do I have? I’m beyond exhausted, but I somehow have to believe that life won’t always be this hard. I have to believe that somehow, something good will come out of this illness that still won’t leave me alone.

I wish no one ever got PANS, but I can only hope that what I’m going through and my ability to write about it might positively affect someone else someday—and that it does so even now.

And I have to hope I’ll never again be in such close quarters with Strep in my apartmentfor the sake of my roommate’s throat and for the sake of my own sanity.

PANDAS, Described in 1 Word

"Sometimes I just get terrified." 17-year-old me unknowingly describing PANDAS.

“Sometimes I just get terrified,” said 17-year-old me at the beginning of this exacerbation.

To be faced with PANDAS is to have a lot of debilitating symptoms and feelings all at once that, in essence, make you lose who you are. There is much to say about what it feels like to have PANDAS, but if I had to sum up my experience in one word, I would say…

Terror.

Fear has been a reality of my existence ever since my onset at age eleven.  Sometimes, I’ve had specific fears, and other times it was general anxiety. There were times when I felt like I was afraid of everything, as I described so poignantly in a journal from 2009 when I was fourteen:

Worry Is Taking Over My Life-small

I feel like worry is taking over my life… I worry a lot about if I’ll die young. I worry about environmental toxins (like lead). I worry about hearing damage… I worry about getting sick. I worry about what other people think about me. I worry about house fires.

Over time, my fears would slowly fade away (presumably after I fought off whatever infection had caused each flare). But whenever I least expected it, the terror would come back out of nowhere.

When I was seventeen, I suddenly became convinced all over again that I’d committed an unforgivable sin. From then on, everything revolved around making sure I didn’t do something unforgivable that would send me to hell—but instead my OCD become a hell on earth.

I was a caged tiger after that night. I would pace around the house each evening, hoping that somehow it would help me escape the all-consuming terror that trapped me inside myself. The OCD told me I was about to think or say or do something unforgivable, and my mind was constantly full of intrusive blasphemous thoughts that I was sure could damn me.

In order to divert my mind from the horrible terror and despair surrounding the thoughts, I began to write for as many as twelve hours a-day, skipping meals and not leaving the room, to the point where my psychologist became concerned I was in my first manic episode.

The worst thing about PANDAS terror is that it is all in your brain, so there’s no way to make it stop, other than to get treatment or distract yourself. This disease can make you afraid of everything outside of you and afraid of the mind inside of you. It made me do anything—even things I knew made no sense—just to find some relief. Sometimes, those things were OCD compulsions. Other times, it was slamming myself into a wall or trying to jump out a window, just because I felt like I had to.

Sometimes, I used to impulsively run out of the house, because I hoped that maybe, somehow, getting out the door would get me out of the anguishing terror. It’s like having an allergic reaction and itching all over, and all you want to do is get out of your skin to make the feeling stop…  But you can’t.

The need to get out of your mind in a PANDAS flare of terror is one reason this disease can be life-threatening. This is why I used to scream things like, “I want to die!” and why I couldn’t see how life could ever get better, since I was stuck with a mind that terrified me and was no longer my own.

But trust me, it does get better. I haven’t truly experienced the fullness of terror since getting my tonsils out this summer, and I’ve heard so many other recovery stories.

These days, what I live with isn’t terror so much as a constant, mild anxiety. While the most recent Prednisone burst for my last flare quieted most of my symptoms and got me back to being functional, it didn’t get rid of that all-too-familiar feeling of worry.  Nowadays, I walk around feeling like something must be terribly wrong, but I have no idea what it is.

My anxiety is like the feeling you get when you’re lying in bed at night almost ready to sleep, and you suddenly realize that you didn’t do something important that you needed to do that day. It’s the feeling when you first realize you’ve lost your phone or your wallet, but you have no idea where it could be. It’s the feeling of dread when you’re about to go meet with the principal at school because you acted out. But unlike those situations, the only thing wrong is my PANDAS—not something external.

I’m used to the anxiety by now, and it’s no longer bad enough to make me want to run away from myself. While it’s certainly still disruptive, I’m able to go to class and get my work done anyway. I’m so accustomed to it that I almost don’t notice it, since I don’t know what life is like without being a little afraid. Besides, my non-PANDAS self knows the anxiety is brain inflammation—not based in reality.

Even so, my team of doctors and I are not satisfied with me feeling that something must be terribly wrong—not to mention the tics that have returned. We’ll be checking titers and Ig levels and possibly changing antibiotics, so I’m doing my best to look at the coming weeks with hope—not dread.

Why I Run in the Rain

My PANDAS is a rain storm that seems it will never stop...

My PANDAS is a rain storm that sometimes seems it will never stop…

It’s 8 AM on a Saturday, and rather than sleeping in as you might expect for a college student, I’m lacing up my running shoes and getting ready to bolt across town.

However, this weekend, when I opened my blinds, I almost pulled the covers back over me; I saw it was raining with no sign of stopping.

I’d never run in the rain before, and the mere idea of it caused the shivers. I had so much homework, and the only time I had to spare was in the morning.  But I love running so much.  How could I let a little bad weather keep me from it?

I realized that if I waited for perfect conditions, I would never run. If I waited until I truly felt like going, I would never run. If I waited until I was completely prepared, I would never run.

So I decided to run in the rain…

Many people have asked me why I’ve continued to go to college in spite of a mentally and physically crippling neurological illness. They wonder why I continue to chase dreams that seem outlandish even for a healthy person. Why not at least take a year off and wait until I’m totally better? Why not wait until I stop having flares? Why not wait until I can get the most out of my educational experience?

I don’t know when it will ever stop raining, so if I’m going to run, it might as well be now.

My life over the last three years has been pouring. Nothing has been the same since the day my OCD hit me like a train during my senior year of high school. It would have been perfectly reasonable to defer college. Even now, I could almost justify being at home, considering my ongoing lack of concentration and other executive functions.

Yet no matter how badly I wish it would stop raining, I have no power to clear the skies. For better or worse, my life is one of rain for now—but I can still choose to run on in spite of it.

I only have one life, and I have to make the most of the cards I’ve been dealt. If I stay indoors and wait until I’m well enough to start living and going after my dreams, I may never do anything at all. How could I know what “healthy enough” is if I’ve forgotten what that fair weather even feels like? This disease has taken so much from me already, and I don’t want it to take anything more. So I have to keep dreaming and keep pushing forward and keep living as much as I can, even if I get soaked out in the rain.

I may work three times as hard as everyone else to produce the same results. I may have to live at a much slower pace than I would like. And there may be some things my illness prevents me from doing, but I do my best to focus on what I still can do. As long as my heart keeps beating, I have to keep running, in the hopes of finding joy and purpose in the middle of the downpour.

No, it’s never been easy to try to live my life while fighting PANDAS. There are plenty of days when I find myself wanting to go home and stay inside where it’s comfortable and warm, rather than working so hard and getting drenched by the rain. And certainly, I would never run if my symptoms were a hurricane or a thunderstorm, because when the weather is bad enough, it simply becomes unsafe to run.  But this is not my situation anymore, so I have to keep going as far as possible.

I run in the rain because I know that every stride, no matter how slow or difficult, means I’m overcoming something beyond my control and that I’m doing what I can to take back everything I’ve lost.

Until the Victory Is Mine

I was hoping to never again need my 10 mg Prednisone tablets...

I was hoping to never again need my 10 mg Prednisone tablets…

One of the hardest things about PANDAS is that you never know what it’s going to do next. Just as you’ve finally gotten your life back, it can strike again. Or just as you’re sure the fight is hopeless, things might turn a corner. Sometimes, it seems like there’s no rhyme or reason to its course.

Indeed, it wasn’t too long ago that my doctor said I was in remission. My family and I were stunned at the improvements I was making after my tonsillectomy. But this week, the unthinkable has happened: I am, once again, having a flare.

Over the last month, I’ve been going through more and more days with significant symptoms. I tried to attribute them to the stress of college or to psychological trauma from living with a horrible illness for so long. I didn’t even consider the possibility that my illness was coming back. But this week, I finally fell off the cliff again, and it was impossible to deny.

Not too long ago, I was feeling on top of the world, loving every moment of college. But one day, I woke up with a sore throat and despair, and nothing has been right since.

My depression has been so bad that I cannot make myself get off the floor of my room to even get a cup of water. I cannot do any homework, because as soon as I try (when I can make myself try at all), I burst into tears for no reason. I cannot concentrate on anything I would normally want to work on, either, which makes me feel like a total failure in life. I’ve been experiencing that all-too-familiar feeling of being detached from the world around me, as if I’m separated by an invisible wall. Most telling of all, my legs have begun to seize up on me when I walk, and I’ve lost the fine-motor skills that let me type accurately. And, of course, I’m being tormented with new obsessions and compulsions.

I’m devastated. I was hoping that I could just be done with this blasted disease and get on with my life. Is being able to use my brain too much to ask for? I want nothing more than to live a quiet, productive life and to contribute positive things to society.  And yes, it would be really nice if I could actually be happy. But instead, here I am, crippled by the despair and terror that this disease creates in my brain.

However, as awful and disappointing as it is to be having such debilitating symptoms again, people have pointed out that flaring doesn’t mean I’m heading for a full-blown relapse. It’s just as likely that I’m still healing, and this is only a bump in the road. If I’ve learned anything from my long recovery journey, it’s that healing a brain and an immune system is never a linear process. Sometimes, you make giant leaps forward. Other times, you stumble down a few stairs. But the most important thing is to keep getting back up and fighting with everything you have.

I’ve been on a 5-day burst of a higher dose of Prednisone, and it’s helped tremendously so far. While I’m glad for the relief, it’s been difficult to realize that many of my symptoms can be attributed to inflammation—which means I still have bad antibodies affecting my brain. It’s hard to know that I’m still fighting that familiar foe.

Honestly, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t worried about what the future holds or wondering if I’ll ever really get 100% better. I’m so sick of battling this disease, but if I’ve made it this far, I can’t possibly give up now.

So here’s to staying in this war a little while longer, until the victory is mine.

Quietly Out of Control

You can binge eat on a paleo diet? Heaven help me…

When most people who’ve dealt with PANDAS or PANS think about being out of control, what probably comes to mind are episodes of rage, debilitating OCD, constant tics, and panic attacks. While these things are the most characteristic of the disorder, during the last few weeks, I’ve been finding that sometimes, you can be out-of-control and look totally fine on the outside.

Right now, it feels as though all of my thoughts are swarming around me, and I try to catch them, but they manage to slip out of my hands before I can put them back into the cage of my head. Just as I’ve grabbed one thought, as soon as I try to reach for another, the first one slips out. I forget things quickly. I don’t pay attention. I get nothing done. I end up feeling frantic and restless, yet I can’t actually do anything productive with all of this unfocused energy.

But what makes me feel the most out-of-control is that there’s a puppeteer in my head that makes me do things I don’t really want to do. It makes me read pointless articles on the Internet when I want to be reading my textbooks. It makes me sit on the floor and stare at nothing instead of getting into bed when I’m ready to sleep. It makes me bike all the way across town to areas I don’t know when I only need to bike to the college library. And it’s impossible to extricate myself from the puppeteer’s control.

Lately, it has me doing something even more disturbing: binge eating.

I think about food a lot, and often, I start eating when I’m not even hungry. And then I can’t stop. I just stand in the kitchen eating and eating, knowing exactly what’s going on, but feeling powerless to do anything else. When I’m finally done, I feel bad about it, and I’m tormented with the idea that I’m going to get fat. I think about fasting to make up for it (but I never actually do it). I think about how long I will have to work out to burn it off. I “check myself” in the mirror every time I walk by, which I know is ridiculous, but it sometimes makes me feel better for a moment.

So far, I’m still below the weight I was before I had an intense period of restricted eating in the summer of 2014. I tell myself that as long as I keep running and working out, it will be fine. But I know I’m not fine…

I’m not heading in a good direction.  I’m beyond frustrated with my out-of-control mind, and I’m frightened by my out-of-control actions.

In desperation during midterms the other week, I restarted taking Provigil (with my doctor’s approval) to maybe have something that remotely resembled an ability to focus and get some work done. For a week, it worked beautifully, but now, I’m feeling unfocused and out-of-control all over again. Even worse, my depression has come back despite temporarily stopping my Prednisone taper—which my doctor suspected was causing it a couple weeks ago.

I’m beginning to question everything all over again… Am I really in remission? Am I getting worse? Am I feeling this way because my classmate just had Strep? Could this be related to the Prednisone taper? Is any of it part of the PTSD?

For now, I have no answers. I’m going back to the psychiatrist this week, though, so maybe he can help get me through this rough patch…

I’m better than I was last semester or a year ago. I do have good days where I have concentration and control. I’ve even had quite a few days where I’m not depressed, either. But one thing is certain: I’m still fighting PANS. And whatever it takes, I have to find a way to put my thoughts back into my head and free myself from the puppeteer.

ADHD: The Struggle Is Real

With ADHD, I'm forever fighting the passage of time.

With ADHD, I’m forever fighting the passage of time.

It’s 3 AM on a Saturday night, and I’m not even close to being ready to sleep. Am I out late partying like some other college students? No, I’m unwillingly sitting on the couch doing nothing and putting off going to bed for no good reason, after trying and failing to get any homework done all day long.

I am full of energy all the time. But the problem is, I can’t focus any of it, so it’s completely useless. I go from one thing to the next without finishing anything. I try to complete a task, but there’s always something that catches my attention before I even realize I’ve become distracted. My mind is always buzzing with new ideas, forming connections and taking in the world around me.

I have a big problem with all the jokes about ADHD and people saying they’re “so ADHD” or “just a little ADD today,” because for me, the condition is a daily struggle that can get in the way of everything I do. My inability to concentrate has, in the past, been completely disabling to the point that my mom used to stand outside my bathroom door to prompt me through the three-step process of getting ready for bed. If she didn’t, I could take as long as three hours.

Although I certainly had the classic, sudden-onset OCD characteristic of PANS when I was eleven, the sudden appearance of ADD was the most obvious and alarming for me and my family. I went from being a straight-A student who always got my work done easily to taking half-an-hour to read a single page of a textbook.

Overnight, it became as if I were in slow-motion. I would get “stuck” sitting on the floor of my room for hours because I lacked the willpower or mental energy to get up—even though I wanted more than anything to do so. I was so embarrassed and angry at myself for being that way, yet I felt utterly powerless to do any differently.

Over the years, after being diagnosed with ADHD Inattentive Type, I tried Concerta, Vyvanse, and even Nuvigil, and none of them ever helped my concentration—except perhaps Nuvigil, to a mild extent. I was sent to therapists to learn organizational skills and coping strategies, and none of them ever worked. How could severe ADHD suddenly develop in an eleven-year-old, and why didn’t the treatments help?

But when I was seventeen and finally figured out I’d had OCD for years, I thought maybe I’d found the missing piece in the puzzle. My psychologist told me that OCD can often be misdiagnosed as ADD or ADHD, so maybe with OCD treatment, my “ADD” symptoms would disappear. Indeed, a lot of my problems with reading had stemmed from a mental compulsion of constantly cancelling out all of the intrusive thoughts that the words on the pages triggered.

But today, even though my OCD is minimal, I still have trouble finishing a task, I still get overwhelmed when starting any assignment, and I still have too much energy to focus on one thing. By any metric, I have signs of classic adult ADHD—as does my dad, who definitely doesn’t have PANS. If ADHD is genetic, is this just how my life is always going to be?

Yet I believe there is one last piece of hope… There is no such thing as late-onset ADHD, unless it’s been caused by a brain injury or another disorder (ahem, PANS!).  People don’t just suddenly develop ADHD symptoms when they’re eleven, and I had no signs of ADD or ADHD all throughout my childhood until the other PANS symptoms showed up. So maybe, just maybe, my brain is still healing, and this ADHD struggle will someday end.

But even if I’ll always have some ADHD, it somehow hasn’t prevented me from making it through two years of college (albeit with a lot of determination) and from going after my dreams.  I may struggle, but I’m not going to let it stop me…

The New Me… Maskless

Getting better is like taking off a mask...

Recovering from PANS is like taking off a mask…

A few days ago, as I strapped on my backpack and headed out the door for the first day of the school year, I couldn’t help but be excited to start my first semester as a healthy person. How wonderful it would be to do college without debilitating neurological symptoms!

As I’ve said in previous posts, I never know how ill and out-of-it I’ve been until I get better. While I’ve always known when there was something “off” about me, I’ve not always been aware of the severity of it at the time—by definition, this is partly what made me “out-of-it.” The more I’ve recovered, the more of myself I’ve realized I’d lost to PANS.

Few circumstances have revealed my losses and subsequent recovery more than going back to school this week because of the stark contrast between this year and last year. It’s been made clear to me by how much easier everything is (even though I’m swamped with homework) and by others’ reactions to the new me—or more accurately, to the real me that many of my friends have never known.

Last fall, it was terrible going back to class, sitting at my desk with obvious and constant muscle jerks that I’d developed overnight during the summer. And I knew everyone could still see a large bruise on my arm from a failed IV stick, along with a puffy moon face and the worst acne imaginable from high-dose Prednisone. I was sure that my classmates who’d seen me before must’ve been wondering what happened to me over the summer, but I was too ashamed and traumatized to explain.

Perhaps the worst part about going back to school last year was that anyone I’d known well from Freshman year could tell that I was hardly even a shadow of myself, not because I was pale, moon-faced, and too thin, but because my personality had evaporated.  The brightness in my eyes was gone. I didn’t look at people—I looked “through” them. Conversations washed over me, because I couldn’t understand or concentrate on what was being said. My friends later admitted that I seemed distressed and not completely there.

During that time, I once had a nightmare in which someone forced me to wear a terrible mask everyday, but that’s exactly how my life felt—I had been forced to wear terrible symptoms all the time that obscured who I truly was.

But now, that mask has fallen off, and I’m not ashamed of who I appear to be.

So this year, as I walked (yes, I walk just fine now) through the halls between classes and later met with my professors, I got all sorts of wonderful and interesting reactions to the face everyone can now see without the mask:

“You seem a lot calmer than last semester.”

“You seem to to be concentrating well.”

“You look so healthy!”

“You look great!”

“Have you been running a lot? I can tell you have!” (This person doesn’t know about my struggles, so running was how she accounted for the change.)

While it’s disturbing to realize how far gone I once was and to know that my illness may have been more obvious than I thought, I’m glad that everyone sees the real me now and not that wretched mask. I’m so ready to dare hope I’ve taken it off for good…

Why This Year Isn’t Last Year

Time to Pull Out the Textbooks Again...

Time to pull out the textbooks again…

This week, I’ll be starting my third year of college. While this may not seem like a big deal, to me, it feels like a miracle, considering how sick I was just a couple months ago.

I’ve been doing very well ever since my tonsillectomy. However, it’s one thing to be well while resting at home and taking it easy; it’s another to stay well while keeping up with academics and everything else that goes along with college. My remaining symptoms could interfere tremendously with school work: difficulty concentrating, reading comprehension issues, task inflexibility, and some other executive function problems. How can anyone do college with these symptoms?

Sometimes, I still feel bad about myself for having such a hard time doing the simplest things—just getting ready for bed and planning the next day can be an ordeal because of my cognitive symptoms. Sometimes, I think they’ll never go away, because they’ve been with me for the past nine years with no break. Is this always how I’m going to have to live? How long can I keep pushing past these obstacles?

As I’ve been packing and unpacking my things this week and making the journey back to school, I’ve been remembering how terribly difficult the last school year was with all of the cognitive symptoms, frequent flares, depression, panic attacks, and bad OCD.

I’ve also been remembering how exhausting my first year of college was, when I tried to function and go to class but instead spent the majority of each day trying (and failing) to stay awake…  After as much as twenty hours of sleep.

This week, I’ve been remembering all of the lonely nights during these last two years of college when I’ve crumpled into a bawling heap on my dorm room floor, wishing I hadn’t decided to stay in school while so ill.

College, so far, has been anything but what I dreamed it would be. But now, I’m beginning to hope that this year will be different.

Today, I’m much better than I was even a few months ago, so I’m choosing to believe that this year is not last year—everything won’t be miserable this time. This year, instead of putting all of my limited effort into earning straight A’s, I can start learning to thrive in all areas of my life. This year, I can finally enjoy my college experience.  This year, I can pursue the dreams my illness tried to take away.

I don’t know how I’ve made it through two years of college with PANS and a 3.96 GPA, and I don’t know how much longer I’ll have to continue working around my cognitive issues, but I do know that this is a new year and a new chance. I just have to let go of the pain of the past and the anxiety of the future and hold onto the opportunities I have now as the (mostly) healthy person I am.

Am I Twenty or Twelve?

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A flower is mature, yet fragile and innocent… Like me

After battling PANS for the past nine years of my life, I’ve been forced to grow up too quickly while being stuck as a child. I’ve had to mature to face up to my circumstances, but I’ve had to count on my parents to take care of me more than most others my age have.

At twenty years old, I’ve never held down a consistent, weekly job. I’ve never had a boyfriend. I’ve never gone on anything beyond a day trip with my friends without an “adult” present. Over the last year, I’ve let my parents make many decisions for me, because I’ve known I couldn’t trust my own judgement. In many ways, I feel like a young teenager.

On the other hand, I aged twenty years the night that my OCD first came on. I realized that your whole world could be turned upside down in one moment. I shouldered the burden of upsetting intrusive thoughts for six years without telling anyone. I learned what it was to live in constant pain—physical and emotional—and to go on in spite of it. I figured out how to overcome tremendous obstacles in order to graduate high school and eventually get accepted to my dream college.

As a result of PANS, I’ve gained a perspective on life that some people twice my age don’t have. After fighting this utterly debilitating disease, I’ve learned to not take life and health for granted. I’ve learned that our brains and minds are fragile—but that human beings can be unbelievably resilient. Not a day goes by without me thinking about how fortunate I am to be alive and (mostly) well.

The trouble is that being both young and old at the same time makes it hard to relate to others of the same chronological age. I can’t party and go places like my peers do, because I don’t have the mental energy, and I’d prefer to get a good night’s sleep. This is preposterous to so many people. Why should a twenty-year-old have a bedtime? No matter how hard I try, even when I feel great, I can’t just be carefree anymore. I feel old, because my experiences have stirred up the waters of worry and cautiousness about every situation.

At the same time, I feel childish and somewhat inferior for my lack of stamina and independence. I sent in an application for my first real job this semester, and it got accepted, but I decided that I couldn’t count on having fifteen hours a week to spare—and this while taking a reduced course load to accommodate my lingering cognitive challenges. So will I ever become independent? Am I always going to feel like a woman-child, reliant on my parents for everything?

I wish I could just be twenty. I wish I could grow up and be an adult. I wish I could get younger and not worry about my health.

I Didn’t Fall Off The Cliff!

Flaring feels like falling off a cliff.

I thought for sure that I would end up here…

“Let’s climb up over here,” I told my hiking partner, my feet digging into the mud of the riverbank. “This looks like the easiest—aah!” I fell through a heap of brush and sticks that I’d mistakenly trusted for my next step. I caught myself between a log and the dirt, banging up my knee and back on the way down and scraping my arm on the twigs.

“Are you okay?” my friend yelled from the bottom.

“Yeah. I’ll just be a little sore tomorrow,” I reassured my friend as I pulled myself up and continued the ascent.

That day, I’d decided to take a friend on a hiking trip. I’d been through the area many times and had always admired the sandy river beach below the trail, but I’d never ventured down to it. I figured that bringing a friend along would make the feat a little safer.

In hindsight, it may not have been the best idea—we had to trudge through a creek straddled by spider webs to get down to the river and then hack our way through brush so thick that we wouldn’t have noticed a mountain lion if it had been a couple feet in front of us. It was only a ten-foot drop down to the river, but the bank I attempted to climb was nearly vertical.

I eventually gave up on the climb, and my friend and I found a better way back to the trail farther downstream, but the next day I was in for a surprise: my knee was hugely swollen. I must have hit it harder than I’d realized.

As I stared down at the inflammation around my knee afterwards, suddenly, it occurred to me: why wasn’t I flaring?

Just two months ago, almost anything that taxed my immune system at all would make me flare. I once fell on the sidewalk on the way to class one morning, scraping my leg, and that night, I started ticking like crazy, having highly disturbing intrusive thoughts, and falling into depression so badly I couldn’t leave my room to get dinner in my kitchen.

Another time, I got a small second-degree burn and flared so much that my mom had to come stay with me. On yet another occasion, I strained my groin on a run and later spent half an hour screaming, not from the physical pain, but because my OCD was suddenly horrendous. And of course, I always flared when I had the slightest hint of a cold.

Logically, with my knee as swollen as it was, I should’ve flared. But I didn’t. In fact, I haven’t flared since the beginning of June. This time, the only thing I noticed was the injury itself.

While I’m not exactly happy about banging up my knee, I’m relieved that it showed I’m heading for a time when I won’t have to be afraid of flaring at the slightest scrape or sniffle. In a strange way, I consider being able to get slightly hurt and only worry about packing on ice for a couple of days a privilege; there was a time when it would’ve meant losing myself for a few days until a Prednisone burst kicked in.

Aside from the fact that I didn’t flare, it’s amazing in itself that I’ve gotten to a point where I can call up a friend and invite him on a hiking trip.  Not too long ago, I had days where my social anxiety kept me from even speaking to my roommate.  On top of this, being able to walk a few miles on a hike without my legs collapsing underneath me, as they once did dozens of times per day, is remarkable.

My knee is fine now, but I don’t think I’ll be climbing down to the river again any time soon. And you know what? I also dare to believe I might not be falling off my mental cliff into a flare for a while, either…

Tonsillectomy and… Hope?

So Many Popsicles

My breakfast, lunch, and dinner!

When I first found out that I needed a tonsillectomy, I made three appointments with three different doctors at two hospitals. While this may sound excessive, based on past experiences, I knew the first doctor or two might refuse to do the surgery as soon as I mentioned PANDAS, especially since my tonsils looked healthy on the outside.

Indeed, when my records were sent to the first doctor, my appointment was cancelled within two hours and my case passed to a different doctor in the practice.

Sadly, more often than not, telling a doctor you have PANDAS is just asking to be laughed at and dismissed. Many doctors don’t believe in PANDAS (let alone the newer term PANS) because they’re unaware of the growing research and evidence, and others don’t know enough to take it seriously.

Most doctors, if they believe PANDAS/PANS exists at all, assume it is extremely rare and only presents in a young child as an obvious, overnight onset of OCD. This is certainly the most common presentation, but according to Dr. Swedo, the idea that PANDAS only exists in prepubescent children was an arbitrary distinction for the original study. Still, in the minds of most doctors, to have me, a twenty-year-old, say I have this obscure pediatric disorder is preposterous (never mind that it started before I hit puberty).

While my case being dropped by the first doctor seemed like a bad sign, when I met with the new doctor at my appointment, he knew more about PANDAS than most and actually agreed to do the surgery after I told my story and explained the severity of my symptoms.

So that’s how I found myself last week trustingly lying in an operating room at the same hospital that had failed me so many other times over the years.

This was the hospital that discharged me from the ER last summer without a single test when I suddenly had severe chorea movements. This was the hospital whose neurologists had said PANDAS was “too poorly understood” to be considered as an explanation for my rapid decline. This was the hospital whose psychologists completely missed my severe OCD when I was twelve. Disturbingly, this was also the hospital consistently ranked as one of the best in the nation.

But last week, the hospital redeemed itself to me.

As I waited in the pre-op room, sniffing, grunting, and twitching involuntarily from my latest tics, I actually felt as though everyone not only believed me, but actually wanted to help me. I usually feel like I have to fight for every little bit of care I get, but this time, they were fighting for me. This time, I didn’t have to partially cover up my diagnosis by only saying I have Autoimmune Encephalitis (but not PANS). Everyone knew my full diagnosis, but they were all-the-more eager to help.

My operating room was crowded with residents, interns, and medical school students trying to get a look at this unusual creature—this real, live PANDA bear—because they saw that we exist outside of a “theoretical disease” briefly mentioned in their textbooks. There were whispers of my case in the halls—not because they were mocking my diagnosis as usual, but because they were fascinated. These young doctors genuinely wanted to learn about PANDAS/PANS so that someday, they could perhaps know how to treat their own patients with the disorder.

For the first time, doctors at a regular hospital were giving my illness the attention it deserves—and giving me the treatment I needed.

If there’s one word I felt to describe the day, it would be “hope.” I felt hope because more doctors finally believed in my disease. I felt hope that someday, other PANDA’s from my hometown wouldn’t have to travel to out-of-town specialists for treatment—someday our own “world-class” hospital might treat more of us. Most of all, I felt hope that I had finally found the treatment that would bring me back the rest of the way…

Ever since I came out of surgery, I haven’t had a single tic.  The day before, I’d developed two new vocal tics that got more and more disruptive as the day went on.  I know—tics usually increase with anxiety.  But why have I also found myself suddenly carrying out fewer and fewer compulsions this week—and not getting extremely anxious over not doing them?

As always, there are a lot of variables at work.  Still, I can’t deny that, aside from a sore, gnarly-looking throat and fatigue from leftover anesthesia, I’m feeling great in every other way.  (And I’m not in nearly as much pain as people tried to scare me into thinking I’d be in.)  To me, what happened this week is a good enough reason to keep hoping for continuing progress.

Am I Nuts?

 

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Recently, a new obsession has been poking my brain:

Am I nuts?

Given what my illness has put me through in the last year, it’s not an unreasonable concern. When I’ve had bad flares—which can consist of screaming out whatever disturbing thoughts are in my brain, running out of the house or throwing myself into walls, having all manner of bizarre involuntary movements, and being unable to focus my eyes—I would certainly appear “nuts” to an outside observer.

When I flare, I feel totally nuts myself, because so far, I’ve always maintained some sense that my behaviors are unreasonable (yet I cannot fully control them). I know that my unusual behaviors and obsessions are due to brain inflammation, but I’m concerned that others misunderstand me and secretly think I’m crazy. Even in flares, deep down, I still know who I am, but I worry that others can’t see me through the symptoms. I somehow also worry that everyone will think I’m nuts when I’m not in a flare.

If you were me, wouldn’t you sometimes wonder if you were, in fact, crazy—that it couldn’t possibly just be an autoimmune disease? If you daily lived with the knowledge that you could descend into frightening and bizarre symptoms at any moment, wouldn’t you feel you were some form of madwoman? I sometimes worry that my PANS isn’t real after all—that it really is “all in my mind” like I was told for eight years before my diagnosis.

One of the main symptoms of my illness is severe OCD and anxiety, so I naturally have a tendency to get stuck worrying about things that don’t even make sense to worry about. The fact that I worry so much only farther feeds my growing concerns for my sanity, since some of my anxieties and obsessions are quite irrational.

So I’m forever asking my parents, and sometimes my close friends, if they think I’m crazy. The answer is always no, but no matter what anyone tells me, I still worry. Being afraid of being crazy and constantly asking for reassurance on the subject can be a relatively common symptom of OCD, whether or not one has PANDAS/PANS. OCD is never satisfied and is never fully convinced. I want to be completely sure, with irrefutable proof, that I’m not nuts; such evidence doesn’t exist.

Like most of my obsessions, there’s always some small amount of truth in them—just enough to make me pay attention and worry about them. It is true that I act pretty strange during flares. However, I’m quite normal on most days. Besides, the fact that I’m concerned about my sanity proves that I’m not crazy at all.

Given that it’s my brain that was attacked by my antibodies, it’s understandable that I might question even my most basic assumptions about how I perceive the world. I don’t expect my anxiety about my sanity to relent any time soon, considering how frequently I still flare. But for now, I’ll do my best to ignore my OCD thoughts and believe that I’m not nuts—I’m a rational and intelligent person whose brain is irritated by bad antibodies. Most days, my illness isn’t obvious on the outside, so no one would have any reason to think I’m nuts.

PANS is a crazy disease; it’s a crazy reality that an infection or virus can trigger mental illness and behaviors that make one appear “nuts.” But people with PANS are not crazy—we are survivors, doing our best to get through each day and behaving rationally given the inflammation in our brains.

Another Flare, Another Decision

With PANDAS, it’s astonishing how much can change in one day. Last June, I developed a tic disorder and became unable to walk in just a few hours. I’ve spent the year that followed fighting to get my life back. One day this week, I flared again, and it’s already had astonishing repercussions…

After a week on Wellbutrin, I was starting to feel the closest to normal that I’ve felt in two years. It was like the summer before I went off to college—I had some OCD and anxiety but was mostly functional and otherwise healthy. Unfortunately, after five days of feeling great last week, I slowly fell back into depression. Then, I got a sore throat, a headache, and a cough.

Getting sick never just means being under-the-weather for a few days...

Getting sick never just means being under-the-weather for a few days…

A few days later, I lost it.

That night, I sat down in a recliner and cried for no apparent reason. I don’t remember what happened after that, but I ended up in the kitchen. I looked at the door to the street and thought to myself, I need to run.

I was too exhausted to actually leave, so instead, I slammed myself into a wall on purpose.

I didn’t actually want to hurt myself—I just felt like I needed to do it but didn’t know why. I think when a lot of PANDAs have flares, we’re not in control of anything we think or do anymore. It’s like an outside force comes and takes over. It’s my theory that our fight-or-flight instinct (controlled by the basal ganglia that’s irritated by our bad antibodies) goes totally haywire, telling us that we have to “fight” by doing strange actions.

During flares, I feel I either have to slam myself into a wall or run out of the house; this is my messed up version of “fight-or-flight,” but the only real danger is the malfunctioning instinct itself.

Thankfully, I realized what was happening, and I made myself go to the basement to tell my parents. At this point, I was sobbing and feeling utterly hopeless. A few minutes later, I began jerking violently. My movements were suddenly the worst they’d been in months.

The next morning, we spoke to my neurologist, and that’s when I got the news:

You need to get your tonsils and adenoids removed. There might be strep or another infection hiding in there.”

It’s not typical for someone whose had two IVIGs to continue to flare every two or three weeks like I do. I’ve been tested for all kinds of viruses and infections, and they’ve all been negative. Apparently, you can have something hiding in your tonsils and not have it show up in blood work. If I do have strep or another infection or virus in my tonsils, it makes sense that I’m having flares so regularly. Unfortunately, the only way to find out if the tonsils are the problem is to remove them.

At this point, I don’t much care what it takes to stop this disease. If surgery will do it, then fine. I’ve been warned that it could be very painful to have a tonsillectomy as a twenty-year-old, but you know what? I’ve been through so much worse. I’m not afraid of the pain.

But sadly, having surgery this summer means I might not graduate college on-time. I was counting on taking online classes from home to make up for the reduced load I took last year. How could I do research and write twenty-page papers on narcotics?

I thought about forgoing the surgery and continuing to force myself through my four-year plan, but I don’t want to anymore. Although I’ve made straight-A’s and won scholarships for outstanding work in the midst of everything, I’ve been miserable in the process. I want to thrive, not just academically, but as a whole person. I decided that it’s better to give myself a shot at getting better by having surgery and taking an extra semester to finish college.

Yet again, so much has changed in just one day, because taking an extra semester means delaying graduate school by an entire year—that’s a whole year I’ll have to figure out what to do with myself at home (maybe that’s when I’ll write my book!). It’s a lot to process, and I’d be lying if I said I was completely okay with it right now. But still, if taking my time with school and getting my tonsils out is what it takes to get me better, it’s a fair trade…

Alone

Alone

While studying in my room one night, I heard laughter and music outside my window and smelled gas and burgers. I looked outside, and half a dozen people were having a wonderful time sitting around a grill, sharing food and stories about upcoming final projects.

And that’s when it hit me—I’m so lonely that I don’t even know I’m lonely.  I’m so lonely that I forget how much I miss spending time with people—until I see others doing it.

I know a lot of people at my college, but I maybe only have one or two close friends. Maybe…

Why is that? Despite the lies my social anxiety tells me, I don’t actually think I’m that unlikeable. Even factoring in the minor tics I now live with on a day-to-day basis and my OCD rituals, I’m not so weird that people should avoid me. I’m not unkind—on the contrary, I bend over backwards for the people I love.  So where are my friends?

The problem is that I never go to anything I don’t have to go to, and I never do anything I’m not required to do. How can I make plans with anyone when I never know how I’ll be feeling in the next few hours, let alone in a few days?  I try to explain to people that I’m ill, but if you don’t spend time with someone, how can you get to know anyone?

In my entire college career, I’ve only once gone to a party—and I left after a few minutes. People invite me to parties and concerts and other outings, but more often than not, I decline. And yet I still wonder why I’m always alone on a Friday night. And some part of me always wishes things weren’t the way they are.

You see, it takes too much mental energy for me to go anywhere. I can hardly get to class sometimes because of my lingering cognitive deficits in planning, organization, and memory. I’ve had nights where I cried for an hour just thinking about how hard it would be to get ready and make myself get out the door to class the next morning. Do you really think I would willingly put myself through that unless I had to? No wonder I don’t go anywhere. No wonder I’m always alone.

Another reason I choose to be alone is that I don’t want to get exposed to any illnesses. It’s gotten to the point where, if I see a crowd or hear about an event, all I can think about is how many germs will be there. I know how bad my flares are when I get sick, and I don’t want to increase my chances of flaring. I’m sure that my contamination OCD only makes the fears worse—and when I do get sick, all of my symptoms (including the OCD) get worse, sending me into a vicious cycle. So I stay alone.

Even if I did make it to a party, I’m sure I would have a sensory overload. Sometimes, I can’t stand the sound of people talking, especially if it’s loud talking. Sometimes, even when I’m just spending time with my immediate family (whom I love), it gets to a point where all the words and back-and-forth conversation and noise become too much for me to handle, and I have to go be alone in my room for a while. How could I possibly go to a wild college party (even if I wanted to)?

If I didn’t have a sensory overload, then I’d surely have to deal with my social anxiety/OCD. After almost every interaction I have with someone, I get this feeling that I’ve probably offended them somehow, so I go over the conversation over and over again. I think about it a lot and imagine what that person must think about me. When I see that person again, I always think, “She might not like me anymore because I said x and did y,” and I sometimes don’t talk to her as much because of this. In reality, I know it’s irrational, but my brain always replays my conversations anyway. Should I willingly put myself through a whole night of obsessing? No, I think I’ll just be alone…

On a great day, I can spend time with my roommate cracking ridiculous jokes in the living room or maybe even taking a bike ride around campus. It’s much easier for me to interact with one or two people at once.

But when I can’t do that, most of the time, I’m actually quite content to sit in my apartment alone with a cup of hot tea and my ideas. Or if I have enough energy to get out the door (but not to talk to anyone), I’m quite happy to go for a run by myself in a quiet park. After all, I’ve always been an introvert, even before I got sick.

But sometimes, every once in a while, I wish I felt like I could choose to be on the other side of my window, hanging around a grill with my friends without a symptom on my mind…

I Don’t Know Anymore

Well, after dreading it and hoping and praying it wouldn’t happen again, I’ve just had another bad flare.

On my way to class last week, I overheard someone say she had Strep throat.

No. I can’t flare again, I thought to myself. It’s not going to happen. I’m still on antibiotics. I’ve had two IVIGs. I should have plenty of good antibodies if I’m exposed. I’ll be fine…

But then, when I got to class and saw one of my lab mates who hadn’t been around in a few days, I asked where he’d been—and immediately wished I hadn’t:

“Oh, I had strep throat. It was a really bad one!”

There was no way I hadn’t been exposed. My school seems to have a problem with Strep outbreaks, and even though I’m on antibiotics, I can still flare. My doctor explained to me that it’s like being “allergic” to Strep—just being around it, even if I don’t get a full-blown infection—could send my immune system into a tailspin.

I tried to convince myself that maybe this time would be different, but deep down, I knew it wasn’t right that it had taken me five hours to write a one-page paper the night before. I knew I suddenly had no concentration again. I knew I’d been ticking a little bit more. It all made perfect sense now.

Just as I was beginning to hope this was the extent of the flare, I finally fell off the cliff. The world began to slip away—it was that feeling of being stuck in a fog that separated me from everything else. I heard someone make a “bad” noise, and I became so anxious that I had to run into the gym to do a 9 mph sprint on the treadmill (in spite of the pain from my knee injury). The next day, I just started crying uncontrollably for no apparent reason. The depression came back.

“You know what this all means, don’t you?” I sobbed to my mom when I could finally call her.

“That you’re likely to need plasmapheresis. Yes, I know… Have you taken more Prednisone yet?”

“No! I’m sick of %$&^%$ Prednisone! I’m done with this ^%$&^% disease!”

I could hear my mom on the other end beginning to cry, too. Most days, my family and I can all hold it together and think about everything I’ve accomplished in spite of this illness. We can pretend that I’m mostly fine most of the time, but it’s moments like these that tear our hearts apart—moments when we are confronted with the worst of it and the realization of how helpless we are to fix it.

On top of not feeling like myself at all, I now had the added burden of worrying that my IVIG hadn’t worked. I knew I’d have to come home for the summer after all. I knew my neurologist might be suggesting plasmapheresis or Rituximab or another IVIG at my upcoming follow-up. I knew I couldn’t continue my Prednisone taper for the rest of the semester. I knew I really wasn’t okay yet, and I was devastated.

I ended up complying with my parents’ wishes and doing a 5-day burst of higher-dose Prednisone. As much as I hate the stuff, I hate the way I feel when I flare even more. I’m doing a lot better, but I’m still having tics and having trouble finding words and speaking in coherent sentences. But I’m more okay than I was.

I don’t know what my future holds anymore. Maybe I won’t have a flare this bad again—or maybe I really have stopped getting better. Maybe this IVIG will start to work soon—or maybe I’ll get off Prednisone this summer and discover that I’m still bordering on insanity without it. I don’t know. Only time will tell…

My Last Piece of Freedom

Last summer, over the course of a few hours, I suddenly became unable to walk due to an autoimmune attack in my brain. If I tried to go from my living room to the kitchen, I fell multiple times because my legs would suddenly give out.

In one moment of insight during that horrendous time when I had not only lost the ability to walk but had essentially lost my mind, I said to myself, I’m going to run a marathon someday and overcome this. And I’m going to beat my best 5k time from eight years ago within the next year.

It was truly a crazy idea. Maybe I still wasn’t in my right mind when I came up with that…

For some strange reason, although I often fall down if I walk long enough, I have never once fallen while running. As far as I’m convinced, when I run, I don’t have PANDAS—I have freedom. I am in charge of a body that turned against me in the worst way imaginable. My love of running has made my ongoing walking problems far less painful to bear.

When I tried a couple runs after my first IVIG treatment in the summer, I was still so weak and malnourished that I struggled to finish a single mile at a very slow pace. But I didn’t give up…

As I started to get better, I got stronger and faster to the point that it didn’t seem unreasonable for me to sign up for a half-marathon a couple months ago. I was running up to twelve miles at once. Then, last month, I finally crushed my pre-PANDAS 5K record by a whopping 2 minutes.

Although my PANDAS had been getting worse and worse at the same time, to the point that I needed a second IVIG last month, my running successes always made me feel on-top-of-the-world in some ways.

But one night, something went horribly wrong…

I set out on a group run, and the farther we went, the more I noticed my quad hurting. I’ve had the feeling before, and usually, when I kept running, it went away. Unfortunately, this time, it didn’t.

I finished the run at what felt like a good pace, but suddenly, I was in even more pain. My knee was extremely swollen and painful. I couldn’t walk—not because of my brain, but because I was injured.

Knee

I’ve since been diagnosed with Runner’s Knee. Basically, my knee cap is not tracking in the right place, so it’s rubbing against the cartilage. My poor quad was simply trying to compensate for my bad knee on the run that night.

I’m devastated. Not only have I lost the ability to walk normally—I’ve lost the ability to run. I have no escape from my illness anymore. I’ve lost the one thing that almost always had a way of bringing me joy, no matter how bad my depression was.

Yet again, another thing meant to keep me healthy has turned against me—just like the antibodies that attack my brain. Is PANDAS going to defeat me?

I really didn’t need another thing to deal with right now. Ever since I’ve had to rest my knee by not running, I’ve been having nightmares about not being able to run. Running was my last piece of freedom, and some days, it was my only window into normalcy. Running was the one thing that gave me hope that my body wasn’t completely broken. Running was a way for me to pretend to be healthy. Running was what inspired me to keep persevering through my terrible flares.

There’s only a month until my first half-marathon. I was supposed to finish it as the ultimate slap-in-the-face to the disease that left me unable to walk. But can my knee heal up in time?

I’m starting physical therapy this week, and you can be sure I’m going to try as hard as I can to do everything in my power to heal from this injury. Dang it—I didn’t let attacks of paralysis keep me from starting to run in the first place. I’m not going to let a simple knee injury keep me off the starting line this summer!

My First “Normal” Summer?

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This week, I have wonderful news… Instead of moving home for the summer like I’d planned, I’ve decided to remain at school to take classes and work.

While this may sound like a “normal” summer for an almost-20-year-old, for me, it’s a huge victory. Not too long ago, I hated everything and wanted nothing more than to go home and spend my summer lying on the couch or in bed (just like last summer). But now, I want to keep pursuing my dreams in this city—dreams that I’d pushed to the back burner for far too long because of my illness.

When I called my parents yesterday to inform them of my decision, I didn’t know how they’d react. I thought they might try to make me change my mind, but instead, they said my plans were, “the best news ever.”

“I feel great,” I said on the phone. “Really great.”

“How’s your OCD?” my mom asked.

And there was a long pause…

Recently, I’ve been having a hard time with sensory sensitivities.  If I feel certain sensations or see certain textures or hear certain sounds, I’m thrown into a flurry of compulsions and tics to try to get rid of the physical discomfort.

For example, I can’t stand it when my feet rub across the floor or the ground in a certain way. If it happens, I have to go “undo” it by stepping on the same spot again or rubbing something else in a “good” way.  Just thinking about the noise and the sensation makes me very anxious. When it gets really severe, sometimes I won’t move until I can convince myself that it wouldn’t be “that bad” if I accidentally made the sound happen.

“Well, mom,” I said, “It’s gotten to the point where I’ve considered putting rubber mats on top of all the carpet in the apartment…” (For some reason, sliding on rubber or plastic doesn’t bother me nearly as much.)

“That’s not good.”

“Yeah, I know. And then I had a couple of days when I could hardly eat… And I’m sleeping terribly and can’t stay awake without Provigil… And then there’s the ADD…”

“Well, what’s so great about how you’re feeling now?”

It’s very hard for me to identify what it is, much more to explain it, but I feel a night-and-day improvement compared to where I was before my most recent IVIG. I’ve previously written about how my perception of the world and my awareness has improved, but to put it another way:

I may still have symptoms, but my symptoms don’t have me.

I’m not completely consumed by this disease anymore. I have a life that isn’t just about fighting PANDAS. I’m doing everything I want to be doing—even if it takes me longer than most people, and even if it takes more effort. Yes, having PANS causes significant difficulties, but I’ve learned how to work around them somewhat, and I’ve come to accept my life for what it is right now.

Certainly, I’d prefer to not have any of the challenges that I have. I want this IVIG to take care of everything that’s left. I don’t want to be tossed into the throws of partial insanity when I finish my Prednisone taper next month (I’m down to 8mg now!). I want to stay at school over the summer like I’ve planned—and not in isolation at home after a plasmapheresis hospital stay.

But I suppose if push comes to shove, I still want to be cured more than anything else, so I’d go home for treatment this summer if I needed it…

For now, though, I’m going to keep living as if I’ll get to have a “normal” summer, because I like looking forward to something normal—even though I know there’s a possibility that I’ll have no choice but to go home…

What’s It Like to Survive a Flare?

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This week, I finally hit the post-IVIG flare that we were all dreading.  Thanks to a six-day burst of high-dose Prednisone, I’ve come out of it now, but I hope I don’t have to go through that ever again.  Unfortunately, I probably will.

Until my most recent IVIG, my flares were getting worse and worse.  One night a few weeks ago, I found myself spacing out at the kitchen table for about two hours, unable to make myself get up, because I had too many OCD compulsions. When I realized I’d been doing nothing for two hours and thought about how hard it would be to do anything with the burden of OCD, I just lost it—I spent twenty minutes walking around my apartment screaming and hitting the walls.

On another night, I similarly started screaming, but then ran outside and sprinted for half a mile in the rain at 1:30 in the morning. Shapes were rising out of the bushes during the run—shadows were everywhere… I realized I was hallucinating.

This week’s flare wasn’t nearly as bad—my latest IVIG seems to be damping things down.  This time around, my flare consisted of depression, feeling detached from everything and being “out-of-it,” some of the worst tics and choreiform movements since the summer, bad memory problems, and crying about everything for no reason.  The flare wasn’t pleasant, but at least I wasn’t hallucinating.

At this point, I’ve become a master of knowing when I’m about to flare. It’s true that all my flares happen very suddenly, but there are a few warning signs…

The first clue for me is that I start to have a hard time making myself do anything in the hours leading up to the flare. I lose interest in things. If I’ve made plans, I cancel them if at all possible. It’s almost like my body knows it needs to conserve energy to brace for the coming battle—before I consciously know it’s coming.

The second clue is that my physical pain suddenly gets worse. As a result of another condition called Thoracic Outlet Syndrome, I’m almost always in some amount of pain, but this is different. I start to get this strange, dull ache all across the backs of my arms and sometimes in my legs, too.  Before this week’s flare, I went to bed and had that pain in my arms and thought a flare would be coming. The next morning, I had no other signs of flaring, but sure enough, that afternoon, I fell off the cliff.

Another sign of a coming flare is that my cognitive issues suddenly get worse—especially the word-finding problems.  I don’t know the names of everyday objects.  I try to articulate myself, but I say things in the wrong order and get the tenses of my verbs wrong. Sometimes I know how I want to say something, but it doesn’t come out of my mouth that way.  I find that increased word-finding difficulties might happen only a few minutes before the worst of the flare.

But what’s it like to experience a flare?  The tics and other movements are obvious. You can see the “look of terror” I get with my widened eyes. You can watch me having a panic attack. You can hear me yelling at my parents. You can notice me doing more compulsions than usual. If you could read my mind, you’d know that the looping, intrusive thoughts start happening much more often. But it’s more than all of that—flaring feels like losing yourself.  It’s like something outside of yourself takes control and snatches who you are away.

When I flare, it feels like someone is taking things out of my mind and hiding them—and refusing to tell me how to get anything back.  I look for the words to speak, but this monster has set them up in a high place I cannot reach. I try to remember what happened the week before, who that familiar face is that I’ve seen hundreds of times, or even what I was in the middle of doing, but it has all been stolen out of my mind, and I don’t know where the monster has put any of it—I just know it’s all gone.

When I flare, it feels like I’m living in another world, unable to traverse the chasm that is my mind in order to be with everyone else.  I know I can’t think clearly about anything, but I cannot specifically tell you what about me is “off.”  I may try to go about my day as usual, but the world doesn’t quite make sense, and I feel like I’m somewhere else. The scary thing is that I never know how far away I’ve been until I come back out of the flare—and then it’s like I have been away for a long time am rediscovering all the wonderful things about the world and the people around me.

Coming out of a flare is like getting the proper prescription at the eye doctor—you didn’t know what you had been missing until you saw clearly again. You knew things weren’t quite in focus, but you never could’ve imagined all the details you once missed—but now, everything seems even more beautiful since you can fully see it.

I often wonder how many more times I’ll have to go through these flares. I’m not myself at all when I flare, so I feel as though I’m living between the flares, hoping to have as full of a life as possible.  I go to college like everyone else. I have friends. I even make straight-A’s.  But I live with the constant reality that I could flare at any moment.

I try to live the life I want to live between the flares because when you never know when you’ll lose yourself next, you have to make the most of every moment and cherish each day that you get. I lose my perspective on everything when I flare, but if I can look at all I accomplish in the better times, I can maybe know on some level that I am still me—no matter how much each flare makes me feel otherwise.

The Blame Game

After eight years of searching for a diagnosis and then finally discovering I had PANDAS, it wasn’t enough for my family and I to simply know what my illness was. We wanted to know what caused it and who or what could be responsible:

Why did I get sick? What could’ve been done so that this never would’ve happened?

We blamed the doctors for brushing me off for eight years. We blamed them for not being willing to consider thinking outside the box. We blamed them for giving me more and more diagnoses while never stepping back to consider a single cause for all of them—while we insisted there had to be one.

We blamed the psychologists for completely missing my severe OCD at my evaluation in 2008. We blamed them for telling my parents I simply had “social problems,” when in reality, my OCD symptoms were preventing me from expressing myself to the evaluators. We blamed them for not considering OCD avoidance behavior as an explanation when they knew my brother and much of my dad’s family had OCD.

I blamed myself for not talking to anyone about my obsessions for six years.  I blamed myself for unknowingly concealing the one condition (OCD) that eventually led to a PANDAS diagnosis.  I blamed myself for not trying harder to get better after I first got sick. I blamed myself for catching the mono that led to this terrible flare last year. I blamed myself for not believing I would get better after my first IVIG, and somehow, causing it to fail.

My parents blamed themselves for not knowing I had OCD for six years. They blamed themselves for not trying harder to find an answer. They blamed themselves for “letting” this happen. They blamed themselves for passing on the autoimmune disease genes/rheumatic fever history that may have contributed to my illness.

Yes, it’s true that some of the doctors and therapists I saw over the years made mistakes and didn’t try hard to find an answer. It’s true that we would’ve found out I’d had PANDAS sooner if I’d been able to talk about my OCD. And yes, it’s true that I’ve probably inherited my parents’ bad genes.

But in the end, no one can truly be blamed for my illness.

Why do people try to find something or someone to blame for the bad things that happen?  Why does there have to be an answer?

The moment I admit that my disease is no one’s fault is the moment I admit that I have no control over it.  It means admitting that bad things can and do happen for no apparent reason.  This idea—this realization—is terrifying.

At the same time, I find freedom and hope in it.  I’m not mad at the doctors anymore, and I’ve come to understand that my family and I have done nothing but the best that we could for all these years, given the information we had at the time.

The hardest thing has been to realize that none of this was ever my own fault. It’s taken two years for me to be able to forgive myself for concealing my OCD for over a third of my life, but I’m slowly learning to extend the same compassion I have for others to myself.  I call it the Reverse Golden Rule:

“Give yourself the same grace you give to others. Don’t be so hard on yourself.”

Yes, even after my brain has healed completely, it will take a long time for my family and I to truly release ourselves of feeling responsible, in some illogical way, for what happened.  But I’m ready to stop playing the blame game. As hard as it is, it’s time to let go and focus on the hope I have of complete recovery…

Losing My Mind… Halfway

Lately, I’ve been having a harder and harder time with cognitive problems. I make stupid mistakes in school now that I’d never make in the past. I say the wrong words without knowing it. I mix up left and right as if I were six years old. I’m very forgetful. I do a lot of small but silly things everyday—little things that anyone might do once in a while but the fact that I do them so frequently makes me feel as if I’m losing my mind.

I can manage as long as I make a plan or if everything goes exactly the way I expect, but the moment something comes up that doesn’t fit into my notions, I’m thrown for a loop and don’t know how to proceed.

The other day, I was filling up my car at the gas station, and after scanning my credit card, the pump told me to go pay inside. I didn’t understand. I had no idea what to do, but I did go inside to the cashier.

“Hey, my pump isn’t accepting my credit card and told me to come inside.”

“What pump are you on?”

“Umm… I have no idea… Let’s see… Well—hey, can’t you just fix it in here maybe? And then I can go pay outside?”

I was stuck on the idea that I always pay outside at the pump and couldn’t wrap my mind around paying inside—even though I used to always pre-pay at the cashier when I lived in another town.

“I don’t know what pump you’re on.”

“Okay…” I looked out the window. “I think I’m at number three. Could you please reset it from here so I can go pay for it?  How is this supposed to work?”

At this point, the cashier was slightly amused that I was so confused by the idea of paying inside. She tried to explain that I could do the same thing inside, but in the end, I still don’t understand what happened. I gave up on understanding and just handed her my school ID to pay for the gas–and then everyone in line really started looking at me like I was crazy.

I quickly pulled out my credit card instead and apparently paid, because I eventually got some gas in my tank. But the whole incident made me feel like a total idiot and like someone could’ve taken advantage of me.

The worst part of my cognitive issues is the fact that, by definition, I’m not always aware of when I’m struggling. I always have this sense that something is “off” about me, but I can rarely point out to you what’s wrong.   How can I trust myself at all like this?

At the same time, I’m functioning at a very high level and have no problems doing certain complicated tasks. Still, I know my mind isn’t what it used to be, and it’s frustrating and heartbreaking to be aware of this and to not know what I’m doing wrong.

Knowing that I’m not 100% mentally means I’m only losing my mind halfway…  Sometimes, I wish I’d go ahead and lose my mind completely so I wouldn’t feel the grief of knowing I was losing it.

But don’t you see? I’m not crazy. I’m not stupid. I’m just living with brain inflammation that’s temporarily masking who I am and what I’m capable of. Someday, when I’ve been cured, I know that I’ll get everything back, and people around me will finally see what I still see in myself somewhere—the same intelligent and rational person I’ve always been.

Slamming the Door on OCD

It’s just a doorknob—just a little piece of metal attached to my door. For most people, it’s an overlooked necessity that doesn’t get a second thought. But for me, it’s a peril.

Until a few days ago, I’d gone the entire school year without ever touching my bathroom’s doorknob. I avoided this by either leaving the door cracked enough to let me use my feet to open the door, or I grabbed the doorknob with a designated washcloth that I kept nearby. Unfortunately, I often don’t touch any other doorknobs or handles of any kind in the rest of my apartment, either—not the refrigerator, not the microwave, not the cabinets, and not even the doorknob to my own bedroom.

I had been bothered by this set of compulsions for a long time, but the idea of going through Exposure-Response Prevention therapy to get rid of them seemed like much more work and trouble than just continuing to follow my rules—until I kept getting texts from my roommate kindly asking me to stop slamming doors.

I was rather confused at first. I had no idea I was slamming doors, but after a lot of thinking, I realized that some of my compulsive behaviors had become completely unconscious. I realized that a lot of the time, the only way I was closing a door hands-free involved slamming it.

To make matters worse, my roommate told me she has phonophobia: fear of loud sounds. Every time I closed the doors my way, she got debilitating anxiety. (We’re quite a pair aren’t we? The OCD girl’s compulsions set off the phobic girl’s anxiety.)

One part of me was mad that anyone would dare ask me to stop my compulsions, and I was embarrassed that they’d gotten so bad that I couldn’t. Another part of me, knowing how disruptive anxiety can be, felt horrible for causing my friend distress.

So this turned out to be my final straw—I now had the perfect excuse to make myself do some ERP to get over the door-closing compulsion.

That night, I decided to do the unthinkable: grabbing the bathroom doorknob without a washcloth and without washing my hands afterwards. As I trudged over to the door, my heart began to pound. My legs started shaking. My hands trembled as I reached for the knob. Before I could talk myself out of it, I quickly grabbed on and then stood there for at least two minutes.

My brain soon realized that touching the doorknob wasn’t dangerous after all, and my physical anxiety symptoms died down after a few more minutes. After a while, the exercise wasn’t unpleasant at all.  I did so well with this exposure that I proceeded to go touch many things in my apartment that I’m not allowed to touch.

Although I’ve since reverted back to using the washcloth on the doorknob, I’ve shown myself that it is possible to break free and not nearly as unpleasant as I’ve imagined it to be.  However, I’m still rather shocked that my OCD has once again gotten to the point where not doing a compulsion put me on the verge of a panic attack.

But you know what? Even though doorknobs have shut me into OCD again, I’ve realized that if I keep touching them, some day, they will allow me to reopen the door to my freedom.

The Run of My Life

Recently, I signed up to run in my first half-marathon.  I was planning to cross the finish line this summer as the ultimate way to overcome PANDAS. I was hoping to be able to say, “Nine months ago, I couldn’t walk, but today, I’m totally healthy and symptom-free!”

But my plans have been ruined, and my dreams have been shattered.

When I underwent high-dose IVIG therapy in August, for the first time since I got sick eight years ago, I was hopeful about making a full recovery. I knew it could take up to a year for me to get completely better, but I didn’t mind. As long as I was getting better, no matter how slowly, I could keep hoping.

But then I stopped getting better.

I started tapering off my daily 20 mg dose of Prednisone in December, and I’ve gone downhill ever since. When I got to 3.5 mg, I was close to psychotic. I had some sense that I wasn’t right, but I wasn’t completely aware of how irrational and out-of-it I was. I stayed in bed all day long and didn’t go to class. I have since been staying at 7.5 mg, and although I’m in my right mind, I know I’m still not “right.”

Two weeks ago, I had the second-worst panic attack of my life during an exam. It had been three months since I had a panic attack at all. Even when I made up the test a week later, I was fighting off another attack the whole time, and as a result, I got a low grade.

On top of that, my OCD is suddenly out-of-control, to the point where I sometimes stay in my room instead of doing what I want because I don’t want to have to go through my decontamination rituals when I get back home. Not too long ago, I would’ve told you I hardly had any sign of OCD.

And now, I get confused at the strangest things. In church yesterday, as the offering plate was passed around (the same way it always is each week), I stared at the folded up checks in the plate and actually wondered for a moment, What am I supposed to do with this? What are those pieces of paper? Do we each take one?

My ticks and chorea are also back, and falling down is a daily occurrence.  My concentration is a joke.  No matter how much I sleep at night, I fall asleep all the time during the day without Provigil. I sometimes impulsively eat when I’m not even hungry (and I’ve still lost two pounds in the last month).

My parents told my neurologist about my ongoing symptoms, and now I’m scheduled for a second IVIG in March.

So here I am, six months post-IVIG about to go through the whole process all over again. I’m going to have to keep fighting for far longer than I expected. I may need plasmapheresis, too. I’m going to get extensive viral and infection testing to be sure there isn’t another underlying cause for my continuing flares—and if something comes back positive… Well, I don’t want to think about having to fight that off, too.

To say I’m devastated doesn’t even begin to express what I feel right now. It isn’t the fact that I’m spending two more days of my life getting treatment—it’s the fact that my “everyday” is still terrible. It’s the fact that the first IVIG wasn’t enough. It’s the fact that I’m still so sick when I hoped I would be almost completely better.

But I’m still running. I’m still training as hard as ever and not giving up on crossing that race’s finish line…

I don’t understand why I can still run when I’m otherwise dysfunctional, but running gives me the courage to keep persevering through the fight of my life when I’m sure I cannot possibly go on. Every time I finish a long run in spite of the last few miles of feeling exhausted and wondering how I would have the strength to finish, it gives me hope that I will someday also cross the finish line of PANS.

Someday, I will look back on this eight-year endurance challenge feeling on top of the world, and I will say, “That was one helluva run, but I did it!”

Struck by Lightening… Twice

Not only is my brain messed up—so is my spine.

Not only is my brain messed up—so is my spine.

Having PANDAS/PANS by itself is a nightmare.  The ongoing concentration problems, falling when I walk, extreme sleepiness, and depression are more than anyone should have to deal with at once. But guess what? I’m living with another awful condition on top of all of that: Thoracic Outlet Syndrome.

What is TOS? Like PANDAS, it’s another condition that is under-diagnosed and often involves multiple misdiagnoses first. Basically, TOS means there isn’t enough room for the nerves and/or blood vessels that pass between the collar bone and first rib. Those of us with TOS experience numbness and poor circulation to our hands in addition to severe pain in the shoulders, neck, and back. It really sucks.

I’m told my PANS didn’t cause my TOS, but I’ve noticed that when the PANS symptoms flare, so does the TOS pain.  I think the anxiety causes all my muscles to subconsciously tighten up, thus increasing the pain (it’s just my guess).

I’ve been in constant pain from TOS for the past six years.  I was told from the beginning that I would have it for the rest of my life.  After being diagnosed, I felt like my life was over, and I sometimes wished I’d never been born.  Thank God my worst PANDAS flare happened before I developed TOS—otherwise, I’m sure I wouldn’t have survived…

Eventually, I simultaneously began to live in denial of how bad the pain was while accepting that I would never get better—just like I did with the intrusive thoughts until I was seventeen.

But no matter how normal numbness in my hands and constant pain have become, every once in a while, something stirs in me to fight back, kicking and screaming with all my might.  A few days ago, I got to that point again. I realized that I’m nearly twenty years old, and my pain only keeps getting worse.  If I don’t do something, I’ll surely live the rest of my life like this—and I don’t want to accept that anymore.

So I decided to confront my TOS head-on and try something new: I called a chiropractor. Considering how bad my social anxiety has been, the fact that I could even make that phone call is amazing—or maybe it shows how desperate I was.  I like to think it’s a sign of progress with PANDAS symptoms…

Whenever I’ve mentioned to doctors that I have Thoracic Outlet Syndrome, they either give me the “wow-that’s-terrible-I’m-so-sorry” look or they tell me TOS is very rare, not well understood, and possibly non-existant—funny, because those are the same responses I get about PANDAS. But not so with this chiropractor:

“When I put your arm to the side like this, your pulse is instantly gone in your arms.”

This alarmed me, of course. “What?!  Are you sure?  How is that possible?”

“You definitely have Thoracic Outlet Syndrome.  But don’t worry… I can fix it.  I’ve never had a case of it I couldn’t fix.”

The evaluation and diagnosis reminded me too much of seeing the PANDAS specialist this summer who said I “definitely” had PANDAS and continues to tell me that I’ll get better. The fact that I have Thoracic Outlet Syndrome isn’t news to me, but somehow being told again that I have it is a shock that forces me to confront it—just like I was 95% sure I had PANS before I got to the specialist this summer but still cried at the diagnosis.

I’ll be spending the next couple months going to the chiropractor three times a week and doing rehab—while still trying to get over PANDAS and worrying about and expecting another IVIG or plasmapheresis. (My sleep issues, depression, and ataxic walking are completely out-of-hand.)  Why is it that I have to fight two devastating conditions at once?  How much suffering can one person take?  I feel like I’ve been struck by lightening twice.

With both my TOS and PANDAS, I’m afraid to believe that I’ll actually get better, because I’ve been disappointed so many times. But I’m sure going to try…

Falling Off

This bulletin board represents my life

Even though I love to decorate my room, when I moved into my apartment in August, I could only muster the willpower to put just a handful of small pictures on my bulletin board. During my Freshman year, I’d made my room look like “an Athenian palace,” as one friend put it—at least when I didn’t leave my trash strewn all over the floor (thanks, hoarding OCD).

My lack of decor last semester was an analog of my life. When I finally turned a corner in November, I covered most of my bulletin board with posters, postcards, pictures, and swag from my first 5k race. The better I’m doing, the more things are on the bulletin board.

A few weeks ago, pictures and papers started falling off, one-by-one. I didn’t put them back.

On some level, I knew I wasn’t feeling completely like myself, although I kept trying to pretend I was okay. But more pictures kept falling…

I began to struggle through each day more and more, feeling increasingly detached from everything around me while the ever-emptier bulletin board subconsciously reminded me I wasn’t myself. Then one night, I finally fell off a cliff.

I realized I’d come down with a virus. The virus itself was hardly noticeable, but the PANS symptoms that it caused to flare were debilitating. That night, I lost it. I was agitated for no reason. I kicked at the wall and made more papers fall off the board by accident.

While lying in bed, I thought to myself, I should go run around outside. I had no purpose or destination. I just felt strongly that I needed to do it—never mind that I was in my pajamas and it was extremely cold. But then the rational part of my mind kicked back in a little, I guess I should grab my keys. It never occurred to me how little sense it made and that if I was running around outside in my pajamas at 1:00 in the morning, campus police would probably think I was intoxicated—or take me to the psych ward.

The fatigue from the virus kept me in bed, but then the intrusive thoughts started up again and were very disturbing. I was severely depressed. Sometimes I actually believed the thoughts. Sometimes I wondered if I actually wanted them to be true. I didn’t know what thoughts were mine anymore. I didn’t realize how irrational I was thinking and behaving.

During one moment of insight, I finally reached for my phone and called my parents: “Mom, I need you to come right now. I’m losing it, and the thoughts are getting scarier and scarier.”

I ended up going back on a higher dose of Prednisone again. Amazingly, after a few days, it mostly brought me back to where I was when I was at my best in November.

This week, I’ve put everything back up on the bulletin board—and I even added some new things. I’m not depressed at all now, I’m ticking less, and I’ve had no trouble with remembering words. I feel connected to the world again.

I didn’t realize how far gone I was in that flare until I came out of it. I wasn’t too frightened at the time, but now I’m terrified that a cold made me lose my mind. What a horrible idea to live with!

I could worry about it happening again. I could back into a corner and scream, “Why me?” I could stay in my room and not come out so that I couldn’t catch another virus. Or I could just enjoy all the good days I’m having right now. I can keep living and doing the things I want to do.

I’ve decided to keep putting the pictures back even if they fall off sometimes. When they fall, they’re not gone forever—they’re only displaced. It’s hard to feel like you lose huge pieces of yourself sometimes, but I know they will always come back eventually…

Why Kids with PANDAS Are Brave

Recently, I had the chance to meet with a family who had two kids with PANS. We had some great conversations, and I’ll probably write a whole other post about our meeting another time. But there was one exchange between me and the seven-year-old that I can’t stop thinking about:

Me: “You’re very brave.”
Little PANDA: “Why?”

He was clearly surprised by my statement. I could tell that this idea was completely novel to him and that no one had told him this before. I didn’t expect a seven-year-old to have spent a great deal of time cogitating on the way he’s handling a disease, but I still found it curious that he had no concept that he was brave for continuing to fight it. I’ve thought about his reaction for awhile, though, and now it makes perfect sense…

You see, when you’re a kid with PANDAS or PANS, you live in a world of fear and anxiety. One day, you were fine, and the next, everything became scary. You don’t understand the things you do anymore, and sometimes, you’re even afraid of yourself because you don’t know when you’ll lose control next. You feel like a coward for being worried about things you know don’t make any sense—things that no one else around you fears. You feel crazy. You feel trapped. You feel anything but brave.

If you’re a seven-year-old living in that kind of world, of course you’d never think about how brave you are. But you can have courage and not even know it…

“You’re brave because you’re fighting against PANDAS,” I told him. “That’s a hard thing, but you’re doing it.”
Little PANDA: “Is my sister brave, too?”
Me: “Yes, she’s brave, too.”

PANDAs are not cowardly for having severe anxiety. They are not weak for losing control of their emotions. They are not crazy for carrying out compulsions. They are not freaks for having tics and other involuntary movements. No, they are children doing their best at fighting a devastating disease that’s attacking their brains—a disease they cannot control. None of us ever wanted to do odd behaviors and angrily lash out at our parents—when we do it, most of us only feel worse about ourselves afterwards. We hate all these symptoms, but we are doing the best we can to get through each day—and that takes courage.

Being brave doesn’t mean you aren’t afraid. Brave is going on in spite of the fear—and this is what all PANDAs are doing every day, whether they realize it or not. I hope more and more parents will start to understand this and remind their children that having irrational fears and continuing to fight them is brave.

Am I Better Yet?

Ever since I started treatment this summer, I’ve found myself constantly asking, “Am I better yet?”

When I got IVIG, I’d hoped maybe I would start getting better within a few weeks. Whenever I had a good day, I started to think I was getting better. But then the symptoms would come back, and I’d be disappointed. I’d been told it could take me up to a year to get back to 100%, but I hoped it would be sooner. Wouldn’t you?

Six months later, I’m still playing the am-I-better-yet game, and the answer is still no. Certainly, I’m “better” than I was in a lot of ways, but I’m nowhere near where I want to be. I was doing really well, but now that I’m finding out where I am with less of the anti-inflammatory and immunosuppresent qualities of the steroids, I really don’t like what I’m seeing.

At 10 mg, I went back to not being able to walk normally. I ticked a lot. I couldn’t remember simple words and often had to pantomime things to get my point across. I kept seeing everyday things that had a “bad” texture, and looking at them made me sick to my stomach. If I took Nuvigil to keep me awake, the symptoms I was left with were close to the level of impairment I lived with for the three or four good years I had since getting sick—better than I was this summer.

At 5 mg now, things aren’t looking so good. I’m having bouts of depression where I hate doing the things I usually love. I sometimes start shivering all over when I’m not cold—a symptom I hadn’t had since September. Some days, I’ve had as many as ten or twenty falls because I can’t walk normally now. As I’m riding my kick scooter across campus, my fingers involuntarily lift off the handle bars for a couple seconds (my thumb doesn’t, so I’m not going to fall off), and it looks like I’m giving passersby some weird sort of wave—but this is just a new choreiform movement.  Having this one new choreiform movement is better than that constant full-body dance I did a few months ago.

Worst of all, my cognitive symptoms are becoming more severe and obvious. Instead of forgetting words, now I just say the wrong word and don’t even realize it until after I’ve done it—if I realize it at all. I’ve had a lot of people ask me to repeat things I say lately, which makes me think I’m messing up my words even more often than I realize. Sometimes, I say something and watch people think about what I’ve said and then ask me, “Oh, do you mean…?”

Sometimes, it can be as simple as me calling a bagel a doughnut, but other times, it’s much more disruptive. Someone asked me for directions recently, and I meant to tell them to make a left turn, but I ended up saying “right turn.” I tried to set up a time to hang out with someone else and tell them Thursday didn’t work but Friday was good, and instead I said, “We should get together on Thursday.” I don’t speak up in class anymore because I’m sure I’ll say something stupid.

My concentration is possibly at its all-time worst. I was trying to pay attention to a lecture the other day, but instead, I completely checked out without realizing it. Ten minutes later, I came out of it and had absolutely no idea what was being discussed. I tried to get back into focus, but it was impossible, so I just sat there in another world for the rest of the class. And then during my choir’s rehearsal this week, I lost my place in the music every few measures and had to rely on the girl next to me to repeatedly show me where we were. I had to call my mom and have her read aloud an assigned reading and help me parse the meaning of the text. And while writing this post, I’ve been noticing an unusual amount of typos and grammar errors.

As bad as some of my symptoms are, I’m happy to say that I barely have OCD anymore—if I have it at all. I’m also having more days when I hardly tic. I haven’t had a full-blown panic attack since October. I’m running more and more and have even joined a local running club (you don’t really have to talk when you’re running). I was so ill and exhausted from being malnourished this summer that I could barely run a 12-minute mile, but now I can run eight miles non-stop at a 9:40/mile pace.

As I continue to ask myself if I’m better and over-analyze each symptom, I’m going to try to remember how much I have improved—and I’ll keep hoping that someday, I’ll ask myself, “Am I better yet?” and the answer will be an indisputable yes.

What I Learned from Losing My Wallet

Recently, I had the misfortune of losing my wallet. Anyone would be upset and worried about losing something that contained your credit and ATM cards, driver’s license, school ID, cash, car keys, and apartment keys. But I had another concern: as soon as you open my wallet, you can see a medical information card that gives away all kinds of personal health information.

If I were ever in an accident or had another emergency, it’s a good thing that this information is so easily accessible. But in this case, I couldn’t help but wonder who was going to read it. There’s no way whoever found my wallet wouldn’t see it. I had managed to keep my illness a complete secret from everyone but my close friends and professors, because I didn’t want to be treated differently. Would this be the day that everyone found out?

As soon as I got back to my apartment, reached for my keys, and realized my wallet wasn’t in its usual place, I set out on a trek across campus to retrace everywhere I had been that morning. I went to campus security and told them my plight. Nothing had been turned in. I went back to the classrooms I’d been in earlier in case it had fallen out when I sat at my seat. No luck.

Finally, I went to the front desk of one of the buildings where I’d had class. Without a word, the secretary handed me my wallet with a little smile. Nothing was even missing. Some kind, honest human being had turned it in.

What you need to understand is that, a few weeks prior, this secretary had given me a really hard time about being late to order some course materials. The school was trying to make only one order, but whenever stragglers like me missed the deadline, they had to place another one which cost more money. In all fairness, I shouldn’t have waited until the last minute, but when it was all I could do to just get out of bed in the morning and fight through crippling depression and extreme sleepiness all day long, ordering textbooks wasn’t really a top priority.

“You should have done this five weeks ago,” she said angrily that day. “Oh, you don’t have a checkbook with you? Go to the bank right now and get some cash.”

I wanted to cry. Do you have any idea what I’m going through right now? I thought to myself. If only you realized that I truly am doing the best I can. I never wanted to cause anyone any trouble. I wasn’t just being lazy and inconsiderate by waiting this long.

But ever since I lost my wallet, this woman seems to be treating me a bit more gently. I’m sure that she looked in my wallet and read my card. Now she does know what I’m going through.

I’ve often wondered what would happen if I carried that card on the outside for everyone to read. What if we all were more open about what we’re up against? I have frequently longed to just come out and tell everyone, “Hey, I have this awful disease. It sucks. Please give me some extra love.” But I haven’t. Maybe it’s time to rethink that…

When you live with an illness with such a profound impact on your life, there’s always a struggle between telling people what you’re dealing with so that they can understand you better and not telling people so that you can maintain a sense of privacy and maybe even forget that there’s anything wrong with you on the good days. I still haven’t figured it out.

While I certainly wish I had never gotten PANS, the one good thing it has done is make me a more compassionate person. I’ve come to realize that everyone has a card—struggles, difficulties, and bad circumstances that, if we knew about them, would explain some of the seemingly annoying or inconveniencing things people do. You rarely get to read someone else’s card, but I’ve learned to try to give people some grace, because I have so often wished for others to do the same for me.

My 6-Mile Run… To the Pharmacy

Managing my medications is a big production. If I didn’t have a pill case, there’s no way I could possibly remember to take all eleven things each day.  Every week, I sit down and fill the case for the week. It takes half-an-hour. It used to take longer when my OCD was worse and I had to check and re-check everything a ridiculous number of times. I only check it once now.

Just a few of my daily meds

Just a few of my daily meds

As you can imagine, I am over at the pharmacy a lot between the Prednisone, Nuvigil, Augmentin XR, and all the over-the-counter medicines and supplements I take. You know it might be a little out-of-hand when you walk up to the counter and the pharmacist says, “Oh, it’s you again.” True story.

A few days ago, as I was lining up all the bottles and getting ready to put everything in my case, I got to the Augmentin XR and realized I only had a few days left. I needed to go back to the pharmacy… Again. The problem is, the pharmacy is a mile away from where I live. If I drove there, I would lose my good parking spot. Walking would take too long.

So I did the only logical thing: I decided to turn my trip to the pharmacy into the destination for my first ever 10 km run.

Do you realize the irony here? I was about to run six miles to go pick up the medicine I need to take because I’m sick. Hmm… How sick can I really be?

I put on my running gear, grabbed my pepper spray and medical ID, and headed out across town. When I had run one mile, I was hardly tired at all. By the second mile, I was barely sore. By the time I reached mile three, my joints were complaining a little bit, but I thought to myself, “I’ve only gone three miles. I feel great!”

Only three miles. Just a few months ago, I could hardly run one mile. The fact that I’m now thinking of three miles as a short run is incredible.

At mile five, I took a wrong turn, and I realized I was lost. But hey, I had 1.2 more miles to get to the 10 km goal, so I kept running. Unfortunately, when I finished, I ended up 1.5 miles away from the pharmacy. I felt like I could have kept running to get the rest of the way there, but I didn’t want to push it. Besides, I had done it—I ran 10 km (about 6.2 miles).

When I got sick in 2006, I had been training to work my way up to running a 10k race. And then PANS hit me like a train, and I had to stop running altogether before I got past running four miles. But I had done it now, albeit eight years later. Take that!

As happy as I was for this victory, I also realized that I was in quite a predicament. I didn’t know the area I had ended up in, it was getting dark and cold, and the pharmacy was 1.5 miles away. Should I wait at the bus stop? Should I call a friend to pick me up? Should I get a cab? I decided to walk and use the time to call my parents.

The amazing thing is that the worry that I physically wouldn’t be able to walk 1.5 miles because of my falls never even crossed my mind at the time. I just started walking, and the whole way there, I didn’t even have the slightest knee-dip or feeling of paralysis. I was just a normal, tired runner walking home (and stopping at the pharmacy on the way there).

On my good days, I often start to think, “Hey, maybe I’m better now!” But then I look at my pill case and realize that it takes 24 pills each day to feel the way I do—and I’m still not 100%.

Still, even if I’m walking around carrying the pills, at least I’m walking at all. For now, I can dream about the day when I’ve left all the bottles behind and don’t even realize it—just like I didn’t realize how amazing it was that I walked 1.5 miles…

How Do I Stay Positive?

When I look back at the last few months and think about everything I’ve been through, I’m often surprised by my own resilience. What keeps me going? Why do I not give up? And I think to myself, “How in the world do I stay so positive?”

The answer? I don’t.

In our society, there’s a faulty idea that being strong and tough means holding in all emotions except the pleasant ones. We salute the people who go through terrible things and still smile and look on the bright side at the end of it all. We are forever being told that as long as we can be optimistic about life and stay positive, we’ll get through whatever comes our way. Although no one ever says so, to me it often seems like crying and grieving and expressing pain is frowned upon. Everything will be okay. Just be positive!

But sometimes, there really is nothing to be positive about. Do you want to tell me that it was a good thing I became suicidal and anorexic this summer? Would you dare say that there was any benefit to suddenly not being able to walk? Can you explain to me why there was anything nice about being trapped by OCD for six years?

For a long time, I bought into the lie of optimism. I tried to tell myself things were never “that bad.” If I started to get upset, I would quickly squash down any negative feelings I had.

Certainly, there where times when I had to do this to survive. Some circumstances are too traumatic to let yourself feel the pain all at once. But in my case, I often just denied how bad my situation was because I thought doing so was what it meant to be strong. But then, I learned something…

The bravest thing is not pretending the bad things didn’t happen—it’s diving into them headfirst by admitting that something terrible has happened. It’s letting yourself feel the pain. It’s mourning what you’ve lost. It’s coming to terms with the fact that things are not okay anymore. How can you move on unless you acknowledge the tragedy that’s holding you back?

This summer, although I was mostly numb about all the bad things that had happened to me, intellectually, I recognized how traumatic everything was. I made the conscious decision to let myself feel whatever I needed to feel going forward.

Since then, there have been days when I’ve cursed out my circumstances with a tirade of f-bombs (and I’m the kind of person who never swears). There have been days when I’ve wept aloud for several hours. There have been days when I feel nothing at all. I think that letting myself feel these things is what gives me the ability to be positive the rest of the time and to keep going when things aren’t good.

This week, I’ve had a major relapse of depression because I’m tapering off Prednisone and have been fighting a couple viruses.  Every time I try to do my work, as soon as I see my assignment, I get overwhelmed with sadness and start crying for no reason.  I love what I do, but my brain won’t let me do it.  I fear for the next few weeks if this flare doesn’t stop.

There are some positive things right now, though. My OCD is almost non-existent. I haven’t fallen down in close to a week. I’m not ticking much. I’m able to stay awake on only 125mg of Nuvigil again…. But thinking about these good things does nothing to make the debilitating depression go away. Even with all the positive things, living with PANDAS is still awful right now.  Why should I pretend the improvements make this setback less miserable?

I can’t fight against the sadness right now, but feeling it doesn’t mean I’m weak.  No, it means I’m strong enough to admit my pain.  And I’ll keep moving forward as best I can.

I Run 5 Miles, but I Can’t Walk 50 Feet

Suddenly losing the ability to walk at nineteen years old is terrifying and heartbreaking. I never thought it would happen to me, but this summer, it did. In a matter of twenty-four hours, I became unable to walk across a room without falling down multiple times.

How do you get around a college campus when you can't always walk?  You ride a kick scooter, of course!

How do you get around a college campus when you can’t always walk? You ride a kick scooter, of course!

While this symptom has greatly improved to the point that I’m only falling maybe two or three times a day (as opposed to fifty or more), it’s still unnerving. Every time I have to get up and walk somewhere, I’m constantly wondering if I’m going to go down. I’m waiting for that feeling I get in my head that tells me it’s coming. I’m watching for my legs to start getting weak and unresponsive before I collapse.

What would you do if you were me? Confine yourself to a wheelchair, or at least decide to use a cane? That wouldn’t be unreasonable. I have done both when it was worse. Would you lock yourself in your room and cry, wondering why this had to happen to you? This, too, would be understandable.

Sometimes, I do get really mad about all of this. But I’ve decided that instead of feeling sorry for myself, I’m going to get up and do something.

My brain still won’t let me walk more than 100 yards without at least a little knee dip—or sometimes, a full-blown fall. But somehow, I’ve managed to get back into running again with no trouble. Can someone please explain to me why I can run five miles, but I can hardly walk from my bedroom to my kitchen? This is truly a bizarre disease.

A few weeks ago, my depression got really bad—almost as bad as it was in June when I was nearly institutionalized. The SSRI’s weren’t working. I hated doing everything. I felt like I was “gone.” But somewhere inside of me, I wanted to get better. I was desperate to find something that would pull me out of the pit. So I decided to start running and working out, because I had heard this could help depression.

Now, I run once a week and do weights and cardio intervals two more times a week. At first, there were a lot of days when I really didn’t want to go to the gym. I hated it just like I hated everything else. But whenever I finished a workout, my mood was better for at least a few hours. After two or three weeks, my mood was better all the time. Today, I have no sign of depression at all, and I’m not taking any antidepressants, either. I really feel great.

I don’t think it would be fair to attribute my progress only to exercise.  I’m sure I wasn’t well enough to be working out this much just a few months ago.  I have just now reached the four-month post-IVIG milestone—the time when a lot of people start to see big improvement. I also know that working out doesn’t stop PANDAS or PANS. If it did, I never would have gotten sick in the first place. I was on my way to becoming an elite athlete at eleven years old—and PANS stopped me.

As good as I feel now, I’m all-too-aware that my fight is far from over. My sleepiness has gotten worse again, to the point that I need 3/4 of a 250mg Nuvigil tablet to stay awake. I had gone three months without the drug, and 125mg was enough until this week. A few days ago, I apparently got a cold or something, and my tics and chorea went crazy again. This seems to suggest that my body still hasn’t unlearned its old habit of attacking my basal ganglia instead of viruses.

But I try not to think about the bad things that are still going on. I try to think about the awesome new job I just got—in spite of ticking during the interview. I try to think about the fact that I’m going to finish this semester with straight-A’s (well, there might be one B). I try to focus on the fact that I didn’t let PANDAS stop me from running a 5k race in 27 minutes—the fastest I’ve run in eight years. Or I think about the fact that I can now run five miles—farther than I ever ran even before I got sick.

Even if I’m often sitting on the stationary bike at the gym, repeatedly tilting my head and sticking my tongue out involuntarily from the tics and losing my grip on the handlebars with “piano-playing” fingers from the chorea, at least I am well enough to be sitting on that bike.  Even if I have to lock my legs and walk on my toes in order to not fall as I go from the bike to the weights at the gym, my gosh, at least I’m walking at all.  And hey, I’m just going to take a moment to admire my newly toned running legs in that mirror while I lift those weights, and I’ll appreciate that I don’t look sick anymore.  And I’ll tell myself that someday, my brain will learn to work with those legs again so I can walk…

What I Wish I’d Told My Parents

This time of the year is always difficult for me. Seven years ago at this time, I had the worst PANDAS flare of my life and descended into a terrifying world of OCD, odd behavior, insomnia, and depression. For a time, my symptoms completely tore apart my family.

I’ll never forget when I first made my parents cry. I was twelve years old, and we didn’t even know I had OCD, let alone PANS.  Had we known, things never would have gotten so bad.  My parents were almost as terrified as I was at the change they had seen in me.

I thought I was going crazy. I had to speak a certain way. I had to walk “just right.” I needed to be sure I chewed my food in a particular manner. And God-forbid if I breathed the wrong way… I also felt like I needed to jump out of the second-story window of my room. Why? I didn’t know. It just seemed like something I should do—it wasn’t because I was trying to hurt myself. I would impulsively taste things that shouldn’t be tasted—like shower gels and wet rocks I found in the woods. Again, I didn’t know why I did those things, but I just felt like I had to.

I refused to do my schoolwork. I looked at the words on the page of my textbooks, and they become horrible blasphemous thoughts in my mind. The thoughts never left me alone. Every moment of every day, no matter what I did, there they were to torment me. Everything I did was used against me to become something terribly immoral that showed I was a wicked child. To me, having the thoughts come was just as bad as saying them out-loud and meaning them—damning and perhaps unforgivable.

During school, I would sit and stare at the blank lines of my notebook paper, unable to explain that I was terrified of what the words I was supposed to write could become in my mind. My mom (who homeschooled me at the time), eventually would become exasperated, and I would run out of the room both because I couldn’t handle the OCD thoughts and because I couldn’t stand to make her so upset. But I couldn’t even tell her that I never wanted it to be that way. I didn’t want to not work. I didn’t want to make her cry. I just wanted the thoughts to not be there.

“Why are you doing this to your mother?” my dad asked one night, as the three of us sat around the kitchen table. “She is sacrificing her time to teach you, and you aren’t even trying to work with her.”

I will forever remember that lonely tear that streamed down my mom’s face at that moment. My best friend, teacher, and care-taker had now become someone I had deeply wounded by unintentionally fighting against her.

I never meant it. I wished I could tell my parents that I wasn’t trying to upset them. I longed to break my silence and explain my inner battle, but telling anyone the horrible thoughts I was having would show them how terrible of a person I really was. So I sat there in silence that night, unable to respond with even one word, because whatever I said would be turned into another obscene thought in my mind. I couldn’t let that happen, because it might get me thrown into Hell forever.

“Why won’t you answer me?” my dad said.

“I—I…” I couldn’t get the words out. Another thought had come into my mind, and I had to be sure I canceled it properly before going on. “I—just… I don’t know. I am—I can’t.” The thoughts were overwhelming my mind again, and I was terrified that I wouldn’t be able to know I had cancelled them properly if I said anything else.

I couldn’t handle seeing my parents so upset anymore. I ran upstairs and slammed the door to my room and cried. Why was this happening to me? How could I have let my mind become so out of control? I knew I had no control over the thoughts, yet I was somehow convinced they were all my fault.

If there is one thing I would have told my parents back then if I could have (besides telling them that I actually had an autoimmune disorder causing all my OCD and strange behaviors), I would tell them that I hated what I had become and what I was doing to them. I would tell them that I didn’t want to be doing any of it—I was simply scared out of my mind, by my own mind.  I wished I could have told them that all the pain I caused them was wounding me even more.

I longed for my parents to understand the constant terror that I lived in and the feeling of utter hopelessness so that they could see I wasn’t just being a brat. I wanted to not feel like I was so alone. But I was afraid that talking about the thoughts would end up proving to me and everyone else that I really was a reprobate. As painful as it was, it seemed like the only thing I could do was to keep pretending that my silence and school-refusal was just me being a rebellious preteen.

After three months in a perpetual state of OCD fear and bizarre and even dangerous behaviors, I finally began to come out of the flare. Looking back, I had been having joint pain, fatigue, and consistent low-grade fevers throughout the entire episode—symptoms of another strep-related illness called Rheumatic Fever. When these began to disappear, so did all my psychiatric symptoms. (Of course, my pediatrician at the time never even thought to do a strep culture and wrote it all off as “depression” and “isolation from homeschooling.”)

It took five years of time passing and me eventually being able to name my intrusive thoughts and compulsions as OCD before I would even let my parents bring up anything about what happened in 2007. When I came out of the flare sometime in early 2008, I apologized profusely for the wounds I unwillingly made in my relationship with them. But those wounds did heal, and my brain is healing, too. Today, my parents and I have a great relationship, and of course, now they understand what I was dealing with—and they remind me it was never my fault.

I wish I could have told my parents in 2007 where things would be today.  I wish they could have seen me now, in my right mind, going to college.  I wish I could have told my parents that, even though I was going to have another terrible flare at nineteen that led to a misdiagnosis of narcolepsy, made me temporarily lose the ability to walk, and caused a tic disorder to appear overnight, we would finally find the answer to all of my strange symptoms.  I wish I could have told my parents that even though my case was extreme, I was going to get 100% better.

Most of all, I would tell my parents “thank-you” for persevering through my strange behavior in 2007, for not giving up on finding a diagnosis, and for sticking by me as I continue to recover today.

3 Months Post-IVIG: A Wild Ride

Today is the three month anniversary of my IVIG treatment. It’s hard to believe it’s already been that long, but at the same time, it seems like an eternity ago because the last three months have been such a wild and difficult ride.

So far, the main improvement I’ve seen is with the chorea and tics. I’m starting to have a lot of days where they’re barely noticeable. The chorea is usually just a slight arm or leg jerk here or there—I don’t look like I’m constantly dancing anymore. I can actually sit still!

I've ditched the cane!

I’ve ditched the cane!

As for the walking issues/muscle weakness, that has improved significantly. In June, I could barely walk across the room without my legs giving out on me. I would be trying to walk normally, and suddenly my legs would become momentarily paralyzed so that my knees gave out and I fell to the floor.

Now, I often only have a couple minor knee-buckling episodes each day, and I’m usually able to catch myself before I go all the way down. These days, it just looks like a slight “hiccup” in my step when it happens.  I’m so glad I no longer have to walk around wearing knee pads while trying to stop the falls with a cane…

So has it been steady progress since my infusion? Absolutely not—especially when it comes to the mental symptoms. I have yet to see much improvement in my OCD or social anxiety. They’re both almost to the point of being out-of-hand.

As far as depression goes, I’m having some very good days when I’m hardly depressed at all, but I’ve also had some horrible days where I hate my life and just want to do nothing but lie in my room by myself and sleep.  Sometimes, everything just makes me cry for no reason. (Well, it is for a reason: brain inflammation.)

But that’s not even the worst of it. I’m having a relapse of my sleep disorder.  I cannot stay awake during the day, no matter how many hours I sleep at night.  If I sit down anywhere for ten minutes, I’ll fall asleep. The other day, I even fell asleep while standing up in a lab and nearly fell onto some expensive equipment on the lab bench. Oops…

So unfortunately, I’m still living up to my name: the Dreaming Panda.

I’m trying to stay positive about everything. I’m trying to think about how great it is to be able to walk again and to be able to sit completely still during class. But it’s hard. It’s really hard sometimes—especially when you’re so sleepy that you’re living in a dream world where everything seems unreal and a bit far away.  And let’s not forget how OCD and anxiety can confuse your world, too… (I have an entire future post dedicated to discussing this).  How do you see through the chaos of a brain that isn’t quite working normally yet?

But still, three months later, even though it’s been frustratingly slow, my progress towards recovery is becoming undeniable.  As hard as these months have been, I’m told that three to four months post-IVIG is usually the beginning of major improvements in PANS/PANDAS symptoms.  So yes, this eight-year nightmare must finally be coming to an end…

What I Have to Believe…

In the last two years, nothing has gone as planned.  I was supposed to go off to college and start my life again. I was supposed to leave behind the pain of the OCD I had seemingly conquered last year just before my freshman year. I was supposed to move away to let my career take off.  But instead, I’m sitting here about to take another nap because no matter what I do, I can’t keep my eyes open.  I never could’ve imagined that this is where I would be right now…

If I have to pick one thing that is the worst part about having PANDAS, I think it’s the fact that it makes me feel like I’m not myself anymore. I feel like I’m only a shadow of who I used to be—even of who I was a year ago. I don’t even enjoy my favorite things. I used to be the kind of person who loved to go out and do things and have adventures, but now I’d rather just sit at home by myself or sleep. I can’t even make music sometimes now, and for me, that is heartbreaking.

Most days, I manage to make myself get through things, and I’ve even managed to keep good grades. But there’s no joy or time for friends. I’m surviving—not thriving like I had planned to be. I’ve been cheated out of a normal college experience so far.  For that matter, haven’t I been cheated out of a normal adolescence, since I’ve had some degree of PANDAS since I was eleven?

But I can’t think like that. No matter how badly I want my life to be different, this is the way it is right now, and being bitter about it won’t do me any good. No, I have to just keep thinking about the fact that I’m one of the fortunate ones who figured out I had PANDAS. I have to remind myself that it isn’t permanent and that I will get better.

Still, sometimes, I get really mad about where I am in life. I had everything going for me until this summer—I was on the fast track in my career. But it seems to all be slipping through my hands now. I feel like this disease is just such a waste of my time, talent, and personality. Why did this have to happen?

I don’t think I’ll ever have an answer. But at least I have a cure; my doctor has repeatedly told me that I’m going to get 100% better—even though it could take a year. At my recent follow-up, I told her about my continued depression and OCD and sleep issues, and she said it meant my brain chemistry is still “messed up.” Also, It hasn’t even been three months since the IVIG, so the fact that my chorea has improved as much as it has is a great sign. I have to hang onto that…

My doctor has treated hundreds of cases of this, many of which were worse than mine, so most of the time, I believe her when she tells me I’m going to get better.

But of course, living with anxiety makes it difficult to believe sometimes. Every time a symptom comes back, so does the what-if monster: What if it doesn’t go away this time? What if it keeps getting worse? What if I don’t actually have PANDAS? What if it really is “all in my mind” like so many doctors have told me? What if I really am crazy?

I’ve been in a wrestling match with that monster this week, but it can’t win—and it won’t, because I’m just going to keep dragging myself through each day until I get better.  I just have to believe that I will…

 
So, readers… What is your what-if monster? How do you fight it?

I Had OCD for 6 Years… And Didn’t Know

This week has been OCD Awareness week. Up to this point, I haven’t discussed my OCD very much, but I think it’s time to change that. An overnight onset of OCD is the hallmark symptom of PANDAS/PANS—which I had almost eight years ago.

For six years, I concealed from my parents and psychologists the torturous obsessions that ran through my mind because I was so afraid of and ashamed of them. Not all OCD is caused by PANDAS/PANS, but no matter what causes OCD, it is a devastating and frightening disorder when left untreated—especially when you don’t know you have OCD, as was my case for six years.

Because I have PANDAS, I can tell you the day that my OCD started. (With non-PANDAS/PANS OCD, the onset isn’t so sudden.)  I was eleven. I went to bed one night, and while reading in bed, a terrible blasphemous thought entered my mind. Most people would have let it go, but I couldn’t.  In an instant, my whole world was turned upside down as my body produced an autoimmune response against my brain that gave me PANDAS, and thus, OCD.  I began having the first panic attack of my life, because I suddenly had an irrational fear that the one intrusive thought had doomed me to Hell.

What could I do? I was eleven years old, but I couldn’t bring myself to tell my parents my terrible fate of eternal damnation. I couldn’t tell them about the thought either, because then they would know how bad of a person I was for having it come into my mind in the first place. There are no words to describe the horror that I felt, and the worst part was the feeling of being alone—that I couldn’t tell anyone and that even God had turned against me. There was no hope.

I was not doomed to Hell of course, but living with PANDAS-triggered Scrupulosity OCD sure felt like it. Before long, my mind was a constant cacophony of intrusive blasphemous thoughts that I hated. Every time I read a book, the words morphed into even worse thoughts. When I walked, the rhythm of my steps became an obscene word. It got to the point where I literally wouldn’t write or say anything because everything turned into an intrusive thought…

Even if I answered a question someone asked me by saying “Yes,” I was afraid I would actually be affirming a “bad thought”—even if the conversation had absolutely nothing to do with my thoughts. If I said “No,” I might cancel out a “good thought,” which would have been just as bad. The worst feeling was wondering whether or not I had “cancelled out” the bad thoughts properly, because sometimes, I would lose track of my mental rituals. One time, I accidentally said one of the intrusive thoughts out-loud, and I worried about whether I cancelled it properly for the next five years.

At eleven years old, I thought I had to be going crazy. I couldn’t understand why it seemed like my mind was full of thoughts that weren’t my own; I wondered if I was possessed. I knew that no one should be afraid of the things I feared. At the same time, I felt like I had to keep following the rules and doing the compulsions just in case they were rational. What if everyone else was crazy and I was sane?

With OCD, there’s always another what-if and another precaution that you have to take in order to neutralize an obsession. For some people, the obsession is getting sick or getting someone else sick, so they wash their hands a particular way and a certain number of times in order to stop that bad thing from happening.  For me, the obsession was Divine judgement, so I become consumed by morality and carried out silent mental compulsions to “cancel out” any kind of immoral thought that entered my mind. It was as if I always had to decontaminate my mind. Of course, it was never really decontaminated, because the intrusive thoughts would come back as soon as I tried to stop them.

So how in the world did I escape from that prison?  When I was seventeen, in the second worst OCD flare of my life, for the first time, I began to ask a different what-if… What if these thoughts were not my fault? A lightbulb went off. I remembered reading an article in Readers Digest that said OCD involved repetitive unwanted thoughts.  I googled OCD, and a chill ran down my spine as I read a description of the Scrupulosity type and realized it was everything I had been experiencing since I was eleven. It took a couple weeks, but I eventually worked up the courage to tell my parents I needed help.

Today, I can say that, thanks to therapy, I am 90% free from Scrupulosity.  Because I have PANDAS, my OCD gets dramatically better and worse over time, and I still have contamination OCD.  Even so, thanks to Exposure therapy, my OCD has never gotten as bad as it once was.

Somewhere, in the middle of my OCD mess, I met a loving God that wasn’t just waiting to smite me the moment I didn’t cancel a thought properly. When I realized who God was, over a few months I was eventually able to stop my mental rituals on the leap of faith that they weren’t necessary. It was terrifying, but the moment I stopped believing the intrusive thoughts had any power was the moment I was set free.

If I had known sooner that OCD could take the form of intrusive thoughts and mental rituals, I could have had a better adolescence. And I certainly would have figured out I had PANDAS much faster. For my parents, it was horrifying for them to realize I had been mentally tortured by OCD for six years without them knowing.  As my mom put it, “You were too strong for your own good. Most kids would have eventually cracked under that kind of pain.”  I know there are a lot of other strong people out there. How many others are silently locked inside a prison that exists in their mind?

Whether one’s OCD is caused by PANDAS/PANS or not, I want everyone to know that there is hope. No, you’re not crazy. And no, you probably aren’t the only person who has that obsession.

If I ever have children, we will talk about OCD and talk about thoughts that come into their minds that upset them. I will tell my children that any thought that enters their minds that they hate isn’t their own. I will tell them that they aren’t responsible for thoughts that happen against their will. I will tell them that even if the bad thoughts were their own, God wouldn’t love them any less. And I will tell them that God understands how the brain works and isn’t intimidated by intrusive OCD thoughts—or anything else that can be thought.

My parents did everything right—they sought out the expertise of psychologists and counselors, but I was so afraid that I hid my OCD skillfully. The only thing that could have gotten me help sooner would have been if someone asked if I ever had repetitive, unwanted thoughts.  Why did none of the professionals ask? People need to know that OCD can be completely hidden in the mind—it’s so much more than a personality quirk or germaphobia. People need to know that they’re not alone in fighting thoughts that they’re too ashamed to mention. People need to know that OCD is treatable.

Signs of Hope

For the first time in four months, one night, suddenly, I realized my choreiform movements were gone. When I woke up the next morning, my body felt completely different. That night, I felt a tingling session in my head and legs, as if my brain were healing itself. The next morning, I had a sense of the disease departing from me, and people were even telling me that my “energy” was different. For the first time in several months, I was enjoying my life again.

Since those wonderful two days last week, I have had some mentally rough days, although the chorea and tics continue to be quite mild. Could the IVIG actually be starting to work? I think I’m daring to hope that it is.

So far, this whole healing process has been a lot of ups and downs—perhaps mostly downs for the first month. But every once in a while, I get a really good day or two, and it seems like the good days keep getting better. I’m just hoping that the bad days keep getting less bad until, eventually, a bad day is only what a normal person would think of as a bad day—maybe just feeling a bit tired because I didn’t sleep enough, or something like that.

I just passed the two-month mark since my IVIG treatment in August. I was told it could take as much as 3-6 months before major improvement, so this is a good sign. I still haven’t been able to come off the steroids, but I’m still better off now than I was two months ago on a higher dose. Even though it doesn’t seem like it sometimes, I think I’m finally starting to get better. I have hope now that I really am going to beat PANDAS.

Still Falling… And Getting Back Up

So I know it’s been awhile since the last post, but it’s been for good and bad reasons.

I had two weeks where I almost forgot I had PANDAS sometimes—days where I could get done almost everything I wanted to get done. I was walking normally and having a lot less chorea. My mind was mostly clear, and my concentration was good. I even had an almost normal amount of energy. So far, I’ve been able to make all A’s and a B+ in my classes. Even so, I haven’t had time for a social life. All I’ve been able to do is do homework and rest. On the outside, it was looking like I was doing pretty well. But then I started having more bad days.

My roommate got sick. I didn’t—or at least I didn’t have any symptoms of that cold. Instead, I started flaring again when my immune system kicked up to fight whatever virus I was exposed to. I started getting bad panic attacks. My mind went fuzzy. I started having excessive daytime sleepiness like before. To make matters worse, it was time for me to lower my steroid dose, and things got so out-of-hand that my mom had to come stay with me in my apartment one night. I guess I don’t yet get to forget that I’m really sick.

The truth is that I am far from recovered. I still have quite a bit of contamination OCD. I still have choreiform movements. I still get panic attacks and anxiety. I forget simple words throughout the day and struggle to articulate myself when I speak—but in my mind, I know exactly what I’m trying to say, even though I don’t know the words. And now that I’m on only 10mg of Prednisone, I’m not able to walk normally for more than a couple minutes (but usually only a few steps) without my legs giving out underneath me. I don’t usually get upset about my illness, but not being able to walk very well is really getting to me this time.

I hate this disease. I know I’m supposed to get better, but having to live with it every day until then just sucks, and there’s no way around that. And sometimes, I think the depression just might be the worst part. I don’t know if my depression is from brain inflammation or if it’s because I’m wary from fighting this illness for so long. I think it wouldn’t be fair to attribute it solely to either one—I think it’s both. I’ve had to be too strong for too long, and I can’t keep pretending any more. I’m sick of being sick.

With any kind of illness, there’s always the physical disease itself and the emotional component of learning to deal with it and the shock that you have it at all. But what makes PANDAS particularly traumatic is how suddenly it tears apart your life. One day this summer I was sort of okay, and the next day, I had the worst panic attack of my life, was falling down whenever I walked, and began thrashing around uncontrollably to the point that my terrified parents took me to the ER. Nothing has been the same since that day in June.  I am still upset about what happened, especially since I still have quite a bit of involuntary movements.

You never see PANDAS coming—it just steals yourself from you while you’re busy living your life.  It affects the whole family.  My mom has admitted to me that she has some PTSD over what I’ve been through. My dad will hardly talk about my overnight decline in June.  As for me, I’m really depressed because I know that every day, I have to wake up and deal with the disease all over again. The other day, I realized that I barely enjoy anything anymore.  I’m just trying to get through things without looking forward to any of it, because everything is exhausting.  I just want to be normal again, but I’m afraid to believe that the IVIG is going to make me better because I’ve been let down so many times over the years with other “treatments” for my various misdiagnoses.

But I can’t give up. Even though it doesn’t feel like it, I have made some progress, because the fact that I am even able to attempt college is miraculous. Everything is really hard right now, but it’s not impossible. I just have to take it all one step at a time. Yes, a lot of my steps end in a fall right now, but I’ll just keep getting back up and trying again.

Another Flare…

Last week, I had my worst flare since everything really went downhill in June. I’m happy to say that the flare is gone now (thanks to more Prednisone and maybe the IVIG), but now that I’m coherent again, I thought I’d share what my PANDAS flares can look like. Please bear in mind that every person reacts differently to this disease, though.

One morning last week, I woke up and didn’t want to get out of bed. It felt like I was in slow-motion. By the time I got to class (a miracle in itself), I realized I was completely out-of-it. I felt removed from everyone and everything—like I was outside my body. I felt like my personality was gone. I couldn’t pay attention for very long no matter how hard I tried. When I did manage to catch something my professor said, I couldn’t process what he was saying.

Attempting my homework was a disaster.  I tried to read the questions on the assignment, and while I could understand any of the words in the sentence individually, I could not piece together what the sentence as a whole meant.  I had to reread it over and over again very slowly until it made sense. It felt like trying to read another language.

To make matters worse, it was a timed assignment online that I was working on. I’m supposed to have double time for everything, but for complicated reasons, I didn’t have it on that assignment. Naturally, anyone would be a little anxious about that. But in a PANDAS flare, to say being timed made me anxious is the understatement of the century. My heart was pounding. My hands began to sweat. I hyperventilated through most of the assignment. It felt like life or death.

Then, there were the OCD symptoms.  I had intrusive thoughts a lot of the time.  I wouldn’t touch anything in my apartment without wiping it down or washing my hands afterwards.  I must have spent two minutes washing each time.  I had to feel decontaminated and “just right” before I could stop.

Later that night, when I finally managed to get in bed, there was a new obsession to torment me. This particular obsession was especially bad, and the compulsion I had was impossible to carry out at that moment, so I was stuck just sitting in bed with the anxiety. In the long run, it’s better to try to resist the compulsions, but having to sit on the verge of a panic attack was extremely unpleasant.

As the anxiety began to sky-rocket, the movements also got out-of-control. After a few minutes of breathing into a paper bag and trying to distract myself from the obsession, I jumped out of bed and reached for some ibuprofen. (Ibuprofen often helps PANDAS/PANS patients like me, because it apparently reduces brain inflammation.)  Because of my chorea, I was flailing all over the place and fell down at least twice on the way across the room. I tried to stand still to open the bottle, but instead, my brain just made me slowly crumple down onto the floor. Amazingly, once the ibuprofen began to kick in, the movements and the OCD became manageable.

One thing that makes PANDAS/PANS different from regular OCD or tic disorders is how suddenly it comes on. Keep in mind that the day before my flare started, I was feeling close to normal (okay, whatever I think of as “normal” at this point). My OCD had been moderate, and it suddenly turned very severe over several hours. But my doctor has put me back at a higher dose of Prednisone for three weeks, and thankfully, after a few days of it my OCD has gone back to my baseline—without even needing ERP or CBT. Severe OCD isn’t supposed to just go away in a few days when you take steroids—unless it’s PANDAS or PANS.

Going through another flare was extremely unpleasant, but it’s made me so grateful all over again to have an answer and to be receiving proper treatment. I can’t imagine continuing to have to live my life spending weeks or months recovering from each flare and wondering when the next one will be—but I won’t have to before long. Things are getting better now. I’m daring to hope that last month’s IVIG is going to work and stop these flares…

PANDAS Goes to College

This week, I’m heading back to college. Is that crazy? Probably, but I’m going to try.

As it is, my main PANDAS symptoms are choreiform movements/tics, physical and mental fatigue, hand tremors, a bit of OCD, and general anxiety. But I have my mind back. My mood is stable, I feel like myself, and I don’t fall asleep every time I sit down for more than ten minutes. I’m a functional human being again.

But the problem is that I have to be more than “functional” to get through college. I’m studying in one of my school’s most demanding programs. If trying to read a chapter of my textbook right now for an online class makes me have to lie down and rest for two hours afterwards, how can I get through a week of classes?

And then there’s the fact that I just had another panic attack last week.  My doctor said it was because I’m tapering off the Prednisone.  But I had gone two months without a major attack, and the other night, when I was thinking about going back to college, it happened again.  I thought I was done with those.  What if I get one in the middle of a class?  Now I’m anxious about being anxious.

What I’m most concerned about is my chorea, because it’s so obvious, and walking is still difficult sometimes. There’s a reason why Sydenham’s Chorea (which I may or may not have) is also called St. Vitus’ Dance—you really look like you’re dancing, though it’s completely involuntary. I try to walk normally, and instead, you’d think I were jamming out to some dance music. My hips sway. My head nods forward. I kick around my feet and swing my arms. I make weird faces.  My legs randomly decided to stop working, and I fall to the ground.

Sometimes, I find my chorea hilarious.  Sometimes, I don’t think much about it.  Other times, it’s extremely frustrating, and it can be very disturbing to watch your body move when you didn’t tell it to.  Socially, how am I supposed to handle that? Maybe I should just stick some earbuds in, and no one would think anything of it—I’d just be rocking out. Maybe I shouldn’t care what people think. And how am I going to walk across campus to class?

I’m going to tell my professors what’s going on for sure so they don’t think I’m grimacing at their lectures. And I need to figure out a quick way to explain my chorea to friends. I think the key is to not make a big deal about it. Everyone doesn’t need to know everything about what I’ve been through. I’ll just say I’m recovering from autoimmune encephalitis (it’s my official diagnosis) and that I’m still left with the movements for now—and then I’ll make a joke about how good of a dancer it’s made me…

I think the key to going back to college is to be able to not take myself too seriously, to know my limits, and to realize how far I’ve come. It’s a miracle that I’m even trying to go back to school after the summer I’ve had, and I have to remember that I was in much worse shape in the spring semester—yet I still was recognized as a top student. Now that I have my mind back and the ability to stay awake, I can’t imagine it will be harder than it was before.

And you know what? I’m not alone. My family is there for me, even if they physically aren’t anywhere near me. I have awesome friends and a great church. I met another college-aged PANS patient during IVIG that I can talk to.  Best of all, I have Jesus. Sometimes, I’ve felt like God just wasn’t there through this ordeal, but looking back, I know He was looking out for me in ways I couldn’t possibly have known. And one thing I’ve learned is that, no matter how awful and unpredictable PANDAS is, God is always good and never changes—He’ll be there no matter what happens this semester…

Battle Scars

One day of meds/supplements...

One day of meds/supplements…

For much of the summer, my illness was completely invisible, but lately, with one look at me, you know something is going on. If I try to walk around normally, my chorea often makes me look like I’m being electrocuted or like I’m doing some weird dance—but it’s completely involuntary. I have horrible acne from one of my medications. I’ve started to develop a puffy “Prednisone face.” My arm is covered in strange bruises from IVIG and all the blood work I’ve had to get.

When I look in the mirror, I could easily let it get to me, and I could sink into despair. There have been times when I’ve been afraid to go out, because I thought everyone would just stare at me. Indeed, it is rather alarming to look different—though I know that my appearance is not the only thing that has changed as a result of PANS.

But you know what? I don’t care anymore. I know I’m beautiful because of who I am in Christ.  I know the unpleasant things I bear on the outside are just battle scars—scars that will soon fade away.  And I’m not ashamed of the scars anymore. I know how fortunate I am to be alive and well enough to even be thinking about how I look. I don’t regret for one moment the fact that my treatments have given me these temporary side effects, because they have also given me my life back.  And I’m hoping and praying that they’ll make the chorea go away soon, too…

I’ve decided that I can’t worry about what other people think of me. They don’t know my story or who I really am. Sometimes, people are just plain mean (and that’s their problem), but sometimes, other people might decide what they think about you based on how you see yourself and how you treat them. So I’ll choose to be beautiful and treat everyone with kindness. You never know what might be hiding behind others’ battle scars.

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